R E P L A Y E R S

CHAPTER ONE
THE SURPRISE

I was rather surprised to discover that the historical time-stream was being altered by somebody else. That's the sort of thing it's impossible to be aware of unless you can do it yourself, and as far as I knew, I was the only one who could.

I was home alone in my Los Angeles penthouse apartment, stripping to take a shower, when I noticed an article in the LA Times under headline "Senator Alden Manors wins Boston Primaries!"

I focused on it because I'd been interested in his political career ever since I'd heard young Alden Manors speak at a political protest years ago-- terrific speaker --and I was inspired by what he wanted to do about "The Land of the Fee and the Home of the Slave". The young rebel became a professional Democrat, and I followed his political career over the last 26 years of "real history". I found myself believing that Alden Manors could be the best president in many years, for America and the probably rest of the world too. I've even been on nodding acquaintance with the man, from working on a special mission for the Secret Service a few years back. For someone like me, whose own personal values are all but defunct, being able to believe in someone is very important.

And now he was on the campaign trail, competing in the Presidential primaries. According to the article, the Senator's entourage had arrived at the Democratic Convention Center in Boston as conquering heroes. I skimmed over the text once, put it on the desk to read after my shower.

But I stubbed my toe on the way to the bathroom.

I'm kind of funny about pain: I'll accept terrible wounds in the course of a mission, get shot, be tortured, knowing I can soon undo the damage, but I refuse to tolerate any unnecessary pain at all: so I rewound time back 3 seconds, then replayed the toe-stubbing as a non-event, and was about to continue to the shower with all toes happy when my eye fell on the newspaper again.

The headline had changed. Now it read "Alden Manors Assassinated in Boston!"

There was a moment of confusion; I had never experienced an unexpected change in the past before. I rewound again, 10 seconds back, to see if the headline changed again, but now it was consistent: the assassination had happened in the "real" time-stream.

The confusion passed, I understood. The past doesn't change by itself, somebody has to physically do it, which I hadn't, so someone else had. Someone else who could also manipulate time.

I also understood that my next job would be to rescue Alden Manors and keep him alive so that he could become President of the USA.


Here's how it works: I have the ability to reverse my own time flow, and then change the replay. I can thus rewind from a moment that has just happened -- say a traffic accident. My perspective is that everything moves backwards, rather like a video cassette in reverse, only in real life. That sounds like fun, actually it's pretty boring. But then I get to replay, resuming the normal forward flow of time, and since I now know what's about to happen, make the right moves to avoid ever getting into the accident at all.

Now in "real" time --according to you and everyone else in the world --that accident NEVER DID happen. There was no event for bystanders to observe, the flow of time had been seamlessly manipulated, and continued on without missing a beat. If I was to tell you about it, you'd say that it was all in my head.

Which is true: the only perception of that non-event is my own. It could be my delusion, a fantasy, except for the fact that I have been successfully adjusting events and incidents in your world all along. If you're going to ask "Well then, why aren't you rich and famous?" I'd have to admit that I have more money than I can ever use from amazingly well-chosen stock market investments, lucky gambling returns, and that I've deliberately avoided being famous by being as discrete and anonymous as possible. I work with government agencies not for the money, but because it puts me in a position to secretly influence the world on a very significant scale. Or to help someone, just because I can.


I was involved in such an assignment at the time, one of the "private detective" jobs I take on now and then, finding a 6 year-old girl who'd been missing overnight. The only lead being that a man described as a "hobo" had been seen leading her by the hand alongside the railroad tracks. I could have just dropped that job and rewound back to save Senator Manors, because anything I did now would be undone when I rewound anyway. The family I was working for would never even know they had hired me in another time-line. But since time is like a videotape I can rewind whenever I want, I hardly needed to hurry about it. Senator Manors was already dead, he'd keep. First I wanted to find the little girl, for future reference.

I found her that evening, sitting by a campfire the man had made. She was fine; they'd had a nice day together. The man was homeless, but decent enough, hardy the pervert her parents had feared. The little girl had simply pretended that she was homeless too, so he was trying to take care of her. I got the feeling that her own parents were the real problem.

I could have dropped that job at this point, since it would be of no avail to finish it now that I was going to be undoing this day, but I followed through, got the little girl home, talked to the parents, still gathering information. Having the data I needed, I would get back to this situation on my way through the next replay of this time-frame, resolving everything with a phone call. They wouldn't even need to know that they had once hired me in an alternate future.

Now I was free to investigate Senator Manors' murder. I took my time, having learned not to hurry back to save murder victims without the advantage of information from post mortem investigations, sometimes first available days after the event. I started with my contacts in the FBI and Secret Service, then went on the Internet and read everything I could find-- and there was a lot --mostly conjecture as to Who had done it and Why. Conspiracy theories abounded: fundamentalist terrorists, links with the Mob and Cuba, government cover-up. For once, I doubted the last.

On September 11th 2008, at 15:17 hours Senator Alden Manors had been shot and immediately killed with an extremely high-powered sniper rifle while ascending the steps to the Democratic Convention Center in Boston. The aim had been perfect, one shot to the head from an apartment building half a mile away. That was not casual shooting, it was assumed to be high-tech and well-funded. The shooter's location was never determined from among the thousands of windows under suspicion, and therefore no clues were found.

Once I had gleaned all the future-information I could get, I rewound back to four days before the assassination. I'd wanted to go back a week, but became impatient-- there's no short cut; a week of living backwards just feels so LONG!

But four days was a good start, I found out where Senator Manors, now still alive, was at that moment. On the campaign trail, today Cincinnati, Ohio, speaking at a Democratic rally in the center of town. I forced myself to rewind back one more day, drove to the LA Airport and flew to Cincinnati on the first available jet plane.

It was easy to get in touch with the senator, even though he was a candidate competing for the Democratic presidential nomination, surrounded by security guards, police, campaign staff, journalists, and thronging masses of enthusiastic supporters. I made a phone call to a Secret Service guy I knew and told him I was in town to arrange a meeting with Senator Manors. Twenty minutes later Alden Manors called me personally.

"Hello, I've been informed that The Mysterious Magician is looking for me?"

"Yes Senator, we met at the Pentagon ten years ago, if you remember..."

"How could I forget it? You were a one-man show saving Washington DC from that atom bomb, impressive stuff. I certainly hope your message for me is not that dramatic."

"Everything's relative, Senator, it's dramatic enough for you: there's going to be an attempt on your life in 4 days: September 11, high-tech sniper. I want you to let me join your security team."

"Oh my... and you're the guy who's never wrong. I suppose your sources are good?"

"Good as last time," I assured him, "there's no doubt."

"As I recall, you were always able to pinpoint things before they happened. Anyway I'm flattered that a man of your talent would volunteer to protect me, since you must have a hundred other assignments to choose from?"

"I do independent contracting, work where I want, and I want to do this because I believe you'll be a good president-- if you can just live long enough to get elected."

So I got the job.


CHAPTER TWO
HERO'S ORIGEN

I was 15 years old when I discovered that I could replay time, during a crisis situation involving my best friend Larry and his father's pistol. We were alone at Larry's house down in the rec room, and being boys, were screwing around with the safely unloaded 9 mm German Luger. I almost don't need to tell you what happened; it's the old classic cliché. But with a twist.

Yes, we'd made sure the pistol was unloaded; Larry had taken the clip out and emptied the chamber. There were no bullets in it. Then he'd pointed it at me and clicked off an imaginary shot, which was scary anyway, even if it was unloaded. We passed it back and forth, making cool poses, blowing away imaginary Nazis with their own weapon. Then we were putting it away, Larry passed it to me while he opened the safety cabinet-- forgetting to mention that he'd put the clip back into the pistol. Of course I clicked off an imaginary shot his way, to get back at him...

The bullet caught him square in the chest, I saw it hit, even though the blast and the recoil surprised me so much that the pistol jumped out of my hand. As Larry toppled backwards in slo-mo I noticed blood spraying out his nose, his eyes rolling up, then all I could see was white smoke, all I could hear was the ringing in my ears, all I could do was stand frozen.

I realized that I'd just shot my best friend, but couldn't accept the reality of that, it was too stupid, too awful. I couldn't bring myself to look down to see if he was dead, because I was still in denial. I wanted to turn back time, just for a few seconds.

So I did. It felt like an electrical circuit cutting in: colors did a blue shift, and my life started running backwards, exactly like a video tape rewinding.

The smoke started gathering, Larry came toppling back upright, blood streaming back into his nose, his eyes rolling back to life as the pistol flew back into my hand and the bullet was plucked from his chest as a thundering suck-sound announced a spark of fire. Then Larry was saying something backwards while unhanding me the pistol...

Everything was all right again, so I wanted the rewind to stop, But didn't know how. I wanted to panic, but couldn't do anything I hadn't done in the original time stream, every movement was locked in. This was all happening at normal speed, backwards but not fast rewind, so I had time to study every detail. Larry and I put the pistol away, left the house and bicycled backwards to school, where I un-went to classes, un-ate my lunch, and so on.

It finally ended earlier that day, to my great relief, when I sat on a toilet to un-shit. That was disgusting enough to force me to get time turned around again, and re-shit. As I said, to my great relief.

Of course, afterwards I thought that this had all been an extremely vivid hallucination. Kind of scary, but I was so glad not to have shot and killed my friend that I didn't complain. I certainly wasn't about to tell anyone how crazy I was until I understood what had happened to me.

As the day progressed, I noticed all the déjà-vu experiences, things happening over again, words repeated exactly, and realized that I knew the future of this day.
Remembering what was going to happen at Larry's, I began to change things I had done the first time around, and found that it was easy. When Larry invited me over to his house after school to see his father's pistol, I invited him to the local hangout across from the school instead, and told him what had happened. He asked what I'd been smoking, and that was that.

I assumed the incident had been a one-time-thing only, a miracle, but found myself trying to rewind again, without result for most of a year, so finally gave up.

Somehow it just happened again, without a crisis to set it off: I was watching the original "King Kong" movie on TV at midnight even though I had to be at school early next morning. After I saw it I'd regretted not having gone to bed, I was so tired. Then I simply found myself rewinding back to 11:00 o'clock, watching the movie run backwards, then went to bed without seeing TV. In other words, I remembered seeing a movie-- twice-- without having spent any time watching it at all. After that rewinding became easier to do, until it was an effortless reflex.

I learned that although I couldn't physically take anything back, I could remember everything I'd experienced. So I could learn things (literally forwards and backwards), I could practice techniques, and I could accurately predict the immediate future. Mostly I used this power to have fun, make fast and easy money, and get girls. I was young, selfish, and had no ambitions to save the world.


I was 17 when all that changed: terrorism arrived to the USA. Disneyland was captured by a suicide squad of 50 guerrillas of the Prophet's Jihad, armed with machine guns and napalm. They gathered 1600 visitors, half of them children, and burned them all to death in one great ghastly bonfire. If you're wondering why you've never heard of that, it's because I undid it from happening. No one remembers it but me.

It was big news in that time-stream, I watched it happening on live TV, helicopter camera close-ups of atrocities, people burning, being slaughtered by gunfire, terrorists committing murder and suicide, it was shocking. And, for me, galvanizing-- I knew what I had to do. I was living in LA and this was happening right next door in Anaheim, I had the power to rewind and replay: of course I got involved, how could I not?

I'm not going to bother telling you the details of what went down or who did what, it's an event that never happened now anyway. But it was there I learned how to do the things I still do today, it was my own personal training camp. It must have taken me WEEKS of my own replay time to totally erase that event, because I made so many mistakes, bad starts, ineffective solutions.
For example, I learned right away that I couldn't just rewind to the day before the attack and warn the authorities, since nobody was believing a 17 year old kid from the future. And although I had no intention of putting my dear sweet self in physical danger, I soon found myself sucked right into the middle of Disneyland under siege, which is how I learned that I couldn't take on 50 fanatics alone, even with my special trick.

Still, I couldn't give up either--although actually, I did give up a few times, for a little while and then had to go back to it --redoing that day over and over and over. After a while I understood just how brutal these men were and decided to respond in kind, only to do it first.

The world knows nothing of any terrorist attack that day, only of a tragic bus accident early in the morning. An entire group of 50 Arabic tourists was killed when their bus exploded and burned on the outskirts of Anaheim, seemingly while on their way to visit Disneyland. The police ascertained that a lone someone had ambushed the bus with a flame thrower as it drove past, but never found the perpetrator.

I learned one more thing that day: that this was my calling, undoing catastrophes. It was by far the most exciting thing I had ever experienced, a living breathing video game, an action-thriller. And best of all, after killing and having been killed innumerable times, I won the game and walked away without a scratch.

Later on I learned that heroics were usually not the best way to deal with those situations, and that immediately rushing off to save people was counterproductive. Infinite patience worked a lot better: a lot of useful information about a terror attack usually shows up a few days afterwards, once experts have had time to research who what where when why and how, and details are presented in the news media. Then I can rewind to a point well before the event, knowing who to deal with and what to do, and prevent the whole mess from ever getting started.

But such patience is not easy to come by, it's hard to keep such a cool head when people are suffering right now, even though I know I'll be fixing it in a while. And the longer I wait for information, the farther back I have to rewind: a week of living backwards is beyond the limit of what I can stand without going crazy, I have to take it in segments. Short spans of seconds are easy, a week is grueling, months... well, I've never done a month-long Rewind.

Another form of heroics I learned to drop was the "only ONE MAN can save the day" amateurism. I had the power, but I needed to work with law enforcement and anti-terrorist organizations. They had access to classified information that never made it to the news media, and they had the professional manpower it took to deal with international crime and terrorism.

So while studying Political Science at university I joined ROTC and the National Guard, and managed to participate in several anti-terrorist strike situations without actually ever officially serving in the military. I found some men I could work with and convinced them that they needed me. Eventually I had a reputation with a select society of agents who believed the predictions I came up with, and they started calling me "The Magician".


CHAPTER THREE
LOOKING FOR TROUBLE

There was extensive security protecting the Democrat Primaries, and Senator Manor had his own security crew of four men, and now me. I didn't demand star status, but my "Magician" reputation preceded me and I was given a lot of respect. I'd worked with one of them before and he'd told the others some stories, so it was easy for me to operate without restrictions.

I'm considered one of the top operatives by several US intelligence agencies, for what that's worth. Although if you ask any of them about me you'll come up against the walls of "Classified Information" and "Top Secret". And even if you should penetrate to the special archives, the only name you'll find is "The Magician".

Of course, none of them have any idea of what the REAL top secret is-- they've only classified me that way because I've been so successful at outmaneuvering terrorists and spies and criminals, always a step ahead of the enemy's activities, that it seems like magic. They're aware that I have some special ability, but simply can't guess what it is. Most think I might be psychic, but I'm not. There's another theory that I'm just plain lucky, blessed by the gods-- and well, I am, but not the way they imagine. No one's ever guessed that I manipulate time.

And why wouldn't those intelligence agencies be impressed with my success record? --it's perfect! But they don't know how many times I've been FAILING a mission, but rewound, reworked things for the better, adjusted small details, second by second, eventually winning the battle. I've been shot many times while on dangerous missions, even mortally wounded, but all they ever see is me successfully dodging bullets. No one seems to have a chance against me in hand-to-hand combat, but that's only because no one ever sees the punches I do take-- and if an opponent is far too superior to me (like a ninja I went up against once), I simply rewind back far enough to completely avoid him, to the day before if necessary, so that we never meet. Therefore I never lose, nor fail, nor say stupid things, nor get caught farting in public.

So when I told them I had a tip about "a potential assassination attempt", they accepted it as Gospel. But I didn't tell them where or when because I didn't want them getting in my way at the critical moment. I wanted them as backup, if I needed it.

The presidential candidate tour was still rolling on: Pittsburgh, Cleveland, heading for Boston. I went ahead alone, the day before the assassination was due, to stand on the spot where the Senator would die, unless I changed his future. From the steps of the Convention Center I could see hundreds of windows facing me, knowing that the one killing shot would come from there, but not knowing which one.

I walked around that part of town, but got no clues. I hadn't expected any; I just wanted to know the lay of the land. It was high-rise buildings, on the edge of the rough part of town, where the poor lived. But I didn't think those people would want Manor dead, he'd be their kind of president.

The next day the Democrats arrived to Boston for their convention, I checked in with Senator Manor's security crew, letting them carry out their routines around the senator-- I didn't want him bumped off by some other madman while I was out to catch my own assassin. I had a talk with Alden Manors, who was getting nervous about what I'd told him, and reassured him that I'd take care of him.


As the clock neared 15:00 I was nowhere near the steps or the Senator, but was facing the buildings. Waiting to see where the shot would come from. It was the only way. At 15:17 the shot rang out. I didn't see where it came from, but I could hear the shouting at the Convention Center: Alden Manor had been shot. I winced, didn't like doing it this way, then rewound 30 seconds back in time.

Replay. Shot fired at 15:17--there! I saw the flash of the rifle from a window 7 flights up in a newer apartment building. I noted the location in the building and rewound two hours back.

I went to the building; there was no security guard, only a door buzzer system. I tried a few buttons until someone let me enter without asking who I was, so it was easy enough for an assassin to get in. I took the elevator to the 7th floor, went to the door of the room where I'd ascertained that the shot would come from, and knocked on the door.

There was no answer. I took my sawed off shotgun out from my coat and blew the lock apart, kicking the door in simultaneously, rolling into the room ready to shoot anything that moved. Nothing moved, I was alone.

It was a spartan apartment, more like a cheap hotel room: bed, still made, table, chair, no books, no newspapers, it didn't seem lived in. It resembled a hit man's perch. I was sure this was the place. I could hear people shouting, responding to the blast of the shotgun in their building, although no one was daring to do anything about it yet.

I rewound one minute back, to 13:49, putting me still outside the door just before I'd blown it apart, only this time I picked the lock instead and let myself in without making a mess and lots of noise. Much more discreet, no sign of entry. I found a comfortable chair and waited, checking my watch.


CHAPTER FOUR
TECHNIQUES

Since I often ended up in extreme situations I've developed a specialized fighting technique over the years, but my original motivation was high school baseball. Using my rapid-fire replay trick I easily become a star player, seeming to hit nothing but home runs. I did that for a while: it was fun to be the school hero and I was offered several sports scholarships. But I always knew that it wasn't sportsmanship at all, that I was cheating, so eventually I stopped competing, let the scholarships go to someone who deserved them-- or needed them, since I was already making money on short term investments. But I kept working on the replay technique, got very good at it.

By the first time I got in an actual fist fight at 15-- with Larry, by the way-- I found myself automatically replaying blows to avoid being hit, pushing when I knew he'd be off balance, and I'd win the fight without even hurting my opponent. Later, when I had to engage in hand-to-hand combat of a more serious nature, against much more brutal opponents, I needed some real skills just to survive, so I studied martial arts.

I took a month's vacation to China. I had found a kung-fu monastery on Internet, the Shaolin Temple Wushu Institute at Tagou, which had become a commercial school. They offered room and board and classical kung-fu training. Many foreign students were taking courses there, so I signed up for a month. A month of historical time that is, but I must have compressed that to a year of my own private replay time.

I arrived a novice, started learning the rudiments of kung-fu. Then I replayed everything they were teaching me, again and again. The first time around my instructor was unimpressed with my skill at martial arts, but after I'd been through it hundreds of times-- and him only aware of the latest replay --he admitted that I wasn't so bad. I had to start the month over several times, changing my story so that I'd arrive at the temple as a new student who was perfecting his techniques, each time at a higher level, so the instructors wouldn't wonder how I got so good in one month.

I became quite proficient, even without replaying the moves. But of course, the style I ended up developing was unbeatable. One advantage about rewinding is that you always have the same energy you had at the starting point, no matter how many times you replay it. When I left the temple no one could win a match against me, not even the instructors.

All that training and discipline was grueling, so I had to take some breaks and travel around Asia while I was over there. I explored cities and temples, flirted with girls, had some much-needed fun, but was slightly obsessed with perfecting my skills, and dutifully returned to the temple. I had to compress my historical time in China to the one actual month I was on vacation, so most of those trips were undone by replaying temple time, and never officially happened. But of course, I remember them anyway.


When I started undoing time I sought out all the science fiction I could find pertaining to Time Travel: books by H.G. Welles, Robert Silverberg, movies like "Back to the Future", "Time Cop", popular TV shows like "Seven Days", "Tru Calling". Mostly they were simply entertaining fantasies which had no relevance to time travel as I do it, but I became familiar with the concepts of paradox and multiple time lines.

As far as I could tell, there's no way I could cause the classic time paradox, because my replays were contained to my own life span: such paradox being about the man who travels to the past, kills his grandfather before his own father is conceived, therefore will never be born himself, so how could he come and kill his grandfather?

For me the rules were simple: I could rewind time, and resume normal flow again, having some knowledge of the immediate future, that's it. No fast rewind, backwards took just as long as forwards. Pretty tedious sometimes. None of the science fiction classics: no jumping directly back into the far past, nor to the future, no materializing thousands of miles away, no trips to anywhere I had not been before. When I went back a day I ended up exactly where I had been yesterday, no variations, no surprises. Until recently.

Theoretically, I could live forever, as long as I hover within the historical life-span I had access to. But there are psychological limits--it's frustrating to do the same days over and over again. Another emotional snag is that nothing really matters when no action or decision has any inescapable consequences-- anything I do can be undone, bad or good. Having hurt someone, having saved someone, nothing is permanent history, it can all be erased, or simply too much trouble to do over and over again.

I've worked with the police a lot, such as helping out with murder cases, but it usually ended up that they didn't even know who I was. Because I didn't "solve" murders, I simply edited them out of history so that they never happened, by taking the murderer out of circulation. Thus was there no murder case to help the police with, so we never discussed it. Not even the victims were aware that they had been murdered in another time frame, so they're hardly grateful for any favor I've done them. But I didn't care, I knew.


CHAPTER FIVE
THE ASSASSIN

At exactly 15:00 someone came and opened the door. I was behind it, shotgun ready. He came in, a dark young man carrying a long carrying case. The kind of case that holds a breakdown sniping rifle.

I kicked the door shut, aimed the shotgun at him, said, "Don't move, I'd rather not have to shoot you."

If he was surprised it didn't show. He casually ignored my order not to move, calmly and unhurriedly turned to face me anyway. He even smiled. "Well well, The Magician himself," he said with a polite nod, "we meet again."

I studied his face but didn't know him. He was a handsome young man of Asian Caucasian mix, probably still in his twenties, trim and muscular. His black hair was clipped short and he wore a satanic goatee. He looked intelligent, arrogant, dangerous. And scary. I'll admit it: I don't need to fear anyone, but this young man gave me a nervous tingle.

I recognized that this guy was a professional killer, very capable, very tricky. I turned my attention to his hands for any sudden movements, nudged my shotgun in his direction. "Put your gun case down, please, slowly while keeping both hands in plain sight, fingers spread wide."

"Sure, no problem, Jeffery old boy," he responded, seemingly unconcerned. He did as told without argument, although starting to go to one knee to set the case down, moving into a crouch.

I was surprised to hear him use my real name, but hardly confused enough to let him assume a fighting stance, "Don't kneel, legs straight, feet apart," pulled handcuffs from my pocket and slid them across the floor to his feet. "Now put those on."

I aimed directly at his chest, finger almost pressing the trigger. I knew that this was the moment he had to make a play or play along. But he cooperated fully, locked the cuffs around his wrists, showed them to me with mock satisfaction. Like a magician setting up for his next trick. He seemed amused, willing to please, but I knew better than to relax with him.

I further assumed he was loaded with hidden weapons, in his shoes, teeth, whatever. It would be too difficult to search him alone. My first priority was to let 15:17 pass without him assassinating Senator Manors, and it was now 15:04, so I had him sit on the soft bed and wait.

"Funny how I don't remember having ever met you," I finally said, making conversation.

"Well no, how could you? You haven't yet-- that happens four years in the future."

I admit I hadn't been expecting this particular conversation, although I was aware that someone had been tampering with historical time, it was a surprise that they also knew about me. Code name and real name, both of which were supposed to be classified information.

"All right, I'll bite: how would you know about the future?"

He smiled again--although not nicely, "Surely by now you've figured out that you're not the only one who can shuffle time?"

"And you're saying you can?"

He just shrugged, "Oh, I hardly ever talk about it really, just like yourself." He spoke English well, with an accent that could have been from anywhere.

Then he indicated his cuffed wrists, "You know, Jeffery, this is very silly, considering that we'll be great drinking buddies in the future."

"Really? So who are you?"

"My name is Darang."

"Well, Darang, guess I'll have to wait four years to know just what good buddies we're going to be, but right now we have a conflict of interests. Why are you out to kill Senator Manors?"

"That's the mission, just fulfilling it."

"Who are you working for?"

"So many questions! I could ask why you're trying to stop me?"

"Because I think Alden Manors will make a good president, so I want to let him try."

Darang nodded understandingly. "Of course, you'd think that. I recall that President Manors starts out good, but gets assassinated by the Latin American Mafia six months after being inaugurated. Only...then history changes: he gets un-killed. That's when I first discovered that someone else could shuffle time, just like me."

"You're saying I'll rescue Sen--President Manors in the future?"

"Would have done. The poor Senator is doomed to die today instead."

"He's not doomed if I keep him alive," I said.

He shrugged, "Well, not in the history I know."

"Right, four years in the future?"

"Oh, that was when you and I first met; I've actually come back from 9 years up. Might've got out just in time too, World War 3 was about to go absolutely thermonuclear..."

I decided he was lying, "How could you possibly rewind for 9 years without going mad?"

"Rewind? ...oh yes, now I remember, you can't quantum-hop back in time." He grinned, "Well, I can," actually it was a superior sneer, "it's the blink of an eye for me."

I was torn between believing what Darang was saying and dismissing it all as a creative smokescreen to get my mind off the moment. But I couldn't deny that he did seem to know about me and how I move through time...I checked my watch, 15:10...

He saw me check my watch, nodded, said, "Well, it's been nice, but I have a schedule to maintain, so I guess we'll both have to get back to work now..."


CHAPTER SIX
DRIVEN BACK

There was a blinding flash of blue light, an instant of intense pain in my face, and then the familiar blue tint coloring a sudden change of scene. It took a backwards second to realize that I was rewinding from some dramatic event, but from some other point in time. I registered a brief glimpse of a door before me closing (opening in reverse) on an image of a pistol aimed at me, Darang's face behind it. Then the door was un-open and I was un-picking the lock.

I finally recognized the moment: somehow I'd been instantly slammed back most of an hour, to when I'd entered the room, but without rewinding through everything in between, which had never once happened before.

Suddenly I understood: my life's time-frame had ended that hour before, so I could only rewind from that point. I'd been shot in the face-- that was the pain --and had automatically started rewinding before I was completely dead. But if this happened hour in the past, it meant... that...

...Darang had hopped half an hour back and had been waiting for me when I opened the door, then shot me in the face. Proof that he WAS a time traveler, after all.

I was supposed to die before I'd ever gotten the drop on him, which had now never happened. But instead of dying some kind of automatic survival ability had pulled me back to that moment.

I quickly resumed normal time, still working on the lock, but now with one hand as I took out my shotgun with the other. I knew exactly where Darang would be at this time and I aimed for behind the door. As it was just beginning to swing open, I fired, blowing a huge hole in the door.

I heard him cry out, rushed inside with another charge ready, only to see him falling backwards, his face and chest shredded Then I was standing on his pistol hand, but he was out of the battle, blind with blood, twisting in pain, gasping for air into his shredded lungs.

Looking down at the young man dying--another Larry déjá-vu--I felt no victory, just ached with regret that it had come to this. Maybe he was a bad guy, maybe not--there hadn't been time to find out--but this guy was like ME. I'd much rather have negotiated with him, come to some kind of agreement about our assignments. He tried to say something, but all that came out were bubbles of blood, one last spasm, and then he was dead.

It was 13:40; I'd saved Senator Manors early. Although, if that dead guy on the floor was really like me, he was rewinding back to an earlier time even now. He'd killed me, I'd killed him, we could both undo our own deaths. I'd have to wait until 15:17 to see if he showed up again...

Blue flash, I was rewinding from being shot in the lobby of the building, twenty minutes earlier. Darang was walking backwards around the stairwell. I replayed, my shotgun coming out again, but when I'd followed him there was only an open door to the street and no one in sight. I heard a motorcycle speeding away, he'd prepared an escape. Didn't matter: even if I'd shot him, that would only be valid in this particular time pocket, he was probably already rewinding to an earlier time to ambush me yet again.

This was exactly how I'd always operated against my opponents, adjusting reality as I went along. Suddenly it was me on the other end of that sort of trickery, I who had to go up against a phantom who could bend the rules of probability. Hey, no fair.

I should be used to the concept, but now I found myself getting lost in the logistics of not one, but two guys replaying time: whose history of events would be the "real" one? If I do an action that he un-does, can I re-un-do... shit! It was a new game for me. And what if there's not just the two of us, I wondered, but LOTS of people who could also meddle? What a mess history would become.

I went back to the apartment and waited, there was nothing else I could do.

At 15:14 it happened again--blinding blue flash, brief but intense pain, and I was rewinding. Standing on the steps looking toward the buildings at 13:20. I'd been shot with Darang's sniper rifle from the same apartment window I'd just been looking out of only seconds ago. I let myself rewind until I'd walked backwards from the steps and out of view from Darang's window.

The plan was to go back into real time when I was out of his sight, hoping he didn't know where I'd been earlier that day and then go to another part of town so that he wouldn't know where to look for me. I needed to think this out.

But I was still rewinding when I got the blue flash again, driving me another few minutes into the past, he was shooting me from some other direction now. The thing is, at any moment a bullet in the brain could effect an instantaneous kill that I wouldn't be able to rewind out of. I had to counterattack, and fast.

It's impossible to track someone while rewinding-- you can only be where you've already been you can only repeat your movements backwards, you can't even turn your head and look in another direction than you did before, until you resume forward flow. What you can do is go back far enough and try to guess where your subject will be when and try to spot him. I assumed that's what Darang was doing with me, so now I had to go farther back and guess where he guessed I would be.

...I managed to get behind him and shoot him down with my pistol.. blue flash: I was being strangled...he made the mistake of getting spotted back when I was driving my rental car from the airport, so I ran him over...blue flash..

We actually got into hand to hand combat at the Boston Logan Airport earlier that day, which was a study in futility for both of us, each attacking with great skill, but no blows getting through on either side: parry, parry, parry, every strike and counter strike edited out in replay.

"Maybe we should talk," I finally said.

He smiled, a real smile this time. "Hell, let's go get a drink."


CHAPTER SEVEN
DRINKING BUDDIES

We found a bar in the airport, a table in the back for some privacy. We both had one beer each. Neither one of us was planning to get drunk, even though that could be instantly un-done, because there would still exist that moment of opportunity for mistakes in real time. We sat over for one another, each considering our strategy.

"You're a hard man to kill," Darang said, "this is fun."

"You enjoy killing?" I asked, studying his eyes.

"Oh, not always, but then again, depends upon who I'm killing. Normally it's too easy to be any kind of thrill. At least you're a challenge."

"Yes, well so are you." We tipped our glasses to each other.

"So what are you, Darang?" I asked, "how is it that can you replay time?"

"I have no idea how I do it, you tell me."

"I've never known either," I admitted. "Do you know of others like us?"

He gave me a funny look and then said, "Shit, I hope not! You must know how much ONE of us fucks up history; just imagine a whole FAMILY of time-shufflers! Multiple time streams, paradoxes, what a mess!"

"At least I try to make a better history as I go," I insisted.

"Yeah, me too. Better for myself."

"By doing assassinations?"

He shrugged. "Why not? I'll bet you'd assassinate Hitler if you could," he challenged.

"Probably, but Alden Manors is hardly a Hitler. So are you doing it for money?"

He looked at me with mock respect, genuflected, "Oh Magician, you're so fucking perceptive! You're absolutely right; I'm just a greedy asshole. But it's not my fault, oh no: result of a deprived childhood, my mother being a whore, never knowing my bastard of a father, scars a lad for life, you know."

"You've got the power to fix almost anything," I reminded him.

He looked surprised that I'd be offering him advice, then laughed in ridicule, took a swig of beer and shook his head, "Are you going to start preaching to me? Look, you might think you're a nice guy... but I know you're not."

"Never claimed to be a nice guy."

"Maybe not," he shrugged again, "but then, who could be with the kind of power we have? It's just too fucking easy for us to misuse people, so we do. Hell, if we need information, we can just torture someone, and they'll never even know that we did it, or what they've told us. They'd still think we're nice guys!"

He looked at me slyly, "For example, I've figured out how you found my shooting site: you let poor Senator Manors get shot, again and again, right? Figured he'd never know anyway, assuming you could save him in the end, so what the hell, right?"

"Well yes, but I hardly enjoyed it."

As if waiting for that word, he seized upon it: "Enjoy? Ah yes, let's talk about what The Magician enjoys. How about women, getting any?"

It seemed an odd question for a time-shuffling assassin to be asking, as if he was a frustrated teen-ager eager to wallow in smut. But if Darang was warming to a dialogue, I wanted to find out all I could. "When I was younger, sure, not so much these days."

"Woah, are you really THAT old?"

"Only 44 years old historically, but I've got at least twice the memories from all my replays stacking up, maybe more. Why do you ask?"

"Basic strategy: know thy enemy. Besides, you might have had something interesting to say, juicy stories about erotic conquests."

"Sorry to disappoint."

"It's okay, I'm used to that. After a while it's hard to care--" then he sent me a wicked smile "--but I still do."

We drank our beers in silence for a while.

"It gets harder to become emotionally involved with anyone who can never follow along," I found myself explaining, "Or maybe I'm just still looking for the right woman."

"I fuck all the right women every day," he started bragging, "Women are so easy to access."

Darang was arrogant, and my enemy, but I heard myself trying to win him over with guy talk: "Well sure, guys like us can seduce them by replaying all the right things to say, avoiding blunders, promising them anything to sweep them off their feet for one night, then dump them without their even being aware that we'd ever had them. But I've gotten bored of zero commitment."

"Man, you're a fucking boy scout; I never bother with all that. When I want a girl I just rape her, then play the scene over again like a real gentleman, so she never knows. That's my idea of fun."

He was looking for disapproval in my face, and saw it. "What?" he said with a shrug, "you're not going to tell me you've never done that?"

"Okay, I won't tell you that." Even though I never had.

"Thought so," Darang said with a smug expression.

Not that I was a whole lot better than him. Most of the women in my life aren't aware that they ever were. Of course, there were a few special ones I have actually loved, only to have erased their histories when the affairs ended. Not necessarily intentionally, but when I replayed that part of history I wasn't about to repeat what I knew would be a mistake.

I've also terminated at least two pregnancies by replaying the significant moment and avoiding the critical sexual encounter, because the thought of fathering a child that I might come to love-- and then lose in a replay --was unacceptable. I knew any chance of ever re-fathering the same child would be lost among all the minute variables of a replay, perhaps the one thing I could never redo: the difference of a heartbeat could determine that another sperm fertilizes the ovum, resulting in a completely different son or daughter.

But I said none of that to Darang, instead I changed the subject and flattered him: "You're a pretty good fighter. Have you also studied kung-fu?"

He liked to hear that, laughed. "Like you did at Shaolin Temple Wushu? Naw, I never took classes, learned to fight in the street. Grew up in the slums of-- never mind where --big city, tough town." Darang evidently knew my life history, but wasn't giving away any information about his that I could use to track him down.

But he felt like talking about it anyway: "There was a street gang that used to beat me up a lot, pretty bad too. Actually, I think they would have beaten me to death just when I found out I could shuffle time. I learned fast, killed 3 of the 7 guys. Only thing was, I got tossed into jail for it. So I hopped a day back, got them to attack me again in front of witnesses, and settled for hurting them really bad. Had no problems in the neighborhood after that.

"Hell, I took over the neighborhood. There were lots of gangs, I ended up being boss, so after a while there was only one gang. Well, two: there was the government; they were even more ruthless than us. It was kinda cool going up against that totalitarian regime. They were so bad that we were the good guys."

"So you're not on a government mission right now?" I asked.

He laughed. "Naw, I hate all governments. I'd never be a spy for any of them, like you were." I gave him a quizzical look, he explained, "You were a CIA agent when we met." It sounded negative the way he said it.

"I'm freelance," I shrugged, "sometimes I cooperate with government agencies if they've got a job I want for reasons of my own. Especially one that gives me access to classified information I can use later. They're my clients, not my bosses."

"So you're really working for--what--world peace or something?"

"That would be nice," I admitted, "but I settle for saving the lives I can."

"Very noble. I'm more into personal power and revenge, myself."

"Somebody did you wrong?"

"Yeah, lots of people. But I'm getting it fixed."

"So is the assassination of Alden Manors a matter of personal revenge?"

"In a way, although he's only a means to an end. Like you say, some jobs give access to something else you want."

"Look, Darang, I've promised to keep Manors alive. Can we negotiate?"

"Nope, it's a point of honor. Besides, maybe it really is about money?"

"But you can replay time: win at gambling and investments, how can you not be rich?"

"Oh, I was filthy rich, 9 years up the line. Now I'm back here re-doing my lean younger years, sort of just starting all over again."

"Well, I'm rich now, so I'll double the price of your contract if you drop it."

He laughed, but shook his head. "Naw, I'd rather fight it out. See who's toughest, you know? Besides," wicked smile, "the truth is that You are one of the people I want revenge upon."

"Me? I've never even... wait, for something I'll have done in the future?"

"Actually," Darang smiled even more wickedly, "I think I'll let you figure that out yourself."

We were silent for a moment, drinking our beers.


After a while I said, "You mentioned a nuclear war coming, nine years from now. Could you tell me about that?"

"Oh I could, but why should I? Just so the fucking Americans can win World War 3 too?"

I shrugged and asked, "Does anyone win a nuclear war?"

He shook his head slowly, "No, especially not this one. But that's fine by me, all governments are corrupt and merciless, those people deserve what they're going to get."

"Two guys like us could stop it from happening," I suggested.

"Naw, it's already 20 years too late, the world just doesn't know it yet."

"You never know: I stopped a nuke in Washington DC about ten years ago."

"Never heard about that," Darang said, interested.

"That's because it never got to happen in the historical version. But I remember it: saw it first on CNN, then rewound and went to DC to keep it from happening. The bomb wasn't easy to find, I had to personally experience the nuclear destruction of that city twice, which was pretty awful. But I finally got the bomb pinpointed, broke it, and replayed the entire event not to have ever happened at all."

"You're saying that you've survived two nuclear explosions? Damn--you ARE hard to kill! ...if your story is true."

"Oh, it's true. But of course, I can't prove it. That's the nature of what we do."

"Yeah, that's the truth. Nobody appreciates what you've done for them because they think you haven't done shit!"

"If we were to work together, at least we'd know," I said.

Darang shook his head, "You suggested that last time too-- in the future-- but it won't work. Too messy, paradoxes, stuff like that. We'd both be un-doing what the other one does all the time. Maybe without even knowing it.

"For example," he went on, "this Future President Manors job: I tell you, Okay I won't make the hit. So you go watch over him until 15:17 passes on by and he doesn't get shot, so as far as you know, I've kept my word. Manors' alive, everybody's happy, and you escort him to his hotel tonight.

"But later that same evening, let's say about 21:00, while you're in the hotel having a drink with Manors, I change my mind and hop back to 15:16. I set up my shot, and take the man out as I had originally planned. So what's really happened? For you, the Senator didn't die at 15:17, yet in MY reality he does. We end up with different realities."

My turn to shake my head. "Seems we can live in a special pocket of time for a while, but only until we rewind, and then we land back in mainstream history.

"What if we don't change reality at all," I further postulated, "but only think we do? Could be we fantasize possible futures and replay the variations in our minds, ending up in the one and only timeline anyway."

"That's a little too schizophrenic for me," Darang swigged the last of his beer, "if our whole lives are nothing but dreams, who needs a reality at all? Hell, I've hopped back 9 years, so did I just imagine that entire lifetime, or am I imagining this one?"

"I don't know," I admitted, then asked, "say, why did you ever hop back to this time anyway?"

He was standing up to go, but he gave me a startled look, as if I'd asked the very last question he had expected. But his answer rang true: "I don't really know, it just fucking happened." Then he walked out, no farewell, no threat, no arrangement.

I had no idea where he was going or what he'd do next. All I could do was wait until 15:17 and see what happened.


CHAPTER EIGHT
WHAT HAPPENS

We had driven each other back more than 24 hours, so I had a day's wait before the original assassination should happen. Sometimes it can be hard to do the same day over again, waiting for things to sort themselves out, boring and stressful. I've learned to deal with it, so I went to a movie, ate dinner in a nice restaurant and treated it like a day off.

Eventually, the next day, I was with Senator Manors' security crew once again, in the swirl of the presidential primaries. I spoke briefly with Alden Manors himself, who was not dead yet, although I couldn't help feeling a twinge of secret shame that I'd allowed him to be shot so many times in those other timelines--and might have to again before this "day" was over. Of course I told him nothing of Darang, how could I?

I went to the apartment for a few minutes, so that I could rewind to that place at that time if I had to, then rushed back to the Senator's promotional campaign headquarters so that I was there just before 15:17.

I was standing beside Senator Manors at the critical moment. There was no shot, the moment passed. I was happy about that, but certainly didn't relax and start believing that I'd won the contest yet. Darang could attack again at any time he chose, literally.

Senator Manors gave a speech for the convention; there was a reception afterward, drinks. Those of us on the security team didn't drink, but kept moving through the crowd. The other guys were still on alert for my "potential assassination attempt", but were beginning to think it was a dud.

At 20:50 we escorted Alden Manors back to his hotel room, supposedly to safety. Two men were to be on guard duty out in the hallway before his door, I chose to be one of them. The Senator called me in for a moment.

He offered me a drink, I declined, he insisted, so I agreed to one only.

"It looks like your information about a hit man today was wrong this time," he flashed a teasing smile, "not that I'm complaining." But he was complaining: he'd been fearing for his life all day, and I'd been wrong.

"Not wrong," I told him, "there was a professional assassin perched up in a high-rise. I interceded."

"Really?" he looked shocked, "Did you...kill him?"

"No. A standoff was the best I could get under the conditions. However, I may have talked him out of finishing the job."

"MAY have? --then he's still on the loose?"

"Yes, but so am I."

It was 21:00, and I was remembering what Darang had said about me having a drink with the Senator at that time, as if he'd been here and rewound back for our conversation. Had he gone back and finished the job anyway? If he had, Alden Manors was still alive in my reality.

There was only one way to check; rewind and see which reality I end up in. I went one second back, but...

...I couldn't land in a past that no longer existed anywhere in historical reality, since those hours I'd spent with Manors had been completely undone.

Instead I went into a new kind of rewind, a sudden high-speed backwards smear of time undoing itself, dropping me six hours earlier, to 15:17, when I had been standing beside Alden Manors just as Darang's bullet hit him.

Even as Manors was falling to the sidewalk I turned toward the building where I knew the shot had come. Darang's window was quite far away, but I could see him waving to me.

I rewound half an hour back. It was a normal rewind, took half an hour, but at least it put me in the hall outside Darang's room. The door was open slightly, which I took as an invitation, and walked in.

He was waiting for me. His rifle was set up on a tripod at the window, ready to shoot Manors in half an hour, but at the moment he was sitting in one of the two chairs in the hotel room, relaxing, two bottles of beer on the desk beside him. He waved me to the other chair.

I took the offered seat and beer. We sat a moment before speaking. "This could become a long day," I finally remarked.

"Yeah," he agreed, "until one of us actually dies when he gets killed."

"Could happen, I suppose. Seems kind of a waste, though."

"Yeah well, you could give up," he suggested, adding, "I'm not."


"Look Darang, I'd really like to know about that war in the future. It bothers me..."

"You don't even know if I was telling the truth about it."

"You were. I feel like I... well, not that I know you, but that we're connected somehow. We're the only ones like us, as far as I know."

"Yeah, well..." he looked exasperated, "why the fuck do you think that is, asshole?"

I was puzzled. "I've no idea."

"I'm Chinese," he said, "well, HALF Chinese, really. My father was an American tourist who knocked up my mother 27 years ago in Peking, then travelled on, leaving her to the mercies of the People's Republic. An unmarried mother, she was disgraced, rejected by her parents and the communist system, had to become a prostitute to feed me, and died of aids when I was 10. Her name was May Ching, sound familiar?"

"Who? What? Wait, you think I'm..?"

"Weren't you in China about then? Studying Kung Fu in that Shaolin temple?"

"Uh... well, yeah, I guess I was... But I don't remember any girl named May. Sorry, but I'm not your father!"

"Oh, excuse me, it must have been some other time-shuffler," he said with bitter sarcasm.

"And just what makes you think your father was... like us?"

He spelled it out as if for an idiot: "Four years up the line-- in the future-- I was running my own mob of gangsters in Shanghai, big operation trafficking in drugs, sex and violence. We were ready to expand world-wide, especially to the States. But I was getting too much power too fast to go unnoticed, the American CIA sent a very special agent after me: you. They called you The Magician, as if you were some kind of super hero, and I recognized how you were so good at everything: by shuffling time, just like me.

"I did some research, found out who you were, also finding out that you'd once been in China at the right time, and finally understood where my special ability had come from: it was genetic."

"I don't know, you'd think I'd remember your mother if..."

"Oh, she was just some chink whore to you, what's to remember? You screwed her life over, put her out in the streets, where I was born. But hey, bad as it was, at least you gave me a way to take over those streets.

"I grew up among criminals, and once I could shuffle time, it was easy to become the boss. Especially since I had the hate and the drive it takes to screw people over--that's probably genetic too."

I didn't have a response, but no matter, he went on:

"Nine years from now I'll be --I was-- the most powerful man in the world. 34 years old and I had it all. But what I really wanted was revenge: first against those old-guard communist party fuckers and their People's Republic, then against America, land of my bastard father, for what they'd all done to my poor mother and me.

"You know that World War 3 I mentioned? Well, it was mostly my doing! I was pushing atom bombs to the lowest bidder. Doing terrorist attacks, blaming someone else, stirring up international hate."

"Why?" I had to ask.

"Maybe because it seemed like a good way to get revenge on the world, or just for fun, I'm not really sure. Only it got out of control, I hadn't really planned on them destroying EVERYTHING."

"This doesn't ring true, Darang: I would have stopped you."

He smiled as smug a smile as he could muster. "You think you survived our meeting four years from now?"

"Like you said, I'm hard to kill, probably rewound. Anyway, here I am."

"Yes, yes you are. Guess it's finally time to finish that job."

He had a pistol ready behind him on the chair, raised it and was aiming for my head even as I rewound back a second, giving me time to jump at him and deflect the muzzle so that the shot went wild. But he also hopped back half a second and almost caught me with his other fist in my face. Actually, he did hit me but I rewound a fourth of a second to undo that and butted my head against his nose, only to have that undone by an eighth of a second... you get the picture.

We fought on and on...


CHAPTER NINE
CONCEPTION

The rewinds and replays were coming so fast that the blue flashes were stroboscopic, I suppose I went into a kind of trance, lost track of everything--which should be scary when fighting for your life, but hardly seemed important at the time/time/time. Then I felt myself falling through bright blue darkness for a heartbeat, being nowhere and nowhen, until I suddenly arrived somewhere.

Somewhere very nice, for a change.

Big surprise: instead of rewinding from pain and harm, I was in the middle of having sex with some woman and it felt like I had been about to have a really spectacular orgasm.

I had no idea who she was, where we were, or when this had ever taken place, but it had to be somewhere in my own past. I was confused, I hadn't been with a woman for months, I didn't remember this happening at all. I managed to figure out that we were in the missionary position and that I was on top, so I looked down to see who she was.

I didn't recognize her, which was puzzling, because she certainly had to be the most beautiful woman I'd ever been with in my life. You'd think I'd remember someone like that: petite young Oriental woman, classic features, perfect skin, ideal body. But most of all, the look on her face: adoration, devotion, love. She was in heaven, and so was I.

Overcome by lust, I took the orgasm with her, which was as spectacular as I'd hoped. Then we were both gasping for air, hearts hammering, slippery with sweat, ferociously clinging to each other, rocking in the aftermath of that animal/divine experience. It was almost over when I went into replay...

Again and again in a time loop, we made love backwards and forwards, until there was no difference. Surge of the sea tide, the systole and diastole of our hearts, totally lost to the passion of that eternal moment.

Finally I had to allow that moment to end, repetition becomes boring no matter how good it is at the start. We got past rocking in the aftermath, relaxed, our bodies collapsed together.

She smiled the nicest smile I've ever seen, and spoke a charmingly accented English with a voice like wind-chimes: "I've been told that making love can be very wonderful, but I had no idea!"

A sudden half-recognition arrived: I remembered those words, from long long ago, although not who had said them. Just how FAR into the past had I hopped?

I was unable to speak, so she went on, "It was like we were riding the cosmic moment together, back and forth, on and on...oh what fun!"

My God, I thought, it was as if she'd been tuned in to the replays along with me, and there was something familiar about that, it happened once before, long ago...

"May Ching!" I almost shouted at her, recognition having finally slammed into my brain.

"Jeffie!" she responded, amused at my outburst.

"Uh... never mind," I stalled lamely until I could figure out what was going on. She laughed a little, rolled over, scooted up against me and closed her eyes, as if she sensed that I needed time to think. Good girl, that May.

I was thinking about back when I was young, adventuring around in China. Back when I'd been studying kung fu in the Shaolin monastery, shuffling replays so that I'd gotten more than a year's training out of the month I was "officially" overseas. I wanted there to be a record of some time at the monastery to explain my knowledge of martial arts, "fast learner" could explain my expertise. I'd met May in Peking, had a little flirt-- all right, fell in love-- but then edited her out of my life for practical reasons.

But that was 27 years ago! 27 years of historical time, that is, my own personal timeframe-years could be twice as long.

So I had to wonder, how did this happen? And what brought me here? I was trying to get the jump on Darang, not look up some long lost lover. I'd hoped that my survival instincts would take me to some moment when...

And there it was, right in my face: this was when Darang had been conceived!

May was his mother. Of course, I was his father--that's why he could replay time, his ability was indeed genetic. I kept telling myself, no wait, that can't be, there's no evidence... But the evidence was everywhere I looked: his race, his age, his ability. My "survival instincts" had brought me exactly to the very moment of his conception.

Which meant that I could beat him now. It was here and now that I could rewind, un-fuck, and simply edit that bastard out of existence. It was that easy.

Except that this was my own kid. I hesitated, knowing that I was about to do the one thing that could not be undone later.

Of course Darang was a bastard, I'd made him one. I could see the whole story clearly: the kid had grown up a pariah in the People's Republic of China, one of the most repressive societies in the world; his out-of-wedlock mother had lost face and been punished, reduced to the lowest rank among the slum dwellers. Darang said his mother was a whore, thus her little boy had suffered injustice all his life, until he found that he had the power to avenge himself on everyone.

And whose fault was all of this?

The truth is I had wanted May to be my girl back then, but she was caught in the twist between her very strict parents and the Communist government: an American boyfriend was the worst kind of trouble for her. So after a week I undid our time together--or thought I had. Evidently, I had miscalculated somewhere among the weeks I was replaying my kung fu training and exploration of China, and some of the time with her escaped editing out. I'd probably left China before she even knew she was pregnant, and since she never did have my Stateside address to write to, she couldn't have let me know.

What if there was another version of Darang's story to tell? What if Darang had had a father to raise him? What if his mother had lived the decent life such a desirable woman deserved? What if that family had lived in a place other than Communist China? What kind of man would Darang have become then?

Of course he could still end up being an assassin, he was good at it, might be his true nature. Was I willing to make such an effort for the sake of my enemy? Maybe not, but for the sake of my very own son? Well, that's got to be something else.

And what about May? Keeping her could be the best thing I'd ever do for my own sake. As for those problems with her society, I'm much wiser and more experienced than I was last time around; The Magician is expert in stuff like that.

Assessing my situation: I'd lost 27 years of fixing things around the world, saving lives, solving crimes. A lot of that I'd have to do all over again-- especially defusing that atom bomb in Washington DC--but much of it could be fixed by telephone, dispensing information. The field work's already been done in the future.

On the plus side: I'm 23 years young again, with the great advantage of knowing what the future will be like for the next 27 years, and yet my own personal future is a great open mystery to me. Oh yeah, and I'd be starting a family.

I could try and see how it goes. The thing is, if it doesn't work out, I can always un-do it.

3R