The Past Sure Is Tense
Wolf stood behind the bar and filled two shot glasses with a luminescent golden liquid. Ray stood watching, arms folded and smirking. Ray recognized this appetizer as a Parthi liquor known as Ichor, fermented from the glowing blossoms of the Idrasil tree that only grew in his home prefecture. Unlike the depressant effects of liquor, Ichor had a lifting effect, like strong wine without the crash. It was usually enjoyed for its energizing effects before dancing, sport, copulating, or creating art; incidentally, all activities that the Seraphim of Parthus use a single word for. Ray shuddered to think what it would do to a human body, but here was a human before him who seemed content to demonstrate.
Wolf placed the bottle on the table and turned it so the label faced Ray. The label came from a legendary distillery that had been closed for centuries, but whose product was still in demand to those who could pay the rising costs for the ever-dwindling supply. The distillery was run by Ray’s late father who was mortally wounded in battle against the Draconians. This Ichor died with him. Ray kept a sizable stash and would give bottles to close friends.
“Nice touch,” Ray said. “Where did you get that?”
“You,” Wolf replied.
“300 years from now,” Wolf lifted his shot.
“You know what this will do to human physiology?”
“I’m not exactly human.”
“What else are you?”
“Humans and Seraphim are sexually incompatible.”
“It’s not because my mama had a-hankerin' for a taste of paradise. I was born human.”
“Who would do that?”
“The eggheads said it was fine and you felt bad for me.”
“My mother didn’t pass the Principia down to me. Somewhere along the line they made a rule it could only be passed to daughters and my mother didn’t have one, just me. You felt I was robbed of a birthright or something, so you asked if I’d like to be the first human candidate for the gene enhancement program.”
“I guess it worked.”
“Kind of. Me and Luna are the first and last humans to be accepted. The program was supposed to leave you sterile. You guys built in a failsafe so shit would never go Wrath of Khan on you.”
“So you wouldn’t have a sizeable population of disgruntled superpeople. Anyway, oops, human physiology. Me and Luna had Holly. That became a shit show. Long story short, you covered our asses.” Wolf raised his glass.
Ray raised his and they gulped their Ichor.
“So how did Yalda figure out time travel?” Ray asked.
“I assume the same way he figures out everything- finds the best people at it and kills their spouses, then threatens the rest of family if he doesn’t get the impossible done in an unreasonable amount of time. As you can imagine, he likes big families.”
“He’s gotten that bad?” Ray rubbed his forehead.
“Bad enough to fuck with time. Which, by the way, is on me. I had the chance to shoot him in the face point blank, but no, I needed the bigger bounty.”
“What kind of an abyss are we staring into when mercy is a moral failing we look back on with regret?”
“Just so you’re clear, it was because the money was better.”
“You wouldn’t regret killing him?”
“If I had killed him, I’d be floating around in a nebula with my wife, getting wrecked and listening to Willie Nelson. Instead, I’m hanging around with my grandparents in the plastic age, getting ready to fight him again, and thinking, ‘This time I’m gonna kill him. Well, why didn’t you do it the last time? Because I wanted the money’. Then Luna chimes in because I’ve been saying this out loud to myself for an hour, ‘You realize all the easy bounties we could have picked up since then would have been more than taking him in alive?’ I know, Luna, I thought you had a problem with my being so trigger happy…”
Ray grabbed Wolf’s arm, “That Ichor’s kicking in.”
“This shit’s better than a year on the couch. Salud,” Wolf took another shot and wiped his mouth with his cuff. “So, are you, mee maw, and pee paw in?”
“Yes,” Ray leaned in. “But I’m going to need a full briefing on Yalda’s history until your time before I’m all-in on the extreme prejudice. He belongs in prison.”
“Ray, he’s been to prison. He gets right back the fuck out. I put him away. Now here we are. You’ve put him away. Here we are. I get it. You haven’t had the chance to bang your head against that wall for the next 900 years yet. But once you do, I promise, you’ll authorize me to use lethal force. Because you did, three hundred years from now...and a few days ago.”
Ray stood. He narrowed his eyes and leaned into Wolf and in a hushed tone said, “You haven’t convinced me.” He began to walk out, then turned back to say, “Also, we’re going to need to codify some sort of temporal semantics. Conversations are becoming considerably hard to follow.”
The participants, thus far, crowded into the lounge of the Starcrossed. The few who got seats were jammed together, envying those that sat on the floor. Carl took up the remaining space. Cheryl stood behind the bar and clapped her hands.
“Okay, listen up,” she called.
“Aunt Cheryl has some activities planned for us,” Wolf said.
“I do? What do you know about what’s happening today?”
“To keep it brief,” Holly said from the floor, cross-legged, “Cheryl hacked the rally’s multimedia gear to stream evidence that Simon Vyx was involved in illicit activity. Yalda got angry and tried to take care of you discreetly, but you dragged the fight into the light. And that got the attention of Raphael from the present.”
“Because he stalks Grandma Sophie,” Wolf said under his hand.
Sophie looked at Ray with her serious face and shook her head.
“I have no idea how I could possibly defend against that,” Ray said.
Sophie snorted a laugh.
“He monitored the Rosenkreuz lineage as he promised to do,” Holly continued.
“There, I was keeping a promise,” Ray said.
“He arrived, apprehended Yalda and remanded him to a correctional facility.”
“See, you put him to prison,” Wolf said. “Wasn’t the first time. Sure as hell wouldn’t be the last. And now you're 600 years in your future. You still want to go with ‘catch and release’ on this one?”
“Let’s worry about the catch part first,” Cheryl said. “We’ll talk about Wolf’s bloodlust later. How about the original plan? It’s not great, but we just need to get his attention.”
“There are different variables this time,” Ray said.
“Right, we’re better manned with you and the Joneses.”
“But so is he,” Wolf said, “With the Draconian fleet and future him, who’s probably running the show now.”
“So, wait,” Cheryl said, “He has a fleet hiding in space and foreknowledge of the event. He knows Now Ray’s coming, but Now Ray doesn’t know future Yalda is here waiting for him.”
“Ambush,” Wolf said into a glass of brown liquid.
“Joneses?” Ray said. “I assume this vessel is equipped with some sort of long-range communications?”
“Nothing operational,” Holly replied.
“How fast could you set something up and get a message to me...Now Ray and warn him about the Draconians?”
“I could probably rig something in about an hour, but we’d have to send it from outside of the heliosphere. Any signal I could produce on that short notice would be too weak to escape the gravity wells of the solar system.”
“Could you do that?”
“Excellent. Next problem.”
“He knows we’re coming,” Wolf said. “He probably beefed up security. I wouldn’t be surprised if he had some holo-cloaked Draconians working the crowd.”
“Whatever happens, we want to keep it away from the crowd. We might want to try and approach this from behind.”
“Go in through the museum,” Cheryl said. “Come out onto the steps.”
“Try to pull the action that way,” Ray said.
“Okay, Joneses, work on getting that message to Now Ray. Past Ray, you can be our eyes in the sky. Keep an eye out for plants in the crowd. Carl, chill in Ellie Mae until the shit starts. Sophie, Hunter and I will find a way into the museum. Ian, Cletus and Abigayle, you’re on the ground. Let us know if anything’s approaching from the rear. You’re going to need a change of clothes, the peasant look went out in the nineties.”
“Now that you mention a change of clothes,” Wolf said, “My darling girl Holly has some early Christmas presents for you. Because running around in your street clothes is bullshit. Frankly, we’re surprised any of you people are still alive. And no, Grandma Sophie, wearing blue every time you go out doesn’t count.”
“It’s nothing fancy, it was on short notice. It’ll mostly just keep you from getting shot. There’s comms embedded in the collars.”
“Heh,” Sophie chuckled, looking under the lid of the box she was handed, “Mine’s kinda blue...and glisten-y.”
“That’s a variably magnetic fiber, the strength of its magnetic field is directly proportional to any force it encounters.”
“Great against projectiles, bad against blades,” Wold added.
“And sparkly,” Cheryl frowned.
“Yeah, I guess that material does look pretty ostentatious,” Holly said. “There’s things you can do to tone it down. Short notice.”
“Well, I can’t wait to try mine on, Holly,” Sophie said. “Thank you.”
“Looks fine to me,” Hunter said, in a glinting red bathrobe.
“Carl,” Wolf said, “Yours is taking up the cargo bay.”
“Is it shiny too?” Carl asked.
“It’s shiny, alright.”
Ray bobbed in the currents, high above the crowd, looking through a pair of blinking binoculars. Thousands of people were clustered on the steps of the art museum, spilling out onto Kelly and Spring Garden. Vyx was standing at a podium at the top, shouting prepackaged platitudes and rhetoric into a mic to adoring cheers. Behind him, stood a row of impromptu bleachers full of carefully selected smiling faces and children eager to wave things.
“No trace of anachronous tech coming from the crowd,” he said. “The museum is a different story. How are you with getting in?”
“Just walked in,” Cheryl replied. “It’s open. They just won’t let you beyond the Great Stair Hall.”
“How do things look on the ground, Abby?”
“There’s a bunch of happy people cheering at a man talking about war, in front of some sort of temple. I always wanted to see Ancient Rome, I just didn’t know I’d have to go to the future to see it.”
“It’s quiet,” Ian interjected. “The security is about what you’d normally see. Nothing that suggests paranoid aliens.”
“He doesn’t want to scare us off. He wants us to crash this rally so he can ambush Now Ray,” Ray said. “Speaking of which, The Joneses should be reaching interstellar space in thirty minutes. Until then, just keep your eyes open.”
“They’re all here,” Blaylock said to Yalda.
“I know. For the last hour, the boy scout has been floating above the crowd. Ellers, the High Priestess, and Psamurai have been pretending to enjoy cubism. And Rosenkreuz, Wensleydale and the Piper were doing crowd work. And I guess they left the gorilla at home. The trap is set. Now we apply the bait.”
“Did they leave the gorilla home the last time?”
“You don’t find it odd that they did this time?”
“It’s odd. I just don’t care. They’re outmatched and they can’t outmaneuver me. Relax, there’s nothing they can throw that we can’t swat away.”
“Where are the Joneses?”
“It actually doesn’t matter where the Joneses are. I kill Rosenkreuz, they cease to exist. It doesn’t matter what they do. I really wanted Wolf to be here to watch it, but you have to be flexible.”
“Okay. I’ll trust you. But only because you should theoretically be smarter than me.”
“I’m like your Holy fucking Guardian Angel, fella.” He turned his head and shouted into his collar, “Vijeda. Execute orders. Rosenkreuz and the Priestess, save for me. Do what you want with the rest.”
“What do you want me to do?” Blaylock asked.
“Go back to the ship. If I were them, I’d just put a bullet in your head and end the whole thing. Remember, relax. It’s all under my control,” Yalda waved Vyx’s remote control.
“And as you head into the booth on election day, just remember...” Vyx’s voice echoed. “...Value every second you’re alive because you never when a madman is going to set off a bomb at a crowded venue.”
Vyx raised his hands palms out and fired energy rays into the crowd. Ray could see the wave of panic roll back through the crowd and down the steps. It was met with a counterwave coming from the rear, as lines of Draconian soldiers herded the crowd back up the steps.
“Abby,” Ray said, “See if your team can deal with the Draconians coming from behind. Cheryl, get ready, Vyx went crazy. I’m going to try and back him into the museum, we’ll take him inside. Ready, Carl? You’re up.”
“Yeah,” Carl replied, “This thing is a little finicky.”
“Do the best you can with those Draconian shock troops.”
Ray dropped like a rock and landed in front of Simon Vyx. Vyx eyed him in silence.
“Who are you?” Vyx said.
“Mister Vyx, this will go a lot easier if you surrender,” Ray walked toward Vyx.
“I can’t,” Vyx cowered in place.
“Simon, we want Yaldabaoth. Anything you can do to make his apprehension easier will be looked upon favorably in the eyes of the law.”
“I told you, I can’t,” Vyx began throwing a hail of blows.
Ray knocked him back and summoned a fierce gust of wind that made him stagger. Any attempt Vyx made to retreat that wasn’t toward the museum door, Ray would build a wall of wind that even his hydraulic legs couldn’t fight against.
“He’s almost in,” Ray said. “I’ll be right behind him.”
“Raphael?” A melodious voice sang behind him, “Are you too busy to spend a little time with me? You left me all alone up there.”
Ray turned and a saw a human woman, folding her arms and glaring at him.
“That was mean,” she said and punched him, sending him sliding on his back.
Ray put his head up and saw the woman change into a lanky green creature that looked like a primative praying mantis.
“Do I know you?” Ray said.
“Ray. Don’t be a meanie.”
“How do you know me?”
“It’s me, Selkie. I know what will remind you. Come chase me, sweetie,” Selkie grew wings and buzzed away between the buildings.
“Guys,” Ray said into his collar, “Something unexpected happened.”
“What?” Cheryl said.
“It picked a hell of a time to show up.”
“You know this thing?”
“The Joneses let it loose or something. Go after it, we can handle Vyx.”
“Another old friend I haven’t met yet. Cletus, Abby- I may need your help on this one.”
“We’re a little pinned down right now,” Ian replied.
“I see you. On my way.”
Ray lifted off and dived into the center of the mob of Draconian soldiers encircling Ian, Abby, and Cletus. He created a bubble of air pressure that kept them just out of reach.
“I don’t know how long I can hold this,” Ray said, “And I can’t fly all three of you out at once.”
“Just take them and go after the shifter,” Ian said.
“You can’t fight them off alone. They’ll eventually collapse in on you.”
“Getting Yaldabaoth and the shifter is more important.”
The ground began shaking and the sound of clipped grunting could be heard. Behind the Draconian soldiers, a robot lurched through the mob. He began sweeping the Draconians away like a dealer clearing the chips from a roulette table.
“An insane robot?” Ian said. “It’s like ‘This Is Your Life’.”
The clanking metal, gargantuan Draconian sweeper approached them and settled in front, looking down at them. The robot slid back its faceplate, and in place of wires and circuits was Carl smiling so wide his eyes couldn’t open.
“This is the best day of my life, you guys,” Carl said.
“They gave you an exoskeleton?” Ian said, “You needed to be bigger?”
“You guys go get the shifter, me and Piper got this.”
“Thanks, Carl,” Ray collected Abby and Cletus and took off to find Selkie.
Vyx ran into the museum and into the Great Stair Hall. He ran up the steps toward the golden statue of Diana. He arrived at the top and gazed at the golden figure. A silver arrow exploded on the wall beside Diana. Vyx turned his head just enough to catch three forms in his periphery.
“Do you have something witty to say before this happens?” Vyx said.
“Augmented or not,” Hunter said, “You’re outnumbered.”
“I don’t want to see you hurt.”
“Can’t say I feel the same.”
“I’m sorry, I have no choice,” Vyx turned and faced them.
“You’re going with, ‘I have no choice’?” said Sophie.
“No. I literally have no free will in this matter. Blaylock hacked my systems and he won’t be pulling his punches.”
“You would?” Cheryl said.
“I have been.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Go fish,” Vyx descending the stairs.
“Yeah, we know all about that.”
“Tracy Sullivan, Video Drone, Dethmetl.”
“Who the hell is Death Metal?” Sophie asked.
“Is that not what I just said?”
“He’s right. It’s Dethmetl. And it’s a long story,” Hunter said.
“That’s what the hell I said,” Sophie yelled.
“The point is, I decided to challenge you, make you stronger,” Vyx said.
“Is this where we thank you and think you’re a really great guy, Simon?” Cheryl said.
“No, he did it so we’d get Yalda off his back,” Hunter chimed.
“That was the primary motivator, yes,” Vyx replied, reaching the bottom.
“Why not do it yourself?” Hunter asked.
“Why do it yourself when you can get the people who know the bloody skeletons that hang in your closet to kill each other?” Cheryl said, “Simon the Butcher.”
Vyx winced and twisted his head, “I’m not going to be able to fight the remote link for much longer. You’re going to have to override my neural network.”
“Is there any part of you that’s still natural, Simon?” Sophie asked.
“If it can exist within this universe, it obeys its laws of physics, ergo it is all natural, Miss Fischer.”
“How about a couple hundred volts?” Cheryl said, flicking the trigger on her tazer.
“EM shielding,” Vyx replied. “It would just ground out. An emotional overload would probably do the trick. Miss Fischer, I think that’s in your wheelhouse.”
“Hey, I tend to think of myself as one of the more emotionally stable people in this circus, thank you,” Sophie said.
“Oh, fuck you,” Cheryl protested.
“I meant, perhaps you could probe my unconscious for one of your constructs,” Vyx said.
“I tried that before. It was like Fort Knox.”
“Were you probing for fear?”
“Don’t. You won’t find it. There’s a bypass chip in my amygdala. Try something else.”
“I’ve had good luck with guilt in the past.”
“You’ll find ample supplies of that.”
Sophie hovered her hand in front of Vyx’s face.
“There is some horrifying stuff in there,” Sophie said, her face twisting.
Vyx swept his arm and knocked Sophie’s hand away. She yelped and grabbed her wrist. He looked at her with desperate eyes.
“I’m truly penitent for whatever is about to transpire,” he sobbed.
He pulled his arm behind him and launched it at Sophie. Cheryl stabbed his wrist with her tazer and he recoiled and dropped into a wide stance. Hunter sliced with his sword, but Vyx grabbed it and began bending it. The blade snapped back and sliced through Vyx’s palm. He looked at the rent nanofiber skin, exposing the circuits and machinery within. He noticed a deep nick in one his metal bones.
“I’d ask if that was a magnesium alloy, but its malleability...where did you get that metal?” Vyx asked Hunter.
“From a fifteen-year-old kid.”
Vyx began trading blows with his erstwhile nemeses as they circled around him.
“How’s that guilt coming along, Priest?” Hunter asked.
“I can’t concentrate if he keeps trying to hit me,” Sophie replied.
“You just had to be a ninja too, didn’t you? Billionaire, tech mogul, global celebrity, cyborg wasn’t enough?” Cheryl said.
“It’s a stupid app I downloaded and used once. I forgot it was there. C’mon, Miss Fischer, surely I’ve prepared you for this. I’ve seen you pull terrible things from minds while running for your life.”
“Minds with far less wiring,” Sophie said, ducking another swing, “Got something...weird. Cheryl, you’re gonna shit your pants.”
“It’s his pants what need shitting,” Cheryl said.
Sophie pulled her arm back and a spiked, purple pinpoint of light grew and formed a rumpled, bull of a man with an army issue buzz cut you could set your watch by.
Vyx turned his head, fixated on the apparition, although his body continued to fight. The man circled the melee shaking his head at Vyx.
“Vicksy,” he grunted, “What are you doing?”
“Eddie,” Vyx’s words got stuck in his throat and his body stopped fighting and turned to join his head.
“What did I tell you about spelling your name screwy?”
“Is that dad’s old partner?” Cheryl asked.
“Yup,” Sophie replied and chuckled, “He called him Vyx-y.”
“Well, the remote feed is broken. Now what do we do?”
“You can die,” a voice bellowed from the other side of Vyx and construct Danvers.
A metal spear pierced through Vyx from behind. He fell to his knees and a clearish yellow goo oozed from his mouth as his limbs and face convulsed. Yalda was standing behind him. He put his foot on Vyx’s back and yanked his spear free, pulling gut and wiring with it.
“Well, not you Cher,” Yalda grinned, “Somebody has to be young me’s new Vyx. You’re the perfect candidate. You just need a little housebreaking. As for Fischer, with her mind pets and her plucky 'I’ll shoot you with moonlight attitude'.... that can definitely go.”
Yalda pulled a pistol from his jacket and shot a bolt into Sophie’s stomach. She clutched at her belly and dropped on her side.
“How fitting that the High Priestess should die at the feet of Diana,” Yalda said.
Cheryl made wild stabs at Yalda with her tazer.
“Did you steal that from a mall cop?” he said, grinning as he casually batted her jabs aside with the barrel of his pistol before knocking it from her hand. “That was fun.”
Hunter took a step and Yalda snatched Cheryl by the wrist and held the pistol to her head. Hunter stopped and Yalda aimed the pistol at him and regarded him a moment.
“You gonna shoot, or what?” Hunter asked.
“I thought about it, but I’d rather let you live on in ignominy,” Yalda backed out with Cheryl. “Plus, your shiny, new robe is bulletproof.”
Yalda stopped and looked at Sophie. As his teeth touched his bottom lip to form an ‘f’, a searing, silver light filled the room. Yalda howled as he felt a piercing pain in his shin. He looked down to see Vyx grabbing him by the shin, driving his exposed metal fingers into the bone. Hunter knocked the gun out of his hand and Cheryl elbowed him in the gut. Vyx lurched to his feet and put his hands on the sides of Yalda’s head. Electricity began arcing down his arms and into Yalda’s head. They both convulsed and howled. Vyx began to smoke. With a loud pop, Vyx dropped to the floor and Yalda stumbled backwards, grunting and wincing. The light dimmed to nothing and Sophie was standing with Holly’s sphere floating above her palm.
Cheryl ran over and hugged Sophie.
“Ouch,” she yelped, “It’s tender.”
Cheryl examined Sophie where the wound should have been and found only gently seared fibers on Sophie’s suit.
“This chintzy fabric is good for something,” Cheryl said.
“Still hurts like a bitch.” She yelled at Yalda as he groaned on the floor, “How’s that for shooting you with moonlight?”
“Miss Fischer,” Vyx whimpered.
Sophie crouched beside him.
“Miss Fischer, I want to thank you. It was good to see him one more time before I went. It reminded me just how bad I screwed up.”
“Stop being so dramatic, we have people who can fix you up.”
“No. Go. Before he regains his senses. I’ll make sure you get a sufficient head start.”
“We can get you out of here.”
“I know he was just one of your constructs, but that look he gave me. Like I really let him down. Honestly. I’m done. Let me do something worthwhile on the way out. Maybe I’ll get a better seat in hell.”
Sophie looked at Vyx. His face was sunken and sallow and his pupils were dilating and contracting out of sync. Any contempt she may have felt, and she wasn’t entirely sure she felt very much of it, was replaced by pathos. This was a man so driven by fear of decrepitude and death that he converted himself piecemeal into a robot. He put a chip in his brain to kill the nagging fear of mortality and his clever mind figured out a way around it. It only made him worse. It was fighting to overcome death that overcame him. Not very ironic, death the outcome to everything. Sophie nodded her head.
“And, Miss Fischer, in my experience, Yaldabaoth fears nothing and no one. Remember that. Now go. He’s coming around.”