March 2020 would mark the two-hundredth and final year of global peace, unless Joe Stansfield stopped the impending war. He stood on a deserted government monorail platform, overlooking the rest of District Kilo’s vast transport hub, and knew he had four days to save the world from catastrophe.
Below him, freshly trained soldiers heaved backpacks and rifles onto trains bound for the coast. None gave him a second glance from the windows seats as the electrodynamic carriages rose in their guideways and glided into the late evening sunshine.
His state-issued brown suit made him appear like any other official minion and wouldn’t attract local attention. But he kept his right hand close to the grip of his concealed ten-shot revolver, ready to defend himself against a foreign spy. Nothing could stop him or his briefcase from reaching their destination.
The monorail train snaked into the hub along its steel beam, sending out of a blast of warm air, and halted in front of him with a metallic screech. Multiple doors along its body punched out and hissed to the side. He stepped inside the empty front compartment; an onboard authentication system wirelessly verified his encrypted implant, and he took a seat.
After ten minutes of smooth cruising between the massive brick factories of Yorkshire’s industrial heartland, the train thundered up the Pennine hills. It switched to a restricted route, cut through a grass valley peppered with hexagonal communications dishes, and closed on the Ministry of Science’s countryside facility.
Stansfield pressed a button on his armrest to activate his seatback screen. It flashed to life and displayed images of troops massing on the opposite side of the English Channel. A headline scrolled along the bottom repeating the Continental Federation’s demand for an unconditional surrender within ninety-six hours. He sucked in a deep breath and hoped he had enough time.
The federation’s unexpected action had supercharged the urgency of his mission. Everyone who knew about the wormhole’s existence realized industrial espionage was no longer an option. They didn’t have time to continue reverse engineering objects or use the stolen designs, and none were especially helpful against the ultimatum. Britain needed a powerful deterrent and fast. An hour ago, the government finally come to their senses and agreed to the plan he had worked on for the last three years.
The facility’s main gates automatically parted, and an internal barrier flipped into the air. The train crossed a landing strip filled with twenty rows of armored vehicles and approached a large, blue aircraft hangar. Professor Gabriel Nutt walked between the partially open concertina doors and checked his watch.
Stansfield smiled to himself. Nutt’s baggy white lab coat, frizzy gray hair, and circular glasses made him look like a walking cliché. In the supposed age of scientific enlightenment, the professor’s screw-up three years ago had created the opportunity, although he still claimed it was his intention all along.
The train pulled up next to the hangar and its doors opened. He disembarked and moved straight to the doors, past the professor’s beady-eyed glare.
“Going somewhere without your handler?” Nutt said.
The words stopped Stansfield midstride, and he looked over his shoulder. “You’re not serious?”
“The order came through half an hour ago. Nobody knows the other multiverse better than me.”
“Your way failed. I’ve already got my team in place.”
“Creating carnage there to stop carnage here.” Nutt smiled and stepped toward him. “For a secret agent, you’re as subtle as a kick to the knackers.”
Stansfield’s fist tightened around the briefcase handle, and he fought the urge to bash it across the professor’s face. The ten detonators inside formed a key part of the plan, and he couldn’t risk breaking them.
“It’s nothing more than progress reports,” Nutt said. “I’ll stay out of your way.”
“By selling antiques?”
Nutt’s smug grin dropped, and he turned toward the hangar.
Stansfield shook his head and followed. While he had quietly infiltrated the darker end of society in the other world and returned technology for the ministry to reverse engineer, Nutt’s idea of integration differed.
The professor had accumulated a serious amount of wealth by selling items thought not to exist in the other version of Britain, and they didn’t, because he had brought them through the wormhole. He framed it to the ministry as immersing himself into the cultural side of society as an international dealer, while creating a fund to back local operations. Nutt once nearly gave the game away while hammered at a London cocktail party, bragging about multiple universes existing like bubbles in his glass of champagne. Stansfield didn’t trust him to boil water, let alone report on his progress.
Nutt led through the labs, where technical diagrams projected onto the white walls, and teams of scientists and technicians worked on smart-phones, consoles, communication systems, and weapons.
They descended a concrete tunnel, brightened by intense ceiling lights, and large enough for the armored vehicles travel down in three days’ time. Nutt reached the thick metal door at the bottom and tapped a code on the pad.
The six big bolts of the locking mechanism thudded, and the door cranked open, revealing the site of the cold fusion powered particle collider.
Seventy huge steel rings, each the size of a two-story house, circled the perimeter of the cavernous space. Stansfield headed for one of the rings at the right side, where the shimmering water-like surface of the wormhole’s entrance filled the interior. Cracked glass and ruptured steel tubes crossed underneath it, but as long as they maintained power, the accidentally created route remained stable.
“Please don’t tell me you’re crossing dressed like that?” Stansfield asked.
“What difference does it make?” Nutt extended his palm toward the walkway leading up the entrance. “After you, kind sir.”
Stansfield narrowed his eyes. “Don’t patronize me.”
“I’d never dream of it. All I expect is reports.”
“Kiss my ass.”
Before Nutt could answer, Stansfield climbed the walkway and jumped through the wormhole’s entrance. Blinding light surrounded him, accompanied by the sensation of falling. The first time he crossed, he thought he was going to die. The fifty-fifth time seemed relatively normal in comparison.
A heartbeat later, Stansfield landed in a crouching position on wooden floorboards, inside a drab barn they had quickly built to hide their space-time passage. It was lucky for him a remote farm lay on this side; not so much for the loner who had owned it. He moved over to a table, changed into his black cargo pants and sweater, and pocketed his phone and car keys.
Nutt burst through the wormhole, skidded to a stop, and straightened his glasses with his index finger. “What’s your next move?”
“Tell the team to finish their testing. I’m going hunting in Manchester.” He passed the briefcase. “I want the detonators distributed, and the bombs positioned tonight.”
“Send a report, if you like.”
Stansfield headed outside into the cool spring air. The setting sun shone between dark clouds and reflected off the windows of his Ford car, which drove easier than the brands he knew and contained a dizzying amount of internal features.
This cartoonish world never felt real to him, and it made his destructive plan to spread a virulent parasitic disease easier to handle. He doubted many would have sympathy for a crazy multiverse where they had already caused the deaths of millions in two world wars, killed on a daily basis, and spent hours in angry conversations about politics.
He climbed into the car, turned the ignition, and the engine roared to life.
His world wouldn’t be making the same mistakes as the place he simply called Meta, as long as his plan worked.
A nightclub’s faded emergency exit vibrated with each loud thump of bass. Stansfield crouched between two commercial wheelie bins and peered along the gloomy alley. The ministry wanted a prisoner to help with quirks in the stolen literature and specifications. This multiverse spoke the same languages, but used thousands of confusing colloquialisms. A workman called him a pillock in the street a couple of days ago, and he still wasn’t sure what it meant.
The exit clanked open. What Meta classed as music blasted out and echoed along the walls. He hunched lower and squeezed the grip of his revolver as a man and woman stumbled outside. They giggled and kissed. A shaven-headed bouncer, dressed in a shiny black bomber jacket, shook his head and slammed the exit shut.
Stansfield didn’t need these people around. Witnesses were dangerous, especially with his team in touching distance of launching their strike. The slightest hint of their plan getting out would rain hell down on them.
Broken glass crunched under his boot as he repositioned himself. The man broke away from the woman’s embrace, spun toward the bins, and squinted into the darkness. “Is somebody there?”
Stansfield edged back.
The woman grabbed the man’s arm and encouraged him away. They swayed against each other and made their way toward the brightly lit street. He knew anybody leaving in that direction carried too much risk. The wasteland behind the club provided a better opportunity.
Last week he watched the area through his infrared goggles. A few individuals had crossed the half mile stretch to the taxi rank on the opposite side, so he parked away from it and the security cameras positioned on the building’s wall.
His patience wouldn’t break with the stakes so great back in his world. Soon, this world would know about Life Force and its demented agenda. The tin-pot environmental terrorists he had infiltrated were the fall guys for his mission; somebody local to attach the blame while society picked up the pieces—not that they knew it… yet. Using Meta’s own anger against it proved easier than he had ever imagined, and from what he had seen, they loved a good witch hunt.
He checked his drizzle-spattered watch. A flood of people would leave the club in an hour, but he didn’t want to wait for a crowd. A tramp would do, but Stansfield preferred to drive back to Yorkshire with his car smelling of stale alcohol rather than rotting cabbage.
The emergency exit banged open again. A thin man dressed in a light blue hoodie and jeans walked out and leaned against the first bin.
An electronic cigarette lighter clicked three times. Stansfield received a pungent waft of burning marijuana and grimaced. The youth of Meta had it easy and enjoyed abusing their bodies. It hardly seemed fair their society was more technologically advanced, apart from public transport, astronomy, and genetics, all thanks to their global conflicts.
He tensed and slowly rose. Rain dripped from his thick black hair and rolled across a scar on his left cheek.
The man took a deep drag of the joint, exhaled with a satisfied groan, and headed for the wasteland.
Adrenalin surged inside Stansfield as he followed. He studied the man’s movement and reasoned his light frame and intoxicated state made him an ideal target. Once the team had captured Meta’s ballistic missiles, and the wormhole was permanently shut down, this person would live a clean life in a better society.
The target walked along a well-beaten dirt path between weeds, rocks and twisted pieces of rusting junk. He stopped and hunched over. Sparks from his lighter illuminated his face in a series of flashes.
Mud squelched under Stansfield’s boots as he closed to within five yards.
The man froze for a moment and turned.
“Evening,” Stansfield said and gave a single firm nod.
“Don’t suppose you’ve got a light?”
“In my jacket. Give me a second.”
Up close, the target had immature facial hair and branded clothing designed to look scruffy, which didn’t make sense. Stansfield smiled, reached for his concealed holster, and ripped out his revolver.
The man flinched but didn’t have time to react before the grip smashed into his temple. He gasped out a mixture of stale booze and weed and collapsed to one knee.
Stansfield grabbed a fistful of his greasy brown hair, gritted his teeth, and hammered the grip down four more times. The man sunk lower with every blow and slumped in his hold like an over-sized rag doll.
Learning the rules of Meta came easily. Morals didn’t matter as you didn’t get caught. Stansfield dropped his knee on the man’s chest and slipped a small case out of his jacket pocket. The syringe inside contained a moderate sedative; enough to keep a victim in a semi-conscious state for their thirty-minute drive back to the farm. He bit off the plastic protector, plunged the needle into the man’s neck, and squeezed the end fitting to pump the solution through the bevel.
After dragging the man to his car, and a twenty-five-minute drive, he was back on a wide road they called a motorway, powering along the inside lane at a respectable sixty-miles-per-hour. He pressed the internal roof light and adjusted his rearview mirror. An unsteady arm rose from the back seat and immediately flopped back down into the foot well.
Stansfield flicked on the indicator and steered down the Saddleworth exit. Life Force thought they had purchased the farm, and received funds for a terror campaign from a mysterious benefactor: him, with Nutt’s money. The terrorists were too greedy and self-absorbed to understand they were being played like an accordion.
It gave him a sense of satisfaction that he fooled them, and continually ran rings around the Meta security services. He guessed his training was vastly superior, and his previous spying missions in Europe had proven what he always knew; he was the man to rely on when it came to the ultimate assignment.
Faint glows seeped from the farmhouse’s windows. He grabbed his secure radio from the passenger seat and depressed the transmit button. “HQ, this is Falcon One. Estimated arrive in two minutes.”
The radio crackled. “This is HQ. Seen your headlights. Do you have goods?”
“Confirmed. Are the detonators being placed?”
Stansfield tutted at the amateur voice procedure and assumed it was a sloppy phrase one of his team had picked up in Meta. A white van with black tinted windows sat between the barn and farmhouse, containing someone maintaining a lookout for unwanted visitors. He stopped in front of it, killed the engine, and jumped out.
The farmhouse door opened, casting a shaft of light across the cobbled courtyard at the front of the property. Two figures walked out in orange Hazmat suits. Rain spattered on their transparent face-pieces, and one held his thumb up while heading for the car’s rear door. The other, Sami Patel, wheeled a barrow over. Both eased the semi-conscious man out and placed him in the stainless steel tray. His twitching legs and arms flopped over the sides.
Patel lifted the handles. “Where do you want this one?”
“A holding cell. He’s coming back with us.”
Stansfield followed them past a solid oak front door into an empty living area. He crouched, grabbed the edges of the filthy rug spread across the floorboards and rolled it to one side, revealing six wooden trapdoors. He twisted the latch on the second one along and heaved it open.
Patel raised the barrow and tipped the man out. He and the other scientist, who Stansfield now recognized as Kevin Shearer, bundled the man down the metal chute. Two seconds later a dull thump echoed up the cell.
They moved through to the sparse farmhouse-style kitchen. Three empty pizza boxes sat on the wooden worktop.
“Please don’t tell me you had them delivered?” Stansfield asked.
“Do you think I’m stupid?” Shearer said.
“Would you like an honest answer?”
Shearer groaned and turned away. In another world, or on another mission, the scientists would’ve got some attitude realignment training of a physical nature, but the ministry didn’t like that kind of encouragement for its employees while they still had a job to do. Stansfield thought both deserved a slap for enjoying Meta’s terrible food.
Patel opened the pantry door, and they clanked down a steel spiral staircase to the underground lab. Stansfield pushed through the viewing level door, walked along a concrete platform, and peered down at the nine glass-roofed rooms and five cells.
Two men in white coats worked on computers in the first room. The lights in the synthesizing and creation area were switched off, but red and green winking lights from the machines cast a glow across a row of ten vials on the table. Nutt leaned against the aluminum rail at the far end and turned as he approached.
“Everything ready?” Stansfield asked.
Nut nodded toward a test room. “They tell me he’s the final one.”
A bald man in a pair of brown and cream underpants thumped his trembling fists against the reinforced glass. Thick discharge caked his eyes. He took a few steps back then ran head first toward the wall, crashed into it, and collapsed, leaving a light green smudge on the glass.
Stansfield raised his eyebrows. “I thought it’d take a few hours longer.”
“They injected two at a time to speed up the process. Did you ever thank me for giving you the idea?”
“Do you want me to tell the world about it when we return?”
“I could say the same thing about you.”
Every person in the team knew the parasite was a cloned version of the one that decimated the planet’s population in 1816. Stansfield remembered explaining the dual history of the multiverses to them over a beer while he developed his plan.
During one of the largest Arctic thaws on record, an ancient plant bloomed and released spores into the atmosphere carrying the deadly payload. That’s how the global pandemic started back in the real world. In Meta, it never happened, and the plant still lay dormant underneath a thick layer of ice, meaning they’d never have time to develop a cure.
The ministry had compared encyclopedias from both worlds and discovered 1816 was roughly the moment their timelines diverged; the point in which a bubble in Nutt’s glass of champagne split in two and formed a new multiverse. The theory claimed it happened more during big moments of change, but nobody knew for sure, regardless of the professor’s confident bluster. Whatever the reason, they were beyond the reach of international law prohibiting the recreation or manipulation of the parasite but possessed the tablets to avoid becoming victims.
Stansfield glanced back down to the test room. The man wrapped his arms around his head, rolled on the floor, and pumped his legs as if riding an imaginary bicycle. From here, he knew success depended on perfect timing. They had their infected people ready to release into major cities, the bombs were being armed, and the loaded crop sprayers and fire engines sat waiting to attack the evacuation areas.
Meta wouldn’t know what had hit them.