Bruce Gehweiler & C.J. Henderson bring us part 1 of another two part story, set in the shared-world of Byanntia. —ed. N.E. Lilly

“Tyranny, like Hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph.”—Thomas Paine

You know,” started the doctor, holding his glass aloft, not knowing tragedy was but five minutes off, “I figure there has to be at least one son’va bitch harder to kill than you somewhere in this universe. Problem is, I’ll be damned if I ever met him!”

Laughter and cheers rose up from around the Matson family table. A flurry of glasses went skyward, were knocked one against the other, drunk from and set down so hands could applaud. It was a good party and as at all good parties people were determined to celebrate. And, of course, they had a reason—Jacob Matson was still alive.

“That’s my dad,” said Joseph Matson, wiping a stray lock of dirty blonde hair from off his forehead. “The one man on Byanntia just too stubborn to die.”

The assembly cheered again. Two years earlier the doctor, now toasting Matson’s health along with the rest, had given him a few weeks to live. His tests and the resultant facts they surrendered had told him the patriarch possessed absolutely no more than a month of remaining life. To soften the blow he had indicated to Matson that he might have as much as a year. Might. If he was lucky, and did everything he was told. But that was it—no more. Absolutely no more than a year. The old man had then immediately gone out and gotten into an altercation which had broken six of his ribs, shattered two more.

“I understand,” said Matson, his voice stretching to find a tone that at least resembled humility, “that I should be long dead. I know that would’ve made this birthday of mine a lot more festive for a lot more people, but I, well, I fault Doc Lieber here with keepin’ me around to plague the rest of you.”

A chorus of good-natured boos and catcalls were heard around the table, now but four minutes from disaster. Matson nodded in appreciation. Others began lifting their glasses and making their own toasts. As they did, the old rancher sat back, feeling the efforts of having made the short speech a moment earlier. He was a man living on borrowed time who fully understood how cautious a banker the Grim Reaper really was. That he had survived long enough to train up his surviving sons to take over Twin Feathers, the family spread, he considered a blessing.

Not the only blessing you’ve had in your time, old man, a voice from the back of his mind told him. As he listened to those around the table, he knew the words were true.

Decades earlier, he had landed on the world now known as Byanntia with most of the rest of its population. A number of new arrivals, like his sons, had followed naturally, and a few off-worlders had found their way there, it was true. But, for the most part, the majority of the planet’s human citizens had made the same trip, 875 people crossing the light years in a slumberocket taking them to a new life.

Tired of Earth and its myriad regulations, taboos and restrictions, they had thrown the dice on carving something out of a wilderness for themselves. The only thing the long range scans could tell them was that the planet had a breathable atmosphere and no competing sentient beings. The scans had been right about the air, at least.

They had been wrong about Byanntia’s other citizens, however, the Kuzzi. When the humans’ one-way ship had touched down, never to lift off again, the colonists had discovered the feline nomads, the smallest of them taller than any human—or been discovered by them, depending on one’s point of view—and tensions had immediately jumped to the breaking point. The humans, of course, were in the worst position. They could not leave. But, the Kuzzi were also in a bad position. They were more numerous than the humans, true, but the humans’ weapons were far more terrible than theirs.

“Hey, Jacob,” called out Troy Duncan, the planet’s sheriff, “ever tell these kids how you made the deal that got us to Byanntia in the first place?”

Before anything hostile could happen, however, the Kuzzi leader Bollatu had welcomed the humans. Boundaries had been drawn up, and some tensions had ensued, but for the most part the towering feline creatures decided to act the perfect hosts. Of course, that decision had more to do with a certain piece of knowledge the natives chose to keep from the humans than it did etiquette. The Kuzzi knew that a creature their ancestors had named the Gr’nar would return when its cycle was due. Every time it had come, it had killed hundreds of Kuzzi. This time, they knew, smirking inwardly, it would kill humans. Bollatu had left Byanntia in disgrace when the humans had repulsed their god-thing with a minimum of effort.

“Oh,” drawled Matson, glad he had stayed in bed the day before, pleased he was rested enough to party as if he were not rapping on Death’s door, “I may have mentioned it once or twice—in passin’.”

Joe Matson rolled his eyes and groaned. Stew Matson gave out with an exaggerated “heehaw” laugh that drew more merriment from around the table. Their mother merely smiled. Those keeping score could have noted that there remained only two minutes before their world would collapse.

 Matson looked to his own glass at that moment. Actually, it was not really a tumbler of any kind, but more of a chalice, one made of pure Byanntian clay, fired and glazed right there on the planet. It was a grand and beautiful object, made by foundry owner Josh Mosheberg with his own two hands. Thirty-five years ago, Josh had followed Matson to Byanntia. He had come out into the darkness and stars for his own reasons as had they all. The husband and father had worked eighteen, twenty and twenty-two hour days, constructing his ovens so that when the rest of the expedition was ready to start building, they would have the bricks with which to do it.

And, when work was done for the day Josh Mosheberg would put aside all facets of himself except that part of him which had been his motivation to go to a new world and experiment with the native clay. The artist he felt within himself worked with the potter’s wheel he had brought from Earth, and as the years went on, he learned how to move his thumbs just so, when to pour water of what temperature in which quantities until he had discovered all the secrets needed to make bowls and cups and plates and mugs, vases and ashtrays and all manner of artifacts which would survive his death. Pieces which would become family heirlooms—the treasures of Byanntian families—his family and his neighbors’ families.

Thirty seconds from horror, Matson lifted the blue-glazed goblet to his mouth again, once more thinking on how lucky he was. Lucky to have had the opportunity to come to Byanntia in the first place. Lucky to have two strong sons, his beautiful wife, Shelby. Lucky to have stumbled onto a natural beef product on the planet the taste of which appealed to most every carnivore in the galaxy. Lucky enough to have made the journey to Byanntia before the building of the gates.

While the travelers had slept, Earth technology had harnessed the power of the stars and found a way to throw ships and people through other dimensions. Matson learned to herd and slaughter Kison beef just as Earth figured out how to reach his doorstep in days rather than the decades it had taken him and the others. The day they found his doorstep, they came with orders for all the beef he could ship, and suddenly he was the head of a dynasty.

“Okay, okay, if everyone’s finished with their tomfoolery,” said Shelby, filling the fifteen seconds of ignorant bliss the assemblage had remaining, “there’s a lot of food waiting to be eaten in the kitchen … that is if anyone is hungry.”

Sheriff Duncan was just about to respond to her invitation when the first great explosion jarred the house.

As an event it was not that spectacular. Bookcases did not tumble; the ceiling did not collapse. But the tenor of the party changed instantly. Peoples’ heads turned, ears marking the direction, eyes searching for windows. Instinctively all knew the tremor they had felt had come from the direction of New Dodge. The town was some twenty miles away, nothing of it visible to those at the ranch except for light reflections cast off from the town hall building’s main radio tower.

When the ship which had brought the first settlers to Byanntia had landed, it served two purposes. Much of it was stripped away to facilitate the building of private residences and businesses. The great shell of it, however, was their first home, later maturing into the business and political center of New Dodge. It would do so no longer.

“Do you see that?”

“I ain’t blind, you know.”

A great plume of smoke could be seen in the distance, rising from the spot everyone knew was New Dodge.

“What the Hell …” Matson mused quietly. Louder, he asked, “Can anyone get a signal from town?”

Personal comms were tabbed. No one could generate a response. The comms were all charged and operational. There simply was no out-going signal to be picked up.

“Somethin’s gone sideways and back ag’in in town,” declared Stewart. His brother nodded in response as the second great explosion was felt. This one much closer. Much closer.

This time the party-goers were given all the drama they could handle. These shock waves threw people to their knees, on their faces. Chairs were thrown over, depositing more of them onto their backs, across each other. Women screamed. The bassinets set up in the side room crashed to the floor, babies tossed out across the hand-made rugs, lungs and bowels exploding. Great clouds of blue-gray dust threw themselves against the house, through the windows, rock fragments shredding the screens.

“What was it?” asked Shelby. “What’s happening?”

Jacob Matson had no answer for his wife. He had no answers, period. Lying on his side, gasping for air, the pain of a score of old injuries flaring immediately, the old man could barely breathe, let along think. Slowly, painfully, he calmed his racing heart while younger hands helped him to his feet, slid an undamaged chair beneath him.

Just a helpless, crippled-up fool now, ain’t ya?

The thought washed its way through Matson’s brain, sneering as it traveled throughout every corner of it slowly, taunting the old man. All about him, the confused screaming continued for another full minute and a few random seconds. Then, the new masters of Byanntia made their first demands known.

A  small dart of a warship had hovered over the main house of Twin Feathers long enough to make an announcement. All household heads were to report, unarmed, to the center of New Dodge immediately. The ship had whirled about in the air and then snapped off in the direction of Twin Feather’s nearest neighbors. The party-goers stumbled from the Matson home, barely whispering goodbyes, staggered at the way their secure world had changed in a handful of heartbeats.

“Drokin’ bastards, they blew out the comm tower,” yelled Stewart. “Figure that must be what they did in town, too.”

Jacob Matson agreed with his son. While most everyone else milled about directionless, staring at either the black plume rising from town, or the one billowing there before them, Joe began to round up those workmen that were at the ranch proper at that moment, putting them to the task of extinguishing the flames remaining from the attack. As he did, Stewart reached his father’s side.

“Who were they,” he demanded. “Who the Hell would do this to us?”

“Think that’s what the nonsense about going into town is all about,” answered Matson. “Probably they want to introduce themselves.”

“What do you think they want?” asked the doctor of his old friend.

“What do these types always want?” answered Matson. The growl in his voice left no doubt in anyone’s mind as to what he meant.

Joe and two ranch hands got the minor blaze under control quickly. The attack had been quick, efficient and surgical. Little damage had been done outside of that which had been intended. Matson did not find that detail encouraging.

“These are professionals,” he told Duncan quietly. “They know what they’re doin’ and they know what they want. And us, we don’t know neither.”

“What’re you sayin’, Jacob?”

“I’m sayin’ they have all the cards right now. I’m sayin’ that they have air power and explosives and combat knowledge. I’m sayin’ that whatever the Hell they want they’ve got a good chance of getting it.”

The sheriff bristled at Matson’s anger, but Doc Lieber interfered. Cutting off their growing shouting match, he reminded them both of the older man’s condition, then lambasted the pair for snapping at each other when they had a completely unknown force blowing up their buildings. The doctor was right. Both men knew it and cooled off at once.

With Lieber leading the way toward sensibility, it was soon decided that they should probably start for town. Twenty miles was a ways to travel, especially on horseback and in wagons. When Matson suggested to the others that they abandon their gliders and other powered vehicles, the patriarch explained;

“Look, we don’t know how much these bastards know about us. Let ‘em think we all ride around on horses. Why not? We may need an advantage soon. They blow up much more around here, the charges and the fuel our rides have right now may be all they ever have again.” People nodded in agreement. Matson kept talking. Forcing his voice loud enough to be heard over all the minor bits of background chaos, he told them;

“I don’t know what you people think is goin’ on here, but I’m tellin’ you right now, we’re in a war. Maybe it’s a war we done already lost and we just don’t know it yet. But, it’s a war, nonetheless, and the quicker we start acting like it is, the quicker we might start having a chance of livin’ through whatever the hell it is that’s come our way.”

Several hours later the party from Twin Feathers reached the outskirts of New Dodge. They were neither the first nor the last to arrive. The sheriff went to his office at once, as did Doc Lieber. The Matson boys and their mother went with the others to where the main body of Byanntians had congregated, outside the ruins of their town hall. They had not gathered there merely because the smoldering debris occupied the center of town. They did so because a ship had landed there—a ship like one none of them had seen before.

Gray it was, long and bulky, covered with arrays of odd antennas and bristling with weapons. Cannons of various sorts protruded from every surface. No one felt the need to touch the ship. After the first few minutes, most did not even keep looking at it. They simply waited near it to find out what its owners wanted of them.

Jacob Matson had remained at the ranch, claiming tremendous fatigue. When his wife had gone out of hearing range, he had instructed Joseph to take a talkie with him, and to keep it open so he could monitor all that went on in town.

Joe had taken the antiques out of their case in the tech shed, marveling at the old-fashioned workmanship of the portable comm devices. A quick test showed that their batteries were still working, another fact that impressed the young man greatly. Joe slipped one to his father as he and the others were leaving. Matson nodded slightly to acknowledge their clandestine maneuvering, then kissed his wife goodbye and went back into the house.

In town speculation ran wild as to what the invaders might want, who they might be, what it all was going to mean. After several additional hours had passed, a hatchway in the side of the dreadnought suddenly bent outward and down. In the end it formed a platform some fifteen feet above the ground. A humanoid figure completely masked by combat armor on a par with that worn by Rim Enforcement Officers stepped out onto the metal platform. He wore an old style pellet-flinger on his hip and was flanked by much more heavily armed men—one to each side. Then, as the central figure positioned himself on the end of the newly-formed balcony, one further figure stepped out, standing behind the others, a head and a half taller than any of them. As the crowd waited, the central figure removed his helmet.

The action revealed what looked from the ground to be a middle-aged Caucasian, clean-shaven, possessed of a full head of nondescript, close-cropped brown hair. As the figures to his sides kept their weapons trained on the crowd, the man spoke, his voice amplified by unseen technology.

“I’ll take us directly to where everyone wants to be,” he said, his tone harsh and condescending. “My name is Dorton. I’m your ruler now. Understand that simple fact and we’ll have no trouble. My arrival signals a shift in power here. My men and I, we are now the lords of Byanntia. We are in control of the entire planet. We will not harm anyone who does not ask to be harmed. Now, of course, how, you might be wondering, does someone ‘ask’ to be harmed? Indeed, that’s a good question. Such a good one in fact that I’ll answer it at once.” Dorton paused for a moment, then continued.

“Those who do what they are told will be left reasonably alone. Those who do not will be eliminated—without question—immediately.” The black garbed figure leaned forward, his eyes scanning the crowd.

“Now, if there is anyone who would like to be made an example of, please—this would be a wonderful time to do so. Anyone, anyone who’d like to throw a rock, pull some kind of weapon, even just shout out some disparaging remark about my ancestry, by all means, feel free, for I would dearly love an excuse to show just how ruthless we can be.”

“Why not just kill someone anyway?”

Scores of people moved away from Joe Matson. From his platform, Dorton called out;

“Good question. I like to see a man who thinks. Hopefully you’ll appreciate my answer. The reason we’re giving you all a chance to behave on your own is because to do otherwise would mark us as madmen. If we were that irrational, you’d have no choice other than to defy us. After all, what difference would a little risk make at that point?”

Smiling down at Joe, Dorton added, “But we’re not mad, young man. Simply filled with avarice. We want what you have, and we don’t plan on paying for it. This planet markets beef to a hungry galaxy. We’ll be taking those profits from here on in while you do the work and keep the protein flowing.”

And then, people screamed, running in confusion as the sound of gunfire broke out. Before he could react, two lead slugs crumpled against Dorton’s chest. The man barely moved in reaction, however, thanks to his armor. Before a third shot could be fired, though, the marksman to Dorton’s left used the motion tracker built into his helmet to sight the line-of-attack vector of the slugs which had bounced off his boss’s armor. The computerized system locked in, raised the guard’s arm and returned fire automatically. Sheriff Duncan disappeared in an explosion which vaporized his body as well as half the rooftop from which he had decided to stage his short-lived offensive.

On the ground, Byanntians trampled each other, shoving wildly, knocking one another about, neighbors trampling neighbors in their howling desperation to live. Staring downward in amusement, Dorton allowed his voice to boom forth once more.

“Thank you, citizen, for offering us the chance to present the preceding demonstration.” As the people below him began to slow their frantic desperation, the man in black added, “I’d like at this time to point out that the only person our forces dealt with was the one foolish enough to use a mere projectile weapon against static armor.”

All around the still smoldering town square, folks stopped running, swallowed their panic. Above them, Dorton smiled. Hands on his hips, he addressed them once more.

“Of course, he thought he had an opportunity to take me out of the picture, what with me taking my helmet off and all. He most likely had my skull square in his sights, but funny think about static armor, it sends out blur waves, throws off the human eye.”

As folks turned, looking up once again, calmed by Dorton’s tone, cowed by his words, he continued.

“It was a brave act, but a foolish one. I spent a long time planning this affair out. Trust me, my new vassals, all of the angles have been mapped, and any chance you might have had to repel us has been figured and eliminated. But, as long as you all can learn and profit from this first, all too graphic example, why, I’m certain we’ll all get along just fine.” With a chuckle in his voice, Dorton spread his arms wide, then added;

“I think you’ll find that we came here to make a new life for ourselves, just as you did. So, all you ranch owners, I want you to assemble together where my men can find you. They’ll escort you into our ship and then we’ll all sit down and have a nice friendly meeting wherein I shall explain how this whole new king/serfs relationship is going to work.”

Dorton did not like the fact that Jacob Matson was not with the other ranchers. He had somehow done his homework before coming to Byanntia. He knew Matson was the leader of the original expedition. Knew that he was well-respected. Knew that if he had Matson’s cooperation that things might not only go ahead smoothly, but with a minimum of bloodshed.

“And why isn’t Mr. Matson here,” asked Dorton smoothly. “Did we not catch his attention when we, ah, adjusted the frequency, shall we say, of the comm tower at Twin Feathers?”

Not that Dorton had any problems with bloodshed. Quite to the contrary. He had put his force together and gathered the credunits to finance his plan with great quantities of bloodshed. But, as naturally disposed to washing the walls scarlet and black as he was, he also knew the mask he needed to wear for the good people of Byanntia at that moment.

“Oh, no,” answered Shelby, “we noticed that all right. But you have to understand. My husband isn’t well. Two years ago our doctor gave him a few weeks to live. A year at the most. That he is still alive is a miracle, but he’s terribly frail.”

“Yeah,” added Joe. “And your ‘adjustments’ to our property threw him to the floor and almost did him in right then and there. So, you’ll have to forgive us if we didn’t feel like killing him by dragging him into town. Or would this be another one of those moments that’s going to force you to prove how ruthless you are?”

Dorton’s eyes narrowed, but he kept his jaw line firm. The mask he needed etched into his features at that moment was the firm but understanding visage of the tolerant despot. Cruel, but fair. Demanding, but tolerable.

“I was under the impression Mr. Matson was a much heartier individual,” responded the black-garbed conqueror, showing his demanding side. “But no matter. What we need right now is to hash things over with the head of every ranching concern and that is something we need to do today.”

“There won’t be any problem with that,” answered Joe Matson. “My dad trained me up for that job over this last year. I speak for Twin Feathers at the general store, at the space port and everywhere else. I can do it here, too.”

Dorton sat unmoving—staring. Unblinking. He had learned the habit in childhood, learned it to protect himself from an abusive parent. It disconcerted most adults more than threats or curses. He let his silence keep the crowd at bay while he thought. He did not like variations, disruptions—changes in plans had never suited him.

Of course, he knew full well that anything could have happened between the time he had finished his investigation of the planet and their arrival there that day. Half the people in the room before him could have died in a landslide, or been paralyzed by a plague. It did him no good to worry about such changes. Indeed, Matson was described as a cantankerous, obstinate son of a bitch who did not give an inch on anything. Considering himself perhaps fortunate that the elder Matson was out of the picture, Dorton said finally;

“You probably can at that. So, let’s not worry about it, shall we? Instead, let’s just get down to business. I’ll do the talking. You all listen.”

The ranchers listened. None of them heard anything they liked. In short order Dorton explained that he and his men were taking over. Their terms were simple. As of that moment they were the lords of the planet. Every ranch would pay a tribute according to its size, a payment which would end up being the rough equivalent of eighty percent of its yearly income.

At this point one kisonboss, Rabe Gutherie, spoke up, saying that Dorton and his bunch were crazy if they thought they were going to get away with that kind of robbery. While Dorton stared at the man, one of the intruder’s henchmen silently raised his hand laser and fired. Gutherie’s head fizzled, then began to smoulder. He fell face forward to the table, skin rupturing, blood and other juices spattering on impact. People shouted, some of them screamed. One threw up. Most merely turned their heads away—staying silent. Beaten.

There was more to cover, however, and Gutherie’s body smoldered where it had fallen while boundaries were drawn up, curfew times established, restrictions made on the size of gatherings, et cetera, but such minutia was all inconsequential. The invaders’ point had been made with the death of Sheriff Duncan, let alone Gutherie’s.

The ranchers were angry, of course. Furious. They also knew their anger was mostly directed at themselves. They had placed their faith in distance when they had left the Earth. They would be so far from any other human beings by the time they got to their new home that they need not fear outsiders. They had thought. They awoke and landed only to discover that Dispersion Cracks had been opened throughout the galaxy, and that travel between systems now took only hours rather than decades.

There were the Rim Patrol agents, of course. For what little good they might be. Yes, they would come if signaled, but the invaders had leveled Byanntia’s off-world communications. The next agent to travel out their way might drop in to see why no one had heard from them. And any lone agent would have as much chance against the force which had landed in their town square as Duncan had had. Or Gutherie.

Then, when Dorton was just about to dismiss them, one last blow was struck. All eyes turned toward Joe Matson as a furious beeping emanated from his belt. Embarrassed, Joe took the talkie from his belt and shut down its incoming call signal. Always a man who enjoyed the discomfort of others, Dorton insisted Joe answer the communication. The young man did as instructed, only to react with shock as he listened to the message. When Dorton demanded to know what the news had been, Joe told him;

“That was the foreman out at Twin Feathers.” The younger man’s tone was clipped and brittle. Nasty. “Apparently the excitement of the day was too much for my father’s heart.” As everyone stared, Joe clarified;

“Jacob Matson is dead.”

Joe thought on the expression on Dorton’s face for much of the trip back home. The invader had been angry, confused, relieved, all at the same time. He had been suspicious for a moment as well. The man had stared at him for quite some time, his eyes studying—probing. Eventually they had stopped, however, satisfied with their inspection of the eldest Matson boy.

The ranchers had been dismissed then. The Matsons had headed for home as had the others. Once out of town Shelby Matson had immediately questioned her son, asking if he was trying to pull something. The look on his face was answer enough for the woman. Quietly she sat in her saddle, her hands barely capable of holding her reins. None of the others had much to say, either. That changed some hours later when they arrived at Twin Feathers.

“What do you mean, he’s not here?” Shelby Matson was white hot with indignation. Slamming her finger into her foreman’s chest, she rammed it against him repeatedly, driving it deeper into his flesh each time as she shouted, “You told us he was dead. You told us he was dead. If he died, then what did you do with him? Where’s my husband?!”

“He’s gone.”

Jacob Matson had not died. He had instructed his foreman to make the call to his son after listening to the way the meeting with Dorton was going. While the foreman had done so, Matson had left the main house and gone to the barn. There he had saddled his horse, a grey and tan mare named Dancer, picked up the talkie from his foreman and then ridden off toward the West. A quick inspection of the house and barn gave them a partial list of what he had taken with him. It also gave them a note which Joe found in a place only he would have known to look in, which is why his father had left it there.

Figured you’d think of looking here. Didn’t want any uninvited types to find this. Russ told you I was dead. You told those bastards the same thing. Keep it that way. I’m dead. Bury me.

Play the game. Do what they say, within reason. You don’t know what I’m up to because I’m not telling you. We need an ace. Fast. Me on the outside is the only thing I can think of, so I’m going for it before it’s too late. I have something like a plan. Obviously I’m going to go guerrilla on their asses.

I’m taking the talkie with me. Don’t call me. No idea if they’re monitoring the airwaves. I’ll call if it’s so damn important I absolutely have to.

Sad to think of Duncan dead. Gutherie was a good man, too. We’ll fix them. This is our damn world.

Don’t worry. I’ll be home to kiss you once more, wife. That’s a Matson promise.

Shelby wished for more. So did Joe. For a moment, anyway. Then they threw off their anger and their sorrow and pulled themselves and those around them together. After all, they had an empty coffin to bury.

Matson rode along through the foothills approaching the mountains. He had made good time. With luck, he might reach Kincaid before nightfall.

“Good thing Byanntia runs on a thirty hour day, eh Dancer?” The horse nodded its head with the enthusiasm of a colt. The mare had been born on Byanntia, was one of the oldest horses on the planet—the oldest one still considered a working animal and not merely a decoration or child’s pet. “I think we ought to be able to find that old desert weevil before the sun runs out on us.”

From what Matson had heard through the ranchers’ meeting with Dorton, the invaders had come with more than a little knowledge of the planet. They knew spreads by name, knew their owners, knew where people were concentrated, how many of them were there, what kind of defenses Byanntia had …

“Too damn much,” Matson said to the wind. “They know too damn much. Gotta even up those odds.”

The old rancher went silent then, conserving his strength, hanging onto each precious breath in the parched environment. If he dried out he would have to take a sip from his canteen. Too many sips and canteens go empty. Too long without water and old people die.

And I promise you one thing, Mr. Dorton, thought Matson, his eyes narrowing to slits, I will not be dying before you. That’s another goddamned Matson promise. One I intend on keepin’.

A little over three hours later Matson found himself approaching the home of hermit Kincaid. It was a cleverly designed home, the old man had to admit. Anyone heading straight through the mountains would never notice the turn off from the main trail needed to find it. Indeed, even those looking for it would have difficulty.

Matson guided Dancer across the barren rock, searching his memory for the proper directions. Kincaid had come to Byanntia for only one reason—to get away from people. He was not sick of life, had no interest in dying. He simply wanted no further truck with the human race. As soon as the settler’s ship had landed, Kincaid had taken his meager weight allotment and had marched straight away into the desert. Nowadays most Byanntians knew nothing of his existence. Matson knew about him only because of a freak coincidence.

Traveling through the mountains once, he had spotted the man stuck on a cliff face far above him. Reaching a spot where he could help, he found Kincaid reluctant to accept his aide. Again, the hermit did not want to die, but the thought of being beholden to another so incensed him that it took him hours before he would consent to being rescued. Matson had gotten him up onto the trail, set his broken leg, and taken him to his home. It had been the only time since the landing that any earthling had seen him.

Could be dead for all any of us knows, thought Matson.

The old rancher leaned hard to the left, playing the reins slowly, giving Dancer her head. One wrong step on the treacherous path could send them both screaming to the desert below. Coming around the last bend, Matson breathed a sigh of relief as the rock floor began to level out once more. In minutes horse and rider were moving through the scrub pines natural for that level. Not Earthly pines, of course, but a breed close enough for the transplanted Christians of the group to chop down and drag home every December.

Matson thought on the planet’s jury-rigged calendar, created ahead of time to give the settlers some sense of continuity.

“Forty days, hath September,” he said, “April, June, and November. All the rest have fifty-three, except February, which has twelve, and December, which has thirty-one.”

So many ways it could have been simpler, Matson thought. But, no—people had to have their damn holidays fall like back home. Good God, but people make me tired.

And then, at the closest he had ever come to understanding exactly what hermit Kincaid thought of the human race, a voice called out, “That’s far enough.”

Matson reined in Dancer, then responded;

“Kincaid, I need to talk to you.”

“Well I don’t need to talk to you. Just turn yourself around and head back the way you came or I’ll put a round in your horse’s head and send you both on the big tumble.”

“You can’t do that,” answered Matson. “Not to me. You owe me one. And I’ve come to collect it.”

A long pause followed. The old rancher sat his saddle, waiting in the cooling breeze. Far off, Byanntia’s sun began to set behind the edge of the world. The sky filled with orange streaks, the clouds flaming to pink. Matson admired the view as the seconds ticked off one after another.

“You took your time collecting,” came the voice again.

“Might never’ve bothered,” the rancher shouted back. “But things are bad and I need your help. Everyone needs your help.”

“And,” the voice came clearer, no longer muffled by the trees as its owner stepped into view, “just who the Hell would everyone be?”

“All the people you came here with,” answered Matson. “And all their children. And, if things get really ugly … possibly you, too.”

“That’s a lot of people,” Kincaid answered.


“One of ‘em I even care about somewhat.”

“Why, sir,” replied Matson, purposely misunderstanding the hermit’s joke, “you’ll turn my head.”

Kincaid snorted, then turned, heading back to his home. Matson gave Dancer’s reins a slight flick, signal enough to the old mare to move forward. As the two entered the trees, fat ground underneath them once more, Matson thought;

Well, here goes nuthin’.

Read more from this serial.

C.J. Henderson is the creator of the Jack Hagee hardboiled PI series and the Teddy London supernatural detective series as well as the author of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction Movies, Black Sabbath: the Ozzy Osborne Years, and far too many others to mention here. He has written over 50 books and novels, hundreds of short stories and comics, thousands of non-fiction pieces and welcomes all your comments at
Bruce Gehweiler is an author for several fiction book publishers including Padwolf Publishing, Elder Signs Press/ESP, and Die Monster Die Books. He has sold over thirty short stories that appear in such magazines as Inhuman and Tales of the Talisman and anthologies such as The Dead Walk Again, Hear Them Roar, and Where Angels Fear co-authored by C.J. Henderson. He is the editor of several anthologies including Crypto-Critters I & II (Padwolf Publishing 2006 & 2007), New Mythos Legends and Frontiers of Terror (Marietta Publishing 1999 & 2002).

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