Milo clenched his fists, waiting impatiently as Talie and Cognis did a third and fourth take then discussed other ideas to make the story “sexier.”
“Am I allowed to talk now?” Milo asked when they finished. He was struggling to stay angry, to keep a confrontational tone in his voice. This was no time to start crying again.
Talie glanced at Milo, looking at him as though she’d never seen him before. Her puzzlement soon faded, however, and she smiled as though she and Milo were old friends—except she’d forgotten Milo’s name.
“Of course, Michael. But we’re on a tight schedule, so please make this quick.”
Without waiting for a reply, Talie began to walk away. She was unbelievably fast for a woman in high heels. Milo had to run after her.
“I thought this was a plague,” he said.
“No,” Talie replied, laughing at Milo’s absurd assumption. “It’s a weapon. Humans always wage war with guns and missiles and fancy explosives, but not everyone operates that way. Some species prefer killing through biochemistry.
“Organic life-forms are composed of mostly water, but they contain minerals too: calcium, iron, sodium… stuff like that. Special enzymes prevent those minerals from clumping together, but the Medusa Effect disables those enzymes and encourages mineralization. It’s caused by an artificial virus; it’s a virus that turns you into stone!”
Talie had such an eager expression on her face. Milo had never met anyone who loved their job so much.
“Eventually, water separates from your body tissues, causing your skin and muscles to shrink and shrivel. Even your blood becomes a dry powder.”
“How does the antidote work?” Milo asked.
“It’s a complicated thing from the future. You wouldn’t understand.”
Talie stopped near an open area by the wastewater reclamation plant. A group of children had been playing. They now lay dead on the pavement, one girl still clutching a ball in her arms.
“I hoped this would happen!” Talie said, clapping her hands. “We can do a before-and-after segment.”
“I will attempt to recreate my earlier shots,” Cognis stated, leaving Talie alone with Milo.
“You have a cure,” Milo said.
Talie glanced at him, her eyes as vacant and puzzled as before. Once again, she’d forgotten Milo was there. “It’s more like a vaccine,” she explained.
“Whatever. You could have stopped this. You could have saved all these people. How can you show up at a disaster, knowing how it will end, and do nothing about it?”
Talie shrugged. “It’s my job.”
“Fine. Your job is to report the future. Then report it. You know what will happen before it happens, so why not warn somebody?”
“I never even thought of that.” Talie seemed to find the idea… disgusting.
“You could have saved two-thousand people!”
“It doesn’t work that way.”
Milo crumpled to the ground. He sat among orange dust and gravel, no doubt tinged with valuable lithium, and wondered what it took to make someone as callous and narcissistic as Talie Tappler. Were all journalists like that? But Milo couldn’t let himself get upset. Though hatred festered in his heart, he could not lash out at Talie. He had to control his anger. Some alien menace had murdered Milo’s whole family and everyone he knew. Somewhere out there, Lianna was a big lump of mineralized flesh. Only a time traveler could set that right.
A hint of sympathy appeared on Talie’s face, and not the brand of sympathy she used on camera.
“Do you know anything about quantum mechanics?” she asked, sitting down beside Milo. “Atoms and electrons and other teeny-weeny particles can exist in more than one place at the same time. Ancient physicists called it ‘being in a superposition,’ and unless someone came along and observed those particles, they’d stay in those superpositions forever.”
Milo shook his head. “That was disproven by the Grand Unification Theory,” he said. Such basic knowledge didn’t even merit grade-one physics.
“Well, there is no Grand Unification Theory for history,” Talie replied. “All the events of the past, present, and future exist in superpositions until someone observes them. Only then do all the possible outcomes disappear, leaving one and only one result.”
Talie flung her arm around Milo’s shoulders, pulling him close. Milo’s body went rigid on contact, as though he’d turned to stone, and he glared at the overly cheerful woman hugging him.
“The more people who see an event, the less likely it is to change. That’s my job: to make sure everyone sees this—as many as possible—because what happens on this moon today… you don’t want it to change. Trust me.”
Milo pushed Talie away. He hated her. Violet eyes, perky nose, sassy blonde hair… he hated all of it. Her beauty only made her more revolting. And yet she answered Milo’s animosity with a wink and a mischievous grin that left him momentarily dazzled.
Cognis returned, and all Talie’s compassion, whether real or feigned, ceased to be. She jumped to her feet, checked her pocket watch, and announced, “We have five minutes.”
Five minutes until the invaders landed. While Talie checked her makeup, Milo closed his eyes and put his head in his hands. He tried to imagine a scenario that would make all these deaths worthwhile. He tried to think of a reason why the slaughter of two thousand colonists would be justified. Maybe, if he knew as much about time travel as Talie, if he could see things from the perspective of history as she did, he’d understand how this atrocity served some greater good.
Talie and Cognis hurried off toward the spaceport. Milo got up and trailed behind them. He figured he should at least get one look at these alien invaders in their moment of victory.
* * *
When Milo reached the landing platform, he concealed himself among the crates of purified lithium. He didn’t want to associate with Talie. He watched from a safe distance, far enough away that no one would mistake him for her friend.
The sun had vanished, so Cognis deployed several hover lamps to light the scene. Meanwhile, Talie stared at a specific point in the sky and counted the seconds until the conquerors’ arrival.
“Between you and me,” Cognis said, “I think they’re getting exactly what they deserve.”
Talie grinned. “That’s a highly unprofessional attitude. We are impartial observers. We’re not here to cast judgment.”
Cognis switched his emotions off. “Yes, Ms. Tappler. I apologize.”
A sleek, ovoid spacecraft descended on the colony. Menacing in its simplicity, without modules or docking ports, without weapons or appendages of any kind, it looked nothing like an Earth warship, and why would it? After deploying their Medusa Effect, these aliens should have no enemies left to fight.
The vessel floated a few meters in the air, suspended by a subtle manipulation of gravity beyond human science. It bore no markings or insignia except a simple pattern of interconnected rings emblazoned on one side.
Hidden among the crates, Milo watched the aliens emerge, materializing beneath their ship. They looked like humans but with all the parts in the wrong order. Their heads were low to the ground. Their backs curved into a high arch. Their elongated arms and legs had extra joints, allowing them to scuttle across the ground on all fours, and a dozen long, boney fingers extended from each hand.
The aliens shied away from Talie, eyeing her apprehensively. Finally, one of their number crept forward and spoke.
“All the Earth beasts should have petrified,” it said in a slow, raspy voice. Milo didn’t care to know how these creatures had learned the standard human language. They must have been spying on the Earth Empire for years.
“I’m Talie Tappler from the Tomorrow News Network,” Talie said, smiling down at the creature’s befuddled face. “Do you wish to make a statement?”
The speaker screeched something in its own language, and three aliens scurried toward Talie and Cognis. A many-fingered hand crawled across the ground, reaching for Talie’s leg, but Talie stomped on it with her high-heeled foot.
“Assaulting a journalist is a violation of the Intergalactic Freedom of the Press Treaty,” Talie informed the invaders while her cameraman crouched down to get a better shot. “The minimum sentence is eight-hundred years.”
“We have signed no such treaty,” the alien speaker snarled.
Talie answered with a twisted, evil smirk. “Not yet. But you will, and the treaty has an anachronism clause to protect time travelers.”
The speaker regarded Talie for a long time, and Cognis used the opportunity to shoot the scene from a lower angle, something closer to what these creatures might consider eye level. Eventually, the aliens backed off. They even permitted Cognis to step in and get close-ups.
“Your report will be seen throughout the Earth Empire?”
“My report was broadcast yesterday,” Talie replied. “It got phenomenal ratings. Over 900 billion viewers.”
The speaker pondered this. Milo wondered how comfortable these people were with time travel. Did they understand it? Did they use it themselves?
“I have this to say to your 900 billion viewers,” the speaker began. “We of the…”
“Wait!” Talie interrupted, summoning Cognis and instructing him to set up his shot. The angle, lighting, and focus had to be perfect, she explained to the irritated speaker.
“First, can you say and spell your name?”
The speaker looked so frustrated that Milo laughed. Up until then, he’d gone unnoticed among the lithium crates. Now a trio of aliens was scuttling straight for him.
“Is the male child a journalist too?” the speaker asked.
Talie shook her head no.