The O. K. Corral
“Hurry,” shouted the Ranger, “the mineshaft is collapsing!”
Nemesis, Cyril, and the Ranger had just escaped from their attacker by fleeing into the tunnel started by Fr. Francis and extended by Caleb Anderson. But out of pure spite and fury, their attacker hurled a salvo of missiles at the face of Mt. Kuala Laredo. The mountain disdained the missiles’ explosions, but the slabs of rock that formed the mineshaft’s ceiling quaked. The trio sprinted down the mine tunnel in a mad rush, while a waist-high string of levitating glow-globes lit their way.
Each runner feared that if they hesitated, stumbled, or tripped, the mineshaft’s quaking walls and collapsing ceiling would overtake them. “Faster!” shouted the Ranger as a rumble like a locomotive thundered in their ears, the ground shook hard, and a cloud of rock dust enveloped them. Suddenly, the tunnel was as black as a pharaoh’s tomb.
After a while, the rumbling ceased and the only sounds in the dark were the scrape and whir of Dr. Cyril’s robotic limbs pushing debris off his metallic body; the sporadic coughs of Sr. Nemesis and the Ranger clearing rock dust from their throats; and the rattle of random bits of gravel falling to the ground like raindrops on a tin roof. The trio was sprawled across the ground on a bed of fallen rock, and against all odds, they had survived.
The Ranger and his companions slowly sat up and assessed their situation. They were surrounded by inky blackness until Sr. Nemesis withdrew a handful of marble-sized glow-globes from a compartment in her armor and threw them into the air. The glowing dots arced through the darkness, halted abruptly in midair, and then cast a spooky blue-white glow over a cavern.
The Ranger couldn’t see well enough to tell how big the cavern was, but whenever he or Nemesis coughed, or an errant stone tumbled to the floor, echoes told him they were in some vast, pitch-black, high-roofed cave. He was happy that he and his companions had survived, but his joy was tempered by the slow realization that now they were trapped in a rocky dungeon.
Through the dusty haze, the trio saw a bobbing white light and the vague silhouette of a man. The shadowy apparition grew nearer and nearer until it stopped at their feet. Then the ebony man and his lantern leaned down to reveal Edgar’s head emerging from the haze, saying, “What took you so long?” Edgar looked around at the settling dust and added, “Whatever you were doing, I think it broke the mountain.”
“Thank you for that penetrating insight, Edgar,” said Dr. Cyril as he dusted off his clothes. “And, oh yes, don’t bother to mention that we’re alive and all in one piece, thank you very much. Now tell me something useful, where’s the exit from this hole?”
Having worked with Caleb Anderson for so long, Edgar was oblivious to the doctor’s comparatively weak barbs. “I’m sorry,” Edgar answered cheerfully, “but I’m afraid Mr. Anderson didn’t build an emergency exit. As I mentioned before, he… he… wasn’t always a stickler for standard practice.”
There was an awkward silence as Edgar paused in his update. Everyone knew that somewhere in the collapsed mineshaft, the falling rocks had interred Caleb Rajesh Anderson’s body in its final resting place. His memory joined the others who perished here.
In due time, Edgar continued. “We’re buried beneath a mountain,” said the Walking Stick. “Judging from the fallen debris, I’m certain I can dig our way out. It will take me only a decade or so.”
“And how will that help these two humans?” the doctor demanded to know, gesturing toward his comrades. “They need food. They need water. And judging by the fact that we’re buried under a mountain, those first two requirements will soon pale compared to the fact that they also need air!”
“Take it easy, Doctor,” said the Ranger, soberly, “this situation isn’t Edgar’s fault.” While the others argued, Sr. Nemesis inconspicuously reached for her crucifix and began worrying her fingers over its beads.
“Admittedly, this is not the best of circumstances,” Edgar replied, unfazed by the doctor’s truculence, “but look on the bright side: At least we found the treasure Mr. Anderson was hiding.”
“Treasure? Not to speak ill of the dead, Edgar, but that old prospector did not have the firmest grasp on reality,” the doctor said. “What treasure are you talking about?”
By way of an answer, Edgar clanked across the stony cave floor to a wall where the first link in a chain of unlit glow-globes levitated above the ground. Glow-globes were mostly for the benefit of human eyes since Walking Sticks and excavation robots could use other senses. “I mean this,” Edgar said, as he tapped the first globe with a metallic finger. In rapid succession, the links of the chain ignited, sending a wave of illumination racing around the perimeter of the darkened cave until it finally returned to its origin. At last, the cave was suffused with a smoky light that revealed its hidden treasure.
Carved out of the center of the cave floor was a hemispherical depression, a perfectly smooth bowl; and levitating at the center of the hemisphere, level with the surrounding floor but not touching any part of an imaginary sphere encasing it, was a large spacecraft of exquisitely advanced design. The vehicle looked dead: It was heavily shrouded in shadows, and there were no lights or other indication that it was occupied or active. The vehicle was shaped like a silver arrowhead with gracefully incised creases and curves across its polished surface, and deep notches randomly carved into its edges. The craft was long, sleek, and tapered, but tall enough at its thickest point to have three decks. The four observers had never seen its like before—except once.
Sr. Nemesis said with barely bridled anger, “That ship’s style is unmistakable. It’s like the gunship that attacked us. What is it? Why is it here, buried under a mountain?”
Consumed with curiosity, Nemesis and the Ranger stepped to the edge of the hemispherical depression and reached their hands out toward the strange vehicle. But when their fingertips reached the edge of the depression, they bumped into an invisible and impenetrably hard barrier. Nemesis rapped on the barrier with her armored knuckles and analyzed it with her sensors. The Ranger gazed at the invisible wall in awe as an emerging realization overwhelmed him. He didn’t need sensors to know what it was. “It’s armor,” he murmured
“Yes,” Sr. Mary Margaret said, surprised. “Tactical analysis says it’s a force field armor bubble like the kind military starships use, but it’s so much harder and stronger than military grade, my measurements go off the scale.” She hesitated a beat, then asked the Ranger, “How did you know?” But he didn’t answer.
The strange, shadowy vehicle floated in the center of an invisible sphere like a fly caught in clear amber. “Is there a way to get a better view?” the Ranger asked.
“A gallery has been excavated around the rim of the pit,” Edgar replied. “You can view all sides of the vehicle from there. I’ll show you.”
Instead of joining Edgar and the Ranger, Sr. Nemesis sat on a boulder, made herself comfortable, and pulled out her rosary again. “Examine the ship now if you want, but there’s something I need to do first.” Then Sr. Mary Margaret turned to her crucifix and began to say her last prayers.
Baz considered Mary for a moment, but Edgar was totally oblivious and enthusiastically badgered the Ranger to come take his tour. As the two walked out of sight around the gallery, Dr. Cyril came to the nun’s side. Although he was a machine, he had been programmed to read human body language and understand human psychology. “Sr. Mary,” he said, “I sense that you are discouraged. I know that we’re in trouble, but don’t humans always say that as long as you’re alive, there’s hope? And isn’t giving hope your profession?”
Mary Margaret gave him a lopsided smile. Cardinal Starr often admonished her to not be so dour, but the things she had seen as a shield-maiden of the Church gave her good reason to be more pessimistic than most. It was usually only in prayer and reflection, or meting out justice, that she found peace. She said, “When Caleb Anderson found that ship, he must have thought it was the most astounding thing he’d ever dug up—because it surely is. But there’s no way he could have broken through that force field wall and explored the ship, and nor can we. If we could, we might find something that might help us escape this prison. I’ve been trained to take a hardheaded view of tactical situations, and right now, it looks like this cave is going to be the Ranger’s and my grave.
“I failed him, Doctor. The Cardinal charged me with protecting the Ranger, and I failed him.” The nun’s fingers kneaded the beads of her crucifix angrily. “The best thing I can do now is confess my sins, and leave a record so that someday, someone, will find our bones and learn from my mistakes.”
“Mistakes? What mistakes? My diagnosis, young lady, is that you’re being too hard on yourself. You’ve helped our patient in every way you could,” said Dr. Cyril. “How could you, or anyone for that matter, have predicted that we’d be attacked without provocation by a mysterious warplane that appeared out of nowhere?”
Sr. Nemesis hated it when the Doctor’s unemotional, robotic brain made more sense than her continuing to wallow in self-pity. She was about to say something in reply—maybe something hopeful, maybe not—when Edgar returned from his circular tour. The Ranger followed several steps behind, walking slowly and deliberately, deep in thought.
The Ranger gathered his fellow prisoners around him. “I’ve been thinking,” he said, “and I’ve made… a decision. We’re going to get out of here. That’s a promise. And after we do, I’m going on a mission to arrest the people who attacked us, and most likely killed Caleb Anderson, my squad of New Texas Rangers, and Fr. Francis.”
Sr. Nemesis looked at the Ranger scornfully, meaning to rebuke his seemingly unjustified optimism, but stopped herself when she saw that the Ranger had changed somehow. Where before he had been a hapless traveler seeking answers, he now radiated an air of confidence and certainty that Nemesis had never seen him exhibit before. He seemed like a leader. What had changed him during his short walk around that mysterious spacecraft?
“I believe my mission will be important, noble even, and of greater significance than I can say right now. I could use your help. But Sister, Doctor, I’m no fool. While you’ve been watching me, I’ve been watching you. I know you have your own private reasons for helping me, and I bear you no ill will for that. I’m grateful for all your help, regardless of the reason.
“However, before I can say another word about how I plan to escape or my mission afterwards, you have to understand—and I mean, you must know it in your bones!—if you join me, our enemies might threaten your life for years to come. So it’s critical that I know you’re willing to take that risk. I know it’s almost impossible to make such a decision on such sketchy information—I certainly found it hard to decide. You can always say ‘no,’ but I hope you say ‘yes.’ ”
Sr. Nemesis listened intently—then chuckled heartily. “You know that I’m a shield-maiden of the Church, don’t you?” she said, stifling a laugh. “One of my vows was to faithfully live each day with hope for a better tomorrow, despite the unremitting threat of death. So what’s a little more danger? Yes, I choose to help you.”
The Ranger smiled, then asked, “Doctor?”
“Sometimes human fears and foibles confound me,” Dr. Cyril said. He paced a few steps toward the spaceship-in-amber, scrutinized it, and then walked back again. “But we both believe some causes are so important we must risk death; or in my case, deactivation, to achieve them.” The thought of Walking Sticks continuing to wander aimlessly across the 96 worlds of the Hydra Complex unless the Ranger’s special skills could help free them, burned in Dr. Cyril’s robotic brain. “You are without a doubt my most confounding patient,” said the physician, “but yes, I too choose to help you.”
Finally, the Ranger said, “Edgar, circumstances forced you to be tethered to me. I will release you after we escape, if you wish, and you can walk away. But I could really use a good engineer. Will you help me?”
“You gave me a purpose when I had none,” said the Walking Stick, “I can see no reason to seek another. I will continue to help you however I can.”
With the consent of his companions, the Ranger strode up to the force field wall; laid his left palm on the invisible, impenetrable surface; closed his eyes; and began talking to someone only he could hear.
“Yes, I fully accept responsibility,” the Ranger said to no one Mary Margaret could see. She turned abruptly to Dr. Cyril and whispered, “We didn’t just make a terrible mistake putting our faith in him, did we? He is sane, isn’t he?”
“Shush,” whispered the doctor, “he’s trying to negotiate a contract.”
The Ranger continued bargaining. “Telepathic signature confirmed. Rank of ‘Captain’ confirmed. Handover complete. Now that I’m in command, unlock the port hatch, extend a gangplank, and finish waking from hibernation mode.”
As if to dispel Sr. Nemesis’ remaining doubts, a hatch on the port side of the strange spacecraft opened and strip of the hull beneath the hatch began to glow like yellow neon. The Ranger pushed his hand against the impenetrable force field barrier—and it yielded. The glowing section of hull beneath the hatch flared, projecting a golden aura that morphed into a footbridge across the chasm beneath the spacecraft. The Ranger stepped onto the gangplank without a second thought.
The nun and the doctor were alarmed, but the Ranger stopped midway across the chasm, turned toward them as if they were recalcitrant children who were loitering when there was work to be done, and said, “Well, what are you waiting for?” With that, he turned around, finished crossing the chasm, and disappeared into the ship.
For a moment, the others stared back and forth at each other in confusion, uncertain of what to do. “You know,” Sr. Mary Margaret said to her robot companions, “Cardinal Starr always counsels me that at times like this when the way forward is unclear, the faithful are wise to trust in the benevolence of the Cosmos. To take a risk and have faith that the Cosmos will, more often than not, protect us. I think it’s time we took a leap of faith.” And with that, she led her companions across the incredible gangplank into the inexplicable spacecraft in search of their inscrutable leader.