CATCH THE STARWAY PASS, PUT IT IN YOUR POCKET

fiction-starwaypass_160Appearing in 2008 as a three-part serial in the wonderful webzine Space Westerns, “Catch The Starway Pass, Put It In Your Pocket” was the longest story I’d published at the time. Truth be told, I wrote the piece specifically for inclusion in Space Westerns when I saw the beautifully-rendered pictures they created for each story they chose (Plus, who doesn’t like a western?) The pictures were evocative, anachronistic, and just plain cool—sometimes that’s all it takes to get you writing. And that’s precisely what editor Nathan Lilly did with my antagonist, the mysterious gunman Lomac Zhinn. And he ended up looking sensational! (There’s the handsome devil on the left)

“Catch The Starway Pass, Put It In Your Pocket” takes westward expansion to cosmic extremes in depicting one man’s fight to fit in to an isolated society that doesn’t want him. A gateway between worlds known as the Starway Pass offers the promise of countless new people to fill the planet Exoterra. But not everyone is so enamored of the proposition of more humans arriving.

Space Westerns was an exceedingly handsome-looking webzine with quality fiction at a time when many online publications were anything but. I was sorry to see it fold up shop not too long ago, but the market is a fickle place. Upon my writing of this, though, Mr. Lilly still had his ‘zine up and readable so click on the link and be transported to worlds where six guns, heeled boots, and ten-gallon hats rule the stars. Or just read it below.

 

 

 

CATCH THE STARWAY PASS, PUT IT IN YOUR POCKET

by

Christopher L. DelGuercio

 

With his body stretched fully over the white dirt of Exoterra and his hands clasped behind his neck, Harland Cherry’s gaze swiveled leisurely from left to right. The moonless night sky, alive with pinholes of starlight, scrolled for the old man behind the prairie horizon like the tuneless paper roll of a Pianola. The three others busied themselves several feet away.

“I reckon you fellas don’t think much of people like us, living out here on the edge of it all, cut off like we is. Folks must see this place as forsaken–halfway to hell–and it shows sometimes in our ways.” Harland sat up. “But I think we’re real lucky.”

“How’s that?” one of the men asked in a brusque voice.

Harland’s grey eyes were still lost in the sky, wide as a child’s.

“We got the stars and all the rest of creation on one side of us see,” he pointed up into the night, “and this here sun burning all alone on the other. Just think, if that sun was on the same side as everything else, we’d never see the stars. You boys watch now, this whole planet will spin right around in a few more hours and you’ll see these stars just peter out until there ain’t nothing left in the sky but night. Then comes the sunrise. If that ole white fireball wasn’t hanging between us and the void, every night would be just as black as a bag of assholes.”

The three men stopped and stared at Harland.

“So I say we’re lucky,” he told them.

“You got a peculiar way of looking at things, olden,” one of the men said. “The glass is always half-full with you Outridgers, ain’t it? I guess it’d have to be, stuck way the hell out here.” He unpacked his saddlebags. One of the others poked at the fire seriously while the sound of static from frying meetsprouts on a flame-licked skillet hung in the air. Harland got to his feet and snuffed the aroma. The last of the burly trio stood at an outpost, guarding the camp.

“This is hard living—natural living,” Harland continued. “It’s not for everyone, I know, but I been living this way from the beginning. I’ve got to live this way.” He pulled a few clumps of breadmeal from his pocket and held them at the mouth of his sectis. The beast’s antennae curled down to inspect the food. It snatched a piece of the breadmeal with its mandibles and carried it into its mouth, then, opened its gaping maw, allowing the old man to hand feed it. “There you go, boy,” he said, stroking the fur of its antenna. “I hear you can’t find real food inside the hub galaxies anymore. It’s all pills, powders and pastes now.” He shook his head. “Ain’t nothing else in this world like real food. You boys will realize that once you get back home to the hub.”

The men groaned unintelligibly.

Harland rubbed at his back and eased his body down onto the blanket. He pulled off his boots and stretched out again under the wide velvet sky.

“I’m through talking,” he said, then added, “Folks can live however they want, I s’pose. You can live stacked up like bricks if you want to–that ain’t no life for me though. I gotta live this way.”

Two of the men had fallen asleep.

“Go on and get you some shuteye now. We still got a ways to go before we reach town. It ain’t right making you boys ride the whole way, but the fuel’s been dried up for some time. I guess we always figured–”

“Quiet,” the watchman growled.

He grunted out a warning to the other two men and cryptically motioned his teammates into action. The threesome moved with militaristic precision: The fire was stomped out and covered, removing that light source; Harland, the secti, and all supplies were gathered together in a small circle; and the three men formed a phalanx around everything, waiting in silence. The sound of footfalls intruded from the darkness and the great simultaneous whooshing of their dusters was followed immediately by the swish of rayzer guns being unsheathed from their holsters. Movement appeared in the deep distance from the southeast and the men stepped majestically in that direction–ivory Stetsons low, winds billowing their coattails like comic strip capes, rayzers at the ready. Harland hid behind a decayed log.

By full starlight a silhouetted figure materialized into view, striding toward the men. The tailless, twin-armed outline, and erect gait suggested the figure was not Skelt, but man. The distinctive hip bulge of a gunbelt further evinced this, as did the thin, unmistakable line of a hat brim.

The men took aim, maneuvering into stiff poses, their bodies all straight lines set at jagged angles, meant to invisibly camouflage themselves into the mountain range behind.

“Hold, you!” the watchman called out. The figure did not answer. Instead, he continued to amble closer. “I said, ‘Hold’!” The weapons screeched with a hummingbird flutter of high-pitched beeps, alerting the men of their readiness.

Harland, still hiding, called out to the stranger, “You best listen to them. Y’see them longcoats, don’t you? These boys are sanctified, rangers—Order of the Black Guard–from back east. They ain’t the playful sort, neither. Don’t give them an excuse to redball you, mister.”

“The old man’s right,” one of the rangers bellowed. “Live or die, stranger, your choice.”

The arms of the shadowy figure immediately shot up. His answer serpentined into their ears as softly as if it were planted there by some direct means and only now flowered into existence.

“My choice? . . . Die, I think.”

The silhouette twisted and vanished. The men attempted to adjust their sights, but they no longer had a target. Their fevered eyes scanned for some hint of movement, their ears trained on any possible sound. There was none.

“Show yourself,” the ranger hollered out. “What do you want?”

Again, from everywhere and nowhere, the answer swept in, crawling up their spines.

“To feed the soil with your blood.”

Three angry bolts of crimson materialized in the darkness and streaked across the prairie like comets toward the men. The luminescent streams collided with the rangers in a lava spray, their chests bursting forth molten bone and blood that poured over their chaps. The smoke from their charred flesh rose above the fallen men before evanescing into the night.

Silence.

Harland emerged cautiously. “I got nothing to do with these boys,” he stammered. “Like I said before, they come from somespace back east, I was just escorting them to town. Whatever beef there is ‘twixt you fellas got nothing to do with me.”

“Where is the StarwayPass?” came from behind the old man. Harland flung himself around to face the stranger, still shrouded in shadow. He showed his empty palms and lifted his arms until they nearly stretched out of their sockets.

“I never heard of it, mister,” he said.

“Is the StarwayPass here?”

“I been around these parts a long time and I ain’t never heard that name. I swear it.”

The stranger stepped out of the night and into the dying glare of the fire’s embers. He was tall, bean-thin with a biscuit-colored suit and checkered vest that clung tight to the lines of his body. His slouch hat, a tawny flat-top, sat just above his eyes, the wide brim obscuring his face. But the old man could see that the outlaw’s skin shimmered vermillion and gold. He stepped closer. Harland saw deep lines mapping a glistening face and dark, jeweled eyes that lent him a distinct reptilian appearance.

“What are you–a goddamn Skeltie?” Harland asked.

“Lomac Zhinn,” came the reply, even as the creature’s lips remained still. From inside his jacket, two arms of vestigial appearance reached out and pinned the old man’s hands to his sides before he could pull his gun.

“Show me the StarwayPass.”

“I told you, I never heard of it. Lemme go now, there ain’t no StarwayPass around here,” Harland whimpered.

“You’re telling the truth?”

Harland nodded.

The stranger took a long while then released his hold on the man, taking his rayzer from him and skipping it across the ground.

“I believe you,” he finally said. “And because I do, it’s a rightly pitiable fact that your death will forever be a mystery to you.”

With a free hand, Lomac drew his sidearm and fired a globule round straight through the old man’s gut. Harland folded into the white soil and died, burbling.

Lomac ransacked the camp, finding nothing of interest. He rolled one of the ranger’s bodies over and took a seat on top of it by the remnants of the fire, stoking it back to life. A glint of metal leapt out at him from inside the fire. He kicked the woodpile and stomped it out. Then, using the dead man’s hand, he sifted through the ashes. There he discovered a small, silver-chrome saucer. Lomac smiled and slipped it into his vest. He untied each sectis and sent them click-clack-clicking away, leaving the hollowed remains of the men to rot.

“I’ve got to live this way,” he said to the still faintly smoldering corpses. “Other folks can live however they want, but I’ve gotto live this way.”

II

A young man sat in a tightly-fitted bib shirt with a wire-tangle of hair growing off his chin. He sank lower in the chair, one hand over his cards, the other shielding his eyes. The blond sunlight that had crept across the saloon floor was a couple hours old, but Bil-Li and the other two men at the table had yet to wrap the previous night. Each one had a set of small, cylindrical tubes depressed into the tabletop in front of them with varying amounts of liquid in each. Bil-Li’s eyelids shuttered slightly as he reexamined his cards.

“In or out, Bil-Li?”

Bil-Li squinted at his hand. The tiny markings blurred and multiplied the harder he focussed.

You in or out?” The man across the table demanded.

“Don’t act so damn anxious, Rory, it’s a tell. I know you got something.”

“I’m not being anxious. I just want to get through this hand before you fall dead away right here at the table.” Rory sat the hind legs of his chair back down on the floorboard. “Of course I got something,” he continued, under his breath. “I’d have to be plum foolish to try and bluff you, Bi-Li.”

“Why’s that, Rory?” asked the younger man who’d already folded.

“’Because you can’t bluff a man who doesn’t give a shit about losing.”

Bil-Li laughed, sadly. “That’s a real persuasive theory you got there.” He straightened himself up. “And if I gave a shit, I might’ve listened to it. But like you say–” Bil-Li took one of the tubes and poured a few notches of clear liquid crystal into a large canister embedded at the middle of the table. “I’m in.”

Rory dealt two cards. “Don’t you think it’s time you sold your place and moved into town, Bil-Li, started a family or something?”

“I had a family.”

“Folks round here might treat you differently,” Rory said, peeking at the upturned corners of his new cards.

“Folks around here treat everybody just how they see fit. Proximity ain’t gonna change it. Things get hairy and I suspect you’ll be right there with them, friend.”

Rory gave a scowl. “That’s a hell of thing to say.”

“I’m sorry,” Bil-Li told him. “I’d like to be wrong.”

Rory’s face suddenly cheered and he gave a nod to the door. Bil-Li craned his neck for a look/see. A comely young woman–strung knee-high boots, pattern-lace dress, parasol, and Saturn hat dipping down in a wave across her face, ice white from tip to toe–entered the saloon with her parents. A droplet of sweat slid down her jaw, her body’s only betrayal to an otherwise grand entrance. Her father spoke to the two women briefly before heading to the bar. Mother and daughter waited just inside the swinging doors.

The younger woman’s eyes found Bil-Li’s.

He tipped his hat. “Mrs. Doil, Hannah–I swear you ladies get prettier every time I see you.”

Hannah stifled a smile and wound up blushing instead. Her mother looked to the bar.

“You gals look just fine today.”

“Well thank you kindly, Bil-Li Kay,” Mrs. Doil offered skittishly.

“Fine as cream gravy,” Bil-Li said, adjusting his hat.

Mr. Doil returned. “If you’re supposing that my bringing family in here while I conduct some business gives you license to make advances—it don’t!” the stout, thickly-mustachioed man in the Skimmer hat said. “We’re not ten minutes out of Sunday service and you’re in here sullying my girls with your eyeballs. I should’ve known better than to bring proper ladies around the likes of you. Go have your fun with Clementine Traynor, not my daughter.”

Bil-Li’s face hinted of a smirk. “Apologies for my insulting behavior to you and yours–especially on the Lord Mother’s Day. You seen the Lord at church today, Franck? You talked to Her? Didn’t think so.”

Franck Doil’s whiskers bristled.

“I’m thinking She’s just made-up by people like you so you can dress up on Sunday mornings and sing out loud while the rest of us heathens are trying to sleep. Hell Franck, if I’d a known Sundays mattered so much to you, I would’ve waited ‘til tomorrow to sully your girls.”

The saloon went hush and Franck Doil’s eyes darted with embarrassment. Bil-Li kicked the floor and lifted his wiry frame out of the chair. He approached the man with an outstretched hand.

“Dammit all, Franck, don’t get your back up. All I said was your girls look fetching in their new dresses, that’s all. I didn’t mean no harm by it. Go home and enjoy the day with your family. Don’t mind me, I’m just tired.”

“And drunk,” Mrs. Doil said.

“Yeah, maybe a little drunk, too.”

Franck spoke low. He pushed the words out past grit teeth. “I would ask that you keep your eyes off my girls. You’re nothing but a mudsill, Bil-Li Kay, still full as a tick at eight in the morning. Sure as you’re standing here, your folks are in their graves rolling.”

Rory pulled at the back of Bil-Li’s shirt, but the young man shrugged him away. “I would ask you to keep their names out of your mouth. This whole town owes them that much, and a damn sight more. As for your gals, it ain’t my eyes you should be worrying about, Franck”

The older man pushed a finger into Bil-Li’s face. “Hobble your lip, boy, or I’ll have some satisfaction!” His skin flushed bright as a bulb as he moved his hand to his belt. “It might’ve done you some good to come to church instead of living wild out on that farm. Your daddy should’ve taken a lash to your backside, but he was too busy dealing with them Skelties–and look where it got him. Yep, I reckon your folks done you a powerful disservice raising you like they did.”

“I asked you to keep from bringing my folks into it, Franck.”

Franck Doil quickly drew his rayzer and buried it under Bil-Li’s jaw.

“That’s Mister Doil, boy. Don’t ever forget what kind of man is standing in front of you.” Franck twisted the barrel into the soft of Bil-Li’s neck. “Why do you think I opened a gun shop, Bil-Li? You don’t sell rayzers without knowing your way around one. I’ve killed men.”

“I know you have.”

Franck grimaced and raised the pistol up to Bil-Li’s cheek. The skin bunched up around the young man’s eye, partially closing it. He released the safety.

Bil-Li could hear the excited hum of Franck’s piece warming. He moved his hand slowly down to his waist.

“Go ahead,” Franck said. “Skin it and watch me melt your head clean off. I heard what they say about you, but you ain’t that fast.” He grinned with the smugness only a man with a drawn gun can possess. “I got a real lively hand myself, and you’re testing me.”

Bil-Li’s hand edged away.

“Drilling choo birds off of a fence post is easy–redballing a man is different–it takes some doing. Tell me Bil-Li, you ever killed someone?”

Bil-Li said, “I’m not like you.”

Franck lowered his rayzer. “You sure as hell aren’t.” He carefully stepped back, holstered his piece, then turned and motioned his wife and daughter to leave.

“Like I said, ‘I ain’t like you’,” Bil-Li told the man. “I’m not a coward . . . Franck.” His voice was slow and clear, even as his nerves trembled.

Franck turned back and fumbled for his gun. He held it on the young man. “Get your ass outside.”

Franck led Bil-Li out into the morning followed by the patrons of Xebo’s saloon. The two men stepped onto the plank porch walkway and Franck gave the young man a hard push off the steps into the street. A crowd quickly amassed from all corners of the town and Bil-Li could feel the air growing thick with malice. Franck bounded down the saloon steps and onto the blanched soil with his second in tow, a big-bearded townie by the name of Trick Jim Kettenden.

“I won’t duel,” Bil-Li told him.

“Suits me fine, I’ll shoot you anyway,” Franck said. ”Time to settle up. You can stand there and piss yourself or just stand there and bleed—makes no difference to me. It’s better if you take an active part. Either way, you’re gonna wear the river.” Franck turned to the townspeople. “What say you good people of Neo/Providence, does thirty paces sound fair?” The town cheered its approval. “Thirty apiece, that’s sixty paces, it’s a long way, Bil-Li. My eyes aren’t as keen as they used to be.”

Bil-Li leaned in. “Talk as loud as you want, you lily cur, I’m not negotiating rules,” he whispered. “You shoot me and it’s murder. Stop this madness now.”

Franck hesitated and, looking into Bil-Li’s glazed, veinous eyes, turned to the throng and announced, “The terms have been agreed upon, thirty paces a man.”

Trick Jim lined the men up back-to-back. “You heeled, Bil-Li?” he asked.

“He’s ready, Jim, just count it off,” Franck said. He inspected his rayzer–eyeing the crystalline liquid in the cylinder and testing the power cells. Bil-Li fingered at the gun in his belt, but never checked it otherwise. Franck could feel the young man fidgeting behind him, struggling to stand in place. He leaned over his shoulder and told him, with sympathy in his voice,

“I’ll end you quick, Bil-Li. I won’t miss. They say you only feel it for a second when the red line hits you.”

“I won’t let this happen.”

“It’s happening,” Franck said. He looked off into the sky. “I admit your family was wronged, but I’m going to take all that pain away forever, you just let me.”

Bil-Li was sweating like bad meat. He suddenly darted into the crowd for cover, but the townsfolk spread out when he approached them as if there were an opposing magnetic field all around him. Trick Jim put his gun on him and Bil-Li sulked back along the dirty white street to where Franck waited.

He couldn’t stop the duel.

Jim instructed the men to turn their backs to one another again and started the thirty-pace count. Bil-Li’s dark eyes, closed by the sun, fought to sharpen themselves.

“One…”

“Two…”

“Three…”

“Four…”

Bil-Li drew his rayzer and spun around just before the fifth step. A twine-thin round of beaded plasma blasted from his tiny rayzer gun and snaked through the air, connecting with the back of Franck Doil and severing his backbone. The man’s body instantly tightened and fell as careless as an old oak. The chalk dirt kicked up and mixed with the thin pillar of smoke that rose out of the hole in his center—a shadow soul trapped in fog. He only felt it for a second.

Gasps echoed everywhere. Bil-Li locked his aim onto Trick Jim before the man could grab the pistol from his belt.

“Set ‘em free,” he told Jim. The brawny man unbuckled his gun belt and tossed it up onto the awning of Xebo’s. An uncertain moment passed before Bil-Li let out a scream and swung his gun onto the crowd. The townspeople cowered as he waved the barrel nonchalantly past them. Hannah Doil and her mother watched from in front of the church with the other good women and children of Neo/Providence. Bil-Li trained his sights on the cluster.

“You all would have me shot dead in the street,” he shouted. “Why?” His voice cracked slightly. “Because I remind you of what you are? Is it too much to bear? Tell me that’s what it is because at least then I’d understand it!” He scanned their faces. “I will haunt this town until the day I die,” he said. “But first things first–who’s sixty paces away? I’m going to show you all what I’m capable of at sixty paces.”

Bil-Li took careful aim and fired a blast line directly into the crowd outside the church. The laser streak zipped through the air toward a wailing mass of children. Amidst the cries, the ray disintegrating into a flaccid shower of sparks only a few feet in front a tow-headed boy, his blue eyes wide.

The street fell silent.

“Had this made up special–concentrated low level stream, minimal spray,” Bil-Li said, holding out the gun that was not much larger than his own hand. His voice got quiet. “I’d use it to get rid of jackhops. Mama liked it–it’d do the job on anything up close without setting her whole garden on fire.” The sadness in his voice was replaced with anger. “But it can’t so much as give you a blister from sixty paces!” he told them. He shook his head. “Franck Doil knew that. That man would of put me down like a dog, and all you people can think to do is watch.” Bil-Li shoved the gun back into his holster.

“You should’ve said something, Bil-Li, before you killed him,” Jim said. “Tell me how Franck was supposed to know your piece was just for garden jacks?”

The town murmured in agreement.

“He’s the one who made it for me,” Bil-Li said.

The young man walked the center of the street past Franck Doil’s corpse. He stopped briefly and stared down at the dead man. “You were right, Franck,” he said. “It ain’t nothing like drilling choo birds—a man’s got to learn how to kill, just like anything else.” He crouched down beside the body and whispered. “I guess I’m a quick study.”

Bil-Li unhitched his sectis from in front of Xebo’s and mounted the hard-armored beast. As the townsfolk dispersed, he rode across the street to Clementine Traynor. He reached his hand down to her without a word. She grabbed hold of his arm and Bil-Li pulled her up into the saddle behind him. She wrapped her arms around his waist and nestled her head into his shoulder blade, filling her nostrils with the stale smell of rotgut whiskey and day-old sweat that Bil-Li shed like a snakeskin. She smiled a hidden smile and held on tighter as the sectis picked up speed and a cool zephyr ran through her clothes.

III

Sheriff Bennett Tepper maneuvered through the jagged crystal field behind the Kay farm. In front of him, overgrown shoots of deep blue vegetation rose up out of jaundiced soil and peppered the remainder of the property. Tepper’s sectis walked through the plants hoping to cloak his approach. With each step the animal would shake its legs as if it were trying to remove gum from its shoe. The sectis labored forward; the blue weed tangling itself around the intruder. The beast’s thorny legs ripped at the infernal vines, but for each stalk that was severed, three more spiraled up to take its place. Tepper gave a reassuring pat and urged the animal on. The sectis fought through the heavy brush though its progress had been seriously slowed.

The sheriff noticed that behind him, a powdery residue was lifting off the torn vines. Along the path he’d trodden, an indigo smoke unfurled itself against the sky. Tepper hurriedly grabbed hold of one antenna and squeezed. The sectis shot up with a screech, pulling itself free, and galloped to the edge of the field toward the house. The sheriff was still a few hundred feet away when a laser bolt streaked over his head like a scarlet javelin. It spooked the sectis even further and the animal nearly threw him, but Tepper held on and, sinking low in the saddle, drew his weapon.

“Bil-Li, what in the hell do you think you’re doing? You nearly ran me through!”

Bil-Li stepped off the porch, a dual rayzer rifle in his hand. “Don’t blame me Ben,” he shouted. “You nearly got yourself killed sneaking around like that.”

“I just come to talk, son,” the sheriff told him.

“Stay where you are, Tep.” Bil-Li brought the rifle to his shoulder. “I can assure you, this one ain’t for jackhops.”

The sheriff’s voice was stern. “Bil-Li, how long you known me? I came around back because I figured this is how you’d react when you seen me riding up. I thought if I snuck up on you and showed up at your front door you couldn’t turn me away. I guess I forgot how much Skeltie you got in you, boy. I’m alone, Bil-Li, let me come up. I don’t have time to stand around in your crystal field and argue with you—you don’t have that kind of time either.”

Bil-Li wasted a few moments, just to prove that he could. He told the sheriff, “Put the ray in your satchel and come on inside.” Bil-Li walked in the house.

Tepper stuffed the gun inside the pouch of his saddle and rode up. The house was one of those big family octagonals. Too big.  When he got close to the door, Bil-Li appeared there again. Sheriff Tepper could hear the hum of Bil-Li’s cyclone rifle, The Sandman, but he couldn’t see it. Then, peeking out from between the curtains of an upper window, he spotted the double barrel—the sideways eight—of The Sandman, what they call the “infinite sleep”.

“What brings you around, Ben?”

“Trouble,” the lawman told him. Ben climbed the steps of the porch and the two men shook hands.

“You come to take me in for what happened in town yesterday?” Bil-Li asked.

“That’s what I told them.”

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you, Ben.”

“I don’t plan on it, son.”

Bil-Li smiled. “Come on in then, breakfast is on.”

The thick aroma of spiced aduana and tarburd eggs filled the kitchen. The men sat down and Bil-Li filled the sheriff’s cup with oily coffee. Clementine came down in her knickers, dragging the rifle, her tousled hair falling down around her shoulders. She propped the rifle up against the stove and flipped the eggs. Ben grinned sheepishly.

“You’re mighty comfortable around guests, ain’t you, Clementine.”

“We wasn’t expecting any,” she said. “Besides, I don’t mind none, sheriff. How ‘bout you?”

“I do not, ma’am.”

“Breakfast will be ready directly, boys,” she said.

Ben leaned over the table close to Bil-Li. “The whole damn town’s in an uproar–you take things too far.”

“He was going to shoot me, Ben. And for what? For nothing, that’s what. For words. For being.”

Clementine bent over and emptied the pan out onto dull-colored plates. Shards of sunlight cut into the kitchen, making sheer her blouse and outlining the grandeur of her frame.

“Much obliged,” the sheriff said. Clementine smiled and sat down.

“They sent me out here to fetch you, bring you back for trial.”

“Bring me to trial? On what charge?”

“On the charge of pissing folks off. And when people get pissed off they come to me. It’s my job to make things right, Bil-Li. You shot a man in the back. That don’t fly, ever.”

“What was I going to do, Ben, let him kill me?”

“You could’ve said something about your pistol. You could’ve sent Rory or one of them other boys to get me or you could’ve just kept your mouth shut in Xebo’s. You could’ve done a hundred things other than what you did. Now it’s too late.”

Bil-Li dropped his head and sighed.

“We both knew this was coming, Ben. I was either going to end up with a hole in my belly or swinging in a noose. It’s too hard having me around, reminding them all the time.”

The sheriff put a hand on the young man’s head. “Maybe that’s all there is to it–when those Skelties came through here and killed your folks—maybe that’s a shame they can’t live with. It’s just easier to kill off a bad memory than it is to go on living with it.”

“I’m not going back to town with you, Ben.”

“I’m not asking you to. I told them I’d bring you back, but when I ride in with just Clementine, they’re going to come for you and I can’t stop them,” he said. “But you’re not going to be here.”

Bil-Li’s eyebrows furrowed.

“You’ll already be headed south, to the Skeltlands,” Ben said.

“What’s he mean?” asked Clementine. Bil-Li shrugged.

“You ever heard of a StarwayPass?” the sheriff asked him.

“I don’t believe so.”

“It’s a hyperdrive—like a bridge between galaxies, at least that’s what I’m told. It’s going to clear the way again for lots of people to come out here and settle, like it was before the debris fields and the sinkholes and the damn pirates. People back east won’t have to worry about getting through the quads in one piece anymore, they’ll be able to take this here StarwayPass from practically anywhere. I’m talking universal expansion, Bil-Li, and this is one of the places that’s going to explode once they get that starpass up,” he told him. “And people like you will be able to get out of here and start living again, as far away from here as you need to be. Go get yourself a life, Bil-Li, because whatever it is you got going on here doesn’t qualify.”

Bil-Li was rapt. “You wouldn’t lie to me about this, would you, Ben? Because that would be about the cruelest thing you could do.”

“It’s all true, Bil-Li.”

An incredulous look crept across the young man’s face. Clementine giggled and threw her arms across the table to hug him. They embraced for a long while before Bil-Li pulled her off, his face suddenly soured. He glared at Ben, whose expression was impassible.

“Why aren’t you smiling, Ben? There’s more to this story, ain’t there?”

Ben gulped the last of his coffee.

“Seems they lost track of this StarwayPass.”

Lost track of it?”

“It was stolen.”

Bil-Li scoffed.

“How do you steal a bridge?” Clementine said.

“The bridge itself wasn’t stolen, just the gate discus. It ain’t more than a trifle of a thing–looks like a pancake–but it opens up and allows the starpass to anchor itself. Without planting and activating it, this bridge has nowhere to go to.” Ben said.

“Don’t they have another discus?”

“Not for us, Bil-Li. They won’t risk planting it here again. Not for a long, long time.”

Bil-Li asked, “Skelties?”

“No, we think it was some rustler, name of Lomac, lifted it from three couriers–Black Guard–a couple nights back. We found them less than a day from here. Their guide had written the name out beside him in the dirt before he died. They were gunned down so it doesn’t look like we’re after the Skelt for this one.”

“Do you know anything else?”

“Yeah, we know this Lomac’s one nasty sumbitch. He takes out a whole Black Triad and a guide by himself, steals this damn ‘flapjack of the gods’ starpass, and then just walks away.”

Clementine took hold of Bil-Li’s arm.

“His trail points south, to the Skeltlands,” Ben said. “You grew up around those things, maybe it’ll help.”

Those things murdered my family,” Bil-Li said.

Ben leaned back in his chair, his face pensive and grim. “Bil-Li, I never claimed my way was going to be easy, but if you want to save your skin and get off Exoterra, this is the best way I can think of. I also know your folks were as friendly with some of those Skelties as with your own kind. Your best friend was a Skeltie, wasn’t he? You know about them: their ways, their language, how they move, everything—more than anyone else I know.”

“I didn’t learn everything about them.”

“At least you speak their language. You’re the one person that might be able to go in there, find the starway pass, and bring it back. I’ll deputize you, put you on the payroll, and send you off with a few toys I dug up if you agree to do this. If you manage to come back with it, well, more than a few citizens will be showing their gratitude monetarily and otherwise. I’ll see to that. Once the pass is up, it won’t be a thing for you two to just up and leave Exoterra whenever you please.”

“Why should I do any favors for this town, Ben? They never gave a damn about us. They sat in their houses while my parents were being slaughtered. They knew the Skelties had a raiding party out here and they chose to do nothing. Aside from you coming out here to save me, no one did a thing to stop it.”

Ben stared into his cup for answers.

“They were scared, Bil-Li. Shit, I was scared too, but it was my job to ride out here and protect you, not theirs. That’s why you’ve got to get out of this place, son. You’re always there, reminding them of their fear, their helplessness. You are a living, breathing manifestation of their shame. As long as you’re around, there is imperfection in their souls.”

Clementine shook Bil-Li’s arm.

“Don’t you go and help them, Bil-Li. Don’t leave me. Do nothing of the sort for those people.”

Bil-Li slouched in his chair and crossed his arms. “I reckon I don’t have much choice.”

“It sure don’t look that way,” Ben said.

Clementine’s face wore a look of exasperation. She got up and left the kitchen.

“Ben, I appreciate you coming all the way out here for me.”

“Old habits…”

Bil-Li rolled a cup in between his hands. “Why would Lomac take it? What does he want with a starpass?”

“Ransom, maybe,” Ben guessed. “I doubt it though.  Lomac, or the people he’s working for, will probably go to the highest bidder with it.”

“Then you can get it back? What are you worried about?”

“We can’t be the highest bidder, Bil-Li. There’s a few million edge settlements cut off from the macroverse that would kill for a chance to anchor that pass–big settlements with more to offer than we can afford to. When word gets out there’s a starpass on the black market, we’re done. No one was even supposed to know it was here. I don’t know how this villain got hold of the intel, but if that discus leaves Exoterra, it’s gone forever. The folks back east don’t believe in second chances, Bil-Li.”

Bil-Li pursed his lips and nodded. “I hear ya–I’ll leave as soon as I can. I need to grab some things.”

“Take whatever you think you need,” Ben told him. “I’ve got a few things in my bags for you. It ain’t as much as I’d like to give you, but it ain’t a little, either. Consider it a going-away-present.”

Clementine came back to the kitchen fully-dressed. She sat down with the men and wiped her moss green eyes with the back of her hand before they could swell with tears again. Ben touched her arm.

“Don’t cry, little one. This boy’s a survivor.”

Clementine reached across the table and slapped the sheriff hard across the side of his face, scraping the inside of her hand raw against his thorny beard. Bil-Li grabbed her at the wrists.

“I’m sorry, Ben, she—“

Ben raised his hand. “She cares about you,” he said, rubbing his cheek. “She doesn’t want to see nothing bad happen to you, that’s all. I ain’t mad. If I was smart enough to figure another way, I would have, Bil-Li.”

“I know you would,” Bil-Li said. He forced Clementine close to him and stroked her long, flaxen hair. “It’s a fine way you come up with, Ben. Just fine.”

The lawman got up from the table and drained another cup of coffee down his throat. “I’ll be outside when you’re ready.”

Bil-Li nodded and Sheriff Tepper tramped out the front door of the house.

“It’s okay, Lemon. I’ll be real careful, I promise,” Bil-Li told her.

“There’s no guarantees you’re coming back,” she said. “Things could happen to you, Bil-Li. Awful, awful things.”

“That’s right.”

Clementine sighed. She gathered her thoughts.

“Let’s go, Bil-Li. Let’s leave here. We can head off someplace where no one will ever find us—to the islands maybe, or the Telgier Pits. This is a great big world and it’s not getting any smaller. We can ride northwest and be out of the territories inside of a week. We’ll carve out a life for ourselves up there. I know I’m not accustomed to living natural and it’ll be real hard for me at first, but I won’t complain none, no matter what.”

Bil-Li took Clementine in his arms and held the young woman, tightly.

“I could hide out the rest of my life in the lowlands if I had to, but I couldn’t take you with me.”

He took her face in his hands. “I could belong there, Lemon, but you could never. You shouldn’t even have to try,” he said. “All we ever needed was a direction to follow. When I bring back this StarwayPass, we’ll have one.”

“Bil-Li, what if you don’t come back?”

“I figure we’ll both still have a direction. They just won’t be the same no more.”

Clementine released herself from the young man’s embrace. She drew a heavy sigh and pushed herself away from him.

“Bil-Li, you know there’s no place for good men out here. Things like honor and mercy are just two more things that can kill ya. Leave the Bil-Li I know—the real Bil-Li—here in this house. When you go after the StarwayPass, make your blood cold, put a stone in place of your heart. Don’t try to be the stand-up Bil-Li, just be the Bil-Li that comes back.”

Bil-Li said nothing. He only stared.

“You wanna make me a promise?” she said. “All right, promise me that when the time comes, you’ll do whatever you’ve got to–that’s all I ask. Can you at least promise me that?”

“I promise,” he finally said.

Bil-Li walked outside. Ben had one of his saddle bags unbuckled. He removed a burnished, copper-colored rayzer and handed it to Bil-Li. Bil-Li took it in hand.

“Nothing terribly special, but it’s the cleanest sidearm I got,” the sheriff said.

Bil-Li twirled the pistol frontward and backward, stopping the barrel for a split-second at different shooting angles. The brown metal was a blur in his hand. Ben watched in amazement as Bil-Li turned his hand over and spun the weapon horizontally, his index finger pointed squarely at the ground, defying gravity altogether. With the other hand, Bil-Li took his own rayzer off his hip and wheeled it around selfsame. He brought the two whirling pistols finally to a stop, one following the other like the halting reels of a slot machine, and jammed them down into their holsters.

“Sweet Jesus, you can sling,” Ben said. “Can you shoot those things, too, or do you just lead the band?”

Bil-Li started to say, ‘I can shoot’ when Ben hurled a stone high into the air. Bil- Li drew his new gun, released the catch, and fired a fat red stream that engulfed the small piece of rock before it reached its apex.

“You sure frog-licked that sunnuvabitch!” Ben said.

Sheriff Tepper’s enjoyment brought a smile to Bil-Li’s face.

“You see them cans over yonder, lying on their sides?” Bil-Li pointed to three large perritree stumps in the field.

“I see ‘em,” Ben said. “You fixing to knock ‘em off?”

“Nah.”

Bil-Li wiggled the fingers of his right hand, touching each one to his thumb with increasing rapidity. He pulled his rayzer and fired three bursts in succession that sailed just over each stump

Ben squinted. “They’re still there, Bil-Li.” The two men walked through the clearing toward the stumps. “I’ll be damned,” Ben said to himself as he got up close.

Each can remained on its stump, but they were–all three–now upright. Ben shook his head in disbelief. “What have you been doing out here?”

“Practicing,” the young man said. “You get hungry enough and you can learn to hit just about anything. Plus, I guess it was just something to keep my mind whole.”

Ben retrieved another rayzer from his saddle. It was a far bigger piece than any handheld Bil-Li had laid eyes on. On its side was a clear panel where thick plasma threads churned and twisted like pulled taffy.

“Is this a–”

“Yup.”

“Ben, where did you get it?”

“Nevermind, just take it,”

Bil-Li caressed the gun reverently.

“Go ahead, try her out. She’ll kick though,” Ben told him.

Bil-Li hefted the gun up to a stretch of pasture and fired. He felt the rayzer’s energy surge through his hands to the back of his spine. The constant burst of wide redline from the barrel disappeared into the distance and splashed down beyond the field. He held back on the trigger as he moved the gun slowly to the right, creating a laser blanket in midair. To the left, the plasma residue fell, hissing, upon the scorched sand. Bil-Li released the trigger and swiveled his head round to Ben. The young man’s mouth was agape.

“I never handled a sluice rayzer before, what’s it good for–cutting down trees?”

Ben laughed. “I figure a sluicer’s good to have,” he said.  “I ain’t gonna lie to you, Bil-Li. I got no idea what you’ll run into down south. I’m not pretending to give you the sluice for any special reason I can think of. I’m giving it to you for all the reasons I can’t.”

Bil-Li nodded. “Got anything else?”

“Just one more thing,” Ben said. He reached into his shirt pocket and removed a pair of spectrum-tinted eyeglasses.

“Skelt see better at night. When you put on these nocturn glasses, you’ll see as good as they do.” Ben rapped on the lenses with his knuckle. “They’re strong, too. Those lizards try to spit goo in your eyes and these glasses will stop them. But they can’t do you no good unless they’re on your face, so make sure to wear them. They blind you with that poison and you’re walking dead. They’ll tear you apart, Bil-Li. You know that better than most.”

There was a dead pause before the two men shook hands.

“I’m in debt to you, Ben.”

“Not once you leave here, you ain’t. Not to me, not to anyone.”

Bil-Li gazed out on the horizon. The electric white sun of Exoterra was still hanging midday high, casting fuzzy shadows on the planet’s surface.

“There’s a little border town called Rya Delsa. My father used to bring me along when he’d go there to trade and do some handiwork they couldn’t manage. It’s quiet, as far as Skeltie towns go.”

“Your Daddy trusted those savages?”

“They weren’t savages, Ben. Not all of them anyway. Not to us.”

“You see things differently now I bet.”

The sun closed Bil-Li’s eyes to slits.

“A lot’s changed.”

Ben called to Clementine, who was leaning against the doorframe. “C’mon, miss, it’s time to get back.”

She kicked the frame with her boot heel.

“Don’t go fussing now,” Bil-Li told her. “Head back with Ben. I’ll come for you.”

“You better,” she said.

 

IV

Bil-Li rode into Rya Delsa late that night. He hitched his sectis up to one of the pillars that held up the town’s only solid structure: a squat, ramshackle building constructed of thin, corrugated metal sheets bent around ground stakes and covered with more metal boarding like a house of cards.

Bil-Li cocked his head to the side and ducked in. The place was a den of moist, writhing Skelt bodies, sleek and scaled. They gathered around a network of holes in the ground that were filled with a clear, gelatinous soup, dipping their tongues into the thick liquid as they communed with one another. Bil-Li had to watch his walk to keep from accidentally stepping onto any twisted Skelt bodies or into any of the drinking holes.

The noisome scent of Skelt-thought permeated the air, a stale miasma of chemicals that attached themselves to Bil-Li as he walked past. His brain was swimming in an attempt to remember the pheromonal language. It was so much easier as a child; it felt natural to him then. As a boy, he was so willing–so open to their thoughts.

He had to remember.

Bil-Li stopped and shut his eyes behind the varicolored lenses of his nocturns. He breathed their thoughts deep inside his lungs, filling his alveoli and passing them into his bloodstream. He opened his mouth and stuck out his tongue like a boy in the rain, tasting the air and letting it soak into his capillaries. Slowly, gradually, their language came back to him.

“Hey Hugh, you lost? You don’t belong in here,” the Skeltie below him said. The viridian creature stood about four and a half feet high–tall for a Skeltie–at least the ones who stood upright. Bil-Li was no longer consciously aware of the chemical odor in the air, but he understood perfectly now the confabulations that were taking place all around him. The tall Skeltie beside him opened several small slits on either side of his neck and vented another message into the air.

“You must be lost. You understand me, don’t you, Hugh? We don’t want you here.”

Bil-Li looked down at him. He thought, “Why do you keep calling me, Hugh?”     The Skeltie sniffed around Bil Li’s torso and nudged its snout into the pit of his arm before it fully understood the man’s question. “That’s what you are, Hugh-Man. We don’t take kindly to Hugh-Mans coming in here.”

Bil-Li was too relieved that the Skeltie understood his chemical-speak to care much about his tone. He now made sure he lifted his arms slightly whenever he communicated his thoughts.

“I won’t be long, as soon as I find who I’m looking for. You feel like helping me out or do you want me to stick around here with you and your friends all night?”

“Fuck off, Hugh!” the Skeltie told him. His acrid message quickly reached the neighboring groups of Skelties.

Bil-Li surreptitiously slid back his jacket to reveal the rayzer on his hip. “What’s your name?” he asked.

No answer.

“You look like an Abe,” Bil-Li said. “Abe, my guess is–judging from your attitude–you’re not going to be much help to me. At least not in here. My sectis is outside. I want you to go out there and watch him for me. If, when I leave, anything’s happened to my sectis, I’m going to hold you personally responsible. You understand me, don’t you Abe?”

The Skeltie cackled. “Take a look at where you are, Hugh. You ready to die tonight?”

Bil-Li moved close.

“I ain’t near ready, friend,” His aroma was taut. “I already told you, I got work to do. If I walk out of this shack for some reason in a foul mood—and I will walk out, Abe—you’re gonna be the first one I come see. So don’t be riling anything up. Just go outside and pray that I don’t run into any trouble while you’re gone.”

Abe stood, the two talons of each hand clicking away in thought. Without a word, he lowered himself down to four legs and skittered out the door. Another Skeltie rose up beside Bil-Li.

“What you need, Hugh?

“Who are you?”

“The name’s Trubbull. I can get you whatever it is you came here for.” He browsed over the room. “Don’t pay no mind to most of these louts, they got no sense of hospitality. I, on the other hand, can be real accommodating, for the right fee. Trust me, I’m the Skelt you’re looking for.”

“I don’t know if I can trust anybody named Trubbull.”

“Aw, that ain’t nothin’. Trubbull’s just my middle name. Call me SeptichaTan if it puts you more at ease.”

Bil-Li considered it. “It doesn’t,” he said.

“All right then. What can Trubbull do for you?”

“I’m looking for a man, goes by the name of Lomac Zhinn. He may have come through this way.”

“Lomac, huh?” Trubbull said. “Real mean-spirited fella, is he?”

“Rumor has it.”

“I suspect he ain’t looking to be found, neither.”

“No, I don’t expect he is,” Bil-Li said. “You know anything?”

“Plenty. What you got?”

Bil-Li held out his smallest pistol. Trubbull laughed at him.

“What’s a Skeltie supposed to do with that?”

“You could trade it to someone like me, someone passing through.”

“We don’t get too many tourists ‘round here. The ones we do always come carrying so I’m afraid you got the wrong market for that rayzer. Lucky for you I’m flexible—I’ll take either crystal or crystal, but what I really want is crystal. So what you got?”

“I got some, not a lot. That shit’s no good for you, y’know.”

“I got one mother already, Hugh. How much?”

“There’s about five left in the gun. I’ll give you the rayzer and five more if you tell me which way he’s headed,” Bil-Li said.

“I’ll tell you what, you keep the gun, for twenty jacks of crystal I’ll do you one better and take you right to him.”

Before the man could answer, another Skeltie hopped up behind Trubbull.

Bil-Li asked, “Pith, is that you?”

“It’s me, Bil-Li,” the Skeltie answered.

Trubbull broke in. “You two acquainted?”

“Pith and I used to play cross sticks with each other when I’d come down here with my father.”

“Then we’d pick the Meloi bushes bare and fill our bellies,” Pith said.

“Only one of us picked the berries,” Bil-Li laughed, turning to Trubbull, “Pith here would dive in snout-first and scratch himself up something hellacious. Funniest damn thing you ever seen.”

The odor of Pith’s response had the unmistakable lemon piquancy of sarcasm. “The Cosmic Mother didn’t grant us lesser creatures with perfect hands like you Hugh-Mans.”

“You did all right,” Bil-Li said. “Y’know, I used to get such a charge coming down here to see you, Pith.”

“Yeah, well, that was a different time,” Pith said. The Skeltie’s thoughts turned sour. “Why are you here, Bil-Li? This is not a good place for you.”

“Whoa now, pull your teeth back Pith,” Trubbull said. “Your friend Bil-Li and I are just conducting a little business, that’s all.”

“I want in.”

Trubbull’s smile drooped. “Run along, shave tail, this is my show. I don’t need any partners.”

“Then you won’t mind if everyone in here knows you’re bringing a Hugh-Man to see Lomac?”

Trubbull covered Pith’s ruffled skin slits before another word could escape.

“Youngins are so hasty,” he said. “This can work out for everyone’s benefit if you just keep your neck shut.”

He pulled Pith away into an empty corner of the room. Bil-Li could see the two Skelties talking just out of his scent—calmly at first—then with some tumult. When the returned Trubbull said, “The price has gone up–thirty jacks a’ cris.” He could see the wary look on Bil-Li’s face. “You’ve got two guides now for a bargain price,” he told the man. “In case something happens to one of us, the other will be able to take you to the place Lomac’s holed-up in. And Pith is an old friend of yours. That should make you feel better.”

“Thirty’s a lot of crystal,” Bil-Li said.

Trubbull unzipped a toothy grin. “Bil-Li, I know you didn’t come all this way for nothing. Whatever reason you’ve got to find Lomac is probably worth a hundred times that much. Just because I’m being reasonable with you don’t mean I’m a fool.”

Bil Li looked into the Skeltie’s dead, pupil-less eyes.

“We go now then,” he said.

He flashed some crystal and Trubull’s eyes somehow came alive. The three of them stepped outside. “You get paid when we get there, not a drop before, savvy?”

“However you want, Hugh. You’re the big boss,” Trubbull told him. Bil-Li’s eyes narrowed.

As they emerged from the shack, Abe was there cleaning the sectis’s chitinous plates with his tongue, to the animal’s considerable delight. He saw Bil-Li approach with Trubbull and Pith and handed over the reigns. Bil-Li chalked it up to the pusillanimous spirit of most toughies. He tipped his hat to the Skeltie and mounted up. Through his glasses, the night lit up in front of him. He set off with his two guides leading the way and the trio soon faded into the inkblot horizon.

“How far are we headed?” Bil-Li asked.

“Less than a day,” Trubbull said. “We’ll make camp in a few hours and start out again first thing. We’ll be there just after nightfall tomorrow if that suits you.”

Bil-Li wanted to argue. He wanted to insist they ride straight through. He knew that each stop increased the probability that dark events would befall him. But he was far too wayworn; he’d never make it another night without sleep.

The Skelties were sidewinding up ahead of him about thirty feet on their stumpy legs, leading him like bloodhounds. They would mutter covertly to one another. Bil-Li could glean remnants of their conversation in the air–but they smelled none too iniquitous.

After a few hours, as promised, they stopped. Bil-Li welcomed the simple comfort of Exoterran dirt and a warm blanket while Trubbull and Pith rested as all Skelt do: standing motionless with their eyelids pinned open. Bil-Li left his glasses on and dropped his hat down low, shadowing his face. If he had to sleep beside Skelties, he would keep them guessing just as much as he was. He left his fingertips tucked inside his belt, thumbs perched atop the cloudy, faux mother-of-pearl gun handles. The position was not unfamiliar to him.

The fire had worn down to neon orange embers. Bil-Li’s face was shrouded behind his nocturns and hat and a barely audible snore was escaping his lips. He awoke at once to a sharp spike of pain in his right hand and the sound of scampering in the darkness. The Skelties were gone, leaving Bil-Li with two puncture marks in the soft flesh inside each wrist. The pain ran hot through his arms and his right hand–his shooting hand—burned intensely. He brought the wounds to his mouth and extracted as much of the venom as he could, spitting the pink toxin onto the ground beside him. It had been only seconds and he hoped to suck enough of the poison free from his veins to allow his escape. He tore a swath of sleeve and tied it off at his bicep, tightening the makeshift tourniquet with his teeth and twisting it still tighter with a stick he’d inserted underneath the strip of cloth.

It wasn’t working. His right hand had swollen up on him like a hothouse tomato, the skin of his engorged fingers had split and gone to stone. The two Skelties were still nowhere in sight—waiting, no doubt, for their vile juices to incapacitate him completely. A short time passed before Trubbull sauntered out from behind the curtain of night and beelined it for Bil-Li, his fangs still leaking mixed strings of poison and saliva. Bil-Li managed to pull the sluicer from his belt and fumbled for the trigger, but his fingers had grown too large to slip in front of it.

Trubbull slinked closer.

“Look at Bil-Li Badass now,” he said. “You thought you were going to ride down here and tell all us poor Skelties what for–you think your perfect hands give you some divine right, just like all Hughs. Well, those hands don’t look so perfect anymore. We can figure things out too, Bil-Li boy, like you can’t use that cannon you got in your hand unless you got a finger small enough to pull the trigger.”

Bil-Li tried to jam his pinky inside the trigger guard without success. He dropped the gun. Trubbull smirked and made his approach.

“I’m gonna crack your pretty skull with my jaws,” he said.

A somber Pith appeared on Bil-Li’s left, his teeth still glistening. “Sorry brother,” he said. Bil-Li clenched his teeth in anger.

Pith turned to the Skeltie. “I am sorry for this.”

Trubbull watched with vexed contempt as Pith motioned to Bil-Li’s hands. Bil-Li raised both arms and found his left hand to be red-blotched and patchy, like the right, but slightly less swollen. As quickly as he realized this, Bil-Li drew his holstered rayzer with the left hand. Trubbull watched the man’s index finger slide into the loop in front of the trigger.

His smug grin melted away.

Bil-Li squeezed off a bolt, point blank, that threw the Skeltie’s entrails across the plain. He then fixed his aim on Pith.

“I didn’t bite you hard, Bil-Li,” Pith said, his arms raised. “I could’ve and you’d be dead now, but I didn’t.”

The Skeltie’s words settled into Bil-Li’s head and the man lowered his rayzer.

“You two were never taking me to Lomac, were you?”

“Sure we were, Bil-Li, but it was more like delivering you to him. Trubbull thought it best to kill you and split the crystal instead of just getting a cut from Lomac, if anything.”

“So what happened?”

Pith shrugged. “I didn’t agree.”

“So you’ll take to me Lomac?”

“Now why would you do a fool thing that?” Pith asked.

“He took something, and the people he took it from are in a bad way. I don’t want to kill the man. I just want to retrieve the property.”

“Good thing,” Pith said. His words were salty. “Do you know what Lomac is?”

“He’s an outlaw.”

“That’s what he wants you to believe–that he’s a Hugh–no different from the rest. He’s Skelt right to the core, Bil-Li, but he’s not like any you’ve seen. He’s like you–his legs, his arms, even his hands—but he’s one of us. He walks on two as well as he does on four; he can shoot a rayzer just like the Hugh-Man, but he has the speed of a Skeltie; he sees the same in night or day.”

“It’s impossible,” Bil-Li said.

“I haven’t even gotten to the scary part yet, my man. He’s also vicious and he’s hateful like you Hughs have forced the Skelt to become. Did you think you could keep pushing us out of your way–murdering our fathers and mothers without reprisals? He says he’s going to deliver us from the Hugh-Man scourge and free Exoterra forever of your kind.”

“And you believe him?”

“It doesn’t matter much what I believe, Bil-Li. It is of prime fucking importance that you believe me though because if I take you there, he will kill you!”

“He won’t talk terms?”

“You don’t want to talk to him. He’s an abomination, Bil-Li. Even though he’s on our side he still scares the shit out of most Skelties I know. We tell him we’ll hide him away in the mountains for his own sake, but I think we do it just to make ourselves feel better.”

“Aren’t you at all afraid I might kill him?”

Pith didn’t hestitate. “No.”

“Then there’s no harm in taking me to him.”

“The harm will be your own.”

“So be it,” Bil-Li said. “I’ve been forewarned. It’s not on your head, Pith.”

“You are one crazy-ass Hugh, Bil-Li Kay. You must owe someone double big time to be out here chasing down the devil.”

“It’s something like that,” Bil-Li said.

“You’re not like any Hugh I ever met, Bil-Li. That’s why I like you. You were always a friend to Pith. I heard about what happened to your folks and I want you to know my family had no hand in it.”

“I know they didn’t.”

“Some Skelt just see a thing and think its evil–the same way you Hughs seem to look at us. I ain’t saying it’s right, what happened and all, it just is.”

“Does this mean you’ll take me to Lomac?” Bil-Li asked.

Pith fell to four feet. “Give yourself time to fight off the poison in your blood. You’re going be real stiff tonight but you should feel a whole lot better in the morning. We can head out then, but that’s the only way I’m taking you.”

“Thank you,” Bil-Li said.

Pith burst out. “And he thanks me for it! Crazy-ass Hugh.”

V

 

The pale face of the rock bluff was freckled with iron deposits embedded beneath its surface. It bulged out of the soil and pushed upward, to the sky. Pith led Bil-Li along a clandestine trail zigzagging up the side of the giant stone mountain, in between crevasses and sidestepping pitfalls. Near the top, they came to a triangular entrance that had been formed by two great slabs resting upon one another. Darkness obscured all but the first several feet of the cave’s interior. Pith stopped at the threshold.

“It’s not too late to go back,” he said.

“I’m afraid it is, Pith.”

“I’m not going in with you. I’m afraid he’ll kill us both.”

“What will they do to you in Rya Delsa if they find out you brought me here?”

“No one’s going to find out, Bil-Li. Once you walk into that cave, you’re never coming out. I don’t know what you’ve got planned, but take my word, it won’t work. You’ll never beat him and you can’t reason with him. Lomac hates everything Hugh-Man.”

“If you’re right, then he’ll eventually find out it was you that let me surprise him.”

“You won’t surprise him either.”

A frisson of fear ran cool through Bil-Li’s bones. He started into the cave, but turned back after a few steps.

“What if I’m better than you think?” he asked. “What if I told you that my walking out of here will change Exoterra forever—will make it human?”

Pith thought for a moment. “Bil-Li, if that’s true then I’d say you weren’t meant to walk out.” He dropped to the ground and shuffled away.

Bil-Li affixed his glasses, curling the thin wire behind his ears, and stepped through the sheet of darkness at the mouth of the cave. He could see clear to the back wall a hundred feet or so away. The cave looked empty. He eased forward with gingerly footwork, checking for booby traps and trip wires as he moved. He found none. At the back wall of the cave, a ghostly amber luminescence hung in a corner just above the floor. Nearing this corner, he discovered that the cave had been excavated; a squared hole opened in the floor and steps led downward into the bowels of the bluff. Bil-Li navigated this stairway for what seemed to him hours, changing course, descending and climbing and descending again—the entire route dully lit by the yellow light of striped phosphorus rock that lined the interior of the mountain. The steps finally spit out into an enormous stalactite-encrusted cavern, the far end of which contained ever smaller semi-circular layers of bedrock, stacked one atop the other, jutting out from the cavern wall itself and rising up to a craggy throne. Upon it sat a lone figure, his hands resting imperially over the arms of the stone chair. He had thin, bulbous-jointed fingers and spiny Skelt nails that wriggled with portent.

Bi-Li quickdrew his rayzer.

Light splashed against the walls of the cavern and Bil-Li raised the stump of his gun to his eyes. The barrel of the rayzer had been shot off at the front sight and plugged with the molten remains. It was useless.

“Six inches up and I would have hit the chamber,” the figure told him.

A voice. An actual voice. It took Bil-Li a moment to turn his ears back on. “You can speak?” he said.

The thing seemed to glide from its perch, its powerful legs carrying it down the huge slab steps with a danseur’s grace. It alighted upon the cavern floor with nary a speck of soil disturbed.

“If I would have hit the chamber, pieces of you would be sliding off these walls now?”

“Then it’s a damn good thing you missed,” Bil-Li said.

“I didn’t miss.”

Bil-Li’s stomach tightened. “My name is Bil-Li Kay. I didn’t come here to kill. I came to negotiate.”

“You come into someone’s home uninvited, Bil-Li Kay, and the first thing you think to do is jerk that ray.” He shook his head. “Manners, manners. How can I possibly trust your words now?”

“I came for the StarwayPass. That’s the truth. You have it, don’t you? You’re Lomac?”

“I am Lomac Zhinn and the StarwayPass will never leave this mountain while I live.”

“Name your price,” Bil-Li said.

“I don’t have one.”

“Well, that’s going to muddle up negotiations a bit. But everyone has a price. What do you want most?”

Lomac had his rayzer instantly under Bil-Li’s chin. “I want the Hughs off Exoterra. I won’t allow wave after wave of your kind to travel that starpass and settle here, claiming it as your own. You have no right to it. The Skelt were born here, it’s where our spirit lies. Where were the Hugh-Mans born? Your people can’t even remember–you’re nothing more than soulless nomads.”

Bil-Li felt a tremor of the gun barrel on the hair bristles of the underside of his jaw. Lomac was getting edgy, getting closer to ending these negotiations, badly. He wants to pull the trigger. Stay his hand, give him pause, Bil-Li thought. He’s part Skeltie, but at least some part of him is human . . . yes, human.

He asked Lomac, “If you have no blood of man inside you, how do you explain what you are?”

“I am the harbinger of Skelt freedom, heralding in a new Exoterran age and sounding the death knell for the Hugh-Mans. I was born as I am now, touched by Braam, the Sky God. I am Skelt, but my kind lack certain physical gifts,” he raised a hand to Bil-Li’s face, “and the insidious barbarity that you Hugh-Mans possess. And so I was made this way. But do not be confused, I am Skelt.”

“And your children? Will they be Skelt?  How about your children’s children? They’ll be superior to the old race. Eventually that race will die out . . . because you exist.”

“I will have no children,” Lomac said. “Would that I could burn this Hugh-Man impurity from me when my work is complete and live as all Skelt do, I would. I am more than Skelt. I am more than Hugh-Man, but I am not superior, I am merely necessary.”

Bil-Li hard swallowed. “You’re not more than human,” he said. You’re part Skeltie, and that makes you less than human in my book. Less than me. Prove to me that you’re more than a human. Prove that you’re better than me.”

“I’m smarter than you, too. The only proof you need is right under your nose.” Lomac pushed the barrel of the rayzer up into Bil-Li’s jaw, tilting his head backward.

Bil-Li asked, “You’re not so sure yourself, are you?”

Lomac lowered the gun.

“Open your hand,” he said. Bil-Li held out his palm and Lomac gave the gun to him, lifting both his arms into the air in mock surrender. Their eyes never strayed from one another. Bil-Li closed his fingers over Lomac’s rayzer and felt the familiar machinery. It was sideways in his hand and he would have to maneuver it around before he could get a shot off. The two of them locked in a staredown that stretched out like the cosmos. This was his chance, his one chance, Bil-Li thought.

In a furious burst of energy, the man’s fingers worked in perfect synchronicity to wrap themselves around the gun handle and carry the barrel forward, leveling the blaster on Lomac. Before he could squeeze the trigger though, the Skelt snatched the rayzer with one of two shorter arms that were hidden under his vest. He wheeled it round to its new target lickety-split. Lomac uncoiled a smile. He was faster. He was better. There could be no doubt.

Bil-Li focused on Lomac’s trigger finger. It whitened under the nail—a sign that he was beginning to put pressure on the crescent-shaped metal. Bil-Li immediately drew the sluice gun from his gunbelt in one swift, effortless motion, but Lomac had pulled his trigger a second ahead of the man.

Click. The hollow sound of Lomac’s rayzer echoed in their ears.

Bil-Li half-shrugged and eased back his index finger. The sluice gun fired. A scattershot hit Lomac all at once. The main stream burrowed through him, spreading and dissolving outward from his center. Bil-Li kept it on him, nearly lifting the Skeltie off the cave floor and stewing his innards. Even after the sluicer had stopped spitting plasma, the laser soaked through Lomac until only a steaming, browned exterior remained. His body fell. The starway discus clanked, unharmed, in front of Bil-Li’s feet while the puddle that was Lomac Zhinn slowly glubbed its way down through the cracks in the floor.

Bil-Li picked up Lomac’s gun. With a grin, he un-locked the safety catch.

“I just made you immortal,” he said, watching what was left of the mutation disappear between the rocks. “They’ll be waiting on your return millennia from now.”

He picked up the discus, shook it clean, and put it in his coat pocket.

“Can’t be waiting forever though,” he said. “When the time comes, you do whatever you got to.”

 

-THE END-