99 White Balloons, Page 3

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None of that distracted Lorsis from the realization that he was alive, that he would live on, growing older and older, accumulating injuries that could not heal and illnesses that could not be treated, becoming a burden on his family and on society forever.

Lorsis felt his eyes draining.  He could see vague shapes again.  He tried to sit up—the humans had moved him to a bed in a small room—but the motion left him dizzy and nauseous.

“Please,” Lorsis whimpered, “kill me.”

The humans wouldn’t understand, not without translator clips.  But Lorsis didn’t know what else he could do.

“Please kill me,” he begged, knowing the primitives on this planet wouldn’t even know how.  Fire, electrocution, asphyxiation… nothing could cure Valotic immortality.  Lorsis slid off the edge of the bed, falling to the hard floor.

The door opened.  A human stepped in, but this one didn’t smell of salty sweat or burned plant matter.  This one smelled pure.  Looking up, Lorsis saw the blurry silhouette of a female of the species, her clothing dark, her head crowned with gold.  Behind her stood another human, one with unnatural extra parts.  A cyborg, perhaps?

“Hello.  My name is Talie Tappler,” the female said in flawless Hykonian.  “This is my cameraman, Mr. Cognis.  We’re from the Tomorrow News Network.”

“You!” Lorsis shrieked, dragging himself to his feet.  “I know you!  I’ve seen you on the viewlink!”

“Really?” Talie said, giggling.  “It’s always nice to meet a fan.”

Lorsis stood on shaky legs, pointing a long, mangled finger at the Tomorrow News Network’s most infamous reporter.  “You were there,” he rasped, “the day the Swarm descended on Hyla, the day they consumed three billion people!”

“Oh, yes.  Some of my best work, I think.  Phenomenal ratings.”

“You did nothing to save them.”

“Of course not.  I report the news.  I don’t change it.”

Lorsis leaned against the bed, struggling to maintain his balance.  “You and your network broadcast the news into the past to everyone except the people directly involved.  The entire Technocracy saw the Swarm attack the day before it happened, but not the citizens of Hyla.  They received no warning.”

“If they were warned, history would change, and I’d have to rewrite my script.”

“Then why broadcast into the past at all?”

Talie laughed.  “To beat the competition!”

Lorsis felt nauseous again.  He pulled himself back onto the bed.

“The lighting is not acceptable,” the cyborg stated.

“I’m sure General What’s-His-Name won’t mind if you set up a few hover lamps,” Talie said, taking a seat and opening her datapad.

“Hover lamps?” Lorsis asked.

“I’m here to interview you,” Talie explained.

Lorsis gaped at her.  “Do the Earthlings know who you are?  The kinds of stories you cover?  Do they know what story you’re covering now?”

“No,” Talie said.  “I’m allowing them to eavesdrop on us, but I doubt they’ll understand much even with the aid of translator clips.”

Lorsis shielded his eyes as two bright lights shone in his face.  The cyborg took his position by Talie’s side, adjusting his mechanical eye, and announced that he was recording.

“We’ll start with the easiest question first,” Talie said.  “What’s your name and title?”

“Leader Lorsis, Survey Mission Commander.”

“Why are you on Earth, Leader Lorsis?”

“We are… were investigating the activities of the primitive life-forms native to this planet.  We’ve heard rumors—and reports on your network—that Earth will one day become a terrible enemy to the Hykonian Technocracy, waging war against us for thousands of years.  Our mission was to evaluate the threat these primitives pose and eliminate that threat.”

“Eliminate?  With one tiny survey vessel?” Talie asked.

“We came with an Illith class warship armed with enough firepower to melt this planet’s crust,” Lorsis replied.  “Our comrades are waiting at the perimeter of this star system.”

Talie leaned forward, grinning.  “Waiting for what?”

“A signal from my ship.  Since they won’t hear from us, they will most likely come investigate.”

“I see.  And who shot down your ship?”

“Vorpons.  They were cloaked.  Took us by surprise.”

“If they were cloaked, how do you know they were Vorpons?”

“Military intelligence reported Vorpon activity in this sector.  Apparently they’ve taken some interest in Earth, although we have yet to determine why.”

Lorsis paused a moment to reexamine his surroundings.  His vision remained fuzzy, but he could clearly distinguish a room typical of human architecture.  He remembered human voices and odors from before, but if the Vorpons had attacked the survey ship, why had humans taken Lorsis prisoner?  Something seemed wrong.  Something didn’t make sense.

“One last question,” Talie said.  “During the battle, why did you shoot down a weather balloon?”

“Weather balloon?” Lorsis said.  “We only fired once.  We damaged the Vorpon ship.  Its cloaking device malfunctioned, and we detected a metallic object hovering above us.  I don’t remember anything about balloons.”

“Hmm…” Talie said.  “The humans told me you shot down their weather balloon.”

“What in the name of the Twin Gods is a weather balloon?”

Talie laughed.  “To be honest, I haven’t a clue.  Mr. Cognis?”

“Weather balloons are primitive tools used to study atmospheric conditions,” the cyborg reported.

Lorsis shook his head.  “My gunner’s logic was correct and therefore holy.  He would not mistake primitive technology for a cloaked Vorpon ship.”

“Hmm…” Talie said.  “Well, thank you for your time.  Your family watched this interview yesterday, of course.  They sent me a message saying they were glad you survived despite the… you know, the virus.”

Lorsis felt his lungs constrict.  “Thank you,” he murmured.

The hover lamps turned off.  Talie and the cyborg left the room.

Obviously the humans had lied.  It surprised Lorsis that a journalist like Talie Tappler would be fooled, but perhaps the Tomorrow News Network wasn’t as omniscient as it seemed.

The Earthlings, the Vorpons, and this ludicrous story about weather balloons… they must be connected somehow.  They must form a pattern.  Lorsis closed his eyes and began to meditate, praying to the Twin Gods for guidance.

* * *

On the other side of a mirrored glass window, Murphy removed the translator clip from his ear.  He’d been skeptical—the device looked like a bent paperclip—but General Stenner had ordered him to do as Talie instructed.

The Hykonian had spoken, and though Murphy had heard a strange language full of aspirated consonants and glottal stops, he’d understood it.  Every word.  He stared at Lorsis, noticing how feeble the alien seemed even as his health returned, how his darkening eyes still looked unfocused, how his pale green skin retained the grey hue of death, and tried to picture such pathetic creatures destroying all of Mankind.

“She really is from the future,” Murphy said.

Stenner puffed his cigar.  “Her tip about Jiggins really hit the mark.  Found a roll of microfilm in the sole of the lieutenant’s boot.”

“Her identity was never in question,” one of the men from Washington said.  Two had come, dressed in black, their shoes polished to a glistening shine.  They wouldn’t give their names—everyone was safer that way, they said—but D.O.D. had granted them the highest security clearance.  One called himself Majestic #2.  The other never spoke.

“Colonel Blanchard is threatening to go to the local paper,” Stenner said.

“Tell the paper Colonel Blanchard doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Majestic #2 replied.

“Who cares?” Murphy said.  “First it was little, green men; then, little green zombie men; now it’s little, green zombie men planning to blow up the world.  What difference does it make if the public knows?  Soon, the public will be dead!”

Majestic #2 was about to answer, but the door creaked open and Talie stepped in, followed by her associate, the mechanical man called Mr. Cognis.

“Don’t mind us,” Talie said.  “We’re just going to get a few shots of you guys chatting.  Adds local color to our story.”

Majestic #2 nodded politely and was about to speak, but Murphy interrupted.  “What story are you covering?  That Lorsis guy asked if we knew, and apparently we don’t.  He said you let three billion people die just so you wouldn’t have to rewrite your script.  If you’re here to cover the end of the world, would you tell us?”

“It can’t be the end of the world,” Stenner said.

“They can melt the crust of the planet,” Murphy reminded him.

“But this young lady is from the future,” Stenner explained.  “That means Mankind must have a future, or she wouldn’t exist.”

Talie smirked.  “That’s an interesting theory.”

“You know what will happen.  We can make you tell us,” Murphy threatened.

“I’d like to see you try,” Talie answered demurely.

“No!” Majestic #2 said.  “Of course we wouldn’t do that.  In fact, Americans have the utmost respect for freedom of the press.  It’s in our constitution.”

Talie scowled and folded her arms across her chest.  Her cameraman stood by her side, the big lens of his mechanical eye rotating slowly.  Murphy glared at the men from Washington and wondered what Talie’s boss had done to teach them the great importance of the First Amendment.

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