It was going to be a very, very slow night. Tuesdays usually were. Throw in the hellacious thunderstorm outside, and not even a desperate alcoholic would wander in. I had just decided to close the bar up early when the mother of all lightening bolts hit just outside the window, nearly blinding me. After I rubbed the white circles from my eyes, I was startled to discover a man standing three feet in front of me. He placed a copy of that fat New York telephone directory on the bar and asked me for a beer.
â€œWhere the hell did you come from and why ain’t you wet?â€ I demanded as I placed a Budweiser draft in front of him, then added, â€œThatâ€™ll be $2.00.â€
He smiled. â€œ’When,’ you mean,â€ he replied, â€œand I donâ€™t have any money from this area. But it doesnâ€™t matter,â€œ he glanced down at one of them big city watches with all kinds of dials and buttons, â€œbecause in exactly 1 minute and nine seconds youâ€™re going to say â€˜Itâ€™s on the house.â€™â€
Thunderstorms always bring out the crackpots. â€œWhy would I say that?â€
He chugged half the beer and glanced at his watch again. â€œBecause, in exactly 58 seconds, Iâ€™m going to save your life.â€
I inched closer to the baseball bat that I keep behind the bar. â€œYou sure about that, mister?â€
He walked to the back corner, where he was practically swallowed up by the shadows. â€œBecause Iâ€™m a temporal police officer, and a criminal from the 24th century fled to this time. He needs money. Unfortunately for you, he doesnâ€™t know how to use your centuryâ€™s projectile weapons. He stole a hair-trigger pistol. Youâ€™ll see soon enough.â€
Just then, a shirtless maniac came crashing through the door. He was soggy as hell and shaking like a leaf. After he did the drunk-dance up to the bar, he slurred, â€œGive me all your money, quick,â€ and yanked some pawnshop gun out of his pocket. He might have been more confused than I was.
â€œTake it easyâ€¦â€ I started, but my voice was lost in the sound and light from the muzzle of his pistol.
By the time I remembered where I was, I wasn’t there anymore. Instead, I was against the old-fashioned cash register my boss kept around for that â€œold-time feel.â€ My ears were ringing, my back hurt, but somehow, I wasnâ€™t dead. Across the bar, the cop guy downed the last bit of his beer, and the would-be assassin was lying on the floor tied up with some kind of glowing neon rope. The New York phone book was against my shirt. A column of white smoke spun up from a big-ass hole in the front of it.
â€œSorry I had to let him shoot,â€ he said as he plunked the bottle onto the bar. â€œThe DA needed enough evidence to put him away for a long time. What do I owe you for the beer?â€
From far away, I heard my voice say, â€œUh, itâ€™s…it’s on the houseâ€
He smiled again, pressed a button on his fancy watch, and both of them disappeared in a flash of light. I stood there for ten minutes before making up my mind. I grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniels, walked over to the door, locked it, and sat down in a corner booth with every intention of emptying the thing before going home.
Amsterdam is still dry. The whole country is. Itâ€™s hard to believe, I know. But itâ€™s true.
Thatâ€™s how you can tell the tourists. Not a single Dutch person is amphibious. They donâ€™t have to be. Theyâ€™ve held back the waters, just like the little punk in the story.
Stories got to come from somewhere, I suppose.
Thisâ€™ll knock you flat: I was at this coffee shop there, right? And Iâ€™m downstairs, with some pals, and weâ€™re lit and weâ€™re relaxed. The smoke is thick in there, but not bad thick, just enough that you can feel your eye-membranes slide on down. Good times.
And these kids, these obvious touristsâ€”high-schoolers or some such, their skin was still bright greenâ€”they come on down the stairs and they look at us all laid out and weâ€™re like â€œRight now, right now they are having their First Amsterdam Tourist Experience. And itâ€™s just like the stories. We are a part of their First Amsterdam Tourist Experience.â€
How amazing is that? I mean, I remember my First Amsterdam Tourist Experience, right? That was what? Years ago. The world was different then, you know? And Iâ€™ve made, like, fifty trips back since. And here are these kids, right? Probably can count how many times theyâ€™ve set foot on dry land on one webbed hand. But theyâ€™re giggling and all excited, just like I was.
Itâ€™s hard to come back to the water after that, you know? Itâ€™s like stepping on Atlantis, or Avalon or some such. Itâ€™s another world, one of fire and smoke and dreams.
I feel like I live there, sometimes. That this city, here beneath the waves, this is just visiting. That where I live is somewhere else. Where I live is in my head, and in Amsterdam.
Hand me that fishbowl you call a helmet, man. I feel the need to light up another trip home.
Commander Xylm of the Red Bastards jumped when he heard Knthens voice in his head.
â€œCommander, please meet me in the docking bay.â€ Despite his powers, Knthen usually used the intercom, and there was nervous emotion in his projected voice. The use of Xylms title, Commander, made him uneasy. The Red Bastards never stood on ceremony; rank was never mentioned when they were on their own. Something was up.
Knthen packed his things into the small storage unit of his fighter. He wasn’t wearing his flight suit; instead, he was dressed in the gold and bronze of the Sun Shields, his cape dull under the florescent lights. Xylm hadn’t seen Knthen in his Sun Shield uniform since the day he arrived, four rotations ago, as their old Sun Shield left to meditate on the side of a mountain.
Xylm crossed his arms, annoyed. â€œYou’re leaving? Why wasn’t I notified?â€
Knthen handed him a scroll, the mark of the War Council shimmering on the digital plastic. â€œI can’t stay. All Sun Shields have been ordered home.â€
Xylm caught Knthens shoulder. â€œThe Red Bastards have always had a Sun Shield, it’s a tradition. Why are the Sun Shields leaving us without our resident psychic?â€
â€œThe Sun Shields never promised a psychic to you.â€
Xylm felt Knthens rage on the inside of his skull. â€œDon’t you dare put your fear on me.â€ He tossed the scroll on the floor. â€œI’m not your enemy. What in the filth is happening with the Sun Shields?â€
Knthen touched the golden mark of the triple suns on his forehead, the mark that showed him to be a psychic. â€œTrust me Xlymn.â€ Knthen reached for his friend, his palms closing in on Xylms cheeks. Knthen touched Xlymns temples and closed eyes with the tips of his fingers. Xelm relaxed, and his head rested onto Knthens palms. Knthen closed his eyes.
When Knthen stepped back, Xylm shook his head, feeling fuzzy. â€œWhat was that for?â€
Knthen bowed his head. â€œI needed to see you, I needed to know for sure.â€
â€œBy the holy dark, what is going on?â€
Knthen looked away, focusing on his ship. â€œI think I’m going to be killed.â€
â€œWhat? Who would kill you?â€
â€œThe War Council. Sun Shields have been judged dangerous to the human species, the genetic alterations have, they say, made us inhuman, dangerous. They say we have too much power. The debate is going on in the council right now, we don’t know what the outcome might be.â€
â€œHow could they do that?â€ Xlym shook his head. â€œThey couldn’t. No, this will pass over.â€
â€œMost people don’t feel like you do Xlym.â€
â€œDon’t go then.â€ Xlym shook Knthens shoulders â€œStay here. They will have to come through us to get to you, I know the Bastards would stand with me.â€
â€œIt wouldn’t matter.â€ Knthen tapped the side of his head.â€ â€œI’m rigged with a self destruct. All Sun Shields are, in case they go rogue. At least, if I go, I might be able to appeal to the council.â€ Xlym struggled for words. Knthen lowered his voice.
â€œXylm, I need to trust you with something.â€
â€œIf I am killed, the Red Bastards will still have a psychic.â€
â€œXylm. I’ve suspected this for a while, the way you seem to know what someone will say before they say it, the way you calm the hotshots down when their egos get too big. I made myself believe that you were just a talented leader. I never let myself make sure, I never wanted to know. Now I have no choice. Xylm, you are a psychic.â€
Xylm laughed, this had to be a joke. Knthens face was sad. Xylm felt his heart beat faster. â€œHow is that possible? I’m not a Shield! Shields are grown sterile in a lab. My parents aren’t psychic. It’s not possible.â€
â€œI don’t know how it happened. Maybe if two Rouge psychics conceived a child in the early days, before the sterility program.â€ He shook his head. â€œI don’t know, Xylm, but you are psychic. The Sun Shields would have had you killed if they knew. You may be the last of us Xylm. There may come a time when humanity will need you, and the Sun Shields will be gone.â€
Knthen climbed into his ship, and Xylm backed away, his mind still struggling with Knthens revelation. As Knthen locked the restraints in his cockpit, Xylm called out to him.
â€œYou wait. The War Council will reverse their decision, you’ll be back in a standard round.â€
â€œKeep safe, Xylm. Promise me, no matter what happens, you won’t hold my death against humanity. They will need you one day. Promise me.â€ The cockpit door descended, closing over Knthens head.
â€œI swear it.â€ said Xylm, as Knthens engines roared.
â€œI knew you would.â€ Knthens disembodied voice hung in Xylms mind, as the ship roared out into the silent black of space.
Skitz was running as fast as an alley rat could run in the back streets of Terris 4. Even with six legs, he was having a hard time keeping ahead of the bounty hunter. His three nostrils flared and he stopped for a moment to catch some carbon dioxide before taking a glance around.
When he heard footsteps behind him he darted up the wall, using suction-cupped fingers to tug his way onto the top of the building. Below him, in the alleyway, he heard, â€œSon of a bitchâ€¦â€
The native of Terris was taking a moment to relax, slumping his multi-appendage body against a radiator core. He plucked a radio from his satchel and spoke into it with labored words between breaths. â€œDurag! Felakchy oootuhag defgty! Keep the girl safeâ€¦ heâ€™s coming for her.â€
A noise came from the other end of the radio just in time for it to be smacked out of his hands as the butt of a plasma-bolted to be smashed into one of his faces. The Terrisal groaned and turned to see the bi-pedal shadow standing over him. A gruff voice intoned a threat with a vouch of seriousness in it: â€œLetâ€™s get one thing straight. I donâ€™t climb walls, and I hate using the rocket-pack.â€
He kneeled down next to Skitz, not bothering to aim his gun, but the human plucked him in the forehead to make sure he got his attention. â€œIâ€™m looking for a human. Any human will do. Now, I know thereâ€™s at least oneâ€¦ So talk.â€
The alien shuddered before his pair of eyes opened and glanced around for escape. The bounty hunter hit him in the head again. â€œWrong answer. Look at me, freak.â€
Skitz was definitely scared by now, and he was starting to wish heâ€™d never even seen a human. â€œDerâ€¦ vulag. Humanâ€¦ I see human long time ago.â€ The small lie caught a sigh from the hunter, and when the man stood he kicked the little guy in the side. Skitz cried out in agony, grabbing his body and whimpering.
â€œSee, we humans have lived through ten millennia of bullshit. Iâ€™d appreciate it if we could not have us live through another.â€ This time, the gun was pointed at Skitzâ€™s head. â€œIs it a boy or a girl?â€
â€œâ€¦It is a small girl,â€ the Terrian gasped
â€œGood. Progress. Where is she right now?â€
â€œâ€¦ She hideâ€¦ below industry. Sector 9.â€
The bounty hunter grumbled to himself. â€œWechals? I fucking hate Wechals. I hated bugs on Earth and I really fucking hate Wechals.â€ He turned, and began to walk away. His direction was, of course, Sector 9.
Skitz cried out after him, â€œYou no kill girl! You Felag!â€
The hunter stopped and looked over his shoulder, glaring at the little shit. â€œKill? Are you fucking stupid? Weâ€™re an endangered species. Iâ€™m just rounding us up.â€
â€œOkay everyone, you know the drill.”
Alex’s partner didn’t break pace between the doorway and the register, and she swung her gun around with the precise grace of someone who had done this far too many times. Her features were hidden behind a fuzzmask, and the sharp tips of her black hair poked from the base of the thin helmet. Nis was a professional: professional thief, professional manipulator, professional drug courier, and professional counterfeiter. She was a professional at everything that skimmed beneath Federal radar. Alex was not a professional. Alex was a nineteen year old boy who’d never pulled the trigger of a pulse rifle.
Behind the counter, a teenage register kid went white.
â€œAlex,â€ Nis called without taking her eyes from the boy. â€œDamage control.â€
Alex nodded. He continued into the back of the restaurant, rifle at chest level, listening through the hum of microwaves for hints of movement. Pulse rifles weren’t lethal, which is why they used them. Murder was a level one crime. Robbery was level three. There were two employees in the kitchen: an attractive blond girl no older than twenty five and a man no younger than fifty. At the sight of his weapon, the girl screeched something incomprehensible while the man stepped away from the burger assembly line and coolly lifted his hands to his head.
Quietly, almost calmly, he backed into the wall and listened to his partner’s voice fire orders like the guns he’d heard on television. â€œInto the back,â€ she finally said, and the kid appeared in the doorway with Nis’s pulse rifle motionless against his skull. He didn’t look so hot; eyes wide, skin pale, breath coming and going at a rate that couldn’t be maintained for long. His legs moved beneath him like the legs of someone who’d had too much gin, and he stumbled forward to hold his weight against the assembly line.
Despite her panic, the woman was breathing slowly, deeply. The man remained calm. Nis gestured with her head towards the cooler, then nudged the boy’s neck with her rifle. He closed his eyes. â€œOn with it,â€ she said as she shoved him forward with her other hand, and he promptly dropped to his knees. Alex went to pick him up, and a second later, his world exploded into stars.
Somewhere, there was yelling and movement. His vision was dark and light at the same time, and a dizzy pain pushed its fingers forward from the back of his skull. It took him several seconds to understand that the floor was beneath him, and another second to feel the man’s weight on his chest. The man wasn’t moving. There were three still bodies on the tiled floor. Only Nis remained on her feet. â€œGet up!â€ she yelled. Alex tried, but the man’s body was heavy and his own was heavier, so Nis pulled the worker off of him and yanked him to his feet. Alex pressed his hands against the wall to maintain his upright position. â€œPulses,â€ she said, and pushed him towards the register kid. He stumbled but somehow managed to fall only to his hands and knees, then he dug his fingers into the boy’s neck. A dull, rhythmic throbbing. â€œThis one’s cool,â€ he said, but there was no reply.
â€œChrist,â€ Nis said quietly a second later. â€œOh shit.â€
Alex tried to get to his feet, but failed. â€œWhat?â€
â€œShe can’t be cold.â€
â€œOh God. No. No fucking way.â€
Alex crawled over to verify. Nis ripped away the girl’s shirt to reveal rubbery skin, perfectly formed breasts. Most importantly, a thin, black line tracing an indented rectangle across her torso.
â€œShe’s an electric ant,â€ Nis said. There was a thick rope of panic drawn across her voice. â€œRegistered. Let’s move. Right now.â€
Alex looked into the girl’s open blue eyes. Polymer. Polymer and pigment. Nis’s hands dug into his shoulders and pulled him to his unsteady feet. Before him, the fleshy pile of shorted circuits lay as still as an unconscious human. Nis ran to the door, but outside, the street was already bathed in red and blue. â€œChrist,â€ she whispered.
â€œIt’s been less than five minutes!â€
Nis backed up to the register. â€œGet beside the door,â€ she ordered as she changed the battery of her pulse rifle. â€œAnd don’t let anything get through.â€