The idea of this story is Dan's; I just wrote the words. My thanks to him, and to Ed for hassling me enough to make this actually happen. Any failings are of course my own.
The January air gave a sense of prescience; every action conducted in slow motion through boots and gloves, I felt like I could see the pristine thoughts crystalizing out of the air along with the water vapor. And surely there was some truth in that; the finest minds in the country - and, I mustn't neglect, from around the world - walk these halls, and the winter is usually our most productive period. Oh, of course they'll complain bitterly about the cold and the difficulty of visiting their family and friends, but I think many of them cherish the snow, the difficulty of moving between buildings, the excuse to be antisocial. In the twenty years I've been here I've seen all kinds of people be students and professors, but it seems that to be a great physicist demands a certain... aloofness from the affairs of the rest of us. So I've learned to allow for that, to accept that the coffee rooms while essential will lie empty most of the time, that a shared office space might seem an easy way to cut costs and promote effective collaboration at the same time but would be utterly disasterous in practice, that there is no hour at which it would be sensible to power down some of the generators least of all at night. My job - and I'd like to think I'm pretty good at it - is to be the guy who works 9-5, who can explain why they need all these machines all the time even though they're only actually using them once a week, above all the guy who speaks english to the bewildered visitors and senior faculty, who has a family, who is a normal human - so that they don't have to be.
Sometimes they take it a little further than I'd like.
"So noone had seen him for 40 hours before the estimated time of death?" Reg asked me, as we stared at the cold chalk outline marring one of those individual offices I'd fought so hard to retain. The police had been and gone, and in a few days the office would be "repurposed", no doubt for some visiting fellow fresh off the aeroplane, a shining example of the "efficiency" so beloved of my superiors. But at least there had been time for my old friend to take a quick look first. Reg had been a professor of history until two years ago, and had since been keeping himself busy - quite successfully, I might add - as a private detective south of the border. I was hoping he might see something the police evidently weren't going to bother looking for.
"Yes, but that's not that unusual for him; George was one of those... how shall I put it... fast/slow types. He'd miss classes for three weeks, then work for three days straight and catch it all up. You know the kind I mean." Reg sipped at his coffee.
"Indeed I do, indeed I do. So he was last seen in Tuesday's lecture, and his last known contact with the outside world was at 10 P.M. on Tuesday, when he called... his girlfriend, you say. And he remained in his office until his death at... estimated to be at around 4 A.M. Thursday. Plus or minus a considerable margin, because he was discovered only when he wouldn't open his door for cleaning staff on Friday night. At which point after breaking down his locked door he was discovered dangling from his light fitting. That about the size of it?"
"That's how it is."
I shook my head. "All locked, and the alarm system would have noticed any tampering. There are no other doors, no sizeable ventilation ducts or anything so convenient, and no signs of a struggle."
Reg sat back a little, and sighed. "Well, I see why the police aren't interested, but why am I supposed to be?"
"Because there's no reason to it, Reg! He was brilliant yet sociable, well liked by everyone. His supervisor was happy with the draft of his thesis, and he had a beautiful girlfriend, Bethany Ward. What possible reason would such a man have to kill himself?"
"Not everything has to have a reason, Jim. Perhaps that beautiful girlfriend had been cheating on him. Perhaps he was scared of finishing his thesis and having to find something else to do with his life. Perhaps he was just trying to get himself off and neglected to read the manual."
"Bethany was adamant that it wouldn't be anything like that. She said she'd always had to be the one to propose anything remotely adventurous, and she's plainly very much in love with him. And she said he'd been looking forward to completing; they were planning on moving in together. To be honest, if it weren't for her determination I might not have called you at all. Well, that and the other two."
This got Reg's attention. "Other two?"
"Two more suicides." "Apparent suicides," I corrected myself quickly. "Both a lot less suspcious than this one in themselves, but for three of them to occur in the space of a month and a half..."
"Any obvious relation between the three?"
"The first two, sure. A professor and his closest grad student." I began to lay out the details for Reg. Thomas Wilson had been a fellow here for thirteen years, and a full professor for more than half of that. But an initially promising career - one of the highest citation rates in the department when he arrived - had plateaued into several unproductive years chasing after relativistic time assymetries.
"But there aren't any, right?" Reg objected. "You know physics was never my field, but the basic equations are all time-reversible." I shrugged. "He seemed to think he could find some. And you of all people should know I believe in giving the academics a free rein as much as possible. But he never got anywhere with it; not one paper in four years." And while I do my best to insulate them from it, he couldn't have been unaware that there is a certain... pressure to perform. That there had been voices calling for the dismissal of those who are no longer up to scratch. Wilson had had (so far as I'm aware) no interests outside work; he had no family to speak of, not even any close friendships on the campus. So with his life's work coming to nothing and the only life he knew at grave risk, it wasn't quite as surprising as it should have been when he took a revolver to his own head; that and the fact that he'd taken the trouble to lock his door meant noone looked especially closely.
The student, Stan Matthews, had been three days later. His death was a lot less clear-cut; there was still the possibility it was a simple accident - or some sort of hybrid, and accident brought on by his fragile emotional state at the time. In any case, Stan had also been lonely and underachieving; he was the only student working directly under Wilson, and had been sharing the latter's fortunes in regard to his own thesis. With the loss of his mentor and probably closest friend, and the prospect of a new supervisor who would doubtless look more harshly on what was already an unsuccessful thesis, he can't have been in the best of spirits, and whether intentionally or not, he was working with medium-voltage electricity late at night in one of the labs, failed to take adequate safety precautions - as if anyone doing real work ever follows the guidelines - and was found with a stopped heart the following morning. This one necessitated a full investigation, health and safety people descending like vultures, but there was noone suspicious on the surveilance tapes, and noone knew of anyone with any real motive to kill him, so eventually it had to be let go. To an outsider the lack of gloves and so on would point to suicide, but he hadn't done anything I haven't seen in hundreds of grad students in a hurry to get their results, so it's not likely we'll ever find out.
Reg was unimpressed. "So you have an open-and-shut suicide, a faintly suspicious accident and a guy hanging in a locked room, and you expect me to see a case in this?"
"Don't you agree it seems rather improbable?"
"Improbability's overrated. I was only able to come here at all because the three clients I had for this weekend all separately called up and cancelled. Coincidences happen, life's like that." He paused. "But since it's you, I'll give it a look. No promises, mind."
Before I could reply, I was interrupted by my assistant with news of a far more disagreeable coincidence. The departmental storage server had broken.
"It's the power supplies all right guv, no question about that." Paul was confident in his diagnosis, and I trusted him - though if I hadn't been willing to, the smoke wafting throughout the room suggested there was ample physical evidence. The machine's three power supply units - connected to two different mains phases and the battery backup - had done exactly what the salesman had comprehensively assured me they wouldn't, and detonated one after another in some sort of chain reaction. The energy released had aparrently been enough to buckle the metal housings, meaning that while we had spares, none of them could be fitted for now. And while I'd usually be somewhat cavalier about such things, in the wake of Stan's death and the associated hullaboo I couldn't be seen asking anyone other than the appropriate maintenance staff to perform the required metalwork.
And they don't work weekends. Which means 200 students are going to be unable to write any more of their partially-finished essays, or even print out what they've done so far, until Monday at the earliest.
I love my job.
Fate has a way of making fools of everyone. A few hours later I would have given anything to have that be my worry. There had been another death.
Rebecca Williamson was slumped at her desk with a screwdriver through her left eyeball. I guess the killer had no need to make things a mystery anymore; no, rather, the mysterious deaths had already served their purpose. Reg got it with one look at the stack papers she had at her side - papers we'd seen in George's room. Papers that had somehow found their way there from a student and a professor who hadn't been quite as unsuccessful as we'd thought. It took me a few minutes longer - of course, with other people in the room, Reg couldn't say anything to help me, but I could see it in his face - all the facts are there.
"Burn them. And erase her hard drives. Without looking at either." Reg's voice still carried a professor's authority, and one of my minions stepped forward to do his bidding - and then bent over double, clutching at his chest.
For once in my life, I was faster than my old friend. Or maybe he just balked at the conclusion. After all, it would take a particularly twisted sort to calmly accept that they were important, on a universal scale. But I couldn't share his humility, not when lives were at stake.
"Wait!" Reg glanced at me for a moment. "Fine, I'll do it myself." There being nothing else for it, I grabbed his arm.
"Toss a coin, Reg."
"Toss a coin. Toss it, and keep tossing it, until you're ready to talk to me." He seemed about to object, but then relaxed, shrugged, and took out his wallet.
In the end it took seven heads before he gave in. He sat down, well away from the pile of paperwork. "So what do you have to say?"
"Why you, Reg?"
"Don't flatter yourself too much. If the solution was only what you think it is, I could've solved this case myself. It doesn't take too much, just a certain delicacy in your Holmesian elimination of the impossible. I could have destroyed everything, probably more easily than you - I'm the administrator here after all. You're here because we're not meant to destroy it all."
"Yes. You're clearly the only one who can do it. To figure out what went wrong, what doesn't fit, then go back and set it right."
"You could have called me to do that."
"But I wouldn't. I'd've destroyed everything, like you were going to, and that would be that. I'll repeat: you're here because we can't destroy it."
"No. This is too great a burden."
"Toss the coins, Reg" I snarled. "You know as well as I do, if you refuse then people will start dying. And they'll keep dying until you come to your senses. Noone ever said the universe was fair."
He gulped, then laid out his change. Seventeen coins in all.
"If there's even one tail..." I cut him off. "Then you can go home. But if there's not, and there won't be, then you'd better start facing up to your responsibilities." He gave me one last pleading look, sighed heavily, then started flipping.
"How will we fund this?" he asked me, with the air of a child thinking up excuses to avoid his homework.
"Don't worry," I said. "I'm sure something will turn up."
And that's how the Temporal Continuity Agency was founded.