Monday, November 1, 2010

Readings from MileHiCon

Since I'm doing NaNoWriMo again this year, I'm likely to be a little quiet on the blog front. (Which, I know, is not that unusual.) However, it seemed like a good time to put up a taste of the work I have that is in the pipeline. So I'm cutting and pasting a reading I didn't actually deliver at the con so y'all can see what I've been up to. The whole short story will come out in Science Fiction Trails' next edition, in December or January.

When the good folks at Science Fiction Trails asked me to do a story for them, they put relatively few stipulations on it, other than it not be Wild Wild West fanfic. I loved Wild Wild West when it was on reruns, so I figured I understood the genre well enough. I gave it some thought.

I already had an idea I'd been turning over in my head for a webcomic script that didn't pan out, and it took about a minute to re-imagine the idea set in the Old West, albeit with a steampunky flare. It transmuted even more after that.

The result is a short story with a big scoop of steampunk, a dab of High Plains Drifter, a beautiful woman – or two – of questionable morals, cultists, and of course, zombies.


They say the #6 mineshaft punched a hole in the lid over hell, and the Devil has his due for all the gold mined out of the other five shafts. I say the gas explosion started one of those coal seam and gas fires like they have in Pennsylvania, and the flames and coal ash light the town at night, and fill the morning sky with sulfurous smoke from the pit. As may be. The war's over. I'm a law-man now. I deal in facts. The romance of it all is lost on me.

Dawn in Perdition. The start of a new day. My clothes are fresh, my hat is crisp, and I'm well rested, shaved, and sober. My joints feel like a freshly greased machine as I walk down to Cannibal Way, just south of Main Street, past Lucifer's Bar and Restaurant, toward my office in the fine new brick courthouse, finished only this spring. I watch the steam trolley rumble down main street, carrying the morning shift of miners toward the Pit. The miners have been back at work coming on two years now. The gold is flowing, and the town is flush with money. Because there's money, there're gadgets big and small, mostly manufactured back east from technology looted from the Hive. It's been a busy few years, I reflect, as I scratch the lump on the back of my skull. 'Nothing to worry about.' Doc Kimble tells me. 'It's called an occipital bun. Some people have them'. Not him, apparently. But some people.

"Mornin' Marshal." Ed Parker. Editor of the Brimstone Daily. Little guy with an apron and ink stains on his hands. His hair's a little wild, too. He gives me my paper without my asking him to. Pay the man. Skim the headlines. Glance up at the elegant redhead that walks by. "Mrs. Graves." I say, and tip my hat. Frown at the bruising I can see on her hands and the back of her neck as she walks by, giving me only the slightest of nods that her manners require. I'd say something. Question her about the bruising. Any other woman, I would. Not her. They say Elias Graves sold his soul to the devil to get her. Someone bought and paid for someone, that much 's certain. But who owns who in the end? That's another question. The bruising makes me curious. Maybe old Graves is trying to renegotiate.

Ed rolls his eyes and shakes his head. "Don't, Marshal. You know better."

"Course I do. Anyone from that family can come to me if they want some law."
"Wise man." he says. "Speaking of your work, Is it true you brought down the Dope that killed Ned Pervis?"

"Yes sir. Last night."

"Congratulations. What was it like?"

"Like all of them. Looks like an ordinary man on the outside, but strong as an ox and nimble as a cat. Took two twelve gauge slugs in the head to stop him."
Doc Kimble wanders past. I always picture Moses looking like Doc Kimble. Big man. Old, craggy, bald as an egg. Beard. It's easy to imagine him raising his cane and parting the Red Sea. "You two talkin' about that Doppelgänger?"
Nod to Doc. "Yeah. You get a chance to work on him yet?"

"Same old story." he says. "Preserved human corpse, full of brass and steel cables and metal bones, and what we now call a Pons-Fleischmann boiler in its belly. The usual micro-clockwork in its head, for what what little was left of it."
"Was there a stamp on the boiler? It'd be in the back."

Doc Kimble nods. "There was. It was a type 81."

"An eighty-one." I say. Figures. Old model. The model number's the same as the year they were introduced. An eighty-one could be as much as 14 years old now. It doesn't always hold. Could be a 14 year old Node that got isolated from the rest of the Hive when they lost the war, and kept on making the same Doppelgängers it was designed to back then. We still run into those now and then. "Figures he didn' have much to say. Those early wartime models ain't real bright."

"You talked to it?" Doc and Ed ask the same question at the same time.

"A little. He gave me the usual horsefeathers about the God abandoning man and raising up Man's machines as the true keepers of His word. I took it under advisement. Then blew his clockworks out."

"Pity you didn't talk to it further." Doc says. "Mighta known some things 'bout the Hive after all that time. Even if it's just for the history books now."

Ed pipes up, "So you think this is just another straggler? A leftover from the war? Or is this maybe the start of another wave?"

I look at Doc. Then Ed, who asked the question. "Another wave, Ed? Don' you trust your government 'n they say the Hive is dead?"

Ed's smile falters a little. "Well, we keep finding them. You'd think two years after war's end they'd be all gone. Maybe they pulled back at the end of the war. That's my theory."

I think on that a few moments while I light my cigar. "There's a nasty thought." I say, finally. "'You think they mighta pulled a strategic retreat. Go back somewhere secret and regroup. Nasty. You know somethin' the rest of us don't, Ed?"

Ed pales. "I'm just talking, Marshal."

I nod to him. Take a long pull on my cigar and let the smoke out my nose. "You go on talkin'. They fought us hard for twelve years, but at the end they just … petered out. Now, a strategic retreat could just explain it." Pretty sloppy retreat, though, leaving all that technology behind for humanity to pick up and learn. I don't say it aloud though.

Doc Kimble looks at me. "You shared that opinion with the War Department?"
I look at Doc. "What I pass along to the War Department ain't for mortal ears, Doc. But I'll tell you this much. I am thinkin' about it. And I ain't convinced Ed's wrong."

There's an uncomfortable silence. Town folk get that way when they remember I work for the Federal Government. Which isn't very often. It's not something I brag about. Ed breaks the silence after a moment. "For the record, any advice to the citizens if they think they’ve found a Dope?"

"Sure. Run. Swim, if there's any water around. Doppelgängers don't float."

Ed laughs softly. He thinks I'm joking. "You have a good day, Marshal."

"You too, Ed." And with that, the moment is broken, and we all live in the same town, drink at the same bar, keep our eyes open, and try to keep the place from going too entirely crazy together in the peace we all fought so hard for. I watch the two of them walk away, and I watch them go, leastwise until the hair on the back of my neck prickles and I turn to face the woman coming up behind me, quiet as a breath of wind.

"Marshal Blackmore?" she asks, shrinking back.

"That'd be me. What's on your mind, young lady?" I ask her. I look the girl over. She's tiny. Not more than five foot tall. Her skin is perfect, pale, but the folds in her eyelids, the tilt of her eyes, and the broadness of the bridge of her nose tell me a different story. The voice is surprisingly rough. Voice of someone who shouts a lot. Or screams. There's a hardness to her eyes, too, that belongs on an entirely older face. She dresses the fashion, leastwise as much as I'm aware of it, but her dress hugs her just a little too tight, the skirt drapes to show just a little too much of her ankles when she walks. Trying too hard, basically. An adventuress, probably, or an outright public woman.

"I ain't no lady." she says. "But I read in the paper about you an' the Dopes. The Doppelgängers, I mean." She leans closer, and whispers, "You gotta help me. One's after me." She shudders as she says it. "She's after me. They made her out of a friend of mine, and now she wants to do the same to me. I was in the Node. I seen the whole thing."

"Were you now?" I ask her. But I can see it in her. Clenched jaw, eyes that stare, then flit over my shoulder, as though a Dope might be fool enough to step out onto my street at any given moment. She's seen it. I know she has. I spent enough of the War fighting my way into Nodes to know the look. She has the fear. Stretch my own jaw and take a slow breath. "What's your name?"

"Jo" she says. "You believe me, right? They say you're the expert 'bout these things. You don' think I'm just some plain half-Chink whore out to make a buck on a story, right?" She says it in a rush, in one breath, like there's not a moment to spare.

Shake my head. "I ain't one to judge a lady by the work she does, or the shape of her eyes. Not anymore. I think you got a story to tell me."

She shakes her head. "Not here." she whispers. "Someplace private. Someplace they can't get in."

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