December 23, 2001
Renihan admired the lights on the houses as the limousine passed through the Arlington neighbourhood. Across from him, the serious young man who had been sent to collect him was not looking outward. Since they had left San Francisco that morning, Renihan had tried to engage his chaperon in conversation but had given up somewhere over Idaho.
It was all a little cloak-and-dagger even for a man who was a card-carrying member of the CIA, NSA, Secret Service and The Planetary Society.
“How much longer?”
“Once we’re in DC, sir, you will be at your meeting.
At The Willard, Colleen Soroka was seated at the bar in their Ballroom. It was an ornate hotel with high ceilings and chandeliers everywhere. Somewhere in her head was stored the trivia that this was the lobby in which Lobbyists were created. The President of the day was often influenced in the lobby of this hotel. She hadn’t finished her thought when she was not lobbied so much as approached.
She eyed the two suited gentlemen carefully. Presidents Men. Secret Service. “What can I do for you boys?”
“We’re sorry to do this, but we have orders to take you to a meeting in town here. Top secret. High priority.”
Soroka, like Renihan, was affiliated with a number of the United States finest intelligence agencies, and had picked this high tech vendor party to attend because of an absolutely scrumptious systems analyst she’d met at the company’s offices some months earlier. He was even single.
“Dressed like this?” she said coyly. Her black dress was just the right size small.
“Ma’am, just be pleased we didn’t catch you in your dirty PJs.
Renihan had never been in the White House. The meeting room was small but the coffee was good. The door opened and a beautiful, tall and somewhat frighteningly fit woman entered. Exactly the type of woman Renihan had never, ever asked out. Over her shoulder, she thanked whoever had helped her in. She wasn’t pleased. “James Renihan,” I presume.
“Yes, and you are?”
“The Colleen Soroka? I’m honoured to be brought to a clandestine meeting in the White House with you. I take it from your attire that you weren’t given much notice.”
“I was Christmas shopping this morning … in San Francisco.”
The Director of the NSA, Michael Hayden, walked in.
“Please, sit down.” He shook their hands. “We have one more attendee and then we can begin the briefing. Sorry for the short notice, but as you have likely guessed, this is urgent.”
“Any hints?” asked Renihan.
“You don’t have to go to any Muslim countries.”
“That narrows it down.”
The President of the United States entered the room.
“Sit down please,” said the President. “I’m here to listen to the Lieutenant General tell us the same bad news. Michael, please proceed. I have to go light some more candles somewhere in a few minutes.”
“As you agents likely know, we have a top secret set of labs in Virginia that allow us to experiment with advanced techniques in physics and engineering. One lab was broken into under incredibly unlikely circumstances.”
Michael took out a disk and put it into a player that was built into the meeting room wall. The images showed a speeded up security camera with a time read out. It was six hours earlier and showed an empty corridor for a couple of minutes. Then, literally out of nowhere, three armed men appeared. They ran down the corridor out of view. The film cut to a gun battle between the three unexpected visitors and some heavily armed security people. One of the intruders went down and the remaining two retreated. Back in front of the original camera, the two vanished. Michael shut off the machine.
“That occurred in our advanced physics lab outside of Richmond. We lost two good people in that attack. The problem is obvious; who were they and how did they get in? Renihan and Soroka, that’s your job. You have been chosen because Renihan has the background in the necessary esoteric subjects and Soroka you are the best security analyst and operative we’ve got.”
“What’s the lab working on right now?” asked Renihan.
“Some shit in quantum mechanics I don’t understand.”
“Soroka you are the commanding officer on this case. You can recruit resources as necessary, but you cannot disclose the mission. I believe the President has a couple of words.”
“Thanks Michael. Renihan and Soroka, I need you to help the nation out. We are already up to our eyeballs with trying to bring the operation overseas to a successful conclusion. The thought that possible terrorists could break into a secure lab that almost no one knows about is unacceptable. You have my support to take measures necessary to solve this mystery. Quickly.”
“Yes sir,” Renihan and Soroka said in unison.
“And sorry for the interruption of your Christmas. I send your best to your families. Michael, if you don’t need me.”
“Thanks Mr. President.”
And thus George W. Bush ended his brief encounter with Renihan and Soroka.
“That was weird,” said Renihan. “Sir, is there anything else you can tell us? Is that guy they took down alive? Are you sure the camera just wasn’t broken?”
“He’s alive – due to his injuries, he had to be taken off site to Richmond General for surgery. The cameras check out. What you saw was real.” Michael handed Soroka a dossier and travel documents. “There’s a helicopter waiting for you. The secret service agent will show you the way. My number is in the dossier. I want regular updates. We need this solved.”
“Yes sir,” they said in unison.
The helicopter was loud and due to the fact the pilot could overhear their conversation, Renihan and Soroka decided not to talk at all.
The security director greeted them at The Science Lab main gate in Virginia. He had a bundle of fresh clothes for each of them. They proceeded into the nearby washrooms and changed.
Renihan emerged ostensibly the same – denim jacket and dress pants whereas Soroka emerged looking unglamorous, but no less beautiful, in jeans, blouse and pullover sweater. She was snapping in a small firearm to a belt that hid the gun under her sweater. Renihan estimated that Soroka has at least three pieces on her.
She stared at him. “You don’t wear a gun, do you?”
“Nah, my tailor says the look doesn’t suit me.”
“If I ordered you to wear one, would you?”
“Yes, but please don’t. I bet you have enough guns for both of us.”
“Let’s get to work.”
The director of security led them through two more security checkpoints. Soroka and Renihan alone entered an elevator that took them thirty floors underground. The security director didn’t have clearance for this section of the lab.
“I just want to know,” said Renihan, “where they took all the dirt and rock they dug up and how did they do it without the neighbours noticing.”
“This assignment is nuts. We don’t even know who we’re meeting down here.”
“Maybe we’ll find out what happened to Elvis.”
“If someone starts talking to me about aliens, I’m just going to start shooting.”
The elevator opened and a caricature of a mad scientist met them. “Hello, I’m Dr. Unger. Welcome to The Science Lab. You must be Agent Colleen Soroka. Renihan, it’s good to see you again.”
Soroka shook the doctor’s hand.
Renihan said, “Doc, you look great for a dead guy.”
In the meeting room, Dr. Unger explained that to improve the secrecy of the project, the government had decided to fake the deaths of some key scientists. Renihan learned that two of his profs from MIT had not died when he had thought. One of them had, apparently for real, died since.
“But this is not our key problem.” Dr. Unger played the tape again.
“Did you see any of this battle yourself?” asked Soroka.
“I saw our guards shoot the man who is now in the hospital.”
“Did he look familiar to you?”
“Any ideas as to where these people came from? Motive?”
“This project, were it know about, would cause worry in many quarters, but the agencies you work for set up all this elaborate subterfuge and security arrangements.”
“Doc, what is it that this project does?” asked Renihan. “When you were at MIT you were dealing in applied quantum mechanics; I assumed for the benefit of computer industry.”
“At first that was the case, but we discovered some interesting properties about sub-atomic particles. In essence as we were working to eliminate quantum effects on next generation microprocessors – basically if you get too many wires too close in too small a space their interference with each becomes hard to predict. In the process we discovered that we could map the probable location of particles with respect to the galactic core, but also their position in time. How far from the big bang they had gone. Interestingly there are a lot of particles floating around that have different, er, timestamps. If we observe any group of particles, there are some from the past and some from the future.”
“You didn’t find a way to manipulate these timestamps?” asked Renihan.
“Yes, that’s the point of the project.”
“What?” asked Soroka.
“They are trying to invent a time machine.”
Outside the meeting room, Soroka had made some decisions. “Renihan I want you to go to the Capitol Medical Center, check this guy out and determine if he can be moved to a more secure location.”
“I am going to review security protocols here and try to determine how the intruders got in.”
“Colleen, you seem, er, agitated.”
“Come on Renihan. Time machines? I thought this assignment was for real, not some bogus physics lab for the self-indulgence of old professors.”
“They spent a lot of money and kept it secret. Seems excessive for a boondoggle.”
“Best snow job in American history in my opinion.”
“It’s not my job to tell you how to think, but you may want to consider that the intruders came from the future. From what I saw their firearms were not familiar.”
“Which doesn’t prove time travel. Get out of here.”
Renihan went directly to Intensive Care, but couldn’t find the intruder or any of the agents that brought him in. Conversations with the hospital’s staff led him to a low risk recovery wing.
Outside a room was a secret service agent.
“Hi. I’m Agent Renihan.” Renihan displayed his NSA ID.
“I’m Agent Chad. We just got notice that you fellows had taken on the case.”
“Did you inform someone that you had moved him from ICU to here?”
“We just called it in. The hospital made the change in the last half hour.”
“Why the move?”
“He was getting better.”
“From a punctured lung, ruptured spleen and internal bleeding. In a seven hours?”
“Ask the doctor.”
“I will. See you later. Where are this guy’s possessions?”
“Locked up in the hospital administrator’s office. Agent Chang is guarding it.”
A conversation with the attending physician revealed that indeed the patient had healed abnormally quickly. The injuries listed on the chart had been real; the patient was truly well shot-up. In addition, there was no obvious explanation for the recovery, but the hospital couldn’t justify keeping him in Intensive Care. Besides, it was less of a burden for the hospital to guard him on a normal floor.
In the administrator’s office, the personal effects of the intruder were simple. His clothes were nondescript; they were unlabelled combat fatigues that could have been sewn up anywhere. The only other two items were a plastic card – about credit card size but three times as thick – with nothing written on it and a small gun of an unfamiliar design. Renihan could make out the obvious trigger, safety and clip, but the shells were square. The gun seemed to be made of metal, but seemed too light. Renihan put the items in his pocket in case he had an opportunity to use them in an interview with the heal-so-fast intruder.
A hospital worker stuck his head into the room. “Agent Renihan? Agent Chad wanted you to know that the patient is stirring. The doctor thinks he might be coming out of it.”
Renihan hurried back to the room.
In the room, the doctor was finishing taking the intruder’s blood pressure.
“Is he awake yet, doc?”
“No, but it shouldn’t be long.”
“I’ll just sit with him.”
Renihan stared at the patient and wondered where he came from. A fit tall Caucasian man with no markings whatsoever. In fact he almost looked generic – a soldier from a magazine.
Suddenly he wondered if he was faking it.
“Hi. I’m Renihan. You are in the <<>> hospital. You wouldn’t want to tell me your name would you?”
“OK, so who do you figure in the Stanley Cup?”
The patient gave a small grunt.
“Never the Leafs. OK, what’s your birthday? Please include the year just for laughs.”
The foot twitched.
Renihan pulled the plastic card that had been recovered from the intruder’s clothes. “What about this. Pretty boring looking credit card.”
The patient reached up and grabbed Renihan’s forearm. The intruder’s eyes were wide open. “Shit!” Renihan tried to pull away. The intruder was rising from the bed and his other hand was going for the card. Renihan blocked the hand with his other arm. “Chad! Help!”
Agent Chad entered the room and grabbed the intruder’s flailing arm. He picked the agent up and threw him across the room. Chad crashed into a rolling table and chair.
Renihan head-butted his attacker and hit the button on the bed so that the bed tilted the legs up. He punched the intruder in the head and the grip finally loosened. Chad was groaning on the other side of the room.
Renihan did not look like much of a fighter – Soroka had thought upon meeting him that he needed to work out more – but when he had trained he always placed in the top five of his classes. Thus when the intruder finally made it out of the bed and lunged at him, Renihan was able to deflect the weight of his attacker and send him crashing into the floor. In the process, however, the card was knocked out of Renihan’s grasp. The intruder should have been winded more than he was and thus was diving across the room toward the card. Chad had risen, but was elbowed in the face and went down again. The intruder had his hand on the card. Renihan, not one to stand on good form, kicked for the intruder’s genitals but, before contacting, Renihan’s foot was intercepted and he was bowled over. The intruder started urgently tapping on the card. Renihan withdrew the gun and aimed. The card started emitting bright light that filled the room. Renihan fired two rounds into the intruder’s leg. The lit area expanded to engulf Renihan.
When Chad awoke, he was the only person in the room.
Renihan found himself in what looked like an airlock. The man who he had shot was writhing on the floor, injured in the leg as planned. Before Renihan could think further, someone from the right knocked the gun from his hand; he was struck from behind.
When he awoke, Renihan found himself in a meeting room, restrained to a chair by tight, but not uncomfortable leather straps. Across from him were two women and the man who he had shot.
One woman spoke in a language he did not recognize, but in his ears he heard an English translation. Specifically, “Please tell us your name.”
“My name is James Renihan. What’s yours?”
“Our names are not important.”
“Not even the one of the guy I shot?”
“You are very flippant for a prisoner.” That statement came from the man.
“I try to be trying.”
“Who do you work for?” From the woman again.
“What is your mission?”
“Do you have any inklings as to where you are or how you got here?”
“I have a really, really bad feeling that I’m in the future.”
And in the end he wasn’t exactly in the future. These were the people who had mounted the attack on The Science Lab. They were born in the distant future, but the facility he was in was temporally neutral. They had found matter that had no time signature at all and this room was within such a structure. It was possible to monitor events throughout time. They told Renihan that they were looking for points in time where time machines were being made and to stop them.
“But surely, for you to exist you need someone to have invented one once.”
He was told that the case of making the first one had occurred and the repercussions of being able to manipulate time had led to disaster. Their group formed to try to make the world free of time travellers. It was their dream, so they said, to simply reemerge into the world with no temporal technology.
“What do you want from me?” asked Renihan.
“We have to stop Dr. Unger’s project.”
“Surely there was a more subtle way of doing it than shooting people.”
“We didn’t know how well defended the lab was.”
“Why don’t you just put me back and let me sabotage the computer the data is on. You must have some cool device to do it so that I don’t get caught. If it’s bad enough, they’ll never re-approve the budget.”
“You’d have to kill Dr. Unger.”
“He’s dead anyway … at least on paper.”
It took an additional four hours to convince them that he was serious.
Renihan decided that time travel was like opening your front door, stepping out and unexpectedly ending up somewhere other than the front yard.
In this case it was The Science Lab on the sub 30 level. He walked to the meeting room where Soroka was setting up a situation room.
“That was quick.”
“I didn’t take a direct route. Where’s Unger?”
“In his office. What happened at the …”
But Renihan walked out quickly.
In Unger’s office the doctor was sitting at his desk. Renihan reached into his pocket and pulled out a plastic card. “Doc, can you scan an item and determine how many particles are not from our current timestamp?”
“We have to do it now. Let’s go to your lab.”
Soroka entered the office. “Renihan; what the hell is going on?”
“Come with us quickly.”
In the main lab, Dr Unger put the plastic card in a special box that looked like a steel strongbox. At a console, he tapped in some commands in a keyboard. He looked shocked.
“The readings are off the scale. What is it? Where did you get it?”
Renihan took the card out of the box.
“Soroka, I was wondering if you would call Agent Chad and just ask him if I’ve arrived at the hospital yet.”
“What for? How did you know Chad was working there? I just found out myself that he and Chang were on duty.”
“I need to prove something to you. Please.”
Soroka pulled out her cell phone and plugged it into a wall adapter so it would work on the land line. “Chad. It’s Soroka. Has Renihan arrived yet?”
“Yes ma’am; he just checked in. Want me to get him?”
“No. Don’t bother. Thanks.”
Soroka stared at Renihan. “What’s going on? Is this a prank?”
“In a little while, the intruder at the hospital will revive, he and I will fight and I’ll be transported into what amounts to the future. I will negotiate with the group that attacked this facility and come to the conclusion I need to destroy this facility and kill Dr. Unger. My new time travelling allies a few minutes ago dropped me off here.”
“You time travelled? What was it like?” asked Dr. Unger.
“Doctor, you’d think you’d be more interested in your own life. Renihan, you are either insane of a security risk.”
“Or a very good liar. What I told our temporal friends was complete bullshit. What I’m afraid of is another attack once these bozos figure out I was not exactly on the up and up.”
Soroka grabbed her cellphone and punched in a number. “Wallace? Get Da Silva and yourself to the main meeting room right now. Renihan, let’s go to the meeting room. Dr Unger, would you please join us?”
In the meeting room, Soroka pulled attached a small scanner to her laptop, which was already running. “I am not believing much of this, but I have to allow for the fact that we are working on a case that involves quantum physics and time travel and thus oddness could happen.” The laptop had powered up. “Place your hand on the scanner please.”
“What was that plastic card for?” she continued.
“It creates an electromagnetic pulse that will trash all computers in a wide area. Or so they said.”
The scan on his hand was complete. She passed the file to the ID software and it confirmed that she was dealing with Renihan.
“Were you going to use it?”
“No. I’m still trying to think of how to get out of this mess. As far as I’m concerned, these future people are just either deranged or on some other mission they didn’t tell me about. Commando missions like what occurred here are usually last ditch efforts. Surely there are more subtle ways of influencing the past. Wouldn’t you think doc?”
“Yes of course. If I had a time machine, I would be inclined to watch only. Interacting would create causality loops.”
“Like me being in two places at once?” asked Renihan.
Wallace and Da Silva walked in.
“Renihan,” said Soroka, “How much time do we have before you have your little incident.”
“Less than an hour.”
“Wallace and Da Silva. Get to the Richmond hospital. Locate the man there who is impersonating Renihan. He will seem identical. Terminate him and the intruder in the hospital. Bring the bodies here.”
“Um,” said Renihan, “is that actually necessary? Dr. Unger, is this actually possible?”
“It’s one way to solve a causality loop,” said Dr. Unger.
“If we want to mess up the opposition, it’s crucial,” said Soroka. “I want them to get the message we are taking steps to protect ourselves.”
“Ma’am,” said Wallace. “Can we get your clearance sent in for this operation?”
“Of course.” Wallace and Da Silva looked over her shoulder as she logged into the correct system and authorized an Extreme Prejudice action. “Now get going. Take a ‘copter.”
“Third floor of the recovery wing,” called Renihan after the two large soldiers. “Try to be nice. Soroka, you do realize that I’m at risk of ceasing to exist.”
“I doubt it; you’re way too tenacious.”
“Dr. Unger, what were these time travellers really here to do?” asked Renihan.
“What do you mean?”
“They gave me a bunch of nonsense about being on a mission to stop the invention of time travel everywhere. But I don’t believe them. There is something you’ve done that is a threat.”
“I agree with Renihan,” said Soroka. “It might be subtle; something that has future ramifications.”
“Or not so subtle,” said Renihan. He grabbed Dr. Unger’s right hand and dragged him over to the laptop scanner.
“What are you doing?”
“A routine identity check.”
The scanner did its work. The computer said, “No match in the system.”
“So, you’re a rogue time traveller they’re trying to stop, aren’t you?”
Dr. Unger pushed Renihan to one side and was reaching inside his lab coat.
Soroka shot him in the shoulder. As he writhed on the ground, she reached into his coat and pulled out a second plastic card, equally without markings, and handed it to Renihan.
He picked up the phone and called for a medic.
Soroka was applying pressure to Unger’s wound. “So, who are you?”
“My name would be meaningless. Mr. Renihan is correct however.” He suddenly moved his foot onto Soroka’s chest and pushed her across the room. Renihan dove at Unger, but was deftly pushed aside. He strode over to Soroka, grabbed his plastic card and started tapping it. There was a flash of light and he was gone.
Renihan moved over to Soroka, who was standing up. “Uh, Colleen, you wouldn’t want to cancel that order to kill my other self would you? It looks like my made up story to the other time travellers was not as far off the mark as I thought.”
She pulled out her cell phone and plugged it into the land line. “This is Soroka. Abort mission. Return to base. Confirm.” She waited and provided another password and hung up. “Don’t worry Renihan; they were just getting to the hospital when I called.”
“I guess this mission’s over then.”
“If the bad guy who just left was their target, there’s no reason for them to visit any longer.”
“What do I put in the report? Is the real Unger around anywhere?”
“That’ll take some work to figure out when he was replaced.”
“Well, Renihan, you can help me write it up. Can I take you out somewhere for some Christmas cheer?”
“My mother always told me never to accept drink invitations from women who can order your death.”
“Make an exception.”