A woman stands over a body lying prone on the ground.

Intruder

Edited by Brian J. White

July 2017 | Illustration by Galen Dara

The inside door handle was loose.

That should have been a clue.

But Rebecca didn’t notice, just went on in, whistling, smacking the garage door button as she passed.

Up the stairs, drop the backpack on the couch, say hi to the fish, head into the kitchen to nuke a quick burrito before heading back out into the snowy evening to meet Peter.

It was nearly twenty minutes before she went to the back part of the house. She ought to brush her teeth. But something was wrong, oh, dark as sin back here. She hadn’t noticed earlier. The hall nightlight was out. Bathroom too.

That should have been another clue.

She didn’t bother with the hall light, and the bathroom overhead turned on just fine.

She did her business, headed to the master bath to brush her teeth — she really needed to get the toilet back there working.

When she came out of the bedroom, there was someone standing in the hall.

Ohcrap, ohCRAP, OHCRAP!

She got the barest glimpse of a figure back-lit by the living-room light before diving back into the bedroom, scrambling over the bed, falling with a thump onto the carpet between the bed and the wall.

“Rebecca?” the voice from the hallway was a woman, hint of Boston accent.

In the top drawer of the nightstand, her mother’s snub-nosed .38 Special, loaded, always loaded.

“Rebecca, it’s okay, really, I didn’t mean to frighten you.” Footsteps in the hall.

She pulled back the hammer, and as the woman turned the corner into the bedroom, pulled the trigger.

So much louder than on the range.

The recoil knocked her backwards into the window sill, ringing in her ears, gunpowder in the air.

She pulled herself up and looked over the bed.

Body on the floor, in the doorway.

She’d just shot an intruder.

Should call the cops, or the neighbor, or at least set the gun down on the bed. But she did none of that.

She kept the gun pointed at the woman, who lay face-down, legs splayed, arm at an odd angle, blood on the carpet, red on beige. Long wool pea-coat and unfashionable boots. No movement.

“Ohgod,” she couldn’t hear her own whisper.

Nobody she knew, that was a blessing.

She should call the cops. Still watching the body — still no movement, except a spreading of blood on the carpet — she sidled around the end of the bed back to the nightstand.

The gun clunked against the phone. Right, set the gun down first.

She did, picked up the ancient handset — a relic from her grandmother, who had never had to call the cops and she’d lived in a worse Boston neighborhood than Rebecca did. Gangwar territory.

God, focus. She’d just killed an intruder in her bedroom.

She dialed, could sort of hear the tones through the buzz in her ears, and the ringing on the far end sounded as if it were buried in sand.

She looked back at the body.

“9-1-1, what is your emergency?” A smooth competent, female voice.

She couldn’t talk. She could only stare. The body was — fading.

“Um—”

“What is your emergency?”

She could see carpet through the body now, and between the space of one harsh breath and the next, the body, the pea-coat, the blood, all just … disappeared.

“Holy shit…” she whispered.

“Ma’am? What is your emergency? Are you free to speak?”

“Oh! Oh, I’m sorry, I — uh — thought I saw someone lurking in my back yard. I think it was a deer, though.”

“We’ll send a patrol car out. Can you tell me your name and verify your address?”

“Rebecca Sedgefield, and don’t you have my address on your screen since this is a landline?”

“I just need the verification, ma’am.”

She gave her address, hung up and went back downstairs. The cops showed up in less than five minutes, prowled her yard with flashlights, asked if she’d heard anything unusual.

She said no, she heard nothing.

She tried not to fidget as they took her information, why were they here again? — something had happened in her bedroom? Something about the .38, had it discharged? Was that what they were asking about? But the gun was safe in the nightstand.

Oh well. As soon as the taillights of patrol car rounded the corner and headed down the hill she ran back inside to get her keys and purse.

Now she was really running late. She’d have to hoof it to meet Peter.


The inside door handle was loose.

That should have been a clue.

But Rebecca didn’t notice, just went on in, whistling. She smacked the garage door button as she passed, glanced to make sure she hadn’t accidentally put up the other side.

Up the stairs, drop the backpack on the floor, say hi to the parakeets, head into the kitchen to nuke a quick burrito before heading back out to meet Peter.

She dumped the dishes in the sink. Just enough time to brush her teeth and pee. But something was wrong, oh, dark as sin back here. She hadn’t even noticed. The hall nightlight was out. Bathroom too.

Sheez, everything at once.

She didn’t bother with the hall light, and the bathroom vanity light turned on just fine.

Original sixties-era bathroom, therefore tiny, the tub taking half the space, even more claustrophobic with the shower curtain closed, which was how she kept it.

She lifted the lid on the toilet, hesitated, considered.

Then gave in to her occasional paranoia and yanked back the shower curtain.

This time there was someone there.

A woman, her height, older, maybe forty, brown hair shot with the beginnings of gray, cropped short. Black wool pea-coat.

The woman was just beginning to raise her hands, just beginning to speak.

No hesitation as instinct, adrenaline and muscle memory all kicked in at once.

A fast driving punch to the solar plexus, softened by the coat, but with the force of her entire body behind it, it was plenty.

The intruder doubled over with a whuff of expelled air, and Rebecca grabbed her head, brought knee to face. The intruder slipped, fell with a crack against the side of the tub and lay still.

Blood on the tub, blood on the floor, blood on her knee, damn her knee hurt.

“Ohgod,” she whispered. What the hell had just happened?

It was nobody she knew, that was a blessing.

She needed to call the cops, call an ambulance, jeez she was going to miss her date with Peter, she needed to call him too.

She ran into the kitchen and grabbed the cordless, back down the hall as she punched the buttons. God, she was going to have to tell them that she’d killed an intruder in her bathtub with her bare hands.

“9-1-1, what is your emergency?” A guy, competent, calm.

Back into the bathroom. The body was gone. Blood, pea coat and all. Gone.

“Uh…”

“What is your emergency?”

“Sorry, I guess my finger slipped and I speed-dialed you.”

“Do you want us to send out a car?”

“No, really, just slipped, thanks.”

She checked for blood, half-expecting the body to come back. Maybe she’d hallucinated it.

Five minutes later, a knock at the front door. Down the half-flight of steps to answer, her knee really hurt.

Cops. They’d come anyway.

“My finger slipped, really. I was getting ready to head out, but you can come in and look around if you want.”

They nodded and smiled, looked past her into the living room, then left.

Jeez she was going to be late. Quick text to Peter as the cops rounded the corner — why had they come? — then she grabbed keys and purse and bolted for the car.


The inside door handle was loose.

That should have been a clue.

Rebecca didn’t notice, just hurried on in. She left the garage door up — just going right back out in ten minutes anyway, going to meet Peter at Starbucks.

Up the stairs, and there was someone waiting for her in the living room.

“Holy crap!” She dropped the backpack. An intruder in her living room. A woman. They stared at each other over the frozen time. Then Rebecca dug in her purse, feeling for the weight there.

She pulled out the snubnosed .38 Special, had it aimed and cocked in less than a single breath, just like she’d trained.

The woman’s eyes flicked to Rebecca’s purse, then back up, surprised. She took a step forward, took a breath to speak.

Rebecca pulled the trigger. Her hand recoiled, an impossibly loud pop, so much louder than the range, but the shot landed true. The .38 was only really effective up close and this was definitely up close.

The woman jerked. Said “Oh!” in a small voice. Then she crumpled to the carpet.

Blood, so much blood and she’d just killed another human being, an intruder, an intruder and she’d just killed someone.

Call the cops.

By the time the dispatcher was saying “9-1-1, what is your emergency,” the body had disappeared.

By the time the cops showed up, Rebecca had forgotten why she called.


“She’s killed you three times, Beck. This is — this is really bad.”

“I can’t believe how much dying hurts.”

“Well, let’s see. Two gunshots and one bare hands.” Robert tried to smile, but the attempt at humor fell flat. “You never said anything about martial arts training, that you could kill someone with your bare hands.”

“Because I didn’t. It was kickboxing.”

“Or that you had a carry permit.”

“I’ve never had a carry permit. I’ve never owned a gun.”

“What about your dad’s shotgun?”

She grimaced in distaste. “That was only in the house long enough for my brother to come get it after Dad died. I’ve never had a handgun.”

Silence.

She said, “I remember we were having a string of break-ins and burglaries at the time. The neighbor across the street said I should learn to protect myself now that my folks were both passed and I was alone in the house, but it was his guns. My brother took Mom’s .38 when she died. He offered it to me, but I didn’t think I could shoot anyone.”

“Some of you did.”

She gave a soft snort and tried not to breathe too deeply. No physical damage, but the memory of being killed was still sharp.

He handed her a thin readout. “That’s a lot more drift than we expected. Here, look.”

She still didn’t understand all the nuance, but this was obvious even to her hastily-trained eye. “Yeah. A lot of drift. But still in acceptable range, right?”

“Barely. But with every trip the drift increases. And if she keeps killing you … “ Robert let the sentence hang.

“I know.” Degradation of mental faculties. It was bad enough that they were having her break the First Rule by approaching a former-self. Worse that she was trying to interact with her.

Rebecca Sedgefield was the one person on any past timeline she could talk to, who could see her, who she could touch.

Who could apparently kill her. Robert and his people hadn’t mentioned that, and she hadn’t even realized what was happening the first time, in the bedroom.

Rebecca Sedgefield was therefore the one person she should avoid at all cost.

But these were extenuating circumstances. Hell, these circumstances made extenuating circumstances look normal.


War, plague, famine, natural disaster. Again and again over the course of human history, they swept part or most of the globe into their shadow. But never truly all. There were always survivors. Four million dead by flooding in China in 1931, 72 million dead over World War I, millions by famine in Russia in the early 20th century, 100 million plus over the colonization of the Western hemisphere.

Beck could rattle these numbers off in her sleep. And more. A veritable tower of dead humanity.

But these events, as horrific as they were, as hard as the numbers were to grasp, always left survivors. The tragedy was unfathomable, but the human race survived.

Except this time.

This time, there would be no survivors. No continent, country, city or house safe. No hidden enclave. No resistance, natural or otherwise, to this plague.

It didn’t matter who had done it. But someone had done it, created a virus and a vector that was wiping all vertebrate and most invertebrate life off the planet.

Someone had created the planet-killer.

And a doctoral dissertation, written by an obscure Harvard grad student, contained the germ of how to fight it.


“Okay, Beck, you ready for another run? Let’s try something different. Let’s stay out of the house.”


Rebecca let herself in the garage door, running late for her meet with Peter. The extra two seconds to unlock the inside door seemed to take forever, not sure it was worth it anyway, even with the recent break-ins.

If she was going to break into her house, she’d go through the back basement window. Secluded, in and done.

Dump the backpack, suck down a burrito at the speed of light, pee and brush teeth, grab purse and keys, back down to the garage.

And the car wouldn’t start.

What the heck.

Back upstairs to swap keys, really should put them both on one ring.

Outside to the street, Dad’s truck coughed and spluttered but started fine.


“How could you miss the truck? It was sitting right there on the street!”

“We’re ‘porting me in to the back yard, remember? And stop yelling.” Even when Rebecca didn’t kill her, the headache on return was spectacular.

“Sorry.” He sighed, took a deep breath, calmed himself. “But you didn’t even bring it up when we planned this run. Did you ever have your dad’s truck?”

“Yes. For about three months until my brother came and got it. I forgot about it.”

He had the decency not to mention mental degradation.


Running late. Bolt a burrito, grab keys and purse, run downstairs.

The car wouldn’t start.

Dammit.

Run back up, swap keys.

The truck wouldn’t start either.

Pop the hood on the truck. The sedan might be an unholy mess of unidentifiable electronics, but she knew Dad’s old truck. There, distributor cap loose, what the heck. Fixed.

Outta here.


Beck didn’t have a mechanical bone in her body.

“Drift is getting critical,” said Robert. “Let’s forget the house for now. Concentrate on the accident.”


Running late. Bolt a burrito, head back out.

Jeez, the roads were slick. Going too fast, need to slow down, light turning, crap that guy just stepped off the curb, sliding, gonna hit—

— her car slammed from the other side, t-boned from nowhere, airbags, the car sliding, turning, a thud and a glimpse of the pedestrian on the hood, flying over as the car skidded to a stop.

Sudden silence except for the ticking engine, glance to the left, the other driver a woman with short dark hair shot through with gray and blood, so much blood, no airbags, she must’ve hit the steering wheel.

Voices from far away, coming closer. “Oh my God!” but they were behind her, the pedestrian, she’d hit the pedestrian.

She couldn’t move her neck and as she watched, the other driver began to fade.


“Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve driven a car on the snow?”


Running late, bolt a burrito, text Peter, head back out.

Damn, the streets are slick, they should have postponed their date, slow down, WHOA, that dude is—

— another car from nowhere, in the wrong lane, she tried to brace but everything was too fast. The crash hard and sharp, nothing like the slo-mo movies that replayed from every angle, and the car slid sideways right toward the dude, the airbags in her face, a thump and jerk and the motion stopped and the car came to rest on the sidewalk.

People screaming. “He’s under her car!” and “Oh God, his head!”


Watching Jay Maharaj die was worse than being shot.

Beck had killed him two weeks before he was to defend his dissertation. She’d gone by Rebecca then.

She remembered driving fast on the icy streets, sliding out of control, the glimpse of a pedestrian, then the awful thud.

Thirty years later, while the bio-labs scrambled fruitlessly to find a cure, while the human and animal population crashed at an ever-increasing rate, the data miners had come across his posthumously-awarded PhD.

They’d handed their information over to the Time Lab, whose mandate shifted to preventing the death of Jay Maharaj.

The Time Lab failed. Over and over, agent after agent. Failed.

Then the Dev team had discovered, quite by accident, that an agent could interact with a past self. They also discovered, again quite by accident, that it was a very bad idea to interact with a past self. A very bad idea.

Desperate, they had turned to the woman who had killed him. They’d found her — damn lucky she hadn’t already succumbed — drilled the Three Imperative Rules into her head, told her the first two didn’t apply to her, and sent her back to interact with her past self.


“The car thing isn’t working, Robert.” She couldn’t even raise her head out of her hands.

“Too many other variables,” he said.

The lights flickered and they both looked up. The lights teadied. Neither said what they were thinking.

Robert cleared his throat. “The Dev team says they might have figured out a way for you to interact with someone not yourself.”

“Let me guess. Nobody’s tested it.”

“Nobody’s left to test it.”


Streets were slick as goose shit. Rebecca took her foot off the gas to slow down.

Light changing, was that dude going to step out?

Her glance turned into a disbelieving gawk as a woman … materialized, just popped into the air right next to the dude.

Rebecca had a bare instant to register that, see the woman’s hand grab for the dude’s elbow, and go right through.

She froze for a split-second, and the steering wheel jerked, and then the rear end of her car was sliding.

She turned into the slide, but she was heading for the sidewalk, too fast, way too fast, going to hit —

— and she hit them both, a double-thud that threw the dude over the trunk. She caught the flash of movement in the rearview just in time to see him land hard in the street, blood flying before he even hit.

The car jumped the curb and slid to a stop. The woman lay on the sidewalk next to Rebecca’s door. She lay on her back, black wool pea-coat rucked around, blood spreading from under her head.

Rebecca couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. Silent seconds like the world was holding its breath.

She’d just run over two people.

As she watched, the woman’s body faded, disappeared, not even blood left on the icy sidewalk.

Voices, shouting, people running.

Rebecca shook her head. Ohgod, she’d just run a guy over.


“You still couldn’t touch him, but she ran you over?”

“Again.” She rubbed her head absently.

“Six runs over three days. You’ve just set a record.”

“Give me a medal.” She was tired, so tired. “We’re running out of time, aren’t we?” They’ve kept her out of the news loops, didn’t want to distract her. And that was fine with her. She had enough to think about, failing again and again, how many times now? Twenty? Twenty-five? She’d lost count. How many of those had Rebecca outright killed her? Eight. She knew that number. Remembered every single one.

And the timepaths were diverging farther each time.

“Eastern seaboard went down last night,” he said. “It won’t be long.”

The Time Lab was housed in an anonymous warehouse on the outskirts of Greeley, Colorado. Beck liked Colorado. What little she’d seen of it. “What happens when the western grid goes down?”

He shrugged. “We have generators. And enough gas to run the equipment for awhile.”

“How ‘awhile?’”

“Two more runs if we’re lucky. Probably just one.”

The western grid went down that night.


The inside door handle was loose.

Rebecca hurried in. She left the garage door up — just going right back out in ten minutes anyway, going to meet Peter at Starbucks.

Up the stairs, and there was someone waiting for her in the living room.

“Crap!” She dropped the backpack, went for her purse, brought out the snubnosed .38 Special, had it aimed and cocked in less than a single breath.

But the woman standing by the fireplace had brought out a shotgun just as fast. Rebecca’s shotgun.

They stood there, a dozen feet apart, pointing death at each other.

The woman was her height, short dark hair shot through with gray, forty or so, hard to tell. Looked familiar, really familiar, but Rebecca couldn’t place her.

“Don’t shoot, for God’s sake Rebecca, don’t shoot.” She spoke fast, desperate. “Just listen to me, please.”

“Who the hell are you? And how did you find my shotgun?”

“That’s not important. What’s important is that you stay home tonight.”

“Are you kidding me? You break into my house and point a gun at me to tell me to stay home? You couldn’t just call? Who the hell are you?” She was talking fast too.

“This is going to sound strange, but —”

“This is the most important date of my life!”

“It isn’t, not really.” A small smile, just a quirk of one side of her lips.

“Who the hell are you!”

“Look at me, Rebecca. Look closely.”

She looked, then frowned and shook her head, looked again. “Shit,” she said. “You could be my way older sister.”


Ohgod, maybe it was going to work this time, please let it work this time.

She’d guessed right — the shock of the shotgun pointed at her had kept Rebecca from firing the .38.

The girl that was her — so young, so very young — had no idea. No idea what was in store for her.

“You’re pretty sure Peter is going to propose tonight after your study session,” she said.

Rebecca’s eyes widened a bit. “How do you know that? I haven’t told anyone that.”

“Because I’m you,” Beck said. Or a version of you on a different timeline. But that would just confuse her. “I’m Rebecca Sedgefield.”

Beck could see the disbelief, the denial rising. Then the realization. Rebecca knew. Didn’t want to know, didn’t want to believe, but she could feel it in every cell of her body, just like Beck could.

Rebecca swallowed. But her gun stayed up. Beck’s was steady too.

She spoke fast. “You’re heading out to meet him at Starbucks. And you’re right. He has a ring, and intends to propose tonight over mochas.”

“How’d you know that?”

“Because I remember. I told you. Listen. This is what’s going to happen. You’re already running late, and you push through the yellow light at Hanover Street. You’re going to hit a pedestrian. His name is Jay Maharaj and he’s a grad student at Harvard. He’s in a hurry too, he thinks you’ll stop. But you don’t see him until he’s already in the intersection. You’re going to hit him and he’s going to die.”

Rebecca’s mouth opened, she shook her head, closed her mouth.

“That was the worst day of my life,” said Beck. “It’s going to be the worst day of yours. And it’ll continue to mess up your life for — well, for decades.”

“I’m going to kill someone?”

“I’m here to stop that.”

“How?” a whisper. But the gun stayed steady.

“Just stick here for a bit before you leave. An hour should do it.” Logically, a five-minute delay ought to do it. But Beck being so near her past self screwed up the timelines. Robert said a half-hour was nearly a statistical certainty. But Beck wasn’t sure. And she didn’t have any more chances to not be sure.

“I’ll stay with you if you want,” she said.

“Oh, right.” Rebecca rolled her eyes. Beck could almost see her thoughts. Stay here with a crazypants intruder? As if.

“Please. You have no idea how important this is.”

Rebecca cocked her head to the left, a gesture Beck knew well. Thinking. “So tell me something about my future.”

This was good. Keep her attention. Ignore the fact that they were pointing guns at each other.

“Sure. I can tell you anything you want.”

Which was a lie. She could tell Rebecca the big stuff, the places where all their timelines slid together so close they may as well touch, events that nearly all of the Rebecca Sedgeworths experienced. Like killing a pedestrian in their senior year of college.

She could tell her about the places where if one of the timelines diverged, it would pull the rest with them, change the fundamental course of all their lives. Other time agents had discovered that the hard way, before the Second Rule had been put into effect.

Some of them had just — disappeared, winked out, the only evidence of their existence living the database that sat in the protected bubble outside the timestreams.

She didn’t dare tell the truth. But it didn’t matter. Just keep her busy for as long as possible.

“Let’s put the guns down first, okay?”

A slow shake of the head. “Nah, don’t think so. As a matter of fact, you could make anything up. Tell me about my past instead. Prove you’re who you say.”

Then Beck felt it. The pull, the precursor to the big yank that would haul her back to the time lab. “No…” she whispered. “Not now…”

She had less than ten minutes.


This woman was nuts. Rebecca didn’t dare drop the pistol, even though the bore of the shotgun threatened to open up and swallow her whole.

Her own stupid shotgun at that.

Her heart threatened to open up too, right out of her chest.

Be careful, the neighbors had said. Don’t let yourself get surprised, her brother had said. Stupid, stupid.

“Tell me about my past instead,” she said. “Prove you’re who you say.”

“No…” whispered the woman. “Not now…”

“I knew it!”

The intruder’s eyes snapped up, desperate, crazy. The shotgun twitched in her hands.

Rebecca pulled the trigger.


Beck’s head was trying to explode. There was nothing but that.

Light and dark. Yelling. Her voice.

Light and dark.


“Oh, God.” Her head must’ve exploded, because it had stopped hurting. Mostly.

“Beck, I’m so sorry,” said Robert.

This time she’d woken up in a bed instead of the time chamber. Clean white sheets, thin blanket, tiny converted hospital room down the hall from the main time lab.

The lights were dimmer than when she left. Robert sat in a wooden chair next to the bed. He looked haggard.

“We came so close,” he said.

At least he had the decency to spread the blame.

“What happened?” she asked.

“It was a good try.”

She pushed herself up. “Robert, goddammit!” Her headache flared and she lay back.

“You were raving when you came back. We didn’t think you’d even wake up. Much less get your faculties back.”

“How long?”

“Eight days.”

“Eight? Why are the lights still on?”

A small grim smile. “We’ve shut down the Time Lab. Without that, we can last a month.”

“And then what?” she whispered.

He didn’t answer.

Because it didn’t matter. She’d seen the numbers, the death toll, human and otherwise, actually decreasing because there wasn’t much left alive to die.

“So… there’s enough juice for one more run,” he said. “But it’ll take everything we have.”

“One more?” She sat up, headache be damned.

“We’ve decided to do it. Henry is prepping for day after tomorrow. If it doesn’t work —”

If it didn’t work, the loss of power, the acceleration of the end, would be a blessing.

“Send me.”

“You can barely sit up.” Another tight smile. “I wasn’t supposed to have said anything to you. But I figured you deserved to know.”

“I’m the only one who has any chance of success. I’m the only one who can interact with her. You know that. The Dev team knows that. Send me.”

He leaned forward, put his head in his hands.


The inside door handle was loose.

Huh, that was weird. But no time to think about it.

Rebecca left the garage door up — just needed to make a couple of sandwiches for her and Peter before heading back out to meet him at Starbucks. God what a crappy night to be out.

Take the stairs two at a time, and —

There was someone standing at the top of the steps.

Woman, short dark hair, long black pea-coat.

Shotgun.


Beck pulled the trigger.

About the author

M. E. Owen, writes crime, science fiction, and fantasy — often in the same story. Her short work has appeared in Fiction River, Abyss & Apex, Flash Fiction Online and elsewhere. She’s currently working on her debut novel, a noir mystery set against a hard science fiction backdrop (or maybe it’s the other way around). You can find her at MEOwen.com.

© 2017 M. E. Owen