Chapter One: End Times
A sliver of light cut through the void, shooting toward the center of the battle display. Every soul on the bridge, breaths collectively held, eyed its path as it streaked across space. The room was dead quiet, except for the droning voice counting down to the point of impact. An explosion the size of a thumbnail blinked and flowered to fill half the display, then darkened again.
The bridge erupted into cheers as the Neptune Divinity flagship’s holographic avatar disappeared. But the celebration was short-lived. Captain Dustinius Monk’s voice cut through the chatter.
“Station status!” he demanded. The grim news of the health of the ship trickled in.
“Shield arms down,” a bridge acolyte said.
“Mobility thrusters offline,” another added.
“Aft hull breached.”
The list of the ship’s injuries continued to grow longer as each station confirmed the already perilous situation. It was a miracle and a testament to her crew that the High Marker, the flagship of the Technology Isolationists, was still intact.
Grace Priestly yawned, bored. She was usually bored when dealing with the painfully slow mental pace of average humans. She wondered how long she would have to wait for someone to say something interesting.
Then Monk’s second in command, sounding close to panic, reported in. “We are not past the termination shock wave, Captain!” The chatter died and the room became dead silent again.
“Can we get any of the shield arms functional?” Monk asked.
“Not without extensive exterior repair.”
“Get me just one damn shield arm and I can deflect the blast!” Captain Monk roared, his voice cutting through the tension in the air. The rest of the crew froze in place. “What about engines? Side thrusters? Any way to move her? Anything, for space’s sake!”
“We’re adrift, Captain.” The acolyte standing next to him shook his head. “Power core down to six percent. There must be damage to the Titan source as well.”
“Convert more immediately.”
The acolyte’s face turned white. “Captain, the systems acolyte reports the converter is gone.”
“Gone? How is that possible?”
“She is at a loss, Captain.”
Monk pulled up a display and stared at the blast wave of the Neptune Divinity flagship. He brought up another screen and scrolled through the data projections. His body stiffened and the blood drained from his face.
He glanced over at Grace, who stared back with cold indifference. Monk began spitting out orders in rapid succession, doing everything he could to prevent the impending disaster. Every hand on deck worked frantically as the ship’s clock counted down to the impact of the wavefront barreling toward them.
Grace knew better. They were doomed the instant the fusion missile struck the enemy ship. With the main engine and side thrusters offline and all three shield arms inactive, the High Marker was completely exposed. The brunt of the blast wave would carry her away from the solar system toward the heliopause, from which no ship had ever returned.
Grace knew this was a high probability outcome, as did Monk. That’s why, with theHigh Marker’s propulsions disabled, he had asked for her authority to execute a planet cracker missile at such short range. Even knowing the potential consequences, she had still ordered it launched. After all, if they were going to die, the least they could do was take out the enemy.
The captain and his crew were fighting to save the High Marker, but as far as Grace was concerned, they might as well be attempting to raise the dead. There were definitely enough bodies lying around the ship for them to try.
Still, it amused her that Monk fought so hard against the inevitable. The captain was a smart man, having been a spacefarer for all of his eighty years. If Grace hadn’t known better, she would have guessed that the noble captain was trying to do whatever it took to save his ship. But Grace did know better. He was putting on a show for her, because having the High Scion of the Technology Isolationists die on his ship would shame his family line for all time.
Or perhaps Captain Monk wasn’t going through the motions and was actually deluded enough to try to pull off a miracle. Grace certainly hoped not. She’d hate to think she had made the mistake of putting an imbecile in charge of her flagship. Well, there were no such things as miracles, and Grace tired of watching their pointless exercise. The High Marker was doomed.
The blast wave’s impact jolted the ship, knocking those standing off their feet. Half a dozen more alerts lit up the battle display. Grace, sitting in her gravity chair, watched the crew scramble to combat these new problems as the High Marker was swept up by the forward force of the blast.
Grace stood up and looked at her pet. “Come, Swails. When the good captain is ready to report, he can call my cabin.”
Swails, her man pet, stood and fell in step next to her. Her wrinkled hands caressed his perfect face. The poor idiot was incapable of grasping what had just happened. He had probably never had an original thought in his beautiful head, but then, that was the way she liked her pets. The bridge crew stopped what they were doing and waited respectfully as she passed.
“Oh, do continue trying to save the ship,” she remarked, gliding out of the room. Those dolts would work themselves to death playing this futile game. Such a waste. Grace thought she had guided the Technology Isolationists to be better humans than this.
“Come, pet,” she said, motioning to Swails again as she walked down the wreckage-strewn walkways. The flagship High Marker was the most advanced ship ever built by man. What the Technology Isolationists lacked in numbers and resources, they more than made up for in power and technological prowess. But even then, sheer numbers and resources could overcome that power, and that was exactly what the Neptune Divinities had been doing. There was only so much opposition any faction could muster without proper resources, after all.
The High Marker had been set upon shortly after her rendezvous with the research base on Eris. The flagship, her two escorts, and the dozen or so reinforcements summoned from the planet below took on sixty-some Neptune Divinity ships and won. Pyrrhic victories might not be true victories, but they were still better than the alternative.
The ship attrition rate on both sides of this massive battle was near total, save for the High Marker, which was now being knocked out of the solar system. Unless they could repair the engine, a feat no ship had ever accomplished without a space dock, they were doomed to die either in the cold of space or upon impact with a celestial object. Grace hoped the High Marker crashed into something interesting like a plasma cloud or a black hole, out of scientific curiosity, of course.
She decided to maximize the use of her remaining time alive and have her pet fuck her senseless. Might as well die happy.
They reached a partially collapsed intersection of the ship. A metal beam and several large fragments of debris blocked their path. Grace saw the blackened remains of a leg sticking out from the rubble and carefully stepped over it, trying to avoid dirtying her dress.
“Help me, pet,” she said.
He dutifully complied, gently holding the tips of her fingers as she slowly swung one leg over the beam, and then the other. She moved well for a ninety-three-year-old. Grace watched as Swails jumped over the beam and fell in line beside her again. His movements felt wrong. She played that mental image of him over and over in her head. Something had been bothering her since they had boarded; Swails wasn’t himself today.
Details were what differentiated the smart from the brilliant, and Grace was the foremost mind of her generation, and one of the brightest to have ever lived. Soon, it wouldn’t matter anymore. She stared at Swails’s genetically modified face; it was perfect. He looked like her pet and even moved like Swails, but something behind those eyes betrayed him. They weren’t quite as vacuous as her pets’ usually were.
He was an impostor in all the small ways that most people wouldn’t notice, but she wasn’t most people. Perhaps he was just ill and had suffered a bout of momentary thought. It happened from time to time, though the breeders did try their best to wean that tendency out of them. Well, no matter. There was only one thing she needed him for anyway.
The lights on the ship flickered and dimmed by exactly 18 percent. No doubt the good Captain Monk was conserving power to sustain the ship on the remote chance that they might be rescued. Grace’s mouth cracked upward into a small smile. The foolish man was just prolonging their torture. If he really wanted to do the right thing, he would open all the air locks and instantly kill everyone on board. That’s what she would do. But then, she was known for her mind and sexual appetite, not for her heart.
Grace did wonder how the power levels on the High Marker could have fallen so precipitously. Like every other modern space-faring vessel, the power source was located at the heart of the flagship. It was almost impossible to damage the power core without destroying the ship, and there were no scenarios where a 94 percent core leak could occur without some sort of catastrophic failure. At a less dire time, she would have been keen to solve this little mystery. Right now, not so much; she had far baser goals in mind.
“Come, pet.” She motioned to him again. “Let us retire to my quarters.”
Again, she noticed the slight change in his footsteps. They were wider than Swails’s usual stride by a few centimeters. His posture was slightly more erect; the pressure of his hand on hers a few degrees less gentle. Swails wasn’t acting fully himself today, but as far as she knew, no technology existing today could completely change someone’s appearance. And if it did exist, she would have been the one to invent it. Just to be on the safe side, though, she reached out and caressed his face once more to make sure there wasn’t a hologram or illusory veil in place. Yes, the perfect face was still his.
They entered the antechamber of her quarters. She looked over at her two blindfolded kill mutes standing in the corner. Those two pets were quite different from the man pet; violent and slavishly loyal, but prone to excitement and hard to control. All the lights and noise on the ship could send them into a frenzy. Leaving them here was for the best. Still, she was comforted that they were now back within earshot.
“A cup of warm water, pet,” she ordered, “and fetch my wrap. If we are to die tonight, I wish to do so in comfort.” Swails brought her the water as she disrobed.
Grace looked outside her portholes into black space. By the angle of the stars streaking across the window, the out-of-control tumbling of the ship seemed to have worsened. She expected the gravity to be cut at any moment to conserve energy. Monk was predictable, if anything.
She tore her gaze away from the portholes and gestured for Swails to attend to her. This could be her last fuck, so she wanted to enjoy it. Her pet was the finest of his litter; she would miss his tender touch. At least she had tonight.
She lay down on the bed and motioned for Swails to fulfill his duties. He obediently stripped and performed the Slave’s Prayer to request permission for the honor of joining a master’s bed.
Grace studied Swails’s movements; she had seen him perform the ritual dozens of times before. The gestures were correct, but he was missing his usual grace. As he finished the prayer, Swails fell to his knees at the corner of the bed, spread his arms out, and looked up at the ceiling.
Instead of giving permission, Grace crawled seductively to him and placed her palm on his hard, toned chest. She ran her hand down his stomach, feeling all the familiar grooves and bumps of his muscles. Then her fingers wandered up to his heart. She closed her eyes and listened. The beats; impossibly fast for a clone. She cupped his chin with her other hand and lowered his face toward her.
“Who are you, stranger?” she asked.
Swails hesitated for an instant. “You know?”
“I’ve suspected since this morning. You haven’t been Swails all day.”
A smile broke out on his face. “You’re a rare woman, Grace Priestly. It’s an honor.” Swails left her bed. He walked to her desk at the other end of the room and began rummaging through her belongings.
“What are you doing?” She stood up and retreated to the corner of the room, alarmed.
Swails ignored her as he picked out papers, scans, and datachips. He tossed aside several rare books and sorted through her personal tab files, generally making a mess. Grace hated messes. Then he pulled out the recently engraved Time Law Charter and lingered on it, his fingers brushing the inscriptions. He had found what he was looking for.
The charter was the culmination and moral principle of the past ten years of her research. The technology was ready. All humanity needed was a force that could responsibly wield this new power. If her new agency was successful, Grace Priestly would be credited with not only saving mankind, but propelling the Technology Isolationists to new heights. That allorium-engraved charter he held in his hands was the guiding law of this new agency, Chronological Regulatory Command, and it would lead them out of humanity’s self-inflicted starvation.
“Put that back!” she yelled. “Kau, Trau! To me!”
Her two kill mutes burst into the room with their blindfolds lifted, exposing their glowing cybernetic red eyes. It grated on her sensibilities to resort to violence right before her end. Grace was never one to favor such heavy-handedness, but this thing wasn’t her treasured pet. In fact, she was sure he had killed Swails. Now, she wanted answers.
“Capture. No kill. No kill.” She enunciated the words carefully. The kill mutes were of low intelligence, and every command other than “kill” had to be communicated clearly.
Trau leapt into action, a dozen small blades extending out of his arms and legs. He charged the impostor, slashing with his limbs, while Kau moved into a defensive position between her and Swails, his own blades exposed.
“Alive!” Grace barked.
It seemed she had given those orders to the wrong person. Trau reached Swails faster than any human could and raked the impostor across the chest with enough force to split an unenhanced in two. Instead, a faint yellow shield surrounding Swails appeared and burst into sparks, creating an electrical backlash that bounced Trau’s blades harmlessly to the side.
The impostor retaliated, moving so quickly his body blurred. The two whirled around each other in a deadly dance, Trau’s blades and the strange yellow sparks flashing in the air. Just as quickly as the melee had begun, it was over.
One moment, the impostor was next to Trau, the next, he was standing behind the kill mute. With a flick of the stranger’s wrist, Trau went flying across the room and slammed into the wall so hard the blast shields on the portholes lowered from the force of the impact. Trau’s steel-infused back snapped with a loud crack against one of the structural beams jutting out of the wall. He emitted a mechanical wail and went limp, the red glow in his eyes fading.
Grace gaped at the fallen kill mute. This was impossible. These were class-six cyborgs! They were each designed to defeat a platoon of armored marines. Panic seized her as her gaze went back to Swails, or whatever the thing was that looked like her pet.
Kau continued to keep his body in between her and this impostor. He would attack on her command and most likely die just as quickly. Swails eyed Kau with unworried interest, as if just waiting for this fight to finish so he could continue with whatever task he was here for. Looking closely, she could see a soft, translucent yellow glimmer hugging his skin, and then her eyes trailed to the allorium charter the impostor had left on the desk during the melee.
Then it all made sense.
“Kau,” she said, pointing at the door. “Leave the room. Make sure I’m not disturbed.”
The kill mute looked at her hesitantly. These cyborgs were not completely stupid after all. They recognized a strange order when they heard one.
“Go!” she repeated.
Eyeing Swails warily, Kau stepped over Trau’s body and shuffled out of the room. The impostor ignored the deadly kill mute, seemingly unconcerned. Kau paused just as he was about to leave the room. He looked at the impostor, then, with a grunt, left. Grace noted that pause. Apparently, there were still some kinks in these level sixes that needed ironing out.
“Close the door,” Grace ordered.
The impostor raised an eyebrow, no doubt either surprised that she was willing to remain alone with him or that she was still ordering him around. Nevertheless, he complied, closing the double sliding doors. Their eyes met, and for the first time, Grace saw depth in Swails’s eyes: awe, sadness, regret, pain. These were all emotions the real Swails should not have been able to feel.
“How far from the future?” she finally asked.
Swails smiled. The shimmer from the strange yellow shield faded, and then his face began to erase itself line by line, as if a recording of someone drawing a face was being played backward. She watched each feature recede until there was nothing more than a bald empty mass of skin where the face should be. Then the entire head disappeared, replaced by a lighter-toned, white-skinned man with an unfashionable display of facial hair.
“Twenty-sixth century, High Scion.” He bowed nearly down to his knees. For a second, it gave her hope that the Technology Isolationists had prospered into the future, if her position was still honored. “How did you know?” he asked.
Grace tsked. “Your disguise only fools a few of the senses.”
He bowed again, this time not quite so low. “The legendary Grace Priestly. You’re exactly as you’re revered.”
Grace studied him more closely. He was a tad thin for Grace’s taste; she liked her men a little larger than perfection standard. He had a handsome face, symmetrical, at least, with features at approximately 70 percent facial ratio of optimum. The intruder had a long thin face, sunken cheeks, and other imperfections associated with a spent soul. Within seconds, those brown eyes, slightly curved nose, and distinctive chin told her everything she needed to know about his background.
“How fares mankind three hundred years in the future?” she asked, studying his every facial movement.
His skin was almost translucent in the light of her cabin. Had this man ever felt direct sunlight? He had the look of a spaceborn: pale, tall, and lanky, typical of someone who spent his entire life between the planets. His brown hair was unruly, leaving him looking dirty and disheveled. Strange, she had assumed someone from the future would be better groomed. By Technology Isolationist standards, he wouldn’t look like someone allowed into the communes, let alone her ship.
“If only I could bring good news,” he said.
“Of course, you won’t be able to tell me anything, seeing how that might change events.”
He shook his head. “News of the future wouldn’t matter in this case. The charter’s second law…”
“‘Travel to the past is restricted to truncated time lines and within appropriate lengths for the chronostream to heal in event of ripples,’” she recited.
“Yes. You remember.”
“I wrote it last night.”
“It’s the second-highest Time Law.”
The realization of what his words meant struck Grace like a physical blow. “TheHigh Marker is to be my grave then.”
She did something uncharacteristic and ground her teeth. It was a childhood habit she had broken as a teenager. Now, all she wanted to do was make up for all those lost years and grind them to their roots. “I knew we were doomed; the probability of surviving was slim, yet it feels different when all doubt is removed.”
Then all the feelings she suppressed behind her cold facade leaked out of her. Grace sat down on her bed, unsure whether she was angry or sad. Her body shook with conflicting emotions. She wanted to laugh, scream, and burst into tears all at once. For the first time in decades, she didn’t know what to do next. She closed her eyes and dug her nails into her palms. She was the High Scion! Revered, even hundreds of years from now! That was worth something, yes? Right now, though, the honor felt hollow.
She looked up at him. “Why are you here?… Of course. It was you who drained and stole the High Marker’s power source.”
He nodded. “And the charter. It’s a desired relic.”
“So this time travel agency I envision exists? It prospers?” Grace’s chest swelled with pride.
He hesitated, then gave her a halfhearted smile. “The agency is cherished and loved. It’s all that stands in the way of humanity’s collapse, High Scion.”
A lie, or at least a truth he did not believe. It mattered little. With her death around the corner, Grace didn’t care about splitting hairs. “I see. Very well, then. You may take it.”
He bowed again. Bowing must be common in the twenty-sixth century. No one ever did that now. Grace kind of liked it. She watched as he strolled to the desk and picked up the charter, hefting it in one hand. For such a supposedly desired relic, the time traveler didn’t treat it with what she thought was proper reverence.
He made a gesture with his other hand and a black circle materialized in the air next to him. She watched, fascinated, as he deposited the charter into the hole. Then the circle blinked out of existence.
“How did…?” she asked.
“Inflationary theory applied,” he said.
He shrugged. “I only use it. I don’t know how it works.”
“I see.” Grace looked out the window. “At least science has progressed by leaps and bounds then. I am heartened by that.”
“Unfortunately, no. I wouldn’t lie to you, High Scion.”
She stood up and walked up to him. “Now what? The ship is doomed, you say. You have the charter and have siphoned the power source. Now you abandon the time line?”
“As per your directive.” He seemed almost resigned to her fate.
Grace seized on the slim opportunity. “Take me with you,” she blurted out, clutching his wrists. The time traveler’s resolve wavered; conflict flashed across his face. “Even in the future, there must not be many like me.”
“None with your mind,” he agreed, shaking his head. “But, the first Time Law prohibits—”
“Screw the Time Laws!” she said. “I wrote the damn things, most of them half-drunk while intellectually masturbating. They mean nothing. Take me with you.”
Grace was begging now but she didn’t care. For the first time in over half a century, her emotions overcame her. This felt shameful, but her work wasn’t complete. She had too much to offer humanity still. She had the entire Technology Isolationist faction to care for. Worse yet, now that her lifelong ambition of utilizing this recently discovered time-traveling technology had been proven successful, there were so many possibilities to explore. She just had to be a part of it. Thoughts of visiting the utopian ages of the twenty-first century made her heart skip a beat.
“Take me.” She sobbed and threw her arms around him.
The time traveler averted his eyes. “I … I can’t, High Scion.”
He held her in an embrace for several awkward minutes. Finally, he pushed her away and she noticed his eyes glaze over for a brief moment.
“I have to go,” he said. “I’ve already stayed too long.”
She released her grip reluctantly, pulling herself together and regaining her composure. She remembered who she was again. “How much time do I have?” she asked.
“I don’t know, High Scion. Historical records indicate the High Marker’s last known location was one hundred forty-eight AUs past Eris. Then the ship disappeared.”
She wiped her wet face. “Call me Grace.”
The time traveler looked at her one last time and gave her one last bow. “It was an honor, Grace. I’m … I’m sorry.”
There was a bright yellow flash, and then the time traveler that had worn Swails’s face disappeared.
Copyright © 2015 by Wesley ChuTime Salvager goes on sale July 7th. Pre-order it today: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-a-Million | iBooks | IndieBound | Powell's