A child's voice cried out, "You are EVIL!" as Alex approached the house.
"We are evil," his target told the girl in a level tone. She was already having a conversation with someone and from the inflection on the "we" he guessed it was her past self. Not good.
Time travelers were getting better and better at staying ahead of law enforcement. The department's own success had made it so that no one who tried to change the past did it without what they were convinced was a very good plan. The problem was when they were right.
The target had bought herself hours at most, but if she was talking to her past self there was no telling what damage might have been done in that time.
Alex looked down to his left forearm. A screen built into the fabric of his coat lit up and based on the readouts it looked like the future was secure, so long as he prevented any more changes to the timeline. He sighed in relief, took a deep breath, and kicked in the door.
"Hands where I can see them!" he shouted before he even got a look at the inside of the room. In his experience it was good to get to the point fast. In his business moments mattered.
The target put up her hands and took a step back. What she took a step back from was the part that almost threw Alex. There was a little girl, naked, handcuffed to what appeared to be some sort of heating pipe. Alex willed himself to pay attention to the mission and approached the target.
"Your travel through time is unauthorized and you killed two people--" Alex began.
"You knew?" The little girl asked.
Confused, Alex looked at her and then the floor. There were two bodies. A man and a woman. Probably the girl's parents. They'd been shot to death but no shots had been fired since he checked on the state of the timeline. Apparently their lives didn't matter much to history. From what little he knew about them, he didn't think they'd be missed.
"You killed four people," Alex corrected, "and you will be brought--"
Things happened fast. He guessed she had enhancements because the target's speed didn't seem to match her age or apparent muscles. He lost his gun and she drew her own. Alex grabbed the gun with both hands, the target did the same, and it was a fight to see which way the weapon would point.
Alex was surprised when the gun went off. Had he pulled the trigger without realizing it? It didn't make sense for her to do it since the gun had been pointed at her.
The target collapsed to the ground. She was dead by the time she hit it.
The whole thing was a mess but the job was done.
"I'm sorry you had to see that," Alex said to the girl.
"It was... it was self defense," she said.
"Smart thing," Alex thought.
"You saved me."
Alex found the key to the handcuffs and freed the girl. "Put some clothes on honey."
Alex began the work of scanning for things from his own time. It looked like it was just the target, her gun, his gun, and a bag.
It wasn't actually part of the job to find out what was in then bag, but he was curious.
"Oh God," he said, a taste of vomit in his mouth.
"Are you ok?" the girl asked.
"Fine. Fine. I just threw up in my mouth a little and that's nasty is all."
"Icky. Why did you throw up in your mouth?"
Alex sighed. "I think she," he said pointing at the target, "was going to do to you what they," he pointed to the girl's dead parents, "would have done to you had they lived."
"What would they have done to me?"
"If I try to tell you that I'll throw up for real," Alex said. "Can we talk about something else?"
"What's your name?"
"Alex," he said. His name wasn't going to disrupt the timeline or make him vomit so this was a perfectly good subject in his mind.
"Well, Margie, I'm going to--" Alex stopped as someone else entered the home. "Why are you here, Perry? The mission's over."
"No, it's not," the newcomer said.
"The timeline was intact before I engaged the target, and while I'd rather have brought her in alive she's definitely not going to be doing any damage now."
"Things got worse when you neutralized the target."
Alex looked to the readouts on his forearm screen while saying, "That doesn't make any--" which is as far as he got before realizing Perry was right.
"Our world is hanging on by a thread," Perry said. "We've had some close calls before and it's never been this bad."
Perry just looked. It took Alex a moment to realize Perry was looking past him toward Margie.
"Her? She's supposed to--" Alex looked at the three bodies on the floor. Margie's parents. Margie's future self. He remembered the content of the bag. "There's no one left to abuse her."
Perry nodded slowly.
"So what are you suggesting?" Alex asked. "Damage done."
Perry said, "We'll take care of it."
"Really?" Alex asked, anger growing in his voice. "I didn't know we had a department for that."
"If she doesn't ... go bad--"
"Evil," Alex snapped. "The term the girl used is 'evil'."
Margie hid herself behind Alex. She didn't understand the argument, but of the two total strangers in the house she knew which one she trusted more.
"Fine," Perry said, "Go with the melodrama. If she doesn't turn evil then she won't do certain things, which will lead to other people not doing certain things, which will mean that our entire world will cease to exist."
"We're talking about a child."
"No. You're not thinking straight. We're talking about the whole world. My family. Your family. Our friends. Everyone you've ever met--"
Alex mumbled, mostly to himself, "our happiness, the beauty of our planet, the tenderness of our friendships, the health of our children, the wisdom of our scholars, the skill of our makers, even the abundance of our harvest and the kindly weathers of our skies."
A dangerous edge entered Perry's voice when he said, "You're quoting Omelas."
Alex lunged for one of the guns still lying on the floor and in a moment he and Perry were facing each other weapons drawn. "How long have we known each other?" Alex asked.
"If you think you can trade on our friendship to--"
"That's not it. This is: You know I can't lie for shit. Before I finally gave up on poker you called every single bluff."
"So you'll know that this is true: If I hurt you I'll never forgive myself, but that isn't going to stop me from hurting you if you try to do anything to this girl."
"You like your short story so much?" Perry asked. "Then walk away. Isn't that what the good people do in the story?"
"Oh, I'm walking away from Omelas," Alex said, "but I'm not leaving without this kid." He reached back and held Margie by the hand.
"Seriously Alex, just walk away, I'll do what needs to be done."
"Could you Perry? Could you really?"
"Yes," Perry spat. "I'm not so selfish that I'd destroy the entire world just so I could sleep at night. If the price of saving everything I care about is not being able to look at myself in the mirror then I'd pay it gladly."
Perry opened fire, and Alex returned it, but none of the shots connected and soon both needed to reload. In the silence Alex said, "If you hit her you'll erase our future even quicker."
Perry said a quiet, "Shit."
Alex led Margie out of the house.
Perry activated a communications device and said, "I need backup now. Alex has gone rogue and the new target is with him," so quickly that he almost tripped over the words.
"Will I really turn out like... like her," Margie asked when they stopped running.
"No, one of the effects of the time machine is that it insulates the user from any changes in the timeline. A time traveler pops into the past exactly as they left the future even if that future no longer exists. It can be quite disorienting, I'm told, because changes mean that some time travelers appeared in pasts that didn't even exist when they used the time machine.
"There's actually an entire colony of former travelers who have banded together and bonded over coming from timelines that don't even exist anymore. It's in..." Alex looked at Margie. "You're not following any of this, are you?"
Margie gestured that she was following very little.
"The short answer is, 'No.' You have free will. You'll be whatever you will be."
"You said that like there was going to be a "but"."
"But some people, people like Perry, want you to end up like her. As close as possible."
"I don't want to be evil," Margie said.
"I'm going to do everything in my power to protect you from those people," Alex said.
[I'm not actually a fan of the trope that abuse leads to evil and thus evil comes from abuse. Some people who were raised just fine none the less turned out quite bad, abused people are not to be regarded with suspicion because seriously that's just wrong.]