Walker Universe Novel 2: Working Title: Paradise
(c) Jodi Ralston
Key Plot Point Three: Edit One
Important Caveat: This novel is being written experimentally--that is, out of order. I will post the correct reading order as I go on the Works in Progress Page.
For those interested in reading what came before this point, I will post an Index shortly.
By suppertime, I was finishing up work on what I termed the Final Project. Horse hated the entire idea. Over the last while of our time together, he did everything he could to jar the thought from my mind. He almost succeeded. A small band of survivors almost succeeded. Hope of escape almost succeeded. Any desire to fail at the Final Project died with them. Everything came to an end. Not everyone was so fortunate as to choose that end.
Besides, the horse would survive. He survived before my coming, survived the mist, and would survive me taking leave. He was a survivor. I was not. I didn't have the heart for it. I didn't particularly want to die, but I was resolved to escape Paradise. Permanently. Leaving nothing behind for it take. Over the year, I had come to see that this was the only way left me.
It had taken me a week to gather the necessary supplies. Wood for the fire. Accelerants. The drug. The drug was most essential. Paradise was a reality full of pain, which it shared with me at every turn. And at every turn, no matter how terrible my wounds were, my flesh knitted and my scars disappeared. All scars but the one from before this world. Either way, I wasn't about to die in pain. But I knew what would happen if I took such drugs before I set the fuse. The pain would fade and I would forget it while it lasted. Fuse first, then drug. So as there was no turning back.
I dumped the last of the accelerant on the pile of wood. Tossed aside the keg. I did not watch where it rolled, or this reality took it. I was beyond care of making waste and leaving signs. From a belt pouch, I fished out a fuse the length of my arm and my lighter, flicked open the lid, and poised my thumb over it to strike.
One last time the horse sent me an image of what he preferred. Me walking away and riding off with him like we had done countless times before. Tempting. That being, if you had somewhere to ride off toward. I had watched a population in the hundreds of thousands dwindle down to pockets of tens of thousands, then wind-scattered husks of hundreds. I didn't want to be the sole survivor. The last man standing. The inheritor of hell. I would die first.
In fact, I was planning on it.
I struck up a flame, and set it to my fuse. Its end sparkled to life.
That image was overlain with a new one I took for a last gambit, one last play for my life. Horse's talent was deception, after all. It was how he really survived. But the image persisted. Then, I felt the change myself in the ley-paths. Even this could be a lie, so often it had been a lie, that I didn't know why I did it. But I did. I turned around to look for myself, the smell of waiting accelerant stinging my eyes.
But this was real.
Someone had come through that damn schism.
But it wasn't the man I expected never to see again.
No, these were people entirely different. Just across the way, past my horse, they stood out, dressed in white leather kilts and vests and mounted up on gleaming mechanical, chimeral beasts. They possessed golden, living weapons snaking up and down their arms. There were four of them--colonel, captain, lieutenant, and vampire--three of which were women. Being close enough to the schism, I could recognize faces, put names to those faces. Impossible faces staring back at me: the same three as last time, from another reality entirely. Impossible but true faces, since my scar wasn't going wild. My heart began to beat for a reason other than a crazy mess of anger and fear and hate. It beat for hope. I didn't like the sensation. In fact, I liked it about as much as I liked heart attacks.
They hadn't seen me yet. Staring at the snakes coiling and recoiling around their forearms. They saw me soon enough. Life being a little more normal here and the ley-paths far broader, the human three lucked upon a ley-path that lead in my direction. Far wiser, the unknown party, the Regulator, hung back by the schism, rubbing her wrist.
"Horseman," Hepren said as they rode within proper hearing range. "Can you point us in the direction of Queen's City? 'Fraid our maps are a little out of date."
My horse let them by. Surprisingly. Then it was Hepren's turn for surprise. He reined in his beast, dipping his head to peer under the brim of my hat. "Walker? Damn, mate, is that you?"
His voice was rasp to my nerves. With each word he spoke, the more I remembered the last time I had heard his voice, and it hadn't been him. The unforgiving part of me rather desired to smash his smile in. But I didn't move from my place. I didn't say a word.
"It is!" His smile grew even bigger. "I didn't recognize your--well, anything, mate."
Cousin Bustis laughed and slapped her hands onto her hips as she came up short on his heels. "Walker? What the schisms do you have on?" The others smiled too, one in particular getting his yucks in.
I knew what I looked like to them. Black top hat. Black duster. Black vest. Black shirt. Black chaps. Black leggings. Black boots. Black cowboy hat. Black overlarge belt. Black holsters with black guns with black stock. Black kerchief. Black spurs. Black gloves. Black everything, to match an immoderately sized and prettified black horse bearing more color in his white and gray streaks than his owner did. In other words, a gross parody of a native tough. To them, something to laugh at.
Didn't have a particular problem with that. Laughter was disarming, and it tended to make others underestimate, put them off their game, making it just that much easier to come out on top. And you had to come out on top in Paradise. No, the problem I had had nothing to do with their reaction; it was with my name in their mouths. Walker had died a stupid pointless death. The Outrider hadn't.
But they didn't know who they were dealing with.
After a bit of awkward silence and lack of response on my side, their laughter died down. Their awkwardness grew.
Till this point I had been ignoring to the best of my abilities the most familiar interloper of all. Though my horse took pains to point out her intense looks despite my protests. I didn't want to hear her speak; didn't even want to look at her. At that, Horse pointed her out all the more. Part of me still desperately disbelieved all this. Couldn't happen, not after all this time. Not with these people. But the little changes, like the promotions, were disconcerting and opened the way for suspicion to take root. As it was, damn, but they looked real. Too real. Impossible, frozen-in time real.
Then . . . then there was the vampire. When all other hope of rescue withered on the vine, I still held out that a past encounter of that nature might bear fruit. But as the years wore on, I gave it up, discounted Valor as dead. He had that kind of luck.
Even so . . . even so, I watched them until the slow fuse heated my fingers through my gloves, recalling another reality. Another choice. One I knew as one hundred percent, genuine real.
Then she spoke, and there was no more sense in fighting it. Those words "Why didn't you acknowledge the aerial drone we sent" were too her to be not real.
I looked down at the match and decided I didn't particularly want to die, and maybe now I didn't have to. Maybe. Had to have a think on it. Automatically, I plucked from my utility belt a cig. It would calm me down, not drop me into a coma like the vial would. I lit the cig with the last bit of my fuse, put it to my lips, lifted my head to the sky, inhaled, and blew. Already, I could see things far more clearly. I dropped the fuse and mashed it underfoot. Horse was ready for me, shouldering people aside as he trotted up, twitching with eagerness. I sucked again, settled things in my head for sure, and mounted up. "What are we waiting for?"
And I headed to the schism, my ticket outta here. One far more pleasant than that which I had piled up and was leaving behind.
(end of KPP3)