by E.Escher - 9th Feb 2017
Brian sat in silence as the Range Rover drove them through the outskirts of Manchester, presumably to some secret location. The man in charge, who'd called himself Harbinger, messed with his phone and paid Brian no heed whatsoever.
The driver drove, while the other man, presumably one of Harbinger's staff, watched Brian like a hawk from the passenger seat.
Brian managed to get a glance at the screen of Harbinger's phone, but it was all in foreign and he couldn't read a word.
The journey was mercifully short, and the car pulled onto a private driveway. Gravel crunched beneath the tyres as it swung into position at the front of a posh-looking brick mansion, all ivy-covered pillars and leaded windows. From a professional viewpoint Brian found the visible wealth unimpressive, but the cameras and overlapping viewpoints got his attention. This place was a fortress.
More guys came to open the doors, and everybody got out. Brian followed suit, since nobody told him not to. 'Nice place,' he remarked to one of the dark-suited goons. The goon didn't bother to reply, he simply gestured toward the front door, where two more men waited patiently.
Harbinger walked past him toward the door. 'Come on in. This shouldn't take too long.'
'It'd better not, I got stuff to do, people to kill.'
Harbinger gave him an arch look. 'I'm well aware of your mission. Who do you think sends you your objectives?'
Brian gave him a flat look in return. 'I honestly don't know, and so long as I get paid I don't particularly give a flying stuff.'
The older man beamed with approval. 'Good answer! This way, to my study. One of the goons hurried ahead and opened the door to a wood-panelled room. Brian bought up the rear, and dropped himself into a plush leather seat.
He waited for Harbinger to settle down in the chair behind the table. 'Why did you send me after Colin Campbell?' he demanded. 'How much do you know? About what he is, where he's from?'
'Aha, well, it's something of an embarrassment, now that you mention it.'
'We didn't send you that mission.' he actually blushed. 'Apparently a rival agency accessed the channel and placed several requests that just so happened to coincide with our encoded messages.'
'Somebody hacked your system?'
'That's what my IT people tell me. I've been trying to recall agents all day, we've got a dozen unsanctioned hits to pay out for, hits that nobody ordered. Do you know what this will do to us, professionally? If word of this gets out our reputation will be ruined.'
Brian scowled. 'You think somebody is doing this to ruin your reputation?'
'It's the most likely possibility. The odds of some civilian making those calls by accident are millions to one.'
The floor dropped out of his stomach. 'Millions to one, eh? Do the requests get recorded?'
'Of course. We log everything. That's how we know the call was made from here in Manchester.'
'It was a woman, wasn't it?'
Harbinger looked at him sharply. 'How do you know that?'
'Call it a lucky guess. What's the odds, you think, fifty-fifty?'
'Guessing male or female? There are probably other factors, but it's either one or the other, so fifty-fifty is close enough, yes.'
'I bet she sounds like she's in her twenties, too. How's that for a guess.'
Harbinger sat up straight in his chair. 'You know who it is! Who did this? Who's she working for?'
Brian glared. 'I know who it was, and I was on my way to shoot her when you picked me up. I was this close.' He held up a thumb and forefinger to illustrate. 'She was buying chips with my target, maybe 200 yards down the road.'
'You were going to kill her?'
'That's what you pay me for, remember? I kill people.'
'What I pay you for is following orders. You're valuable to us because you only kill when I tell you to. We don't need killers, we need professionals. No, we need this girl alive, to find out what she knows.'
'She doesn't know anything about the organisation, she's just a girl with a run of peculiar luck.'
'You suggest this woman made those calls by accident? We run a radio station with no advertising, playing old unpopular songs by little-known artists, and she chooses, at random, a track that we have encoded with secret information?'
'It had to happen sooner or later, right?'
'No. Normally our DJ would ignore requests from any outside source.'
Harbinger bit his lip. 'He was unwell that night and asked a friend to stand in for a few hours.'
'And I'm guessing the friend didn't know that particular rule.'
'He did not, but that is irrelevant! This woman called in sixteen song requests, one after the other, and every one ended up triggering a sanction order. Sixteen out of a library of millions of unedited songs.'
Brian turned this over. 'That doesn't make sense. Are you telling me you had a golden oldie track specifically prepared with the order for me to kill my mate Colin?'
'Don't be ridiculous, that's not how it works at all. Each track contains encoded segments which, if read as part of a greater whole, can contain very detailed instructions.'
'So the odds of somebody picking that one radio station to listen to, and calling in requests the one time that there's a stand-in DJ manning the post, and then those songs being the particular elements needed to complete a bunch of assassination orders...?'
'And the odds of one of those orders saying that I should kill my mate, with additional notes that he's a trained combatant, protected by an enemy operative, and that he'll go to ground if I don't kill him on the first try?'
Harbinger looked impressed. 'It said all that? That's rather verbose, as random chatter goes. I had my team decipher the messages sent out, to find out who the targets were.'
'So you could stop them?'
'In some cases, yes, if the ramifications are far-reaching, or the bill too high to bear. Some of the smaller kills, like your associate Mister Campbell, well, I decided to let them go ahead.'
Brian frowned. 'But you stopped me before I could do it. What changed your mind?'
'Our initial search came back empty. Inconsequential, irrelevant. We let you kill him, it's not a big job, won't cost us much, not worth the hassle of trying to stop you.'
'And then our american friends came back with the results of our image search. Facial recognition, a wonderful new technology, lets computers sift through millions, billions of images to find our targets. According to photographic evidence, your friend Campbell fought in the second world war.'
Brian kept his face carefully neutral. 'He's in his mid-thirties.'
'In the photo we found, he was in his mid-thirties. We also found a photograph of him serving in the first world war. He looks the same in both photographs, so of course we assume they are fake. An elaborate hoax.'
'That's what I'd think, too.'
'Would you really? I think you know better. You have a terrible poker face, so let's make this easier for both of us. Tell me what you know, and we can go about the rest of our evening in peace.'
Brian grimaced. 'I could tell you what she told me, word for word, and you wouldn't believe any of it.'
'I might. Try me.'
'Okay, I'll tell you. I'll tell you the whole bleedin' mess, but first, I could use a drink. Whisky if you've got it.'
Harbinger raised a brow, but relented and gave a small nod to the goon by the door. 'Bring two glasses, and the bottle. I think our man has something to get off his chest.'
Brian sat stubbornly silent, arms folded across his chest. This guy clearly thought he was something important, but for all his security nobody had bothered to divest him off his handguns. He had sixty-six rounds. He didn't know how many staff he had, or how many were armed, but it was reasonable to assume he could fight his way out of this place if things turned sour.
The whisky arrived, and the goon poured out two glasses. Brian took the glass nearest the older man, and took a sip. 'You like crazy stories, Harbinger? Our man Colin is some kinda cursed creature. Every hit I've made for the past couple of years, you thought I was making them look like accidents and suicides.'
'Yes. We paid you some quite substantial bonuses, according to our records.'
'Those accidents and suicides really were accidents and suicides. Every last one.'
'I find that exceedingly unlikely.'
'Yeah, me too. It freaked me out for the longest time, until I finally made the connection.'
'Aye, Colin. I kept him nearby for each hit, and every single target was dead when I arrived on the scene.'
That got his attention. 'You've been taking our money under false pretences?'
Brian shrugged. 'All I ever did was report dead targets. I never claimed credit for anything, your system doesn't give us any way to do that. The target dies, we send the signal, we get paid.'
'All right. Say I believe you so far. It's fanciful, but I'm still listening. How does the woman come into this?'
'Well, whatever this thing is that Colin does, he doesn't know he's doing it. I figure he's my lucky charm, making life easy. Turns out this girl, she's the same. They create coincidences, wherever they go, and now there's two of 'em in the same place, at the same time, so when it comes to coincidences, all bets are off.' He drained the rest of his glass. 'Anything can happen.'
'So they cause coincidences? How does that happen? What are they? How can this be possible?'
'They're time travellers.'
'The girl said she's from the future. Time travel.'
Harbinger frowned. 'And the man? Campbell?'
'Him too, yeah.'
'Is that how he ended up in the wars? As a tourist?'
'No, heh, I think he went way way back and got stuck, somehow. The year seventeen-something, I don't remember.' He reached for the bottle and poured himself another glass. 'That's the other thing with these two; they're not human. They're some kind of zombie. Basically immortal. Colin's been thirty-five years old forever.'
'Immortality. Huh. Are you saying these future people can cure death as well as travel through time?'
'Naw. Something happened to 'em in the future, some disease, and the cure left 'em not quite human anymore. She said it was some kind of techno-virus thing. She said their biological functions were maintained indefinitely, which I guess means they live forever.'
'But they can be killed. You were on your way to kill them, you said.'
'I was going to give it my best shot. At the very least I was going to mess them up so bad they couldn't keep it a secret anymore.' He clenched his fists. 'Time travellers! Who knows how many of them have been coming back and messing things up? Who knows what they've been doing? We don't know who they are and we don't know what they're doing.'
Harbinger sat back, his expression thoughtful. 'You're not the first person to be paranoid about the possibility of time travel. After seeing these photographs of Colin Campbell I did a little digging, and it seems the internet is full of people doing their own image searches, finding bizarre matches separated by decades, or even centuries. Ancient photos of people supposedly using mobile phones.'
'But those are hoaxes, right? Those conspiracy nuts are, well, nuts.'
'Oh without a doubt, but if there's a nugget of truth behind their theory, how would we ever know? How many times have they come back to fix things? If somebody were to find solid evidence, some conclusive proof of visitors from the future, the game would be up, we'd be alert to the possibility. Secret task forces would be set up. It wouldn't be safe for them to visit any date after the discovery.'
'Yeah, that's what I was thinking. I can't do anything about the ones who've already been here, but if I can blow the secret wide open it'll put a stop to any more of 'em. The future will be safe.'
'Foolish boy. You're talking about time travel like it's a linear process. Events that are sequential to us are not sequential to them. If I found proof today, they could simply travel back to yesterday and erase that proof before I find it.'
Brian frowned. 'But if you never found the proof, why would they need to come back? That's a paradox, isn't it?'
'It might not be, if they had a policy of cleaning up after themselves, and I imagine their image-matching technology is far more advanced than ours.'
'So you think the secret could have been found already?'
'And retrospectively erased prior to discovery? Yes, if any of what you're saying is the truth, then this is the only reasonable extrapolation of events. In fact, I think I may have saved your life.'
'No! My plan would have worked. Killing these two is the only way to get noticed.'
'They would have sent another agent to stop you, perhaps fatally. They could have poisoned your morning coffee, and then nothing you've done today would have happened.' He pursed his lips. 'Although, given the reports, that might actually benefit everybody.'
Brian just glowered at him in response.
'There is some good news, though, regarding these meddlers from the future. It seems obvious they can't change too much of their own history.'
'Yeah, else I expect baby Hitler would have died a thousand ray-gun deaths by now.'
'I was referring more to the fact that if they change their own past too wildly they might never actually invent time travel. So, for example, if they have some horrible infection that turns people into zombies, they could go back and prevent it from happening, but for some reason they don't. Likewise Hitler, and any number of other historical atrocities.'
'Unless they have stopped a bunch of atrocities and tin-pot dictators, and we just don't know about it.' He frowned. 'These paradoxes are making my head hurt. How do they get around it in Doctor Who and stuff?'
Harbinger raised a brow. 'The time lords are an alien race from the other side of the galaxy, and they discovered time travel millennia ago. Nothing that happens on Earth would affect their own timeline in the slightest.'
'Oh. You actually watch Doctor Who, then?'
'I have grandchildren.'
'Right. So you think me attempting to kill these two is a bad idea? Because, I figure, if they can't undo somebody like Hitler, it's because he made a big impact. And I think the nearer we get to their own time, the harder it'd be to put things right if they alter my future.'
'You mean if they kill you, and you're destined to kill a whole lot of people in the future, that causes a lot of damage to the timeline.'
'That's how I see it. Whether they like it or not, I made a pretty big impression on a lot of people, and I aim to keep on doing so.'
'I'm more interested in capturing these two. Do you think you could hurt them enough to take them alive?'
Brian folded his arms. 'I don't do capture.'
'Very well. I'll send some of my men to accompany you.'
'Oh, so now I can go back to my job?'
'Yes, and this time I expect you to come back here and make a full report, in person. God speed and good luck.'
The curious tale of Colin CampbellPart One - How did it come to this?, Chapter 1, Earlier that dayChapter 2, Earlier stillChapter 3, Making a withdrawalChapter 4, August 18th, 2362Chapter 5, Angel of DeathChapter 6, Welcome to 2016.Chapter 7, Denmark, July 2358Chapter 8, After the crashChapter 9, Music of the SpheresChapter 10, Denmark, July 2358Chapter 11, Harbinger FMChapter 12, Denmark, July 2358Chapter 13, Excuses and liesPart Two - So here we are, Chapter 14Chapter 15, Quite a rideChapter 16, Talking the talkChapter 17, Leisurely pursuitChapter 18, Dinner Date with DestinyChapter 19, Chips with everythingChapter 20, HarbingerChapter 21, Time to leaveChapter 22, ManchesterChapter 23, Colin's HouseChapter 24, On the roadChapter 25, Chateau HarbingerChapter 26, ShowdownEpilogue, Debriefing