Amanda Spikol brings us this story of a world-weary hired gun just out to finish a job, and ask some old friends for one last favor before she retires. — ed, N.E. Lilly
Siker hated horses. They were organic, unreliable, and took too much time doing everything to really be worth the effort. Still, on this planet, they were the primary mode of transport, so she had to just stuff her opinions and deal with it. A skimmer bike would have turned too many heads; she’d have been too conspicuous and so the black horse would have to do for a hired gun like her.
Then, there was a fleeting memory when she saddled up, some far-away morning on old Earth; a child riding a horse.
Now she rode hard over the sands, urging the horse forward and trying to beat the sunrise. At the trading-port they’d sneered at her, told her all about bandits and rustlers, and tried to scare her with how there was very little law this far away from Galactic Standard Rule. Siker choked out a laugh when she remembered. As if each hadn’t had an eye that’d been rooted to her guns the whole time, those flat-footed bastards, and the other eye on the smooth curves of her chest.
A woman, alone, carrying two plasma pistols instead of a lighter, cheaper blaster? She was sure they’d be talking about her for at least the next few months. Farmers and small-time trappers always saw amazement in anything that came from off their own sullen rocks of planets. She spat and leaned forward in the saddle, watching the band of ruffians mustering ahead. Somehow, Siker knew she wouldn’t reach the mining town without killing someone.
“Off your horse! Surrender gold and credits if you want to live!”
There were four of them, all men so far as she could tell, two on horseback and two on foot. They all carried blaster rifles. Siker dismounted, smiling coldly, and tipped back her hat so her spiky black hair showed.
A few miles away, some creature howled and with the readying of four blaster rifles, it became a brief symphony. The tallest, who rode a tan horse, barely discernible in the dark, moved in.
“No quick words now. Don’t think you’ll talk your way to freedom, even if you’ve done it before,” he growled, “let this go smooth, and it’ll only be me that enjoys you, and not all of us.”
Siker hesitated, weighing all her options and doing the calculations. Still, she had a ways to go and didn’t aim to waste much time. The quickest way was the easiest way, even if it wasn’t the right way.
“Do you worship Diem, the Robot Saints, or one of the gods of the Xaxiferian Heresy?”
One of the standing men snorted. “Don’t try to lean on our morals. We don’t have any.”
Siker only shrugged and hooked her thumbs in her belt. “Fine, have it your way, then. I won’t say any prayers at all over your graves.”
She closed her eyes when the leader motioned for them to close in. Her body took over, muscles moving per their own memory and training, just like a favorite folk dance. When the army took her as a slave soldier all those years ago, they’d never taught her anything about how to deal with petty bandit gangs. In the end though, it didn’t much matter.
The two suns rose as she covered the last body. Now Siker had lost three hours and two plasma bullets, but it could have been worse. She reloaded and put her leather greatcoat back on, then, regardless of what god had ruled the destiny of each man’s soul, she whispered a prayer to Diem. Out here, so far from the centralized Rule, men’s lives weren’t worth much, but she figured that a murderer at least owed her victim the courtesy of a prayer.
She also figured her prayer might mean a little more, even if she was so wretched a sinner; she remembered Diem by His original name, what He was back on old Earth.
By mid-day, Siker could see the town, a smudged line on the horizon. Her black horse was exhausted now, covered in sweat and dust, but it only had a few more leagues to take her. Sitting up straighter, her back and buttocks aching, she pulled the bandana away from her face and spat. Lousy, dung-sprayed, lawless excuse for a planet.
Sticking to her plan, she approached from the southwest, avoiding the sprawling mines. It was just another jagged rent from which men scraped ionic chromium ore, to be sent to a Foundry planet, where it would become super-steel to build the hulls of spaceships and orbiting stations. Still, miners gossiped worse than harem girls, and if she could avoid it, Siker didn’t want it known that a stranger was in town. At least, not yet.
Trying at anonymity was what had her on the horse in the first place, and she was damned if all the discomfort was for nothing. Hundreds of planets submitted willingly to Galactic Standard Rule, and there were about a hundred further out; the remnants of the fallen Rhenon Empire. This little rock, however, poor barren vassal of two suns, had always stuck out in her mind like a brand’s scar; she never forgot who she knew had made the place their home. So, when the chance of business here finally came, she jumped on it. Luck? No, luck had served Siker too well.
Suddenly, she was only several yards away from the town’s outlying buildings. They came up fast while she was lost in thought and she almost brought the horse to a halt. As it was, the great beast shook its head and tramped impatiently. Siker urged it on, not entirely concerned for its welfare. After all, if all went as planned, she’d have no further use for a horse and could sell it. There was bound to be a buyer somewhere in this backwater town.
“Business before pleasure,” echoed a wry smuggler from her memory.
Grinning without humor, she nodded in agreement to the man long-dead. “And if they’re the same thing, then mores the better,” she muttered back.
Now the suns were too bright and time seemed to slow. Every motion her quick eyes caught, every simple sound and smell, even the dull hues of this dusty, white-washed town; for Siker, they suddenly became mysteriously significant and wholesome. She licked her cracked lips, feeling her stomach wrench and a tightness grip her, a fear she hadn’t felt in so very long. Her plan hadn’t seemed real when she took the job back on that sterile, cold space station, nor during the trip, nor even as she raced across the desert.
There was no denying it now. She had arrived at the center of town, at the two-story saloon she’d seen so often with only her mind’s eye. Almost as an afterthought, she tied up her horse at the trough where it drank greedily, stomping with pleasure. Siker ripped off her bandana and shoved it in a pocket. Then, she walked through the swinging doors with a prayer on her lips.
That prayer was never answered.
Two men, heavily armed, stepped out on each side even before her eyes adjusted to the sweet dimness of the saloon. Three more were standing behind the bar, blaster rifles levied at her chest, and another two stood on the upper landing. Harding Penger laughed heartily, the same way a boy would when he knew he’d caught a frog bigger than all the other boys could catch. In person, he looked just like his holoflash, if a bit more sunburned, and Siker couldn’t help smiling. Now she didn’t have to go back out into the heat again.
“This is it? I can’t believe it, all they could get was a scrawny woman?” the muscled man with feathery white hair laughed again, clapping his shot glass on the table, flushed with his apparent good fortune.
“So, you expected an attempt on your life?” It wasn’t playing for time, Siker was honestly curious.
Harding grinned, bemused. “Of course. Vernon and the foundry boys always did want my mining works. I didn’t think they had it in ’em to hire a gun, though.”
Despite the nine men with beads drawn on her, Siker shrugged, and it was her turn to grin coldly. “They didn’t. You have enemies, Harding Penger. The stories of your cruelties have reached higher ears than those who would covet your business.”
She meant to continue but movement flashed in the corner of her eye and she looked. A woman, the bartender, her long blonde hair framing a face that Siker had not seen in so many decades, moved away from one of the gunmen. Their eyes locked for an instant but the bartender looked down, a strong man with dark skin coming up behind her and laying a hand on her shoulder. His gaze did not wither under Siker’s own. All three of them knew what was going to happen and the bartender didn’t want to look. This wasn’t how she had wanted this to go.
“Oh, is that so?” he smirked, “who then, the mayor of Tronts?”
Siker shook her head. “No.” She took a measured step forward and instantly, four rifle muzzles tapped her coat, with five more ready.
“It doesn’t really matter, you know. The flecks at the port saw a stranger come in and gave me the word. Anyone else Vernon tries to send will end the same way as you,” Harding told her, and he lifted his hand, just like the bandit had done the night before.
The bartender turned her back to the room and Siker sighed; this was all wrong.
With another step, all the weapons readied, another warning from men used to getting their way with only the implication of force. She kept walking and now she was the one to hold up her hand.
“Stop. I am the Candriodale, the Silent Gun, and you will not fire.”
Like clockwork, like so many times before, the henchmen froze at her low, thick voice. There was something about the name, which she always said first in old Rhenon and then in Galactic Standard, that pressed against their chests and made cowards of them all. Good.
Harding’s eyes went wide but Siker’s indescribable glare held them. “Harding Penger, for your rape of slave girls and murder of untold hundreds of slaves, Sordrish Kenn, governor of the Heng and McClarner systems and 5th Undersecretary to the Chancellor of Galactic Standard Rule, has paid for your death. Do you worship Diem, the Robot Saints, or one of the gods of the Xaxiferian Heresy?”
“I…I worship Wotsil,” he murmured, still shocked.
Siker sneered. “Heretic.”
No one in the room moved except her. Harding, as her prey, had the basics of motion, his face, his breath, but little else. Her eyes flicked up and caught the bartender’s back, and her man’s disgust frozen on his face. Unfortunate, but little that she could do about it now.
Delicately, Siker drew both plasma pistols and laid the barrel of one against the bridge of Harding’s nose. He went cross-eyed looking at it, lips moving in a feeble attempt to bargain, but no sound came out. There was an acrid smell that wafted up, his fresh urine, but she saw no reason to shame him further. One heavy plasma bullet went right through Harding Penger’s head, taking most of his face with it. He slumped, bloody, in his chair and the rest of the room moved again.
The men on the floor dropped their rifles, staring at their boss in abject shock, but one of the men on the landing fired anyway. As the shot hit her dead in the chest, she looked up at the man, boy really, who clutched his gun and stumbled back, skewered by her eyes on him.
“Haven’t you back-water thugs ever heard of body armor?” Siker said, almost stating it, and drew back the flap of her greatcoat to display military-caliber armor.
Trembling, the boy who shot at her stepped up to the rail. “Y-you killed Boss Penger!”
“Yep, I did. In a few weeks your system governor’s sending a new man to head your mines. I recommend that if you forget all about Harding Penger and his ways, then everyone might forget that you-all were his strong-arms, got that clear?” and then for pure emphasis, she holstered both guns at once.
It only took another few minutes for the men to take the corpse and be gone, leaving just Siker, the bartender, and her man standing there in the saloon in awful, uncomfortable silence.
“You haven’t changed,” the bartender said softly, putting aside all pretense of cleaning glasses.
Siker’s mouth went dry. She’d run pretty much every potential scenario through her head in the past month, but none of them had gone like this. “I”¦I guess not. Nice, ah, nice place you guys got here, Lily.”
The man moved in next to her protectively, glaring at Siker. “Why are you here? Finally come to kill us too?”
“Shawn, it’s not like that,” she protested, hands out with palms up in a futile plead to be believed, “I would never, never want to harm either of you. You just never understood that, was all.”
Lily threw down her cloth, her face a sudden mask of rage. “Don’t give me that bullshit! What the hell did you think you were doing when you followed us across seven systems?!?”
“Bullshit! You knew what you were doing! You knew we loved each other and wanted a life away from the Rhenon, away from the war, and away from you!”
Even though, in the last day, she’d killed five men with little more than a scratch done to her, rode leagues upon leagues over the searing desert, and intimidated nine armed men into leaving without a fight, Siker cringed.
“But no,” Lily continued, “you had to follow! He had to nearly kill you before you’d back off, but I knew you’d be back. I knew it’d only be a matter of years before you drug your sorry ass through those doors.”
“You talk like everything in our lives has been normal,” Siker said, staring at the wall behind the bar, not trusting her emotions enough to look either Lily or Shawn in the eyes.
“It would be, if not for you,” Shawn growled.
She sighed, swearing inside that she wouldn’t break down. “Really? Then that part where the Rhenon sacked old Earth just to defy the Rule, the part where we were soldiers together, the part where all three of us have lived centuries outside our mortal lifetimes, that was normal?”
“It was the drugs! All those drugs they gave us then, it must have done something to us,” said Shawn, “and now you won’t leave us alone.”
“We’re friends, damn it!” Siker yelled, finally giving in, “we fought together for twelve years! You like to pretend that it never happened, but you were part of a Trifecta! Soldier, medic, and tech, all three of us! You just want to forget all that, and forget those years we all spent after the war.”
Lily pounded the bar. “It was the drugs! Don’t you remember, all those loyalty drugs we took for years? Be loyal to the Rhenon, be loyal to your general, be loyal to your Trifecta! I might not know why we’ve lived this long, but”¦” and she trailed off, exasperated.
“I don’t know either, and I don’t want to know.” Siker slumped down into a chair beside the one left bloody.
“Good for you,” Shawn spat, “now you’ve done your murder, I suppose there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be moving on.”
“It’s not murder, you know. They pay me more credits than you could imagine to take care of who they want gone. I ignore the petty vendettas and crap like that. I only take jobs when the target’s a low bastard.”
“Poor little rich assassin,” Lily sneered.
Siker shook her head, eyes on the floor. “No. I keep what I need to do each job, keep enough that my base is clean and safe, the rest goes to Diem’s Order ’cause I sure as hell don’t need it, but there are folks that do.”
She got the idea that one or both of them had some retort, but neither said anything, so she went on.
“I could sit here and bellyache about how my life on old Earth got wrecked, how those Rhenon bastards enslaved me and how all I’ve got out of the war is how to kill and how to kill well. But, the thing is, I’m tired. I’ve seen so many sunsets and even though I like to think that I only kill bad men, I still kill. Truth is, I’m weary for the dirt of old Earth under my feet, but that ol’ rock’s a radioactive mess.”
“So”¦?” Lily asked, but at least most of the anger looked to have left her face.
“So I took this job because I’ve known for decades you two settled here, and I was hoping that even as mad as you still are, you’d still be willing to do one last favor for a friend. Maybe it was the drugs, but I was ready to die for you two then, and I still am.”
Shawn nodded. “What sort of favor?”
“I’ve lived too long and been too lucky. It’s not natural, and it’s high time for that all to end. Do you remember Balimusti, that planet with the forests where we lived just after the war?” she asked.
They both nodded.
“I was hoping that if I left you credits for the trip and even more for your trouble, maybe you two would take my body there, bury it under some trees near a stream and say a little prayer.”
“You’re asking us to kill you?” Lily whispered.
Siker looked up. “Not at all. I’ve killed enough to know how, so I’ll do the killing. Think of it as a last respect to the dead.”
For the longest time, it was quiet. Grimacing, Siker realized that once she said it out loud, her plan sounded stupid and a burden on those who hated the very sight of her. Still, it had been a good gamble, and she couldn’t have thought of anyone she’d more want to pray over her grave than Lily and Shawn. If they said no, she’d just keep on keeping on, hoping that the next target would be her better.
Lily broke the terrible silence. “It’s”¦it’s been a long time since we were on old Earth. A lot’s happened that was unfortunate, and a lot’s passed between us that we can’t take back. Things change and people change. If I’ve become so bitter that I won’t even help a dead friend home, then I’ve changed for the worse.”
Tears sprang unbidden down Siker’s cheeks and she slumped in relief. “Thank you.”
Hours later, she sat on a boulder at the edge of town, watching two suns sink towards the horizon. They’d given her a bottle of spirits, something from off-world that was sweet and spicy and went down smooth. Siker thought back to her childhood, to the films and stories already old long before she was born. The hero always rode off into the sunset, and as the twin suns went down, she stood up on the top of the boulder and pulled out one of her plasma pistols. The suns set.
Other works by Amanda Spikol
- Old Habits (Sep 28, 2008)