It was quite a party. The women wore gowns. The men wore tuxedos. Anthony Blair wore power armor.
Armor that was sleek and black and polished, and made not a whisper as Blair paced the lawn behind his mansion, passing a word here or there with one of his guests. In those days the most advanced exoskeletons were crude affairs, and Blair’s armor seemed decades, if not centuries, ahead of its time.
But he was an inventor, after all, one who in the past several years had introduced any number of groundbreaking new technologies. And that was about all anyone knew of Anthony Blair, reclusive genius. He was seldom seen, and never without his armor, and he politely rebuffed all inquiries into his past.
So it had attracted considerable interest when he’d purchased a house on the outskirts of Washington, a move that seemed to signal him taking a greater interest in public affairs. For his housewarming, he’d sent out scores of invitations—to politicians, pundits, business leaders, celebrities, and scientists. Such a gathering of notables, along with the chance to get a rare glimpse of Blair himself, would have been enough to make this the hottest ticket in town, but there was more. Blair had let it be known that tonight he’d be making an “important announcement.” Speculation was frenzied.
Finally Blair hopped up onto the patio and called for everyone’s attention, his voice amplified by speakers built into the torso of his suit. From what could be seen of him through his transparent visor, he seemed a handsome man of about forty, with a penetrating gaze and a sardonic grin. He proceeded to lay out his plans for a new nonprofit group, the Anthony Blair Foundation, dedicated to promoting civil liberties worldwide, and he invited his guests to get involved.
He wrapped things up with a toast, thanking everyone for coming. He pointed an armored finger down into his wine glass, and a large plastic straw emerged, and began suctioning up the wine, which Blair then drank, moments later, from a tube inside his helmet.
As his guests sipped their drinks, they conferred in puzzled tones about whether that had been the “important announcement,” in which case the evening was proving a terrible letdown. When no announcement of any greater import seemed likely to be forthcoming, they began to drift away.
Blair moved from conversation to conversation, wishing everyone a good night. A distinguished-looking gentleman said to him, “Mr. Blair, I’d like to introduce you to a colleague of mine, Dr. Mira Valentic.”
She wore a red dress and had inky black hair. Blair reached out with his giant metal fingers and lightly shook her hand. “Pleased to meet you, Doctor.”
He asked about her work, and she described her research into gene sequencing. He listened intently and asked many questions, which led her to describe her graduate studies, then a childhood obsession with amphibians. As they talked, the other guests excused themselves one by one, and the lawn slowly emptied, until Blair and Mira stood alone.
“And now I’ve told you everything about myself,” she said. “But I still don’t know anything about you.”
“Not much to tell,” he said.
After a moment, he said, “I’ve had a very nice time talking with you, Dr. Valentic.”
“Please, call me Mira.”
“Mira,” he said. “I don’t know what it is, but I just feel like we’re on the same wavelength somehow.”
“Yes,” she said. “Me too.”
He lowered his voice. “So I’m going to tell you something I’ve never told anyone.”
He had her full attention now.
“I’m from the future,” he said.
She regarded him uncertainly, as if this might be a joke. “People wondered,” she said. “I didn’t believe it. It seems impossible.”
“It’s not impossible,” he said. “Just very difficult.”
She thought for a moment. “So what’s it like? The future?”
“Maybe I’ll tell you,” he said, “next time I see you.”
“There will be a next time, won’t there? I should certainly hope your bosses would arrange for us to meet again, now that you’ve managed to wrangle one big secret out of me.”
“My bosses? At the museum?”
“No, in the government, I mean.”
He waved a hand. “It’s fine, really. I don’t mind being spied on. My armor and I are big unknowns, and I don’t blame folks for wanting to keep an eye on us. That’s their job. Your job.”
She was silent.
Finally she said, “When did you know?”
“When I first saw you.”
“From across the yard. I’m awfully clever, Mira.”
“Bullshit,” she said. “No one’s that clever.”
“I am,” he said. “I didn’t rise to my position by accident, you know.”
“Maybe I’ll tell you,” he said. “Next time I see you.”
* * * *
The next time was two weeks later, downtown, at the first public fundraiser for the Anthony Blair Foundation. She approached him as the event was winding down.
“Mira,” he said. “So nice to see you again.”
“Well, you were right,” she said. “Keep feeding me information and you’ll be seeing a lot more of me.”
He smiled. “In that case, what would you like to know?”
“Your armor,” she said. “Where’d you get it?”
“I stole it.”
“Oh,” she said. “We thought it must be one of your inventions.”
“It is,” he said. “I invented it, and then I stole it.”
“Sounds like there’s a story there.”
“There is,” he said. “But let’s not go into it just now.”
He glanced about the room, then turned back to her. “Hey,” he said, “do you want to get out of here?”
Later, as they walked along the river, beneath a sky full of stars, he said, “I’d like to take you out to dinner some time.”
“I’d like that.”
He was silent for a while.
Finally he said, “If we’re going to keep seeing each other, there’s something I have to tell you.”
“My armor,” he said. “I never take it off.”
“It’s sort of . . . something I swore.”
“But . . . how do you eat?”
“Through the straw. It filters poisons.”
“And I mean, how do you bathe? Go to the bathroom?”
“The armor handles everything. It’s very advanced.”
“Wow,” she said.
“I know that sounds strange,” he said. “But you’ll understand. Once you hear the whole story.”
After a moment, she said, “So what’s the whole story?”
He sighed. “You know I’m starting this new foundation. Don’t you wonder why?”
“Because you care about civil liberties?”
She said nothing.
“It’s because in the future, where I come from, there are no civil liberties. None.”
“Oh,” she said.
“I had never been disloyal,” he said softly. “You can’t be, where I come from. Our thoughts are monitored. I’d been identified early as a promising scientist, and had risen through the ranks to head of my research division. We’d developed a high-energy device that possessed some unusual properties—like, it could project a man-sized object into the past, creating a branching timeline. Theoretically, at least. Completely useless, as far as our leaders were concerned, but interesting. Then one day the thought popped into my head: I could escape.”
He stopped and stared out over the water. “Once I’d had the thought, I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d be picked up for ‘neural re-education.’ So I had to act fast. The problem was, even if I succeeded in traveling into the past, my voyage would create a temporal wake large enough for them to send someone after me.”
He met her eyes. “I don’t mean to scare you, Mira, but where I come from there are . . . secret police. Unlike anything you can imagine. Cyborgs. Shapeshifters. I’d have no chance against one of them. Unless . . .” He showed the hint of a smile. “In the same lab was something else we’d been working on. This armor.” He raised his gauntleted hands. “Wearing this, I’d be impervious to anything. So I could escape, but at a cost—I must never take off the armor, not for an instant. Because if I did, the agent sent to punish me would surely strike.”
She glanced around at the trees, the shadows. She shivered.
“And that’s the story,” he said. “So, do you still want to grab dinner sometime? I’ll understand if you say no.”
“I . . . I’ll have to think about it,” she said. “This is a lot to take in.”
“I know,” he said. After a moment, he added, “I should probably be getting back.”
As they retraced their route, she thought: He never takes off the armor. Never. Not for an instant, he said.
That was going to make it very hard, she thought, to kill him.
* * * *
He took her to one of the finest restaurants in Washington, and it made quite a sight to see him sitting there in his armor, with a napkin in his lap, suctioning up his entree through the straw in his finger. In spite of that it was a pleasant meal. That is, until the middle of dessert, when he suddenly said, “I have to ask you something.”
“Yes?” she said.
“About your bosses.”
“At the museum?” she said sweetly.
“No.” He smiled back. “In the government, I mean.”
“All right. Yes. What?”
“Do they know what you are?” he said, suddenly serious.
“What do you mean?”
“Do they know,” he said calmly, “that you were sent from the future to kill me?”
“What?” She laughed.
“You think I’m—?”
“Yes,” he said.
She put down her fork. Finally she said, “Yes, they know.”
They watched each other.
“They want your armor very badly,” she said. “They’ve made repeated overtures, and have concluded that you’ll never cooperate.”
“They’re right,” he said.
She shrugged. “So . . . they want the armor, I want you. We have an understanding.”
“When did you know?” she said.
“When I first saw you,” he said. “From across the yard.”
She laughed. “Bullshit. Why didn’t you say anything?”
“I was having a nice time. I didn’t want to spoil the mood.”
“I think you’re lying,” she said. “I think you figured it out just now.”
“So I guess that’s that,” she said, tossing her napkin out on the table and reaching for her purse.
“Wait,” he said. “I want to say something.”
“We find ourselves,” he said, “in a branching timeline. We can’t return to our own time, and no one else can follow us here. So they’ll never know whether you succeeded or not.”
“You’re suggesting,” she said coldly, “that I abandon my mission.”
“I’m suggesting you do what’s right,” he said. “What’s best for both of us.”
She stood. “I am not a traitor. You are. And the punishment for that is death, as you well know. I was assigned this mission, and the faith of my superiors was not misplaced. Your armor is a clever gadget, I’ll grant you, but no defenses can hold forever, and no matter how long it takes, no matter how safe you think you are, before this is over I will watch you drown in blood.”
People at nearby tables were staring.
“Thanks for dinner,” she said, and strode away.
* * * *
He called her the next day.
“I had a really nice time last night,” he said.
She stared at the phone. “Are you out of your mind?”
“No,” he said. “Do you want to come over some time?”
She hesitated. “Is this some sort of trick?” she said. “Some trap?”
“No,” he said. “I mean, what are you? A class eight?”
“Class nine,” she said.
“We’re in the twenty-first century,” he said. “You could probably fight off a tank platoon. I don’t even have a gun. I just want to talk.”
“About what?” she said. “Treason?”
“No. No treason. I promise.”
“Old books, shows, people. We’re the only ones who remember the future.”
“You’re not afraid?”
“No. The armor will protect me.”
“How can you be sure?”
“I designed it,” he said.
“And what if I find a weakness?”
After a moment, she sighed. “All right. Fine.”
“Swing by around eight,” he said. “I’ll cook dinner.”
* * * *
She drove over to his mansion, and he cooked her dinner, and they had a very nice time talking about old books and shows and people that were now known only to the two of them.
Finally she stretched and yawned. “Well, it’s late.”
“You’re welcome to stay,” he said. “I have a spare bedroom. Eight, actually.”
“I don’t think so,” she said.
“Why not? It makes perfect sense.”
“I mean, what’s your plan?” he said. “To disappear, change into someone else, and try to catch me off guard? It won’t work. I never take off the armor, not for you or anyone. Your only hope is to find a weakness in the armor, and you won’t get a better chance to study it than by staying right here with me.” He added, “Besides, I like the way you look now.”
She chuckled. “So what’s in it for you?”
“The pleasure of your company. Plus I’ll know where you are, and I won’t have to go around wondering if everyone I meet is a secret assassin.”
“That’s it? Sounds like the risks outweigh the benefits.”
“Let me worry about that,” he said. “Anyway, I think you’re underestimating the pleasure of your company.”
“Also, if you get to know me better, you might decide you don’t really want to kill me.”
“I doubt that,” she said. “Actually, I’m getting the opposite vibe.”
“. . . and you said no treason. You promised.”
“You’re right. Sorry.”
Finally she said, “All right, I’ll think about it. Let’s see the room.”
He gave her a tour of the mansion, and when she saw the guest room she said, “Hey, this is really nice.” She sat on the mattress and bounced a few times, testing it. “All right, I’ll stay. For a bit.”
“Great,” he said.
She sprawled on the comforter, grinning. “You want to slip into something more comfortable?”
He laughed. “Goodnight, Mira. I’ll see you in the morning.”
* * * *
She stayed with him for weeks, and they talked and talked, until they knew practically everything about each other. They went out to dinner, and to movies and plays, and they went on long, long walks. (Much longer than any normal person could walk, thanks to his armor and her cybernetics.) Many nights they simply lounged about doing nothing at all.
One night they played chess.
The first game ended with his king pinned in one corner. She put him in check with her queen, and he moved to an adjacent square. She moved her queen to put him in check again, and he moved back to the first square. This was repeated several times. The game was declared a draw.
The second game ended the same way. And the third.
“I suppose you think this is terribly funny?” she said.
She swept the pieces onto the floor, and stood.
As she strode away, he called, “I’m sorry. Mira . . .” She ignored him.
But when she was out in the hallway, she smiled. Her anger and frustration were feigned. Actually, things were going quite well.
She’d discovered a weakness in his armor.
* * * *
They took vacations together—to London, New York, Tokyo. In Paris, at the top of the Eiffel Tower, as they stood looking out over the rivers and rooftops, she said, “Well, you were right, dammit. As always. I’ve grown awfully fond of you, Blair, and now the future seems like such a long time ago. So I guess you’re safe.”
“I’m glad to hear it,” he said. “Though you’ll forgive me if I don’t strip off the armor just this second.”
She laughed. “Of course.”
Six months later though, it was starting to become an issue.
One night at dinner she said to him, “We need to talk.”
“Are you ever going to take off that armor?” she said.
He set down his utensils and studied her. He said, “When I fled into the past, I swore I would never take off this armor. Not for an instant.”
“Because of me,” she said. “Because I’d be sent after you. But that’s all changed now.”
“I knew there would come a time,” he said, “when I’d start feeling safe, start letting my guard down. That’s why I made the resolution then, when my sense of the danger was at its most acute.”
After a moment, she said, “You still don’t trust me.”
He said nothing.
“Look at me,” she said. “Can’t you just look at me with your super-genius gaze and see that I’m telling the truth?”
“No,” he said.
“Then I guess you’re not as smart as you think you are,” she said. “As you pretend to be.”
“Do you remember what you said, Mira? When we first met? ‘No matter how long it takes, no matter how safe you think you are—’”
“I know what I said. Look, I’m sorry, all right? I was a different person then. It was a stupid thing to say. I wish I could take it back, but I can’t.”
There was a long silence.
Finally she said, “What are we doing here? If you’re never going to trust me, what’s even the point of this?”
“Enjoying each other’s company? That was the point, I thought.”
“And in five years?” she said. “Ten? Will we still just be sitting across a table from each other, with you in a suit of armor?”
“I don’t take off the armor,” he said. “You knew that from the start.”
“So there’s nothing I can do? To prove myself?”
“There’s one thing,” he said, very serious. “You can hold my life in your hands and choose to spare me.”
“But how can that ever happen?” she said. “If you won’t take off the armor?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
* * * *
When he woke the next morning, she was gone. He paced the empty rooms, seeking her. “Mira?” he called, his voice echoing.
He tried her phone, but got no response. He left message after message.
Finally she answered. “Please stop calling me,” she said.
“Where are you?”
“Away,” she said. “Away from that house, away from you. There are other men, you know? Who aren’t afraid.”
“Please come back,” he said.
“Will you take off the armor?” she said. “Ever?”
“You know I can’t.”
She hung up.
Six weeks passed without a word. Then one night his doorbell rang, and he opened the door to find her standing there.
“I’m sorry,” she said.
He made her tea, and she sat in the kitchen and said, “Look, I understand why you wear the armor. It’s all tied up with who you are and why we’re here together, and I accept that. I hope someday I can prove myself to you, but even if you never take it off I don’t care. We understand each other in a way that no one else ever will.”
“Let’s fly to Paris,” he said. “Tonight. We had good times there.”
“Yes,” she said. “All right.”
They hopped a private jet, and by the next morning they were in Paris. They revisited all their old haunts. On their third night there, they ate dinner at the hotel, then took a midnight walk down a cobbled street beside the Seine.
Suddenly Mira said, “We’re being followed.”
A hundred yards behind them lurked three men dressed in black. One carried a briefcase.
“Are they from the future?” she said.
“No,” Blair said. “Impossible.”
“Then what threat could they be to us?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Let’s not find out. Come on.”
He began to hurry. Suddenly he halted. “Uh-oh.”
“What?” she said.
“I can’t move.”
She glanced about as more men appeared from the shadows.
“They’re special forces,” she said. “Black ops.”
“How do you know?”
She smiled. “Because they’re with me.”
Eight men surrounded Blair. Several carried boxes.
“I told you you weren’t the only man in my life,” she said.
One of the men stepped forward. He had a heavy jaw and short gray hair and cold, hard eyes.
“Captain.” Mira nodded.
The man set his briefcase on the ground and bent to open it.
“How are you doing this?” Blair said.
She knelt over the briefcase. “We introduced a virus through the suit’s communications array.”
“That’s impossible,” Blair said. “Equipment to interface with the suit won’t even exist for—”
“What, you mean like this?” she said, rising, gadget in hand.
Blair studied it, his face pale.
“All right, I’m impressed,” he said. “Cramming that much R&D into so short a time. But it won’t matter. In a few minutes—”
“You don’t have a few minutes,” she said.
The men opened boxes, yanked out equipment. Blair’s eyes darted about.
“Laser cutters?” he said. “Diamond-tipped saws? You can’t honestly believe those will even scratch this armor?”
“No,” Mira said, nodding at the men. “But they did.” She added, “What can I say? They’re not geniuses.”
The captain frowned. Then Mira backhanded him across the face, and his head flew a hundred feet through the air and splashed into the river.
The men screamed and drew weapons. Two ran. Of course it did them no good. A minute later Mira was piling their bodies on the ground at Blair’s feet.
“I admit I’m a bit nervous now,” he said.
She grinned. “Told you I’d make you drown in blood.”
She fiddled with her gadget, and the armor knelt stiffly, and its right hand reached out and plunged its straw deep into the chest of the nearest corpse. Blair grimaced and turned his head aside as blood bubbled from the tube inside his helmet.
“Wow,” he said. “Paris is definitely not as much fun as I remember.”
“Keep laughing,” she said. “While you can.”
The straw drained corpse after corpse. Soon the blood rose above Blair’s lips and threatened to engulf his nose.
“Any last words?” she said.
“Mmmm-mmmm-mmmm-mmmm,” he said.
She came and stood inches from his visor. “Sorry, I didn’t catch that?”
He watched her, his eyes wide.
“Do we agree,” she said, “that there’s absolutely nothing stopping me from killing you?”
“Mmmm-hmmm,” he said.
“Good.” She smiled. “Then take off that stupid armor and kiss me.”
She flipped a switch, and suddenly Blair could move again. He tore off his helmet and hurled it to the ground, then swept her up in his arms, pressing his lips to hers.
* * * *
Later, as they lay naked on a hotel bed, he murmured, “I knew about your device.”
She stirred and said drowsily, “Hmm?”
“I could have stopped the blood,” he said. “I was never in any danger.”
“I know,” she said. “The armor is flawless.” After a moment, she added, “It only ever had one weakness.”
“Me,” he said, rolling onto his side, studying her. “We understand each other perfectly, don’t we?”
“Yes,” she said. “I think so.”
“You still haven’t decided whether or not to kill me. Have you?”
“No,” she said.
“But either way you wanted me out of the armor.”
“Yes,” she said. “And you took it off, even knowing the danger.”
“I love you, Mira,” he said. “I couldn’t stand being separated from you another moment.”
“Sounds like the risks outweigh the rewards,” she said.
“I think you’re underestimating the rewards,” he said, and she chuckled.
He added, “If your mission is that important to you, then go ahead and kill me. You might as well, if you don’t love me.”
“I think that’s the sweetest thing anyone’s ever said to me,” she said.
And for a long time after that they lay curled together, drifting in and out of sleep. And if they dreamed, it was of the future—not the distant future from which they’d come, a cold and sterile place of surveillance and mind control, but the immediate future, of the breakfast croissants they’d soon enjoy, and the stroll they’d take through the fresh morning air, hand in hand. And the armor stood in a nearby corner like some exotic decoration, like some improbable furniture, watching over them with its transparent visor, a silent presence, waiting there, sleek, black, polished, empty.
© 2012 by David Barr Kirtley.
Originally published in Armored,
edited by John Joseph Adams.
Reprinted by permission of the author.