In part 2 of L. Christopher DelGuercio’s three part serial, after having shot Franck in the back Bil-Li is visited by Sheriff Tepper. — ed, N.E. Lilly

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 Starway Pass?” 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 Starway Pass 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 Starway Pass.”

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 Starway Pass, 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 Starway Pass, 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.

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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