In the midst of the scuffle, none of the chanting protesters noticed the man in the ball cap weave between the police barricades and trot up the steps to the government building. No one glanced at his oddly colorful backpack as he crossed the open veranda and patiently held a door for a young PhD candidate and her friends. No one passing through the high concrete foyer turned their head as the man answered a series of questions at an automated kiosk and pulled a slip of paper from the side. The guards, keeping one eye on the angry crowd, barely registered his face as they took his colorful pack and asked him to step separately through a scanner. When the machine glitched momentarily, they asked him to move to one side, which he did without objection while his backpack was sent through a second, smaller device. When the light at the top turned green, the man collected his belongings and took a seat under the circular seal that hung on the wall. The words SCIENCE CONTROL AGENCY curved in block chrome letters around the martial icon at the center.
After several minutes, a loud beep preceded a calm automated voice, which told all those gathered that number A36 was now being served at cubicle number 4. The man checked the slip of paper to make sure he remembered his number correctly. Then he rose and made his way at an even pace to a painted walkway that branched into different colored paths, each marked by a number, that lead visitors to one of several glass-walled cubicles. A plank desk jutted from the wall of Cubicle 4. There were two chairs, one on each side, and no computer. Any part of the glass could be turned into a touchscreen, as the officer behind the desk was demonstrating. She typed on the desk, where an optical keyboard glowed, and greeted the man without turning from the multiple displays in the otherwise clear wall next to her.
“Have a seat, sir.”
The man sat down and leaned his backpack against the legs of the chair.
“Appeal or application?” she asked briskly.
The woman’s name tag said SHIRLEY, and she bore the slouch of someone who had been on desk duty for many hours and was anxious to be done.
“Neither. I’m not a scientist.”
“Then what can we help you with?”
“I would like you to arrest me.”
“Arrest you?” she asked, completely unperturbed. “What for?”
“I killed the president,” he said calmly. “And several others, actually. But that’s the most important.”
“Mm-hmm,” she replied without turning from her report. “You know the president is still alive, right?”
“Not the current president,” he explained. “The president in 1963.”
She glanced him over quickly before resuming her typing. Her nails clack-clacked on the desk. “Your name Lee Harvey Oswald?”
“No, of course not.”
“You know what year it is, right?”
“You look pretty good for a centenarian.”
“I understand your skepticism. But I can prove it.”
The man reached into his backpack and set a clear plastic disc on the desk. What looked like a tiny piece of chewed gum, no larger than a printed period, was sealed inside.
She looked at it skeptically. “What’s this?”
“It’s a piece of the president’s brain. Preserved in epoxy.”
Shirley stared. “His brain?”
“Yes. They had me take the whole thing, but not until 1966, after everything had calmed down. I suspect it would’ve eventually revealed something incriminating. In the future, I mean. But I can’t be sure.”
“And you saved a piece?”
“Yes, well, that’s sort of their fault, isn’t it? If they had done things right the first time, there would’ve been no need to send me back. It occurred to me then that that was the first time I had touched anything that could be authenticated and that I might benefit from a bit of insurance. Just in case.”
“In case of what?”
“In case I needed it.”
“And what exactly are we supposed to do with part of someone’s brain?”
“It’s easy enough for your scientists to determine if it’s human. That would be your first clue that I’m telling the truth. After that, I’d suggest a genetic analysis. The National Archives has a number of the president’s belongings you can use for comparison.”
“Do they now?”
“And how do you know that?”
“That’s where I got the brain.”
“No.” The man smiled patiently, as if he knew he was being tested. “In ’66.”
“Why not ’63?”
“Because at the time it was still attached to the president. It wasn’t removed until autopsy. We picked the day in ’66 based on an article in the Post. There was a mild brouhaha at the Archives that made a nice cover. You can check that, too.”
“A brouhaha?” Shirley studied him.
“Yes. Like the one on your front steps.”
She swiped her screen closed. “Stay here.”
“Of course,” he said calmly.
After walking several steps, Officer Shirley Cisneros stopped. There was no way Agent Quinn would believe her. She wouldn’t, if she were him. But she also wasn’t sure what to do. It was, after all, only her third week on the job. But in her former role at the Transportation Security Administration, Shirley had interviewed hundreds (if not thousands) of people, and there was something extremely uncanny about the man sitting calmly at her desk. The way he had tucked a heavy flannel shirt neatly into his jeans, perhaps. Or how he appeared to have a manicure. Or maybe it was his eyes, which barely blinked. All Shirley knew was that she felt very deeply then that they should not let that man leave the building.
She turned and swiped the disc from the desk.
“Just a moment,” she said, walking away.
“Of course. Take your time.”
She walked around the grid of glass cubicles to the back, where her biometrics and electronic key card granted her access to a heavy door with overweight guards on both sides. At the end of the T-shaped hall, she turned left and then right again, where she entered an elevator. She swiped her key card a second time and pressed the button for Basement Level 2, and found her way to a long, high-ceilinged hall that seemed to go on forever. Her footsteps echoed off the slab walls, which were empty and nearly featureless until halfway down, where a set of heavy, fire-proofed double doors were painted sideways with the words:
The raucous rectangular room on the other side was part office, part laboratory, and part mechanic’s garage. Eight desks on an open plan were evenly spaced in two rows, completely circled by the steel cabinets and electronic equipment that lined all four walls. Nothing seemed to match, not even the desks. The high ceiling was exposed, revealing the light fixtures and the array of pipes and nozzles that made the fire suppression system, and everything smelled faintly of fresh paint.
All of the people in the room were engaged, either on the phone or with each other, and no one took any note of Shirley, who headed straight for the tall and handsome Orlando Quinn.
“It’s my toaster,” an older woman on a tall video screen explained to the nearest Crimes Division agent, a short, stocky woman with thick glasses that Shirley hadn’t met. “It’s become sentient. Or intelligent. I’m not sure which. Perhaps you could explain that,” she suggested earnestly.
“And how do you know that, Mrs. Schnelle?” the agent replied with more than a little disinterest. Apparently, collected baby seals, because the desk space around her multiple monitors was cluttered with them—plushes and statues and even a snow globe.
“Because it’s an artist.” The elderly woman lifted a large Ziplock bag full of toast onto which various images had been crudely burned.
Agent Quinn was talking on the phone two desks down.
“Need to talk to you, hoss,” Shirley said to his back.
“Just a sec,” he told her, momentarily covering the receiver. “That’s right,” he continued. Just until tomorrow. We can collect it then.”
On the screen, the earnest Mrs. Schnelle was explaining each piece of toast to the stocky agent one at a time. “And you see, this one is the Mona Lisa. And this one is that famous part of the Sistine Chapel where the fingers almost touch. Can you see?”
“Do you have to call me that?” Quinn said as he hung up the phone.
“Call you what?”
“Hoss. My grandfather was Mexican, too, you know.”
“You want a prize?”
“Hey!” the short-haired French officer called from the back. “I got a guy on the line in Albuquerque who says his neighbor was killed by a shape-shifting cyborg who took his place.”
She had a strong but clear accent and was dressed, as usual, in a man’s dark suit with the sleeves rolled.
“Which one is that?” Quinn called back. “Six Billion Dollar Man?”
“Terminator,” a gaunt, bespectacled man corrected from another desk. His hairline had deeply receded, and what was left of his thin, gray hair was wildly unkempt. “Specifically, Terminator 2. 1991. A classic.”
He rose to add Terminator to the handwritten list on a wheeled white board.
“Anybody got a bingo?” he asked. “Clo?”
The French woman at the back checked her card. She had high cheekbones and light blue eyes that didn’t match her dark hair. “Nah. I still need either Alien or The Remnants.”
“How many are we up to?” Quinn asked her.
“Calls? I don’t even know. If you mean reports, hundreds.”
“Where did they come from all of a sudden?” the gaunt man asked.
Although Shirley doubted he was much past 60, everything about him seemed old. He was an anachronism in a tweed suit and wire-frame glasses.
“Three days ago, this place was dead,” he complained.
“I think some members of law enforcement have joined segments of the public in their skepticism of our mission,” Quinn explained.
“They’re seizing on the public moment created by the protests to send us anyone and everything that might be remotely related to our mission.”
“In other words,” Shirley interjected dryly, “they’re trolling you.”
“I think they would call it hazing,” Quinn corrected.
“What’s the difference?”
“I don’t get it.” The gaunt man walked back to his desk, which had no computer. There was a box of pencils, lined paper, and a small calculator. At the corner, was a sign: B. KRIPKE, PHD. “Why are we processing them, then, if it’s just a joke?”
“We don’t know that all of them are,” Quinn replied. “Can’t take any chances.”
Dr. Kripke looked toward the door and lowered his voice. “You think toaster lady is serious?”
“Please just process them all. Log the leads. Anyone who’s confessed to a crime needs to see a judge.”
Shirley held out the clear plastic disc before they were interrupted again.
“What’s this?” Quinn asked.
“President Kennedy’s brain. Part of it, anyway.”
“Oh yeah?” Quinn took it with a smile. “What’s this guy’s story?”
“Says he was sent back in time to steal it. Says he’s also the guy who shot Kennedy, but something went wrong and he had to go back for the brain.”
“What you want me to tell him?”
Quinn opened his mouth to reply but scowled instead.
“What?” Shirley asked.
“Kripke!” Quinn called.
“Yo!” the gaunt man replied.
“Missing since 1966.”
“Missing?” Quinn had remembered reading something about it when he was at the Bureau.
“Yup. There’s a theory that his brother Robert took it to hide an illness or something, but I don’t buy it.”
Shirley shrugged at Quinn. “So? Man’s done his homework.”
“What does he want?”
“He wants us to arrest him.”
“Tell him we don’t have any evidence, but that we’ll—”
“He says that’s the evidence.” She pointed to the disc in Quinn’s hand. “He said you guys could confirm that it was human and do a genetic analysis based off Kennedy’s possessions in the National Archives.”
Quinn paused. “He said that?”
“What’s your take on him?”
“That man is all kinds of strange. He has a manicure.”
“You want me to arrest him for having a manicure?”
“You wanna bring him down or not?”
Quinn sighed as the phone on his desk rang again. “Tell him to come back—”
“I’m not telling him anything. He freaks me out, with those beady eyes and everything. You want him to come back later, you tell him.”
“No!” Mrs. Schnelle shouted. She stood. “I will not! You’re not taking me seriously. I’m telling you—”
“Trade?” Quinn asked.
“Are you suggesting I take the angry woman because of my gender?”
Quinn thought for a moment. “Yes.”
“Why can’t she handle it?” Shirley asked, motioning to the stocky agent with the thick glasses and wrist braces doing a terrible job of calming the elderly woman down.
“That’s right,” Quinn said dryly, “you haven’t met Thalia yet.”
Shirley saw the look on his face and sighed, pretending to be annoyed. The truth was, Orlando Quinn was a six-foot-and-God-knew-how-many-inches gorgeous hunk of man, with smiling eyes and flawless dark almond skin—more than that, he was nice to her—and Shirley would’ve almost anything he asked.
But she couldn’t let him know that.
“Fine,” she said. “But you do the paperwork for both.”
“Hold on. That’s not fair.”
But Shirley was already interjecting herself expertly into the argument between the other women. Quinn’s phone started ringing again, but he ignored it and walked up the stairs to Licensing, where he stood before Shirley’s empty cubicle. The man in the cap was gone. His colorful backpack sat on the floor, leaning against the chair. Quinn looked around, but seeing nothing, he took the bag to a nearby private examination room, where he unzipped it and emptied it on the desk. Inside was a banana, a mechanical pencil, and a spiral-bound notebook. He shook the bag, then patted it, but there didn’t seem to be anything else. He lifted the notebook and flipped from the back. Except for the first few pages, it was empty. Someone had written, or perhaps copied, a grid of numbers, none more than two digits long, in uneven pencil lines. He replaced everything in the bag, checked the waiting area one more time, and walked back toward Section 08.
He met Shirley in the hall, who handed him the bag of toast.
“Sentient toaster art. She wanted to speak to the manager. I said you were busy solving the murder of JFK but promised she’d be next.”
Quinn lifted the bag. He saw a fuzzy Mona Lisa, the Birth of Venus, and what appeared to be a burnt Picasso.
“Since when am I the manager?” he asked.
“Don’t ask stupid questions. But that reminds me. That call you didn’t answer was from the Director’s office. You’re wanted. Now, apparently.”
Quinn scowled as Shirley walked back to the front. Quinn swiped his key card at a nearby door and stepped into a long, stark room that was almost completely empty. Every sound echoed. In the corner near the far door stood a single server rack. Dark wires ran across the floor and disappeared.
A skinny-legged Hispanic man with a pot belly appeared from behind the rack. He wore baggy khakis and sported the traces of a mustache across his upper lip that stubbornly refused to grow.
“Hey, Manny.” Quinn waved.
“Agent Quinn, you know you’re not supposed to be in here.”
“Just passing through,” Quinn explained cordially with the backpack over his shoulder.
“But this isn’t a shortcut. This is the server room. It’s going to house some very sensitive equipment. You’re not authorized—”
“Then why does my key card work?”
It shouldn’t have, and Manny struggled with a response as Quinn dumped the bag of toast art into a chrome trash bin near the far door.
“Thanks, Manny,” he called as the door shut behind him.
The Director’s office was three levels up on the second floor. The receptionist was AWOL, probably at the hospital with their boss. Quinn opened the door and saw a suited and bespectacled chimpanzee sitting behind the director’s oak desk.
Dr. Hamilton Chang lowered his thick-rimmed glasses. He had more gray stubble under his chin than Quinn remembered from his job interview. “A mere formality” the ape had told him, since he had come recommended by a person of their acquaintance.
“Commissioner,” Quinn said, walking in. “To what do we owe the surprise?”
“Nothing nefarious,” the chimp explained. “Just checking up on things while Director Ogada is in the hospital. Officer Galois explained on the phone that our colleagues in law enforcement are giving us a warm welcome.”
Quinn made a face and sat down. He set the backpack on the floor. “New agency bullshit. It’ll pass.”
“But you’re still short-staffed.”
Quinn nodded. “Making progress. Thalia started last week. We got the kid from Stanford now, too. He’s downstairs getting a badge.”
“I apologize, Agent Quinn. Please remind me.”
“No need to apologize, sir. I don’t think anyone expects you to remember every name in the agency.”
“Thalia Reeves. Former LAPD. Cybercrime.”
“And ‘the kid from Stanford?’”
“Ezra . . . something. Computer science. Or ‘robotic control systems,’ I guess.”
“Ah. That’s right. Supposed to be very talented.”
“No law enforcement experience,” Quinn said flatly. “In fact, no experience of any kind.” He said it like he wasn’t particularly pleased with the hire.
“I take it Director Ogada hired him?”
“And you disagreed?”
“I’d prefer to discuss it through proper—”
“Work doesn’t stop because the director is in the hospital. Please. I will treat it as confidential.”
As Chair of the Science Regulatory Commission, Dr. Chang was Quinn’s boss’s boss.
“I don’t want to be accused of being a perfectionist,” Quinn said frankly. “I understand there are limitations. But we can only train so many at a time, and there were other qualified candidates.”
“Sonrisa Cortines. An ex-colleague at the FBI. Pursuit specialist.”
Dr. Chang leaned back. “Agent Quinn, this department is always going to be a bit of a hybrid.”
“Is that why you won’t give us guns?”
“We’re breaking new ground here. The people we’re trying to find—”
“Yes, sir. Forgive me for interrupting, but I get that. Right now, we’re not trying to find anybody. They’re coming to us. We don’t need young robotics gurus with no work experience who aren’t going to be happy filling out paperwork all day and who are just going to quit in a couple months. We need people with bureaucratic and law enforcement experience who can lay the foundation for the heavy hitters to come in later.”
“And Director Ogada disagrees?”
“He said the kid was something special. Didn’t want to lose him to another opportunity. He’s playing the long game, but in the meantime—”
“What about Dr. Kripke? How is he working out?”
“You mean Trotsky?” Quinn joked.
Chang looked confused.
“It’s nothing. There’s a resemblance. He’s fine. He’s a handful, but he’s not going anywhere. From what I understand, he’s already alienated most of the physics community.”
“Well.” The genius ape sighed. “Do the best you can, Agent Quinn.”
There was a moment of silence.
“We need her, sir,” Quinn said flatly.
“Yes.” Dr. Chang glanced out the window. “But in the meantime . . .” He handed Quinn a file. “The request came half an hour ago.”
“For help. From the FBI.”
“The Bureau?” Quinn was shocked. His old employers had made it clear they thought Crimes Division was unnecessary and took its mere existence as an affront.
Quinn read for a moment in silence.
“What do they mean, a radioactive blob?”
cover image by Oleksiy Rysyuk