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Split Time
by Michael Severn
©2004 Michael Severn -- all rights reserved

"I am wild," said the Yocha'an in a gentle voice. It slammed its six clawed fingers down on the bar and dragged them back towards it, scattering chips of wood in all directions. Ryan's Place began to empty immediately. Not that it had been full to bursting to begin with. Men mostly (it was always men mostly) plus a handful of scuttling Pakimbi. Plus a tall, stately H'Vazt with its billowing mane of golden fur. And the Yocha'an.

Consell was slow to react. Only minutes earlier he'd commented on the presence of the Yocha'an and the potential danger it represented.

"Tourists!" spat the Trader he was drinking with. "All the same, blast your eyes. Think everything off your own world is going to kill you, right down to our recycled water. Don't know why you come! Listen, sonny, a Yocha'an goes wild once in a lifetime and they live long. There's many folk here with grey beards that never saw a wild one. Fellows like Ryan, they like to have one or two around. Well-mannered they are and a fine deterrent against troublemakers. You try to frame a law to allow Other Races into bars and keep out the Yocha'an, then you'd have mayhem and plenty."

Now the Yocha'an's great tail swung, scattering tables. Consell ducked as a Pakimbi-sized stool smashed into the wall where his head had been. Time to go. Anything in the vicinity of a wild Yocha'an was liable to suffer from a total destruction problem. Consell made to rise -- too late. The huge head swung in his direction, red lights glinting deep in the hooded eyes. "I am wild," the creature repeated almost apologetically as it sank into a crouch then launched itself at the terrified human.

Time seemed to slow down. It seemed to Consell as though his doom remained suspended in the air forever, claws spread, teeth bared, moving towards him yet drawing closer by infinitesimally small degrees. He felt no fear now. Nor did scenes from his past life flash before his eyes. Instead he remembered absurdly that his insurance policy specifically excluded acts of wild Yocha'an.

Then it dawned on him that time had not slowed down: it had stopped altogether. The Yocha'an hung motionless, reddish sunlight from the windows reflecting dully from its scales. Consell tried to move. He could not. He, too, was frozen.

"You've got a problem, lad." It was the voice of the Trader. Evidently he had not escaped either. Consell tried to turn his head but it obstinately refused to turn. He made to reply and found that his jaw was locked also.

"No need to talk," said the Trader. "I can read what you're thinking. Now, how would you like to be out of this mess?"

I'd like that just fine, Consell thought back at him.

"I can fix it."


A chuckle. "There's a lot we Traders can do. See how I'm holding the time? If I lose my grip, that beast is on you. Still, if you want I can arrange for it to go for me instead."

Why would you do that?

"I'm a Trader. Let's trade. What will you offer me?"

Consell knew with resigned detachment that bargaining for his life was not going to be like bargaining for a pretty hunk of rock in the Interworld bazaar. Anything, he thought. Anything I've got.

"What about a share of your body? It looks like a good one."

What do you mean?

"Well, by the time that Yocha'an's finished with me, my old body won't be fit for much. I'll just move in with you. Sort of a shipmate."

Suppose we don't get on?

The Trader chuckled again. The sound was like bubbles rising from a swamp and Consell would have shuddered if he'd been able. "After a while you won't notice I'm there."

Do I have an alternative?

"A quick death. Painful, I should think, but only briefly. Make up your mind -- I can't hold the stasis indefinitely."

In that case, I accept.

"Invite me in, then. You have to invite me of your own free will. That's important."

I invite you in.

Time slipped into gear again. Consell felt the rush of air as the Yocha'an swerved past him, heard as well as felt the impact as it smashed into the Trader. He did not stop to look. He threw himself in the opposite direction, hit the floor and rolled. Sounds of rending. Consell lay against the bar and was splattered with warm, sticky liquid. Something wet and slimy struck him on the cheek. There came a great crash as the Yocha'an hurled itself straight through the flimsy wall and set off to wreak who knew what havoc elsewhere.

Consell rose to his knees and looked around. Ryan's Place was like a scene from a gore show. Nothing moved save the blood dripping down what was left of the wall. He shook his head. He felt no different.

"Are you there?" he asked aloud.

The marsh gas chuckle bubbled up in the back of his mind. The Trader's voice was inside his own skull. First penetration, it said, then consumption!

Consell had only a few seconds to puzzle over the meaning of the words.

And then on whispering footsteps the white pain came.

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