Simon Kent will never forget his 9th birthday party.
The memory starts with anger. His mom had invited the biggest prick in the third grade, Benji Phillips, and ruined everything.
“This party sucks.”
Simon could still hear his stupid voice. Benji’s stupid mother just had to play bridge with Simon’s mom at that stupid country club.
Why did she invite him?
Simon remembers, with regret, how he yelled at his mom when she told him. He was seething. One of the last memories of his mother, and it was stained by childish anger.
Simon’s Dad knew he was mad, too. He remembers the plan they came up with to save the party. Simon hosted a sleepover in the backyard near the woods. He was allowed to use the family camping tent and it was awesome.
Sleeping bags, ghost stories, and no parents.
And to top it off, Dad gave him a book of matches and some candles so they could make s’mores after dinner. Simon remembers his father’s embrace and the warmth in his voice as he handed him the matchbook.
“It’s going to be okay… even Benji will be impressed.”
Of course, Dad was right.
Simon remembers the laughter of his friends. Shadows from the candlelight dancing about the inside of the tent. Most of all, Simon’s innocent belief that his father could solve any problem.
This was Simon’s favorite part of the memory.
When times get hard, Simon remembers what he felt that night—falling asleep in his sleeping bag surrounded by his best friends in the entire world. He remembers the smell of burnt marshmallow, and sticky hands from the melted chocolate.
If only the memory ended here.
Simon can’t remember how long he was asleep, but he vividly remembers the bright light that woke him up. It lasted for just a moment, then the tent returned to darkness.
The boy thought it was a dream at first, then everyone else started to stir. Gordo Pearson was the one who unzipped the door to the tent. Benji was the second one out the door—probably because he didn’t want to look like a wuss.
A pit formed in his stomach every time Simon thought about his fate. He even felt bad for Benji. It would’ve been so easy to stop them from leaving the tent.
“Hey guys, maybe I should go get my parents first?”
If only he had said that. Or something else. Anything, except grab his flashlight and follow them out into the dark.
It didn’t take long for Benji to chicken out. The distant light, Simon remembers—that’s what spooked him. It wasn’t bright like the flash of light that lured them outside of their tent. Simon and Gordo had to walk a bit further into the woods before they realized it was someone holding a flashlight.
The light flickered in the distance and once they were close enough, Simon remembers the second person. The flicker was the second stranger walking in front of the flashlight, held by the first.
Two strangers, deep in the woods.
That should’ve been enough. The two boys were still far enough away to escape. They could’ve made a run for it. But Gordo wanted to get a closer look, and both of them wanted to prove they had more guts than Benji.
Simon remembers how quickly their bravery evaporated once they saw each stranger was carrying a body.
That’s when Gordo freaked out and ran back towards the house. Simon had never seen him run so fast.
But Gordo made too much noise as he bolted. The strangers switched off their flashlight, and Simon did the first thing that came into his mind: he dropped to the ground and didn’t make a move.
Scared stiff, he didn’t budge a muscle until a few tense moments later. Then the strangers turned on their flashlight and returned to dragging the bodies further into the woods.
In hindsight, this was the point where Simon should’ve run. Like his friends. Unfortunately he was committed, and did the opposite. Slowly and as quietly as possible, Simon crawled towards the strangers.
He got close enough to hear the faint sounds of their whispers. Simon can’t remember exactly what they said, just broken phrases.
“…I’ll stow the second one… see you back at base…”
Simon remembers the last phrase because he heard it right before the second flash of light. This second flash was just as bright as the first.
The flash left two images seared into his brain. First, he swears one of the strangers disappeared. Vanished, without a trace. But this wasn’t half as disturbing as the second.
Simon was close enough to get a good look at the faces of the two bodies during the second flash. He recoiled in horror at the recognition of the two corpses.
It was Gordo Pearson and Benji Phillips.
Simon remembers the shock like it happened yesterday.
This is a nightmare!
After seeing their lifeless bodies, he couldn’t think straight. He remembers running as hard and fast as he could. Running until he was out of breath. The stitch in his side hurt so bad, he didn’t feel the leg that swept his out from under him.
By the time he realized what had happened, it was too late.
Simon remembers the terror that coursed through him as he tumbled towards the ground. He remembers the huge pair of arms wrap his mid-section and break his fall. The squeeze around his body was overwhelming, and unbreakable.
The boy tried to struggle, but it was hopeless. He remembers feeling the needle pierce the skin of his arm. His vision blurred, then slowly faded to black.
Simon never saw home again.
“Why have I asked you here?”
A stern looking man with a square jaw was seated opposite Simon. After he asked his question, the man spooned soup from a large bowl into his mouth.
Simon looked down at an identical bowl in front of him. The older man gestured towards it as he swallowed.
“… it’s Potato soup. My mother’s recipe.”
Simon tasted the soup. It was delicious.
“My mother used to make it, too… but hers wasn’t this good.”
The man across from Simon smiled.
“A rare treat.”
He folded his hands in front of him, then repeated his question.
“… now, why have I asked you here?”
“I got into a fight in the courtyard.”
The boy sighed.
“You broke a young man’s arm—a fourteen year old, if I’m not mistaken…”
The older man crossed his legs, then gave the slightest hint of a smile.
“… punching above our weight, aren’t we?”
“He called me a name I didn’t like.”
“Hardly an arm-breaking offense, don’t you think?”
Simon expected to be admonished when he was called into the headmaster’s office. Other classmates had shared their horror stories. But the old man’s demeanor was unexpected.
Simon wasn’t sure how to react.
“I asked him to stop. But when he didn’t… and... well, the teachers…”
“They tell us sometimes you have to set an example. If you never push back—”
“—you’ll always be pushed. Yes, I’m aware of what we teach at my school.”
“He’ll never call me those names again.”
The headmaster nodded, then wiped his mouth neatly with a folded napkin.
“Nor will any of his friends who witnessed your brutality. However…”
The headmaster set down his napkin, then raised a finger.
“… knowing how much retribution to distribute is important. Equal to knowing when to strike.”
Simon didn’t understand. He set an example, and he didn’t want to keep setting an example. The boy forgot that he was talking to the headmaster.
The smile left the old man’s face.
“There is an important distinction between respect… and fear. Stand up to your peers, so they’ll understand you cannot be bullied. But take care not to become the bully.”
Simon went flush. And he started to recall the horror stories he’d heard about this office. He wanted to change the subject.
“Thank you for the soup, sir.”
The headmaster nodded, then slid his empty bowl to the side. This wasn’t the end of the conversation.
“Tell me, Mr. Kent. Do you know why you were enrolled in this school?”
Simon’s face went red, as his shame converted into anger. He raised his voice, again forgetting that he was talking to the headmaster.
“Enrolled?… I wasn’t given a choice.”
The headmaster ignored Simon’s anger, keeping his reply absent of emotion.
“No... You were not.”
His response was icy. Simon couldn’t contain his outburst.
“I was taken from my home! …and brought here to this… prison.”
The word prison provoked a wry smile from the old man. He rocked back in his chair, mocking contemplation.
“Prisons are for criminals… are you a criminal?”
The headmaster locked eyes with Simon as he finished his question. Simon hesitated.
“Aren’t you? Have you forgotten what happened in the woods that night?”
The headmaster stood-up and turned toward the large window overlooking the grounds. Behind him Simon’s face twisted, and pulsed with rage, unable to speak.
The old man flipped a switch and the window slowly dimmed until the glare of the courtyard vanished.
With his back still toward Simon, the headmaster continued his questioning.
“Why else would your parents send you away?”
The old man had pushed too far. Simon screamed.
“I was kidnapped! …they didn’t send me away… I was kidnapped!”
Tears ran down his cheeks, which quickly turned into sobs.
“… I was taken… from my parents… taken to this horrible place.”
Simon tried to steady his emotions. All of the anger and sadness from that night flooded back, overwhelming the boy.
And why? I didn’t do anything wrong.
The headmaster turned around, and removed a newspaper clipping from an opened folder on his desk. Simon recognized the name of the paper from his hometown.
The headline read: “Young Boy Murders Friends During Backyard Birthday Party.”
Next to it was Simon’s school photo. The headmaster looked up from the newspaper towards Simon. The boy’s voice stumbled.
“But… but… I didn’t…”
Simons lips trembled and he couldn’t continue. He laid his head down on the desk and let everything go. His body shook with each sob.
It was several minutes before Simon looked up.
The headmaster handed him a handkerchief to wipe the tears from his face. After Simon had collected himself, the headmaster continued.
His voice was gentler and removed of accusation.
“The Nero school is a place for lost children. This place, Mr. Kent, is for those who can’t move on from the past… and live in their future.”
The man looked over his reading glasses towards Simon.
“… children like yourself.”
Simon matched his stare.
“I want to see my parents.”
“That’s not possible. You must find your path on your own.”
The headmaster returned to the folder on his desk and flipped through more of the enclosed papers. One appeared to grab his attention and he continued, still staring at the page.
“We are your family now. Isolation from the past is our source of strength. Together we are guided by our shared conviction.”
“Guided towards what?”
The old man stopped, then pointed to a plaque hanging on the wall behind Simon.
Simon spun around to see a series of small brass plates with names engraved on each. He wrinkled his nose.
“Who are they?”
“Graduates of the Agent Program. Our finest.”
The headmaster continued flipping through the folder.
“It says here that you’re a talented student. The kind of potential that could land your name on that plaque one day.”
“I don’t understand... according to that news story, I’m a criminal.”
“So were many of the names on that plaque when they came to this school. I’m offering to help you.”
The headmaster wasn’t cold or mean as the other students described him. He was stern, but in a way that reminded Simon of his father.
The boy hadn’t trusted anyone since he was taken, and he wasn’t sure he could trust the headmaster just yet. But Simon wanted a chance to prove himself. Prove to his parents that he wasn’t the criminal described in that newspaper clipping.
It might be his only chance of seeing them again.
“What is the Agent Program?”
“A chance for reconciliation. If you can bury your lies in the past, and commit to a new path, we can achieve great things together.”
Simon looked back at the plaque. If no one else didn’t believe in him, then perhaps the Agent Program was his chance to prove them wrong.
I’m not a criminal.
He looked back toward the headmaster and steeled his nerve.
“How can you help me?”
“That depends on you, Mr. Kent... and your answer to my original question: Why are you here?”
Simon could only blink back at the headmaster. The old man lowered his head, then explained.
“Either you’re here because of your continued brutality and face the consequences for those actions... or you’re looking to reconcile your past and start anew.”
The headmaster raised his eyebrows back at the boy. There was only one option for Simon to consider.
“I’m here to reconcile… and choose a better path for myself.”
“Excellent. I’m so glad we’ve come to an understanding of one another.”
The man pulled a piece of stationary from a drawer inside of his desk. He scribbled a few lines on it, then handed it to Simon.
“Report to my office every weekday afternoon at 3pm. This note will permit you to break curfew after classes have ended.”
Simon glanced at the name atop the note.
The headmaster nodded and extended his hand.
“From now on you may call me Mr. Trumble.”
This made Simon curious and he glanced back at the plaque.
“Sir... are you related to the Trumble on that plaque?”
The older Trumble smiled, then nodded.
“He’s my son. Our first graduate of the Agent Program.”
Simon gave the old man a half smile.
“One day you’ll see ‘Kent’ on that plaque.”
The headmaster shook his head.
“Each candidate assumes a new identity when they begin the Program. It’s the first step along your chosen path.”
“A new name?”
“Yes. From now on, you’ll be known as Todd… Todd Hammersmith. That is the name I expect to see on that plaque one day.”
Simon reached for the headmaster’s outstretched hand.
“Thank you, sir. I won’t let you down.”
“Welcome to Agent training… Mr. Hammersmith.”
“Can someone explain the difference between necessary and sufficient causes?”
Agent training wasn’t what Simon expected. The professors treated candidates differently. They took classes, ate lunch, and studied on a separate schedule from the rest of the school. There was little time to think on your own.
Professors didn’t hesitate to single out students when their questions went unanswered.
“Anyone? Perhaps… Mr. Hammersmith?”
Simon was just about to pass a note when Professor Barnebus singled him out. Since accepting the Headmaster’s offer, he had discovered little new about the Nero school. What he did learn came through notes passed amongst other agent candidates during class.
He tucked the note under his bag before answering.
“Yes sir. A necessary cause is implied by the presence of its effect, while a sufficient cause implies its effect.”
“Very good, Mr. Hammersmith.”
It had taken several years, but Simon had forced himself to embrace his new identity.
The professor looked from Todd to the rest of the class.
“If I tip over a glass filled with water, the carpet will be wet. However, a wet carpet does not mean I tipped over a glass of water. Any questions from yesterday’s reading?”
The Philosophy of Causality. The final theory class before graduation.
It was Aristotle and Hume. Reason against experience, and the search for truth. Barnebus taught most of their theory classes: Quantum Mechanics, Metaphysics, and Advanced Microbiology. His classes were tough, but he favored Todd.
Which made it the perfect class for Todd to gather information from his classmates.
No one knew why they were at the school, or any new details about the Agent program. Every one had a story similar to Todd’s. They were taken against their will, and hadn’t seen their parents since. Most were too young to remember their life before they were taken. Some of them were from places Todd didn’t know, some of them from different countries.
None of the boys liked to talk about what they did to end up at the school, and that suited Todd. He imagined his friendly conversations would end once others knew he was accused of murder.
Still, his classmates were starting to get curious why he was so quiet about his past. Many had a similar experience to Todd, where they were accused of something they don’t remember doing. They had discussed a meeting for weeks, so they could go over details they couldn’t risk in a note.
The thought of opening up made Todd nervous, but they were close to graduation. Most of them assumed they wouldn’t see each other after they left the school.
The teenager took a deep breath and opened the note under his bag. After reading, he scribbled a response and carefully refolded it. He waited until the professor turned his back, then shuffled the note to its next recipient.
“Tomorrow’s lesson will focus on the limited efficacy of causality and it’s relationship to the speed of light. Please read the highlighted selections from Einstein’s 1910 lecture on Special Relativity and be prepared to discuss by Friday.”
Todd normally enjoyed his philosophy classes, especially the assigned reading. But he wasn’t thinking about the Einstein lecture, as he rolled his bag onto his shoulder.
The boy was fixated on the last line of the note.
7pm. Classroom 12.
Todd arrived at Classroom 12 later that evening at the appointed time. The room was empty, save for a single person.
They were seated behind the teacher’s desk.
“Headmaster Trumble. I wasn’t expecting to see you.”
The old man gestured for Todd to sit down opposite him.
“Good evening, Mr. Hammersmith. My son Barnebus tells me you’ve been passing notes during class.”
His son. How many had he seen? What could he know?
“Sir. Just jokes amongst classmates, nothing—”
“You’re curious about our school, are you? Snooping around with your classmates? Meeting against school rules?”
The old man had clearly read the notes.
Probably all of them.
“…your curiosity is understandable. The circumstances of your—arrival—to our school seem unfair. Our methods appear—harsh—to you. There are ways to satisfy your curiosity. You could’ve asked me anything… but to go behind my back. To spread your lies to your fellow classmates.”
The headmaster squared around on Todd, and stared at him with a startling intensity. Accusation dripped from his words.
“Have you not considered what would’ve happened to you if we didn’t rescue you that night? Your friends were dead in the woods… and you were the only one to emerge unharmed. You were supposed to be executed.”
The old man sighed.
“… and now that you’re the legal age, I’m afraid that’s our only remaining option. You have failed out of the Agent Program, and there’s nothing more I can do to protect you.”
Todd had never felt more scared in his life. His response was barely a whimper.
“But sir, I wasn’t alone in the woods. The—”
“Oh yes, yes. The two men. I remember your version of the story. I warned you to give up the lies of your past. It seems you cannot escape them, and they have become your undoing.”
The headmaster blinked at a pair of guards behind Todd. They bound his hands in restraints, ready to escort him from the room.
Todd screamed in panic.
“No! I’m innocent.”
Trumble raised his hand for the guards to pause.
“Have you ever considered that we helped you that evening? That I—er—we saved you?”
Tears pooled in Todd’s eyes.
“Sir... please. I’m innocent.”
Trumble could only shake his head, as the guards lead the condemned teenager out of the room.
A week after the confrontation in Classroom 12, Todd was still locked up in a basement holding cell. A single lamp provided only meager light.
There were no windows. No view of the green courtyards outside of the school.
The guards rotated three times a day, and they were Todd’s only source of conversation. Despite holding him until the determined time of his execution, the three guards were pleasant. They made sure he had plenty of food, and did their best to make him comfortable.
No one else had visited him.
The admonishment of his headmaster still swirled in Todd’s head as he awaited his demise.
Did he say he rescued me?
The boy had never considered Trumble’s perspective from that night. How did he know what would happen in the woods?
Was it coincidence?
The more Todd thought about the headmaster’s perspective, the more questions popped into his head. The way Trumble said he was to be executed. He phrased it like it had happened before.
He knew what was going to happen that night, but how?
Suddenly a piece of the puzzle fell into place. His classmates had never seen their parents. All of them were kidnapped before doing something terrible. It seems Trumble always knew the right place and… the right time.
They were all taken, but not from another place. From another—
A grin formed on Todd’s face as realization struck. He grabbed a scrap of paper and wrote a question on it.
“Guard. Can you get a message to the headmaster?”
The guard at the end of the holding room smiled, and walked over towards the cell. Todd folded the note and handed it to them.
“Only Mr. Trumble, please.”
The next day Todd received a visit from the headmaster. The old man opened the folded paper and answered Todd’s question written inside of it.
“Yes, I was there that night. In the woods.”
“Then you saw everything? The two men… and the bright flashes? You know that I didn’t do anything to those boys. You know I didn’t kill them.”
“Why do you ask questions when you already know the answers?”
Todd’s life was over. Everything he cared about was gone. And now he would die in disgrace. There was only one person who could save him from his fate.
“Please, sir. I’m desperate.”
The old man straightened.
“I’ll tell you what I saw that night. I saw your life get destroyed because of a petulant rage—a lapse in judgement that caused a terrible accident. I saw it so many times, and each time it ended the same. Three boys go into the woods, one emerges alive. Causality.
“It is too simple of a conclusion to refute.”
Todd’s eyes grew wide.
So I am a criminal.
“You removed me from the woods that night… so I wouldn’t get caught?”
Trumble shook his head.
“So you couldn’t murder anyone, accidentally or intentionally. Remove a criminal from the circumstance that leads to their crime and they cease to be a criminal. I offered you the chance for a different path.”
“If I didn’t murder them, then why did they still die?”
“That was their path. It could not be avoided.”
It could not be avoided.
Todd took it all in. Something about the way Trumble referred to their path unnerved him. But now he finally understood.
“You knew I would be in the woods that night because you had seen it before?”
Trumble replied with a villainous smile.
“You would’ve made a fine Agent. A shame, really.”
Todd’s insides went hollow. He would die a criminal unless he could convince Trumble to help him again.
“Sir, please. I can still be the Agent you thought I could. I understand my mistakes now... now that I understand the truth.”
Trumble’s eyebrows raised.
“About the two men in the woods that night…”
“The two men were there to save me. To offer me another path. I betrayed them once already, but please believe me when I say this… I’ll never betray them again.”
Trumble considered his words.
After a few moments, he nodded and gave a quick glance around the room. Then he returned the folded paper to Todd through the cell.
As Todd collected it, he felt a lump in the middle. He glanced from the paper back to his headmaster.
The old man spoke in a soft voice and glanced towards the paper.
“Should help you out of your restraints... if you wish to rejoin the Agent Program, be at that address exactly at 9am tomorrow.”
“What about the guards?”
Trumble looked back towards Todd, annoyed.
“It’s either your life or theirs.”
“Good morning, and welcome the case review of reference TZZ-34663.”
Todd Hammersmith placed his communicator on a receiver inside of the lectern. The audience in the small theater vanished as the lights dimmed, and a large screen behind him lit up with supporting materials.
“Mission subject is a private citizen named ‘Thad Michols’.”
Todd stepped away from the lectern and paced.
“The operation began with a standard three-point observation. First observation began at time index 8057. The objective was to confirm Mr. Michols’ terminal illness as described in the member questionnaire.”
Todd pulled up the lab chart.
“During this observation, I conducted a field test of Michols’ labs, and jumped back with a sample for our clinicians to verify. Both my tests and theirs confirmed the same diagnosis.”
He zoomed into a graph of the cellular breakdown.
“Michols had contracted Tycho-Mattheson disorder.”
Todd heard a buzz stir over the audience. After a few minutes, the voice of a middle-aged doctor spoke from the darkened audience. Todd imagined the horn-rimmed glasses worn by the voice’s owner.
“Tycho-Mattheson? This has to be the earliest reported case of the disease by five decades.”
“That’s correct, Dr. Childers. I jumped ahead to time index 8072 for my second observation to confirm Michols’ death. My field autopsy was consistent with T-M, based on time of death and presented symptoms.”
Dr. Childers raised an eyebrow in curiosity.
“This is extraordinary. The subject should be extracted and brought here for further testing.”
Hammersmith smiled, then advanced to his next chart.
“My third observation was a jump to time index 7602. Analysis of his cellular decay from earlier observations indicated he should have contracted the disorder by this index, but still within a window where the disorder could be treated.”
Another doctor further back in the audience picked up on Todd’s hedge.
“Should have? Did he present symptoms during the third observation?”
Hammersmith let out a breathe, then shook his head.
“That’s the mystery presented to this panel. Michols was successfully extracted during my third observation and tested here. Every test for T-M has come back negative.”
Dr. Childers was perplexed.
“How can that be? T-M gestation is well documented. Six months, give or take a day. If his time-of-death is accurate, he has to have it when you extracted him.”
Todd didn’t recognize the voice of the physicist in the first row who asked the next question.
“Which time stream did you use?”
Anticipating this question, Todd advanced to the appropriate chart.
“Alpha bravo twenty-seven delta.”
The physicist frowned.
“Isn’t twenty-seven-delta known to be unreliable for jumps this far back?”
A technician from Todd’s team cleared their throat.
“The jump was well within engine operating parameters for twenty-seven-delta. The integrity of Agent Hammersmith’s jumps is not under scrutiny.”
Dr. Childers stood-up and approached the stage.
“With all due respect to the rest of this panel. I’m the foremost medical expert on Tycho-Mattheson. If your subject didn’t present symptoms six months before death, then your subject cannot have T-M.”
Todd shifted his weight towards Childers.
“What are you saying doctor?”
“It’s possible this an early mutation that has not fully developed into what we understand as T-M. That’s the most likely hypothesis given there is no record of another case of T-M for fifty years. It’s also possible this is an unknown disease and we’ve uncovered a hornet’s nest.”
“What do you suggest we do next?”
“Assuming my colleagues here agree your jumps and calculations were accurate, we need further medical study of Mr. Michols.”
“How long should that take?”
“I can give you a week to run your tests. Michols must be returned to his stream by then, or we risk exposure.”
The afternoon storms were about to start, and Todd stared out of his office window into the brewing darkness. He twirled the book of matches from his childhood sleepover.
A friendly voice pulled him from his reverie.
“Brutal case review this morning.”
Agent Stamford had peeked in through the office door. Todd rubbed the cover of the matchbook, then set it back into his open desk drawer.
“Yeah. Think I finally stumped the experts.”
“Yeah… and their nerve. Question you about your jumps? Hell, you practically invented the three point observation.”
Stamford settled into the couch opposite Todd’s desk. Hammersmith eyed him as he slid his desk drawer closed, then returned his gaze out the window.
“Eh, it’s not gonna matter much. I don’t think there’s enough time to run any meaningful tests.”
“We could always go back in and extract him at a later time index.”
Todd gently shook his head.
“Risky. Pretty sure I attracted local police attention when I grabbed him the first time. Too conspicuous for the same person to go missing twice…”
“Suppose you’re right.”
Todd nodded and looked over at a picture of Cornelius Trumble from his graduation.
“Same reason we can’t hold him any longer. Time is conserved.”
Stamford chuckled at his friend, then glanced at the photo.
“God, you sound like the old man. Time waits for no one.”
Todd laughed back, then sighed.
“I wish he were here right now. He’d know what to—”
Panicked sounds of klaxons shouted across the building. Both of their communicators flashed red.
Stamford got to his first, and his face matched the alarm. Todd glared at his friend.
“What is it? What happened?”
“Thad Michols just broke out.”
“He’s on the run.”