The Wrong Future, Page 1

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By the twenty-ninth century, everyone watched the Tomorrow News Network.  Everyone except Zane Riscon.  Whenever he tried to watch, he saw only static.

Zane’s schedule flashed across the smart-glass surface of his desk: a ten o’clock cabinet meeting with the President, an eleven thirty briefing with Admiral Jaleel of the First Armada, lunch with the Director of Strategic Operations…  In the afternoon, he’d testify before Parliament, conduct an inspection tour of a prototype gunship, and hold a teleconference with Border Outpost Delta.  The Tomorrow News Network would never allow someone like Zane to see the next day’s news.  Earth’s Secretary of Defense had too much power to change it.

“Mr. Secretary,” a computerized voice said, “you have a priority transmission from the embassy on Mars.”

Zane grinned.  “Patch it through,” he said.

The woman who appeared on the viewlink wore her hair braided into a crown.  She sat with her hands folded in her lap, a half-smile on her face.  Zane stepped away from his desk, approached the viewlink, and bowed.

“Ambassador,” he said.

“Hi, honey,” the Ambassador replied.  “I have good news and bad news.  The bad news is I’m not coming home for another three months.”

Zane sighed.  “Lexi, sometimes I think you took this job just to get away from me.”

“Negotiations with the colonial government are harder than I expected,” Lexi said.  “They still remember what happened the last time we asked them to join the Earth Republic.”

Zane shook his head.  His wife hadn’t always been a career woman, and he hadn’t always been a career man.  When they first met, they did a lot of reckless and stupid things together, things that embarrassed both their families, things that–for political reasons–they both denied now.  Sometimes Zane missed being reckless and stupid.

“What’s the good news?” he asked.

Lexi’s cute half-smile returned–the one Zane had never learned to say no to.  “Your daughter drew you a picture!” she said.

Chloe Riscon had inherited her parents’ youthful impulsiveness.  One day, they expected she’d run off with some artist or musician, causing another great embarrassment for the family.  In the meantime, she climbed trees, hated vegetables, and destroyed antique furniture.  She refused to go anywhere without her best friend, a plush dinosaur named “Teddy-saurus.”  Somehow she’d gotten the idea that moving to Mars meant no more school–an idea her mother had soon quashed.

“Daddy!” Chloe yelled, jumping into view, her long hair falling in her face.  “Look what I made!”

She pressed a drawing to the screen.  The red, squiggly lines looked vaguely like a dinosaur.

“It’s a Sapiosaurus,” Chloe announced.

“I see that,” Zane said.  “It’s beautiful.”

“Mommy says you can hang a copy in the war room so all the generals and admirals can see it too.”

Zane laughed.  “I’ll do that.”

“Chloe, sweetheart,” Lexi said, her voice suddenly panicked, “why don’t you go play with Teddy-saurus.  He’ll get jealous if you spend too much time with other dinosaurs.”

“But I want to talk to Daddy.”

“Daddy’s a busy man.  See?  He’s got a visitor.”

Zane frowned and looked behind him.  A strange woman sat at his desk toying with one of his pens.  Blonde curls framed a heart-shaped face with a perky nose and bright, violet eyes.  She wore all blue with a purple ribbon around her neck, and a pair of iridescent gems dangled from her ears.  Zane would have called security, but this was one of the most recognizable faces in the known universe: Talie Tappler, star reporter for the Tomorrow News Network.  Though Zane had never seen her on the viewlink before, he’d read her file.  She’d covered every military defeat in Earth Republic history.

Talie smirked and waved hello.

“I’ll call you later tonight,” Lexi promised anxiously.  “Good luck.  I love you so much.”

The viewlink clicked off.

“I love this era,” Talie said.  “Everyone’s so afraid of me.”

A monstrosity of a man stood behind her, his biceps augmented with mechanical parts.  One of the Tomorrow News Network’s cybernetic cameramen, Zane guessed, noting the sophisticated camera built into the man’s cranium.

“What are you doing here?” Zane said.

“That’s obvious, silly,” Talie said, leaning forward in Zane’s chair.  “We’re here to do a story about you.”

* * *

Centuries ago, the government issued instructions to all bureaucrats and officials–elected or otherwise–on how to deal with the media.  Whenever the Tomorrow News Network showed up, answer their questions, give them access to everything, and above all do not panic.

Riding in the back of a government air-car, Zane tried to catch up on the latest from military intelligence.  He got halfway through a report titled “Unidentified Spacecraft Sighted in Orbit of Silver Vega” before he had to stop.  He couldn’t retain anything.  He saw the words, but they made no sense.

“Umm… Ms. Tappler…” he started to say.

“No, no,” Talie said.  She and the cyborg sat across from Zane–just staring at him.  “I want you to act normal.  This is mostly a profile piece: a day in the life of Earth’s Secretary of Defense.  Try to ignore us.”

“But…”

“Ignore us.”

Zane’s eyes flicked to the cyborg.  He never seemed to blink.  Zane couldn’t tell if he was recording or not.  Maybe he recorded all the time.

“… Okay…” Zane said.  He went back to the unidentified spacecraft report and pretended to read it.

* * *

Despite the strip lights in the walls and the sun shining through the windows, the President’s cabinet room seemed dark.  Even the glowing, holographic images on the table didn’t help.  After each item on the agenda, the room fell silent as though the shadow of death hung over all.  A few of the President’s advisors cast furtive glances at Talie.  She and her cameraman sat quietly in the corner.  Zane drummed his fingers on the arms of his chair, waiting for someone to mention a threat to national security.

“A convoy of Hykonian refugees have approached our colony on Yola,” the Secretary of State said.  “They want asylum.”

“Mr. President,” Zane said, “I recommend caution.  The Hykonians still dispute our claim to Yola.  This could be an effort to infiltrate the colony.”

The President frowned.  When he was elected, he’d promised to improve diplomatic relations with aliens.  He’d taken a conciliatory tone with the Crolons, the Vorpons, and even the Hykonians.  He’d negotiated peaceful conclusions to the wars in Alpha Centauri and 61 Cygni.

“At least allow us interrogate them before we let them land,” Zane said.  “We don’t even know what they’re fleeing from.”

The President chewed his lip, but the Secretary of State and Attorney General agreed with Zane.  Eventually, the President authorized the interrogations.

In the corner, Talie stifled a yawn.

* * *

After touring the new, prototype gunship, Zane said a few words commending the design team, the construction workers, and the crew.  Everyone seemed terribly proud, but also uneasy.

“Mr. Secretary,” the captain whispered, pulling him aside.  “What’s she doing here?  Is my ship going to explode?”

Zane glanced at Talie.  She was fixing her hair, using a polished aluminum bulkhead as a mirror.

“I don’t know,” Zane answered.

The captain took a deep breath.  “Should we abandon ship?” he asked.

Talie finished with her hair and started checking her teeth.

“I… I don’t know,” Zane said.

* * *

By the time Zane returned to his office, the sun had set, and the capital city lit up in neon colors.

Zane touched a control on his desk, and a holographic map of the Solar System materialized in the center of the room.  It showed the positions and patrol routes of every ship in the Earth Republic fleet, along with the allied fleets of Mars and Titan Colonies.  He pressed another control, and the view expanded to show the entire sector.  All quiet.  No surprise attacks, nothing unusual on the Hykonian border, not even a smuggler trying to sneak by a Space Force checkpoint.

Zane tried the viewlink, tuning the channel to 9001.  “This is the Tomorrow News Network,” a voice announced, “bringing you tomorrow’s news today since 27,000 years from now.”  Then the signal cut to static.

On the far side of the room, Talie snickered.  Her eyes sparkled in the dark–catching the light of the holograms, Zane assumed.

“WHY ARE YOU HERE?” Zane screamed.  For the sake of his political career, he’d learned to control his temper long ago.  He’d earned a reputation for calmness in a crisis.  He turned his back on Talie, embarrassed by his outburst.

“I told you,” Talie said, humor in her voice.  “It’s about you, mostly.”

“You didn’t even interview me,” Zane said, staring out at the glowing city and the dark sky above it.

“I want to thank you for your patience,” Talie said.  “My report aired yesterday, of course, and it got phenomenal ratings.  Viewers loved that bit about your daughter and the dinosaur.”

Zane gritted his teeth.  He and his wife tried to keep Chloe away from the unforgiving eye of the media.

“We’ll be going now,” Talie said.  “I hope you have a pleasant evening.”

Talie pulled out her watch, twisted the dial, and clicked a button.  In a burst of color and light, she and her cameraman disappeared.  And that was it.

“Damn it,” someone muttered outside.

“What?” Zane shouted, running from his office.  “What’s wrong?”

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5 thoughts on “The Wrong Future, Page 1

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