3530 words (14 minute read)

New Chapter

Episode 1 Scene 5

The Past

The federal government was, as usual, slow to respond. The local enclaves and their publicly paid for arms and personnel were seen as a solution to the ever-increasing problem of time raids. It was cities and local authorities taking charge; they stepped up and took care of the citizenry. The Feds mouthed words about concerning themselves with the big picture and, to be fair, they eventually did provide a lagging strategy to match the local tactics.

But their strategies didn't work. No one, least of all our elected officials, had a clue about what was really going on. I'd love to blame them, point the finger and tell them they’d dropped the ball, but I'd be wrong. They couldn't drop the ball. They didn't even know what game they were playing.

The War Clans were the first to arrive. They weren't called that then, but that's what they became known as. The War Clans arrived in numbers, big numbers, but not vast numbers, and they came from the past. And like many things from the past, we completely underestimated them.

A number of gun-rich communities in the US and Canada could deal with the Clans straight up. So could the larger towns and cities with a stable police force or military presence.  North Korea, Iran and Iraq were also well equipped for this type of engagement, the axis of evil benefiting from years of war and isolation.

Other areas throughout the world, rural areas that had been peaceful for years, copped it hard. The War Clans had simple tactics: overwhelm a community with numbers, kill all the men and boys, grab whatever tech they could find, and wait for a time shift to take them back to their own era

Early on, the first part of this strategy nearly always worked. The last bit, the time shift bit, was completely random. More often than not the War Clans’ bloodlust and ferocity ran out of communities to prey on. They weren't used to the vast distances between rural outposts and they were smart enough to leave large towns and cities alone. They also couldn't get a grip of rudimentary transport. Anything with four wheels and an engine was technologically beyond them, so medium to long distance transport was out. The result? A ragtag demi-army of people out of time and place waiting for a time shift they’d no control over. What happened next? Absolute carnage.

The people of Texas got particularly pissed at the interlopers and were the first to respond,

the first to say to hell with the federal government and get out there and take control. No one was surprised. They had the attitude. They had the guns.

Once news of a stalled War Clan rampage became known, posses formed and the result was predictable: a reckoning. It was a slaughter. The Clans had the numbers but the posses had the weapons. The federal government wanted to negotiate, to gain information. Texas wasn’t interested. The War Clans weren't interested. The Clans didn't even understand the concept of negotiations. The posses solved this problem through controlled, precision violence. The War Clans didn't stand a chance; they were mowed down in their hundreds. This changed later as they gained access to pilfered tech, but in the beginning it was all about the bodies, thousands of dead bodies.

It was about this time that communities started to organize; they needed numbers, guns and a plan. Countries started to split into smaller more responsive sizes. Big enough to be tough to prey on, but small enough to maneuver should that be the need. People were still nominally Canadian or Chinese or Australian or whatever, but in reality, loyalties were more focused and local. This worked well for a while, it worked against the ruthless straight line tactics of the War Clans, but it was far less effective against The Scythers.

Episode 1 Scene 6

The Present

The inner gate screeches open and a forty-something-year-old face peers out. I remove my helmet. Some people thinks this makes Keepers look more human and less threatening. In my case, that rarely works; an intricate pattern of thick purple scarring sees to that. The man

doesn't look shocked. Perhaps I’ve dealt with him before. Fuel depots are not immune to the time shifts, and they are as likely as any other grouping to be cascaded into the past or future.

"You’ll get your fuel, Keeper," states the man. "And then you'll be on your way." "Fuel and information," I counter.

The man shrugs and pulls the gate interior gate further open. It's a show; he knows it and I

know it. In this era a Keeper can take down anything short of a main battle camp, but egos need to be maintained. This, at least, is one trait consistent in humans throughout time.

I turn sideways and squeeze through the opening; it's not a narrow opening, but my exo- armor makes it necessary. My shoulder-mounted threat tubes, my primary weapons source, make it tight as well. I'm not sure what ammo I currently have in the tubes, but I know it's guaranteed to make a big hole in pretty much anything. My exo-armor, like my ride, adapts to the era I’m in.

"Mikey," says the 40-year-old to the rig-rat climbing down from the gun turret. "Fuel the

Keeper's vehicle and don't touch anything."

The rig-rat scowls and tosses her hair.

"Who died and made you chief asshole, Dwayne?"

Dwayne says nothing. He’s heard this routine before. Besides, it's not for his benefit, it's for mine. The human ego at work again. But the name twigs a memory. Dwayne, we’ve met before, or rather we’ve met in the future.

"What happened to your old man?" I ask.

Dwayne was younger in the future and his dad was in charge. "Dead. Scythers."

I grunt in acknowledgement. Scythers are an occupational hazard, and a rough one at that, though they usually leave the depots alone. But they’re the reason I’m here. I’ve been tracking one across time and space and it’s been elusive.

"Too bad. You in charge now?"

"Pretty much, though Mikey likes to think different."

We look back through the door. Mikey’s walking around my ride. Her mouth’s slightly open

as she examines the features that make up this version of the bike. She’s being careful not to touch anything.

"She yours?" I ask of Mikey's parentage.

"That's what her mother told me," answers Dwayne. "And she's good on the gun-rig."

This is about the highest compliment a parent can give to a child in a fuel depot; it's good to see family values being maintained.

Enough of the small talk. "What do you have to drink?"

Dwayne barks out a laugh. He looks through the door at Mikey. She's stopped her walk around and is now pouring a clear foul-smelling liquid into the tank of my ride.

"You and your machine will be drinking together," he responds. "If that works for you."

It's my turn to laugh. It's not the first time I've drunk the same stuff that’s fueling my bike. "Yeah. That works fine."

We head to one of the compound’s back rooms. My n-comm – neural communications package – tells me the bike’s full and at rest. The damn thing takes on anything as fuel,

though its preferences run to alcohol/ethanol-based concoctions. I guess that's why we make such a great team.

We grab a seat in what passes for a common room. Mikey’s now acting as bartender and her

'tude has notched down by roughly one percent. I think she likes me, but it's probably the bike. The vehicle has that effect on rig-rats. Dwayne and I have chipped glasses of syrupy fluid in front of us. It stinks.

"Bottoms up," he encourages and takes a swift shot.

He manages to stay on his seat and conscious so I guess it’s alright. I take a drink. Whoa! At least it's alcohol based; the bike will be happy. Some of the future booze I’ve tried contains chemical elements that don’t currently exist on our periodic table. And that stuff hurts in the morning.

"You an original?" I ask.

The man across from me nods. "Close enough, though it's hard to tell exactly."

Originals are those folk based roughly in the time and place they were born and raised.  They may have cascaded here and there, but the system has a habit of dropping people back where they belong. It's far from consistent and no guarantee of permanency, but while Dwayne’s here, he considers himself at home.

"I saw you before, you and your pa, what, in 2040?" "Yep, around then, before the Scyther got him."

"It attacked the depot?" I ask, surprised.

Depots are a necessity for anything that’s transport-based. War Clans don't care about preserving depots and are more than happy to have a crack at a fuel compound. The tech benefits from taking one down make it worth it for them. Anything that relies on high-level tech, and this includes the Scythers, tends to leave them alone. You got no fuel for your ride, you’re in deep shit, I don't care where you come from.

"Yep, two of them attacked. Mikey here got one, the other got my dad," he explains. “Then we got cascaded away. Lucky timing I guess.”

I look across at the kid. She’s pretending not to listen. I'm impressed. Taking down a Scyther ’s a chore, a real goddamned chore. Scythers keep on coming until they, well, until they don't.

The Terminator’s a shirking 14-year-old virgin compared to a Scyther. The kid may be worth keeping an eye on. The Deacons, my bosses, are always looking for the next generation of Keepers. She may be a candidate. I take another drink. It rips me a new trachea. Smooth, really smooth. The kid also may help explain something.

"You only do fuel?" I ask.

Dwayne nods. "Mainly, up and down the line, nothing too far away."

Interesting. Dwayne’s referring to his sources. Fuel scarcity’s a common problem for all the tech-based operators. Pulling in fuel from the past and the future is one way to overcome this. I don't know the details, but those in charge of depots have contacts and connections

'up and down the line' as Dwayne put it. "You two the only ones here?" I ask.

Dwayne shrugs. "A couple of others, they work the shops, keep the machines rolling." Mechanics and techies, critical for a depot but not worth the time for two Scythers.

"So just you and Mikey."

He nods. Bingo. Dwayne’s too old for the Scythers to be interested in. It's got to be the kid. Mikey’s the target.

"How long’s she been working the rig?"

Her taking out a Scyther with the gun turret’s impressive. She must've been at it for a while. "Since her brother left."

"Left?"

You don't really leave fuel depots; it's too dangerous. You get born, you live and you die – all in the same place, though not necessarily in the same time.

Dwayne frowns. "Yeah, fuck you man. You Keepers took him. He's one of you now. They tell you nothing."

My face is impassive. Christ, Deacons. They tell you jack shit and expect you to get the job done. I've been tracking a rogue Scyther for weeks, trying to work out its pattern. It's been harassing fuel depots and all the time it's probably been after this kid. Shit, this is my real mission. Mikey’s slated to be one of us. Mikey’s going to be a Keeper. Assuming I can keep her alive.

Episode 1 Scene 7

The Past

After the initial onslaught, mankind managed to battle the War Clans to a draw. The death toll was still stupendous, but now it was more equally spread. Current-day humanity managed to call on their inner beasts and they were just as happy as the War Clans to go on a massacre. Civilization, as most knew, was only ever a convenient pretense.

The War Clans too had grown more aware. Their grunt tactics of taking everything head-on had evolved into a guerilla-based warfare; competition’s wonderful for forcing adaptations and changes.

Then things changed again.

The first change was obvious. Communities started disappearing. It wasn't just people that disappeared; it was everything they had with them. Transport, homes, weapons, you name it, it went; there was nothing left behind.

The first time this happened people thought the War Clans had found a new weapon, something that completely eradicated any trace of a target community. But this didn't make sense. The War Clans were after tech, tech to take back to their own era to protect themselves against whatever was attacking them in the past. They didn't want to wipe everything out.

The question was, where did this ability come from? We certainly didn't develop it, so who the hell could make whole groups vanish?

At the same time current-day communities started to vanish, attacks from the Clans ceased. They didn't just slowly disappear, they completely dried up. One day there were rampaging hordes of Vikings or Mongols or Huns knocking on your door and then there was nothing. It didn't make sense. Whole communities were disappearing, but they weren't being attacked

– not in the conventional sense.

Not long after the disappearances the second change occurred and attacks resumed. Outlying communities were the first victims. These groups, while small, were impressively defended. That’s how they survived. Most relied on a natural barrier: a river, a cliff, a valley, as an initial form of protection, and then they armed themselves to the teeth.

They’d been successful against the Clans because they’d used these natural barriers to channel their opponents’ superior numbers into a relatively small area. It was then just a matter of applying overwhelming firepower and waiting for the bodies to stack up. After that, the Clans left them alone.

But then these groups also started getting hit again. What exactly was doing the damage was

unknown. Attacks occurred in the full light of day, or the dead of night. Some community members reported seeing a pale fast-moving vehicle – only one – and then something would be destroyed.

Sometimes buildings would blow up, sometimes they’d burn. On other occasions they’d just vibrate and shake until they exploded from the inside. These attackers became known as Scythers. They’d sweep in, slice away at the edge of a community, and then vanish.

What they wanted was anybody's guess. It wasn't tech. They obviously had tech all over us at that stage and it wasn't resources: they never took anything. So what the hell did they want?

Episode 1 Scene 8

The Present

"Mikey, right?"

It’s an obvious statement. Dwayne’s the only other person here. She shoots me a contemptuous look. I've never been any good with anything under 18.

"So," I continue. “What’s that short for Michelle?"

And there I go, off to a red hot start. The one percent coolness factor I may have gotten courtesy of the bike has gone the way of my drink. Dwayne looks at me, shakes his head and heads to the workshop. He doesn’t need to watch a grown Keeper make an ass of himself.

"What the hell do you want, Teeno?" she demands.

There it is. The contempt’s complete, and in record time. Teeno’s short for Temporal Enforcement Officer, the official title for a Keeper. It’s usually graffitied on whatever surface has managed to survive unscathed, but for the young and feisty, it can be incorporated into everyday speech. Great.

I feel the stirring of laughter in my mind, the n-comm connection to my bike appears to be in superb working order and my ride is appreciating my predicament. Sometimes I wish it wasn’t so smart.

Mikey takes time and studies me more closely. My facial scars, or rather facial gouges, are the result of a pre-Keeper fracas with a Scyther. It was this that got me noticed by the Deacons. Taking down a Scyther with the help of your Keeper bike is considered good form. Taking one down with no training and a knife is considered awesome. I remember this. I am awesome. This is good.

"What’s your brother’s name? Maybe I know him," I try. "How would you know him? He could be anywhere."

"If he's trained as a Keeper, I can find him. I can put you in contact."

She snorts and looks away, but doesn't leave. "How can you find him?”

I smile. “He’ll be looking after us. He'll be protecting our timeline."

Young Mikey’s puzzled. This, at least, is something she doesn't know.

"What do you mean?"

"If he survived the training, he’ll be working up and down the line, looking after our people, our timeline."

"So you don't just work here, in this time?"

"Keepers of this era protect the people of this era, wherever they are."

"Past and future?"

"Past and future," I confirm. “I cascade around to protect our people.”

Mikey’s thoughtful. This is more information than she normally has to process. Working the gun-rig doesn't leave much time for contemplation; it's usually shoot or don't shoot. Or more accurately, just shoot. Thinking beyond the now is not a valuable survival skill.

"So why do you do it? Why protect us?" asks Mikey.

I’ve never thought of this. But I know the answer. I jerk my thumb in the direction of my ride.

"I get to ride that and blow shit up," I tell her.

She shrugs. The answer seems to satisfy her. She really is Keeper material.

Next Chapter: New Chapter