Here’s a free preview of my 2004 novel, Time Chaser. No strings attached, no DRM or fancy reader software required. For those interested, paperback and e-book editions are available here.
1 . Moon 3
The beaches of Moon 3 were known to be some of the most beautiful in the galaxy. Crystal clear waters lapped at white sands faintly glittering in the violet light of the weather satellites orbiting above. Here and there, tall, spindly-looking palms and lulling goose-tongues swayed in a gentle breeze that tousled the shore during an utterly breathtaking (if man-made) evening.
When Storm arrived, he didn’t notice anything other than the ground rushing at him violently. Just before he impacted, his body’s descent slowed to almost nothing as it came into sync with the environment, and he gently tripped, sprawled—landed face-down on the sand. Of course, it was all merely mental inertia; he wasn’t actually thrown onto the beach—but it sure felt like it.
This is how it always is, he thought, laying very still for a moment and imagining his body as a hunk of smoldering meat. Nearly pissing myself for no reason . . . I must look like a jackass.
He spit sand from his mouth, coughed and rolled into a sitting position to examine himself before anything else. He was naked, of course, since free-form streaming only worked with living DNA. One could put forth the extra effort and concentrate on clothes as well as body, but it would be an extraneous effort, with no direct benefit other than to spare the streamer his own shame. Storm had been streaming for a long time, and had come to the conclusion long ago that modesty was the least of his worries. It was simply more efficient this way.
Physically, he was in pristine condition, retaining all the qualities of his original, athletically-inclined (and, yes, needlessly vain) template—with the added tweaks manifested by intense mental concentration.
Ordain it, and it shall come, he thought, remembering DK’s favorite mantra, for even at this rather refined point in his life, he still had to work at it. Other chasers could appear and disappear, walk through walls, step between realities like graceful gymnasts performing on a podium; Storm could barely keep himself from throwing up each time he transcended the cosmos.
Quit your complaining—you’re on a schedule, remember?
He looked around. The beach was devoid of people. He got to his feet and looked up into the sky, where he saw the appropriate satellite orbiting slowly, giving off its artificial light. Behind the beach, farther up the mainland, was the city, glowing brightly in the nighttime haze.
Looking good so far. Now . . . where’s Chris?
Storm held himself, fighting off the residual disorientation, and started walking along the beach, counting in his head the passing minutes. Nude or clothed, it was a pleasant evening (Moon 3 was a tourist retreat, and as such had impeccable weather management). However, Storm still found himself shivering—not from physical cold, but from the ominous fact that the longer it took Chris to find him, the more chance there was of a police officer catching him first.
He stopped beside one of the palm trees, pressed himself against the spindly trunk when he noticed a faint humming sound in the air, coming from the direction of the sea. The noise got steadily louder and it quickly became apparent a small shuttle was approaching. Storm watched as the craft, searchlights darting to and fro like reaching arms, skimmed across the lapping water. As the craft crept closer, he prayed that his friend (and not some Patrolman) was at the controls, for he was certainly in no position to face the latter.
After a brief moment of searching, the beams settled on Storm and his tree, and a menacing voice rang out across the beach:
“This is Moon 3 Time Patrol. Step out into the open with your hands behind your head.”
The Patrolman’s voice had a familiar ring to it (Chris?), yet Storm’s instincts kept him from stepping forward. Out in the open, he would be defenseless against a potential capture. But then again, what else could he do? Obviously he’d been spotted—now it was only a matter of by whom.
“I repeat. This is Moon 3 Time Patrol. Step out into the open with your hands behind your head.”
Storm sucked in a quick, chilled breath. He stepped out into the light. He had to keep his face tilted away from the shuttle as it landed in order to keep from being totally blinded.
“Get on your knees—keep those hands up!”
Storm did as he was told and began to seriously wonder why he’d trusted in chance to see him through. Damned sloppy, he thought. Too early to know if his plan had backfired, too late to hope for an easy escape—
“Look down at the ground!”
Averting his gaze from the shuttle, he swore silently and reminded himself to kick his own ass when he had a free moment—if he had a free moment. Chances were when Moon 3’s police force got through with him he wouldn’t want much more than a nice prison cell in which to recover.
A door slid open and Storm heard the sound of the Patrolman hopping down onto the sand, his laser rifle clinking menacingly. A moment later and the man’s boot tips were just beneath Storm’s forehead. There was the feel of cold metal pressed against his bare back, and a single word from the patrolman’s mouth:
With knotted neck muscles giving way to shudders, and his heart pounding in his chest, Storm blinked and craned his head up to see none other than Christopher Squire standing over him and grinning devilishly.
“Fucking hell,” muttered Storm. He’d come so close to urinating all over himself.
Chris chuckled, slung his laser rifle over his shoulder and offered a hand to help him up. “Just keeping you on your feet. It was getting quite redundant just sitting out over the water for hours on end listening to the police scanner banter about whose wife has been blowing whose husband and so on. I’m glad you were on time for once!”
“It’s good to see you,” Storm said, “but you’re going to pay for this.”
With more chuckling Chris ushered him into the shuttle (a small two-man craft) and reclaimed the pilot’s seat. “I’ve got clothes back there for you,” he said, pointing at the rear compartment, “and food, if you’re hungry. Best we take our leave right away if we don’t want the real night watchmen to give us any trouble.”
The rear of the craft was somewhat cramped, as one would expect of a shuttle designed for short-range missions. However, the engineers had allowed for a little comfort. There was a shiny gray settee built into the side wall, upon which Storm found a black jumpsuit, boots, and an identification badge. With a small amount of amusement, he noticed that his badge designated him as “freelance merchant”—a humble but relatively sovereign position when it came to space travel. He wondered if Chris had gone the extra mile and acquired a decent set of galactic passports as well.
Storm hefted the jumpsuit, paused to check his appearance in the pull-down mirror that hung just beside the settee. He looked the same as always: age 18-30, beardless, blond hair, blue eyes, five-foot-ten, smooth, flawless skin, chiseled, muscular build, pubic hair genetically programmed into an aesthetically pleasing patch above his well-formed, oversized penis. He had vanity written all over him—his parents’ idea. The supermodel who wasn’t so super after all. The Olympian who was never meant to be. He attempted ineffectually to fix his hair, which was untidy and full of sand grains, so that whenever he turned his head, his scalp glittered. A souvenir of his brief visit to Moon 3.
I have to admit, he thought, dressing, that I look good for a guy who’s pushing 137. That is, if the leftists haven’t finally gotten rid of Earth’s old calendar by now.
He entered the shuttle’s cockpit and seated himself beside Chris. “So, we’re traders now, are we?”
Past the control panel, a network of flashing meters and digital read-outs, was the forward viewport. An overlay screen offered a splendid view of Moon 3 as the planet rapidly receded into the star-flecked ambiance of space.
“Yep,” replied Chris with a broad grin. “We specialize in counterfeit clothing and imitation-jewelry, all at the lowest prices in the galaxy.”
Storm cringed slightly, but kept his smile. “Why such meager items? Why not silver or real jewelry? The cheaper stuff, anyway. Make some money out of the deal.”
“Hey, one man’s treasure,” Chris replied, easing the controls offhandedly as he looked over at his friend. “They’re all quality knock-offs. The silver lining is that we probably won’t attract the attention of bandits, so we shouldn’t have much trouble keeping out of everyone’s way until we get to where it is we’re going.”
Shrugging, Storm nodded. He would have made a wry comment, but his mind was still a bit sluggish from his recent transition. He was still thinking in pieces. “What’s the date?”
“2416. You’ve been in flux for ten years, buddy.”
Ten years. Enough time to explain Chris’s appearance. He’d put on some weight, grown a faint beard, and acquired some gray hairs around his temples, where the former blond ones were beginning to thin just a little bit—though otherwise he was still as stalwart as ever. The result of staying in the standard time stream, Storm thought. It makes you count your breaths with the years. In another decade or two, Chris really would be old. And after that . . . one more friend come and gone.
“You’re looking well,” he said, feeling as if he were inadvertently requesting that his friend answer for his own human failings. “How are the wife and kids doing?”
“Just fine. Claire had our fourth two years ago. A girl. Steve’s just begun his sophomore year at Mars Academy. Says he wants to be a terraformer.”
Storm listened, glanced out the window and watched the glittering spaceway markers whiz by. Ten years. He’d been floating around for ten years while the rest of the universe had moved on. Steve had been only a boy then, and now he was a man. In another ten or twenty years he would be an older man.
The price of being a chaser. The price of freedom.
He blinked and turned away from the window. Chris had his hand on his shoulder. There was a concerned look in his eyes.
“I’m all right,” Storm muttered. He smiled somewhat dreamily, as if just coming out of a long sleep. “This always happens to me after a stream. When you spend ten years drifting around the cosmos without a body . . . it’s kind of overwhelming when suddenly you’re thrown back into the flesh.”
Chris nodded and handed him a warm flask. “Here, drink up. Real coffee from real beans I picked up during my last Earth visit. Not a synthesized ingredient in there, I assure you.”
Storm took the flask and drank with enthusiasm.
2 . Interception
“This is Trader Squire-1372, coming up behind the rusty Cadillac spewing out more space dust than a supernova. Get off the road—you’re crapping out the place.”
“I’ll be damned! Ol’ Chris is licking my ass a week early! What’s the problem? You need another piggyback to the nearest trailer park?”
“Not this time, buddy. Stopping off at The Pit to get the Cassini out of dry dock, then I’m taking a little trip to Port Carr. You know if Gregori is in town?”
“Ah, is there a more shameless trader this side of Orion? Yeah, he’s in. What could you possibly want with such a degenerate?”
“Business, my boy. Doesn’t matter what, so long as I get my cut, you know?”
“I hear you. Say, do you have some free time on your hands? Why not drop over for a while and we can have a game of pool together?”
“Sorry, bud. Not this time. Got to keep the clients happy, and that means I have a schedule to keep. I’ll be in touch, though.”
“Maybe next time, then. Stay out of trouble. End comm.”
* * *
“I’ve been making friends all over the Trader Ways,” Chris explained, leaning back against the settee and sipping coffee from his flask. “I got into this business just after you last left. Seemed a reasonable enough change considering the growing tensions over stream abuse. Claire, bless her heart, has stuck with it, raising the kids while I’m out here gallivanting around like some swashbuckling entrepreneur. Thankfully, the Time Patrol hasn’t laid a finger on me or my family—and that’s probably due to the fact that I haven’t mentioned you to anyone. I stop in at home twice a year . . . not enough, sometimes, but more than I could hope for, as long as the family’s okay. And, well, I’m making enough of the good stuff to keep clothes on the kids’ backs. Plus, I just had the Cassini re-outfitted, new navigators and all. Wait until you see her, Storm. She’s the most beautiful cruiser you’ll ever set your eyes on.”
“I can hardly wait,” said Storm with a half-smile, which faded promptly when he thought of the reasons behind his friend’s current arrangement. From family man to man on the run . . . because of me. “I never meant for any of this to happen to you.”
“So you owe me one. Done and done. I’m agreeable.”
Storm smiled again, found himself actually chuckling this time. “Just what I needed: one more life debt. I’ll add it to the collection.”
“Do I detect a bit of sarcasm?” Chris chuckled, a playful look on his face.
“Might I remind you,” said Storm, a bit of the gleam returning to his eyes, “that I’m old enough to be your great grandfather?”
“Ah, now it’s coming back to me. The last time we had a moment together. What was it we bet on that arm-wrestle?”
Hopping off his crate, Storm shoved it before the settee. “As I recall, we never finished that match before the feds came a’knockin’.”
“Bloody hell, you’re right!”
Chris downed the last of his drink and replaced the glass in the food dispenser. Then he rolled up his sleeves, revealing formidable muscles that slithered menacingly under his skin as he cracked his fingers. Storm, pleased to see that time hadn’t yet taken away Chris’s physical vitality, did the same and clasped his partner’s hand.
“On three. One . . . two . . . three!”
Silence ensued as they engaged themselves in the match. Brows furrowed, veins bulged, but both of their arms remained upright, quivering. Chris’s usual strategy was to expend only the necessary amount of energy keeping his arm straight up until his opponent began to weaken. Then he poured on the brawn. Storm, perhaps not well-acquainted with the art of arm-wrestling, or not yet fully adjusted to his newly fleshed body, tried too hard too fast, and knew as his arm started to get sore that he was going to lose. Nevertheless, he remained determined to go down with dignity, focusing all his attention on his labors until the flask at his feet caught his attention. It was trembling, sliding sideways. Since the artificial gravity generator was obviously still operating, the deck appeared perfectly level, but all around the rear compartment of the shuttle, objects not fastened or restrained were shaking and rolling all over the place.
“Shit, gravity well!” Chris exclaimed, rising unsteadily to his feet, the wrestling match forgotten. “There must be a ship on top of us!”
Storm said nothing as he followed him into the cockpit, where he strapped himself into the co-pilot’s seat. There was only one reason any ship would come into such dangerously close range: interception.
“You remember how to handle the scanners?” Chris asked, taking the shuttle off autopilot.
“Good. What are we dealing with here?”
Instinct took over as Storm’s fingers flew about the glowing console before him. “Looks like a moderate-sized cargo vessel, military-grade navigators, no registry number . . . they’re armed.”
“Bandits. Damn it. Usually don’t have to deal with them this far out.”
There was a brief hum, and the deck buckled beneath Storm’s feet. Suddenly he was side-heavy, the bandit shuttle’s gravity well pulling him off to one side. It felt like there was an inches-thick layer of skin on the right side of his body.
“They’re pulling us in,” he murmured.
“Not without a fight. Hang on!” Chris pulled up on the yoke. The star field went into a spin as the shuttle performed a somersault and reoriented itself behind the attacking ship.
Storm frowned. “Please tell me these guys are just some old gambling buddies.”
“I don’t think so,” replied Chris nervously, concern causing his face to crease. “Shit, and I don’t even have a squirt gun onboard.”
“What about the rifle you stuck up my ass back on the beach?”
“Wonderful,” Storm sighed, unbuckling his safety belt. “I don’t suppose we can take out their entire crew through hand-to-hand combat?”
Chris shrugged. “We’ll think of something. We always do.”
3 . Bandit Cell
Trying to sleep was an inconvenience in itself; trying to sleep with your ankles and wrists shackled to a cold metal wall was downright annoying.
There were seven men, including Storm and Chris, confined to the cylindrical, converted detention cell. All were human except for one, a Gecko with gray scaly skin. He spoke the least, left the human men to their own devices, though there wasn’t much of anything to do but hang limply in desolation. The general morale was, as one would expect, quite low—particularly among those who had not been fed in days. No one bothered with pleasantries, no one offered up idle chat to pass the time.
Storm fidgeted in his shackles, a mixture of dried blood and sweat sticking to his face and making him wish for water. He looked over to where Chris had been strung up, found that his friend was dozing. He’d taken a rather nasty blow to the forehead, and the resulting wound had swelled into a morbid purple lump.
At least we’re still in one piece, Storm thought, though that may not last long if our captors are in a bad mood. Glancing around the cell, he discerned a multitude of rather nasty cuts and bruises on his fellow captives’ bodies. He attempted mentally to retrace his steps to the point where he and Chris had still been aboard the shuttle, scrambling for some sort of plan, coming to the ultimate realization that they were in deep trouble as the bandits had boarded, overpowered them almost immediately.
“You’re a chaser, aren’t you?” Chris had whispered as they were being dragged along the gangway. “Can’t you . . . do something?”
Storm had simply rolled his eyes. “Yeah, I’ll just wiggle my fingers and turn everyone into toads.”
Had he been raised as a circus performer, such a trick might not have gone unappreciated.
Storm turned his head and stared off to his left, studied the lines of the metallic floor, and, following one, then the other towards the opposite wall, found himself examining the lizard fellow. Most likely a brother of the Gecko Tree. The pure bloods all had the same ivory-colored stripe running down the center of their torsos.
The lizard-man’s eyes opened suddenly, narrowing, focusing on Storm. A forked tongue flicked. “Why do you seek time if it is your enemy?”
Storm blinked, a bit surprised (and embarrassed) that he’d been caught staring. “Excuse me?”
“Your ego, Storm Anderson, reveals your distaste for cosmic measurements, yet you have used those very measurements to achieve your present state.”
The Gecko’s speech was heavily accented (too many “h” sounds), but his words were clear and crisp. Storm decided not to respond directly. “So, you speak human, and English, at that. How do you know my name?”
“My people have heard of you, as have many others in our galaxy. You may call me Sven. I must say you have done remarkably well in your fight against the Standard Stream. Most humans yield to the lure of time until it has ravaged their bodies, dulled their minds.”
Storm nodded as best he could. “I try.”
“You have broken free, you have ignored time’s call and denied its deadly hand—yet it has drawn you back, for you would not be here otherwise.”
“I chose to return to the standard stream,” Storm clarified. “Time is simply a tool I use to get where I want to be.”
“Ah,” murmured Sven with a sly smile. “The creed of any good time chaser, yes?”
“It’s not an occupation.”
Sven nodded. “But it must be, for while we may not escape this web of existence, we are allowed to crawl along its many threads, in any direction we please—only if we make it a priority to preserve our own freedom.”
Thinking briefly of a spider consuming its prey, Storm discarded the analogy and simply went silent, wondering how much longer it would be until he could get some food into his stomach.
However, Sven was still talkative. “What sort of consummation do you seek by shedding your mortal skin?”
Storm wasn’t sure he liked this fellow’s prodding, but he had to acknowledge it as better than the forlorn silence he’d endured for the dozen or so hours since his arrival. “I’m not sure I understand your question.”
The forked tongue flicked again. “Why are you a time chaser, Storm?”
“Because I hate putting good flesh to waste, because . . . I guess I never believed in getting old or dying as a way of life. Not once I learned the truth. Everyday life is too restricting. It’s not for me.”
“Ah. Freedom is a noble treasure, is it not?”
Not if you don’t have anyone to spend it with, Storm thought. An image of Trudie popped unceremoniously into his mind, and for a moment, through a long-lost memory, she was with him again, holding him gently around the waist like she used to, whispering silly words into his ear as they walked along the San Francisco coast. Yes, there was more to his search, but he held it within himself, for it was his only sacred spot, his only gilded hope—untouchable by anyone or anything.
As long as he kept it to himself.
“Why are you in here, anyway?” he asked, looking at Sven once again. “You a chaser? These bandits, they go around picking up people like us for the ransom?”
Sven nodded. “Apparently, that is the case. But we each pay our own price, and we each carry our own price.”
“Mine must be astronomical,” Storm grumbled, and allowed his head to tilt forward somewhat. He stared contemplatively at the deck.
* * *
The sound of the prison cell door sliding open roused Storm from a peaceful, if vacuous, slumber. He blinked and groaned from the stiffness of his neck, experiencing the more difficult aspect of living in a flesh body: pain. In his wrists the sensation was more acute where the metal of the shackles chafed against his skin, leaving unsightly marks.
He watched in silence as four men entered the cell. The one who’d spoken was obviously a caretaker of sorts, for he carried a tray with several bowls on it. He immediately went to the prisoner hanging closest to the door and offered him a spoonful of some unidentifiable provision.
The remaining three bandits appeared to be of higher rank, for they wore black uniforms with red sashes. Red was traditionally the color of the bandit, and it was obvious here that these men enjoyed displaying their status as criminal travelers.
“Well, well, look at you,” crooned the middle bandit, a perennially-idiotic smile on his face. He strode forward until he was face to face with Storm. “Storm Anderson, in the flesh, and without a single wrinkle on that expensive, pretty-boy face of yours.”
Beside him, Storm heard Chris breathe a near-silent “jack-ass”, which was enough to attract Idiot’s attention.
“And who would this be?” Idiot cooed. “Your father, perhaps?” He raised his hand as if to strike Chris across the face, but Storm quickly spoke up:
“So, what exactly is the price on my head now? Ten thousand units? Twenty-five?”
Like a little boy who couldn’t keep his attention on one thing too long, Idiot, unaware that one of his own prisoners had just discovered a possible character flaw, lowered his hand and faced Storm again. “Enough to make all the trouble it’s going to take getting you to the appropriate authorities worth the money. Now eat up, we wouldn’t want you getting too stringy on us.”
He exited then, leaving his companions behind to watch over things.
The caretaker had made his way to Chris, who was eating despite his apparent distaste for the menu.
Better than dying, Storm thought. Being treated like animals until we can find a way to escape. Or until we’re sold off to our respective buyers. There’s going to be a chain of purchases, each scoundrel commanding his own price until we’ve been traded around enough to make even Gregori sick. Then we get turned over to the feds. I’d better get this right.
When it came his turn at chow, he smiled politely and tightly clamped his mouth around the spoon thrust at him. The bandit looked up and caught his gaze, and a curious expression filled his face. Some of what Storm was doing was mere charisma, the leftovers from his runway model days, when he’d learned how to grab and hold anyone until he was finished with them. Over the years, the trick had been extended and enhanced by various mental concentration exercises (DK had been instrumental in this respect). Unblinking, both men exchanged nods as the chamber became exceedingly quiet and everyone else watched on in bewilderment. The other two bandits, noticing something was up, stepped forward simultaneously.
“What’s going on?” asked one, placing a hand on the caretaker’s shoulder and another on his weapon.
Slowly, all three bandits turned and looked questioningly at each other as if they were confused by something. They conversed in odd strangled sounds and twisted expressions before one finally turned again and produced a small palm-sized remote from his jumpsuit: the controller to the shackles. At the press of a button, all the prisoners were freed from their confinement. Chris and Sven took their cues well, immediately stepping around the bandits and removing their weapons while they watched on in a childish fashion. Storm spit out the spoon from his mouth, took a laser rifle and pointed it at the caretaker’s head, then nodded to the others as he blinked for the first time since initiating the hypnosis.
“How the hell did he do that?” asked one of the freed men.
Chris shook his head and shrugged. “He’s an immortal. They know things.” He faced Storm and scowled slightly. “Though I don’t understand why the hell he couldn’t have done it sooner.”
“It’s a parlor trick, actually,” said Storm. “It takes balance, patience. I’m not an expert just yet.” He brought his elbow down on the back of Idiot’s head. “But that’s a conversation for another day. I trust the rest of you gentlemen would agree that commandeering the ship is our best course of action?”
* * *
With more than a few aches and pains marring the experience, Storm and Chris made their way through the corridors virtually unnoticed. They found the cockpit, which was unguarded. Two young pilots sat at the controls and looked rather frightened at the prospect of having guns held to their heads. Other than that, they were no trouble. Storm took out one, Chris the other.
“Real amateurs,” Storm whispered, lowering his pilot to the deck. “We lucked out; these guys could have been good at what they do.”
Chris nodded and took the pilot’s seat. “Yeah, but what does that say about us, letting ourselves get captured by such riffraff? Hey, do me a favor and hit the emergency-containment button, would you? That should stave off the ghouls for awhile.”
By chance, as he was searching the console for the correct keys, Storm spotted the navigational display, with a red cursor marking their present location.
“Damn it,” he breathed, annoyed. “We’re coming up on Sparrow.”
“So that’s what that blue ball over there is,” Chris replied, not without humor, as he peered through the viewport. “That means we’re three days away from Port Carr, four from New Babylon.”
Storm leaned back in his chair and ran a hand through his hair. The longer he remained in this time stream, the more chance there was of being caught by the Patrol. There was no guarantee that the bandits hadn’t already contacted their associates down on Sparrow with news of their impending arrival—and if the cops were listening in, if they knew Storm Anderson was making a pit stop . . . .
“We’re going to need another ship,” Chris murmured. “If we want to get back to Port Carr on time, it’ll have to be under some other guise. Luckily for us, Sparrow is a pretty good place to blend in when you don’t want to be seen, if you get my drift.”
Storm retrieved some of his former ardor. “How would you know?”
“I’ve done some blending-in myself, for various reasons—but we can talk about that later. I hope these fellows have an escape pod somewhere onboard . . . .”
Indeed, Sparrow’s bright, Earth-like atmosphere was filling up most of the viewport by now, and soon the orbiting security ships, which navigated their way around all major planetary bodies, would be asking for proper identification, the nature of their cargo, and their purpose for visiting. They would also need to present their craft’s registration number, which would prove quite difficult since neither Storm nor Chris knew it.
“Well then,” Storm said, rising and slinging his laser rifle over his shoulder. “I believe it’s time for a little ride in the escape pod.”
“Agreed,” said Chris. “And the first thing we do when we get planetside is find a good Mexican restaurant.”
4 . Great Hope
The city of Great Hope was the largest (and poorest) trading city on Sparrow. This part of the planet was almost completely technologically underdeveloped, most of the houses and buildings that sprawled along the intertwining, packed-dirt streets three or four stories high and made of stone, some wood. Instead of shuttles or skimmers rushing along the streets, there were old-fashioned carts and wagons—and people, of all shapes, sizes, and races. The men and women were sun-browned, with long, unkempt hair and patchwork clothes lost to dust and the elements; the children were naked and dirty and, more often than not, burdened with bushels of fabric, or crates filled with fruit or vegetables.
Chris shook his head. “The galaxy’s sweatshop. We’ve come so far in the last few centuries, and yet people still live like this. It’s a damn shame.”
Storm nodded, walking casually beside his friend amidst a sea of random bodies. It was a hot day, and since there was little shade, their clothes had the distinct smell of sweat and unwashed skin that seemed to eternally pollute the air of Great Hope’s streets. Even with his sleeves rolled up and the upper-portion of his suit unzipped, the heat was unbearable, and he could feel his head throbbing.
Despite the overcrowded condition of the streets today, there was no shortage of vendors trying to sell their respective goods to anyone who looked wealthy enough to spare a few units.
“I need something to drink,” Storm muttered, and shielded his eyes from the sun long enough to spot a street vendor who was selling what appeared to be oranges. “Over there,” he said, pointing. “He’s got canteens. I hope you have some money on you.”
“Yeah, right,” replied Chris, wiping his forehead with his sleeve and taking care not to disturb his wound. “Looks like we’re going to have to play on this guy’s sympathy if we want a drink.”
Storm shrugged. “Couldn’t hurt.”
Cutting a course through the masses of people, Storm and Chris approached the vendor, a short stocky man, bare to the waist. In muscle-knotted, sunburned arms he hoisted two canteens and shouted over the roar of the street. After repeating the same thing over and over in several different languages, he finally switched to something resembling English:
“Give him here, give him today, give him fresh: sweet water out of protection Sparrow well. Five unit each, but only today!”
Geez, thought Storm, eyeing the vendor shrewdly. Five units is enough to buy a good meal back on Earth. Nevertheless, the quarts of overpriced, sun-warmed water were looking pretty good right now.
“Come, come!” the vendor continued. “Buy now, buy now! Wet water soften throat! Five unit!”
Storm considered his options, calculated the viability of a number of distractive tactics—but Chris suddenly grabbed his arm.
“Uh, oh,” he said. “Forget wetting our precious little tongues. We’ve got trouble.”
Storm looked out across the sea of people, at first seeing nothing more than face after face after face . . . and then he spotted them. Police officers—and not just the planetary patrol, but intergalactic officers, as anyone could tell from the glittering badges on their uniforms. They were armed with laser rifles.
“Someone’s tipped off the feds about us,” Storm muttered.
“I bet it was the tall bandit. Remind me to personally repay him for that next time we meet.”
“Wouldn’t want the pleasure,” Storm added, and thrust his hand into Chris’s, “but for now we should be saying goodbye. Try to find some place to stay tonight and I’ll meet you tomorrow at noon, back at that large fountain we passed on the way into town.”
“The one with the giant Xiao-Ping relief sitting on top?”
“Yeah . . . long live President Xiao-Ping, I give my life to serve, etcetera.”
“Right. Okay then. May God have humor on the souls of fools like us.”
The crowd swallowed them, then. Storm tried his best to act “native” as he walked back in the direction he and Chris had come and peered past the closely-cropped buildings on either side of the street. It appeared there was another street, just as packed as this one, on the other side of a row of residentials. The people and buildings seemed to stretch into infinity in every direction but up, where he glanced nervously when he heard a shuttle humming by. It’s hull was gray, which meant it wasn’t a police craft, but that didn’t mean the next one wouldn’t be.
I’ve got to get under a roof somewhere, he thought to himself, making his way towards the edge of the street. Between two triple-story buildings was a narrow alley cluttered with trash bins. He quickly ducked in and tried not to breathe too much of the stench of rotting garbage as he leaned against the warm stone wall and thought of what to do next. On any other civilized planet there would have been the regular trash compactors, the ones that converted all waste into a simpler form of matter that could be more easily disposed of. At least that way there wasn’t the smell and waste of good space. It was also likely many unwanted microorganisms multiplied like crazy in a place like this; the smell was their calling card.
With the heat having at him like some giant invisible leech, it was easy for his mind to wander, but a sound coming from further down the alley caught his attention: a woman was trying to scream, but her noises were being muffled.
Not hesitating, Storm picked his way through the trash mounds and past an ill-placed overflowing bin to where he found the caller. She was being held against the wall by another human, a man dressed in ragged breeches and a torn shirt. His hand was searching the woman’s clothing for whatever valuables she possessed—no, he wasn’t just trying to rob her of money, the way he was sticking his hand up her dress like that.
Storm immediately launched himself at the attacker. He grabbed the man by the shoulder, flung him around and punched him square in the face. Another fist planted in the man’s stomach coupled with a kick in the groin sent the thief wobbling down onto his knees, his face turning bright red. As the man doubled over and curled into a ball, expecting another onslaught, a laminated card fell out of his hand. It was a food card, Storm discovered when he picked it up and turned to face the woman.
“This belong to you?” he asked, holding out the card with one hand and wiping the other on his jumpsuit. “Are you okay?”
The woman rearranged her clothes—and replied with a slap across the face. “You fool! I had him right where I wanted!” She yanked her card out of his hand and swore under her breath, something about not having to put up with pity just because she was a woman. With a mild yelp she kicked the injured assailant in the groin, though he was already unconscious and so probably didn’t feel it anyway.
Eyes wide with surprise, Storm stumbled back a step or two and rubbed his offended cheek. His damsel in distress was young, probably in her twenties, judging by the smoothness of her face and rich blackness of her hair. Her skin wasn’t toasted like everyone else’s; it was naturally dark—a pleasant sight amidst a world of lower-class Earth transplants trying to survive in an unforgiving climate.
Realizing that he was staring, Storm blinked and looked around the alley. A few paces away were two cloth bags that had been dropped, their contents (groceries) spilling out onto the filthy ground.
“Why don’t I get those for you?” he offered, trying to salvage any chances of keeping this fiery woman on his side. Making a friend, rather than another enemy, was always beneficial.
The woman sighed and made to help as well. “Thank you, but I can take care of myself.”
“Fine.” Storm set down the bag he was holding. “Sorry to interrupt you and your”—he glanced down at the sleeping assailant—“friend. Good day.” He turned and started back the way he’d come, but halted when he heard the woman’s voice calling out again:
“Wait—hold it there, blondie. Since you did offer, I might as well free up my arms for a few minutes. Don’t squash the fruit.”
Storm turned to face her again and grinned despite the fact that the last remnants of his pride were smoldering. With her hands on her hips and long, powerful legs peeking out from underneath her dress, she was nothing short of breathtaking.
Probably an American export, he thought, judging by her accent. She may or may not have been a legal resident . . . but then, that didn’t matter much when they rounded all the supposed bottom-feeders up and shipped them off. White, black, Hispanic, Asian—none of it mattered anymore once you were stuffed into a freight compartment en route to your new life on Sparrow. She might have been one of the unlucky economical blemishes, or she might have been a criminal; it didn’t matter, as anything with good legs and firm breasts looked good after spending ten years alone with oneself.
And, if things go right, I’ll have a place to stay for the night.
“My name’s Storm, madam,” he clarified, squatting to pick up some of the fallen groceries. “You know, you really shouldn’t walk through these alleys alone.”
“I usually don’t,” replied the woman, sliding a pineapple back into her bag. “Thought I’d slip by today, but wouldn’t you know, this asshole happened to be in the mood.” She spat. “My name’s Annah, by the way.”
Storm smiled. “Do you live around here?”
“My, you’re a nosy fucker, aren’t you?”
“Forget I asked.” Spicy tongue. Even hotter than the day itself.
“If you must know, yes. The next grid over. Are you finished yet?”
Dropping the last of the apples into the bag, Storm hefted it and nodded. “I live to serve.”
She peered briefly into the bag, pretending to examine carefully the contents with a displeased look on her face (while she was really examining him—perhaps for hidden weapons, or perhaps simply to get an eyeful of his sleek template). “Well, I guess it could be worse. Don’t you know to put the heavy things on bottom?”
“It’s hot. I don’t think well when I’m dehydrated.”
“You look like you could use a drink.”
Storm caught himself staring again, diverted his eyes from her legs and shrugged, trying to act like this was all a surprise to him when really he’d known by the second flash of her piercing eyes that she was taking more than a passing interest in him. He was certain she wasn’t dating anyone—she was holding out, holding on. Not that he had any intention of sharing her bed; it was merely his male instinct reactivated after laying dormant for so long that had him appreciating the evident attraction. Normally he didn’t care that he looked scandalously good under even the worst conditions, but if it would get him food, lodging for the night, he would play the game.
“I wouldn’t want to be an annoyance,” he said.
“Nonsense,” Annah said. “You’ve already been much more than that. The least I can do is have you help make lunch and explain why it is you spend your time hanging out in alleyways and rescuing helpless maidens.”
Storm laughed and stepped forward. “Maybe I’m just a nice guy who’s got nothing better to do.”
“I doubt it.” She turned and started walking. “Come. This way—and try not to squash the fruit.”
5 . Annah’s Abode
Annah’s apartment was simple, built from the same dusty stone limbs that every other building was, though hers seemed to be a bit tidier. There was a single low-ceilinged room, with various rugs arranged on the bare floor; several pieces of furniture had been placed around a central table that had throw pillows gathered along its perimeter. The sleeping area was offset by a pair of rice paper screens. Towards the rear of the room was the stove and cooler. There was no toilet (Storm assumed the building had a communal washroom).
“Sit,” Annah instructed, gesturing at one of the wicker armchairs.
Storm complied and, once he was off his feet, the ache in his muscles revealed itself. He let out a barely audible sigh—a moment’s relief stifled since the Moon 3 rendezvous—though outwardly he disguised his fatigue by not leaning back in his chair, however much he wanted to (it was seductively cool in Annah’s home). Always important to present a tireless demeanor at all times, especially around strangers—even fetchingly-beautiful women—if I want to keep the upper hand.
“I have water, some beer, orange juice,” said Annah as she was putting things away.
“Water’s fine,” Storm said.
She brought him a glass, which he downed all at once.
“Can I trust you to sit tight while I get out of this mess?” she said, brushing a hand over her torn dress.
Storm nodded, and she left him, then, disappearing into the faux-cherry blossom orchard depicted by one of the rice screens.
She spoke as she changed her clothes:
“So, Storm . . . what kind of name is that?”
“My dad’s idea,” he answered. “He always said it was because I was born during a thunderstorm, but I checked the weather records when I was nine, just out of curiosity.”
Storm cleared his throat. “Well . . . yeah.”
“Ah. What did your mother have to say about it?”
“She was never around much . . .” Ahem! “‘Storm’ was the name chosen by the man my father married.”
A swish of cloth, a deft movement of painted rice paper, and Annah stood before him again. She was wearing a blue summer dress that left arms and legs bare.
He wondered why she was readily comfortable enough in his presence to strut around her home barefoot and carefree. Maybe it was simply too hot an afternoon to wear anything but the bare essentials. She had a lean, sturdy build—no doubt she could do some damage if he decided to run amok and ransack the place, or force himself upon her. Perhaps traversing the city via dark crevices was her means of drawing shifty men near for . . . what, exactly? Companionship? Confirmation of her own defensive skills? Storm himself was quite destitute at the moment; picking him up as a possible dinnertime beau would provide her with nothing more than a temporary guest.
Maybe, he thought, she’s a dominatrix . . . or maybe, like all the rest of us, she’s simply lonely.
“San Francisco, right?”
Storm snapped out of his momentary mental tangent. “What?”
“Your parents,” Annah said, seating herself across from him, “were both male.”
“I had one father . . . the other was just his lover. I never called him ‘dad’ or anything like that. And yeah . . . San Francisco’s correct.”
“Sorry, if I picked the first cliché that popped into my mind.”
“That’s all right.”
Annah poured him another glass of water, then one for herself. As he was sipping, she said, “So, let’s talk about you and how you’ve come to visit one of Great Hope’s many fine ghettos.”
“Who says I’m visiting?”
“Well, you’re certainly not one of Sparrow’s aborigines, what with that blond hair and fair skin—and your teeth are too white and straight to make you an export.”
Storm heard himself laughing dismissively. “My parents were vain as well as gay. They wanted their son to be aesthetically pleasing—an athlete or an entertainer. My template is a mixture of their favorite Olympic heroes and runway models.”
“It sounds like you don’t share their affinity for pretty packaging.”
Storm shrugged. His father, and Uncle Damien, had been all about decadence. Storm had been their networking tool. As a model, he’d posed for commercial spreads, done a few immensely popular art photo books (nothing illegal, though nudity was often preferred). As a gymnast, he’d earned a handful of medals and certificates at a variety of local and statewide competitions. As a son, he’d grown up surrounded by his parents’ appreciation for their child-investment, which they showcased every chance they got. Hence the weekly penthouse pool parties, the nude beach barbecues—he’d been expected to market his body as a product, and he’d been expected to do it 24/7. It had not been uncommon for Damien and his guests, drinks in hand, to stand quietly over his bed and appreciate his unclad form while he slept. Which was why, once puberty hit, he’d stopped sleeping naked, had requested a lock on his bedroom door. Not that he felt Damien or his friends would have actually abused him; theirs was more wistful appreciation from middle-aged men wishing for marvelous templates of their own rather than genuine desire to make love to an underage Adonis. Still, it had been unnerving to hear them talk:
“He’ll be able to get any girl he likes. Hell, any man.”
“With a face like that, I wouldn’t be surprised if he already has.”
“Look at those abs. Even when he isn’t training his template’s keeping him in top condition—I’d kill for that!”
“You’d kill for another cruller.”
“The things I could do if my cock was half as big as his.”
Sensing a personal reverie in his silence, Annah softened her expression somewhat. “Hey . . . we’re just passing the time, right? Stuck in the same boat and all that. I didn’t mean to pry.”
Storm sighed, focused on the present once again as he set his glass on the table. “That’s all right.”
“Still, why are you visiting Great Hope?”
“I’m not visiting. In fact, I’m not supposed to be here at all, but I am . . . so I should make the best of it, right?”
“Let me guess,” Annah said, rolling her eyes. “You’re on the run from the police?”
Storm grinned and shrugged. Strike one.
“You came here to lay low for a while and now you’re wondering if you can get help from me.”
“Would it scare you if I said you were mostly right?” Storm asked, keeping his face serene.
Annah shrugged. “That depends on what you did.”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Besides, I don’t like to dump my problems on others.”
“I’ve been surviving on this dank, corrupted rock since I was sixteen . . . I think I can handle a bit of absurdity from you.”
Strike three. Put out or get out.
Storm squirmed. Annah waited (with every bit of confidence that he would open up to her without further prodding). It was insane, it was ridiculous—
—it was working.
She had not spoken obstinately. She was sincerely interested, firm in her persuasion, and probably able to handle any flaky yarn he could have thrown at her. He always hated it when anyone tried to gain insight into what he was thinking, but now, in this room, on this planet—in this time stream—there was no doubt that he’d stumbled upon quite an interesting situation. No one else he’d ever met (recently, at least) had said to him, in complete silence, without speech, “You can trust me, as long as I can trust you.” And she didn’t just ask for trust . . . she demanded it.
His tongue loosened a bit and he cleared his throat. “I’ll start with a hint, then.” Why not, right? She’d never believe him anyway. “I was born on Earth, in 2279. November 10th, if I can remember correctly.”
He expected a twitch of surprise, a straightening of Annah’s spine, a skeptical glance, but certainly not what he got now: a mere shrug—as if chasers trotted past her doorstep on a regular basis.
“So you’re a chaser, a streamer, a time-bitch,” she said, “and a Scorpio, too. That still doesn’t explain why you’re here.”
“You’re not the least bit surprised?”
“Meeting one of you fellows isn’t as uncommon as you would have me believe.”
Storm thought for a moment, bit his lip. “How do you know I’m telling the truth?”
At this, Annah leaned forward and bore her eagle’s gaze upon him full force. “Look me directly in the eyes and tell me you’re lying.”
Immediately, he felt all his control slip away, and he was both outraged and exulted. It seemed everything he threw in her direction she threw back with equal force—nevertheless, he kept a straight face. “I’m not lying.”
“I know.” Annah let up slightly, gazed past Storm and out the window. “You do know you’re not safe here. The police have been patrolling the city more frequently as of late. You’re most likely on their list.”
Storm nodded. “I’m sure of it. I probably should have died forty-something years ago. The government doesn’t like when people find out how to cheat.”
“So . . . is that what you’re doing? Cheating? Playing hookey from your birth stream?”
“No. And I’m not out to screw around with the Standards either. It’s all temporary—I hope—until I can get back.”
“Where, or actually, when I belong.”
A look of confusion crossed Annah’s face. “But if you went through all the trouble of escaping from your birth stream, why do you want to go back?”
Storm snorted. “First off, I didn’t escape my stream. That’s for reincarnates and New-Agers who want to become immortal and rule their own little planet or something. Immortality has its perks, but I got kicked out on accident. Something to do with two temporal layers becoming misaligned at the very instant I was doing some leisure streaming at a time mall.”
“I remember those,” Annah said, half-smiling.
Nodding, Storm continued: “I got screwed. Could have wound up deader than dead, but the failsafe dumped me back into Standard—a couple years offtrack. Everyone thought I did it on purpose. I mean, no one survives a glitch like that except, maybe, one in a million. One in a hundred million. I did, and so it was obvious that I was an ornery chaser bent on unraveling the galactic commerce. Failing that, I was just an unlucky bastard who’d accidentally stumbled on mankind’s clever little secret. The Time Patrol wants us to believe that we’re made for the typical 70-120 year lifespan, so the majority of us live and die quietly, while the elite choose their incarnations at their own leisure. It’s like . . . a highway. You’ve got all these cars crammed in one direction, but it’s not the only road to wherever you’re going. Get yourself a good map and you can go anywhere, but if you don’t know anywhere else to go, you’re just stuck. Birth, life, death.”
“Conspiracy theory’s the game, huh?” Annah murmured.
“Who doesn’t have a conspiracy theory? Look at all the wealthy aristocrats who spend millions to have their birth certificates secluded. The politicians who hire astrologers as bodyguards. Everyone’s afraid that if the government doesn’t like something they’re doing, their stream will be deleted from the galaxy. ‘Stardom kills,’ don’t you know?”
“Unless you escape your birth stream.”
Storm nodded. “They can only tamper with your past when you’re in Standard. Once you jump off it, you’re untouchable until you return at the exact point you left.”
“That’s fine and dandy,” Annah persisted, “but if being ‘stuck’ in Standard’s such a bad thing, why do you want to go back?”
“Unfinished business,” sighed Storm. Trudie’s face flashed in his mind once again. “I left before I wanted to, and stayed away out of necessity. There are people I really care about.”
“But you’ll get caught.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. It’s still a matter of tracking me down. And maybe, if I can teach my friends the truth, take them off Standard . . . who knows?”
Storm became quiet for a moment, contemplating. I’m not there yet, and it’s going to be awhile before I am. Even then, there’s no guarantee any of my old pals will want to see me . . . not with a bounty hanging over my head. And who’s to say if they’ll want to leave Standard?
“Naturally,” said Annah, standing, “you’ll need a place to stay for the night, and a bath, and possibly directions around the city.”
“Are you offering?”
“I’m a sucker for really good storytellers.”
“As long as it’s not any trouble . . .”
Annah waved him down. “Shush. You’ll make me change my mind.”
“Okay, then,” said Storm.
6 . Exit
White, windowless walls, bright lights, and a distinctly metallic odor comprised what was informally known as the “Grilling Room.” In the center, a large featureless chair with a high back was occupied by a newly-acquired prisoner, who sat slumped, his arms, wrists, and legs bound by heavy straps. He’d already been searched thoroughly, and the entirety of his belongings had been examined by a tall, well-built man apparently in his late forties.
“Christopher Squire, born February 26, 2366, Human Standard Calendar. Aries Minor transplant, 26X-3. Has held a number of odd jobs, though nothing on record for at least the last decade. Current status: independent trader, unmarried, identification number IT-1372-447819.” The foreman turned to face the three Patrol officers who stood at attention beside the chair. He held up the ID tag. “This was all he was carrying on him?”
“Yes, sir. He was unarmed when we brought him in.”
“He was alone?”
“Yes, sir. However, additional units have been deployed and are still searching the surrounding area.”
The foreman nodded. “Keep all gates to the city under heavy guard, and begin a door-to-door search of every home in the lower-class. Now, please, send in the good doctor—and turn off the cameras.”
* * *
The first thing Chris felt when he opened his eyes was the tingling numbness in his right arm. He focused his gaze, found himself staring into the hawkish face of Foreman Daniel Ketch.
I’ll be damned, he thought, taking in the foreman’s features. Hasn’t aged a day in ten years. Ketch still had a mane of brilliantly white hair tied back in a tail, still had the powerful bone structure to his face and jaw that gave him the appearance of a subtle beast. The warm, hospitable smile on his face was in stark contrast to the rest of him.
Chris groaned inside, feeling an age-old distaste rear its head.
“Ah,” murmured Ketch, signaling for the medic to step back and allow him space. “Mr. Squire has decided to join us.”
“Danny, my boy,” Chris muttered groggily, rolling his head back and forth in an attempt to examine his bound arms. “Just the . . . way I like them: tight and confining.” He was having trouble forming his words, for the drug was keeping his brain from interacting correctly with the rest of his body. “You still know how to treat your . . . guests.”
From the medic: “Foreman Ketch, shall I administer more stimulant?”
“No, that won’t be necessary. Please, leave us now. I’ll call for you if any further assistance is required.”
“Yes, sir.” The doctor quickly replaced his collection of needles in his bag and left the room.
As Chris tried, rather uselessly, to regain his composure (he was unable to keep his head level, his eyes going in and out of focus—yet his brain was running a mile a minute), the foreman strode placidly around the chair with his hands clasped behind his back. “One of the benefits of being immortal is that those who are still unenlightened give you respect. After all, no one wants a rival who will remain alive and in perfect health indefinitely, someone who will always be vital and alert while you, on the other hand, gradually become weak and brittle with time. From the looks of you, my friend, time has been ever-vigilant, planting more and more gray hairs every year, chiseling the wrinkles deeper and deeper. You see, you haven’t learned, Chris. You haven’t learned.”
“Look who’s talking,” Chris scoffed. “Looks to me like . . . you haven’t learned a thing either. Not after ten years, not after a hundred. Still have to . . . face your victims while they’re tied up. Helpless.”
Ketch stopped pacing and leaned over Chris’s bridled form. “You should have come clean the last time we met, Mr. Squire. Maybe then you could have regained your life, lived out your final years with your family instead of out in the cold loneliness of space. Yes, Christopher. I’ve been keeping tabs on your little family life. Claire, the children, tucked away for safekeeping from the big, bad Patrol.”
“You leave them . . . alone,” mumbled Chris. “A self-absorbed bureaucrat like you has no business pushing around . . . innocents like chess pieces. Your beef is with me.”
Standing again, Ketch shook his head and sighed. “You really don’t have a clue, do you? You think my sole purpose of being, the existence of the Patrol, the discovery of time streaming is to keep the galaxy muzzled—but you couldn’t be further from the truth.”
“Bah,” grumbled Chris, wishing he could spit right about now. “We both know you’re full of . . . crap.”
“Tsk-tsk. Good old Mr. Squire, sharp-tongued until the very end. And this will be the end, you know, for you have just about outlived your usefulness. I will be patient with you no more. It’s people like you who have kept the Patrol’s efforts from affecting the kind of change the galaxy needs to flourish—”
“—into a . . . universal zoo . . .”
“Not quite,” Ketch shot back, facing his prisoner again. “A universal humanity. It’s been nearly three centuries since humans built the first space vessels capable of faster-than-light travel and settled our overpopulated billions onto the precious few terrestrial bodies able to support life. Even then, it’s been an uphill battle, as there is not an alien presence nor savage microbe that does not want to see our race dwindle and perish. So we’ve fought the odds, sacrificed our brethren in the name of colonization and order. For three hundred years we’ve worked to make a place for ourselves amongst the stars, and what do we have to show for it? Entire planets reeking of famine, war with the Centaurians, human pestilence still rampaging unconquered. Millions of lives are born while even more millions die needlessly. There is waste, so much waste, and the rest of the galaxy isn’t going to wait much longer for us to mature before they take matters into their own hands.
“You don’t need to be reminded, though. You’ve seen the brutality of the Outer Wars, the leagues of human soldiers lined up along the perimeters of every star base, fighting with their lives to protect the civilian lives within. Every year our defensive borders recede just a bit. A few casualties here, a lost fighter ship there, but over time, it builds up, Chris. Slowly, but surely, the human race is being evaporated.
“Even here on Sparrow, anti-human factions are growing by the minute. It’s only a matter of time before they start ridding themselves of the ‘human infestation.’ The aborigines are taking our young and turning them against us with promises of fortune and glory—promises that are not in the least intended to be fulfilled. The only way to regain any sort of footing amongst these countless other species who’ve supposedly evolved past us is to begin an evolution of our own. The first step is to make ourselves stronger. ‘Let the mightiest tribe be victorious.’ For us that means discipline: control over our species, control over our science, control over our own destinies.”
Ketch spoke with such passion, such conviction that, had he not been previously introduced, Chris would have handed over the keys to his cruiser and the deed to his home that very minute. Here was a man who believed in every decision he’d ever made; he truly knew that his point of view was unbreakable. It was simultaneously inspiring and terrifying.
“Control,” Chris said, after a time. “You mean . . . make those who catch your fancy immortal and those who don’t . . . obsolete. Nourish the healthy, pull out the weeds. You think I haven’t heard the stories of . . . peasant families suddenly disappearing, children never being born because . . . the government deems them expendable? Each and every person you kill, they each have a soul . . . they each have a life, maybe not up to your standards . . . but it’s theirs, not yours. You’re playing God.”
Ketch’s face darkened somewhat, and he straightened again, putting clenched fists behind his back. “Every tribe needs a chief, Mr. Squire. But it is obvious my explanations are being wasted on you. I thought somehow you, a man who’s managed to evade my forces for ten years, might have come to realize his purpose, our purpose in this galaxy. I can see now I was wrong. You are nothing more than an insignificant speck, shuttling back and forth through space and selling your little trinkets until death comes to rob you of even that. But perhaps there is one final way to redeem yourself.”
“Get to . . . the point, Ketch. If I’m going to die, I sure as hell don’t want it to be during a lecture from you.”
The foreman stood before him and, with both hands, took hold of Chris’s drooping head, making him face forward. “Where is Storm Anderson?”
Chris tried to snicker, but managed only a mild snort. “Luckily for . . . him, I don’t know.”
Ketch’s expression turned frigid. He tightened his grip on Chris’s head, moving his thumbs down to the temples and squeezing hard. “Where is he?”
“Fuck . . . you,” Chris replied, stifling a yelp of pain as he suddenly went cross-eyed.
“Indeed,” Ketch replied, not letting go of Chris’s head until his fingers had broken the skin. “No matter, though. I can always get what I need out of you through the use of our mind probes and drugs. After that, it’s only a matter of time.”
Chris slouched, his vision gone, his head throbbing with excruciating pain. He heard Ketch’s exit—no doubt he was going to get the doctor for further probing—and he knew he would never see the light of day again. However, he was not frightened, for he knew the truth. He was not a chaser, he’d never taken the final, definitive step into freedom, but through Storm he’d gotten a glimpse of the other side, a taste of what lay in wait, and that was enough . . . to know that he would never truly be dead, even if his body was.
He manifested an image of Claire and the children in his mind, and their smiling faces were all the comfort in the universe.
* * *
Want to read the rest? Check out the Time Chaser page for details on how to buy the trade paperback or download the e-book.