L. Christopher DelGuercio brings us this three part serial. In part 1 we’re introduced to Lomac Zhinn and Bil-Li on the planet of Exoterra. — ed, N.E. Lilly

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 BlackGuard—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 Starway Pass?” 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 Starway Pass 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 Starway Pass.”

“I told you, I never heard of it. Lemme go now, there ain’t no Starway Pass 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.”

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 askyou 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.

L. Christopher DelGuercio L. Christopher DelGuercio resides in upstate New York with his wife, Melissa. His brand of fantastic fiction has appeared in such publications as: Allegory; Blood, Blade & Thruster; Chaos Theory: Tales Askew; Kaleidotrope; OG’s Speculative Fiction; Parade of Phantoms; Quantum Muse; and the anthologies Forbidden Speculation & Tabloid Purposes IV.

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