by Sean Manseau
Behemoth gathered the tarp into an improvised sack and began stuffing the bits of broken sentrybot inside. “We’re taking him with us. This crap I’ll get rid of on the mountain. You and Screwball can do some housecleaning. And Dr. Cosmos can memory wipe these two”—jerking a thumb at Shepherd and June—“so all they’ll know is Nicholas has gone missing.”
“We simply cannot do that!” Dr. Cosmos cried. “The possible consequences—”
“Cosmo! I know!” the giant bellowed. “But we have to have that information. We don’t have time to get it out of him now, but I’m confident you’ll succeed eventually. When you do, we’ll put him back just the way we found him, unable to remember where he’s been. It won’t even raise any eyebrows, because that’s how they found him in the first place. We’ve got to get back there before Hyperion destroys the jump portal and we’re stuck here for good.
“I know it’s horribly dangerous. I know that every step we take away from this house with him in our possession is tempting the universe to destroy us where we stand, but every step we do take is more evidence that this is going to work.”
Dr. Cosmos sighed and nodded, accepting defeat. “All right. Let’s get him bundled up.”
Screwball went out to warm up the cars. Behemoth shouldered his load of robot scrap, and Tango went to the closet by the front door to hunt among the coats until she found Nicholas’s green-and-orange goosedown parka. At first Nicholas, still groggy from Dr. Cosmos’s ministrations, allowed her to insert one of his arms in a sleeve, but he seemed to suddenly snap awake and began to yell in terror.
“I don’t want to go with you! Shep! Tell them to let me go!” His voice rose to a squeal. “Shep! Say it! Say I—” Tango shoved him through the open front door, and he was gone.
Shepherd writhed on the cold floor, trying to wriggle forward on one shoulder, his belly and his knees. He shouted for Nicholas, told him not to be afraid, he was coming, but the duct tape blocked his oaths and promises. June, who had been spared the indignity of having her wrists bound to her ankles, was doing better, gaining more ground with a frantic frog-kicking motion, until One Man Army halted her with a thick-soled boot on her throat. Dr. Cosmos walked over to join them, fingering his black top hat. But when he tried to bend down to touch her, the shorter man threw his arm out to stop him.
“You wipe them later,” he said. “When you bring Nicholas back.”
“Nonsense,” Dr. Cosmos said. “We cannot risk leaving a single trace of—”
“I said later!” One Man Army spun him by the shoulder, planted a boot on one skinny buttock, and shoved him towards the door, where Behemoth was waiting. Dr. Cosmos stumbled forward a few steps before catching his balance on the piano, the mashed bass keys sounding in ominous discord.
“How dare you!” he shouted, wounded and ridiculous. He turned to the giant, straightening his coat and tie. “If you will, Andre, restrain our compatriot until I can finish my work.” He turned back to One Man Army, his smug smile faltering when Behemoth failed to lurch past him and toss One Man Army into the next room.
“Go on to the cars, Cosmo.” The giant held the storm door open. Outside, the sun had broken through the low clouds, and melting snow was falling in clumps from the forest’s barren branches. “This isn’t any of your concern.”
Dr. Cosmos’s mouth worked soundlessly for a moment before he managed, “You’re not going to let him—”
“Just go!” Behemoth grabbed Dr. Cosmos by his ruffled Edwardian collar, lifted him off his feet and deposited him on the porch. The screen door slammed shut. Outside, Dr. Cosmos continued to rail. We are heroes! We do not take vengeance!
Shepherd watched this from the floor and knew their last chance was gone. The grim resignation on the giant’s slab of a face made it plain.
“We’ll leave you the station wagon,” Behemoth told One Man Army. “You do what you have to, but don’t tarry. Once we’re back in 2012, the portal is coming down, whether or not you’ve joined us.” He pushed the door open again, pausing on the threshold, his left hand on the knob of the oak inner door. “Duncan, I hope this helps you find some peace.” He closed the door behind him, killing the daylight, and leaving Shepherd and June alone with One Man Army.
"Okay," Lawless said. He looked around the room. “Okay. Okay.” He dragged the coffee table close and righted it. His good hand bunched in the shoulder of June’s work shirt and hauled her to her feet. “Up we go, sweetheart,” he said, then shoved her to sit. She was breathing heavily through her nose, as much from anger as fear, glaring up at him through the hair spilling over her face. Shepherd rocked violently from side to side, trying to get to his knees, which made One Man Army spit, laugh, and kick him so hard Shepherd toppled over on his back. June screamed.
“Here’s the thing,” One Man Army said, pacing between them. “The history books don’t have much to say about what became of Mrs. Lyle Shepherd.” He fished in his pocket for a lighter, sparked it, and puffed his cigar stub to life. “In fact, up to this point, I was always pretty sure there never was a Mrs. Lyle Shepherd, and it’s always just been you and pretty little Nicholas, you boy-loving motherfucker.” Another kick caught Shepherd under the short ribs. He rolled on his side, coughing up blood he was forced to swallow back down.
“I digress.” One Man Army blew a stream of smoke at the ceiling. “The point, Lyle, the point here is we really don’t have any idea of how your wife died. I mean, we’re pretty sure she did die, because she won’t be with you when you and Nicholas arrive in New York in 1979, and you seem too old-fashioned for divorce. So what happened to her? Breast cancer? Car accident? Eaten by bears? Nobody knows. But I have a theory. I just came up with it today. I’m willing to gamble my other hand that I happen to her.”
Shepherd pulling and pulling, tape stretching but not giving way. If he could just get a hand free, maybe grab One Man Army’s boot, yank him off his feet…
One Man Army drew his remaining sidearm and grinned his hard, joyless grin. He used it to part the picture window curtains and held it to catch the light, admiring the Maadi-Griffin’s lethal geometry. “If I didn’t find myself disabled, I’d pop the cartridge and show you the round this bitch fires. Big as my thumb, Lyle. Or your dick.”
The Maadi-Griffin spun in his hand, One Man Army running through a manual of arms to finish by pistol-whipping Shepherd across the jaw and then pressing the barrel to June’s temple. She shied away, whimpering. “Maybe I can’t kill you," he told Shep, "which, honestly, is all I really want in the whole wide world, but I am going to kill your wife. Your own true love, Hyperion, old pal. Right in front of you. Gonna get splashed with her blood, yes you are."
Shep groaned, struggled to sit up.
“And I’m gonna get away with it," One Man Army continued. "Because when they bring Nicholas back, Dr. Cosmos is going to wipe your memory. You know how I know? 'Cause I remember the first time I met you. Baltimore, 2003. You treated me like I was a good ol' boy, and I consider myself a bit of a student of the human condition, so I’m pretty sure I’d know if a guy I just met was holding a grudge about me executing his wife, you know?”
Panic flooded Shepherd’s mind with disjointed thoughts. Had they left with Nicholas yet? Was there a chance Dr. Cosmos might convince Behemoth to intervene? Could he somehow offer his life for his family’s? What was Screwball’s battle cry? Time to bring the heat! Shepherd remembered coming up with that one himself. Good times, he and Nicholas on the porch, shouting catchphrases at each other, laughing like madmen.
One Man Army crouched, gun still in place, so he could address Shepherd more intimately.
“But here’s where I prove I’m better than you, Shepherd,” he whispered. “I’m gonna offer you the mercy you never showed me. Because I am one of the good guys. No matter what that asshole Price thinks."
Screwball said, Time to bring the heat. Tango said, Mind over matter. One Man Army said, Cry havoc.
Had Dr. Cosmos muttered something before he began questioning Nicholas? Shepherd couldn’t remember what it was, but he was pretty sure he had. A big fan of the catchphrase, Nicholas was. Made a character stand out.
And Hyperion was his favorite character of all.
His uniform’s fit that gave him the proportions of a hero. The smooth fabric. I bet I could make it bulletproof. That jolt of the unreal, that feeling something was breaking through into this world from the next.
Shep, say it! Say I—
Shepherd’s heart began to pound.
“I’m gonna let you tell your wife you love her,” One Man Army was saying. “And she’ll hear you…because she hasn’t been blasted to atoms. Are you getting me? Are we clear?” He trapped the gun under his ruined arm, stooped and used his good hand to rip the duct tape from Shepherd’s mouth. “Go ahead, man. Tell her.”
Shepherd coughed, spat out the blood that had been pooling at the back of his throat. Looked at June. June gazed back. Terror in her eyes. And love.
You can’t possibly be considering this, he told himself. You really want those to be the last words she hears? You want to see her not understand, or worse, think you’re making a joke? Tell her you love her, and that you’ll see her soon. Because as sure as the sun will set tonight, he’s going to put a bullet in your head right after he does hers. His other pistol misfiring, that was a fluke. This is for keeps. Tell her you love her, and that you’re sorry you couldn’t save her.
“No?” One Man Army pulled the charging rod, chambering a round. “Nothing?”
Shepherd stretched forward, his wrists bound tight to his ankles, shoulders separating, agony in every joint. “June. June.” Slurring. Shzoon. Hoping she could hear him. He bared his loose teeth, licked his crushed lips. One chance to say it. Say it right. “Junie.” Biting the word off clean. “I…”
…am the Sun.