In part 3 of L. Christopher DelGuercio’s three part serial, Bil-Li tracks down and confronts Lomac Zhinn. — ed, N.E. Lilly

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

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

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

He had to remember.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No answer.

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

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

Bil-Li moved close.

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

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

“What you need, Hugh?

“Who are you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rumor has it.”

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

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

“Plenty. What you got?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bil-Li asked, “Pith, is that you?”

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

Trubbull broke in. “You two acquainted?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I want in.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We go now then,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trubbull slinked closer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

His smug grin melted away.

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

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

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

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

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

“So what happened?”

Pith shrugged. “I didn’t agree.”

“So you’ll take to me Lomac?”

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

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

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

“He’s an outlaw.”

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

“It’s impossible,” Bil-Li said.

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

“And you believe him?”

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

“He won’t talk terms?”

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

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

Pith didn’t hestitate. “No.”

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

“The harm will be your own.”

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

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

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

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

“I know they didn’t.”

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

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

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

“Thank you,” Bil-Li said.

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

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

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

“I’m afraid it is, Pith.”

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

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

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

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

“You won’t surprise him either.”

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

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

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

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

Bi-Li quickdrew his rayzer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I didn’t miss.”

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

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

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

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

“Name your price,” Bil-Li said.

“I don’t have one.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not so sure yourself, are you?” Bil-Li asked, awaiting a red plasma death.

Lomac lowered the gun.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more from this serial.

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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