What better way to launch SpaceWesterns.com than with the return of that venerable folk hero of the Old Space West, Bat Durston? This story previously appeared in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine [Sep/Oct 1978] and two years later in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Anthology, [Volume 4, Fall-Winter 1980]. Now, after nearly thirty years this classic has found its way here, online, to SpaceWesterns.com — ed. N.E. Lilly
Bat Durston pushed the coffee dispenser button with a long, brawny index finger. Behind a clear plastic door a biodegradable disposable mug of authentic 19th-Century American Western Territories design plopped down beneath a spout. A second later the dark, nearly black brew flowed steamingly into the mug.
At completion of the filling cycle, the clear plastic door automatically slid up. Bat Durston hooked the previously described index finger into the mug’s finger loop and tasted the brew. It was bitterly strong flavored to reproduce as accurately as possible what archaeologists had determined to be the flavor of the 19th Century American Western Territories coffee.
If Bat Durston ever minded the emphasis on symbology that a space marshal had to put up with, it never showed on his steady, dedicated, ruggedly handsome face. The tall, broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped man had piercingly determined blue eyes and a steady, sober, thin-lipped mouth. Clearly, he was a man who could clean up his parsecs.
Bat Durston walked with quiet, strong grace to his Sector monitor and sat down. He was surrounded by a winking, blinking, gleaming, glowing sophisticated array of electronic wonderments that continually reported the state of law and order in his Sector. He looked like a starship pilot on a starship bridge. If being nearly the sole foundation of law and order in his parsecs bothered Bat Durston, he did not show it as he sipped the bitter coffee and read the various video reports with unflinching eyes. Folks could be secure with a man like Bat Durston on the job. He would never say it out loud, but their confidence and trust sustained him in the performance of a hard, often dangerous job.
A flashing red light over one screen claimed his attention. The video readout reported the Bad Bart Blackie Gang had just robbed the Transgalactic Conglomerate of its credit transfer authorizations on PhiBetaCrappa IV. Angrily, Bat Durston’s eyes narrowed a nanometer as he fed in the reported trajectory of the gang’s starship. The calculated projection of possible destinations made the corners of Bat Durston’s somber eyes crinkle with mirth.
Pushing a comm button with the same index finger he had already used twice before, he spoke in a low, serious monotone, “Andy, you there, son?”
“Right here, Bat, cleanin’ up ol’ Igniter,” came the bubblingly enthusiastic reply of Bat Durston’s young sidekick, Andy, known as Andy the Kid.
In calm monotones that betrayed his fury, Bat Durston explained what had happened, then said, “I reckon by computer figgerin’ we can head ’em off at the Horse-Head Nebula. Reckon you’d best get Igniter ready for liftoff. I’ll be over directly.”
“Great full moons, I shore will, Bat!”
The gleaming synthetic permapolish leather holster held a proton blaster. Bat Durston pulled out the deadly weapon and thumbed the power pack release.
The room lights glinted grimly off Bat Durston’s quiet eyes as he opened a door and pulled out a belt and holster. The gleaming synthetic permapolish leather holster held a proton blaster. Bat Durston pulled out the deadly weapon and thumbed the power pack release. Into his palm plopped the rectangular cartridge. Its load indicator showed a full charge of six destructive shots of pure (yet environmentally safe) proton energy.
Before reloading the blaster, Bat Durston checked the action of the weapon. Due to safety regulations, it required two hands to fire the gun. The gun hand gripping the butt depressed a safety which opened the interlocks that prevented accidental discharges. The trigger was a centimeter-long switch on the top near the rear. It was activated by slapping it with the palm of the trigger hand. This was called “fanning” by gunslingers and space marshals.
Satisfied with the proton blaster, Bat Durston returned it to the holster and stood up with a lethal, yet moral, agility. He strapped the weapon onto his narrow hips, his thin lips in an even straighter line than usual. He did not like to carry a proton blaster, but he knew someone had to if these parsecs were ever to be safe for decent, respectable folks.
Suddenly into the Law Enforcement Command Control Center (locally termed “the Marshal’s office”) burst Miss Mary. She was a comely young woman with wide, innocent, easily emotional blue eyes and straw-blonde hair. Her father, owner of a robot repair facility, was a hardworking, upright citizen well thought of in the community.
The room lights reflected warmly off Bat Durston’s sober eyes as he saw Mary. She was the kind of decent, clean-living sort of girl a man would—well, would want to settle down with after his job was done.
“Howdy, Miss Mary,” Bat Durston monotoned romantically.
“Oh, Bat!” Mary gasped, the tears springing to her eyes. “I saw Andy getting Igniter ready for liftoff. Oh, Bat! He—he told me!”
“Now, now, Miss Mary,” Bat Durston monotoned nonchalantly.
“Oh, Bat! Don’t go! Bad Bart Blackie and his gang are—are— they’re so bad—they’re—oh, Bat!”
With a burst of affection, Bat Durston took her by the shoulders and looked steadily into her wetly frightened eyes.
“Now, now, Miss Mary,” he said in his quiet, rugged, unvarying voice. “Yuh know I gotta. It’s mah duty. But—well, thar’s a mite more to it.”
“More, Bat? Oh, Bat.”
Bat Durston’s nostrils flared a millimeter in embarrassment as he said evenly, “Well, yeah, ya see, I figger this here Bad Bart Blackie Gang is ’bout the last of the bad ones in these here parsecs. Well, I ain’t getting’ much younger, so I’ma guessin’ maybe when I got ’em locked up, I oughta—well, hang up my proton blaster and get me a fine, young—” But here words failed Bat Durston.
In a rare burst of passion, Bat Durston pressed his thin lips briefly against Mary’s willingly responsive forehead and said, “Now, now, Miss Mary.”
“Oh, Bat!” Mary cried, impulsively hugging the hard-muscled space marshal. She knew what he could not say and he knew she knew and she knew he knew she knew the unspoken words were the ones she had been longing for him to finally not be able to say.
In a rare burst of passion, Bat Durston pressed his thin lips briefly against Mary’s willingly responsive forehead and said, “Now, now, Miss Mary.” Avoiding an even more extreme display of emotion, Bat Durston chivalrously tipped his hat, then quickly stepped into a matter transmitter and transferred instantly to his trusty starship, Igniter.
The space marshal was greeted enthusiastically by Andy the Kid, called usually Andy by his friends and sometimes ’son’, but only by Bat Durston. Being as Andy was a super-genius cloned in a recombinant DNA laboratory, he wasn’t really anyone’s son. However, Bat Durston had a fatherly affection for his living supergenius sidekick (standard government issue to all space marshals) and called him son. Bat Durston was not the sort of man to coldly think of Andy as simply another recomb clone; just another Ralph 124C41+ model.
Andy was a tall, slim drink of liquid nutrient with a clean, fresh-face, quick, genius eyes, and sloppy blond hair. As soon as he saw Bat Durston, he said, “Ready for liftoff, Bat! I redesigned the quark accelerator this morning, so we can travel even faster than the speed of light than before. I also changed the sheets on our bunks.”
“Good, son,” Bat Durston said. “Well, thar’s a job t’get done an’ the Horse-Head Nebula is a fur piece down th’ starlanes. Let’s lift off.”
“Alrighty, Bat!” Andy cried.
No starship was now faster than trusty Igniter, thanks to Andy’s redesigned quark accelerator. They arrived at the Horse-Head Nebula well in advance of the Bad Bart Blackie Gang. Cleverly; they concealed themselves behind a black hole; a feat made possible by another of Andy’s inventions, the Blackhole Nullification Concealatron.
Bat Durston easily waited stoically for the precomputed arrival of the Bad Bart Blackie Gang, but the tense pressure eventually got to the much younger Andy. Cracking under the strain, the recomb clone said, “Say, Bat.”
“Yep, son?” replied Bat Durston quietly.
“I wuz thinkin’, Bat.”
“Well, this here Bad Bart is ’bout the meanest of ’em all, ain’t he?”
“An’ his gang is purty mean, too, ain’t they?”
“Well, can ya take ’em okay, Bat?”
Realizing his young sidekick was nearly in a panic, Bat Durston took immediate corrective action. He stood up, squarely planting his feet shoulder width apart. He hooked his brawny thumbs on his gun belt and looked piercingly into some higher moral value somewhere beyond infinity. His square cut chin thrust forward in a ruggedly reassuring way. Andy forgot his previous terror as he quivered with scarcely suppressed excitement, for he knew Bat Durston was about to deliver one of his rare insights into the true depths of life.
“The way I reckon, son,” Bat Durston monotoned as the compartment lights glowed wisely off his clear blue eyes, “folks in these here parsecs sorta hanker fer a bit o’ respite from th’ frustrations of everyday life. I mean t’say, th’ meaningless tragedies of everyday life sorta make decent folks want t’see happy endin’s an’ not more of th’ same maddenin’, frustratin’ failures. So, figgerin’ this inta things, I reckon I can take ’em okay. It’s mah duty.”
Totally awed, Andy sighed, “That there wuz profound, Bat! Why can’t I ever thinka stuff like that?”
Managing to smile with fatherly affection without bending the sober, dedicated straight line of his thin lips, Bat Durston said, “Yo’re young, son, an’ figgerin’ out human bein’s is a mite harder than understandin’ quark accelerators.”
This wisdom allowed Andy to get hold of himself and wait out the ambush very nearly as calmly as Bat Durston. It was not much longer, though, before the Bad Bart Blackie Gang showed up. Instantly, from behind the black hole the two defenders of law and order in Igniter sprang upon their quarry.
Well, criminals are notoriously foolish, so it was not surprising the Bad etc. tried to get away. They actually might have, had not Andy redesigned Igniter’s quark accelerator. After a long chase, Bat Durston and Andy aboard trusty Igniter had cornered the Bad Bart Blackie Gang against a single-lined spectroscopic binary.
“Yo’re under arrest, Bad Bart,” Bat Durston monotoned over the radio.
“Let me go with ya, Bat!” Andy begged as Bat Durston got into his spacesuit.
“Yer gonna hafta draw down ta bring us in,” came Bad Bart’s sneering reply.
A lock of blond hair fell over Bat Durston’s forehead with disgust at this necessary violence as he returned evenly, “I’ma comin’ out.”
“Let me go with ya, Bat!” Andy begged as Bat Durston got into his spacesuit.
“Not this time, son,” Bat Durston replied. “If’n—well, somebody has t’tell Miss Mary.”
“Bat!” cried Andy.
“A man’s got t’plan ahead, son. I guess anyone c’n figger wrong.”
“Bat!” cried Andy.
“It’s mah duty.”
Outside Igniter, floating in the weightless void and vacuum of space, Bat Durston, Space Marshal, faced the six evil men of the Bad Bart Blackie Gang alone, unafraid, asking only that if this should be his time, another would pick up his fallen star.
“I’ma givin’ yuh one last chance, Bad Bart,” Bat Durston said in his most persuasive yet unrelentingly brave monotone.
“I’ma givin’ you one last chance, Bat Dummy,” Bad Bart sneered. “There’s just one of you and I count six of us.”
“I figger we gotta draw down, then.”
Seven hands flashed for seven proton blasters. Incredibly fast were the Bad etc., but faster still was Bat Durston. In a blur of fanning, six ruby-red proton energy bolts disintegrated the six blasters of the bad guys before they fanned off a single bolt. In Bat Durston’s opinion, it was a poor space marshal who couldn’t bring his men in alive.
Bat Durston thumbed the powerpack ejector as he pulled a full-charged pack from a belt loop. As the empty pack cleared the pack well, he slammed in the new pack. Realizing their hopeless plight, the Bad Bart Blackie Gang reached for the overhead portion of interstellar space.
“Oh, sizzlin’ comets!” one criminal cursed disgustedly.
“This is ridiculous!” cried Bad Bart as he felt maddening, frustrating failure. “Nobody is gonna believe this! This ain’t real life! Everything with you, Bat Durston, is nuthin’ but space opera! How do ya do it?”
Bat Durston replied in his sober, dedicated monotone, “I don’t reckon I know ’bout that. All I know is if’n this ain’t real life, it oughta be.”