Payton, expectantly staring at the blank wall in his office, swallowed nervously and shook his head. “This isn’t right,” he said. “Something’s gone wrong. It’s been over an hour. She should’ve come through by now.” He looked at Bell. With the exception of Jeremy, everyone in the room knew that it should only take a few minutes for an agent to return from a mission.
“What do you think happened?” Jeremy asked.
“Most likely, she couldn’t establish the link on her end,” Bell answered. “What kept her from doing it is anyone’s guess.”
“What do you do now?” Jeremy asked eagerly. “How do we get her back?”
“We don’t!” It was Packard, who’d just burst into the room with his laptop and a harried expression on his face. All eyes were on him as he walked over to Payton’s desk and opened the computer. “I’ve been tracking the timeline since Brynne left, and I’ve found something. I think I know how Brynne ended up in the picture with the Gigantic. It isn’t a double – it’s actually Brynne. We managed to create one wicked paradox. The timeline changed when she went back the first time, as we all know, and created an alternate timeline where the Gigantic sank in place of the Titanic.”
“Right, but how does that explain the photo?” Bell asked. “Is it a fake?”
“No, it’s real – sort of, ” Packard said. “The picture’s real – Brynne is not. Not her image anyway. If you look closely, you can see that it’s been altered. See the inconsistency around the edges of her image?”
“Someone edited her into the picture,” Payton said.
“Makes sense,” Bell said. “They probably thought her image would draw publicity for White Star and the Gigantic, but after the Titanic’s trip to New York in that timeline, Brynne was nowhere to be found.”
“Because she’d come back here,” Jeremy said. “It also explains why I wasn’t in the picture – I was here.”
Packard nodded. “White Star used the photo for a promotional campaign for the Gigantic. For years afterward, the photo became famous because it was connected with the Gigantic, one of the worst passenger maritime disasters in this altered history.”
“Shit, that explains our mystery imposter,” Payton said.
“It means we sent Brynne on a wild goose chase,” Bell said.
Payton knew Bell was right, but it was too much for him to admit aloud. He looked at Packard. “You said we can’t bring her back?”
“When Brynne went back this time, something strange happened with the link,” Packard explained. “We think that somehow, two parallel universes merged and became our timeline. One of those universes was created with Brynne’s first mission. We don’t know the origin of this second universe, unfortunately, because of the malfunctions with the link system. We found something interesting in the second universe, however: It turns out that Brynne married Thomas Andrews before the Titanic sailed in this second universe.”
“What?” Jeremy said. Packard pulled up another window on the computer screen. It was an article about Brynne and Andrews, which Jeremy read voraciously. “How can that be … ”
“I have no idea,” Packard replied, though Jeremy’s question hadn’t been directed at anyone in particular. “And as to your question, Payt, as to why we can’t retrieve her, it turns out that at least one of her descendants will have – or had, rather – a direct, positive impact on World War II. Brynne, Andrews, and their daughter led the design team responsible for a new class of ship that would prove highly effective against enemy attacks at sea. We ran a few cursory tests – if we pull her out, the new boats don’t ever get built. Brynne must’ve used some modern ideas to help create those boats, information that no one had access to back in the first half of the 20th century. That’s the best explanation I can come up with.”
Jeremy looked back and forth between Payton, Bell, and Packard. “So, wait a minute – what does this mean?” he asked.
“It means that we can’t pull her back,” Payton said.
“What? No! You’re just going to leave her? You can’t do that! There’s another way, some other high-tech, futuristic way.” Jeremy couldn’t understand how they could just abandon a colleague, just cut her lose, so easily.
“She’s a vital part of history now,” Payton explained. “We can’t do it without causing significant damage and loss of human life. And all for little or no reciprocal benefit.”
“Little or no benefit? You’d be bringing her home, back to her own time,” Jeremy countered. “That’s what you told her. You told her you would find her and bring her back. She’s expecting you to hold up your end. She’s waiting for you to bring her back!”
Jeremy paced in silent frustration for a few moments before abruptly stopping and turning to Packard. “What about the original time line, as you call it? She wasn’t there for that. Neither was Mr. Andrews or … their daughter.” The words almost stuck in his throat, but he continued. “What happened then? Didn’t someone else create these special ships?”
“No,” Packard replied. “And according to our preliminary research, these ships ended up having a substantial impact on World War II. Because of them, the war ended three years before it did in what we consider the original timeline.”
“I know that you don’t know much about World War II or the 20th century,” Bell began.
“No, only what Brynne told me yesterday,” Jeremy said.
“She told you about the six million Jews who were murdered by Hitler, I’m sure,” Packard said. Jeremy nodded, and Packard continued. “Well, because of her contribution – and we’re pretty damn sure it was her, not Andrews – most of those people survived the war. Not to mention the countless other people who would have been fatalities of the war, including millions of soldiers and civilians from around the world. Millions. I don’t like the prospect of leaving someone behind any more than anyone else around here does, but you have to ask yourself how much one life is worth when measured against millions.” Packard shook his head. “The math doesn’t add up to me.”
“You do have to look at the reality of the situation,” Payton said. “We’re not condemning Brynne to death. She has a fulfilling life, full of significance.”
“Had,” Jeremy corrected. “She’s not alive anymore. She can’t be, she’d be well over a hundred by now if she were. I don’t know much about medical technology of the late 20th century, but I’d be surprised if you told me that people can live to be 130 in your time.” He looked to Packard for confirmation.
Packard lowered his eyes to the floor before answering. “She died in 1964, age 83,” he reported.
Jeremy nodded and turned to Payton again. “So, that’s it, then,” Jeremy said. “She’s gone, just like that. An hour ago she was standing there, two feet away from me, and now she’s dead.”
“There’s something else,” Packard said. “You might as well hear the rest of the bad news all at once. We can’t bring her here, and we can’t send you back.”
“Why not?” Jeremy asked.
“When the timelines merged, we lost track of the original timelines, and we’ve been unable to locate them. Basically, we don’t have anywhere to send you. There’s no spot in history for you anymore.”
Jeremy swallowed, even though his mouth felt like sandpaper. “So, my mother, my father, my sister – they don’t exist anymore?”
Packard sighed. “They do – but you aren’t part of their life. You never were, as of the moment your line of origin changed.”
Jeremy felt as if he’d been told that his whole family had died. But it was more accurate to say that he’d died – only they didn’t know it. He meandered over to a chair and slowly lowered himself into it, feeling like a load of bricks had just been leveled across his shoulders. It was all gone – really. There was no going back for him, and the one person he trusted to help guide him through all this unfamiliarity was dead. She was never coming back.
Bell walked over to him. “I know you’re overwhelmed right now. This is scary, unfamiliar territory we’ve found ourselves in. But we’re not going to abandon you or turn you out into the world alone. We’re going to help you through this.”
The phone on Payton’s desk rang. He promptly walked over and answered.
“There’s a visitor here at the front desk, sir,” the lobby receptionist reported. “She’s asking specifically for you.”
“I don’t have time for visitors, right now.” Payton snapped. “We’re dealing with a crisis up here.”
“I know,” the receptionist said. “But she asked specifically for you. She seems very eager. She says she has some letters for you that will clear some things up. I really think you should see her.”
“Alright,” Payton said with a sigh. “Get someone to bring her up to my office.” He hung up the phone, and his thoughts returned to Brynne. He had lost a few agents before, but losing one this way, one little more than a mistake, was definitely a first. If the links hadn’t gone down because of that stupid virus, if the time lines hadn’t gotten mixed up, Brynne would have gone back to the correct time line, and she’d be back by now. If they’d been more observant, and had figured out the truth about the photo in the pamphlet earlier, she probably wouldn’t have gone back at all.
But there was nothing more Payton could do about it, now. Dwelling on it certainly wouldn’t change things. He had to set aside the chapter on Brynne and turn to his next big problem: what to do with Jeremy Bratt.
When his office door opened, and the visitor from reception desk was escorted in, Payton immediately knew that Bratt wouldn’t be his biggest problem, as he’d thought merely a few moments earlier. His new biggest problem had just stepped into his office.