Interlude #5

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"You're even uglier than that snake you've been dragging around everywhere," Holt said, spitting to clear dust from his mouth. "You're aware that your ribs are sticking out, yes?"

Cal wasn't hobbling anymore, the foot having healed to a point where he could put weight on it. He wouldn't be able to run for a few minutes yet but at least he could stand. Holt kept flicking the knife around, tossing it from hand to hand, hefting it as if he was tuning in to its weighting.

"She's not a snake," he said. "She's squamata. But you know that, don't you?"

"You can use those fancy names however you want," Holt grinned, "but she's still a human-snake hybrid. I'm guessing you're, what, a salamander? Pretty useful one to have."

"She's a person. We're people."

"You're experiments. A planet of experiments. Mice in a cage."

"Why do you hate us?"

Holt stopped circling and put his hands on his hips, before waving the knife casually at Cal. "I like you," he said, "you've got the kind of angst I find amusing. I don't hate you. I don't hate the ants that tear up my garden. They are what they are. But I'll still pour boiling water into their nests every summer."

They were standing in the open; an inadvisable habit on the desert world. Cal could feel his skin crisping under the sun's glare. He had no shirt on, no protection. He assumed it wouldn't cause him any long-term problems, as he could regenerate cancerous skin cells simply by shifting form, but it can't have been comfortable for the other man. Sweat was dripping down Holt's face as if he was standing beneath a raincloud.

"How's it feel to be the ant beneath the magnifying glass?" Cal asked, nodding towards the sun.

"Yeah," Holt said, "it's a little warm. I'm still going to kill you."

"Even now, away from your superiors, and all those who give you orders, and you still want to do what you're ordered?"

Holt laughed. "Listen, kid, you're clearly pretty green. I've been round the block a few times. I don't do this because I'm told to, or because I get paid, although that helps. I do it because I enjoy it. Some people just got to paint, or write. This is what I do."

The foot was stable now. Cal flexed his newly-formed toes. The problem he had was that the axolot form wasn't a simple genoshift. Changing back to his dimension-jumping form would take a good twenty seconds, in which time Holt would be upon him.

"Why are you still here?" Cal asked.

"I'm not leaving until I've closed your file."

"You sure it isn't because your technology doesn't work here?"

Holt's face remained neutral and he didn't react. In fact, it was too good an act - Cal sensed he had hit upon the truth.

After a moment, he spoke. "If I leave, you get to escape. Then you come back in a month and cause us more problems. Can't let that happen on my watch, yes?"

Cal nodded. "I'm going to carry on assuming your dimension jumping device, whatever it is, isn't working, OK? So if you kill me, then what? You're stuck here forever?"

"It's the job," Holt said, shrugging.

"We've stayed here," Cal said, waving an arm to indicate the rocky, blasted, dead landscape. "It's not a nice place."

"Not many places that are."

It was hard to tell precisely how capable Holt was, given the augmentations he'd spoken about. Although he was a ordinary-sized man, he had some kind of enhancements that Cal didn't understand. And he was skilled. In theory, Cal should have no difficulty crushing a man when in axolot form, or at least paralysing him with the venom on his exposed bones. But he'd seen Holt fight at Simons' house, and Kay had told him about what had happened in the Aviary.

And then there was the whole aspect of not really wanting to kill someone.

"Scenario one," Cal said, "you kill me, you get stuck here forever. Scenario two, I kill you, you're dead."

"I got another one for you," Holt said, "scenario three: I kill you, I go home."

That Holt was even engaging in the conversation indicated to Cal that he was right about his ability to leave this place. The other man had his eyes squeezed almost shut against the glare of the sun, now.

"Option four. You put the knife away. I change form, and we both get out of here."

Holt waved the knife back and forth. "That's not how these confrontations go."

"Do you even know where you are? What's this place called?"

There was no response.

"Do your people even know about this place? Or the other worlds?"

Holt's mouth popped open, just for a fraction of second, before he regained his composure. "Kid, we invented this stuff. We crossed dimensions to get to you, remember?"

"I'm starting to think that's as far as you've got, though, right?"

"Philosophy's not really my department."

Cal smiled. "There are worlds upon worlds," he said, "all linked together. There's a network of possibilities. I'm the only person that can go between them. Don't you think that makes keeping me alive a good idea? Wouldn't your superiors want to know about that?"

"I do what I want."

"You know what? It's getting hot out here, and I don't think you're suicidal. Keep your knife. Just stay where you are." Cal took a few steps back. Better be right about Holt being stranded here.

Shifting from axolot back to a more standard skeletal form was just as uncomfortable. The ribs retracted back inside, then the skin re-healed, drying as it stitched itself back together, losing the amphibian texture and returning to a more human-like appearance. Cal's vision became hazy as the blue fire ignited once more in his eyes.

Holt stood his ground, staying a few steps away. They stared at each other, dripping sweat evaporating in the air before hitting the ground.

"Why didn't you just leave?" Holt asked. "You could have left me here. I couldn't have stopped you."

"Because then I couldn't have shown you the universe," Cal said. He held out his hand. "Come with me, if you will."

Standing in the desert, skin dry and cracked, bruised and bleeding from the fight, Holt considered his options. Then he folded up the knife and concealed it back somewhere inside his jacket.

He took a few steps closer, until they stood within arms reach of each other.

Then he grasped Cal's hand, and the air sucked in on itself and the pair vanished, leaving only a mote of dust drifting down to the parched, weathered rocky floor.

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