Lying in bed she stirred gently to try and retrieve the duvet from her sleeping partner. The shadow of the towers outside played across the bed. One of the shadows caught her semi-conscious eye as it moved slowly towards her; in the moonlight as the shadows shifted she caught its vaguely human shape, she yelped as it came towards her. Her hand fumbling she reached for the bedside light switch. The lights blinded her as they lit up the room.
“What is it?” said the man next to her urgently.
She looked around at where the shape had been, “What?” she saw the look on her partner’s face.
“Oh.” She said; the humanoid shape had disappeared. “Nothing, it must have been a bad dream, sorry to disturb you”
She kissed him on the cheek and wrapped the covers around her tightly. Dreams like that rarely had this effect on her, who was she? A frightened child? She settled back into an uneasy sleep.
“Oy! James get here” said Johnson
“What?” said James looking up from his screen.
“You gave us a defective cloak tonight; the perception system in it is buggered. Went into power-saving mode right in the middle of the operation. Luckily it kicked back in when the poor bint screamed and turned the lights on.” At this he threw the cloak angrily at James.
James caught it and dropped it on his table. “Fine I’ll send it for testing”
“Send it to the bin, if that happens again on a mission you could get me killed”
“Hey, you’re well trained; you’d have found a way out of there.”
“Yeah assuming the weapons aren’t as fu’d as the cloak.” Johnson said handing over a number of devices off his belt.
“Did you get the mission done, or are you needing a replacement as well?” said James trying to remain composed.
“Nah, dropped her a quick stunner drug and did the implant simply enough. Someone’s either going to be very happy or very annoyed in a few weeks I’ll say that much.”
“You done bitching at me then?”
“Just fix the cloak will you, I don’t want someone else having the shock I just had”
James rattled off a mock salute and turned away from the desk; Johnson huffed and walked away slamming the door behind him.
Johnson headed for the rec room and immediately scanned the room looking for a quiet corner. The sleek cold lines of the room that he’d grown used to over the last few weeks were gone, replaced by a slightly dingy yet somehow homely feeling that reminded him of 19th century men’s club. Among the high back chairs it was hard to see which were occupied and which weren’t, taking his chances he selected a small cluster of chairs and trying to look as unfriendly and as hostile as he could, he marched towards his selected circle of chairs.
Just before he was ready to sit down he saw his selected area was already occupied, but changing now would ruin the determined façade he was putting up; and so maintaining his best `don’t mess with me I’ve had a worse day than you` face, he took up his selected chair. He briefly stared at the man opposite him who he’d already come to see as his opponent in a battle of wills.
“Evening”, said his opponent in a cheerful voice “They’ve certainly changed in here haven’t they”. Clearly the man was not aware of the rules behind a battle such as this.
“Yes I used to rather like it in here, you used to be able to have a drink in peace” At this Johnson sub-vocal-ed for his preferred drink and a newspaper.
Unabashed the opponent continued, “Well peace is overrated eh, what is history without conflict?”
“Brief, and significantly more pleasant for those involved.” Said Johnson trying to find a way to sit comfortably in his seat in a way that showed his desire for distance.
“I personally always rather thrived on conflict myself, that’s how I found myself here.”
“Well I like a simple life” At this Johnson looked around to see his drink and newspaper arriving, “So if you’ll excuse me I’ll enjoy my simple pleasures” At this he took a significant drink from his glass and propped up the broadsheet in front of him to block out the rest of the world.
“I guess the re-decoration means a new commander then”, continued his opponent.
Johnson let out an exaggerated sigh, and dropped his broadsheet down, “It usually has in the past yes, either that or the manager got bored or drunk and had a fiddle.”
“I heard that there’s a new base commander,” said his opponent in a conspiratorial voice, “he’s brought along an update, there’s even rumours that there’s a huge influx of new agents set to arrive, something about a major set of disturbances predicted”
“Either that or a cost cutting exercise to try and avoid setting up multiple agencies, get us to cope with everyone’s problems.” Mumbled Johnson.
“What?” Said Johnson, somewhat caught off guard.
“You know I guess you’re a field agent from your detached nature and with the kind of bad mood you’re sporting you either need to get out more, which I doubt given you’re an agent, or you’ve just had things go badly”
Johnson sighed again and downed the last of his drink “Fine if you’ll leave me alone I’ll tell you, I was on a standard coital mission, implanting the child she should be carrying and getting out. The cloak they gave me failed, the woman woke up, nearly screamed the house down and before I had chance to gas her the cloak cut back in and that was that.”
“Well that doesn’t sound so bad” said the stranger in what he clearly thought was a helpful tone.
Johnson shook his head derisively “If the cloak hadn’t have kicked back in then I’d have had to gas her and her partner, then make my way out of the house, possibly taking down people all the way to the evac point and then we’d have had a hell of a clean up operation on our hands. A typical for want of a nail situation and equally typical of the way this place is going to the dogs.”
“I’m sorry” said the stranger “I’m not acclimatised to here yet, what did you just say? For want of a nail, is that some local expression?”
“Not a local one, just an old story, for want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse was lost; it carries right on until the whole kingdom is lost because of a nail.” He paused for a moment “You really haven’t settled in have you?”
“No” said the stranger, “I can’t even drink the local drinks” He stared distrustfully at the glass in Johnson’s hand. “You seem an old hand”
“Yeah, become something of a specialist in these times, worked for 3 separate agencies now, if your rumours are correct then I’ll soon be counting my 4th. 40 years centred around the same 10 year patch. It’s getting so that I know the local paper before the printers do.” At this he threw the paper into the nearby fire and watched satisfied as it went up in a large roar. Smiling he sub-vocalled another drink.
“I never could stand staying in one time; I always need something new, even if that something new is very old. Just come back from some operations in the Andes; frightful empire they had down there.”
“I just wanted to carve a happy little stable existence. I never was much good at any one thing so just keep trying and re-doing the same thing until you’re good at it. That’s the one good thing about the agency, there’s always a second chance, and nothing ever changes, or at least you try for that, until some little shit or petty bureaucrat fu’s up.” He looked around wondering why his new drink hadn’t arrived.
“I see guess I’d better leave you to it then, give me a call if you need a chat though”
Johnson looked around and made another drinks request. Deprived now of both his paper and his drink his mood was turning dark again.
“What’s with the service tonight?” he asked in desperation for something to do
“Guess they must be busy at the bar” said the stranger helpfully.
Johnson raised his eyebrows to try and convey his doubt at that, whether his message made it across though he was never sure. “Damn!” he exclaimed
“I’ve just been summoned to the commander’s office,” at this he stood up, “Well until next time” he said glumly as he walked off.
“Ah! Johnson, good.” came the voice before he’d even stepped into the office.
Johnson made his way into the office and roughly shut the door behind him.
The man behind the desk looked at the dishevelled form in from of him “No need to salute soldier, we run a friendly low key operation here”.
Johnson tried to ignore the sarcasm, “Is there something I can help you with Sir?”
The man behind the desk motioned to the chair opposite him “Take a seat please, and yes you can help me. You’ve been around here longer than anyone yes? You’re widely recognised as our most experienced field agent in these times.”
“Yes Sir,” said Johnson, clearly this was going to be one of those interviews, “3 times through with the agency. Once from 82 to 95, then from 78 to 91, now from 81 to”
“1987 yes,” Said the officer interrupting him, “over 30 years of experience in this time and this place. Spend much more time here and you’ll start to outnumber the locals. It must be troublesome to meet yourself at the local inn whenever you’re drunk.”
“Very amusing Sir., and in this period they call them pubs or bars. Can I ask the point of this interview?”
“My you are eager, good I like that. First I know you probably know my name from the imprint you’ll have received, but I always did like formalities. Major Cheops, 12th session of the corps. Now before you get carried away I am here to set up a new agency and I’d like you as a consultant.”
“So there is an update to the histories due then?”
“That’s what I’m needing to talk to you about and why we need you so specially. You are originally from the 5th session if I’m not mistaken, yes?”
“Yes, Sir, I believe there have been some fine changes since I left.” This time it was Johnson hiding the sarcasm in his voice.
“Indeed have you no desire to experience them yourself?”
“No Sir, I’m happy with what I have found.”
“Good, now here’s how you can help. According to your records you implanted a certain Trisha Boadil with a child tonight.”
“Yes Sir, from what I gather this was to rectify a previous agency mistake”
“Correct in 64 years time this Trisha’s Great-Grandchild forms one of our recorded individuals. However during a bust in ’36 the granddad of the man who should have fathered Trisha’s child was killed. Ever since then we’ve been trying to correct this mistake.”
“As far as I am aware everything is on course”
“Indeed, however there you have very cleverly avoided the issue altogether.”
“Sir?” asked Johnson, genuinely confused.
“Why do we correct her genealogy?” Asked the Major, “Why bother?”
“Because without the correct genealogy to history the correct events don’t happen, and without the correct events we don’t happen. To be frank Sir I’ve never really cared much about the people whose lives we’re correcting, but I care about mine and I’d like to carry on thank you.” As Johnson said this he was sure he saw a slight smile cross the Major’s face.
“Are you sure? Look I’ll let you in on a secret, although granted it’s not a big one. What we do doesn’t really matter. For a start off I could kill your grandfather at birth at any time I pleased and I’ll have still had this conversation with you. In fact you could kill him and still live to a ripe old age because it is your world view that matters.”
“Granted, but we have to maintain this timeline, or at least our best approximation to it.”
“Why? Come on if you’re going to act as my advisor I want to know you understand this.”
“Because then anything could happen. The first session sent out agencies hidden throughout history first of all to record history in as much detail as they could and then second to send that information to the other agencies scattered throughout history” Johnson saw the Major’s questioning look and continued, “because if anyone were to alter the timeline either intentionally or accidentally then the agencies could steer the history back towards the correct or at least the original one. The timelines would still exist where you had killed my grandfather and where you hadn’t, but in the timeline where you had killed my grandfather the agency would step in and find a way to make sure that when I was born I had the correct DNA and roughly the correct upbringing. Where a parent is killed a foster is found, where an inheritance should have been issued, a mysterious benefactor leaves an amount, or they win the lottery, as long as they end up with roughly the correct story the details seldom matter.”
“Well the process is flawed, we can’t record everything about everyone ever at every agency, we have to approximate and make guesswork and occasionally use brute force to get the timeline back. Except of course it doesn’t always work then either. This is why we have agencies throughout time, at the start of time to form the high ground where the big sweeping changes can be protected and prevented and much nearer to home where fine tuning can be done.”
“So what we are doing doesn’t work, requires vast resources and probably isn’t needed anyway?”
“Not really no, without some protection of the timeline anyone could go back and erase us from existence.”
“But the only way they could do that would be for our timeline to have existed in the first place, so they would be guaranteeing our existence by trying to erase us; don’t you see none of it matters. Look at the Baxter computer, a virtually infinite computing resource that exists simply by using alternate timelines to perform calculations for you and the final stable timeline is the one that arrives at the correct answer – yet those timelines still exist where the correct answer is never found, we just don’t experience it.”
Johnson looked puzzled for a while and continued “But that’s the point, we’re trying to make sure that all timelines or at least as many as possible share the same fate.”
“But what right have we to do that?” asked the Major.
“Well we know that this one works and we can’t be sure another would be better.”
“What if we could, what if we could simulate and know for certain that another timeline would be better? Should we improve history then?”
“That’s not what we exist for Sir.”
“Correct, but what if we could do that, would you be interested?”
“That goes against all session law.”
“Look I’ll be honest with you again; what we’re doing isn’t working, it’s all falling apart; the original timeline was stable and despite our best care maybe every one in two hundred thousand operations either goes wrong and that’s without those with hostile intent. We bandage and patch up the timeline as best we can, but I’m sure as a field agent you know it’s getting harder and harder. I read your report about the Fletcher woman.”
“The one who the unexpected pregnancy ostracised her from the community because she was supposed to be a virgin.” Stated Johnson, reminding himself as much as the Major “We then corrected the error by going back, introducing a false husband and wedding, but despite our best efforts they didn’t get along and divorced anyway again leaving to her being ostracised again which left us with no choice but to corrupt a number of other’s timelines to find her a new place. Which then went on to cause more chaos, over half a million trips worth of corrections needed just for that one damn woman.”
“Exactly, that sort of thing is happening more and more, it’s spiralling out of control. Worse than that, you may not have seen it, but that case had two agents fall in love with their targets, they tried to take their new loves away from their lives and onto a ‘better world’. In the end we just had to kill off half of those involved and start again.”
“So what do we do?”
“We fix it. We’ve tried some local experiments at home time, but now we need to try something bigger. We make a significant change in what we consider our past, exterminate whole swaths of society. Ignore our recorded individuals and see if we can build a cleaner timeline without all our corrections built in. If anything goes wrong we’ll just have one of our earlier agency posts undo what we did. If all goes right we’ll remove literally billions of complications from a large portion of the timeline. Our simulations say we can get that sort of tidyup back on line easier than we can correct the next Fletcher incident.”
“Killing millions?” asked Johnson, suddenly sounding worried.
“For the greater good,” said the Major earnestly “look they’ll still have lived long full lives in their original timeline, we’ll just be constructing a timeline where they are out of the way sooner and it’ll make things much simpler. That timeline will still have happened in order for us to be at this conclusion now, we’re just constructing a new cleaner better one. If this experiment works then we’ll have proved we can make changes to the timeline for the better. Once we can make changes to the timeline for the better then we have almost infinite possibilities to make life better, we’re no longer applying bandages to the patient, we’re growing newer and better and stronger body parts. We can go through time with confidence and make it better.”
“So what have you in mind exactly? What do you need me for?”
“Well our first experiment will be a local cleanup of just before your time period, the middle of the century has got awefully messy. You can then act as an advisor to our cleaning up and getting things back on track. It should be a good promotion for you. If all goes well then we go to phase three of the experiment.”
“Same idea but applied to a larger scale, a whole continent”
“You mean a major war?”
“Exactly, cause a big war that wasn’t in the previous timelines, get rid of the complications that have built up and then make sure we can steer things so that the accords still exist.”
“Sounds promising, what’s the longer term plan if it works?”
“Well once we’ve proved we can change the past significantly and still have the accords then we can improve the timelines by injecting quality of life improving technology and philosophy earlier; it’ll take some experimentation to get it right – society can’t change too fast, but there are a large number of optimisations that should be possible.”
“Ok, count me in. What’s the worst that can happen?” said Johnson
“Exactly, So how’s your German?”