I first saw Daggart in some hick bar in Utah, slutty girls pawing over him, clamouring for attention. He didn’t look so special. He was grizzled, old. Overcoat like a cut-price Clint Eastwood, and he even wore a flea-bitten old cowboy hat. What a joke. I shook my head in disgust and threw some cheap whiskey down my throat. One of his groupies tore herself away from him and made her away to the bar, ordering a vodka, even cheaper than the whiskey.
“Hey pretty,” I said. “Who’s the sugar daddy?”
She looked at me as if I were something she’d scraped off her shoe, and took her vodka away. I grunted. Who was I kidding? Why would a sweet thing like her be interested in a dried up old prune like me? Or like him, for that matter? He was even older’n I was.
I musta had too much of that whiskey but when he broke from the cabal I followed him to the john. Up close I could smell him; iron and old meat. He was shaking his pecker off when I finally asked him, “So come on, pal, what’s your secret?”
Gertrude stared at the tablet’s screen for a moment, scarcely believing that the Murovians had covered up the Emperor’s murder, or that Drusus was responsible, at least in part. Then she tossed the tablet onto the deck and crushed it beneath her boot. She found a coil of rope inside the gunboat, and tied it around the landing gear. It was still night time, but dawn would not be too far off.
Gertrude tossed the rope over the cliff edge and began the descent. It was a good deal easier than climbing up had been, particularly with the tranquilliser rifle and ammunition bandolier slung over her shoulders. Once she reached the base of the cliff she checked on the unfamiliar alien that had been trying to hunt down Drusus, and had terrorised the native Naxonians in the meantime. The armour-clad alien was still unconscious, but she shot his exposed reptilian arm with another tranquilliser dart just to be on the safe side.
Wep, the leader of the small Naxonian group she had travelled with, was just coming around. He shook his elongated, narrow head groggily, and washed his small eyes with his long, pink tongue. Standing on his hind legs, he towered above Gertrude’s six feet and three inches.
“This is the demon that has been plaguing you,” she said, thrusting the barrel of her rifle at the alien hunter. And then she remembered he couldn’t understand a damned word that came out of her mouth, and hoped her gesture got through to him.
Dark blood flowed into the sand, a sluggish trail from the throat of a man in desert clothing. An unforgiving sun blazed in the sky, scavenger birds silhouetted as they circled over the body. Sitting her horse at the top of a dune, Iriyan suspected a trap, although nothing moved all around and the horse didn’t seem anxious. She had learned to trust him — his instincts had prevented her from riding into an ambush more than once.
With a sigh, she touched her heel to the big stallion and he plunged downhill, sliding on his rump. The man didn’t move, but blood flowed, so surely life had not yet fled. With a snort to rid himself of sand in his nostrils, the horse halted near the body and Iriyan slid to the ground to kneel by the injured man’s side.
His grasp on life was tenuous. Someone had done a poor job of slitting his throat, but by rights he should be dead. Nothing I can do for him, she thought. No point in wasting water. As she stood, his eyes snapped open, trapping her with the intensity of his stare.
“Princess.” The word came on a breath from between cracked lips. She paused. No one here knew who she was.
There was no angel. Julius looked around the sterile, green hospital room in disbelief. The room, he remembered, smelled of disinfectants and latex; he couldn’t smell it now, of course, but his original self, over there by the bed, had locked that smell away in the back of his brain as a permanent reminder of the death of baby Cecillia. It was just as strong in Julius’s memory as it had been that day. He watched as Meg’s tears rolled down her cheeks in silent agony, as young Julius hovered helplessly. The doctor gently folded the blanket over their sweet, sweet baby Cecillia and put his stethoscope back in his pocket. Julius examined every corner of the room, again, but could find no angel. With a final, shuddering sigh, he flickered back to his own time.
Over the next few weeks, every time his name came up on the roster, Julius used his time travel opportunity to go back again. He never saw himself there, except for the one who lived it originally, for the same reason nobody else ever saw him there – each time travel event happened inside its own little dimensional bubble; no time traveler could be seen, or do anything to affect anything in the past. It was a tourist’s dream – or a scholar’s.
Professor Janes, of the history department, visited ancient Rome and stood in the Forum to watch Julius Caesar speaking. Julius Kane visited St. Mary’s Hospital and decided to stand by the door this time while he watched his daughter die.
Gertrude eyed the stranger for a long time. He seemed content to watch her through the augmented vision of his mask, and was in no rush to start the hand-to-hand fight he knew was coming. His species was an utter mystery to her. He could have been a man in exotic armour, or a robot with advanced personality software. A bandolier of tranquilliser darts ran from shoulder to hip, but he had no pulse pistol holstered in his belt. She smiled at the thought of her flint knife being the deadliest weapon either possessed. Gertrude tossed the blade aside. She didn’t know the make, but she knew armour, and the most dangerous thing her knife could do would be to shatter and get a fragment in her eye.
He ran at her and she tried to sidestep, but he was too fast. The hunter tackled her and attempted to pin her down, but he hadn’t reckoned on her left arm. The artificial limb shrugged off his efforts and grabbed his arm. She tried throwing him off of her, but he weighed far more than she had expected, and even the metallic might of her robotics couldn’t shift him. Instead, she tore off the armour covering his upper arm, revealing slimy, reptilian scales.
The hunter hissed. “Last mistake, little girl.”
She lashed out with her synthetic arm, but he grabbed the metal with both hands and gradually forced it to the ground.
He laughed at her helplessness. “Weak, like all your kind. I’m twice as strong, even if you are a cyborg.”
At night, it’s almost silent. Just the rustling of the leaves, and the odd yip of a fox. The bats fly low, close to the water, mopping up moths, skimming the air.
In the day, it’s different. Still quiet, still peaceful, but there are women in the pool of water. They don’t see me, in the water with them. They feel me sometimes, and they think its weeds, twisting against them. But they never see me. Not in the water, and not out of it either. They tell me their secrets and sometimes, just sometimes, I listen very closely.
What sort of secrets? The sort you only tell another woman, here in the pond, separate from the world and guarded by me. And those secrets – they’ve barely changed, all through the years. Secret pregnancies, illnesses they’re too scared to face, relationship problems. Their fears. Mostly, I listen and the stories don’t touch me. Mostly, I’ve heard them all before and I know that come the next time Sandra or Jess come back to the pond, it will all be fixed. The money will have been paid, or the fight made up, and they’ll splash and shout and make the air tingle with happiness.
Night had fallen. Gertrude glanced at her half-dozen comrades, and was glad that they had embarked at once instead of waiting for daylight, and the boiling heat that would come with it. The narrow-headed, furry Naxonians seemed as comfortable on two legs as four, and were all around eight feet tall on their hind legs. Their uncertainty about her trustworthiness meant that whilst each of them carried a long, stone-tipped spear, she had been given only a flint knife.
Before leaving the Naxonian village she had been shown the rest of The Tiger’s Eye’s crew. All seemed well, other than being confined, and were relieved to hear her explanation of the situation. If she could help the natives deal with the ‘demon’ that had been hunting them, the crew would be released.
“When you find it, try not to damage his ship,” Drusus muttered. He slurred his words, presumably still groggy-headed after being hit with a tranquilliser dart. “It might work despite the atmospheric interference, and could be our way off this rock.”
Gertrude had grunted acknowledgement, though in truth she was uncertain whether or not she would prefer to leave without the crew she had been forced to join.
I pulled the hood over my face as the guards rode past for the third time. Children wailed as the group of us migrated away from the burning village. Fury raged through my veins, but I tried to show myself as nothing more than a cowering villager sauntering on to look for shelter somewhere else.
I saw Franklin’s wife ahead and shuddered as I remembered her husband standing definitely between the king’s guards and the town. He lost his head for the trouble. Guilt was a deep burden and I’ve felt a lot of it over the past ten years; ten years since I’d left; ten years since I left him behind.
Henry walked over to me, his eyes were red and his hand shook as he spoke. “What are we going to do Harold? Everything we’ve built is gone…our homes…”
I knew nothing I said would comfort my friend so I just put my hand on his shoulder as we walked. After a while, I gave his arm a squeeze and stopped walking. It was time. I felt the old familiar weight of my scabbard against my leg, and even though it had been years since I’d worn it, I still practised out of sight every week.
Once the group had passed by me, I turned west. I could almost see the king’s castle spire in the distance.
The doors closed with a whine of servos and that heavy clunk particular to armour plate. My visitor was a man of medium height with a friendly, open face, seemingly devoid of guile. He smiled. “Good evening Mister Ghent. My name is Peter Anders. I’m the designated hostage negotiator, and my only interest is in achieving a peaceful resolution.”
Around us the server farm blinked and flickered. The room was otherwise empty apart from a table and two chairs. I sat down and motioned Anders forward. “Given the little army you have outside I’m surprised you feel the need to negotiate. Doubly so as I’m unaware of anyone being held hostage.”
“What you have in here, Charles – may I call you Charles? – is more valuable than flesh and blood, but just as vulnerable. And, please, call me Peter.” I inclined my head. Anders leaned forward, adopting a conspiratorial tone. “Very well, cards on the table. The information you’ve amassed over the years would make earlier revelations by Bradley, Snowden and Hardcote look like idle gossip over tea at the vicarage.”
“So you apparently believe.”
“A Finnish hacker managed to retrieve a partial master file index, but that was enough to bring the sky down on your head. To put it simply, you could ruin the careers of numerous prominent politicians and put the cause of international diplomacy back decades. That isn’t going to happen.” Continue reading
The natives might be primitive, but they packed a hell of a punch. When Gertrude peeled her right eye open her head was ringing like a bell. Her artificial left eye flickered to life as she became conscious. She was alone, in a spacious cell of mud bricks. Narrow windows cut high into the wall allowed a little sunlight inside, and told her it was probably around midday. The cell was surprisingly cool, though whether that was due to her artificial lungs and heart working hard or because of the cell’s design she did not know. There was no sign of Drusus or anybody else, and the size of the wooden door suggested whoever had built the cell had done so with a species significantly larger than Homo sapiens in mind.
Should I stay, or should I go?
Gertrude searched for her pulse pistol, but it was nowhere to be found. She swore, but her cybernetic arm could probably reduce the door to matchwood. Gertrude had no idea where she was, or where the rest of the crew were. She had no particular fondness for most of them, but with The Tiger’s Eye at the bottom of the sea it seemed her best hope of getting off Naxos was to stick with them and hope Captain Brasidas sent down a rescue boat.
Unless he’s left already. Brasidas doesn’t exactly have a trustworthy reputation. Continue reading