Passing Time
by Richard Stump


Jack sat back in the small seat trying to get warm under a blanket.  The hull of the boat was damn small, but he was glad to be leaving Antarctica behind.  In a few hours he and Conduit would be at their extraction point and going their separate ways.  The seas was mostly smooth, but the frigid winds cut like a knife as they whipped around the boat.  Jack had come down, partially to get warm and partially because he was annoyed by how warm Conduit acted.  Just as he began to seriously consider getting some sleep, Conduit clambered down the narrow gangway from the enclosed cabin and sat next to Jack.  As usual, he was wearing his full hood.

Conduit recognized Jack's furrowed, questioning look and grunted, "Autopilot.  We have clear seas for at least an hour."

The metahuman thief fished through his equipment bag on the floor as Jack settled back down.  In a moment he pulled out a paperback and glanced over at Jack, who was pretending to sleep.

"You ever read any Turtledove?"

Jack grunted and tried to ignore him.

"He's pretty good.  I spend a lot of time traveling, so I tend to read a lot of fiction."

Annoyed, Jack wondered why the first time Conduit said more than five words together was when someone else was trying to sleep.

"Turtledove's specialty is alternate histories.  You know, 'what would have happened if history had been different?' -- that sort of thing."

Jack's mind became alert with a start, although he didn't let his body or face show it.  He hoped Conduit wasn't going down the same road as the Architects and Wilhelm Shreck.  He hoped that his associate's conversation piece was just one bizarre coincidence.

Conduit continued to talk, his tone very casual.  "I was always fascinated by that sort of thing.
Especially about guys from the future going back and changing things.  Getting rich, saving a loved one.  Weird, but a good read."

Jack shifted to look at Conduit. At the same time, he made sure he could get at his pistol.  "I always found that stuff boring," he said to the thief.  "Too unbelievable."

"Yeah, but interesting.  I mean, what would motivate a guy to try to change things?  Money?  Nah; if you have the juice to make a time machine, you're rich anyway. Power?  That's tricky, although I'm sure people would try it."  Conduit paused, watching Jack closely.  "No, the best stories are about guys who travel in time to stop the idiots who want money or power."

Jack watched the skilled thief for a minute, then leaned back in his own seat, using the blanket to conceal him drawing his plasma pistol.  He kept watching Conduit as the wind howled around the outside of their vessel.  He seemed to be reading the book without a care in the world.  Jack liked Conduit's style, but if he knew too much

Conduit broke the silence, looking at the pages of his book as he spoke.  "You know, I've been thinking a lot recently.  I've been a merc for a long time.  I've been careful to try not to kill anyone, to try to steal from other thieves, and to destroy things that needed to be destroyed.  But its getting kind of hollow. I mean, I'll never spend all of the money I have now.  And it's getting harder and harder to make sure I'm not working for drug dealers, or the Royal Elite for that matter.  I could go legit in a minute with my business, and I even started.  But that doesn't feel right, either."

Conduit sighed, sounding like he was very tired.  "After hearing about Ireland, and how so many people stepped up and fought, and died, to stop those maniacs, I wonder if I've been wasting my talents all these years.  I'm a lot more than a thief, after all, even if I'm the only one who knows it. And I want to be more than a thief.  I want to do something meaningful, and good.  Even if no one knows that, either."  Conduit looked askance at his partner.  "You ever feel that way, Jack?"

Jack's voice was soft as he answered.  "Yeah.  All the time."

"I think that's why I read all this science fiction.  I want to be a good guy, like a spy or a secret agent, doing something so important no one else can know."

Jack forced a snicker. "Pretty corny, Conduit."

Conduit laughed in return.  "Sure is!  But I'm sick of being afraid.  Afraid of being caught, afraid of prison, afraid of my employers.  I want to like what I do again.  You know of a job like that, Jack?"

Jack was quiet for a long minute, thinking.  Then he answered, "Yeah.  Yeah, I just might.  Tough job, though.  And not as clear-cut as the books you read."

The thief laughed again.  "You haven't read some of the books I've read, obviously."

Conduit sighed, then reached up and pulled off his hood.  Underneath was a very nondescript face with dark hair and a small smile.  He stuck out his other hand.  "Hello, Jack. My name's well, Jack, actually.  If you're doing what I think you're doing, I want in."

Jack let go of the pistol and shook Conduit's hand.  Conduit shook it firmly as his grinned broadened.

"I assume I'm in then."

"As long as you realize I won't tell you everything and that this is going to be very dangerous, yes."

"Excellent!  I've been thinking about this since that job in Europe.  I'm ready."  Conduit's face got serious for a moment.   "I wasn't sure if you were going to shake my hand or shoot me.  I'm glad you said yes."

"Well, I didn't want to kill you, but--"

"I'm not afraid of dying, Jack," Conduit interrupt.  "I've seen that pistol of yours at work.  It wouldn't have stopped me.  I just didn't want to have to kill you."

Jack's face went stone cold.  Conduit nodded his head, his eyes revealing a sincerity that was uncommon for people in his line of trade.  "Jack, there are a few things about me you might like to know"
 

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