Outside, the building could pass for just another average apartment complex. It didn’t look any different than any of the other apartment buildings that might be found in D.C. Just inside the front doors, there was even a reception desk with a secretary on duty. However, as the old saying goes, looks can be deceiving.
Inside this quiet, unassuming apartment building, through the doors located just beyond the front desk, there was a bustling high-tech facility that one would never know existed if he wasn’t told about it beforehand.
Now, Brynne sat in one of the offices in that building. More specifically, it was the office of COSI director Payton Duvall. It was a large office, but there was nothing fancy about it. Plenty of books, a laptop, a small television. There was nothing out of the ordinary there.
Payton walked around to the front of his desk. He was of average height with blonde hair and blue eyes. He wasn’t the classic prettyboy type, but he was handsome in a quirky, unconventional sense of the word.
“Brynne – hi,” he greeted simply. “My name is Payton Duvall. I run this whole show.”
Brynne watched him lean casually against his desk. To her, he looked and sounded like a sly used car salesman type who was up to absolutely no good.
“Hi,” Brynne said with measured caution.
Payton smiled, revealing a small gap between his two front teeth and exponentially adding to his slimy salesman appearance. “How are you?” he asked.
“Fine,” Brynne replied, though she was quickly growing impatient with this whole situation. “Look, what’s going on? What is that thing in my apartment? I want answers now, or I’m going to the police.”
Payton shook his head and let out a small laugh. “You can’t go to the police,” he said.
“Why not?” Brynne asked.
“Because this is a secret organization,” Payton explained. “That means going to the police would be bad.”
“That’s what everyone keeps telling me,” Brynne said. “‘This is a secret organization.’ What kind of organization?”
Payton looked at Bell and Packard before resuming the conversation. “I’m sure Agents Bell and Packard told you that we aren’t a criminal justice organization. Not completely, anyway.”
Brynne nodded. “Yeah. They told me this was some kind of scientific agency.”
This time, it was Payton who nodded. “That’s right,” he confirmed.
“What kind of science?” Brynne asked.
“Our research mainly deals with the space-time continuum and its properties. Quantum mechanics, Einstein’s special theory of relativity. You know, nothing big,” Payton explained effortlessly.
“Oh. Okay. Well, let’s pretend that I don’t know anything about any of that stuff, so why don’t you just explain it to me?”
“We’re time travelers,” Payton declared.
Every thought that was currently making the rounds in Brynne’s mind came to a screeching halt. “What?” she asked.
We’re time travelers,” Payton repeated. “We travel through time.”
Brynne nodded. “You travel through time,” she said skeptically.
“Yep.” Payton watched her, waiting for more of a reaction, but Brynne only nodded again.
“Okay … ” she said. “You know, I thought this was weird before, but now it’s really starting to freak me out. So, I’m just going to leave now.” She stood and so did Payton.
“Wait,” he said. “I know this sounds a little strange, but it’s true. What do you think that light in your closet was? A night light? Come on, Brynne – do you have a better explanation?”
Brynne looked at him, considering his words. She decided that he did have a point. “No, not at the moment,” she admitted.
Payton stepped up to her. “That’s because there isn’t one.”
Brynne looked at Bell and Packard. She was trying to analyze this situation as best she could, but it all seemed so bizarre. She briefly entertained the prospect that she might be dreaming. It was possible that she’d fallen asleep shortly after climbing into bed. She turned back to Payton, who spoke again.
“We’re giving you the opportunity of a lifetime here, Brynne,” he continued.
“How so?” Brynne asked, now more curious but still wary.
Payton looked at Bell and Packard. The pair of agents had no idea what Payton was about to pull out of his hat. He looked at Brynne again. “You are going back in time,” he declared.
Bell, obviously alarmed, looked at Payton. “Uh, Payton – could I speak to you outside, please?” he requested.
“Sure,” Payton obliged. He smiled widely at Brynne. “Excuse us.” He left the room with Bell as Brynne returned to her seat.
Bell began to speak excitedly once he and Payton had cleared the office and the door had closed behind them. “I understand your wanting to explain everything to her, Payt, but we can’t make her an agent,” Bell insisted.
“Why not?” Payton asked innocently.
Bell felt like he would be stating the obvious with his answer, but he said it anyway. “Well, for starters, she hasn’t had any training.”
“No problem,” Payton replied coolly. “We’ll put her in a program.”
“Payt—” Bell began to argue, but was promptly interrupted.
“What else can I do?” Payton asked. “Just let her go? We turn her loose, and we risk everything. You know I’m right on this.”
Bell and Payton looked at each other, their eyes locked. “Who’s to say she even wants to be an agent?” Bell proposed.
“Who’s to say she doesn’t?” Payton effortlessly countered.
The two men turned to the office window and watched Brynne. She was engaged in a lively conversation with Packard.
Bell turned to Payton. It looked as if he were going to have to give up on this one. “All I have to say is that I hope she’s well prepared,” Bell said.
Payton’s gaze remained trained on Packard and Brynne through the window. “Don’t worry,” he assured. “We’ll take our time, go slow. Time is on our side, remember? Look – I’ll take full responsibility for anything that goes down. This’ll be my little project. You just do what I tell you, and everything will be okay.”
Bell was skeptical about this whole thing. It left him with an uneasy feeling, like a heavy rock was settling into the pit of his stomach. The only reassuring quality of this whole idea was that if anything went wrong, it was all going to be on Payton’s shoulders. But even that did little to allay Bell’s concerns.
Payton and Bell re-entered the office. “Now,” Payton began, picking up the conversation as if it’d never been interrupted, “Where were we?”
“I believe the last thing you said was that I’m going back in time?” Brynne said. It came out as more of a question than a declarative statement because Brynne wasn’t sure she’d correctly heard or completely understood Payton the first time around.
“Oh, right, right … ” Payton said with a few accompanying nods. “Yes. Brynne, what would you think about joining us, becoming a real, honest-to-God agent?”
Brynne’s mind momentarily raced. “I don’t know,” she admitted. She looked up at Bell, who had taken up position beside her chair. “I mean, what would I be doing?”
“Well, in a nutshell, you’d be doing what these guys do,” Payton replied.
Brynne chuckled to herself. “So, I’d get to walk in on people in the middle of the night and scare them half to death?”
“That’s not what we usually do,” Bell clarified. “We’re travel agents. Not in the traditional sense of the term, though, as you might imagine.”
“What exactly do you do, then?” Brynne asked.
“We go back in time,” Bell answered. It felt so odd to actually have to explain this to an outsider. His wife didn’t even know that much about his job. “We do it to conduct research, mostly.”
“Sorry to have to tell you gentlemen this and burst your bubble, but I know nothing about any of the science that you guys deal with. I’m an architect.” Brynne didn’t understand how she could possibly be of any use to COSI.
“I know that,” Payton said. “But not all of our missions are solely scientific in nature. Yes, that’s the main purpose of COSI, but we do have other departments within the agency with varying functions. Our criminal justice department assists the FBI, CIA, and Homeland Security. And our medical department, go figure, deals with medical research … and then there’s our recovery department.”
“Recovery?” Brynne said. “What’s that?”
“Recovery is just what it sounds like,” Payton confirmed. “It’s recovery. We send an agent back to a certain period in time to retrieve a certain item that is temporally out of place. It can be a fairly easy department to work in. You get in, you get the goods, and you get out. Simple as that.” Payton began to pace slowly in front of Brynne. He stopped as he began to speak again. “Say, for example, one of our agents leaves something behind by mistake. Or someone places it there intentionally—”
“What do you mean ‘intentionally’?” Brynne asked. “You mean like sabotage?”
“Possibly … but more often than that, theft is the issue,” Payton said.
“Yeah,” Packard spoke up. “A thief might steal something and then find a place somewhere in the past to stash it.”
Brynne was mortified. “You mean there are other people – criminals – out there with the kind of technology to do this?”
“Brynne, there’s a whole underworld out there that’s full of this stuff, and 99 of the world population knows nothing about it,” Payton revealed. “So, while we started out as a purely scientific organization, it isn’t so far-fetched to think that some day real soon, we’ll branch out and have a whole agency, instead of just one department, devoted only to criminal justice.”
Temporarily overwhelmed with this new knowledge, Brynne stood and took a few steps in no particular direction. “This is all so unreal … ” she managed.
“Oh, it’s real, alright,” Payton said. “And you’re about to become a part of it.” He stepped over and stood behind Brynne. “If you’re up to it.”
Brynne turned to Payton, who raised a questioning brow. “Are you in?” he asked her.
Brynne looked to Bell and Packard, but neither of their faces revealed their opinions on whether she should take up the offer. She returned her gaze to Payton. This was going to be a big step, and once she agreed, there was probably no turning back. But there was no way she could resist. “I’m in.”
A smile spread across Payton’s face.
One might expect a cafeteria to be nearly deserted at two in the morning, and normally that expectation would be met. Normally. If Brynne had learned anything in the last couple of hours, it was that there was nothing normal at all about COSI. The employee cafeteria here was as busy at 2 a.m. as any given restaurant might be at 2 p.m. This was COSI; it never sleeps.
Brynne and Bell sat across from each other at one of the cafeteria’s many tables. A cup of coffee sat in front of each on the table.
“So, tell me how this works,” Brynne said.
“How what works?” Bell asked.
“This,” Brynne said, sweeping her arm around the room. “This whole set up. How do you keep a whole government organization secret.”
“It isn’t as difficult as you might think,” Bell said. “You probably noticed that this building is disguised to mimic an apartment building.”
“Yes, I thought that was quite clever,” Brynne praised.
“It comes in handy in case people wander in looking for a different place,” Bell said. “People do live here, though. We have sleeping quarters. A gym. A cafeteria. This is what some people call home.” He paused to take a sip of his coffee. “There’s always something going on around here,” he continued. “We’ve got direct computer connections to the navy, the army, the air force … you name it, we can get in touch with them with just a few clicks of a mouse button. We’re connected with every major government organization in the world. We have a link in every major city in the world and some smaller cities, too.”
“Links,” Brynne said. “Explain those to me.”
“Let me see,” Bell said, thinking. “How do I explain this … okay. It’s like this – picture time as water, like a pond. No – I guess it’s more like an ocean. Like a very calm ocean. There’s no movement whatsoever. Are you with me?” Brynne nodded to the affirmative. Bell resumed. “Okay. Now, let’s say you created a disturbance in this calm body of water by dropping a stone in it. You’d get ripples, right?”
Brynne nodded again. “Right.”
“Well, let’s say that those individual ripples are individual moments in time. Do you see where I’m going?” Bell asked.
“I think so,” Brynne said. “We create a distortion in time, and we fine tune it so that when we step through a link, we’ll be at our destination.”
“That’s fascinating. It all sounds like something out of a movie.”
“Well, there’s a lot more that goes on than that,” Bell admitted. “That’s just a basic, bare-bones example. And I still need to explain about time signatures.”
“What’s a time signature?”
“It’s a frequency that allows a person to travel through time and remember everything,” Bell explained. “See, if someone were to be taken from their time to another time and then go back to their own time, they wouldn’t remember anything unless they were traveling inside their signature. If we overlooked the time signature element, our whole operation would be pointless.”
“How do you know what your signature is?” Brynne inquired.
“Ever heard of trial and error?”
“That sounds like a fun prospect,” Brynne deadpanned.