Dr. Cyril and Sr. Mary Margaret trudged steadily across the grasslands behind the clinic until they reached a looming, mottled gray warehouse near the perimeter of the property. The forbidding structure seemed unoccupied, but when Sr. Nemesis gestured for Dr. Cyril to stop and listen, they faintly heard the clang and scrape of metal on metal. Someone was inside.
Choosing caution over blind trust, the Sister took the lead as the pair slinked as quietly as cats through the tall warehouse door. As expected, the warehouse was like a dusty attic filled with spare detritus piled on pallets neatly arrayed across the floor, in bins lining the walls, and on pulleys hanging from the rafters. In the distance, they suddenly heard the goblin wail of metal grinding on metal. They followed the sound.
When the nun and the doctor arrived at a cleared out area in the middle of the warehouse floor, they found the Ranger hunched over a sensuous hunk of machinery, holding a grinding tool that sprayed a peacock tail of swirling orange-and-yellow sparks into the air.
The Ranger finished his task, straightened his back, and then casually said over his shoulder, “Why don’t you two come out of the shadows and get a closer look at what I’ve been working on. After all, this is why you’re here, isn’t it?”
The two interlopers were shocked at having been spotted so easily, and as they approached, they volleyed questions at the Ranger. “What are you doing out here—?” Dr. Cyril began. “How did you see us in the shadows—?” Sr. Nemesis counterpointed. “Is that a hover-cycle—?” said the Doctor. “Whose face are you wearing? You know how I feel about you wearing dead people’s faces. Please take it off,” Sr. Nemesis said, ending the pair’s first barrage.
“No, I like this face,” said the Ranger, without bothering to look up from his work. “I think I’ll keep it on for awhile.” Sr. Nemesis’ response was annoyance, as well as surprise. The patient had always been compliant before. This was the first time he had stood up for himself and rebelled.
The face the Ranger was imitating belonged to a cinema actor from long ago, named Marlon Brando, when he was a young man. This version of Brando was famous for portraying an aimless, brooding, rebel gang leader in a cinematic allegory that somehow mixed social paranoia with motorcycles. The movie seemed farfetched to the Ranger, but Brando’s melancholy portrayal suited the Ranger’s current mood the way blues music suits the mood of the brokenhearted. And of course that business with the movie’s motorcycles perfectly matched the work the Ranger was doing on the three hover-cycles that were levitating just above the warehouse floor.
Mary Margaret slowly walked past and reviewed the three hover-cycles. One was red, the next was black, and the last was white. Each was a complex, sinuous sculpture made of metal and power. Each ‘cycle was supported front and back by horizontal levitator pads that glowed pale blue like bolts of lightning. Other vertical pads were placed strategically around each ‘cycle’s airframe, but they were inactive and as cold and black as the grave. “Where did you find these?” Mary Margaret said, as her gloved forefinger traced a long, unbroken curve on the black hover-cycle.
“From out of those crates,” said Marlon Brando, tipping his head without looking toward ten open crates on the edge of the work area. Brando did not make eye contact, or drop his perpetually tortured expression, while he attached to the white hover-cycle the metal casing he had ground smooth.
“The crates contain all the evidence there is from the site of the ambush where I, Fr. Francis, and the rest of the New Texas Rangers were massacred,” he said with Brando’s swagger and slur. “The crates are full of random bits and pieces of who knows what. Everything’s burnt and broken. The remains of ten hover-cycles are in these crates, but I could only scrounge together and mix and match enough pieces to reconstruct three ‘cycles. And even then I had to fabricate missing parts. Sort of the same way you put me back together again, Doc’.”
As Sr. Nemesis began examining the crates, she said, “Then these boxes contain evidence of a crime, of a mass murder. Why aren’t they in the custody of local law enforcement?” She brushed the dust off one of the crates with the edge of her gloved hand, then saw the stamped label and gasped in surprise, “That’s the papal seal.” Why in the name of Heaven, she wondered, were the crates marked as property of the Church of Man and Machine?
Dr. Cyril stepped up to the containers, parallel to Sr. Nemesis and an arm’s-length away, and examined what he saw. “The crates were delivered at about the same time you were delivered to the clinic,” said the doctor to his patient. Both the Ranger and Mary Margaret turned to listen to the doctor, but Dr. Cyril was not so much talking to them as he was thinking out loud to better understand how the past was informing the present.
“You were originally delivered to an emergency room, more dead than alive,” said Dr. Cyril, referring to the Ranger, but not addressing his patient directly. “The doctors in emergency did the initial triage, but they honestly had no hope you would survive more than a few hours, let alone days. I became involved only later when Cardinal Starr personally asked me to help save your life instead of merely easing your suffering until your inevitable death. How could I refuse? I am a Walking Stick; without a purpose, I am nothing. The challenge of saving your life was the greatest purpose I could imagine.
“When you came into my care, the Church concealed any indication that there was a survivor of the massacre. It was believed that if your attackers knew you were alive, they would return to finish the job.
“While I worked on you, local law enforcement tried to solve the mystery of who ambushed you and your comrades,” said Dr. Cyril. “They collected what little evidence they could find, and asked a few questions, but their inquiries yielded nothing. Soon the trail grew cold, the case was marked ‘unsolved’, and finally was dropped.”
Sr. Nemesis’ face darkened with anger. “Why didn’t the investigators try harder?” she demanded to know.“Eleven people were attacked. Didn’t their lives matter?”
“Local law enforcement cared, but they didn’t have the skill or resources to solve the crime,” said the Doctor. “You have to understand, the colonists of the Hydra Complex were inspired by the rough-and-tumble legends of your fellow human’s Old West. Local law enforcement consists of many honest, but inexpert deputies, and a handful of clever, but overextended marshals. If anyone was going to solve the crime, it would have been the Exploration Guild’s regional Rangers, who had adapted to the local culture and renamed themselves ‘New Texas Rangers.’ Of course, that was the problem, wasn’t it? The best ones to solve the crime, we were also its victims.”
The Ranger walked between the levitating hover-cycles the way a visitor to a graveyard walks between the gravestones. As he did, Marlon Brando’s handsome face melted back into a mannequin’s bland profile. “When the murder investigation was closed, the Church used its influence to get the physical evidence and investigation reports. When I held the evidence in my hands—evidence of what had once been my life!—I became obsessed with knowing more.
“I suppose my obsession is why I felt compelled to piece together the hover-cycles. The same way I feel compelled to piece together the piecemeal memories of my past. Strangely enough,” the Ranger said as an aside, “I think reassembling these hover-cycles helps. I don’t recall for certain, but I think I’ve been good at working with machines and fixing things, ever since I was a kid.
“Now these ‘cycles are the only memorial to those of us who died…permanently…in that ambush. That’s why I’m going back.” There was iron-willed determination in his voice.
“Going back?” said Sr. Nemesis, suspiciously. “Going back where?”
The Ranger didn’t answer right away, but climbed on the white hover-cycle, activated the lightning-blue levitators and cool exhaust ion-jet engines, then gracefully glided up into the air and slowly banked through a figure-eight pattern above the heads of his astonished audience. When he was done, he descended and parked the hover-cycle where he had begun his test flight.
As the Ranger climbed off the ‘cycle, he answered the Sister’s question. While he spoke, his face became that of a handsome black man with regular features; large, knowing, brown eyes; and an old-fashioned bushy, black, horseshoe mustache. He was the spitting image of the legendary Western lawman, Bass Reeves. Bass Reeves was iron-willed too. “I’m going back to the scene of the crime,” the Ranger said. “I’m going back to where we were ambushed and to try to find out who killed us. I’m going to try to find—“
Vengeance!, interrupted an angry voice in Dr. Cyril’s head. The voice sounded like an old Texan’s.
“—justice,” the Ranger continued calmly, “and I was hoping you two would come with me.” When he finished speaking, Bass Reeves’ implacable face faded away.
Sr. Nemesis and Dr. Cyril stared at each other in surprise. They did not realize the Ranger had healed enough to be so determined about anything, let alone be determined to pursue such a daunting goal. But he had unconsciously put on Reeve’s face because he had been thinking about U. S. Marshal Bass Reeve’s record of arresting 3,000 felons over his 32 year career. The Ranger was serious.
On the one hand, Sr. Nemesis felt morally obliged to tell the Ranger to act in his own best interest, and not endanger himself chasing murderers. To tell him that although his body was nearly healed, his memory of skills to keep him safe and morals to keep him just, was in tatters. To tell him to not go. On the other hand, Cardinal Starr had directed her to only protect the Ranger, but otherwise let him choose his own path, and even help if necessary. “What should I do?” the nun wondered.
On the one hand, Dr. Cyril felt ethically obliged to act in his patient’s best interest. Except for unleashing his strength and activating the full capabilities of his hands, the Doctor had nearly healed the Ranger’s body. However, his patient’s memories and subconscious mind were still in tatters. Going back to the place where the Ranger’s trauma occurred would surely jog his memory, and hopefully do him good, although some risk was involved. If the Doctor was with his patient, he could help the Ranger navigate any post-traumatic stress.
And the Doctor feared his patient would surely need handholding. Apparently the Ranger didn’t realize it, but he could communicate with Walking Sticks on their private network. Perhaps the patient had that ability because of the miraculous prosthetics the Doctor was inspired to install, prosthetics whose technology not even the Doctor fully understood. Or perhaps it was because of something else, but either way, recently the Doctor could hear his patient’s subconscious thoughts. And those thoughts revealed a subconscious mind consumed with toxic vengeance. For the patient’s own good, it was vital that the Doctor help cure his anger.
On the other hand, Dr. Cyril continued to muse, if the Ranger can communicate with Walking Sticks, he could act as a mediator between men and machines. He could potentially free thousands of helplessly obedient Walking Sticks from the tyranny of mercilessly self-serving humans. The Doctor might be able to save his fellow Walking Sticks, but at the risk of possibly endangering his patient. “What should I do?” the doctor wondered.
“If you want me to help, I will,” said Sr. Mary Margaret Nemesis.
“So will I,” said Dr. Cyril. “But you are not yet fully yourself,” he continued. “You must promise to tell us your thoughts and listen to our advice. Do you promise?”
“Do you promise?” repeated Sr. Nemesis, insisting on a direct answer. “I will help you in whatever way I can, but only if your actions are good and just. Trust me, you don’t want me for an enemy. So, do you promise?”
“I promise both of you—and myself,” said the Ranger.
“Then, when do we leave?” asked Dr. Cyril.
“The day after tomorrow,” replied the Ranger. “I want to go as soon as possible, but I have to finish making preparations.”
“And I have to finish the treatments to your hands,” said the Doctor. “Tomorrow evening, after vespers?” The Ranger nodded his agreement to the appointment.
“Then the day after tomorrow it is,” said the Sister. “May we journey with the blessings of the Cosmos.”
“Amen,” said the Ranger. “Amen.”