I was at the stadium watching the laser ball when the message came through on my pad.
Powhlai district. Kyweir Street, Lane 32. 4pm. White male, mid thirties. 5 ft 8 and will be running.
A cheer from the crowd went up – twelve points to three but there was no time to collect.
Rising to my feet, I cursed under my breath. Less than an hour, which meant no going home, no laser pistol and I didn’t even know where Kyweir street was.
Weaving my way about the crowd and searching for a likely weapon, my eyes landed on a child’s plaything. A metal stick with the face of a clown; discarded momentarily. It would do, I decided, scooping it up. I tested its durability on the palm of my hand. By no means perfect, but it would have to suffice.
Down the steps to the subway, I caught the first train going south.
“I know you” said the woman. “We’ve met before.”
I took in the short skirt and colourful leggings. Strands of pink hair about her face and shoulders. Moving away, I insisted that she must have got the wrong person.
“No, it’s definitely you,” she insisted. Her hand went towards my arm and I pulled away. People were looking and I was beginning to get a headache.
“Not me,” I mumbled.
“Yes, yes, I remember now. We had a good time. If you ever …?”
“No,” I repeated forcefully. “I’ve never met you,” I said, backing away.
Her eyes … they didn’t match. There was scorn. Fear. A bright pink smile was there to mislead me.
“We could have fun again,” she mouthed silently, turning her wrist in the direction of my own.
I shuffled to the next carriage, avoiding the staring glances of the other passengers.
But later when the train arrived at Powhlai, she was there again as I was exiting the station.
“You’re so familiar,” she soothed, backwardly pacing in front of my path. There was another attempt to grab my wrist; her eyes, they were full of hate.
“I never forget a face,” she almost screamed.
“But you’ve got the wrong guy,” I insisted. Quickly I made past her through the crowd, to the line of taxis. How much time did I have now?
“Let me come with you,” she cried from behind me. “You’re going to Kyweir street, right?”
“How the hell did you know that?”
“Oh, I know things,” she said, grabbing my hand and pointing at her wrist. Once again she attempted to match her pad with mine. “You’d be surprised.”
“Just get away from me.”
“You don’t know what you’re missing.”
I made it to a taxi. The door shunted upwards.
“You’re not getting in,” I growled.
“I won’t let you leave me.”
“You’ll make a scene.”
“I don’t care.”
“I’ve never even met you.”
“And wouldn’t you like to?” she smiled. But there it was again. The fear, the scorn. “I live near here. I could give you a discount.”
She pushed her body up against me. In the heat of the evening I could smell her sweat.
“I have somewhere to go.”
“Can’t it wait?”
The taxi moved along. A group of three androgynous teenagers had piled inside with a cackle of laughter.
The weapon hidden along my right thigh was starting to feel uncomfortable.
“I have something to do. I’m sorry.”
“Just a half hour,” she pleaded.
“You want money?”
“I want you.”
Another taxi had passed; this one occupied by a blind man and his robot.
“You remind me of someone.”
“But I’m not him.”
“Oh, yes you are,” she laughed. “You’re definitely him.”
Two hands stroking my arm. Looking to a clock at the side of a scraper I saw that I only had sixteen minutes left.
I took in those hateful eyes. Something was wrong.
“Who sent you?” I asked.
“Why don’t you want me to get in this taxi?”
“I need you,” she sang. She too was now looking over at the clock.
“How do you know where I’m going?”
She began to scream. Fists pounded my chest as the crowd parted around us.
“I won’t let you,” she wailed. “I won’t let you kill him.”
By the time I got to Kyweir Street my head was killing me. It was just past four and a crowd of officers surrounded the entrance to Lane 32. I kept my distance; with no wish for any further interrogation, I decided that whatever had happened had happened. A failed mission and no pay but at least, it seemed, the job had been finished. A backup I wasn’t told about – the risk had probably been too great.
Dropping the weapon into a nearby trash can, I took a left into Lane 29 and wondered if I’d in fact been lucky. The authorities would confirm my position as being far from the scene of the crime. I was safe for another day’s work. I hoped that whoever had done the task had been professional enough to distance themselves too. Six minutes past four, I confirmed, eyeing the pad in my wrist. The police had certainly got there quickly.
The sign of an eatery attracted my attention. Sky blue with faded orange writing: Lanka's Cafe. The name felt familiar and I swung inside.
It was a narrow place, about the width of the door going in. No tables, just a long bar with stools, most of which were taken. The sound was of sizzling food and shouts from the chefs; a tacky melody played in the background and the place smelt of grease and smoke.
I saw him immediately. Positioned there quietly with the coffee and pancakes I’d already decided to order. Just imagine for an instance what it would be like to enter such a place and see yourself sitting right in front of you – the person was me and I was him.
There’s no record of any such occurrence ever taking place. Superstitions tell us it can’t. That it would mean the end of the universe. A rip in the space time continuum. That it would be too much for reality itself to handle. But it must have happened somewhere, some time. Since travelling back became possible, there must have been instances … but as I stood there watching me and our eyes suddenly met, it was like a thunderous bolt had hit me for six.
Right in the stomach I felt it. There in the gut.
Turning back out and onto the side walk, I threw up whatever it was I’d eaten that morning.
About me the traffic of pedestrians swerved.
I retched up some more, my insides were convulsing. But eventually I manage to gather myself together. Standing straight, I wiped my mouth on a sleeve; thought about the figure I’d just seen. The same pasty face and parted black hair as my own. A different suit; the blue one I hadn’t worn in a while. The gold watch I’d forgotten to put on that morning. The same age, the same person. I wondered how long it would be before I was him. Thought about it some more. I’d have to report this; who knew what kind of damage our meeting had just caused.
A buzzing sound on my pad. I was striding along purposefully. Looking up at the zeppelins gliding between the scrapers, at the hover bikes buzzing past and at the people around me as we descended into the underpass, I wondered what I’d changed.
Credits for what? I thought. But of course. It had been me. “I won’t let you kill him!” she’d screamed. And I’d been questioned by the approaching officers.
“Just a misunderstanding,” I’d assured them when she escaped into the crowd.
But somehow I’d managed it anyway. The job had been completed and he was dead, just like he was supposed to be. The job had been done and it was I who had finished it.
But I had to know for sure. I needed confirmation.
I made it to a zeppelin port and took a ride home on the Z21. An unnecessary expense but I needed to get out the area, far away from any trouble.
I showered, I drank, but the headache remained.
Then a new message came through.
Ryuumer underpass. 4B. Female. Green dress and dark hair. Purchases gum at the kiosk. 8:22pm. Follow her to Sasmayar. If client takes a detour, reply immediately. Do not interfere.
Was that it? No calling me in to explain?
Just another job like it was all in a day’s work.
I picked up my laser pistol; it felt heavy and ever so slightly unnatural in my grip. Looking at it darkly, I wondered if it was the weapon I’d use.
“On with the show,” I said out loud. Two missions just a few hours apart and it didn’t even cross my mind that they may be related. My eyes in the mirror looked worn and tired. Strapping on my pistol and donning a dark claret suit, it was just gone seven when I left the building.
She was there as expected. Green dress and a bob of shiny black hair. 5 ft 7, I assessed, with a slim figure that curved ever so slightly in all the right places. Pink handbag. Three silver bracelets on her left wrist. Bare legs and gold, padded shoes.
I watched as she buzzed over her credits, stuck a stick in her mouth, the gum packet in her bag, and purposely headed for the escalator to the street above. There was a nasty scratch on the lower part of her right leg but as far as I could tell it was having no effect on her gait.
At a slow pace I followed, head like a boiler and still feeling queasy from my earlier experience. The laser pistol against my breast felt cold and deadly. I remember being grateful this was a simple tail job – little did I know what I was getting myself into.
When I reached the side walk I lost her for a few seconds, then spotted the green dress through the shutting door of a nearby taxi. I watched it lift up and out into the buzzing street of vehicles. It whooshed away but I’d got the plate and finding it would be simple enough.
Deciding on a street pod, I held my pad over its own. Once unlocked, I overrode the systems like they teach you and hit in the plate’s number for an automatic pursuit. Helmet attached, I was up and into the traffic within seconds.
There it was, a hundred or so metres ahead. It took a left on Defrner, then a right along Ghuired. I had her now.
“Follow along to Sasmayar,” I said out loud, “then back home for a hot bath.”
And then I lost her again.
“Where the hell did it go?”
My pod was turning about dangerously. Rushing vehicles whirred past.
“Damn it,” I swore as a pod-bus narrowly missed me.
I switched to manual and pulled my own pod about, hitting fast on the acceleration to keep myself alive.
Taxis were everywhere and I couldn’t risk another automated tail. Whatever had happened was beyond me. Unless …
Looking upwards I saw it in the distance, parked by the high window of a scraper. If I followed now, she’d definitely spot me. Should I call in that I’d lost her? Pulling down on the pod, I moved closer to ground level, then turned and headed for the main entrance of the building she’d just entered.
Seers Conglomerate. Huge glass doors and stone steps that didn’t move. Weary and sweating, I steadily ascended the case, buzzed my way through the entrance and hurriedly moved to the lifts. Which floor had it been? Pins in my head and blurry eyed, I stepped between the sliding doors.
Why I didn’t call in, I can’t say. Unprofessional. Reckless. But I was feeling that way. They’d let me down, failed to work out which version of me had completed the earlier mission. I’d wanted to contact them before, to ask how it had happened but I’d hesitated then and here I was again with the hesitation.
“A woman just entered the building by a taxi,” I said to the robot beside me. “A high window. Which floor was it on?”
This tail job was turning into a nightmare for my company. Here I was talking to an elevator robot; my picture would have been taken as I entered the building, my ID was now on file and I’d used a public pod bike to get here.
“Level sixty-eight,” said my positronic friend. “Would sir like to be taken to that level?”
“Let’s go,” I answered, glancing at the pad in my wrist. If the client takes a detour, reply immediately. Yet here I was taking matters into my own hands. Who was she anyway? Why were they watching her? Who were any of them in fact? The man I would soon be assassinating … what had he done to deserve such an end?
I won’t let you kill him!
The words rang in my ears.
I’d never before considered that they were in fact real people. They’d always been clients, nothing more. Yet the anguish on her face, the hate in those eyes as she’d screamed at me.
The lift doors opened to a smooth marble floor. The heels of my shoes echoed off the walls as I strode around confusedly. An open plan office: silent, abandoned. The taxi had gone but the window was still open. Reaching under my jacket, I took out the pistol.
I spoke quietly. Hesitantly. Just message back, I thought. Admit that I’ve lost her.
“So you followed me?”
Swivelling around, I took aim at the dull green dress. Never aim for the head, they told you. A clean shot, a clean death. She was standing by a door further along. An office within an office, reserved for the boss.
“You work here?” I asked.
Her response was an incomprehensible whisper.
“Why did you enter this building?” I demanded. The pistol was still on her and I wondered if I’d shoot. I was unhinged, mad, and in need of some release.
“Are you going to kill me too?” she asked. With forced nonchalance she looked me in the eye, chewing her gum slowly.
“Too?” I asked confusedly. “What makes you think I’ve killed someone?”
“Because I saw you?” she slurred. “Because I was there?”
“Who are you?” I shouted because suddenly I wanted to know. “What business do you have in Sasmayar?”
“Sasmayar?” she whispered. “But you couldn’t know that. Not yet.”
Those eyes. They were certainly familiar.
A strange look had passed across her face. “But it couldn’t be,” she hushed. “Not unless …”
“Unless what?” I cried, pistol still on her. “Who are you and how do you know me?”
“Come,” I ordered. “I need to get you to Sasmayar.”
She looked up pathetically, her mouth open wide.
“Don’t ask. Just do as I say.”
“You’re helping me now?” Her eyebrows, thin but distinctive, arched in accusation. I was bearing down on her, waving the pistol in her face. I’d killed someone. She’d seen me.
“Do as I say and I’ll leave when we get there. Whatever reason you have …”
“You’ll kill me,” she said, staring straight through me.
“Those are not my orders.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“You have to.” Skin pale like mine. A small nose and beady eyes. Hot breath and heart beating fast. “There’s a choice,” I asserted. “Run and you die. Do as I say and you live.” Grabbing her arm, I moved us towards the lifts. She was thin and wiry. Pretty and stubborn.
“I won’t let you hurt me.”
“I’m getting you to Sasmayar.”
“Just a man having a bad day.”
“Maybe I’ll scream.”
“I don’t want to kill you.”
“And why should I believe that?” she spurted as the sliding doors opened before us.
The blank robotic stare of the elevator operator matched our sudden silence.
“Because it’s easier,” I mumbled, leading her into the space. Because I must, I thought. Truth was, I didn’t know.
As natural as anything we left the building. My arm on hers and a thousand cameras watching Do not interfere, they’d told me.
To hell with it.
“How far is it?”
We descended the stone steps, my eyes scanning the area. Mirrored scrapers lined the grid. Buzzing traffic. A pedestrian pass tunnelling downwards, an extension of catacombs leading skywards or stay on street level. Tented shops, waiting taxis and a mobile park to the left. Two businessmen in yellow suits involved in angry chatter. They passed us moving upwards. Why had that floor been empty?
“I’ve no idea.”
I turned to the girl I was holding, my headache worse than ever.
“Up there,” I grimaced, nodding to the catacombs. “Is that the quickest way?”
“You’re the boss,” she mumbled. “Not as if there’s any hurry.”
I led her through a bushed walkway, which spiralled round to the entrance. A woman with a dog. An archaic looking robot doing tricks to a crowd. We were under an arch and the floor had begun to move.
“That building. You work there?”
She looked up at me with impatience.
“You’re hurting my arm.”
“Why did you stop there?”
“You were following me.”
“I had to lose you.”
“So why …?”
“So we’re chatting now. You kill him right in front of me and now you’d like to know.”
Angrily she pulled loose and was striding ahead. Bare white legs, the tops of which moved wondrously beneath the green material. Back arched in stubbornness.
“Wait,” I said.
“Why should I?”
“What business do you have in Sasmayar?”
Her body tensed. She turned back scowling, her black bob of hair swishing round dramatically.
“Sasmayar is my home and I’d be there now if it wasn’t for you.”
“You’d be there now?” Dammit. “How much time?”
“You’re worried about time?” She began to laugh. Eyebrows arched higher, her thin lips pursed. “You’re one of them and time is your problem?”
“One of who?”
“Like you don’t know.”
Hysterically, she swivelled back and once more began striding ahead. With the moving floor she was making quick progress, but my gun was still there and I knew she was afraid.
“Enough talk,” I mumbled, catching up to take her arm. On the girder above I saw a sign for our destination. Left at the coming intersection, then continue to stand and wait. At a snail’s pace we glided miserably along.
“Something happens, doesn’t it? I know how it all works. First him, now me. But you won’t know … not until I’ve done it.”
“You’re rambling,” I muttered as together we stepped onto the other walkway. A tinted glass dome protected us from the sun.
“They watch you but can’t interfere. Once you’ve done it, they can’t stop you.”
“Stop you from what?” I asked. She was agitated, she was making no sense. Her hair, there was a flowery aroma and it was the closest I’d been to another human being in as long as I cared to remember.
She laughed again. “You know, I’m beginning to think you really do have no idea.”
“My point exactly,” I muttered. “Feel free to tell me nothing.”
Beneath us the buzzing traffic flew along at speed. I wondered why I’d chosen to walk.
“They follow you,” I heard. “They’re there at every corner, and when you lose them, another will be waiting at the next. But they never interfere because they can’t.”
“My orders were to take you to Sasmayar.”
“To make sure you got there.”
“Where the next one will be waiting,” she hushed. “Because I’ll be successful, won’t I?”
“Successful at what?”
“But I wonder,” she answered, “if you’re really one of them. You killed him after all and you followed me too closely.”
“One of who?” I asked. We’d begun to descend back down. Heading for street level I assessed we were two blocks from the official border to Sasmayar’s science park.
“You’re not used to following and that’s why you messed up.”
“I’m a professional,” I insisted.
“You’re a killer.”
“It’s my job.”
“But you don’t know, do you? You don’t know why …”
Her eyes had opened up. An expression of … was it forgiveness? Of pity? The flesh of her arm was soft to the touch; by no means unpleasant and for a moment I wondered if she were picking up on my growing attraction to her. “You’ve never been back, have you?”
“Back where?” I mumbled, looking away. Why, I don’t know, because she knew I understood. Back in time is what she meant. Most likely she was a traveller too. Not answering me, she too was busy processing thoughts.
I imagined the black hair pink; face heavily made up. Could it be her, about to go back and interfere? Coincidences didn’t happen but I could think of no other explanation.
We continued downwards. Then:
“So what’s your name, anyway?”
“We’re almost there,” I said, pretending to not hear or care. If she were about to go back, then the less she knew of me the better.
She muttered something quietly; asked me: “And then?”
“And then I let you go.”
There was a message coming through on my buzzer. I decided to ignore that too. I’d drop her off, complete my mission. There’d be less explaining required. Her detour had been my fault, I’d simply corrected the mistake.
“Almost there,” I repeated.
“How many of them have you killed?”
“Stop talking,” I answered. “You’re giving me a migraine.”
She’d guided me to a building, a scraper like the others but red in colour with reflective tiles and less glass.
“You live there?”
“I work there.”
I read the words: Gyhuirden University. Historical Research.
“You’re a historian, then.”
“A scientist, like my husband.”
“The one you killed.”
She was looking away, looking ahead. I wanted to apologise, to tell her … I’d been doing my job. Something had changed within me. I thought of the girl on the sub train. I won’t let you kill him.
“It’s not me who chooses.”
“Don’t. Just, don’t.”
She pulled away. Up ahead there were two men in suits like mine. Sunglasses and motionless and I began to sense danger.
“Wait,” I said.
“What do you want from me?” she moaned as I grabbed her again. She started to beat me on the chest. The men were moving closer.
When I let go, she turned and pathetically ran away, straight into the arms of the two men blocking her path. Taken unaware, she screamed as one of them lifted her up. Legs kicking, they struggled to keep her under control.
I looked down at my pad, remembered the unanswered message.
Confirm the 4pm job as successful.
Not what I’d been expecting. But of course, this was the second job I was messing up. A bad day indeed.
They were dragging her to their automotive. It was none of my business.
Cannot confirm, I wrote back. My credits had been deposited but to hell with it, there’d be other jobs.
Elaborate? It’s complicated, I wrote back. Request a one to one.
Were you there? Did you kill him?
The non-professionalism of this message hinted at impatience. Up ahead the men had stopped. One of them, I noticed, was looking at his pad. As I watched, the other, still holding the kicking woman, turned to face me and his eyes met mine.
No, I typed. A simple answer, one that would land me in plenty of trouble most likely. I’d failed to call in on two occasions in one day.
Are you sure?
Of course I was sure. What was this?
Quickly, I explained that I’d been intercepted by a random.
One word, no description. These messages were desperate. Time was of the essence and a decision needed to be made. Female, I confirmed.
Ahead I watched as the men were now letting the woman free. She ran towards the building’s entrance and they did not follow.
I could have left then. I should have. But a burning desire prompted me to resume pursuit.
The dark suits stared sullenly as I strode past them towards the welcoming front of red scraper. Though awaiting another message on my pad, it seemed the information confirmed had been enough for now. No doubt I’d be reprimanded in time but a free pass to the city (one of my perks) still remained and there were no problems moving past the security androids.
“Good evening, sir.”
Murmurings and echoes. Students, professors; bustling in around and out. A gangly robot crossed my path and a flash of green disappeared through a tinted glass door. Carefully I followed.
Over the next few minutes there was nothing special about the corridor I was in. She’d been wrong about my lack of experience with tail jobs only; there’d been plenty in my career, though admittedly most of them had ended in either assassination or arrest. Here I knew not what the outcome would be. I was following her and whatever she was up to was significant for reasons unbeknown to me – again not uncommon in my line of work. Ask no questions, just be grateful for the generous amount of credits supplied for a job completed successfully. Here I was working for nothing.
She was a fair way ahead, though if she’d suspected my presence and turned or stopped then she’d have been bound to notice me. Her body language purposeful, she scurried on determinedly, slamming her way through double door after double door as we ploughed into the depths of the building. Gradually there were fewer and fewer people around. Then there was a guarded entrance she passed through that read Historical Observations Department.
This was the way, no doubt, to the time travelling facilities – the second thing she’d been wrong about was that I knew exactly what time travel was. As I say, her reference to going ‘back’ had by no means been lost on me. Hell, I’d even seen myself earlier that day: a phenomenon very few can claim to have experienced (though to admit to such a mistake would be far from likely).
Two burley security robots stared down at the code my pad had produced.
“What business do you have?” asked the larger of the two.
“Observation of a client.”
“This client have a name?”
“I’m not at liberty to say.”
They looked at each other, almost human in their actions, though I knew they were simply comparing information. Commands. Rules. My code and who I likely was.
“Go through,” said the other one finally.
“Welcome to Historical Research,” said the larger one, displaying a rough neon smile.
Like I say, there was nothing overly special about the place until I entered that department. But now it was all silver walls and swishing metal doors. A thick hum and dim lights. I could still see her ahead, her golden shoes patting on the smooth, reflective floor, which had begun to slope downwards.
I followed her forever, the increasing hum from nowhere playing havoc with the increasing pain in my skull. I was starting to feel sick again A cold, conditioned breeze was blowing about her dress.
I stumbled, then corrected myself. There were doors now lining the walls. Numbers she was paying attention to.. “It’s around here somewhere,” I imagined her saying.
And then she picked one and was inside and gone.
Hurriedly I ran up to the door she’d slipped though. A padded key that my fingerprint wouldn’t open. A burning behind my eyes and I fell to the floor.
“Let me in,” I almost shouted.
But she’d disappeared and my mission was complete. Nothing more to do than return to where I’d come from.
All at once, the headache was ever so slightly beginning to seep away.
The next morning I awoke with a burning desire to see my failed mission through. To put things straight; I’d been assigned to kill a client but the job had ended with nothing. I’d been too late, I’d walked away.
There was a buzzing from my pad.
One to one. 11 am.
Just over an hour. I showered and changed. Breakfasted on egg pancakes and coffee in the restaurant on the ground floor of my building. Took a taxi to the commercial enterprise of my employers, to the forty-eighth floor and sat in the waiting room with the ferns and cacti.
“Mr Sun,” I heard.
Looking up from the manga, I took in my name. An elegant silver android who led me through to the boss’s office.
A face that had once been pretty and was still fairly attractive. Padded shoes, tight leggings and athletic body. Short, dangerous, she was pacing the room, talking to the walls.
“Well get him to agree!”
“You wanted to see me,” I said quietly, not wishing to interrupt.
She waved a hand towards the comfortable sofa that was in there. More ferns and cacti. Hers was a desk, surrounded by videoscreens. The walls were videoscreens showing an array of information. Views on other cities that would change every few seconds. Beijing, Nepal, Los Angeles.
“No, no, not that!”
Whomever she was conversing with, it was done through a headset I couldn’t see. I sat down heavily, watching her animated movement. Like a squirrel bouncing around the room, her thick pony tail bobbed behind her.
“So, Mr Sun,” she said, finally addressing me. “It seems you’ve landed us in a lot of trouble.”
Going back her desk, she perched; stared at me with thin eyes of judgement.
“Yes, trouble, Mr Sun. To be honest I’ve no idea what to do with you.”
I wondered which part of trouble she was referring to. Late for my first job, making contact with my second?
“Our golden rule, Mr Sun …”
Her expression immediately changed to that of pleasantness while she took another call; a small finger held up to signal that I should wait. “Yes, that’s right. Hailsham … No need. Of course! Yes … tell him from me … No, that’s all dealt with …”
I picked at my nail.
Staring past me at no one at all she said goodbye to whomever it had been.
“Right, Mr Sun. I’m afraid all I can do is ask to be told in as much detail as possible what precisely happened to you yesterday.”
I told her. Watched her expression tense further.
“And that’s it,” I finished. “Messed up good and proper.”
“And what made you, may I ask, what was it that persuaded you follow her in to …”
“Seers Building,” I said helpfully.
“I know which building it was, Mr Sun. I already have someone investigating that particular … well, let’s just assume for a moment that you were influenced by … you knew it was the same girl?”
“The same girl,” I repeated. So there it was. Black hair changed to pink. Colourful legging added and green dress removed.
“So you’re saying …” I stumbled, waiting for her to confirm what she’d already just told me. Her poker face gave nothing away but it was too late for that.
“The same girl,” I mumbled. “I killed her husband but she went back to stop me.”
“Eventually,” said my boss. “If by making contact you had somehow changed things, then the repercussions could have been …. I dare to even think of it.”
“Then we’d never have met before,” I tried.
“But you did meet, Mr Sun. You very much met her. And if you hadn’t …”
Then what? Surely if I’d stopped her and she hadn’t gone back, it would have been a simple case of me finishing the job with no obstacles in my way. A few memories pulled apart; though if I had terminated the client … I saw my boss’s point. There were too many factors here. Too much that would have changed. This was more than simple memories; a man had died.
“But he would have died anyway,” I gruffed.
“He dies either way, but that’s not the point, Mr Sun. You know as well as I do that interference is dangerous.”
“Like I say, wasn’t feeling a hundred percent.”
“No, quite,” she tutted. “You mentioned a headache.”
“Which started when?”
I’d felt it on seeing him in the cafe. That face, those eyes. Though had it been there before? On the sub train, the girl approaching me …
“Can’t narrow it down to a moment,” I admitted. “Headaches, they creep up on you.”
She seemed unimpressed. Her glare bore into my conscience with a whole minute passing by.
“And?” I asked, while she eyeballed me further.
“Mr Sun,” she started.
“I’m willing to face the consequences.”
“Mr Sun, whatever action I take against you may not be the correct course of –”
“Mr Sun, my hands are tied,” she said, looking more than annoyed. “I cannot do anything until …”
“You can’t what?” I said, urging her to continue. Until when?
“Everything you did wrong,” she blurted, waving an arm despairingly. “Allowing a random to interfere. Following a client, who, yes as a matter of fact was the same person you met on the sub train … risking a possible change in the course of her later, or rather earlier actions,” she continued, ignoring my passive expression, “and I’m not even going to touch on your meeting with …”
“With myself,” I finished, huffing into the air.
“That, I must insist, is to remain confidential.”
“Sure,” I muttered, watching her carefully. “So was it me?” I asked, finally getting down to the real reason I was here. I had to know. “On Kyweir Street, Lane 32. Was it me that killed him?” My credits, after all, had been paid.
“I can neither confirm nor deny that,” she dismissed, realising at once she’d told me everything in one sentence. As our eyes met, we acknowledged the magnitude of that simple fact.
“So if I was there then, when do I?”
“No, no, no, Mr Sun. Our number one rule is no interference. It has already happened.”
“You mean, it’s going to –”
“– No, not going to. It has been done. It is past.”
“And we can only change the future,” I mumbled, understanding the other golden rule well enough.
“Precisely, Mr Sun. The future has not been written; whereas the past …”
She let that hang in the air but I knew exactly what she meant. The thought had already struck me: “But if it’s still in my future …”
“My problem exactly,” she agreed, rising to her feet, hands of a petite size placed angrily on her desk. “Time’s like this I wonder about Hutori’s first law …”
“That the future is unbreakable?”
“Mr Sun, tell me, what am I to do? Reprimand you like I should? Fire you, take away your benefits? Ask you why, how and when you obtained unauthorised access to a time travel device?” She was beginning to look even more aggravated now. “This is a complete nightmare for, for all of us here.”
“So get me to a time machine and let’s get it over with,” I stated dryly. Though was that what I really wanted? The urge to go through with it that I’d felt that morning was still there and still strong, but those words the girl had uttered: I won’t let you kill him. He’d been her husband and she’d seen me do it.
My boss walked over to the window, viewed the distant mountains; traffic winding round a slipstream in the foreground. A calming scene that seemed to take effect.
“No interference,” she whispered, drinking in the comfort of those words. “We must carry on as normal. Any decision you make, whatever action, you must do it of your own accord.”
I returned to my flat. Taxi home, up the lift, door open and in. I undressed and lay on the bed. Thought about the girl. She’d be here, somewhere. In this city. I could find her. I could find her and tell her why. Explain why it was that I had to kill him. Destiny, fate, Hutori’s first law … it was excuses and I knew it.
I wondered if her hair would be dark or pink. What she’d be wearing. How she’d feel about the failure of her mission. Her husband was dead; there was nothing she could do, save going back again – but they’d be onto her by now.
My God, if they found her … and it was only a matter of time …
They’d be sending agents back. Tracking her moves. Someone like me, sooner or later, someone like me would be making certain that the crime was not repeated.
Turning over on the mattress, I decided not to care. The fan above me whirred; outside, the city buzzed.
In the afternoon heat, sleep came easily.
An hour or so later. From the surface of my dresser, the laser pistol lay deadly and waiting. Only a matter of time …
Agitated, I rose quickly from the bed, then paced the room. I had to do it. I had to kill him. Why hadn’t they given me access? I needed to get back, to complete what I’d started. That girl, why had she interfered. Didn’t she understand? It was my job, that was all. There was nothing personal about it. He’d been a dead man walking.
“God dammit!” I shouted, punching the wall.
It was my, “My destiny,” I spoke out loud.
Picking up my pistol and putting on the blue suit, I had no idea where I was going but I had to get out. I had to do something.
With nowhere in mind, I headed out my building and along the street. I was feeling queasy and again the headache was back.
Through the crowd of pedestrians I trudged. I had to go back there, but in real time for now. I wanted to see with my own eyes where it would happen. No missions and it was preying on my mind. I had to be careful though, going back to that area where I’d seen him – didn’t want to be running into myself, wherever I was.
I hailed a taxi and sat in the back seat, thinking about the girl.
“Beautiful evening,” said the taxi’s calming voice.
We flew through the traffic on our way to Powhlai.
I wanted to meet her, the girl whose husband I’d killed. I wanted to scold her. She was here, somewhere in this city. I wanted to explain; wanted her forgiveness.
How many of them have you killed?
The words sang through my ears.
Always they’d been avoid of personality; only clients to be dealt with. Like robots, they were disposable. They’d never screamed for mercy, never looked me in the eye. The shot was always taken from distance. I’d do the job and move on. Credits disposed.
But I’d taken up the child’s plaything, willing, even looking forward to beating him to death. Pushed over the edge, my job had finally got to me.
“A beautiful evening,” I mumbled in reply.
“Off somewhere nice?”
“Meeting a friend.”
“Nice day for beer.”
“That it is.”
“Dresno Beers are half price in the city this week.”
“That’s good to know,” I huffed, thinking about my plan and changing my mind. Go to the place where it had happened? Why? If I wanted to get this over with, I should be going back now.
“A perfect beverage for a hot summer’s day.”
“There’s a cafe on Kyweir Street. Lane 29. Lanka’s. You know it?”
“I have advanced knowledge all establishments in this city.”
“Take me there,” I answered. “And no more talking.”
“Right you are, sir,” it replied as we continued through the slipstream.
There was no intention of running into myself. I knew I wouldn’t be there, too dangerous to stay for long. Getting away from Powhlai was by far the most sensible thing to do; away from there and away from where I lived – our chance meeting had been a mistake not to be repeated. I’d be in a hotel, somewhere like Gsuchi or Dfenchon province. I’d be hiding, waiting ’till there was only one of me.
The cafe, it was merely for some perspective, to help me get my head together. Somehow, being in that place where we’d met, I’d feel close enough to him to think. I’d order the same coffee and pancakes, already wearing the same suit. I’d imagine I was him, just finished the job and laying low. I’d take a guess at how I’d managed it.
The taxi dropped me off and I went inside. The same narrow space, bar stools, bad music and banter from the chefs. Spitting fat and smoke. I took out the same stool he’d sat on; ordered blueberry pancakes with cheese, black coffee and some nuts on the side.
Without the help of my boss or company, how would I get access to a time travelling device?
My coffee was served by a red faced chef. Greasy arms and rolled up sleeves, he placed a glass of nuts down next to my beverage, smiling for barely a second before going back to his colleagues.
“But I’ll manage it somehow,” I mumbled to the inside of my cup.
Popping a cashew in my mouth, I was filled with confidence for all of ten seconds.
“Somehow,” I repeated, chewing away.
I was him and he’d managed it. So I would too.
Lazily, the thought occurred that I could find myself and ask him for help, which of course was impossible. Knowing how I did it because a future self had told me … it just wouldn’t work. Even if I tried to, somehow met and got him to tell me, followed his instructions … but it was a dangerous idea and I knew enough to dismiss it. The two golden rules were there for a reason. No interference – intervention of any sort could bring about a change to the present. Things that existed now: lives could not only be transformed but lost. Messing with time was a risky business; it had even been theorised that by an unskilled hand, there was much that could cause a thinning of the fabric of time’s dimensions. If a moment in time were to be changed over and over again, or if an impossibility occurred, like if my future self helped me: for such an event to in fact be realised, it was like a mathematical equation too unworkable for a computer to handle – it would cause a crash; an analogy no one liked the sound of.
I thought of Mr White, the faded doctor.
“But if I go back because I know I have to,” I mulled over out loud, “because I saw myself, because he influenced me …”
Sipping at my coffee, I wondered if it were true. If so, there were unknown risks connected to my every action.
“And what if I decide not to,” I breathed into the bubbling cup.
The pancakes arrived on a large white plate which was slapped down proudly by a significantly more professional looking man in white. Clean, fat and friendly with dark skin and hairless arms.
“Back for more, then?” he said jovially.
“More? Oh, yes.”
“Eat up while you can,” he laughed, giving me a wink.
A lie I often told, and I suspected I’d said as much before (or would say as much in the future – depending how you looked at it). Space travel to Mars, it requires a certain diet. I was filling up on junk while I still could, before they put me into training. People always wanted to talk, and so the lie served its purpose.
“You know, I’ve always dreamed of seeing the stars.”
“The wife, though, not quite so taken with the idea.”
He smiled at me through a neatly trimmed beard. Raised his eyes in response to his other half’s concerns.
“Take care of your wife,” I retorted, because it felt like the right thing to say. “Space travel, is not all it’s cracked up to be.”
Truth is, I’d been destined for such a life. That dream of seeing the stars, I’d hoped to one day find a post outside of this planet. The moon, Mars or Phaeton. But a failed exam, a shift in departments and no longer had I been on the route to astrophysics. My background had opened doors and I’d chosen to remain close to my chosen major, but working in a department I hadn’t originally understood, I stumbled upon time travel quite by accident. Once in, they swore you to secrecy, and the deeper you got, the more you realised the seriousness of their work.
The unlawful employment of a time travel device was a capital offence. Too dangerous for renegade use. Offenders had to be found, followed and dealt with – a job which I’d fallen into, mostly because it was all I’d been qualified to do. Our policing of time was unofficial of course. No law could ever be passed to justify what we were doing: but the real police could be paid off when needed.
“You kidding me?” he answered, refilling my coffee. “What I’d give to see the solar system with my own eyes.”
“We all have dreams,” I answered dryly and looking away. If only I’d studied harder, my life could have been so different. I’d wanted to be a scientist but ended up a killer.
You’re a killer, she’d said. The words buried into my gut.
“Never too late though,” smiled my talkative companion. “You never know what the future holds.”
“The future,” I agreed, “is something we create.”.
We can only change the future – the second golden rule. A future self who I’d seen, who had killed a man …
“Not going to, Mr Sun. It has already happened.”
A future me who had interfered with the present, but whose decisions and actions were based on reasoning even I had no means to foretell.
It fuelled my headache just thinking about it. No wonder my boss was doing a fit.
Kyweir Street. Lane 32. It was an unnecessary risk but I needed more perspective. Here I was making a decision based on what I knew would happen in the future. But hadn’t it been my destiny? And who knew, maybe I’d be heading there anyway, to see the place I’d been prevented from finding. The ever growing urge to kill him was, after all, still there.
I walked, it wasn’t far. Turning a corner I’d been on the previous day, the place came into view. This part of Kyweir Street was a quieter section than most. Reserved for pod bikes and the odd pod bus flying past. There was a dirtier, more homely feeling to the pavement and the people around seemed generally of an elderly age and poorer attire. I used a transporter pod to cross to the other side. The lane was narrow and quiet, no crowd of police today. Dirty buildings stared down and I entered its domain. More of an alley than a lane, my feet scuffed on litter; there were metal railings and staircases leading up and down. Brick wall either side and just one open doorway which on investigation led to a bottom floor market, closing up for the day. I doubled back and carried along the passage. It was nothing special at all and I wondered what I’d been expecting. A dog barking, two more joined in. A line of metallic waste-bins and a rotten smell. I looked up at the skyline to see a zeppelin flying overhead. I carried on further until I was out the other side, now on Yfergweir Street, a residential area with a few tented shops. More traffic, and newer buildings of modern design – angular with matted tiles, with outside pod lifts and jutting gardened surfaces.
I stood there, feeling there was something I’d missed. I turned and walked back along the length of Lane 32, looking for hints of where it was that he’d died; where my position would have been; where I’d taken the shot. Knowing my own pattern, I reckoned on it having been a quick process: not one for waiting around or preparing too much, I relied mostly on instinct. Turn up exactly on time and shoot them on sight. I’d disappear just as quickly. A ghost that if you blinked you wouldn’t notice at all.
But she’d seen me. She’d witnessed it.
Where exactly had she been? Standing” Hiding? I wondered if they’d been together; if he’d fallen beside her and if she’d screamed. I wondered if they’d been running, if they’d seen me and known.
Skimming around the grimy floor for clues to where his body had rested, I questioned if I could go through with it again.
A noise. Scuttling. My eyes darted upwards to the metal railings on one of the building’s sides. Brickwork of a dull red. Barred windows, all of them blocked out. These were warehouses, some of them not even in use. The area was changing and conversion was in the pipeline. A run down alley like this; what had they been doing here.
The noise was there again. A cat, I decided. Then I felt a presence. Danger lurked in the air. The sound returned but now it was predatory. Twisting around, I reached for my pistol and took aim at the walls.
Unbelievably, I heard the cracking sound before I felt it. With an ‘ooomph’ I was momentarily thrown off balance, then a second strike slammed against my skull and I was falling to the ground. Still with no pain of any measurable sort, I lay faced down watching the pool of blood emerge from the side of my head.
“Why did you come back here?”
The words were muffled, distorted and seemed to be coming from somewhere far away.
“I’ll kill you, by God I’ll murder you!”
Slow, faint. A small, cold hand snatched the laser pistol from my grasp.
It was her. The same narrow eyes, pink lips, hair and makeup. On her wrist a bandage that was wet with blood.
Angrily, she took hold of the scruff of my jacket and dragged me up against the wall of the alley. She stepped back, the pistol aimed at my face.
“Which one are you?!” she screamed. “Have you killed him yet?”
So she knew there were two of me. Knew that somehow I’d gone back and finished the job.
“I stopped you,” she mumbled. “But you couldn’t let it go.”
Her fingers were dangerously close to the trigger of my gun.
“Which of them!?” she shouted again. “Have you … my husband?!”
I had a choice. To lie or tell the truth.
“Not yet,” I mumbled, spitting blood onto the floor. Did this mean she’d kill me now, take a second attempt at saving her man? It was the same girl I’d followed to Sasmayar, there was no longer any doubt; the same as the one on the sub train.
“So tell me why I shouldn’t shoot,” she said, taking another step back. Face to face with a killer, I recognised the fear in her eyes. A left arm wiped away strands of pink hair from her sweating brow. The roots were black. Her right hand was shaking and I knew I had a chance of snatching the pistol back from her grip. If only I could focus well enough to get up.
“My husband, he was a good man.”
“And now, he’s dead,” I mumbled, playing for time.
“I’ll stop you, by God.”
“But you tried that before. And it didn’t work, did it?” By no means a pleasant sensation, my senses were returning. Head like a splitting atom, I took in her words.
“I can kill you here.”
“So go ahead and shoot.”
“I will,” she said with hesitation. With a professional eye, I could see that she’d miss should she pull the trigger. A shaking hand and a bandaged wrist, stained with dark blood. The place where her pad had been: she’d removed it by force.
“Your wrist,” I mumbled. “Your pad. Are they after you?”
“They’ll never find me,” she answered. “Not now, not ever.”
They wouldn’t be able to track her. With no pad she was off the grid. But my pistol, if she squeezed the trigger, the authorities would be swarming the area in a matter of minutes.
“If you kill me –”
“If I kill you, I won’t exist in this time and space.”
“You’ll be somewhere with him,” I replied, understanding at once. “None of this will ever have happened.” Would she risk a thinning of time’s fabric? My home, she’d said. The department of historical research. She worked there. She’d had access to a time machine. She was either a traveller or someone who worked with them. A professional with a screw loose. But she knew of the risks.
“Tell me why I shouldn’t do it,” she hissed.
“So go ahead,” I ordered again, beginning to understand. “Go ahead and try but I don’t think you will.”
“By, God, I’ll kill you.” Her voice was wavering.
Looking down, I noticed her shoes were the same golden padded design of the girl I’d dragged to Sasmayar. I drank in her changed appearance. Colourful tights, a short red skirt and stylishly cut blouse. The black hair now pink, but the shoes … it struck more forcefully than ever that she was the same girl. Of course, I’d been told as much in an indirect way by my boss that morning, but seeing her now and accepting the two together as being one and the same, it was a strange wake up call, difficult to ignore.
Rising unsteadily, I saw she was crying. The pistol, my pistol, had dropped to her side.
“I’m sorry,” I said quietly. “I’m sorry for what I’ll do. If I could change things, I would. But I don’t think that’s possible.”
Standing there in the alley, the urge to kill her husband was stronger than ever; but that other antagonising feeling of regret was becoming ever greater.
Her body was shaking, and the wrist, it appeared, had begun to bleed through the bandaging.
I stumbled towards her, wanting to help.
“Stay back,” she cried, raising the pistol again. The hate, it had returned.
“They have ways. Even without your pad, they’ll have ways of tracking you. Witnesses. Agents like me can be sent back to track you.”
“So that’s it,” she snarled. “I’m nothing but credits to you.”
“No,” I insisted. “I want to help.”
“You’ll turn me in.”
“I only follow orders.”
“It’s them that you work for.”
“How long ago did you take your pad out?”
“Two hours,” she answered, afraid to look down.
“It must still hurt like hell.”
“I can take it.”
“We need to get you to a hospital. God dammit,” I said, feeling the side of my own dripping head, “I think we both need a doctor.” For the first time I noticed the child’s toy on the ground between us. The weapon she’d used to hit me with.
“Where did you get that?”
“You threw it away.”
“You were following me?” She’d found me in the area, seen me throw the weapon away. Twice she’d witnessed me killing him. I wondered if she’d made it as far as the cafe, if she’d seen the other me.
“And why not?” she said, interrupting my thoughts. “You followed me to Sasmayar.”
“You mean helped you get there,” I pointed out. Had she been tracking me all this time, or had she simply returned to the area, guessing I’d do the same?
“Because you knew I wouldn’t succeed.”
“I’d been trying to help.”
“And now you’re going to save me again,” she sneered sarcastically. The tears were drying but she was by no means together.
“What can I say, you made an impression on the sub train.”
“You ignored me,” she huffed.
“I had to.”
“You had to. Like you still have to kill him.”
The pistol waved pathetically in the space between us.
“It can’t be helped,” I said, trying not to meet her eyes.
“Just leave me alone.”
“People have died from taking their pad out.”
Looking at the mess she’d made of herself, I was reminded again of her humanity. Clients to be erased. Dangers to our society.
“A hospital will report me,” she moaned.
“I know someone.”
“Of course you do.”
“Let me help you.”
Her eyes darted from me to the weapon in her shaking hand. She wanted a way out, I could see.
“I don’t know,” I told her. “Because I’m having second thoughts. Because even if it is too late for your husband, it’s not too late for you.”
As the words came out, I realised how true they were. I had to help this woman. Help her survive, protect her from people like me. And then, after that, I had to kill the man that she loved.
“If I’m with you, they’ll find me.”
I told her I was untouchable. That they were too scared to interfere in anything I did. We were huddled in the back of a taxi, on our way to a man who I hoped could help.
“Where are we going?”
Her wrist, still bleeding, was now resting on my lap. Her head bobbing forward, eyes half shut.
“An old client,” I told her. “You may have even heard of him.”
The pistol was now safely back in the holster under my jacket; the child’s toy left discarded in the alley of Lane 32.
Mr White. A doctor of the highest credentials. A surgeon so respected that he was chosen to be the one to operate on our vice president to replace a lung. Trouble was, even the best of them make mistakes. Our vice president had died on the table and the government were not happy.
I knew about this because our company had been called in for help.
No interference. Our golden rule had been put on hold because the vice president’s life was too valuable. If we did it quickly, sent someone back without hesitation, then it would be just one minor incident put right. The repercussions of his death would be minimised: him having not died at all, if we did it quickly, would change nothing if no one found out that he’d died in the first place.
So someone was sent back to interfere. An expert in surgery advised White on the procedure, pointed out the possibility of him making the mistake he’d ended up making. Told him to be extra careful.
But something must have gone wrong because nothing was changed. A message came through from our agent that the advice had been ignored.
So another was sent back, to an earlier time in Dr White’s life. This agent posing as a tutor, took him through the procedure in the utmost detail. Trained him so hard that the likelihood of something ever going wrong was minimised to near zero.
But again no change.
The government were unwilling to give up.
Another agent was sent back. Another and another and all of them failed. The vice president remained dead because Dr White would always fail to save him.
Finally an agent went back to take over the surgery completely. Dr White remained on the sidelines, watching with interest. The agent’s hands were steady but at the last minute Dr White insisted that he help.
Once again, due to a mistake on the doctor’s part, the vice president died on the table.
“Dr White?” said the girl. “You’re taking me to Dr White?”
“As someone who works in historical research, I assume you know who of him?”
“Damned right I do. His timeline was interfered with so many times it sent him mad.”
“Not mad, just …”
“Just what? Crazy?”
“He’s all we’ve got,” I assured her, hoping she wouldn’t demand to be taken somewhere else.
“And how exactly do you know him?” she sighed, resigned, it seemed, to going along with whatever I had planned.
“An old client,” I admitted.
“You mean you were involved in the scandal?” She was wide awake now. Still in the taxi, we were flying through the slipstream.
“I was one of the agents, yes.”
“One of the many,” she breathed. “Was it really done forty times before they gave up?”
“About that, I think. But I’m not exactly high up in the division. My jobs usually involve …”
“Assassinations,” she finished.
“Not always, not in this case. They wanted to keep him alive.” Her eyes had lost their fear now. She’d given up fighting, but also she seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say.
“You mean they didn’t even try to kill him?”
“When they got round to that idea, too many agents were involved. His untimely death would have affected all of their timelines; not to mention the government officials and even the president himself had crossed paths with him … all ended up a bit of a mess.”
“So what was your job?”
“I was the final one. I made contact after it happened. Brought him in for review.”
“You didn’t go back?”
“Never have,” I revealed.
“You’ve never time travelled?”
“Not yet,” she repeated darkly.
“As I say, my jobs usually involve …”
“So how do you know Mr White?” she asked, veering away from the cold details of my usual missions.”
“Well, when I say he’s not mad … I mean, not exactly. But he can be a little strange.”
“So I’ve heard”
“He latched on to me. Thought I was important. I was the one who brought him in, the one who explained … he calls me sometimes. We meet for chats and always, once the small talk is done, he asks me again to tell him what happened.”
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “But it’s usually the same questions. There was a summer conference in Vermont that he was prevented from attending. A baseball game that was seen, then unseen, but he swears he remembers it. He still can’t believe that the personal tutor he had for a month in college had been sent from the future. That originally he’d been the one who’d been operating on the vice president; operating and not assisting …”
“And you tell him?”
“He doesn’t know, you see. Well, what I mean is, he doesn’t remember. Why would he? However many times his life was interfered with, he only remembers one timeline. But the rest of it, the small things that happened that he lost, he likes to hear about them. And I read all the reports as part of my briefing. I’m the closest thing he’s got to filling in the gaps.”
“But if these things were changed, how is it you know about them?”
“Good question,” I admitted. “But as a historian I’m sure you’ve got some idea. You know as well as I do that it's impossible to move forwards in time. But in this case we know from the travellers who interfered; they sent forward messages to explain the details and reasons for their actions. Information was pieced together theoretically. I have a copy of the final briefing if you’re interested. I mean, as part of your job – you are a time historian, aren’t you? One of those who goes back, to observe?”
“My husband was a historian,” she told me. “A respected professor. But look what they did to him.”
Then more than ever I wanted to ask her. Ask what it was her husband had done. But I could see in her eyes that now was not the moment.
“And Mr White a respected physician,” I agreed instead.
“A physician who killed the vice president.”
“They tried their best to change that.”
“But he killed him anyway,” she muttered. We were almost at the residence. By now there was a dark stain of blood on the trousers of my suit. Though at last, it seemed, her wrist had stopped bleeding.
“There was nothing they could do,” she continued.
“What do you mean?”
“Fate,” she hushed eerily. “The vice president was meant to die, Dr White was meant to kill him, and there was nothing they could do to change that.”
It was a small building grouped with a bunch of others of the same size, just outside a park on the north side of the city.
We took an elevator up to the second floor, the whole of which belonged to Mr White. A handsome man still in his late thirties, he opened the double door wearing just a T-shirt and boxers. His hair in tufts that would have looked odd on anyone else, but for Mr White they added a fashionable look to his appearance.
“Mr Sun,” he said pleasantly. “To what do I have the pleasure?”
“Spot of trouble,” I told him.
“And who might we have here?”
“A friend,” I explained, though without glancing at my female companion I knew that reference would be filling her with disgust. Even after our fairly civilised conversation in the taxi, I was far from a friend, however much I was willing to help her.
“Well, come in, come in.”
He led us through to an expansive living room. Floor to ceiling widows with a view of the park on one side, while a large videoscreen covering the opposite wall showed the scene of what looked like an African plain.
“Anything to drink?”
“I wondered if you’d have a look at her wrist,” I said, pointing out her fairly obvious injury. “And myself, afterwards, if you could spare a moment to check for any serious damage,” I continued, lifting a hand to the side of my throbbing head, now matted with dry blood.
“Of course, of course, how stupid of me,” replied the doctor.
He stood there looking confused for a moment before going back to the door. “Just a minute,” he said. “I think there’s somebody outside.”
“No, no, that was us,” I replied, glancing over at the girl who’d now seated herself on one of the three black sofas in the middle of the room.
Ignoring me, the doctor opened the door again to check.
“Could have sworn someone rung just now.”
Patiently, I took a seat next to the girl and waited.
“My God, look at you both,” said the doctor, turning again to face us.
“Yes, quite,” I replied.
“How did you get in here?”
“I had no idea he was this bad,” whispered the girl beside me.
“Give him a minute,” I answered. “He doesn’t often have guests.”
The visit to Dr White lasted barely an hour. There were similar confusions – more than once he seemed surprised to see us within the confines of his flat, but he patched up her wrist professionally enough and my head was no longer in quite as much pain as before. He offered us a drink, I think it must have been the seventh one.
“So what brings the two of you here, then?” he asked, not at all picking up on the atmosphere between us. She hated me more than anything; you could see it in her eyes. I imagined her desire for another attempt on my life; however much she knew of the risks involved.
“Her husband,” I said, deciding to speak the truth. What did it matter? “I’ve been assigned to kill her husband.”
He eyes narrowed while the good doctor seemed perplexed for all of ten seconds before he silently returned to the kitchen to mix up another set of drinks.
And then it happened … there, in Dr White’s apartment I learnt the reason why her husband had been a man with a red mark against his name.
“So what now?” she asked.
“Now I leave you to disappear. Just as you planned.”
A new identity had been registered in her wrist. She was free to go. No one would follow.
“And what am I supposed to do?”
“Whatever you want.”
“What I want,” she repeated. “What I want is my husband back.”
“I don’t see how that’s possible,” I replied miserably.
We were in a sub train, just like before. But this time I knew everything.
“I know what you’re thinking,” I continued. “I haven’t killed him yet.”
“You could choose not to,” she huffed, though only half-heartedly. She knew it was hopeless. However much I fought the urge.
“I’ll try,” I told her. “That’s all I can do.”
At the next stop I slid out just as the doors were closing. I needed to lose this girl. She was confusing me; interfering again.
I know you. We’ve met before.
Now more than ever those words rang true. Though at that time her husband had still been alive.
I never forget a face, she’d screamed.
Looking back to the sub train windows, I saw the suits closing in. Had I really thought she’d escape so easily? Who was I kidding? They’d been tracking us, of course they had. As soon as I left her side she was theirs for the taking.
As the train shot off, I wondered if she’d even make it as far as the next station. There was no saving her now. Not this time.
“We were making our escape,” she’d told me. “We had it all planned. We knew, you see. Knew that one of you would be after us.”
And then I’d shot him, ruined it all.
I never forget a face, she’d screamed.
And once again, just as freedom had seemed within reach, we’d been there to put a stop to it. The suits, I was one of them. Time police, unofficial vigilantes. What right did we have?
I never forget a face, she’d screamed.
But she would because my actions would corrupt time itself.
Releasing these thoughts out loud, my face appeared from the tiled walls of the subway. A distorted image, my head at an angle, shadows etched under my chin, cheekbones and forehead; hair in disarray; eyes wide and sparkling.
This was my moment.
In a haze of confused emotions, I’d made up my mind: I was going to put a stop to it.
Walking through the underpass to the zeppelin port, I wondered what people would say about me. If I’d become a name in the secret history books, like Doctor White and the rest of them. If, at all, they’d piece any of it together:
To change time.
I’d been put in a position of such responsibility.
I laughed out loud.
Why had my boss been so stupid as to let me loose again on the world?
Access to a time machine; it was near impossible, even for me – though I’d managed it before so I would have found a way.
My thoughts flew back to when I’d followed her green dress through the long silver corridor. Of course, there were time machines there. I’d even witnessed her using one.
The doors, they’d had codes, but codes could always be broken.
Satisfied, I decided that this was how I’d done it. I’d returned to the building of her work. At last I knew it all and while the urge to fulfil my fate as the assassin of her husband became stronger than ever, the more I concentrated on images of the girl, the easier it was to fight.
Sounds of the zeppelin port grew louder as I ascended the moving stairs.
I’d end it in a crowd.
The laser pistol felt warm in its holster. A terrible decision – I wondered if it was even possible for me to see it through.
Emerging into the ticketing area, I drew the weapon from the inside of my jacket.
If I ceased to exist now, then I never would have killed him. I’d never have met myself because I would never have been there. The woman would never have met me because her husband would never have died.
“He broke a law,” she’d told me, back in Mr White’s flat. Our host had gone for more drinks and there were tears in her eyes. “There was a child. It was a reaction.”
“A child?” I asked.
“Stepped out in front of a porting zeppelin. My husband pulled her back.”
“Six or seven. She was young. She would have died in front of us.”
“You mean she did die.”
“We were there to observe,” she sobbed.
“But he stopped her.”
“A reaction,” she repeated, her words barely audible.
“And broke a time law,” I mumbled. “But she survived, the child I mean?”
“The child was taken care of,” she spat. “One of your men was tracking us.”
“Taken care of?” It was a moment before the words hit home. Taken care of. Dealt with. It angered me – though what right had I to feel emotions at all?
When Dr White returned with the drinks, I was more than just sick.
He set each down in front of us. Lemon fizz with vodka. I’d downed several by then, which was helping matters immensely.
“So what brings you here?” asked the doctor. Then, “Of course, I’m sorry. You …” he looked at me strangely. “Did you say you were going to kill her husband?”
“Has already,” replied the girl, taking up her glass quickly. “My husband was assassinated because he interfered in a past event.”
But she was wrong. I hadn’t killed him. Not yet.
Awaiting the approaching zeppelin, my mind was made up. Her words, they’d influenced me; I should have stayed away.
Taking out the pistol, I held it to my now throbbing temple; how wonderful it was, to be about to cause such mayhem. If I died here, now, then I wouldn’t be here in the first place. I’d be home, watching laserball or somewhere else on another mission.
A man was approaching, black suit, he was one of them.
“Stay back!” I shouted.
The zeppelin almost ported, I’d make doubly sure of it with poetic justice. To die in front of a zeppelin, just as the child had done.
“You don’t know what you’re doing,” I heard.
“Oh, but I do,” I laughed crazily. So simple, so beautiful and I no longer even cared.
“Step back, I’m warning you.”
“End it, start again, and you’ll never even know.”
“What you’re attempting, it’s dangerous.”
“But you can’t stop me, can you? Because if I die now, there’s no reason for either of us to be here at all.”
Sparing a thought for her husband, I hoped to hell that it would all work out.
Fate, she’d hushed eerily.
The future, it is written. If tomorrow exists, then the events of tomorrow exist too. Hutori’s first law. An unbreakable equation.
The past, it is written. We can only change the future – the second golden rule showing no respect to Hutori.
So now we were about to prove the both of them wrong. My revenge on time itself.
“And who is going to stop me?!”
I still had free will. The future, the past … the zeppelin was upon us.
Pacing to the edge of the platform, laser pistol at my head, I’d already begun to squeeze as hard as was physically possible.
The wind was pushing me back, but onwards I fought.
Through a crowd of commuters, I stepped into the void.