The Nearly Girl

Mess around with time and world you know... could become a world you don't. What happens when Liam decides to use his knowledge of the future to save a stranger from her destiny, potentially disrupting history and everything the TimeRiders team has fought to preserve?

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2. 7 March 2013, New York

The time window opened and dumped them in a deserted, trash-filled backstreet just off Times Square. Familiar ground to them in terms of the general layout, but in a million ways different from the Times Square of 2001. Gone was the leering green face of an ogre for a movie called Shrek. Now it was replaced with a giant poster for a movie called Oblivion. The streets seemed a little scruffier, but just as vibrant. More of the billboards were animated screens rather than posters. Maddy noted scraps of bill posters from an election last year: a hopeful called Romney had lost to President Obama. And it seemed from scattered warning notices that stormy weather some months ago had resulted in several subway stations being flooded.

 

Sign of the times, noted Liam. Not too long from now they’d be starting to build giant levees around Manhattan to buy the city a few more decades. Maddy spotted an Internet cafe and told Liam to go grab a booth in McDonald’s across the street. She said it wouldn’t take her too long to track down Jane Brookhill’s details.

 

A couple of hours actually. She finally slumped down in the booth opposite Liam and sucked a lukewarm vanilla shake through a straw. ‘Bleughh. You might have got me a fresher frikkin’ milkshake.’

 

She had pages of print in her hand and spread them out on the table in front of her. ‘I started by running her name through the database of 9/11 victims. It looks like she believed you. It looks like she decided not to go to work that day.’

 

Liam smiled. ‘She did survive it, then.’

 

‘Yes. But I don’t know why you’re grinning like that. It’s not actually good news, Liam. Because a couple of months afterwards it seems she went and did an interview with a newspaper. Told some story about being visited by a guardian angel from the future.’ Maddy looked at him sternly. ‘She even ended up on Jerry Springer.’

 

‘Jerry …? What’s one of those?’

 

‘A TV show … Look, it doesn’t matter. Point is she went and blabbed.’ Maddy picked through her notes. ‘The newspaper interview was syndicated to several other papers. And the Springer show was aired on a number of networks. It appears she also got paid a visit on a few occasions by Homeland Security checking up on her story.’

 

‘Oh.’

 

Maddy looked up at him. ‘Yeah. Oh.’ She looked back at her notes. ‘It could have been much worse. Luckily, it didn’t develop any further than that. She was written off as an attention-seeker, a fraud. A one-week wonder. She got her fifteen minutes of fame on daytime TV and then, it seems, obscurity.’

 

‘Then … isn’t it all right? Could we not just let the poor girl be?’

 

‘No.’ She picked up one of the pages from the table. ‘No one believed her. Which is just fine. But that’s people now, in this time. Before it’s known that time travel is a possibility. What about in thirty-one years when Waldstein shows the world it’s totally possible?

 

‘Well, no one will remember her story in 2044 will they? That’s long and forgotten.’

 

Maddy rolled her eyes. ‘You don’t get it, do you?’

 

‘What?’

 

‘Once on the Internet … always on the Internet. Miss Brookhill’s interview was reported on various websites in 2001. And that stuff remains online forever, Liam. It took me all of half an hour to pick up her trail,’ she said, waving the sheaf of printouts. ‘And it’ll all still be there in 2044. The net’s a digital garbage heap. No one tidies this stuff up. No one deletes old news stories or defunct web pages or dead blogs. That crud just sits there forever.’

 

She looked at the printed cut-and-pasted text in front of her. ‘So, what if somebody in the future decides to do a search on “time travel” and, say, “9/11 conspiracies”? Voilà! Somewhere in the search results Jane Brookhill’s name will pop up. Hit that link and we get straight to a rather detailed account of …’ She scanned the page, found the passage she was looking for and read it aloud. ‘… a young man with an Irish accent and an old-fashioned way about him. He warned me about an hour before the first plane hit the north tower … that exactly that thing was going to happen. Just like that. He even named the flight number correctly …’

 

Again, another stern stare was aimed at him. ‘How much frikkin’ detail did you go into with her?’

 

‘Not flight numbers, an’ all that! I just said that someone was going to destroy them tall buildings with planes!’

 

‘Then perhaps she’s embellished the story. Or perhaps mis-remembered it. Or maybe the journalist embellished it. Either way it doesn’t really matter. The point is … our agency is meant to be secret, Liam. Top secret. Not carelessly advertising its presence like this.’

 

Liam looked out of the window at the traffic outside. New York twelve years on didn’t look hugely different to him apart from different movies and different billboards – perhaps there were more people staring intently at their phones as opposed to holding them to one ear, and stroking glowing screens instead of tapping at little awkward keys.

 

‘Congratulations, genius,’ said Maddy. ‘She’s a problem. A problem you’ve got to go back and correct.’

 

‘Go back and …?’

 

‘And don’t tell her to bunk off work. Yes?’

 

‘You’re asking me to make sure she dies, Maddy. You … you’re asking me to kill her.’

 

‘No. Liam, you never killed her.’ Her voice softened. She could find an ounce of compassion when it was needed. ‘You can’t let yourself think about it like that. Nineteen religious fanatics killed her. Along with nearly three thousand other people. Not you, Liam. Stupid, ignorant, crazy men who wanted to be martyrs.’

 

‘But … I’ll be as good as killing her if I just let her go to work on time, Maddy.’ He looked at her with eyes begging to be let off the hook. ‘Please, don’t ask me to do this.’

 

‘I’m not asking, Liam. I’m telling. We can’t have a giveaway story like this out there on the net. We have to remain totally off the radar. Totally.’

 

He shook his head. He knew he couldn’t do it. When it came to it, looking into that girl’s bright eyes, so full of hope and excitement, goals, dreams, plans … he knew he couldn’t let her hurry away to her job. To her death.

 

‘Maybe this’ll help,’ said Maddy. She passed Liam a sheet of paper with a clipping from a newspaper printed on it. ‘I’m afraid it isn’t a happy-ever-after story for her anyway, Liam.’

 

‘What do you mean?’

 

‘It’s not a life anyone would want to live.’ She patted his arm gently and got up. ‘I’ll let you read it …’

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