Time Siege

Wesley Chu’s Time Siege—available July 12 from Tor Books—continues the fast-paced time travel adventure that began with Time Salvager. Having been haunted by the past and enslaved by the present, James Griffin-Mars is taking control of the future.

Earth is a toxic, sparsely inhabited wasteland—the perfect hiding place for a fugitive ex-chronman to hide from the authorities.

James has allies, scientists he rescued from previous centuries: Elise Kim, who believes she can renew Earth, given time; Grace Priestly, the venerated inventor of time travel herself; Levin, James’s mentor and former pursuer, now disgraced; and the Elfreth, a population of downtrodden humans who want desperately to believe that James and his friends will heal their ailing home world.

James also has enemies. They include the full military might of a benighted solar system ruled by corporate greed and a desperate fear of what James will do next. At the forefront of their efforts to stop him is Kuo, the ruthless security head, who wants James’s head on a pike and will stop at nothing to obtain it.

 

 

ONE
The Slog

Roman struggled to keep his footing in the ankle-deep slog of the muddy riverbank. The tainted water, mixed with rubble, dirt, and debris, had been accumulating broken bits of the ruined city for centuries. The resulting mixture was a slow-moving speckled brown mush that folded over itself repeatedly as it flowed down the steep slope.

He slipped on a metal plate embedded in the goo and fell onto his belly, sliding several meters and losing whatever small progress he had made climbing up the hill. He spat out a mouthful of the gunk and cursed as a mushy tide swelled, rolling over and caking him in its grime.

Black abyss, he was going to smell like shit until his next shower. Unfortunately, his next hygiene maintenance wasn’t scheduled until the morning after tomorrow. That meant he was going to stink like a latrine until then. Probably meant he was going to have to rack outside of quarters tonight as well.

Someone above him laughed. “Chaki, you bunking with Roman, right? Have fun.”

Chaki’s face appeared at the top of the hill as Roman tried to reclaim his footing. “Damn clumsy fodder. Stop playing in the mud. The collie’s here.”

Roman looked at the green metal plate that precipitated his fall and scowled. There were some letters on it in an archaic form of solar English. He wiped the gunk off with his sleeve and read it slowly: NEW LONDON.

“Are we on the right continent?” he asked in a loud voice. “I thought we’re on one of the Americas.”

“What kind of a stupid question is that?” Renee called down.

“I don’t know,” Roman said. “This is my first tour on this planet. I just thought London was a city in Europe. Or was that Africa?”

Overhead, a gray box-shaped ship struggled to fly around the many obstructions to their position. On top of the hill, fallen poles, loose wires, hanging vines, and building fragments jutting up and out were scattered all over the landscape, often making it difficult for the collies—flying boxes not known for their maneuverability—to reach their landing zones.

They were near a river mouth, and the soft ground had sunk so much that many of the buildings on both sides of the river leaned in over the water until they formed a triangular roof above it. Several of these buildings looked ready to collapse and probably wouldn’t stand much longer.

“Why are our extraction points always on top of hills?” Roman grumbled. “Why can’t it just come down to us for once?”

He renewed his efforts, using his hands to claw his way up. His arms sunk elbow-deep into the muck, getting even more grime onto his now completely filthy uniform. Not that it mattered anymore; he couldn’t get any dirtier.

Roman and the other half-dozen jackasses with him were just finishing an eight-hour patrol of a region southwest of the city of Boston. Surveillance had picked up movement from what could possibly be the wastelander tribe they had been searching for the past six months, and of course, his was the unlucky squad sent here to investigate.

The Cooperative Forces, or Co-op, was created after the failed attack on Boston to retrieve the temporal anomaly to fulfill the agency’s contractual obligation to the megacorporation. It was supposed to be a joint operation by Valta and ChronoCom. However, those Valta assholes— their leader, Securitate Kuo, specifically—did not seem to know what “joint” meant. Almost all the heavy lifting was carried out by ChronoCom monitors, while Valta’s troopers just sat on their collective asses. Kuo had even had the audacity to tell the lead monitors to their faces that the Valta troopers were too valuable to waste. Black abyss, everyone in the agency hated that woman.

Ever since they had cleared out all of Boston and realized that the savages had fled, the patrols had had to expand their search perimeters to include the areas surrounding the city. Now, Co-op troops were forced to blindly chase the hundreds of random energy signatures that popped up, in the hopes that one of them was the tribe of savages they were after.

Roman finally reached the top of the hill and was helped to his feet by Renee and Pau. Chronman Mong sniffed him irritably as he continued to eye the collie making its way to their position. “Next time, be more careful, fool. If the collie pilot insists we clean his ship, you’re the fodder doing it, you hear?”

“Easy for you,” Roman muttered. “Not every asshole gets exos to fly around.”

Roman wouldn’t have dared to say that aloud. Mong was a Tier-5, fresh out of the Academy, and like most chronmen, thought he was a big deal. If Roman had to guess, the guy was probably nineteen years old. Definitely green and inexperienced, but already as arrogant as a Tier-3. Still, even the lowest chronman outranked the most experienced monitor.

The squad brushed themselves off and waited as the collie lowered itself to the ground. Fortunately, this patrol had been uneventful, though part of him wished the damn savages would just show up so they could end this hellish mission working under those corporate Valta assholes.

“I can’t wait to get transferred off-planet,” he ranted. “I didn’t sign up to escape from the hellhole on Naiaid to end up in an even worse hellhole on Earth.”

A couple of the other monitors chuckled in agreement. Mong just sniffed and continued staring at the collie. No doubt the kid probably felt insulted having to patrol with a bunch of monitors instead of running time salvages, which was what chronmen were supposed to do. The collie landed with a splat in the mud, and the squad, exhausted and glad the day had ended without incident, made its way on board.

Mong looked Roman over and stuck his hand out. “Wipe yourself off first, damn it.”

“Yes, chronman.” Roman sighed. “Just give me a . . .”

His voice trailed off as a dark flash arced up into the air. He squinted and raised an arm just in time for the object to thud into his shoulder, the impact knocking him on his back once more into the mud. Roman groaned and stared in shock as a thick wooden shaft stuck out of his body. Another shaft sunk into the soft ground near his feet. He began to scream. More spears rained down, bouncing off the collie’s roof and sticking in the soft ground. There was a loud bang, and Chaki fell, clutching his leg. A blaster shot narrowly missed Renee. The rest of the squad scattered for cover, their wrist beams pointed outward at the ruins surrounding them.

A swarm of savages appeared, seemingly crawling out of every nook and cranny of the ruined buildings. They peppered Roman’s squad with small-arms fire, ranging from thick spears to primitive firearms to blaster rifles. Mong activated his exo and launched into the air. Most of the enemy attacks bounced ineffectually off his shield.

“Defensive positions around the collie,” he roared. “Renee, get Roman. Gouti, suppression fire on the building to the north.”

Two kinetic coils appeared on both sides of Mong as if he had grown wings, and he barreled toward the main group of the charging savages head-on. The coils cut the savages down as he swept through them, knocking a score of them off their feet. He changed direction and shot upward along the nearest building. Redirecting the coils into the opened windows, the chronman began to pluck savages out and drop them down into the streets below.

Roman whimpered as rough hands grabbed his injured shoulder and hauled him to his feet. “Come on,” Renee said, dragging him toward the collie’s opened hatch. A savage charged at them from the left, only to fall to her wrist beam. Another came from their right, which Roman was just able to hit before the savage could bury a hatchet in his face. More came from every direction, forcing Renee to drop him halfway to the ship so she could engage them.

Roman fell onto a knee and held his right arm with his left to steady his trembling body. His nerves screamed as he forced his arm up to aim with the wrist beam. He hit an old-looking savage in the chest and took out another who didn’t even look old enough to shave. That last one came perilously close to sticking him with another spear. He watched, dismayed, as the young savage fell at his feet.

An involuntary shudder coursed through his body. He had almost become dinner just now. At least that was the rumor among the monitors; these wasteland tribes were cannibals, and civilized people were a delicacy. He couldn’t think of a worse way to go than roasting over a fire. He bet he tasted awful.

Gouti screamed at them from the collie’s hatch, “Get your asses inside!”

Renee picked Roman up again and the two desperately tried to sprint to the collie. To his right, Baeth shot a charging savage point-blank in the stomach, then fell to a vicious club to the side of his face. Roman watched in horror as a savage woman towered over his squadmate, ready to strike the killing blow. It never came. They must like their food alive when they cook them. Those bastards. It was too late to help Baeth now. The rest of the squad converged on the collie. Chaki was limping badly while Gouti desperately tried to provide covering fire.

Mong was still flying through the air, acting as a battering ram and launching his body at groups of savages, trying to keep them at bay to buy time for the rest of the squad. Roman, himself a failed initiate at the Academy, had often seen chronmen and auditors in battle. Mong wasn’t one of the more skilled exo-wielders, but he was getting the job done. Roman and Renee had almost fought their way to the waiting collie when it began to take off, jerking unsteadily into the air.

“We’re not in yet!” Renee screamed, dropping Roman and sprinting toward the ship. It was too late. By the time she reached it, the collie was already five meters off the ground. Before it could speed away, something slammed into it, knocking it out of the air. It crashed to the ground on its side, almost crushing Renee and Roman as it slid down the slope. The two were just able to dive out of the way at the very last moment.

“Black abyss, no.” Roman stared at a new figure floating in the air above him. It was the traitor, James Griffin-Mars. Before Roman could react, a coil wrapped around his feet, lifted him off the ground, and tossed him into the mud. Renee tried to flee down the hill but was pulled back and flung into the embankment next to him.

“Chronman.” The traitor’s voice echoed through the ruins. “Leave the Elfreth alone and face me.”

When Mong, who was still busy tearing through scores of savages, didn’t respond, the traitor shot forward in a streak of yellow and collided with the chronman. The two of them, exos flaring, slammed into the side of the hill, spewing mud and rocks into the air. A second later, they exploded out and crashed down at the bottom of the riverbank.

The men’s coils were interlocked, but it wasn’t difficult to tell who was winning. The traitor had the chronman wrapped in what looked like ten coils. Somehow, Mong was able to slip away and launch up into sky. Just as quickly, the traitor shot half a dozen coils after him. The chronman created four of his own coils to fend them off, but it was obvious the former Tier-1 was much more skilled than the Tier-5. The traitor’s coils tied up Mong’s coils, and then the remaining ones sunk into his shield and dragged him back down to earth. As much as Mong tried, he couldn’t get away a second time.

“Go ahead, you abyss-plagued traitor,” Mong spat. “Finish the job.”

By this time, the rest of the savages—and they numbered in the dozens—had the monitors surrounded. Most of his squad were beaten up pretty badly. Baeth had suffered a concussion and was awake but woozy. Blood poured down Chaki’s leg, and Roman still had this stinking spear sticking through his shoulder. Two of the savages were carrying an unconscious Renee up the embankment. The remaining monitors—Gouti and Pau—were being rounded up. A few second later, the pilot of the crashed collie was pulled out of the wreck and also joined the prisoners. Roman squeezed his eyes shut. This was when the savages would decide which one of them looked the most delicious.

Roman had been with ChronoCom for almost fifteen years, and nothing made the hair on the back of his neck stand up more than savagery, either from the pirates along the Ship Graveyard or the commies in Venus or these primitives here on Earth.

The traitor suspended Mong in the air. “Release your bands to me and I will spare you and your people.”

“How about you go fuck yourself,” Mong replied.

“Actually,” Pau said, “that’s not a bad trade.”

The chronman shot him a glare. “Be quiet.” “Give him the stupid bands,” Gouti said.

“Shut up, monitors,” Mong snapped.

“Just give him the fucking bands!” Roman screamed.

The rest of the squad joined in with their pleas. Mong looked furious, but Roman didn’t care. It was better to give up the stupid bands than become dinner. Chronman or not, this kid was risking their lives for no reason.

“Fine,” Mong snarled. “You want the bands? Here you go.”

He held his hands out, and with a snap, all his bands broke in two.

Roman’s legs gave way and he collapsed to the ground. That fool. Now they were all going to be dinner. He felt his pants grow warm as he wet himself. This time, his body shook from fear instead of pain. He couldn’t decide what was worse, being boiled alive or roasted over a fire.

He flirted with the idea of pulling the spear out of his body so he could bleed out. Roman gripped the shaft with his working arm and took a couple of deep breaths. He gritted his teeth and willed his arm to pull the spear through his body. The stupid thing wouldn’t budge; his arms felt like noodles. He tried once more, and again, his hands felt so weak, he could barely hold the shaft, let alone budge the damn thing.

Roman just couldn’t do it. He was too frightened to kill himself. That was why he had failed to tier at the Academy. He was good enough, everyone said so. He had surprised his teachers by failing. And now his stupid cowardice was going to get him killed in the worst way possible. His frustration and the tension in his body built up, begging for a release. Roman’s arms shook as he stared at his own blood sliding down the shaft and dripping onto the ground. He did the only thing he could think of at this very moment. He began to bawl. All eyes turned to him as his sobs grew louder.

Pau leaned in to him. “Pull yourself together.”

“Please . . . please don’t eat me.” Roman sniffed loudly. “I’ll taste terrible.”

A buzz spread through the crowd of savages. A few of them seemed to understand what he said and translated to those who didn’t. A chorus of laughter erupted. Several of the savages began rubbing their bellies. An apple bounced off his head. Even the traitor was masking a smile.

The traitor floated Mong to the rest of the squad and picked up the broken bands, examining them one by one. He sighed and tossed them to the ground. “You’re making my life a lot harder than it has to be.”

Mong stuck his chin out defiantly. “Just get it over with and kill us.”

“Speak for yourself,” Gouti grumbled.

“If we had wanted you dead, you’d be dead,” said James.

Roman looked over at the rest of his squad. He hadn’t realized this at first, but it was true. All of them were alive, and it probably wasn’t a coincidence. In fact, these savages took extra precautions, at the risk of their own lives, not to kill any of them. Why?

The traitor motioned to a group of savages standing nearby. “You have seven minutes. Get to work.”

Roman watched open-mouthed as two dozen savages swarmed the collie, like burn ants over a corpse, and began to strip it bare. To his shock, they moved efficiently, as if they knew what they were doing. These were primitive savages. How could this be possible? However, within minutes, many of the collie’s modules were dismantled. All that remained was its frame, engine, and structural components.

“Wrap it up,” James said. “Co-op forces will be here any minute.”

Just as quickly as they appeared, the savages disappeared back into the ruined city. The only one left was the traitor. He surveyed the sky and then the squad. “Your people will be here soon.”

Mong looked confused. “Why not just kill us and be done with it?”

“Shut up before he changes his mind,” Roman hissed.

The traitor studied Mong’s face. “How many years out of the Academy, chronman?”

Mong hesitated before answering. “Five months.”

The traitor nodded. “You use the exo well for a Tier-5. You’ll make a fine chronman one day. Just make sure you live long enough to make a difference.”

“Why are you letting us go?” asked Mong.

James sighed. “Because at the end of the day, you’re just trying to do the right thing, and so am I.” Then he shot into the air in a streak of yellow and was gone.

Five minutes later, a Valta Valkyrie appeared, followed by three collies. The area was soon flooded by monitors. Roman looked in the direction he had last seen the traitor as he and the rest of his squad were led to safety. This was the first time he had seen the traitor, this James GriffinMars. He had to admit he was surprised. All the intel had described the man as an unstable, greedy, self-serving lunatic. This man seemed anything but that. He glanced over at Mong, whose troubled face spoke volumes as well.

Roman crawled into the medical collie and was soon in the air. His last thought before he passed out was that now that he was injured, did he still have to wait two days to shower?

 

TWO
The Situation

James watched from the mid-level of a nearby building as a small fleet of collies and Valta ships swarmed the battlefield where the Elfreth had just ambushed a squad of monitors. He took a quick inventory of the number of ships and personnel, the time it had taken them to arrive after the first shots were fired, and how large of a perimeter they maintained while executing the retrieval. The Co-op’s response times were improving, though still not quick enough to catch the tribe during a raid.

Once he had finished gathering the necessary data, James headed to their temporary home, choosing to go on foot instead of risking being seen flying through New London at this hour. There was already a lot of heat in this region, and his exo would shine like a beacon in the black of night. With few tall buildings in this area still standing to provide cover, the less he used his exo, the better.

The Co-op was not proficient at guerrilla warfare, not like the wasteland tribes who had had centuries of experience executing hit-and-run raids. They had other overwhelming advantages, though, possessing vastly superior firepower and nearly infinite resources, while the Elfreth’s already meager stock was fast withering away. Without Smitt’s access to the chron database to calculate jumps, James was unable to jump to the past to resupply the tribe as he had done previously.

Not that he could jump right now anyway, even if they did have access. Grace Priestly, the Mother of Time, was adamant that his next one or two jumps would kill him. He had made too many jaunts to the past without taking the miasma regimens, the medical treatments necessary to combat lag sickness, the long-term degenerative illness caused by time travel. His body was too permanently damaged to risk another jump. This was a serious problem, because the Elfreth had depended on his salvaging for food, medicine, and equipment, especially now while on the run with the tribe unable to farm.

James stayed moving on foot, sipping the energy levels of his bands sparingly to avoid detection, using his exo in short bursts to leap through the streets and between the buildings. He circled west in a roundabout path in case he was being followed, until he eventually reached the ruins of Groton Space Port.

The space port, already half-submerged in the encroaching brown ocean, had been a major hub in the early days of interplanetary freight. When the Core Conflicts broke out at the turn of the twenty-fourth century, Groton Space Port was converted to a military installation and was one of the last surviving ports when the megacorporations from the Outer Rim planets arrived and laid siege to the planet. All that remained now were blown-out buildings and skeletons of ships from previous centuries. It was also the perfect hiding spot for the Elfreth’s current project and their last hope for survival.

James landed on the wing of an old Publicae drone ship and hopped over onto the back of a Venetian heat absorber, then onto an old Earthbound civilian carrier. The history of humanity’s aviation continued to unfold as he crisscrossed the watery graveyard. The brown ocean currents had invaded the airstrip long ago, and now some of the crafts were uprooted from their final resting places and being carried away by the dense, heavy waves of the polluted ocean. They banged against other crafts, rocking back and forth as the slow-moving tide flooded and ebbed.

He reached one of the few still-intact construction hangars built on a hill and entered, promptly coming face-to-face with three guardians wielding high-powered blaster rifles. He nodded as the lead lookout, Mhairi, waved him through. He was getting better at remembering their names; it was something Elise had stressed he should do, claiming it made him a more integral part of the tribe.

At first, he resisted. A short memory was useful for a chronman. After all, while salvaging, he interacted with thousands of people who were already dead. Remembering their names meant they would linger with him even after the salvage was completed. Even while at the agency, he rarely bothered remembering names outside of auditors and administrators. Chronmen and monitors came and went. What was the point of getting to know anyone?

In many ways, it was the same with the Elfreth. There were so many in the tribe, and he had little confidence that any of them would survive this war with the Co-op, so why remember names? Why give them this power over him?

For Elise, though, he made an effort. Every time he met someone he did not recognize, especially the guardians and the food staff, he took a few extra seconds to recite their names into memory. At first, he thought it a waste of time. Slowly, those names and faces began to connect. Every subsequent time he would see someone whose name he remembered, he found himself waving at them and inquiring about their day. Bit by bit, he learned more, until he actually considered a few of them acquaintances. This, in turn, made them less wary of him. When Pon, one of the first guardians he had befriended, died at the hands of the Co-op, he felt an immediate sadness and pain. These were something he rarely allowed himself to feel. They also reminded him why he didn’t like remembering names.

James glanced to the side, and saw the group of hallucinations that always seemed close by. They had been less vocal as of late. The ghosts of Grace and the Nazi soldier still hung around, though they mostly stayed in the background and argued with each other. Sometimes, he would catch them shooting angry accusatory glances his way. In the Nazi soldier’s case, James wished he knew the boy’s name; calling him “Nazi soldier” or “fucking fascist” was getting old. He almost had to concentrate to notice them anymore.

The ghost of Sasha was different. She usually kept to herself, but was always watching him, as if judging his every move. Sometimes, he would wake in the middle of the night and find her standing in the corner, just staring at him. It was unnerving. The few times he tried to engage her, she just shook her head sadly, or disapprovingly—he couldn’t quite tell which. He waved at her as he passed; something he couldn’t help but do when he was alone. She never waved back.

James didn’t understand why she was there at all. The real Sasha was alive again. He had risked his life making one last jump to retrieve his dead sister from the Mnemosyne Station, the refugee camp she had gone missing from twenty years ago. Grace had warned him back then against jumping, but as far as he was concerned, it was the best thing he had ever done in his miserable life.

He reached an elevated platform in the hangar where Chawr and his friends were busy working on their latest creation. When James and Elise had first joined the Elfreth, an argument had precipitated Chawr and his friends wanting to break from the tribe. They were young, strong, and felt they could do better on their own than burdened with the many elderly and weak. James had convinced the young man to stay, and Chawr and his crew had asked James to teach them how to work on his collie.

He had agreed to mentor them, and now he couldn’t be prouder. Over the months, the crew, now calling themselves the flyguards, had become indispensable to the tribe. They looked his way as his boots clanged on the metal steps up to the platform. They waved enthusiastically and joked among themselves as they dug through their latest haul from the collie they had stripped earlier today.

“Did we get what we need?” he asked.

Hory held up part of a cockpit console. Bria did the same with a cooling coil, but it was Chawr who picked up the crown jewel of their loot: the stealth module. ChronoCom collies were the most advanced stealth ships in the solar system. Since the agency wasn’t military, they relied on this advanced technology, developed during the Publicae Age, to avoid getting into battles.

James shot Chawr a thumbs-up and looked at the metal monstrosity to his right. Ever since his own collie had been shot out of the sky during the attack on Boston, the tribe had been busy trying to get him space-borne again. They had been unsuccessful at stealing existing Co-op ships—they were too heavily guarded and secured—so instead, the Elfreth did what they did best: stole what they could and salvaged from wreckages.

The end result was a mutant insect-like collie assembled from the bodies of five separate ships destroyed in battle. It was four times the size of a standard collie, had three cockpits, and had to be powered by six separate engines. The dozens of window panels on the starboard side made it look like it had spider eyes. The center piloting cockpit jutted out near the top in an odd off-angled direction. The port side was just two standard collie bodies welded together.

When Elise first saw the thing, she couldn’t stop laughing and named the ship Drunk Engineering, saying it was a veritable Frankenstein. Drunk Engineering hit a little too close to home, but the name Frankenstein took. Now, the Elfreth’s new flagship Frankenstein was ready for its maiden voyage into space as soon as they installed the stealth module.

James would be lying if he said he wasn’t worried about the Frankenstein’s space-worthiness. The ship had only logged fifteen hours over the Atlantic Ocean, and the modified shield arm was fairly new, so he had minimal confidence in the ship’s structural integrity. He would also be the first to admit his technical knowledge of ships was poor. Thank the abyss they had Grace Priestly to help with his deficiencies.

He looked over at the flyguards monkeying around with the parts. The kids who had assembled and welded her together weren’t exactly trained engineers. Still, it should work. Collies were legendary in their sturdiness and ease of maintenance, their modular nature allowing their parts to be easily assembled and replaced. What’s the worst that could go wrong? James chose not to answer that question.

He felt a presence behind him, and a pair of arms wrapped around his waist. A soft body pressed against his back, and a head burrowed forward from under his armpit. Elise’s familiar scent filled his nostrils, and the nagging anxiety he always felt when she wasn’t close by faded. He leaned his head down and kissed her.

Grace Priestly, the High Scion of the Technology Isolationists, appeared on the other side of him. She put her hands on her hips and shook her head. “The scouts said you spared those ChronoCom monitors. Why? They won’t grow a conscience just because you are merciful.”

James grunted. “Mercy has nothing to do with it. I know the agency. They aren’t enthusiastic about wasting resources on this operation. They’re sending their worst units: old and green monitors and low-tiered chronmen. If we start killing them en masse, Director Young will have a change of heart and start sending better-trained troops, then we’ll really have no chance. Remember, winning for the Elfreth isn’t defeating the Co-op. That’s not possible. The only way we’ll all come out of this alive is if we outlast them. They need to tire of searching for us. And we need to do this with as few casualties to the ChronoCom forces as possible.”

“And Valta?” Grace asked.

“To hell with them,” said James. “Those we kill as many as possible.” There was a loud clatter, and the three of them turned their attention back to the collie, where the flyguards were moving the stolen parts over for assembly to the Frankenstein. Chawr cursed at the crew as they powered up a laser welder to install the final pieces. Grace winced at the sloppy measurements the tribesmen made as they prepared to cut.

“You’re really flying into space in that death trap?” Elise asked.

“Sometimes, pet,” Grace added, “your bravery and stupidity still amaze me.”

James moved his arms around both their shoulders and squeezed. “I’ve done dumber things before. Not much, but dumber.” He turned to his left and looked at Grace. “As soon as we get the module installed and tested out, you’re coming with me.”

“If my life is going to depend on this contraption,” said Grace. “I’d better tell these fools how to do the work properly.” She grumbled something about how the dead and the stupid went hand in hand and hobbled toward the flyguards.

When he had first brought the Mother of Time to the present, she was already one of the greatest physicists to have ever lived. Within the short time she had spent here, she had also become a biologist to match Elise, as well as a master engineer. When Grace found out what he was trying to do, she personally took over construction of the collie and made sure this hodgepodge of dead ship parts would actually get them where they were trying to go. That was the real reason James had some semblance of confidence in the mutant collie. However, it was obvious Grace couldn’t care less about aesthetics. The Frankenstein was downright ugly.

James watched them work for a few minutes longer before he and Elise left for the Elfreth’s main living quarters. The evening meal was just beginning, and the lines for the children and the elderly were forming all the way out of the room and into the hallway. There were several calls of “Oldest” as they passed, and even a few “Elder” for James.

He fought the urge to ask her to skip eating in the public hall and spend some time alone. He was leaving tonight. Who knew when or if he would ever return. However, James also knew better. Elise was taking her new role as Oldest of the Elfreth very seriously, especially now that their numbers had swelled and morale was low.

The tribe needed their leader among them. He stayed silent, but kept at her side as she walked among the people—her people now—stopping by each group to exchange words of encouragement and comfort. He was amazed at how she remembered everyone’s name, and how she was able to relate to each person as if they were close friends. Mostly, she just listened supportively as they voiced their concerns and fears.

That daily routine took up most of the night, and she was always the last to eat and exhausted by the time they had finished making the rounds and sat down. He held her tightly as she closed her eyes and took a few moments to compose herself.

“I don’t know how long I can keep lying to them,” she said, her voice soft. “I keep telling them everything’s going to be all right, but I know it’s not.”

“It will be,” he said, though he didn’t quite believe it himself. “Look, maybe I shouldn’t go.”

She shook her head. “We’ve gone over this. You know you have to.”

“Maybe I can delay the trip. We’re barely staying one step ahead of the Co-op as it is. If they find you and I’m not here—”

She cut him off. “It won’t make any difference, James. If they find us, we’re all dead anyway, whether you’re here or not.” She caressed his face. “We’ll be fine. Just get what we need and return safely.”

He shook his head. “It’s not a good time.”

“It’ll never be a good time. Besides . . .” Her voice softened as a small figure ran up to them. “There’s more at stake.”

“James!” Sasha bounced up to them and threw her arms around his neck.

His little sister leaned to the other side and gave Elise a peck on the cheek. She didn’t like kissing him because of his beard. It made her itchy, she said. He was all right with that. Her overly enthusiastic hugs were a fine consolation.

The fact that his sister was alive again was a miracle. She was still a child, ten years old now, but alive. He had stolen her away from Mnemosyne Station after the battle at the Farming Towers. It was the last jump he had made, possibly the last he’d ever make. That was perfectly fine by him. Sasha was the one thing in his life that made him proud to have walked the path of a chronman. However, in saving her from death, he might have subjected her to a worse fate.

Sasha coughed and wiped her mouth. She was getting sicker and sicker. Within days of arriving in Boston, his young and frail sister became ill. Unlike Elise, who had a healthy immune system from a lifetime on Earth, Sasha had spent her entire life in artificial environments, and her body wasn’t prepared for Earth’s toxicity.

At first, he had tried to protect her with his atmos, thinking he could wean her off it over time. But as the Co-op continued to hunt them, forcing them deeper underground, power became scarcer, and they no longer had the energy levels to spare to keep the atmos band on at full strength, so she had to make do with a lower level of protection. It didn’t help, or at least it wasn’t enough.

Now, even though she was eating more regularly and moving about more than she ever did back when they were in the squalor of Mnemosyne Station, she looked weaker and thinner than ever. No one knew what it was, not even Grace.

None of the doctors on Earth were willing to help her. In the present, most doctors were trained and indentured to the corporations. To acquire the services of one would require authorization from the indenturing corporation, and that was something Valta made sure was denied to all of the tribes in this region. He could try to kidnap a doctor, but that would incur the wrath of the indenturing corporation, which would be almost as bad as their current war with the Co-op. That left him only one place to seek help. Unfortunately, that required a ship and would take him far away from Elise and the tribe. He had no choice; his sister’s life depended on it.

Sasha coughed again, and her entire body shook. She wiped her mouth and James noticed blood on her sleeves. He felt his hands tremble as he fought the urge to squeeze her tightly to him. That wasn’t going to help. He opened his mouth to comfort her and no words came out. His mind was paralyzed. He had never felt so helpless in his life.

Elise exchanged worried looks with him. She took out a rag and wiped the little girl’s hands. “Sasha,” she said in a calm voice. “Why don’t you let your brother and me finish our dinner. We’ll be up in the quarters in a little bit. We’ll make a fire, and you and I can finish the alphabet and numbers.

Sasha made a face. “James is leaving tonight. Can’t we just spend time together as a family?”

Elise smiled. “Of course we can, hon, but just tonight. You start studying again first thing tomorrow, all right? My lab assistant needs to know how to read.”

Sasha gave them both one more hug before running off. As soon as she was out of sight, Elise turned and cupped his face in her hands. “You go up to space and you figure out how to save our girl. I don’t care what it takes. Do you hear me?”

He nodded.

“Good, no more talk about staying to look after me and the Elfreth. We’re going to be fine. Just come back to me as soon as you can.”

 

THREE
Oldest

Elise Kim stood at the water’s edge and looked out to the horizon, where the black ocean and dark sky met. The last glimmer of the Frankenstein’s multicolored exhaust signatures had just disappeared into the thick layer of low-hanging clouds. James and Grace had cobbled the ship’s engines from a couple of collies and a Valta Valkyrie attack ship. From what Elise could tell, it had taken a significant amount of tinkering to get everything balanced. She was shocked the damn thing flew at all, considering how glued and bubble-gummed the contraption was, and even more so that they were actually brave enough to take it into space. Brave or stupid. Then again, Elise was from the late twenty-first century; space travel had still been in its toddler stage then, and mankind hadn’t colonized the solar system yet. Everything about where they were going was amazing to her.

She waited until the last glimmer of Frankenstein was gone. She looked up at the vast expanse of the sky, feeling more alone than she had in recent memory. Both James and Grace were gone, her rock and her wisdom, for Gaia knew how long. She had no one left on Earth she could lean on for support or advice, and a whole bunch of people who expected her to lead them. Elise was terrified.

“Please come back to me. Both of you.” She could barely hear her whisper over the crashing of the waves against the shore.

There was a soft crunching of boots behind her. Rima stood waiting respectfully until Elise looked her way. “Oldest, the tribe is gathered and ready to depart. Oldest Franwil says we are already running short on time if we wish to cross the Long Island Sound by sunup. She warns that Moma is due soon and may not last the duration of the journey. War Chief Eriao says scouts report several bands of Neverwheres lurking upriver along the Thames half a day to a day out. He expects a raid and asks we be gone before they descend upon us.”

Elise wished they could spend a few more days at Groton. This had been the most restful time the tribe had had in months. Still, with the Co-op close by and the Neverwheres encroaching, staying at the space port was too risky.

The Elfreth had run into the Neverwhere tribe while passing through New London. The vicious bastards had been hounding them ever since. Elise had thought the Elfreth had lost them when they holed up in Groton to finish building the Frankenstein. She glanced back up toward the sky. Not a moment too soon, she guessed.

It was probably for the best. They had hung around this place almost two weeks now, far longer than any other time since they had fled the Farming Towers in Boston. Couple that with the Frankenstein launch, whose maiden voyage, if it did not go fully smoothly, would raise who knew how many alerts tonight. They could only hope the stealth systems on the collie functioned properly. In either case, best not stick around to find out.

Elise checked her AI band. Sunrise was four hours away. They should have already left by now. Using the skypath highway to cross the thirtykilometer Long Island Sound was dangerous. On the elevated road some three hundred meters up in the air, the Elfreth would be exposed not only to enemy patrols, but to Earth’s harsh elements. If just one enemy patrol spotted them, there would be no more Elfreth tribe by dawn. However, it was the only direct overland path they could find that went all the way to their destination. Most of the roads in this area, a veritable swampland so close to the ocean, were impassable.

She turned to Rima, who was awaiting instructions with a chalkboard in hand. “Let’s get this show on the road. Tell Eriao to have guardians five hundred meters ahead of the main group. Once our people are halfway up the ramp, we pace as fast as the tribe can go. Where is Oldest Franwil?”

“She is with the kowrus.”

“Tell her we will have to hope for the best for Moma.”

Elise watched as Rima scribbled furiously on her chalkboard in shorthand and then sprinted away. The girl had grown up since they first met less than a year ago. For one thing, Elise used to have to look down at her when they spoke. Rima must have hit her growth spurt, because she was now half a head taller than Elise. That wasn’t saying much, since Elise’s nickname on the badminton team had been Low-Hanging Fruit, and yes, it had been ripe with double entendres. Secondary school girls could be bitches. Elise still felt a little self-conscious when she had to speak with the entire tribe and barely reached the neck of most people.

Rima had matured mentally as well, having been forced to grow up quickly over the past few months. When they first met, she had been an illiterate wild child who only knew how to hunt, fight, and cause the elders headaches. Elise had tapped into the girl’s potential, taught her basic math, and cultivated in her a love for reading. In a short while, under both Grace’s and Elise’s tutelage, she became one of the most literate people in the tribe. Who knew what Rima could have become if she had grown up in a more enlightened time. It wasn’t too late, not if Elise had a say in the girl’s future.

Elise walked to the foot of the ramp and followed the road with her eyes as it inclined and disappeared into the fog. A few minutes later, she heard gravel crackling behind her. She watched as the front of the caravan passed, the group of vanguards followed by hundreds of men, women, and children. The sound of their footsteps, little pitter-patters, became louder. The creaking of wooden axles and wheels grinding on the road soon joined the chorus. Farm animals came next—several dozen cows, a flock of chickens, followed by pigs, goats, and kowru, a genetically engineered fast-reproducing cross between brahman and giant rabbits bred during the early twenty-fourth century. Oldest Franwil was with this group, watching over some of the flock. She pointed at Moma, the very pregnant kowru, and held up five fingers. Elise nodded. They would have to cart the mare soon.

ChronoCom and Valta had returned the week after their attack on the Farming Towers with forces ten times larger than the one Levin JavierOberon, the former high auditor of Earth, had led against them. Instead of another battle, they came upon an abandoned settlement. By that time, the Elfreth had packed up and gone deep underground, hiding inside Boston’s maze of buildings and old transit systems.

Elise had initially hoped that they could wait out the Co-op as the enemy scoured the ruins for them. She had underestimated their resolve. The Co-op hunkered down and began to systematically wipe out all the other tribes that lived there. Boston became a graveyard and a prison within a few short days. Dozens of ill-prepared tribes who had survived hundreds of years of famine, pestilence, and disease in the harshest of lands were decimated by a genocidal onslaught. The Co-op was undiscerning as to who fell into their crosshairs. Elise, feeling the guilt of bringing so much death to these people, had ordered the Elfreth to take in all refugees, swelling their numbers from the original three hundred to nearly a thousand.

The fighting became a slow bleeding game of cat and mouse as the Co-op hunted the Elfreth and the tribes sprung ambushes to pick off the invaders one by one. Eventually, James and Eriao convinced her that they couldn’t win this fight, and that their only chance was to flee the city.

It was a tough call, but Elise had reluctantly agreed. The weight of her responsibility to her people sometimes made it difficult to breathe. Every victory felt slight, every defeat crushing, and every mistake magnified. But for some reason she couldn’t quite fathom, the tribe continued to look to her for guidance. Why did these people still have faith in her?

The past few months had been hard, and the Elfreth’s long list of problems grew daily. Now on the run and completely nomadic, the tribe was unable to farm. They were also too large and unwieldy, having been joined by several smaller groups caught in the conflict. While that made them stronger than most other wastelander tribes, it also made hiding difficult. The tribe had been resolving this by splitting into small organized bands and never staying in one place for more than a few days. However, they were constantly encroaching on other tribes’ territories. Most of their skirmishes were with them rather than with the real enemy. A thousand tribesmen was also a lot of mouths to feed. With winter on the horizon and the joint forces of Valta and ChronoCom continually on their heels, the Elfreth faced the real threat of starvation.

The rest of the Elfreth continued streaming out from the darkness, merging into one long caravan as they got onto the ramp. The parade continued as small groups of the Elfreth—Elise had organized the groups to be self-sustaining in case they were separated—began to make the slow climb up to the skypath highway. A few waved at her, and some who had only recently joined the tribe bowed. She muttered each of their names as they passed, trying to remember as many of their faces as possible. So many people, so many needs. She waited until the last of the main body passed before starting her own journey up the ramp.

Elise joined a group of new tribesmen. The people here were formerly known as the Acquina, a small tribe that had lived down the river from the Farming Towers before the invasion. She shared a few friendly words with Lia, their former Brightest, before picking up her pace to catch up to the next small group. There, she spoke with a group of older Elfreth, with some of whom she had shared duties tending to the crops on top of the Farming Towers back in their home. Most of them embraced and encouraged Elise, nearly moving her to tears. She missed those simpler days.

She continued up the parade, taking advantage of this long walk to get to know her people again. There was a group of nomads who had joined just last week now serving as scouts for the guardians. She spent a part of the walk being scolded by some of the older kitchen staff about food stocks; not that they were low—everyone knew that—but they needed to spend more time foraging for sapphire fruit, a spice that preserved meat and vegetables from spoiling. Elise assured them that she’d look into it.

Next, she gave an encouraging pep talk to a group of children who by now were used to being fugitives. That broke her heart. She spent a few minutes longer than she had to, telling them a story about her time in the twentieth-first century, now commonly referred to as the Golden Age of Humanity. She watched their eyes get big as they soaked in every word.

“And you’ll bring those days back, Oldest?” a little girl asked.

“Of course we will, child.” It was a straight-up lie, but hope was one of the few things Elise could offer these people in abundance. As far as she was concerned, hope was as nourishing to these children as food, even if it was a lie. Especially if it was a lie.

She continued moving up the line and was particularly grateful when the highway leveled off. She checked the time: three hours until sunrise, and then several more days’ journey to the dreaded Mist Isle, a place so dangerous, it almost wiped out the Elfreth when they first passed through generations ago. Now she was leading them back to it.

Elise hoped to Gaia she was making the right call. In any case, the decision was made, and for better or worse, the Elfreth were heading west. She looked up at the sky, where a gap between the clouds had revealed thousands of stars. Her rock and her sage had left her alone down here. All she had to rely on now was her own judgment, and that scared her more than anything else in the world.

Excerpted from Time Siege © Wesley Chu, 2016

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