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. After they’ve aged a couple weeks, I put them here. I also like fan art. Enjoy.
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.