Fans of the Malazan series are sure to love this excerpt from Steven Erikson’s upcoming book of short fiction! Take a look at The Devil Delivered and Other Tales:
In between writing his ten-book epic that changed the way many look at fantasy storytelling, Steven Erikson also wrote great stories set outside of his awe-inspiring Malazan world. These three tales contain all the same style and flavor that made him a New York Times bestseller.
This collection includes:
“The Devil Delivered”: In the breakaway Lakota Nation, in the heart of a land blistered beneath an ozone hole the size of the Great Plains of North America, a lone anthropologist wanders the deadlands, recording observations that threaten to bring the world’s powers to their knees.
“Fishing with Grandma Matchie”: A children’s story of a boy tasked with a writing assignment becomes a stunning fantastical journey with his tale-spinning grandmother.
Entry: American NW Aut. B.C. 8675 ±600 years
Larger shadows walk with the coyote, elder cousin ghosts panting the breath of ice.
He watches them, wondering who will speak first. The coyote seems a likely candidate with its nose lifted and testing the air. Human scents riding the wind, now fading, slipping beneath the overwhelming stench of sunbaked meat, its touch on canine olfactory nerves an underscored sigh beneath the old scream of death.
The coyote pads down the slope, winding a path round the dusty sage, pauses every now and then to read the breeze, cock its ears in search of wrong sounds, scanning the low bluffs on the valley’s other side, then continues its descent.
He watches the coyote, waiting. It might be the ghosts will speak first. It might be that, after all. They’re big, bigger than he’d thought they’d be, more than shadows as they slip closer, moving stretched and tall, shoulders bunched and heads swinging as if conscious of crowding tusks—a hunt long over, a hunt less than memory. But it may be that their days of remembrance are over.
The coyote is close now, and he can read its life. Like others of its kind, it has adopted a band of humans. It follows them in their wanderings, down onto the flats where the grasses grow high; and when the giant bison migrate north to the forest fringes where the bitter prairie winds are slowed, frayed by the trees, the humans migrate with them. And in their wake, the coyote.
The animal clings to their scent, sometimes seeing them but always at a distance. The animal knows its place—at the edge of the world, the world the humans now claim as their own. The world, reduced to a piece of flesh.
The stench hangs heavy here, in this valley’s dry basin beneath cliffs. Here, where the humans have made another kill.
The coyote pauses, ducks its head and sniffs the trampled red mud around its paws. It licks blood-soaked grass. Behind it, the shadow ghosts pace nervously, hearing yet again the echoes of competition, the battle they’d lost long ago. Still, the carpet of dead is welcome red. . . .
He smiles at the coyote, smiles at the ghosts. He stays where he sits, among the thousand-odd dead bison that had been driven, by a band of seven humans, over the cliff’s edge. Here and there around him, evidence of butchering on a dozen or so animals, most of them yearlings. Some skinned. Others with their skullcaps removed, tongues cut out from their mouths, eviscerated. A sampling of biology, enough for seven humans. More than enough, much, much more than enough.
Bison antiquus. Bison occidentalis. Take your pick.
A breed above. Ghost cousin shadows of the smaller bison that now cover the lands. Born in an age of ice, once commanding the plains, grazing among mammoths, giant sloths, horses—beasts whose time had ended—and now, with this final kill, so, too, ends the time for the giant bison.
Punctual as a cliff’s edge.
Smiling, he watches the coyote crouch down beside a gutted bull and feed. One last time. A world emptied of Bison antiquus, barring a holdout enclave in the forests north of the Winnipeg River.
He sees them now, all around, more ghost shadows, dull herbivores, shoulders bumping. And at the herd’s edges: the coyote’s dark kin, the cautious breed of dire wolves. Other predators in the beyond, others who’d run out of prey at human hands: lions, short-tailed bears, smilodons.
It seems then, that he is the one who must speak first. “Among the world’s killers,” he whispers.
The coyote looks up, fixes gray eyes on him.
“Among the world’s killers,” he says again, still smiling, “only we humans seem capable of seeking and finding new animals to hunt, new places to flatten underfoot in a jumble of bones. An accurate observation?”
The coyote resumes feeding.
“Oh, sure,” he continues, “you’ve an alacrity for adapting, there on the edge of our world. And your human host is far away now, well into their rounds. Does being so far away from them concern you?”
The coyote downs a mouthful of flesh. Flies buzz around its muzzle.
“After all,” he adds, “their scent’s growing colder by the minute, isn’t it.”
The coyote doesn’t bother looking up, just shrugs. “No trouble,” it says. “I need only test the wind, and find the smell of blood.”
A good answer.
He sits and watches the coyote feed, while around them the shadow ghosts howl at the empty sky, the empty land. In those howls, he hears the kind of smile reserved for shadows lost to the world. A smile he shares.
To John John Fr Bogqueen: Out of the pool, into the peat. Found something/someone you might want to see. Runner 6729.12 for the path, just follow the foot-steps moi left you. Ta, lover boy, and mind the coyotes.
Saskatchewan, Dominion of Canada, August 9, A.D. 1959
Bronze flowed along the eagle’s broad wings as it banked into the light of the setting sun. Jim’s eyes followed it, bright with wonder. His horse’s russet flanks felt hot and solid under his thighs. He curved his lower back and slid down a ways on the saddle.
Grandpa had clucked his palomino mare ahead a dozen or so steps, out to the hill’s crest. The old man had turned and now squinted steadily at Jim.
“What do you see this time?” Grandpa asked.
“It’s just how you said it’d be,” Jim answered. He remembered what his grandfather had told him last winter. There’d been a foot of wind-hardened snow blanketing this hilltop, and the deep drifts in the valley below had been sculpted into fantastic patterns. They’d covered the six miles from the farm in the morning’s early hours, jogging overland and using the elk-gut snowshoes Grandpa had made the day Jim was born, nine years past. And he remembered what Grandpa had talked about that day—all the old, old stories, the places and lives that had slipped into and out of the family’s own history, on their way into legend. Batoche, Riel, McLaren and the Redcoats, and Sitting Bull himself. It was the family’s Métis blood, the old fur trade routes that crossed the plains, and of course the buffalo. All a part of Jim now, and especially this particular hilltop, where heroes had once gathered. Where they had talked with the Old One, whose bones slept under the central pile of stones.
Jim let his gaze drop and scan the space between the two horses. The pile remained—it had barely broken the snow’s skin last winter, but now the hub of boulders threw its lumpy shadow across the west half of the Medicine Wheel, and the rows of rocks that spoked out from it completed a perfect circle around them.
“Who Hunts the Devil,” Grandpa said quietly.
Jim nodded. “The Old One.”
The wind blew dry and hot, and Jim licked his parched lips as Grandpa’s blunt French and Plains Cree accent rolled the words out slow and even, “He was restless in those days. But now . . . just silence.” The old man swung his mount round until the two horses and their riders faced each other. Grandpa’s weathered face looked troubled. “I’m thinking he might be gone, you know.”
Jim’s gaze flicked away, uneasily studied the prairie beyond. The sun’s light was crimson behind a curtain of dust raised by the Johnsons’ combines.
Grandpa continued, “Could be good for wheat, this section. . . .”
The boy spoke slowly. “But that’d mean plowing all this up— the Medicine Wheel, the tepee-rings—”
“So it would. The old times have passed, goes my thinking. Your dad, well, soon he’ll be taking over things, and that’s the way it should be.”
Jim slumped farther in his saddle, still staring at the sunset. Dad didn’t like being called Métis, always said he was threequarters white and that was good enough and he didn’t show his Indian blood besides. Jim’s own blood was even thinner, but his grandfather’s stories had woken things in him, deep down inside. The boy cleared his throat. “Where did your grandpa meet Sitting Bull again?”
The old man smiled. “You know.”
“Wood Mountain. He’d just come up after killing Custer. He was on the run, and the Redcoats were on their way from the East, only they were weeks away still.”
“And that’s when—?”
“Sitting Bull gave your grandpa his rifle. A gift, because your grandpa spoke wise words—”
“Don’t know how wise they were,” Grandpa cut in; then he fell silent, his gaze far away.
Jim said nothing. He’d never heard doubt before, not in the telling of the stories, especially not in this one.
After a long moment filled only by the wind and an impatient snort from the palomino, Grandpa spoke on, “He told Sitting Bull that the fight was over. That the Americans would come after him, hunt him down. That the White Chief couldn’t live without avenging the slaughter—that the White Chief’s justice counted only with the whites, not for Indian dogs. Sitting Bull was tired, and old. He was ready for those words. That’s why he called them wise. So after McLaren arrived, he took his people back. He surrendered, and was starved then murdered. It would’ve been a better death, I think, if he’d kept his rifle.”
Jim straightened and met his grandfather’s eyes. “I don’t want this plowed up, Grandpa. Maybe Who Hunts the Devil is gone, but maybe he isn’t. Maybe he’s just sleeping. If you wreck the Medicine Wheel, he’ll be mad.”
“Your father wants to plant wheat, Jim. That’s all there is to it. And the old times are gone. Your father understands this. You have to, too.”
“Once the harvest’s in, we’ll come out here and turn over the land.”
“It’s empty, you see. The buffalo are gone. I look around . . . and it’s not right. It’ll never be right again.”
“Yes, it will, Grandpa. I’ll make it right.”
The old man’s smile was broken, wrenching at Jim’s heart. “Listen to your father, Jim. His words are wise.”
Val Marie, Saskatchewan Precinct, June 30,
Anno Confederation 14
William Potts opened his eyes to the melting snow puddled around his hiking boots. He rubbed his face, working out the aching creases around his mouth. A smile to make people nervous, but it was getting harder to wear.
Slouched in an antique chair and half-buried by his bootsuit, he turned his head an inch, to meet the eye of a diamondback rattlesnake probing the glass wall beside him. An eye milky white, the eye of a seer proselytized limbless and mute, but scabbed with deadly knowledge all the same.
The aquarium sat on a stained oak end table, its lower third layered in sand and gravel. Stone slabs crowded the near end. A sun-bleached branch stripped of bark lay in the center, angled upward in faint salute. At the far end, two small buttons of cacti, possibly alive, possibly dead—hard to tell despite the tiny bright red flowers.
The snake was avoiding its tree, succinctly coiled on a stone slab, its subtle dun-colored designs pebbled by scales that glittered beneath the heat lamp.
William watched its tongue flick out, once, twice, three times, then stop.
He grunted. “We are rife in threes.”
At the crowded basement’s far end, Old Jim rummaged through a closet, his broad hunched back turned to William.
“This guy’s eyes,” William said, frowning at the snake, “are all milky white.” He lowered his voice. “Time to shed, then? Tease off the old, here’s something new. Into the new where you don’t belong. You know that, don’t you? Because your sins are old.”
Old Jim pulled out a walking stick, a staff, and dropped it clattering to the floor. “It’s here someplace,” he said. “I hid it when that land claim went through. Figured Jack Tree and his boys would swoop down and take everything, you know? The snake’s blind, son. Burned blind.”
William shifted in the narrow chair. “Conjured by thy name, huh? Makes you easier to catch, I suppose.” The snake lifted its head and softly butted the glass. Once, twice, three times. “One day,” William told it, “you’ll wear my skin. And I’ll wear yours. We’ll find out who slips this mortal coil first.” He shifted again and let his gaze travel over the room’s contents.
Old Jim’s basement was also the town museum. Thick with dust and the breath of ghosts. Glass-topped tables housed chert and chalcedony arrowheads, ground-stone axes and mauls, steatite tobacco pipes, rifle flints and vials full of trade beads. White beads, red beads, turquoise beads. Furniture shaped by homesteaders’ rough, practical hands filled every available space. Cluttering the walls: faded photographs, racks of pronghorn, elk, deer, heads of wolf, bear, coyote, old provincial license plates from before the North American Confederation, quilts, furs, historical maps. A fossilized human femur dug out from three-million-year-old gravel beds that, before the Restitution, would have been called an anomaly and deftly ignored.
William smiled. “Three million ten thousand years of history jammed into this basement, Jim. Exactly where it belongs. In perfect context. In perfect disorder. With a blind snake curating the whole mess.”
He ran a hand through his unkempt brown hair. “This stuff ever been cataloged, Jim? Diligently recorded and filed on dimette, slipped into envelope, envelope sealed and labeled, inserted into a storage box, box stacked on other boxes, shifted to a dark, deep shelf beside the rat poison, behind the locked door in the university basement a few hundred miles from here? And you presume the guise of science? Hah.”
Old Jim didn’t answer.
Answers are extinct. “I’m an expert on extinction,” William said. “A surveyor of the exhausted, the used up, notions made obsolete by their sheer complexity. It’s a world bereft of meaning, and who knows, who cares? I don’t and I do. The last gasps of a dying science. The last walkabout, the last vision quest. We’ve digitalized the world, Jim, and here I am riding the sparks, in bootsuit and eyeshield and sensiband. Out under the Hole.”
“Got it!” Old Jim straightened. In his hands was a rifle. He grinned at William. “Right after Little Bighorn, Sitting Bull ran up here to hide out from the Americans.” He hefted the rifle. “This was his. Used it against the Seventh. Left it behind when he went back to get killed. And you know what he said?” Old Jim’s eyes were bright.
William nodded. “He said, ‘The ghosts are dancing.’ ”
Old Jim shook his head. “He said, ‘We have fired our last shot.’ That’s what he said. And that’s why he left it here.” Old Jim stepped close and placed the rifle, reverently, in William’s hands.
William ran his fingers along the barrel’s underside until he found the maker’s mark; then he straightened and held it close to the aquarium’s lamps. “English, all right. So far, so good.”
“That’s gone down the family line, you know? Hell, my family goes back to before Batoche. Métis blood.” He removed his baseball cap and ran his forearm along his brow. “It’s Sitting Bull’s rifle, son, sure as I’m standing here.”
“The stock’s been carved some,” William said. He handed it back, then rose. “You might be right, Jim. Couldn’t prove otherwise.”
“Some of you fellas should come down here and record all this stuff,” Old Jim said. He returned the rifle to the closet. “Jack Tree gets his hands on this, and you and your university can kiss it all good-bye.”
“I’ll suggest it to my employers,” William said, pulling on his gloves. He paused, glancing at the rattlesnake.
Old Jim said softly, “Most of them gone now.”
Again, William nodded.
“Burned blind, you know. Can’t hunt, can’t eat. Fulla tumors and stuff, too. Course, not much left to eat out there, anyway. Sure you don’t want a hot chocolate?”
“Can’t. I’m fasting.”
The old man shook his head again. “A damned strange thing to be doing, son, if you ask me. Exactly what kind of research you into?”
“I’m cataloging ghosts, Jim.”
“I walk on the winds, ride the snows. My heart beats in time with the ticking of stones.”
Old Jim’s eyes held William’s. Slowly, he said, “You’d better get something to eat, son. Soon.” He reached out and tapped the goggles hanging around William’s neck. “And don’t take those off out there. Even when it’s snowing. Blowing snow and clouds don’t stop the rays. Nothing stops those rays.”
“Burned blind.” William nodded.
Old Jim walked over to the aquarium and studied the snake. “Around here, years back,” he said, “these fellas were called Instruments of the Devil.”
“Yea verily,” William said. “ ‘And into the pit God casts all vermin, and into the pit shall they slither unending among the implements of history.’ ”
“Never heard that Scripture before,” Old Jim said.
William smiled, then headed for the stairs.
Old Jim followed. He watched William pull on the goggles and activate maximum shielding, then raise the bootsuit’s hood and tighten the drawstrings. “Back out in the Hole,” Old Jim said, shaking his head once more. “I used to ride horses out there.”
“The horses run still,” William said. He faced Old Jim. “Keep squinting.”
“You, too. Mind the Hole, mind the Hole.”
14.30.06 STATUS REPORT 00:00.00 GMT
Sea Level: +82.37 cm AMR
Temperature: +2.6012 C. AMR
Carbon Dioxide: +.06% AMR
Carbon Monoxide: +1.12% AMR
Methane: +.089% AMR
Nitrogen Oxide: +.0112% AMR
Organochlorine count: +.0987 ppm (holding)
Airborne silicia count: +1.923 ppm (holding)
Aerosol Sporco (volume): +367 AMR
Mare Sporco (sq. km):
113000 (Med.) (rising)
86950 (Carib.) (holding)
236700 (Ind.) (rising)
Nil Ozone areas (since 01.01.14):
Midwest Hole: holding
Arctic Hole: +23416 sq. km
Antarctic Hole: +3756.25 sq. km
Australian Hole: +6720 sq. km
Spawns: 24 (varied) (down 13)
Rad Drift Alerts:
Ciguatera Epidemics (+1000s): 17 (holding)
Retroviral General: 07 (+6/01.01.14)
Ebola-16/Hanta Outbreaks: 112 (+7)
Undifferentiated ISEs: 316 (+45)
BSE/CJD/CWD composite index: 2.4b. Species Count: 117
Malaria N. edge: +2.7 Lat.
Suvara N. edge: +3.12 Lat.
Cholera Count (/millions): 270
Bubonic: 113 (14 known bioflicked)
White Rash Deaths: 12.67
Morbilivirus-B22 Closed Zones: 16 urban (+1)
Transmutative Viral Count: 1197 (+867)
Hotzone Alerts Political:
Pakistan/India (last nuke 07.03.14)
Zimbabwe (closed since 27.05.13)
Congo Republic (closed since 11.07.08)
Rep. Lapland/Consortium Russia
Georgia/Chechen Rep/Consortium Russia
Iran (closed since 13.04.04)
Iraq (closed since 22.11.03)
Israel/Assorted (no recent nukes/biochem WMD)
Argentina (internal, last Bik flicked 29.01.13)
S. Korea (closed since 15.10.07)
Ukraine/Consortium Russia (no recent nukes/biochem WMD)
Confirmed Dead Zones:
Confirmed Dead Cities (excluding those in nations above):
Old Washington, D.C.
Refugee-Related Minor Conflicts/Incidents: +103
Flicked Biks this month: 0
Flicked Biobiks this month: 2
Worldwide weather forecast: Hot and sunny. Hey, folks, looks
like another balmy day out there!
Suppressed File Index (NOACOM) 219.56b
Subtitle: The Restitution
Category: Social Sciences
Subcategory: Biological Evolution/Paleoanthropology/Archaeology
Abstract: The record of anomalous finds began with the first generation of archaeological investigations originating in Europe in the nineteenth century. Prior to a defined paradigm asserting an acceptable structure to human biological and cultural evolution, many of these initial discoveries, subject to the same diligent application of accepted and then-current methodologies, were taken at face value and incorporated into the thenmalleable formulation of said structures. The institutional and informal suppression of anomalous discoveries soon followed, at the expense of countless professional careers, and continued well into the twentieth century and early twenty-first century.
Deep subsurface exploration for economic purposes repeatedly yielded unexplainable evidence of human presence at periods in geologic history deemed scientifically impossible; however, the academic and scientific institutions were securely entrenched and fully capable of suppressing said discoveries. It was not until a.c. 07 that incontrovertible evidence was uncovered in Cretaceous gravel beds at the Riddler Site in west Antarctica (for a composite list of evidence, cross-referenced dating techniques, and excavation report, see SFI NOACOM 222.3a), proving conclusively that the accepted evolutionary scheme for Homo sapiens was in dire need of restitution.
Current theories on this issue—
Tracking . . .
Rabbit goes back into the hat. Nada, folks!
Entry: American N.W. June 30, A.C. 14
Outside, the wind, born somewhere out west, gusted through the small town with a howling hunger. Drifts of snow banked walls and stretched serrated ridges across the streets. Leaning into the wind, he trudged toward the hotel, its three-storied bulk barely visible.
Through his goggles, the world was monochrome. White sky, blending with white earth. Patched here and there with the dark, angular bones of civilization. Nature erases. Nature wipes clean the slate. Snow, the rough and wild passage of spirits. Glaciers, gravid with desire. He paused and looked up. Medicine Wheels spun up there, echoes of Ezekiel. More of them now, trying to tell him something in their blurred spinning through the storm clouds.
He pushed himself into motion once again. He passed a humped mound of snow. A car rusting under it—he’d seen it the day he arrived. A monument to fleeting technology. Once new, masked in wonder and promise. When in use, mundane, banal. Then forgotten. Now buried. The makers move on, unmindful of the lessons beneath their feet. Nature erases.
He headed up Main Street. The western horizon had come close, come to the town’s very edge, a curtain of nothingness behind which things moved, things paced, things stampeded, things watched. Every now and then their shadows brushed the curtain. And beyond them, out on the snow-laden prairie, dead earth was marked here and there by boulders, boulders set out in circles in which other rocks ran in narrow lines, inward like spokes, and a central pile marked the hub. Medicine Wheels, not yet launched skyward, remaining earth-anchored with a purpose sheathed in silence, locked in antiquity.
The wind reached through to sting his face. Flesh-clothed people had lived out there, once. When the sun was just the sun, the sky just sky, long before the poisons and volcanic ash burned holes in the air. They talked with stones, made places where they and the ghosts could meet, places where they could dance.
A figure slipped out from an alley ahead, stopped to wait for him. The snows spun through its body; the wind whipped unimpeded by its hide cloaks and beadwork.
“I wonder how much you anticipated, old fella?”
The figure shrugged, melted in a savage gust of wind.
A stranger. An other. Not his kind, not his blood, not what he was looking for. An emanation curious, maybe, enough so to come for a closer look. Not there for answering his questions. Not there for the civilized art of conversation. Hence, making a point.
“Thus did God, burned blind, reach down through the white, featureless void, and then did He touch the stones, and read them like Braille.” He walked past the spot where the ghost had been, then crossed Main Street, heading for the hotel. “And He spake, and He said, ‘Behold these instruments of the Devil, that would give voice to the lie of the firmament.’ ”
His vision preceded him into the hotel bar, plundering lives—a half dozen regulars, old men and women whose farmland had withered and who now lived on government assistance, ignoring the resettlement incentives and urban start-up grants. The cities held nothing for them—nothing they wanted, anyway. And meeting every afternoon at their regular tables beside the frosted window that looked out on Main Street, they found the comfort of familiar faces and familiar stories, and the demons of loneliness stayed away for a while longer.
“Behold, I went out to withstand thee, because thy way is perverse before me.”
NET: The Swamp
CORBIE TWA: Oops! Where dat come from?
JOHN JOHN: More interestingly, where’d it go?
BOGQUEEN: What are you talking about? The SFI file or the quasibiblical dart?
CORBIE TWA: The quasiwhat? Those files show up alla time, Bogqueen.
BOGQUEEN: What’s with the enunciation there, Corbie?
CORBIE TWA: Colloquial program, girl.
JOHN JOHN: Which helps the trackers fix you, Corbie.
CORBIE TWA: Sure thing. I may sound like I gotta confederate flag in my bedroom, but it don mean I live in Ole Arkansas, do it?
JOHN JOHN: Where were we? We were here, I think. I’ve caught whispers about this Restitution thing. It’s not easy breaking into those SFIs, you know.
BOGQUEEN: It’s the Track .12 entries that interest me, John John. It’s a mobile, isn’t it? Not easy to hide with one of those. But he’s managing.
CORBIE TWA: For how much longer, though? Anyway, there’s no end of foo-stuff out there. Why pay attention?
JOHN JOHN: Because the boy’s playing in the Midwest Hole, right, Bogqueen?
BOGQUEEN: It all comes with what you put together. Try paying attention to the shivers on the vine, Corbie wa. There’s weird things going on.
CORBIE TWA: T’ain’t nothing new with dat, girl. My weird meter’s set very high, you know.
JOHN JOHN: Extinctions. Anyone tallied the count lately?
CORBIE TWA: I hate atavistic bastards—didn’t know I knew big words, did you? Anyway, who tallies anymore? Who keeps lists? Pictures in books, as far as my kids are concerned. Stuffed carcasses in museums, test-tubes in freezers. Jus like the dinosaurs, John John.
BOGQUEEN: Extinction’s a fact of life, right Corbie? Hail the official line.
JOHN JOHN: So, coyote ghosts and ancient buffalo. Curious.
CORBIE TWA: Probbly some effed-up terrorist mystic with a fieldbook and too much peyote.
BOGQUEEN: But he’s slipping the trackers. That takes some doing.
CORBIE TWA: Or an inside line. Some kind of NOAC counter-culture creepy.
BOGQUEEN: Seems clunky. Too obtuse. Likely he’s running loose.
CORBIE TWA: Lil good it’ll do im. Who’s listening?
JOHN JOHN: Picked up a squiggly from someone named Bound for Ur. Wasn’t tethered. Seems there was a spetznaz inc. incursion somewhere in Lapland. Went sour and nobody came back out. Any shivers?
CORBIE TWA: Don’t mess with the Lappies. Not a sniff. Sounds bizarre. A run on radioactive reindeer meat in Con-Russia. Those mafiboys like their meat.
BOGQUEEN: News to me, too, John John. I’ll check my sinkholes, though.
JOHN JOHN: My tally list includes coyotes.
CORBIE TWA: Make the road-runners happy.
JOHN JOHN: No, they’re extinct, too.
CORBIE TWA: Bummer.
William entered on a gust of wind, the snow swirling around him as he turned and pushed shut the heavy door. He removed his goggles and blinked, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the gloom. Pool balls cracked and rolled, followed by voices off to his right. He untied the hood’s drawstrings, unzipped his bootsuit.
A gravelly voice called out from behind the bar to his left. “What did I tell you, College Boy?”
William shrugged. “Seemed the genuine thing,” he said, heading over to the counter.
“Damn right,” Stel said, lighting a cigarette. Tall, heavy, late thirties, the hotel’s owner leaned on the counter and blew a lazy stream of smoke in William’s direction. She grinned, cleared her throat. “Didn’t Old Jim tell it?”
Stel set a bottle of filtered water in front of William. “See, my memory’s none too bad, eh?” She glanced over at the regulars and nodded. “Sitting Bull’s rifle, sure as my ass is fat.”
Laughter exploded in the room, forced, too loud.
William took a mouthful of water and swung his gaze to the pool table. A local boy was having his hands full playing a tall man in expensive clothes, a man even more out of place than William.
Stel bantered with the regulars, the old Indian jokes making tired rounds.
“My twenty-third Sitting Bull rifle,” William softly sighed.
“What’s that, College Boy?”
“Nothing.” He watched the tall man circle the table once before dropping the eight ball on a called shot. Game over.
Behind the bar a phone buzzed. Stel snatched it up. “Yeah?”
A fingertip stroked William’s shoulder. He turned. “For you, College Boy,” Stel said, leaning close. “Been thinking of closing up early,” she added in a low voice.
“Sounds bad for business,” William replied, “but good for the soul,” he added as he took the antiquated phone. “Hello?”
Through an electrostatic crackle came Administrator Jenine MacAlister’s voice. “William? Glad you’re still in the town. The storm’s supposed to last another two days—I didn’t think you were that crazy, but I couldn’t be sure.”
“I am research incarnate, Dr. MacAlister.”
“You didn’t need to apply for an independent grant, you know that, don’t you? I mean, we would’ve funded you, of course.”
She hesitated. “Something. Maybe serious.”
William walked away from the bar, taking the phone and the water bottle with him. He sat down at a table tucked into a secluded corner of the room. “Go ahead.”
“Well, I’ll make it simple. Here’s what I’m looking for, William. There may be some, uh, activity down there.”
“In Val Marie?”
“No, no. Out under the Hole.”
MacAlister’s voice was pitched low. Excitement and conspiracy. Used to be a good anthropologist. Used to be. Now, just one more social engineer in an army of social engineers. Now it was games, cloak and dagger.
“What kind of activity?”
“The Lakota. They haven’t been in dialogue with us since the Autonomy Settlement, of course, but we’ve picked up a hint of something.”
Us and we. Defined exactly how? Us whites? We the Feds? The good guys, the cavalry? William’s gaze fixed on the tall man at the pool table. “Haven’t seen any around. Last I heard, Jack Tree was paying a state visit to Argentina.”
MacAlister laughed. “It’s not him we’re worried about, William. He’s had his fifteen minutes at the Supreme Court, and that was seven years ago. Come on, we both know who’s about to take over the Lakota Nation.”
“That bastard is up to something. And it has to do with the Hole.”
“Well,” William said, “they own the land under it—”
“That’s not the point. Hell, they’ve never forgiven us for that. As if we knew the Hole would open up when we gave them the land.”
William’s eyebrows rose. Gave? Jack Tree stood up against the Supreme Court of North America and tore that piece of ground right out of Fed hands. William massaged his temples. Medicine Wheels in the sky.
“In any case,” MacAlister continued. “Have you seen Horn around?”
“Well, he’s supposed to be in the area. Keep an eye out for me, will you?”
“My journal entries are available on the Net.”
“Yes, William, but no one can understand them. I’d like something more direct, more responsive. One more thing, could be connected. There’s rumors going around that the Lakota are about to close their borders. If you run into Horn, see what you can suss out. But carefully, okay? Don’t push it. We’ll talk soon, then. Bye, and good luck.”
William climbed to his feet and drained his bottle of water. He walked back to the counter and set the phone down.
“Still planning on heading out tomorrow?” Stel asked.
“Well”—she smiled—“I think I’ll keep your room clean and ready, just in case you come to your senses.”
William smiled back, then headed over to the pool table. The tall, well-dressed man was racking the balls for a solo game. The local boy sat at a distant table, looking glum. William leaned on the table and picked up the cue ball. “Finally,” he said, “some competition.”
“I’ll break,” the man said.
William dropped the cue ball into the man’s hand. “Mother wants me to do some spying for her,” he said.
Daniel Horn nodded. He walked around the table and set down the cue ball. “It’s a hard life, William, and you’re harder than most.”
William found a cue stick. He raised one end and sighted down it, pointing the tip at Daniel, as if holding a rifle.
Leaning on the table for his opening shot, Daniel paused. Their eyes locked. “Careful,” the young Lakota said, “that once belonged to Sitting Bull.”
William lowered the cue stick. “She wants me to follow up a rumor about you closing the borders.”
“You want me to tell you? I will.”
“Nope. All I want to know is, open or closed, will you let me do my research?”
“That what you call it?”
“That’s what I call it.”
Daniel’s eyes narrowed as he prepared to break. “Don’t see why not,” he said. A moment later the cue ball was a white blur; then a loud crack scattered the balls. Two thumped into pockets. Daniel looked up and grinned. “Better get out of that bootsuit, William, you’re in for a hot one.”
William shook his head. “I live in my bootsuit. It lives on me. We are one.”
“Sometimes you scare me, William.”
“Sometimes I mean to, Daniel.”
The Devil Delivered and Other Tales © Steven Erikson 2012