(c) Copyright Alan Baxter 2008
No reproduction of any kind permitted without written consent from the author.
As the ship I’d kind of stolen from the Sanctuary of Coexistance rattled with the inertia of planetfall, I tooled up. I had knives and Bartellian’s big cannon of a hand gun hanging off me in plain view. I had a reinforced shirt on under my enviro-coat and various other little surprises stashed in pockets. I knew that after all this running around, the hardest part of the job was at hand. I had to take down a Magicker. A Grade MA1 Magicker that had proven himself competent by making a smear of several Dems and at least one hotel manager. Still, I’d had messy fights before.
From orbit I’d scanned this inhospitable rock of a Globe and seen that Gans had set up what seemed to be a small camp about a kilometre from his ship. I could read two lifesigns down there, so it would seem that he was keeping his hired pilot close at hand. I wondered if the pilot had agreed to that or not. Zooming in the orbital camera I saw that the camp was little more than a survival shelter. The lifesigns were inside it, so I couldn’t make a visual on either of them.
I came in as silent as possible, but I knew that Gans already expected me. I was going to try to sneak up on him, but I was fairly convinced that this would end up as a face to face confrontation regardless of my plans. I was a little bit nervous of just how much magic this mutant had at his command. I suppose this is why the Dems keep such a tight rein on people that aren’t killed by their Sly Gene.
I parked my boat right beside his and set out at an easy jog for his camp. This Globe would certainly take some work to make it enticing to even the most desperate settlers. It had the basics, like air and gravity, but that was about it. The air was thin and the gravity just a bit too heavy. The terraformers would have their work cut out for them. Otherwise it was a bloody cold ball of jagged black rock and nearly frozen oceans. The wind howled and rain and hail seemed to be an almost permanent feature of the climate. As I jogged I got wet and cold and buffeted by the wind and I added another item to my long list of reasons to hate Pietre Gans.
As I got close to his camp I kept Bartellian’s cannon drawn in one hand and my Reader set up to scan in the other. I could read a variety of heat signatures ahead and two of them were definitely people. The others would be various items of survival gear. Treading carefully and slowly I made my way through the broken teeth of the landscape. I was a bit concerned that Gans wasn’t coming out to meet me or trying to get around behind me. Was it really possible that he didn’t know I was coming? Was it possible that he was so distracted? What the hell was he doing here anyway? I figured that this must be the end of his line, but why he wanted to be here was beyond me. Unless he knew that he was supposed to be finding this Face of God. Again I pushed all thoughts of theories and reasoning from my mind. Catch him and wait for an answer from Jones. That’s all that matters.
‘You are one persistent pain in my arse, Bounty Hunter.’
I spun around, trying to pinpoint exactly where behind me the voice was coming from. No one was there. ‘Just give it up, Gans!’ I yelled over the wind. How had I heard him so clearly?
Then the voice came from in front of me. ‘Do you really think you can do anything to hinder me? Admittedly, I’ve had enormous trouble trying to shake you off, but you really can’t do anything to me.’
‘It’s over, Gans. Just come in quietly.’
Laughter sounded all around me. ‘Over? Why, Ghost, you small-minded fool, it’s all just about to begin!’
I decided to ignore the voice, ignore the trickery, and head for the target that the reliable technology of my Reader was showing me. Sighting along the barrel of Bartellian’s oversized handgun, I rounded a large outcrop of rock and had Gans balanced perfectly in the centre of my sights. He was a big guy, dressed like a cross between an ancient Shaman and a modern techno-geek. His hired pilot was bound and gagged on the ground just inside his shelter and Gans himself grinned at me, mimicking my gun with his forefinger and thumb, aiming right back at me.
‘You gonna shoot me, Bounty Hunter?’ he asked, casual as all hell.
What in the big black gave him cause to be so casual anyway? I was the one with the gun, while he had his fingers pointed at me. My own fingers twitched on the trigger. I could hear the voice of Mrs Jones like it was only yesterday. Here are all the particulars, including the DAP registered arrest warrant and authorisation of lethal force. But only if necessary, you understand. We’d prefer him alive. I wasn’t above deleting a scumbag like this. I’d done it before. Sometimes it was just safer if you had the clearance. But something stayed my hand.
Gans grinned and asked the same question again. ‘You gonna shoot me, huh?’
I grimaced. ‘I don’t want to. I just want to take you in.’
‘I’d rather you came and joined me and Saul here, all peaceful, like.’
‘Saul doesn’t look so peaceful. I’m guessing he didn’t choose to join you there.’
Gans laughed. ‘True. He wanted to drop me off and head back out. I insisted that he stay in case I needed a return ride.’
I rolled my head, trying to stop my neck from cramping as I kept the gun trained on the Magicker. ‘Tell you what,’ I suggested. ‘How about you let Saul there go and I’ll give you a ride. All the way back to a DAP holding cell.’
Gans shrugged. ‘Oh well. I can see that there’s no reasoning with you.’ He raised his other hand and blue light, like crackling electricity, gathered about it.
With the speed of a striking snake and a sizzling crack Gans cast his witch-fire right at me at exactly the same moment as my finger closed on the trigger and Bartellian’s handgun boomed.
Everything went really bright, then really hot, then really black.
Then I could hear a voice, a mumbling, distant sound, incoherent. Everything was still black. I tried to open my eyes and after a couple of false starts they slowly peeled apart. As my vision came back, the voice became clearer and I could hear the wind and the rain hammering against the side of Gans’s temporary shelter. My hands and feet were bound. ‘…tough bastard,’ the voice was saying.
I growled, furious that I hadn’t just shot him the moment I’d seen him. What was wrong with me? ‘What the fuck, Gans?’
The Magicker grinned down at me. ‘I said, you sure are a tough bastard.’
I noticed that his left shoulder was heavily bandaged, his arm in a sling. ‘Nearly got you, did I?’ The satisfaction in my voice was a bit misplaced, given that I was trussed up like a festive bird.
Gans grinned. ‘Yeah, nearly. But nearly ain’t good enough.’
‘So why am I still alive?’
‘I don’t want to kill you. I’ve never wanted to kill anyone.’
I took a deep breath. There was nothing I could do about my predicament at this particular moment and I knew that Sanctuary and Dem ships were on their way. I might as well learn something and drag this out. ‘What is it you’re doing?’
Gans narrowed his eyes. ‘You really want to know?’
I laughed. ‘Actually, yes I really do. You’d be amazed what people have been telling me about what’s going on here.’
‘You mean the Sanctuary prophecies? They fuck up a good message, as usual. No matter what truths they hear, they can’t avoid their own bias. They desperately try to shoehorn everything to fit their belief system, contrary to any amount of evidence. I have no respect for the wilfully ignorant.’
I found that a fairly familiar position. Perhaps this Gans and I had something in common after all. ‘So why don’t you tell me what is going on?’
Gans shrugged. ‘I’m following a power without trying to pre-suppose what it is. Ever since I was a child I’ve known I was different. I knew since well before puberty that I had the Sly Gene and I spent years training myself to control it. I hid from all the authorities and I kept a low profile because I knew I had a greater destiny than DAP mind control camps.’
I made a noise of derision. ‘Sounds a bit like the Sanctuary line of thought to me.’
Gans shook his head. ‘Not at all. I’ve never been so arrogant as to suggest that I knew what was going on. I just knew that something was calling to me from a very young age. I kept quiet, I kept training myself and I kept listening. Eventually, the time was right.’
‘The time for what?’
‘The time for me to fulfil my destiny. To meet the voice that had cajoled me all these years.’
‘That’s what the Sanctuary seem to assume is the Face of God.’
Gans nodded. ‘Yes. Assumes. I have no real idea, only some suspicions. Regardless, I’m prepared to wait to find out. It hasn’t been easy either. The Dems picked me up in a random search and nearly had me caged. Then I escaped but they put you on my tail. I’ve sensed your presence since before you even knew yourself that you were coming for me. I tried to block your way, but you are one persistent bastard.’
‘So all those obstacles in my way were your work?’
‘Certainly. It’s not easy to control a situation from so far away, but I set things up as best I could. I hoped the body of Darver Phelms would have you delayed, but you even slipped through that.’
‘Yeah. And I’ve been on the run from the DAP ever since. I’m supposed to be on their side!’
Gans laughed. ‘Ah, sides. There’s no such thing really, it’s all so fluid. Just a constant state of flux.’
‘And Bartellian,’ I asked, the constant whine in my otherwise deaf right ear a permanent reminder of how close he had come to finishing me.
Gans made a rueful face. ‘Yes, I’m sorry about the rather primitive approach there, but I was getting desperate. You were getting too close. I’d tried haunting you away, but you ignored that. I guess I’m not really that good at it, especially from such a distance. I kept trying though.’
‘Bartellian killed two Guides and two innocent hostesses before I took him down.’
Gans winced. He seemed to be genuinely pained by that. ‘I’m sorry to hear that. I really don’t want anyone to get hurt, especially innocents. There are few enough of those left in the ‘Verse as it is.’
‘You got that right.’
‘But this is too important. The absolutely essential part of this is that I was here and ready at this moment. I was chosen a long time ago and I had to be here. Even then, I only just made it.’
My eyes widened in surprise. ‘You think you’re successful? You think you’ve made it?’
Gans smiled. ‘Oh, yes, I have.’
I hated to break it to him. ‘There are two Sanctuary and, more importantly, four DAP ships on their way here right now.’
Gans was nodding, still smiling.
‘How long was I out?’ I asked suspiciously.
Gans shrugged. ‘Only about twenty minutes.’
I made a quick mental calculation. ‘Well, I’m guessing that those ships are only about three or four hours away. And they’ll have your ship and mine locked in sensors by now.’
Gans nodded. ‘I know. But that’s fine. With any luck they should be here just in time.’
‘Just in time for what?’ I didn’t like the way this was going. It seemed that Gans had it figured that he had succeeded in something. Was getting this far all he had intended to do?
Without bothering to answer my question, he dragged me from the shelter out into the wet, howling day and then set Saul next to me, the poor sap that had agreed to fly him here. From this position I noticed for the first time that his camp was set up on the edge of a large crater, smooth as glass in a shallow bowl about two hundred metres across.
Gans went and stood in front of us, right at the edge of the crater, and spread his arms wide. He seemed to be chanting something, his voice, whipped away by the wind, was too low for me to hear.
I twisted around to get a better look at Saul. ‘You all right, buddy?’
Saul’s face was a mask of hatred as he stared at Gans. ‘Yeah, I’m fine. Except that I’m sitting here tied up in the shittiest place in the black, with a complete fucking nutter acting like he’s on the verge of the greatest event in history.’
‘Has he talked to you much about it?’
‘He’s rattled on from time to time. Telling me how nothing will ever be the same again after today.’
I arched one eyebrow. ‘Today?’
Saul nodded. ‘Yep. It’s all been coming down to this. He had to get here by this time because “That’s when it’ll happen”, whatever that means.’
Gans turned around. ‘You two stop yapping and just watch. You’re to be the impartial witnesses to this event, along with any of the approaching People and Dems that make it on time.’
Saul rolled his eyes at me and made a ‘See what I mean’ kind of face. Then he slumped back down, huddling himself against the elements. I did the same, trying to ignore the icy rain blowing into my ear and making unfriendly puddles in my crotch. Gans turned back to face his crater and raised his arms again.
It seemed like hours that he stood there like that. I was convinced that Saul and I would succumb to hypothermia or drown before anything interesting happened. Then I heard a massive roar and whine behind us. The cavalry was here.
Without turning around Gans called out, ‘There’s a barrier of my power set up around us and this crater. I’ve spent the last few hours constructing it and no one will get in until I say they can. You two just sit tight.’
I found that a little hard to swallow. ‘You really expect us to believe that you have that kind of power?’ I yelled over the wind.
‘Believe what you like, Bounty Hunter.’
The sound of skimmer engines came up through the wind, and then voices raised in excitement. I craned around and saw dozens of vehicles racing up the rocky slope to the edge of the crater, bristling with Dem cops and Sanctuary Guides. It seemed that the government soldiers and the god soldiers had all arrived together.
The cops jumped from their skimmers, weapons drawn and trained on Gans as they sprinted across the rocks towards the camp. Guides ran wildly behind them, their robes whipping in the wind as they waved their holy book and demanded calm from the authorities. The whole thing was kinda comical.
Then the cops and Guides started tumbling this way and that, bouncing off some invisible wall a few metres from us. Other cops began circling around, trying to find a way through.
Then Gans’s voice boomed out, preternaturally loud over the weather. ‘Hold fast, all of you. It’s about to begin!’
Cops and Guides alike paused, stunned momentarily by the power of the voice that seemed to assail them from all around.
Then a blinding light burst into life at the centre of the crater and began to spread out, a small white orb slowly growing into something like a blazing sun, a hundred metres across.
The unmistakably superior voice of a Guide rang out. ‘Behold, the Face of God!’
I had to admit, I was a bit perturbed. A sufficiently devout person, in the right environment, can make a soul really wonder if their life choices have been the wisest ones after all. Tied up, at the mercy of this Magicker, facing a ball of blazing white fire that gave off no incinerating heat, I had to wonder, just briefly, if perhaps there was something to be said for religion after all.
Then another voice rang out. A stream of words that sounded like a question, but in a language unlike anything I’d ever heard. Then the voice of Pietre Gans rang out and he answered in the same musical, ethereal way. A couple more sentences were exchanged and then Gans said, ‘Please, use our tongue. There are many here that would like to understand.’
The musical voice of the other, whatever it was, sounded again. This time it spoke our language, but it made our language sound more beautiful than I ever imagined possible. ‘I come to you with love,’ it said. ‘And I come to you with hope.’
Voices rang out around the camp, some the voices of Dem cops arguing with each other or barking out orders, others the rapt voices of Guides, crying out their supplication, convinced they were faced with the actual presence of the one true God.
The perfect voice rang out again. ‘Please, becalm yourselves. Put aside your fears, your dreams, your expectations. Please do not expect too much of me.’
Those people stuck outside of Gans’s magical barrier, like fish on the wrong side of a fish-tank, gasping and thrashing to get in, suddenly fell silent. Gans raised his hands. ‘Would you appear to us?’ he asked. ‘I would talk with you face to face.’
There were some gasps from around the area. I noticed that I could hear them as the rain and wind seemed to have died away almost completely. Slowly a dark patch appeared in the centre of the blazing sphere and a figure seemed to grow out from it. I heard sobbing and looked around to see some Guides on their knees, openly weeping. Some cops too. Everyone was mesmerised. I was suddenly and pleasantly surprised to see my Mrs Jones standing among the gathered DAP representatives. She looked at me and nodded curtly, then quickly turned her attention back to the main show.
The figure, dwarfed by the massive ball of light, slowly drifted through the air, directly towards Gans. Its arms were open, palms up before it in a posture of supplication. As it neared Gans, neared me and Saul, more details were revealed. It was a man, tall and lean, muscular without being bulky. He smiled.
But something was slightly weird about it all. His head seemed as long as his body was tall. His eyes were large, larger than any man’s eyes I’d seen before. They had bright purple irises. As he smiled he had no teeth. Or rather one wide tooth, one smooth cartilaginous line, at the top and another at the bottom. His skin seemed pale, almost a soft powder blue, and looked to be completely hairless.
The figure alighted on the edge of the crater, standing before Gans and towering over him. He must have been close to eight feet tall. Suddenly this was just too funny. The faces of the gathered Guides appeared to me now like comic book characters, drawn with expressions of dismay and fear over-emphasised in caricature. I began to laugh like a madman.
The figure from the blazing orb looked around at the gathered people pressed up against Gans’s invisible barrier, then at me and Saul, bound on the floor. Then his gaze fell back onto Gans again. ‘What is happening here?’
Gans made a gesture of innocence. ‘There were people that were trying to prevent this meeting. Others with an agenda of their own. Certain measures had to be employed to ensure my meeting with you went as planned.’
The figure nodded. ‘And these men?’ He gestured to a gathering of Guides, quickly huddled together, casting glances over their shoulders and talking over each other animatedly, sounding desperate and lost.
Gans looked at them. ‘They thought that you were going to be their god.’
The figure’s eyes narrowed. ‘God? What is a god?’
I missed the next several minutes of conversation, paralysed with laughter.
‘I’d better still be getting paid,’ I said, my voice daring her to deny me.
‘Well, you didn’t exactly catch Gans, but you led us to him, which is essentially the same thing. You’ll get your money.’
‘And the various things I may have had to do to get here?’
‘Forget about them. Your slate is clean, your bank account is healthy and your reputation firmly intact. If anything, your reputation is likely to be enhanced by this day’s work.’
Maybe she was right there. ‘So what’s happening now?’ I asked, nodding back towards the rapidly growing village that had been nothing more than a tiny camp just hours before.
Mrs Jones shrugged. ‘Gans has a sort of protection. This whole ruse is because they don’t want to negotiate with any government body or authority. Apparently they’ve had skills like our Magickers for centuries and have mastered them to a degree we can’t imagine. They all have skills like that. So they will only deal with humans like themselves and are claiming Gans as a kind of ambassador.’
‘Don’t know. Apparently they’ve been watching us for years, waiting for someone powerful and balanced enough to be the bridge between us and them.’
I raised my eyebrows. ‘Balanced?’
‘Apparently. Ironic, no?’
‘I’ll say.’ But I had personal issues that were more pressing. ‘Any chance of a lift somewhere any time soon?’ Jones looked at me, one eyebrow arched. ‘Well, I sort of borrowed a Sanctuary ship to get here,’ I explained, ‘and I think they’re having a bad day. I don’t really want to run off with their ship or have to spend any time with them at the moment.’
Jones nodded. ‘Fair enough. There’s another DAP Cruiser on its way here now. It’ll drop off delegates and then be returning back to active duty. It can take you along and drop you off somewhere suitable. They’ll be here in about four or five hours and leaving again almost immediately.’
I nodded, smiling. ‘Cool. I might go and find somewhere quiet and out of the way to wait. If I could just get my payment…’
Jones nodded and produced a cash-slide for me. Suddenly things started to feel normal again, at least in my own small world. I took the slide and shook her hand and walked quickly away. I’d meant it when I said I’d find somewhere quiet to wait. I wanted to avoid all this commotion.
I went back to the Sanctuary ship I’d arrived on and retrieved my bag, then headed out to the newly organised landing area. A delegate of Dem cops had been charged with managing the inevitable influx of vessels that would soon be descending and a kind of makeshift spaceport was already taking shape, shelters and shuttles demarking a large area of otherwise barren rock. I found a quiet corner in a shelter and sat down to wait for the Cruiser that would take me off this ball.
I had to be honest, there was a part of me that was glad to have been here. This was certainly an event that was going to change the ‘Verse forever. But I didn’t need to be a part of it any more.
And I had couldn’t help feeling just a bit sorry for the Sanctuary. Still, it was all a matter of perspective. It wasn’t their god this time, but that didn’t mean they were necessarily out of work. They had a whole new non-human thing to factor into their dogma now, but they were nothing if not experts at moulding themselves to fit the times. Most people had given up on aliens, and now this. In some ways, that could be construed as reaffirming the possibility of a god. We were obviously still a long way from knowing all there was to know or see all there was to see.
But it all meant very little to me. I had the warm feeling of a big fat cash balance and the knowledge that whatever else might happen, I’d never be out of work or short of something to do. I had a reason to exist and a vocation to follow, and there would always be a ‘Verse full of scum out there.
So there you have it, all done for now. I hope you enjoyed the yarn – feel free to drop me an email or leave comments on the blog posts if there’s anything you’d like to say about what you’ve read here or anywhere else on the site.
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(c) Copyright Alan Baxter 2008
No reproduction of any kind permitted without written consent from the author.