Borderland Tales - Episode One:
"The Bounty Hunter"
"Enter The Lady"
By Melissa J. Vivigatz
They say the only thing in life you can ever really rely upon happening is change. That no matter how much you think your way is settled down proper an' routine-like it never will last. Just ain't meant to, is all. 'Cause you see, stuff is just movin' all the time around us in this broken old world of ours even when we can't get no view of it. Whether it's over the horizon or hiding tight an' coiled under the rocks, crap is just waiting to come creeping up and knocking us on the back of the head, blowing all our little comfortable plans to hell. Oh yeah. Sometimes the change bumps ya a little off your track and other times it'll leave you flat on your ass dazed and wonderin' just what up 'n bit ya. We've all of us gone through them to a degree or other, you know what I'm talking about well enough I recon. Yup, chance and happenstance is the name of the game, folks. Pity on all us fools when we get cozy in our ways, 'cause the longer the lull the harder the shit storm is gonna be when it finally hits. Trust me, I know.
Still, looking back, I can't say I was all that dull and deserving of such a thing. No sire I sure don't. In fact, I've come to have a sinking feeling that if this chance encounter that changed everything only ends in killing me, I'll be gettin' off right easy...
That night started out like every other at the piss-water dive called 'Corrok's Folly', the saloon's colorful name obviously deriving from the mound of mass graves located just outside of town.
Typical site out here in the borderlands, those dirt mounds rising like warts across the blasted ass of the land; their scratches of coarse, bitter yellow dry-weed and scrub cactus the only type of plants hardy enough to survive atop 'em with anything akin to flourishin'. Hell, there were tracks of land stretching for kilometers where you couldn't toss a stone without hitting a bone hill, as we called 'em. Yeah, guess you could say dead'uns had really reshaped the land. For sure there were a lot more of them than us living folks, now.
Two thousand dead for every one being left breathing had been the 'official' tally, offered up on the holo-feeds by some bureaucratic spokesmen or other three years ago, a whole two years after the fighting was considered ended. (It'd taken even the plastic-bubbled, keypad pushers that long to organize and start crunching their death head figures, gods bless 'em.) Of course the few of us left an'--ahem-- livin' in the real world hadn't believed that total for an instant. No sire partner, we sure did not.
Five 'n a half to six kilo-count at least, was my estimate. Hell if it would surprise anyone to find even that number was way low-off. Millions and millions gone, and truth was none of us really wanted to know exactly how many.
Son of a bitch, did we screw up or what?
Slugged back the nameless foulness that passed for the local beer and had to grunt at that; wiped the dregs of the yeasty brew from the corners of my dark-peppered mustache with the back of a hand, musing at life and the hole where I was growing more n' more morose, drinking in.
Corrok's Folly. Uncreative name for a swill den. Folly, that is, not the first part. Parrin's, Grillok's, Marvidon's--bet ya there was a saloon named after every sorry assed general that had lasted long enough to breathe an order during the war. Or wars, depending how you looked at it.
Hell, but it hadn't taken the world that much effort to go insane. Wonder if things had always been like that? The balance of mass sanity so easy to tip over...
See, the Dreyys had wanted their freedom while the Norrs were determined to keep their cheap labor forces in check. Not to mention expand their cultivated territories into places no gods' forsaken sane human should have ever wanted to venture into. The remaining free Dreyys had been chased from their jungles by those with higher tech. --Alright, shit happens. Though why that hadn't been enough for the Norrms, who'd decided they then wanted the remaining scrublands too, I'll never understand the reasons for...
Then there had been the Mutts. Mutants they say'd come about from every manner of thing including bio-engineerin' tests used in centuries past, to those whose ancestors had just had the rotten luck to breath some loopy chemical or catch the wrong bug and survive to pass the crapped-up genes onto their kids.
Whatever, when the Dreyys started rebelling against the Norrs--who were taking over more and more of their dwindling land just 'cause they felt like it, well, the Mutts figured why the hell not? and jumped right into the fray. Didn't take long for one little skirmish to cross over into another. Folks who'd gotten tired of their places in life took it as a chance to finally speak out--using their guns, lasers, knives or whatever all shit a hand or in some mutoes' cases, a claw, could be laid upon.
Then come a time where everyone was just fightin' anything that wasn't them or theirs: Wasn't the same breed or from the same city, or just had one too many limbs stickin' out of 'em. Real nasty couple of decades that had been. Almost thirty freakin' years worth. And hell, even if those of us who had survived hadn't gained or changed shit, least there'd been plenty of dead fools to name saloons after.
Thus 'Corrok's Folly', and sure as shit draws flies I didn't care to know who that might have been. What side or what breed of human, cyborg or mutant. Didn't matter to me and doubtful it did to any of the handful of other dirty bastards in the place drinking or cheating each other out of credits and bucks over games of cards.
Not that I was one with them. No, I just looked like it; pretended to be just another veteran drifter down on his luck, a lone guy passing through on his way seeking something better. But like the rest I had presumably decided to stay, just a little while longer. Thus was the way these borderland post-war towns were growing. Communities of strangers, the homeless lost and wounded wandering banding up to start over. And though this place, Harstick, had actually been founded pre-war, many others that hadn't were sprouting up all over, slowly refleshing the skeletal remains of the world, bit by meager, life-stubborn clawing bit.
With a semi-surprised huff I glanced into my dim mug, realizing I could see the bottom again. (Crap, even 'on the job' it looked like it was going to be one of those nights. Yeah, knew I should really be nursing them longer, keep my wits about me an all, but hell, the way my thoughts were drifting... Ah, screw it. Sometimes we all need a little buffering between our memories. Can't blame any of us who'd seen the things we had for that.)
Folly was theirs that thought booze was a haven from the world, I mused, cracking a disillusioned grin.
Name's Darin, by the way. Pleased ta-meetcha. Darin Crow'bestri being the full handle on account of some sort of Norrm ancestor or other. My great granddaddy, Jarrin Crow'bestri, who'd been kept viable on a machine long past his time (least till the power plant got blown and wiped out him an' the rest of the virt-wired) used to tell tales of what he called 'our tribe'. Strange place he'd created for his virtual cyber world. Plugging in to see the old man had always been weird. Loved the hell outta him, damn if I didn't, but shit, I don't know why he was all proud about coming from a past like that. Leastwise the comp-generated world where his free mind drifted had taken on what he thought that ancient past had been like. Tales passed on from his gran-folks and old, dusty data-cubes that none had much bothered with studying even before the wars. Living right on the open plains, huts of beam covered in brightly painted plasti-canvas. (Shit, but wasn't that how most people got by doing their living in these times? Folk who weren't still in the few remaining techno cities had to live off the land in one form or other. Those who weren't farmers, ranchers, or worked other crafts had jobs similar to mine.) Raven-haired children squatting over drawn games in the clay and tossed pebbles, wearing nothing but more drapes of colorfully painted plasti-fab shirts and furred leggings while the adults were out hunting or fishing up what there was to be had.
Grampy Jarrin had always looked funny to me wearing such a getup. (Not that I'd ever dared tell him that of course, knowing even young as I was that such'd break his heart.) Looked like a barren land's scavenger, though of course his outfit was always clean and not a bit scrappy. Young he was in his virty world too, since such was controlled by him. A sturdy, proud man, Grampy Jarrin'd always done his tale-telling while we were out 'hunting'. (Never would let me create and bring anything decent like a las-gun to his virtual world, either. Always had to use the 'old weapons' the ones you crafted from wood or plasti-rods. Arrows and the like.)
Still, scavenger-type tools or not, I'd liked those hunts together, far more than the stories. Gramps'd taught me an awful lot about tracking and the like, and if nothing else I'll always cherish that gift from the old man. Sure wasn't above admitting that crazy upbringing had given me a real survival edge over the years. (Knowing at age fifteen to keep downwind of the pack of dog-snouted Urga Mutts who'd just butchered your bunkmates with hatchets while you were out taking a leak was an example.) Yeah, I recon one could be proud to come from such a Hunter-trained breed. Virty-world or not, the skills I'd picked-up in youth served me well in the real world I lived in now at age forty-three, giving me an advantage as I worked my way tracking quarry through the rugged borderlands. 'Course I'm not the only one made their livelihood in such a way. Bringing in a long legged trident-horn or fatty scrub pig meant meat on the table for most. Although admittedly, your average folk kept their hunting to animals or sport mutoes.
Me, I hunted humans. For money.
Without much inner debate I lifted my hand, signaling the barkeep to pull me another mugful and slide it over across the worn and stained wood. I liked to keep to the bar when I hung here instead of a table, passing time by talking with Squeaks the barkeep now and then. (Yeah, I'd been staked out in this dive long enough to know more than a few of the locals' names. And chats with Squeaks Ellri, terse and crude though they often were, was one way to pick-up the occasional snippets of useful info, even if you had to keep from laughing at his girlishly high voice. Which wasn't hard to do, knowing he kept a bi-scatter gun close at hand beneath the counter. Yup. Don't laugh at Squeaks too hard or forget to pay for a single freakin' drink...) So when the barkeep paused in the act of lifting my crumpled blue-buck out of the damp it was an effort to make my glance back at the door seem casual.
Not that I needed to have bothered. Well, at least I assumed the distorted figure dismounting the large bulk-shape of an animal outside the pitted plasti-window wasn't my quarry. Despite it being early evening it wasn't overly dark out at the moment. There was a bit of a dust storm happening; the assorted lights from around town adding a soft glimmer to the glass-powder filled wind, so even through the milked and scored window I could see this one wasn't my man. Not big enough by a long shot.
Shit. Just another local come in for some company. Maybe a rich farmer to have the luxury of a riding animal. Pity the beast to be left out there in the open, though. The dust was light now, sure, but at any moment the wind could whip up and send the debris clouds to flesh scouring force.
Glancing back I saw that Squeaks had already pullout out his wary face. So. That was interesting, this one wasn't anyone he knew then. Scratch my rich farmer guess. Ditto that with some messenger for the sheriff of mayor, both of whom were in their usual places tonight at a table by the stairwell.
I hunched forward over my drink looking a hell of a lot more deeper in a self-engrossed stupor than I was. Could be my long awaited lead on the bastard I was after, then. A real scum of a man, wanted by more than one faction for various illegal deeds, robbery and murder not the least of them. Rumor had it my bounty head Parsh Koll had connections out here. Buddies from the war who'd still cover his ass no matter how he'd turned out. (My 'money' was on the pair hunched at a table in the corner across the way. Brin and Hilk were hard men who still wore the paled yellow patches on their sleeves, telling anyone who bothered to glance and gave a fuck that they were from the local troops, now long disbursed, of course. Patriots my ass. I think they did it to cause trouble, same as any other who still wore their colors. Rare these days were anyone who wanted to be remembered that clearly of the fighting.)
My plan, same as it had been since wandering into town a couple months back, was to hang out as background till one of them lead me to him. Hell, maybe it seems lazy to you, but better that than loosing my sorry ass out there in the blasted scrubland wandering amongst the graves and mutoes.
Still, I'd had little luck. I knew that bastard Koll had to be getting supplies from someplace. This saloon, being connected to the local dry goods store as well as housing several of the locals (like the sheriff) in rooms above was the best place to watch those who entered all three. Rooms, food and booze. All the things a man on the run needed. Now, if only I could catch those pair of assholes at it to follow
Or this newcomer, who was already at the tinted plasti-lath doors, pushing them open with a dry crunching as the rubber seal parted and the old mechanism swung back on dust choked hinges.
Whoever he was, he didn't even bother to glance around as the beamer by the entrance gave a squeal and buzz. Like the door, the weapon detector had gone uncared for far too long. Fart right and the thing went off, a damn sight more often then it actually picked up a hint of concealed sulfur or charged las-gun cartridge. No, the newcomer wrapped tight against the debris-filled wind didn't even pause a step as he made his way without looking about right to the bar. Couldn't make out a bit of flesh on him, 'cept the glint of one maybe green eye peering unblinking from beneath the brim of a pulled low hat. Dark brown, almost oiled looking, that wide-brimmed hat had seen some years; the sweatband, a twist of colorless snakeskin, maybe, twinkled with its brushing of glass dust. Hell, the whole of him gave off the dust glow. Again I had another passing twinge for the beast left outside. Quite a lot of glass must be blowing tonight, the microscopic little blades pried off in the further northern dust storms from the melted slag of what had once been a great city.
Barring the dark gloves, a same oiled brown as the wide-brimmed hat, the rest of the stranger (thin, not over tall in height yet not a shrimp by a long shot either) was dressed completely in black. Boots to duster to hint of the scarf wrapped tightly across the face just below that twinkle of eye. Bundled up thickly, he made his way to a stool a pair up from me, and when he didn't make a move to uncover, I soon found out the reason Ellri was so stone-faced and tense.
"We don't serve mutoes in here," the barkeep grunted, the surliness making his usually high pitched voice drop lower in resentment.
The long tails of his black duster knocked absently back as leg swung over the stool, the stranger cocked his head and I heard the amused snort of a reply:
"I wasn't about to order one."
Intake of breath at that voice as a dozen of my presumed ideas about 'him' scattered in pieces. Wary Ellri himself had done a quick double take and blink at the sound of that voice. Low, oh yes, but a woman's definitely.
And what a voice! Hell's bells a' ringin', I hoped she didn't take off her masking clothes ever 'cause there weren't no lady born to match the looks and promise that were given in that brief utterance of dryly offered sound. Leastwise not coming from anything seen in these desolate parts... Still, Ellri didn't move as a gloved hand lifted to unhooked the stays of the face-crossed coat's leather collar.
Another casual move and the scarf was pulled down, and gods' piss on the barkeep for being the first one to get a full look at her from the way he froze and drew in a ragged breath.
"Ma'am, pardon me," he squeaked, eyes just about bugging from his wrinkled, chestnut fleshed skull. Just gazed at her as she started peeling off the gloves revealing the whitest hands I'd ever seen on a still breathing human. Not on a Norr or even a Dreyy, an if she were a mutant even bigoted Squeaks Ellri didn't care.
Tossing the dusty leather pair on the counter, a still hatted head tilted. "Well? Going to sell me a drink or does one have more local customs to pass first?" Strangely accented voice. Odd drops to words, undercurrent of extended, almost hummed 'v's though it was real subtle. Certainly not anything I'd heard before. And I'd traveled through quite a few regions in my time. (Though gods bless, I could listen to her speak for hours and not get bored, I was sure of that. Shit, at this point in my stake-out anything would be better than Squeaks. Compared to that, this lady's voice was pure heaven.)
Ellri stammered a few things and she cut him off, waving one of those pale hands, ordering vodka, not ale.
"Leave the bottle," she said, tossing him a fold of blue-bills. As she tilted up the first shot, I noticed he'd made damn sure to give her a clean glass; not usual here, woman or no. It'd been a good move on his part seeing that fold of bills which made even my eyes widen. But Ellri still had a glazed look upon him, and for the life of me I bet the dollar-grubbing bastard hadn't even glanced at what she's given him.
Shit, but wasn't she ever going to turn my way?
Then, as if she'd read my thought, the woman did turn her face, just enough for me to catch sight of most of it over the lifted edge of a dark collar.
"Howdy, ma'am," I was able to mutter. Her lips twitched up in a brief half-smile as she bobbed head in mild greeting. And glory me, she kept her face turned my way as she lifted the bottle up to pour herself another. All I could do was stare, same as Ellri had. So white...so smooth. Not a desert-dried wrinkle to be had, the skin was flawless, features damn near expressionless.
Gods, she looked like a feakin' stone statue. But her lips! Oh man, oh man, just looking at them you could imagine all the places on your body you'd want them to go a' touching. To wrap tight around on you and...
Alright, so she only had the one eye; a cloth patch, black leather like her duster, covered where the left one would be. But hell, that wasn't nothing bad. The wars had left most of us scarred someplace. (My right leg held more cylo-plast than bone. The necessary replacement courtesy of a las-mine blast.) In fact, it'd taken me this long to even notice that fact about her. And not just because of those distracting lips, I'll have you know. The eye she did have was the deepest, darkest green I'd ever seen. A bit too cool, now that I was able to study it more. Just like her unmoving face. Well, not emotionless, just real distant looking, anyhows. Tired, maybe, yet not in a body way. (Her moves were too precise, earlier steps too assured to be deemed weary.) No, what was wrong with her was different than anything so simple. This mysterious lady, who was the most striking being I'd ever seen in my life, was drained right down to her soul.
Time, something about that matchless white face whispered to me. This woman had seen Time, in capital letter, just like that. Though if you could judge such a wrinkleless visage she had to be years younger than me.
Then there wasn't anymore time for contemplation as chance lifted it back up to mine and our gazes just seem to lock. Ice meets fire, I couldn't tell you how long I sat there ridged with pounding heart, gazing lost and floating in that dark-green orb.
"I want you," I said, the husky sound of my voice breaking me out of it with a start. Next to me, Ellri, who'd crept back over to stare at her coughed. Felt myself flushing then, the blood pounding in my face hard as it was doing down below.
Shit! Some smooth move that had been...
But that small smile was back on her lips, and maybe it was just my imagination or lust-brought-about hope, but it seemed to last there just a bit longer than the earlier one had...
A blink of that green eye, then she gave a small sigh, one I think I alone picked up on, before she turned back forward and hid her look from me.
Be wary of what you desire, Hunter. The only consolation you will find here is death.
"Huh?" I swear I heard those words in my head more than my ears as Ellri sneered at me, squeaking in his high voice,
"Don't go soundin' so surprised, Darin," he laughed at my confusion while I tried to figure out where the hell that voice had come from. I only half heard him as he said: "Some way to go talkin' to a lady."
"Like you've ever known a lady before in your life, you screechy old pig-banger," I offered distractedly. Hunter, she'd called me. How did she know?
"I'll go kickin' your sorry ass outta my bar. Swear I will, you lowlife dung-mopper."
Uh-oh. Ellri was going all pinched looking, his voice hitching up higher as anger rose. Better try to calm him down before I lost my cozy perch in the town's only suds joint...
Lifted my hands and waved them apologetically at him, but whatever I was going to say turned itself into a grieved moan as the woman got up. Both of us watched sadly as, grabbing bottle, glass and dust-glittering gloves, she made her way further back into the saloon. I tensed a bit, remembering just then I'd figured her for a contact to my bounty head Parsh Koll...but she went right past the two I had my eye on without a glance. Ignored a drunkenly offered invite from another trio of drinkers.
In fact, to my surprise, the woman headed straight for the large velour, swank-d-swank table set up by the stairwell.
Both Mayor Stantgill and Sheriff Poshji paused in their nightly card game to gawk open mouthed as she pulled back a chair and joined them; hooked another over to set crossed legs upon. (Her boots were an oiled brown leather, just like her hat; pants black scuffed suede. And damn, but how had I missed the curve to them legs even under her covering duster? Screw the fact she could be hiding a pair of riffles and who knew what else under there, the coat tails were that large.)
The lady poured herself another shot before tilting her head back and returning their gazes.
Ellri and I took one look at each other, argument forgot, and in silent agreement made our way down to that end of the bar. Screw a patron calling for a drink and hell with me looking like a hiding-out drifter. This was just too much for either of us to miss, and damn if anyone at that particular table noticed our sudden rude hustle to get within earshot.
"...don't know what you're talking about, ma'am," fat Stantgill was huffing, jowls beneath his too-red-dyed beard waggling. (Damn sad for a man so gross in flesh to be so vain about facial hair. Yet I supposed when you were getting that far along in years and had lost everything else on top, you had to do the best with what you had left.)
"And you surely have no idea who you're talking to." That coolly offered from the rail-thin sheriff. As tall as the mayor was fat, hair yellow as old straw with drooping moustache to match, Poshji was no push over. Couldn't be with the job he had, his people hiding outlaws or no. Deadly with the las-riffle, from the tales I'd heard he'd be a good second man to have guarding your back in the badlands. If it finally came to the time for me to abandon this waiting game and go out, Poshji might be a one to take along.
That is if I didn't work alone and had any thoughts about splitting the bounty.
Which I sure as shit did not.
Though the two town leaders had looks similar to mine and the barkeep's, whatever we'd missed of the woman's opening words had set these guys right on their ears. For damn sure they weren't pleased. And considering what she said next, I couldn't fault them a bit.
"You are Urin Poshji Unstewell, Sheriff elect by trial of combat, of Harstick township. That," a negligent turning of white hand, "is your second cousin, Werlthin Stantgill. You, Urin, fought on the side of the Harkin'de Stin division. Yuin Unstewell, the one that connects you two in direct heredity made the family's fortune during the first decade of the local war by selling rustled cattle-heads from her neighbors, some of whom ended up starving--at least those she did not murder outright in their beds--to all fighting sides willing to pay her inflated prices. Your families have now claimed most of that 'uninhabited' prime grazing land."
Dead silence in the whole bar as she placed bottle, now half empty of its clear liquid, onto the table with a soft clink of glass. Both the men's wrinkled faces were paled. If she'd tossed a charged las-grenade at them doubtful the reaction would be worse. And if the insane woman with the death wish noticed the cold look narrowing the sheriff's eye she took no notice as she finished just as calmly as she'd begun, "So you see, I do indeed know to whom I am speaking. And gentlemen, though I expect it, I dislike being lied to. Even over so trivial a matter as this."
"Ma'am," that from Poshji. "I think it best you leave our town now."
"I have every intension of being on my way from this place. After you answer my question. Which I repeat, for a second and final time: Where have you secreted the human known as Parsh Jon Koll? Is he still at Werlthin's hunting lodge along the edge of Furlls Forest or back on your brother Nerin's homestead, Urin?"
What the fuck? I couldn't help my mouth dropping open again. She was after my bounty head?
"Son of a bitch,' I breathed as Poshji rose, las-pistol already in his grip.
Without a tremble he held it steadily aimed at her chest while he stood, Stantgill warbling unnoticed at his side in agitation.
"By the power vested in me by the Office of Sheriff to Harstick Township," he said, voice hissing through his drooping mustache, "your are under arrest for disturbing the peace, making slanderous accusations, and any other fucking thing I can think of as we head to the cells. Now get up slowly."
Well, she'd brought it on herself, I figured. Wasn't no concern of mine for anyone acting that stupid. (Mentally chalked off a competitor for Parsh, though she was the first I'd noted in the area. Guess it was time to start hustling after all, then. Had to be more on the way.) Maybe my fellow young bounty hunter was right about the mayor and sheriff's kin and maybe not. And why she thought these two would be the cover for my bounty head I had no idea whatsoever.
Nor was she making any move to comply to the ice-eyed, furious and deadly man who held the laser pistol less than a meter from her. Poshji could by rights just blow her away now even if he felt like it, and by gods you could see that was just what he was going to do any second now.
A small sigh, and again, it felt like I was the only one there able to hear it as she tilted brimmed hat up to look at him.
"Sheriff, enough with this foolishness. I am not after you. Boring little moral criminals like yourself do not interest me. Truly, I do not care about your war-time smuggling of weapons to the Grey Mutants of the Southern Ridges. Why, at least the las-cartridges you sold them actually had charges. I can respect honor like that. Unlike your partner, Parsh--"
She didn't twitch one of those boot crossed ankles in attempt to do anything like rise. Shit, he was going to squeeze the trigger and she wasn't even putting down her drink! Hell's bells, but the woman was so calm she actually started to tip the glass back and...
As I dove for cover, I twitched my right wrist instinctively, palm filling comfortingly with my own snub-nosed firearm, the forearm spring-clip in perfect working order. Landing, there came twin startled yelps from Brin and Hilk as the short laser burst missed its target and exploded with a puff through the beam just across the top of their table.
Sparkling dust from the outside started immediately flowing in through the melted-edged pea-hole.
"Holy shit!" Ellri shrieked still standing there upright like a fool, eyes bugging out in amazement. Same at the sheriff's were, the man looking unbelievingly at the still seated woman across the table from him.
What the fuck had happened? How could the man, a master shooter, have missed a shot like that? And why the hell was she just sitting there, shaking her head slowly from side to side?
"I wasn't done with that," she mussed as dust and the smell of smoke started tingeing the air. Her bottle, she meant. The vodka placed on the table dead before her was gone. Glass melted to slag, the alcohol within had ignited with the burst and set the velour tabletop afire. From my place on the floor, crouched best I could behind a tumble of chairs, I blinked at what I was seeing having a perfect angle to do so. There had been no way she could have ducked that shot. There was just no fucking way anything could move so fast.
But then as Poshji fired the gun again I got to see that yes, there was something could move that fast as in a blur--and I mean just that, the woman actually blurred--as she rolled out of her chair and came up standing.
The sheriff didn't waste time gaping as his second-time-missed target leapt upwards through the smoke and went completely over the fucking table, tails of broad duster flung wide open like trailing wings behind her.
As I was mentally tallying up the number of beers I'd had so far that day, knowing it hadn't been anything like that many, I watched as she came down in a crouch, ducked under Poshji's gun hand and smacked it aside as he again pulled the trigger.
Screams of pain now because this time the explosion of light had found a flesh target.
Stantgill, the fat, red-bearded mayor gurgling out his last, hands pointlessly trying to cover up the hole that was tunneled clear through his sizzling chest.
"Holy shit!" Ellri squeaked again, though this time the yelp was muffled as he watched from behind a peep-hole in the bar. As the battlefield smell of charred flesh hit and wrinkled my nose, I decided his place looked a hell of a lot safer than my thin barrier of chairs.
Keeping as low as I could I scrambled my ass across the floor and hit with an elbow the hidden spring latch that opened the until then, concealed swinging side-door.
"Hey!" the barkeeper protested in surprise as I shoved him aside and took over. (What the hell made him so special, I mused? After all, I was a good customer, paid for my drinks with real money and everything...) A direct look into my little snub nose stilled all his objections as I placed my eye against the meshed plexi-screen and watched.
Brin and Hilk, along with most of the other howling bums the place had held had hauled their sorry ashes sometimes after the first shot. (So much for the local steel-for-balls war heroes, I mused cynically.) I spared just a split second to glance at the few remainders, of those, only one man so passed out he was still snoring in the corner across from the bar, and the trio of drunken cattle-horn ranchers remained. Smart move, they'd flipped their table over as shield above them (as automatic as my dive, some battle instincts die hard) so I was the only one left to watch as the woman rose, lifting the sheriff (a man who stood well more than a head taller than her) up by the throat, slamming him at arm's length into the wall with a snarl above.
"Idiot," she growled as his face went from purple to blue, white fingers wrapped tight enough to sink into his darker skin. (And damn if she didn't pull him away and crash him back again with enough force to send his kicking legs bouncing. What in the fucking hell was she?) "All you had to do was answer one little question. Yet no, you had to--"
"Get down!" I yelled, having just then caught from the corner of my eye one of the ranchers getting up and drawing a bead at her exposed back.
Again that blur of speed, only this time she took the sheriff with her, the grown man held out like a freakin' banner behind as she spun, leapt and kicked the large flaming table right at the guy pulling the trigger.
Doubtful the lead slug even dented the smoldering missile before it crashed into him. Velour now mostly gone, the table's thick plastic edge caught him hard across the shoulder, knocking him down into his fellow rising buddies.
Confined in the room as it'd been, the shot had been loud. Add that to the assorted hollers, curses and the stunning show of her strength and I suppose you could forgive me my lapse in missing as Ellri went for his scatter gun and stood. Course I couldn't see what he was aiming at across the counter from my kneeling huddle, but it was a good guess as he flicked it from lead to las-fire and froze his tracking motion...
"Sorry, Squeaks," I said and blew the back of his head off.
Not soon enough to stop his finger's jerk on the trigger, but I hoped that the abrupt change in the riffle's angle had helped as a sudden wind sent a shimmering cloud into the room. The barkeep's final shot had taken out one of the doors and the dust was blowing in hard. Scrambling instinctively, I grabbed my goggles up from where they hung around my throat and followed it quickly with my breather. Death by dust-lung wasn't my idea of an ideal way to go. Nor did I want to go blind anytime in the near future.
Or get my head shot off. So it was with real care I raised it slowly and peered over the counter, not understanding why the hell my heart was pounding so hard in my throat. Why the hell I was even helping her in the first place...
The goggle lenses were tinted amber, automatically lessening the glare from the glass dust. Didn't help me much against the swirls of smoke, of which there was a lot more of now. And considering the way the ranchers were coughing I didn't have that much to worry about getting a gift in the head like Squeaks had. Hard to aim and shoot when your throat and eyes were filled with micro-daggers.
Son of a bitch. There she was and she was all right! Standing tall and straight before the blasted doors, sparkles flowing in a raging gust past her cocked head as she looked back at me, face expressionless. Mutant, cyborg, I didn't give one fuck at that moment as the constriction in my throat lessened and found I could breath again in my relief.
And she still had hold of the lanky sheriff, her white hand gripping a twist of the back of his shirt collar as he hung there loosely, arms dangling.
A slight turning of her face and I knew it was time to move. The ranchers had gotten things together enough to find their own breathers and two of them at least were trying to stumble up, both with guns drawn and looking for targets. Finding them at the same time
Oh joy. They decided on me.
"Son of a bitch!"
Ducked as the firing began, glass and plasti shards and booze raining down as their wild shots rang out uselessly into the shelves above my head. Their pistols might be able to poke holes in the wood veneer but they couldn't go through the layer of molded plastic that made up the real bar itself.
And of course they knew that; didn't take them long to have one man keep shooting over my head, pinning me down while the other bastard was making his way around to get in a killing shot.
"So," I asked myself raggedly as I switched my little snub nose for a real gun, the las-pistol sliding easily out of its holster hidden beneath my coat, "where the fuck is my help, lady?" Ignored the peppering debris from another round as I slid to my knee and waited for the first sign that I'd get too late of the man who was going to do me. 'Cause sure as shit draws flies I was on my own here. Didn't take no fucking genius to figure that one out. Her head had just turned a bit, that was the only warning I'd gotten that the men were getting up. No "watch out," no "get yourself under cover!" and for damn sure nothing like "Gee, thanks for saving my ass back there. I really own you one, guy. How about a sweaty tumble in the hay?"
My last glance of the ungrateful bitch hadn't shown her going for a gun or anything. Just that slight turn, like she barely cared one way or the other what was about to go down.
What was going down now as a brief shaft of darkening cut through the light-reflecting glimmer, telling me where the man was going to leap over the counter and blast me--
Za-pow! Crack of sizzling ozone as I got the bastard right in the heart before his feet touched the floor...dove under him with enough rising force to hold his toppling body upright...to swing my bulky flesh shield around and take his companion dead bang right in the same spot as we all went down in our respective places.
Quickly now, shoving the weight of the still twitching man off me, I got to my feet and skittled through the slippery mess of wasted booze wetted plastic. Shot out from behind the counter like my ass was greased with just barely enough time to see her slipping out through the shattered doors, Poshji's boots dragging like a tail behind her.
So, she had stayed long enough to watch. Somehow I'd known she would.
Anger filled me now, a shaking tremor of rage as adrenaline from the shootout and other forces surged through me.
Pulling gloves on, wrapping my coat tight, I clicked a small button on the caller wrapped about my wrist, lifted it to my face and harshed my command into the speaker. Trells was already on the way of course. I'd called my cyborg mount the instant the rancher had risen to shoot the woman in the back, knowing that whatever happened, I'd be needing a quick means to get out of town.
Still, my horse had been hidden on the outskirts, well away from any local spying eyes. Fast he may be, but I was regretting bitterly my caution as I watched her mount her own animal; the boneless sheriff being easily tossed across the saddle.
"Wait!" I yelled, the breather giving my yell that crackling mechanical sound as the animal pulled its massive armored and horned head away from the hitching post, backed up, making to turn. Seeing the black maned and green scaled beast was as startling a sight as she had been--though I didn't have time to give it any thought now, only knowing that like a tank, the monster was perfectly capable of dealing with the rising dust storm.
Running out into the street next to it gave me just that last look at her. The massive cloven hooves of the animal stomping down too close, I was torn between dodging for my life and reaching up to grab her coat and hold her.
"Wait," I said again, feeling the buzz on my wrist, knowing Trells was almost here, probably galloping around the building this very moment. Too late though. No matter what I was going to be too late and helpless to stop her leaving as she glanced down from her lofty perch a final time.
Breatherless. No goggles or even a raising of her scarf. The pale woman with the deep green eye looked calmly down at me through the glittering air. I swear my heart stopped when her lips slowly curled in a rueful half smile--and stayed that way.
But she didn't speak. Only nodded mildly like she had at our first greeting before the frightening beast growled and ripped her away.
"No!" I stumbled after, tripping in their wake; pulling my own hat down further at a sudden sharper gust. No fucking way was I going to be able to follow her in this.
Son of a bitch!
Hard bump in the shoulder behind me. From the buzzing on my wrist I didn't need to turn to know Trells was there as I swung my arm up and around to haul myself nearly blind into the saddle.
Another gust, cutting at me from a new direction. Oh yeah, the storm was rising fast now. Time to get my sorry ass to some shelter.
She was heading north. Even now I could just make out the crazy trail through the glowing dust as a large form shifted the angle of reflected light beams... Then there were other shapes making the light go screwy. Small ones, gathering in groups, their animated shadows stretched up the sides of building like twisted cartoon mutoes. So then, enough town folk had put on their dust gear to make their way to the saloon, probably packed to the gills with weapons.
"Screw this scene." Sure I'd be safe in the sand cave where Trells had been staying. From mob and storm both. The caves were to the west and I had no worries about making it there. Even if I was wrapped up blind my horse could find his way back. West was the only way left for me to go if I didn't want to die here, and hell, maybe I could still pick up on my bounty head's trail once things settled.
Knowing all that and not being a suicidal man, having a great wish to keep my favored skin breathing for many years yet to come, could someone please explain to me why the fucking hell I turned Trells north into the storm?
Borderland Tales - Episode Two:
"Safer in the storm..."
By M. J. Vivigatz (C) 2004
Devils swirled everywhere, their insane patterns unpredictable and deadly. Screams deafening, the hell-hosts surrounded us completely in numbers uncountable, yet hundreds more than enough needed to panic any sane being into high-tailing it the hell outta here. But by now I was way beyond panic, let alone having any means of escape. Trapped, completely surrounded, the only thing I felt was a bone-weary, through and through disgust at myself.
Man, but I couldn't see for shit.
Whipping mud-yellows and cruddy browns in all direction, there was no telling sky from earth save gravity--and even that wasn't too clear amidst the force of this killer blow.
Bundled up tight, every bit of flesh wrapped thick in cloth against the constant lashing of flensing, grainy sand, even my army-issued goggles were of no help anymore. Worse, my horse Trells seemed in the same shape. Cyborg or no, the wind had picked up too much debris for even his octi-plas lenses... I felt another jolt when he stumbled for the third time in what could be as many minutes or hours. Time had become a surreal thing to me. Didn't dare lift my arm to check my chronopiece. Even if it was possible to see there was too much risk the shrieking wind would snap it. No, couldn't tell how long we'd been out in this shit on my fool's errand of a ghost-chase: A madness inspired hunt straight into the heart of a raging badland's dust storm of which neither of us, Man or Cyborg Horse could survive in much longer.
"Ouff!" Curled a hand instinctively in protection over my shoulder as whatever it was the wind had thrown at us bounced off painfully. Brief flash of stars which had nothing to do with the unseen sky as I gritted my teeth and curled down further... Startled neigh and rocking shudder from beneath as another kicked-up missile got my horse someplace I hoped wasn't too vital...
Son of a bitch, we were going to die out here if we kept upright.
Like we would die if we dared stop moving.
Screw it. Kicked my heal in signal for Trells to lower himself. No way to find shelter in this; there was too much silicone buzzing about to locate anything in scanning distance even if there was anything to be had, which I doubted. No, we were just going to have to make do with where we were and turn up our hats to hope.
Was it still night? Had the storm continued through a day? No way to tell, the thought running uselessly in my head as I held on tight in effort not to get blown away in the howling wind.
Trells lay down on his side as commanded and I curled up best I could close to his metal chest. The tempest was coming from every direction, no way to get out of it. I just hoped we weren't going to get buried alive before it was over.
Why was I out here? That was the real bitch of it because like you, I sure as shit didn't know the answer either. A madness had gripped me, just like I'd said.
If my eyes were open or shut at the moment I just couldn't tell. Didn't matter I suppose, because if there was anything I could see clearly it was the firefight that had happened back in the saloon at Harstick.
What a damn thing to have gone down. Hadn't seen anything like it since the War, and at least then you expected shit like that to happen. Instant chaos was routine back then. Whether eatin', sleepin', or taking a crap if you'd gotten enough food that week...the constant glancing over your head and shoulder just waitin' for the hammer to fall and clock you off for good was normal--then. But not now. Not in these 'peaceful' times. I mean here we all were, just a bunch of regular folk sipping our evening suds one moment, the next, smoke and bullets and las-charges were filling the air and riddling people. All because of Her. Of the strange woman who had wandered in from the night, riding the edges of this storm while it was still nothing more than a fart kicking up dust in the street.
I curled into a tighter ball between the legs of my horse and couldn't help laughing, the sound of it strange and metallic coming as it did from my breather mask. "We don't serve mutoes in here," Squeaks the bartender had said to the bundled up, black coated stranger before she'd pulled down her scarf. Pour Squeaks Ellri. Just a regular joe with a too-high voice and slinger of bitter suds. An asshole, sure, but not that bad of a guy. Shame I'd had to blow his head off, but them were the breaks sometimes.
"Couldn't have you go shooting her, Squeaks," I said into my folded arms. No, I couldn't let him do anything like that. Though like finding myself out here dying by centimeters in a badland's blow, I didn't have a clue as to why that was.
Laughed again, kicked my legs because I could feel the sand and glass dust starting to cover them. (No sire, I wasn't going to get buried without at least a little struggle, thank you much.) Her answer had been a beaut alright. Not the reason Ellri was going to blow her away of course, that hadn't happened till oh, what, five, ten minutes later, maybe? Holy shit on a long pole, was that how long it had taken for things to go insane? Five, ten minutes from the time she had walked in to order a bottle of vodka till the las-pistols were drawn and started tunneling holes in people?
"Couldn't have been," I mused in tired incredulity. Coughed a bit, decided it would be best to keep my final relating of the tale inside my head. The breather wasn't giving out; it was too good, had been made during the War to filter out crap far deadlier than this. It was just the wind was so thick with dust there was little air to be taken in...
"I wasn't going to order one," the woman had said in response to the barkeep's wary question about serving unwanted mutants in his place. Closed my eyes and moaned while I laughed. Gods, had I come all this way just to hear her speak again? That voice... Oh man, I was sure as soon as hearing it she wouldn't have the looks to match.
But she had. More than had them. Oh yeah, she sure did. The lady had looked so strange and exotic with her white, wrinkleless face. Smooth as carved marble and just as unfeeling, but oh-man-oh-man, when she'd turned and looked my way... (Another absent kick of legs. Hadn't realized the sand was almost to the knees that time...) What a face! I can see that single, darkest green eye of hers so fucking clearly even now. Cold, distant...timeless.
Hell, I'd seen shock before of course, which one of us hasn't? Thirty or so years of War hadn't left a one of us untouched. But that look... What had been in the woman's eye went far beyond anything I had ever encountered before. Men who'd seen their entire regiment hung, children raped, screaming mutants roasted alive for entertainment, women holding babies of whom the latest strain of nerve gas had melted out the bones of Seen it all and plenty more since, yet none of it, not a damn thing had compared to what I'd seen in her tired gaze...
A 'thousand year stare' didn't begin to cover it.
"Lady," I croaked my overwhelming hurt into the howling gale, "why did you leave me?"
An I'd fucking helped her! Gods rotted dammit, but I had.
Turned out she was a Bounty Hunter, same as me. After the same man to boot, but the way she'd gone about it, going right up to the Mayor and Sheriff and accusing them of being the ones hiding the man out...
From their reactions you just knew she'd been right. Hell, she'd known a lot of things Sheriff Poshji quite clearly hadn't want anyone to ever discover, much less talk aloud about in an open saloon. Things like about him being a gun smuggler during the War. Selling arms to the fucking mutants, of all sides. Yup. She'd known just enough details about it to send the local sheriff right over the edge.
But the master gunman who'd drawn his las-pistol and aimed it at her lazily seated self from across the scant table had missed when he'd fired blank into her chest. Missed her and given her a chance to go after him when he'd tried to get off another shot...
Why everyone else had started shooting I guess I'll never know for sure. Maybe they'd just been protecting one of their own. Or maybe those local cattle-horn ranchers had wanted to take out Poshji, not her. For his aiding their Wartime enemy.
Whatever, those who hadn't run as the first laser shot melted a hole in the saloon wall had turned the place into a bloodbath quick enough. Sort of amazed that I'd gotten out without a scratch. Huh, not that that was much to crow about considering the fucking sand was over my knees again...
Ellri's reason had been easy enough to guess, I suppose. As the two of us watched from our shelter behind the bar and seen the way in which she's dealt with the sheriff it was obvious Squeaks had thought her a mutoe. Tell the truth, she might be, though some part of me even now felt that wasn't true. Nor did I think she was a cyborg like Trells.
No, gasping sleepily as things got darker, I didn't know what the hell the strange, nameless woman was, and since I was too tired to care that the sand was reaching my elbows now I guess I never was going to find out...
Damn, but life could sure be a tough-assed bitch.
Someone calling my name faintly. Stirring of boyhood memories; a voice from the distant past.
"Grampy, is that you? Shit," I grunted in disappointed understanding as the tall, hatchet-faced man walking easily through the glitter came closer. "I am fucking dead. Son of a bitch!" For some reason I felt more pissed off than happy about seeing the old man again after so long. Sure, I loved him more than anyone else in the world, but considerin' the hot dream I'd been having, Grampy Jarrin's face wasn't exactly what I'd been hoping to see hovering over me just now.
"An' now I'm freakin' dead," I grumbled again, feeling really irritable and sort of depressed. No more chances to make that dream come true. Worse, I'd died with one serious case of blue balls.
Nope, I thought ruefully to myself, wondering if the ache would abate anytime soon, this afterlife was not getting off on a good start at all.
"Not yet, Darin," my great granddaddy said; his voice more a hum in my head than anything else. It seemed to shake me more awake. I noticed immediately that the air was thin and my throat was painfully dry from trying to gasp it. Then I found out I couldn't move a bit, not even me head. My cocoon of grit heavy and near complete, seemed a creeping shadow at the corners of my goggles.
Oh great, not dead, just crazy. That was nice to know; gave a man the final acknowledgment as he bent over and exposed his ass for a last royal kicking that yes, life was one great mean bitch before it took you out...
Dammit, he could at least have let me finish my dream, I groused ungratefully.
"Darin, come with me now,' my Granddad was saying, holding his hand out as he stood hovering over. Dressed in the same ancient get-up he'd donned when I'd visited him in his virtual world, the place the old man's mind had been kept before the wars had destroyed the virty banks. No, actually he was dressed a bit different now. The fur of his legging was tan, his painted hide and bead-sewn vest a deep rich chestnut in color, same as his skin. Same as mine was, though Granddad's hair had always been thicker and blacker than my own slightly waved locks.
For the first time I realized how much the two of us looked alike, a touch broader in face than his not withstanding. Funny thing to know I'd grown up to have his build and blue eyes. Odd that I was awake enough to even be aware of these details, or could even see him in the still screaming storm.
And the 'old' man had his fucking spear with him; a bow and quiver of arrows strung hanging from his back, the fletchings no longer plastic, but feathers. Such weird details a crazy man's mind farts up as he died, I mused to myself again, grinning behind the breather.
"Darin Crow'bestri, hurry," he said again, Grampy's deep, always soothing voice clearer than it had been a moment before. "You have to come with me now before it is too late."
Too late for what? Was Granddad here to save me then? Was this like one of his camp fire tales about 'spirit guides' helping those of our tribe-group in times of great need? Yet weren't those buggers supposed to have animal heads? (Actually, that'd sort of bothered me as a kid. What the hell were dead mutants doing helping Men? Sure as shit they didn't do such when living.) Screw that, I'm just glad my guide was Gramps. And yes sire, partner, my need couldn't be no greater because for the life of me, besides him, I couldn't see a thing as edges went dark again.
Yet try as I might I still couldn't move a muscle...
"Sort'a buried here, Grampy," I said to him, waiting for some good old spirit help to start kickin' in.
"I know, my son. You have to relax. Let the weight of this world's hold drop from you. Then you can take my hand. But hurry, Darin. You have to hurry before the Ut-din'chind-i comes and takes your soul from us."
"What?" Far from the sort of 'help' I'd expected, that startled me enough to where I actually did open my eyes, maybe for the first time since the old man had come. And now I did feel where the sand had crept over my chin. Coughed instinctively at the thought of it, woke up some more and couldn't stop the futile hindbrain struggle that demanded I get up or suffocate. Soon as I did though the old man was gone, his face cracking defeated as with a sudden gust the wind swirled up and melted his form away.
Yet there was someone else already taking his place--or something. Not bright and clear as Grampy Jarrin had been, but dark and blurry in the still raging tempest. Nothing but an edge flapping shadow coming that last step closer to stand over me.
Foolish Hunter, I heard Her voice sigh inside my head. I warned you all you would find was death.
Then there was nothing but darkness. The last thing I remember before going out: a pair of darkly gloved hands reached down to dig into my sandy shroud, lifting me up with a gritty sucking sound from its killing embrace...
Fitting when I came to I was still in darkness. For one brief moment I panicked, thinking my goggles had failed and I'd been made blind. But no, my eyes didn't hurt, so I knew the dust hadn't gotten in to scour them from my head.
And I wasn't dead either. I'd know that instantly because I felt worse than hammered shit. Through and through I was just plain old fucking miserable. Cold, bruised, itching, thirsty and hungry. Most of all cold.
I muttered a curse to that extant and realized a third thing: I wasn't alone.
"Cold? Oh. Yes, of course you are," came Her voice, sending an uncontrollable shiver running through me. I didn't dare speak, not knowing what I would say or what was going to keep me alive here in this wherever-we-were. To say I was a mess of confusion was the biggest gods' damn understatement I think had ever existed.
In silence, I listened to a movement of rustling cloth: the sound of the woman rising. The quite noise echoed strangely, and I realized from that and the feel of the stone beneath from where I'd been tossed that we were in a cave.
As the whisper of sound faded down what I guessed was another tunnel somewhere to the left I figured it a good idea to at least sit up. Gravel crunched beneath when I moved. I shifted with another curse and brushed away the stone that had been jabbing me in the ass.
Damn, but it was blacker than a tomb in here. I couldn't see crap. Wait. After feeling for my guns (all were where they were supposed to be, amazingly,) I pushed back my sleeve, sighing in relief at the row of blinking little lights on my caller. So, Trells was still viable, wherever he was. Powered down to rest mode those signals said. With a click I flipped the tiny stats screen up to see that there weren't as many numbers off as I had feared. So my horse was in good condition; sleeping, not in mass-damage stasis. I was happy to know that. Me and Trells had been through some real tough times these past years and even if he was a cyborg I was fond of him.
A loud clacking crash nearby had me leap up with a startled yell, snub nose in my palm.
"Do you not want a fire, then?" came the mild question right next to me in the dark.
"Son of a bitch, woman. I think I need a clean pair of drawers now, too!"
A dry huff of a chuckle, barely louder than that earlier whisper of cloth, flicked on then off. Just like her twice now seen twitch of a smile, the sound of humor held a rusty note to it as if she were not used to making such noises or expression. I wished I could see her as I shakingly put away the pistol. The only light I had came from the tiny blips from the caller on my wrist, and those didn't do shit.
I heard the clicking sound of wood being placed amongst wood. Then a long moment of silence. After a few minutes of that there came another of those near breathless, rusted chuckles.
When she spoke this time, I could swear there was ruefulness in her voice.
"Hmm. Do you know, Hunter, I believe one has forgotten how to do this?"
"What, light a fire?" I snorted in disbelief.
Silence. Not even a breath of whisper beyond my own could be heard. Well, that and the thumping beating of my heart.
No longer able to stand the growing silence (or the sudden burst of sweat that had popped out all over me in spite of the cold) I cleared my throat, wincing at the sound of it, too loud in the still darkness.
"I have a lighter in my gear," I offered hesitantly. No response beyond another soft rustle and a sudden presence: one of my saddle bags being pressed to my chest.
"Are they all here?" I asked as I settled down, feeling my way blindly to the lacings.
A long pause.
"You were sitting next to them."
"Ah, great. Thanks." I had been handed the wrong bag, I could tell that by feeling it.
Setting it and myself down, careful not to slip on the loose gravel as I did so, I began a search to my left, found nothing. Waving my arm right I struck something bulky. Son of a bitch, but this whole thing was freaking me out bad.
And I couldn't stand the silence. Unless she was talking, I would swear I was the only living thing in the place. Who knows, maybe she had left, gone back where she'd found the wood, but I doubted it. No, she was still here, watching me work, blind as I was in the dark.
The chill was settling in heavily. My teeth chattered as I spoke, hands fumbling through my packs for the right one. "Alright then, I'll have us a blaze going soon enough, ma'am," I started saying, needing to fill the space. "Is there enough wood to see us through the night? I'm guessing it's still night out at least. See, we left town so fast I didn't get to gather up all my camping gear. Left my heat coils and emergency compo-bricks behind. Sure as shit draws flies I know that was a stupid thing to do, but see, I wasn't really planning on launching myself into the badlands like this."
Again with that whisper of a chuckle.
"Really? How surprising." Oh man, but that low, strangely accented voice promised a man so much. Yet I was starting to think it unintentional on her part. Forced myself to swallow a disappointment as strong in intensity as my relief.
"Uh huh," I nodded, glad to at least have a direction now in which to aim my prattle. Better, I had the flash-lighter and felt the ground for a piece of kindling. Ah ha. Got one. I grinned as I held it up to the flasher: a tiny puff of ozone and instantly I had a nicely burning brand of flame held out before me. Knowing the sudden light would be a shock, I'd squinted my eyes against it in preparation. Ok, heat first, then take a look at the place. Cold as it was, it felt like pieces were going to start dropping off I didn't do things in that order.
"Ah, man, that's better," I breathed as with my little torch I quickly placed several more sticks in a cone shape and touched it with my flasher as well. (For some reason she'd placed the wood in a flat square pattern like a raft. How she figured it would burn smothered to the stone like that I had no idea.)
"Oh. That's right." I glanced up from where I was rubbing my hands together in pleasure, looked over to where she was seated against the far wall, knees tucked up, arms wrapped about them, head cocked as she studied my accomplishment. She still had on that hat, wide brim pulled very low so only a hint of green eye showed from beneath it.
And damn again, the wood was very dry. Bleached as pale as bone, it was going to go quick. Still, at least it burned bright enough for me to finally get a good lay of the place. For the moment.
Yup, a cave alright. Not that grand, maybe five meters at the highest point above, most of it not even that. Thin and a bit curvy, scattering of boulders, shelf-edges of rock; looked like there were a couple of real low side tunnels, or at least some sorta holes, the angles of which were beyond my little blaze to see into.
"Where are we?" I asked into the growing silence, hating it even with the light. She didn't so much as twitch so intently was she watching the flames. I had to repeat my question a few times before she finally shifted, blinking slowly.
"Here," she said uninterested.
Shit. This was going to be one long, fucking night.
"Well, thanks for that, lady," I snorted unthinkingly. Then held my breath as in one fluid motion she uncoiled herself and rose standing.
"It consumes itself quickly," she said, still gazing at the fire. Obviously she was more interested in it than me. "Wait here and I shall get more wood." All I did was nod as she ducked down one of the shorter tunnels. Well. Least I knew there was more fuel handy.
It hadn't seemed to take her long last time, and despite going through my bags to see that yeah, most of them were here, grab a few items handy, there wasn't much else for me to do except take off my dust-caked coat and change it for something less itchy.
Some sort of scrabbling noises far down the tunnel where she'd gone. The echoes were strange, but it sounded like digging followed by sharp, explosive cracking noises. As I curiously stepped over, boots crunching, things came suddenly flying out and I was real glad I hadn't ducked my head down to see like I'd been thinking of doing. More hunks of wood, dried branches and dust-crumbling roots, there was soon a huge scattered pile of what looked to be an entire centuries-dead tree filling the corner.
I coughed, but this stirred-up cloud was just regular clay dust, yellow and safe. Hell if she was using an axe, I mused, brows rising in awe as a large piece of bleached half-trunk thicker than me hit the wall and bounced crashingly off. Literally ripped apart, the wood was sharp with jags and splinters where the growth rings had given way in curved sheaths.
"Holy shit!" I leapt a meter in the air when I turned to find her standing right there, face expressionless and watching me. How could I have missed her coming out of the tunnel? Dammit, but I wasn't used to anything sneaking up and getting the drop on me. I slipped on the gravel underfoot when I landed, (almost dropped down to my ass again) before it sunk in and I realized consciously for the first time that her boots didn't make a sound when she walked, even on this risky crap.
"What the fuck are you, lady?" I asked, telling my heart to slow down before I croaked. (Tried to not think about how she was at the perfect height for me where all she had to do was tilt her head a little and we'd be in exact position to kiss. How great it would be because I could gaze right into that green eye as we did so...)
A small sigh, a turning away of that bottomless green orb as she looked at the shadowy pile of shattered wood, dust still settling. Frightening to see someone look that hopeless, to know there was a living being who had known that much pain...or seen so many things.
Again I wondered at the force of the mixed feeling I had for her ran through me. She scared the crap out of me, oh yeah, but I wanted her just as badly. Worst of it was, I knew this white skinned woman couldn't be anything human. She just fucking couldn't be. Go on, doubt the things you see with your eyes, but for a man like me, that was impossible. I knew what I had seen back in the saloon. I knew nothing could move the way she did.
Add see in the dark and be unaffected by freezing cold to the list of things I knew about her.
Oh yeah, she liked vodka, too.
For a moment it looked like she was going to actually answer me. I saw her lips part at least, caught a brief glint of white tooth...
Then they closed, quirked in that odd little half-smile as she shook her head once.
"Your fire dies, Hunter. Best feed it now, before you once again grow cold. I remember that now, too," she said mystifyingly, striding back to her corner.
"Speaking of food, would you like some?" I asked a while later as I unwrapped a ration bar. Nasty crap, but better that than nothing. (Thank gods my hip flask was full. If ever a man deserved a drink, I mused, it was on a night like this.) I'd yet to see her gear lying around. Maybe it was kept in another tunnel. Speaking of, where was that monster animal that she had ridden 'here'?
Silence. A man could get the feeling he wasn't liked if this kept up.
"Why did you save me?" I asked her as I lifted the bar and took a bite; chewed and swallowed quickly. Damn, but I hated these things.
"You ask a lot of questions, Hunter."
"And lady, you sure as shit don't answer many of them."
A lowering of her head and a louder huffing of that laugh. She was getting better at it. I wondered briefly if I should mention it and decided that could be a Bad Idea.
Legs crossed, she was sitting with back resting indifferently against cold stone, and I was just about convinced that was the end of our talking when with a lift of pale hand she removed her hat. I admit I must have looked the complete slob at that moment: mouth hanging open, crumbs of shitty ration bar tumbling out, but I just couldn't help it.
With a shake of her head, she freed her until now, unseen hair. Long yet spiky waved in places, it framed her like a wolf's brush, and except for a scattering of silver tips, was black as her broad-tailed duster.
"Yes, it is night out," she began, sounding very amused as she did so. I was fascinated with a silver-ended lock of hair that fell angled across her eye patch. (And when I say silver, I mean it, partner.) "Apparently there is enough wood to see you through till dawn, which at this time, is not so far away. As to where you are," she waved a hand indifferently at the stone walls. "This is a cave, a bit of land that fell into a folding crevice some centuries back to create a natural shelter from storms and other trifling difficulties for those able to enter therein. The cave is located in a region for which there is no official name in any of the current languages in use beyond 'the badlands'. These badlands cover a vast extent of unmapped territory. Therefore, wherever you are within it, you will be 'here'."
A pause and short intake of breath. "What I am...is complicated to explain. Yet even if I had the interest to do so, doubtful any words I use would hold much meaning for you. Certainly they would bring you fear and anxiety if they did. My time is long past. Suffice to say I am not of any of the races you mortals call mutants, be they descended from human or other people. Nor am I some construct from a laboratory of any manner." A stretching out of hand, a widening of pale fingers before they turned and closed back in on themselves in a loose fist. "I have no metal or electronic circuitry of any sort within me. The strength you have witnessed is my own.
"No, I do not wish to partake of your food--something of which you obviously loathe, even if I could. And as to why I saved you..." A pause and ducking of her face, I was leaning forward and knew it; felt stupid, but could do nothing about it as I waited for her to finish.
"Yeah?" I asked breathlessly.
"I find you...funny is the word. Yes, your reactions to things I find novel and amusing."
Well, cut off my shriveling dick, nail it to my ass and call me Jack. Hee-haw.
Funny? That was it? She'd saved my life because she though I was fucking funny?
"Are your questions answered now, Hunter? One believes I have recalled all of them. Is this the type of conversation you are satisfied with?"
"Yeah. You can shut up now, thanks." Dry husk of laugh. For some reason it didn't make me feel as good as it had before.
Then, donkey me, I thought of one more thing that had until now been kept to the back of my mind.
"Oh, by the way, where the hell is Poshji?"
"Ah." For the first time I had known her, a wrinkle appeared across her smooth brow as she frowned. Beyond her single eye and lips, it was the only time I'd caught clear mobility anywhere else on her face. "Hmm, well, that was my fault. Apparently when I jumped clear of that gunman, in dragging the sheriff after me I broke his neck at some point. It was a mistake. Annoying, seeing as I had yet to get an answer to my question."
Uh huh. Some mistake.
"What about what you said to him? Did Poshji have cube on him?" A nod. A dipping of that white hand back into a broad sleeve and she pulled out a bounty packer. I think she was being purposeful in her slow movement as she tossed it up in the air towards me.
A sparkle and the metal object was sailing down, caught easily in my left hand.
Still munching, I used a thumb to flick and activate the current keyed-in catch.
Yup. There he was, a 10/100th scale 3-D holo appeared of one Urin Poshji Unstewell, wanted by the Harkin'de Stin, the fucking Chaloose Division of all things, for traitorous deeds, gun smuggling, and racketeering. DNA strand listing by code and warrant colors.
I whistled, surprised at the reward that had been posted on him. Even dead the credit numbers were still something.
"Shit, to think of all the days I spent downing suds so close to this..." I remembered what she'd said to the bounty head, former sheriff, back at the saloon. "You weren't lying to him either. You really had no intention of taking him, did you?"
A single shake of her head. "There was no interest in it for me. What do I care about such things? What thrill is there in tracking such unchallenging prey?"
Unchallenging, eh? It took a deadly bastard to win the combat trials and gain a position like Poshji had. Sheriffs had to be able to take care of their own if they were to see their towns survive in these hard, post-war times. And she though him unchallenging? Hmmm.
I shook the b-packer. "Money of course. Why, the damn Chalooseans wanted him almost as much as the collective others who want Parsh Koll taken down." A subtle lift of a shoulder. I think that meant she had just shrugged. Damn, but it was weird watching what were normally large gestures made so stunted.
"Some things will never change for your kind. Avarice for what amounts to nothing more than a concept, being one of them."
"Huh? What d'you mean by that? Man's gotta earn a living ain't he?"
"Yes, earn your living, Hunter. By all means. Consider my passing remark only offered noise to fill a moment."
"Huh?" I repeated, bristled a little at that soft chuckle. Then got irritated for another reason. "And why do you always go calling me Hunter? Yeah, so I'm a Bounty guy, same as you are--" another snort "--alright, so I'm not like you, whatever the rotted hell that is. But it's obvious beyond that that we're both plying the same trade here." Again a shake of her b-packer. (Man, was I dying to go through it. There were a lot of checked-off cube heads. This lady was good.) A casual blink of that eye. Lips, still uplifted, remained sealed though. She was going to go into her silent act again.
"My name is Darin by the way. Darin Crow'bestri. Pleased ta-meetcha." No reaction except to tilt her head slowly to the other side. "Well?" I demanded.
"Look, lady, I'm not offering you my hand or anything binding. Truth is I don't want you to snap it off! Still, when someone gives you their name it's common courtesy to do the same right back to them. Not to mention use theirs to see if you got it right."
"Darin Crow'bestri," she said slowly, eye clouding, going distant. "Is that a contraction of Crow be straight?"
"What? I dunno. And whatever, that doesn't finish the exchange of names..." I trailed off, wondering if she was even hearing me again. Couldn't tell if she was even seeing me for that matter, so far distant that gaze was.
"Lady?" I asked softly. Felt myself breathe a sigh of relief when she blinked and came back. I swear, she hadn't looked like she was even breathing, so still she'd gotten there for awhile.
"Yes. That will do, Darin Crow'bestri," she said calmly. Gave a single subtly nod before adding, "Not that there will be need for such inanity soon."
"Lady, I swear for the life of me I sure as shit don't get you much."
A higher curl of lip then any I'd seen so far.
"Reciprocation. Your little ritual is completed, Darin Crow'bestri."
"What? Lady? That's your name?" I asked incredulously, wondering if she'd react the same to 'bitch'. Actually, I bet she would.
"It will do for the remainder of our time together, yes."
For the remainder of our time... Uh-oh. That didn't sound to good for my health for some reason. The hairs on the back of my neck prickled. What the fuck, should I start dancing around like a clown to keep her amused or what? Was she going to 'accidentally' snap my neck too when I couldn't make her laugh anymore?
Not that there was anyway I could shoot her, even if I'd had any hopes of hitting her. Hell, Poshji's gun had been less than a meter from her chest and he'd missed. What chance would I have when she came for me? None at all.
I felt real tired then all of a sudden. Yawned cause I couldn't help it. There was just so much a man's body was going to take, no matter what the mind or emotions, and like I'd said, this night had been chock full.
Still, fuck me if I was going to take my eyes off her. I wasn't no coward, dared you to find any man said I was. When Lady came I was going to look her right in the eye without flinching. And she would to. This woman was a killer through and through. Alright, a Hunter if you will, same as she called me. Guess that was what she'd recognized back at the saloon. Maybe the reason she'd given that little half smile and started this whole mess inside me...
Felt my mouth quirking up, realized my eyes had slid shut and I forced them back open.
She was still sitting there across the way, looking back at me.
Waiting for me to fall asleep? Maybe. Somehow I didn't feel like asking that. Suppose it would make it to unarguable a fact at that point. Admit I knew her plans.
Really. I could almost feel the charge growing in the air between us. Like a predatory mountain cat stalking a bush horn. Crouched, biding its time 'cause the cat knew without a doubt the kill was his. Or in this case, hers.
Yeah, I had shot Ellri and been forced to take out two more men who names I didn't even know because of Lady. Maybe I'd saved her life by doing in Squeaks and maybe not. She didn't care one way or the other and that was the simple, damn truth.
Why had she saved my life? She hadn't. I'd just collapsed close enough to her storm shelter and somehow she'd known that. And I was funny enough to take a moment out and be dragged inside with her. Entertaining to this inhuman being in some way that for the life of me I couldn't understand why.
For the life of me...
"Grampy," I muttered as eyes slid shut, "should 'ave stayed with you in the storm. Safer out there, just like ya said..." But my great Granddad didn't answer me; the only thing in the dark a shimmer of green, an unblinking orb of distant, unfeeling light.
Rustling sound. A whisper barely made out on the edge of consciousness.
"Good-bye, Hunter. It has been an interesting night."
"Yeah, well, fuck me for trying," I grumbled in my near sleep, pissed, wondering how my life had come to end like this. Why I just didn't give a shit enough to manage the effort to look at her.
"You are a strange man, Darin Crow'bestri," came the low voice above me. A deep chuckle that invaded a dying man's dreams with welcome.
"That and pissing against the wind will get you a free shower." I laughed with Lady under my breath, recalling my old sergeant's favorite saying. Why the fuck was it so cold all of a sudden?
Head nodded, could feel myself slipping sideways, coming down to rest on my bags.
Arms tucked tightly around me, I managed to flick one eye open unseeing in the dark as she whispered my name from a faraway place one...last...time...