It’s hundreds of miles from the nearest ocean, and a hundred times too big to be a ship. It looks like nothing anyone ever saw. And it’s crashed just outside Tombstone with something alive inside.
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Tor Books editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden.
Doc Holliday leaned his head way back, tilting his hat to shade his eyes from the glare of the November sun and said, “Well, that still looks like some Jules Verne shit to me.”
The hulk that loomed over, curving gently outward to a stalklike prow, could have been the rust-laceworked, rust-orange hulk of any derelict ironclad. Except it was a thousand miles from the nearest ocean, and a hundred times too big to be a ship. It was too big, in fact, to be an opera hall, and that was where Doc’s imagination failed him.
Behind him, four women and a man shifted in their saddles, leather creaking. None of them spoke. Doc figured they were just as awed as he was. More, maybe: he’d stopped here once before, when he rode into Tombstone the previous year. None of them had ever seen it.
One of the horses whuffed, stamping baked caliche. A puff of dust must have risen from the impact. Doc could smell it, iron and salt and grit. His own mount picked its way between crumbling chunks of metal and some melted, scorched substance with the look of resin or tortoiseshell.
One of the women said something pleased and indistinct to her companions. Doc didn’t strain too hard to overhear.
A hot wind dried the sweat on his face beneath the scruff of a three-day beard as his own bay gelding fidgeted. Doc settled it with a touch of his leg. The gelding’s sweat soaked the inseam of his trousers between saddle-skirt and boot-top.
Doc let the silence drag, contemplating the great plates and icicles of rust armoring the surface of the whatever-it-was. Its broken spine zig-zagged off into the heat shimmer. A long furrowed scrape marred the desert behind the hulk. That impact—or just the desert—had gnawed several holes in its flanks, revealing buckled decks, dangling pipe and wiring, stretched and twisted structural members.
Here and there in its shadowed depths, blue-white lights still burned, as they had when Doc first saw it.
The other five came up alongside Doc, their horses indolent in the heat. In all honesty, he hadn’t been sanguine about bringing four ladies into the trackless desert—even the kind of ladies that wore trousers and went heeled and rode astride like men—but they had been determined on riding out with him or without. He figured “without” was a hell of a lot less safe than “with,” and in the end chivalry had won. Chivalry, and the need for some ready cash to settle at the faro table, where he owed a debt to that damned John Ringo.
Ringo—and not just the debt—was another reason. Because if Doc hadn’t taken the job as a ladies’ touring guide, Ringo in his yellow-and-black check shirt sure as hell would have. And then Doc might as well have these tenderfoots’ deaths on his conscience, as if he had shot them with his own gun. Ringo would have no qualms about relieving them of their horses and cash by any means possible . . . shy of earning it fairly.
The horses drifted to a stop again, scuffing and shuffling in a ragged arc: one chestnut, one gray, one dun, and three assorted browns and bays. For now, Doc’s charges—he wasn’t sure yet if you could call them companions—were content to stare up at the wreck in silence and awe. Which suited Doc just fine. The dust was making his chest ache, and he didn’t feel like talking.
He reached into his pocket for a stick of horehound, peeled the waxed paper back, and bit off a chip to suck on. The last thing he needed now was a goddamned coughing fit.
On Doc’s left, the lone other man lifted his hat off a grizzled head. He mopped the sweat from his bald spot with a once-red kerchief that had faded to the color of the dull yellow earth. His name was Bill. He was quiet and needed a shave. Doc hadn’t learned too much else about him.
Bill said, “I reckon we should ride around it first?”
“Before we dismount?” The woman who gave him a sideways nod was tall, skinny. Doc thought she might be his wife, but he and all the others called her Missus Shutt. She had long wrists and long hands, and her steel-colored hair was clipped shorter at her nape than most men’s. Her gray eyes snapped with charisma and intelligence. She would have been beautiful, Doc thought, but her nose was too small.
The little blonde on her left almost got lost under a wavy, ill-contained billow of caramel-colored hair—the kind of hair that belonged spread out on a man’s pillow. Pigeon-breasted, with a rump like a punching pony poured into her shiny-seated trousers, she sat her red gelding with the erect spine and lifted chin of one of Doc’s girl cousins back home, as if she was not accustomed to the relaxed Western seat. Her name was Missus Jorgensen.
Beyond her was Miss Lil, the big one who looked to have some Mexican in her. Or maybe some Indian. Or maybe both. It wasn’t so different. Miss Lil wasn’t just big for a woman—she was broad shouldered and had about a half foot on Doc’s five-ten. Her hair twisted in a black braid that snaked out from under her chapeau fat as a well-fed rattler.
The sixth person—and fourth woman—in their little group of adventurers was a beautiful quadroon with a long, elegant jaw and crooked teeth. The Negress’s name was Flora. Despite the heat, she wore a fringed suede jacket. It matched the sheath on the saddle by her knee that held the coach gun she seemed to prefer to the pistols all the others carried.
Doc—no fool—was heeled with both.
“By the time we get around this thing the shade will have shifted,” Doc said. “We can tether the horses in it.”
Bill asked, “Is it safe to leave them so close to the wreck?”
Doc rattled that bit of horehound against the backs of his top teeth with the tip of his tongue. “It’s what we’ve got for shelter.”
The big woman leaned out of her saddle, making her horse sidle and fret. “There’s no tracks around it,” she said, after a moment’s inspection. “Nothing to show anything might have crawled out, anyway. Or dragged anything back in again.”
Heads swiveled. Doc might be the guide, the local—laughably speaking—expert. But it didn’t take much to see the quadroon woman was the leader of the group that had hired him. And none of them seemed to find anything strange about it.
Doc washed the lingering bitterness of the horehound down with a swig from his canteen. None of his concern how people ran their lives. His job was getting them all into the wreck, and all out safe again with whatever it was they thought so worth risking money, bullets, and their lives to find.
Their slow circuit took the better part of an hour, and while it did reveal some tracks, they were those of coyote, lizard, javelina, and hare. Condensation formed inside the rusting hulk when the temperature dropped at night—a resource no desert creature would ignore.
Doc, with Miss Lil, was riding slightly ahead of the others—both of them leaning down silent and intent as they surveyed the scarred earth—when she cleared her throat, reined in the heavy-boned, bald-faced brown mare that bore up under her weight with ease, and murmured, “Doc?”
He turned, followed the gesture of her large, graceful hand, and frowned down at some rows of wavering, parallel scratches in the dust. When he looked up again, Miss Lil was regarding him levelly out of eyes brown and intelligent as her mare’s. Her eyebrows rose in a question.
“Somebody brushed out tracks.” A familiar cold pressure grew between Doc’s shoulder blades, under the protection of his duster. Aware of how much he was giving away, but unable to stop himself, he let his gaze run over the ragged remains of the whatever-it-was. He might get lucky. He might catch the glint of sunlight off a gun barrel, or the flicker of motion as someone raised and sighted within that chambered darkness.
“Yes.” Her voice was high and musical, charmingly out of place in her frame. “But coming or going?”
The others had scuffed to a halt five feet or so back, waiting out the trackers’ verdict. At Miss Lil’s question, the voluptuous little blonde—Missus Jorgensen—shifted her hands from where they rested on her pommel and rubbed the left one with the right.
“As it appears,” she quoted, “in the true course of all the question.”
Doc snorted and quoted in return, “Well, I am glad that all things sort so well.”
Her smile lit up her square-jawed face quite wickedly. “I had heard you were an educated man. It appears I was not misinformed.”
“Ma’am,” he answered, and touched the brim of his cap. He looked at Flora, reminding himself who he was working for. “Whatever you came for—do you want to keep looking if you’re not the only ones?”
“We’re looking for her logs,” Flora said.
Her hair moved over her shoulders in a pair of squaw plaits thick as her wrists when she nodded. “That thing was a ship, Doctor Holliday. A ship that sailed between the stars.”
“Huh,” Doc said, looking back at it. Still no sign of a carbine barrel, or any motion, or any life except the still burn of those blue lights in its depths. It had no wings, nor any sign of a balloon canopy, nor even the conical mouth of a giant Hale rocket on what he took to be its stern—the end towards the skid-marks, which was less damaged overall.
He shrugged. “I’ll feel better when we’re under cover.”
“Agreed,” Flora said. “Since we might be following someone in, what do you think of picketing the horses inside one of the damaged areas? At least they’ll be hidden from casual view.”
“If someone’s going to steal ’em,” Bill said, “they can steal ’em from a picket line outside as easily as one in. And if we have to run for ’em, well, I’d rather not cross open ground under fire on foot. Or at all, for that matter.”
He glanced at Doc, as if weighing his next words. “I can drop a ward line around ’em either way. Inside or out.”
Doc sucked his teeth to get some moisture into his mouth. “You’re a hex.”
Bill shrugged. “The ladies need some reason to put up with me.”
“Huh,” Doc said. It might be autumn by any sensible man’s reckoning, but that didn’t help the heat that trickled sweat down between his shoulder blades.
Since Bill had been so honest with him, he allowed, “I might have seen a trick or two like that my own self. And more men who claimed it than could do it. Wardings, though. That’s a bit beyond my experiences.”
“What you do with that iron,” Bill answered. “That’s beyond me.”
Doc tipped his head and let the compliment slide off.
Missus Shutt pushed her hat down over that cropped steel hair. “Warded or not, I can’t imagine the horses would be any less safe than out in the open.”
“Unless the wreck itself eats ’em,“ Doc said.
They all looked at him. He had sucked up the last splinter of horehound. He stifled a cough and wiped his mouth. No blood this time, for a mercy.
“You think that’s likely?” Missus Jorgensen asked.
“I think it could happen,” Doc answered. “Likely? That’s a whole ’nother thing.”
The horses came into the dim, reflected light of the wreck as if into a stable, heads lowered and calm. Their composure was reassuring, although Doc might have found it more peculiar if it hadn’t been fifteen or so of Doctor Fahrenheit’s degrees less hot in the damp shade of the hull of the ruined ‘star-ship.’ Although that was peculiar in its own right: You’d expect a metal shed, sweating in the sun, to be sweltering no matter how vast.
Instead, the derelict exhaled a moist breath that seemed cool, even if only by comparison. Doc’s companions reveled in it, stretching themselves taller in the shade as if the desert light had weight. They moved around the arching space they’d chosen as a temporary stable, keeping an eye on the three buckled passages—one at ground level, two above—that led deeper into the wreck. The horses huffed into their nosebags and settled quietly, though no one did more to ease his mount than slip its bit. Girths stayed tight, in case a hasty retreat was indicated. Bill began casting around the edge of the chamber like a terrier after a rat—looking to set out his ward line, Doc imagined. He had that concentrated look of a professional—surgeon, gambler, hex, or shootist—considering a selection of inadequate options. Doc let him be.
Doc wasn’t happy about stabling the horses in this mess; it was asking for lockjaw, but he didn’t see a good alternative. As he was checking the bay’s hooves before pulling the coach gun from the saddle, he heard rust flakes crunching under the footsteps of two of the booted, uncorseted women walking up between the mares. One of them—Missus Jorgensen, by her sharp dry tone—was saying something indistinct, and Doc strained to pick her words out of the coruscating echoes of footsteps, hoof clops, and one of the mares pissing like a downspout running into a catch barrel, before he realized what he was doing.
If your sainted momma caught you eavesdropping, John Henry Holliday, you know a frown would crease her brow. But Doc wasn’t sure how thoroughly he believed Flora’s tale about this being an expedition to retrieve some long lost captain’s log—and in fairness, it was his life on the line. Funny how since Dallas he had no compunctions about holding a gun on a man, or gambling for a living. But he could still balk at trying to overhear something he maybe shouldn’t.
It didn’t matter—he couldn’t make out much over the stamp of hooves and the creak of leather, except Miss Lil answering whatever Missus Jorgensen had said with, “. . .sense detail’s genius.”
“I’m looking forward to this one,” Missus Jorgensen answered. “Could be our greatest run since the Spider Women of Queso Grande.”
“Hey,” Flora interrupted. “No—”
Whatever she said got lost in the background noise as well. Doc shook his head at himself and straightened up, letting the gelding’s off fore drop. A little confusion and thwarted curiosity was no more than he deserved for such rudeness.
He almost lost the rustle of something unexpected kicking through rust flakes and litter in the hollow clop of the gelding’s hoof.
“Shhh,” he hissed—but you couldn’t shush a horse, and he was the second one to hiss for quiet, behind Missus Shutt, who was turned at the waist, wrist cocked and one bony hand on her iron like she could have it skinned as fast as any man.
“What?” Bill asked from the outside of the group, real soft—but his voice still echoed and sloshed around the crumpled, cavernous room.
“Company,” Doc said gently. He let the coach gun slide into his hand now; he’d seen a man die once because he waited to try to get to a rifle on his saddle until the shooting started and the horse was spooked.
Flora ducked under the gelding’s belly and flattened herself against its saddle behind Doc. “What’d you hear?” she asked, more breath than sound.
Doc let his lips shape the words. “Footstep.” He thought about the sound, something about the way it rustled rather than crunched. “Moccasins or barefoot. Not boots.”
Flora frowned, but as if she was annoyed or disappointed, not as if she were scared. “Oh, I hope they didn’t go there. That’d make me sad.”
The corners of Doc’s mouth curved up at her irritation in the face of danger. But there was an intriguing clue in her words, and—well, he’d proven his unhealthy curiosity already today. “Who were you hoping not to have come here?”
Her eyes had been straining into the shadows beyond the shadowy bulk of the horses. She looked at Doc, now, startled. “I beg your pardon. Just a turn of phra—”
Another rustle silenced her. Louder this time, closer. Doc let the coach gun rest beside his leg. He didn’t want to fire a scattergun over the horses that hemmed them on both sides, though he could use the big brown for cover and a shooting rest if he had to. Once. And then it would be hooves and half-ton panic everywhere, in a crowded chamber with uncertain footing.
Better for everyone if they could get out of this without gunfire.
Flora must have thought so too. “Bill,” she said, low and conversational this time so it would carry. “How’s that ward line coming?”
“Faster now,” Bill answered, over a scraping sound. Doc caught a scent of burning orrisroot. A ward line wouldn’t stop a bullet—lead just didn’t answer to magic—but it would keep a person out.
“Hey,” Miss Lil said, forgetting to whisper—and as Doc turned his head toward her, she suddenly pointed back over his shoulder.
He whipped round, the coach gun to his eye, up on tiptoe to get line of sight over the back of the brown mare. Trying to remember not to hold his breath, because if he held his breath, he would start coughing. And if he started coughing, there was no guarantee that he would ever stop.
Over the iron sights of the gun, Doc glimpsed something that nearly made him drop it.
The figure half-silhouetted against the blue glow at the back of one of the above-ground-level tunnels could have been a naked child just on the verge of puberty—slender, fine-limbed, large-headed for the delicate lines of an elongated neck. Except he—or she, or possibly even it—hung upside down by its toes in the mouth of the tunnel like one of the slick mud-green tree frogs of Doc’s Georgia boyhood. The long fat-tipped fingers on its splayed hands did nothing to disabuse him of the comparison.
Its hands were empty.
Incrementally, Doc let the coach gun drift down, aware that beside him Flora was doing the same. The harsh breaths of his companions echoed to every side, layering over one another in an atonal fugue.
Doc pointed the shotgun in a safe position and uncocked it. He lowered the butt to the ground, letting the barrel lean against his knee. He raised his hands again, fingers spread wide like the frog-thing’s, showing them to be empty.
“Well,” he said. “I reckon you ain’t from around here.”
The thing made no sound in return, but it leaned forward from the hips. Behind Doc, Missus Shutt stepped out from between horses, her iron reholstered too. Doc wanted to hiss at her to keep cover—the bony-limbed critter could be a decoy, a distraction. But as she walked forward, her boot toes nosing softly through the rust and trash on the floor, each step tested before she shifted her weight onto it—well, Doc found himself just purely unable to intervene.
And all Missus Shutt’s companions just stood around and watched her risk her fool life like charades with moon men was some kind of a fashionable parlor game.
“Hey there, friend,” said Missus Shutt. She spread her hands out a little wider, until Doc could see the light and shadows stretched between her fingertips. She paused when Doc could just see the faint greeny glow of Bill’s ward line shining against the scarred leather of her boots. “We didn’t know there were any survivors of the crash. We’re here to help.”
The moon man didn’t even shift. But his—its—ribcage swelled visibly with what might have been a deep breath. Doc found that strangely reassuring: If it breathed, it was alive. And if it was alive, it was vulnerable to flying bits of metal and flying hexes both.
Missus Shutt must have read some encouragement in its steady posture, because she let her hands drop gently against her thighs and said, “My name is Elisa Shutt. I’m a duly-appointed representative of James Garfield, the President of the United States of America, the political institution whose territory this is. And I am empowered to offer you assistance on behalf of my government.”
Hah, thought Doc. I knew there was something more to this than treasure hunters.
Behind him—not to him—Miss Lil whispered, “I thought this was a shooting adventure,” and Missus Jorgensen answered, “It isn’t over yet,” her tone prim as a Yankee schoolmarm’s.
”Shh,“ Flora hissed back, jerking her head at Doc.
Miss Lil replied, “He can’t hear what’s out of—”
That echoing incomprehensibility claimed the rest of the sentence. Maybe she’d turned her head.
Maybe she was using some kind of hex to keep him from hearing what she didn’t think he’d ought.
Flora ducked back against the horse. Doc could tell from the timbre of her voice as she leaned across the saddle that what she said to Lil, she meant to hiss low and sharp. But those echoes were deceptive, and his ears were pretty good.
“”That’s John Henry Fucking Holliday over there,”“ the quadroon whispered, as if his name were something to conjure with. She gave it more weight than Missus Shutt had given President Garfield’’s. “”He’ll kill you off, not just kill you out. So unless you never want to see 1881 again—”—“
Doc snorted. Out of the corner of his mouth he said, “I heard that.” He was a good shot, fast, and despite his cough he rode with the Tombstone posse when the law needed him. But he hadn’t ever killed even a single man—although to hear some people tell it, he might have shot down two or three hundred.
Still, he kept hearing that ring in her tone: awe as if at something out of legend . . . even as he kept his eye on the motionless moon man tree frog which—who—breathed, and looked at them, and breathed again.
She said his name like he was somebody.
Doc’s confusion was interrupted by the glitter of the moon man’s wide, black, sclera-less eyes as its head turned slightly, tracking the sounds of the others. He didn’t reach for the coach gun. He could skin his pistol faster, if he had to. But he was really starting to think he might not have to shoot.
“We come in peace,” Missus Shutt said.
The moon man was still in near shadow, but a little light fell across its face from the side, now that it had its head turned. Doc saw the long split of its lipless mouth part above—it was still upside down—the flat bump where a nose should have been. He saw the tongue glisten.
“Water,” the thing said, in the piping voice of a child.
“You need water?” asked Missus Shutt.
It reached out a hand. “I give water,” it replied, in warbling tones.
The Code of the West, Doc thought. Even a moon man understood it. He reached to lift his coach gun by the barrel, to slide it back into the saddle holster.
The sound of a pistol shot, dizzy-loud in the echoing space as if somebody had boxed his ears, knocked him back against the gelding. The brown mare sidled, yanking her tie down, and hammered the coach gun from his hand. It went to the floor, under stomping hooves. To dive for it was to risk a crushed skull.
Deafened, seeing black spots, head ducked, Doc hauled himself up the saddle leathers, his pistol in his right hand. A horse was screaming; so was the moon man. Or what Doc assumed was the moon man: It sounded like a reed instrument blown to piercing discord, and it went through Doc more sharply even than the report of the gun.
The moon man wasn’t where it had been. Doc assumed it had sensibly dropped out of the tunnel and sought cover, just like everything that could.
The mare and the gelding stamped and twisted, trying to bolt, caught on their snubbed-off reins. Between them was a bad place to be. Dodging past their hindquarters wasn’t any better. And there was Flora, clinging to the saddle beside him, a death grip on the pommel as she tried to stay by the gelding’s shoulder and not get smashed by hooves and rumps as the panicked mare swung around and bumped him behind.
Somebody was returning fire. Missus Shutt and Miss Lil, it looked like—Missus Shutt against the wall, sighting down her arm in the direction of the tunnel the moon man had dangled in; Miss Lil standing tall, legs braced, and handling her pistol with both hands like a target shooter.
Doc got an arm around Flora’s shoulder and pulled her hard against him, hard against the wall. Over the squealing of horses and the reverberations in his head, he couldn’t hear what she said, but he saw her lips moving. There was a little curved alcove in the bulkhead just beyond the gelding’s head; he watched Missus Jorgensen push Bill into it and come out gun blazing, laying a line of cover down the far corridor.
Doc and Flora had to get out from between the horses if they were going to live. He yelled in her ear. As deafened as he was, she didn’t hear him. She tugged away, but she was slender and light. He had no trouble at all hooking her around the waist and pushing her before him as he went under the gelding’s head and into that selfsame alcove while the displeased horse fought his reins and tried to rear.
“But when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger!” Doc cried, as much to encourage himself as anything else. His own voice sounded as if it came through layers of cotton wool. Flora stared at him, and so did Bill.
Of course they’d seen his mouth moving. And they couldn’t make out a blasted word.
He gave Flora a push on the shoulder, urging her to stay still as he poked his head out quickly to assess. The horses were still sidling and stamping, but there was no more gunfire, and they had stopped rearing against the reins. Miss Lil, Missus Shutt, and Missus Jorgensen stood shoulder to shoulder in the center of the chamber, each one eyeing a different tunnel mouth. Of the moon man, there was no sign.
Doc yawned to pop his ears, hoping. He could fool himself that the ringing eased a little.
“Shit!” Flora snarled, then covered her lips in horror when he looked at her mildly, feeling his eyebrows rise.
“My momma would be scandalized,” Doc said, and kissed her quick, sideways across that unladylike mouth. Beside them, Bill rocked back against the wall, looking away quickly.
Doc, he thought, setting Flora back into the alcove, did you just kiss a Negress? Well, that wasn’t like him at all.
Of course she didn’t stay where he set her. When he stepped out, mincing, his pistol in his hand, she was there too, that shotgun she’d somehow hung on to at low ready. He scuffed his own over with his boot and crouched to scoop it up, hoping he wouldn’t have to fire it before he had a chance to check the barrel.
When he started to stand again, Doc coughed hard, and kept coughing. When his lungs spasmed to a stop, before he could make himself look up, he wiped the froth of blood off his mouth with the back of his hand. He had seen it often enough to know it was crimson, a fresh, juicy red like poppy petals and cherry jam—but in the dim blue light of the derelict it was just a dark smear like any blood by moonlight. John Keats, physician and poet, had said upon coughing that red, “I cannot be deceived in that colour. That drop of blood is my death warrant.”
John Henry Holliday, dentist and son of a consumptive, was no more likely to be misled. But he had already outlived poor Keats by half a decade, and the bullet that was supposed to shorten his suffering hadn’t yet arrived.
No doubt delayed in the mail.
A gentle hand brushed his shoulder. Warmth and ease followed the contact. Miss Lil. He pressed the bloody hand to his lips so he wouldn’t cough in her face and looked up.
“I’m a healer,” she said. “Can I help?”
He’d heard of such hexes. Never met one. Even the strongest couldn’t heal consumption, or potter’s rot, or cancer. But she could probably ease his pain. He imagined the clean pleasure of drawing a breath that would fill him all the way to the bottom instead of one that choked and suffocated like a lungful of stones.
He couldn’t speak. He nodded.
She laid one hand on his back between the shoulders and murmured some indistinct words. When she pulled away, he stood up straight and shivered.
“Thank you kindly, ma’am,” he said.
She patted his shoulder. “Don’t mention it.”
They went looking for the moon man, and also for the man with the gun. Miss Lil found the scuffed place in the trash below the tunnel where the moon man had fallen. She followed it to a series of freshly broken flakes of rust across the wall that showed where he’d run, sticky as a lizard, along the vertical surface.
“Well I’ll be,” Doc said, edging between two mares to get a better look at the wall. “And here’s a mark from a ricochet.”
He pushed a fingertip against it, judging the angle, and glanced back over his shoulder to confirm. “The shooter was down that passage behind the moon man. I don’t know how he could have missed. He had a clear shot at the critter’s back.”
“And the . . . moon man . . . he ran through us to lose the shooter.” Miss Lil hesitated over the term, but once she’d chewed on it for a minute she seemed to accept it. Missus Jorgensen, coming up on their right, paused at the edge of the conversation. Her hair was coming loose around her face in pale wisps. Her holster was still unbuttoned.
Doc shrugged. “In his boots, wouldn’t you?”
“He wasn’t wearing boots,” said Missus Jorgensen, provoking Miss Lil to giggle shockingly, for a woman with Flora’s shotgun balanced over one shoulder.
“He wasn’t wearing much of anything,” Flora said, coming up along the other side of one of the mares.
Doc bit down on his own laugh. He was breathing easier, sure, but he didn’t want to push his luck. “You think that was the only one?”
“I think it wasn’t threatening,” said Missus Jorgensen. “I think it was trying to make friends.”
Doc met her gaze and nodded. “Shooter was after a trophy, like as not,” he said. “You could get a good price from a side show for a dead moon man.”
Missus Jorgensen recoiled, chin tucking as if she’d taken a blow. “But they’re . . . ”
“Obviously intelligent,” Flora finished for her. Hard creases pinched along the sides of her mouth. “That never stopped a lot of folks.”
“No,” Doc said, thinking about the brief resilience of her mouth against his. He hadn’t kissed a woman since Kate had left. “It never did.”
She jerked her gaze off his after a moment too long. “I say we follow the shooter back along that corridor. He’s the threat.”
Miss Jorgensen said, “And he might be after the same thing we are.”
A glance that Doc couldn’t read passed between her and Flora.
Flora said, “Our objectives have changed. It’s a rescue mission now. Anything that could be learned from documentation—anything that could help us reproduce the technology—” She shook her head. “If we promise to do whatever we can to help get it home again, it might just be willing to help us understand its science.”
“Indeed,” said Miss Lil. “The president will want to interview survivors.”
Doc felt his jaw drop. “Call me a daisy,” he said, when he got a little bit of air back. “You aren’t from back East at all.”
The three women looked at him, stricken. For a moment, Doc felt a creeping vulnerability between his shoulder blades. He fought the urge to check his back and make sure Bill and Missus Shutt weren’t flanking him.
“I’m from Boston, actually,” Flora said.
Doc shook his head, as their funny way of talking, the funny way Flora had said 1881 like it was ancient Rome, the funny way they reverenced him all came together in his head. “That ain’t what I mean. You’re not just from back East. You’re from sometime else. You’re from the future.”
However they reacted, he missed it, because his chest tightened around the excitement with the pain of an incipient cough, and he doubled over with his hands on his knees. Slow breaths. Shallow. Easy. That was the way. His hands shook and his vision narrowed as he fished in his pocket for the stick of candy.
You’d shoot a horse with a broken wind. Why couldn’t he get anybody to put a bullet into him?
The horehound eased his throat. Nothing would ease the tightness in his chest except the solution that had already been so long in coming. Or the touch of Miss Lil’s hand, he realized, as she took his elbow and helped him stand upright.
“Bastard thing,” he said, when he could say anything. “Consumption killed my mother. Likely kill me too.”
“I know,” said Flora.
He caught her looking, got caught on her gaze. Nodded. “I’ve got a legend where you come from?”
“Oh,” said Missus Shutt. “Yes, Mr. Holliday. You do.”
“That’s something, then. They got a cure for this, in the future?”
“We do,” Missus Shutt answered.
“Good,” he said. He felt for his pistol. Took it out, spun the cylinder. Made sure there was a bullet under the hammer.
Bill and the women watched him in silence. The horses crunched grain in their nose bags.
“Well,” said Holliday. “Sooner we find this son of a bitch, sooner we can rescue your moon man and head back to town. I don’t know about you, but I’ve worked up a good whiskey thirst.”
Doc and Bill hoisted Missus Jorgensen, Missus Shutt, and Flora into the tunnel where they’d first seen the moon man. The first women knelt to help haul Miss Lil over the edge. Then Bill let Doc put a boot in his hands and kick high enough for the women to steady him while he clambered up. Bill himself surprised Doc: He might have been grizzled and a little soft around the middle, but he planted his hands on the lip, brushing rust flakes and debris aside, and jumped and swung over the head-high threshold in a scattering of rotting metal.
Doc gave the hex a hand to stand while Missus Jorgensen and Missus Shutt kept an eye down the corridor in the direction the gunman must have run. When Doc’s gaze met Bill’s—Bill’s face gaunt and strange in the shadowy blue light—Bill nodded.
Without a word, the six fell into three ranks of two—Doc and Miss Lil in the front with their scatterguns poised. The other four minced softly behind, pistols ready, while the rasp of boots on blistered metal echoed out.
The corridor—or tunnel, or gangway; if this was a star-ship, Doc’s store of nautical terminology was insufficient to its engineering—must have once stretched in a bowed line the length of the craft. Now only the first fifty feet were more or less intact—Doc and Miss Lil probed each step with a toe and shifted weight carefully forward—and they picked up the gunman’s trail about thirty feet from where the moon man had been hanging by his toes.
Beyond that point, the corridor warped, the metal twisted and crumpled so anyone who wanted to pass through would have to do so by writhing under the buckled roof like a snake on its belly. Piles of debris had been pushed to one side to allow someone to do just that. Shiny scratches showed where that same someone had retreated back through the gap in a hurry.
Doc crouched, keeping his body well to one side, and rested a hand against the roof to brace himself. More flakes of metal dusted his shoulders and hat as he tipped his head down to peer through the gap.
It was dark beyond. The blue-white lights did not penetrate the constriction, leaving Doc with the uneasy sense of staring into a cave that might contain any horror he could conceive of—and a few inconceivable ones as well. At the mouth, caught on a jagged twist of metal, a few strands of yellow-and-black cotton were still damp with blood on one end.
Miss Lil, just as careful not to silhouette herself, crouched on the other side of the gap. She eyed the sticky smudge on Doc’s fingertip after he touched the snagged fabric and frowned across. “Somebody was in a hurry.”
“John Ringo was wearing a yellow check shirt when we saw him last,” Doc said.
“John Ringo?” asked Flora.
“The man who tried to convince you to hire him as a guide when I turned you down that first time,” Doc said. “He’d not scruple to follow us out here and lie in wait, ma’am, if he thought you’d anything worth stealing.”
“The horses are worth stealing,” Bill said.
“It bled,” Miss Lil said, bending further to get her head into the crevice. “But a moderate amount.”
Flora put her hands against her back as if it pained her. “A scrape like that isn’t enough to slow anybody down.”
Missus Jorgensen made a sound that might have been a bitter laugh, in a less strained situation. “Not until he comes down with lockjaw in a week or so.”
“Do we risk a lantern?” Bill asked.
Whatever conversation took place then was silent, a matter of glances and twists of the mouth, but Doc thought he followed it . . . more or less. When Flora said, “I’d just be making a target of myself,” though, he balked.
“You’re not going first,” he said, forgetting politeness in his shock. “A little slip of a thing like you? It don’t matter if I die.”
“That’s exactly why I am going first, Doctor Holliday,” she said, in a tone that bade to remind him who was paying whom to be here. “I’ll be able to move quickly and freely. Much more so than either of you gentlemen.”
He frowned at her, formulating a protest. She let her fingertips brush the pearl handle of Miss Lil’s revolver, which she was carrying since they’d traded guns.
“Are you prepared to contest it with me?”
“Never get in the way of a lady when she’s made her mind up,” he said, and stood up strictly so he could step back. “Will you at least let us sling a rope around you so we can pull you back if we have to?”
“That . . .” Flora dusted her hands together. “I think we can compromise on.”
Their precautions turned out unnecessary, but Doc still felt the better for having made them. Flora crawled through the crushed section of corridor, dragging a rope behind her, and vanished from sight. After seven or ten palm-sweating minutes, her voice came back: “It’s clear on the other side!” and one by one the rest of the group followed. It was a tight squeeze for Miss Lil, who found herself scraped flat and wriggling once or twice, but even she made it.
Doc went last, feeling his way in the darkness, following the line by touch. He’d tied his bandanna across his mouth to keep from breathing in rust flakes. It forced him to regulate his inhalations to what the cloth would filter. He hoped that made it less likely he’d trigger a coughing fit. He could imagine little worse than lying there in the darkness, pressed between sheets of warped metal, coughing his life away.
Corrosion gritted against his knees and palms and where his shirt rubbed between the deck and his belly. The roof brushed his back and disarrayed his hair. He had to push his hat before him in one hand, the coach gun in the other. At one point the passageway dropped, and he slithered down on his belly, wondering how he was ever going to manage if it turned back up again. But at the bottom it only flattened out, and his dark-adapted vision picked out a dim sort of reflected glow that seemed to hang in the air rather than come from any place in particular.
The line led him on, and soon he came around a corner and saw the edge of the passage widening, and the rust-stained trousers and boots of his companions standing beyond. He had enough room to push himself to his knees, then to a crouch.
He clapped his hat against his hip to clean it at least a little, then set it on his head.
“Well,” he said, straightening his stiff spine with an effort. “That was a long poke.”
He imagined he didn’t look any better than the others—sweaty, disheveled, smeared with varying shades of ochre as if they’d been caught in an explosion in a painter’s studio. But every chin had a determined set.
“He went that way,” Miss Lil said, pointing. “He’s got a head start.”
“He had one already.” Flora picked up the rope as if to begin coiling it, frowned, and let the end flop again. “I hope there’s an easier way out. But if there isn’t . . .”
“Leave it,” said Missus Jorgensen. “We should be moving. Let me go first?”
“Begging your pardon—” Doc began.
But Flora held up a hand. “She’s got the best eyes of any of us,” she said. “If our invisible friend left us any tripwires or other nasty surprises, she’ll be the one to spot them.”
“Of course,” said Doc. And though it griped him, he stood aside for the lady again.
Beyond the point of collapse, the passageway began to fork and meander. Missus Jorgensen led them at a brisk walk, occasionally turning to Doc or Miss Lil for direction when they reached an intersection or a chamber that had been broken open by the force of the crash. The trail was clear; their quarry had run, and left occasional drips of blood behind. He was obviously bleeding freely—though not copiously—from the gash he’d given himself on the jagged metal of the crawlway.
“I think he’s lost,” Miss Lil said, when they’d been pursuing for ten minutes or so. “Panicking. He just ran nearly in a circle. It would have been faster to have come down that way, and it would have gotten him to the same place.”
Doc thought about running through this maze of rotten steel, with six armed men and women at your heels, and actually felt a little sorry for Johnny Ringo. But only a little.
He started to cough and tried to stifle it, though in truth they weren’t being so quiet Ringo wouldn’t have heard them coming anyway. The echoes rang out, though, and Doc’s mouth filled with the seawater taste of blood while Doc pawed in his pocket for the stick of horehound. Miss Lil’s touch on his back eased him fast enough, and the candy soothed his throat. Still, he wheezed with the force of the fit.
The echoes of his hacking hadn’t died when a male voice echoed back, distorted by corridors and cavernous rooms. “That you, Holliday? Or is it a hyena?”
“It’s the angel of the redemption,” Holliday called back, his voice threadier than he would have liked. “I understand you have some explaining to do.”
Flora shot him a look. He nodded, holding his position in the center of the corridor, and she and Bill and the other women fanned out to either side, backs flat against the walls, pistols and Miss Lil’s coach gun at the ready. Doc waited until her gaze jerked down the corridor before he started boldly forward, front and center, walking past the first of several side passages before the corridor turned, up ahead.
“I hear you coming, lunger,” Ringo warned. “I got a sense this funny gray monkey-thing is something you want alive. If that’s so, you’ll stop right where you are. In fact, you’ll crawl back out of here—and you’ll leave me those horses you brought, and all the water and food they’ve got on ’em.”
Doc paused. “You’re bluffing.” But he was already shaking his head at Flora to indicate the truth of what he thought.
“So I am,” Ringo answered.
There was a thump, and something inhuman made a strangled noise of pain. Doc didn’t flinch, but Miss Lil cringed.
“You learn those smarts in dentist school?” Ringo called.
“Come by ’em honestly,” Doc said.
Flora jerked a thumb down a side passage and raised her eyebrows to Miss Lil in a question.
Miss Lil glanced. Nodded. Smiled.
Flora’s answering grin showed how crooked those front teeth really were.
Doc remembered Miss Lil’s dead-on sense of direction. An unfamiliar sensation—a little bright hope—flickered in his chest, beside the dull old recognized burn of the disease that was killing him.
But Missus Jorgensen put up a hand. Not whispering, just talking so low it wouldn’t carry, she said, “John Ringo doesn’t die here.”
“Crap,” Flora hissed. She glanced around. “All right. No killing shots.”
“When does he die?” The demand was out of Doc’s mouth before he even realized he’d made it. In for a penny, he thought. “And who kills him?”
Missus Jorgensen shook her head “You know I can’t tell you that.”
“Right,” Doc said. “If you changed the past, you’d change the future. And then you might not even exist.”
She nodded. “Doc—”
“Don’t worry, ma’am,” he said. “Whatever answer you gave, it wouldn’t satisfy me.”
Doc slipped the coach gun into its sheath, slung it over his shoulders, and walked forward again, hands held high. He went alone—or nearly alone: Bill ghosted down the wall beside him, for support of morale and covering fire if nothing more. But Doc didn’t look at him. Doc didn’t do anything as he rounded the corner into John Ringo’s sights, in fact, other than raise his hands up just a little tiny bit higher.
Ringo—a dark fellow with a moustache like a set of window drapes—stood against the far wall of a chamber as big as the one where they’d stabled the horses, holding the moon man around the neck. This room was in better repair, though—the walls and floor rusting, sure, but scrubbed and not heaped with debris. There was a sort of nest of fabric at one end, and transparent jugs full of what must be drinking water.
The moon man in Ringo’s grasp was no taller than a boy of twelve, and just as skinny. Its long hands curved over Ringo’s arm where his grasp forced its head up. Ringo pushed the muzzle of his pistol against the creature’s head hard enough that even from across the room, Doc could see its slick gray flesh denting.
Poor critter, Doc thought. Marooned here like Robinson Crusoe. And we’re the cannibal savages.
Ringo grinned over the moon man’s head as Doc stopped twelve or fifteen feet away. “I’m heeled now, Holliday.”
“I can see that.” Doc clicked candy against his tongue with his teeth, letting his hands drift wide. “I said all I wanted out of you is ten paces in the street, John. This isn’t a street. And that isn’t a combatant.”
“But it’s worth something, isn’t it?” Ringo asked. “There’s gotta be a bounty. That’s why you all are out here.”
Doc opened his mouth. He closed it again. For a change, he thought for a second.
“That’s right,” Doc said. He edged a step or two closer to Ringo. A step or two farther from Bill, and the potential cover of the bend in the corridor. “There’s a bounty. Thirty thousand dollars. But only if we bring it in alive.”
He didn’t hear the women coming down the side corridor. He had to assume they were there, though, and that their silence was for Ringo’s benefit . . . or detriment.
”Thirty . . . thousand?“ Ringo said it like he’d never heard of so much money. Doc appreciated the reverence; he might have said the same words the same way himself if their situations were reversed.
“Alive,” Doc said.
Ringo might not have noticed it, but his hand eased off a little on the pistol. The moon man’s head came up straighter. It blinked at Doc with vast, sea-dark eyes.
He didn’t dare look at it. He kept his attention on Ringo’s face. “I’ll split it with you.”
“Where are the rest of ’em?” Ringo asked.
Doc shrugged. “Thirty thousand seemed better than five thousand.”
Ringo snorted. But Doc knew that was the key to successful lying. People judged what other people would do by what they themselves would do. You could tell a hell of a lot about a man by what he assumed others got up to. If you’re looking for a thief, bet on the man who’s always accusing his neighbors.
“So what’s to stop me taking that whole thirty thousand myself?” Ringo slid the muzzle back from the moon man’s head, turned it to face Doc. The barrel looked as big and black as barrels always do.
Now,Doc thought. Now! But there was no crack of gunfire from the side corridor, no blossom of blood from Ringo’s skull. Doc forced his eyes to stay trained on Ringo. “You don’t know where to collect. Do you think there are wanted posters for that thing?”
“So you tell me where,” Ringo said. “Or I shoot you and then I shoot it.”
He was just the sort to spoil a well so somebody else couldn’t use it too. “I can draw a map,” he said. And snorted. “That is, assuming you could read it.”
“Who’s holding the shooting iron, Holliday?”
“Not much of a threat,” Doc said, “when we both know you’re going to use it no matter what I say.”
Ringo couldn’t keep the grin from lifting the corners of his moustache, like hell’s curtain drawn back from an unholy proscenium arch. “Maybe you better tell me where and from who to collect that bounty.”
“Maybe so,” Doc said. “Maybe I’d rather chew a bu—”
The echoes of a single gun’s report weren’t any easier to bear in this chamber than they had been in the one where they had left the horses. Doc winced—how the hell was that supposed to keep John Ringo alive until he met whatever unholy date with destiny these five had planned out for him—and then realized: Flora, walking forward now with Lil’s smoking six-gun leveled, had shot the pistol out of Ringo’s hand. Which was a hell of a lot harder, Doc knew, than Eastern lady writers made it out to be in the dime novels.
“Now’d be a good time to run,” Flora said, her posse arrayed behind her, as Ringo stood there disbelieving, shaking his bloody, numb right hand.
He stood rooted on the spot, though, until the moon man turned its head and clamped that wide, lipless slash of a mouth closed on Ringo’s arm.
They let him run. Miss Lil moved to the moon man, her hands outstretched, her voice soft. As she crouched down beside it, it didn’t flinch.
“Victory?” Bill said to Missus Shutt.
“Victory,” she agreed.
John Henry Holliday looked down at the spatter of red blood on orange rust and shook his head. “I’m damned tired.”
Flora and her partners left Holliday at the last fork in the road, their little gray guest bundled up in concealing clothes and riding crunched up on the brown mare behind Miss Lil. Before she’d left, Flora pulled Doc aside to pay him the second half of his money, and a little bonus, and to share a private word or two.
He’d been the one who’d spoken first, though. “So. You really are from the future.”
“Something like that, Doc,” she said. “But not exactly. It’s against the rules to explain.”
He looked her in the eye. “Call me John,” he’d said. “I haven’t much use for rules, Miss Flora.”
“John,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to meet you.”
A dusty sun crested the rooftops of Tombstone on the first day of November, 1881. Doc Holliday staggered across the vacant lot next to Fly’s boarding house. There was nothing in his life so pressing as the idea of a shot of whiskey to ease the ice-pick of pain through and behind his left eye.
And nothing in his life so unwelcome as the spectre of John Ringo strolling down Fremont Street in a yellow check shirt that needed washing. Or maybe burning.
Ringo turned his head and spat in the dust between Doc’s boots.
Another day, Holliday might have stepped over it.
This particular day, he stopped dead in the street. Having been deputized, he had the right to carry a firearm in the streets of Tombstone. Not every man did.
His hand hovered over his holster as he turned and faced Ringo. The sun stabbed through his pupils until he thought the back of his head might explode from the pressure, but he kept his voice level and full of the milk of human kindness and the venom of sweet reason.
“You son of a bitch,” Doc said. “If you ain’t heeled, you go and heel yourself.”
But Ringo just turned and showed him an empty right hip, hands spread mockingly wide.
Doc said, “Ringo, all I want out of you is ten paces in the street. And mark my words, some day I will get them.”
“You better hope not, Holliday,” Ringo said, spinning on the ball of one foot.
Impotently, Doc watched him stagger away. By the gait, he could tell that Ringo was still drunk from the night before.
A solution Doc wished he’d embraced his own self. Instead, he kept walking, intent on undertaking the next best option—getting drunk again.
He was seated staring at the ornate back bar of the Alhambra Saloon when John Ringo walked in. Still unarmed, still with the rolling gait of a sailor off the sea or a man on a bender. He pretended not to see Doc, and Doc pretended not to see him.
Doc was on his second whiskey when three men and a woman came up on his left side. The leader—or at least the one in the front—was careful to keep a respectful distance.
”Doctor Holliday?“ the lead man asked.
He was tall, broad, red-cheeked behind gingery stubble. A healthy-looking fellow with his shirt collar open in the heat. Doc’s hand crept up to check his own button.
“I am,” Doc said. “But I’m pretty sure I don’t owe you any money.”
The man said, “The opposite, sir. We are hoping for the opportunity to pay you some.”
Doc let his hand rest on the side of his whiskey glass, but didn’t lift it. The pain in his head wasn’t going away.
He asked, “Who might you be?”
“Reuben,” the man said. “Jeremy. We hear there’s an old wreck out in the desert. We hear you’ve been there.”
“Once,” Doc allowed, cautiously. “On my way into Tombstone.”
“We want to hire you to take us there.”
“Not up to it today, I’m afraid.”
But Doc turned back to the bar, and the man didn’t persist. He and his friends formed a huddle by the vacant faro table, whispering an argument Doc was pleased to ignore until he spotted a flash of dirty yellow and black. Headed that way.
Ringo stopped about four feet off from Reuben and his group and cleared his throat. “I can take you out to the wreck.”
Doc put his forehead on his palm.
“And you would be?”
“John Ringo,” Ringo said. “I know this desert like my hand.”
Doc took a deep breath and let it out again. He still had half a glass of whiskey.
And he had half a mind to let Ringo try it. These men might be easterners, but the leather on their holsters was worn soft and slick. They might give the cowboy a harder accounting than he was reckoning on if he lured them into an ambush.
He managed to make himself wait another three whole seconds with that line of thought before turning his stool. “Reuben.”
Reuben looked up from haggling with Ringo. “Doctor Holliday.”
Ringo shot Doc a wild look full of bitter promises. Doc shrugged. “You better run along, Johnny.”
Ringo opened his mouth—Doc could almost see him forming the words You haven’t heard the last of me. And then he shut it in silence, squared his shoulders, and stalked off like a wet cat.
Doc said, “I’ll go. This once. I won’t make it a habit, sir.”
One of the men behind Reuben leaned to another and said something excitedly, incomprehensibly, making Doc want to blow his nose to clear his ears.
Neither that nor Ringo’s performance were what sent the chill of recognition through Doc. He winced and rubbed his eyes.
Reuben said, “What?”
“Déjà vu. Damn. That’s funny.” Doc heard his own tones ring flat as the rattle of a captured snake. A sinking and inexplicable sense of futility sucked at him. “I’d swear I’ve had every word of this conversation some damn other time.”
”Faster Gun" copyright © 2012 by Elizabeth Bear
Art copyright © 2012 by Richard Anderson