He was in bed when the sharp rap came at the door. In bed, but not asleep, just staring at his phone. He looked past the bright rectangle and frowned into the darkness. Another rap, louder and more insistent this time. “Man, what the fuck?” He rolled out of bed, the rectangle still plastered over his vision, blind to anything else, and scrabbled for a t-shirt. He felt his way through his apartment and yelled out, “Hold up!” to the hammering on the door. He unbolted it, still grumbling, but left the chain on and looked out through the gap. “What the hell, it’s one in the damn mor…”
“Kel Denver?” It was a guy in a suit, holding up a badge.
“You the cops?”
“What the fuck?”
“Just want to ask you a few questions, Mr Denver.”
“Could you open the door?”
“Am I under arrest?”
“Not at all.”
He closed the door and undid the chain, then opened it all the way. There were two of them, both big and broad, both wearing identical black suits. He turned on the light and stepped back to let them in. “Look, I ain’t seen anything…”
“I’m not sure that’s true, Mr Denver.” It was the second man who’d spoken. His voice was lower, more threatening. There was something about the way he loomed, a little too close, that made Kel think he wasn’t a cop.
“Nah, for real, man.” He held up his hands. “I ain’t been near any trouble.”
The first agent was circling the room, looking around at the mess. It was no worse than normal, but it was a small apartment and Kel lived alone. “You’re not under suspicion of anything, Kel. Can I call you Kel?”
“Yeah, sure.” He gestured vaguely at the couch. “Sit down.”
“I’m fine. We shouldn’t keep you long. We appreciate it’s late.”
Agent #2 was still near the door. He reached into his jacket and the movement made Kel twitch involuntarily. He tried not to show his alarm, tried not to give them any reason to think he had something to hide. Truthfully he didn’t – as far as he knew, he’d never had to do anything that was strictly illegal – but if they did have questions about the favours he did for the other cops, he wasn’t sure what he’d tell them. All the agent pulled out though was a cell, which had a photograph on it. It was a woman with her hair in a tight bun and thick glasses on. She looked familiar.
“You know her?” #1 asked him.
“What?” He peered more closely at the picture, and realised with a start that it was Frankie, the girl from the other night. Shit. “Uh…don’t think so.”
“Didn’t give her a ride on Thursday night?”
“Yeah. In your car. You know.”
“I…I know what a ride is. I mean, no. No. I never saw her before.”
“Her name is Frankie,” growled #2.
“Frankie Bedford,” #1 clarified. “She looked a little different when you met her, of course. Different hair, different clothes.”
“Thursday night. You parked up and went into a blind alley alone, then came out with her and then you drove her to a hotel. Sound familiar now?”
“I…yeah…I…” he pointed to the phone. “Just didn’t recognise her.”
“How do you know her?”
“I…uh…I just gave her a ride, you know. Like Uber.”
“You’re not an Uber driver.”
“No, it’s not…it ain’t official exactly, just a favour I do sometimes.”
“For who?” #2 rumbled.
“It’s…hey, look, what is this about? I didn’t do anything illegal.”
“No, you didn’t. But your friend Frankie did.”
“Well that’s nothing to do with me, is it?”
“Where did she come from, Kel?”
“How’d she get to New York?”
Kel spread his hands. “How should I know, man?”
#2 smiled. “No ticket.”
“No one with that name bought a plane ticket in the last week.”
“Well maybe she…”
“In fact, we’ve done some digging into Ms Bedford. Did you know she was dead?”
“Wh…” He rubbed his jaw. What would an innocent man say? “She died? What happened?”
“Not after you picked her up,” #1 said with a flat look, “before that.”
“2001. September. Plane crash in the Rockies.”
“Well that doesn’t make any sense, does it?”
“No, it doesn’t. Which is why we’re here.”
“What do you want from me? I gave some girl a ride. So what?”
“That girl – whatever her legal status might be – got into a conference yesterday using a false ID. You know anything about that?”
“She was seen talking to a scientist, had some kind of altercation with her and then planted a device on her person.”
“So what? Is that supposed to mean anything to me?”
“It was an explosive. She, and the taxi she was riding in, blew up.”
“That surprises you?”
“Well, yeah. I mean…terrorism in New York…”
“No one mentioned terrorism,” #2 said.
“Two people are dead,” #1 continued, “and by rights it should have been more. Busy streets and all that. But, somehow, the explosive went off at just the moment the driver turned off into a quiet side street to avoid a set of lights. How’s that for a coincidence?”
Kel looked from one agent to the other helplessly. “What do you want me to say? I wasn’t there.”
“Who asked you to pick up Ms Bedford?”
“I…I get a message…”
“You get a text? Whatsapp? What?”
“‘Cause we can get a warrant to seize your cell if we think you might be an accessory to a crime.”
“Nothing on my cell, man.”
“So where’d the message come from?”
“Talk,” #2 said, looming over him again.
“If you tell us the truth, this won’t go any further, Kel,” said #1, “you’ll never hear from us again.”
“I told you what I know, man! She was just a ride.”
“You didn’t hand anything over to her? You didn’t know who she was? You weren’t acting on behalf of any kind of organisation?”
“You know what organisation, Kel, even if you don’t know what it calls itself.”
Kel moistened his lips. His heart was beating too fast. He was pretty sure he wasn’t going to be able to talk his way out of this. They knew too much, and they just wanted him to admit it. But something still felt wrong about this. “Are you really the feds?” he asked.
#1 sighed and put his hands in his pockets. “Okay, we tried to be nice.” He nodded at #2. Kel never even felt the syringe go into his neck.
“You’re nervous,” Marco guessed.
Frankie laughed. “Nervous? About what?”
“Going back to the Prime.”
“Coming back from the dead, you mean? What’s to be nervous about?” The machinery around the Conduit hummed. Lydia was hard at work, playing with one of her control panels. Klaus loomed over her, as motionless as an inert piece of equipment, just as it had been before they’d first met. But Frankie had spent enough time with Cogs now to recognise when they were being attentive but had no cause to move. Despite their insistence that they were as alive as any human being, that they had no creators, they didn’t have the same kind of needs a biological creature. But then, here in Ouroboros, neither did she.
“Things will be different,” Marco said, “2019 is a different world to 2001.”
“Remind me again why you can’t just tell me what I’m walking into?”
“Because,” Lydia explained, “what we know of where you’re going is based on events that are in that time period’s future.”
“Right, but I have a mission, don’t I? I know about that. So what’s the difference?”
“You know as much as you need to know. As much as we can safely tell you.” Marco just smiled apologetically. “You’ll be met by one of our contacts as soon as you arrive. They’ll fill you in on anything else you need to know to get around, provide you with funds, technology, that kind of thing.”
“I know, I know. I remember the briefing.” That had been why Anders had summoned her, to give her the mission. It was like being a secret agent or something. Only less glamorous, because Anders’s office, in contrast to the grand architecture that surrounded them here, had been a cramped little cubbyhole filled with books and files and scrawled notes. No computers here, no convenient discs to store things on. Just big old piles of paper. She expected dust and cobwebs, but of course there was none of that either. Just clutter. And Anders in the middle of it all, a bent little Victorian figure at a tiny desk, talking to her about infiltrating a conference on physics in the 21st Century.
“I don’t know anything about physics. Or science at all, really. It gives me a headache just thinking about this damn place.” She’d waved around generally.
“You don’t need any specialist knowledge. You just need to engineer a conversation and a little tumble with Professor Alexander so you can exchange the items.”
“And the items will be…what did you call them? Flash drives?”
“Computer memory. Like, little sticks.” He’d mimed the size of the object.
“That’s what they use in 2019, is it?”
“Not really. Most digital storage is cloud-based because almost everyone accesses the internet through multiple devices.”
He’d smiled reassuringly. “Don’t worry – you’ll pick it up. Actually flash drives were relatively common in 2001, but most non-specialists would have had little cause to use one. Plus they couldn’t hold much data. In 2019, their use was mostly restricted to holding sensitive information that could have been targeted by malicious hackers if stored on a cloud server.”
“Okay, when you say ‘cloud’…”
“Not like in the sky.”
“Right. Good. Because that would be a bit hard to adjust to.”
“Like I said, it will all come naturally to you after you get up to speed. Your contact will see to that.”
And now she was standing there, in the Conduit chamber, feeling like she was about to wake up from a dream. “This contact…”
“Will be the first person you see,” Marco said.
“Right. Why do we even need to use someone from that time though? The way you explained it all to me, you guys can just set up whatever you want in advance. Couldn’t all the things I need just be waiting for me in a bag or something?”
“They could be. But it normally makes things easier to have someone on the ground. Someone we can trust, who’s done work for us before.”
“Someone you can trust? But you already know what’s going to happen, don’t you?”
“That’s exactly why we know we can trust them,” Lydia said. She looked up. “Are you ready?”
It was a step into the unknown. They told her everything was under control, but Frankie still couldn’t get her head around the limitations of Ouroboros’s power. They knew the future, but still needed her to go to 2019 – to her own future – and perform some swap. Why her? Why not just get their contact to do it? Why send anyone to the Prime, when they had this kind of power?
Her conversation with the Cogman she called Bell had provided some answers at least. It had been quite happy to explain some of the basic mechanics of what she still thought of as time travel. They couldn’t see what was happening in the Prime, and no kind of digital recording could come back via a snapper. Well, technically it could, but the physics of Ouroboros would render it unusable. Even the most sophisticated microchip would just be so much inert plastic and wire when it came back here. They relied on witnesses; on the operatives who visited and came back with information. They had records from the whole of human history, and the testimony of – she assumed – herself from what was, to her, her own future. So they knew how this foray into 2019 went down. She just had to go and do it now, so that her future self would have the memory of it so she could tell Anders what had happened, which would allow him to plan the mission accordingly.
“When did it first happen though? If the plan didn’t exist before I actually did it, the information must have come from somewhere, right?”
Bell had given her a look that she’d interpreted as confusion, but it could equally well have been amusement. Cogmen were hard to read. “What you’re about to do is the first and only time the events occur.”
It was circular logic. Plans came from events, which only occurred because they’d been planned by the events themselves. Like Marco had told her, causality was basically meaningless when it came to this stuff. Just go with it. Forget cause and effect. Just be in the moment. Because that’s what Ouroboros was: a single moment in time, stretched out into infinity. If you thought about it too hard, you’d lose your mind. And there was still some part of her that insisted that’s what was happening. She was on that plane, dying, and this was a very long, very detailed hallucination. Just go with it.
Marco’s hand rested gently on her shoulder. “Frankie?”
“Hm?” She looked around, confused.
“Lydia asked if you were ready.”
“Oh. Oh yes. Let’s go.”
The framework of the Conduit seemed to shimmer in the air, and the empty doorway at its heart suddenly filled with bright light. Frankie had expected some sort of crackle of electricity or a cool effect like a wormhole opening in a sci-fi show or something, but it just happened instantly without so much as a whisper.
“I just walk in?”
“And then I’m back in the Prime. Back in the universe. Alive.”
“You’re alive now,” Marco told her.
“It hasn’t felt like it.”
“That’s Ouroboros for you,” Lydia said cheerfully.
“I’ll be back…when?”
“For you, a couple of days.”
“And for you?”
“At this very moment.”
She stepped forward, towards the light.
He woke up to the sound of someone snapping their fingers. For a moment he thought he was in his own bed and he went to roll over, but then caught himself as he realised he was actually sitting in a leather armchair, his head lolling to one side. A line of drool was hanging from his cheek. He jerked upright and wiped his face with his arm. “What the…”
“Mr Denver? Ah, finally awake.”
“Awake? Huh…” Kel blinked a few times. He felt woozy for an instant, but then it passed and he felt completely awake and refreshed. He stared around in confusion.
“Sorry for drugging you,” said the voice, “but you’ll be pleased to know that the compound is much more advanced than anything someone from this time period has managed to come up with and you won’t suffer from any aftereffects. In fact, you probably feel like you had a pleasant night’s sleep.”
The voice belonged to a woman. She sat at a desk in front of him. They were in a large office. The walls were white with a few abstract paintings hanging at pleasing intervals. There were one or two potted plants and a set of shelves that held more modern art, this time sculptures. The desk was big and white, the chairs were black leather. There were no personal items of any kind that he could see. It was sleek and contemporary, but not bland corporate. More like something designed to specifically leave no lasting impression. That worried him.
“What the hell did you do to me?” he asked, rubbing his head, more out of a sense of propriety than because it hurt.
“As I said, we drugged you,” She was an older woman with pale grey hair cut in a fairly severe style. Slightly built, wearing a black business suit, somewhat wrinkled hands clasped on the desk in front of her. But he couldn’t see her face because she was wearing a black mask that hid her eyes and nose.
“I’m guessing you’re not the FBI?”
“Very astute,” the woman said with a thin smile. She wore red lipstick. “You must understand, Mr Denver, that we couldn’t approach you directly. We had to use a little…uh…ruse, to feel you out first. Sometimes, we can obtain the information we need through such subterfuges, if people are inclined to cooperate with the authorities. You, alas, are not such an individual.”
“No I…I guess not. Look…”
She held up a hand. “Please, Mr Denver, allow me to do the talking. You will have plenty of time to express yourself during your stay with us.”
Kel definitely didn’t like the sound of that. He straightened himself up in the chair, noticing for the first time that he was still wearing his boxer shorts and the t-shirt he’d grabbed from the bedroom floor. He crossed his legs self-consciously. “I don’t know who you are, or what right you have to…” His thoughts caught up suddenly. “Wait, did you say something about ‘this time period’?”
The cold smile returned to the woman’s face. “Now you’re beginning to understand.”
“So you…you know then?”
“We know, Mr Denver. You have no need to keep any secrets from us.”
“Are you…are you them?”
She seemed to consider that. “Think of us as them adjacent,” she answered.
“If you really are them – or whatever – then why ask me questions? You already know what’s going to happen.”
“My dear boy,” she sighed, “how trusting you are. Do you really believe they have that kind of control?”
“Well, they wrote a message to me on the bottom of a paving slab the other day. They knew I’d trip right there and then. I always figured they just knew everything.”
“They know what they’ve been told, Mr Denver. And, believe me, what they’ve been told isn’t even close to the truth. Their control is an illusion, carefully orchestrated to maintain an elaborate fiction that benefits only them.”
“Okay…well…if you know all that, what do you need me for?”
“We need to know everything that happened from the moment you picked up Frankie Bedford to the moment my associates knocked on your door.”
“So we can understand what they have planned, of course. So we can piece together their ultimate aim. You see, it’s getting close now: the endgame, their secret purpose.”
He was more confused than ever. “But, if you can do what they can do, why can’t you just figure out what happens by going to the future or whatever?”
She laughed, a brash bark of a laugh that he knew he’d heard before somewhere. “Mr Denver, the reason we can’t investigate events from this time period from the comfort of the future is that this time period has no future. In less than one week, all existence as we know it will come to an end. My purpose in being here is to find out how that happens and, if possible, stop it. Your encounter with Frankie Bedford may provide the vital piece of evidence I need.”
“You think she’s going to cause the world to end?”
“Mr Denver, I believe that through her actions, she already has. The irony of it is, she’s been told she’s doing the exact opposite. Now, are you going to help us, or would you like to learn what other kinds of interesting serums we’ve managed to develop with the knowledge of all human history at our fingertips?”