Year 18

Chapter 22

by E.Escher - 16th Feb 2017
Showered and dressed, they get themselves in order and hit the streets. Carmen had dressed herself more practically, starting with a black swimsuit-looking thing she said was armoured.

Colin asked if she had brought a spare, which just got a quizzical look in response. 'I didn't know I'd find you, I didn't know I'd be bringing you back, and weirdly enough I didn't know your measurements.'

Which he guessed was a no. So while Carmen was rocking a rugged jacket, brown leather pants and sturdy boots he was back the same jeans, T-shirt and bomber jacket as the day before. Carmen claimed that revenants didn't sweat as much as humans, but it bothered him nonetheless that he was still wearing yesterday's underwear.

He'd insisted, therefore, on heading home before they did anything else. Carmen had looked doubtful, as though she expected to find Brian waiting there, but she eventually nodded. 'Fair enough,' she'd conceded. 'Don't want to meet the future-people in grubby boxers.'

Colin planned to change more than his underwear, however. He wanted to get out of the bomber jacket and into something Brian wouldn't recognise, ideally something better suited to conceal a weapon. He also wanted to collect some of his own firearms. Carmen's gun seemed normal, and she insisted it wasn't some weird future gun - nothing that would leave any obvious evidence, anyway - but he would happier carrying something of his own. Plus that way Carmen could have her own gun back, and they'd both be armed.

And so they set off walking through the streets of Manchester. It was a long walk, but Carmen didn't want to risk another taxi. They weren't up against any particular deadline, but they walked quickly all the same. The sooner they were out of the city centre, the better he would feel.

He had expected the streets to be mostly empty at this time of the morning, but it seemed the city never completely slept, and plenty of people seemed to be up and about, on their way to start the early shift, or just getting an early start on the day when there'd be less interruptions.

Plus, of course, there were also the usual drunken idiots and the unfortunates with nowhere better to go.

He tried to plan a route to his house that avoided the worst of the night-time trouble spots, figuring they would continue to be troublesome as long as it was dark. He didn't want Carmen accosted by beggars, and found he was actually quite ashamed of the time he was living in.

'Is homelessness still a problem?' he asked. 'In the future, I mean.'

'In China?'

'Well, anywhere.'

'We used to have rampant overpopulation, a long time ago, but with proper planning our construction caught up with the populace, and everything's pretty stable at the moment. It's still a problem in less developed countries, of course. Unemployment, disease, poverty, war, people are still people, and they can be pretty shitty to each other when things get tough.'

'You still have wars?'

'Well, after a fashion. It varies from country to country. Americans still deploy human soldiers alongside their tech assets, for example, but then again, tech costs money while the human soldiers breed like ants to keep the barracks full.'

Colin stared. 'I take it China doesn't use human soldiers?'

'Why bother? Most civilised countries can produce mechanised infantry of one form or another, but most civilised countries are unified anyway. War is an outmoded way to settle things.'

'What about religion?'

She snorted. 'Don't get me started. If ever there was a way to get a country of inbred imbeciles moving in one direction it's a religion. The only downside is the whole country of inbred imbeciles. That's the problem in America, it's why the Central Sudafric Bloc closed themselves off from outside contact for twenty years. Several nations are basically wastelands now, following their leaders into oblivion.'

'Wow. That sounds messed up.'

'Somebody found a way to manipulate people through their social implants. They attempted to unify their people within a single faith, but something always went wrong. Social implants are a deeply integrated part of the brain, something we grow up with, and tampering with it can be really dangerous, like you might end up creating a psychological resonance. Mental feedback can blow a mind out like a candle, or maybe everybody thinks they're the same person.' She shrugged. 'Bad news, either way. Once we grew out of fossil fuels the world changed, and a lot of countries became desperate.'

She shook her head. 'I'm really not the best person to give you a history lesson.'

Colin chuckled. 'History that hasn't happened yet, and won't for a long, long time.'

'Yeah, there's that, but it's history to me, and I don't have the network access to spool off a load of facts and figures. It's hard work, doing it from memory.'

'Yeah, kids these days would just look it up on their phone. There's not much point actually learning things anymore.'

She nodded, enthusiastically. 'That's how it starts, yeah, but once that information is available to everybody whenever they want it, all the education processes have to change. It's not about storage and retrieval anymore, it's about application, and problem-solving methods. You don't have to know all the answers anymore, it's about learning to find your own answers to questions nobody's asked before.'

'These future kids sound like geniuses.'

'Yeah, the creation of the connected society had a massive impact on our technological advancement. Think about it, if somebody creates a new programming language, all his development notes are part of the language, freely and instantly available to anybody who wants it, which means if somebody asks "what language would be best for this project?" that new language is there, and if they ask "how do I use this?" all of that is there for them as well.'

'They still have to comprehend it, though, surely? I mean it doesn't just download right into their brains?'

She laughed. 'Actually, they're working on that, too, but you're right. Kids spend most of their school years learning faster, more effective ways to assimilate digital knowledge, but science is always looking for better methods. They reckon they've been able to falsify memories for years, but nobody's come out and admitted it.'

Colin tilted his head. 'So you have one of these social implant things? And I do, too?'

'Actually, yes and no. Revival after Sobek infection requires extensive modification of the social implant, and it basically becomes part of a life-support system. Long story short, it doesn't work the same way anymore, so we miss out on a lot of the tech we've taken for granted all our lives.'

'Whoa, so revenants, you and me, we're missing out on tech that everybody else takes for granted? I mean, even kids?'

'Yeah, and yes, that makes some people see us as freaks. It's mostly a communication thing. There's a digital communication channel that the implant uses to speed things up and keep everything clear, and we don't have access to that. Imagine, okay, imagine I was about to say something, like, I've seen your jacket and I think it's nice, and I say "Hey, nice jacket", out of the blue, and you think it's old, nothing special, I must be being sarcastic, right?'

'Right? I guess?'

'Exactly, good word choice. You have to guess. If we had social implants there would be a whole other stream of information, conveying what it is I actually mean. It's like, if I asked while also giving a big smile and two thumbs-up.'

'Except those could also be sarcastic.'

'That's why even if you understand somebody's words, vocal inflections, facial expressions and body language, it's still not enough. The social implant is like, it gives everybody subtitles. Are those still a thing?'

'Yeah, I think I get it. So we can't see those from other people, and I guess we don't send them out either?'

'That's right. We can't automatically understand what they're saying, which can lead to confusion, but also we don't broadcast any social impressions whatsoever, and that can really freak people out.'

'Like if somebody in my time stood completely still and spoke in a monotone and never smiled or anything. Like a computer voice,' he frowned. 'Oh god, the Uncanny Valley!'

'Where's that?'

'It's like, where something is almost human but not human enough, so it freaks people out. People making robots make them look like very obvious machines, because the more human features you add to the design, the worse it gets. It's the same from the other direction, if you start with something human and change things, there's like a graph of human-ness against, I dunno, acceptance, and there's a bit where it's sorta-human but not quite, and the acceptance drops right down, and they call that the uncanny valley.'

'Well that sounds much more logical than "Rev are creepy" so I'll take it. The problem goes both ways, though. Modern humans are starting to depend on the social implant to convey their meaning, so they put less effort into the other methods. So they have expressions and body language, in effect, that we just can't see.'

'Sounds a bit like Aspergers.'

'Who's that? Somebody famous?'

'It's a condition, some variant of autism. It varies, but I think it essentially means you're not good at understanding body language or facial expressions or whatever. Basically the same as what you're describing, but in a pre-implanted society.'

'Oh. Well then yes, revenants have Aspergers in an uncanny valley.'

He chuckled. 'I know you didn't mean that to sound funny, but it kinda does.'

She didn't seem to know what to say to that, and they walked a while in silence.

'Does Brian know where you live?' she eventually asked, starting a new subject.

'Roughly, but not my actual street or house number. I've told him I live in this general area. We don't visit each other or anything, get together for video games or movie night. We mostly meet up in random pubs around the country.'

'You don't think that's weird?'

He shrugged. 'I supposed so, but I was always like, well, it gets me out of the house, and it's an excuse to go visit someplace new, see what's what.'

'It's almost a shame it was just Brian's way to get you near one of his targets.'

'Yeah. What's with that, anyway? I've never noticed any particular tendency for people to just keel over dead when I'm in the area.'

Carmen just shrugged. 'Brian's a hitman, he was on his way to kill those people, and then go to spend some time with you. Things just got a little simplified, is all. Clearly those people were scheduled to die, but because Brian is associated with you he can't be trusted to play his role every time, so the universe takes it out of his hands. We don't know why it happens. The science guys have all kinds of maths and formulas to try to predict the effects, but we can't really say for sure why it happens. It's almost as though there's a sentience at work, adjusting the events to keep things running smoothly and on-track.'

'That sounds messed up, but you seem to have a good handle on it.'

'I just go with my gut. It seems to work best. I know of agents who prepare a detailed plan before embarking, and then they refuse to deviate even a little, making sure everything goes exactly as they predicted.'

'What if it doesn't?'

'They bail! Back home, mission aborted. And it's not like they can just try again. We can't even send somebody else back to try, because multiple travellers skews the timeline even more.'

'Plus, they would probably bump into each other, but back home in the future the first guy wouldn't remember meeting the second guy during his visit.' Colin frowned. 'This is really going to give me a headache.'

She laughed. 'As a rule of thumb, if just thinking about a plan gives you a headache, you probably shouldn't do it.'

'Yeah, like your brain knows it's a bad plan before you even start.' He shook his head to clear it. Time travel was a nightmare, and the potential consequences were terrifying. Carmen's world had so much incredible, unimaginable technology, he was curious to know what else the future held. The people themselves sounded almost like aliens, although Carmen herself seemed okay.

Well, better than okay. A lot better than okay, he thought to himself, with a smile. Just when you think there's nobody in the world who's right for you, it turns out she won't be born for another three hundred years, but here she is anyway.

'Okay,' he warned. 'This is my street. My house is just over there, on the bend, just down from the streetlight that doesn't work.' And hadn't worked for years, but he'd never got around to reporting it. 'If Brian is going to ambush us, it'll be around here.'

'I thought he didn't know where you lived?'

'I never told him, but it occurs to me now that he could have followed me home anytime. The guy's a homicidal nut, I wouldn't put anything past him at this point.'

Carmen drew to a halt. 'A fair point. Okay, so let's be cautious, think it through. He could be in a neighbouring house.'

'Across the road would be best.'

'He could be in your house.'

'Yeah. If he's an assassin, he probably does a few home invasions.'

'Or he could be in one of these parked cars. Maybe that black van.'

Colin shook his head. 'The van's always there, belongs to a kid on the street.'

'And if he's in a car he risks being seen by passers-by.'

'Not many of those at this hour.'

'But if you did see somebody lurking in a car you'd definitely remember it when the police were asking for witnesses later.'

'Yeah. He's not going to hide in a car.'

'So, sniper rifle across the road, or hide in the house for something up close and personal.'

They both thought about it for a second, and they both came to the same conclusion. 'Up close and personal.'

Colin rolled his eyes. 'You made him really angry in the taxi, I just don't think shooting us from a distance is going to satisfy him.'

'Yeah. Plus I've already told him it'll take more than a bullet to stop us.'

'You did tell him that. You told him you'd blow up if he cut your head off, as I recall. Is that true? Is that standard? Is there a bomb inside me?'

She shrugged. 'Meh. It's a half-truth, at best. Yes, we do self-destruct if we die, but it's a localised incendiary device to make sure we don't leave any future tech behind.'

'Future tech? You mean the brain implant? There's a bomb in my head?'

'Oh, relax. If it goes off you'll be in no position to complain. We really don't want anybody doing an autopsy and finding bits of computer in your skull.'

'What about your foot?'

'What about it?'

'You said it's bionic. I think a doctor would notice that you have a metal foot.'

'I do not have a metal foot! It's plastic, and designed to fool a casual examination.'

'Well, it looks real enough, I guess.'

'If you wanted to touch it you should have said. This isn't really the time or the place.'

'Maybe I had more pressing things to do with my hands. Maybe I thought I'd get another chance.'

'Maybe you will, but not if we stand out here all morning talking about feet and plasma bombs.'

'Okay, so we're going in. Plan?'

'You unlock the door, go in first, I'll follow you. If he's there, and he's armed, shoot him. If somebody else is there, and it's not somebody you trust, shoot them'

He stared at her. 'That's a terrible plan!'

'I'm not some kind of military commander! I don't do plans. If it was up to me we'd just walk in through the door and see what we find. Probably nothing. I was fairly sure he was planning to attack the hotel, and he can't be in two places at once.'

'Okay then.' He produced the front door key in his left hand, keeping his right hand wrapped around the gun in his pocket. 'Let's do this.'
The curious tale of Colin Campbell
Part One - How did it come to this?, Chapter 1, Earlier that day
Chapter 2, Earlier still
Chapter 3, Making a withdrawal
Chapter 4, August 18th, 2362
Chapter 5, Angel of Death
Chapter 6, Welcome to 2016.
Chapter 7, Denmark, July 2358
Chapter 8, After the crash
Chapter 9, Music of the Spheres
Chapter 10, Denmark, July 2358
Chapter 11, Harbinger FM
Chapter 12, Denmark, July 2358
Chapter 13, Excuses and lies
Part Two - So here we are, Chapter 14
Chapter 15, Quite a ride
Chapter 16, Talking the talk
Chapter 17, Leisurely pursuit
Chapter 18, Dinner Date with Destiny
Chapter 19, Chips with everything
Chapter 20, Harbinger
Chapter 21, Time to leave
Chapter 22, Manchester
Chapter 23, Colin's House
Chapter 24, On the road
Chapter 25, Chateau Harbinger
Chapter 26, Showdown
Epilogue, Debriefing
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