He was thinking about snow when it happened.
He really ought to have been getting his mind totally focused on the task at hand, but the temperature had topped 110° that afternoon, and even now, with the sun well down, it was still in the nineties. That was more than enough to make any man dream about being some place cooler, even if it had been-what? Three years since he’d really seen snow?
Gunnery Sergeant Kenneth Houghton’s jaw tightened. After so long the pain should have eased, but it hadn’t. Or perhaps it had. Right after he’d received word about the accident, it had been so vast, so terrible, it had threatened to suck him under like some black, freezing tide. Now it was only a wound which would never heal.
The thought ran below the surface of his mind as he stood in the commander’s hatch on the right side of the LAV’s flat-topped turret and gazed out into the night. As the senior noncom in Lieutenant Alvarez’s platoon, Houghton commanded the number two LAV (unofficially known as “Tough Mama” by her crew), with Corporal Jack Mashita as his driver and Corporal Diego Santander as his gunner. Tough Mama was technically an LAV-25, a light armored vehicle based on the Canadian-built MOWAG Piranha, an eight-wheel amphibious vehicle, armored against small arms fire and armed with an M242 25-millimeter Bushmaster chain gun and a coaxial M240 7.62-millimeter machine gun. A second M240 was pintle-mounted at the commander’s station, and Tough Mama was capable of speeds of over sixty miles per hour on decent roads. She drank JP-8 diesel fuel, and technically, had an operational range of over four hundred miles in four-wheel drive. In eight-wheel drive, range fell rapidly, and the original LAVs had been infamous for leaky fuel tanks which had reduced nominal range even further. The most recent service life extension program seemed to have finally gotten on top of that problem, at least.
At the moment, Mashita was sitting behind the wheel, with the big Detroit diesel engine to his immediate right and his head and shoulders sticking up through the hatch above his compartment. The twenty-year old corporal had just finished checking all of the fluid levels-which he’d do again, every time the vehicle stopped. Santander was standing to one side, jaw methodically working on a huge wad of gum, as he spoke quietly with Corporal Levi Johnson, the senior of their evening’s passengers. The four-man recon section they were responsible for transporting and supporting had already stowed most of its gear aboard, and Houghton reminded himself to check the tunnel from the LAV’s driver’s compartment to the troop compartment before they actually headed out. It was
Houghton had already completed all of his other pre-mission checks. Fuel, battery, ammo, night-vision, thermal sights, commo, personal weapons . . . He still had a good twenty minutes before they were scheduled to leave, but he and his crew were firm believers in staying well ahead of deadlines.
That was when it happened.
The universe went abruptly, shockingly
After sixteen years in the Corps, Ken Houghton figured he’d seen and experienced just about anything that was likely to come a Marine’s way.
It seemed to go on for hours, but there also seemed to be something wrong with his time sense. He couldn’t seem to speak, didn’t even seem to be breathing, yet he managed to look down at his wristwatch, and the digital display was crawling, crawling. He could have counted to ten-slowly-in the time it took each broken-backed second to drag itself into eternity. Two agonizingly slow minutes limped past. Then three. Five. Ten. And then, as suddenly as the universe’s colors had disappeared, they were back.
But they were the
The tans and grays and sun-blasted browns of the Middle East were gone. And so was the night. The LAV sat on a gently sloping hillside covered in prairie grasses three or four feet tall under a sun that was still at least two or three hours short of setting.
Houghton heard Mashita’s deep, explosive grunt of astonishment over the helmet commo link, but the gunnery sergeant hadn’t needed that to tell him they weren’t in Kansas anymore.
Houghton stared in stupefied disbelief at the high, crystalline blue sky, felt the autumnal chill in the slight breeze cooling the sweat on his desert-bronzed face, heard the birds that shouldn’t have been there, and wondered what the
* * *
Wencit of R?m looked up in astonishment as the bizarre, sand-colored vehicle-and it obviously was a vehicle, even if he’d never seen anything like it-blinked into existence. It certainly wasn’t what he’d expected.
Of course, judging from the expression of the man standing up in the opening on top of it, Wencit wasn’t the only one who’d been surprised.
The man in question turned his head far enough to see Wencit, and his green eyes narrowed suddenly. His right hand flashed around to his left side, out of sight for a moment from where Wencit stood, then reappeared holding something else Wencit had never seen before. From the way the newcomer had turned to point it in his direction, though, it had to be a weapon of some sort, and probably a most unpleasant one.
Wencit decided it would be a very good idea to keep his own hand well away from the hilt of his sword as he gazed up at the newcomer.
“Who the hell are
“My name is Wencit of R?m,” he said, speaking slowly and clearly, and it was obvious from the other’s expression that he understood Wencit as well as Wencit understood him.
The other man bent his head briefly, muttering something Wencit couldn’t quite hear, then climbed slowly and carefully out of the hatch in which he’d stood. He never took his eyes off Wencit any more than he allowed his weapon’s point of aim to shift, and Wencit took the opportunity to study him more closely, in turn.
The bulky helmet was made of some material Wencit had never seen before but which must be quite light, judging from the way he moved. And the newcomer wore what was obviously a uniform. It was well-equipped with sensibly arranged pockets, although its outlandish pattern of tan, gray, and sand-colored blotches seemed incredibly out of place in his current setting.
“Where are we?” the uniformed man asked, and Wencit was impressed. The stranger’s voice was taut, obviously more than a little confused, but he was tightly focused, ignoring all the things which must have been frightening, if not outright terrifying, while he concentrated on the essentials.
“You’re in the Empire of the Spear,” Wencit told him. “Between Darkwater Marsh and the Shipwood, west of the Spear River.”
* * *
Gunnery Sergeant Houghton’s eyes narrowed as the lunatic facing him responded with perfectly rational sounding gibberish. The lunatic in question couldn’t be as old as the white beard and hair suggested-not with the hard-trained muscle visible in his arms and those strong, sinewy wrists. In fact, he looked like a case of bad casting for a low-budget fantasy movie. Obviously, they’d picked someone too young for the part and tried to use makeup to make him look older, but somehow Houghton felt certain the answer wasn’t quite that simple. The scuffed leather doublet, tall horseman’s boots, and scruffy look which could only come with days spent in the field were too authentic for that. For that matter, the sword at his side looked far too well-worn and serviceable.
Now the old fellow stood there, head cocked slightly to one side, waiting patiently, as if what he’d just said actually made some sort of sense. And as Houghton’s brain began working again, he realized just how peculiar the other man actually looked. It wasn’t just the dichotomy between his apparent age and physical fitness, nor his height, although Houghton wasn’t accustomed to seeing all that many men who matched his own six-feet-four. The
Kenneth Houghton had never imagined anything like the flickering, wavering, multicolored wildfire which danced slowly and endlessly under the stranger’s snow-white eyebrows. It didn’t dance in
The questions flickered through his mind, but the muzzle of his Springfield XD .45 stayed rock-steady on the other man’s chest. The polymer framed pistol wasn’t standard issue, but when a man had knocked around the Corps as long as Houghton had, he could get by with a few personal preferences. He liked the automatic’s ergonomics and controls . . . and its stopping power and fourteen-round magazine capacity. Both of which, at the moment, he found ever so comforting.
“How did we get here?” he asked harshly, challengingly. Somehow he was certain the man facing him was responsible for the impossible transition.
“I’m afraid that’s my fault,” the flame-eyed stranger admitted. “I was looking for help, but-” Houghton had the impression that the eyes he couldn’t quite see behind that wavering glare had narrowed “- I certainly didn’t expect to get
“What d’ you mean by that?” Houghton demanded.
He twitched his head sideways, at the neat campfire burning in the carefully built turf fireplace and the warhorse tearing steadily at the tall grass to one side of the area he’d tramped down for his camp. Houghton’s eyes followed the movement for an instant, then flicked back to Wencit.
“I think we
“I rather thought it must be.” Wencit smiled crookedly. “I don’t suppose I should have expected any other reaction out of you, especially under these circumstances.” He waved one hand in a slight arc, indicating both the bizarre vehicle and the grasslands stretching away in all directions.
“No, you shouldn’t. And,” the other man’s voice hardened slightly, “I’m still waiting for that explanation.”
“So I see. Very well, the short version is that a friend of mine is about to run into a situation which is even more dangerous than he realizes. There’s more going on than I suspect he knows, and his enemies are rather more powerful than he’s been given cause to expect. I happen to have been following some of those enemies for reasons of my own, which is how I know what’s happening. So, I cast a spell of summoning, seeking allies. Obviously it fastened on
Houghton understood the words just fine, despite the fact that they were obvious and arrant nonsense.
“What’s a ‘spell of summoning’?” he heard himself asking.
“It’s a spell which is supposed to be very carefully keyed to a specific entity or type of entity,” Wencit replied. “The caster-me, in this case-sets up the qualities and . . . personality, for want of a better word, for the entity he hopes to summon. The spell is designed to find someone-or, sometimes, some
“And-assuming for a moment that I believed any of this-it just yanks whoever you point it at to where you want him, is that it?”
The sharp edge of anger, honed, undoubtedly, by perfectly understandable fear and confusion, was unmistakable, and Wencit shook his head.
“As a matter of fact, no,” he said calmly. “I adhere to the Strictures of Ottovar, and the Strictures are very clear on that point. No wizard may coerce any other being or entity into obeying his demands except in certain very carefully specified instances of self-defense, or in equally specific instances of the defense of others. I have absolutely no idea why my spell might have brought you here so abruptly. In fact, it shouldn’t have brought you here at all, unless you were
“Well in that case,” Houghton said grimly, “I suggest you just send Jack and me back where we came from, since it’s for damned sure that neither one of us volunteered for this little excursion of yours.”
“There’s someone else in the vehicle?” Wencit’s dismay wasn’t at all feigned.
“Of course there is! You don’t think I run the whole damned track by myself, do you?”
“I don’t know,” Wencit said frankly. “I don’t know anything more about you and your vehicle or your companion than it would appear
“You were, huh? If this friend of yours is in such deep shit, why’d you only ask for one person to help out? What? You were expecting Clark Kent?”
“I have no idea who ‘Clark Kent’ might be,” Wencit replied, wrapping his tongue around the odd-sounding name with care. “What I was hoping I might manage to convince to come help me was a gryphon.”
“A gryphon?” Against his will, Houghton was beginning to believe the fiery-eyed old man was telling him the truth about how he, Mashita, and Tough Mama had gotten here. Wherever the hell “
“You mean one of those lion-mixed-with-an-eagle critters?” He snorted a laugh. “Hell, why settle for something like that? Why not go whole hog and ‘summon’ a frigging
“It takes too long to explain things to dragons,” the oldster replied reasonably. “Or, rather, to convince them they ought to get involved. By the time they get done searching the time stream and philosophizing, it’s usually too late to accomplish much. Then there’s the little problem that most of them aren’t very happy about having anything to do with even a white wizard these days. But mostly, frankly, because I needed something as powerful as I could get.”
Houghton stared at him for a moment longer, then sighed. It was all totally insane, of course. Unfortunately, it actually seemed to be happening to him.
He slid the pistol back into the shoulder holster under his left arm. Then he removed his helmet and tucked his left elbow around it while the cool breeze swept over red hair still wet with Middle Eastern sweat.
“You realize, of course,” he said conversationally, “that I think you’re probably nutty as a fruitcake. On the other hand, I don’t have any better explanation for what the hell is going on here. In fact, at the moment, you seem to be the only game in town when it comes to answers. And presumably, if you got us here, you can send us home again, too.”
“Of course I can,” Wencit agreed, and saw the other man relax, at least a little. “Unfortunately, I can’t simply turn around and do it with a snap of my fingers,” he continued, and grimaced mentally as the momentary relaxation disappeared.
“And why might that be?” Houghton growled suspiciously.
“It’s a complex spell,” Wencit said apologetically. “It takes time to prepare for it, and that’s especially true in this case. Since you aren’t remotely what or who I anticipated, I’ll have to be very careful in specifying where you’re supposed to go. It’s my fault you’re here, and if I send you home, that’s where I want you to go. I certainly don’t want to end up just dropping you into still another world that isn’t yours.”
“I see.” Houghton knew his tone sounded grudging. Which, now that he thought about it, was just too bad. The old guy was right-it was
“My name’s Houghton,” he heard himself saying. “Gunnery Sergeant Kenneth Houghton, U.S. Marines.”
“Houghton?” the other man repeated, as if the name felt peculiar in his mouth. Then he shook himself. “Men call me Wencit of R?m,” he said.
“Well then, Wencit,” Houghton said, “how soon can we get started on this ‘complex spell’ of yours?”
“Not for at least several hours,” Wencit replied. “As I said, I’d expected to summon my ally from this universe; it never occurred to me that my spell might end up reaching over into another one. Unfortunately, it did. Since I hadn’t expected that, I didn’t include a command to identify the one you came from, and the spell’s set up a ripple pattern in the magic field. I’m going to have to give it time to settle a bit before I can start looking for the traces that will guide me to your universe.”
“Obviously,” Wencit replied. Another wave of his hand indicated Houghton’s uniform and equipment harness and Tough Mama, sitting on the grass behind him and Mashita-who’d climbed up onto the decking through his hatch-looming up on the far side of the turret. Then the same hand indicated Wencit’s own clothing, the campfire, and the magnificent horse grazing nearby. “I may not recognize your vehicle, Kenneth Houghton,” he said, “but wouldn’t you say it seems just a bit out of place here?”
“I guess you could put it that way,” Houghton admitted, and glanced over his shoulder at Mashita.
The corporal had obviously been listening to the early stages of at least Houghton’s side of the conversation over his helmet commo link. Now the short, wiry Nisei shrugged and settled himself casually on top of the turret beside the M240 machine gun at the commander’s station. It put him close enough to listen to Houghton’s conversation with their . . . host, and despite this Wencit’s apparent sincerity, it didn’t bother Houghton a bit to have the machine gun manned, just in case.
“So, we’re in another universe,” he said, turning back to Wencit. “What is it? One of those ‘parallel universes’ the science fiction writers are so fond of?”
“I’m not familiar with ‘science fiction writers,’ Kenneth Houghton,” Wencit replied. “But to call our universes ‘parallel,’ might actually be a good way to describe it. Or, at least, as good a way as I’ve ever heard anyone else suggest.”
“You can call me Ken, not Kenneth,” Houghton said. His voice was harsher than he’d intended as a familiar stab of remembered loss went through him. He’d always disliked his first name. In fact, Gwynn was the only one who had ever been able to call him “Kenneth” without making him feel like some sort of dweeb.
“Ken?” Wencit repeated, then made a sound suspiciously like a chuckle.
“Which,” he continued in a more serious tone, “leaves me even more puzzled about how my spell could have reached so far afield from its intended destination. And how you could have arrived in the flesh, as it were. Usually, when you try to move people between universes, all you actually manage to summon is a shadowman, a sort of . . . doppelganger, I suppose you’d call it, rather than the actual individual. I’m almost beginning to wonder if someone else didn’t have a finger in this particular pie.”
“You know . . . Wencit,” Houghton said, “the thing that worries me most right this minute is that I’m starting to feel like you’re actually making sense.”
Wencit chuckled at Houghton’s desert-dry tone. Then he shook his head again.
“You said you were a ‘gunnery sergeant,'” he said. “That’s a military rank, yes?”
“Yeah. A gunnery sergeant is the senior noncom in a platoon of Marines,” Houghton said.
“Ah. I thought it must be something like that. And this.” The wild wizard gestured at the peculiar, bulky, massive vehicle again. “This entire wagon, or whatever. It’s a weapon, isn’t it?”
“It’s armed,” Houghton conceded warily, one eyebrow quirked. He folded his arms across his chest and cocked his head. “It’s not exactly a main battle tank, but I’d guess it could hold its own against anything we’re likely to encounter here.”
Wencit rubbed his neatly trimmed white beard for a moment, then grimaced.
“Gunnery Sergeant,” he said earnestly, “as I say, you aren’t at all what I expected. But if you and your friend-” a nod of his head indicated Mashita, still sitting atop the eight-wheeled vehicle “-are both soldiers, perhaps the spell that brought you here did better than I first thought.”
“Just a minute, now, Wencit!” Houghton said. He recognized that tone. It was the kind of tone officers-or, still worse, civilian intelligence pukes or even
The wizard stopped speaking and regarded him steadily. Or, at least, Houghton
“I’m sure you wouldn’t have ‘summoned’ us-or the gryphon you were trying to get, anyway-unless the shit had really hit the fan. And for all I know, you’re a perfectly nice guy, with a perfectly legitimate reason for looking for any help you can get. But like you say, this isn’t
“I realize that,” Wencit said earnestly. “But at the same time, don’t good men have the
“Don’t go there,” Houghton cautioned, shaking his head firmly. “Every time I’ve gotten into trouble in my life, it’s been because someone convinced me it was the ‘right thing to do.’ It’s not going to work this time.”
“So you’re not even curious about why you wound up here?”
“I didn’t say that. I just said that what Jack and I need to do is to get back to where our own people are waiting on us for the operation we were about to mount. Trust me, Wencit, we’ve got more than enough shit of our own to deal with back home.”
“Really?” Wencit crossed his own arms and settled back on his heels. “You’re at war, then?”
“Yeah, we are,” Houghton agreed bleakly. “Took us a while to figure it out. And we screwed up along the way, more than once. But that’s what we are.”
“What kind of war?”
“Ha! It’s gonna take more than a few hours to answer
The tall red-haired “gunnery sergeant’s” voice had gone flat and hard, Wencit noticed. He rather doubted Houghton realized just how true that was, but it confirmed several things Wencit had already suspected about him.
“You sound like a man who’s seen too much bloodshed, Ken Houghton,” he said quietly. “Too many innocent dead.”
Houghton’s jaw muscles clenched hard for a moment. Then he inhaled deeply.
“Damned straight I have.” His voice was as quiet as Wencit’s own, but burred with anger and the ashes and clinkers of old hatred. “Not all of them from the other side’s efforts, either,” he continued. “I don’t know about wars here, but the one we’re fighting back home is a copperplated bitch. We do our best to minimize civilian casualties, but how the hell do you do that when the other side fades into the rest of the civilian population? When you’re doing your goddamned fighting right in the middle of a frigging city?”
He shook his head hard, and Wencit nodded.
“It’s the children, isn’t it?” he asked gently. “It’s the children that make it hurt so badly.”
Kenneth Houghton’s nostrils flared as he heard the sympathy-the
“Yeah. It’s the kids.” His jaw tightened once more. “It’s everybody caught in the mess, but especially the kids. They never asked for any of it, never got to choose. If it was just us against the bad guys, out in the open, one-on-one, that’d be one thing. But it isn’t. And I don’t guess it can be, really. We call it cowardly, and maybe it is. But it’s also what they call ‘asymmetrical warfare.'” He grunted a harsh, bitter laugh. “They’re not about to come out where we can blow their asses off, because they know they can’t possibly fight our kind of war and win. So instead, we have to fight their kind. And the more civilian casualties that get inflicted, the better it works out for
“You’re tired,” Wencit said. Houghton looked at him, and the wizard smiled crookedly. “Not physically, perhaps. But tired-so tired-of seeing the innocent killed.”
“What?” Houghton tried to rally. “You’re a mind reader, too?”
“No, I’m a wizard, not a mage. But I don’t have to be able to read your mind. Not to see that truth, Gunnery Sergeant Houghton. Trust me,” the smile went even more crooked for a moment, “even if we’ve never met before, I recognize the kind of man you are. I’ve known others like you. Too many of them, I think sometimes.”
“And?” Houghton said when the wizard paused again. A little warning bell was trying to sound deep inside Houghton’s brain. Somehow the conversation was slipping out of his control, going places he’d never intended it to go. He’d
“And I’m afraid I’m about to lose another one of them,” Wencit said. “A good man, one with a sense of responsibility, who’s already seen and faced enough evil for any other man’s entire lifetime. I think you’d like him, if you ever met.”
“And you’re about to invite me to do just that, aren’t you?” Houghton said. It was a challenge, but without the edge of confrontation Wencit had half-expected. “You’re going to suggest that I ought to go ahead and help him-and you-out, like one good, responsible man to another.”
“Something like that,” Wencit admitted.
“I don’t think so,” Houghton responded. But his tone wasn’t quite as firm as he’d wanted it to be.
“You’ve said you’re fighting an ugly war back home,” Wencit said. “So am I, my friend, and I’ll wager I’ve been fighting it even longer than you have. A lot longer, in fact. I know what it is to have blood on your hands. To lose friends, comrades. To see the innocent caught in the middle of all the carnage-to wonder if your efforts aren’t actually making it
“I’ll take your word for it,” Houghton said. “It’s still not
“No?” Wencit cocked his head. “Maybe it is. Surely, evil is much the same in every universe, isn’t it? And-” he looked directly into Houghton’s green eyes “- quite a lot of children have already died in my war, as well. And more of them will die very soon now, if it isn’t stopped.”
“Shit happens.” It was supposed to come out hard, uncaring.
“Yes, it does,” Wencit said. “May I at least show you what I’m talking about here?”
Houghton knew better. He
“Sure,” he said. “Go ahead. Trot it out, but you’re gonna have to go some to beat the kind of shit I’ve already seen.”
Wencit smiled oddly, and then his hands moved. They sketched an immaterial square in the air, about chest height, four feet or so across, and two or three tall. Houghton frowned and started to open his mouth to ask him what he thought he was doing, but then the air in the square Wencit’s hands had defined seemed to ripple abruptly.
The Marine’s mouth snapped shut again as the ripple effect cleared as suddenly as it had appeared. In its place were images-sharp, as crystal-clear as any video screen or television Houghton had ever seen. And, as he saw them, Houghton felt a sudden, total confidence that what he was seeing was an actual, faithful record of what had truly happened.
It was one of the most horrific things he had ever seen.
Kenneth Houghton had seen men, women, and children mangled and mutilated by “improvised explosive devices,” by mortar and rocket fire, by artillery shells, bombs, machine-gun fire, and small arms. He’d seen the horror napalm left behind, the indescribable burns of white phosphorus. Yet this . . .
He stared at Wencit’s images and saw brutal combat with swords, axes, pikes and halberds-the sheer, personal butchery of edged steel cleaving flesh, close enough for an enemy’s blood to spray into a man’s face and eyes. He saw arrow storms, and thundering cavalry. He saw fountains of flame he somehow knew were born of the same sort of “sorcery” which had brought him to this world, this place. And he saw other flames-the flames of burning cities and villages, their streets littered with the bodies of those who had once lived in those blazing homes. He saw the bodies of women, mothers, cut down as they fled with children in their arms. He saw the children they’d tried to save. He saw laughing warriors tossing screaming children
And he saw the men-and women-who stood against the tide of butchery and darkness. He watched them, recognized the iron determination and raw courage which kept them on their feet, facing that avalanche of horror when simple sanity must have cried out for them to flee for their lives. Some of them seemed wrapped in glittering coronas of blue light, like some sort of lightning. Others were simply men and women, with no light, no special aura. Only men and women who could not let the darkness triumph unopposed. Who
And who died fighting it.
He saw it all, and only much later did he realize that what seemed to have taken hours at the time could not have lasted more than a very few minutes.
And then, as suddenly as it had begun, it ended. The images disappeared, and he found himself staring into Wencit of R?m’s wildfire eyes.