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Denizens: 9 - Cowboy

...Bill had answered the door. But it was not his wife on the doorstep. Instead, two young policemen stood there. The look in their eyes was so final, so irrevocable, that he knew immediately why they were there.

The world reeled around him, and he only dimly heard the police telling him of the drunken maniac who had crossed the median strip on the freeway and collided head-on with Kathleen’s car at ninety miles an hour. In one stroke, with that one insane act, Bill’s life had been ruined, destroyed, the life he and Kathleen had planned wiped out as though it had never existed....

But widower Doctor William O’Rourke, probably the country’s foremost nuclear fusion engineer, may be about to do what no human has ever done before - travel at lightspeed.

For earlier chapters of Brian William Neal's inventive and satisfying sci fi saga please click on Denizens in the menu on this page.

Near Burlington,
February, 2033

William “Wild Bill” O’Rourke snicked off the safety on his laser rifle and peered into the depths of the whiteout as he crouched behind a snow-covered conifer. Breathing shallowly through his nose so that a plume of white breath might not give his position away, he glanced quickly to his right. His two remaining men were in position, and were waiting to follow his lead.

The snow began to fall more heavily, and O’Rourke smiled grimly. Good, he thought. Don’t want to make it any easier for the bastards than we have to. Wonder what the Duke would do now, he mused, shifting his position slightly as a cramp started in his right thigh. Not a lot of choices. The enemy’s got a lot more troops on the ground. He smiled again as he recalled an old vid show from the last century, still enjoying re-runs sixty years on. “Beam me up, Scotty, I’m in deep shit here.” Then he became serious once more. If this last play doesn’t work, he thought, we’re f----d.

The snow started to fall even heavier, and he risked a quick look around the edge of the tree. No movement, but that didn’t mean anything. Well, old hoss, he told himself, only one way to find out for sure. Up and at ‘em. Remember the Alamo.

He signaled to his men, a quick pump of his upraised fist, then rose, turned and ran, all in one movement. Immediately, he saw laser flashes on his right, and one of his men was hit. O’Rourke dived behind another tree and got off a burst of return fire as his other man went down.

Alone now, Bill O’Rourke rolled from the flimsy shelter of the tree into a shallow ditch, half-filled with freezing slush. He squirmed along its length, elbows and knees, desperately searching for more substantial cover, but the widely spaced conifers offered little in the way of concealment or protection. Reaching the end of the ditch, he had no option but to roll into the open, but this time no telltale flashes greeted him. He crouched, soaked and panting, behind a tree, his frozen hands automatically checking his weapon as he scanned the area for possible escape routes.

He peered through the foliage; so far, so good. There was no sign of the enemy, and for the first time Bill allowed himself to hope. It’s possible, he thought, it’s just barely possible they’ve missed me. He stood, his rifle held across his body at the port. Then he drew a deep breath, muttered, “C’mon, leatherneck, you want to live forever?” and ran from the cover of the tree into the open.

He never even saw the hand that knocked him down, but it felt as though he had run into one of the trees. Gasping for breath, he struggled to raise his weapon, but felt it knocked from his grasp. He looked up, and stared into a heavily bearded face, dark eyes boring into his own. Then other shapes materialized out of the whiteout, and leveled their weapons at him. Bill was alone, and surrounded by the enemy.


“You oughta be more careful, Billy boy. You could get hurt. Oh, and by the way, you’re dead.”

O’Rourke looked up at the man bending over him. “Redfern, you bastard, where did you come from? I was just beginning to think I was in the clear.” He held out his hand, and the burly, bear-like figure pulled him to his feet.

“Well, Bill old friend, that’s a real shame. We had you in our sights all the way along the ditch. Cold in there, was it?”

Bill smiled ruefully. “As a witch’s tit, but I wasn’t exactly spoilt for choices.” He brushed snow from his tunic, and saw his two point men standing behind Redfern, looking sheepish, the red circles made by the laser hits visible on their uniform jackets. He removed his combat helmet and smiled at the man who had captured him.

“I guess we’d better be getting back. It’s freezing out here.” He clapped the man on the shoulder. “Oh, and by the way, just one thing.”

The man called Redfern looked at him quizzically, and Bill waved a hand airily over his head. “You might like to take a look behind you.”

As realization dawned, Redfern turned, then dropped his rifle as more shapes appeared out of the gradually easing snowfall. They were wearing the blue armbands of Bill’s team, and Redfern’s men were quickly surrounded.

Bill stood smiling in the snow and said, in his best John Wayne voice, “Ya shouldn’t oughta let ‘em get behind ya, pilgrim.”

Redfern grinned good-naturedly. “That’s right, rub it in. Since when does the team leader run interference?” He turned to his men, and said, “O.K. guys. Looks like he’s got us. Again.” Then he turned back to the younger man and held out his hand.

“Good game, Bill. Guess I’ll just have to get you next time.” Then a shadow passed over his cheerful Irish features. “Well, maybe,” he said. Then he pounded O’Rourke on the back and laughed. “Come on, hero. Looks like it’s my turn to get the beers. Again.”


After checking their weapons at the club’s armory, the two men went to the locker room, where they changed into their street clothes.

“How about that drink, Bill?” said Redfern. “I’d appreciate the chance of a little talk.”

Bill followed him into the warmth of the main lounge of the country club and found a table by the windows while Redfern ordered the beers from the bar. They sat in silence until the drinks came, looking out at the view. The snowfall had abated temporarily, and the rolling Vermont countryside lay under a blanket of white, like a picture postcard scene. Neither man seemed anxious to disturb the companionable tranquillity, and for a while longer they just sat, drinking their beers and enjoying the pleasant scenery.

The war games section of the country club had been the brainchild of the man seated opposite Bill. As he had argued successfully to the club’s ruling committee, you can’t play golf in the snow, so why not use the course for something else during the long Vermont winters? They had met through mutual acquaintances, and had become firm friends even before Bill had met and fallen in love with Redfern’s daughter, Kathleen. They were of a kind, the two men, and the games served as a safety valve, allowing them to occasionally let off steam, while indulging their passion for action and adventure.

Charles Redfern owned and controlled the biggest construction company in the state, the largest in the northwest outside of New York. He had also built the fusion plant on the New York side of Lake Champlain, across the state line from northern Vermont where, until a week before, Bill had worked as chief engineer. The tragedy that had affected their lives so deeply had also served to bring them closer together, and made their imminent parting all the more difficult.

Finally, Redfern looked away from the window and broke the silence. “I wanted to have a quiet word with you before you…well, before you go, Bill,” he said. “I want to say that I appreciate your telling me some of the details, what and where and all. There hasn’t been a word in the media, so I guess it’s all top secret.” He made a small, amused sound. “In fact, if I didn’t know you the way I do, I’d think all this talk about the speed of light and so on is just so much horse shit. But of course, I know it isn’t. Something that fantastic sounds too true to be made up.”

O’Rourke looked at his former father-in-law with affection. Following the death of his wife and unborn child nearly two years ago, Bill had been a wreck, both emotionally and physically. The tragedy had all but destroyed him, and he had begun to drink heavily, which in turn had affected his work. Two things had saved him. One had been the kindness and understanding of his wife’s parents; the other had been John Wayne.

Ever since he was a small boy, Bill had been crazy about the movies. He had especially loved westerns, and his favorites had been those starring the big man they had called the Duke. He had spent his childhood saving his weekly allowance so that he could rent a videodisk of one of his hero’s movies, to watch at home on a Saturday night, when most of his friends were out on dates.

Rio Bravo, The Searchers (which Bill, along with just about everyone else, considered to be Wayne’s best acting performance), True Grit, which won him his Oscar, (and to hell with whether Hoffman deserved it more. The Duke was dying, and Dustin had plenty of time). McClintock, The Alamo, which he directed, and which even the most grudging critics had to admit was a pretty good effort from a first-timer, The Shootist, his swan song…the list went on and on. Bill had seen them all, many times, and with the single-mindedness of the true fan, had never tired of them.

He loved the way the man did everything; his pigeon-toed walk, and the way he would swing his arms to emphasize a word or phrase. The fact that he never used bad language in his movies (apart from that one line in True Grit, and that was pretty mild), his unfailing gentlemanly conduct towards women, and most of all, his voice. Many impressionists had tried to mimic him, but none, Bill thought, had got it exactly right.

Like most of us, Bill grew up, but he never lost his fascination for the Old West, or his childhood love for the movies and the man who had been so incongruously christened Marion Michael Morrison. For Bill, the Duke was king, and always would be. The ideals that Wayne had promoted in his films, those of good, old-fashioned morality and decency, had helped Bill through crises both large and small in his life, and when he had lost his family, it was to the safety of his beloved movies that he had retreated. Nothing could ever totally heal the scars, but when he had eventually begun to emerge into the world again, it had been the soothing comfort of a world where the good guys always triumphed over the black hats that had been one of his greatest saviors.

The other had been his in-laws. Charles and Jean Redfern had, with their kindness and patience, turned him around and had stopped his slide into alcoholic oblivion. Perhaps because their daughter had been their only child, they had adopted Bill as their own. He was an orphan, having lost both his parents when he was a teenager, and he had no other family. It had taken some time, but their care and gentle understanding had eventually made him whole again.

As whole as he ever could be, at least. Bill and Kathleen had met and fallen in love when they were both thirty, and had married only three months later. They immediately set about trying to start a family, but had found that was easier said than done.

They had tried for so long, and had had so many disappointments, that they had despaired of ever having children. They both took all the tests, and found there was nothing physically wrong with either of them. Doctors, alternative medicine; they had even tried a hypnotist once, but to no avail. However, as they said later, they certainly had a lot of fun trying.

Bill had had to get used to his wife calling him at the plant in the middle of the day, telling him to come home quickly, she had just taken her temperature, she was ovulating, and they had to do it now. Once, when he simply could not get away, Kathleen had come to the plant. She had walked in on an important board meeting and stood in the doorway, looking pointedly at her husband, motioning towards the door with her head. As company legend had it, Bill had stood up from the large table, smiled at the other board members and said, “’Scuse me, Mr. Chairman. Got to go make love to my wife”. Outside, Kathleen had dragged him into an elevator, stopped it between floors, and they had made love right there, standing against the wall, her skirt hiked up around her hips and her legs around Bill’s waist, giggling at the thought of discovery.

They had almost resigned themselves to remaining childless, then one day Bill came home early from the plant, and found his wife watching the daytime soaps on the vid and eating chocolates. When he walked in, she threw herself into his arms and clung to him, crying.

Bill, thinking something was seriously wrong, tried to soothe her, but she had laughed through her tears, and told him she had been to the doctor, and was finally, definitely, pregnant. There was no mistake, and they hadn’t even been especially trying at the time.

Bill was over the moon. So too, when they were told, were Charles and Jean. They bought all the clothes, the baby carriage, bassinet, bath; all of the seemingly endless paraphernalia a baby needs. Bill began decorating the bedroom next to theirs, turning it into a nursery. Ultrasound testing revealed that the baby was a girl, but they didn’t mind what it was, as long as it was healthy.

Then one evening, when Kathleen was five months into her pregnancy, she visited her parents while Bill worked late. He had arrived home to an empty house, and only ten minutes later the doorbell rang. Assuming she must have her hands full, since her folks were always giving her things for the baby, Bill had answered the door. But it was not his wife on the doorstep. Instead, two young policemen stood there. The look in their eyes was so final, so irrevocable, that he knew immediately why they were there.

The world reeled around him, and he only dimly heard the police telling him of the drunken maniac who had crossed the median strip on the freeway and collided head-on with Kathleen’s car at ninety miles an hour. In one stroke, with that one insane act, Bill’s life had been ruined, destroyed, the life he and Kathleen had planned wiped out as though it had never existed. It had taken Bill a year to emerge from his self-imposed isolation. He had loved Kathleen Redfern O’Rourke with all of his being, and her loss had left a void in him that he knew could never be filled.


Now, sitting in the warmth of the country club lounge with Charles, watching the frigid scene outside, he thought back to the time he had first heard of the Hermes project, just over five months ago, in his office at the plant. His boss, the CEO, had ushered in an Air Force colonel, and after making introductions had withdrawn, saying nothing further. Bill smiled to himself at the memory; the meeting had been like something out of a spy/science fiction novel, as the colonel had outlined the project and its aims.

“Lightspeed?” Bill had said, cynically amused, when the colonel had paused for comment. “Now, I don’t claim to be a physicist, colonel, just a working stiff, but even I’ve heard of Albert Einstein, and he says it’s impossible.” Bill propped his feet up on his desk, took an apple out of a drawer and helped himself to a healthy bite. “You sayin’ he’s wrong?”

The colonel smiled at Bill’s self deprecating description of himself. Working stiff, indeed. Doctor William O’Rourke was probably the country’s foremost nuclear fusion engineer, and was rumored to have been only a whisker behind the British engineers who had developed the fusion space drive. If not for the man’s personal tragedy, the colonel reflected, he would have been there long before the British. As it was, since the engine’s adoption by the United Space Federation, several of Bill’s suggested modifications had been put into practice.

“Well, that’s the conventional thinking, Doctor O’Rourke,” he said. “However, there are some who believe it might be possible to exceed the speed of light, rather than just travel at it.”

Bill, who had always preferred sagebrush over science fiction, and therefore had not had the benefit of experiencing Arthur C. Clarke’s genius, pondered this for a few moments. “That’s a real interesting notion. You’re suggesting there might be a kind of, what.... barrier, like at the speed of sound?”


Despite his skepticism, Bill was nevertheless intrigued by the idea of a light barrier. “But,” he said, “what do you think might happen when you go through the, for want of a better term, light barrier?”

The colonel leaned forward conspiratorially. “That, Doctor O’Rourke, is one of the things we hope to find out.”

Bill had been so fascinated by this idea, he had been unable to get it out of his mind. Finally, he had called the colonel and set up another meeting, this time with other people more senior from the project. During that encounter, Bill had made his commitment, and shortly after had become the third member of the Hermes team. He had a few misgivings, but no real regrets. The opportunity to participate in something of this magnitude was simply impossible for him to refuse.

It gave him, for the first time since Kathleen’s death, a new interest in his work, a sense of purpose in his life, and he threw himself into the task with all of his old energy. He knew that if he did not take this chance, he would regret it for the rest of his life, however long or short that may be. While he had not been totally indifferent to his own well-being or survival, it had been a close run thing; now, he had an opportunity to be part of something that was more important than any individual.

That name, Hermes, had inspired him. The team was going to travel farther and faster than anyone ever had before, and they were going to carry the message of mankind, perhaps to the stars. Who knew what they might find?


Now, sipping his beer, Bill returned his attention to the present, and smiled at Redfern. “Look at it this way, Charlie,” he said. “At least now you might win the occasional war game.”

Charles Redfern looked fondly at his younger companion, aware that his former son-in-law was attempting to lighten the mood. He also knew that he and Jean were going to miss Bill very much; having lost their daughter, it now seemed they were also to lose their son. They still thought of Bill as such, even with Kathy gone. Perhaps even more so.

Charles was supposed to be the gung-ho macho man. Now, when it came to the final parting, he knew that Jean was handling it far better than he was. The three of them had filled a void in each other’s lives, and now he would have to get used to them being just two again. He blinked his eyes rapidly; the last thing he wanted was to make a fool of himself in public with some emotional display.

Charles had tried to understand Bill’s decision to involve himself in this foolhardy experiment (such was how he saw it), but could not understand how the younger man could just up and leave everything he held dear, with no guarantee of ever coming back. Now, Bill tried once more to explain, to put into words he hoped would not hurt too much just why he had to leave.

“Charlie, I hope you can understand this; I don’t know the right words, but it’s not just me I’m doing this for. A lot of people are going to benefit from this, maybe even the entire world. This planet’s pretty well f----d, and we’ve got to find another place to live, and soon. If we’re successful, then we might be able to open the way to the stars, and other worlds. But that’s not all of it.” He paused, and looked out the window.

“You and Jean have been terrific to me these last couple of years. You’ve given me the first home I’ve known since I was a kid, and you couldn’t have been more supportive if you’d been my real parents. I’ll always be grateful to you for that.

“But something is missing, has been ever since the accident. Without her, it’s not the same anymore. I think too much has been lost, and it can never be replaced. I just feel there’s no place I can really call home anymore, not here or anywhere. Can you understand that?”

Redfern tried to look sympathetic, but Bill knew he could never understand, and that when the time came, there would be nothing else he could do but just go.



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