His finger hesitated and faltered on the trigger as a message flashed on his visor.
“Open,” he mumbled.
The file expanded, crackling around the edges with static and, more than once, fading momentarily before it flared back to life on the screen. The message read:
Target: High Risk
Name: Salleem Bradly
Height: 5’ 9”
Hair Color: Blond
Eye Color: Blue
Place of Birth: Asyut
Last Known Location: Avienon, a small town 12 miles north of the city of Balensteil
Abilities: Bradly is known to have the power that allows him to phase between realities involuntarily and at his choosing. Due to this ability, Bradly’s location is variable and—
Without warning, the file disappeared off his visor. Engle’s brows drew together. It had never done that before. He lightly tapped on the side of his helmet. Perhaps the damage to the visor had caused it to malfunction, but that did not explain why his target’s file had just come through, now of all times. He knew who his target was; he was about to finish the mission.
An automated female voice began to filter in through his helmet’s inner speakers.
“We are sorry to inform you that TIME has deemed it necessary to retrieve you, Bounty Hunter 179, Engle Rochlin, from your present position due to infringement upon your binding contract. You will now be retrieved and terminated from the roster.”
Engle’s heart stuttered and quickly froze within his chest. This couldn’t be happening. Not now. Not to him.
“Computer, I have the right to know of the terms of my infringement in regard to TIME’s specified contract before I am retrieved.” He threw back his hood and tore open the latch on his helmet, throwing the piece of armor to the ground with a sharp crack. Salleem startled from his tiredness, Heather made an alarmed noise, and the two elves turned from their work. Hiss wriggled out from beneath his cloak, slid down his hand, landed on the scuffed wooden flooring, and slithered under a pile of debris.
“What the hell is he doing now?” Lance asked, irritation evident in his voice.
The automaton paused before intoning through the speakers, “That is correct. Bounty Hunter 179 has been cited with the violation of 193 of TIME’s 257 basic rules and sub guidelines.”
Engle had to keep the thing talking. “State them please.”
“Only overlying, principal rules may be stated before--”
“State them!” he barked.
Another pause. “Very well. The charges against 179 are currently listed as, but are not limited to the following: excessive interference of another reality, purposeful and unnecessary defacement and/or loss of essential property claimed by TIME, hesitation when the elimination of the hunter’s specified target--”
That would keep it busy for a while. He marched over to Salleem. “Give me a knife.”
Salleem looked bewildered. “What? Why? What’s happening?”
“Give me a knife,” Engle repeated, his voice low. “Now.”
Salleem stood and squared his shoulders. “No. What is going on, Engle? Tell us. We can help--”
Engle elbowed the man in the nose. The others in the building gave shouts, and Salleem’s head whipped backward. He lurched to the side but remained standing. Bright blood began to flow down Salleem’s face. Engle quickly grabbed one of the thin throwing knives from the thief’s belt. Heather jumped to her feet and steadied Salleem with a look of distress on her face.
Engle turned from the pair and lightly touched the blade’s edge to one of his fingers; a thin line of blood pooled beneath its tip. Perfect, Engle thought. He brought the blade to the back of his neck and, gritting his teeth, pulled the smooth edge across the skin just below the base of his skull. He cried out and fell to his knees, dropping the knife with a loud clatter as hot blood began to pour freely from the burning opening at his neck. He reached back and put his fingers to the gash. He could feel a piece of slippery metal just underneath the skin.
“Great.” Engle could barely hear Lance mutter through the pain. “Now the strange killer from another reality has gone insane!”
“Engle!” Heather gasped, panic in her voice. The nymph ran to his side. Her fingers began trying to pull his away from the wound. “What are you doing?”
“Stop!” Engle panted. He groped for the small piece of metal, grabbing it between two fingers and pulling it from the cut until it protruded from beneath the lacerated flesh.
“Engle, you’re bleeding everywhere!” Heather said to him. He could hear the tears in her voice.
“—lack of regular updates to TIME’s resource databases—” the computer droned on.
“I know!” he yelled. “I need to get it out!”
Heather sobbed. “Get what out? Engle, what’s happening?”
He gritted his teeth against the pain. “My transponder. They’re going to bring me back and kill me. I need to get it out!”
“What transponder? Who is going to kill you? What do I do?”
“Grab the chip and pull it. Get it out.”
“Engle, I don’t know if I can do that. There’s blood everywhere—”
“—proceeding under special conditions without seeking approval from TIME—”
“Now!” Engle screamed.
He could feel the thin monofilament wires that snaked down his spine slowly glide and slither beneath his skin and up his back. His breath hitched in his throat as each wire, one by one, was pulled from the cut in his neck. He gasped as the last wire was plucked from the gash, and he fell, panting and coughing, to his hands and knees. A trail of blood, wet and sticky, ran underneath his ears and down his jawline, dripping steadily to the ground to pool between his hands.
He looked up. Heather stood above him, the bundle of wires hanging in her blood-stained hands and tears streaking down her cheeks. He reached out and weakly motioned for the transponder. Heather numbly handed the bundle to him, and he took the small microchip in his fist. The wires of the transponder dangled limply from the metal. Tiny nodules dotted the ends of the wires, blood collecting on them in swelled, crimson beads. He crushed the transponder in his fist without a second thought; the chip crackled, fizzed, and popped. The voice filtering through the speakers in his helmet faltered and sputtered; it slowed, and its pitch dropped before the audio ceased entirely. He threw the transponder away, and it left red streaks on the floor as it skidded to a stop.
There was a faint breaking sound, and then the back of his neck began to prickle and itch. The pain there disappeared, and soon the blood trailing down his jaw trickled to a stop. He closed his eyes, still on his hands and knees. His entire body trembled, and his breathing was still choppy and uneven. His throat felt ragged and constricted. He squeezed his eyes tighter as moisture began to leak from beneath his eyelids. His shoulders heaved as a sob escaped his throat. More heavy sobs followed, wracking his frame, and thick tears soon streaked down his face, clearing away the dirt and grime coating his skin. He gritted his teeth and swallowed back the tears of grief that kept pouring from his eyes. Standing, he wobbled slightly on his feet and took a sputtering breath through clenched teeth, his throat raw. Salleem stood a few paces away, wiping at the blood running down his face.
“What have I done?” Engle whispered. "She's gone."