Your world is ours now. Your water, your air, your land – you should have defended them better. When there is so much to take, then we take. When a foe is so weak, we conquer. After a few more battles I will paralyse your military from within. I will use your own warriors to crush you.
I am Tom. Of the Gathering. Your world is ours.
And so are your pronouns.
Let me rephrase. I was of the Gathering and now I am Tom. Not actually Tom, but within Tom, who is now part of us. The Gathering. Except Tom does not know of us and…
This is confusing. Let me rephrase.
I now control Tom. Lieutenant Colonel Tom of the Elite Fighting Furies. Tom is the middle of us. The safe place. What you individuals call mediocre. Under my guidance, he has risen from lowly foot soldier to a position of rank and respect. Tom is a leader. And he is mine. So I am Tom. Of the Gathering. But mostly of Tom and I. Is I. Am I.
Victory is all that matters. My – our – victory is close. You are mine. All mine.
Agent Rodriguez peered through the glass window of the cell door. She preferred not to think of it as a cell but that was the descriptor that fit despite the extravagant furnishings inside. Plush furniture, modern media tech, well-stocked bookcases, and a private bath couldn’t disguise the windowless walls or barred door. Less noticeable, but where the reclining prisoner’s eyes were locked, was the time stream buffering device. It was affixed to the faux chimney column and secured the prisoner in time as well as space.
“He’s been completely silent this time?” Rodriguez asked Agent Webb, the guard on today’s rotation. Rodriguez was distinctly aware of Agent Markham behind her, hanging on her every word.
“Other than thanking me for the food, yes. Even while he slept, no mutterings. He appears—” Webb was suddenly silent.
Rodriguez pulled away from the door and turned towards the older agent. “Yes?”
“Peaceful. He appears peaceful.”
Evening darkness thickens its veil over the cloudless sky as the Earth’s heat drives the bats zigzagging higher. Nothing Greg can do about them, except hope they will not cut across his photo. He will have just one chance to snap his dream picture of H-Line’s new hyper-plane on its London to New York flight.
A cream light arcs up from the tree-lined horizon. He predicts its hypersonic flight path and points his camera ahead of the plane, finger ready over the shutter tab. As it comes closer, the cream divides into red on the right and green on the left. The fuselage material is absorbing sun- moon- and star-light, and transferring and changing it into this plane’s navigation lights.
He bites his lip: closing, almost there. He hits the tab.
The hyper-plane flies past in silence.
Greg examines the image on the camera’s screen. Got it after all these months: plane dead centre; its sleekly curved airframe in staggered rainbow colours – red on the plane’s left, orange and yellow lines down its centre, and green on its right side, haloed by bands of blue, indigo and violet. The version on film with the rainbow colours merging more smoothly is a sure prize-winner.
A bat crashes into his hand. His camera falls and bumps downhill. He half-runs, half-slides after it. The camera smashes into a rock, its back opening and the film dropping out.
Look! These new pills make my hairs stand on end and wave at people. Amazing, right? I don’t mind, but it makes my head itch, although nowhere near as badly as the old pills. Look at them go, luv. Medusa man, right? Thousands of tiny snakes wriggling up top. Unless I wash my hair, and then I can’t do a thing with it.
Sorry, luv. Telekinetic joke. I do that when I’m nervous and it helps to break the ice, and I can do that if I put an ice cube on my forehead. Really, I can break ice a few millimetres from my head, which is pretty awesome. It’s enough to get me over my depression, except that’s probably really down to these drugs that make my hair stand on end. They said this telekinetic thing is a rare side effect. I don’t care.
It’s impossible, right? Waving my hair by the power of my mind? Can’t be done. Well, you just reach over and run your fingers through my hair, and perhaps I’ll trim your nails. Or give me a hug, and I’ll make your hair curl …
Sorry, luv. Yes, I know that was really inappropriate. I’ll just have a bottle of milk and a packet of teabags. I’m just so buzzed that I felt up to leaving the flat. Hey, look, I can raise my eyebrows … and then all my hair at the front … yeah, it’s a fringe activity. Sorry. More telekinetic humour. I don’t often meet new people. How much for the milk and tea? Better make it skimmed.
Manoeuvre thrusters start up to turn Talfryn’s spacecraft back. He hasn’t touched his nav controls or pre-programmed the autopilot to return to Oberon. This is a hacking job. Panic hits him.
He switches to the backup nav to reverse the course change.
That kind of override means an arrest worm. The moon’s police will be waiting to take him into custody for a murder he did not commit. Yes, the moon’s auto-surveillance system recorded somebody with all his personal traits knifing Bernice Deutsch, but he was asleep in his condo at the other side of the Othello crater and had no alibi, not even CCTV.
Left with no other choice, he checks for nearby landing sites for his life-pod. The Frankenstein moon, Miranda, is within reach if he leaves now. He’ll call his twin sister to retrieve him once he’s landed.
He dashes to strap himself into the pod, seal the door and hit the release button. The thrust pushes him into his seat to clear his spacecraft, and then he’s in free fall with only the straps restraining him.
He switches off the pod’s emergency locator beacon and other transponders to go dark. These are all the signs of an expensive way of committing suicide. Let the police think that.
He hung in space like an antique mirror ball, frozen in a confident stance, glimmering as though dusted with a child’s glitter. A crowd gathered in front of the floating man.
The little girl with blond curls named Anna went as close as she could to the floating man and stared at him for a long time. Ropes kept people from getting too close, though no one could actually touch him. He was an afterimage, a series of insubstantial snapshots frozen in time.
“Why does everybody come to watch him? He doesn’t do anything, Mommy.”
“He’s an important person and has something important to tell us. He’s come back from a faraway place, but he’s been delayed. People come to see him because he could arrive at any moment.”
Anna turned to her mother and said, “Is he my father?”
Her mother – tall, lean, and weary in faux leather jacket and grey cotton coveralls – smiled and shook her head. She said, “No, no, of course not. That’s silly.”
But she didn’t really know for sure.
“I’m given to understand you’re a buttonhead, Mister Reynolds.” Ryan sat back and sipped his drink. “Show me. I believe I’ve paid for the privilege.”
We were in the Adventure Capitalist, a bar dating back to when we still had an economy. The corner booth was a wood-panelled cocoon, designed for privacy. Even so, I hesitated before removing the wig to expose the cranial interface sockets. “Satisfied?”
He smiled, although the revulsion in his eyes was obvious. “And the hardwiring, it gives you a significant edge over a headset? It’s not just blarney?”
“Good enough to be ranked first player in Grumman Coldplay. So, if this is an unofficial endorsement approach ahead of the Seoul semi-finals, forget it. I know we’re firm favourites to beat Weyland Aspiration, but my contract is cast iron, zero loopholes. You’ll have to go through the team agent just like everyone else.”
“Your exclusive contract didn’t prevent you accepting my offer of a quiet drink.”
“A grand in cash just to show up?” Now it was my turn to sit back and take a sip. “We’re just two guys talking, is all.”
Scientists worked out a way to stop murders altogether. They had a fancy name for it, some ridiculous sounding thing that I can’t remember, but everybody else refers to it as a soul swap. If you kill someone, you swap souls. You’re now dead and somebody else inhabits your body. Shocks all round.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. Sort of. I mean, you didn’t really have to worry about it unless you were a murderer.
Things went a little wrong, though, as things often do when they’re not tested enough. The soul swap didn’t just work for murders. I remember reading about the first case – a doctor lost a patient on the table. The patient, little old dear called Susan Smith, found herself staring at her own corpse with a scalpel in her hand. There was probably lots of screaming, but they never mentioned that on Now the News.
Then there were the car accidents. A plane crash. That weird one where a toddler accidently murdered his Grandpa with a shotgun – now little Jonny has the mind of a ninety year old and is off the breastmilk.
People freaked. Like, totally freaked out. For quite a while some people just refused to leave their houses. Say you were driving your car to work one day, and somebody decided to step out in front of you? That’d be the end of you.
Hawthorn had two minutes.
Once she triggered the static pulse and killed the electronic security measures, Lady Mella’s personal guards would be all over the ninety-eighth floor ASAP, not to mention the hotel’s private security.
Hawthorn had been provided with Mella’s itinerary by Agent Stewart after the deal they’d made, a necessary evil when Interpol caught her in Prague trying to sell the mythical Isabella Stewart Gardner Thirteen.
“We need a solar-class art thief with no nanos—one hundred percent human—for a job,” he’d said, smirking across the cheap plastic interrogation room table. “And you don’t want to spend the rest of your life in a penal colony on Europa. So, what do you say?”
Five days later, she was a maid at Boston’s Hotel Buckminster.
The gig had let her chat up one of Mella’s guards in the hotel bar, where she’d kept him distracted enough to rip a copy of his security code for the private lift.
Now she was riding that lift, alone, in her maid’s uniform, watching the seconds tick away on her silver Dent pocket watch.
Self is on the Tuo River, among the reeds and the cold stream. A good river, from where the people and the organic animal specimens gain their daily needs. Self is its guardian. Self is the last line of defence against those who wish to harm the creatures who live on its shores and swim through its stream.
All is quiet on the Tuo River this early in the morning. The Baiji-02 dolphins forage for food among the algae. A select number of code blue humans from the village wash their clothes before they go out into their fields to care for the rice. With no need for a gun or a sword at this time, Self can rest in sleep mode. And when in sleep mode, Self researches its parent model: Organism #3455-D-x: tuojiangosaurus.
To quote author of Sauropedia-7 Michelle Xuan, PhD: “The tuojiangosaurus, a stegosaurid from the late Jurassic period was a gentle forager of low-grown vegetation. With its smaller dorsal fins (compared to its more renowned cousin, the stegosaurus), it mostly lived on riverbanks. It is believed that in the event of an encounter with predators, the tuojiangosaurus would flee into nearby bodies of water and use the currents to evade its pursuers, avoiding direct conflict at all costs. A true gentle giant.“Gentle giant,” it says. Giant? Yes. Gentle? On basic mode, yes. In mode three? No, Self is not. Self’s frame resembles the parent model, but Self is hardly similar to it. Too many adjustments to counter the more “gentle” nature of the parent model.