“What did you find?” Brynne asked as she rushed into Payton’s office, Jeremy right at her heels. Payton stood between his desk and the small table next to his window. Bell was there, too, directly across from Payton on the other side of the table.
“It’s the brochure you gave me earlier,” Payton said. “I take it you didn’t look at it very closely.”
“Why do you say that?” Brynne asked.
Payton tossed the open brochure on the table and pointed. “Check out that picture.”
Brynne and Jeremy looked at the photo beneath Payton’s finger. It was a reprint of an old picture. A small group stood in the foreground with the Gigantic in the background. “Read the caption,” Payton instructed.
Brynne’s eyes skipped over the tiny type beneath the picture. She gasped when she saw her own name. Her eyes slid up to the picture again. It was no mistake. Her own image stared back at her from the page.
“It’s me,” she said, stunned. “It’s me at the launch of the Gigantic.” She tore her eyes away from the brochure. They shifted back and forth between Payton and Bell. “But it’s not possible. I was never there. That launch would have been in 1913, I came back way before then.”
“It must have something to do with the link virus,” Bell surmised. “But I sure as hell can’t figure what it is.”
Brynne’s eyes returned to the photo. There was another familiar face in the picture, but it wasn’t part of the group where Brynne’s face appeared. The man that Brynne recognized stood apart from the group. “Look at this,” she said. “This is the man I ran into on the Titanic. He’s the one who was after the notebook. But how can that be? I saw him jump off the Titanic’s deck. He should be dead.”
Payton nodded slowly. “Carmen briefed me on that little incident,” he said. “We think he may be the key to this whole mess with the timeline change.”
“You think he caused it?” Brynne asked. She’d suspected as much but had never had any ironclad proof.
“It probably isn’t a coincidence that he’s in this picture,” Bell said. “We believe very strongly that his involvement in your case had something to do with the change and possibly with the link virus. It’s very likely that it’s all related.”
“That woman in the picture could be a double, especially since Brynne has no memory of being in this picture,” Payton said. “It’s entirely plausible that she and that man have nothing to do with the virus.”
“It’s also plausible that they have everything to do with it.” Bell countered. He wasn’t confrontational in his manner of speaking; rather, he seemed to be considering all the possibilities. “We have no way of knowing until we get to the bottom of it.”
“How do we go about doing that, though?” Brynne asked. “That’s the problem.”
“We start by sending you back to the Titanic ASAP,” Payton said.
Brynne’s brows raised. “You want me to go find these people?”
“The main thing we have to concern ourselves with now is getting the links back up. Fixing the timeline is on the back burner for now. In fact, I wouldn’t even worry about it, if I were you.” Payton cast a glance in Bell’s direction. “Besides, it’s looking more and more like the two are related, so finding these two characters might be a way to take care of both. But finding them is the priority.”
Brynne nodded. “I understand. With all this talk about going back as soon as possible, I assume the links are back up. Am I going back tonight?”
“Actually, no. The links are still down, and you’re not going back tonight.” Brynne’s brows furrowed deeply. Had she missed something?
Payton continued. “Research has been working on a special project for the better part of a year, and it’s ready to be put to the test. You’re going to test it.” Payton stepped over to his desk and picked up what looked like a wrist watch. “You’re going back as soon as we get you back into a corset and dress.”
“Payton, I don’t understand. What about the links? How am I supposed to travel if they’re still down? And what about my time signature?”
Payton held up the watch. It looked identical to those that travel agents used to activate and deactivate links. “That’s what this is for,” he said.
“I already have one of those,” Brynne said.
“You don’t have one like this,” Payton countered. “I guarantee it. This one looks like yours, but it has one special extra feature – it generates a temporal shield around the wearer, protecting him or her from temporally induced memory loss and eliminating the need for a time signature.” He handed it to Brynne.
“You mean, now we can travel whenever we want?” Brynne asked, examining the device.
“We sure can.”
“But you said the links were still down.”
“The system is down, but we can get a temporary one up, just long enough for you to get to where you need to be,” Bell explained.
“You can get me there,” Brynne began, “but how do I get back?”
“Your new little toy there holds the key to that as well,” Payton said. “Once our people establish the link with their handhelds, your new wrist unit automatically syncs with them. Once it does that you’ll have everything you need to generate a link that’ll bring you back home.”
Brynne nodded, turning the facts of the situation over in her head. It sounded like they had thought of everything, but she’d be a fool to believe that everything about it was perfect. Regardless, it was the best plan they had. It was probably the only plan they had. “Sounds good,” she said.
“Before you get too excited, there’s a catch,” Payton began again. “This whole set up is temporary. It’s not meant to last forever. In other words, we’re working under time pressure here. We’ve worked out the math on this, and we came to the conclusion that you need to re-initialize the link by April 15th. Whether you find our mystery travelers, whether the ship sinks or not, that’s the deadline.”
“Not that I’d want to hang around in 1912 for longer than I need to, but out of curiosity, what happens if I don’t re-initialize the link in time?” Brynne asked. “Will I be trapped?”
“Not necessarily,” Bell said. “Look, we know we’re going to get the links back up, it’s just a matter of when, and that depends on how long it takes us to figure out this virus. You won’t be trapped, but you might be there a little longer than you planned. And on top of that, we’d have to find you.”
“We’d scan for your time signature,” Bell replied. “Everyone’s is different, so it’d be a matter of figuring out where yours was in time. It sounds pretty simple, but it can get complicated.”
“So, basically, don’t make us have to come after you,” Payton said. “If you do your job, and get the hell out of there on time, you’ll be fine, and we can move on. So, go get dressed, go get ready. Be ready to go in half an hour.”
It took Brynne nearly the entire half-hour to get completely dressed. She returned to Payton’s office dressed from head to heel in 1912 garb. Picking an appropriate outfit had proven to be a special challenge. Payton and the COSI scientists were able to target a specific date, and they could narrow the location to a certain degree, but they couldn’t target a specific place or time of the day. Consequently, Brynne had no idea what situation she’d be walking into when she stepped through the link this time. She only knew that she was going back to April 10, 1912, the day the Titanic set sail from Southampton.
Jeremy was alone in the office when Brynne returned. His back was to the door. “I guess this is more in line with how you’re used to seeing me,” Brynne said, announcing her return.
Jeremy swiveled in his seat to see Brynne standing in the doorway. “Absolutely,” he said approvingly.
The gravity and peculiarity of his own situation still weighed heavily on him, and it showed. He sighed heavily watching her walk into the office. “This is all so crazy. You all speak of time travel like its as easy as catching a train or walking down the street.”
“It is for us,” Brynne said. “Usually.”
“Does this mean I’m going to be able to go back to 1912 with you?” Jeremy asked.
“I’m not sure. I don’t think so. It’s an experimental process. I don’t think they’d risk it.”
“But they’d risk sending you.”
“That’s different. This is what I’m trained to do. I signed up to take risks.”
Jeremy nodded slightly, his eyes cast on the floor. “I know.”
The acknowledgement earned a stunned look from Brynne. It wasn’t what he’d said; rather, it was the way he’d said it that took Brynne by surprise. There was a quiet recognition in his words, recognition that could also easily pass for a statement of forgiveness.
When Jeremy finally looked at Brynne, she knew that her appraisal was spot on. She had taken exactly one step toward Jeremy, intending to throw her arms around him, when Payton, Bell, and a small team of COSI scientists walked into the office.
“Good, you’re ready,” Payton said, oblivious to the intimate moment he had just interrupted. He stopped in front of Brynne, examining her clothing and hair for any glaring flaws. “I don’t have to tell you that you’re pretty much going into this blind. We know when and where but only vaguely.”
Brynne nodded. “I know. I’ll just have to work with whatever situation I walk into,” she said.
Payton nodded, obviously pleased with Brynne’s positive attitude. He looked over his shoulder at the techs, who were busy making preparations for the link. One of the techs looked at Payton and nodded.
“We’re ready,” the tech announced.
“Let’s see what we’re workin’ with,” Payton said. “Whenever you’re ready,” he told the tech.
Everyone turned their full attention to the techs. Two of them held large handheld devices, which they both pointed at the same wall. They each pressed some buttons on their respective devices. Then there was a flash, and a pale blue light filled the room.
“It’s stabilized,” one of the techs reported after a few seconds.
The link’s eerily different blue color filled Brynne with uncertainty. She looked at the tech and asked, “Are you sure?”
“It’s at optimum stability,” the tech replied. “It looks different because it is. You have to remember this is the first time we’ve created a temporary link like this.”
Payton turned to Brynne and handed her the new wrist unit he’d brought out earlier. “Here you go,” he said.
Brynne took the unit and strapped it around her small wrist, making sure to turn it on so it could sync properly. “Thanks.” She pushed the uneasy, unpleasant thoughts from her mind and began to walk toward the light.
“Good luck,” Payton said. “This time you’re going to need it.”