This short story was written in response to this introduction request from Falanor:
A knock at the door catches you off-guard. Upon answering it, you're greeted by a man who says he's from the future—and he can prove it. More important, he says he has information that will save your life.
Since it is a completely self-contained narrative, I thought I'd post it here, and just reference it from that thread.
Fade to Grey
Horace Quent, age 32 years, three months and one day, was still dreaming when the knock at the door woke him at 6.30 AM, 8th July 1981. The dreams, as usual, were full of technical ideas, mathematical symbols and equations. His subconscious always worked nights and he jotted down some notes on what he'd dreamed on a pad he kept beside the bed solely for that purpose. He used a curious shorthand of his own design that he was sure that no one else on Earth could possibly understand. For once in his life, this borderline autistic genius was wrong.
He trudged downstairs in his dressing gown and slippers to answer the front door. In front of him stood a mildly wizened, but still hale looking old man dressed in what appeared to be a white lab coat. The man held out a gnarled hand and introduced himself. "173.879"
"173.879 what?" Horace demanded.
"Years." Horace stared at him blankly. "Ah, of course. My mistake. Force of habit."
Horace didn't consider that to be sufficient explanation so he said, "Go away. I have work to do," and closed the door allowing its momentum to lock itself.
He was mildly surprised and irritated when the old man unlocked the door and opened it again, saying "Yes, about that work. We don't have much time."
"We will have all the time in the world. Just let me finish it off."
"Oh, don't I know it! This is how it is: you are inventing a time machine. This afternoon you'll solve the last of the quasi-null space mappings and by the end of the week you will have a working prototype. I've come back in time to try to save your life, and many others."
Horace wasn't all that surprised. If one could indeed invent a time machine then visits from the future would be inevitable. That was the theory anyway, "Ah - you came back 173.879 years."
"No. That's my subjective age."
"... and your objective age is ...?"
The old man grinned as he answered, "That would be 32.249"
"Where is your time machine?" The old man rolled up his sleeve revealing a device strapped around his forearm. "So, if that really is a time machine then why are you in such a hurry?"
The old man replied, "Because other people have them too." As if on cue a brief blue light surrounded a man in strange grey-green clothes as he materialised behind the old man and shot him in the head with a laser pistol. Before the old man's body had hit the floor, a spray of blaster bolts preceded an identical old man up the steps from the cellar to the side of the front door. The assassin was shredded.
"Sorry about the mess," the other old man apologised. "Got to call the contingency in before I fade." As he was reaching down towards a button on a box attached to the belt of the first old man a window in the office block across the street smashed as a RAM grenade was fired at the scene. It detonated a metre above the ground and, because it was a gravity-polarised device with its destructive force concentrated in a plane less than a millimetre thick, it neatly sliced Horace and the second old man in half. It even sliced right through Horace's house, the workshop behind it and the office from which the grenade was fired. All of these people and buildings started to collapse at the same time. The old man had been leaning over the old corpse as the explosion caught him, and because it was a GP device damage was done neither to the body already on the floor nor its equipment. The top half of the old man landed right on top of corpse of the first old man. Before his life had ebbed away he managed to grab the box on the belt and press the button. Unseen to the attackers, the word 'contingency' lit up on the box and it glowed with a blue light before dematerialising.
Horace Quent, age 32 years, three months and one day, was still dreaming when, at 3.03 AM, 8th July 1981, a blue glow briefly lit his bedroom and a wizened old man in a lab coat appeared. He looked at the device attached to his left forearm and drummed the fingers of his right hand against his coat pocket as he looked around. After about thirty seconds there was a second blue light and a wizened old man in a lab coat appeared, followed very shortly afterwards by a blue light and yet another wizened old man in a lab coat. The first one introduced himself. "173.583. You're late."
"173.990," replied the second.
"174.004. Ripples from the deaths of 173.879 and 173.901 tomorrow morning. We're here now. Looks like the contingency interruption here has caused a big enough branch point to stop that happening."
"Let's get to it," the first old man declared. "I'm youngest. I'll talk. You'll know in advance if anything untoward happens. Places gentlemen please." He stood by the bed, the second old man went into the en-suite bathroom, and the third got into the rather over-sized and underused wardrobe and shut the door.
The one remaining old man nudged Horace's shoulder and said, "Wake up." Horace stirred. "Wake up, we haven't got much time."
Horace blinked. "Who are you? What are you doing in my bedroom in the middle of the night?" he said, reaching out.
"No, don't put the light on, they'll locate us with certainty then. Our life is in danger and so are countless others. We've come back from the future to try to prevent this whole mess. Tomorrow afternoon you solve the final equation, and have a working prototype by Friday 13th. Nothing is ever the same again."
Horace wasn't all that surprised. If one could indeed invent a time machine then visits from the future would be inevitable. That was the theory anyway, "... and who are you?" he repeated.
"Horace Quent, Subjective age 173.583."
"Ah, and your objective age would be 32 point ... two four ... nine ... three ... one ..."
"I only bother with three decimal places," the old man interrupted.
"So it's not a coincidence that we have the same name." The old man shook his head. The young man nodded. "I have to ask this to make sure. I don't believe it, but the consequences are significant enough to warrant the embarrassment of asking ... The universe doesn't explode if we touch, does it?"
The old man shook his head saying, "Sci-fi nonsense," and held out his hand.
The young Horace shook his hand, his
hand!, and said "Pleased to meet ... me." He was properly awake now and the brain was back up to full speed. "so, if you are a time traveller, why did you say 'we haven't got much time?' Is it something to do with the people you are worried might detect us, and who are those people?"
"In reverse order, they're a nasty and vicious bunch, evil by any standard. They call themselves 'The Organisation.' Yes. They have time machines as well. We've been trying to keep the technology restricted, and succeeded in our own time frame, but I will eventually die, and it seems that no matter how well we set up institutions to guard it and use it responsibly, at some point in the future it will be misappropriated."
"Do you, I, have to die? Doesn't humanity discover immortality in the future?"
"Yes, but the treatment has to start before one reaches adolescence. Moreover, we have analysed the process. There is something special, unique about my mind. The kind of accident of DNA that is so remotely inconceivable that, statistically speaking, its expected next date of occurrence is after the heat death of the universe. The anagathic treatment would disrupt this aspect of my mind."
"Is this trait hereditary?"
"And do the statistics include factors for the expected expansion of humanity through..." They were interrupted by the toilet seat crashing down next door. Shortly afterwards the toilet flushed.
The old man rolled his eyes saying, "All the power of time travel, why on Earth didn't I go before I set off?"
There was another blue light in the room. Old Horace number four appeared and didn't even bother to state his age. "Tech bump!" The first old man looked at his device, confused. The fourth continued, "We seem to be lagging behind this time."
"No! Can't be! ... Unless the ripples from the destruction of our workshop have inhibited research results from propagating." The first old man now looked very worried.
"My workshop's been destroyed!" cried the young Horace.
"Ssshhh! At one time it will have been destroyed tomorrow morning, but not any more." He turned back to the newcomer, "What intel on the new tech?"
"The evidence implies that they can scan for passive walker devices now, not just activation events, and there's some kind of transfer shielding thing. Data is rather patchy. It seems that we're losing control of most of the high valency event nodes."
The first old man looked worriedly at the device strapped to his wrist. "If they can detect passive walkers then they could already be here!"
Horace stepped out of the wardrobe, pointing at the bathroom. "I'm older than him, and I did
go before I set off." The most recently arrived Horace was raising a handgun with a large funnel attachment in the direction of the open bathroom door when a barely perceptible figure clad in a chameleonware suit fired an electrical discharge at the Horace that was already pointing at it, immediately shutting down his heart and brain. Permanently. There was another, similar, figure exiting the bathroom behind it. Both remaining old Horaces looked at each other and simultaneously said "Randomise," hitting a certain button on their walker devices, but the nearer one grabbed the young Horace's wrist first.
A blue light lit up a hot, damp, swamp, and Horace Quent, subjective age 32.249 and Horace Quent, subjective age 173.583 appeared. "When are we?" asked the younger one.
Looking at his device, the older one said "Early pliocene. Mediterranean area."
"We activated a random jump. We didn't know where we were going so they couldn't track the intention of our temporal rift; however it sounds like they may be able to find us anyway now given time."
"Kill me now, before I invent the machine. Before they track us down."
The old one was checking readouts from his walker. "I can't kill you any more than you could kill yourself! Anyway, it wouldn't make any difference. They control the key branch points around your life, possibly all the branch points now. I can't tell from this far off. Whether we die here of old age doesn't really matter. They can go back to before we arrived in the bedroom and intercept us with greater numbers then your death here would never have happened. No, they've all but won. The only loose end is this one walker." He tapped his wrist. "They'll track this and destroy it and then the universe will be theirs +/-FOREVER."
"Oh. So what did
you plan to do to prevent this?"
He opened a tiny drawer in the side of his walker and showed him a glowing green crystalline capsule. "This contains medical nanites that will 'heal' the aberration in our brain. It will cure you of genius, amongst other things. We hoped that you'd take this and then we could guard all the branch points whilst the ripples erased all time walker tech from reality."
"So if I take that now, it'll be as useless as killing myself now because they have the branch points." It wasn't a question, but the old man nodded as he closed the drawer.
Suddenly, the two of them were at the centre of a glowing silvered sphere about five metres in diameter. There was a distinct sound of cracking granite. Several branches fell off where they were now disconnected from their trees.
"I think they've found us," said the old man tapping at his walker. "Nice shield tech - wish I'd invented it!"
"Can we escape?"
"Nah - my wrist device hasn't got the power to send anything bigger than a pebble through it."
Horace sighed. Both of him. "What do you think they'll do to me?" the young one asked.
"Well, they don't need to, but it would save them a lot of continuity stitching if they could take you back to just after we left, erase your memory of this night, and then leave you be until you've perfected enough of the tech for them to pick up on, but before you started to monitor and control the key nodes." The old man grunted, and doubled up. "Unh! And that would be at your thirty eighth birthday party. I've just been blown up!"
"I'm unliving - we call it 'fade to grey.'" He was, indeed becoming translucent.
"I've got, maybe thirty seconds, subjective of course! Heh! Unh!"
"No! How long will it take them to wipe my memories once I get back?"
"Huh? Er, best guess ... seven point eight minutes."
"Thanks." Young Horace tried to shake the old man's hand but it passed straight through, contacting only the under side of the walker device. The old man was gone leaving the younger version with only the time machine. Horace started typing. Fortunately, the interface was exactly like he would have designed it had he had access to cheap touch-screen computer tech.
About the time he finished typing into it, a voice boomed out from the sphere itself. "Horace Quent. We could just kill you here and now, but it would be easier on the continuity if you came back
"As I understand it, you wipe my memory. Then leave me to invent things until you blow me up when I am thirty eight. Correct?"
"Okay. Another six years is better than nothing. I can't see any other way out now," and with that he smashed his walker on the ground and stamped on it, destroying all its circuits and memory. The shield dropped and several, armed operatives, all with their own walkers advanced upon him. He didn't resist.
Horace Quent, age 32 years, three months and one day, was sitting up in bed, at 3.12 AM, 8th July 1981, wondering why he was awake. He couldn't remember waking up. He looked at the notepad he wrote his dream formulae on. There was nothing dated from that night. There was a strange smell of ozone, but nothing else he could sense as out of place. Maybe it was the smell that had woken him up? Well, back to sleep then, but first ... Horace was a bit OCD about that. He always went to the toilet and then had a drink before he went to sleep, and this may take a while as he'd gone previously at 1.32 when he originally went to bed. In the bathroom he noticed that the toilet seat was chipped - must have fallen down in the night. Ah - that would be what had woken him up. Meanwhile back in the bedroom a small blue light flickered above his bedside table and a glowing green crystalline capsule that he'd despatched before destroying the last walker, materialised above the cup of water he kept there. It was such a small temporal distortion, and there were so many ripples affecting the locality that even the advanced sensory tech of The Organisation didn't notice it. Moreover, in their arrogance and belief they had won, they had removed all their operatives from the local time frame. It dropped into the cup and dissolved.
Horace drank the water. It took him half an hour to go to sleep because of a strange headache, but when he did, finally, drop off he had some very, very, very strange dreams. For the first time in his life, he dreamed of women! At lunchtime the following day he was so frustrated - staring at the meaningless formulae he'd been working on and not understanding the basics, never mind being on the verge of completing it. "Oh! ... Get a life!" he chastised himself eventually, and went out for a walk, maybe see a film or something - that's what people with lives did wasn't it? He met Julia in the queue for tickets for Raiders of the Lost Ark. He was never rich and famous, but unlike every single other Horace that might have been, he did get married. He only lived until his hundred and fifth birthday, and he discovered that he was sterile, but other than that he had perfect health. The doctors said the sterility came from some kind of chemical exposure in his early thirties, but they couldn't identify what. He gave blood for years as it was the right thing for a healthy person to do. He was A negative. No-one tied it down to him but after a decade someone noticed that A- patients were making far better recovery in their local hospital than statistics would credit. It was another decade before this statistical blip was really examined, triggered by a row of four A- terminal cancer patients being completely cured. Electron microscopy eventually discovered the medical nanites at work, and the last ever ripple spread through the time line but there had long since (subjectively) ceased to be any walker devices that could detect it.
Corrections & tweaks 03/07/2011.