“Claim jumpers!” shouted Caleb Anderson as he hopped up and down. “I told ya’ thieves and scalawags was watchin’ me!” Caleb swung his over/under double-barrel rifle to his shoulder and declared, “Well, they ain’t gonna steal my find!” Then he raced forward to the edge of the ruined encampment, took aim at the gunship with his cocked-eyes, and then let loose a .50 megawatt beam from each barrel of his energy rifle.
The pilot of the spaceplane Caleb Anderson was shooting at, looked down to the surface from his cockpit, and then reported to the bridge of the mothership from which he had launched. “Captain Hennessy? Mr. Bartholomew? Some crazy old fool is shooting at me,” he said with a devil-may-care bravado that betrayed his background as a self-taught flyboy. “He’s using some sort of high-powered energy rifle, but the damage to my plane’s hull is negligible.
“Who’d guess there’d be anyone out here in this godforsaken desert? I tried to scare them off, but that old man shot back! He must be a prospector, one of those old do-or-die treasure hunters, and judging by his heavy armament, I’d say he must be a paranoid old prospector.
“Mr. Bartholomew, sir,” the pilot said, ignoring his captain and addressing the man who was really in charge, “the old man is with two other people and a couple of robots. What do you want me to do about them?”
Back on the bridge of the mothership, Mr. Bartholomew sighed. It was just his luck that in what is usually an empty desert, his scout had encountered witnesses who were prepared to fight. Bartholomew hadn’t expected to need lethal force on what was essentially a beach-combing mission, but he was prepared for it. And since he had orders from his employer, Julian Starr, he was resigned to his response. “It’s just their bad luck to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time,” he said. “Arm weapons. Return fire. Wipe them out.”
The gunship screeched like an eagle as it arced through the desert sky to begin its strafing run.
Back on the ground, Caleb Anderson was leaping up and down from one foot to the other, and defiantly whooping, hollering and shaking his energy rifle at the gunship in the sky. “You didn’t like that, did ya’, you varmints?” yelled the prospector. “Well, there’s more of where that came from, you rotten claim jumpers!”
Dr. Cyril offered his professional opinion to anyone in earshot: “‘Varmint’? Who talks like that? That man is totally insane.”
Anderson hoisted his weapon to his shoulder and snarled defiantly, “Come on back, I’m waitin’ for you!”
“No, you’re not,” shouted the Ranger as he grabbed the old prospector by the arm and helped Edgar drag him away. The tone of the Ranger’s voice transformed in an instant from a patient wounded by trauma, to a leader giving orders and expecting them to be followed. Perhaps that’s what he used to be.
The campsite was littered with dozens of huge man-sized boulders that had crashed down the mountainside over the years. “We’re caught out here in the open,” shouted the Ranger to his companions. “Everyone, take cover.”
Just as the groundlings dived for cover behind the nearest boulder, the gunship swooped towards them stitching parallel tracks of explosions ahead of its bow. Rocky debris blasted into the air with a deafening roar and then fell on the groundlings like hailstones. Only at the last moment did the gunship veer away from its strafing run to avoid colliding with Mt. Kuala Laredo.
The Ranger rasped to Sr. Nemesis and Dr. Cyril, “We can’t stay here. There’s not enough cover. We have to take a chance sprinting across open ground and retreating to the mineshaft behind us.”
“Retreat to that cave?” said Dr. Cyril incredulously. “Didn’t the New Texas Rangers try that same thing a year ago? And where did that get them?”
“You’re right, Doctor, safety isn’t guaranteed,” the Ranger shouted back. “But the New Texas Rangers were caught by a surprise attack. We know more.”
“He’s right,” Sr. Nemesis agreed. “Our best strategy is to retreat until we can come up with a plan. But you won’t make it without my help.”
Dr. Cyril was confused when Sr. Nemesis adjusted her augmented reality goggles and began stripping off her restrictive riding jacket. As she shed garments, she revealed black, white-bordered plates of allotropic graphene-and-titanium body armor. The Church of Man and Machine had blessed their shield-maiden with military-grade armor enhanced with sensors, strength-amplifying motors, finger-sized missiles, and a flatpack micro-fusion reactor in the small of her back to power her electronics, force-fields, and energy weapons.
The sensors in Mary Margaret’s body armor hadn’t been triggered before, probably because the gunship was equipped with stealth technology, she figured. But now that the ship was visible, her sensors tingled like electric shocks.
Sr. Nemesis crossed her arms under her chest, and when she uncrossed them, her hands held two snub-nosed energy weapons that she had snatched from her shoulder holsters. She held up her two Colt .45 Megawatt energy guns like a bodybuilder doing a double bicep pose, and then flicked off their safeties with her thumbs.
The shield-maiden of the Church positioned herself between the Ranger and the gunship like a bulwark, guarding his retreat and that of Anderson, Edgar, and Dr. Cyril. Then she smiled wolfishly. Moments of like this were how a shield-maiden expressed her faith. “When you see your chance,” she said, “run. Run like hell.”
Overhead, the pilot of the gunship raised his eyebrows when he saw the lone figure of a woman step out into the open, tip her head left and right to loosen the kinks in her neck, then stand her ground and wait for him to come. Shrugging his shoulders, the pilot obliged.
The gunship began stitching a path toward its target, and the pilot surely expected the whole affair to be over in seconds. What the pilot didn’t expect was for the woman to protect herself in a force field, raise twin Colt .45 Megawatt energy pistols, and then begin scorching his ship’s hull. Suddenly, fire alarms began to shriek in the pilot’s cockpit. Stunned by the counterattack, the pilot veered his gunship away to assess damage.
Seeing her opportunity, Mary Margaret turned and sprinted toward her companions. The Ranger followed suit immediately and yelled for Dr. Cyril, Edgar, and Mr. Anderson to run for the mineshaft. Sr. Nemesis was already at full speed when she caught up with the Ranger and his pack. Behind them, the threatening roar of the gunship urged them on. Then like sprinters crossing the finish line one by one, Dr. Cyril, Edgar, Anderson, Nemesis, and finally, the Ranger bounded into the mineshaft. The humans among the entourage gasped with relief when they realized they had reached the safety of the cave.
Outside the mineshaft, the gunship’s banshee wail foretold death. Inside the mine, a random cannon shot from the gunship ricocheted down the mineshaft, driving the entourage deeper into Mt. Kuala Laredo. The mineshaft ran straight, more or less, from the mouth of the mine to a large chamber where Fr. Francis had concentrated his digging. Then the shaft veered off at an angle and ran farther under the mountain. Looking at the crooked shaft, the Ranger said, “I don’t remember seeing that before.”
Edgar explained, since no one told him not to, that upon Fr. Francis’ death ownership of his claim reverted to the Hydra mining bureau. The mystery of what was so valuable that it cost Fr. Francis and the others their lives, was still a mystery. When investigation into the ambush stalled, the mining bureau assigned the claim to the first person who applied, Caleb Rajesh Anderson.
“Mr. Anderson didn’t know what Fr. Francis was looking for,” Edgar said, “but he figured that if the Church of Man and Machine was funding his expedition, then the cleric must have been looking for something valuable. Mr. Anderson has been extending Fr. Francis’ dig ever since.”
The new, crooked mineshaft was fitted with faint glow-globes that delimited the tunnel and stretched into the darkness. “Mr. Anderson discovered that the ambush last year weakened the cave structure enough to reveal caverns and chambers further in. He says he hasn’t found any treasure yet, but he keeps looking and guards the mine jealously. Most of the time he won’t even let me enter.”
“Do you know why?” asked the Ranger. But Dr. Cyril turned toward the Ranger and said, “You do remember my diagnosis that the old man is crazy, don’t you?”
“I wouldn’t know anything about that,” Edgar said, usurping the Ranger, but taking no offense at the Doctor’s remarks. “I only know about machinery, not people. If you have any questions, Mr. Anderson will have to answer for himself.”
Edgar looked back and forth, and then asked innocently, “Where is Mr. Anderson?”
Two distant sounds revealed exactly where Mr. Anderson was. From the mouth of the cave could be heard the eagle’s screech of the gunship prowling for victims, and the delusional ramblings of Caleb Rajesh Anderson answering back. “All right you filthy claim jumper, I’ve got your treasure right here,” he hollered, firing his energy rifle wildly. “Come and meet your maker!”
“Mr. Anderson, come back inside,” cried Edgar. The Walking Stick started to run outside to drag Caleb back to safety, but the Ranger stopped him with sudden, literally superhuman strength. Whatever Dr. Cyril had done to repair his torn muscles and broken bones, was amazingly better than anyone could expect.
The Ranger remembered that this horror happened before, a year ago, and he wouldn’t idly standby and let it happen again. “No,” he told Edgar. “You’ll be killed. Stay here. It’s already too late to help.” Before a single word of argument could be exchanged, the gunship fired a fusillade at the old prospector, and then suddenly only the eagle’s screech could be heard.
The Ranger quickly dragged Anderson’s body and weapon back inside.
Anderson’s sudden, brutal, and unjust death left his Walking Stick assistant, Edgar, listless and docile. Edgar was not stricken with grief by Anderson’s death; Walking Sticks feel emotions akin to human emotions, but robots aren’t human and neither are their feelings. Walking Sticks feel that without a purpose, they are nothing. Edgar’s purpose for many years had been to assist Caleb Anderson despite the delusional old prospector being always irascible, often demeaning, and sometimes cruel. When Anderson died, Edgar’s purpose died too. And with the loss of that purpose, Edgar suddenly felt something—no, not grief for the end of thoughtless cruelty—but something reminiscent of profound, immeasurable loss. It was that feeling that left Edgar listless, docile, and like all of his kind who were without purpose, driven by an irresistible compulsion to… walk.
The Ranger’s hands began to clench and unclench, and his skin seemed to bubble slightly like a boiling cauldron. He quelled his hands by clasping one fist with his other hand. Then he guided the docile Edgar into a U-shaped niche in the mineshaft wall and let the robot walk back and forth between the stone walls like an echo reverberating in a desert canyon. A Walking Stick with no purpose might walk forever; forever trying to find someone to give it a new reason for being. “Edgar will be alright here for awhile,” the Ranger said to his companions. “But what are you doing, Sister?”
Sr. Nemesis was busy checking her handguns. “It’s only a matter of time before the gunship picks us off,” she replied. “But Cardinal Starr charged me with keeping you safe at all cost, so I have to get you out of here now. I can lay down diversionary fire to give you and the rest a chance to make a break for our hover-cycles.”
“You’re offering to sacrifice your life for our sake?” said the Ranger. “No, Sister, I have no intention of letting anyone else die at Kuala Laredo. I’m not going anywhere if it means leaving someone behind.”
Before the sister could counter, the Ranger turned to Edgar and said, “Engineering Unit ‘Edgar’: new orders, new assignment. Attend.” As if under a hypnotist’s spell, Edgar stopped walking and looked at the Ranger attentively. Dr. Cyril also looked at the Ranger with heightened attention, as only a Walking Stick could, but since he hadn’t been singled out like Edgar, he wasn’t enthralled. However he, like Sr. Nemesis, wondered how the Ranger knew how to take control of a Walking Stick.
“Edgar, you are now assigned to me until further notice,” said the Ranger. “If I’m not available, you may take orders from Sr. Nemesis, and if neither of us is available, you may take orders from Dr. Cyril. Your new purpose is to help me in whatever way you can, until further notice. Assignment understood?”
“Understood,” said Edgar.
The Ranger said to his new helper, “This mineshaft must have been extended by Anderson to whatever strike he was so determined to protect. But a mineshaft might have a secondary exit, isn’t that correct?”
“Correct,” said Edgar. “Building a secondary, emergency egress tunnel is a standard safety practice. However, Mr. Anderson was not known to always follow standard practice.”
“Let’s worry about that when the time comes,” said the Ranger. “The mineshaft is now blocked by loose debris that’s fallen from the ceiling. Your orders are to clear away the debris, then look for an emergency exit from the mineshaft. Orders understood?”
For a moment, Edgar stood staring at the Ranger as if cogwheels were turning in his robotic brain. Then all at once he stood up straight and alert as ever, and said, “Of course, sir. I’ll get right to it.” Then he bounded down the mineshaft and started pitching aside 3-man rocks as if he had not been catatonic a few minutes ago.
The Ranger turned back to Sr. Nemesis and Dr. Cyril. “I have no idea whether Edgar will be successful, but we have to give him a chance. Let’s buy him time by confronting our attacker out there. Doctor, do you know how to handle Mr. Anderson’s rifle?” Dr. Cyril replied by snatching up the double-barrel and cocking it until the warning whine indicated its power clip was fully charged and ready.
“Sister, well… you look like you’re always ready for a fight.” As the Ranger spoke, he began kneading his hands again.
“And what about you?” Sr. Nemesis said with a skeptical smile as she held out one of her pistols. “Want to borrow one of these?”
“No, thanks—” said the Ranger. He stopped rubbing his hands now, but stared at them the way he stared at his reflection when he was trying to learn to how impersonate a new face. It was just a matter of learning how to morph his body in just the right way. Then as easily as slipping on a pair of gloves, the Ranger’s hands morphed into a pair of Colt .45 Megawatt energy pistols that melded smoothly into his clenched fists. The guns tapped the high-energy flow produced by the synthetic mitochondria generators distributed throughout the cells in his body. “—I’ve got my own.”
Sr. Nemesis looked with awe and distress at the Ranger’s hands, then spun around to confront Dr. Cyril. “Is that what you did to him? I can understand why you gave him the ability to morph a new face, but you made him into a weapon too?” Sr. Nemesis was no stranger to violence when it was necessary, but she held strict moral beliefs about necessity. “Why?”
“I meant him no harm,” the doctor said innocently. “But after seeing the injuries someone inflicted on him, enabling the Ranger to defend himself seemed like a good thing to do; it felt natural. And given our current circumstances, do you think I was wrong?”
Sister Nemesis was winding up for a deep ethical debate with the doctor when a sound like a screaming eagle Doppler-shifted past the mouth of the mine.
“The gunship’s readying for another strafing run,” cried the Ranger. “Quick, before he gets in position, take cover behind that cluster of boulders. Doctor, take the left flank; Sister, the right; I’ll take position in the center.” Before Sr. Nemesis could protest that Cardinal Starr didn’t want the Ranger endangering his life, the transmogrified lawman sprinted out the mineshaft.
Taking cover, the trio fired their pistols and shotgun at will, occasionally blasting bits of debris off the gunship or causing a trail of smoke to briefly mark its trajectory. But overall, the trio had little effect on their high flying, fast moving, armored target. And to their sorrow, Nemesis, Cyril, and the Ranger realized it.
The trio just managed to cover their heads when the gunship wheeled around and began firing straight toward the mine opening. Four lines of tracers stitched a dashed line of destruction from the gunship, across the desert sand, and then up the face of Mt. Kuala Laredo. As the gunship’s weapons-fire splattered across the mountainside, cascades of rock tumbled down from higher elevations.
“He’s playing it smart,” Sr. Nemesis shouted to her companions as they raised their heads to reconnoiter. Assessing their strategic situation, she said, “If he doesn’t hit us outright, his fire will eventually cause an avalanche that will cover the mine entrance. If we’re outside when the mountain collapses, we’ll be trapped in the open until can he finally pick us off. If we take cover in the mine before the mountain collapses, we’ll be buried alive.”
“Given our options, I’d rather take my chances with being buried alive,” Dr. Cyril shouted back, as he propped his shotgun on the boulder that was his cover and swiveled his aim. “If we’re lucky, Edgar will have found an escape route for us. Otherwise, if we stay out here, you’ll surely die and I’ll be permanently deactivated—neither of which I prefer.”
“Agreed,” the Ranger said, “but first, let’s bloody that pilot’s nose and make him think twice about trying to pick us off while we retreat. The light colored panels on the bottom of the gunship cover its landing struts. Those panels are the weakest part of that kind of gunship’s physical armor, and the panel behind the bow is beneath the cockpit.” Sr. Nemesis wondered how the Ranger suddenly acquired this new tactical information, but if it helped keep her and hers alive, she wouldn’t interrupt. “The next time the gunship passes overhead,” the Ranger said, “concentrate all your fire on the bow panel.”
A screech like a screaming eagle signaled that now was the time to put the Ranger’s plan to the test. As the gunship swooped over on its hunch-shouldered wings, Dr. Cyril focused the twin beams of his double .50 megawatt shotgun, and Sr. Nemesis and the Ranger focused their four .45 megawatt energy pistols, on the light-colored rectangle beneath the gunship’s cockpit. The Ranger knew this tactic wouldn’t work if the pilot turned on the gunship’s force field armor, but apparently the pilot didn’t know his warplane had that advanced ability, which was useful information in itself. Before the Ranger could give that notion another thought, or how it was he came to know it, the bow landing strut panel on the gunship began to glow cherry red. The six converged energy beams ate a cluster of black holes like a cancer in the bow plate. Suddenly, flames flared from the holes and then black smoke billowed out, leaving a long, oily trail in the sky.
“Run for it!” shouted Sr. Nemesis. Dr. Cyril wasted no time hesitating and headed back toward the mine entrance, while the Sister and the Ranger pulled up the rear, constantly firing back at the crippled plane and providing each other cover.
Inside the gunship, the cockpit filled with black smoke and wild panic before the warplane’s fire suppression system put out the inferno beneath the pilot’s feet. Although the fire was out, the damage had been done. The pilot’s cockpit glowed with bright red emergency alerts and howled with alarms, while a ribbon of black smoke that wouldn’t go away spewed from his plane’s fuselage. He could still control his craft, but he would have to return to base for repairs and leave the witnesses behind.
The pilot was shocked that such seemingly helpless prey not only fought back, but had hurt him. As he wheeled his gunship around for one final strafing run, he saw on the ground three red, black, and white figures dart into the mine entrance. He mouthed a curse because they had escaped his direct attack, but he vowed to do the next best thing: He would bring the mountain down on their heads.
Like last year, when he and his compatriots attacked Fr. Francis and the New Texas Rangers, the pilot wasn’t supposed to use any weapon that would draw too much attention from the authorities. But he didn’t care about that now. Now he wanted revenge.
The pilot manhandled his sluggish aircraft until it lined up with a fissure on the mountainside above the mine entrance, and then fired a salvo of missiles at Mt. Kuala Laredo. Satisfied that the missiles were well on their way, the pilot finished his turn, and then shot out on a straight line over the desert. Just as the missiles exploded behind the gunship, sending a quarter of a million tons of rock and debris cascading down the mountainside, a time-ship materialized out of thin air to rendezvous with the gunship.
The time-ship was a modest sized, lightly armed, time-littoral combat ship, a type of corvette; that was mothership to two small spaceplanes, including the gunship, and a surly squad of mercenaries. The corvette had been lurking nearby all along in asynchronous “stealth mode”, invisible and hidden from detection by shifting an infinitesimal fraction of a second into the future.
The captain of the corvette stood on its bridge and harrumphed as his crew retrieved their gunship and dogged it down for repairs. He looked over the shoulder of his tactician who was in turn staring intently at a scanner. After a while, the captain turned to the man who actually commanded this mission, and growled, “Sloppy, but at least it’s done. Every possible witness within a hundred kilometers is buried in that mountain. But we’ll keep scanning to make sure. In the meantime, what are your orders, Mr. Bartholomew?”