The door to the Department of Temporal Mechanics turned green as Alice swiped her hand past it, but she didn't enter. She had been waiting - almost hoping - that it would turn red and sound the alarms. She stood for a moment in the rain, cold drops trickling through her blonde hair and down between swirling tattoos, asking herself if there was any point in going to work anymore. Her entire reason for taking the job had been to bring the madman who killed her family to justice, but even after tracking him to the 1860s - and waiting for what felt like forever until a trip was approved for the correct area and time - she had failed. They had known she was coming, an Agent had stopped her just twenty feet from her target. If only it had been the right Agent, at least it still would have been worth it - but they would never let her see him again. So now what? Just keep being a receptionist? Not likely.
"You're going to freeze to death out here, kid." Alice jumped, and spun around to find the security guard holding an umbrella over her. Heart pounding, she tried to compose herself.
"Hey Andy. Sorry, I spaced out. One of these days that'll get me in trouble, I'm sure."
He held the door for her, smiling. "Somehow I can't picture a nice girl like you getting in any trouble."
Alice ducked inside and sloshed over to her desk facing the entrance, watching in a kind of coma as each scientist wandered in for the day. Harvey came in late and hurried past her desk without making eye contact before she could even apologize for tagging along with him illegally. She had liked Harv, he was awkward but kind... and now he was terrified of her. Definitely time for a change of scenery.
Decision made, Alice grabbed her one personal item off of the desk and stood to leave - quitting formally seemed unnecessary with the door right there. She would be unable to give them an honest exit interview anyway, nor could she give them a forwarding address since she planned on heading seventy-five years into the future and the DTM believed - absurdly - that it was impossible to jump forward in time. Her criminal record there wouldn't make it easy to find work, but Alice was resolved to be something more exciting than a receptionist. Something greater. She reached for the door for her final time, took a deep breath, and was nearly knocked off of her feet as Doctor Rytier burst in.
"Ah! Alice! Just who I was looking for!" His hair was sticking off at odd angles, and his clothes were wrinkled and covered in pet hair. Alice stared at the screen on his lab coat, showing current credentials. Hadn't he been fired months ago?
"You've been so nice to me, Alice; asked after my son when he went to the institution, smiled at me even when everyone else in this place... and your namesake, of course, was a great inspiration in a roundabout way - I bought you a copy, to celebrate my breakthrough."
Alice took the slightly damp package from his hands. It was a book, actual paper like a collector's edition: Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. "I've never heard of it; what is it about?"
Doctor Rytier stared at her, confused. "Is... are you joking with me, dear?"
"Of course I am," she lied, resting a hand on his shoulder. She had become so used to lying over the past year that she found herself smiling and flirting slightly to distract from the soul-crushing panic boiling up inside. Had she changed something? How?
"If you could come to my personal lab, I want you to see this first. Do you mind?"
If she had altered the timeline an Agent would find her sooner or later - probably Chase, that smug bastard. Still, she reasoned, there was no point in making it easy on him. "Let's go."
Doctor Rytier, she discovered, lived and worked in an ancient basement apartment that reeked of cats. Alice looked around at the old whiteboards and faded posters on the walls, at the stacks of books and dirty dishes. Suddenly this felt like a terrible idea. She remembered the talk of Rytier's mental instability and her head was filled with images of the man who had killed her father while ranting about birthing some dark god into the world. Steadily refining her life's goals, she added 'creepy basements with crazy people' to her list of places she didn't want to be, right under 'reception desk'. As Alice attempted to find a polite excuse she noticed a smiling face suspended in the air and froze.
"We've been a bad little girl, haven't we?" it said.
Doctor Rytier stared as the chameleon cloak was thrown back to reveal an Agent from Alice's time. "Who... what are you?" he croaked.
The Agent just continued to smile, as he always did.
"You people at the Department, so naive. Thinking there's no future iteration of the organization keeping an eye on you. This shouldn't be happening, doctor Rytier. You should be dead by now, without making... whatever this is."
Alice looked around for a way to fight back, but unless she threw a kitten at him there was nothing to do. "Chase, I didn't change anything. You stopped me. This can't be my fault."
"No, Alice, you didn't change anything directly. Your boyfriend is the problem. How hard is a little babysitting? Witness Protection duty somewhere in the past should be easy, but he had to go and write some nonsense stories for children. He's taken care of, but the department thinks it's easiest if we just remove you from the equation retroactively. Say goodbye, Alice."
This was it. Her family, he boyfriend, and now her very existence would be lost just when she had resolved to move on with her life. Alice waited to be wrenched free from time, to feel reality collapse around her. Instead, the door opened and the security guard from the DTM walked in.
"Who the hell are you?" Chase asked, still smiling.
"You people at the Department, so naive." Andy said, "Thinking there's no future iteration of the organization keeping an eye on you. Sorry Chase, I've secured Alice a position in a different universe. Oh and relax, those books already existed in the prime timeline."
For the first time since she met him, Alice saw Chase lose his cool. He was hammering at the subdermal controls in his arm, but nothing appeared to be happening.
"No... no, listen to me. The books are an anomaly!"
"You just think that because you're convinced you came from prime. Really, you're the one that's an anomaly. Sorry, Chase."
Chase flickered and.. vanished. Alice looked down at Doctor Rytier, passed out on the ground. A white kitten was licking his face. She felt unsteady, like everything around her was just someone's dream and they were likely to wake at any moment - snuffing her like the flame of a candle. "What happens to me now?"
Andy shrugged. "Now you work for a company a lot like the one Chase worked for, but somewhere else. Your bosses will meet you there, you can't miss him. They always wear a tweed jacket - in fact, they love to be called 'Mr. Tweed'." The sarcasm of this statement hit Alice like a brick and she resolved to call her new employer no such thing. Reaching down, Andy lifted a black kitten onto a boxy device of some sort and stepped back.
"Let's make this look like an accident, okay Novikov?"
"NOT A PROBLEM, ANDREY." The voice boomed from nowhere and everywhere at once. The kitten on the device suddenly began to urinate, and with a shower of sparks a shimmering mirrored portal appeared in the air - almost like the time portal but... dark somehow. Without a backwards look, Alice abandoned the ruins of her life and stepped through.
Two identical portly men in tweed jackets stared at her. The lab was the same, though without the cats or people. The books laying open on the table appeared to be in Russian, and for some reason the door was on the opposite end of the wall. Little differences. The portal vanished, and Alice reached out to shake her new bosses' hands, awkwardly extending one arm to each of them.
"So... I'm supposed to be your new field agent, I believe. Will I be starting right away?"
"Oh, yes." one replied in a curiously deep voice, "You will be deep undercover, long-term." The other nodded and added, "As a receptionist."