by Stewart Wilson
A curl of smoke drifted slowly up from one of the many shadows on station platform. Normally, even these small town railway stations were required to have full lighting for security, but that was a joke in a town with too many kids and nothing for them to do other than get drunk and smash things. Thus, the platform was shadowed, and the presence of a smoker was a mere detail. After all, some people did still use the trains despite what the Government thought.
There was a change in the calibre of shadow on the platform. Whereas before there were merely shadows several now seemed too black, like holes into an unknowable void. Which in many ways they were. A figure, human only in that it had a head, two arms and two legs, emerged from what was normally a brick wall. The smoking man didn't turn, and indeed seemed to focus more on his cigarette. The figure spoke, though it's tone of voice made it clear that addressing the smoking man was only slightly less unpleasant than scraping dog-shit from it's boots.
"Archer. I have been sent to retrieve you."
The dead cigarette flew in an arc, trailing orange sparks into the darkness. "I'm not playing that game any more. Go back to the Adjunct and tell them to leave me out of whatever stupidity they are planning."
"It is not as easy as that. You have been reactivated."
"They can't do that."
The figure paused, listening to something. "Perhaps you should tell them that. In person. I am very sure that the Adjunct would like to know why you consider yourself more important than your planet."
Archer lit another cigarette and walked into the wall where the figure had emerged.
The void took him back to the Adjunct's headquarters, a set of rooms underneath London which were a mess of antiques and prototypes of new technologies; an interior designer's nightmare of steel, concrete, and oak panelling. The figure had not followed him back, or if it had it was otherwise engaged. The door to the briefing room was open. The room itself was the same mess as the rest of the base, but with a large one-way mirror against one wall. Though his superiors knew who he was, Archer never knew of anyone above him. A voice, electronically masked, issued from a speaker.
"Welcome back, Archer."
Archer threw his suit-jacket over the back of a leather chair and calmly dragged on his cigarette, waiting.
"Those things will kill you."
"No, they won't."
"Indeed. Your latest modification. But no doubt you want to know why you have been re-activated."
"I'd prefer 'why I was kidnapped by one of your extradimensional lackeys and brought here even though I stopped doing this years ago', but yes."
"You've never really given up. You just thought you did. You got the lung filters because of a nasty encounter with tear gas fired by someone who had revived the Charnel Engine. Millimetre-wave radar in your left hand after encountering the mugger who happened to have found a working Turbo-Pistol. I know you still have the light-amplification system on your optic nerves from when you worked with us, along with the remote probe housed in your right forearm. I could go on. You simply cannot stop getting involved in these situations."
A manila folder fell into a tray. Archer picked it up. "Wait a minute. Hope? I've worked with her. Why is she listed as a target?"
"Do you remember the fires in Nottingham?"
"Yeah, parts of the buildings involved had vanished; we investigated but found no cause."
"There was a cause. A set of memetic technologies, three equations which would rewrite the way the world worked. Unfortunately, the man who wrote them made a simple transcription error. When he attempted to solve them, something happened which caused that fire."
"Hope and I didn't find anything to demonstrate a cause."
"You didn't. She did, but didn't mention it. She is going to attempt to solve the equations tomorrow night."
The speaker went silent. Archer took his jacket and left the room, back to the portal. This time it deposited him outside a block of council flats. The problem with England, he reflected, is that the estates all look the bloody same. A group of kids loitering in the stairwell glowed in Archer's vision. A slight flick of his hand towards them revealed that they just had clubs and knives, one a gun. Nothing that should bother him.
They didn't get in his way, a combination of his stride, suit and bulging weaponry convincing them that it just wasn't worthwhile. Hope's door was unlocked. No doubt she would be expecting him. She was sat at a kitchen table, bent over a scattered collection of papers and books. Her hair was longer than Archer remembered, and her old t-shirt didn't help her any. She turned as he knocked on the kitchen door, a manic intensity in her eyes.
"You're here! I must be on the right track."
"The right track to burning half of this city to the ground, maybe."
"The guy in Nottingham had got it wrong. But I know where he made his mistake. I know how I can fix it. I can make this a better world. Isn't that what we were supposed to be doing?"
"No. Hope, you've not thought this through. If you get it wrong the least that will happen is lots of fire and death. We're close enough that we will be written out of existence. If you're right, wonderful. A new world. But what happens to this one?"
"A better world is worth it, Archer!"
"It's not worth hundreds of lives if you so much as misplace a decimal point."
"You're not going to stop me." Hope's pencil scratched at the paper. It never finished recording the answers to the equations. Her lifeless body slumped to the table, blood oozing from the gunshot wound.
The shadows shifted. Archer paused. If he were in an action movie he would no doubt utter a snappy one-liner, perhaps about Hope's inability to add up grocery bills. He said nothing, gathered all of the papers and walked into the shadows.