Garrett explored the terrain with a distinct blend of confidence and caution. Rolling hills everywhere, covered sparsely with stands of jack pine and the occasional blue spruce. Dry, mere touches of green in what few grasses scrabbled for existence on generally rocky ground. Nothing threatening at first glance; actually, it appeared extremely familiar, much like his native Black Hills of South Dakota without the millions of tourists and overbuilding. Nothing threatening…
…yet his “spider sense” was tingling like crazy.
When the Zar passed on such a heavy warning, it was half past time to pay attention. He was in someone else’s inner worlds without the protective safeguards automatically activated during dream state travel. Danger. Many a Guild Rep had died while on assignment, a fact little known outside the Guild itself and seldom discussed even among the Seeders themselves. He was, in effect, on enemy turf.
The Box at his belt had achieved limited production status in the year 2087, a proprietary product owned by the Massen family. Gerald Massen died without biological heirs…but he left behind the functioning Guild, now fielding more than a thousand Representatives, not counting Administration. They were strong.
It could well have worked out differently, as every trainee learned in Week One of Basic Seeder Training.
During the first six years of using the Box to project into the personal universes of clients, more than three hundred highly trained, high I.Q., highly sensitive Representatives failed to return from Assignment. Only massive bribes paid to the clients had kept these debacles quiet, and not always then.
Guild Rep Dead In Client’s Head!! Tabloid headlines like that one had stirred up plenty of enmity in the Joe Public and Peter Politician classes. It had been a close thing.
Di Marco shook his head irritably. Woolgathering like some spatter brained rookie. It was enough to know the Guild had survived, had in the end thrived. He wore the Box with pride, used it with skill. The physicists could explain till they turned blue in their eggheaded faces about how the marriage of miniaturization technology and breakthroughs in frequency modulation science had shown the speed of light to be in fact the threshhold to the astral plane.
Shades of Star Trek and warp speed and little green aliens.
Like every other Seeder, he’d done the required reading, knew that every Senior Rep could now transfer at will to and from any of four major inner worlds. Astral plane, causal plane, mental plane, etheric plane, no diff, no big.
At the upper edges of the etheric plane, even the most avant garde physicists had to admit they’d run into an existential brick wall. Garrett personally suspected this particular stopper would be a doozy. Zarellan writings taught that time and space went no farther, and how the hollyhockin’ heck did anyone figure to shift a physical body to no-space, no-time, and then back?
On the other hand, not that many centuries ago, top thinkers had been certain the world was flat and Earth the center of the Universe, so who knew?
In the meantime, every government on the planet and thousands of private firms continued to attempt to crack the Guild’s secret technology. It was not patented, because patents could be reverse engineered and circumvented. Representatives had been captured and tortured, their mutilated bodies sometimes deliberately left for the media to find. All any claim jumper needed to do was snag one Box intact, and the technology would spread like wildfire to military applications and other unthinkable uses. Only one man’s incredible genius had held the wolves at bay thus far; Massen had built safeguards into his product and into his people that had held together for more than fifty years and counting.
Hopefully. If it hadn’t been cracked without the Guild’s knowledge.
No time for pondering all that at the moment, though: Business at hand.
They came at him from three sides, big men, each resembling the pictures he’d seen of the deceased H.F. James. It wasn’t like the B movies, either, with the bad guys conveniently attacking one at a time in order for the hero to show off his martial arts skills.
“Get out of here!!” They shouted, coming in fast.
Di Marco changed outfits. You could do that here at will, this plane having much more flexible rules than rigid old planet Earth. You could…if you knew the rules that did apply. Not that seeing an intruder on their turf suddenly shift from fatigues to black motorcycle leathers did much to slow their onslaught.
The lefthand sword did, though, skewered one and left him flopping. The Seeder’s long lunge had thrown the other two off just slightly, slowed them long enough for him to draw the long barreled stainless steel target pistol right handed.
The .22 long rifle hollowpoints did not kill them. It did discourage one, though; he held up his hands and backed off, a single red bloodspot shining between his eyes where the round had entered.
No blood showed on the one who’d taken the sword thrust, but that one stayed firmly down, dead dead dead. On the other hand, the final antagonist took several small caliber bullets and kept on coming. More slowly, at least; the Guild Rep had time to return his Zar-given long blade to its back-hung scabbard before almost casually drawing the .357 Magnum. Four ear-splitting rounds from the big revolver, and the guy finally stayed down…where he reformed rapidly into a decomposing carcass resembling a rotting alligator.
Things in the inner worlds are not always what they seem.
Mr. Hands-In-The-Air continued to back slowly away.
“Let her get on with her life,” Garrett suggested quietly, a pistol in either hand.
“Why not?” The guy shrugged, turned his back, and walked off. Nothing like trying to keep on controlling your wife after you’ve done went and died, the Guild Rep figured, but this had been a sideshow, not what he’d contracted to do.
Three low ridges later, he found her: Darla James herself, dressed casually in denim and sitting on a stump, chewing on a long stem of grass like the southern country girl she claimed she was not. They understood each other without words. She did not flinch as he approached slowly and carefully, ever so carefully, got a thumb-and-forefinger grip on the hideous worm protruding from the center of her right eye.
He pulled gently, ever so gently, steadily but gently. Like a robin extracting an earthworm but with much greater sensitivity, he drew the long, slimy parasite from her causal body….
There. He had the first one out, placed it in a suddenly manifested ceramic dish, intending to burn it later. No chance of that; it self-combusted the instant it hit the dish, leaving nothing but ash. There were two more, the final one–not unlike his earlier attackers–being by far the cagiest. It took three tries to snag that one, but he really was good at what he did.
Mission accomplished. He’d even managed not to vomit. Always a good day when he managed not to hurl.
Straightening up with a profound sense of relief, he addressed causal plane Darla verbally for the first time.
“Done,” he said quietly. She simply nodded, and he thumbed the Box’s “Return” stud.
“Done”, he said quietly to earth plane Darla as he snapped into visibility in her living room.
“I felt it,” she admitted just as quietly. “There was some kind of disturbance, and then later a sort of pulling in my right eye, and then a kind of happiness. Like I could see things a little more clearly. In a spiritual sense, at least.”
Garrett spoke over his shoulder, already heading for the spare room to change back into his street clothes. “That,” he said, “is how it’s supposed to work.”