Chuck Wendig’s flash fiction challenge | They Fight Crime! | He’s a suicidal overambitious librarian with no name. She’s a time-travelling psychic traffic cop living on borrowed time. They fight crime!
The librarian is crouched behind a desk with the shrieking of a warning alarm sinking into his bones. Soon, he’ll be made of pure panic, a single note that will string him along like a marionette. His next actions will be guided by fear. Officer Ellana Swing is beside him, alert and reminding him of an ocelot on the hunt. She has the air of an endangered creature that’s been burdened with the knowledge of its impending extinction. “Hope you’re ready,” she says. “Both hands on the right end of the gun.”
He’s fairly certain it holds no cartridges, though it appears to have a chamber of some sort. Nevertheless, there is one thing he does know about guns—even ones which don’t bear much resemblance to anything he’s ever seen before. There’s no such thing as the right end. His grandfather used to say, one end takes lives, while the other takes your soul. Neither is your friend. The barrel, however, does look welcoming enough. Anything or anyone promising an end is a friend.
Hand over hand over grip, the roar of destruction from below, the roar of blood in his ears. The song of the siren is cruelly monotonous. Vibrations from the burrowers’ wagons carry up through eight levels of floors and walls, and his trembling hands are a mangled blur, icy appendages he has trouble believing are his own. He’s seen the wagons, diagrams of them, at least. If those are the sort of vehicles used by petty criminals, it makes perfect sense that the traffic cops are people like Ellana Swing. They’ve brought their fight to the wrong time. They shouldn’t be here. He shouldn’t be here. Doesn’t want to be. Desperately, his gaze passes over the barrel of the gun once more, contemplating the consequences of an affair with his charge. He’s thinking about the way it’ll look before he wraps his lips around it. Wondering if his jaw will start to ache before he can pull the trigger. First and only kill. Aim upwards, fire it through the roof of your mouth—
“Don’t you dare,” mutters Swing. Somehow, she knows. Her mellow voice is the true warning tone. Piercing clarity, while the sirens begin to sound more distorted as moments pass. “I need you for this. If you honest-to-God believe that Books are the Future, you damn well stay and help.”
I don’t, he wants to confess, believe that about books. Or in God, for that matter, honest-to-Him. The campaign was Catherine Wottle’s idea, and the head librarian was now eight floors below them and deceased, her cardigan full of holes, bleeding out onto the marble of the reception. I designed the poster. I took it too far. It got out of control.
Swing’s standard-issue overcoat is far too small for him. It pinches his shoulders and his underarms, but he’s been assured that it’s bulletproof. The gun clatters and bounces off the cheap linoleum as he shrugs the coat off, struggling with the narrow sleeves.
“Your funeral,” she says flatly. They’re both fighting for their lives; he just hasn’t realized it yet.
He watches for her signal with the overcoat gathered in his arms, one hand in a death grip around his weapon. The hood of her uniform is drawn tight over her head, and not a single curly strand of her dark hair shows. Her eyebrows form a disapproving arrow which points ever downwards. Her uniform, like the overcoat, is standard-issue as well, constructed from the same material. It’s pliable as seasoned leather, scaled like the skin of a reptile. Fabric obviously designed for military use, he thinks. Created exactly 600 years after the very one in which he’d first choked on Earth’s atmosphere. And of course, completely bulletproof.
Guns. They fill people up with nothing and bullets—grandfather’s words—and you find yourself on either end of a gun, filling up with some twisted sort of pleasure, you’ve found yourself doing the devil’s work. You either find yourself full of bullets, or you find yourself empty. “Devil’s work,” he whispers to himself. Perhaps the world wasn’t in need of saving. Wasn’t meant to be saved.
An explosion rocks the room as it blows the heavy double doors open, announcing the presence of the burrowers with a shower of plaster from the ceiling. Swing makes a derisive noise in her throat. “Amateurs.” She straightens, draws her weapon, relishing the slight recoil from the arms unfolding and clicking into place. She aims the crossbow at the ruined entrance, firing an energy bolt that greets a burrower by crashing into his teeth. He goes down at once, life draining out of him before he can reconcile his pulpy mess of a face. “Watch the vaults!” She snaps at the cowering librarian.
“They’re just books!” He screams, hysterical.
Two more burrowers step over the body of the first, firing blindly into the room before they’re taken down by searing bolts of light. Their bullets ricochet off the door of the vault. “Get up,” says Swing without taking her eyes from the doorway. “In 2525, libraries are places we visit to borrow time. Your libraries hold our present. Ours hold your future.”
A figure darts in and heads straight for them, but Swing hesitates to raise her bow arm. Her Gift has kicked in and she allows the scene to play out as it should, watching it as she would a premonition. The librarian dives out from behind the desk, firing at the precise moment he’s hit by a low-grade shock shell. “Amateurs’ weapons,” Swing mouths to herself as she falls to her knees and bends over him. “Amateurs.” She doesn’t need confirmation that the burrower is dead. She knows.
“There goes my soul,” the librarian mumbles, emerging from under the overcoat.
“Don’t worry, you don’t have one,” Swing informs him. “You’re a nameless. You’re off the record.”
He coughs, acrid smoke from the shell’s impact filling his lungs. “Then I’ll do the Devil’s work.”