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Falling to Eternity

Upcoming in No Man's Land, Defending the Future IV, May 2011

 

One of us is a traitor.

That last, gut-stabbing message, flashed to my headset before the system went down and left me talking to dead air, seems to float in front of my eyes in letters of fire. I don't even know who it came from; just that quick, before the identifier could even display, somebody killed the whole network. So the sender is a suspect too, one of seven, and I'm stuck here in my duty pod waiting either for the Worlies to show or one of my own squad to blow us all to hell.

This day just keeps getting better.

I take my hand off the unresponsive panels. Someone has done a thorough job of cutting pod functions. They can’t jam the guns; those operate independently from the central systems. But communications, scanners, the pod retract--all dead. We’re stuck out here like carnival-goers on a malfunctioning Ferris wheel.

I'm tired. Even at zero gee my body feels like five hundred pounds of sand. My brain is mush. We’ve been here so long that watches just blur together, but even so this is overtime. I was just coming off operations watch when the alarm sent us scrambling to the pods. I lean my helmeted head against the clear observation port in front of me, wishing I was back on Earth, wishing I could rewind this day--hell, this war--wishing I could stop thinking about turning my guns on the outpost and ending the whole problem. I still have five friends in there.

I had six this morning.

One of us is a traitor. I don't want to believe it, but too much has gone wrong. Nguyen discovered the pinpoint hull breach and disabled alarm that would have bled our atmosphere quietly until three days from now we'd wake up dead. But Vronski was the one who found the main transmitter array hanging by an eyelash and fixed it, no fuss, no alarm, just another repair on a sentry outpost in dire need of overhaul. I myself fixed the galley hatch, with a wrench and a few unkind words. But maybe those weren’t just age-related breakdowns. Did Hawk's pod really hang just now, or is she crawling down into the station right now?

Ah, God. Home seems a long way away.

 

Wolf Dreams

 

Upcoming in Wolfsongs 2, Spring 2011

Michel lay on his improvised pallet in the cargo hold, dreaming of moonlight.

Liquid silver fell from a black crystal sky, caressing, burning, filling his craving as hot blood satisfied his empty stomach. Moonlight, bittersweet as memories of lost love.

Moonlight. His lover. His bane.

Gloved hands and booted feet twitched as the dream carried him through forests of tall firs towering toward the moon riding in cold serenity atop the mountains. He ran through slanting bars of silver limning branches stirring to the night breeze, his muzzle up, filled with the intoxicating scents of storm-washed trees and grass crushed by the hooves of beasts fleeing his coming. The solidity of earth under his paws, the wine of wind in his face, ruffling his fur, sparked visceral delight from memories wound into his very bones. A rogue breeze carried a rich scent, so hot and close it brought saliva gushing into his mouth in anticipation of the kill.

He leaped a fence, landing in the dooryard of a thatched hut huddled in a copse of firs. Swine squealed in terror in a pen built against one wall. Michel made for them, the smell of dung and rank fear and mud-smeared hides twisting his gut into anticipatory knots. But movement at the door of the hut brought with it a new smell, sweeter yet, and he changed course, leaping in triumph, jaws tearing, his ears full of a soaring scream that ended mid-note--

Michel woke abruptly.

He lay there blinking the dream away, slowing his breathing from hunting pace. Motionless on the rough blankets begged from the ship's captain, who had weighed their ruin against the fuss to be dealt with if a passenger froze to death in transit, he listened to the unchanging rumble of the ship's engines thrusting this cold metal cage through the endless void between stars. His dark eyes stared at the battered gray walls from behind a curtain of lank hair he no longer attempted to keep in order. After a moment his gaze drifted down to the controls of the air lock. Beyond it, only the stars waited.

Even they could give him no answers.

He curled down into the nest of blankets, his face buried in the parka he had acquired five worlds ago. Five kills.

Sleepless, Michel listened to the engines carrying him farther and farther from France and no longer even tried to stop the slow tears soaking his dirty sleeve. He closed his eyes and tried to pretend the dull, endless roar was the mistral moaning through Provence on a winter's night, swaying the treetops catching silver from the moon.

Ah, sweet saints, the moon. . . .

 

 

An Infinity of Moments

Available in On Spec, Fall 2010

 

 

The fourth time I blew myself to tatters, I began to suspect that maybe Granny Mac had been right all along: there ain't no percentage in immortality.

Damnit.

I hung there in that place/no place where the mind or soul or whatever goes off to after seventy pounds of C4 disintegrates a body, watching with disembodied eyes as the smeary red bits oozed toward each other, leaving little scarlet trails on the rubbery floor of the demo range. It was sort of pretty, in an impressionistic sort of way. It made interesting patterns, at least, and I spent the drag time while my body put itself back together trying to puzzle out why the pattern was always different, when the starting pieces were exactly the same every time. Same hundred-ten pound body, same clothes, same starting position: kneeling in front of the bomb, my hands carefully placed exactly two inches above the trigger where my little finger could punch it; to all outward appearances the perfect picture of the well-trained Explosive Ordinance Disposal expert. But the spatter pattern was always different.

Interesting.

My various bits sorted themselves out at their usual stately pace while the students for whom I had staged this little disaster fled the gallery, gagging and retching. There was no pain; I have never felt pain; to be expected, I suppose, in a creature that can't die and therefore doesn't require such spurs toward survival. After twenty minutes or so I looked up at Jemmy standing over me with his arms crossed and his lips pulled into a grim line I knew all too well. I twitched my fingers and toes experimentally, decided everything was in working order, and crawled stiffly to my feet. Silently he held out a lab coat, which I put on over bare skin still showing a few assembly marks that would fade in another hour. I flipped blood-spattered brown hair out of my face, buttoned the thing demurely, and smiled at him.

"We got anybody left?"

He didn't smile back. "Five or six."

"Hey, more than usual. That's good. The agency's getting a little short on bodies."

"Poor choice of words," Jemmy snapped, his mouth pulling even tighter.

"Come on, Jem, lighten up. You will notice that this body is still alive and kicking."

"No thanks to you." He caught my elbow and turned me toward the door in the circular range. I pulled my arm free and walked beside him, the lab coat flapping around my bare knees. He reached to open the door; I took a long step and beat him to it, because I didn't want chivalry and I didn't want another lecture and I didn't want to hear about probabilities and risks and reckless thrill-seeking yet again. It's my body, my life, and my contribution to a society where random violence has replaced graffiti as an expression of underprivileged angst and anyone can end up a bleeding banner ad for some fanatic’s twisted manifesto.

That's what I tell people anyway.

Jemmy tried to snag my arm in the corridor leading to Debrief. Again I dodged him. "Kari!"

I stopped and looked back into the hurt in his face. It gave me a twinge; I do love him, and I know he loves me. He's a rare sort of treasure, Jemmy, still willing to love when the next alarm could see everything worth living for snatched away in a red-yellow blossom of impressionistic death. Horror in pretty colors. A lottery for which you don't have to buy a ticket.

"I'm going to be late for Debrief." I touched his arm in apology. Mistake. He reached up and caught it, wrapping it tight in both of his.

"Let ‘em wait. We need to talk."

"Not now, Jem." I tried to pull my hand away; he held on tighter, his mouth thinning.

"Look, I’m sick of seeing the woman I love splattered all over the demo range. I don’t care that you can put yourself back together. It’s twisted and you need to knock it off."

"Or what? You’ll tell the shrinks I’m a whacko? Good luck with that."

His eyes narrowed. The entire medical field had been having a ball studying me for years. It redefines the whole meaning of self-destructive behavior when the test subject damages herself knowing well that nothing is permanent, that pain is not part of the equation, that death is irrelevant and therefore so is fear. They can't understand why fear is even part of my psychological makeup, but I jump to loud bangs same as the next person.

He got a visible grip on the temper he knew wouldn’t work with me. Twice he’d threatened to leave me; once he had threatened to throw my ass out of EOD. It didn’t matter what he might think up this time. I had no desire to stop.

Desire.

That's the correct word, all right.

"Kari . . ." All at once it wasn’t anger in his eyes, but fear, the deep-rooted concern I wouldn’t let myself face because I knew someday it would be over. He’d die, I’d move on, find someone else to spend a half-second of eternity with while trying not to get in too deep.

His voice dropped to a low, baffled murmur. "This is nuts--"

Probably.

"--and I can’t keep covering for you. That wasn’t a mistake just now--"

Not at all.

"--so whatever you’re trying to prove, knock it off. There’s no need to put yourself through this--"

Oh, but there is. You have no idea.

"Those ghouls in there--" He made a violent gesture toward Debrief and the psychiatrists and microbiologists and geneticists waiting their chance to decipher what makes me tick. "They don't know anything and they're never going to. Four times or four hundred, it's not going to make any difference, so please, just--" He gestured helplessly, the anger fading to dismay and a hopeless sort of appeal to my better sense. "Stop. Please. Stop."

Gently I pulled my hand free. "I can't, Jem. I really can't."

 


Wishes and Horses
 

Upcoming in the Spring 2011 issue of Tales of Moreauvia

 

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. Katy had never really understood that saying until right now; she’d been making her own ponies since she was three, so she never could figure out growing up why so many people walked everywhere when they could ride. She must have been twelve before it dawned on her that maybe not everybody could make a live pony out of a fistful of dough and a rocking-horse cookie cutter.

She hadn’t made a pony in a long time. She was tempted to right now, because Jess was being awful, and riding off and leaving him screaming to the wind seemed like a fine idea. She had never known what a trial having kids was ’til she had one. She regarded him grimly, wishing real hard for a way to get "no" through his head, but Ma was right when she said little ’uns had skulls that would bounce a bullet. So Katy gave up on wishing and grabbed his little wrist, firmly removed his hand from the bean bowl still again and managed not to yell even though she felt like it. Jess shrieked and tried to stuff a handful of the snapped beans into his mouth; she grabbed them away and picked him up, still shrieking and now wriggling like a worm on a hook. Firmly she planted him fifty feet away under the cottonwood where it would take him a while to crawl back, and sat herself down on the stoop again to finish snapping the beans.

Visions of ponies cantered wistfully through her mind, frolicking away toward shady places where it was always cool. Her hands slowed as she remembered the white one she had made when she was fifteen, the first one she hadn’t needed to use the cookie cutter to make. It used up a whole batch of bread dough and Ma had swatted her for it, but Pa was so tickled Katy figured the hiding was worth it. Such a pretty pony, but the Comanches stole him and she had to make another one, and that one wasn’t as nice for some reason. Pa traded him off for a mule that got carried away in a flash flood along with Pa, so she hadn’t made but one more pony, for Ma to ride back to her folks in Georgia after seeing her daughter married off proper. After that she just got so busy making magic for other folks that she hadn’t much left for fun.



Who Mourns for the Hangman?

Published as an e-book September 1, 2009 from Damnation Books. Available on Kindle as well.

 

Something shifted in the back of the wagon with an ominous creak and thump. Startled, Scraggy halted heavy-footed Bess and peered over his shoulder into the gathering dusk. "What's amiss, darlin'?"

Another heavy groan from the wagon bed set Scraggy's heart jumping up his throat. Hurriedly he wrapped the reins around the brake and jumped down, heedless of the mud squelching under his new buckled shoes. Jezebel had no call to be shifting about like that.

He swore when he got around to the wagon tail and saw Jezebel straining at the ropes holding her various parts and pieces in the bed. He shoved the crosspiece back with force enough to jar the whole rig, glad to have the road to himself. It would do his reputation no good if he earned a name as a hangman who couldn't manage a rope.

Cursing the October wet and the mud and the mist curling around the wagon laden with the precious tools of his trade, he cinched the damp ropes up taut. "There, lass, you’ll ride easy now," he told Jezebel, lovingly patting the mark carved deep into the end of the crossbeam. His mark. John Barton, though nobody ever called him that. Scraggy he had been since his youth as a skinny carpenter's apprentice, and Scraggy he remained.

Light welled up abruptly from the darkness of the wagon bed. Shocked, Scraggy snatched at the wooden box wedged between the gallows uprights, staring at the silvery glow streaming through the thin gap between box and lid. Hurriedly he fumbled for his key, unlocked the heavy padlock and threw open the lid. He caught up the waxed and waterproof canvas bag, which somehow had come open, feeling with anxious, loving fingers over the coiled rope shedding cold light over his hands. His rope, John Barton's rope, the one folk came to see.

"What be ye trying to tell me?" he whispered. Jezebel and the rope, conspiring to stop him in this spot. He squinted into the fading light at bare trees dripping with damp. Fog lay thick as the Devil's breath in the tops; beneath, darkness huddled, uninviting as a tomb. Frowning, he turned around. In the rope's glow he saw another track crossing his own road, boxing a flat spot bare of trees and grass where even the fog did not linger. Scraggy eyed it, knowing a gallows-foot when he saw it. No wonder Jezebel was restless.


Kraken's Honor


Published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies December 3, 2009

 

 

I suppose there are worse ways to start a day than drowning, but standing on the splintered prow of the Ice Queen with the icy sea breaking green over the dwindling deck, I really could not think of one. The world had shrunk to a broken wedge of wood stuck fast on the rocks half a bowshot from shore. Not so far, were it not for the kraken lolling at ease in the shallows, watching the Queen breaking up with a nasty gleam in its golden eyes.

A cold death or a sharp one. Fine lot of choices for a winter morning.

"The beast looks hungry!" Halvak shouted over the frosted wind driving in our faces.

"The beast looks amused," I said. It rankled, to end in a monster's belly like some slaughtered bullock too stupid to avoid its fate.

Another wave smashed over the Queen's figurehead, all but washing us both away. Halvak grabbed my arm; I clawed for the remains of the ship's rail and clung hard, keeping us from the depths for another moment or two. Something snapped sharply underfoot and Halvak yelped as the deck tilted again.

"If ever you intended to discover if the gods have not all died, my prince, now would be a good time!" he shouted.

"And what if they're still angry? I'll take my chances with the sea!"

The sea had its own ideas. A wave shattered to spray across the bow. The spray froze where it struck, splintering apart again in glittering shards that fell and broke like crystal knives with every trembling passage of a wave. Deck and rail shone like the Isles of the Dead in all the legends, which told me a thing or two about how legends begin.

"I'll not be part of this one," I muttered, and hauled Halvak up beside me. He looked a sight, did my bard, with his green finery draggled and splotched and his black beard full of ice, but his blue eyes were steady on mine.

"You've a plan, my lord?" he said, so calm that my soul cringed from his certainty. Reputation is an evil thing, especially when it is your own.

"I've a hope," I told him, and pointed at the kraken.

He gazed an instant with only the sound of the crashing sea to fill the silence. "This should be a tale worth telling," he said finally.

A great wave smashed over the figurehead and carried it away, the Ice Queen herself gone to a cold and lonely grave. I twisted a hand in Halvak's cloak and caught him close, eyeing a rock a fathom away. Halvak clutched at the remains of the rail, suddenly shy as a maiden.

"My lord!" he shouted over the wind, and fear edged his voice for the first time since we fled Westervar together ahead of the Night Maidens. "I think I should tell you--I cannot swim!"

I hauled him up against my side. "What makes you think I can?"

His hand clutched convulsively at my cloak as I launched us over the heaving gap, and then we landed sprawling on a great, slippery stone sheathed in ice and cold as a Night Maiden's heart. I started to slide toward the sea; Halvak's hand caught me back, pinning me to the rock with scant regard for royal bruises. Kicking and scrambling, we crawled up to a sea-carved hollow at the top, above the crash of the waves. We rested there, shivering and soaked and battered by icy needles driven down from the north with all the vicious intent my uncle could put into them. I heard a sound I could not at first believe and stared wildly into the wind, certain it was my uncle's laughter I heard. Then I peered at Halvak. He was lying there on his belly with his face tilted up to the dirty gray sky and a great grin cracking his face apart, giggling like a demented child.

"You're mad!" I shouted at him.

He sat up, scrabbling for a handhold on the ice, and made me a mocking bow from the waist. "No madder than my lord." Then his gaze slid toward the shore and his voice turned urgent. "Up, Faeryk. If you’ve not broken your father's sword landing on this rock, I've a mind you're going to need it."

The kraken had bestirred itself from the shallows. Its great horned head lifted. Nostrils each the width of my shoulders fluttered and sniffed the salt wind. Great fangs as long as my arm gleamed dully in the storm light and a hundred writhing limbs stirred idly in a queasy tangle like a nest of snakes.

I crawled to my feet, balancing precariously on the ice, sodden and dripping and numb from the frozen roots of my hair to my waterlogged boots. I left my father's sword in the sheath. Even were my hands not too stiff and cold to wield it, it could do little but add to the kraken's amusement should I brandish it in the monster's face.

The kraken glided closer, ignoring wind and sea and the snow lashing at great golden eyes. It cocked its head, curious as a cat, wondering, perhaps, why we stood like tethered sheep awaiting our doom. Gradually it slowed, and hope all but choked me.

Halvak stood rigid by my side, his harp quiet in its case on his shoulder. Son of a hundred bards, he could have stayed and harped for my uncle and commanded his own castle, but here he stood on the remains of an oath and a principle long forgotten in Westervar. Honor. For that, and because that jewel of a voice should not end in a kraken's belly, I looked up into the gold, slitted eyes peering down at me and began to fight for a kingdom I no longer wanted.


The Master of the Bones


Upcoming in Pangaia Spring 2012

 

It's been a crazy year. God knows, I haven't looked at my land the same since Poha came.

I remember that day last spring, pouring rain and me grateful for an enclosed cab on the Johnny, pulling four sections of springtooth on the sidehill eighty, getting it ready to plant spring wheat. The ground was getting muddy enough to make rolling ninety thousand dollars worth of tractor down into the draw a real possibility, so I climbed down and started home, and there he was, standing in the draw watching me, a dim figure in the driving rain. What the hell? I thought, because it's a long walk from the county road.

"What can I do for you?" I said. "Pretty miserable day for sightseeing."

Just about then I got close enough to get a good look at him through the rain. He sure wasn't a tourist or some county bureaucrat poking around to see if I have too many noxious weeds starting or whether I'm letting all the topsoil erode away. The suits don't walk around barefoot wearing nothing but a knee-length shirt woven--swear to God--out of leaves, real ones, though where he ever found that many willow leaves that early in the year I will never know. He had the most piercing dark eyes I’ve ever seen, the kind that don't just look at you, but see everything you hope no one ever guessed about the rotten trick you played on Henry Garfield back in high school.

Well, the State Hospital isn't all that many miles away cross-country, and once in a while somebody gets away from them. I stopped well out of arm's reach, grateful for the first time for the cell phone Linda made me buy. I was afraid to reach into my back pocket, though. He might guess I was going to call the looney patrol and do something I’d surely regret.

"So," I said. "What brings you way out here? You collect antlers?"

He gave me a puzzled look. I pointed down at his bare feet, which were smack in the middle of a scatter of deer bones from some buck that had died over the winter. Half of a pair of really good antlers still clung to the skull.

He shook his head and looked up the hill through the rain beating the newly-turned earth into slippery, melting clods. Water ran in solid streams off shaggy, bone-white hair but he didn't seem to notice. "You were wise to stop. The earth is unhappy."

Oookkaay. Take it slow, I reminded myself. I figured he could do whatever he wanted so long as he left that John Deere tractor alone. The bank still owns half of it and sure enough they won't be happy to discover I had to let the insurance lapse last year.

"Unhappy, how?" I said, playing along.

His eyes turned sad. "It misses the grass."

And the buffalo too, no doubt. I managed not to roll my eyes. Then he said, "It likes the wheat, but the wheat does not stay. It misses the grass holding it safe against the rain and the melting snow."

That took me aback. Most of the back-to-nature nuts want you to stop farming and put the land back like it was two hundred years ago. Honestly, I know people who think bread comes from the supermarket.

"Can't help that, I'm afraid. I need all the land I can get, or I'll lose the whole works to some developer. And then there'll be houses all over the place instead of wheat."

He turned his head then and looked me straight in the eye. "I know," he said in that voice that makes you feel like suddenly you're a kid again, all wrapped up in your dad's arms, safe against whatever comes. "That's why I've come."

I stared. I couldn't help it. "What?"

He smiled, not malicious or condescending, but an honest smile, man to man. "Perhaps you'd better step aside. Otherwise I doubt that cell phone will do you much good in another minute or so."

That sent the wind right up my back. I found myself backing away; he ignored me, turning to face up the hill, no longer smiling but intent, his eyes on the tractor.

"Hey, what are you--"

Movement up the hill turned my stomach to a knot of ice. The whole world crashed onto my shoulders, because the Johnny was slipping front-wheels first down the hillside as the dirt started to shift under the rain. It slid toward the bottom of the draw, taking my livelihood with it.

The tractor jackknifed into a V with the middle section of springtooth. The stranger threw up his arms, his voice rolling out through the rain, rich and deep and somehow resonating even over the steady drum of the rain, like thunder turned human. I don't think he spoke an actual word; if he did, I didn't understand it. It was just a sound, and it rolled away up the hill like some massive boulder defying gravity and all the laws of physics. As the tractor started to twist and go over, suddenly everything froze. The Johnny teetered precariously, up on its downhill wheels, as the ground on the downhill side suddenly started piling up like a hundred gophers on speed had congregated under the tractor. In five seconds, maybe less, a mound thicker than I am tall built itself against the tractor's wheels, preventing it rolling on over and down the hill. The Johnny shivered, hesitated, and then settled gently onto all four wheels again.

"My God," I whispered.

The stranger turned, lowering his arms, smiling gently. "No. I am Poha."


Message in the Dust

Science Fiction Trails anthology, Spring 2009

 

Carver woke from a dream of dust with the smell of it clogging his nostrils, the taste of it on his lips. It took him a moment to discover he was lying face down in the trail, his cheek pressed into yellow dirt baked to powder by the August sun. He opened his eyes and stared, disoriented, at a beetle crawling up a brown blade of grass in front of his nose, its weight setting the fragile stem swaying. He tried to think why he should be seeing it from such an angle, but his head hurt, a nasty dull throbbing punctuated with an occasional sharp stab above his left ear. He lay there for a while, puzzling over it, until a small metallic click above his head triggered his memory with sudden heart-stopping clarity.

Sage.

His heart constricted in fear and sorrow. Oh, my brother, he thought, and rolled over, grabbing blindly for an ankle, the fringe on Sage’s leggings, any handhold to overset him and get the gun away. He caught a glimpse of worn deerhide, faded beads, a puff of dust, then Sage’s moccasined foot caught him in the gut and kicked him over onto his back, gasping for air. Carver froze, looking up at his blood brother silhouetted against the sky, black and grim and strange.

"You are my brother," Carver said softly for the ninth or tenth time since this nightmare began. "Let us talk."

He blinked sweat out of his eyes--or was it blood? He could not tell, nor guess how he looked to whatever was looking back at him through Sage’s eyes. But Sage was in there. He must be, or Carver would already be dead.

Sage did not move. The Colt glinted in his hand, picking light from the Texas sun. But though the hammer was back, the muzzle was tilted at an odd angle, not quite lined up with Carver’s head, and the brown fingers holding it seemed unsure of their grip. It gave him hope. Maybe that first bullet had been an accident, or Sage was fighting whatever had happened to him when he touched the curve of dusty metal jutting from the far side of the hill.

Carver stared up at the faceless shape above him and lifted his head a cautious fraction. No reaction. He slid one hand into a better position, and slowly, slowly, pushed himself up on one knee. Still Sage never moved, as though he had turned to stone there in the trail.

Shivering from shock and the suddenness with which the day had gone wrong, Carver watched his partner, his friend, his unexpected enemy, and touched his hand to the burning spot over his ear. It came away bloody, but the wound was shallow. He wiped the blood on his dusty black pants and said, "Right, then. I’m going to stand up. If you're going to shoot me, old boy, be so kind as to do it right. Wouldn't want to be gut-shot. Very boring, that." He said whatever came into his head, watching for any sign that the sound of his voice might be penetrating past that frozen stare. "Sage? Are you listening?"

3rd party software integration services . edm music . mild cigar . P90X3 review . more information Sage twitched when Carver bent his knee to push off, then stepped back, an awkward movement devoid of his usual grace. Carver seized the opportunity to stand all the way up, slowly, swaying as pain spiked through his head. He squinted at Sage and forced friendship from his mind, focusing on the gun and the distant, inward look on the Cheyenne's face, so different from the first, explosive madness. Carver had seen voodoo at work in the Caribbean; had watched half-mad fakirs prancing under the influence of hashish in India. He did not believe in demons, but Sage’s behavior gave him pause. The Comanches told stories of crazed animals in this valley, said a demon lived here. Was it some supernatural intelligence that had hold of Sage now, or something else? That dome over the hill, machined and flawless and far too huge for any wagon even if some teamster had been persuaded to haul it here into the heart of Comanche territory. . . Could madness lurk in its very metal?

He met Sage's blank eyes. "Will you put the gun down?" He spread his own fingers well away from his body. "I have no intention of hurting you."

The gun barrel leveled without warning, steadying in Sage’s grip. The dark gaze focused on him, frowning, bewildered. Dangerous. Carver froze, his breath sticking in his throat.

"Right. Sage? I say, are you in there? Can you hear me?" On sudden, feeble inspiration he shifted to Cheyenne. Maybe Sage had simply forgotten his English.

"Wind Running Through Sage," he said softly. "I am Henry Carver--Searches in Sand--your friend. We came looking for the place of the crazy animals, do you remember? We are hunters of things the shamans have no answers for. Do you remember?"

Silence. He might have been talking to the rocks. A small wind kicked up, blowing dust into a tiny whirlwind at Sage’s feet. He gave a low, animal cry and leaped back as though the dust devil had attacked him. Carver blinked, startled, and then leaped to wrestle the Colt away while the Cheyenne was off balance.

He grabbed Sage’s wrist with both hands and forced the gun muzzle up. It went off, the report booming away up the shallow valley to lose itself in the hot, dry afternoon. Sage made a noise that was half wail, half screech, and dropped it. Relief lent Carver strength; he rammed his shoulder into Sage’s belly and brought him down hard with Carver sprawled across him. He expected pantherish resistance; he got a limp body under his own that scared him into a graceless scramble to his knees. Biting down hard on dread, he reached for the pulse in Sage’s neck, and croaked thanks to a kind God when he found it.

Sage himself had taught Carver to be ruthless at need; he rolled the Cheyenne onto his side and cut a long strip from the bottom of his own faded gray shirt to tie Sage’s hands behind his back, not daring to leave him long enough to fetch rope from his horse. Then he squatted beside him, his pounding head lowered against the afternoon glare, and tried to think.

"What is that thing?" he muttered to the air. Science seemed very far removed from this spot. Legends, tall tales, unexplained phenomena were his business, but he could not explain this sudden madness that had descended on Sage the second his hand brushed the thing they had come here to find. Guilt set him writhing for his own inadequacies in preventing him. A lifetime spent debunking the "unexplained" had made him a few seconds too slow when the real thing appeared without warning in a sunken patch of west Texas dirt.

He got up and dragged unconscious Sage around into a pool of shade under a rock and checked him over for damage. He had a swelling lump under his black hair but his black eyes responded sharply to light when Carver pried up the lids one by one. His face, young, scarred on the right cheek from a too-close encounter with an aggrieved Pawnee, gave no hint of monstrosities lurking inside. Carver let him lie and staggered back over the hill to look at the thing that had started it all.

 

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