Chester “Ched” Edwards, one-time heir to AllRound Enterprises, spits out gobs of dirt and dried blood and takes a gulp from his water line. It tastes like warm piss. The horizon strobes magenta, each spike followed by a pitch-shifting whine, loose and ghostly. If this is a storm, it is unlike any he has ever seen.

He unzips his landing suit, feeling around for his radio, keying in the number he’s been given.

“Chester Edwards, customer 412-695-B. Waiting for agent.”

Nothing but white noise. His pod is still visible as a trapezoid lump, overtly geometrical against the marshy flatness. He can’t remember getting out of it, can’t remember walking this far from it, passing out.

He switches his vision to overlay and sweeps for the company advice:

In the event of problems contacting your assigned primary agent, use your pod’s grid to locate the arrival coordinates of the next maiden agent. Please be reassured that the maximum flow-time wait will be two weeks. Your pod carries enough resources to sustain you for three months.

Chester “Ched” Edwards fires a dry retch at the cloying soil, then begins to trudge back towards his lander.

#

Aware of the risks of a live appearance, Ched watched the presentation in semi-transparent overlay whilst taking a dump in one of the seven toilets in his sea-view apartment. Even from such an earthly vantage, Evan Bales’s contagious enthusiasm shone through, and it was all Ched could do not to shout “Hell, yeah!” at the pertinent points. You had to give it to the Big Man, he could work a crowd.

“Our first commercial flight rode out at twenty-gamma, giving our customers a one-way ticket to a world that’s five years ahead of ours. The Arrow-3000 fleet pushed that up to a hundred-gamma, a twenty-five-year fast-forward – hell, even my brother took me up on that one, just to get away from me…”

Laughter, on cue.

Ched shifted carefully on the toilet seat and took a deep breath; the last thing he wanted was to rupture his haemorrhoids.

“But seriously, folks.” A change of expression and posture from Bales, reminding us that this is the CEO of FutureBreaks we’re listening to; the engineer, the magnate, the all-round success man. “This last decade at FutureBreaks has been a hell of a ride, but none of it would have been possible without our brave, adventurous customers. It is people like you who are literally creating the future!”

This goes down extremely well; Bales the cleanser, washing out any self-doubt that his clients may have by appealing to their egos.

Ched wiped his ass and flushed. A clip appeared across his background field, brightening and sharpening. He imagined that in the auditorium this would be holo-projected, filling the entire chamber: several Arrow-3000s are docked to the stem, suckling like calves, gorging on electronic and fluid nutrients; one pod is drifting majestically towards its launch node; at the bottom of the image, coming into view against a backdrop of crescent Earth, is something extraordinary.

“Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce to you the Arrow-4000. Twin antiproton engines, groundbreaking thermal radiator technology, point-five-gee rolling drums manufactured by our loyal partners at Gravimetrics, full bio support for up to six passengers. And, ladies and gentlemen… the icing on the cake…”

The clip takes us on a graceful sweep along the hub, revealing hundreds of the new craft, glinting in tune with the stem’s rotation.

“Each Arrow-4000 can sustain a thousand-gamma for up to nine flow-time months. So give me some noise if you fancy the idea of travelling seven hundred years into the future!”

He’s already got noise. Now he has more.

The spell was suddenly broken by Ched’s apartment routine registering a call. Ben Wallace, his MD at AllRound, waiting outside the front door. Wants a chat, says it’s urgent.

Ched swept the overlay aside, pushed down on the flush, and tried his best to wipe the smile from his face.

Seven hundred years. Surely no fucker would follow me that far?

#

Ched has been back in his pod for barely an hour when he notices three wavering droplets of emerald light on the western horizon. Whatever is emitting that light is getting closer, and fast. Better late than never, he thinks, beginning a routine inventory on his supplies.

He’d imagined that his agent would arrive in some futuristic vehicle, but the approaching craft looks like his old Huey, and sounds like it too – even down to the pitch of the rotor.

The ‘copter lands about ten meters from Ched’s pod, and spits out a figure wearing a triangular mask and some kind of chemical warfare suit.

Upon approach, the figure barks an order but Ched can’t make head nor tail of it. During his training, he’d been warned about the exponential evolution of language.

“Chester Edwards, customer 412-695-B. I guess you got my call.”

The figure tilts its head and makes a guttural sound, beckoning him, pointing towards the juddering ‘copter. Whatever is in that suit seems to be in one hell of a rush, because after repeating the nonsense order, it raises its arms in a gesture of exasperation, and makes to leave Ched behind.

“No! Wait, I’m coming…”

Ched is beginning to feel something of the vulnerability of a foreigner. What can he do but comply? With a curious mixture of reluctance and relief, he picks up his supply pack and follows the stranger into the maw of the craft. Once inside, it becomes clear that this is no twenty-first-century machine. There is no engine noise, for a start. And there doesn’t appear to be a pilot. Virtually none of the complex-looking flight control systems that Ched would expect; no stick, no pedals, and no sign of a throttle; just a smooth dashboard, lined with shimmering, translucent plastic.

A request ping pushes into Ched’s periphery, prompting him to re-start his overlay. Weird Cyrillic-looking symbols appear in the center of his field, before blurring and morphing into proper Roman characters.

Wole Katarin zhi-ging t r-kayc…

“I don’t understand,” he says.

The characters shift and blur again.

[Shift to archaic US-English circa 2100]. My name is Katarin. Can you read this?

Thank God for that! Ched nods, and pings back an affirmative.

You are contaminated, Katarin projects.* You’ll need to be swept and flushed. Put this on…*

She hands him a mask like her own and he obliges, pulling the bizarre triangular structure over his head. A warm gummy substance oozes from its base, making a flesh-like seal around his neck.

“Are you my primary agent? From FutureBreaks?”

Silence, broken only by weird bubbling and gushing noises from somewhere within his mask. Then comes a reply, auditory now, through the speaker grills.

“I am not your agent.”

Ched’s mind is writhing. “I need to make contact with a FutureBreaks agent. If you’re unprepared to help, then please take me back to my pod.”

No reply.

“Did you not understand what I said? I asked you take me back to…”

Ched’s neural activity bottoms out, plunging him into a state of unconsciousness so deep that he could neither die nor emerge from its depths without targeted assistance.

#

Talk about bad timing. Ben Wallace has been sniffing around, like he’s after a bitch on heat.

“I should have seen this coming, Ched. No wonder you were the only one on the board opposed to the merger.”

The scrawny MD was pacing back and forth with an arrogant strut, like he owned the apartment.

“Why in God’s name didn’t you tell me?” shouted Wallace, aggravated now, breath coming in short spurts. “We’ve been friends for years…”

That’s what he thinks.

“Give it to me straight, Wallace. What exactly are you accusing me of? And make it brief – I am busting for a piss.”

“You’ve been embezzling company money. Trust funds, fake charity status, ghost employees. The list goes on. It’s fucking insulting.”

Ched got up from his leather chair to stand taller than his exasperated colleague.

“I don’t know who you’ve been talking to in your investigations, Wallace, but it seems that somebody’s got the wrong end of a very shitty stick. This isn’t what you think it is. Now if you’ll excuse me, my bladder is about to burst. ”

Instead of turning right towards the toilet, Ched took a left into his master bedroom. At the back of his wardrobe, behind his collection of Gucci suits, was a yellow shoebox. Inside, the revolver was greased and loaded, ready to go. He flicked the safety and eased the gun into the pocket of his slacks. He felt a bit out of practice with this piece, but his target would be hard to miss at close range.

Ched returned to his office, whistling casually, his right hand in his pocket, fingers feeling for the trigger guard.

“OK, Wallace. It is time you heard my side of this story…”

Ched always prided himself his sleight of hand, his innate ability to misdirect, to deceive. Two bullets rip through Ben Wallace’s chest before he even notices the gun. Wallace’s body hits the floor with a meaty thud.

Job done, Chester Edwards. Now for a bit more magic…

#

Three hours later, Ched sat in a spacious office on the forty-second floor of the Bales tower, with a view overlooking lower Manhattan in all its glassy glory.

“I want to be in the first batch, and I demand complete and assured anonymity.”

“Impossible, Mr. Edwards,” the clerk returned, running a flat hand through his scrub-thick beard. “Securing you a place at such short notice would necessitate another valued customer foregoing their own place. Also, there is not enough time before launch to run the required checks – criminal record, credit status, psychological profile, etcetera. And complete anonymity? I’m afraid not.”

“May I remind you that AllRound Enterprises owns a 5 percent share in FutureBreaks plc. With the markets so volatile, it might be reassuring for you to know that there is much more in our pot. I believe strongly in the principle of mutual benefit, a.k.a. I rub your back, you rub mine.”

With classic timing that even his father would have been proud of, Ched pinged the relevant account surpluses together with a hint of the sizeable priority payment he was prepared to make to the clerk’s field. The clerk failed to disguise a raise of the eyebrows.

“I’ll put this through to my superior… see what she thinks.” The clerk wore the distracted and slightly defocused frown of one monitoring their feeds. “Ah, Mr. Edwards, it seems that your request has been granted priority status. The necessary tests will be carried out by the end of the day. A flight has been booked for you in the first batch – solo pod, six months flow time. That’s a five-hundred-year jump, as requested. Arrival scheduled for 3rd June 2565. Is there anything else I can do for you?”

Ched brushed off the suggestion. Turning to leave, he felt like the greatest man alive.

#

Ched watched the pre-flight briefing from the safety of an anonymous suite. The glass was one-way, the audio feed crystal clear. He guessed there must be three hundred clients in the briefing room, and perhaps as many again behind the glass. A handful of invited journalists sat to the left of the main stage.

All eyes were on the technical director, a fast-talking and fast-walking Nigerian. “The logistics of the thousand-gamma program on which you are about to embark are similar to those of our tried and trusted twenty-gamma program…”

A hand went up in the press box at the front. The director seemed surprised to be taking a question so soon.

“How can you say ‘tried and trusted’ when, clearly, any measure of success or otherwise lies in the future?”

Ah, don’t you just love these hacks?

The technical director cleared his throat. “Thirty-six maiden agents were dispatched in the original twenty-gamma program, and all of them arrived within five seconds of their target events. They catered successfully for two-hundred happy customers, a few of whom here with us today. I see no reason why our new longer-haul programs shouldn’t be similarly successful”

A general rumble of agreement from those seated in the briefing room.

As if to change the subject, a projection of an instantly recognizable icon appeared on the screen behind the director. “It is this man, of course, that we should thank for success, our dreams. From his mind, the idea of time dilation was born. He showed us that travelling into the future is as natural as taking your next breath! It is simply a matter of speed…”

A montage of historical clips takes Einstein’s place; everything from Bluebird to the Saturn V launches, culminating in footage of the Arrow-4000 fleet, dancing gracefully around their stem.

“You will launch to Earth orbit tomorrow at dawn. You will spend a day and a night at the orbital hub, preparing for dormancy. Your scheduled personal launch time is coming up now…”

A ping to Ched’s periphery. Thursday 3rd April. 0947 GMT.

“In comfortable dormancy, you will remember nothing of the flight itself. Your dose levels will be continuously monitored and tailored to bring you out 48 hours prior to your arrival. Your Arrow-4000 pod is programmed to take you right to your target event, and is equipped with fast hydraulic cushioning seats, and ground radar controlled thrusters. Re-entry is no longer the bumpy ride of times gone by – landing will feel like sinking into a comfortable armchair.

We have already dispatched our maiden agents, sending one team of three to arrive every six months for the next seven hundred years. Each of you will be assigned a primary agent who will have spent at least a year on your future Earth prior to your arrival. Your agent will have converted your base and contingency funds into contemporary currency, and will have been given the precise coordinates of your arrival event. Rest assured – they will be there to greet you!”

A standing ovation. It feels like the corporate launch all over again.

Ched was beginning to grow impatient with all this talk and hype. He was ready to launch. It couldn’t come quickly enough.

#

Ched wakes in the fetal position, curled and tight and uncertain, wearing nothing but a paper-thin gown. Twisted shadows dance around him, cast by a single brazier set into a stony wall.

What is this, the fucking dark ages?

“Mr. Edwards?”

Ched squints through the dim and buttery light, scanning for the source of the voice, attempting to shift to image enhancement.

“Your augments are down, Mr. Edwards. Would you like me to start them up again?”

Ched’s visual overlay flickers to life, enhancement revealing a feminine figure standing in the corner. In his forefield, a simple text overlay:

Wole Katarin zhi-ging t r-kayc.

He begins to remember now. The ‘copter. Katarin.

“I’m not the agent you were expecting, Mr. Edwards. But I hope that you will allow me to be a guide, of sorts, to this wonderful future you’ve travelled to.”

A video stream fills his foreground, and he can’t swipe it away. Flickering purple light props up a darkening sky. Sharp violet flashes illuminate a dark, writhing mass. There is something undeniably monstrous about it; the surface is uneven, shifting and squirming like a bucketful of eels.

“This footage was taken last night. The popular name for it is the Tumour. An overly optimistic moniker, if you ask me; suggests we can treat it, even destroy it. It feeds on the bedrock like a lithotroph, but it’s truly alien. The bubbling surface effect, as far as we can tell, is an acidic effluent, excreted upwards. This thing is literally shitting on our planet.”

Ched shrugs his shoulders. “So let it shit. What’s the big deal?”

“The big deal, Mr. Edwards, is that the Tumour has already taken most of Ontario, scoured the Great Lakes, and is currently gorging itself on New York State. A couple of million square kilometers in total. Word has it that if it reaches the coast, there’ll be nothing we can do to stop it spreading, slowly suffocating the entire Earth. Hence the light show: a constant bombardment of nukes, plasma-bombs, annihilation pulses – everything we can throw at the bastard. Been going on for fifty years.”

A scuffling outside the door and a young boy appears, holding a plate of bread and cheese. Ched is grateful for the food, but wants some answers.

“Where am I?”

“Ten miles south and a quarter mile beneath the former town of Buffalo, NY. Chamber 301b.”

“I want you to take me back to my pod.”

“Impossible. Only rangers are allowed out.”

“Then put me in touch with my primary agent. Now.”

Katarin laughs. “Hell, you are slow, Mr. Edwards. I would have thought that you would have cottoned on by now that FutureBreaks plc no longer exists.”

Ched finds that extremely difficult to believe. The money they put into this project, the resources…

“Your beloved FutureBreaks has been dead for forty years. There was a resurgence of interest shortly after the Tumour’s arrival, as it became clear that the armed intervention was making our planet uninhabitable. The rich and the influential deserted us in droves, taking their money with them into a distant future. Selfish bastards like you, I guess. After that, the customer base dried up. ”

Ched feels a spiky anger rising within him. His father’s voice comes to him, as it often does in testing times: Harness that anger, Chester. Use it as a weapon.

“This is all very fascinating,” he says sardonically. “The Tumour, the Earth a contaminated wasteland, humanity burrowing like frightened rats. But how do I know you’re not making this all up? That you’re not some weirdo? And even if it is all true, then until you give me full access to my funds, how do you expect me to give a fuck?”

Katarin sighs. “I expected you to be arrogant, Mr. Edwards, and thus far you have not disappointed. The Tumour is very real, and you should care, because the military response against the it is sucking up global resources, natural and financial. And that includes your so-called funds.”

“What? You bitch. That is my money.” Ched can’t help himself; he lunges at Katarin, his fat red fists flailing. He gets one strike in, a lateral clawing sweep across her tits, and then his world shuts down.

His augments flicker and drop out and he sinks to the floor, feeling for his legs.

“Clever, don’t you think? Technology has come a long way since the twenty-first century.”

Katarin moves up close, a bit too close, and there is nothing Ched can do to stop her.

“On, and off, and on again,” she says.

The feeling begins to return to Ched’s legs, enough for him to haul himself up to a sitting position. His mind is reeling. There’s something wrong about all this, something she’s not telling me.

“The agents and customers sent out with my program – surely they kept coming?”

“I guess so,” says Katarin, a hoarseness to her voice. “Most of them will be dead, I suppose. Can’t survive for more than a day out there before radiation sickness kicks in. The lucky ones may have found their way to a warren, or by chance got picked up by a ranger…”

Ched tries to stand up, but his legs are still weak. “So I am one of the lucky ones?”

“In your case, Mr. Edwards, luck had nothing to do with it.”

#

The take-off from Canaveral was smoother than Ched had expected. Looking around him, he counted thirty passengers, strapped into their harnesses like animals. Some were fidgeting, praying, pretending to sleep. But Ched was as far from sleep as could be. He had never felt so awake, so alive, in his life.

ETA at hub: 85 minutes.

Altitude: 34 000 feet.

Temperature: minus 56 Fahrenheit.

Zero g in: 21 minutes 54 seconds.

Even on sub-orbital flights, he liked to keep flight data at the edge of his field. Gave him a sense of reality. The auto-attendant brought him a brandy which he accepted with characteristic lack of grace (it’s a robot for Christ’s sake!) before putting his seat onto recline and keying some jazz on his audio feed; better than listening to the sporadic small talk of the nervous old goon beside him.

Ched was nervous too, of course. Nervous as hell. He imagined that, even now, down there on the surface, Ben Wallace’s disappearance would be raising eyebrows. Colleagues and family would be getting suspicious. Sooner or later, someone would make the link; tie Wallace’s disappearance to the meeting at the apartment, begin to dig deeper.

But digging deeper took time. And as long as it took more than two days, Ched couldn’t give a damn.

Cole Porter was playing ‘Anything Goes’, the brandy tasted like heaven, and Ched had five unwatched shots of porn in his feed.

Relax, man. This journey to the hub will be a breeze.

#

Face down. A sharpening pressure against his back. Ched attempts to twist around, but something is restraining him, pushing between his shoulder blades, forcing him down.

Suddenly his arms are wrenched upwards, his hands tied together with rough urgency, pulling his spine into an unnatural arch. A boot kicks him in the side, and again. He drops to the floor. Rough hands grab at his waste and roll him over. The dark figure looming over him snorts and spits, the phlegm splattering Ched’s eyes.

Katarin’s thin face gazes down at him, eyes drilling holes.

Ched coughs. “What the fuck are you doing?” he manages. This earns him another boot in the stomach, and he sputters blood onto the dusty floor.

“You know what, Mr. Edwards? Before you arrived, I began to entertain the possibility that you might not be the person I imagined. That you might be affable, compliant. Not a selfish murderous bastard. A year in this godforsaken future must have dulled my senses…”

Ched groans. He needs painkillers. Fast.

His overlay comes to life, the visual field looping, flickering. He can’t stop it. He can’t even switch it off.

“You like that? How about this?”

Someone has stuck a fork in his brain and is rooting around. Sharp pains alternate with blankness, confusion. Ched is falling, spinning, fainting.

His field lights up, text scrolling in, his eyes struggling to focus.

Augments have come a long way in five hundred years. Would you like to see more?

“You’ve made your point, you bastard.”

“You want to know why I’m holding you here against your will?” asks Katarin. “Perhaps this will help…”

A news feed, loud and bright, forced into his frame. Ched’s bracing himself for another bullshit lecture, and then he clocks the date.

June 14th, 2065.

Hell, this was from – what – two months in the future? Or five hundred years in the past? However he thinks of it, it feels uncomfortable.

And there’s Evan Bales, no doubt about to talk himself once more into the history books. But his expression is somber, down-beat.

“Our policy at FutureBreaks is clear on this matter. We cannot, and will not, condone criminal use of our product. Our vetting procedure is thorough, and bolstered by local enforcement and the FBI. This time, though, it appears we were all deceived…”

And there it is. The face of Chester “Ched” Edwards, his name in white-on-red, comments from colleagues, friends, family, scrolling like worms across the field. The anchor looks right into the camera, eyes challenging the viewer to doubt the sincerity of his expression.

“Wanted for corporate fraud. Wanted for murder. But how do you track down a killer who has disappeared into the future? Brice Carter explains…”

Brice Carter is on the scene, outside the FBI Headquarters in DC. Clearly not important enough to get inside.

“A statement has been released this evening, from this very building: The FBI has been working closely with NYPD and FutureBreaks to develop an appropriate response to this unprecedented event. We are in unanimous agreement that a law enforcement team should be dispatched as soon as logistically possible. The team’s target event has been scheduled eighteen months prior to Mr. Edwards’s arrival. This will give them time to adjust to their new temporal surroundings. They will apprehend the felon upon his arrival, and deal with him according to the laws contemporary to the event…

Ched’s augments drop out. Katarin is kneeling beside him, puffing stale breath into his face.

“Let me guess. You’re part of this law enforcement team…”

Ched braces himself for another kick in the guts.

“In a sense, yes.”

“This is the FBI’s definition of ‘dealing with me according to the laws contemporary to the event’? Tying me up in a dark cave and kicking the shit out of me?”

Katarin lets out a guttural laugh. “You think I’m FBI? They don’t exist anymore, for Christ’s sake.”

A lurching sensation again, like the floor is moving. A confusion of time and space; for a few moments Ched doesn’t have any idea who he is or what he’s doing.

“You like that? I got me these new augments nine months ago, not long after I arrived. They can work magic on the undefended. Helped me deal with the team sent after you…”

Ched regains his sense of place, taking in the dark and the flickering light. “Who the fuck are you?” he manages.

“I’m your nightmare, Edwards. Because you were mine. Think of me as a restorer of justice; in this future, the laws are as feeble as those who make them; the worst you’d get for what you did is six months in the uranium mines.”

Ched’s head feels like it might burst, like all the hangovers of his life have been concentrated into this one moment.

Shit, girl, give me a break!

Katarin leans close, alcohol and blood and something otherworldly on her breath.

“I was outside in the car,” she whispers, stringy lips chaffing on Ched’s cheek. “I was fourteen years old, you bastard…”

Katarin rips Ched’s gown, what’s left of it, and her right hand moves downwards.

“We’d been on our way back from tennis, my father and I. He said he needed to stop at your place on the way. He’d been gone for ages, so I went to check up on him. I snuck visual feeds on all your windows. I watched as you dragged his bleeding body across the floor. I saw what you did to it, afterwards…”

A searing rip of pain, bright, red-and-black agony, scouring his mind. Ched finds himself actively trying to lose consciousness, to shake himself free of this excruciating moment.

“I want a confession, Mr. Edwards. And an explanation. If I’m not satisfied with either, or if I sense even a glimmer of a lie, I will rip your balls off.”

Ched’s confession comes in gasps and tears, in confusion and helplessness and red-raw pain, five hundred years too late.

#

The bar in the hub reserved for those travelling under anonymity was plush, roomy, well-stocked. It had vintage Haut-Brion, scotch whisky that must have rained from heaven, and Arturo Fuente cigars by the box-full. All on the house.

And the waitresses were gorgeous.

A ping came in saying that the final flight had docked. This place would be full before long. There must have been a couple of hundred in here already.

Chester ‘Ched’ Edwards had claimed a large corner table to himself, next to a floor-embedded window that showed a gibbous Earth slipping by. Something about that Earth looked cold, invasive, oppressive; not at all like the blue and opportunistic version to which he was headed.

He’d made his brief and obligatory calls to his mother and sisters, and since then had been keeping himself busy on the public feed. He’d had five likes already. Three girls, one guy, and the slimmest and most ravishing of the waitresses. He was hoping, in fact demanding, that his last night on Earth would be as pleasurable as it was memorable – a night to look back on when he arrived five hundred years in the future.

One of the girls, a redhead with slim hips and sparkling eyes, sidled up to him, cruising like they all did towards his power, his wealth. She put a hand on his knee and pinged a very interesting picture of herself to his overlay.

“How far are you heading, darling?” she said, running a finger around the rim of her glass.

Ched was reluctant to share any real information, but this girl was so alluring.

“As far as I can go, babe. As far as I can go.”

Hell, fifty-two years old and I’ve still got it.