Chapter 1

There is a certain chill one gets the exact moment they realise that everything they'd been working towards has amounted to absolutely nothing. It is when all is lost simply because of a simple mistake that, should the fear of one occurring not be diluted by the joys of previous successes, could have very easily been avoided. So when Felix Valda shoved the last sock into the crevice in the clothes already inside his duffel bag and yanked the zip closed to secure it and looked up at his desk, he felt this very same chill run across his spine, and like any normal person would, froze. Across the piles of empty and slightly crushed soda cans and grease-and-sauce-stained Styrofoam boxes, was the screen on which a live video feed stuttered in the dark room. On it, a rather large window displayed an unmarked black van pulling into the motel parking lot; its windows were tinted so dark that it would have been illegal had this not with utmost certainty been a black operation with the very intent of capturing a very, very specific man.

In the seconds it took Felix's brain to fire the correct neurons to process the information, the back doors of the van opened, and he looked away. The rusted rungs of the fire escape were right outside the open window, leading down to the street just behind the motel. The problem, of course, wasn't getting there – it was beating them to it, and with the delay he'd already to impose upon himself, it was going to be close.

Or he would be bleeding out on the sidewalk, but he could at least try. Felix pulled at the end of his belt, ensuring it was snug against his waist, slung the strap of the bag over one shoulder, and dug his fingers under the edges of the window. The pane was forced up just as the distant footsteps started, and the radio on his desk began spitting out garbled messages in the absence of an encryption key. With precious little time before the operatives inevitably rounded the side of the building, he ducked under and out, his black trainers set down carefully on the metal lest noise be made to attract attention. Felix grabbed the railing, and being someone without what would have been an awfully inconvenient case of acrophobia, swung himself over it, landing on all fours in the grass of the backyard to absorb the shock.

The wire link fence cane next, and Felix slid himself in between the bushes that kissed it, in one fluid motion removing the wire cutters from the back of his belt as he had done many, many times during the course of the rehearsals. The material of the fence went in between the teeth of the cutters and split at the force, and Felix moved it along in a square, rending the net pattern to create a gap for himself. As soon as enough has been snipped away, all it took was one push with a foot to lever the isolated section down onto the sidewalk, and one swing to launch himself through the gap.

The pavement was grainy and hot from basking in the sun in the way that concrete did in the middle of summer, and the skin of his palms burned a little as he pushed himself up. His beaten-up sedan was right across the street, registered under a completely different name with a matching passport in the glove compartment. All he had to do was get in the driver's seat, start the car, and-

A boot crunched on dry grass somewhere behind him, and Felix broke into a sprint, leaping over the hood and tumbling over to the other sidewalk and landing hard on his left palm, right in front of the shabby-looking pawn shop he'd been eyeing for months. His back up against the car, he held his breath, and listened across the empty street.

No sounds. Either the guy was being quiet as hell, or he hadn't seen him.

"Eight out of ten," said a voice from his right, dripping with a sarcasm he hadn't heard in a while. "Should've slid over."

Felix stared at the other man, who was wearing a long black trench coat and sleek sunglasses with wings its legs and sitting against the other wheel of the sedan with his legs extended in front of him. "Son of a bitch," he breathed. "You have terrible timing, you know that?"

"That's no way to say hello to an old friend, no?" The man lowered his sunglasses just a little, revealing a pair of mismatched eyes – the right was brown but the left was a light violet colour – and smirked.

Felix didn't have time for any of that. He grabbed the door handle on the driver's side and pulled…to no avail.

"Forgetting something?" the other man asked, holding up a hand with a keyring looped around it, and dangling from it was the four-button remote and key for the car. "And I must say, cars with keys are a bit outdated, even for you."

Felix reached behind himself again, this time under the back of his shirt, and drew a compact semi-automatic pistol, leveling the barrel at the other man's head. "Give me that."

The man scoffed, twirling the keyring around his thumb. "Go on then. Make sure they all hear that."

Felix sucked in a breath. "What do you want, Booker?"

"I want to go with you to get something you're not using anymore." Booker swung the key before his face. "Come on, clock's ticking."

He sighed, his gun hand dropping lightly in defeat.

Perhaps once, on the slow march to death that is life, you may encounter one particular person whose presence could inexplicably be linked to a sharp increase in the chaos surrounding the world as you experience it, as well as a steep decline in the safety rating of your life, however perilous it may have been previously. Experts recommend that these individuals are best avoided, and in an ideal world, shot repeatedly and left to die in a roadside ditch, preferably in a desert quite some distance from civilisation. Booker was one such individual, and to Felix's misfortune, the world he lived in, both at that moment and in general, was anything but ideal.

"Is that a yes?"

"Yes," Felix said quietly, swinging the pistol behind him and replacing it in the back of his trousers. "Just unlock the doors already!" he hissed.

Booker jabbed a button on the key fob with his thumb, and the quiet grating of the locks disengaging from their positions in the door could be heard over the otherwise softly breezy atmosphere.

Felix tried the door again, half-expecting to fail yet again despite the auditory confirmation, and swung it wide open enough for himself to slip into the driver's seat. The key landed unceremoniously on the seat beside him, and in the rearview mirror, Booker slid himself between the two front seats' backrests.

"I'm getting that wave of nostalgia right about...now." Booker grinned, peeking over his sunglasses at him via the mirror.

He just ignored the guy, plugged the key into the ignition, and turned. The engine rumbled to life just as the barrel of an assault rifle rounded the side of the motel. With it came a green column of light that swept through the windscreen, the eyes of the operator holding it visibly widening in the gap in his balaclava.

Felix shoved the gearstick up into position and slammed his foot on the accelerator, causing the car to shoot forwards along the street and straight at the operator.

The man barely had time to leap out of the way of the car, let alone fire off a shot, and in his mirrors he could see him getting up, bringing his rifle to bear. Moments later, there was the sound of bullets pinging off the back of the vehicle like hail on a tin roof, propelled by the near-silent coilgun, but they were already far away enough that it wouldn't be a problem.

He spun the steering wheel, sending them onto a perpendicular street, and gunned it straight to the other end. Like he'd rehearsed, these were the roads without traffic cameras that would lead straight out of-

"I need your displacer," Booker said, leaning back in his seat. On his lap was a rugged briefcase, one Felix had seen far too many times. "Mine's about to run dry."

Felix frowned. "You know I can't give you that."

"Can't or won't?" Booker smirked, and raised his arm, raising the barrel of Felix's own pistol at the back of his head. "Take me to where you buried it."

Felix swallowed. He hadn't even felt the guy take it from him. "How the hell did you even manage to use up all the charge? Last I checked, you had an entire de- oh." It suddenly hit him, and he pursed his lips. "It's been a while, hasn't it?".

Booker's eyes moved to look out the window, at the town limits flashing past, replaced by the jarring emptiness of a desert. "Yeah." The coy playfulness was gone, replaced by some manner of hollowness, like...well, Felix didn't know what it was like. This wasn't like Booker, the worst part being that he didn't know if he should be happy or afraid for it. That alone gave him more power than anyone should rightfully have, even by his standards, and the gun pointed at his head certainly didn't help.

He lifted his foot from the accelerator, their car slowing down into a steady cruise. "Why now?"

"I made a mistake."

Felix rolled his eyes. "Took you long enough."

"Yeah, spare me the 'I told you so', alright? Just get me there and you'll never have to see me again."

"Might help if you're not threatening to blow my brains out."

Booker paused for a second, and flipped the gun around in his hand before dropping it in the empty front seat to Felix's left. "Sorry."

He raised his eyebrow. "That's new."

"I just...I can't do this without you. Once we get there, you're free to leave."

"All that time and you never bothered to learn how to fix that thing yourself? Too proud to ask for help?"

"Clearly, not anymore." Booker licked his lips,which were beginning to visibly crack. "But I'm running out of time."

"So you're buying yourself more?"

"You can't buy time. In the way you think anyway. You know this best of all. You can't change what you know."

For the first time in months, a smile crept its way across Felix's lips. "I was wondering how long it would take you to run into that."

Booker shook his head. "You're enjoying this, aren't you?"

"Huh. Can you blame me?"

"Well, I suppose not." Booker sighed. "You are taking me to the displacer, right?"

"And help you on your way to your destiny? Sure, why not?"

To that, Booker said nothing. He stared out the window, at the cacti that dotted the sand moving from one side of the window to the other over, and over, and over…

Felix turned his attention back to the empty road before him. Time travel had always been a myriad of experiences, and to see one's own death was a different experience for everyone. Some cried for weeks on end, some would elapse into a state of depression right up until the end, and others thought themselves invincible. But those were the ones that eventually came to terms with fact, that surrendered themselves to the idea; it was the ones who fought and rejected the very idea that suffered the most, subjected to loop after loop of failures that really drove them into the ground, and it all ended the same way: with a death, one way or another, whether they wanted it or not.

Booker knew better than that. He'd already broken free of the loop, from the look Felix could see in his eyes. This time...this time, he was going to damn well try and make it mean something.