It was a day like any other. She had come down the stairs, her phone was ringing, and she stopped to answer it, realizing her pump had slipped halfway off. She put her hand against the building, and leaned in, pulling the pump over her heel. She caught herself looking at a bearded man, sitting in the park, reading a newspaper. Her eyes looked him up and down.
On a hunch, she crossed the road to the park, not even looking for taxi cabs, even though she knew they wouldn’t stop. She’d read just the other day about a kid who had been hit, holding hands with his father. She didn’t know why she was headed to the park. She should have turned right and walked the length of the street, on the way to Barnes Butler to drop off the package. But there was something vaguely familiar she saw in the man.
When she had crossed, she stopped and she stared at the back of his head, silently daring him to turn around. He was engrossed in the newspaper, and she thought maybe she should just turn and leave. Instead, she barreled forward as if driven by a motor and stood in front of him, like a tree, blocking his reading light. He shook the paper and tilted his eyes up towards her. His face twitched in instant recognition, but it was too late for him to go anywhere.
“I thought that was you,” she said.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
“I work across the street.”
She sat down next to him, and he folded up the paper and sat it on his knee. He gave her a sidelong look as she stared at the print on the paper and gingerly picked it up with her thumb and index finger. “You know if you’re going to sit here on a bench in Central Park in the middle of New York City, the least you could do is buy a newspaper dated for today. March 4, 1972, really Henry?”
“I take it there’s nothing in that manila envelope I need to be worried about. It doesn’t look thick enough to carry a gun.”
“What do they say these days?” she asked, raising her eyebrows at him. “Take a chill pill?”
“Yes, I think that’s correct. I’ll tell you the English language is not what it used to be.”
"You’re not my target this time.”
“That’s privileged information, and you know it.”
“So how come you can’t kill me now, but in 2150 I’m your mortal enemy?”
She shrugged, clutching the package in her hand, and looking from side to side to make sure no one had followed her. He put his hand down on the bench, and he moved it over towards her skirt, but her reflexes were quick and she slapped it away. It pained her too, because she’d always found him attractive, even with a target on his head. But this wasn’t one of those spy movies where the two people fell in love and forgot all about the price on their head. She knew she’d have to target Henry next time they warped, and she didn’t want to risk unnecessary emotions becoming involved. She had never been here, to this time, and it was a surprise to see him. He looked innocent and younger than the last time she’d seen him. Of course then, his hands had been gripping the side of the building and she had been just about to peel them off one by one. She had imagined the scene as he dropped the fifty stories to the ground. She could even hear the splat his body would have made against the pavement, but in that exact moment in time she had warped.
The next assignment had not been a good one either, because it had occurred during the war, and it had taken much longer than she expected. Blue versus Gray, and she had been a housewife. She thought to herself that she should have never taken this job. She had no roots. Babies born and abandoned. But here she was, still at the hands of the powers to be. “I could help you,” he said.
“And why would you do that?”
“Because you didn’t kill me last time.”
Ha, she thought to herself. Only because there was a glitch in the machine. “I tried to.”
“Have you thought that maybe the orders have changed?”
She looked him in the eyes. She felt like she could trust him, but she didn’t know why. Her mind jumped to the moment in time where he was about to fall to his death. His eyes had looked sincere and warm, and in that moment she had felt a twinge of guilt. She never felt that way. It was always just business to her, never guilt.
“And why would they have changed?”
“Ophelia, we’re working for different people who have the same objective, aren’t we?”
She nodded, because she knew he was right. She looked down at her watch, the second hand spinning fast, and she felt the familiar wave come over her. No, not now, she thought. She couldn’t warp now. She grabbed the park bench, her grip tightened against the wood, as if she could save herself from traveling through space and time.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I think it’s coming. The warp.”
He shook his head. “That’s impossible. You haven’t done your job yet.”
“And how do you know what my job is?” she asked.
“That’s simple,” he said. “Our groups, they’ve—“
But the words were gone, in a swirling whirlwind, because in that moment her body was disassembling into millions of tiny particles, atoms, quarks, and it was traveling through a funnel towards another time period. .........
Re-materialising was unpleasant. There’s no other way to put it.
Hundreds of hours of training. Thousands of real-time warps, some of them across vast distances and durations. Rational thought. Mental preparation. Will. None of it really did much to take the edge off the sensation of having your body smashed to its component parts and swapped with identical ones somewhere, and somewhen, else.
Though it was supposed to be instantaneous - at least to to the five pitifully dull human senses - operatives often spoke about an almost imperceptible moment as they came out of a warp, a moment that passed in a fraction of a heartbeat. A brief, excruciating instant where the consciousness was present, but the body was not. They called it the Void, and it was terrifying.
Ophelia came around screaming, certain she could feel every tiny layer of skin being drawn to her bones like filings to a magnet. Someone put a hand over mouth, another on her back and lowered her gently to the floor. Her memory kicked in, then her hearing. Someone was speaking, softly, reassuringly.
"Phe. Phe, I’m sorry, there’s so little time. It’s OK, Phe. It’s OK." A hand on her forehead. "I had to pull you. I’m sorry. No time." It was Isaac, the warp tech. His pale, boyish features were shot through with guilt or concern or both. Ophelia focused and let him guide her back to her feet, doing most of the work as his slight frame struggled to support hers. She calmed as recognition of her surroundings flooded over her. The two of them now stood in a debriefing chamber under the clinical glare of three perfectly spaced strips of LED’s. The chambers were designed to be identical, from the dimensions and the furniture down to the shade of high-gloss grey that covered the walls, ceilings and doors. There were hundreds of them scattered across six continents, hidden in office buildings and disused railway stations and specialist bunkers. She could’ve been anywhere in the world.
"Zac, what’s going on?" Ophelia asked, scanning Zac’s face for clues. "I haven’t made the drop. The target’s still out there somewhere - I didn’t finish the job."
Now she’d a chance to look at him properly, she could see Zac was haggard. Tiredness dragged at his cheeks and brow, and his usually alert and inquisitive eyes were watery and ringed with black. His once-white shirt and coat were stained with old sweat.
"There’s not much time to explain, Phe," said Zac, busying around her. "I’m setting you up to go back straight away." He pulled the watch from her wrist and replaced it with another, identical one. "Things have changed. Bad changed." He met Ophelia’s gaze and held it, and it took a moment for her to realise he was holding out a hand for the envelope. The one she’d been clasping all this time. She handed it over.
"What do you mean, changed?" Henry had hinted at that, too. What had he meant? Had he known she was going to be here, now?
"Zac, Henry was back there. I was talking to him when you pulled me."
"Henry?" He handed her another envelope, indistinguishable from the first. "In NYC04? Henry, as in - "
"Yeah, that Henry."
"And you spoke with him?"
"Sure, he was sat on a bench in the middle of Central Park, reading a paper. I had to be sure it was him."
Zac ceased his fussing and took a step back. His expression had been grim before; now, hopelessness was starting to show. He rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands. “Damn, Phe. Things are worse than I thought. We need to get you back to where you were and pronto.”
"What the hell is going on?" said Ophelia, irritated now. "You’re sending me back to the exact same time and place? For what? What’s changed? I - "
Ophelia’s breath caught. The room was shaking violently, the tortured screech of twisting metal drowning out her words. Zac stumbled, about to fall, and she pulled him quickly upright with a hand under his armpit.
The tremors stopped a few moments later. Ophelia thought she could hear muffled voices in the distance.
Zac swore under his breath. “Phe, I’m heading straight over to control. In a couple of minutes you’re going to warp back to NYC.” He walked to the door of the chamber and produced a key fob from his pocket, which he held up to a small panel mounted on the wall before throwing to her.
"Lock the door behind me. If you’re not in Central Park in five minutes from the point I leave you, get out of here and stay low. Left out of this door, straight on and up until you see daylight."
"What am I supposed to do in New York?"
"Make the drop. Deliver the package - the one I just gave you. Same place. If you make it, your watch will bring you home."
"What about my target? The briefing said letting him walk would be catastrophic."
Another tremor rocked the room, throwing the door open. Zac shut it hurriedly, covering it with his back. His eyes were wide and fearful.
"Everything’s changed. There’s a new target. They know I’ve pulled you and they’re coming. They know you’re here. I have to get to control. Now."
Ophelia crossed the room and put a hand to Zac’s cheek. His expression hardened, but she could see he was shaking. He looked exhausted. “What are you going to do?”
"Get you into warp. That’s all that matters. The only way to fix this is you."
Zac turned and opened the door, taking great care to check both ways before stepping into the corridor outside. “Good luck, Phe. Get ready to lock the door.”
"Wait, Zac - who is the new target?"
Zac smiled. “Isn’t it obvious?”
He started off down the corridor. Ophelia watched him go, her hand resting on the doorknob.
Over his shoulder, Zac called: “You.” .......
Rematerialising was bad. Twice in under fifteen minutes was testing the limits of Ophelia’s resolve. She threw up in the nearest garbage can and looked around. Central Park was fairly empty this morning, but a few joggers gave her dirty looks as they went by.
She tucked the package under her arm and scanned the benches. No sign of Henry. It didn’t make sense. If this was the same time and place, he should be here.
Ophelia took the path out of the park and headed for Barnes Butler. At the first light, she made the mistake of looking behind her.
They were almost blending in. But she was trained on the right clothing and accessories for almost every time and place in history. The hats were wrong. She made eye contact with the shorter man. He stopped, grabbing his companion and they spun away into the park.
She moved faster up 5th Avenue. They would be back. Ophelia tried to remember the paths in and out of Central Park. If she could get clear before they came out, she’d have a better chance of reaching the store in time to make her original drop.
As she passed the convenience store, someone grabbed her arm. She went for her gun, forgetting they didn’t exist in this time period so she hadn’t been allowed to bring it.
“Henry!” She snapped, recognising the beard before she fully saw his face. Her heart pounded a little less. “I thought you were those guys.”
“I know. They showed up just after you vanished. I saw them looking around and leaving when it was clear you warped. They must not have gone far.” He gestured towards the package. “I think they’re here to stop you leaving that.”
“Well, my assignment hasn’t changed.” She swallowed, uncomfortable about the idea of who her target was.
“No, I got that.” He looked outside of the shop and nodded. “Come on, it’s safe.” Ophelia hesitated to follow him. They were still on opposite sides. He rolled his eyes and pulled her by the hand. “Come on, I’m not trying to set you up.”
He walked close to her, keeping one hand against her back. It was almost protective and she hid a smile. On days like this it was easy to forget they were at war.
"Are you planning to escort me all the way there?" She joked. He nodded, tight-lipped.
"I told you, things have changed. They're not going to like that you're back."
Ophelia scanned the glimpses of the park over the fence. "I can't see anyone. Maybe they didn't expect to get made and they've left." She and Henry looked at each other. Ophelia laughed. "I know, I know. But a girl can dream of the easy life."
They covered the three blocks to the store, moving at a fast pace. She preferred this. It was almost too fast to talk.
"There it is."
"Stay with me." He held her arm tighter. She tensed but she wasn't sure if Henry was the one triggering her feeling of unease.
Ophelia had the familiar sense that something wasn't right. Everything had happened so fast that she hadn't had a chance to sit down and work out which piece of information didn't fit.
"It's right there." She scanned the streets, but the light had changed and everyone was stopped. "I have to get this done."
Ophelia pulled her arm away from Henry and ran out into the street. She was halfway across the road when he yelled to her. The words vanished behind the blare of horns.
She didn't see the black town car accelerate through the red.
The driver's side clipped her. Ophelia flew into the air, coming down hard on the car’s hood. Pain sparked through her hip and up her side. The car wasn’t slowing down. She rolled, sliding off the side of the hood and onto the pavement. She didn’t want to move. A taxi skidded to a halt beside her, and soon a stranger was helping Ophelia stand. She limped forward, her left knee turning purple as it swelled.
Ophelia looked around. Henry was gone. She didn’t know if that meant he had finished his assignment. If he’d been here to kill her, he hadn’t done a good job. Neither had the other two men and the idea they might have unfinished business pushed her to keep going.
She brushed aside offers of rides to the hospital and looked around for the manila envelope. Heart starting to race in panic, she dropped to her knees, ignoring the pain. It had slid under a parked car. She wriggled under on her stomach to pull it out and stood. She saw the town car turning onto the street. She was right; they'd circled to check she was dead.
“I have to go.” She pushed through the crowd of onlookers, the envelope clutched in her hand. Each step sent bolts of blackout pain up her spine and into her head. No one could say she wasn’t dedicated to her job.
She entered the store and approached the counter. “Hi, I have a package to drop off for someone?”
A sales associate took it, looking at the name. “Oh yes, my manager. She’s just in the back. I’ll leave it here for her.” She did a great job pretending Ophelia wasn't covered in scratches with ripped clothing.
Ophelia nodded her thanks. A wave overtook her. Combined with her injuries, it was enough to make her swoon and grab the counter for support. She glanced at her watch. The warp was coming.
“Oh, Ms. Dell. This is for you.” A shadow loomed over the counter and the sales associate handed the envelope to someone beside Ophelia.
Ophelia looked up. Her eyes widened. The room started to blur. This didn’t make sense but suddenly she knew what was wrong. As the whirlwind overtook her, she scrambled to undo the clasp on her watch. She couldn’t go back.