Zane’s office connected to the Defense Department’s command and communications room. Most of the staff had gone home for the night. Only a few officers remained on duty.
“Nothing, sir,” a technician said, looking up from his work. “When Ms. Tappler used her time machine, she created a temporal distortion in this building. Now our chronometers are off by 0.3 microseconds. I’ll have to recalibrate them.”
Zane sighed and went back in his office. He collapsed in his chair and rubbed his forehead. The viewlink still showed static, but that could mean anything. Maybe Talie’s story really was a profile piece and nothing more.
“Mr. Secretary,” the computer said, “you have a priority transmission from the embassy on Mars.”
“Patch it through,” Zane said.
When Lexi appeared on the screen, her eyes were red and the braids of her hair had come loose.
“Zane!” she said. “Zane! Are you watching the news?”
“I can’t,” Zane said. “It’s static.”
“Forget the Tomorrow News Network,” she said. “Go to channel 9002.”
Zane frowned. He reached for a control on his desk, switching Lexi to audio-only and putting channel 9002 on the screen. It showed Earth enveloped in shimmering dust. Fireballs burst in the upper atmosphere, and the dust seemed to draw back–only to move forward again with increased vigor.
A superimposed box appeared over the video, and a reporter began to speak. Zane didn’t listen. The video cut to views from the ground. The dust fell like snowflakes, covering cities and streets in a layer of silver.
Zane watched as a woman grabbed two children and tried to wipe the sparkling particles off their hands and faces, but the particles skittered away and burrowed themselves under the skin, leaving angry blisters on the surface. The children clawed at themselves as though they felt something crawling up their arms or around the back of their heads. When the camera cut to the woman, blisters covered her face too, and her veins showed through in shades of purple and grey.
The infection made no distinction between living matter and inanimate objects. Buildings and vehicles disintegrated as though some invisible force were picking them apart molecule by molecule. The woman, her two children, and the rest of the population met a similar–if messier–fate. Earth’s pristine cities overflowed with blood, their walls and towers crumbled, and the skies above thickened with still more glittering dust.
In one final shock, Zane saw himself at a podium.
“At 7:33 this morning,” the Zane on the viewlink said, “the Swarm overran our defenses. We had no warning. I’ve ordered a mandatory evacuation of Earth, but given the overwhelming nature of the attack I doubt we can save more than a few thousand citizens.”
Zane rose to his feet, staring at the future version of himself on the viewlink. 7:33AM. That gave him about nine hours.
“Zane,” Lexi said. “Zane, what will you do?”
Outside, the city looked the same. The sky remained dark with its innocent, twinkling stars.
“I’m going to stop this,” Zane said.
He glanced at the viewlink again as a logo flashed across the screen–not the clockwork logo of the Tomorrow News Network, but a simple hourglass with the words “Chronovision News Corporation” beneath it. Their slogan followed: “Your choice for a better tomorrow.”
* * *
Just past midnight, Zane and his top advisors met in a secret, underground bunker known as the Observatory. The Observatory served as a command and control center for the entire Space Force during an emergency. Fed by status reports from every ship in the fleet, it provided Earth’s leaders a complete picture of the military situation.
A holographic grid filled most of the Observatory’s central chamber, with the blocky shapes of Earth starships rendered in blue and the Swarm as countless specks of red. Sensors registered them as machines, some as small as fleas, others much smaller than that. The technicians classified them according to size from largest to smallest as millibots, microbots, and nanobots. Tiny as they were, they formed a cloud that dwarfed the whole Space Force put together.
More holographic images glowed beneath the grid: scans in infrared and ultraviolet, charts projecting the Swarm’s course, data on their total mass and energy consumption. Below that, military personnel labored over control panels, trying to manage communications among Earth’s defense fleet. The younger officers wore blue berets, their space wings gleaming on their collars. The older ones were decorated with ribbons down their chests and gold stars on their shoulders. Zane’s top advisors–the oldest and crabbiest men and women the Space Force had to offer–argued among themselves over how such a large invasion force could have gone unnoticed.
The First Armada entered the combat zone. Admiral Jaleel gave the order to fire. Lasers cut through space, but somehow the straight beams arched into curves, bending away from the enemy. Missiles flew toward the heart of the Swarm, but they detonated prematurely.
“What happened?” Zane said.
“Unknown,” a technician answered.
Zane stared at the holograms overhead. The Swarm had become a chaotic, swirling vortex. The image flickered as the computers struggled to track so many moving targets at once. The First Armada continued to fire, but none of their weapons hit the mark.
Meanwhile, two aliens–a dwarfish creature and a tall, spindly insectoid–skulked about the Observatory with their audio/video gear. The Chronovision News Corporation had sent them, along with a reporter named Vison Sedrin, to cover the war effort.
Zane glanced at Vison. Even in this hour of dread, there was something comical about watching a man fuss over his makeup. Vison held a compact mirror in one hand while he powdered his face with the other. He glared at his reflection, checking it at various angles, before putting the mirror away. In some ways, Vison and Talie seemed oddly similar. All part of the news business, Zane guessed.
“Mr. Secretary,” a harsh, feminine voice declared. As Zane anticipated, Talie had returned. “There seems to be some confusion. You weren’t in your office when I arrived an hour from now, and your clerk… told… me…”
Talie faltered as her eyes swept over the Observatory, taking in all the holograms and sensor data.
“Umm…” she said, “what’s going on?”
Where a moment before the room echoed with combat chatter, it now fell silent. Fingers typed on keyboards, computers clicked and beeped, but not one word was uttered, and everyone averted their gaze from Talie.
Talie ran to one of the command stations, shoving a technician aside. She stared at the screen for a moment then pushed by two other officers to check a communications board. She moved on from one terminal to another, oblivious to the people who got in her way.
Zane noticed the cyborg standing by the door. He wore the same neutral expression as always, yet something in his neutrality expressed more shock than wide eyes or a gaping mouth ever could.
Talie approached Vison warily like one predator meeting another in the wilderness.
“You don’t belong here,” she said. “You’re thousands of years out of place.”
Vison smirked. He pulled out his media pass; Talie snatched it from his hand.
“Chronovision,” she said. “Never heard of you.” She handed the card back.
“You will soon,” Vison said, rearranging his long, uncontrollable hair. “Once your ratings start to drop.”
Talie snorted a laugh.
“You showed him his own future, didn’t you?” she said, pointing at Zane. “If you knew anything about time travel or journalism, you wouldn’t have made that mistake. You created a paradox; and worse, your reporting is no longer accurate!”
Vison crossed his arms and grinned. The smile faded from Talie’s lips.
“You did this on purpose?” she said. “You can’t… That’s just… What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking about all the human lives that would be lost,” Vison answered. “Mr. Secretary, how many lives have you saved since you saw our report?”
“We’ve evacuated three billion so far,” Zane said.
“Mr. Secretary,” she said, “it takes one person to change the future. Just one. You’ve saved three billion. That’s three billion opportunities for the future to change. Even I can’t predict what will happen. I can’t calculate for that many variables.”
“Sounds like a better future to me,” Zane said.
“Or it could be much, much worse,” Talie said. “You may have saved the next Adolph Hitler or the next Reginald Zaphiro. Who knows what horrors you’ve unleashed on the future?”
“You’re a time traveler,” Zane said. “Go find out. Make it your next story.”
“I don’t dare. History remains uncertain until it is observed. The more people who observe it, the more certain it becomes. If I travel into this new future you’re creating, if I see it for myself, I might not be able to change it back. If I show it to viewers, I definitely won’t.”
Vison chuckled. “If that’s your attitude, Ms. Tappler, how do you expect to compete with us?”
Talie balled her hands into fists. She marched toward Vison, but her cameraman stopped her and pulled her away.
“Ms. Tappler,” he said, “we must return to the newsroom and consult with the News Director before the situation becomes any more unstable.”
Talie quivered with rage, her eyes watering with tears. She nodded once, and in a flash of bright, stinging light, they disappeared.
“I think I enjoyed that,” Vison said.