Steve Logan brings us this, his first story sold for publication anywhere, set in the world of Sekai — ed. N.E. Lilly
“Something I can git for ya, stranger?”
The man in the worn cowboy hat looked up briefly from the can of beans he was inspecting. He had been turning it over in his hands, searching for a dent or defect to shave a few bits off the price. His head towered over the rows of groceries, but the rest of him remained hidden by the long shelves of the general store.
“The cans are old, jiisan.” The stranger held one up and tapped the date stamped on the side.
The proprietor of the store, a short man with thinning gray hair, laughed nervously behind the counter. He stood on his tiptoes to get a better look at the man, but to no avail; the shelf was too high and he was too short. “Hmph. Do I look like your grandpa, san?” He pushed his round reading spectacles up on his nose, indignant but amused. “Distribution problems. Josephtown’s a long way from the cities, y’know, and the nearest rail hub is over 50 miles away in Sakura.”
“That’s no excuse for shoving merchandise of questionable quality down your customers’ throats. I see about one good date in five around here. I did not see such outdated products in other stores I’ve been to.” He held up another can, one with luncheon meat of a suspicious origin, and tapped the two together.
“Oh, a lecture on economics. I guess a sermon on business ethics and merchants as modern warriors is next, hmm?” The old man crossed his arms and defied the lecturer to challenge his standards further. Although he appeared irritated, beneath the bravado he was enjoying the verbal sparring. “All that business bushido nonsense that they teach in the Neotopias, neh? I’ll have you know that for a country bumpkin I have my own copy of Greenlie’s Neotopian Business Models and Yamaga’s Shiido.” He was proud of his little library upstairs; he had earned those battered eyeglasses.
“What, no Kaiho Seiryou? This is the sticks,” the other laughed as he began making final choices on supplies.
The owner scrunched up his eyes; he honestly didn’t know that name, but he was sure the newcomer was a city slicker now. “Outside market factors, that’s why there’re so many bad cans. But they’re not so bad, really,” he hastened to add.
“The sign out front says ‘McCoy’s General Supplies.’ Are you McCoy?”
“The third, actually; my grandpa built the store. We’re a good family business, san. Melvin McCoy, that’s me.” Melvin relaxed a little, the stranger’s conversation putting him a little more at ease. “And yours, if’n you don’t mind me askin’?”
“Harker.” He gathered up an armful of cans and headed over to the counter. What ease the old man had enjoyed slipped a little when he got a good look at Harker. Oh, he was definitely from the technological wonders of the western Neotopia megacities, but he was no smooth talker slumming it out on the frontier. He stepped with a sure and measured gait, and the merchant’s eyes traveled down his tanned and tight as leather face. A tough duster jacket, the long leather coat brown and dirty with various shreds of cloth patching it up here and there, obscured most of him. What it didn’t hide, however, made Melvin step back involuntarily in apprehension.
The old man caught sight of the black, silk-wrapped sword hilt sticking out of the stranger’s belt at a slight angle, resting on the left hip as if ready to be drawn at any moment. Rows of bullets were tucked into loops along the rest of the belt, and he caught a glimpse of pistol and holster resting on the right hip.
An exile, the geezer judged, and they usually came in two flavors: the kind that crawl through the frontier on their bellies, never accepting that their fellow civilized citizens of whatever Neotopia they hailed from had ejected them, or those that accepted their fate and let it make them hard, bitter, and dangerous. His customer didn’t seem like the soft type to him.
The nervous quiver returned to his dry throat. “Just passin’ through?”
Harker let a rueful smile barely pass his thin lips; he was far too used to this exchange. “Hai, old timer. I am just passing through,” he said with a heavy sigh. “No trouble. Just a fair price for a few vittles, a night’s rest in the local hotel, and then I’m gone. Anybody asks, that’s all there is to it.” It was an old, practiced litany, but he didn’t grit his teeth, just kept it friendly and honest. He dumped the cans on the counter and stepped back, arms open and away from his waist. He wanted to ask more about those “outside market factors,” but decided it would be best to make his purchase brief for now. It took a second or two, but the old man seemed mollified. He started picking up the cans and tapping their prices into the old-fashioned mechanical contraption he used as a register, each item causing a riot of click-clacking and ringing, numbers popping up on little cards above the register’s top. There were, of course, no prices written on the cans themselves; he knew them all by heart.
Harker paid, turning to leave with his bag. Once his back was turned, only then did the old man dare look up, sighing in relief and taking out a handkerchief to dab at his sweating forehead; Josephtown’s dusty summer morning heat had skyrocketed for the venerable entrepreneur.
Harker looked left, looked right, then smiled as he put on his best look of false innocence. “Who, me?”
“Yes, you, Nyx Harker, dammnit!”
She stood there defiantly at the edge of the street, arms straight down with fists clenched in frustration, hackles up. The image of a golden dragon twisted and writhed its way up the front of her blue dress, from ankle to collar, a single slit from the waist down the right side showing off one smooth leg. Her natural red hair was done up in a bun, twin silver hair pins holding it together. Her eyes, as flaming as her hair with anger and loathing, targeted her old nemesis as he stood on the raised wooden sidewalk that lined the front of all the buildings of note in Josephtown.
“Shouldn’t you be in Blackgrass, whoring it up at Cherie’s?” He gave the feminine name a French flair and smirked.
“I am no whore –!”
“Right. Geisha. Sure.” He sighed; it was hardly a new argument between the two of them. “Noriko-san, one of these days you are going to have to accept that this isn’t a Neotopia,” he spread his arms wide, encompassing the single dusty street that ran through town and its paltry mix of wooden and stone buildings, “and that isn’t a luxury hovercar anymore,” he finished, pointing at the wooden carriage behind her. “Fancy parties and elegant performances are in short supply out here. Learn to live with what you have to sell. There’s no shame in that, but it’s sad to see you still wallowing in past glories.”
Just as Harker pointed, the two teamsters were tossing her bags off the top of the carriage and into the dirt below. She whirled at the sound of them hitting the ground and lashed out at the two. “Baka! Those are expensive, idiots!” She crossed her arms imperiously. “And put them back. I’m not staying here; there’s too much riff-raff around.” She tossed a venomous glance over her shoulder at Harker, as if he needed to be reminded who she meant.
“Lady, your ticket says ‘Josephtown,’ that’s as far as you get.” The older of the two teamsters, arms thick as thighs, pointed at McCoy’s store. “Now, the Hida Transportation Group has a contract with that there store, and if you want another ticket, you’re welcome to stomp on in there and git one. Anyways, you can breathe fire all you like, Red, but me an’ Jimmy are takin’ a little break before movin’ on.” He clambered over the top luggage rack and took a seat on the driver’s platform. Seated, he took out some chew and stuffed it in his mouth. “Best hurry,” he said between chews. “When the taste leaves, so do we.”
Noriko glared at the carriage. Jimmy found somewhere else to be real quick and darted past her into the general store. Then she turned and glared at Harker, who just studied the sky and grinned that thin-lipped smirk of his.
“Okay, pay up.” She held her hand out, palm up.
“For what?” barked Harker, laughing.
“Blackgrass. I know you got a fair share of that bounty for Ghostface Jack; I helped, I demand a cut.”
“Helped? Is that what you call ratting him out because he…” She raised an eyebrow, a clear warning that his next words should be chosen carefully. “… neglected to pay for services rendered?”
“Call it a finder’s fee, if you like.”
“Money’s tight, chan.”
She sauntered up to him, and lowered her eyes, looking up at his tall frame from just under her eyelashes. She may have been tired and weary from her long trip, but she could still wield her allure as skillfully as a surgeon’s knife or as bluntly as a barbarian’s club. And on another man, it might have worked, but Harker knew her all too well.
“Perhaps, then, it’s just two fellow Neotopian exiles helping each other out in a tight,” she stretched her arms out behind at just the right moment, stretching her dress’ fabric in just the right places, “fix.”
“The cities are far behind the likes of us; so are the salaries. Don’t bring it up again. I only fall for that once.” His face went cold and hard, his voice flat and emotionless. “Fate might like throwing us together every time I think I’ve seen the last of you, but you can’t cash in on the debt I owed you anymore. Blackgrass wiped the slate clean, in my eyes.”
Noriko reached out a hand and played with the black silk necktie he wore, the white, button-down shirt beneath pressed and spotless. “Is that why you still dress like a salaryman, Nyx-kun? Like a city-samurai, some corporate bigshot with a big,” her other hand tapped the hilt at his belt, “sword.”
“Finances are stretched to the breaking point for me. Let it go.” His voice was strained and now he was gritting his teeth; her addiction to innuendo had lost its charm somewhere between one dusty town and the next long ago.
“Where’s Gibson-kun?” she asked, quickly changing the subject. “You two are never more than spitting distance away.”
“JosÃ©’s checking us in across the street.” Harker nodded at the hotel across the packed-earth street. “And drop that ‘kun’ business; you’re no friend of ours.”
“I’ve helped you two out more times than I can count—”
“A shame. Your geisha training must have been lax in accounting arithmetic. Well, what can you expect from the likes of Neorondon?”
“Of all the ingratitude–!”
Harker squared his shoulders and rounded on her; he had been trying to feign disinterest, hoping she would tire of his jibes as usual and be on her way, but no such luck. His dark eye smoldered as he scowled down at her, but she didn’t wilt. Slowly, he counted to seven, taking slow and measured breaths. After exhaling the last one, he found his serenity hidden within and spoke.
“I’m tired, Noriko. It’s been a long road. And thanks to you, it has been a long year. Stop following us around; we don’t owe you any debts, so stop trying to collect what’s rightfully JosÃ©’s and mine. No more scraps from the table that you haven’t earned, no more living off bounties that others have collected for you when you can’t even bother to get powder burns on those painted nails. This is the last warning I’m giving.”
She looked genuinely puzzled for a moment. “You… you actually think that’s what I’m doing, what I’ve been doing, don’t you? Damn suspicious fool. I have my own reasons for my own directions, but there are only so many roads three exiles like us can walk, Harker. It’s no wonder we cross paths so often.”
“Sure. And the rescue ships from Old Sol will be here any minute now, just in time to rescue us all from Sekai and the blessed Neotopias.” He spoke the entire line with sarcasm, reserving the most caustic tone he could summon for the last word.
A throat cleared behind the two bickering rivals. “Ahem.”
Her hands were beginning to warp into claws, and Harker was taking a step back to preserve his shirt and necktie. When they realized their conversation had lost its privacy, they parted quickly.
“Ahem. Excuse me. Sumimasen,” the speaker clumsily tried to use polite city-speak, but it only accentuated his rustic nature.
Three men, all old and white-haired, one completely bald, with beards and mustaches, fidgeted nervously with their belt buckles and suspenders. Dressed like most frontier townsmen this far from civilization in rough slacks, plaid or dusty white shirts, bolo ties, and boots, the three held their hats before them like shields.
The bald one at the head of the group cleared his throat for a second time and tried again, a little more sure of himself now that he had their attention. “We, uhm, represent the various interests of out fair little town of Josephtown. We, well, Carrington-san, here, actually, couldn’t help but notice that sword there,” he nodded at Harker’s belt, “and figured there’d be a gun to back it up. Oh, so there is!” He pointed it out to the others, catching sight of the holster on Harker’s hip. The other two nodded and grinned. “We were wondering, sama, if it’s not much trouble, an imposition, if you will, we could, with our humble funds, perhaps…”the words tumbled out and fell over each other in a nervous and intimidated rush.
While he spoke, the other two couldn’t help but openly stare at Noriko. One with her looks and outfit didn’t come around often to their little corner of the world, and they intended to remember every detail of the fancy spectacle before them. Noriko didn’t mind at all; she enjoyed the attention and milked it for all it was worth, hands demurely behind her back with her eyes downcast, but back arched and neck straight, a slight smile playing at the corner of her full lips.
Sama. That’s a level of respect I don’t get much; it’s only polite to return it. “Slowly, slowly, sama. First, what’s your name?” asked Harker.
“Snidely. Fred Snidely; I’m Josephtown’s mayor,” he said with pride, relieved and thankful that the stranger was helping him get his footing back on solid ground. “This is—” he started turning towards his companions, who were bowing, but Harker just waved away the rest of his introduction.
“I’m Harker. What do you want?”
“To hire you. See, we have this little problem—” he began, his finger and thumb trying to underscore the size of the problem by measuring it in tiny proportions.
“Let me guess. Distribution problems; I got a sack of old beans already. And judging by the fear, it’s not a company issue.”
“Yakuza,” Snidely’s mouth twisted sourly. “Tattooed punks storm in here, shootin’ and hollerin’, take what they like and demand some extra scratch on top of that, like the governor doesn’t already tax us mightily.”
“Not yet, thank God. Only a matter of time. Our younger men are getting restless, y’see, but ain’t one of them a real gunslinger. An’ the looks and remarks at our girls are getting scarier, too.” The other two nodded in unison like a chorus of bobbing pigeons.
“What makes you think I can help? This town should have a sheriff, supplied by the company. You’re founded as a corporate town, right? Ashida Holdings, Limited; I saw the logo over the town sign as I rode in.”
“Well, we’re in-between lawdogs right now, you might say. And the home office, there seems to be some communication problem, so in the meantime, there’s just yakuza.”
Harker crossed in his arms as he considered it. “Again, why ask me?”
Snidely looked truly flummoxed. “Well, you’re a gunslinger, right? A really good one, too, with a sword and all. And, well, virtue and bushido and all that, they go with the sword. We’d pay, of course—”
The three town leaders were stunned; even Noriko narrowed her eyes at him.
“N-n-no?” stuttered one of the others, Carrington, remembered Harker, his white hair cut close and short. “See here, sama, surely we come to an arrangement…”
“I’m just on vacation, passing through. That’s it. A man wears these things, people tend to leave him alone, that’s all. I draw this katana and I will chop my foot off. The gun’s not even loaded.”
To prove his point, Harker drew the pistol, a mahogony-handled revolver, intricately etched with swirls and curves along the curved chamber. He gave it a playful spin, but fumbled and dropped it. “Whoops!” When it hit the ground, all three men backed away; Noriko stood motionless. Up on the carriage, even the teamster ducked low. Harker chuckled, bending down for it. Rising, he flipped the chamber open and revealed that it was, indeed, empty, then flipped it closed, slipping it back into the holster.
“Sorry; can’t help you, gentlemen,” he shrugged, and started walking across the street towards the lone hotel in town. Suddenly he stopped, and his coat swirled around him as he pointed right at Noriko. “She, on the other hand, is a real gunslinger. She don’t look it, I know, but appearances are deceiving. Ja!” He tipped his hat and turned away.
Noriko had a mixture of surprise and apprehension on her face, but hid it quickly as the trio of town elders turned to look at her, adopting the pleasant mask of friendliness that her first trade in life as an entertainer and companion for men had given her. “Arrangements, san? Let’s discuss out of the hot sun. If someone will just be kind enough to grab a bag or two…?”
Time to earn your own keep, geisha, with your own wits, thought Harker as he made his way across the lone street that divided the town, each boot crunching the ground beneath in a steady rhythm.
He patted the empty gun on his hip, silently thanking it for getting him out of yet another unwanted tangle, thinking back on the words an old gunslinger had drilled into his brain, just a short stretch into his then new path of life. Keep the gun clean and empty. Bullets are for killin’, not no fancy tricks or to make you a man. Load it only when you aim to kill a man, and not a tick before.
By now, his friend would have checked them in and haggled the price down a hair or two, probably by offering to fix this or that pump or boiler. In the single year since the two had been travelling the wilds of the world of Sekai together, Harker had never failed to be amazed at the resourcefulness and ingenuity of his fellow exile and wanderer. JosÃ© Gibson may be a defrocked priest, a former member of the Holy Engineers themselves, but he still knew his way around machines, even without the help of machine ghosts.
A piano and guitar duet played on a small stage set near the roaring fireplace; it may have been hot during the day, but nights on the prairie lands east of the great Neotopian cities could be bitingly cold. A crude banner, clearly home-made, spelled out the name “Space Bards” above their heads as they tore through some all-but-forgotten Old Sol song. The way the two of them butchered the notes, Harker couldn’t help but think that maybe it would be best if it was forgotten.
He and his pal Gibson sat back in the town’s only saloon, a small but tidy building nestled between the bank and hotel. Sure enough, Gibson had secured a generous room rate next door by offering to tinker with the saloon owner’s moonshine still and upgrade it, a boon to the whole town.
It seemed beans and other foodstuffs weren’t the only commodities the yakuza stormed into town and claimed on a regular basis. The hooch was always first down their throats, giving them the courage to terrorize the rest of the town. So the best booze and spirits from the cities were lately in short supply; the locals had become very adept with home-made distilling, and JosÃ© promised his “secret” piping techniques would improve the local liquor tenfold.
As an additional reward, the owner had opened up her private stock to her new best friend and his pal, provided they paid, of course; she was in it for profit, after all.
Harker and Gibson didn’t mind; some things were worth the price.
Harker ordered another shot of whiskey, the good stuff from Satoshi City, and downed it. He had just finished telling Gibson the tale of his too-frequent-for-his-taste encounter with Noriko earlier, but mostly what Gibson heard was just that she was in town. Harker would never understand what the man saw in what he himself only thought of as a fancy tramp, but so be it.
JosÃ© was a bit puzzled and worried about Harker’s little show for the locals. Sure, Harker felt a little bad for dumping Josephtown’s problems in Noriko’s lap, but not much. There was little profit in draining the coffers of such a small town, especially on no-name yakuza trash with probably no bounty to speak of.
With a tip of his hat and a tap on the bar, another shot appeared in front of him. Before he could grab it, a delicate hand with painted fingernails snatched it first. He pushed his hat up a bit and looked over at the hand. He didn’t need to follow the arm to see the face and know who the drink-thief was, not with the less-than-sober grin plastered on JosÃ©’s face.
“Konban wa, Noriko-chan.”
She poured the glass over his head, and the whiskey rained down over the brim. Slowly and calmly he took the hat off, gave it a good few shakes, and then placed it over to his left, away from her. She plopped the glass down on the wooden counter upside down, nearly cracking the thick glass.
“And to you, Gibson-san.” She smiled and bowed to him. He was a short and barrel-chested man, just the opposite of his tall and lanky friend. He had a scratchy beard and a pair of smudged spectacles perched on his broad nose. Already removing his hat, just in case, he subtly guarded his travelling flask of wine. “Always as thick as thieves, you two.”
“Someone has to save the man’s bacon every once in a while. Besides, he owes me money,” shrugged Gibson, grinning. “Of course, he’s too high and mighty to help a few farmers do some pest control for a wad of cash, but he’s an ornery cuss like that.”
“We need a bigger score,” growled Harker, tapping the bar again for a replacement drink, but the barkeep didn’t seem too eager to get close to the conversation. He finally looked over at Noriko, who had changed into a long Western-style dress that was sleek and black, but still hugged her body like a second skin, with red roses embroidered along the right side, green stems wrapping suggestively around her chest.
“So leave this one to me, huh?” sneered Noriko, then lowered her voice. “You left me surrounded by those baka, reeking of cheap cigars and cheaper cologne. Gunslinger? Where did you get that crazy idea!”
“You did just fine in Blackgrass. And Falsworth and Little Chuugoku, too, as I recall. You’re quick when you need to be. Figured you could use some practice.”
“Did you see me get off that carriage with anything? I didn’t get out of Blackgrass with much, thanks to you. Jack’s arson got most of my clothes and other sundries —”
“Ooh, I like sundries!” piped in Gibson. “Especially with frilly lacy bits.” Noriko gave him the stink eye, but he just grinned back wider.
“I’m sure the locals won’t mind lending you some iron. And I don’t think for a moment you’re completely unarmed, just because you don’t look it; you certainly kept the better part of your wardrobe. Come to think of it, I still haven’t figured out where you hid that shotgun in Falsworth…” Harker trailed off.
“I have a few theories…” Gibson just could not refuse an opportunity.
“Harker-kun, come on,” she cooed, placing her arms around his shoulders and leaning in close. “Those nice townies are serious, and it’s still a good bit of money. Between the two of us we could take care of a few yakuza, but little old me, all alone against a gang of bloodthirsty criminals? You know I need the money; I can’t stay here.” She rested her head on his shoulder, tiny tears leaving a trail of sorrow through her make-up. “I can’t do this on my own, there’s ten of them,” she sniffed.
Even JosÃ© gave Harker his best puppy-eyes, but Harker just scowled at him.
“Then I guess you’ll save Josephtown a lot of money, for them,” smirked Harker. He got up, brushing off her arms, and put his hat back on, tossing a few coins on the counter for the drinks. “Mount up, Gibson-san. We need to make tracks before noon tomorrow. We wouldn’t want to impose on Noriko’s moment of triumph and glory.”
Noriko’s waterworks instantly dried up. “How did you know the old men said they’d be here at noon?”
“It’s always noon. Bad guys like to sleep in.”
Gibson shrugged helplessly at Noriko, gave her hand a quick, chivalrous peck, and hurried to catch up with his friend.
“Are you trying to kill her?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
The sun had come up, and the arguing had started. The saddlebags were packed with clothes and supplies, and as usual the two travelers would be swiftly moving on to another town. Or so that was Harker’s plan.
Gibson had other ideas.
“I mean,” said Gibson, cleaning out his favorite rifle, Rosalita, “she’s no gunslinger, Nyx. Not by half, no way. If there’s more than three or four of them, and they have any idea what they’re doing, she’s in trouble. Real deep trouble.”
“She could walk away.”
“With what? A couple of suitcases, a few dresses? Do you really think she can just bat her eyes at them and dazzle a gang of true toughs?”
“She’s good at that.”
“Are you still smartin’ over Falsworth—”
“Nothing happened in Falsworth that’s bothering me. That’s all over and done, JosÃ©.” He said the name with a terse finality in his tone.
“Fine.” Gibson threw his hands up in defeat. “You pushed her into a corner. Questioned her worth. Woman like that, her sense of self is all she has. You take it from her, she’ll ride into hell to get it back, whether devil or saint.”
Gibson got up and walked across the room they shared. Money really was tight, even with a discount; Harker had been more than honest about that. He gripped the rifle in his hand, leaning it over his shoulder, and grabbed his own hat from the bedpost; they had cut cards last night for the bed, and, as usual, luck was with Gibson. He was pushing it now, though.
“It was a different tune you were whistling last night, shining knight. Where was all this righteous indignation then?”
“One: I was blasted,” sulked Gibson. “Two: I didn’t think you were really serious; I thought it was just more of the same old same old with you two, ever since we all hooked up at Genki.”
“And more of the same old from you, too,” chided Harker. “Almost thirty years old, and you are still pulling the pigtails of any girl you like. Give it up, man. Physically, you’re out of her league. And spiritually, she’s out of your’s. Trust me on that.”
Harker was leaning against the window, staring out at the thoroughfare in front of the hotel. “Noriko is no idiot. If it’s really more than she can handle, you can bet she and her damsel-in-distress act will be waiting for us outside the stables. Then you can be the chivalrous hero and let her break the back of your pony. You’ll see.”
“By the machine ghost, you should have joined the technopriests instead of me. They knew as much about women as you do. You’ve pushed her, city slicker, now she’ll try to show you just how much she can take. And I’m tellin’ you, she can’t take this.” Gibson grabbed his arm with his empty hand, gripping it tight and pulling him away from the window, forcing the two to face each other.
Harker leveled his hard, coal-black eyes at Gibson’s brown ones, and was a little displeased to see that Gibson’s were fierce and determined. The cool composure of Harker vied with the intensity of Gibson for a brief moment.
Then Harker lowered his eyes slowly and bore into the hand grasping his arm. Gibson frowned and released him, but didn’t back away.
The tension was rudely disturbed by an ominous rumbling in Harker’s stomach. Straightening his stance, he slipped past Gibson toward the door.
“We’re not done.”
“Yeah, JosÃ©, we are,” growled Harker with all the grit he could muster. He grabbed his sheathed sword and hat from atop his saddlebags and headed out the door, somewhat carefully. “You’re lucky you skipped the beans last night.”
Gibson watched from the doorway as Harker’s pace quickened, the awkward gait of a distressed man carrying him down the stairs and likely to the outhouse in the back. He hefted Rosalita in both hands, tuning her over and checking that every piece was sound, the barrel straight and clean. Then he grabbed a box of shells from his own saddlebags.
“The least I can do is give her a fightin’ chance.”
Noon came to Josephtown, and the yakuza, true to their threats a week earlier to the townspeople, had come as well. The citizens were all holed up in the church on the low hill at the edge of town; its bells tolled the hour, each one heavy and mournful as the count climbed higher and higher.
One lone woman stood in the middle of the street, the church at her back. The short row of buildings that comprised “downtown” Josephtown spread out to either side of her; six on the left, including the hotel, and seven on the right, including McCoy’s. She was dressed head to toe in white, the color of death in her world, the dress a white one-piece, “dragon lady” style, her favorite kind, with a long slit up the side of each leg almost to the hip for ease of movement; soft pink cherry blossoms decorated the fabric. Her red hair was balled up in twin buns on each side of her head, short red ribbons holding them together.
Balanced on her hip was a rifle, black and sleek, polished to a deadly shine. It wasn’t made in some local gunsmith’s shop; it was clearly manufactured of high-grade plastic and steel, the best that Neotopian technology could make, but stripped of electronics for frontier use.
Rosalita was there to give Noriko a fighting chance.
Bearing down on her was a cloud of steam and dust. A great lumbering beast of wood and steel rolled on heavy rubber tracks straight toward her, it’s huge boiler belching black smoke and steam from its bizarre arrangement of pipes that fanned out behind the contraption like a blasphemous peacock. At the front of the steam-powered machine sat a single, black-smudged man in filthy goggles, constantly attending to a maddening array of mechanical and pneumatic levers. Outside of the sanctuary of the Neotopias, the planet’s peculiar atmosphere dampened electricity, and so the height of technology outside the ministrations of the Holy Engineers was reduced to steampower, but truly inventive minds could produce clumsy wonders like this.
Just behind and above the pilot was a luxurious padded seat, a gaudy throne stained with the machine’s pollution, poised behind a greasy Gatling gun, its dozen barrels all aiming straight at Noriko. Perched on the throne, one foot on the chair and the other precariously balancing on top of the gun, was a man covered head to toe in tattoos, but only on his right side. Dragons spiraled about on his skin, winding their way in and out of flowers and skulls. He wore rough pants and black boots but went barechested, and had a shaved head. His skin was tanned by the sun, but otherwise fair. He had a pistol shoved down the front of his pants. He stared contemptuously at the mere woman who dared bar his path.
The rest of the yakuza gang swirled around the slow moving contraption. It might have been fearsome, but speed was not its greatest asset. Noriko had seen it coming from a mile away, and had plenty of time to contemplate her fate upon its arrival. By the same token, the yakuza had plenty of time to ride back and forth between their rather obvious leader and just within range of Josephtown’s defender, each giving the other a good view of themselves.
True to form, this band of yakuza were painted with tattoos, from just a few tribal patterns to complete mosaics on the backs of some. She counted eight on horseback, plus the two on the steamtank, each armed with a pistol and a blade, mostly machetes and knives. They all wore casual clothing, with an assortment of leather jackets or spiked collars, all dirty and either shaved like their master or hair long and wild.
Noriko stood her ground as the bizarre criminal parade came to a halt about fifty yards from her. She prayed that they couldn’t see her knees betraying her cool with their constant knocking.
This was insane; she was insane. Harker was right; she had no business being here, doing this. She should have swallowed her pride and begged him to take her with him this morning.
She was all talk, mostly; she’d never fired a gun bigger than a pistol, and the only man she had ever killed herself had been shot in the back, but of course she had acted immanently skilled when Gibson had handed his favorite rifle over, nodding sagely has explained its quirks and complexities.
Kamisama, she prayed, I hope I figured out the safety right.
Like a curious dinosaur, the gears of the lumbering beast of a machine ground to a halt about fifty meters away, and the two opposing forces faced each other.
“So!” she yelled. Years of training in the art of conversation, techniques of how to entice and control men drilled into her since she was a child, and the best she could come up with right now was “so.”
“Look, boys! The good folk of this little crap-heap have left us a present!” Raucous laughter greeted their boss’ declaration.
That was it. No more laughing. No more Harker cutting her down, no more pity from Gibson, no more being used by the likes of Ghostface Jack, no more. She hefted Rosalita and took aim, hoping she looked like she knew what she was doing. A flip of a switch, and a concealed scope popped out of the top, slim but accurate.
“George Wu, you got one minute to turn that rolling trashcan around and withdraw. Otherwise, I start putting holes in your godawful ugly toy and watch the fireworks.”
The laughter stopped, and the bandits reigned in their horses. All eyes were on their leader, George Wu. He sat back on his seat and glowered at the woman. Mutterings could be heard among his men, but a swift, murderous glance from him shut them up. He looked at the driver, thinking.
The driver shrugged back, unsure.
He stood back up, his decision made, and crossed his arms across the top of the gun barrels, grinning and leaning forward. “Gonzales! Tetsuo!” he roared. “Get her on her back where she belongs! And boys,” he waved a finger at them, laughing, “leave some for your honorable elder brother!”
Two horsemen charged forward, blades flashing. Noriko raised her gun, but froze. At the last moment, her body seized up in fear. Her moment of truth had come, her one time to stand in Harker’s boots, and she failed. Every muscle was in a hurry to be everywhere, anywhere but here, leaving her nowhere at all.
Here in this flyspeck town, far from the bright lights of the life she had been raised in, she was going to die. She had always hoped she could face her death with quiet dignity and bravery, like her mother before her, but not like this.
Cowering before gutter trash, too afraid to move and fight or even flee.
Then Wu heard the deafening click of a pistol’s hammer being cocked. Over the sound of his men whooping it up, the roar of the machine’s furnace, and the whine of its steam, he heard it, loud as a gong. More importantly, he felt the cold steel of the barrel against his temple.
Turning his head slightly to the right and moving his eyes even a little farther he came face to stone-cold face with Nyx Harker.
“Well,” grinned Wu, “that’s a fine how-do-you-do.” His right hand flexed and inched toward the automatic handgun at his waist.
“Do not,” whispered Harker. “Now, tell your scum to back away, lay down their weapons, and surrender to the nice townsfolk. They’re good, law-abiding folk; you’ll get far better from them than me. All I offer is a bullet in the brain. Choose wisely.”
“Fine,” shrugged Wu. He reached over and tugged a chain next to the throne with his right hand. A loud piercing whistle split the air as steam bellowed from one of the pipes in a rush. Harker winced and Wu took the split second distraction to chop away Harker’s gunhand with his left palm. Harker held onto his gun and fired but his aim was thrown off and the bullet only grazed Wu’s head, causing him to fall away into his chair. Harker took aim again with his revolver, but bullets began whizzing about him like angry hornets. He dived to the left of the steamtank, narrowly avoiding being stung.
“Stop! Goddamnit, stop! Don’t shoot the boiler! Or me!” screamed Wu, half-blinded by blood pumping out of his shallow head wound.
The rider’s that had charged Noriko pulled up short when they heard the whistle and came racing back. Startled, she looked back at the steamtank and caught a glimpse of a man — was that Harker? — diving for cover. Fine, then cover he would get. The sudden realization that she wasn’t going to die after all, at least not that moment, lent her renewed courage. She took aim and pumped bullets into the air, watching as two men taking aim at Harker went down off their horses.
I hit them! I hit them! she cried in her head. I think.
The steamtank had four sets of treads, two on either side; Harker rolled in between two on the left side and crawled under the contraption. He tucked his pistol in his pants, no time to be graceful, and had kept his scabbard and sword close with his other hand to protect it from his desperate acrobatics. With his free hand he drew the blade free, its single, slightly curved edge perfect for cutting.
He grabbed a handful of hoses and began sawing at them. It was not an honorable use for a katana, the trademark blade of the corporate world of the cities, but he had left the high-minded ideals of business bushido far behind, and his modern code? Whatever works. Water and oil sprayed everywhere, and the steamtank shuddered and died.
He could hear the pounding of hoofbeats all around him, shouting and cursing, and the ballet of bullets filling the air. He scampered out from under the metal behemoth, glad he had left his duster jacket behind.
Running back and forth in desperation, the yakuza boss spotted him. “Back here, idiots! Back here!” He took aim with his automatic as he wiped more blood from his face, but shots rang off the side of the steel boiler beside him. “Not the damn boiler!” he screeched and pulled back, bending down to shake the driver violently, shouting over the ping of ricochets, “Goggles, get this thing moving!” The tank’s gears might have stopped churning, but the boiler rumbled menacingly.
Thundering around the corner of the edge of town was Gibson, guiding his horse with his legs as he shot his own automatic pistol with his left hand and held the reigns of Harker’s horse with his right. He came from the right side of the steam tank and let go of the steed he was leading, gripping back onto his own reigns and racing for the safety of the other side of the street, disappearing behind the row of buildings on the far side.
Harker jumped up, sprinting to intercept his galloping horse, gripping the saddle with his right hand and swinging himself up without ever letting go of his katana with his left. Even Wu was so astonished he forgot to shoot until Harker vanished around the corner of the buildings just behind Gibson.
The other yakuza had gathered their wits back together and were taking aim at Noriko, either crouching near the tank for cover or sprinting for the porches of the buildings to either side. She herself broke left and took cover behind a pile of firewood, barricading herself while she hurriedly reloaded Rosalita with shaking hands.
“Chaos!” screamed Wu, and laughed with abandon. Now that he was out of immediate danger he was enjoying himself.
The pings of pistolfire chipped away at the woodstack. Rolling his eyes, Wu fiddled with the gattling gun then swung it around and opened it up wide, chewing away at the wood as his men cheered him on. After about ten seconds he stopped.
Silence reigned as sawdust floated in the dry air. Two of the yakuza ventured forth as their boss motioned them forward, but found nothing behind the shattered logs; she was gone.
“Building by building!” the boss roared.
Methodically, the yakuza fanned out, in teams of two, as they checked each building.
Two walked into McCoy’s, pistols at the ready. They stalked the shelves; the floors were sticky from where a stray bullet had shattered a stack of pickle jars, and vinegar assaulted their noses. They both whirled when a crack of glass breaking shot out in the quiet store.
Noriko’s prone body was sprawled behind the counter, a knocked over jar of jerky shattered across the floorboards. Blood ran freely from the shallow cuts on her leg where splinter shrapnel had caught her when escaping. Wounded and disoriented, she was easy pickings.
Two shots rang out behind her. The two yakuza dropped from her sight, falling in front of the counter. She struggled up as quickly as she could, and saw their breathless forms toppled over on the ground. Looking up, she could see Harker tip his hat before he ducked back into the hotel on the other side of the street; Gatling gunfire strafed the front of the hotel, and she raced out the back before Wu swung the muzzle around to pump a few dozen rounds into her former refuge.
The street was quiet except for the sound of heavy breathing, the neighing of horses, and the continuing bubbling of the steam engine.
Apart from Wu and Goggles, only four goons remained standing. They nervously looked at each other and began to withdraw towards their mounts. Wu swiveled the Gatling gun around to point at them and give them “encouragement.”
Gibson appeared on the bank’s balcony, a pistol aimed at one of them. Harker stepped out of an alleyway, likewise choosing a target, blood oozing out of a gash in his leg. And Noriko shouldered open the few remains of general store’s door, covering a third and fourth bandit with two automatics, swiftly recovered from the dead thugs; one was bound to hit, she hoped.
The four yakuza looked at each other, their enemies, and their boss, completely floored.
Wu lost his patience and fired. The resounding rattle of an empty Gatling gun sang through the town, and the final remnants of his gang threw down their weapons and beat feet out of town to its hollow tune. Even the driver hustled himself out of town just behind them, past the tank, as the five of them ran as far and fast across the frontier as they could, away from their insane leader and the town’s fierce defenders..
Harker stepped out of the alleyway, into the middle of the street, scratching the back of his scalp with his revolver. He was tired and limping slightly from his leg wound, but he stood tall. Looking idly up at the sun, as if contemplating the fundamental nature of the universe, he then studied his gun. Shrugging, he threw it by the handle up to Gibson, who nearly fell off of the balcony trying to catch it, cursing at his friend the whole time.
Noriko just stared and raised a pistol at Wu, but Harker put up a hand and shook his head. She relented, waiting to see what Harker was up to. She owed him, for now, at least.
“No more charade. I saw that blade you had stashed under the chair there. I’ll take my mask off if you take yours off. We’ll settle this like real city slickers. What do you say, san?” Harker shifted his stance, favoring his good leg, and adjusted the sword at his belt.
Wu laughed and reached under the chair. He too had a sheathed sword, and revealed a katana as he slid it out and let it drink in the sun. He jumped off his machine and walked serenely towards Harker. All his craziness and crudeness fell away, and the real warrior stood revealed.
Harker drew his blade and tossed the sheath away; Wu did likewise.
The two stopped about a meter from each other and held their blades straight before them, the points just barely past each other but not touching. For an eternity they stood there.
The strain of Harker’s earlier assault on the steamtank finally paid off, the boiler reaching a terminal point and exploding. Shrapnel crashed through windows and thudded into walls, shattering beams. Gibson had hurried down to the street to stand beside Noriko; he grabbed her and threw them both into McCoy’s for safety.
Wu and Harker took no heed of the boiler or the death that rained down around them. They exploded into action. With two quick strikes, it was finished. Metal lightning flashed before either had blinked, and when it was over, George Wu lay on the ground, his blank eyes staring at the sun.
Harker went to one knee, the strain of his attack too much for him. Both Noriko and Gibson rushed to his side, and he didn’t protest as the two of them hauled his staggering body up the hill, where a crowd was already pouring out and gathering in the supposed safety of the iron fence surrounding the chapel.
Someone inside rang the bells in triumph.
Several hours later, under the sinking sun of Sekai, Harker and Gibson rode away from Josephtown on horseback, due north. Harker’s leg was bandaged by the local preacher’s wife, and Gibson was studying him intently.
“Say it,” demanded Harker.
“Say what? I got nothin’ to say, Nyx.”
“Yes, you do. You just keep staring, then looking away and chuckling. Out with it. It’s been a long day, let’s finish it.”
“Okay, have it your way, chief.” Gibson pulled up the reigns and came to a stop. “Why?”
Gibson didn’t know which surprised him more, the speed or the absurdity of the answer. He waited, but Harker didn’t offer anything else. He never stopped his horse’s steady stride, either. Swearing, Gibson spurred his steed on and fell into step beside Harker.
“No, seriously. You were dead-set against helping Noriko, all ready to cut her loose. Then suddenly as we’re saddling up, you just look at me and say, ‘Saddle up quick, knight-errant; I aim to see you save a princess.’ You always slip into frontier-speak like that when someone gets under your skin awful bad. You were rarin’ to go after those health pills I slipped you took care of that food poisoning. Lucky for you, I always keep a stash for emergencies. I think I deserve to know why you had a sudden change of heart.”
“Not so sudden. Not really.”
Harker finally stopped his horse, and the two friends both peered up at the waxing twin moons floating in the hazy evening dusk. “Do you remember the first meal you ever had, JosÃ©? I do. Beans. Back in the Genki mines, after Sanzo had paid for trying to sell me out to the Boyer Brothers. I was alone, there in the dark, just another exile from Shindenji. And then you offered to share me some of your beans. Wasn’t much; you’d scarfed a lot,” Harker grinned, and his friend nodded, although the puzzlement didn’t leave his face.
“That was my first meal, my first real one. All the ones before had belonged to another man, a backstabbing city slicker still clinging to his old life and hoping it would all come back around. But that moment, I changed. I made the decision to embrace this new life, and learn from it, out here. I kept my name, but I threw all the rest away. All for some beans.”
Gibson’s jaw dropped. “You’re a damned romantic! I suspected, but really! Beans.” Gibson broke out laughing, almost falling out of his saddle.
Harker let him go on for a good while before he started off again, while there was still enough light to navigate the rolling prairie.
“So, wait, I think I get it,” Gibson said, wiping tears from his eyes. “You really wanted to give Noriko that chance, too, didn’t you? Fight the bandits, learn what she’s really made of herself, all that ‘rugged individualist’ crap you subscribe to? But why help her in the end?”
“Because,” admitted Harker, “you were right. It was too much, too soon. And besides,” he guided his horse around a small sinkhole, “someone had to hand me my beans, too. Speaking of handing off things, I don’t see Rosalita on your saddle.”
Gibson shrugged sheepishly. “Next time, maybe she won’t freeze.”
“Ha! Well, there was another reason. That damned Wu had messed with the beans by leaving such awful old ones. And no one messes with my beans.”
“Always with the beans! Give it a rest already.” He looked wistfully at the stars beginning to peek out of the firmament. “Really think we can leave her to her own devices?”
“With Rosalita in her hands? Sure. By tomorrow night, she’s off east on the next stagecoach. And here we are, striking off into the wild North on our own.”
“There’s something still bothering me, though,” mused Gibson, his arms crossed with one hand rubbing the stubble on his chin thoughtfully. “Those guns, not to mention the crazy contraption itself. I could see maybe them cobbling that thing together themselves, but all of them had automatics. Serials filed off. And that was a really shiny blade, too. Everything smells way too professional about them.”
“Ringers.” Harker didn’t elaborate, but Gibson’s face screwed up in anger.
“Damn it all! I knew you were playing an angle. That’s why you insisted on letting her keep the credit for the bust, even afterward! A corporate shellgame, and I bet you smelled it from a mile off!”
“Some habits…” Harker shrugged. “Breech of contract. Hire some rowdies to rough up the town and make the settlers pull up stakes, that way the company doesn’t owe them any money, hazard pay or otherwise. Deny them a sheriff or security, claiming ‘technical difficulties,’ and there’s no breech on the company side. Any town of worth is going to have a corp sheriff at least, with no delay, unless it is on purpose.”
Gibson seemed struck with indecision, playing with his reigns and trying real hard not to look behind him. If he did, his horse would be thundering back towards Josephtown. Back to Noriko.
“Break out the map and let’s get our bearings.”
Gibson didn’t move his horse, not in any direction, but he gave his best friend in the world the bad eye, his thoughts dark, his face storm-covered.
“She’ll be fine. You said it yourself; next time, she won’t freeze. She’s got beans. Now get the map out.”
A sly smile crept across his face, dispelling the malevolence but making him look no less mischievous. Gibson scratched his sparse beard and squinted. “Ah, well, remember Jack’s fire and all that trouble? We lost a few things, that’s why I suggested following the roads at first.”
“And you didn’t think to get another map in Josephtown? I’m sure they would have given us a company map on the house.”
“How could they? We weren’t there, remember?”
Harsh words echoed long into the night, but the next morning found two travelers riding the same long trail, deep into the heart of the empty prairie.
Other works by Steve Logan