Imagine yourself, born into the suburbs, your parents working class people, your school nothing special.

Imagine that, for some reason far beyond your understanding as a very young child, a god that you didn't even know existed ear-marked you as his bargaining chip in a trade across realities.

Imagine that, from the time of that first first meeting and for your next eighteen years, that god - Anubis - threw everything he could think of at you, to break you, to torment you, to forge you into this thing to be traded.

And imagine that, at the end of it all, you passed all of the tests, leaving your life in a shambles, never knowing that you were being tested at all and, when the time came, Anubis appeared and tricked you into giving up your soul to him, only to make the trade and give you over to another god, named War, who by comparison made Anubis seem like a pretty nice guy.

I'm Randy Morden - welcome to my world. A world named 'Fovea,' where magic is real, technology the stuff of fantasy, and warriors with swords ride horses into battle, trying to stay one step ahead of their gods' will. I didn't ask for this life, but I promise you: before anyone ever knocks me down again, I'm going to have their blood on my knuckles, because a man can only be pushed so far!

Indomitus Est is the first book in the Fovean Chronicles, the story of a man from our world, brought into another where magic is real and has supplanted technology. Randy is a man who can speak to his god, who has proof instead of faith. As the instrument of the god War, he lives in a world of absolutes and almost without law, except for the rules made at the edge of a warrior's sword.

This book is the first half of a pair, and concludes in Indomitus Vivat.

Chapter: Prologue

My earliest memories as a child were of kneeling down in church next to my mom. We used to go to this old New England Congregationalist place – the pews were wooden with red crushed-velvet cushions on the seats and these pull-down things on the backs of the pews before us. When it came time to kneel you could drop the pull-down thing and it had a red velvet cushion on it, too, so you weren’t kneeling on the floor. I remember the musty, dusty smell of a building more than two hundred years old and wondering if the pastor would have what I’d think of as one of the ‘good sermons,’ where he’d tell these great stories of biblical times and what the characters in the Bible were thinking when they did the things they did, or the ‘bad sermons,’ where he’d rail on about anything from the news to the traffic, and how people were sinning and screwing up their eternal lives.

The Congregationalists were called that because, if you looked at an overview of old New England towns, you’d invariably see a church and then some kind of village green or circular clearing in front of it, hundreds of yards long, and the old houses that would outline that green or circle. The houses congregated around the circle, the people who built them congregated at the church. Everything fun that I remember from that time had the church involved in it somewhere. Grainge fairs were organized in its basement and there were picnics on the green where we played baseball or Red Rover or whatever other thing the pastor arranged for us. On very good years we had our own ‘Shakespeare in the Park,’ and I’d watch the actors and try to decipher what they said.

I was kneeling down in church, my tiny hands on the back of the pew before me when, for no particular reason, something that the pastor said just stuck with me:

“Bad things happen to us all in life. Bad things happen to us as a nation, as a community, as families and as people. Sometimes you’re going to ask yourself, ‘Why does God allow this?’ Sometimes you’re going to question your faith.

“Those are the times when it’s easiest to think that maybe God isn’t real when, in fact, it’s at those times that God’s presence is the clearest if you’re paying attention. When you’ve really got your mind around faith, you’re going to realize that there are some things you’re just not ready to know.”

My dad was really mad about that statement. He was a ‘lay your cards on the table’ kind of guy, and unanswered questions really used to bother him. He got into a big fight with the pastor afterwards and pretty soon he stopped going to church.

When I turned ten and got interested in football, I stopped going, too. I used to get wrapped up in the conflicts and the strategies and whose strengths overcame whose weaknesses. My friends and I would stretch out on the living room carpet and shout at the TV screen, argue the tactics and drive my mother crazy with the mess we left.

It wasn’t that I forgot what I learned in church, it’s just that, if we weren’t supposed to really know what was going on, what was the point?

As a young man asked himself the questions that a young man must ask, forces greater than his mind could have understood searched realities for the answer to a problem well within his comprehension:

How can I get a better deal for me?

The thing in question called itself a god. It isn’t that it wasn’t a god, because after a fashion it was, it simply wasn’t the kind of all-powerful entity that one thinks of as a god in the day and age in which the boy was raised.

In the beginning, there were gods, and together and separately they sought dominion over one another by collecting power. There existed many ways in which they could do this, and the most effective of these was through the worship of followers. If seeking the adoration of followers is the preoccupation of most gods then certainly the conquest of competitors is the passion they all shared. Deities throughout millennia have risen and fallen not just in this reality but in all of them, and temples in the thousands marking entities in the millions testify that it’s a serious game that they play.

One of these at one point went by the moniquer of Anubis. Half a man and half a jackal, Anubis had wanted nothing more than to rule the underworld as Lord of the Dead. For hundreds of years he’d tormented the unworthy and rewarded heroes, his will unquestioned beneath the sands of Egypt, and gloried in the monuments that had been raised to him by those hoping to buy themselves a cooler place in Hell.

Anubis had deferred to Ra, the Sun God. Ra’s avarice had sent legions to the underworld and Anubis had been content to defer to Him. Ra had created all things on the world from a bowl of clay, and when he’d thought that he was done, he’d left the bowl and what scraps remained had come together and become Man. Ra had returned to the bowl and found Man looking up at him, and in reward for this temerity he had set Man down upon the Earth, his partner in this place.

Wily man had found himself a better deal. Ra’s worship failed. Another God stepped in and replaced Ra, and Anubis had found himself in the dark place where forgotten gods go to waste away and die.

The thing that called itself a god found Anubis here, barely more than an animal, a rat clinging to a piece of driftwood in an ocean of ambivalence.

“Awake, supplicant,” it commanded the jackal-god.

“I awake,” Anubis communicated without words, in the manner of those that call themselves gods. It arose from a void that existed between things, with no sense of touch or smell.

“Would you return, or would you embrace the oblivion?” the thing asked.

What remained of Anubis extended back to the realm of Earth from this dark place. Stumbling through the aether like a wounded dinosaur, it knew that Islam had replaced it among Ra’s followers.

“I am naught, my memory banished, my name a heresy, my followers the property of the One God. If I am to return, then to what?” Anubis asked this thing.

The thing that would call itself a god was a predator, and a predator knows how to bait a trap. It breathed life into the shards of Anubis, as only a god can do.

“This is power,” it told Anubis, as if it had to.

Not for thousands of years had Anubis felt so much alive. Since the Jews had walked from Egypt and the One God defeated it in Cairo and at the Red Sea, it had been in decline. Here now he felt the thing most important to a god.

“This will not last. You would have more?” the thing asked.

Anubis contemplated existence versus the oblivion for what man might have considered years. A lifetime measured in millennia is at once a difficult thing to continue, and a difficult thing to end. To be a god meant a heavy burden, yet power after so long can be a very good feeling. Finally, Anubis decided.


“Then I would have a boon,” the thing demanded.

“Name it.”

“Give me one of your converts; a warrior of heart and mind. I need one who is not susceptible to defeat.”

“I have none – I am lost, forgotten,” Anubis complained. “There is nothing left of Ra’s nation.”

“You do not have it in you to convert one? Even should I empower you to walk your Earth yourself?” the thing demanded.

Anubis considered. It had walked the Earth. It had loped among the human sheep once and recruited them, before it had actually become a god.

Once a god, a rule applied: the rule of no contact. Gods do not communicate directly to their supplicants. In all realities, in all worlds, this rule applied. There are realities not meant for mortals, truths that would destroy them, were they known. A god’s ambition might drive it, but its responsibility must guide it as well.

In its present state, Anubis might easily travel among men.

“And what would I receive, in return?” it asked.

Anubis saw an artifact on the periphery of its existence, a chalice that would give it the power to ignite the African soil and reinstate faith in millions, were Anubis merely to possess it.

“I will do… what can be done. How shall I know you, when I am successful?” Anubis asked.

“You will call to Me,” the thing informed it, “for I am War.”

On a plain in another reality a noble beast ran with his herd. To him wealth meant sweet, green blades of grass. Life meant warm sunshine and his hooves drumming the ground beneath him. Power was the muscle in his broad back and sturdy withers. God meant the wind in his hair.

His mares adored him, the best of his kind. Rogue stallions feared him; any who came near his mares would die. His own foals would not rival him for years, but when his time came he understood that he would fall to one of them, as was the way of things.

The wind named him Almadain, the biggest and far and away the brightest stallion on the Wild Horse Plains, north of Fovea. Once men had come south on lesser horses and tried to take him and his mares, and he himself had bloodied his hooves on them. Almadain, the true Son of Earth, and let the very ground shake when he ran! At three years old and eighteen hands tall, he represented the apex of equine evolution.

A man appeared before him. He dressed in a simple white robe, his black and white beard as thick as sour grass. The skin around his eyes puckered in a look of perpetual despair. The sun had tanned him. Almadain had not seen him approach and reared in surprise to see him now. The mares crowded behind him. Almadain screamed his challenge and pawed the air, ready to kill.

No man had ever sat the back of a horse from these plains. Most who came this close were trampled. This man did not fear. His salt-and-pepper hair shown in the bright sun and his eyes seemed to hold all of the sadness in the world. Almadain landed hard on the crushed grass, his proud nose inches from this man, his wild white mane tossed in the wind. He snuffed an angry snort once and stood still, waiting, looking into grieving brown eyes.

The man reached up and, as no man ever had, laid his hand on the jowl of the noble stallion. Almadain to his own surprise tolerated that touch. Where most Men smelled of hate and greed, Almadain inhaled the odor of compassion from his one, the honey-sweet scent of a love not just for him, not just for his kind, but for all things, for every child of the goddess Life.

“Go south, Almadain,” the man said, in a voice so low and soulful that the sky seemed to darken. “You are needed. Find him and bear him safe, where e’er he goes. In the end, you shall save us all.”

The great stallion reared again and screamed his challenge. No! Not south, where the grass tasted sour. Not man, the enemy. Not now, in his prime, with a herd of mares. Not now, not ever!

Sad eyes looked up at the rearing stallion with compassion. The man had a purpose here, no less than that of War. He knew the truth: that the job might be beyond this simple beast. One animal would stand between Man and God not simply on one world, but on two.

All things are bound by free choice. The omniscient deity can be as surprised as the ignorant peasant by the turn of events. The universe can only exist because each creature in it is the master of its own destiny and evolves as opportunity allows. No one can be born to any task; the thing we call fate is assigned later as needs arise and history unfolds.

Almadain had not been born to this task. No success could be foretold for him or guaranteed. He merely had the best chance.

In his way, the man in the white robe and the salt-and-pepper hair met the stallion’s brown eyes with his own, and conveyed something of what he knew, through eyes so profoundly steeped in sorrow that they could break the proud beast’s heart.

No happier, the beast accepted his mission and went south. In a few days the mares would find another stallion to replace him. His seed would live on, although he would never be welcome back to the herd. In their eyes he was worse than dead.

And in the man’s eyes, he might be a savior.


Chapter: Never Again Volunteer Yourself

When I was seven years old my grandpa bought me a GI Joe. I had to ‘be good’ for a month for it, and let’s be clear here: ‘be good’ kind of wasn’t my thing at seven years old. I was a Colchester, Connecticut farm kid and, at the time, ‘be good’ to me was more “don’t push your cousin out of the hay loft before warning him (or her)” than actually doing chores and, well, let’s face it: tricking my sister into eating worms.

After thirty days with a clean face and ears, not bloodying up any cousins and my sister being on a diet of store-bought food, I was ready to bust and, when grandpa took me down to the department store and actually bought me that GI Joe, well, it was Christmas in July.

It wasn’t even twenty-four hours later that the Barnesly boys down the road had come over, saw me with playing with a new toy, asked to see it and then decided that they needed it more than me.

I could have called my mom, and she would have called their mom, and their mom would have beat those boys for stealing and made them give me back my toy, but I just knew that the moment I walked away they were going to beat the hell out of that GI Joe, and then it would be ruined and every time I saw it, all I’d think about was how they got over on me. All of my life, my father had told me, “Be a man, be strong, stand up for yourself. Don’t let the rest of the world push you around.” When those three boys took that toy, I could hear those words as plain as if my dad were standing right there, so I screwed up my courage and straightened my back, stood up to the biggest one of them (who was all of ten) and squared off on him.

“Give it back,” I demanded. My voice wavered and my hands shook; I had wanted so bad to cry.

“No,” the other boy said, confidently. As he spoke, one of the other boys knelt down behind me so that his brother could push him. The last of the three stood back and laughed.

We were in my front yard – the house being one of those that crouched up close to the road so that as much acreage as possible was useful for the farm. Once in a while a pickup truck or an old car would rumble down our road, and it wasn’t uncommon to see someone on horseback, but you never saw a pedestrian because all of the kids knew all of the shortcuts between the properties and the adults were just too darn busy to do much walking, and so it really stuck in my mind that a dark-skinned man was watching us from across the street, standing in the shade of an old elm tree, dressed in a trench coat and a wide-brimmed hat.

I even thought to call out to him, because when you’re seven all adults are omnipotent to you and they can fix any problem, but that’s when the oldest of the three boys pushed me.

I distinctly remember the hands on my chest, the pressure of the boy behind me as the backs of my calves hit his mid-section, the fear, the humiliation and then the anger that this was happening to me.

And then something went click, and all I remembered was the color red. Where I should have fallen, I recovered and, in fact, had the peace of mind to drive my heel into the fingers of the boy behind me, breaking three of them. He screamed, I rolled, my back against his for a second, and I was on my feet again and facing off against the larger boy.

That boy straight-up attacked. It should have been an easy victory but he fought one-handed, wanting to protect his prize. I went berserk – straight up, black-Irish crazy like a true son of Cu Chulain. I don’t know if it was an Irish thing where genes dormant for generations were awakened by the actions of an outsider, or if it was dad’s voice telling me to stand up for myself, or the pent of anger of taking crap off of my cousins, but I launched myself at the larger boy, all thought of toys forgotten, and I remember that it wasn’t going to be good enough to beat him, even to get the toy back – that boy needed to bleed, to have scars, to bear a mark for having put me in this situation.

Fight for what is yours. Be a man!

The next thing I knew, my mom was pulling me off of that boy and his mom was screaming. The one who’d been behind me stayed on the ground and the third had run. I had blood in my blonde hair, my face, my hands, and my clothes, very little of it mine.

The general understanding was that one had stood against three and won.

The figure from across the street was gone. I don’t know what he wanted – maybe he just got off on the fighting, or maybe it’s him who went for help, though the adults never mentioned it. It would be a long time before I saw him again.

Nine years later I was standing on a soccer field, waiting for starting whistle, facing off against the team from the local Catholic High School.

I’d come straight from a fight with my girl friend, something stupid had got me to accuse her of cheating on me. She’d denied it, but earlier that week her best friend had informed me that she had gone straight to one of my best friends after school for three days, a boy who went to this same Catholic School. I felt like I should have known! No one who said they loved someone like she claimed to love me really did. I’d really liked that girl, and here she was, cheating on me with one of my best friends.

Be strong, I’d told myself. Fight for what is yours.

The whistle blew, both sides charged. By this time I was pushing six feet and one hundred and eighty pounds, all of it farm muscle. I had this maneuver where I’d plant my foot on the ball a second before someone else would kick it, and they’d trip and fall. They made that maneuver illegal in my honor because you could break someone’s ankle doing that. Their center didn’t break his ankle but he snorted about a yard of sod as I blew past him for the goal, the crowd cheering.

Give you one guess whom their goalie was.

I drove down the field, took a check on the hip and forearmed another kid. Our schools were rivals so no one expected a clean game with All State coming up. I remember that kid grinning from the goal. He was short where I was tall, he was classic Italian with black hair and brown eyes and olive skin, I was more Irish fair-skinned and blue-eyed with blonde hair. We were different and we were the same – before he’d gone to Catholic he and I had played this game all year round, to the point where I could think of him being where I needed him, and he’d be there; where I’d sense that he was in a jam and my feet brought me there.

I think that all of that just made it worse. How could he be seeing my girlfriend? How could she put the two of us in a position like this?

In a corner, beneath the bleachers, a dark figure in an overcoat was watching the game. He stood out the way that someone who is trying too hard to blend in stands out. I caught him for a second out of the corner of my eye. Same overcoat, same wide-brimmed hat, same dark skin. He had some kind of long nose and his eyes seemed almost yellow to me, but I’m sure that’s just a trick of the light, or having sweat in my own eyes, or something. I looked at him, then I looked back at the ball, and once again my world turned red.

I slammed past another defender, then I had a bead on the goalie. He grinned at me – I actually remember him smiling. For some reason I thought of the older Barnesly brother smiling when he had my GI Joe, thinking I could never get it back. That kid actually lost part of his ear that day, and I had nightmares about the fight for a month.

It’s like something took my brain in its fist. The goalie turned larger than life – a monster in a green soccer uniform. I got within four feet of him at a dead run, right to the edge of the goalie’s box, and I kicked that ball as hard as I could.

I didn’t try to get it past him, I drove the ball straight at his face. He could have had hands made of steel and he wouldn’t have been able to stop that ball with that much force behind it. It bent back his thumbs and forefingers and caught him square between the eyes. He did a back-flip and the ball actually got stuck in the net behind him. Our side of the field cheered and their side booed. The ref didn’t flag me – in retrospect he should have had me arrested.

They had to rouse the kid with smelling salts, then he had to leave the game. I heard later that he was seeing double and it wouldn’t stop. I didn’t hear it from him. The Catholic school lost that game and so did I from another perspective, though I didn’t know it at the time. My friend never spoke to me again and his parents went broke trying to find a way to get his sight fixed. Last I heard he was selling men’s clothes because you can do that with bad eyesight.

The guy in the trench coat stayed and watched the whole game. He never said a word to me. I went looking for him afterward and he was gone. No one remembered seeing him, either, which is strange because this was a high school game.

As for my girlfriend – she became my former friend’s girlfriend. The girl who’d told me about her became mine. Turns out that she’d made the whole thing up. The two of them were seeing each other, but it was totally innocent. When I found that out, I spent a year cheating on her and getting her to take me back, so that I could cheat on her again. It became kind of a joke around the school, culminating in me taking someone else to prom when I graduated.

It was a pretty crappy thing to do, and I’m ashamed of it, but there’s a part of me that keeps telling me she had it coming.

In another reality, a dark being sat his throne atop a cold mountain, the wind whistling past him from nowhere to nowhere else.

Before him, the god Anubis imagined an artifact that would change another world.

Together they watched their blond protégé fail through the next part of his life. They watched him go to college on a soccer scholarship, and sent him a woman who would break his heart.

When he loved the woman they took her away. When he rose up from the heartbreak, they crushed his academic dreams.

When he didn’t become despondent over failing at college, they sent him a woman to love him with all of her heart, and they watched as he destroyed her.

“He is heartless and cruel,” War commented.

“As you required,” Anubis countered.

“And you have done everything you could to beat him down, to make him fail?”

“You know the truth of this,” Anubis informed him. “Other boys cannot beat him. Women who love him fill his heart with venom. Failure forced on him only encourages him to be more ruthless.”

War nodded, much as he did not have a body. Unlike Anubis, who had form, War existed as a concept in reality, not a man or beast. His power was the force of his being.

“I think one more test for this one,” War hissed, “to prove that he is, indeed, your invincible warrior. Then you must turn him to your cause.”

Anubis nodded his lupine head. He knew what must be done.

I flexed my right arm and, as expected, the bolt broke off in the engine block. God damn it!

Bobby-the-idiot-boy, my Service Advisor, stood right there, too. I heard him suck air through his teeth. I shook my head and put the 12-mm Crescent wrench back in the toolbox, using my left.

Naval Nuclear Power had taught me to put my tools back. Being ambidextrous let me use both hands. I was standing under the Chevy on the lift, smelling the good grease smell that comes with an engine.

“Can you fix it?” Bobby asked.

No, dumbass, we’ll have to buy this car from the owner now. What Bobby meant was, “Can you fix it in such a way that I can get out of telling the customer that there is a bolt broken off in his car.”

“It’s in the block. Maybe I can drill it out, but odds are we’ll have to tap a helical. It’s a water pump bolt. If we can’t make it tight the water pump will leak.”

Too much information for Bobby to process. I looked into his vacant green eyes and re-explained that there was a chance I could get the bolt out, but if not we would have to rethread a bigger hole into the engine’s block. Otherwise the water pump, which needs to make a good seal against the head, would leak. He waddled off to tell the customer what had happened and that we should be able to fix it.

I shook my head and got an air drill out. A lot of people don’t realize it but a drill with a burring-bit, put in reverse, will often pull a broken bolt far enough out of the engine that you can put a vice-grip to it and get it out the rest of the way without damaging the threads. If that doesn’t work, with a steady hand you can drill a bit into the bolt, heat it and put a wrench to that, and loosen it enough so that you can back-drill the bolt out. With welding equipment available you could also weld a washer to the end of the broken stud and then weld a nut to the washer to achieve the same goal without the risk, but then you have to go get the welding equipment, and that’s a pain in the ass.

Only a Navy guy used to being a few hundred miles away from the nearest hardware store would think this way. The ship isn’t going to swing into a floating Ace Hardware if you can’t save a part.

I could have shared all of this with Bobby, but he wouldn’t have understood it. Dealerships don’t like to hire mechanics to be Service Advisors - they tell the customers too much. That problem didn’t weigh too heavily on Bobby.

“Randy come to the Service Manager’s office,” the loudspeaker announced. I put the drill back and swore under my breath, heading across the long, open garage to Wayne the Service Manager’s corner office. Freaking narc Bobby –he had covered his ass at my expense before. I had only been here six months and this made seven times that he hadn’t understood what he saw and told the Service Manager on me.

Truth is: I’m a pretty good mechanic. Naval Nuclear Power School and Mechanic’s Apprenticeship School do a lot to teach the skills you need to fix machines. Most dealership mechanics, however, are really just parts-changers. I’m different and Bobby doesn’t like it because I take too long on the cars. They never come back with the same problem, though, so the Manager cut me slack.

Until now.

“We have to talk, Randy,” Wayne said as he closed his office door. Bobby watched nervously outside through the huge glass window that Wayne cleaned every day. Bright sunshine shone through it now, hot on my skin and my red polo shirt. I could smell the ammonia cleaner.

“About a broken bolt?” I asked him. Wayne was a former mechanic himself. He was a smaller, darker version of me, with one of those moustaches that are common among old-style Italians. He had a temper but he usually didn’t flip out over stuff like this. Bolts break, there isn’t a lot you can do but fix them. It’s part of the job. If Bobby were better he could have sold this to the owner.

“No, not about the bolt,” he said. I looked into his eyes and knew right then where this would go, and that I was fired. He said, “Sit down,” and I sat.

I sighed. Freaking Navy catching up with me again. Never stops, ever.

“Randy Morden, 22, former Navy Nuclear Technician, Machinist Mate Second Class, Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist,” he read to me from my personnel file, as if I didn’t already know it. “Dishonorably discharged, U.S. Navy, for assault on an officer.”

He looked up from the page he held, his brown eyes meeting mine.

“You didn’t mention your Navy career, Randy,” he said.

“So you ran my social,” I countered.

Wayne slapped my personnel folder down on his desk. “Hell, yeah, we ran it, we have to run it! You think we don’t run a criminal check on everyone here? You could be a car thief, Randy.”

“I’m no thief.”

“No, but you were dishonorably discharged from the Navy last year.”

“Not for stealing.”

“It doesn’t matter, Randy – the company has a policy. No dishonorable discharges."

“That is such bullshit, Wayne. I am one of the best mechanics in here – “

“No, Randy, you aren’t,” Wayne looked me right in the eye. “You’re slow and you care too much. I kept you because you work a full day and don’t have any come-backs, but you’ll never do better than $2,000 a month in here.”

“Not now, anyway.”

“No, not now,” Wayne agreed. “Effective immediately, you are terminated, Randy. You can pick up your paycheck in two weeks – “

“Two weeks? Payday is Friday, in two days.”

Wayne shook his head. “Policy – we hold the paycheck against any of your work that comes back – the state says we can hold it for two weeks and we do.”

I stood. I wanted to hit him so bad I could taste it, but it wasn’t his fault. Besides, my temper is what put me in this mess.

I am six foot, two inches tall, weigh two hundred forty pounds and can bench my weight. I have blond hair past my ears and blue eyes. In the Navy they called me “The Viking.” I have a bad temper, and everyone who knows me knows that. I am not proud of it but I’m not afraid of it, either. A man has to stand up for himself in this world.

So when a Nuclear-unqualified ensign tried to operate a set of valves on my watch, I yelled at him. I shouldn’t have done that, but if he had operated the valves, he would have released radioactive liquid waste into San Diego harbor. He didn’t know that, but he did know better than to operate a valve on someone else’s watch.

But I yelled at him, and ensigns are very self-conscious, especially when they are really new. He wanted to set a precedent, so he ignored me, and I smacked his hand away from the valve.

No one would have said a damn thing about that. Part of my job is to guard my watch – in fact, he got a record entry into his fitness evaluation for trying to operate the valves. However, he didn’t like having his hand smacked, so he shoved me.

I flattened him. With an eighty-pound weight advantage one punch broke his jaw. Coincidentally he cracked his skull and got a concussion when his head hit the metal decking. He had to wear a head brace for two months, I’m told.

I wasn’t around to see it – I went to court martial. There is a thing called “non-judicial punishment,” or “Captain’s Mast,” where the Captain can just hand out punishment. He would have taken some of my pay for a couple months and dropped me down a pay grade that I could have gotten back in a year. But all I could hear in my mind was “stand up and fight for yourself,” so I insisted on court martial.

In court martial the ensign swore that he never touched me. The idea that he would straight-out lie had never crossed my mind. He said that he had operated the valve and I hit him. They found me guilty and dishonorably discharged me from the Navy for assault on an officer. Busted to E-1 so that I could only get a couple bucks a week from unemployment.

And the day I left the ship, with my chief and my division officer walking me off, I saw the Captain, and I looked him right in the eye and said, “You know I didn’t hit him like he said. You know that I don’t deserve what I got.”

And he looked me right back in the eye, and he said, “Yes, I do – and I know for a fact that candy-ass lied. But you had to take on the whole Navy over it, and guess what? The whole Navy won. Big surprise, Morden – now go live the rest of the life you just screwed up.”

I didn’t hit the Captain because he was right and I was wrong. I didn’t hit Wayne for the same reason. If it were up to him, he would have given me cash on the spot. But he had a job to do, and now I didn’t.

I wouldn’t let that sort of thing beat me. If I knew nothing else, I knew that. There is always something bad out there about to happen. A man can run and hide or he can face it with only himself to blame.

I went behind the garage and got my beat-to-hell pickup truck. Only my working here had kept it alive. It occurred to me that I had almost put a new manifold gasket on it during lunch. Good thing I didn’t, I would be pushing it home now. I brought the truck to my workspace and started loading my tools into the bed.

Brad, the shop senior mechanic, walked over, wiping his hands with a pink rag. He was about 32, tall and angular with a short beard and curly, red hair – kind of like a rusty, wire brush with glasses. He had tried to get close to me here, inviting me out after work for a beer or to his house for a barbecue. I think I had been waiting for this day and I had kept him at arm’s length.

“He canned ya, huh?”

I just kept loading my tools. Someone already had a drill to that bolt in the engine block. It wasn’t my job anymore so I didn’t say anything.

“Yeah,” I said when he didn’t walk away.

“Not over that?” he asked, pointing out the engine with his jaw.

“Nah,” I said. “Past history catching up with me.”

“Oh? You get busted or something?”

“Dishonorable discharge.”

“I didn’t know you were in. What branch?”

“Fucking Navy.”

“Ah – where are you going to go now?”

“Dunno – they won’t pay me.”

“Not for two weeks – you won’t get all of it, either.”

I looked at him. “No?”

“Nah. They will pay him out of your pay to tap that helical, plus anything else you didn’t finish – if you’re lucky you’ll get half.”

“Guess I’ll be sleeping in this truck, then, because I won’t make rent.”

“Got family you can go to?”


“Nah, you don’t have family, or nah, you won’t go.”

I looked at him again. “You writing a book? Leave that chapter out, huh?”

Brad narrowed his eyes. “Look, you know they’ll call every garage in town about you, right?”

I knew they did that, but I didn’t say anything. The garages here were pretty tight, especially the dealerships. I might be able to get a job at an off-road place, but they don’t have a lot of work and they don’t really pay much.

“So, if you want to sell me those tools, I’ll buy them from you. You have a lot of stuff that I broke and never replaced.”

I looked at my toolbox. When I got out and found out that no one decent would hire a DHD, I worked construction. It paid pretty well in season, all under the table, and I made enough to buy these tools at a pawnshop. When it got too cold to do construction I came here. I would be going back to construction now. They were hiring. I’m big, and they like big guys.

I didn’t want to do construction, I wanted to fix things. I wanted to create with my hands and my mind. I wanted to use tools.

I wanted to sleep indoors too.

“How much?”

“Four hundred.”

“Cost me six.”

“Worth two.”

I sighed. “Probably. Cash?”

Brad had the money on him – which meant that Wayne had told Brad before me. It didn’t surprise me; he likely had to make sure I didn’t bust up the place. Mechanics did that, sometimes. It also didn’t surprise me that they hadn’t let me near the cars I had started, either. Too good a chance I would break them all for spite.

I would love to think that I would have, but I know better. I would have done the same job that I always had, fixed them right so that they wouldn’t come back. That is just my way and, quite frankly, there are worse ways to be.

I took his money, jumped in the truck and drove off without saying good-bye to anyone. I hadn’t gotten close to any of the other mechanics. As I passed Bobby’s car I saw him sneaking a sandwich that he brought from home for 3 p.m. when his appetite got to him. He looked up at me with a mouth full of food and big round cheeks, like a hamster dressed in people clothes.

And I thought to myself “Him they want to work here”

Rent was $150 per week, so I paid for a whole week. Then I put another hundred in the box spring of my bed, and put the rest in my pocket. A night out maybe wasn’t the best idea I ever had, but I’d had a bitch of a day.

I bought myself a steak dinner downtown, and had a couple beers with it. The waiter turned his nose up at my decision to turn down his wine recommendations, but I didn’t hear an offer from him to chip in on it, either.

I can’t afford to drink much so the beers really hit me. I pushed myself up from the table, paid the bill cash with a tiny tip, and stumbled out the door. I’d driven here and I didn’t need to compound my situation with a DUI, so I decided to take a walk around the block.

I must have still been angry about what happened that day because the people I passed tended to look in my face and then get out of my way. I also wasn’t in much of a mood to justify myself to any of them so I just kept walking. The sun had set and the street lights were on. Cold night air blew against my face; the city smells of car exhaust and open dumpsters in a restaurant district filled my nose.

I was passing by a parking lot when I heard someone say, “That’s pretty funny,” and then I heard a dog yelp.

I don’t know why but that got my attention. I looked to my left and I saw four guys standing around in a circle.

They laughed and the dog yelped again.

I crossed a short, wrought-iron fence and passed two lines of parked cars, and then I saw what I was hoping I wouldn’t see: four guys kicking a dog.

Something just burned inside of me when I laid eyes on that. Who does that? Who the hell needs to see some animal suffer for their jollies? I stepped past the third line of cars and called out, “Hey!” at the four guys.

They looked up from the dog toward me. They were guys in their early twenties like me, better dressed than I was, probably guys who’d stopped off for a drink together after work on a Friday.

I expected them to scatter but they didn’t. If anything they looked as irritated with me as I was with them – as if they were saying, “Who are you to talk to us without permission?”

“We don’t have any money for you, hobo,” one of them, a light-skinned black guy, announced. The others chuckled.

The dog tried to get up and one of them pushed it back down with his foot.

“You don’t want to touch that dog again,” I said.

One of the other guys, a white guy in a grey suit with a red tie and white shirt, his brown hair cut close to his scalp, grinned, turned, and just kicked the dog under the jaw. It yelped, turned in a circle and whimpered.

“The fuckin’ dog pissed on the tire of my brand new car,” another, also white, said. “You better take a walk, pal, or you’re going to get what he’s going to get.”

You grow up on a farm, you learn to respect animals. Even the food animals like cows and chickens and pigs – they’re going to die, but you don’t want to see them suffer. The life you make for yourself costs them theirs.

But dogs are special. A good dog guards your crop all night from the varmints that would eat it. A dog protects you from what might come to eat your herd. He’s your companion, he’s your friend. He works right beside you for no other reason than because he can.

“I’m telling you one more time to get away from that dog,” I told them.

I started walking, they lined up between me and the dog. It didn’t run away, and then I saw why. They’d already broken his leg.

I’m not ashamed to say, I lost it. It was too much. I’d gotten kicked out of the Navy for no damn good reason, I’d gotten fired for no good reason, now here I was going to have to work through the whole, hot summer on someone else’s property for no good reason, trading sweat for pennies, because all I ever did was to try to work for someone else and then stand up for myself.

No. Not only no, but hell no! I charged forward and I engaged.

The first guy caught me in the stomach with his right. I reached out and took him by the side of the head with my left hand, and punched him square between the eyes with my right. Another of them leapt at me and caught me around the shoulders, trying to drive me to the ground with his weight.

If I didn’t have fifty pounds on him, that might have worked. As it was, I caught him in the chest with my right elbow and punched the guy coming up behind him with my left fist. The first guy was staggering to the ground, shaking his head, when the fourth guy punched me in the head.

The guy with his arms around my shoulders tried to drag me to the ground, circling behind me and pulling back. The fourth guy, the black one, hit me in the stomach, then again, and again, then looked up at me and smiled, as if to say, “This is what you get, aren’t you sorry now?”

I pasted him once in the mouth, then in the throat in a left-right combination. He stepped back, both hands on his neck, and I could see the third guy had chosen the better part of valor and had taken off.

I reached my right hand behind me, found the back of the second guy’s head, and then flipped him over my shoulder. He landed on his feet and I took him by the hair and punched him in the back of the head, right behind the ear. He dropped like a stone.

The dog whimpered again. I turned and he was laying by the guy I’d punched in the throat. For all of the pain the poor animal was in, he laid his head on that guy’s leg and his tail thumped the ground. His broken leg lay twisted out behind him.

The guy was making some kind of gasping noise. I’d probably hurt him pretty badly. The first one lay quiet on the ground, and the fourth lay next to him. They were amateurs. I took a step toward the dog, wondering if I had enough money to afford a vet.

“Stop right there!” I heard behind me. I turned and saw two uniform cops with their weapons drawn, and that third guy standing behind them.


“So you was defending a dog?” the big cop asked me. He was black, overweight, dressed in over-tight pants and an over-loose jacket. His stomach poked out three inches past his belt line and strained the last two buttons of his white shirt. His tie looked like a test pattern and his breath proved that coffee could get rancid.

“They were stomping it,” I said, not looking at him.

“They said they found it that way,” the cop informed me. “They say they were trying to get it into their car when you came up, tried to mug them.”

“I want a lawyer,” I told him.

“Sure,” he said. “We’ll get you one, one is on the way, but while he gets here, let me tell you something.

“Them boys you beat up? One of them was a fellow officer’s brother. And that punch you gave him in the neck? Well, he died.”

No way! I didn’t hit him that hard.

I looked up at him. He wasn’t lying. “I don’t want to talk to you until I hear from my lawyer.”

“Well, you’re poor, so you get you a prime, public defender. And when he is through seeing his other thousand valued customers, I am sure he will get around to you.

“And I bet, with all that long, blond hair, they gonna love you in prison, Randy Morden, dishonorable discharge, U.S. Navy, because it’s four against one, and they sent that dog to the pound, so he ain’t talkin’.”

The cop grinned again, turned around and left. Two hours later, when the public defender, an overworked, greasy-haired white woman with coke-bottle glasses, finally arrived, she told me the exact same thing. She may get me off with manslaughter, but the DA wanted Murder Two and odds were that I would do no less than ten years.

And she let me know that they were putting down the dog.

I lay in a dirty little cot, in a dirty little cell, in local lock up. A single bulb burned above me, a stainless steel toilet ran to my right. The whole place stank of urine and fear.

My cellmate was a big, dark-haired, dusky weightlifter-type. I don’t know if I could have beaten him in a fair fight. I resolved not to fight fair if he pressed me, but so far he just stared at me.

After about two hours of this, he finally said, “You dat murderin’ white boy?”

“Why, you going to do something to make me want to kill you?”

He put up his hands, “No, no! I saw you on the news, man! Say you killed a man,” he snapped his fingers, “didn’t take you nothin’.”

“Yeah, that’s me,” I said, wondering if I should just pick the fight and get it over with. It occurred to me that, at its very best, the rest of my life would be like this. Fighting other people to be one step up from the bottom. No money, no future, no fair shake – and no one to blame but my damn self. I seemed preordained to screw up.

As if he read my mind, the other man said, “They say you a lifetime loser, man. They say you kicked out of the Navy, say you have an ax to grind, that they going to lock you up.”

“Whatever,” I said, hoping he would just shut up. But he didn’t.

“No, man – don’t you be giving up, now. You look at me, and what you see?” He spread his arms wide, his big chest rippling underneath a loose-fitting cotton shirt. “Just another bruddah, huh? Well, I tell you something, you’d be wrong, man!”

And he leaned close to me, so I could smell his breath, and unlike the cop’s, his smelled sick, sweet like dead things smell, like his insides were dead even though he kept moving on the outside.

“I am my own religion, man,” he whispered, his eyes sparkling.

Oh, man! “Look, I had enough of Jesus freaks in the Navy-“

“Pah, don’t tell me ‘bout no Jesus, man – this ain’t about no Jesus. I’m an Egyptian, man. I’m the last high priest of Anubis, and I tell you, man, Anubis can walk you right out through these bars like they wasn’t here, man.”

“Yeah, well, I am the Green-Freaking-Lantern, myself, man, so I don’t need no Jesus and I don’t need no Anubis, either.”

The other man shook his head. I didn’t know what an Egyptian looked like so I didn’t know if he was one. If so, then he was the biggest one I ever saw. I didn’t look forward to him going on about his god all night.

Most of what he had to spew covered not giving up, about faith. That pissed me off worse than anything, because giving up wasn’t on my itinerary. I wasn’t giving up. I might not beat this – those guys were going to lie, like that junior officer had – but that didn’t mean it could beat me.

As for faith – I didn’t want to hear it. God didn’t care about me.

“Look, shut up, OK?”

“Oh, you don’t want to hear about Anubis – you don’t want to be free of this place?”

“Sure, I want to be free of this place, but you know what? That ain’t gonna happen. I killed a cop’s brother to save a dog, so quite frankly, your Anubis is about all that could get me out of this situation if he were real, which he isn’t. And like the rest of the world, he doesn’t have any reason to help me.”

I’d had enough of religious people in the Navy. This belief that ‘god’ comes out and helps you for no reason. A nice fantasy, but nothing in my life ever went that way and I didn’t doubt that nothing ever would.

“Ah, but that’s where you’re wrong, man. You have had a whole destiny that brought you to me right now. So if none of it ain’t your fault, and if you could believe in Anubis, then he would have a reason for getting you out of here.”

“Yeah?” I asked. “What reason? Why should he be any different than anyone else?”

“You fought the just cause, man,” he said. “You coulda kept walkin’, but you didn’t. You a warrior, man! You fought for the one who couldn’t fight for himself.”

“Yeah, right!”

“If he took you out of here, would you be willing to believe in him, then, man?” The Egyptian’s eyes shone bright – obviously, this is what he had been working toward all along. He stood a good three feet from me now and still I could smell the sick-sweet reek from his breath. I felt exhausted, tired of fighting, tired of being fought, tired of the cards life had dealt me and how I had played them.

I’d fought for the dog, but they killed it anyway. What did its suffering really matter? What did anything matter now?

“Sure,” I told him. “Sure, mother fucker – if Anubis can get me through these bars right now, then I’ll convert. You got your warrior.”

“Then give me your hand, man,” he told me and he reached out a huge black paw to me.

I reached up from where I sat and I knew that doing this must be fundamentally wrong. I looked at those dark, clutching fingers and watched them enfold my lily-white hand. That grip felt as cold as a tomb, as if he had been holding ice, but dry and rough like sandpaper. I watched him with his hand holding mine as he reached up his other hand, the palm up, toward the one overhead light in the ceiling.

He looked down at me, sitting on the cot, and his eyes flashed yellow. This was no trick of any light – his eyes turned yellow like a feral animal’s. I remembered where I’d seen eyes like that before.

I looked past him and could see a single, uncovered, 100-watt bulb in the cieling. I would have thought they would cover those things, so that the inmates wouldn’t break them.

And it would have been a good idea because the Egyptian with the yellow eyes drove his thumb right up into it, and the current ran through us both. For some reason I remembered, from Nuclear Power School, electronics training for Mechanics, “It takes .1 amperes of electricity to kill you instantly.”

In the prison block, the overweight guard munched his Hostess Donettes and watched his favorite show on the television. To his surprise, the power blinked, and he heard the slam of a circuit breaker opening. As the inmates started yelling and swearing, he heard a low groan and guessed what must have happened.

He grabbed his keys and his baton and hit the “assist” button to bring other guards to help him. There were only five inmates here tonight: two car thieves, a drunk, a dope dealer and a murderer. He couldn’t remember if he had taken all of their belts and shoelaces but was pretty sure he hadn’t.

He unlocked the first gate to the long hall between the cells. County lock-up wasn’t as elaborate as a prison, just a block of ten opposing cells. First two: drunk snoring, car thief screaming, pointing down the hall. Second two: One empty, dope dealer swearing, eyes wide. Third two: both empty. Fourth pair: car thief, sitting on the ground, holding his head – he is OK.

Fifth pair: empty. The prison guard stopped in his tracks. He looked into the dark cell. The toilet had no seat; he could see the water running. The bed had been laid in and he could see a crease in the gray blanket. The cover was still on the light although the bulb was dark. There were no marks on the gate or the lock.

But he himself had locked that big, freaking Viking in here. He’d seen him sit; seen the beaten look on him. Yeah, that one might have offed himself somehow – figured out how to do it with the light.

The guard ran back to light off the “Escape” alarm. Well, he couldn’t have gotten too far. How hard would it be to find Goldilocks on steroids?


Chapter: Alone, On a Lake of Tears

Nothing – no pain, no smell, so sense of touch. I floated in a void, with a sense of motion that belied going to or from anywhere. I couldn’t tell if my eyes were shut or open, or even if I had eyes any longer. I was dead, electrocuted, en route either to heaven or hell.

Not precisely, a voice like a kettledrum boomed in my head. You couldn’t doubt that you had heard a voice like that, more of something that you wished to never hear.


I wonder if that is how you addressed your Earthly God.

Um, no…

Then address Me as you would him, for now I am God to you.

This left me a lot to consider. First, something called itself my God and, secondly, if it didn’t come from Earth, then where did it come from?

I am not a patient being.

What God are you? Then the Egyptian’s promise struck me.


{A chuckle} So, you were, in fact, converted of your own free will?

Um, I guess.

Then I tell you, I am to Anubis as you are to the smallest thing that crawls upon the ground. He exchanged you to Me for more power then he could ever in his Earthly existence know.

You traded something like that for me?

You will give Me more than ever that bauble could.

{My turn to laugh, if only in my mind} Wow, do they have the shell game on your world? Anubis pulled a bait-and-switch on you.

I felt him in my mind then – it felt like the most personal rape you could suffer, gone as quickly as it began. Afterward I felt like I had been left floating in a septic tank and couldn’t figure a way out.

You are mistaken, not I.

If you say so, God. So now what?

You are come to my realm, now. I will give you a weapon of Mine, which I forbid you to lose, and some small amount of food. Then you are on your own to live your own life.

Um, my track record for doing that isn’t really very good –


My body, at that point, felt more pain than I would have thought existed in the whole world. It felt as if he had touched every fiber, every niche, and every part of every cell in my body and lit them all on fire. An assault on every level, like slipping toes first into a blast furnace while licking a light socket and being castrated by your father. What I still identified as my body twisted in agony. I could envision being forced to pull back my finger and toenails and pour acid on the undersides, gouge out my own eyes, a million other personal torments, leaving me humiliated, ashamed, wracked in pain. He left me panting with my mind on fire.

Looking back, if our God were to make us feel this way, then called it Hell, we would be a race of loyal Christians, Muslims, Jews – whatever He chose, and we would serve Him without question.

It worked for me. I would do whatever it took to not feel that way again.

I do not enjoy My will being questioned.

No, Lord.

You will live your life, apply yourself, grow and do well.

I will, I promise.

You will fulfill your destiny – it is inevitable. You are the One.

I couldn’t think of anything to say, so I said nothing. I can’t describe the fear I felt. Even though I couldn’t feel a scrap of the pain I had been subjected to, the memory of it grew like a shadow across my mind. Knowing that I could be made to feel that way again I would have killed myself if I could have.

I will deliver you – but one last thing: tell no one your name.

My name? So, I should make up a name?

Even that is dangerous. Change names – a name is power, knowing it is power over you. Let no one have power over you for long. That is for Me. Take common names that will identify others besides you.

I will, I promise.

Be gone, then.

A blinding light washed over me. My eyes felt the pain, but nothing compared to that one brief moment. I think it was Nietchze who said, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I welcomed this new pain because it proved in my mind that something could hurt less than that one experience.

I would like to say I woke up, but I hadn’t slept. I simply had my body again and could feel it. I lay on my back, sand in my hair, dampness seeping up through my clothes from the ground. I felt something hard in my hand, like a small can with knobs. I opened my eyes up to a blue, blue sky and a few white clouds. I smelled salt water. I looked to my left, my scalp grinding on the sand, and saw stark, gray mountains, then to my right, and saw a wide lake. It must be salt water, I thought. I looked at my right hand and saw what it held: a long, polished sword, double-edged, glistening and new, its handle wrapped in braided leather. The blade was about four feet long. I stood in one motion, my legs wobbly, and hefted it.

It felt right somehow – like it belonged in my hand.

I hadn’t learned to be a “swordsman.” In fact, the closest I had ever come was sparring on the mock battlefields of a Renaissance Fair. I had shown some talent at that – although I never became a “knight” or anything similar, I had stood toe to toe with some of their better fighters, and once in a while beat them.

If swords were the weapons of choice here, though, I had to assume that I would be meeting people who used them for a living, and who were a lot better with them than I. If I wanted to be safe here I would need to train.

I knew as well that this would take money. I took stock of my possessions. I wore what must be a homespun shirt, made of a cotton-like fiber, off-white, only two seams in it, running under the arms and down the sides. My head came up through a bunched collar; just a hole cut and stitched once the shirt had been made. The pants I wore were brown leather, thick, already pinching my skin. I wore what looked like thick, black motorcycle boots, including the chain across the instep.

I found a thin leather pouch on my belt and, inside, some kind of wafers wrapped in broad, green leaves. I didn’t feel hungry so I didn’t taste them – no point in starting off by wasting food. I didn’t have a single coin or anything that looked like a coin or anything valuable on me. Food wouldn’t be a coin of the realm. Societies wanted to trade in tough, physical objects, like livestock or precious metals or such. You wouldn’t want to go from rich to poor because the weather changed and your food rotted – unless you were a farmer.

I saw no grass, no village, nothing to eat. Far to the north there seemed to be a wide plain on the horizon, but no road and nothing to indicate that there were people there. The sun was directly overhead, not that it mattered. I had no idea if civilization, should there even be one, lay to the north, south, east or west. In fact, I might be the only one here – Adam looking for his Eve.

Unlikely. Why would I need a sword? Swords are made for killing other people and are inefficient for hunting. I looked at it again and touched the blade with my thumb, nicking it immediately. Wow, sharp – a tough edge.

I had been told to seek my destiny – I didn’t know how aggressive my God would be with me now, but I didn’t want to test Him. I tucked the pouch in my belt and started walking along the lake right then and, as an afterthought, began to jog. My leather pants seated themselves comfortably to my form and my boots creaked. The sword grew heavy quickly, and I had no sheath to carry it. I tried resting the blade in my free hand and cut the heel of my palm. I walked and ran alternately for hours, winding myself as I tried to adjust my running. The sun crossed the sky to my left behind me. Because it felt warm and these were mountains, I assumed that this season was summer and from the direction of the sun I was moving south.

When it began getting dark I stopped and looked for a place to sleep. There were no trees or bushes – the salt water would kill any plants near it. The mountains were about an hour from me to the east. I saw no point in getting sidetracked going there.

The plains were no longer visible to the north. Maybe that would have been the right way to go. I’d be more likely to find game there, though predators knew that too. I shook my head as I prepared myself to sleep out in the open with no protection from the elements. This would be acceptable right now until my new God decided to send some Providence my way.

I lay on my back, looking up at the foreign stars as the sky darkened. So many! I used to love the nights at sea, away from the lights and smells and noise of cities. I would sneak out onto my cruiser’s flight deck after ‘lights out’ and lay on my back, feeling the rough non-skid that coated the steel deck on my shoulders. At first I would see nothing as my eyes adjusted, just feel the ship rocking on the ocean beneath me. After a few minutes I would see all the stars, all of the millions of tiny dots of light, a wash of white across the sky. Then the constellations really looked like constellations. City lights blot out ninety percent of them for miles. Only deep in the mountains or at sea now can you see them.

Then, like now, I would feel alone, one being adrift like a leaf on a pond, not going anywhere, accomplishing nothing. Life in Naval nuclear power came like an imperative – we always had more work to do, things to get done, or another project. I felt some of that now, this destiny of which I knew nothing. Apply myself, but to what?

I felt so thirsty! I would try the water in the morning if it didn’t rain, though rain came with its own problems. For primitive man, a cold could kill if fever set in. At 22 I could be middle-aged, pushing old. I wondered at what useful skills I had. I could make rough furniture, doubtless there were many better. I could fight – I had a sword – but, again, there must be many better. Somehow I doubted they would need a mechanic, much less a nuclear reactor mechanic. My construction experience might be useful.

Who knows, maybe they needed a famous architect?

I thought these thoughts as I fell into a dreamless sleep. I would have thought that my dreams would be disturbed by so many traumas, but I had exhausted myself and fell right asleep. I awoke famished, a mouth full of grit, sand in my clothes where I had tossed and turned all night, still clutching the sword which, somehow, had not cut me while I slept. I stood and resisted rubbing my eyes, knowing that my hands must be dirtier than they felt. I looked around and saw mostly what I had seen when I had fallen asleep. A light fog hung around me, and the air felt chilly.

Oh, for the love of god, I had no coffee! I had always been a three-cup-in-the-morning, two-during-the-day and a-couple-cans-of-soda caffeine junkie with no desire to change. I dreaded the caffeine deprivation headache that I knew would be coming.

I went to the lake and stuck my fingers into it. It felt warm. I rubbed my hands together and felt no foreign objects in it. I couldn’t see any fish, nothing living in it. If it was foul, it could make me sick, even kill me. It made no sense that there would be absolutely nothing living in it. Yet why would my God leave me to die on my first day? Without water I wouldn’t last until nightfall.

I touched the water to my lips and the end of my tongue. I tried to taste an acid, or a salt, or a sting or bitterness. It surprised me that it tasted salty, but not terribly so. It reminded me, on tasting it again, of tears.

Yes, I thought. Tears. The water tasted like tears. I drank again and, though I felt thirsty, I didn’t want any more. Drinking what tasted like tears made for a sickening experience.

I ate one of the wafers instead. It refreshed me and I felt neither hungry nor thirsty. I smiled. Maybe my God had not forsaken me after all! I immediately shied from the thought and waited a breathless second for that pain to return. It didn’t and I sighed, almost embarrassed to have felt this way, though at the same time, grateful.

I stretched and tried to work some of the kinks out of my back. I considered bathing in the lake and reconsidered immediately. It would be better to stay dirty, at least for now. I picked up the sword and swung it experimentally in a figure eight. It felt very natural, like an extension of my arm. Again I marveled at the balance. It made a whirring sound in the air that felt reassuring, telling me that the blade was true.

The nickering in the air behind me took me by surprise. I turned to see a huge white stallion watching me. It wore no saddle or bridle and its mane and hooves were long. It must be wild, I thought. It came alone, no herd of mares near, which made it a rogue, either driven off by an even larger stallion or separated from its herd by predators. I had a hard time imagining a larger stallion; the brute stood at the height of a Clydesdale, but had a body more like an Arabian, noble and strong, a cheek like a saucer and a nose like teacup. He watched me, pawing the sand, unafraid.

If I could tame him I would make better time. I had never broken a horse in my life, however. He didn’t look like he would give up easily.

I had no rope, and I didn’t see myself running him down or trapping him against anything. Even if I did, one huge hoof would likely brain me. Because I had nothing else, I took out one of my wafers and held it in my hand toward him. I could see him trying to smell it. He took a cautious step toward me but when I leaned forward he shied, stepping back several more feet.

“So you are hungry,” I said to him. He pricked up his ears. I spoke more to him, saying nonsense things, letting him hear my voice. Even though he didn’t run he drew no closer.

I sighed. “Well, big man, I can’t stay all day. If you are hungry you will come around, and if not, there is nothing I can do to catch you.” With that I turned my back on him and started walking.

I walked about three hundred yards before I heard his hooves on the ground behind me. I turned and saw him several yards back, his ears pinned back, telling me to come no closer. I continued walking and he kept following. For the rest of the morning we played this game, me talking to him, him trying to figure out how to get the wafer. I watched him try to get a drink of water but he shied from the lake after barely dipping his lips and shook his mane with no less distaste than I had.

“Fit for neither man nor beast, hmmm?” I asked him. He nickered angrily. I could see he felt thirsty. I had started to feel the same, and took a bite of the wafer. This got his immediate attention. He came almost close enough for me to touch him then, craning his neck to the wafer, but he still didn’t trust me.

On a whim I backed away from him. He arched his proud neck and stepped up after me. I retreated further and he pressed me. I backpedaled now; sword in one hand, wafer in the other, retreating as quickly as I could. I had him almost trotting when I turned and ran as fast as I could, the giant, white stallion beside me. We ran together side by side, the wafer half-forgotten, just running.

I put my hand tentatively on his shoulder. His skin flickered and he watched me from his left eye, but he kept running. I already felt winded, the sword putting me off balance and making it hard to run, but I had made my point. Finally, before I left myself so winded that I would have to sit down, I slowed to a walk. It worked; he slowed with me. I fed him the wafer, fingers back and palm open, then dropped the sword so I could stroke his mane as he ate. He had a fine, powerful neck and a huge muscled barrel; he would have to have a saddle specially made to fit him. That is, unless stallions were normally this size on this world.

I continued to rub his neck and shoulders, or whithers, scratching him behind his ears and at the base of his neck as he watched me. He had long since finished eating, so I assumed that he must be waiting to see if there was more. When he stomped his front hoof, making me believe that he had finished with me, I held out the leather pouch and let him smell it. He bit at it immediately and I had to pull it away before I lost it. Clever animal – he had almost robbed me of my food! I smiled as he pushed his nose after it, tucking it back into my belt, and ran again.

This time he ran right next to me, going for the food source. We ran farther this time. My hand on his shoulder let me lean for balance and got him used to my touch. I could run farther with him, when he could share some of my weight. We ran and walked as before, going much farther than I had the previous day. By the time dark came this time, I felt thoroughly winded and, from what I could tell, I hadn’t impressed him, not even left him lathered. I fed him another of the wafers. Seeing that I had about ten left, I also ate one. He licked the crumbs from my hand with a rough tongue. I knew to keep my fingers from his teeth, having read once of a woman who had lost all of her fingers that way to a Clydesdale.

I took off my shirt and rubbed him with it, which he seemed to enjoy. I then dipped the shirt in the lake to get the horsehair out and left it out to dry. I immediately noticed that he wouldn’t go near it and hoped that the smell of the lake would be out of it by morning. Though I didn’t think it would hurt me to walk or run with no shirt (the day felt warm) I didn’t want to have to abandon it completely.

I sat and the stallion nosed me, wanting me to keep scratching him. I did, talking softly to him. He behaved too friendly for an entirely wild horse, and yet I saw no evidence of him ever having worn a saddle or felt a bit. He could just be hungry or lonely. My knowledge of horses came from shoveling out their stalls for two dollars an hour at age fourteen. That meant I knew how to keep them and I knew a few of the breeds. Likely that had nothing to do with those of this planet. As darkness fell and he stood out as a glimmering, white monster against the starlight, I wondered if he would be there in the morning. I really didn’t dare hobble or picket him, not that I had anything to do that with, anyway. Stretching out on my back, the sand digging into my shoulders, I watched him standing still as a statue over me.

I awoke after another dreamless sleep and found him still there. He had also relieved me of both my store of wafers and a good portion of the bag they were in. I swore to myself but I didn’t want to explode at the stallion. All that would accomplish would be to scare him off, and now I had no leverage on him.

I stood and he sniffed me and rubbed on me from top to bottom. His coat quivered with energy as I scratched his ears and the back of his jowls.

He had screwed me now, of course. I didn’t think he would let me ride him yet, though I would have to try. If he threw me and bolted I would be dead if I didn’t find food or water in about two days, and from the look of the terrain, people were nowhere near here. I held his head and looked into his brown eyes.

“Well, big man, you came into my life, and you were my friend for a few hours, and you robbed me,” I told him. He looked at me and batted his eyelashes. “Now, are you still going to be my buddy, and let me sit on your back long enough to go someplace where people are? And when we get there, are you going to turn people-shy and refuse to go further?”

He didn’t say anything, and on my third day in this strange place I half-expected him to. I continued to rub him down his neck and to his barrel, moving my hands to his shoulders. The top of my head rose even with the top of his withers, meaning that I couldn’t just leap onto his back from right next to him if I meant to hang on. I gently guided him to a natural low-point in the beach by the lake, where I could see over his back, and I took a breath. When he didn’t move away from me, I took a fist full of his mane and leaped up onto his back, kicking high to get a leg over him. I held him tight with my thighs, and curled the fingers of my left hand into his mane as I balanced the sword in my right.

He turned and looked at me. I saw his wide, right eye regard me with something between surprise and indignation, and I thought for a moment: “Oh, he is left brained. I think that means he is creative.” Then he took off.

No horse born on Earth ever galloped so fast. I clung for dear life, my thighs on his barrel with my knees bent, my fingers in his mane, my back as straight as I could keep it and my heels back against the softness of his stomach. I tried to balance the sword I had been forbidden to lose in one hand. I’d ridden bareback before (thank God, which one I don’t know) so I knew how to adjust my weight to the moving animal. The sword must have made me look like a charging knight or a complete idiot.

His muscles rippled like snakes under a bed sheet beneath me. The stallion’s power almost radiated from him. His hooves beat the sand like a drum. I wondered after several minutes of just trying to stay alive that he hadn’t tried to buck or roll on me. I had all I could do to keep my breathing adjusted so that I could catch gulps of the passing wind as he ran on.

It had to be over an hour later before he slowed even marginally, switching from an all-out gallop to a loping canter. Still he pounded on, following the shoreline. My legs were cramping from holding onto him, my groin and stomach aching, my fingers stiff on the sword and in his mane and losing their hold on both, my shoulders burning. Because I had no way to stop him I tried to tune it out, watching the terrain, looking for some change or indication of civilization, but I saw none.

There’s something about riding a huge horse which is entirely different from normal ones. A horse is a powerful animal – a stallion especially. Riding him, you learn to move with him, to be one with him – sometimes, I think we’ve given up something of our humanity when we left horses for cars. Even while I still dwelled on my encounter with War, on the pain, on the fear of being here, not knowing what I had to do next, not knowing what would become of me, I found release in that ongoing ride, that powerful animal surging across the plain beneath me.

For a while, I thought to myself that, with him on my side, I had a good chance of accomplishing whatever it was I had to do.

The shore had turned more toward the west and I could see some sort of change coming up, either a river flowing from it or just a bend in the shoreline.

As we approached, he finally slowed to a walk. Now I saw a river mouth flowing south from the lake and that the ground had become hilly. I also saw a little scrub grass that the horse would likely want. The sun had fallen past the apex; we must have been running for four hours or more. It amazed me – I couldn’t guess how far we had come. With such animals for their mass-transit, the civilization here would advance strangely. Commerce could develop more quickly than industrialization and countries become more far-reaching as distances could be traveled more quickly. The stallion was lathered now and would likely need a rest. I wondered if I could make a bridle from my shirt for him when he slowed to a stop.

Kak dila?” I heard, and saw no one speaking.

“Huh, what?” I asked.

A tiny man in steel sleeves and shoulder pads, carrying a huge mace, stepped out from in front of the panting stallion. He had steel-gray hair down past his shoulders, including a beard tucked in his belt, and a pointed steel cap. He looked at me curiously, then at the stallion, and then at the sword in my hand. His bushy black eyebrows pulled down over his eyes as he pointed at it. “Kak etot, Sentalskovich? Lo vista ot sevadstni Voinu!

I shook my head and the horse shied a little. If he took off again I would seem like I was running away. I wanted to talk to this man and I doubted that he waited here alone. I didn’t want to find out that a stand of archers had me targeted from over some nearby ridge.

At the mention of Voinu, however, a buzzing had started in my ears. I shook my head and he said, “Nye etot ot Voinu? Kak etot, toshe?

Again, the word Voinu brought the buzzing, and I felt a smaller version of that violation that I had experienced when my new God had looked into my mind. I felt something behind my ears go snap, and then nothing. I reeled on the back of the horse and almost steadied myself with my sword hand before I remembered how sharp the weapon was and used the other.

“I – I don’t understand you,” I said, and in my own ears the language that I spoke sounded strange.

“Ah, an Eldadorian, then?” the little man said. “Fine, then, Man – who are you, Eldadorovitch, and is that truly a Sword of War you are carrying? It isn’t every day that someone rides a stallion from the Wild Horse Plains south into the lands of the Simple People.”

This, I guessed right then, had been my first taste of this foreign culture. Already I didn’t like it.