People in the Hydra Complex colony had originated from a consortium of hardscrabble Texans from the North American realm. Like so many of them, Caleb Anderson spoke and behaved in accordance to the myth of an Old West that existed only briefly in history, centuries ago and light years from this world. But still, Sr. Mary Margaret’s tactical instinct was piqued: Surely the old man was having a delusional episode—probably one of many he suffered daily and often. No wonder Edgar seemed harried—but that didn’t mean Anderson hadn’t really detected someone covertly observing his activities.

Dr. Cyril said, “We studied what little information was in the investigation reports about the ambush, but we were hoping the two of you could tell us what you saw. We hope your story can help cure my patient’s amnesia.”

“But we didn’t see anything,” the old man said. “We arrived after the ambush. So, we can’t help you. You folks ready to leave now?”

“Don’t be like that, Mr. Anderson,” said the prospector’s Walking Stick. “We said we would help, didn’t we? And a deal is a deal.”

The old man grumbled and grunted to himself, then finally said, “Alright, you useless tangle of cables and wire, I can tell when I’m being ganged up on. But you’re right, a man’s word is his bond, and a deal is a deal. I’ll let you folk see the old campsite and go in the mineshaft as far back as was open when the ambush took place, but the rest of my claim is off limits. Private. Confidential. Secret. No trespassing! Got it?” Caleb ratcheted his shotgun’s power pack to emphasize his point.

Moving more spryly than any of the visitors thought possible, Anderson pushed past his guests and said, “Well, come on. You ain’t gonna find out anything standing around here.” 

Considering who was speaking, the prospector made astoundingly good sense, so the three visitors followed him to the edge of the plateau. From there, they could look downhill toward the visitors’ parked and levitating hover-cycles, and farther down at a scrub brush-choked arroyo at the bottom of the hill. Looking uphill toward the summit of Mt. Kuala Laredo, they could see Fr. Francis’ abandoned camp. Behind the campsite was the black maw of the mineshaft that stretched deep into the mountain to where Fr. Francis conducted his research. Overarching everything was a hot yellow sun in a cerulean blue sky.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” said the old prospector. “On the day of the ambush, this tangle of wires and I were east of here huntin’ down a seam of ore. All of a sudden, this one hears an almighty ruckus west of us, somewhere near the priest’s campsite—sound travels a long way in these hills if the wind’s not blowing too hard. I still don’t know how he heard anything; he ain’t got no ears that I can see—Anyway, Edgar hightails it west, and a while later he’s on the comm link telling me to activate the emergency transceiver and get a medevac out here double quick.

“But neither of us saw anything else,” concluded the old prospector, and Edgar confirmed the summary. “By the time this one reached the scene of the ambush, it was too late,” Caleb said. “Whoever did the dirty deed had skedaddled. But I’ll tell ya’ who I think it was,” he whispered confidentially, leaning his lopsided gaze uncomfortably close to the Doctor. “Claim jumpers!”

Dr. Cyril leaned back warily and told the prospector, “I see. I’ll keep that in mind.” It was obvious to him that the old man was slipping back into delusion again and would be no further help anytime soon. Despondently, the Doctor asked his companions, “What now?”

Sr. Nemesis looked thoughtful, then said, “I think we should walk up to the ruins of Fr. Francis’ campsite. And I think that along the way, I should tell you some confidential information that Cardinal Starr shared with me.” 

“The Sister has been keeping secrets?” thought the Ranger. He knew that the Church of Man and Machine was paying him extraordinary attention. But he didn’t know whether their attention was solely for his sake, or to help solve the murder of their priest, or for some other unknown reason. Perhaps it was for all of those reasons; perhaps it was for none of them. He didn’t know, but he intended to find out.

As they walked up the hill, Sr. Nemesis said, “Fr. Francis’ order is known for both its piety and its academic endeavors. Besides being a revered priest, the Father was a renowned archaeologist. When he was a young seminarian, Francis found a mysterious set of what he believed to be religious relics that spoke to the core beliefs upon which the Church of Man and Machines is founded. However, there were too few relics for Francis to prove his theory. The situation remained that way for decades.”

When the group reached the ruins of Fr. Francis’ old campsite, the nun said, “In recent years, the situation changed—but became more troubling. Xenoarchaeol­ogists exploring newly settled colony worlds—worlds thousands of light years from Earth!—found artifacts nearly identical to the ones Francis found when he was a young man. Now that Fr. Francis was an old and respected explorer, he petitioned Cardinal Starr to authorize a low profile exploration of the Hydra Complex for religious relics that would prove his theory.

“One day,” Sr. Nemesis said, “Fr. Francis sent an encrypted message to Heavenly City saying that he had found what he was looking for.”

Mary Margaret stopped speaking for a moment, but the group standing around her could tell from the pained expression on her face that her story was not finished. She scrutinized the ruins as if she was trying to imagine the camp as it was before it was torn apart by weapons fire, the people who had gathered and died here, and the mysterious relic that had been worth their lives. 

Mary Margaret composed herself and resumed her tale. “Fr. Francis thought his discovery was so sensitive and important that he asked Cardinal Starr to arrange an armed escort from the Hydra Complex to Heavenly City. The first leg of that escort was the New Texas Rangers.” 

The Ranger joined the nun in staring at the ruins. “This place seems so familiar,” he said with the same faraway look of reverie that was in Mary Margaret’s eyes. “Seeing it now, even in ruins, reminds me of what happened,” he murmured. 

Dr. Cyril was extremely pleased that revisiting the scene of his patient’s trauma was restoring his memory. He had hoped that would happen when he understood what the Ranger wanted to do. He doubted that such vivo exposure therapy would be as effective with most other patients, but he thought the Ranger was more motivated than most patients. The Ranger said he was driven by the desire to bring his attackers to justice, which was probably true enough to his conscious mind. But Dr. Cyril had heard the Ranger’s subconscious mind scream a deeper, darker, more troubling reason into the Walking Stick private network: Venge­ance!

The doctor believed that the Ranger was fundamentally a good man; a just man. But what the doctor couldn’t decide was whether the Ranger’s darker motivations would hold sway.

One more thing about his patient troubled—or was it, frightened?—the Doctor. The Ranger was clenching and unclenching his fists spasmodically as his healing mind unlocked one traumatic memory after another. Dr. Cyril telescoped the focus of his glowing eyes so he could more closely examine his patient’s hands. Something was faintly roiling beneath the surface of his reconstructed flesh as if his skin was the surface of a bubbling cauldron, or a bag of wriggling worms, or a carcass in the wilds after the corpse beetles had gotten to it. 

Dr. Cyril was immensely proud that his medical knowledge and surgical skills exceeded the best pairings of human doctors and medical artificial intelligences. However, he had no idea where that knowledge came from. He only knew it was available to him fully formed the day a young seminarian named Richard Starr awakened him from his endless sleepwalking by whispering in his metal ear, “Your purpose is to be a healer; to cure the ills of human minds and bodies.” From that day forward, the Doctor’s mind was clear; he had a purpose; he had a reason to exist. 

In the case of the Ranger, he had performed numerous surger­ies to reconstruct his patient’s mangled body, and could recall the details of each surgery in painstaking detail. He had cut, stitched, or reconstructed with synthetic replacements countless organs and tissues even down to the cellular level, but he did not know why he had chosen to cut, stitch, or invent what he had. So the one thing he had done that troubled him most, the one thing that left him with an inexplicable sense of dread was: what had he done to the Ranger’s hands?

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