The black-nailed man stared into the cup of coffee in front of him on the diner’s counter, and a sudden sense of nostalgia overwhelmed him. He’d lost count of how many years had he spent traveling like this, eating in greasy spoon and mom and pop diners, sleeping in almost-run-down hotels and the back of his car, and never really connecting to another human. This lonely life came with the job. Not everyone was cut out for this kind of thing, even after proving themselves ready, most who became black nails couldn’t cut it more than a decade. This particular black-nailed man, who sat in that particular diner, on that particular drizzly night, waiting for a particular man and woman to come into the place as they traveled from one city to another, thinking they had managed to get away with their crime, his fingernails had been black longer than thirty years. Sometimes, twinges hit him, a sudden and fleeting desire to walk away, to talk to his superiors and schedule training his replacement. He would look into his coffee, or out of the window into the darkness of night, in those loneliest of moments, and wonder what a normal life might be like. Then, just as the feeling, that sudden burst of memory from before his augmentation, came over him, he’d run down the list of all the things he’d done to keep things running, maintain the status quo, and the moment would pass. Only, this time, the moment didn’t pass. Rather, he stared at his coffee and remembered a moment from his childhood where he and his father had sat at a counter very much like this one, in a diner very much like this one, and the boy he had once been had decided that he wanted to try coffee for the first time.
“Please, Dad?” the boy had asked, pleaded.
“It’s pretty strong and bitter, son,” the father had said. “You probably won’t like it.”
“I will, Dad,” the boy had said with that confidence that only children can muster when they decide the universe must work in contrary to what an adult says; because, surely the adult is lying to keep the child from enjoying some extraordinary aspect of life. “You like. I’ll like it too.”
The father had looked the boy in the eye, in that half-judging, half-daring kind of way that fathers seem to instinctively develop upon becoming fathers. The boy met the gaze. They sat there for several long moments, staring at each other, each testing the will of the other. When the boy would not look away, the father gave a half-smile and a slight nod. He waved the waitress over.
“What can I do for you, hun?” the waitress asked.
“This young man has decided that he’s going to try his first cup of coffee,” the father said. “Could you get him a cup?”
The waitress had looked the book over, with a slight smile. When she glanced to the father, the smile crept into her eyes as well. In hindsight, examining his memories through the gifts of his augmentation, the black-nailed man saw the waitress glancing at the father’s left hand, specifically to his ring finger. Her smile hadn’t reached her eyes until she’d noticed the absence of a ring on that finger.
“First cup of Joe, eh?” the waitress asked. “Well, that’s a special occasion. On the house.”
“You don’t have to do that,” the father said.
“It’s our pleasure,” the waitress said over her shoulder as she headed toward the coffee pot.
Again, through his augmentation, the black-nailed man noticed a bit of an extra sway in her hips, all for the benefit of the father.
A moment later, the boy had his very own cup of coffee in front of him on the counter, black and steaming, much like the cup the black-nailed man looked into in a different diner several decades later. Throughout training and the augmentation process, every candidate of the program was encouraged to pick a few moments from their life before entering the program to keep them grounded in their humanity, to remind them exactly why they had chosen this arduous and grueling life. This black-nailed man had picked this as one of his moments, seemingly in some moment of clairvoyance of the kind of life those who became black-nailed me would lead. Every cup of coffee in every diner, restaurant, and truck stop would become a tether to his life before. Before this, the nostalgia lasted no longer than a fleeting moment; however, this time, the moment lasted longer, bringing up specific sensory memories of the waitress, the father, and the boy. It wasn’t until the bell attached to the door of the diner rang as it opened in the present that the black-nailed man pushed aside his tether to the diner, the father, and coffee of the past.
The black-nailed man glanced into the diner-length mirror behind the counter. A man and woman stood just inside the door, waiting for the waitress to escort them to a table. The couple was well dressed without being ostentatious. The man wore a gray suit, sharply pressed, more well-pressed than it should have been for how long he would have had to have been in a car to get to this particular diner along this stretch of highway. Like wise, the lady’s dress seemed as if she had just stepped out of a dressing room. Neither carried an umbrella, yet despite the drizzle outside of the diner, both remained noticeably dry. Narrowing the focus of his observation, the black-nailed man noticed how the man’s coat bulged a bit unnaturally underneath both of his armpits. Likewise, the skirt of the lady’s dress settled in an odd way as she shifted from one foot to the other. Still, each of these details didn’t cause the black-nailed man to slide forward on his seat. Even the preternatural grooming and the tell-tale signs weaponry could have been explained by odd coincidence or some near-reasonable explanation.
The quality that set the black-nailed man on edge was that, to the careful observer, the couple was decidedly not human. Most people would only consider the man and women to be one those special couples that looked like they should be in advertisements in magazines or the leads in a romantic comedy, while still being slightly put off. The couple was attractive in an unsettling way, a way that, if pressed, normal people couldn’t describe. Due to his heightened awareness that came from his training and enhancements, the black-nailed man recognized why looking at the couple that set people on edge, despite their attractiveness. Both sides of their faces matched too perfectly, without the asymmetry present in any naturally born human of the current era or dimension. Though, without further inspection, likely from autopsy or scanning via technology currently unavailable, the black-nailed man wouldn’t be able to tell if the couple was visiting from another place or time. Not that it mattered. They were interlopers to the here and now. And thus, the reason for his presence at this remote diner on an evening where most people chose discretion over valor and stayed well enough in doors.
The black-nailed man pushed his cup of coffee away, pulled his gloves off one at a time, first the left and then the right, and set them on the counter where his coffee cup had been a moment before. He swiveled on the stool to face the couple, making a steeple of his fingers just beneath his chin. His jet-black fingernails stood out like white cat hair on a black suit.
The couple’s heads moved at the same time, swiveling first to fixate on the fingernails for two seconds before looking into the black-nailed man’s eyes. The black-nailed man shifted his gaze back and forth between the man and woman several times before he lowered his hands and swiveled back around to face his coffee.
One of the reasons so many others who went through the augmentation process burnt out in their first decade was because most of them resorted to violence first. While it was true, many such encounters like this ultimately devolved to violence, it needn’t begin there. Occasionally, and often enough to make the attempt worth the trouble, the black-nailed managed to convince interlopers such as these to return from whence they came without them trying to kill each other.
In the mirror, he watched the couple wave the waitress off and walk toward him. They made a point of keeping their hands well away from the places where their clothing indicated they might be carrying weapons. When they reached reached the black-nailed man, the man sat on his left and the lady on his right. Interesting. Completely opposite of the expectation of norms.
“What now?” the woman asked?
Like her face, her voice was too perfect, a mix of sweet and sultry impossible to any woman native to the when and where of this meeting.
“That depends on you,” the black-nailed man replied. “You’re not welcome here.”
“We haven’t done anything,” the woman said.
“We’re just passing through,” the man said.
His voice caught the black-nailed man by surprise. It lacked the expected perfection to match the woman’s. He sounded strained, slightly forced, and almost as if speaking hurt a little. He even swallowed after speaking.
“I’m sure,” the black-nailed man said. “I’ve also heard that before. As well as any number of other assurances that you aren’t planning anything to jeopardize the integrity of our when-where. Tourists. Observers. Anthropologists. Take your pick. I don’t care about what justification you think I’ll believe. I won’t. You may be perfectly nice people where-when you come from. You’re presence here-now is nothing but a threat to our here-now, just as my presence where-when you are from would be just as threatening to your here-now.”
“Contrary to the Agency’s propaganda,” the woman said, “you are not omniscient to the needs of your here-now. Everything is in flux, affected by subtle forces beyond your awareness and comprehension.”
“Claims I’ve also heard before,” the black-nailed man said. “Though the wording is a bit different. Regardless, I’m going to have to both tag you as before asking you to leave.”
“Tag us?” the man asked.
The black-nailed man nodded.
“What does that mean?” the man asked.
“You can’t be that naive,” the black-nailed man replied.
Both man and lady shrugged, and nothing in either of their expressions indicated they were lying.
“You must be new to this whole thing,” the black-nailed man said. “First time outside of your own where-when?”
“No,” the lady said. “But this is the first one we’ve visited that is so openly hostile to our presence. And the first to be ready so soon after our arrival.”
“We’ve had lots of problems with hostile incursions,” the black-nailed man said. “We’re close borders to several where-whens on the verge of collapse, some by natural disasters, some because the people there didn’t treat their here-now with any kind of foresight or compassion, so they come here hoping to find a where-when before their native here-now comes to an end. Unfortunately, they always, always, bring a piece of their where-when with them, just like you’re bringing a bit of yours with you. You can’t help it. It’s as much a part of you as your hair and your blood. The longer you stay, the greater the chance that your presence will corrupt our here-now.”
The man and woman looked at each other.
“You can’t bargain with me,” the black nailed man said. “Can’t. You seem like nice people. I’m sorry for whatever you’re going through, but you can’t stay. I’m ordering you to vacate our here-now, and take anything you’ve brought here with you. I don’t care if you return to your where-when. You just can’t stay here.
The lady said, “But—,”
“Save it,” the man said. “He’s a zealot. We won’t get…”
If not for his training and augmentation, the black-nailed man would never have been prepared. Fortunately, he not only had training and augmentation, he had decades of field experience to draw upon. He’d planned for several potentialities and prepared accordingly.
As the man finished his sentence, “…through to him,” he’d been reaching for something under his coat, almost certainly a weapon. At the first sign of hostile movement, the black-nailed man tapped his foot on the button he’d placed under his chair. Both the man and woman stiffened as (make up cool sounding name for energy) coursed out of their chairs and through their bodies. Three seconds later, they slumped to the floor. With the power surge that came with subduing the interlopers, the holograms of the waitress and the few other patrons in the diner flickered out of existence. When the black-nailed man had first arrived, the waitress, cook, and dishwasher had been the only people in the diner. Sedating them had been no trouble at all. After scanning their likeness into the projector, the black-nailed man had taken the liberty to add a few other patrons to his subterfuge. Sometimes having innocent bystanders about caused interlopers to hesitate before resorting to violence.
The black-nailed man sighed. He hated having to do things like that, especially when these people didn’t seem harmful in the way some interlopers were. They were just misguided, convinced of the righteousness of their mission. Unfortunately for them, the Agency had learned through that anything other than zero tolerance to interlopers would eventually lead to dire consequences to their here-now.
The black-nailed man reached into the inner pocket of his pea coat and withdrew a silver cylinder a little larger than a magic marker pen. He knelt down next to the woman, placed the cylinder just behind her left ear, and depressed the button on the end injected the man and woman with a tag. He scooted over to the man, and injected him as well. Once he completed that task, the black-nailed man secured each interloper’s ankles, knees, and wrists with zip-ties made of a nylon-titanium mesh. Conceivably those restraints could be snapped or cut, but if these interlopers had the ability or tools to do that, the Agency had bigger problems on their hands than and isolated incursion. Some black-nailed agents preferred to restrain before tagging; however, every once in a while, an interloper didn’t remained subdued as long as an agent had anticipated, especially when attempting to capture a large group of interlopers. Being able to track them was always the higher priority.
With the preliminaries out of the way, the black-nailed man searched the couple. They had local ID, top notch, the woman’s might even be legitimate. They indeed had weapons, Gloch 20s, also local to the hear-now, as was their money; each had exactly five, one-hundred dollar bills. The man had a ring of keys in his pocket, a car key, a house key, and what was likely a mailbox key. The black-nailed man pushed aside the growing chill in the pit of his stomach. Most interlopers were not this prepared, and those that were this prepared wouldn’t have ever allowed themselves to be taken this easily, if at all.
Bouncing the keys in his hand, the black-nailed man stood. He placed the keys on the counter, put his gloves back on, and picked up the keys again. Looking out the diner’s massive windows, he saw a dark sedan, probably a black sedan, under the parking lot’s solitary light. Why was it always a black sedan? Well, regardless of what they’d arrived in, something that large could hide any number of items or substances that might cause serious harm to the here-now. He glanced at the clock and estimated he had about thirty minutes before the diner staff recovered from the sedative. That wasn’t nearly enough time to perform a thorough inspection.
The black-nailed man owed the success of his career to his ability to adapt and improvise.
So, you guys get to vote on where the story goes.