by E.Escher - 27th Feb 2017
The old man became chatty as soon as his bodyguards left the room.
'So tell me, how much of Brian's story is true? He says you're time travellers, from hundreds of years in the future.' He leaned forward in his seat, eyes bright like a child asking for a bedtime story. 'He also told me you're not human, but he seemed hazy on the details. What are you? Robots? Cyborgs? Clones?'
Colin looked sidelong at Carmen and decided to let her field that one. She saw his look and sighed.
'Yes, we come from the future. You want the full story?'
'We discovered time travel years and years ago, and built a working prototype, but there were serious limitations.' She counted on her fingers. 'First, we couldn't go forward in time. I don't know all the maths yet, but apparently the machine's calculations operate on a theory where the future doesn't exist, and so can't be accessed. Second, there's a minimum jump range. You can't go back to last week and leave yourself a note, or anything like that. The shortest stable jump anybody's managed was about eighty years. That's connected to the third problem: anything you change will be nullified by the natural resilience of the timeline. The universe won't let you create a paradox. The classic example always seems to be killing Hitler. If you go back and kill Hitler, that means a big chunk of history never happened, which probably means you were never born, and certainly never got hold of a time machine, but even if you did, you wouldn't go back and kill Hitler, because there'd be no reason to. Which means you didn't do it. Bam, paradox.'
'I'm familiar with the concept.'
'You are? Great! Well, obviously there's a caveat, otherwise you wouldn't be able to do anything at all. It turns out you can change things, but the timeline has to continue more or less as before. If I were to kill Brian, you'd just give all his jobs to somebody else, am I right?'
The man sat back. 'You're assuming that he works for me.'
'Of course I am. Humour me, am I right?'
'Yes. My clients don't request individual operatives.'
'Of course, so the world will carry on just fine without him. That doesn't give us free rein to do as we like, though. The more damage we do, the more far-reaching the impact, the more resistance we'll run into. Bizarre accidents and unlikely coincidences. Weapon jams, interruptions, sudden cramp, dud ammunition, a bullet lodging in bone, it's almost impossible to assassinate key figures.'
'Speaking professionally, I don't know whether I'm disappointed by that or not.'
'There's one more problem, and it's a biggie.'
'Time travel is deadly. I mean, anything alive becomes not-alive. Instantaneous catastrophic cellular decay. We don't know why. It might be that the machine subjects the traveller to millions of years all at once, or maybe it's just not calibrated correctly, we just don't know.'
Harbinger was leaning forward again by now, elbows resting on his knees as he meshed his fingers. 'This is extraordinary. So tell me, if time travel is deadly to all life, how are you here?'
Carmen shrugged. 'That's the answer to your second question. Colin and I are what we call revenants. Technically cyborgs, but more accurately we're reanimated corpses.'
Colin raised a brow. He hadn't had a detailed explanation about his undead status, so this information was of interest to him as well.
'Short version: Some idiot scientists created a virus. Nano-engineered to take advantage of an implant everybody has in their brain. Your internet? Future humans don't need a computer to access it. That's the implant. The virus takes control of that and rewrites your brain. You become a zombie, just like in your movies. Grr, arrgh, etc.' She did hand gestures for emphasis. 'We don't eat brains, though. That's stupid.'
'But you are not like that. You seem very much in control.'
'Well, yeah, there's a cure, sort of. The same scientists that created the thing also devised a cure in case it ever got loose. The implant can be reprogrammed to restore the brain to a semblance of normal operation.'
'Only a semblance?'
'There are side effects, obviously. Once the virus takes over you're medically dead, only the implant keeps your body up and running, like life support and homicidal motor control. Reprogrammed, the implant restores the memory, so we can continue to live a normal life. It mostly-works. Mostly.'
'It depends on the condition of the implant, the body has to have been fairly well preserved, and sometimes the treatment just doesn't work anyway. Sometimes the reprogramming doesn't take. Sometimes the restored personality isn't the same. There's a high incidence of effective brain damage. My own memory is a bit broken, I keep forgetting my age, and my computer has to remind me that it's been four years since I was revived. Since I first died.'
The old man's gleeful expression had slowly faded, and Carmen finally noticed.
'If you were hoping we had a way to extend your life, I'm sorry. It's just not realistic. You can't come with us to the future, you wouldn't survive exposure to the timestream. We don't have any medical technology to give you, and we can't make you into a revenant, because you have to have died in very specific circumstances.' She shook her head. 'Plus, let's not forget, the timestream wouldn't let us leave an immortal man here in the past. You're too influential. Unless you'd be prepared to quit your job and live in solitude for the rest of forever.'
The old man looked at Colin. 'Like you? Is that why you shun human company?'
Colin felt his face go red. 'Actually, I lost my memory around the 1700s. I thought I was cursed, and if anybody knew my secret they'd burn me as a witch.'
Carmen nodded. 'Burning's to be avoided,' she agreed. 'Fire won't kill you, but it's no fun, and the damage takes a long time to heal.' She caught their astonished looks, and shook her head. 'No, I wasn't burned at the stake, but I've been caught in a fire. Anyway, my point is, even if we did have the means to make regular humans immortal, something would inevitably go wrong. I'm sorry, but that's just how it is.'
Harbinger sat back slowly, his expression thoughtful. 'I should have known it was too good to be true. At first I believed you were sent by a rival agency, to hack my radio station.'
Carmen shook her head again. 'The agency I work for doesn't have any rivals. What's the deal with the radio station, anyway? I guess it's not just a hobby.'
Harbinger laughed, a bitter sound. 'We use it to send coded messages to our agents. Your apparently random requests resulted in several termination orders, including the order that sent Brian out to kill Mister Campbell, here.'
Colin frowned, then. 'Those requests were actually random, I take it?'
Carmen looked surprised. 'Not at all, they were all songs that I wanted to hear. I like classical, but some of the less well-known tracks have been lost, so when I saw them listed on the stations webpage I thought I'd put in a request. I didn't expect to be breaching anybody's operational security.'
Harbinger sighed. 'The odds against such an intrusion happening accidentally are mind-boggling.'
Colin pulled a face. 'The odds against one of those orders targeting me is pretty mind-boggling, as well. It seems that's another awful side effect of time travel. Apparently travellers run afoul of weird coincidences on a regular basis, and having two of us in the same location amplifies the issue. I guess anything's possible.'
'Anything, except the one thing I wanted from you. It seems Brian was right; there was nothing to gain by taking you alive. My interference has made me an enemy and gained me nothing in return.'
Carmen gave him a smile. 'A man like you has nothing to fear from Brian, surely? You have ways to keep your assassins under control, I hope?'
'As for gaining nothing, you've made at least one new friend today. I recorded the music from your station, and I'll be taking it back with me, as part of my permanent collection.'
He bequeathed her a wan smile of his own. 'Dear girl, you really are quite charming. Do you truly have no concept of the danger you find yourself in?'
'Colin and I are probably the most dangerous individuals you've ever met. If you ordered all your men in here right now, we'd still walk out of here, and if either of us decided to kill you, there's nothing you could do about it.'
The old man raised a brow. 'You said the timeline would resist.'
'Oh it would, and it'd be quite a challenge, but there's nothing you could do about it. I don't mean that to sound threatening, I'm just saying I don't think we're in any real danger.'
'And here I was, thinking I was the most dangerous individual in the room.'
'Without a doubt, a few words from you could hurt a lot of people. I'm not judging, by the way, I've no idea which side you're on or who your targets might be, because it really doesn't matter to me. In my world, everything you've done is ancient history. Now that you know our secret I can only trust that you'll keep it to yourself. I think you're smart enough to know why.'
'Because in the future as you know it, people had no idea they were being visited by travellers from the future. I'm not destined to tell that story, so nobody will believe me.'
'That's the best case scenario. Worst case, you alienate your clients, ruin your reputation, lose control of your organisation and somebody takes your place.'
'Can I at least be permitted to see your time machine?'
Colin didn't like the sound of that. The old guy clearly meant to steal it. Even if he couldn't travel through time himself there would be some kind of diabolical uses he could put it to. He could use it to plant bombs in the past, for example. He turned to give Carmen a warning look, but she looked baffled by the very idea.
'Yes. The machine. Where is it? I assume it's safely hidden.'
'Not really, no. It's in China.'
'Yes. And it won't be invented for a long, long time. You thought I'd brought it back here with me? It's as big as this house, and the power requirements are huge, just to transfer a human-sized traveller.'
'So it's not here?'
'No, the machine stays where it is. One end of the system has to remain comparatively fixed, or they can't do the maths to establish the temporal translation.'
'Then how do you get home?'
'They create the vortex where I need it, and I step through.'
'You signal them?'
'In a manner of speaking, yes. I'm not going to tell you how, every agent has their own way of leaving a message for the future.'
'Again, I thought I was being clever, but it seems I am comprehensively outmanoeuvred.'
'Don't feel bad. Like I keep saying, the timeline is working to keep everything running smoothly. I can let you see the vortex, though, if you'd like.'
'Is that possible? Is it dangerous?'
'It's not dangerous to look at, just make sure you keep your distance, and keep your guys out of the way. It has to stay a secret, remember.'
'Young lady, I've been keeping secrets all my life. I know things that would make your hair fall out.'
'That's good. Do you happen to know a quiet, open space where we won't be observed? We usually do this in darkness, but if you know someplace private that should be just as good.'
'How large an open space do you require?'
'The bigger the better. A field, or open parkland. Imagine you're throwing a dart into a moving planet as it zooms through the universe, and you're standing three hundred years in the future, aiming the dart using nothing but maths.'
'The mind fairly boggles. Let me think. Would something the size of a football pitch be large enough?'
Carmen shrugged. 'Should be. Aren't they usually out in the open, though? Privacy is as important as the size, I'd say.'
Harbinger grinned. 'As you pointed out, I am a man of influence. There is a football ground we could use. It's not roofed, but it is surrounded on all sides by seating and buildings, and it should be possible to clear it out for a while. How long would you need.'
'It could be up to an hour. It'll probably all be over in ten seconds, but you can't count on too much precision.'
'So you can't say exactly where, or even when, the portal will appear?'
'It's a moving target, when and where are the same thing.'
'I understand. You wish to do this soon, yes? I must make some calls to a few friends, and then we can be on our way. I will post my men at the perimeter to keep everybody out while we wait.'
'That sounds perfect.'
And so the old man levered himself up out of his chair and left the room. The sharply-dressed thug at the door came and stood just inside the room, keeping an eye on the two "guests".
Colin gave the guy a friendly nod, trying to ease the mood, but the guy ignored him.
Instead, he slid closer to Carmen so he could whisper.
'Are you really going to let him see the time vortex thing?'
'I don't see why not, he already knows the secret.'
'You're going to kill him, aren't you? Or he's going to die because of one of those coincidences. Is that why you're not bothered?'
She raised a brow. 'I'm not bothered because there's no point getting upset about anything at this point. We're going to go home and hopefully forget all about this mess and these people.'
'You said we'd consult the archives and find out what happened to Brian,' he reminded her.
'That's the thing I'm carefully not getting upset about. It's too quiet, too easy. I think we're going to run afoul of Brian again before this is all over.'
'What? Why didn't you say something?'
'I just did. It's only a hunch, don't freak out.'
'Are your hunches ever wrong?'
'Oh yes, I'm sure they must be, sometimes.'
Colin groaned. 'You can be really frustrating sometimes.'
'I just tell it like it is, and yeah, sometimes that's frustrating. I figured you'd prefer the truth to some sugar-coated reassurances.'
'Yeah, you're right. I'm sorry, it's just, I don't know how you can be so calm about all this.'
'I've been doing this for four years. You get used to it. Facing down dangerous nutters, running through gunfire, waiting for inevitable attacks. The waiting's the worst, but you get used to that too. Life-or-death scrapes are actually pretty common.'
'I can't believe I used to do this for a living.'
'Maybe you didn't. We don't know for sure.'
'But you came back to get me?'
'I came back to get somebody, yeah, but we had no idea who I'd find once I got here. All the records have been erased by an experimental weapon, so we don't know how you came back, who you were, what time you travelled to, or when, or why, or anything.'
'You said you'd found my original name.'
'Cai Jepsen, yeah. I don't think you could ever go back to that after being Colin for three hundred years.'
'I chose that name myself, though, after I lost my memory. I woke up with no idea who I was.'
'That must have been terrifying.'
'It was. Are you saying those memories are lost forever?'
'That's quite likely. It might be possible to extract something from the implant, but it'd be facts and figures at best. Whoever Cai Jepsen was, he's gone. You're Colin Campbell now, for better or for worse.' She gave him a sly smile. 'I'm actually glad. I think I'd miss you if you changed into somebody else. I kinda like who you've become.'
'I've never been happy as Colin Campbell. My life's been three centuries of misery and fear. I just wonder if the old me would have coped any better, or maybe I'd be better off forgetting, and putting it all behind me.'
'You could be happy, though, in the future. With me. I know the past has been full of doom and gloom, but now you know the truth. You're not a monster, you're just like me, and thousands of others.'
'You think I could have a real life? I'm not good at making friends.'
'None of us are, at least not with regular humans. We all learn to make allowances. You'll fit in just fine.'
'You can understand why I'm nervous, though, right? I mean, you're talking about a world that didn't exist to me two days ago. My whole life has been a lie, and that's a lot to take in. I mean, a hell of a lot, it's been a long life.'
The doors swung open and Harbinger hurried in, looking pale and worried. 'It's time to leave. I've made the arrangements. We must leave here quickly.'
Colin stood and offered a helping hand to Carmen. 'What's the sudden rush?' he asked. 'You look spooked.'
'Brian has killed three of my men. He's almost certainly on his way here.'
'Your guys outnumber him, surely? Just stand your ground and take him out.'
'All my agents are experts in aggressive infiltration. If we give him a static target he will have all the advantages, and our numbers will mean nothing. Our best bet is to relocate.'
'You mean run.'
Harbinger rolled his eyes. 'Yes, I mean run! You two might have nothing to fear, but I'm an old man and it'll only take one bullet to end me. I still have a lot of things I want to do.' He gestured to the suited thug. 'To the cars. Move!'
They followed Harbinger and his pet thug as they hurried through a succession of wood-panelled rooms and corridors, eventually emerging in a sizeable garage, where the black Range Rover was waiting.
'Not that one,' commanded the old man. 'Brian knows it. We'll take the M7.' A second thug met them as they surrounded a titanium-coloured saloon. The doors clunked open and they got in, Carmen once again ending up sandwiched between Colin and an armed stranger.
'Brian has a Ferrari,' cautioned Colin. 'We're not going to outrun him in this.'
'He doesn't know where we're going, so if he finds us he'll have no choice but to follow,' replied Harbinger. He pushed a button on the dashboard and the garage door began to open. 'His speed won't help him in busy traffic, and our car won't get stuck on speed bumps.'
Colin laughed, and the car began to move.
'So where are we going?'
'Edgeley Park. You know of it?'
'I think so. Belongs to one of the smaller teams, I think.'
'Yes. It is not far from here. We should be there soon.'
The driver pulled them out of the garage, crunching down the short gravel path and out onto the street. Instead of speeding away, the car slowed almost to a halt. The driver swore.
'Shit. You said a Ferrari, right?'
'Yeah, a red one. That's him.'
Harbinger slid down in his seat as Brian stood up over the top of the red car's windscreen, a pistol in each hand. 'Drive! Go around!'
The engine roared and Colin was thrown back in his seat by the acceleration. The car lurched around, and the thug in the back seat yelled as Brian opened fire, planting a few spiderweb fractures in the tinted glass. Hell of a way to find out the glass is armoured.
Several more shots smacked into the back of the speeding car. Colin twisted around for a look out the back window. Brian had dropped back into the driver's seat, and he saw the red car start to move before it was lost to sight as they rounded a bend in the road.
'He's coming after us!'
'I'm on it,' replied the driver. 'Hang tight.' He yanked hard on the wheel and pulled over into the oncoming lane. A surge of power sped them past several slower-moving cars, putting an obstruction between themselves and Brian. He slowed down slightly, but not by much, and the tyres screeched as he swung them around a bend, bouncing as their speed amplified every bump in the road surface.
'Crossroad up ahead!' Harbinger pointed ahead. 'Red light!'
'It's fine,' the driver didn't slow down. 'Nothing ever comes out that way.'
Something did, a white van with a blue checkerboard pattern down the side. Colin caught a look at the surprised faces as the van driver slammed on the brakes.
'That was a police van!'
'Too bad,' shouted the driver. 'Deal with them when we arrive. Maybe they'll scare the other guy off.'
Colin severely doubted that. 'They're just cops, if they get in the way Brian'll shoot them.'
'Better them than us.'
Carmen tried to twist around as well, but struggled against the broad shoulders of Harbinger's thug. She grumbled.
'Colin, use your shotgun.'
The weapon's bag was between his legs, still zipped up. He reached over and unzipped the top, before pausing.
'Use it for what?' he asked. 'I'm not shooting at cops.' The van was in pursuit, with two-tone sirens blaring.
'Just wave it around where they can see it. If they don't call in armed backup they won't stand a chance when Brian catches up.'
'We don't want a big firefight, or some kind of armed stand-off. We were trying to do this quietly.'
'Okay, fine, how do we evade the police, then?'
Colin thought. 'I have an idea, but it's awful.'
'When we get there, don't stop the car. We'll just jump out.'
Harbinger turned and gave him an angry stare. 'I can't do that! I'll break every bone in my body!'
'We find somewhere to drop you off first. If we can get out of sight for a few seconds, you can get out of the car, act all surprised by the noise, just pretend you're a bystander, the cops won't bother you.'
'I want to see the vortex! You won't get into the grounds without me, and you need my men to keep the place clear.'
'Your men are already on their way. Phone for another pickup, you'll probably be there before us.'
'Hm, yes, that could work.'
The driver nodded. 'Then I take the cops for a chase around town, do a drive-by of the grounds and these two jump out.'
Carmen leaned forward, having to shout over the roaring engine. 'Can you lose these guys after that?'
'I'll think of something.' he promised. 'Are you sure you want to bail at speed? It's gonna be rough.'
'Colin and I can handle it. We're professionals.'
Colin blinked. 'Whatever. We jump out, and you lead all the trouble away from the site. Hopefully Brian will take the bait as well.'
Harbinger braced himself against the dashboard as the car lurched from side to side. There wasn't much room to move around, but the driver was doing a superlative job of weaving between lanes, using whatever space he could. The oncoming police sirens appeared to be helping force cars out of the way to clear a path.
'What if he doesn't? What if he follows us into the grounds?'
Carmen shrugged. 'We kill him. He's made his choice, I'm not going to lose any sleep over it.'
'We might not be able to. What if he's destined to do something really important, like kill the prime minister, or Simon Cowell?'
'Then it's the kill that's important, not the killer. Somebody else will do it.'
'I wish somebody would,' muttered the thug in the back seat.
'Whatever. We have to operate on the assumption that Brian is historically nobody. Assassins are intentionally faceless, and only a few people ever know who's actually responsible for any given hit.' She glanced to Harbinger. 'Am I right?'
'Absolutely. They couldn't do their job if they were famous. We don't want rock stars.'
'So if it comes to a fight, we shouldn't run into any awkward problems.'
'Hopefully not. We should be able to snuff him out pretty easily.'
Colin frowned. 'You know he's a trained killer, right?'
'You helped me flip that car, like, an hour ago. Remember that?'
'I let you help.'
'Jesus. You're that strong?'
'We both are. Use the gun if you can, but if it comes to the crunch don't be afraid to rush in and just hit him. He might think he's a badass, but he's scared of us.'
'I'm not surprised.'
Carmen clenched a fist. 'If he tries to stop me getting you home I'm going to punch his lungs out through his spine.'
The driver suddenly yelled. 'I'm stopping here! Get ready!' He swung the car into a side road and screeched to a halt. Harbinger released his seatbelt and flung the door open, sliding smoothly out into a single motion. The car was moving again before he'd even straightened up, and Colin's only managed a single look back at him before they tore around another corner and away in a cloud of tyre smoke. He looked every inch the startled old man, pressing a hand to his chest and backing away from the street in fake terror.
Carmen saw him as well, and rolled her eyes. 'We should have got him to fake a heart attack or something.'
The driver revved the engine with renewed vigour. 'Brace yourselves. Now we're rid of the old man I can really let rip, and get rid of the cops before they box us in.'
He wasn't kidding, and as proof he promptly mounted the pavement and took a shortcut past some shops. The police van bumped up the kerb and followed, but had to slow down or risk killing pedestrian shoppers. They threaded the needle through two concrete planters and bumped down off the kerb into a dramatic power-slide across a small car park.
Carmen laughed. 'This is exciting! If it weren't for the police and the armed lunatic on our tail, I'd be having a great time.'
'You seem to be having a great time anyway,' accused Colin, and she sobered immediately.
'It's just a coping mechanism!' she replied, still grinning. 'Although, to be fair, I might also be a little nuts.'
'I was just thinking that.'
He didn't get to say any more than that as a line of bulletmarks smacked into the window inches from his temple. The noise was shockingly loud, and he swore loudly, throwing himself down across Carmen's lap.
'Looks like he's found us,' commented the driver.
'Y'think? Just how good is this glass?'
'We're lucky he's only using pistols. As it is they won't take much more.'
More impacts spanged off the metalwork.
'How much further?'
'Gimme a minute, I can lose this asshole.'
Carmen pushed Colin up and back against his seat, leaning over his lap to open the window. 'I can buy us some time. Just get us there in one piece.'
When the window was half-open she tossed something out and hastily hit the 'close' button. 'Everybody open your mouth!'
Colin's heart lurched. His army training covered this, and he instinctively shouted 'Ease!' The others' shouts of 'what?' served the same purpose; protecting their eardrums from an explosion.
There was an almighty flash of light and a roar of sound. The car jerked and slithered, though Colin couldn't have said whether it was buffeted by backwash or simply the driver losing control due to surprise.
'...the hell was that?' shrieked the flunky in the back. He'd produced a pistol from a shoulder holster, but looked lost with nothing to shoot at.
Carmen frowned at him. 'A grenade, obviously. Did we get him?'
Colin looked around, and quickly located Brian's Ferrari. The red car was up on the kerb, the front a smoking ruin. A crater in the road behind them was still flaming merrily, and the police van had pulled over to help.
'We got the car,' he said. 'I don't know if we got Brian.'
'I'm betting not,' Carmen grumbled. 'I know how these things work.'
At that moment Colin could have happily throttled her. 'What do you mean? Aren't things bad enough?'
'I've still got a grenade left.'
'Yeah, what's with that? You never told me you had grenades.'
'They're for emergencies.'
'This doesn't qualify?'
'Stop being a baby.' She called to the driver. 'What's our ETA?'
'Maybe a minute, I think we've picked up another tail, but we're nearly there. I can get out of sight at the end of this road, though. If you're gonna jump, you better get ready now.'
Colin looked back and saw blue lights in the distance. 'I'm ready.'
Carmen turned to the guy at her side. 'Scooch up, buddy, we need to swap places.'
'You're joking.' he retorted.
'I'm going out through that door, and if I have to throw you out first I will.'
Something in her eyes must have convinced the guy, because he started to shuffle in his seat. 'Over or under?'
'I'll go over. You watch your hands.' She climbed into his lap, and he manfully squirmed out from underneath to sit in the middle spot, between the two revenants.
'Okay guys, this is your stop. Or not. You know what I mean. You sure about this?'
Colin grimaced. 'Keep it below fifty?'
The driver gave a nervous laugh. 'You're crazy. If I ever see you again, I'll buy you a drink.' They shot down the road, and Colin spotted the football ground up ahead. He glanced at Carmen. 'We're doing this?'
By way of reply, she shoved the door open and jumped out. Colin grit his teeth and did likewise.
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