Two months later, I was in Thredmartin's when Bex came in with an evil look on
her face. We had taken getting back together slow and easy up till then, but
the more time we spent around each other, the more we understood that nothing
basic had changed. Bex kept coming to the ranch, and I took to spending a
couple of nights a week in a room her father made up for me at the hotel. Furly
Bexter was an old-style McKinnonite. Men and women were to live separately and
only meet for business and copulation. But he liked me well enough, and when I
insisted on paying for my room, he found a loophole somewhere in the Tracts of
McKinnon about cohabitation being all right in hotels and hostels.
"The glims are back," Bex said, sitting down at my table. I was in a dark corner
of the pub. I left the fire for those who could not adjust their own internals
to keep them warm. "They've taken over the top floor of the hotel. What should
I took a draw of beerThredmartin's own thick porterand looked at her. She was
visibly shivering, probably more from agitation than fright.
"How many of them are there?" I asked.
"Six. And something else, some splice I've never seen, however many that makes."
I took another sip of beer. "Let it be," I said. "They'll get tired, and they'll
"What?" Bex's voice was full of astonishment. "What are you saying?"
"You don't want a war here, Bex," I replied. "You have no idea how bad it can
"They killed Rall. They took our money."
"Money." My voice sounded many years away, even to me.
"It's muscle and worry and care. You know how hard people work on Ferro. And for
those . . . things . . . to come in and
take it. We cannot let them"
"Bex," I said. "I am not going to do anything."
She said nothing; she put a hand on her forehead as if she had a sickening
fever, stared at me for a moment, then looked away.
One of the glims chose that moment to come into Thredmartin's. It was a
halandana, a splicehuman and janfrom up-time and a couple of possible
universes over. It was nearly seven feet tall, with a two-foot-long neck, and
stooped to enter Thredmartin's entrance. Without stopping, it went to the bar
and demanded morphine.
Thredmartin was at the bar. He pulled out a dusty rubber, little used, and
before he could get out an injector, the halandana reached over, took the
entire rubber, and put it in the pocket of the long gray coat it wore.
Thredmartin started to speak, then shook his head and found a spray shooter. He
slapped it on the bar and started to walk away. The halandana's hand shot out
and pushed the old man. Thredmartin stumbled to his knees.
I felt the fingers of my hands clawing, clenching. Let them loosen; let them go.
Thredmartin rose slowly to one knee. Bex was up, around the bar, and over to
him, steadying his shoulder. The glim watched this for a moment, then took its
drug and shooter to a table, where it got itself ready for an injection.
I looked at it closely now. It was female, but that did not mean much in
halandana splices. I could see it phase around the edges with dead, gray
flames. I clicked in wideband overspace, and I could see through the halandana
to the chair it was sitting in and the unpainted wood of the wall behind it.
And I saw more, in the spaces between spaces. The halandana was keyed in to a
websquad; it wasn't really an individual anymore. Its fate was tied to that of
its unit commander. So the war-ghoststhe glimswere a renegade squad, most
likely, with a single leader calling the shots. For a moment, the halandana
glanced in my direction, maybe feeling my gaze somewhere outside of local time,
and I banded down to human normal. It quickly went back to what it was doing.
Bex made sure Thredmartin was all right, then came back over to my table.
"We're not even in its time line," I said. "It doesn't think of us as really
"Oh God," Bex said. "This is just like before."
I got up and walked out. It was the only solution. I could not say anything to
Bex. She would not understand. I understoodnot acting was the rational, the
only, waybut not my way. Not until now.
I enhanced my legs and loped along the road to my house. But when I got there, I
kept running, running off into the red sands of Ferro's outback. The night came
down, and as the planet turned, I ran along the length of the Big Snake, bright
and hard to the southwest, and then under the blue glow of Steiner when she
rose in the moonless, trackless night. I ran for miles and miles, as fast as a
jaguar, but never tiring. How could I tire when parts of me stretched off into
dimensions of utter stillness, utter rest? Could Bex see me for what I was, she
would not see a man, but a kind of colonial creature, a mash of life pressed
into the niches and fault lines of existence like so much grit and lichen. A
human is anchored with only his heart and his mind; sever those, and he floats
away. Floats away. What was I? A medusa fish in an ocean of time. A tight clump
of nothing, disguised as a man? Something else?
Something damned hard to kill, that was certain. And so were the glims. When I
returned to my house in the star-bright night, I half expected to find Bex, but
she was not there. And so I rattled about for a while, powered down for an hour
at dawn and rested on a living-room chair, dreaming in one part of my mind,
completely alert in another. The next day, Bex still did not come, and I began
to fear something had happened to her. I walked partway into Heidel, then cut
off the road and stole around the outskirts, to a mound of shattered volcanic
rocksthe tailings of some early prospector's pitnot far from the town's edge.
There I stepped up my vision and hearing, and made a long sweep of main street.
Nothing. Far, far too quiet, even for Heidel.
I worked out the parabolic to the Bexter Hotel and, after a small adjustment,
heard Bex's voice, then her father's. I was too far away to make out the words,
but my quantitatives gave it a positive I.D. So Bex was all right, at least for
the moment. I made my way back home, and put in a good day's work making
The next morningit was the quarteryear's double dawn, with both suns rising in
the east nearly togetherBex came to me. I brought her inside and, in the moted
sunlight of my family's living room, where I now took my rest, when I rested,
Bex told me that the glims had taken her father.
"He held back some old Midnight Livet down in the cellar, and didn't deliver it
when they called for room service." Bex rubbed her left fist with her right
fingers, expertly, almost mechanically, as she'd kneaded a thousand balls of
bread dough. "How do they know these things? How do they know, Henry?"
"They can see around things," I said. "Some of them can, anyway."
"So they read our thoughts? What do we have left?"
"No, no. They can't see in there, at least I'm sure they can't see in your old
man's McKinnonite nut lump of a brain. But they probably saw the whiskey down
there in the cellar, all right. A door isn't a very solid thing for a war-ghost
out of its own time and place."
Bex gave her hand a final squeeze, spread it out upon her lap. She stared down
at the lines of her palm, then looked up at me. "If you won't fight, then you
have to tell me how to fight them," she said. "I won't let them kill my
"Maybe they won't."
"I can't take that chance."
Her eyes were blazing green as the suns came full through the window. Her face
was bright-lit and shadowed, as if by the steady coals of a fire. You have
loved this woman a long time, I thought. You have to tell her something that
will be of use. But what could possibly be of use against a creature that had
survivedwill survive that great and final warand so must survive now? You
can't kill the future. That's how the old sergeants would explain battle fate
to the recruits. If you are meant to be there, they'd say, then nothing can
hurt you. And if you're not, then you'll just fade, so you might as well go out
"You can only irritate them," I finally said to Bex. "There's a way to do it
with the Flash. Talk to that technician, what's his name"
"Tell Dvorak to strobe the local interrupt, fifty, sixty tetracycles. It'll cut
off all traffic, but it will be like a wasp nest to them, and they won't want
to get close enough to turn it off. Maybe they'll leave. Dvorak better stay
near the node after that, too."
"All right," Bex said. "Is that all?"
"Yes," I said. I rubbed my temples, felt the vague pain of a headache, which
quickly receded as my internals rushed more blood to my scalp. "Yes, that's
Later that day, I heard the crackle of random quantum tunnel spray, as split
unsieved particles decided their spin, charm, and color without guidance from
the world of gravity and cause. It was an angry buzz, like the hum of an insect
caught between screen and windowpane, tremendously irritating to listen to for
hours on end, if you were unlucky enough to be sensitive to the effect. I put
up with it, hoping against hope that it would be enough to drive off the glims.
Bex arrived in the early evening, leading her father, who was ragged and
half-crazed from two days without light or water. The glims had locked him in a
cleaning closet, in the hotel, where he'd sat cramped and doubled over. After
the buzz started, Bex opened the lock and dragged the old man out. It was
almost as if the glims had forgotten the whole affair.
"Maybe," I said. "We can hope."
She wanted me to put the old man up at my house, in case the glims suddenly
remembered. Old Furly Bexter didn't like the idea. He rattled on about
something in McKinnon's Letter to the Canadians, but I said yes, he
could stay. Bex left me with her father in the shrouds of my living room.
Sometime that night, the quantum buzz stopped. And in the early morning, I saw
themfive of themstalking along the road, kicking before them the cowering,
stumbling form of Jurven Dvorak. I waited for them on the porch. Furly Bexter
was asleep in my parents' bedroom. He was exhausted from his ordeal, and I
expected him to stay that way for a while.
When they came into the yard, Dvorak ran to the pump and held to the handle, as
if it were a branch suspending him over a bottomless chasm. And for him it was.
They'd broken his mind and given him a dream of dying. Soon to be replaced by
reality, I suspected, and no pump-handle hope of salvation.
Their leaderor the one who did the talkingwas human-looking. I'd have to band
out to make a full I.D., and I didn't want to give anything away for the
moment. He saved me the trouble by telling me himself.
"My name's Marek," he said. "Come from a D-line, not far down-time from here."
I nodded, squinting into the red brightness reflected off my hardpan yard.
"We're just here for a good time," Marek continued. "What you want to spoil that
I didn't say anything for a moment. One of Marek's gang spat into the dryness of
"Go ahead and have it," I said.
"All right," Marek said. He turned to Dvorak, then pulled out a weaponnot
really a weapon though, for it is the tool of behind-the-lines enforcers,
prison interrogators, confession extractors. It's called an algorithmic
truncheon, a trunch, in the parlance. Used at full load, a trunch will strip
the myelin sheath from axons and dendrites; it will burn up a man's nerves as
if they were fuses. It is a way to kill with horrible pain. Marek walked over
and touched the trunch to the leg of Dvorak, as if he were lighting a bonfire.
The Flash technician began to shiver, and then to seethe, like a teapot coming
to boil. The motion traveled up his legs, into his chest, out his arms. His
neck began to writhe, as if his corded muscles were so many snakes. Then
Dvorak's brain burned, as a teapot will when all the water has run out and
there is nothing but flame against hot metal. And then Dvorak screamed. He
screamed for a long, long time. And then he died, crumpled and spent, on the
ground in front of my house.
"I don't know you," Marek said, standing over Dvorak's body and looking up at
me. "I know what you are, but I can't get a read on who you are,
and that worries me," he said. He kicked at one of the Flash tech's twisted
arms. "But now you know me."
"Get off my land," I said. I looked at him without heat. Maybe I felt nothing
inside, either. That uncertainty had been my companion for a long time, my grim
companion. Marek studied me for a moment. If I kept his attention, he might not
peer around me, look inside the house, to find his other fun, Furly Bexter,
half-dead from Marek's amusements. Marek turned to the others.
"We're going," he said to them. "We've done what we came for." They turned
around and left by the road on which they'd come, the only road there was.
After a while, I took Dvorak's body to a low hill and dug him a grave there. I
set up a sandstone marker, and since I knew Dvorak came from Catholic people, I
scratched into the stone the sign of the cross. Jesus, from the Milky Way.
Another glim. Hard to kill.
It took old man Bexter only a week or so to recover fully; I should have known
by knowing Bex that he was made of a tougher grit. He began to putter around
the house, helping me out where he could, although I ran a tidy one-man
operation, and he was more in the way than anything. Bex risked a trip out once
that week. Her father again insisted he was going back into town, but Bex told
him the glims were looking for him. So far, she'd managed to convince them that
she had no idea where he'd gotten to.
I was running low on food and supplies, and had to go into town the following
Firstday. I picked up a good backpack load at the mercantile and some chemicals
for treating the peat at the druggist, then risked a quick look-in on Bex. A
sign on the desk told all that they could find her at Thredmartin's, taking her
lunch, should they want her. I walked across the street, set my load down just
inside Thredmartin's door, in the cloakroom, then passed through the entrance
into the afternoon dank of the pub.
I immediately sensed glims all around, and hunched myself in, both mentally and
physically. I saw Bex in her usual corner and walked toward her across the
room. As I stepped beside a table in the pub's middle, a glimit was the
halandanastuck out a long hairy leg. Almost, I trippedand in that instant, I
almost did the natural thing and cast about for some hold that was not present
in the three-dimensional worldbut I did not. I caught myself, came to a dead
stop, then carefully walked around the glim's outstretched leg.
"Mind if I sit down?" I said as I reached Bex's table. She nodded toward a free
chair. She was finishing a beer, and an empty glass stood beside it.
Thredmartin usually had the tables clear as soon as the last drop left a mug.
Bex was drinking fast. Why? Working up her courage, perhaps.
I lowered myself into the chair, and for a long time, neither of us said
anything to the other. Bex finished her beer. Thredmartin appeared, looked
curiously at the two empty mugs. Bex signaled for another, and I ordered my own
"How's the ranch," she finally asked me. Her face was flush and her lips
trembled slightly. She was angry, I decided. At me, at the situation. It was
understandable. Completely understandable.
"Fine," I said. "The ranch is fine."
Again a long silence. Thredmartin returned with our drinks. Bex sighed, and for
a moment, I thought she would speak, but she did not. Instead, she reached
under the table and touched my hand. I opened my palm, and she put her hand
into mine. I felt the tension in her, the bonework of her hand as she squeezed
tightly. I felt her fear and worry. I felt her love.
And then Marek came into the pub looking for her. He stalked across the room and
stood in front of our table. He looked hard at me, then at Bex, and then he
swept an arm across the table and sent Bex's beer and my whiskey flying toward
the wall. The beer mug broke, but I quickly reached out and caught my tumbler
of scotch in midair without spilling a drop. Of course no ordinary human could
have done it.
Bex noticed Marek looking at me strangely and spoke with a loud voice that got
his attention. "What do you want? You were looking for me at the hotel?"
"Your sign says you're open," Marek said in a reasonable, ugly voice. "I rang
for room service. Repeatedly."
"Sorry," Bex said. "Just let me settle up and I'll be right there."
"Be right there now," Marek said, pushing the table from in front of her.
Again, I caught my drink, held it on a knee while I remained sitting. Bex
started up from her chair and stood facing Marek. She looked him in the eyes.
"I'll be there directly," she said.
Without warning, Marek reached out and grabbed her by the chin. He didn't seem
to be pressing hard, but I knew he must have her in painful grip. He pulled Bex
toward him. Still, she stared him in the eyes. Slowly, I rose from my chair,
setting my tumbler of whiskey down on the warm seat where I had been.
Marek glanced over at me. Our eyes met, and at that close distance, he could
plainly see the enhancements under my corneas. I could see his.
"Let go of her," I said.
He did not let go of Bex.
"Who the hell are you?" he asked. "That you tell me what to do?"
"I'm just a grunt, same as you," I said. "Let go of her."
The halandana had risen from its chair and was soon standing behind Marek.
It-she growled mean and low. A combat schematic of how to handle the situation
iconed up into the corner of my vision. The halandana was a green figure, Marek
was red, Bex was a faded rose. I blinked once to enlarge it. Studied it in a
fractional second. Blinked again to close it down. Marek let go of Bex.
She stumbled back, hurt and mad, rubbing her chin.
"I don't think we've got a grunt here," Marek said, perhaps to the halandana, or
to himself, but looking at me. "I think we've got us a genuine skyfalling space
The halandana's growl grew deeper and louder, filling ultra and subsonic
"How many systems'd you take out, skyfaller?" Marek asked. "A couple of galaxies
worth?" The halandana made to advance on me, but Marek put out his hand to stop
it. "Where do you get off? This ain't nothing but small potatoes next to what
In that moment, I spread out, stretched a bit in ways that Bex could not see,
but that Marek couldto some extent at least. I encompassed him, all of him,
and did a thorough I.D. on both him and the halandana. I ran the data through
some trans-d personnel files tucked into a swirl in n-space I'd never expected
to access again. Marek Lambrois. Corporal of a back-line military police
platoon assigned to the local cluster in a couple of possible worlds, deserters
all in a couple of others. He was aggression-enhanced by trans-weblink anti-alg
coding. The squad's fighting profile was notched to the top level at all times.
They were bastards who were now preprogrammed bastards. Marek was right
about being small potatoes. He and his gang were nothing but mean-ass grunts,
small-time goons for some of the nonaligned contingency troops.
"What the hell?" Marek said. He noticed my analytics, although it was too fast
for him to get a good glimpse of me. But he did understand something in that
moment, something it didn't take enhancement to figure out. And in that moment,
everything was changed, had I but seen. Had I but seen.
"You're some bigwig, ain't you, skyfaller? Somebody that matters to the
outcome," Marek said. "This is your actual, and you don't want to fuck yourself
up-time, so you won't fight." He smiled crookedly. A diagonal of teeth,
straight and narrow, showed whitely.
"Don't count on it," I said.
"You won't," he said, this time with more confidence. "I don't know what I was
worrying about. I can do anything I want here."
"Well," I said. "Well." And then I said nothing.
"Get on over there and round me up some grub," Marek said to Bex. "I'll be
waiting for it in Room Forty-Five, little lady."
"Do it," I said. The words were harsh and did not sound like my voice. But they
were my words, and after a moment, I remembered the voice. It was mine. From
far, far in the future. Bex gasped at their hardness, but took a step forward,
moved to obey.
"Bex," I said, more softly. "Just get the man some food." I turned to Marek. "If
you hurt her, I don't care about anything. Do you understand? Nothing will
matter to me."
Marek's smiled widened into a grin. He reached over, slowly, so that I could
think about it, and patted my cheek. Then he deliberately slapped me, hard.
Hard enough to turn my head. Hard enough to draw a trickle of blood from my
lip. It didn't hurt very much, of course. Of course it didn't hurt.
"Don't you worry, skyfaller," he said. "I know exactly where I stand now." He
turned and left, and the halandana, its drugs unfinished on the table where it
had sat, trailed out after him.
Bex looked at me. I tried to meet her gaze, but did not. I did not look down,
but stared off into Thredmartin's darkness. She reached over and wiped the
blood from my chin with her little finger.
"I guess I'd better go," she said.
I did not reply. She shook her head sadly, and walked in front of me. I kept my
eyes fixed, far away from this place, this time, and her passing was a swirl of
air, a red-brown swish of hair, and Bex was gone. Gone.
They sucked down my heart
Part 1 Part
2 Part 3
to a little black hole.
You cannot stab me.