Greetings true believers, time travelers, and sapient beings of all shapes and sizes. It’s been five years since we last checked in on Larry, Ishmael, and the dinosaur and robot fighting Agents of the CTCA. There have been approximately 400 Marvel movies released since then, but why no more Larry? I only have stupid answers for that stupid question, so why bore you with them. In the meantime, new chapters have been going up on the Partly Robot Patreon.
The Beast Beyond Time
by Andrew Coltrin
The Only Thing Worse than Looking for a Job is Having One
I didn’t realize surviving the epic battle between robots and dinosaurs at the end of humanity would mean I’d get a new job. Generally, I like jobs. I like down and dirty short term gigs where I apply my expertise quickly and efficiently, get paid for my services, and still have time to hit the early happy hour.
I love that kind of job.
The kind of job that doesn’t follow you home, but you probably wouldn’t mind if it did.
This wasn’t that kind of job.
It was a desk job. The worst kind of desk job. Senior executive. It’s not only the kind of job that follows you home, it’s the job becomes your home and you can never leave it because you’re stuck in an eyeball-shaped building at the very beginning of human prehistory, and it’s the only building at the very beginning of human prehistory, so there’s no where else you could actually go to at quitting time without heading to the Jump Zone and flashing off to some other, more hospitable, point in time, but you can’t do that because no one in the organization will dare let you off the campus because they’re worried you’ll never come back.
And they’re right to worry.
I don’t know how the Orb did this. The stress alone of supervising all these hypervigilant time cops was one thing, but the cold reality that some sort of weird energy field in the HQ building designed to protect agents from bacterial and fungal infections also prevented the fermentation of grains, fruits, and potatoes was an insult to far. I really needed a drink to clear my head. I also knew I wasn’t going to be able to get one. I’d already cleaned out the Orb’s liquor cabinet pretty early into the job. There wasn’t much; a couple bottles of gin, a quarter of a jug of moonshine, and a godawful banana liqueur. In the Orb’s defense the banana liqueur was unopened. It should have remained that way.
I have to admit I missed the Orb. If nothing else, if he hadn’t died, there wouldn’t be a job vacancy at the top of the agency I’d spent most of my career trying to skirt.
I still couldn’t figure how the job had fallen to me. But here I was, running a show I had no passion or inclination for. At least I got to see a lot more of Agent Lovejoy, usually at 10:30 am, a time at which I’d much rather be sleeping under my desk. Today there was an extra bounce in her step.
“Got the daily reports for you,” said Lovejoy.
I never thought I’d get tired of looking at her. But, now, every damn day, she hands me a stack of paperwork that I’m supposed to read through and assess if any of it poses any real threat to how humanity conducts its own sovereign course of history.
From what I’d seen, and I’d seen a lot, humanity was its own worst enemy. Whichever way you looked at it, human history ended with a Big Crash and a long slow slide to oblivion. I was pretty sure there wasn’t much I could do either way to change that. The rest was details. Putting me in the top desk of an organization dedicated to preserving the historical status quo was like having Jimi Hendrix front the Jonas Brothers. It sounds pretty funny in the hypothetical, but no one sober would agree that it’s a good idea in practice.
No one was sober at the party after the big dinosaur and robot brawl. More than a few questionable decisions were made.
“Lovejoy,” I said, “Why don’t you just pick three to investigate. Divvy them up between you, Hastings, and, I don’t know, Ellis. He looks bored. If anything turns up, let me know.”
“You’re not even going to skim through them, Chief?”
“Don’t call me Chief,” I said.
“Well, seeing that you are the chief ranking officer in the Cross-Time Coordinating Agency, how should I call you?”
“Call me Ishmael.”
“Well, that’s rather informal. Almost intimate,” she cooed. She had taken up an unsettling habit of flirting with me lately. I couldn’t help but suspect it had to do with some events at that party I couldn’t quite remember.
“Look, Lovejoy,” I said, “I just have a thing against titles, ranks, and pretty much anything that stinks of hierarchy. I never asked for this job, you know.”
“But you won the stakeholders election by a unanimous vote.” One of those events at that party.
“I still swear it was rigged. I don’t know who rigged it, but, considering I never wanted to have anything to do with the Agency before that, they succeeded in sucking all the joy out my life.”
“But you weren’t always so anti-Agency,” said Lovejoy. “We had some fairly enjoyable field assignments together back in the day. I’m sure you could find something enjoyable about this new position.”
She lightly bit her lip like a cougar on the prowl at an Irish themed bar on the main drag in a college town.
“If I recall correctly,” I said, in my surliest, most bitter, confirmed middle-aged bachelor voice, “back in the day, you busted my chops every chance you got. And that was the fun part. I wish I could forget the rest of it. There’s a reason I didn’t set foot in this building for twelve years, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let you drag me down memory lane into that nightmare. If we’ve got to do business now, fine, let’s do business. But let’s stick to business, okay?”
“Okay,” said Lovejoy as she fanned out the stack of reports. “So, any three, then.”
“Sure. Pick your favorites. Pick your least favorites. I don’t care. Odds are Hastings will find something wrong no matter where he looks.”
“All right,” said Lovejoy. “I’ve got copies in my office. I’ll just leave these here in case you change your mind about giving them a look.”
Lovejoy dropped the files on top of my desk’s overflowing inbox, then turned to go. I can’t deny that she still had it. The shape, the curves, the way of making that ridiculous jumpsuit look like something exciting. The way the blue, that oppressive, insulting, cerulean sky blue of the fabric, actually looked good on her.”
“One more thing.”
“Yes,” Lovejoy cooed again.
She was doing it on purpose. Like I hadn’t notice that she’d pretty much ghosted me twelve years back, but now that I was the chief… aw hell. You know how those awkward quid pro quo sexual harassment lawsuits get started. Usually, it’s because somebody forgets when a good time to keep his mouth shut is.
My mouth was open. It was time to say something safe, pointless, but not too stupid.
“Does my coat look, I don’t know, more blue to you?”
“Well, I shouldn’t be surprised if it does,” said Lovejoy. “Textiles tend to get a little time-bleached by all the midichronians constantly in flux here at CTCA HQ.”
“‘Midichronians?!’” I scoffed. “Did you actually just use the word ‘midichronians’?”
“Well, yes,” she said. “You know, the microscopic particles of chronotic radiation that accumulate in highly active space-time points and, often, in the clothing of frequent time travelers.”
“You just made that up,” I said.
“How would you know?” said Lovejoy. “You never read the reports.”
“Okay,” I said, “I don’t care how compelling your unitard is, this meeting’s done. Get out out of here and take Hastings with you. Bust some perp or something.”
* * *
My coat was looking more blue lately. It was supposed to be black. It used to be black. My life used to make sense.
* * *
A blue lizard crawled across my desk. An electric blue lizard.
I hate my desk.
* * *
It’s amazing how slowly time can pass when you’re staring at a blue lizard that’s doing nothing but staring back at you.
* * *
How the hell did a blue lizard get on my desk?
* * *
Thunder rumbled in the distance. My mind couldn’t help but wander. The stupid office was killing me. I had to get out.
I jumped out from my desk and ran right for the automatic door that shushed open in front of me. The receptionist (why the hell did I need a receptionist?) made an alarmed and confused sound as I whizzed by her desk. Perhaps she was trying to ask if I wanted her to reschedule my afternoon meetings. But why would she do that? I never had any meetings scheduled. It was one my conditions upon taking the job. Of course, it never stopped Lovejoy from barging in every morning.
Speaking of Lovejoy, there she was again, right outside the executive foyer, on the gallery walkway.
Dammit, it was distracting to see her. When I was a younger, more naive man, she was one hell of a distraction. And now that we’d both had a few more years of experience and seasoning, she still distracted me like I was a younger, more naive man. I couldn’t risk getting caught up in that again.
I ran past her and darted down a side corridor that followed the inner curve of the CTCAHQ’s eyeball-shaped building.
Lovejoy called after me, but I couldn’t bother to listen. I had to take a shot at getting out.
There were a surprising number of blue jumpsuited ninnies, er, agents in the corridor. I had to weave my way through them without making any sort of eye contact. Any one of them might try to stop me to sign off on some project or address some committee. I had to keep moving.
I had been in much more life-threatening situations, and always managed to keep my cool. But this slalom race through the back hallways of a dreaded bureaucratic entity I no longer had the luxury of avoiding was terrifying. We’re talking angst of existential proportions. As a reward for my role in saving all of humanity, I had been granted my own, personal, living hell. A stupid office in a stupid building so far from the stupid exit I could never get there before getting bogged down in some administrative procedural nightmare.
Don’t make eye contact. Don’t look available. Keep moving. Eyes on the prize.
This time I’d get there. I could feel it.
I pushed through a door marked mezzanine. And there I was, just a quick jog down the catwalk to the Jump Zone and, boom, I’d click my watch and be gone.
If only life could be so simple.
I was just meters away Jump Zone, the architecturally biased focal point of this whole nauseating building and the only place in the whole epoch where you can actually get your time travel method to work. I was beyond feeling it. Now, that it was so close, I could taste it. It tasted lovely, even grander than freedom. It tasted exactly like the beer I would grab in the very first pub I could get myself into.
And then I was knocked on my ass.
All I could see was the blue fabric of whomever’s leotard it was that brought me down. I already had a solid hunch, though.
“Begging your pardon, Chief,” it pained him to say it as much as it pained me to hear it.
“Please, Hastings” I said, “call me Ishmael.”
Agent Hastings, the most annoying, punctilious, pain in the ass Time Agent I’d ever seen die at the hands of a megalomaniacal dinosaur bent on preventing an asteroid from destroying the world. (It’s a long story. The short version is, Hastings, at the moment of impending death in the line of duty, switched spots in his own timeline with the aged, decrepit version of himself that he is destined to become only to know for the rest of his life that he will definitely be killed by a dinosaur, and dreading that moment when, on his deathbed, he’s sucked back in time to a crappy warehouse parking lot in 1993.) The important thing is that I had always thought of Hastings as a prick, but at least he was a consistent prick. There were no mixed messages coming from him. Also, the unitard looked ridiculous on him, as it should.
“Of course, Ishmael it is,” he said. “Why would I want to address you with a title of respect?”
I ignored his rhetorical question. Our bodies still tangled where we had hit the floor, and I was trying, with as much grace and composure I could muster, to shove Hastings off of me.
Hastings seemed oblivious to my efforts and went on talking.
“I hate to interrupt your, er, jog, but we have a serious security issue that needs to be attended.”
“Dammit, Hastings, can’t you attend to it yourself? I’m on my way out for a drink.”
“At this hour?” said Hastings.
“Why not?” I said. “I’m a time traveler, aren’t I? Can’t be too hard to find a happy hour. Now, can you get off me?”
“My apologies, Chief, er, Ishmael,” he said, rising to his feet.
He extended a hand to help me up. I, being a fool, took it. His grip was iron.
“Aw, for eff’s sake, can you let go?”
“I’m afraid I can’t. The situation has grown quite serious. A suspect has been identified and brought to your office for questioning and arraignment pending a full tribunal.”
“What the hell are you talking about?”
“Really? You don’t know? I submitted an extensive report just this morning. Didn’t Lovejoy brief you on it?”
“I’m sure she tried to,” I said. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but I’m not real big on listening.”
“Be that as it may, we need to get back to your office and take care of this.”
“But,” I protested. “Beer.”
“Beer can wait,” said Hastings as he dragged me back up the main corridor.
Like I said. I had saved the world only to now find myself trapped in my own personal hell, a job in upper management. It made my period of indentured mentorship to Larry, the dumbest, most incompetent, and all around horrible time traveler I’d ever met, seem like a good time.
I wondered how Larry was doing lately. I also wondered if maybe he might stop by CTCAHQ sometime with a six-pack. It didn’t even have to be good beer. Hell, I’d settle for wine coolers. But he’d probably at least bring Schlitz. It was cheap and fun to say. That was Larry’s style.
It was also Larry’s style to hold a grudge against authority figures. Especially authority figures who tell him he has to go to school.
I wondered if he’d ever decide to talk to me again.
The Classical Greek Butthurt Fury of Achilles.
“The fury of Achilles! It was some fury, all right. And let me tell you, that’s not just a metaphor for tendonitis.”
That’s how Prof. Poindexter started off. I don’t have to tell you that the joke didn’t land. The class responded with a long, slow rolling quiet. It was an 8 am class. We weren’t going to laugh. I mean, local time irrespective, I wasn’t going to laugh anyway, because I’m just bitter these days. The rest of the class was with me, though. It was awkward.
Poindexter twitched his bowtie and tried to move on, but you could tell that he was kind of dying inside because none of us really gave a crap about how clever he thought he was. So he kind of spiraled. He just wouldn’t shut up about how mad Achilles was, how mad that would be in modern day anger, accounting for inflation, and how you truly needed a classical Greek frame of reference to understand exactly what he was mad about. The fury of Achilles. The classical Greek butthurt fury of Achilles.
Today my stupid community college class was Intro to Classics. When I saw it on the white board as I came out of that fuzzy blue time travel fog, I thought, cool, classics like Led Zeppelin and stuff. But there wasn’t a Robert Plant reference in sight.
Instead, we were listening to some Poindexter named Poindexter read from some fat book about how Achilles is pissed off that the king took his girl. Which really resonated with how I was kind of pissed off, too, because I haven’t even really talked to Liz since that big fight. You know, the one with the robots and the dinosaurs.
And, in the middle of all that going down, we kissed, right? Like the whole world was blowing up and dinosaurs and robots are trying to wipe each other out and the hell with any human epochs that might exist entirely between their two giant chunks of time on earth. In the middle of all of that ridonkulousness, I kissed her hard and she kissed me back.
That happened, right? It’s in my journals. I could go back to the books and double check, but I know it happened.
Also, I can’t find where I put some of my journals. I set them down somewhere. I can’t remember where right now. But I will. I will remember, and I’ll find that page where Liz and I kiss. It’s in there. And it’s a good page. It’s a page so good that someone would read it at a wedding reception as an example of the true an earnest passion that can exist between two people who are still just getting to know each other…
It’s a good page.
So, back to what was happening in class. Butthurt Prof. Poindexter was saying that Achilles isn’t so upset about losing the girl, per se, as he is about the fact that king what’s-his-name took her from him, because, non-Platonically speaking, he’s more into hanging out with Petrocles.
So many college teachers want to send home this point that all the great heroes were actually gay. And maybe they are. Like, what’s up with Batman and all the outfits?
But that’s not the point. Achilles was mad because the king dicked around with him. And I was mad because Ishmael was dicking around with me. I mean, things were starting to happen with me and Liz and before we had a chance to figure any of that out, he had us doing mandatory homework a hundred thousand years away from each other. It was bullcrap.
I did my job. I drove the giant robot. I dropped the Time Bomb. I saved humanity. And my reward is I get first hand experience the biggest cockblock in human history.
Meanwhile, Poindexter keeps harping on about Achilles refusing to leave the tent where he’s hooking up with Patrocles.
I don’t know. Maybe Ishmael’s gay. Is that why he’s keeping me sidelined?
Naw… I’ve seen the way he looks at Agent Lovejoy. He’s not admiring her fashion sense, that’s for sure.
So, I’m not really doing all that great at following the lecture, what with it being weird, everyone else being half-asleep, and me having all this relationship confusion on my mind that it sort of skips my notice exactly when the little blue lizard appeared on the podium.
But there it was. Uninvited, but looking pretty harmless, chilling on the lectern (that’s another word for podium. I just looked it up, because I didn’t want to repeat myself by saying podium again, because, while it’s a very precise word, podium is kind of weird. And if I said it too many times people would maybe get paranoid, or something and we’d be all, what’s up with this ‘podium’ stuff? Why can’t he stop saying ‘podium?’ It would be weird. So I switch it up and sometimes call it a lectern.)
So, it was pretty clear that Poindexter didn’t clock the lizard’s arrival, either. He was still talking about some kind of Ancient Greek thing when all of the sudden he stopped talking mid-word and let out a little sound like, “eep.”
Then he did it again. Louder.
Then Poindexter started officially losing his shit, eeping and babbling and bobbing his bowtie as the lizard started doing little lizard push-ups on the podium– I mean lectern.
It was just a stupid little blue lizard. What was Poindexter worried about. Maybe it was a gay lizard? But shouldn’t he be happy, then? He keeps talking about how the ancient Greeks weren’t afraid of gayness.
Which is cool.
I mean, look at Freddy Mercury, right? It was Classics class, and if we want to talk classics, Queen’s whole catalogue. Classic.
So, I guess, by extention, it’s obviously cool if Achilles is gay. Or bi. I mean, it’s the 90s, right? Or, at least, it felt like the 90s, and someone was wearing a Pearl Jam t-shirt, so it has to be the 90s, because who’s going to give a crap about Pearl Jam in any decade that’s not the 90s? And, at least as far as I knew, at least compared to the 80s, it was way more okay to be gay in the 90s. Or lesbian.
As a chronological citizen of the 1990s, I would think about this a fair bit. I mean, high school was full of assholes accusing everyone of being gay. But then some of the people that weren’t assholes, like the drama club kids who listened to college rock, would come out of the closet. And it would be like, whatever, turns out I liked hanging out with the gay kids more than the assholes, anyway.
Sometimes I would even wonder if I was gay, but then I’d look in the mirror and realize, no, not really. And then I’d wonder what it would be like to be a lesbian. I mean, it sounds really interesting. Like, why not? I mean, I still look in the mirror every now and then, and, honestly, guys are a mess. From a purely practical standpoint, lesbianism is pretty compelling. And lesbians are pretty tough. I gotta respect that.
Liz is pretty tough. Is she lesbian? Is that what’s going on? Is it okay to still be in love with her if she is? Not that we’re at a calling it “love” stage in our relationship. But it’s definitely respect with a hard ‘R.’
Oh, geez, snapping out of it, the lizard thing was still going on. Poindexter had moved from eeping to more overall freaking out, yelling and jumping around like Pee-Wee Herman.
He grabbed the handset from the wall-mounted classroom phone and mashed the buttons of the keypad with his panicked hands. He didn’t manage to successfully dial anything. That was clear as the recorded voice came on.”
“If you would like to make a call, please hang up and dial again…”
Poindexter didn’t register that there was no one on the other end of the line.
He began shouting into the phone, “Security! Security!”
By this time, the rest of the class was fully awake. The professor was finally getting some of the laughs he had desperately fished for with his opening joke. But this was not the way he wanted to get them. They were nervous laughs of confused, ordinary folks caught witnessing the unfolding of a highly weird situation with no idea how to be helpful. The professor was turning new shades so red. I had to put him out of his misery.
“I got this,” I said from my jankie desk at the back of the lecture hall.
I happened to be wearing a beanie. They’re good for sometimes when you gotta pick up something you don’t want to touch. Or if you need a small net to catch a lizard. I put the beanie on my hand sock puppet style and started toward the podium.
It took a little while to get to the front, because this was the kind of lecture hall where the desks were bolted to the floor. It took some squeezing and careful foot placement to work my way up.
“Sorry for stepping on that shit you left clogging the aisle.”
Poindexter was practically hyperventilating when I finally got up there.
The lizard? Just chilling.
I picked up the little guy with my hat. Still chill. For kicks, I put the beanie on my head, with the lizard riding on top like I was some kind of weird herpetologist pirate. It got some laughs, healthier laughs of relief from students who saw that there might soon be an end to the theater of embarrassment playing out before them. I just hoped the lizard wasn’t allergic to wool.
Poindexter lost all the interesting new colors in his face as I smiled at him. He dropped the phone and passed out. Actually, I think swoon is the better word. Poindexter swooned, gracefully back into a conveniently placed chair.
Now, I busted out laughing. I couldn’t help it. Overall, it had been the most enjoyable community college lecture that I’d ever been forced to sit in on. Did I mention that this was part of some medieval mandatory homework scheme Citycock had dumped on me? All complain about it later, because here’s where the lizard flipped the script on me.
Suddenly the lizard wasn’t chill any more. He was scratching through the beanie, picking at my scalp. It felt like he was going for blood. He kept digging his claws through the knit of my hat, ripping at my hair. I tried to grab him, but I just couldn’t grasp the slippery little guy.
He kept digging until I felt the cold flesh of the pad of his foot touch the bare patch of skin he’d cleared. The connection was electric.
And, then came the flash. That bright blue flash that could only mean one thing.
Another unscheduled time travel event. At least I know what they are now. At least I know I’m not just tripping on something J-Dog invited me to sample in the walk-in.
If only I knew when the hell I was going to end up?