The Infinite Matrix

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by Neal Barrett, Jr.
Art credit: Ken Fletcher

Tomm gripped the railing, leaned into the cold, cutting wind, and stared at the fearsome void below. Now and again, sharp, wicked shapes pierced the ragged veil of clouds, and just as quickly disappeared. Each, he knew, was merely the peak, the dark, bristly crown of one of the ancient oaks of Grün, trees as old as the world, giants that stretched up to challenge the sky itself.

At least,that's what legend said — though everyone knew legend was cousin to a lie…

"Still, they're really big trees," he said aloud, "there's no denying that."

"Think so, do you? Why, namin' the Grün trees big is like callin' the ocean wet!"

Tomm turned, startled, took a second to catch his breath.

"Sorry," said the lovely intruder who appeared before his eyes. "Didn' mean to alarm you, friend."

"Please, don't apologize. I could scarcely have heard you coming with all this wind about."

"You get used to it, after a while."

She stared past the tangle of shrouds to the dim shape of the balloon overhead, touching her cheek as the wind caught the brim of her bright red hat, and mussed her ashen hair.

Tomm was stricken by her charms. Standing so close, he could look into her dark, dark eyes, breathe the heady scent of her downy skin. She was a Newlie girl, one of the Mycer folk, with the fine-boned features of her kind. Her lips were small and shapely, set below a very nice nose, upturned at the tip. Her ears came to a soft and gracious curve, peeking like furry secrets through her hair.

"You travel a lot in these, ah— contraptions of the air— ?"

"And you'd just as soon not, am I right?"

"I must admit—"

"Can't argue with that. A balloon's a big, ugly bag a' gas. Only'est good thing 'bout 'em is they take you where nothin' else will."

She nodded down below. "There's no way through the Grün, an' whatever horrors lie there. An' the sea's a treacherous thing at best."

And swaying dizzily about up here is not?

"Ah, forgive me if you will. I did not introduce myself. I'm Tomm, and I'm awfully glad we had the chance to meet. Perhaps, before we arrive, we might have the chance to speak again."

The girl raised a cautious brow. "Well, if the occasion arose."

"I shall make every effort to see that it does, that an occas—"

At that very moment, a gust of wind near tore Tomm's hands from the rail. He gripped the bar in desperation as the shape overhead abruptly pitched, dropped without warning, leaving Tomm's stomach behind. The tangled maze of shrouds began to sing, shiver and howl, shriek with such an agonizing pitch he was sure they would snap and tear themselves apart.

He closed his eyes, waiting for his life to pass before him. Seers, and persons of a spiritual nature, said this happened sometimes.

Then, just as quickly, the wind gave way. Lightning ripped across the sky, and the first hard pellets of rain began to sting his face. In a sudden, searing burst of light, the bloated shape above turned a dazzling white. There, for an instant, he could see a broad depiction of mountains, rivers and golden fields. Sights, Tomm imagined, one would see from the Prinz Unglücksbote, unless this ungainly sausage dropped to the forest below.

"This is what concerns me," he said, turning to the girl. "Floating about in the air is one thing. Staying there is really quite another—"

He saw, then, he was talking to himself, for the lovely girl, whose name he didn't know, was nowhere to be found…


—  TWO  —

Ducking back inside, he wiped the chill rain from his face. Pausing on the narrow walkway, he peered at the crowded room below. There, two score loud and pungent souls were squeezed, jammed, crammed into a small and flimsy box that dangled beneath the great sphere of the Prinz Unglücksbote.

The Prinz, he knew, was a monster among balloons, a hundred feet long with a single enormous bag confined in thick fiber netting overhead. The captain and his crew, a-dangle in a basket just above the passengers, could even steer the thing, by cranking a dozen large paddles against the wind.

"Perhaps not a wind like the one that plagues us now," he said aloud, bracing himself against the increasing sway.

Then, gazing once more on the sight below, he was suddenly aware of a curious thing. In spite of the storm that raged outside, no one seemed aware they were very likely doomed. They were so entranced with amusing themselves they scarcely noticed anything at all.

There were fierce games of Lord and Lady, Slave, Knave, Snake-in-a-Cave. Krapps, Harts, Fifty-Two Pharts. Sneak-and-Hide, Ride, Big Suicide. Pingo, Dhingo, Lott and Twenty-Two.

And, above all the chatter and the din, Tomm could hear the rattle of a dozen games of bone-dice going on below — men betting lives, men betting wives, men who lost their souls every time the bones went still.

Tomm had never seen such a frenzy, such a fuss, such a great agitation as he witnessed from above. Human and Newlie folk alike milled about in joy and despair. Tomm saw a number of Bowsers, Snouters and broad-shouldered Bullies in the crowd — and every fellow there, whether his great-grandfathers were human or beastly kind, was seized, possessed by the rattle of the dice and the spin of the wheel.

Try as he might, he could not spot the Mycer girl in the ever-whirling throng. If she was smart, she would keep well away from that rowdy bunch. None of those lackwits would hesitate to grab, fondle, steal a little touch when a pretty passed by…

A roar, cries of great fury thrust his thoughts aside. The gamblers swarmed about like angry bees, and their voices filled the air with shouts of

"C U T P U R S E ! "




As Tomm watched, each and every gambler set eyes upon his neighbor, and checked to see his pouch was still intact. Once they found their stash was safely in a belt, in a boot, in a thong about the neck, they were back in action, with scarcely a moment lost.

He still couldn't spot the girl with iridescent eyes, but, so intent was his gaze upon the crowd, he noted one gambler twisting his way through the others, anxious, it seemed, to be on his way. A bit too hastily, as far as Tomm could see.

It was one of the Newlie folk, a Bowser, a fellow with tufted ears, droopy eyes, and a short puglike nose. Tomm was no bigot, but he didn't care for Bowsers at all. They tended to yap, yowl, and annoy everyone around.

This fellow wore a natty striped jacket, a red bow tie, and a straw boater tipped at a rakish angle atop his head. For some reason, Bowsers everywhere preferred this ridiculous attire.

He spotted her then, saw a bright red hat with a feather on top appear in the midst of the crowd. My, she was lovely, fine and slim as an archer's bow. How quick she moved from one knot of gamers to the next as she— as she deftly lifted a pouch from a fellow's belt, slipped a purse from another, whisked away a wallet and a heavy bag of coins.

Tom could scarcely believe his eyes. A fingersmith, a snatcher, a dip! Why, this girl was not only a dark-eyed beauty, she was also an out-and-out thief…!


—  THREE  —

She was good at it, too. She had watched with great care as the crafty Bowser shouted his alarm, revealing the hidey-place of every treasure in the room.

Tomm was stung by his discovery, furious at the girl who had deceived him with her charms.

It might not be her fault, he told himself, as he hurried toward the galley stairs. She likely had a sick mother, a sister to feed. That Bowser had forced her into a heinous life of crime…

"A zecond, zir. A moment uff your tyme…"

Tomm came to a halt, stopped by the sudden presence of the Bowser himself, brought up short by rheumy, bloodshot eyes, bristly jaws a-drool, just short of foaming at the mouth, and breath that would wake up the dead.

"Your pardon," Tomm said, "I believe you're standing in my way."

"Dhis iss so. But iss bedder you talkin to me, nod goin down dere."

"I said, sir, stand aside."

"I am Phideaux Hoch-Hunder of Schloss Fleischklösschen. You knowin dis place? No. Iss no matter. Ve—"

"I don't care where you're from," Tomm said, boldly stepping past the Bowser. "I know what you're doing, and I intend to stop it now!"

The Bowser grinned, moving faster than Tomm expected, blocking his way again. "Goot. Ve get right to it. Dis be nod your concern, Hooman. You vill keep oudt uff Phideaux's bidness. You vill be leafing Fyra alone to vinish vhat she do."

Fyra. Why, that suits her fine…

Tomm was furious, but he knew this encounter was chancy at best. The fellow was shorter, but broad, and quite stout. Tomm was less than certain he could come out totally unscathed himself.

"You can delay me now," he said, "for I have no wish to knock you senseless and cause a scene. But once we've landed, be assured I will, and see that justice is done."

"And Fyra? You vill bring her to justice too?"

The Bowser's words struck home, as they were surely meant to do.

"I am certain she was duped. Forced into criminal enterprise. No doubt you have your ways. Her brother is in prison, falsely accused by cronies in your trade."

The Bowser raised a furry brow. "You make dis up by youselve? Vhat a tale you spin."

"Don't push me, sir. I have a short temper. Many have come to regret their—"

Tomm's words were lost as a tremor shook the boards beneath his feet. He felt it in his hands, a quiver, a shiver in the rail.

The Bowser went rigid. His nostrils quivered as he jerked his head about and sniffed the air. Once more, the craft began to shake, shudder, this time with such fierce oscillation the slats in the floor began to clatter toward Tomm like waves in a windy wooden sea — up, down, with a motion that left Tomm's stomach somewhere in between.

"Demon's Toes," Tomm said, holding on for dear life. "What— what's happening, what's the matter with this thing!"

"Iss bad news," said the Bowser, his slack features now hard as stone. "Vessel is gebroken, gebust. Vinished. You gett der piktur, yes?"

"It can't," Tomm said, "we're up in the air!"

He knew, at once, he had put his finger on the problem. He turned to explain this to the Bowser, but the Bowser wasn't there.

A great roar of fear, panic and confusion arose from the gaming floor. Above this babble, Tomm heard a single, shrill whistle, a sound that nearly pierced his ears. Turning, he saw the Bowser leaning dangerously over the railing, fingers to his lips, waving frantically at someone below.

Another tremor shook the vessel, a jolt, a lurch, a shock so fierce it jerked Tomm off his feet. He knew, at once, the source of this sound, though he'd never heard it before. It was the shriek of a great balloon, splitting itself asunder, ripping itself apart…


—  FOUR  —

Someone kicked him in the head. Stepped on his foot. Broke a leg or maybe two.

Pulling himself painfully to his feet, he grasped for the railing, found it wasn't there. Up wasn't up anymore, it was down.

Something splintered, something ripped. A gambler flew by not an inch from Tomm's head. He still clutched his cards. It seemed like a fairly good hand.

Wind howled about him, rain stung his eyes. He held onto something, wasn't sure what. A great, ugly mass fell toward him out of the stormy night. Tomm's heart nearly stopped. The ruined gasbag rushed by in a flap, farting hot air in a tangle of wood, webbing, and snapping whips of line.

This horror spun like a raggedy top as it plummeted to the ground. And, at every revolution, the horrid mass spat hapless crewmen into the night. A few cursed and howled as they tumbled through the dark. Oldtime ballooners kept silent, and waited for their fate.

Tomm chose to scream, as loud as he could. A coward's act, but he'd only have to listen for a second or two.

He couldn't see the ground but he could sense it, imagine, in grisly detail, the moment of impalement on a the branch of a tree. A tasty treat for birds, bugs, crawlies of every kind…

He struck something hard, bounced off, struck it again, reached out and held on tight. Whatever it was, it was falling much slower than the scrap he was clinging to now.

And, in that moment, it wriggled, thrashed and kicked about, and Tomm nearly let go.

"Gitten zie off, lettin zie loose, you— you grabber, you klinger, gitten off uff here!"

"Mr. Phideaux, it's me," Tomm shouted, greatly surprised to see the Bowser again. "Am I ever glad to see you."

"Vell I am nodt glad to zee you," Phideaux Hoch-Hunder said, lashing out at Tomm's head. "Lettin go uff me, you damnt fool, you'll pull us all down!"

All? The words struck Tomm as ill-placed. He looked up, squinted against the wind — saw, to his wonder and delight, all included the lovely Mycer girl as well. While Tomm was clinging to the Bowser's legs, the girl had her arms wrapped about the fellow's neck. And, above that…
…was the strange device which allowed them to drop rather gently, instead of like a stone. A wondrous thing indeed, a circle of cloth, ringed with strands of line attached to the Bowser's back. It was, truly, like a great parasol, such as ladies used to keep out the sun.

"Amazing," Tomm shouted above the wind. "Why, everyone who travels by balloon should have one of these along."

"Hah! Anyone tink dey goin' to need vun iss nodt be riden a balloon!" the Bowser shouted back.

"Phideaux, stop talking to him, kick him off," said the girl. "We're dropping too fast!"

"He iss a tik. He iss hangin'— on— me like a tik. A Hooman tik is vhat he— whaaaaaaa!"

Tomm didn't have to look down. Now, everything was down, and passing swiftly by — limbs snapped, leaves slapped, bark scraped his flesh and branches stung his eyes. He flailed out, tried desperately to stop, but the tree swept him swiftly through thick foliation, down, down, down into the dark.

And, as if his panic was not complete, Tomm recalled the Forest of Grün was like no other forest in the world, that it towered, soared over three thousand feet into the frigid air. Turn that around, it meant one could fall three thousand feet down to the ground…


—  FIVE  —

Everything hurt, everything ached. Everything was split, fractured and cracked. His head felt battered, scrambled like an egg. He opened his eyes. Everything was green: olive, emerald, citron and leek. Speckled, freckled, mango and lime. Even the thick and heady air was a dazzling golden green.

And, out of this bright variegation swam a blur with pouty lips and pointy ears, opalescent eyes.

"Am I all right?" Tomm asked, for it seemed a most important thing to know. "I'm not maimed and mauled, mutilated beyond recognition, dead or paralyzed?"

"I s'ppose you're all right," the girl said. "You look a fright, but you'll get over that."

Fyra… He recalled the name at once, and he smiled, a gesture that didn't impress the girl at all. "It's very good to see you. I was afraid, for a while—"

It all came back, then, the shock, the horror, the Prinz Unglücksbote ripping itself apart, spewing its hapless victims about.

Tomm tried to sit, but a bolt of pain tossed him down again.

"Did the others— how many, you, me and the Bowser fellow…some of the others, they must have gotten away."

"What, your mother up there, you got family an' friends?"

"No, I wasn't related to anyone aboard."

"Me either. So what d'you care?" She gave him a sour look, as if she'd tasted something bad. "Me an' Phideaux was lucky to make it at all, you grabbin' on and weighing us down. What was you doin' up there? You ain't a gamer, anyone can see that."

Tomm was taken aback by her manner. Pretty, yes, but beauty tainted by a surly attitude.

"If it's any of your concern, I was on my way to Widerspiel. I seek employment there."

The Newlie girl laughed. "Widerspiel? That vessel don't go to Widerspiel. 'Course, now it doesn't go anywhere at all. But it never went to Widerspiel, I can tell you that."

"My ticket said Widerspiel. There must be some mistake."

"You got scammed, friend. Taken. Took. Happens all a time."

"Yes, I suppose you'd know more about that than I."

Fyra almost smiled. "Prinz Unglücksbote is a gamer ship. It don't go nowhere at all. I doubt you know it, seein' as you don' know nothin, but Schädelbruch— that's where you got on, has got a law 'gainst gamblin'. Penalty of death. Horrible kinda dyin', too. Abacination, there's nothin' worse than that.

"So the Prinz went out past the Grün an' come back. Didn't land anywhere. You get what I mean?"

Tomm shook his head, which didn't help the rumble or the jangle or the throb. "Well, I don't suppose anyone'll try a dumb stunt like that again. Risking your life for a roll of the bones. Ridiculous idea, you ask me."

"Yeah, they will too."

"Will what?"

"Go an' do it again. There's seven ships in all, I think. No, I take that back, there's eight."

Tomm stared. "Seven more? But none of them ever went down like this before."

"Six. I know that's right. There's the Prinz Räuberbande, the Prinz—"

"I feel you're jesting with me now."

"Why you think me an' Phideaux thought up the Floater? The one you grabbed an' nearly put us down? Gamers is gamers, Tomm. They're going to do the cards or the bones, no matter what."

It was too much to take in at once, but he noted she called him by name, the first time she'd done that. Maybe she'd settle down in a while. She'd been nice enough when they met.

"I'll help you," he said, the words spilling forth with little thought. "If we ever get out of this, I'll see you get free of that miserable oaf. No matter what he's holding over your head. I promise, you won't have to fear him again."

Fyra looked baffled, confounded and confused. "How you goin to do that. Phideaux Hoch-Hunder, he be workin' for me…"


—  SIX  —

After Tomm fell twice, he quit gawking at the scenery and watched where he stepped. He understood how a bug might feel on a branch in the "normal" world he knew. Like bark of any size, the woody shield was fractured into ridges, with cavities in between. Here, though, a mis-step could drop you in a hole and you'd lie there forever, with a dozen broken parts.

It was hard not to gawk. The branch beneath his feet was fully fifty yards wide. Still, one kept well to center, and didn't stray to either side. He'd risked a look once, before they started out at dawn. Once was enough. He shuddered at the memory of green fading to a murky shade of blue, from cobalt to black, to the yawning, unfathomable darkness below.

Looking back was nearly as fearsome as peering down. There, through a hazy olive wall was the immense trunk of the tree itself, a shadowy wall that had no definition, no hint of a curve to the left or to the right.

"I fear I don't understand," Tomm said. They had stopped at a natural bowl in the branch, filled with bitter water.

"It's a long way down, but we're never going to get there till we start. I don't see the sense in going sideways all the time."

"You been in der Grün before, den, hass you?"

"Of course I haven't. You know that."

"Of course he hasn't," Fyra said. "He hasn't been anywhere at all."

"Listen, you don't know where I've been and where I haven't."

Fyra didn't bother to turn around. She had collapsed under the shade of heavy leaves. The foliage about her was a vivid emerald, obscenely bright, the air itself tinged with topaz.

"Ve don be goin' down," Phideaux said. "Down iss no place you vant to be."

"Why not?"

"Don' lissen to Phideaux. Go down und zee."

"I'm just asking. You could be civil, friend."

"Who, him?" Fyra laughed, a strident sound that scraped on Tomm's nerves. Phidieaux was already loping down the path ahead, with the humpy-jumpy motion peculiar to his kind.

Fyra was wrong about Tomm. He'd seen a lot of places — places he wished he'd never been. Bleak, childhood years in Grayback Hollow, working in the bone mines with other youngers, while the Helda turned their fathers into stone. He'd been far north among the Grizz, fallen through this world, into another, where the guivery-shivery nightmare folk lived on a bare and endless plane.

And, everywhere he'd been, he'd met all kinds of humans and Newlies of every sort — Mycers, Bowsers, Bullies, Snouters and Grizz. The "Change" had turned the world upside down, and many Newlie folk — as well as humankind — thought turning beasts into something similar to Man had brought great sorrow to everyone.

The seers who'd done this deed three hundred years before had paid for their crime with their lives. The spawn of their sins, though, were left behind to breed in a world where they didn't truly belong.

And, Tomm had learned a truth not every human would answer to: The creatures of the Chosen Nine were no better or worse than anyone else. There were those of good and evil nature in every shape and form. From Foxers and Yowlies to the yappy Bowser kind. And even some of those were decent enough to be around.

"Not this one, though. That misbegotten lout I could do without…"

In the shadow world of the Grün, night swallowed day with no warning at all. Tomm was glad the darkness masked his features, for he knew his fear, his apprehension of this place, was bound to show. Maybe Fyra, with her great, iridescent eyes could pierce the blackness anyway, and see his feelings true.

He watched her across the small fire they'd built in a hollow of the branch. Such a lovely, fragile creature, with her silky coat of silver gray. She filled Tom with desire in spite of her sullen, downright obnoxious attitude.

"Zo, you be likin' ze vorest. no?" The Bowser's sad, wet eyes seemed to sparkle, and Tomm was near certain the fellow could read his thoughts all too well.

"I'd like it better if I knew where I was going. If it's some great secret, I think I should hear about it, too."

"Hah!" Phideaux laughed, a gesture that sent his jowls a-flapping, and showed his ugly teeth. "Ze Hooman, Fyra, he vantin' to know ve gott a zekret, yes?"

"Just tell him, then, and maybe you'll both shut up for a while."

Clearly, the Bowser didn't care for the tone of Fyra's voice. His smile disappeared. He brushed a leaf from his dusty straw hat, and poked at the fire.

Tomm followed his lead, and listened to the night. There was plenty to hear out there, sounds both strange and familiar — the rustle of the wind, hoots, howls and thrums.

"I'm starvin'," Fyra said, of a sudden. "I would like to eat now, Phideaux, and get a little rest."

Tomm was sure he saw the Bowser flinch. "Iss not a goot time to be talk 'bout ze foods. Ve talk on dis tomorrow sometime."

"Damn it all, you're supposed to take care of things like this." The Mycer's dark eyes grew darker still. "You hear those sounds out there? That's dinner. That's food. Go get some." She turned on Tomm. "You can go too. You're not doing anything, far as I can see."

"I have no knowledge of the hunting trade," Tomm said. "And I think there might be food out there bigger than I am. In the morning, when it's light, we—"

Tomm stopped, for the Bowser had suddenly jumped to his feet, hunched in a fighting stance, teeth bared, facing the dark. Tomm heard a gasp from Fyra, then turned and saw things coming out of the night, saw the pale, deathly eyes bobbing along the branch, and knew there was nowhere to run, nothing they could do.

"Zumting, maybe, iss also hungry too," the Bowser said, and Tomm felt this was a poor time for levity, wit or jests of any sort…


—  SEVEN  —

No, not eyes of any sort he knew, not ordinary eyes unless each horrid beast had but one, and— who said that couldn't be in a place as terrible as this!

"I vill not be taken alife," the Bowser muttered, "I vill jump, before I do zat. They vill nod torture and maim Phideaux Hoch-Hunder, by damn dey vill nod—"

"You, who's there? What you be wantin' here? Speak, or we'll fill your hide with a vast array of pointy things, alla which is deadly sharp."

Fyra drew a breath. "They're humans! We're all right!"

"You tink so? Hoomans iss all right? Like der vun ve gott here?"

"We're friends," Tomm called out, before the Bowser could do further harm. "We have no weapons. We're hungry and lost. We're castaways, and we could surely use a helping hand."

"Castaways, is it," said the voice, and Tomm could make out a dozen dark shapes, each with a glowing oil lantern in hand. "Castaways from what?"

"A vessel of the air, the Prinz Unglücksbote. All hands were lost except us."

"Gamer ship," said the voice. "We seen 'er go down. Started a fire, she did."

"Well we do regret that—

"Hungry," said the voice. "You folks need a hot meal, do you?"

"Yes, we would be most grateful," Fyra said.

"What you got?"

Tomm frowned. "Sorry. I don't understand."

"Whatya got, boy? Gold, silver, precious gems? Glass, woolen undergarments, suggestive art, metal of any sort?"

"Ve don' haff nudding," the Bowser said. "Ve are castavays, you unnerstan dat?"

"Hungry castaways, is what I thought you said."

"We have— a few coins, sir," Fyra said. "Not much, but we'll give you what little we own."

A few coins? Tom had a sudden vision of this beauty snatching purses right and left. Why, the little thief likely had a fortune in her skirts somewhere!

"We're honest miner folk," said the voice. "How few of them coins you think you might find?"

The food was the best he'd ever had. Actually the worst, but he'd never been so cold and empty inside. The items on his plate were anything but pleasant in appearance, and smelled like the foul emissions of long-dead frogs.

"Would you like a bit more, lad," asked the man who'd said his name was Llott, the fellow who'd spoken in the dark. "There's plenty left in the pot."

"I would, sir, if it's no trouble. Some of, ah— that."

"Glaucila," said the man.

"Yes, sir, I guess." Glaucila surely seemed a proper word for that unholy mess.

"Me too," Fyra said, "if it don't cost more'n you've already got from castaways that's not made outta money, sir."

"You're our guests," said Llott with a nasty smile.

"I vill haff notting more," Phideaux said. "I do nod tink I could svallow anuder bite uff dis."

"Well, now, is that right?" Llott frowned, then turned and looked directly at the corner of the room. At first, Tomm saw nothing but shadow in the hollow carved from the mighty trunk of the tree. Then, something dark seemed to stir, seemed to blur, seemed to move against the light.

Tomm felt as if a moist and bony fist had gripped his heart. The being in the corner turned red, burning eyes on Phideaux Hoch-Hunder, and that creature squirmed and held his breath.

Their host, Llott, had never dealt with Bowsers, but this fellow knew the intent behind the words of his guest with saggy jowls.

He stood, then, making a twisted shadow on the wall. The men in the room moved quickly aside to let him pass. And not out of courtesy alone, Tomm thought. They fear the man as well.

Like the others, he was lean, scrawny, drawn taut as fisher's line. This one, though, was clearly no miner, his eyes alone told the truth of that.

"You, there," he said, his voice like gravel in a cup, a finger sharp as a razor pointed at Phideaux's chest. "I know you, and I know your kind, I know your sly an' wicked ways. I know that reekin' breath, that shaggy pate, and them wet and pitiful eyes. I know you're ever ungrateful for what you got, and ever so willing to snatch what you can get. I know you're wearin' that damned straw hat of your kind, and I am some annoyed at that."

He paused, then, and his finger moved downward from Phideaux's chest. "You don't like the food, I see, and I'm dreadful sorry 'bout for that. I'll just be gettin' it out of your way…"

With that, with a crackle and a thrum, with a sizzle and a hum, a thread of blue fire winked from the fellow's finger and struck in the midst of Phideaux's meal. At once, the food, the plate and the wooden board below turned black and shriveled to a crisp.

The man turned, stalked through the others, and vanished in the dark.

A Bowser couldn't sweat, a reminder of the beast he'd been before his kind were changed to semi-human form. But he could smell, he could stink, he could ooze the rank odor of fear, and this is surely what he did when his supper disappeared…



[ Part 1 ]    [ Part 2 ]

Neal Barrett, Jr., the Silver Fox of Texas Gonzo, entered the science-fiction field in 1960, with four stories published that single year. "Being a reasonable person," he says, "I knew from these successes that I had landed on Easy Street." His 42 years of soft living in the fiction-writing business have produced about four dozen stories and over fifty novels, both under his own name and under a variety of pseudonyms, some more famous than God.

"A lot of 'Grünwelt!' grew out of the two fantasies I did for Bantam — The Prophecy Machine and Treachery of Kings. A few years ago I thought I was venturing into fantasy from SF. Some people tell me I've had one foot in both genres for some time. Fine. I think so too."

Neal's most recent book, Piggs, delivers high concept (and, no doubt, lots more): "If the Sopranos didn't wear shoes, and lived in Mexican Wells, Texas...." Forthcoming is The Prince of Christler-Coke, which he says is "all about corporate empires in the future, crooked CEOs. It couldn't happen, but this is SF."

Neal's short-story collection Perpetuity Blues (Golden Gryphon, 2000) is already a classic and a collector's item, and it should be read by everyone who aspires to being funny and meaningful at the same time. You can buy these books directly from Neal.

Nick Gevers conducted a great interview with Neal on the excellent webzine Infinity Plus. (No relation to The Infinite Matrix, except a shared sensibility.) Check it out.

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