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I'd been dreaming about my friend Janet, about letting her crawl into my bunk and sleep, shivering, in my arms, on nights when she dreamed about her children.
The flush on Sparrow's cheek, spreading down face and neck to suffuse what was visible of her chest, was very pretty indeed.
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The Man Who Counts
by William Barton

Venusberg is the most beautiful city in the known universe, nestled in the saddle between lakes Collette and Sacajewa, out on the rolling green grasslands of Lakshmi Planum, Akna Montes far to the west, Maxwell yet farther to the east. She's a city of great white towers, mimicking the fairy cities of twenty-first century America. Fabled New York, Chicago, San Francisco, all rolled into one, downtown towers reaching up into a lemon-pale sky, creating a matrix of human canyons round the deep blue waters of Sinus Mulierum, with its magically arched bridges, the little white wakes of the boaters, as of lovers paddling the canal, silent under a bright, invisible sun. Ishtar Terra they called this landscape.

I'd called it home, in the days after I quit the Solar Guard.

So ordinary. So terribly ordinary. Sparrow and I lived for some months under the pretense of being husband and wife, living in a little white house with a gray slate roof and pale yellow shutters, hiding in plain sight, purloined letters squirreled away in a bedroom community called Summerland, far enough out that Venusberg was a toy on the horizon, shrouded in a faint pink fog.

Lived and hid, working simple little jobs, a quiet ordinologist tucked away in a library basement and his quiet wife, the legal-office admin. No skills on her part, of course. Whatever she'd had were wiped away along with all the rest, but I'm sure the lawyer only had to take a deep breath during the interview to know he'd found the right girl. I remembered the little spat we'd had when I wanted her to stay home and play housewife, but … right. There's an evolving replacement personality here that would do what it felt it had to, for whatever reason.

Evening came, a quiet dinner, very nearly a sullen dinner, restless Sparrow barely picking at her prefab meal. After a while, I retired to the den and sat in front of the node, not wanting yet another confrontation. Let it be, was all I could tell myself.

In the node, I watched Newton Summerbird give a speech, then spooled backward in time, watching him give other speeches, older speeches, noting how similar they all were. Carthago delenda est. This shall not stand. A man must be responsible for what a man has done. If, that is, he's not the man who counts. That's all.

In some of the older speeches, however similar, there were debates. Ah, there you are, Mrs. Valentine. Sometimes, in the debates, Summerbird would call her Sarah, looming over her, smiling his nice little smile. Dear little Sarah, he would say. In return, she'd only call him Mr. Summerbird. Then she'd make the audience laugh at something he'd said, some foolish point, some inconsistency his fine rhetoric had made them all miss, 'til it was pointed out.

Mr. Summerbird's eyes would grow hard and flat.

In the background, there was her small, round, butter-soft, gray-suited husband, eyes only for her.

I wonder what they talked about, when they were alone?

Sparrow doesn't remember. Doesn't remember him at all.

He looks fat, she'd say. What did she see in him?

I wonder.

Did he ever have to beg her to stay home? Did he ever crouch at her feet and beg to be allowed to … do whatever she wanted? Give her what she needed?

Sparrow's eyes would soften. I'm sorry Merry, but … That word you taught me, philanderer? Those are supposed to be bad men, aren't they?

Everyone says so, yes, Sparrow.

She'd smile.

Well, I'm the philander, and I say they're good.

I heard the door slam. Heard the electric car whir to life, back out of the driveway, and slip away into the Venusberg night.

She'll be back. She always comes back.

I'll wake up in the darkness just as she slides into bed, warm, sweaty, happy, snuggling up against me, ready for sleep.

I let the node take hold of Mrs. Valentine and her little, fat husband, let it slide sideways into their event track, then forward in time. There were scenes of a great, smoking crater down by the south pole of Mars, where the liner went down, all souls lost, including Mrs. Sarah MacKay Valentine, on her way to chair the ethics committee hearings.

In a later interview, her bewildered husband mentioned he hadn't known she was dead for hours, because she wasn't supposed to be on that flight at all, but one that flew an hour later, leaving Titan City for Marsopolis, before going on to Atom City on Earth. That one had gotten where it was going, Mrs. Valentine ticketed but not aboard.

All the dead, who were little more than ash and bone, had closed-casket funerals.

I found myself wondering. If they could kill all those people, just to hide what they were about to do, then why not simply kill her?

The ethics hearings were chaired by the next-senior member, later that month. Nothing ever came of the hearings. Not enough evidence, they said.

So Mr. Gortex got his presidency, and Mr. Summerbird his speakership.

Maybe it was just an accident. Maybe as hirelings laid in wait for her, Mr. Summerbird watched the crash on his office node and thought, Perfect.

I blanked the node and went to bed and waited for Sparrow in the dark, wondering what I could do to save us. To save her.

· · · · · 

I named us Johnson as a joke. Kept those other names as an act of … foolish bravado? Merry and Sparrow Johnson. Mr. and Mrs.

How's Mr. Johnson today? Said with a soft Venusberg lilt.

Not much, anymore. Said with a smile.

Mrs. Trenchard, one of the neighbors, diagnonal down the way, who said her name, Tronksharr, as if married to some important historical figure, came over one night after dark, calling me from the node, where I was reading the minutes of the ethics committee hearings, reading Mr. Gortex's pronouncements and wondering, just wondering.

She was standing in the open doorway, a small woman with short black hair, thin, looking up at me, not smiling at all, hands half clasped, held before her, as if protecting her crotch. She said, "May I come in, Mr. Johnson?"

I stood aside, gesturing, and said, "Call me Merry."

Her lips twisted bitterly. "You don't look Merry."

Neither do you, my dear, I thought, walking her toward the parlor, gesturing for her to sit down in one of the big chairs, or maybe on the sofa, all part of the neovictoriana that'd come with the house rental. "Can I get you a drink, Mrs. Trenchard?"

Her mouth made a little pink vee, an attempt at a smile. "My name's Jeanine …" Pronounced G-9, as if some antique spy, or a very expensive AI servomechanism. "Scotch?"


"That'll do."

Tinkle of ice in a squat cut-crystal tumbler. "Water? Soda?"

"Just ice."

I made mine neat and crossed to where she sat on the couch, sitting beside her, handing her a glass, lifting mine to my lips. Looked in her eyes, and waited.

She said, "Your wife's not home, is she, Merry?"

I shook my head, knowing where she was (imagining Mrs. Trenchard knew, too, both of us perhaps picturing my wife out gleaning whatever men she could, where she could find them, but only me knowing the terrible why). "No." Took a real sip, trickle of burn down my throat. (What would you say, Mrs. Trenchard, if you knew about Blue Heaven, if you knew what they'd done to her there?)

Jeanine drank off half of hers, ice clinking as it slid up the glass and bounced against her upper lip. Then she said, "Well, my husband's not home, either."

Julian Trenchard wasn't much of a man, and I wondered if he'd been the very last to get a turn. I could see the building sparkle of anger in her eyes and wondered if that were the whole problem, the reason for the sudden visit. Just pissed off because her husband wasn't worth having?

I shrugged, imagining I'd have to come up with something to say at some point. Finally, "I'm sorry if …"

She reached out and put her hand, fingers cold from holding a glass of ice, on my wrist. "Merry, you know all the men in this neighborhood are married. You can't live here otherwise. The wives …"

I said, "I've tried to talk to her about it. She …"

Her lips made a little pink curl of contempt. Then she finished off her scotch, banging the glass down on the coffee table so the ice rattled around, not quite jumping over the rim. She leaned forward and put her hand on my knee. "A big, good-looking man like you … This isn't a fundamentalist neighborhood, you know. Some of us … Well. If you can just cut a deal with those wives, and keep her away from the husbands of the rest, we …"

Maybe, I thought, she's the spokeswoman for a delegation. Wives meeting over coffee, while the husbands were away at work, or at least gone to one indiscretion or another. I bet that big son of a bitch is twenty centimeters! Let's see a show of hands …

She slid her hand up my thigh, smile this time a little pink leer. Me first! Me first!

I caught her hand, heart suddenly squeezed by memory. Number fourteen had looked very much like her, had come to me voluntarily, with just the same leer, hand running up my thigh in just this way, headed for a crotch that'd been … oh, responsive, I guess, is word enough.

Number fourteen had blinked with slight surprise, maybe wonderment, when I reached for her throat, smiling a familiar smile of my own.

Sometimes, I would kill them first and fuck them later, just for variety's sake. Sometimes it was better that way.

I caught Mrs. Trenchard's hand before it got to its destination and discovered the interesting truth. Held her hand gently in my own and said, "I'm sorry, Jeanine. I can't. Sorry." Gave her hand a little squeeze. Let it go.

Her cheeks were flushed; she'd been that ready, I guess, so now the flush turned to one of anger, eyes flinty, dealing with rejection. She said, "I can see why she wanders, with a pathetic thing like you at home."

I gave her another scotch, apologized a little more, but there wasn't much to say. On her way out the door, she said, "You better think of some way to keep her home. Or else move away. Soon."

I went back to the node and resumed my reading of the minutes, wondering how they'd managed to get away with all those elisions in the evidentiary documentation. I was asleep by the time Sparrow got home, some time well after midnight, snuggling me awake, smelling of sweat and semen.

The perfect woman, I thought, as she murmured against my back, apologizing for waking me up.

"Dear Merry," she whispered, yawning hard, rubbing her damp face against the hard ridge of my spine, "Dear, sweet Merry."

· · · · · 

A day, a week, a little more, and one night I sat on the foot of our big double bed, watching Sparrow get ready for a date. Date. That's what they called it in Venusberg, like these married men and women slinking to each other in the night were just crossing adulthood's rim, halfway between being playmates and lovers, halfway between innocent sandbox and carnal bed.

She was dressed in a short slip, white, with a bit of lace here and there, reaching from spaghetti straps barely to the tops of her thighs, long, slim legs bare, doing things to her face, to her hair, looking at herself in the mirror, not seeing me in the background.

Not smiling.

Looking into her own eyes.

Thinking what?

I said, "Don't go."

It froze her for a second. Then she turned to look at me, standing flat-footed, still silent.

"Stay home with me tonight."

You could see things change in her eyes, an agony of indecision, marked by a trace of anger, recalling the things I'd said each night as I begged her not to go out, told her about Mrs. Trenchard's visit, about the dangers she was making for us, the things that might happen.

So I'll go farther afield, all right? There are barrooms downtown. Places where no one will care about what I do, or who I do it with.

Please, Sparrow. We won't be here forever. Just until I …

She said, "We've already talked about this. You know I have to. You know what's been done to me."

Sure. I said, "Sparrow, you know I'll help you any way I can."

A curl of real anger behind her eyes then. She pulled up the hem of her slip, lifting the lace to mid-abdomen, and said, "Look at me."

"Sparrow …"

"Not at my face. Down here."

A swatch of curly hair. The shine of moisture up where her legs came together.

She said, "I have to go."

"If I …"

Softly, she said, "I know you mean well, Merry. But it's not enough. They made me want more than you can give."

"Please, Sparrow."

A quick look into my eyes, then pity. "Oh, Merry." She came to the bed and sat beside me. Put her hand on my wrist, fingers cool, though not so cold as Mrs. Trenchard's icy hand had been. Momentary tableau, husband and wife together, then she crawled up onto the bed, pulling me with her, until we had our heads on the pillows, facing each other.

I could see there were tears in her eyes and could smell her sharp arousal, pheromones knifing in through the only sex organ the bastards had left me, the instrument of their torture.

I put my hand on her hip, pulling the soft, delicate cloth of the slip upward, and whispered, "Shall I …"

She snuggled close to my chest. "No, Merry. Just hold me."

· · · · · 

In my dreams, sometimes bits of old stories are mixed in with the memories. In this one, I was Tyrone Power, smooth and emotionless, face blank as a dead man's, telling the little French whore, "I was hurt during the war."

I think she'd said, "What's the matter? Don't you like me?"

More dream. Then, later, Eddie Albert's wisecrack about the life of a steer, somehow mixed up with scenes from a farmscape, some woman with a peculiar accent running on about square eggs.

In most of the dream, I was with number six, who had no idea anything was wrong. May even have missed the actual moment when things went so terribly wrong for her.

When her life went out like a light.

I remember she was so hot for me, everyman's crude mannequin, like a sexy gyndroid on overdrive, so hot and wet a smaller man would have found no purchase within to do for himself. Six times, one right after another, like she was starving to death, so happy to have found a man like me she'd grunted, rather fervently, some time in the night. A real man.

In the middle of orgasm number six, just as her eyes rolled back, just as she started that little caw of joy, I grabbed the nape of her neck, grabbed her by the long, curly black hair, pulled and twisted as hard as I could, hearing her go snap, crackle, pop, and relax, boneless, beneath me.

Inside her, the orgasm continued to completion, followed by my own.

I awoke and opened my eyes on darkness, covered by a fine sheen of sweat, wondering if I'd thrashed and cried out in my sleep.

The bed was empty and cool beside me.

After a while, I got up and went to the node, where I resumed my search of documentary chains, knowing they couldn't possibly have destroyed much more than the superficial evidence required by the antiquated rules of the Solar Alliance's courts. Any deeper, and they'd start hurting the economy, would have to start digging into the private information stores of the big corporations, where accounting rules prevailed.

It was dawn before she came home, yellow light spreading through the sky.

· · · · · 

Something woke me in the middle of another night.

Dark, still, the sheets cool beside me as I lay there naked and alone.


Pressure waves in the air, as of a distant, rhythmical thudding, just on the edge of hearing but growing louder, more distinct with each passing moment.

The door slammed, and Sparrow's voice, flooded with alarm, cried out, "Merry?"

I think I was dreaming, not about the women I'd raped and killed back in that other life, but about our time at Blue Heaven. And not about the bad things there, but the good things.

I'd been dreaming about my friend Janet, about letting her crawl into my bunk and sleep, shivering, in my arms, on nights when she dreamed about her children.


I rolled to my knees on the floor, reached under the bed and grabbed the things I kept there, a small backpack with a bush knife clipped to its chest strap, a jogging outfit. Shoved my feet in unlaced hiking boots, the ones I wore on Sunday, when I hiked alone in the Hellish Hills, down by the Southside Scarp.

On my feet, naked but for boots, listening to the thudding noise, listening to it grow loud, I met Sparrow on the dark stairs, unable to see much more than the shine of her eyes.

"My God, Merry! A helicopter. It followed me along the highway! Followed me home!"

I grabbed her by one upper arm, pulled her off her feet, and ran her down the stairs.

"Merry …" You could hear now there was more than one copter in the sky, though the one was far closer than the others.

"We have to get out of here." I threw her over one shoulder. High heels. Shit. In the kitchen, by the back door, were her running shoes, where she always kept them. I got the door open, grabbed the sneakers, and was out in the dark, going over our 1.5 meter back fence like it wasn't there, Sparrow over my shoulder, her shoes in one hand, my backpack in the other.

In the alleyway, I craned around and took one look back. The chopper noise was loud now, lights starting to go on in our neighbors' houses, but I could see nothing. The helicopters were painted black.

Run, you silly bastard. Run!

Naked, I knew my dick should bounce back and forth as I ran, flapping against my thighs, making me look very silly indeed. But I didn't have a dick, and I could run like the wind.

Behind us, the sky lit up, garish yellow white, spotlights picking out the house from several directions, and our neighbors were milling all over the place, outside in their pajamas and nighties, shouting astonished questions back and forth.

Good. That will confuse the infrared sensors for a minute or two.

Maybe long enough.

· · · · · 

I got dressed down in a culvert by the oily waters of Sinus Mulierum, in the shadows under a fairy tale bridge, kicking off my boots long enough to pull on soft cotton running pants and singlet, unrolling the socks I'd bundled with them, while Sparrow, sitting on a low retaining wall, laced up her sneakers, high heels perched on the ledge.

She said, "I'm sorry, Merry. I guess I didn't believe you."

I reached out and stroked her soft hair. Too late now. I said, "Best keep your voice down. We weren't followed, but …"

She whispered, "What're we going to do now?" Misery in her voice. Lost our home? Or fretful worry about where her next fuck is coming from, like an addict anticipating her next dopesick night?

I stood erect (so to speak), shouldering the backpack, shrugging it into place, looking around at the dark, sluggish water, the black, featureless night sky. That was the one thing I missed, living on Venus. Stars.

I said, "Always have a Plan B."

She said, "Plan …"

There was a little scuffling noise up in the shadows under the bridge ramp, from between the nearest two pylons. Rats? No. They'd managed to keep them off Venus, having been far more careful with the initial terraform build than on Mars. Practice makes perfect.

The shadows unfolded into the figure of a man, a man with long, shaggy hair and a scruffy beard, dirty clothes. Worn-out clothes. Mostly denim. If they'd been new, I might've taken them for Sparrow.

He yawned and stretched, walking toward us.

"Jesus," he said in a slurred voice. "You folks could pick someplace better to sneak off for a fuck. Woke me up, you know?" He was looking at us beady-eyed, especially at Sparrow, running shoes incongruous with her little black cocktail dress. "Been to a party, missy?"

Sparrow seemed to shrink back, maybe trying to slide behind me.

Well, you're freshly serviced, little Sparrow. By this time tomorrow, you'd be dragging him toward the bushes. I reached out a hand and cracked his neck, folding him up, back into the shadows. Sparrow, looking at me, silent, was all eyes, big and glistening bright in the darkness.

I remembered killing Klu Barr, remembered hiding him in the snows of Olympus. Not the same, this time. Harmless old bum. Wrong place, etc. Sorry, man, wish it could be different, I thought, speaking to his ghost, and said, "We need to get going. We need to make the trail system in Umstead Forest by morning."

· · · · · 

Rex Sinclair's Hatari Plantation lay just below the Hellish Hills, beyond Ishtar Terra's continental slope, deep in the outermost layer of lowland Thicket, where the land slopes away toward Mnemosyne Regio and the steamy Mesozoic swamplands the terraform builders had made.

You could look back from Sinclair's veranda, look back at the rising green landscape, and marvel that we'd walked all this way and lived, that we'd only met two hikers on the way, a pair of goofy, well-equipped fat men, out alone together on some kind of camping sabbatical, men who'd been surprised to meet us. And even more surprised to die.

Sinclair remembered me, from long ago and far away, staring at me with that proverbial wild surmise when his field supervisors led us in from the perimeter fence. He called me Sergeant, eyes squinted just so, craggy face full of suspicion, no small amount of unease. No doubt, I'd been a big figure in the news when I was caught and unmasked as the fabled Venusberg Strangler.

Maybe he would have turned away, told me, Well, just a moment, I'll be right with you, but then he turned to look at my companion, face suddenly going slack. Not recognition, no, she was too … different for that. But you could see him get an erection, right then and there.

The flush on Sparrow's cheek, spreading down face and neck to suffuse what was visible of her chest, was very pretty indeed.

So. Clean clothes, dinner, then we were sitting out on the veranda, enjoying the subtle colors, ocher and tan and brown, of a lowland Venusian sunset. Sparrow and I sat on his antique swinging divan, facing out across the plantation lawn, looking out over the pond, where a little family of hesperornis sailed in stately formation, Sinclair catty-corner in a chair, closer to Sparrow than me.


I smiled. "Used to like them, didn't I?"

"Used to?" He was smiling, face craggy as a romantic, Out-of-Africa hero, some Great White Hunter or another. "These are real Havana lineage, Sarge. Descended from the Guatemalan strain of Carl Uppman."

"Somehow," I said, "I gave them up."

"Miss?" Holding the box out to Sparrow.

She shook her head and blushed, looking down at hands folded in her lap. He'd given me a set of khaki work clothes, even a new pair of boots, but Sparrow was in something like white silk pajamas, and barefoot.

Sinclair said, "I was surprised to see you, Sarge. I figured you for a permanent residency on some therapeutic asteroid or another, after what you did."

"Me, too."

He was looking at Sparrow now, and you could see the front of his chinos start to hump up again. He had to squirm around in his seat a little bit, trying to get more comfortable. "Sarge and I were in the Guard together. Best Command Master Sergeant there ever was, if you ask me. No one else ever got there as fast, either."

Sparrow glanced at me, but her face was suffused, shiny, not smiling, eyes only filled with what her body was doing to her. Suddenly, I could smell her arousal, sharp and metallic, filling the air on the veranda too fast to be swept away by the slow, sultry breeze. When I glanced down, I saw the crotch of her pajamas' were showing wet, clinging to her.

Sinclair said, "Christ!" He got to his feet. "I'm sorry, Sarge. I'll talk to you later. We'll … see what we can figure out tomorrow." Then he held out his hand to Sparrow, helped her to her feet and led her away.

Watching them, I saw she could barely walk.

· · · · · 

I found Sinclair's office node pretty quickly, in a back room that was mainly a sitting room. There was a pelt on the floor, the skin of a smilodon from the Cenozoic hunting reserve on Aphrodite Terra. Lots of pictures on the wall, flats and solidi both, scenes from his early life, from the Academy, where'd he'd been a star forward on the mercuryball team, from his service, rising through the ranks 'til he'd retired as a full bird-colonel.

I was in some of the pictures. A younger me standing slightly behind Major Sinclair, who'd been in charge of suppressing the California Riots. In the background of the photo, you could see Los Angeles burning, solidus flames flickering like real life. In the picture, I was smiling.

A picture of a more recent me, Colonel Sinclair pinning on my Distinguished Service Award, on the day of my retirement. When he'd shaken my hand, I remembered, he'd told me he was getting out, too, in another few months, retiring to that little farm on Venus.

I could hear them in the background now, had been able to for more than an hour, Sparrow's cries echoing faintly, surrounded by the squeak of hand-hewn rustic wooden bedroom furniture.

On the node, I looked at a fat man's face, Mrs. Valentine's forlorn husband, giving his final interview, a couple of months after the fatal crash, a few days after the close of the abbreviated ethics hearings.

His name was Theodore, affectionately called Teddy by all who knew him, and he'd spent his adult life looking after his wife's non-political financial interests. Disconsolate was the word the newsnode talking heads used to describe him, on his way back to Titan, alone.

After the election, there'd been another little uproar, a sad, bewildered Teddy Valentine threatening lawsuits, claiming conspiracy. Then nothing. For about a month after Gortex and Summerbird took their respective offices, Teddy Valentine was utterly missing from the public records.

Then, you could see where the Valentine business and residential properties of Titan were for sale, the beach property they owned on the coast of Earth's Brazil vacationland. Records of deeds changing hands. Then nothing.


There was a slight rustle of movement behind me. Sparrow was standing in the open doorway, naked, what we'd called spooge when we were young drooling down the insides of her thighs.

"He wants me to spend the night," she said.

I tried to smile. "He always fancied himself a real he-man."

She said, "He's had something done to himself, Merry. Sort of a light studding, so he'll be more … capable." She stood there in the doorway, dripping on the floor, staring at the sad fat man motionless in the node. Then she said, "I've got to pee. I'll see you in the morning."

· · · · · 

I awoke alone in the morning from the same infinitely varied dream, in some guest bedroom I'd managed to find, far enough away in the house I could no longer hear them, yellow light streaming through Rex Sinclair's expensive bamboo Venetian blinds.

There'd been a widow woman, I remembered, a woman well over a hundred years old, so old medical treatment wasn't doing her much good. There had been, I remembered, lines in her face. Who knows. Maybe she would have lived another twenty years or so?

I remember thinking exactly that as I pressed her down hard against my pubic bone, jamming myself as far in as I could go, making her eyes widen a bit, then widen more as I put my thumbs under the angle of her jaw.

I remember thinking later that after she met me, she'd lived another twenty minutes.

I got out of the bed and pulled on my new clothes, lacing up my comfortable new boots, thinking about it still. Hell, maybe I was just born under the shadow of evil. If such a thing is possible.

Probably not. Just a way of saying it was something I was made to do, rather than something I did. But we know better, don't we?

Sparrow and Sinclair were already at breakfast, Sparrow sipping coffee, with dark shadows under her eyes, Rex Sinclair stuffing himself with bacon and eggs, sausage, English muffins and grits, beaming like a man reborn.

"Merry!" He said, gesturing at me. "Try the gooseberry jam! Try the honey! I have my own terragenic bees!"

I sat, reaching for a mug, reaching for the coffee pot, looking at Sparrow. When she lifted her eyes to mine, I was startled to see misery, rather than the satiation I expected.

Sinclair suddenly laughed. "I'm sorry, Merry, I guess I fucked her half to death! I had no idea what her pheromones would do to me!"

I took a swallow of the coffee, scalding hot, acidic on my empty stomach, went to take another, stopped … something. Something in the air. Some distant sound perhaps.

I put the cup down and started to rise. Suddenly Sinclair was holding a little gun on me, a needle-nosed paralo-ray pistol, hardly more than a police stunner.

He said, "Sit down, Merry."

Now I could hear that faraway thudding. I got to my feet anyway, ignoring the ray gun, Sinclair rising to match me, facing me across the table. "Don't try it, Sarge. You're a tough bastard, but this'll knock you down." He moved over behind Sparrow, taking her by one upper arm, forcing her to her feet. "We'll put you somewhere safe, honey. This'll be over in just a little while."

I started around the table, moving slowly.

Sinclair kept the gun on me, backing toward the door with Sparrow, but slowly, letting me get a bit closer. "I'm sorry, Sarge. I couldn't take the chance of helping you. I put in a call before breakfast."

I smiled. "They won't let you keep her, you know."

"They won't find out she's here."

"I'll tell them."

Flicker of anger. "I'm warning you, Sarge. You're not faster than a ray."

"Don't need to be, Colonel."

He smiled. "Maybe not. Just faster than a trigger finger, huh? But I've had Guard training, too, Sarge."

"Maybe so. But she's not just a toy. That's Senator Valentine you've been fucking." His eyes flickered toward her, and you could see it took him by surprise. You could also see the sudden recognition. "Anyway," I said, "you were just a fucking officer."

He tried to get the gun up, but I was already moving, forward and to the right. The ray sizzled across my left arm in a fire of pins and needles. I slapped it out of his hand, ray gun tinkling as it broke against the far wall. Then I got him by the hair, lifting hard, grabbing his shoulder as I turned his head to face around over his back.

He actually grunted "Ow!" in the middle of the noise his neck made breaking but didn't say anything else as I lowered him to the floor and caught Sparrow in my arms, rayed left one buzzing like mad. Outside, you could hear the first helicopter swooping in over the trees, could hear the shouts of the plantation hands.

I pulled her after me, heading for the office, heading for Rex Sinclair's gun cabinets with all their lovely hunting blasters, weapons intended to blow a diplodocus out of the water or stop a charging tyrannosaur in its tracks. Certainly suitable for shooting down a black helicopter or two.

Sparrow stood by, shivering, while I broke the cabinet locks and picked out a couple of heavy weapons, handing her one, keeping one for myself, grabbing a couple of spare batteries while I was at it.

"Plan C," I said. "Always have a Plan C." Sparrow's eyes searched my face, full of wonder. Wonder and trust.

· · · · · 

I crouched in the cave, blaster cradled in my arms, facing the tyrannosaur, whose huge head filled the entrance, all but obscuring the yellow-misted Venusian swampland beyond. Sparrow crouched behind me, flat against the damp, dank, algae-slimed rear wall, and whispered in my ear, "If it kills us, Merry, all is lost, for us, for everyone, forever …"

The tyrannosaur bared grayish-white half-meter fangs, hot breath washing over me, making a deep, purring snarl, like the throb of a diesel locomotive at idle. Half its face, only an arm's length away, was gone, nothing but melted, healed-over scar tissue, like white bone around a crusted, empty eye socket.

The same one, I thought. The one I hunted as a boy, the one I tried to kill. The one that got away.

It's remaining eye, red as blood, rolled in its socket, looking at me. Another throbbing snarl. Satisfied. Knowing.

It remembers me.

Remembers what I did to it.

Its jaws opened as far as they could in the structure of the cave mouth, tongue curling, red throat waiting as it tried to slip forward, ready for a delicate, fatal bite. I smiled, not even bothering to aim the blaster. Smiled and pulled the trigger.

Blue-white nuclear fire filled the cave like summer heat lightning, wiping us away, dinosaur and all.

I sat up, muscles clenched, looking out through green vegetation at more yellow Venusian sky. In the distance, a trombone howled, and, through the trees, kilometers away, I saw the snaky, yellow-green necks of three apatosaurs rising above the fern fronds by the margin of the river. One of them had a mouthful of reeds, reeds rising and falling, growing smaller as it chewed.

Sparrow sat on the rim of the sleeping nest, watching me.

I sat up, wiping the sweat from my face. "Jesus."

She said, "You seemed upset, Merry. What were you dreaming?"

I looked away, back out through the forest. We'd been moving slowly eastward around the southern rim of Ishtar, following the base of the scarp, trying to stay as far away from the dinosaur lowlands as we dared, another weeks-long journey, though different from the much longer one we'd had on Mars.

"Something … different."

Her eyes were serious, more understanding than they had been. Something growing in her. A person. Someday she'll be a whole person again, despite what's been done. A new person. She said, "I wondered. For once, your hands weren't strangling anything."

Nice of you not to say, anyone. Sometimes, when I woke up, my forearms would be sore, knuckles swollen and distended, from strangling all night long.

I said, "It was something from a story I loved when I was a boy. About an orphan boy, an orphan on Venus who lived by his wits, hunting the jungles with a beat-up old blaster he'd managed to find. Hunting for tyrannosaur, selling it to restaurants, so the rich and beautiful tourists from Earth and Mars could go home and say they'd eaten honest-to-God dinosaur meat." I remembered then how I'd had to look up the meaning of the phrase "diesel locomotive." I smiled at her. "It's why I moved to Venus, when the time came."

"Not the plentiful pussy?"

A twinkle in her eye. A hint of a smile. Becoming a person at last. Someone you had to like, rather than pity. Then she said, "I always dream about men with big dicks. Men fucking me."


She smiled and said, "Do you suppose Mrs. Valentine's husband had a big dick?"

Hard to imagine the fiery, political intellectual Senator Valentine and gray, fat little Teddy … I said, "Well. I hope so." From somewhere, I remembered, in the end, the orphan boy had gotten an appointment to the Solar Guard Academy on Earth, had passed the entrance examination, passed his courses, becoming an officer and a gentleman.

As I recalled, he'd already been a man, had brought that with him to the table, had taught that one thing to the boys who'd become his comrades.

There was a sudden rustle, above and to my left. I grabbed for the blaster, spinning, aiming, finger going through the trigger guard, tightening. Stopped myself in time.

Three men, dressed in some kind of rough, whitish homespun, long hair bound by strips of cloth, feet in soft moccasins. Crossbows, loaded and cocked but not aimed at us. The one in the lead lifted a hand, palm out, fingers flat, not unlike an Indian in some antique drama, and said, "Good day to you."

I lowered the blaster, taking my finger off the trigger, engaging the safety interlock. "Good morning."

He smiled. "Highlanders call us Bummers," he said.

"I know that. Vidnode dramas about the wild Venusian Bummers are popular all over the Solar Alliance." Popular because they are what we all wish to be, would be, but for what? Our lack of courage? Run away. Run away from it all. Turn your back on job and boss, home, hearth, wife, children, all those bills …

He laughed, showing crooked yellow teeth, the first human I'd ever seen in need of dental work. In dramas, even Bummers have gleaming white ivory, just like the rest of us. "I hear they like us, even in the star colonies."

I shrugged. I hadn't had much time for entertainment when I was out there. "Maybe so."

He said, "Police are not on your trail anymore. After you knocked down that third helicopter, they fucked up and lost track." It'd gone down in a scream of fire, and we'd been able to see the column of black smoke for hours afterward as we fled deeper into the swamp country south of Sinclair's plantation, making me wonder if we hadn't somehow started a forest fire despite the dampness of the environment.

He said, "You're headed right into Red Devil territory. We don't want you here."

"We need to get through to the eastern slopes, down under Maxwell Montes."

A long, doubtful look, as his fingers slowly stroked the smooth, dark wood butt of his crossbow. "If the police should find you among us …"

Sparrow stood suddenly, catching every eye, and started to get undressed.

· · · · · 

They were taking turns with Sparrow, the smugglers' crew, not even waiting 'til we were on our way, taking a down payment right here, right now, until the ship's computers let them know it was time to be leaving. Taking their turns, one after another, then seconds and thirds, the ones that could, Sparrow on a ratty old beach blanket under the blue shade of a spreading chestnut tree.

Funny that the crew of a tramp freighter turned to smuggling would have beach blankets on hand. Well. Plenty of beaches off-Earth, though most of them are situated on the worlds of other stars. I remembered one. It'd had white sand, powdery, like confectioner's sugar, and Procyon had been a painful silvery spark in a deep green sky, quiet ocean lapping nearby, ultramarine, with a little golden glitter marking each curl of wave. Beside me, the chief of the Red Devil Bummers said, "I'm sorry we worked her over, too, Merry."

Looking up from the portanode I'd gotten from the smuggler captain as part of the deal, I could see he and his buddies were trying unsuccessfully not to watch. "I wouldn't worry about it, Don. Men were made for what she was made to be."

He said, "What about you?"

What was I made to be? I laughed. "I'm just being punished. Pheromones in my nose with nowhere to go."

"Punished," he said, looking at me, questioning. "The Venusberg Strangler. God, Merry. You seem like such a nice guy."

I snapped the portanode shut, blanking away Teddy's sad, fat face, then said, "Hey, you're not a woman, are you, Don?" and thought about what it would feel like to separate the hairy smuggler's skull from his spine. Getting to like that now, aren't we, Sarge? I wondered if the black helicopters had gotten to Sinclair in time. Once your neck's broke, you've got a few minutes to get on life support before your brain turns to soup.

Don said, "You think these guys can get you where you need to be next?"

Plan C? Watching hairy buttocks rise and fall, I shrugged, tapping the portanode softly. "Maybe so."

The naked smuggler, finished, stood up from her, sweaty face exhausted, fatigued mouth hanging open, staggering a little, maybe looking like he wanted to fall right down. Looking up at him, legs still spread, Sparrow laughed and shouted, "Next!"

The smuggler looked like he wanted to kick her then.

Careful what you wish for, boys.

· · · · · 

The shell ticketing agent had barely taken his last thrust when I grabbed him by his long, greasy black hair, wrapping my fingers around the base of his pony tail, pulling his head back far enough I could cup his chin in my other palm.

Pull. Twist. Crack-o.

He made a startled gurgle, spasmed, relaxed.

Under him, Sparrow stiffened and whispered, "Ooooohhh …" Face suffusing with pleasure.

I lifted him gently off her, setting him to one side on the floor. Sparrow stayed where she was, shiny with sweat, eyes shut, slowly running her fingers up and down her abdomen, shivering lightly, then cupping her hands over her vulva.

"You okay?"

She nodded. "He got real stiff when you did that. Like he was having another orgasm." Her eyes opened, looking into mine. She said, "I'm glad you let me finish with him first, Merry."

I nodded, helping her to her feet, drying her off with the ticket agent's bedding. While she was getting dressed, I balled him up, listening to the soft whisper of his last breath as I squeezed it from his lungs, binding him up in a ball, wrapping him in the blanket. His eyes were still open and, somewhere inside, he was probably still alive, still conscious, growing woozy perhaps, flooded with horror.

I looked out through the ticket agent's apartment window and said, "It'll be darktime soon. We can take him outside and stash him somewhere." Not that it really mattered. Someone will notice he's missing, not doing his job anymore, but that will be the end of it. A new ticket agent will move in and do the job and not wonder what became of his predecessor.

Outside, the transit habitat's stemshine was beginning to dull into orange, would soon turn dull violet, letting the world within dim to a simulacrum of night. All around us, you could see shadows filling the vegetation, lights starting to come on in the low buildings, the pseudotown that made this imitation of a world.

Four kilometers long, by one in diameter. Barely enough space for its intended passenger compliment of ten thousand to get by on what had once been the long, long voyage between the stars. The relativistic cyclers had been obsolete for a hundred years, though they'd made do for another little while with the installation of a first-generation hyperdrive.

Now, with the new advanced stardrives growing cheaper and cheaper, they'd become cargo hulls, and a way for the poor to make their way between far-apart worlds.

Another generation, and they'd be gone.

I dragged the ticket agent to the door, leaving him just inside 'til it got a little darker. Sparrow was standing by the window, looking up into the pseudosky, where you could pretend the lights of tiny, inverted apartment buildings were square yellow stars.

No windows to the universe beyond. Anyway, the one time I'd seen into hyperspace, it'd looked like an Edvard Munch painting.

I said, "While you were busy, I broke into the ticket agent's node. It's got better access rights than the one the smugglers sold us."

She kept her back toward me, seeming to hug herself, hands coming up over her arms.

Then she whispered, "Couldn't we just stay here forever?"

Right. Stay here forever, so you can fuck the men, and I can kill them, and we all live happily ever after. I put my arms around her, slowly turned her to face me, took her head between my palms and tipped it back, so she had to look into my eyes again.

She leaned into me, putting her arms around the barrel of my chest, straddling my thigh, grinding against me hard, and said, "I'm sorry, Merry."

I held her tight, wishing there was something meaningful I could say or do.

· · · · · 

They call the place 61 Cygni C-16, and I'd been here before. When I was in the Guard, we'd taken to calling it the Mauve Star's Planet, something from a book, I think. One of Sinclair's junior officers had apparently majored in late medieval literature while he was in ROTC and was always yammering about "therms" and "frigi-plasmic life forms." Stuff like that, but the place didn't really have a name. Stark realization: Sparrow'd been here before, too. Well, no. Senator Valentine had.

Sparrow and I were riding through the forested hills above Baidarka 6 Admin Center in a rented Volvo Planetokhod Jeepster, nothing in our ears but the click of our rebreather valves, the soft whisper of static in the headphones.

When I'd been here before, during the Police Action, I'd mostly been on the nighttime part of the farside, and there'd been a dark, starry sky overhead the whole time. Here and now, B was still up, rising wan and yellow over the southern horizon, rising into a deep violet sky lit by A's tiny disk, dominated by the vast, sullen coal of C, the Mauve Star, circling A once every five years or so.

Darker than a moonlit night. There were a few bright stars here and there, familiar negative-magnitude giants, familiar as the constellations of night had been, 3.42 parsecs from Earth. That same junior officer had called the Earth's sun Sol 357, as if it had a real name, too. I'd been to Wolf 359 once and figured the storyist who made up the name picked the number for its flavor of familiarity, so he could go ahead and just call all the other stars suns, when seen floating in a planetary sky.

I slowed up, going around a curve, and Sparrow suddenly put her hand on my thigh, high up, not quite reaching into my crotch. I looked over at her briefly, then put my eyes back on the road, which was barely more than a rutted track.

She said, "I'm scared, Merry."

"Me, too."

The forest around us was bare crystalline stalks, more like big dead glass bushes than trees. No undergrowth. No nothing. When we stopped the jeep, you could hear a tiny faraway tinkle, stalks of glass rustling in the gentle breeze.

She said, "You suppose Mrs. Valentine would've been scared?"

"I didn't know Mrs. Valentine."

Silence. Then, "Me, neither."

I wanted to pull the jeep over, get us out of our masks, hold her close, nuzzle her face, do something, anything, to comfort her. But the air here was 800 millibars of dry nitrogen mixed with a thin leavening of aromatic hydrocarbons.

The tiny seas here, big lakes really, were chemical salt water with a lot of dissolved ethanol. I'm told the seawater tastes like a vodka tonic, though if you take more than a sip you get deathly ill from the metal salts. I knew a few guys wound up in sick bay that way.

Down by the seas, you can still see some of the residual native life forms, things like black stromatolites, flatworms the size of your finger squirming in the sand. I'd seen pictures of life in the seas, mainly stuff like leathery jellyfish and sheets of black rubber "algae."

Life here had barely started its climb onto the land when we showed up. Useless. Until we got to Delta Pavonis II and discovered a similar sort of world with a much richer biosphere. I could picture some scientibureaucrat turning to his little buddies in a meeting, somewhere, sometime: "Hey, I got a great idea! Let's Pavoniform the place!"

So. Animal-like things, plant-like things, the Pavonian surrogates for fungi and bacteria. Whatever those wonderful "dry-land ecologists" thought was necessary. Sort of worked, I guess. Here's the forest primeval and...

We rounded a boulder, and there the rutted track was blocked by a pile of fallen glass vegetation, a couple of dozen "tree trunks" stretching from one side to the other, touching glass forest on either side. Sparrow's hand on my thigh squeezed tight as I slowed to a stop, put the jeep transmission in neutral and set the brake lock.

I patted her hand. "Nobody's after us, Sparrow."

She said, "What if those people you talked to lied to us? What if they turned us in?"

Big black spiders the size of Airedale terriers started creeping around the sides of the roadblock, surrounding the jeep as Sparrow's hand froze. I patted it again, unclipped my seat harness and got out, stretching the kinks in my back. We'd been driving for hours.

Funny thing about the Pavoniforming of 61 Cygni C-16. Some of the animals they brought in had had crude tools of a sort, mainly sharpened bits of glass forest vegetation. Maybe better than the stalks of grass and chewed-leaf sponges the chimps had had when they still existed, not so impressive as Homo habilis' broken cobble choppers.

Funny thing. These Pavionians, involuntary colonists, all had little glass spears, except the one right in front of me, who had a paralo-ray pistol clipped to a D-ring on the little green plastic harness it wore, the only one of them not naked. It shifted the gun with the tips of its two front legs, handling it a little like a rifle, looping a third leg tip through the trigger guard.

Sparrow, frightened, softly said, "Merry?"

I searched the top of the fuzzy black body, looking for things like eyes, but couldn't find any, noticing the neat way that third leg bent as it pressed lightly against the trigger button. I guess having ten legs, each with a sliver of retractile claw on the end, is a pretty good substitute for fingers.

I said, "Get out of the jeep, Sparrow. Come over here."

When she'd done so, the gun-toting spider backed away, keeping the gun on us, and a lane opened among the others, directing us toward one side of the roadblock.

She whispered, "Can they talk?"

"I don't think so. Nobody officially knows how they communicate; when I was here, supposedly they didn't, but I guess the human rebels figured something out."

I don't know what I was expecting on the other side of that glassy rubbish pile. A little gray fat man, maybe, with eyes only for Sparrow? It was a tall skinny guy in worn-out old fatigues, straw-colored hair sticking out from under his cap, washed-out blue eyes staring through his rebreather mask goggles.

He held out a hand, "Long time no see, Sarge."

"Who …"


I searched my memory. Maybe …

"Just a recruit, Sarge. Squad Eight. Missing in action, Month Five."

Vaguely, I remembered a skinny kid with eyes like these, messy hair that kept getting him on report, though not by me. I took his hand, squeezed it gently.

He squeezed back, said, "This way, please." Looked at Sparrow and said, "Senator?"

Beyond the roadblock, we heard the jeep start up and begin driving away.

· · · · · 

I stood in the mouth of a cave, looking out over a broad valley, up through a light gasohol rain at the Mauve Star nailed to its place in the dim, vivid sky. Funny. I keep waiting for it to move, but it never does.

There was mist in the valley, white tendrils tinted faint pastel by the violet light curling among the silver glass trees, little turquoise pond down on the bottom land stained with a purple reflection of the Mauve Star.

I could feel my heart pounding in my chest, feel how terribly frightened I was. There was the scuff of a footfall behind me, and, when I turned, here was the little fat man at last.

He said, "Sergeant Atkins?"

I smiled. "They call me Merry now."

His eyes flinched slightly, jerking away from my face, coming back. "She calls you Merry."


I tried to imagine that terrible reunion scene. Tried to imagine him knowing what had been done to her, what she'd become, knowing she didn't remember him at all.

He said, "After the surgery, won't you want your name back?"

I smiled. "The man who was Sergeant Atkins has been gone a long time." What's it to be, Tommy this an' Tommy that? I said, "He turned into the Venusberg Strangler, then into … this." I spread my hands, palms toward him. "Maybe a new name. Some combination …"

His smile warmed up, and suddenly I could see what Sarah MacKay Valentine might have wanted with a little gray fat man. "What, Merry Strangler?"

It made me grin, despite the terror strangling my guts. Then I said, "What's going to happen next?"

His smiled faded. "To you?"

I shook my head. "I know what's going to happen to me. But …" I gestured out at the red-lit landscape.

He said, "Maybe you don't realize what you've done, Sergeant." His eyes, not looking at me, grew far, far away. "By this time next year, President Gortex will be impeached and removed from office. By this time next year, perhaps, Speaker Summerbird and his little buddies will be sitting on a prison asteroid somewhere, starting their re-education program." He made a smilelike grimace, coming back from next year for a moment, glancing at me. "You took care of Mr. Barr for us, Merry. Guess we won't have to worry about him."


Then he said, "When the word gets out, of what was done to her … Maybe by this time next year, Mrs. Valentine will be taking the oath of office, and …" His eyes misted up suddenly, making him turn away to look down into the little valley again. A soft whisper, "Maybe the common scum will be taking their government back at last from …"

I put my strangler's hand on his shoulder and squeezed lightly. "She'll be all right. When the doctors restore her personality, they'll take away all memory of …"

He twisted out from under my hand, looking up at me, eyes flooded with pain. "She told them to leave it intact."

"But …" The trauma that would result when they combined Senator Valentine with the woman Sparrow had become …

Teddy Valentine said, "She wants to remember you, Merry."

My turn to look away, landscape suddenly blurred. After a bit, I said, "What about the prisoners in Blue Heaven? What about that?"

"It'll be publicized, when the time comes."

When the time comes. "And until then?" Suddenly, the image of Janet, Janet and her dead children, drowned for the sake of love, rose up out of the inner darkness.

"Sparrow says they've been punished enough. Mrs. Valentine won't forget that, either."

There was another scuffing footfall in the cave mouth behind us. It was a little blue-eyed, blonde woman, dressed in green surgical scrubs. She said, "We're ready for you now, Sergeant Atkins." No fear in her eyes, only kindness, though she must know who I am, what they were bringing back into being.

I nodded, heart thundering, and took a step to follow her, wondering what I'd do with myself when it was all over.


I turned back to face the little gray fat man.

He said, "I want you to remember something. The man who counts isn't the one who wins. It's the one who does the right thing."

I nodded and turned away, wondering if the one right thing I'd done would ever be enough.

The End

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© 2003 by William Barton and SCIFI.COM.