McGrath and Glassburg were walking through the sleek, silver hallways of the A.T.T. Center. It had been three days since McGrath had agreed to return, and the first thing to do was to be introduced to the young woman responsible for the premature death of his retirement.
McGrath asked, “What’s the girl’s name?”
Glassburg rolled his eyes. “Why don’t you let her tell you that?"
“What’s wrong with wanting to know? She knows who I am already, for Christ’s sake.”
They stopped at a large metal door, with a sign on the window proclaiming REGISTERED PREVENTERS ONLY. Glassburg opened it, and they walked in. It was a small lounge, with a coffee table in the center, a few chairs and a large light glowing from the ceiling. In one of the chairs, sitting at the table and reading a newspaper was the kid.
She was about mid-twenties, with bowl-cut blonde hair. She was thin and athletically-shaped, in sharp contrast to McGrath who was rather paunchy, and the woman looked like the type who would just as soon do model work as register for Preventer training. McGrath watched as the girl saw them enter, and quickly stood up, her expression of incredible awe. She quickly ran up to Glassburg, her blue eyes locked on McGrath, as she said, “Oh, my God, am I dreaming?”
“Sorry, kid,” said Glassburg, “but this particular asshole is real. May I introduce Grisham McGrath.”
“The legendary Grisham McGrath’s more like it,” said the girl with enthusiasm, and McGrath sighed as he extended a hand. He was not expecting the vice-like grip that the young woman had as she energetically shook it, while babbling, “Oh, sir, this is a great honor. I’ve heard the most amazing stories about you! I heard you once fought off a whole police squad while on the Richardson mission, and then another time, you survived jumping off Niagara Falls with the FBI on your tail, and then, oh God, remember the time that you—?”
“J-Just tell me your name, lady,” interrupted McGrath with an annoyed hiss, as he wrenched his hand free, and felt it throb powerfully.
“Oh! Right! Sorry, sir. My name is January. January Riving. Everyone calls me Jan, though.”
Glassburg chuckled, “With affection, kid.” He turned to McGrath, who glared at him, saying what the hell have you gotten me into with his eyes.
“Jan is one of our most promising new Preventers-in-training. But as I told you, Grish, she still has to learn a few things before she can be certified an official member of the squad. I hope you two get along great. In fact, I’m confident you will.”
Riving launched off again, “You bet, sir! I can’t wait to go into the field and see Grish in action!”
McGrath scowled, as he grumbled, “Hey, kiddo? Nobody calls me that without my permission. And you don’thave it.”
Riving looked momentarily taken aback, but then quickly returned to excitement-mode, as she laughed, “Sure! Whatever you say, sir!”
Glassburg said, “But, before you two go off on your little adventure together, I’d like you to spend some time getting to know the other.” He reached into a pocket of his suit, and pulled out two small tickets. He passed them to McGrath and Riving, as he happily continued, “Enjoy your free meal at Rosita’s! The address is on each ticket, and I told the folks there to give you their best! You better leave now, if you want to get the specially-reserved VIP seats!”
Riving pumped a fist in the air, hollering, “All right! I love this place! This is gonna rock!”
McGrath whispered in despair, “God, give me strength…”
* * *
He and Riving were now sitting at a massive table in the center of the restaurant’s grand main hall, where the richest customers usually sat. Thanks to Glassburg’s tickets, they had gotten access to this prestigious section of the joint.
Riving looked around the room, her eyes as wide as the plates that carried the food as she whispered, “Isn’t this just awesome? I’ve never been in this section before!”
McGrath morosely twirled the stirrer in his coffee, as he muttered, “I’ve never been in this building before…”
“Really? Never in your life?”
McGrath sipped from a cup of coffee, grunting in reply. He then asked, “So, uh…January, is it? What kind of name is that?”
“The one my adopted mom picked, unfortunately. But just call me Jan.”
McGrath rolled his eyes. “Jan, can I ask you something?”
“Anything you want, Grish!”
“What did I tell you about calling me that, lady?”
“Right, sorry, Mr. McGrath.”
McGrath leaned his head on one hand, as he tiredly said, “Why exactly did you want to become a Preventer? A woman like you has a million better things in the world to take as an occupation.”
Riving thought for a moment, and then replied, “Well, to be honest sir, I used to hear stories about you, and that got me to thinking: wouldn’t it be great to follow in his footsteps? Being a hero? After all, the very title of Preventer means you’re preventing the extinction of humanity, right?”
McGrath let out an exasperated breath. “Missy, this job ain’t about heroics. It’s about, as you said, preventing the death of mankind. That’s not heroism, that’s selfishness on the part of humanity. We refuse to let ourselves go extinct, and so in our desperation invented the A.T.T. to steal kids from the past. Does that sound in any way heroic to you?”
Riving’s expression suddenly turned dark, as she growled, “You’re starting to sound an awful lot like a Masitarian…”
McGrath slapped a hand to his forehead. “Little lady…June, or whatever you’re called, Masitarians are a bunch of—well, why don’t you tell me what you know about them?”
Riving instantly started, “I know that they don’t approve of the Preventer squads and their purpose. They’re composed of religious fanatics who believe that God made the virus to punish man for our sins, and so if mankind does die out, it is God’s will that it happen. So the Masitarians send their men into the past to kill Preventers and stop them from bringing babies back into this time, to ensure God’s will be done.”
“Right, and what I’m saying isn’t that we should allow mankind to die. I’m just saying that this particular method of saving the human race isn’t exactly something we should be proud of. Preventers are not heroes: they’re kidnappers, and should not be glorified as saviors of mankind.”
Riving rolled her eyes. “Though, there is one thing that’s always confused me…”
“And that is?”
“Doesn’t the law of time travel dictate that if you change the past, the future is automatically altered, and therefore, once you’ve changed the future, there never was a need to change the past?”
McGrath nodded. “Paradox.”
“So how come whenever we take babies from the past, in our time, a billion paradoxes aren’t made?”
McGrath took another sip, before answering, “Because we tested the A.T.T.s first. We took a huge risk, and decided to send someone back to assassinate a man destined to become a serial killer. Upon returning to this time after completing the mission, there was no change to the timeline. Therefore, we think that whenever the past is altered, it doesn’t change squat in our time. It just creates an alternate universe where the altered future exists.”
Riving nodded. “Well, then that’s answered. But I still think if anyone on the Preventer squad is a hero, it’s you, sir.”
McGrath let out a long, exhausted breath, before muttering, “Missy, let me tell you a story about heroism. There once was this Preventer—”
“Was this Preventer—?”
“Don’t interrupt me.” McGrath then took a deep breath.
“There was a Preventer, who had been working for around twenty years. He was a…pretty nice guy. Enjoyed parties…women…watching football. And wasn’t opposed to having a few beers with his pals on a Friday night.” He sighed. “Guy was also very proud of his occupation. He thought he was making a difference, doing some good for humanity…being a hero.”
McGrath paused, his scowl immense.
“One day, Tom Glassburg gave him a mission, to abduct a baby by the name of Willow Adamson, only daughter of a widow, Martha Adamson.”
McGrath sipped from his coffee, before continuing:
“This Preventer went into the past. He tracked down the home of the baby. He waited until after both the mother and her daughter were asleep, and then snuck inside the house.” He sipped again. “The Preventer was able to find the nursery, where little Willow was fast asleep in her crib. He took an entire half-a-minute just…staring at the little thing, marveling at how cute she was. Then, he picked her up, and turned around to get out of the house…when he saw the mother walk into the room.”
The hand holding McGrath’s cup clenched hard.
“She attacked the Preventer, ignoring the gun he brandished at her in an attempt to scare her into not stopping him. They both fell to the ground, and the impact made the Preventer’s trigger-finger squeeze. The gun fired, and a second later the mother was lying on the floor of the nursery, with a bloody hole through her chest.”
McGrath gulped, as his voice quivered. “Dead instantly.”
Riving stared at McGrath, shocked.
“The Preventer was stunned by what he did, and it was a full minute before he finally picked the baby back up and got out of there.” McGrath rubbed his eyes. “He returned to our world, and when Glassburg found out what happened, he had the Preventer commended for succeeding in his mission despite the complication.”
McGrath began to chuckle in a deadpan, colorless tone. When he spoke again, his voice broke like it was china; the look in his eyes pitiful. “A mother trying to save her daughter was referred to as a complication.”
McGrath took a large drink of his coffee, before saying, “This was the first time the Preventer had ever killed an innocent while on a mission either deliberately or accidentally. Before that day, he had never had a problem with his job. He thought it was a great honor. But after that incident, he began to think. He came to realize something, something that should have occurred to him a long time ago.”
McGrath’s voice became a hoarse whisper.
“People in the past suffer the worst kind of hell when they lose a child. They don’t know who the kidnapper is, or why he’s doing it. From their perspective, all they know is that some heartless bastard took their baby. The Preventer had never stopped to think of the horrible pain and agony he caused for the families of every child he took.”
McGrath wiped a tear from his left cheek with the restaurant napkin, as he growled, “Three days later, he gave Glassburg his resignation. And you know what they called him, after he left? What they all believed him to be, based on his long and storied career?”
McGrath’s expression was like hot flame.
Riving looked down at her lap in shame, and was just about to say something when abruptly a rotund waiter waltzed up to their table, and set down in front of them a massive, multiple-topping pizza. The man happily said, “And there you are! Enjoy!”
As the waiter rushed off, Riving stared at the pizza, suddenly uncertain of her appetite. McGrath, however, picked up a piece, and noticed the sad look on the young woman’s face. He then took a massive bite, as his eyes locked with Riving’s.
“Yeah, I’m a hero, all right...”