I never know where to start a story. I have the urge to begin in the middle; it's getting interesting and you want to read on. Trouble is, then you have to go back with flashbacks and have a Mister Exposition character. How I got here, by blah blah blah.
My name is not 'blah', by the way. For the sake of anonymity, my name is Lily. It's a name I've always liked.
I'm a history buff; I love looking back at the past with knowing eyes. Seeing how things change and evolve into something that is still used today, or vanish completely. I'm ideally suited to my job; I love the research, the detective work, and the discoveries. If sometimes I hanker after a past that I have never lived, a time I've never known, well, that's life.
My life started in 2169. I should have preferred 2170, but some things haven't changed and babies still arrive early, much to my parents' surprise. I had an uneventful childhood, the arrival of a couple of siblings not too traumatic, education, further education, and then the career selection. I'm a voracious reader and love to pass on what I've learned, so I assumed that I'd be a teacher. The Selector (which is never wrong) picked me out for Temporal Correction.
Of course, my parents were terribly proud, who wouldn't be? But I was just stunned. What were they thinking?
No-one seemed to realise that a mistake had occurred, so I was duly packed off to train. Law, Temporal Law, Temporal tampering (how to recognise it – laptop in the Neolithic age, anyone?), survival techniques, hand to hand combat, loads of historical facts (history is written by the winners in any conflict, and sometimes they are not the most accurate portrayers of events). Six years later I became a Field Agent Assistant (sorry, Field Agent Support Officer – they keep changing titles for the sake of it – bureaucracy is the only immutable in time). That means that I support the Field Agent by giving them all the historical data they need to fix the event. I do the research and hand it over; the FA does the job and comes home. Everyone is happy.
More time passed (sorry – one of our in-jokes), and I progressed up the ranks until I got to the point where I had to decide to go with the Field, or with Admin. Nearly everyone wants to be in the Field; it's more glamorous. I guess you'd equate them with movie stars or football heroes of the past. It's much better paid, but there is more risk; we do lose one occasionally. Admin is safer, far less glamorous, and not so well paid, which I think is unfair, as we do have to do the retrieval, but there you go.
After more screening, my tests indicated a Field Agent career killer; a squeamishness that would let me down under certain circumstances – I found it difficult (ok, impossible) to kill someone in the course of restoring the timeline. It's all very well to kill the baddie to save the world, but sometimes you have to let the 'good' die to put things back on track.
So, it was Admin for me, and I was reasonably happy with that. Life moved on until one day, quite out of the blue, that same life changed completely.
A letter arrived in our section at work.
People rarely send letters these days. Everything is electronic, especially with the neural net interface, but some people still put pen to paper, usually for sentimental or ornamental reasons. It is prohibitively expensive.
The arrival of a letter is an Event.
The Chief (my boss) was at lunch. I'm the Deputy Chief, I have a Researcher, Zak, an Assistant Researcher (yeah, they changed the name again) Lena, an Engineer, Mike, and two Field Agents, both called Chris (Christine and Christopher), which causes the occasional confusion. The six of us were just prepping to send the Chrisses off, when the letter arrived.
The letter was clearly very old; the faded ink stamp appeared to be dated 1940, but it was difficult to read. It was addressed to Zak, at this section, Lab, Floor, Building, and City, with 'to be delivered' on today's date and time.
Holding the letter, Zak looked at me with a sick expression. My stomach turned to ice. I looked at the gang and they all wore identical, almost comical, expressions of dismay. When we get letters from the past, it's usually because something has gone wrong and this is the only way to find out what and why, and how to fix it. Sometimes it means our Field Agent is compromised, or worse, dead. I automatically looked at the Chrisses, just to reassure myself that they were still okay.
I turned back to Zak.
"Better open it."
"It's your handwriting, Lily. You wrote this."
"What? That can't be right; I'm not in the field."
I looked over his shoulder at the sloping cursive script; yep, that was my scrawl alright.
"Well, it's addressed to you; let's see what I have to say."
Zak handled the letter carefully, almost reverently, before slitting it along the top edge. He took out the sheets of paper and opened them. Everyone, myself included, crowded round his desk. Lena grumbled.
"Read it out Zak, I can't see."
"It's headed 'Hastings' and dated 1940."
Zak cleared his throat and began reading aloud.
Hi guys; you should see your faces. To me, here and now, I remember you all looking gobsmacked (I love that expression, so twentieth century)."
They all looked at me. They knew my penchant for unusual expressions. I hid my grin and tried to sound innocent.
They shook their heads and returned to Zak.
"If you are reading this, then it worked, and I exist. Yeah, it's one of those paradoxes."
We all groaned, including me.
"Zak, I need you to pull up everything you can find out about a policeman called Christopher Foyle, and a woman called Samantha Stewart, the daughter of a vicar. She was born about the 1920's; he was born about twenty or so years earlier, maybe the late 1890's. It's really difficult to judge their ages here, they all look a lot older than I'm used to seeing. Compared to the others here, I look about thirty five, nothing like my actual age. I'm in Hastings, it still exists."
One of the first rules you learn in the Field, is no inadvertent information alluding to the future.
"The Second World War is raging around my head as I write. As far as I am able to tell, something prevented Samantha and Foyle from getting together. I discovered the anomaly when I was doing the B and A check after this morning's outing. Something happened – or didn't happen – this month and they never married. It's a related issue."
They all knew as well as I did that 'related issue' was code for 'these people are my ancestors, for Chrissake fix this so I can live'.
My hands started to sweat and I muttered under my breath.
It's company policy that each section is not supposed to complete missions in their own team's timelines, to avoid just such an occurrence. We've all had our own lines traced when we began working here.
"You should get this letter just prior to the check."
They all looked at me.
I shrugged uncomfortably.
"I was just about to do the before and after timeline check when the letter arrived."
I looked at the big timepiece on the wall of the office and deliberately made a note of the time, knocking off two minutes.
Zak looked up again.
"Y'know, this is still creepy. After all the time I've worked here, you'd think I'd be used to this sort of thing."
I patted his shoulder.
"Thankfully it doesn't happen very often. What else is there in the letter?"
"Samantha has just been bombed out of her accommodation and has nowhere to stay, or at least, I haven't been able to find out where she's staying at the moment. Sgt Milner offered her his spare room, but his first wife came back early; I think there must have been a bit of a domestic and he's looking a bit henpecked today. Anyway, I arrived here on the 5th, safe and sound, my papers intact, and I look forward to seeing you again, probably at the end of the month, all will be sorted by then, one way or another."
Either I'll still exist, or my whole family line will be wiped out. I obviously addressed the letter to Zak in case I was not here.
This is why Temporal Correction can be a nightmare. There must have been a reason why I didn't send the letter to arrive yesterday, before one of the Chrisses buggered up the timeline and started this ball rolling. I turned to both of our Field Agents.
"You two; your next mission is delayed. I've read your reports, so try to think what you may have missed, anything, anything you think could be relevant. Zak, get on to the historical info angle and see what you can find out about Foyle and Stewart, Lena, you get started on the documentation, clothing and money for that time period."
They scrambled to do my bidding, knowing that any of them could have been put in this boat.
"What are you going to do now?"
Mike's question was sympathetic, but he couldn't hide his concern. That's unrequited love for you.
"Me? Oh, I'm off to ruin the Chief's lunch."
The Chief is a lovely person to socialise with; articulate, witty, snazzy dresser, nice bum, great fun to party with. He can, however, be a sod to work for. You would think the cost of every mission comes directly out of his pay. If you want to catch him at his best, come in under budget and don't mess with his lunch.
Double whammy this month, then. I found him downstairs in the atrium, eating Oriental, by the look of it.
"Afternoon Chief, sorry to disturb you -"
"Then don't. Go away."
I remained standing beside the table. Hid my grin at the Teriyaki sauce on his chin. I lowered my voice.
"We have a related issue."
The Chief blinked once. I think he might have sighed.
I could do succinct too.
He looked up, and one eyebrow lifted.
"Coincidence? Your favourite time period, isn't it?"
I nodded. I managed to keep most of my excitement/dread confined. The Second World War had always been a favourite of mine; how we survived was a mystery to me. I often wondered if there was some tweaking going on by others; just how did we win when Hitler stood his ground right down to the last twelve year old gunner? Experiencing the past was the only reason a small part of me had wanted to be in the field instead of Admin.
The Chief ruminated silently for several moments. I felt an irrational need to hurry him; irrational because I could be inserted into any moment of the past, any little slot of time. We could dawdle here for days and it wouldn't make a difference, but I wanted to get back there, back then, with a sense of urgency that was almost tangible. My ancestors need me, get a wiggle on!
Eventually, an aeon or two later, he nodded once. We both knew that he didn't have any choice, but the niceties have to be observed.
"All right, go. But make sure there are no screw ups. Too much is at stake."
Wowzat, I never knew he cared.
It didn't occur to me until later that he wasn't as surprised as I thought he would be.
When I got back upstairs Mike informed me that he had already begun programming the insertion time into the Net on the basis that I was unlikely to be denied the need to fix my own line. What many people tend to forget is that we have to calculate the move both through time and space; otherwise if you just move through time, Earth won't be in the same place in orbit around the sun. You'd arrive in a point in space where your destination would be if the planet was there. I know, boggles the mind, doesn't it?
Zak handed me a headset.
"Programmed with all the info I could find on 1930 to 2030. It'll take a minute and twenty three seconds; there was a hell of a lot going on back then."
Great. Now I was going to have a massive headache too. I preferred to get my knowledge the old fashioned way, but this would be quicker.
"Thanks, you're a star. That reminds me, I'd better get the 'before' and 'after' results back, see if we can narrow down the time frame."
I went back to my station and scrolled through the B and A. The comparison is examined after every mission, just to check that the new timeline has only been changed the way it had to be, and that there weren't any side effects. The trouble with temporal tampering is that there are always ripples, and we need to know that they aren't significant. Clearly, this was a rather large ripple.
Even after two read-throughs I was still none the wiser. I hate it when you have to fly blind during a mission.
Lena came back in carrying a suitcase appropriate for the time period, an outfit, a handbag, all my paperwork, and a letter of introduction, just in case I needed a reference.
"I've hidden most of the money in the suitcase, usual place, and left some in the bag. You're now Lily Davis, a librarian from Reading. I gave Zak a short history for you and he's included it in the 'set. I hope that's okay."
She handed me the clothes, looking a little nervous. She was still relatively new and this was her first paradox.
I smiled what I hoped was a reassuring smile and thanked her. I went over to one of the prep rooms and changed into my new outfit; the underwear was an experience; stockings and a garter belt! I far preferred my usual things, but we're not supposed to introduce anachronisms. A skirt, fitted blouse, cardigan and shoes. I left off the coat and scarf for now and lay down on the couch. As I hadn't done a non-training one of these on myself before, I called Zak in to monitor me.
As soon as he was ready I fitted the headset and tried to relax; Christine warned me that being tense made it worse. I debated whether or not to use a gum shield, but it would be a long session and where I was going, dentistry was basic at best. Once the shield was in place, I gave Zak a small resigned grin and activated the headset. For a long moment nothing appeared to happen, but then images and information started pouring into my mind. At first it was tolerable, but then everything suddenly sped up, the pictures tumbling over each other too fast for me to consciously take them in. Fortunately, you don't have to be conscious to absorb all the info.
I could feel my teeth clenching as the pain increased and each second seemed to last for an eternity. I think at one point I was begging to be knocked out, but then, thankfully, I passed out.
My hearing came back first and I could recognise the voices whispering. Over it all I heard Zak.
"Take it easy, Lily. You did just fine for a newbie. Relax and lie still for a moment, and don't worry, I have a bowl."
I turned my head to look at him and excruciating pain shot through my head.
Ah, so that's what the bowl was for.
I heard the soft hiss of a shot of Demsol and began to feel much better after a minute or so.
Once I started to feel more human, Zak, Lena and I tested the knowledge I had just acquired.
"My name is Lily Davis, a former librarian who hoped to be working as a volunteer at the local hospital…"
I rattled on for a minute or so, and then Zak quizzed me on salient events of World War Two. I could access all the information as if I'd known it forever.
Zak pronounced himself satisfied, and I got to my feet. The world spun for a moment, but quickly righted itself. Now all we had to do was try to pinpoint the moment it all went wrong, and try to do something about it. My other self had already left a clue, so 1940, here I come.
There was no need to 'put my affairs in order'. If I succeeded I would be back, and if I failed, I would never have existed. Good job I never got around to having children, I suppose.
There was no point dragging things out, so I collected my stuff and headed for the Containment chamber. Opening up a vortex in time wasn't just a trip across the city. Mike gave me a hug, looking anxious under his smile. I wondered for a moment what he knew about this trip that I did not. But I didn't ask.
The chamber was lit in blue. Don't ask me why, but I suspect the engineer geeks watch too much Sci-Fi. As if real life wasn't enough.
Contrary to popular myth, I will not arrive at my destination naked or unarmed. I'll have my clothes and my wits.
Lord help us all.
I climbed in the big chair and propped my bag on my stomach. I heard Zak's disembodied voice counting back from three and imagined him activating the jump. With Christine's last minute warnings ringing in my ears, I closed my eyes and breathed deep, trying to remember what she said about landing…
The next thing I was conscious of was falling on to my hands and knees on a hard, rough surface. A terrible screeching noise filled my head and my ears ached. Despite blurry vision, I could make out my case nearby, but I was too busy trying to stop my stomach from emptying itself again to get it.
The trip was exactly as Christine had described – like having your whole body squeezed through a bracelet. Then I recalled what she'd said about how many goes it took her to start landing on her feet. Well, it wasn't going to be a problem for me; I was never going to do this ever again.
I suddenly realised that the horrible screeching had been a vehicle coming to an abrupt stop close by; very close by, in fact. By the time my scattered wits were gathered, car doors had opened and I could hear voices.
"My gosh! Are you all right? Are you hurt? I nearly didn't see you! Did you fall? Where did you come from? I could have sworn -"
A kind male voice interrupted the flow of words with practised ease.
"Sam, give the poor woman chance; she probably feels as shocked as she looks."
"Yes, sir, absolutely. Sorry, it's just that -"
It was my turn to interrupt. I hoped my English accent had not strayed too far from its Mother country in eight generations.
"It's my fault; I'm afraid I tripped and fell. I do apologise if I gave you a fright."
A pair of well polished men's shoes halted beside me and their owner crouched down. He didn't touch me, but his quiet concern was obvious.
"Can you get up?"
I nodded and wished I hadn't. I kept my lips closed tight to prevent myself being sick. The man offered his hand then, and as I took it and finally looked at him, I got two shocks in quick succession.
He had the most startling blue eyes and with the exception of the hair, he could have been the twin of my engineer, Mike.
He helped me to my feet.
"Forgive me, but you don't look very well. May we give you a lift? Take you to a doctor, to see that you are all right?"
"No, no, thank you. I'm sure I'll be fine."
The young woman, Sam, handed me my suitcase. She still looked both puzzled and apologetic. I thanked her for the 'case. The man continued to look at me in a thoughtful sort of way.
"Can we at least give you a lift somewhere? We're obviously travelling in the same direction."
My natural instinct was to refuse his offer; they could be anyone. The man must have seen and correctly interpreted my hesitation. He reached inside his jacket.
"It's quite all right; you're perfectly safe with the two of us, I have -"
Sam interrupted; I began to suspect that she did this quite a lot.
"This is Detective Chief Superintendent Foyle. You can trust him completely."
He gave her a quick dry look, one eyebrow raised, before he looked back to me.
"Yes, thank you Sam."
He showed me what he had taken from his pocket. It was his warrant card.
I looked at it to give me a moment to pull myself together. What on Earth were the odds of arriving here and bumping straight into the people I'm supposed to be assisting?
Astronomical, that's what. I felt the first stirrings of unease. Something else was going on here and what's more, I think my section Chief knew about it.