It starts as a feeling of uneasiness -- nothing specific, just an instinct that something isn't right. It would be easy to ignore, but Bond has learned always to pay close attention to his intuition. It's part of what makes him the agent that he is.
So he pays close attention, carrying out his missions at an even higher level of alertness than normal. He sees and hears nothing to warrant his growing sense of disquiet, and his next three missions go like clockwork. Targets are eliminated, information acquired, national interests protected or furthered. But the feeling doesn't go away, and the sense of satisfaction he feels from carrying out his role successfully is somehow muted. It disturbs him more than he likes to admit, because the truth is that the satisfaction of his work is the only true satisfaction he really feels. It is the only real satisfaction he's ever felt.
The fourth mission is no less successful, but there's a difference. His unease coalesces into something specific: the feeling he is being watched. Followed. It must be another agent, he thinks. A damn good one, judging by how good the other is at covering his tracks. Strangely, the idea that he has an adversary, and one as skilled as himself, actually makes him feel better. He has always enjoyed the game, and it is invigorating to know he is playing against a worthy opponent.
It is as if the other agent knows that Bond has recognized his presence, because he begins to make tiny mistakes, revealing himself. He never slips up so badly as to allow Bond the opportunity to apprehend him, but now, more and more often, Bond has evidence that he is there. Sometimes, he catches a glimpse of the other agent in the periphery of his vision, always vanishing when Bond looks directly where he knows his pursuer was a moment earlier. Once, walking back to his car in a deserted parking garage, Bond hears the faint reverberating clicks of the other agent's footsteps some distance behind him. It would be easy to dismiss what he hears as merely an echo of his own steps, but Bond knows better. When he looks over his shoulder, no one is there. Of course, he thinks admiringly. The other agent is too smart to be caught that way.
But, over time, admiration gives way to frustration. His missions are successful, but Bond feels more tense, more hunted, with the completion of each one. Increasingly, only one mission occupies him.
Now, when he checks into a hotel, he opens the door to a pristine suite only to find himself struck with a deep-felt certainty that the other agent has just left it. In airport terminals and at train stations, he scans the crowds, looking for one face which he knows is looking at him. And the feeling that he is being followed never, ever goes away.
Back in London, between missions, he forgoes his usual pastimes of gambling and women to spend hours in the vaults at headquarters, going through file after file of images of known operatives, driven by the irrational conviction that somehow he would recognize his pursuer, in spite of never having seen him.
Incredibly, he is right.
The photograph falls out of the back of an entirely unrelated file, a dossier on a South American drugs baron who's been dead since 1984. It's yellowing, curled up at the corners, and is clearly decades older than the surrounding material. The picture is a head and shoulders shot of a man in evening wear, smoking a cigarette. He has dark hair, swept back and Brylcreem-shiny in a style that dates the image, Bond thinks, sometime in the early to mid 1960s. The man's eyebrows are thick and prominent, although stop just shy of being bushy; one of them is arched slightly, and his mouth is curled around the cigarette in a half-smile, so that the overall impression is one of knowing, amused disdain.
Bond knows him. No, more than that: he knows him. Looking at the photograph feels like looking into a mirror, even though the man in the photograph bears no physical resemblance to him. There's something about this stranger's face which is as familiar to Bond as his own.
He flips the photograph over. On the back, ink faded into near illegibility, he can just make out three numbers: zero, zero, seven.
"How many agents have used the 007 designation?"
M looks puzzled by the question. "One," she answers after a short pause. "You."
"So there have never been any other agents designated 007."
"We don't re-use designations. It would be far too confusing." M frowns, before taking another sip from her glass. It's a habit they've fallen into, when Bond is back at HQ between missions: late in the evening, he will find some trivial reason to visit her office, and they will share a drink before leaving for the night. Bond doesn't know why M has singled him out, among all the field agents, for such favour. He likes to think it's because she recognizes that they are of a type, her and him. M swills her tumbler, and ice cubes clink against its curved sides. "Why do you ask?"
"Just an idle thought I had. It struck me that 007 is a very low number, considering I've only been in the field for a couple of years. The service has been around in its modern form since the '50s. I would have expected field designations to be up in the hundreds by now."
M looks faintly amused. "If that's what's keeping your mind occupied lately, then clearly we need to get you back out on a mission again. I hear you've been spending a lot of time in the archives, too. Is this your way of telling me you want a transfer to the admin section?"
He smiles, deliberately projecting an air of slightly bored relaxation. It's what's expected of him. "No fear of that."
He slips one hand into his pocket, fingering the edge of the photograph, reminding himself of its reality.
Now he has evidence, a basis on which to proceed.
He has to be careful. They've already noticed the time he's been spending in the archives; he can't ask questions within the Service without drawing attention. But it's a truism that there are always at least two parties who have information about a country's intelligence service: the government, and the government's enemies. Since one option is off the cards, he pursues the other one.
The other is still there, still shadowing his every move. When he closes his eyes, the sense he has of its presence is so intensely real that he has to stop himself reaching out a hand, convinced that his searching fingers will meet flesh as real as his own. Bond has never looked beyond the material world, but now he understands what it means to be haunted.
He eschews his normal contacts, and instead seeks out people who do not know him at all, even by reputation. He takes aliases and covers his tracks with the skill of a consummate professional.
It takes months. Long months, during which Bond spends his waking hours hunted and haunted. He would think he was going mad, if not for the photograph, his sole piece of tangible evidence. He clings to it, a talisman of a strange faith.
At last, he makes contact.
His source won't send him information or accept payment electronically. Bond must agree to meet at a place of his informant's choosing, the shell of a partially-constructed office block, a flagship project started at the height of the property boom and abandoned in the global financial crisis. The upper floors are a skeleton of girders, open to the wind and elements.
On the night of the rendezvous, Bond leaves his apartment and takes the Tube across the city, his fellow passengers oblivious to wads of banknotes concealed inside the plain hold-all he carries with him. He gets off several stops early and walks the last part. He's not alone, of course; he's never alone, now: the shade is his constant companion, its flickering presence always just behind him, there yet not. In the last few days, he has found himself being surprised by his reflection in mirrors: he expects to see another face instead of his own, a face topped with dark hair instead of his own sandy blond, a face with his eyes.
He ascends through the building's skeletal core, the wind howling more insistently with every floor he climbs, until at last he is at the highest level, leaning into the constant gale and holding on more tightly to the cash-filled hold-all. From up here, London is laid out like a 360 degree diorama; traffic snakes along the streets far below, and the Eye's brightly lit spokes spin slowly. For an instant, Bond thinks he sees another city lurking just below the real one he's looking at. An older London, with less traffic, fewer lights and a black space where the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf should be.
"Good evening, 007."
He's pointing the barrel of his Glock at M before his conscious mind has even full registered that it's her.
She takes her hands out of the pockets of her coat, showing them empty. "Oh, you can put that away. I'm not carrying a gun, and even I were, I doubt I'd be any match for your reflexes. Forty years ago, perhaps. But I stopped spending time on the firing range when I started wearing bifocals."
Bond drops the hold-all, and uses his freed hand to reach into the inside pocket of his jacket. He holds up the photograph. "Who was he?"
"I think you've already worked that part out for yourself."
"He was the first 007," Bond says.
"Then you lied."
"No," M says. "I told you the truth. You are 007. You always have been."
At the edge of his vision, the other hovers. It is closer to him than it has ever been before. So close that Bond has to resist the almost overwhelming compulsion to turn around and look, to finally meet the gaze of whatever it is that's been pursuing him, haunting him, hunting him these last long months.
"You've started to see it, haven't you?" M says. She sounds sympathetic. Almost maternal. "I'm sorry. I truly am."
"What happened to him?"
M shrugs. "The same thing that happens to too many good agents. He was unlucky, and he got killed. But he was too good to lose. So they brought him back."
Next to Bond, the other leans forward, as if hungry for information, for answers.
"How?" he asks. The gun wavers in his hand. His voice is a hoarse croak.
"The details are technical and, frankly, beyond me," M says. "Suffice to say, it worked well. Better than they could have hoped. But not perfectly."
His mind feels uncharacteristically foggy. He's not asking the right questions. "I want answers," he says, but he's not sure whether he's talking to M or himself. The shade at his shoulder hisses its approval.
"You always do," M says. Very slowly, she reaches a hand into her coat, and takes out a brown folder. "This is what you want." She puts it on the ground in front of her, and then kicks it over to him with the toe of her shoe. He leans down and picks it up with the hand still holding the photograph.
"Have you ever wondered," M says, "why you remember so little about your parents? Your childhood? Your life before the Service?"
He opens the file. A sheaf of papers and photographs, from dog-eared, type-written pages at the back to crisply word processed documents at the front. Half a dozen different faces stare out at him from the photos. Different men of different ages and different appearances, captured at different moments. But always the same look in their eyes, that half-amused, half-cynical world-weariness that Bond knows with such intimate familiarity.
Against each photograph, a name. The same name. His name.
"You forget every time," M says. "Sometimes you forget for years. But you always start to remember in the end, and when you do… well, there's nothing for it, except to move on to the next iteration as quickly as possible."
"I want to stop," he says. He's surprised to realize that it's the truth.
M shakes her head. "You're too good at what you do. We couldn't let you. Even if we knew how."
He stares at her, appalled.
"This is only your sixth iteration," M says calmly.
The folder falls from his hand, papers scattering in the wind. The photograph he found in the archive is somewhere in the midst of it, but it doesn't matter.
"I died," he says, voice blank with horror. "I died five times."
"Yes," M says. "And now you're going to die again."
He starts to pull the Glock's trigger, but his fingers won't obey him. A sudden, sharp pain in his chest makes him look down, just in time to see the blossoming pattern of blood on his shirt. Sharpshooters, he thinks distantly. Probably on the roof of the building across the street. No wonder M didn't come to meet him armed; she'd known she wouldn't need to be.
The gun clatters on to the ground. He sinks down on to his knees, hands clutching at his chest in a vain attempt to stem the gushing, hot flow. He was wrong all along, he realizes. He thought he was being followed by one shade, but there were five. He can see them all, now, gathering around him, getting ready to welcome him to their number. He'll wake up with a new face and a mind wiped clean, haunted by six ghosts instead of five, and the hell of it is, he won't even know it. Not until it's too late.
M comes to kneel next to him. His breath is failing; his lips tingle as they start to numb. "Who am I?" he whispers. "Who am I?"
M reaches down a hand over his eyes, and his vision darkens to black. Her voice is soft as she pronounces the words which are both his benediction and his curse.
"Your name is Bond. James Bond."