Rico rode for months before he picked up the Tinker’s trail. He rode through woods in the South populated by ancient giants, cybernetic dwarves, and trees that grew higher than the clouds. He searched through the metal midlands of the robot nation to the East, where his alloy limbs and half-mechanical face allowed him to pass. Finally, he combed the deadlands of the North, where the sun never rises and no right men live but mutants and vampires. None of those places scared him so much as the town he’d finally tracked the Tinker to. Jagged Steel Creek.
He had sworn he’d never let Mona see his face there again.
His phantom horse, Sonny, stomped nervously as they approached the edge of a long-abandoned gold mining camp on the periphery of town. Rico’s left eye, the robotic one, scanned DNA trails dancing on the wind. Colored wisps of genetic trail wafted over the prairie grass, muted orange and purple. But one stood out brightly in red.
Maybe he had some family with him, giving off those near shades. Maybe brothers or uncles. Had to be careful—the Tinker wasn’t alone.
Rico put his metal hands on the butts of his twin six-shooters. On each hand, a plug jacked into a port on the weapon, allowing Rico to check the ammo mentally and do a quick diagnostic on the guns. Each was fully loaded, freezing rounds in the left one and plasma rounds in the right. And the lever-action in the saddle scabbard had dragonfire shells, in case things got serious.
Just as he was about to ride on, a stabbing jolt of pain shot through his nervous system, from his metal arms up through his shoulders and into his spine. He grimaced and clenched his teeth, pulled a flask from a pocket and drank deeply. Then Rico shook his head and spurred Sonny on toward the camp, warmed both by the whiskey and the thought of finally catching the bounty he’d been after for months. A bounty so heavy he could retire. Buy an isolated little homestead, away from people and their eyes.
As he neared camp, someone stepped out from behind one of the shacks. A flashing red reticle appeared over the man and Rico pulled the reins.
A clockwork gunslinger.
Rico had expected something like this. The Tinker was wanted by the League of Realms for manufacture of illegal weapons, after all.
The robotic gunman wore all black, from hat to snakeskin boots, and noon sun reflected off its chrome skin. Most clockworks weren’t much of a worry, but one that the Tinker had made himself to cover his own back might be real trouble.
He dismounted and sauntered toward the mechanized gunfighter, brushing his duster behind his holsters. When he got twenty feet away, he stopped and said, “I’m looking for—” But before he finished the sentence, the familiar, sickly feeling of the Warp washed through him, nausea in his gut and an electrical surge through his nerves. It meant Rico had underestimated his opponent.
The Warp was a gift given to him by an elderly bruja for saving the life of her grandson. Whenever Rico’s life was in imminent danger, the Warp took him. From his perspective, it dramatically decelerated time so that others moved at a tenth their normal speed. From others’ perspective, Rico moved ten times faster. It had saved his life in countless gunfights.
But the advantage came at great cost. Each time he used it, a life-threatening fever scorched his blood, and he had to quickly brew herbs given him by the bruja to stop the fever from killing him. In those moments, he often thought it was a curse as much as a gift.
Now, faced with the Tinker’s gunslinger, time slowed to a crawl all around Rico. The Warp sped his thoughts, reflexes, and movements to a blur, but even against the lightning quickness with which Rico drew his guns, the clockwork man had already gripped his own weapon.
Rico gasped, unbelieving. Nothing he’d ever encountered, man or machine or magic, had ever moved near the speed of the Warp.
Rico shot a freezing round that hit the clockwork man in the shoulder, instantly encasing part of his chest and arm in a block of jagged blue ice. But the robot cracked through it with little apparent effort and squeezed off two rounds.
The Warp took hold more tightly and slowed time even further. Rico felt the fever burning in his skull as the bullets whined through the air. He dove, firing several shots as fast as he could.
Rico hit the ground and time suddenly snapped back to normal, the Warp releasing him. An ice round hit the clockwork man in the chest, and in the next instant it shattered as two plasma rounds smashed through it. The robot fell onto its back, legs twitching and smoke rising from the body.
Within minutes Rico had caught up with his bounty. He pulled next to the covered wagon and saw the Tinker sitting on the front bench, his face animated with fear. Rico couldn’t help but smile at the sight of him. With his dandy suit, round spectacles, and thin moustache, he hardly seemed like one of the most wanted men alive.
But the fever burned stronger with every passing second. If he didn’t get the witch’s herbs in him soon, it might take him down for days or weeks. Or even kill him. He needed to get the Tinker secured in handcuffs so he could make camp and brew the medicine. Rico wished he could just keep a canteen of the drink on hand for times like these, but the concoction had to be brewed fresh to work.
The Tinker stopped the horses, looking back into the wagon and mouthing something. So he’d been right—someone was back there, someone with similar genetic markers. With the fever already setting in, Rico didn’t know if he could survive another Warp so soon. He kept one pistol trained on the wagon.
Tinker spoke in a high voice. “Please, I don’t want any trouble. I have money if you just let me go on my way. I have—”
“I doubt you have enough. Who’s in the back?”
The Tinker made a pained face. “Boys. Come on out.”
Two children poked their heads out, clearly terrified. They were young, cute versions of the Tinker.
Rico exhaled slowly and his shoulders dropped.
The Tinker talked fast. “Do you have kids?”
“These are my sons, Matthew and Simon. I know you’ll get a lot of money if you bring me in, but please understand. Their mother died recently. I wasn’t a good father to them while she was alive, but I’m trying to change, put my troublemaking days behind me and be there for them now. They need me. If you take me in—”
“Every single outlaw I catch has a sob story. You think I’m going to let you go just out of niceness?” He leaned forward in the saddle. “Do I look like a nice guy to you?”
The Tinker held his hands together, begging. “Please. I deserve punishment, it’s true. But my kids don’t.”
Rico swore to himself softly and eyed the frightened little boys. For a few moments he peered out over the prairie, remembering what it was like when he was a child and his mother told him his father wouldn’t be coming back from the war with the robot nation. Losing his father at that age had cut scars into him, scars he still carried. Now two little boys waited, visibly trembling, to find out if he’d take their father from them.
He put his gun back in the holster, shook his head, and then waved them away. “Go on. Get out of here before I change my mind.”
As he was packing up camp the next morning to get the hell away from Jagged Steel Creek, the wind whispered in his ears. “Come. Come. Come.”
Rico spat and squinted toward town. “Shit.”
If she knew he was there and wanted to see him, he could hardly refuse. A request from Aggie was no light matter.
As he rode up to the witch’s stone hut and saw a woman squatting in the garden, he first thought it couldn’t be Aggie. The witch had been old, but the crone scratching in the dirt appeared positively ancient. He zoomed in with his robotic eye, and sucked in a sharp breath when he realized it was her.
He’d been gone eighteen months. But she seemed forty years older. Her hair was thin now, her posture stooped and fingers gnarled.
Aggie stood with some effort. She smiled, her teeth still white and perfect, and shuffled toward him with the help of a cane.
“Were you really going to leave without visiting me?”
He dismounted and came closer, his brow furrowed. “What… What happened?”
She chuckled and shrugged. “It’s a long story. Things changed after you left.”
The suggestion that whatever had happened to her was connected to him made his stomach drop. Aggie motioned for him to follow her. But after only two steps nearer the hut, she turned and met his eyes. “Do you really want to know? You won’t like it.”
He could turn and leave. Just ride out of town and not look back. But he had to know. “Yes.”
She nodded and walked through the front door. He followed her into cool darkness. The air smelled like rich soil with a tang of medicinal herbs. Bookshelves with dozens of timeworn volumes lined the walls. Magical trinkets, talismans, and glass potion bottles crowded the shelves and tables. They crossed the oval-shaped room to a door that led to the greenhouse out back.
Rico’s blood thudded in his ears as soon as he saw what—who—the witch was leading him to. Amidst the humid air and green plants, Mona waited.
His first impulse was to run, to hide, to do anything to keep her from laying eyes on his huge, monstrous arms and half-metal face. But it was too late. She’d already seen him.
In contrast to how he looked, she was as beautiful as ever, in a blue sundress. Mona’s brown skin glowed. Her curly hair, which could never quite be tamed, stood out wildly in every direction. Tears welled in her eyes. One hand was under her huge belly, as if supporting the weight of the child within.
Dizziness washed over Rico, and he leaned against the doorframe for fear that he’d fall over. They stood there facing each other for what seemed like a long time. Finally, Aggie spoke.
“I should leave you young folks to talk. I’ll be in the garden.”
The silence lingered many more heartbeats after the witch left, until Mona shattered it. “You have nothing at all to say to me?” She spoke through clenched teeth, and he swore the air hummed with a faint electrical buzz.
“Me? You’re pregnant! What, as soon as I left you just—”
She stepped forward and pointed a finger at him, punctuating her words with it. “You want to talk about what happened when you left?”
His lips moved soundlessly for a moment. She continued. “No, you don’t. Never checked up. Never even bothered to say goodbye, much less explain yourself. Not to me, or to the people of this town who counted on you.”
Now he found his voice. “Mona, what are you talking about? What happened?” His mind focused and gathered itself, and he looked at her more closely. He zoomed his vision in and analyzed her face behind the layer of makeup, which she’d never worn a day in her life nor needed to before.
A black eye.
Bruises on her arms, too, which he’d not noticed in his initial shock. He took several steps closer. “Tell me. What happened to you? What happened to Aggie?”
“He’s my husband.” She nearly spat the last word. “Yeah, you like that? After our sheriff disappeared, Nicholai showed up. Decided Jagged Steel Creek would be his own personal little kingdom. An easy power grab for a thousand year-old thaumaturge. And all the people of Jagged Steel Creek have to pay him in tribute with their lives. He drains the life force out of them, Rico. He’s a parasite.”
Rico reeled, his mind spawning a million questions and stumbling over which to ask first. “You…married him?”
She marched right up to his face now. He could smell her, that fruity, musky pheromone cocktail that always overpowered his brain. Something else, too—the air buzzing stronger with energy. She put the finger right in his face. “I was going to marry you, dumbass. But you ran out. And he showed up and took one look at me and said I’d be his wife. Said I had a ‘confluence of magics’ in my blood, that I’d be the perfect mother for his child.” Rico had heard that among Mona’s grandmothers and great-grandmothers were hoodoo rootworkers, bruja, and medicine women. But he’d never known Mona herself to practice.
She glared at him. “He made me do it, Rico. Said if I didn’t give him a child, he’d hurt my mother.”
He heard anger coloring his next words. “No one tried to stop him? No one fought—”
Mona slapped his face. “God damn you, Rico. Aggie tried.” She gestured toward the yard where the witch worked. “He drained her, and left her alive as an example. A warning. Because she tried to do your job.”
The greenhouse fell silent and his mind swam. Mona had gotten pregnant against her will by a man who’d claimed her through threats. Aggie had tried to go against the monster, only to lose decades of her life. And the people of Jagged Steel Creek, the citizens who had trusted him to protect them, had also paid a steep price.
All because he couldn’t stand having Mona see the thing he’d become.
His blood raged and his heart pumped adrenaline as he felt the rational parts of his brain go dark. Rico turned and pushed through Aggie’s house and out the front door. The old woman called after him, but he jumped on Sonny and spurred the ghost beast toward town.
Only a couple minutes of riding passed before enough sense came to him to realize he’d no idea where the wizard was, or even what he looked like. But right away he saw the difference in the people. They had an air of lethargy and defeat about them. Everyone moved like tired old folks, even the children.
He rode past the saloon, the general store, and the horse stable. He rode past the elf brothel, the potion shop, and the bantam dragon stable. He rode past the VR den, the augmentation clinic, and the levispeeder recharge ports.
People stopped whatever they were doing to stare at him with open mouths, whispered to each other, or told children to go inside. As he turned a corner in front of the bank, he saw Billy, a young man who’d once been a neighbor. Rico pulled on the reins and Billy ran up, his face all disbelief.
“Rico! Where the hell have you been? I haven’t seen you since—”
“Billy, it’s good to see you, but right now I need your help. Where is Nicholai?”
The younger man shook his head. “What are you going to do? You can’t—”
Rico leaned closer and fixed his gaze on Billy’s eyes. “Please. Tell me. If you don’t, I’ll just find someone who will.”
Billy seemed to consider it for a moment, then pointed west down Pine Street. “His place is in the dead center of town, next to the bank. You can’t miss it.”
“Just be careful. Seriously.”
Rico nodded and rode on. When he got there, he saw the place was indeed impossible to miss once he neared the middle of Jagged Steel Creek—it was a tall stone tower that loomed over the rest of the buildings. He dismounted, stomped up to the heavy oak doors, and pounded on them with a fist. “Nicholai. Come on out.”
A voice from above addressed him. “Sheriff.”
He looked up. An elderly man stepped off the top of the tower and floated down. Nicholai, obviously. Rico saw that the man was primordially old, had no hair at all on his head or face and wore a long, black tunic. In Rico’s robotic-eye HUD, a flashing red reticle surrounded the wizard. A dark purple aura glowed there, indicating immense energy readings. A dozen infobubbles emerged around the reticle, offering analysis. One bubble in particular made his breath catch in his throat.
POWERS: gravimancy, mass manipulation, density shifting, lifeforce absorption
Panic crept into Rico’s chest. This was no joke. Now that he saw what he faced, the truth hit him like Mona’s slap in the face.
He’d rushed into this half-cocked, unprepared, and ignorant of what he was up against.
Nicholai settled gently to the ground. With his deep wrinkles and total lack of hair, he reminded Rico of a mole rat.
He approached Rico with an expression of infinite patience and benevolence. “So. The famous sheriff has returned. I trust you’re not staying long. Jagged Steel Creek, as you can see, has moved on after your abandonment. Like Mona.”
“I’m only saying it once.” Rico tried to put a confidence he didn’t feel into his voice. “Leave now with your life, or stay and lose it.”
The mage’s face indicated he considered the threats cute, and the ground began to rumble. “I don’t think I’ll be leaving. I like it here.”
The Warp’s nausea filled his gut and the electrical charge sizzled through his nervous system. The scene slowed nearly to a standstill as Rico connected hand to gun, drew, and fired.
But at that moment, a bone-crushing heaviness slammed Rico flat to the dusty ground. The several rounds he’d fired arced down into the dirt.
Rico felt gravity crushing him with deadly force. He couldn’t lift his gun or move any part of his body. Nicholai smiled apologetically as if pained by the situation.
“Don’t worry, sheriff. I’m not going to kill you. But I do need to make sure my point is publicly made. You understand.”
Suddenly, instead of enhanced gravity, Rico felt no weight at all and floated up into the air. Through wide eyes he watched the wizard and the others looking up at him as he drifted higher, wildly swinging his arms and legs.
Once he got as high as the tower, gravity came back.
He saw horror on the faces of the townsfolk as they watched him plummet, many of them averting their gaze, some unable to do so. When he hit the ground, he knew instantly that a good many things in his body had broken, both biological and mechanical. Stunned, unable to catch a breath, he lay there staring up at a wisp of cloud in the bright blue morning sky.
He spat blood. Then Nicholai bent over him, filling his vision and blocking the sun.
“Jagged Steel Creek is mine. Mona is mine. I believe the point is made. Yes?”
Rico woke in the hospital to pain on top of pain. It made him think of that day, eighteen months before, when he’d driven off the gang of troll-like alien Vawx that had invaded Jagged Steel Creek. Though he’d won, he’d been so severely injured in the battle that much of him had had to be replaced with augs.
He groaned and peered out one eye. His torso was bandaged, his mechanical left arm removed, his right arm already replaced. Mona sat in a chair next to his bed. Seeing him awake, she stood and bent over him, her eyes red and face puffy.
“God damn you, Rico.” She balled a fist as if to strike him, but stopped herself. After a moment, she leaned in and kissed him instead, holding it for a long time.
When she pulled back, they gazed into each other’s eyes and he sensed that the wall of blame and anger she’d put up had weakened. Her voice came out softly now. “Just tell me one thing. Why?”
“How can you ask me that? After what he did to you?”
“Not that. Why did you leave?”
He tried to read her. The way she looked at him was so different from the way he’d always imagined it would be if she saw his new face and body. She didn’t seem in the least repelled or horrified. She looked at him as she always had.
For the briefest of moments, his brain started to churn out excuses and half-truths, but after nearly dying, playing games felt silly.
“I didn’t want…” He choked on the words.
“I didn’t want to be around you like this.”
“You mean your augs? Are you serious?” She stood up straight and her face contorted into an expression of disbelief. “Are you telling me all this is because you look a little different now?”
“A little different? Are you joking? I’m not—”
“Not what, pretty enough?”
“Not good enough! I was hardly good enough for you before, and after the Vawx there’s not even much of that guy left. You don’t understand. It’s not just this that changed.” He held up an arm. “When I got hurt, my brain took damage, too. It changed me in here.” Rico tapped his temple. “I can’t control my temper, my impulses. And on top of that, the tech behind these augs is so experimental that it didn’t come out quite right—messed up my nerves. Sometimes the pain just drives me crazy. With the Warp and these augmentations and the pain and the anger, I’m too dangerous. How could I let a…thing…like me be around you?” What he didn’t say was that as far as Rico could see, he’d become a machine of violence not much different than the robots that had killed his father.
She leaned forward and cupped his face in her hands. “You listen to me. I love you and I’ve always loved you and nothing can ever change that, sure as hell not a few artificial parts. These augs? You got them because you were protecting us. I love these augs. As far as your brain damage goes, you were already an impulsive asshole when I met you.” She smiled and kissed him again. “I’m not scared of you. Got that?”
A while after Mona left, Rico tried to sleep. Just as he was on the edge of drifting off, someone knocked. The Tinker walked in, trailing his two little boys behind him. He’d shaved, cut his hair, and dressed like a farmhand, clearly trying to disguise himself.
The Tinker came to the side of the bed with a black metal ring in his hand. “Listen, I have to get out of town but I wanted to give you this.” He held it up. “All you have to do is put it on your head.” The Tinker looked around the room and found Rico’s hat on the coat rack. He took it down, removed the hat’s band, and replaced it with the ring.
“What are you talking about?”
The Tinker went to the door, glanced down the hall both ways, and came back. “I don’t have much time. To make this work takes practice, and it’s draining. And not everyone has the power to use it in the first place. You have to be strong and absolutely focused. Do you understand?”
“No. What is it?”
“It’s the kind of thing that got me in trouble. Making weapons like this is the reason they sent you after me. When you have this on, just focus on a person and think hard about what you want him to do. You can control his thoughts, if you’re strong enough. Make him think, do, or say anything you want.”
“Why are you giving me this?”
The Tinker ran to the window and glanced out, then went to the door with his boys trailing him. He stopped and looked back on his way out. “Heard what happened with Nicholai. You’re a good man, sheriff. You were kind to me, and I wanted to repay you.”
Rico woke the next day to sunlight streaming in the window and Mona standing over him, crying. She had a split lip and now two black eyes. He sat up instantly despite the broken ribs, hardly even registering the pain. “What happened?”
“Nicholai.” It was the only word she could get out between the sobs.
Rico pulled himself out of bed, grimacing and grunting. He pulled her to him for a long moment, then stood back and wiped the tears from her cheeks. Rico picked up the hat. “This band is an omega-level weapon. I put this on, I can control the enchanter’s mind. I can stop him.”
She shook her head. “No! You can’t. You’re too weak.”
“Hey. Listen to me. I’m ending this. It’ll be okay. Just stay here until it’s done.” Rico awkwardly pulled on his duster and placed the hat on his head. He stuffed a six-shooter into his jeans and grabbed a crutch that leaned against the wall. Then he kissed Mona and limped out of the hospital, slowly but with a glowing rage.
By the time Rico reached the tower, he felt exhausted just from the walk. The Tinker’s words about needing practice, strength, and focus rang in his skull. But the wizard hadn’t just hurt him. He’d hurt Mona. And it was all his fault.
He had to do something.
Nicholai descended from the top of the tower just as he had the day before. Except this time, his face was contorted in fury.
Rico saw Mona coming out of the corner of his eye. Why didn’t she stay away? He was doing all this to protect her. And now she was running right into the middle of danger.
The wizard watched her run to Rico. “I intended to let you live. But now I see that’s not going to work. If you’re alive, she’ll always be pulled to you, like gravity.”
Nicholai raised a hand in Rico’s direction, and a pulverizing g-force smashed him to the ground. Rico knew he’d pass out quickly, and he focused every cell of his being on the sorcerer, in his mind repeating, stopstopstopstop….
For the briefest moment, the wizard faltered and took a step back. He shook his head and gathered himself. “Well, you came with a trick up your sleeve. Good try, whatever magic it was. But we both know you’re outmatched.”
Mona screamed at Nicholai to stop, but he ignored her. Rico felt the gravity squeezing his body and his consciousness blurring at the edges.
This was it. The end of the road. He tried to express to her with his eyes everything he felt, unable to even move his jaw. That he loved her. That he wished like hell he’d never left. That he was sorry.
Bent over Rico, the gravity somehow not affecting her, Mona let out a gut-deep, primal scream. Her face clouded and Rico felt a different kind of magic, not the wizard’s, the air buzzing around him like it had in the greenhouse earlier.
Mona reached out and took off his hat. She placed it on her head over the wild hair and stood, holding her belly in her hands. The expression of raw fury on her face startled Rico, and he almost felt scared for Nicholai.
She closed her eyes and whispered something. His vision narrowed, constricting into a tunnel as consciousness receded.
Just as the circle of light became little more than a pinprick, the gravity released him. He coughed and struggled to sit up as Mona strode toward the wizard.
Nicholai’s face had gone blank. He gaped, staring at her as if mindless. She whispered again, and the gravimancer floated himself up in the air, past the top of the tower, farther and farther up until he became little more than a speck in the sky.
Then her lips moved again.
Rico let out a gasp as he realized what she’d done. She’d made him drop himself from the clouds. The speck grew bigger and bigger as Rico and the townsfolk watched, open-mouthed and pointing. The wizard fell without so much as moving an arm or leg, as if unconcerned by his situation.
And then he hit the dusty Main Street of Jagged Steel Creek with a sickening thud. He lay in a heap, his limbs twisted at unnatural angles. A pool of blood spread beneath him. The people burst into hoots and cheers, yelling and hugging each other.
Rico struggled to stand. Mona helped him up and hugged him tightly.
He grimaced and coughed, leaning on her. “I think I love you even a little more now than a few minutes ago.” After seeing the force of Mona’s power, he suddenly felt silly for leaving town out of fear of hurting her.
“I love you, too. All of you.” She touched his cheek with a finger, then the metal on the other side of his face.
“You should probably just hang on to that hat. Looks damn good on you. I think you wear it a hell of a lot better than I ever did.”