by Lynn Mann
part 1 of 2
The assassin followed his prey on silent cat’s feet, trailing him for the third night in a row. As usual the young man left the bar he frequented with other off-duty soldiers, walking to the trolley stop that would take him to his parents’ small house just outside the city.
As soon as the assassin was certain the man would take the same route as on previous nights, he peeled off, gliding down a parallel street into an alley that the prey would cross in a few minutes. This was an older part of Munich, cobbled streets and dim lights. The assassin tensed in the foul alley, weapon in hand.
The target whistled tunelessly as he walked, not quite drunk but not totally sober, either. The assassin aimed; this had to be perfect, had to look like a natural death. Poised to attack he felt that tiny rush of air that screamed “Danger!”
He dropped and rolled, ignoring the offal and the stench. Rising to a crouch, he wondered how he could have missed someone else in the alley. And froze. He recognized both the weapon trained on him and the person holding it.
Both assassins waited in total silence as the soldier’s footfalls neared, passed and faded into the distance.
John glared at his adversary. “You idiot!” he hissed. “I had him! What the hell were you thinking?”
“Hello, John, nice to see you, too. You’ve been recalled.”
“Crap. I don’t believe you.”
“How else could I have found you?” Mo lowered her weapon and wrinkled her nose. “You stink, John. What did you roll in?”
Glaring, he kept his voice low. “Who knows, these people have no concept of modern plumbing or hygiene.” She tensed as he rose to his feet and he said “Relax, Mo. I’m staying right here until you explain yourself. And you’d better make it very convincing or I’ll have you before the Disciplinary Committee before you can turn around.”
She laughed dryly. “Depends what you mean by ‘before’, I guess.”
He wasn’t amused. “I had him in my sights, damn it. Months of work, weeks in this hellish place and you’ve ruined it. Maybe I should just kill you, might make me feel better.”
“Maybe you should just take a shower. Like I said, you’ve been recalled.”
John Honeywell was a Class A assassin; he didn’t take orders from any Class C slip of a girl. Not even Maureen “Mo” Stevens-Goode, who just happened to be the Director’s favorite niece.
Mo holstered her weapon, but John wasn’t impressed. Any first year trainee could kill a half-dozen ways with his bare hands, and Mo had graduated in the top ten percent, acing her fieldwork.
“John, honest, I apologize for my rotten timing.” He winced at her choice of words. “But you have to abort. This comes from the highest levels. We’re going back. Now.”
When he didn’t move, Mo sighed. “Look, you can always come back and try again, right? So long as it’s,” she glanced at her wrist, “after eleven-twenty-six there won’t be any causality loop, right?”
John nodded, still furious. She took a step towards him and he stared at her clothing.
“How dare you!” he hissed. “How dare you promote yourself? The Director will have your head for this, and if he doesn’t the Committee will. I’ll see to it myself, you presumptuous bitch.”
Mo stared at him. “Fine,” she said coldly. “If that’s what it takes to get you back to HQ.”
John felt a touch of unease through his fury. Mo habitually skirted the regs, counting on her uncle’s protective shadow to shield her from the consequences. Surely she understood not even her doting uncle would pardon her jumping two ranks and wearing a Class A uniform she had not earned.
They stalked toward each other, stiff with hostility and mistrust. John saw a woman of average height and build, red hair tied back and no jewelry except for her watch. Despite the dim light and long shadows he could visualize her face: pug-nose, hazel eyes and determined chin.
Mo saw a totally average man, grey and unexceptional, one of the reasons he was the top field operative. No one, not even his victims, ever looked at him twice, and even the best eyewitness typically forgot his appearance.
They stood back to back, scanning for any trace of others in the vicinity. “All clear,” he whispered and she nodded.
“Ready?” she asked.
Mo activated the emitter on her wrist and they disappeared, leaving behind only footprints in the muck.
* * *
When John and Mo shimmered into headquarters they were greeted by a tense-looking aide John didn’t recognize. He sketched a salute, wrinkled his nose at John’s stench and asked them to follow him, please. He almost ran to the elevator and used a privacy key to whisk them to the penthouse offices.
As soon as the door opened he trotted towards the Director’s office. The secretary, whom John also didn’t recognize, buzzed them in wordlessly. His eyes met Mo’s, but he looked past John as if he wasn’t there. There was a bit of jostling at the door until Mo muttered something and marched through, pushing the unfortunate aide aside.
John took one step into the Director’s office and froze. All the niggling unease he’d felt, all the tiny details his subconscious had registered as wrong, everything screamed at him to leave, now! But he knew that sound, the solid thunk of the security door that no one and nothing could open, until released from within by the Director himself.
* * *
The mission briefing had been exhaustive. John received his target’s name, a picture and other relevant details. To his relief this was a surgical strike, with strict instructions there be no collateral damage. He still sometimes reflected upon the irony that he, a confirmed pacifist, was a killer by trade. Only his deeply held belief in his mission allowed him to live with the dichotomy.
The briefing was followed by intense immersion into the language and culture of the period. The Agency’s sleeper agents transmitted a steady stream of current newspapers, magazines and other cultural material. He listened to conversations, absorbing local accents, dialects and pronunciations.
Before he embarked John was summoned to the Director’s office for their traditional pre-mission drink and conversation. John liked and respected the Director. He had transformed a crackpot idea — that one could improve the present by changing the past — into the most secretive and powerful agency ever built. Initially John had been shocked, even frightened, by the concept, but he’d come to accept it, largely due to his respect for the Director.
Recruiters for the Agency were consummate seductors. John was never able to discover why the Agency chose him, an anonymous undergrad in a huge university. No fraternities pledged him, girls barely registered his existence. He spent most of his time immersed in the library’s history and anthropology sections. He had been so nondescript even back then that despite excelling in his classes his teachers never remembered his name.
Then Helene dropped into his lap. John was sipping coffee and reviewing a paper he had to submit next week, when the gorgeous redhead stumbled and crashed into him, books flying everywhere. Somehow she landed in his lap and his arms reflexively closed around her.
The seduction, both physical and philosophical, was expert. Even after John realized what she was doing, he still desired her. Naturally, once he was recruited and on his way to basic training he never saw her again. Upon learning that everyone there had a similar story he felt somewhat less of a fool.
When the Agency’s true nature and role in human affairs was initially revealed he assumed someone was playing a prank, seeing how credulous he really was.
“What kind of idiot do you think I am?” he asked the counselor. “Time travel is nonsense, a silly paradox that cheap fantasy writers use. What’s more, if you change history, the present will also change; only no one will know it was changed because it never happened.”
“You are, for the most part, quite correct, John,” the counselor agreed. “Civilians don’t realize anything happened, because nothing did, so far as they can tell. However, part of Dr. Stevens’ brilliance is that we, the Agency, do remember. We exist in, for lack of better term, a time bubble. Adjustments in the time stream don’t affect us.”
John snorted and pushed back his chair, ready to stalk out. The counselor held up his hand, adding, “You have heard of the Inquisition, yes?”
John nodded. “It was a small, deviant movement within the Church, put down rather ruthlessly by the Pope. It started in Spain but the King needed to maintain his good relations with the Moors, so he banished them. I think they popped up every decade or so in various places but never gained any traction. Why?”
“Because I can introduce you to a dozen candidates with very different memories of that era. In their time-lines the Inquisition was the most powerful political entity of its time, and the King and Queen of Spain used it to control not only their own subjects but also the Pope himself.
“John, the Agency’s purpose is to, shall we say, adjust the time-line to avoid horrors like the Inquisition. We encourage people and philosophies that advance mankind, and minimize those that don’t.”
There was more in this vein, gradually wearing away at John’s resistance. Only much later did John realize that the counselor never specified how these adjustments were made. That would come later, when John was ready for the next leap of faith.
He learned that sometimes missions failed; history had an odd way of repairing itself. Agents couldn’t assume success immediately, constant vigilance was required. That was one reason the Agency constantly recruited new agents.
Another reason was attrition; no matter how well a mission was prepped an agent could still die in the line of duty. Field agents typically lasted a few years and if not killed were reassigned to the training section. Such minor details were not revealed to new field agents immediately.
Failure could also ensue if a society’s perversions were so pervasive that the loss of a single leader could not avert disaster. Sometimes the Agency tried again, identifying additional leaders whose removal might change history for the better. On rare occasions the Director instructed the agents to desist eliminating leaders and instead work to strengthen outside adversaries, containment now being their best hope.
That evening the Director had been his usual strong, courtly self. After pouring drinks (acquiring perfectly aged whiskey and cognac was never a problem now), he sat facing John.
“John,” he said, “this could be the most important mission you have undertaken yet.”
John watched him carefully.
“You could be the last agent we have to send out,” he continued. “I know you’d like that.”
John started, wondering how the Director knew, how long he’d known.
The Director smiled slyly. “I’ve always known about your political philosophy. However, I believe your pacifism makes you a better agent. We have no room for psychos who enjoy killing. We are surgical instruments, not blunt objects. Your conscience, your distaste for killing, help ensure that we pinpoint our targets and cause the least mayhem for the greatest good.”
* * *
The man seated in the Director’s chair was a stranger to John, as were the people flanking him. The cut of their clothes looked odd, somehow wrong.
Without any preliminaries, the man said, “Sit down, please, Mr. Honeywell.” John disliked him on sight. His tone was condescending and his attitude supercilious. His voice was completely neutral, no regional accent at all, making him even more robotic.
John sat, outwardly relaxed, with every sense alert.
“I am Acting Director Grayson. As agent Stevens-Goode has informed you, you have been recalled and your mission aborted. You have no need to know why. Suffice it to say that you, like all this agency’s agents, are immediately retired. You will be sent to the time and place of your choice, so long as it is not within fifty years of your original lifetime. You have thirty-six hours to choose and ninety days thereafter to prepare.
“Should you ever attempt, in any way, to contact any person associated with this agency you will be terminated with extreme prejudice. Is there any part of these instructions you do not understand, Mr. Honeywell?”
Much, John thought, but remained silent.
“Very well. You will be escorted to your suite and remain there until you leave for your final destination. The only people with whom you will have contact will be your trainers. You will not speak to any person about this or any other mission you have undertaken for the agency. You will not attempt to contact Director Stevens or other agents or employees of this agency. Is this clear, Mr. Honeywell?”
Grayson appeared to take John’s silence as assent.
“We are well aware of your profile and linguistic talents, Mr. Honeywell. Please do not attempt to delay your departure by feigning unreadiness. You will leave here and be taken to your chosen destination on deadline, regardless of your level of preparedness or medical condition. You are dismissed.”
John remained sitting. Grayson waited a moment then, when it was obvious John would not comply, motioned to two men. They stepped forward and John asked, in a pleasant tone, “Do either of you plan on walking out of here?”
Copyright © 2009 by Lynn Mann