Agent Foxtrot

in

"The Bane of Black Billy"

So, I'm walking out of this retro diner into the Arizona noon. Well, either it's intended to be retro, or the piece of shit hasn't been done over since the fucking Fifties. The latter is far likelier, I think. At least it was air conditioned.

If these temperatures were like what I had back near DC, I'd be fucking sweating bullets. Out here, though, it's thankfully a dry heat. Like a moron, though, I'm dressed in my favorite outfit. I noticed a lot of the locals are wearing long-sleeved shorts, hats, and pants, so why do I feel so hot now? Underneath the trench-coat and fedora I'm sweating bullets, and all I have on underneath is a t-shirt and shorts. Then again, I didn't have a choice about most of my gear.

Why, Jason Fox, did you ever have to manifest your powers after getting hired by the FBI? Hell, I've got a Masters in Computer Science, and I thought I'd be doing something more related to what I spent the last six years learning. I applied to the FBI thinking I could use some of my computer skills to help the law. Help stop hackers. Help trace offshore accounts. Do some digital forensics. That sort of thing. There are times I think I would have been better off hawking overpriced, obsolete computers to people at the local department store, like that one summer job I had.

So, here I am, sizzling my ass off in the middle of East Bumblefuck in Arizona. The gear I got's unique, but not much else going for it. The FBI didn't give me too many rights (those are reserved for higher ranked, better trained, and more experienced agents than me). Officially, I'm just a civilian who works for the FBI managing databases.

Unofficially is a whole 'nother fucking story. Apparently, they did some genetic test on me, and found I was eligible for 'special employment.' It came with a pay raise, and 'special hours' were promised. They give me a bunch of tests, like guess which card they were holding while hiding it from me, or talk to a man in a suit at the end of a hall. Turns out, I failed the card test, but talking to the suited man (who used Sixties slang) meant I had some kind of ability. So, turns out, the suited spook was a literal spook. Somehow, I can sometimes see or talk to the dead. With some meditation and focus training they gave, I was able to to tune it in and out. So, the lifetime skeptic atheist gets to meet a ghost. Whoop-dee shit.

Whatever happens after dead, no one fucking knows (I think we decompose), but sometimes, there's a remnant, or small bit of the person's mind remains. Even some of the weirder shit they showed, like the still living brain of a Victorian mad scientist in a jar, made more sense to me than that. So, bottom line, I'm a medium. I get to talk to ghosts (and most don't have much interesting to say), and I can even physically interact with them.

I have some measure of techno-mystic protection due to the coat, hat, and a bunch of benefits I keep on a small wearable device on my upper arm. It offers some protection against possession and mind control, and I can make the suit become transparent. Plus, there's my ability to not get noticed, which I always thought was related to my lack of social skills (turns out, mostly is).

So, what does a techno-medium with computer skills working for the FBI do? Same thing I'd probably be doing for them without the abilities: tech support. I get all the crappy jobs the others don't give a shit about. Hopefully it will change, but some day, until then, I'll complain about it. I don't even get a badge. Just some little ID card to show to any local cops or government personnel in case I end up in trouble with them. Oh, what about gear? The hat and coat with the came with minor mystic and ballistic protection came from a vault of lots of ones like it, the wearable console I made myself, and I get shafted with some of the strangest weapons. I get a set of weighted gloves I hope not to use much. I've done some kick-boxing before and had a small bit of training, but I'm not much of a boxer. Those are my weapons of last resort. They were kind enough to give me a sidearm and nation-wide carry-concealed permit, though.

It's a pretty cool gun: An old German Mauser pistol modified to shoot modern nine millimeter bullets. It's literally over a century old, it's a nightmare to maintain, and it was obsolete even by World War I standards. Now, I've used guns before. My mom's a pretty accomplished hunter. Hell, recently, she just killed a buck deer with a single shot from her muzzle-loading rifle. The deer in question managed to charge her while she reloaded, so she beat the fucker to death with the butt of the gun. The bruised and battered head of the deer, with a lot of the antlers broken off, was stuffed and mounted above the fireplace. (Any time someone argues with her, all she needs to do is point to it.)

My bosses were kind enough to give me different types of ammo: incendiary rounds for regular undead (bloodsuckers burn in quite amusing ways), silver bullets for those annoying lycanthropes (the only cure for terminal lycanthropy), tranquilizer and rubber bullets for stealth and non-lethal work, and regular bullets for everything else. Plus, for some reason (maybe it's got a fucking Jap artifact spirit), it can shoot ghosts. If that fails, I've got a cheap water pistol full of holy water that should.

Lycanthropy and and the bloodsucker infection are thankfully both curable with conventional antibiotics in the early cases (which is why I carry some over the counter pills). Finding out both were caused by a rare sort of bacteria (instead of a virus) made controlling their numbers a lot easier. Hopefully, I won't need to use them here. Both of them turn into ravenous beasts once it's terminal, and like cases where they need animal control, the only option is to put 'em down. Its still good to have your shots, though, since those fuckers carry worse diseases (like rabies or worse).

So, why am I out here in the middle of fucking nowhere? I could ask myself the same question (and I did). Turns out, some of the local yokels saw a cowboy dressed in black inside an abandoned mineshaft and cave entrance. Some of them ventured deeper into the abandoned mine to investigate, and reported strange sounds and glowing objects in the mine. As it also turns out, the same description can also be applied to a certain figure of note in local history and folklore.

He's also a figure of note in my family's history. He was the one who killed an ancestor of mine. He shot Judah Fox, a US Marshal, on his escape from jail. He was last sighted heading into the desert, presumably looking for a place to lay low. My ancestor's wife was left widowed, and the kids were left without a father. None of this directly affects me, so it's hard for me to feel too personal, but it's good to put some family ghosts to rests (perhaps literally). So, for the lead my family was given well over a century ago, it's time to repay the favor.

A ghost can still kill you, if he's strong enough. If Black Billy's packing some ghostly six-gun that can blast me, well, I'll show him the advantages of shoulder-holsters and automatic weapons. The assignment is simple enough. I need to send off the ghost of a nasty outlaw. A few bullets as soon as I detect 'em should work well. No need to draw it out and make it melodramatic like all those shitty horror flicks. Just find, shoot, and done. Nothing else.

My car continued off road for a good number of miles. I almost lose count until I see a faded wooden sign promising "Danger" along the edge of the dirty choked road. I wouldn't be surprised if the last person out here stopped by when the Union won the Civil War. Or maybe it was a bit more recent, like the last guest coming sometime around the Cold War. Either way, I'm in the middle of the damn desert with a ghostly gunslinger to gun for. He should be easy enough to find: Black hat, black vest, black pants. Stereotypical outlaw, really.

The location of the sightings was thankfully consistent and perfectly creepy. Sticking out of the landscape like a sore was a mesa, and it was honeycombed with caves and mining tunnels. I don't remember the fucking name, and I don't care. Still, I can't say I'm enthralled with the idea of heading into a deserted mineshaft. Of all the deathtraps I've seen (which aren't many), this is got to be the worst. A "WARNING: DO NOT ENTER" sign was ripped off and tossed to the side, presumably by whoever was dumb enough to take a look around inside and look for stuff. I hope I don't get killed in a cave in and be forced to endure eternity as a ghost with that outlaw.

"At the site. Entering mine-shaft," I record. "Leaving cell phone in car, so don't bother me in the middle of the mission. Last time that damn thing went off, it alerted a pack of werewolves to me."

I cautiously approached the entrance to the cave, and crouched down. I punch a few keys onto the wearable device, and updated my position to whatever satellite was watching over me from miles above. I pulled out a military-styled flashlight and clipped it to my pocket for later use. I pressed another set of keys, and engaged my "stealth" systems. I had a program loaded on my wearable device to detect any ectoplasmic manifestations, and it would start chirping into my headset if something was nearby. Hopefully, that would give me advance warning of any ghost. Drawing my pistol, I approached the gaping maw of the mineshaft. It was made of creaking wood pylons, and a small set of railroad tracks stuck out. A rusted mine cart filled with rocks sat just outside the entrance. Water dripped from the rotting, creaking timbers. I approached, and the shaft groaned, like the earth was preparing to swallow me. Somewhere down the shaft, I heard water dripping. If you didn't have claustrophobia, this was the perfect place to get it from.

I held the ancient pistol as I walked down the tunnel. Daylight vanished behind me, and stale, warm air bellowed forwards towards me. The distant rumbling and creaking didn't do much to put my mind at ease. If this was the Earth breathing, I hoped it didn't swallow. Eventually, daylight faded behind me, completely, as I rounded a bend. If I only knew what was waiting for me, I probably would have peaked around with the flashlight first.

Instead, I notice the ground changed almost instantly. I had walked over something brittle that snapped beneath my feet. Looking down, I gasped and jumped back as I saw what it was: a brittle, ancient skeleton. I had just accidentally stomped through a skeleton, which had the remnants of a leather belt and a pair of rusted revolvers on it. A strange silver paste filled the skull. Apparently, with some ghosts, desecrating their mortal remains was like calling their mother a whore and father a pack of drunken sailors. I backed off, and tried to vanish into some shadows nearby as I hoped Black Billy wasn't one of them. Or, at least, this wasn't a bloodthirsty gunslinger.

I had no such luck as I detected something shimmering in the tunnel. Strangely, there was no pinging in my headset. The ghost detector wasn't working. Whatever was coming was not a ghost, I told myself.

But I was wrong. Appearing at the end of the tunnel, glowing with an unearthly and unholy glow was a man who matched the ancient photographs and wanted posters I had seen. He had on a black hat, black coat, black pants, and had a belt full of cartridges and pair of revolvers. He gazed at me with a look of uncertainty and shock. His face was a heavily scarred and tanned one, obviously a rugged look from being raised on the wilderness.

"Howdy," he removed his hat and bowed. "What brings you to these here lonely parts?"

"Justice," I replied as I drew my pistol. "For my ancestor Judah Fox you shot, and others."

I fired my Mauser at him, each shot blasting the pistol back in my hand. Each of the bullets passed harmlessly through the ghost, hitting the wall behind him as he stood with a bemused grin on his face. The cowboy phantasm walked forward, not even bothered by my gunshots.

I was getting desperate, so I switched tactics. Black Billy stood in front of me, just silently grinning. I tried punching him in the face with my weighted gloves. My hand did not touch anything as I went right on through his head. I didn't even feel the standard chill of ectoplasmic apparitions. Quickly, I stepped back and drew my final weapon. I fired my plastic water pistol filled with holy water. Again, no response from the apparition other than a bemused grin.

"I suppose that's some sort of new fangled shootin' iron," Black Billy mused, patting his revolver. "I reckon I prefer my sixgun."

With that, he drew his phantasmal revolver and held it on his hip like he would shoot. He placed his finger on the trigger and cocked the hammer back with his thumb.

"What are you?!" I backed away. "You're like no ghost I've ever seen!"

I dove for cover behind a rotting support timber. The ghost pulled the trigger, and I prepared to have a spectral bullet penetrate my torso. A few long seconds past, but there was nothing. Instead, Black Billy walked in front of me and grinned.

"Y'all can come out now," the spectral outlaw replied. "My six-gun hasn't put lead in anything since I ended up like this. I ain't sure what's doing it, but it ain't nothin' I've ever seen."

"But aren't you a bloodthirsty outlaw and shootist?" I asked. "Notorious robber of trains, banks, and mail wagons? Killer of countless lawmen?"

"Used to be," the cowboy replied, holstering his gun. He leaned against a nearby wall. "I reckon I've been like this for a long time now. I lost track o' time, but it does give a man a lot of time to think. Tell me, are you a lawman, son?"

"Of a sort," I stretched the truth of what my job consisted of. "I deal with supernatural threats to the American people. It's been over a century since you vanished into the desert."

"Well, I reckon I missed a lot of what happened," Black Billy paced around, his spectral spurs not making any sounds with the ground. "And I reckon you ain't here just to flap your lips."

"Yeah," I replied. "Say, mind telling me what happened to you? If you're not a regular ghost, at least tell me what happened."

"Well, I flee out here by my lonesome, layin' low from a posse of lawmen," the outlaw put his hand to his mouth. "I turn in for the night here, then, next thing I know, there's a blob a' silver smotherin' me."

"And the next thing you realize is that you're formless and trapped as a phantom?" I deduce. "And not able to move too far from where you were killed?"

The specter nodded. "How ya know all this, son?"

"This is going to sound strange to you, but I came prepared thinking you were the normal sort of ghost," I continued. "Turns out, I think I know what you might be. I've only heard of a few cases of it, though."

The ghost stared at me, hoping I'd continue. If this was what I thought it was, I was going to have to confirm it before I could call for backup. The paste in the skull wouldn't be enough. I'd need to go directly to the source, or at least get close to it. Here I am, thinking I'm heading for a showdown with an undead cowboy, and turns out, he's basically just a hapless and very bored bystander.

"Now, this is going to sound strange," I repeated. "But there's life on worlds other than Earth. They have science more advanced than we do, and sometimes, things they make end up here."

"What in tarnation you talking about, sonny?" the cowboy removed his invisible hat, revealing a translucent void where the top of his head should be.

"You fell victim to a device not made by humans," I tried to simplify it. "It forced its way into your brain, and turned you into a ghost within a very strange sort of machine. It allows you to think like you did before, but allows you to appear as a hologram, or sort of a magic lantern display, within a set distance of your remains."

He scratched the void like another person would scratch his hair. "Yah mean," he asked. "It's some kind 'o device not from this here world? And I turn into one of those there shows?"

I nodded. "Exactly. We call it an artifact from an ETI, or Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. Sometimes, their devices end up on Earth and get mistaken for regular supernatural occurrences. What I need to do is find the controller unit, disable it, and call for backup."

"What will yah be plannin' tah do with me?" Black Billy asked. "Not like yah can just string me up."

"We'll deal with that later," I replied to the cowboy. "Once my backup arrives, then we'll see what we can do with you."

"Whatever yah have for me, son," Billy glared at me, a pathetic and pleading look in his eyes. "It's better than being stuck in this here rotten cave for a century! Hell, I take hanging, I'll take lock up, and heck, even workin' for yah! Just get me outta here!"

"Say, while you were here, did you ever hear or see anything strange?" I asked. "Or anyone or anything else in here that wasn't just an animal or person sneaking in?"

"Only company I get's a buncha critters," Black Billy then turned his thumb down the tunnel, around another bend. "But I sometimes here sounds down there, like something metal is scrapin' around there."

"Thanks," I replied half heartedly. "That's all I need to know."

Billy vanished, nodding quietly. Fuck. There just had to be another active ETI artifact. I recalled the "soul-stealing" nanobots normally needed a controller, which was often the producer of even more nanoswarms. Why the fuck the aliens wanted to forcibly upload minds using killer nanobots, I had no idea. I fail to understand what the point is. Maybe they're all malfunctioning. Or maybe the aliens have some perfectly good reason for doing it (to them). Since most people wouldn't be comfortable with the idea of brain-draining aliens from space, we just cover it up with the rest of the paranormal stuff.

So, here I was, going solo against an ETI artifact. They could power themselves indefinitely and self repair, so they could keep going for a long time. Chances are, what happened in this mine was one of them was dug up and activated by the miners, or somehow caused an accident or gas leak that made place unprofitable and unsalvageable. Or the mine was almost exhausted and they dug deep enough to dig out an ETI artifact what was dormant since it hit the Earth millions of years ago. How it got here and when it was dug up, I don't fucking care. I'm more interested in taking the damn thing out before some other hapless person wanders into it.

The bad part is that standard operating procedure requires a lot more evidence than just a nanobot-encrusted skull. I'd have to disable the ETI controller bot, get a picture of it, or at least take a part from it. The more evidence, the better. And what's the good part? Controller bots aren't immune to bullets. In addition, the uploading nanoswarms are vulnerable to water. Another bad part is if you fail, there's a good chance you'll end up like Black Billy there. I decided some proof was better than none, and tossed Billy's head into my coat. Yanking a skull from on top of a brittle, dry spinal column isn't an action I'd normally do, but I just wanted to get the fuck out of here and not make many trips back.

I decided to go back to my car to do another recording and update to HQ about what I learned, maybe snatch my cell phone camera. I really should start carrying that thing with me while turned off. That way, I can make a statement and not have to keep fucking running around. I headed back, but rumbling in the mineshaft seemed to increase as I did so. I loaded my Mauser in preparation for the fight, and began to sprint out of the mineshaft as fast as I could. I wanted to make this trip fast, so I didn't have to spend too much time down there.

As I darted out of the mineshaft, I heard noticed something disturbing. The faster I ran, the greater the rumbling sound. As tempting as it seemed, I didn't dare slow down. It was right before I reached sweet, sweet daylight that something yanked me towards the ground. Some iron grip kept my leg down and kept me from reaching outside.

A quick glance behind me showed there was something mechanical holding onto my leg. I could see a mechanical pincer clasping my shoe. A pneumatic tentacle with a pincer on the end protruded from the dirt floor. It was sleek, chrome, and shiny. Fucking ETI controller bot got to me first. I turned around and kicked with my other foot. Since that didn't have much effect, as I thought, I put a few shots into it, praying I didn't shoot myself in the foot. Instead of letting go, another claw came up to pin my other leg down. I began to twist from side to side to wriggle free of it.

From other parts of the floor, I could see gray and silver paste bubbling out of cracks in the wall and floor. They began to congeal into several puddle-sized blobs, and moved slowly towards my head. The metallic slime molds kept going forwards, but I had no intention of letting them get to close. This, I knew how to handle. I still had my water pistol. With my other free hand, I reached for my water pistol and began squirting some water at the brain-stealing nanobots. The nanobots nearest to my gun began to flash brightly, and then retreat back to the ground. Whoever sent nanobots weak to liquid water on a planet covered by seven tenths of the stuff is probably one of the dumber species in space.

The remaining nanobots began to congeal into a single, massive puddle. I could hear it emitting sounds as I tried to aim my water pistol at it. "Tekelili!" the thing chirped in a high pitched voice.

I could feel the strangely warm sensation of the puddle brush against my neck. It was probably going to try to force itself into me, even more than what priests did at day-care centers. I began to squeeze the trigger, pumping the rest of the water all over it as it drew ever closer to my mouth and nose. I could feel flashes of heat as the water made contact with the nanobots, dissolving them. Despite swarming and getting closer, I still had more than enough water to go around. I could see the remaining nanobots vanish deep into the ground, vanishing into the Earth in retreat.

It was then I felt the pincers around my legs suddenly open. It took an instant for me to realize what had happened. The robot had released me, probably because it was switching to some other tactic. My legs went from constricted circulation to plenty of circulation as I decided to put distance between me and my mechanical pursuer. A quick glance behind me showed that the robot had decided to revel its true, full form.

It clambered out of a hole it dug for itself using similar pneumatic tentacles to yank itself up. It had a huge number of those tentacles, many of them being different lengths. They were all connected to a central body, a gigantic metal orb whose bulk almost filled up the entire tunnel. In the center of all the mechanical tentacles was a gigantic, glowing red eye. There was a black "iris" in the center, which was fixated on me.

I didn't need a second look at the demonic Koosh ball to tell me what its intentions were. I began to sprint towards sweet, sweet daylight as the horrible robot followed me. It pulled itself along with its tentacles, eventually building towards a rolling motion down the mine-cart tracks. I heard it rolling like thunder, and dashed as fast and hard as I can. I blindly fired my Mauser over my shoulder, hoping to at least deter it from following too closely. I could hear the horrible machine getting closer, its momentum a solid advantage over mine. If I ducked into an alcove, the machine would seal up the place and would trap me in here. If I did outrun it, I'd have to find a way to kill it or drive it off.

I was exactly at the entrance when the controller bot caught up with me. Instead of just running me down like I thought it would, it decided to toy with me. Mechanical tentacles shot out from its coiled form, yanking me back into the dark mineshaft behind me. I held onto the nearby mine cart track as tightly as I could, hoping in vain the fucking thing wouldn't give out. No such luck. Fucking figures. The tentacles coiled around me, like a techno-fetishist's tentacle hentai, and pulled me back towards the alien robot.

The tentacles prevented me from moving. The gigantic red eye's glow began to shift. The exact center of the eye changed colors, and began excreting more nanobots. The tentacles were slowly and surely dragging my face directly towards it. I struggled as much as I could, trying to reach for my pistol or water gun, but to no avail. It looks like I'm going to be giving Billy some company, after all.

"Oh, fuck," I muttered.

Suddenly, Black Bart's voice echoed behind me.

"Over here, yah goddamn tin can!" I heard the outlaw shout. I turned my head to see the holographic ghost outside of the mineshaft. Black Billy stood with his pistols drawn, as if he was about to have a show-down with the alien machine. The eye shifted its gaze, and moved me back. It shot out some of its tentacles, hoping to gather him up. I guess the machine was too dumb to realize he'd already been uploaded.

I felt the tension on my chest reduced significantly. I felt I could wriggle a bit, and I managed to get both of my weapons out. I held the Mauser in one hand, and the water pistol in the other. Yeah, now it was time to give that fucker some payback. The eye was still excreting nanobots, and had left me close enough to practically touch it. So, I started pulling both triggers, blasting water and hot lead right at the gigantic red target. Shooting fish in a barrel would've been harder than this. I emptied both of my weapons in there, hopefully doing some damage.

Sparks flew out from the robot's eye as it tossed me away. It began to flail its tentacles wildly, and its nanobots began to flash, chittering as they did. The machine crawled back into the mine tunnel, but did not make it far before I reloaded. I opened up with more bullets, and the wounded machine fell silent, tumbling to the side and remaining motionless. I ran up to it, kicked it, and shot it some more times just to be sure. Then, I turned around and headed back to the entrance.

"That sure was some gun-down!" Black Billy shouted.

"Sure fucking was," I grinned. "Time to roll out of this place."

I went to my car, and pulled out my cellphone. I snapped a few images of the dead robot, and sent them to my bosses. I tossed the skull I had taken into the passenger's seat, and climbed in.

"What in tarnation are those things, son?" the apparition glared at my car and cell phone.

"I'll explain later," I replied. "For now, I'm getting the fuck out."

The apparition then appeared in the seat next to mine.

"So, what are you gonna do with me, lawman?" Black Billy asked. "Ah thank yah for gettin' me outta that there hole."

"Well, you saved my ass, so I'll put in a good word for you," I replied. "Hell, you're not so bad for an undead outlaw."

"Ah realize I coulda done some things better," Billy sighed. "But no use tryin' tah change the past. Sorry 'bout your ancestor, son."

"It's alright," I replied. "Never knew him anyway."

With that, I drove away from the abandoned mineshaft, and headed into the sunset. Not how I anticipated ending my day, but better than I hoped it was.


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