I DON'T KNOW if God wears a beard. I've never had the plea- sure of meeting Him. Frankly, I hope to delay that happy occasion for as long as possible.
The individual whose acquaintance I had just made didn't quite look the part, but I could have been persuaded otherwise right then. We had come a long way—all the way, it seemed,
to the end of the universe. And here to greet us had been a surpassingly strange and beautiful creature possessed of a Serenely transcendent, almost beatific aura. His foppish duds worked against the God image, though; I couldn't imagine the Supreme Being going around dressed like a Galactic Emperor out of some video space opera. And Carl, who stood beside me wearing a darkly subdued look, his fury temporarily spent, had seemed mighty sure of the identity of the person whose lights he had just punched out. I was fairly sure that Carl didn't think the guy was the King of Creation.
Even so, we had a problem on our hands. Judging from his patrician bearing and sartorial finery, the person Carl had as- saulted looked very important. Extremely important. He quite possibly was in charge of this place, this world to which we had very recently been shanghaied. He had greeted us warmly, welcomed us. He'd invited us to lunch. What do we do? Quite without provocation, we smack the guy in the chops and knock him out. We were very possibly in deep trouble. Very possibly our ass was grass. I hoped that our host didn't own a power mower.
I looked down at the still form of the being—and he ap-
peared for all the world to be a human being of the male persuasion—who had called himself Prime. He was lying prone, face in the grass, the back of his head partly hidden
2 John DeChancie
beneath bunched folds of his expansive green cape. The rest of the garment was spread out to his left over the ground.
I glanced around. No lightning bolts, no clap of doom. I
looked across the valley. No activity immediately apparent in the vicinity of the immense green crystalline fortress that sur- mounted the hill on the other side. Could Prime possibly be alone here? The notion struck me as absurd, but anything was possible on this strange artificial planet.
"Carl," I said, "I can't take you anywhere."
"It's him," he answered flatly. "The voice that talked to me aboard the flying saucer. He's the one that nabbed me."
"Can you be sure? After all, you never actually saw him. Did you?"
Carl frowned and stared at the ground, thought a moment, then turned to me. "No, but it has to be him. I'll never forget that voice."
"Did the voice call itself Prime?"
"No. I don't remember it ever calling itself anything."
"Then you really can't be sure, can you?"
Carl shrugged, then grudgingly acknowledged the point with a tilt of his head. "I guess. Maybe." Then, quickly and with finality: "Nah. It's him."
"That's hardly the issue," said John Sukuma-Tayler behind us.
We turned. John stepped away from the rest of our com- panions, who were standing in a tight little knot. They were all shocked by what Carl had done, eyes edgy and expectant. I probably looked the same way, but was trying to hide it. Lori still stood with her hands cupped over her mouth. Susan was aghast; she looked ill. Sean was shaking his head. The rest of them gazed silently at Prime.
John, however, was angry. "Carl, that was an extremely stupid thing to do." He stopped and threw up his arms in exasperation. "As if we hadn't enough problems! No, you have to hit him. How could you? Carl, how could you do something so..." He groped for the appropriate superlative.
"... so monumentally imbecilic? So..." He cast about for words, then brought up his hand and slapped his forehead. "Carl, you incredible idiot!"
It was slowly dawning on Carl. "Yeah. I guess it was a dumb thing to do."
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" 'A dumb thing to do,'" John repeated hollowly. He turned and appealed to the group. "'A dumb thing to do,'" he said again, nodding in mock approval. I had never seen John this ironic. He snapped his head around to fix Carl with a look of utter contempt. "You have a gift for understatement. Unfortu- nately, it makes your stupidity all the more colossal."
Carl scowled. "Ah, come off it. I just punched him. If he'd've done to you what he did to me—"
"That's hardly the point. Did you stop to consider what the consequences might have been for us—the rest of us? Did
you stop a single instant and think? No. No, you—"
"Hold it, John," I said.
"Jake, you can't possibly think he was justified."
"No, it was dumb. But he's young. At his age, I might've done the same thing."
"Probably not. But the whole question's kind of moot, isn't it?"
John's shoulders slumped. "Unfortunately, yes."
Liam detached himself from the group and walked toward us. "Isn't anybody going to see if he's all right?"
I knelt beside Prime. Gingerly, I uncovered his head. I put my hand on his copper-colored hair. It was as soft and silky as a baby's. I moved his head to the right and looked at his face. The eyes were closed, the face serene. With my thumb—gen-
"If he has any. Is he human?"
"Maybe, maybe not."
Carl was slowly shaking his head in disbelief. "Crazy. I just poked him one. It couldn't have been enough—"
"It was enough," John said acidly. Then he bent over slightly and peered at Prime's face. "Of all the bloody, beastly luck." He straightened and let out a long sigh. "Well, that's it, isn't it? We're all dead."
"Not yet," I said. "And he might not be either. My guess is he's not human. But human or not, Carl didn't hit him hard enough to kill him."
"But if he's not human, how do you know what it would take to kill him?"
"You have a point."
"I wish I didn't."
The others were edging forward now. Zoya and Yuri drew up closer and stopped.
"I wonder who he is," Yuri said. "What he is."
Daria came running with the medikit. I tore it open and took out two remote monitoring transponders.
"Help me roll him over, John."
We were about to do so when Lori screamed.
I whirled. Carl was lying on the ground. Sean evidently had caught him, and was now cradling Carl's head in his arms.
"What happened?" John said.
Scan gently cuffed Carl's cheeks a few times. "Fainted .dead away, he did. Just keeled over."
I went over and crouched beside them, took Carl's wrist
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and felt for his pulse. It was slow and thin, dangerously so.
"Is he okay?" Susan asked.
"Hard to tell," I said noncommittally. "Funny that he'd pass out like that. Let me get a transponder for him."
"Carl?" Lori took my place as I got up. "Carl? Oh, no."
"He'll be all right, girl. Run and fetch some water."
Lori ran off.
"He's out cold, though," Sean said with concern. "Dead out."
"Jake," John said, indicating Prime. "What about... ?"
"If he doesn't have a pulse, there's not much I can do for him. And if he doesn't have a heart, all bets are off anyway. I'm more worried about Carl."
"Well, finding out you've just killed somebody has to be a shock."
"Maybe. Carl's not the type to faint dead away, though."
"He's young—just a boy, really."
"Not that young. And I don't like the feel of his pulse."
I moved Lori aside and opened Carl's shirt. After removing the protective backing from the transponder, I stuck the disc- shaped device on his chest, positioning it over the left pectoral muscle. I prepared another and affixed it to the right pectoral, then went back and got two more transponders and put them on either side of his abdomen, just below the rib cage. I took the key out of my pocket.
"Sam? Are you getting any readings?"
"Yup. Pulse forty-four, with some irregularity in the atrial and ventricular rhythms. Got some inverted P-waves, too, and the QRS complex looks kind of wacky."
"What do you make of it?"
"Well, my medical program is telling me his heart is in trouble. And... wait a minute. Yeah. It's getting worse."
"What does the program say to do?"
"It's recommending things we can't do."
"Is it an infarct or something?"
"Doesn't look like it. Actually, it's shaping up to look like congestive heart failure. Whoops, you're getting really bad irregularities now. If he goes into fibrillation we can zap him —but that's not going to correct whatever the hell's wrong with him."
I felt my own heart frost over. He was dying.
6 John DeChancie
"Not possible," Sean said, shaking his head. "A healthy lad like him?"
Susan knelt beside me and squeezed my upper arm. "Jake. Do something."
"Sorry," was all I could say. Then into the key: "Sam, congestive heart failure is a long-term process. How could it happen this fast?"
"Good question. The med program doesn't know, and nei- ther do I."
"But what the hell is it telling you?"
"Easy, son. It just keeps flagging things with Anomalous Event. It's pretty clear somebody's doing this to him, isn't it?"
"Very clear," John said. "Obviously, this world deals in swift retribution."
Susan shot him a fierce look. "You don't have to say it with such satisfaction."
"I have none, Susan, I assure you."
I said, "Sam, how is he?"
"Getting worse, I'm afraid. All kinds of arrhythmias, atrial flutter. It's a failing heart, Jake. Too many things going wrong at once—I really don't think we can do a thing for him, but you ought to try CPR in any case. I'd recommend starting it right now."
"Right. Scan, stretch him out."
Before we got to it, a voice came from behind us: "I'm really very sorry this happened."
Everyone whirled around before I got to my feet. Susan choked off a scream, and Liam uttered an awed "Jay-sus Christ!"
It was Prime, on his feet and looking fit and hale.
"Very, very sorry," Prime was saying. "I can't help but feel that it was in some way my fault."
His concern seemed genuine, if inexplicable.
"What are you doing to him?" I said.
"I beg your... ? Oh, I see. Yes. Well, I'm sure he'll be all right. Merely a precautionary measure."
"He's dying," I said.
Prime seemed surprised. "Really? I can't think of a reason
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why he should be." He stepped toward us, his eyes on Carl. "Are you sure?"
"He'll be dead very shortly," I told him.
Prime stopped. His gaze began to drift upward, finally fo- cusing, it seemed, on something far away. "Hmm. I see. Yes." He looked at me. "The young man's life processes are being probed. Various components, various systems are being tem- porarily suppressed in order to obtain an overview of the en- tire organism. At teast, that is what I am told."
"Unsuppress them," I said.
Prime smiled beatifically. "You needn't worry. He's in very good hands. As it stands, the plan is to keep him sedated for the time being. However, that can be amended. And I see no reason why it shouldn't be. I'm sure the outburst was simply the result of the strains of your long journey."
I spoke into the key. "Sam? How's he doing?"
"Damnedest thing. The heart stabilized just like that. Pulse is up. No arrhythmias, good sinus waves. Can't figure it. Those transponders must have been on thefritz."
"Carl's okay, then?"
"He's coming around."
Prime was eyeing the truck. "You have other companions inside?"
"No. That was the Artificial Intelligence who oversees the operation of my vehicle."
"I see." He knitted his brow. "Interesting way to put it."
I wondered what he meant.
Suddenly, the smile was back. "We seem to have gotten off on the wrong foot. Again, our apologies. The invitation to lunch still stands, if you would do me the honor."
"Maybe we need to think about it for a bit," I said.
"As you wish. If you choose to come, simply follow the road across the valley. There is an entrance to my residence at the base of the mountain." He turned and pointed. "There, at the end of the road."
I couldn't see anything, but said, "Thank you," anyway.
"You're quite welcome."
Suddenly, Carl sat up. He looked around. "Hello," he said.
Lori threw down the canteen she was holding, fell to her knees, and nearly strangled Carl in a hug.
8 John DeChancie
Susan bent over and placed a palm on his forehead. "Are you okay, honey?"
"Uig..." Tugging at Lori's arms, Carl nodded.
Prime clapped his hands. "Well! No harm done, it seems."
"Let him breathe, Lori," Susan admonished.
"Yeah, I'm fine," Carl finally managed to say. "What the hell happened?"
"You should ask this gentleman," John told him, inclining his head toward Prime.
"Oh." Carl looked up at our host. "I thought you were dead."
Prime laughed. "Not quite. Your friends seem prone to worrying about people's health, including yours." Prime turned to me. "By the way, your concern about me was very