Kai’s expression, cheerful at sitting by the river, turned sad. “They wouldn’t believe us. Even if they knew it was coming, they’d think they could pull something out of their butts at the last minute and save the day.”
A little girl in one of the boats spotted us under the tree and waved. I waved back without fear; she saw two human males in culture-appropriate garb, not what we really looked like. No use setting off an “aliens have landed” panic when there’d be plenty of reason for terror later. “We could warn them if we chose to. Speak to scientists, show them historical documents of this time.”
Kai made a dismissive sound. “You read about what happened during the global pandemic of 2019, didn’t you? Millions in this country decided it was a hoax and refused to do their part to help quell it. It went on and on and on.” He muttered something rude that made me flush bright red.
“I agree they’re not the brightest species, but there are redeeming qualities.”
His head swiveled toward me. “The Council decided the bad outweighed the good, so we cannot interfere.”
The lifeforms on this planet were on the brink of total collapse, and still they did nothing to mitigate climate change. Worse, they continued to thoughtlessly breed and use their gas-powered machines, which made the problem worse. “They are often generous, and they like to have fun.”
“Their primary purpose is to ‘have fun,’ and it’s going to cost them everything.” He spoke firmly, without a quaver, but I could tell he was upset.
“I know the quota has been filled, but perhaps we could take a few more children back with us?” I was thinking of the happy little girl who’d waved. I would like to save her if I could.
“It was made clear this was to be our last visit. We have all the specimens we can handle.”
Kai was a stickler for the rules, and mostly I went along with him, but I really wanted to save the blonde child. The sheer joy she’d exhibited from a simple outing had touched me. “Just one more?”
He didn’t answer, and I let it drop. Kai did what Kai wanted, but when he didn’t give me a direct response, I knew there was wiggle room.
I stood. “I think I’ll go down the river a bit. Stretch my legs.” Truth was human bodies were difficult to get used to, and my leg muscles were tightening uncomfortably from sitting so long.
“We leave in two hours.” He glanced up, and I thought I saw an encouraging gleam in his eyes. “Do not be late.”
I nodded and made off, following a footpath that ran parallel to the water. I calculated my walking speed against that of the boats floating by and went faster so I could catch up with her.
After a while, my human body protested the accelerated pace. Muscles ached and skin became wet with sweat, but I kept moving, knowing I was close. Kai hadn’t said no, so that meant yes.
I caught up with her at the pullout. A man I assumed was her father was tying off the boat. The woman—likely her mother—helped the child onto the dock. The little girl couldn’t have been more than three or four, an optimum age for adapting to new situations.
I strolled over, smiling. “Great day to be on the water.”
They smiled in return, their skin lightly burnished by the sun. The girl ran over to me, unafraid. “I waved to you and your friend.”
“Yes, and I waved back.”
“Do you live nearby?”
“Not really, no.”
Her mother straightened, arms full of picnic things. “Say goodbye to the nice man, Jax. It’s time to go.”
I perked up. That had been my sister’s name. She’d died… I couldn’t remember exactly when, but long ago. “Jax is a great name.”
I lifted my hand and everything stopped. The leaves stopped rustling, the water stopped moving, and her parents froze in place. There was no birdsong, and the dog that had been barking in the distance was silent.
I picked up Jax, who was not time-locked but only sleeping. I touched her forehead and gave her a dream of her new home.
It was painful taking kids from their parents. I knew the grief, fear, and anger they would feel when I released them, but in a very short time, they would be dead. Although it was against the rules, I went over to the mother and planted in her mind an image of her child in another, better place, where she would be healthy and happy and surrounded by other children.
“Be at peace,” I whispered. “She will be safe and unharmed.”
I started time flowing again and rejoined Kai at the meeting place. He looked at the sleeping girl in my arms. I said, “Her name is Jax.”
He knew. I was meant to save her then. I looked again at her face and curly blonde hair. “We came to rescue my sister? This trip was a mission?”
“Yes, and this time she will not die. The Council’s gift to you for your many years of service.”
“I didn’t recognize her parents.” I swallowed. “Our parents.”
“Those memories are removed to prevent heartache, so you wouldn’t have, would you?” We were in thick woods. No one was in sight. Kai opened the portal. “Say goodbye to Earth. It’s time to leave.”
I looked longingly in the direction of the dock. “It was a beautiful planet. I will miss it.” Once Kai and I had been human, too, but that was a long time ago.
We stepped through the portal and returned to our distant future.