THE GUNSLINGER AND THE WOMAN
"Yet Time, who changes all, had altered him
In soul and aspect as in age; years steal
Fire from the mind as vigour from the limb;
And life's enchanted cup but sparkles near the brim."
~ Lord Bryon, Childe Harod's Pilgrimage
THE DOCKS OF SIGMA VII, 9012 AD
"Did you know that the Old West cowboys weren't anything like those in ancient movies?" I told the woman beside me, whose face now bore a look of patient amusement.
"Yes I did." She replied with a slight smile. "But go on, tell me anyway."
I grinned like an eager schoolboy and then settled into what others had affectionately dubbed the "storyteller" mode. I wrung my hands with childish enthusiasm, then began the lecture. "Cowboys were actually just cattle herders; the cool guys with guns were actually called 'gunfighters' or 'gunslingers' or something similar. They didn't use lassos, and they hardly ever had honourable duels. Hell, they hardly had duels at all. It was all a matter of luck and reputation and who had the quickest reflexes."
I fell silent as a sleek, oval dagger rose up from the ground in the near distance, its rear end shimmering with the pale blue light of advanced ion drives. The dagger – a space freighter, to be more technical – slowed its ascent, rotated with the slightest wobble and with a roar of its engines slid out of the dock with an almost elegant grace.
"Is that the one the Bureau wanted?" She asked, raising a small glowing square to the craft. It flashed red in the negative. It wasn't the one the Bureau of Temporal Intervention had designated.
"Go on then." Evelyn prodded quietly. She had heard all I had to say of cowboys and gunslingers many a time before, but hidden here, in the shadows of the three moons, there was little else to do.
I laughed and continued. "Only a few gunfights came close to being like those of lore. One of which was one between Davis Tutt and Wild Bill Hickok on twenty-first July, 1865."
Evelyn gave a genial laugh and voiced a thought from within her head. "I don't see what you find so interesting about all that. You're twenty-one and still wishing you could dress up and have pretend gunfights."
"Well, what's wrong with that?"
AMERICAN OLD WEST, 1875 AD
One of the strangest things about humanity's cradle-world is the sheer variety of environments it possesses. Few other planets in the Milky Way galaxy boasted such a diverse multi-ecosystem environment as ol' Planet Earth. It had frosty ice-covered tundra, endless rainforests and jungles – until the global warming crisis of 2059 killed 64 percent of it, that is – and incredible artificial cityscapes. And then there was the almost-desert of the American Old West; for all intents and purposes all the land west of the Mississippi River, where I now stood outside of a much worn and battered town. There were maybe thirty buildings in all, all built from the same dry yellow-grey wood and the few lucky enough to be painted in their undoubtedly lengthy lives had their coats peeling and flaking away in the constant hot gaze of the sun.
I examined the welcome sign, although there was little welcoming about it.
Welcome to Fool's Abode.
Don't shoot us and we don't shoot you!
As if to emphasise the point, there were numerous holes in the sign, remnants of long-ago gunfights, or even just the work of a drunken lawmen after a night spent mainly in the saloon. Who shoots their own sign?
The answer eluded me, so I simply began to stride into the town proper. I wasn't entirely sure what I was hoping to achieve here. Information I probably didn't need. Could do with a drink though, given what I could tell lay ahead. The town's saloon was one of the buildings with a faded paintjob – a dull, brick red. The worn overhead sign – again laden with bullet holes – simply read Mal's Saloon. I couldn't help but chuckle in dry amusement as I spied the sign from the other end of what I presumed to be the main street. I walked up the street, and every step kicked up a tiny cloud of desert dust, which clung to the knee-high leather boots and the hem of my faded duster coat. The town was largely deserted, and the few who were out hid from the sun in the shade of their porches. They scrutinised me with a mixture of curiosity, fear and most likely loathing. They must be terrified of rogue gunfighters.
As I neared the saloon, I could hear the jaunty tunes from a piano and the half-drunken shouts of the patrons within. I stepped onto the Saloon's wooden deck, just outside the pair of swinging half-doors. I could see that the inside was dimly lit, permeated with a layer of thin smoke and the odor of tobacco. I sighed, before pushing the little doors open and stepping inside. There were a few curious glances but I was otherwise ignored. Through the haze I could make out half a dozen tables; two were surrounded by men drinking and playing some card game. The oak-wood piano sat in the corner, the keys being worked by an elderly man with a dazed smile on his face. The bar ran along the left wall, manned by a mass of muscle and fat with hair everywhere but his head and three gold teeth. Maybe I should try somewhere else…
Nevertheless, I strode up to the bar and nodded to the barkeep with as much confidence as I could muster. He appraised me for a moment, taking in the Stetson and the poorly concealed revolvers holstered on my thighs, and probably the beard and far too weathered face, his eyes settled on the glowing device on my wrist, something far too advanced for 1875. Then he shrugged and muttered: "Whaddya want?"
"Erm…" I frowned, then poor inspiration hit me. "Give me three fingers."
He cocked an eyebrow, but ultimately shrugged and did as much, pulling out a tiny shot glass and a bottle of what I assumed to be whiskey and poured out a measure that looked about three fingers high. He slid the glass towards me and I picked it up, and with a reluctant shrug, downed it in a single gulp. It burned all the way down my throat. I tapped the glass and he refilled it, although this time I wasn't quick to swallow it.
"I think I prefer Martian fire-ale…" I muttered under my breath.
"You don't look like no pistoleer." The barman – Mal, probably – said. "Just a guy pretending to have a fast draw and not a lot of brains."
"Probably, probably. Almost definitely." I gave a hollow chuckle. "I ain't no Johnny Ringo, though."
Mal chuckled himself. "So what brings you out west?"
Ahh. Now that was a million dollar question. One thing under many names, I suppose. Redemption and revenge. A fool's errand. A quest I didn't know the goal of. A last chance to earn love's salvation.
Mal leaned in with interest. "A woman?"
I nodded, and mirrored his act of leaning in. Then in an almost-whisper: "A woman in red."
The effect was instant. The saloon fell silent, the piano screeched to a sudden halt mid-note, and the other patrons fell into aghast silence looking at me as if I was possessed of some insanity. I cocked an eyebrow and leaned back. "Ah. Seems like you're familiar with her."
Mal shook his head. "She's not one to meet, even if the Lord decrees it."
"And why ever not?" I snorted.
The other patrons looked at each other. Then, one – a grizzled old man with a lion's mane instead of normal hair – began to whisper. "Because she's not human, no sir. A witch perhaps, or a demon in human skin."
"They say her kiss can kill." Another patron muttered.
"She's possessed of powers and foresight impossible for a mere mortal; she cannot be killed, cannot be tamed; her fury has left many a poor soul in ruin."
"Sounds about right." I said with a weak smile. Poor girl.
"What dead man's folly possessed you of such a notion?" Mal asked, shaking his head in lamentation.
"That," I downed the shot, wincing again at the burn. ", is none of your business. And you wouldn't believe half of it regardless."
"You're not from around here, are you?" The implication of here was obvious, even if he didn't quite understand the how. I eyed them up and let Mal pour me a third shot. I offered a lopsided smile and held up my right wrist. On it was a thick metal square set in a leather wrist strap with glowing blue rings and circles. It was largely unimpressive to the untrained eye, but to those that recognised it, it was both dangerous and incredible.
"This is the single most advanced piece of technology on the planet." I began. "It's a key to Time; allows me to unlock the door and go and do what I please. I can go anywhere in time and space. Right now I could topple any empire on this planet, destroy any army and hell, just to top it all off, I could tell you who wins the next war before it even begins."
"You make no sense." Mal shook his head. "You're wrong in the head."
"Wrong in the head." I agreed mildly. "Not wrong about being a time traveller."
The device – or to give its name, the Mark VII Time Travel Device, worked by creating a rip in time and space that connected to another point in time and space, which could be chosen at will. It hurts like the world's worst hangover though afterwards; the trip wasn't particularly pleasant.
"You jest, sir."
"Mhmm. Not really." I shrugged, and downed another shot. Mal kept filling the glass, suspended perfectly between disbelief and enthrallment. "I met ol' Elizabeth the First. Stopped one of the attempts on Queen Victoria's life – actually, that one might not have happened yet, relatively speaking – and I was supposed to protect JFK." I grimaced. "Slept in. Heh."
"JFK?" Mal pondered.
"Ahh…forget that one." I chuckled. "Bit ahead of you lot."
"I see." Mal poured yet another shot. There was a pregnant pause; the other patrons turned back to their own business as Mal struggled to decide what to ask next to feed his growing curiosity. "Did you know her? The woman in red?"
"Aye, I did." I muttered wistfully, with a ghost of a smile at memories from long ago.
"Who is she?"
Although the piano had resumed its flamboyant music, and the others were turned away and acting as though consumed in their cards and liquor, it was obvious they were trying to eavesdrop, eager for more breadcrumbs of knowledge on their myth of a terrifying woman. I paid them no heed.
"She was the most lovely girl you'd ever meet. Forever smilin', forever kind. She didn't deserve what happened to her." I sighed, tracing the rim of the shot glass with my fingertip. "We were raised at the Time Academy together." Because our parents were thrice-damned fools who thought 8 year olds wanted to play with time.
THE TIME ACADEMY, GALTRAX 9, 5289 AD
The BTI's calendar declared that today was the day of the Chocolate Feast, an evolution of the Christian celebration known as "Easter" which was to celebrate the rebirth of the Christian messiah figure, although the holiday had been quickly commercialised by the corporations at the turn of the twentieth century to celebrate with the consumption of chocolate eggs – the tradition persisted even to this day.
Time Agents in training – called "Hopefuls" – were sent packages from their parents; letters and sweets and homemade trinkets to remind the Hopefuls that they had a family. It was my third year at the Academy since being…accepted? Conscripted? At the age of eight. Eleven year-old me smiled and quickly tore apart the purple wrapping paper that held a letter and a cream coloured egg – white chocolate, and it was wrapped in decorative gold foil.
I took the egg with me as I went in search of Evelyn. The girls' dorms were down the corridor. As I approached, I realised that I could hear sobs. Evelyn was crying. Not from the dorm, but from the viewport around the corner. I walked around and sure enough there was Evelyn, sat cross-legged underneath the viewport displaying a view of the magnificent pink and red nebula outside. She was staring at the ground, sniffling.
She huffed. "Go away!"
I frowned. "What's wrong?"
She looked up – her eyes were pink and puffy from crying – and coughed. "Everyone's Feast egg was bigger than mine and one of the older girls teased me about it."
"You shouldn't cry about that." I murmured quietly, wondering what to do. Evelyn's family wasn't the best off, from what I could tell; they probably couldn't afford to send a larger one.
"I know." She huffed. "But it's not funny when the older girls say bad things."
I frowned thoughtfully, when the most brilliant idea an eleven year-old had ever had occurred to me. I unwrapped my own egg, then, with a careful application of force, split the equal into equal halves down the middle. With a shy smile I offered the half to her. "Now you've got more than her."
Evelyn looked up, and examined the egg thoughtfully. Then, with a brilliant smile, accepted it.
"Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!" She screamed in delight, tears and sadness completely forgotten. She threw her arms around me in a bear hug with enough strength to crush bone.
"You're my best friend, Isaac."
"What happened to her?" Mal asked. The thought of revulsion at the Woman in Red had been replaced with a sense of pity.
"Time." I sighed. "Forever and always, Time."
Flies like a banana, wears away mountains, topples empires and kills the mightiest of men and women. Yeah...time sucks.
Mal didn't understand, would never understand. So he did the next best thing. He poured me another shot and poured one for himself. "To the woman in red."
I raised the glass in toast, and my lips turned upwards ever so slightly. To Evelyn.
We drank in silence and for a while no word was uttered between us. Then I heard the clatter of the doors and turned to regard the newcomer. A portly, short man with an impressive handlebar moustache (strangely reminiscent of a walrus)had walked in, clad in an ill-fitting suit and clutching at his lapels. He surveyed the room with a mechanical precision, before speaking in a voice that barely seemed to be able to come from the man.
"I be lookin' for a Mister Isaac Gideon." The man spoke. "There's someone who would like to meet him."
I laughed as the realisation hit me. It started as a small chortle, then turned into a hearty chuckle, before finally reaching the crescendo of raucous guffaws. Oh, the fates had a strange sense of humour, yes indeed. The fates, or more likely, the Woman in Red. I smirked and wiped away the moisture in the eyes brought on by the laughter. I downed one final shot before standing up from my stool.
"Long time, no see, REX." And then I cocked my arm back and hurled the glass at him. It collided into his face, which rippled. His whole body shimmered, flickered, and fell away to reveal a metallic skeleton of titanium carbide and nanowiring. Two green photoreceptors were set in the sockets where the eyes would have normally been. REX's eyes dimmed for half a second – the robot's equivalent to a blink – and then replied in a monotonic voice: "STATUS REPORT: Holographic paradigm compromised. Resuming basic functions."
"Your ventral projector still needs recalibrated." I told the robot in amusement. "Sorry. I was meaning to fix that at some point."
The patrons looked at REX with a mixture of unaltered terror and captivated beguilement. One man broke down and bellowed. "It's a metal devil!"
REX turned to regard the babbling human. "REQUEST: Please shut up, meatbag."
I laughed, but no one else seemed to find REX's speech patterns funny. The hysterical patron stammered and reached down to his thigh, and pulled free his gun. "You steel monster!"
As the bullets ricocheted of REX's torso and the drinkers ducked under the tables, REX regarded the shooter with something akin to annoyance. "THREAT: Do not shoot me or I will terminate you."
The drunkard stared, stared, glanced uncertainly at his gun, then fainted. He hit the ground in an unconscious heap. Everyone else seemed to have accepted the situation, perhaps pacified by my calm demeanour and cool acceptance of the impossibility before me.
"So, REX, got a carriage or what?"
"INFORMATION: There is a carriage waiting outside for us, Master."
I nodded absentmindedly, and turned to the drinkers. "Well, my good fellows, it's been a blast."
I reached into the pocket of my duster and rummaged, before pulling out a small pouch filled with gold coins. I tossed it to a confused Mal with a tip of my hat. Then, as an afterthought, I leaned over the bar counter and reached down. I produced a bottle of simple red wine. "Keep the change." I said with a wink.
I turned back to REX. "Right, come on then, scrapper."
I sauntered out of the saloon, slapping the robot on the shoulder on the way past. Sure enough, just as REX had said there was a horse-drawn carriage outside in the dry arid street waiting for us, with a bored looking driver sitting on top. He did a double take though when REX came out without restoring his holographic disguise, but otherwise simply stared forward, waiting for us to climb inside.
Five minutes later the carriage had left Fool's Abode and was trundling down a winding dusty road. I stared at REX, appraising him in detail. I hadn't seen the droid in five years. The titanium shell was duller and more scratched than it had once been, and the servomotors at the elbows, knees and knuckles had been plagued by rust and corrosion and stained orange-red. When one walks in Time as I do, one develops an almost intuitive grasp of Time's intricacies and complexities, and I could tell that more than a meagre five years had passed for little old REX. I pondered that.
"How old are you, REX?"
The response should have been nine years. "INFORMATION: I have been active for four hundred and two years, three months, seventeen days and seven hours with reference to Gregorian calendar standard."
Just under four hundred years then. I made a note of that.
"Long time since we last met then."
"STATEMENT: Affirmative, Master."
"Had any maintenance since then?"
"STATEMENT: Negative, Master."
"Could do with some oil then." I murmured quietly, before turning to the window and looking out, deep in thought.
Dear Mum and Dad.
It's two days till graduation, and I have to say, I'm a little nervous. It won't be long till we're out for ourselves in time. I don't know if I can deal with it. What if I step on the proverbial butterfly, or fail to keep a fixed point in time fixed. Even with a TMS we can't really just go back and try again. Too much potential for paradoxes or the Chrono-Gemini effect ( that's the one where two versions of the same person touch and cause a time explosion).
I don't know how Evelyn manages. She's top of the class, and not only that – she doesn't bat an eyelid. I know she's my best friend, but that doesn't mean I'm not jealous. Still, at least she's going to be a partner. Hopefully she'll keep me out of trouble.
Your favourite and only son,
[ =igideon01 sent 07/09/5297-08:34 [/end.]
The carriage rumbled to a halt. Idly, I glanced outside and was only slightly surprised to see a veranda of lush green, a sharp antithesis to the dull dusty landscape of moments ago. I looked at REX questioningly and at his subtle nod, got up from my seat and pushed open the carriage's doors, and stepped out into the sweltering sunlight.
We were at an oasis; there was the body of still blue water, grass that reached the ankles and a plethora of flowers in shades of yellow and lilac were scattered around, concentrated around a single oak tree, covered in thick leaves despite the dry air. At the edge of the oasis was a figure swathed in a red dress appropriate for the time period a in a shade more than a little similar to blood. Her back was turned and her face and hair were hidden with a red umbrella the same shade as the dress.
The Woman in Red didn't turn around, but instead spoke towards the water. "Hello, Issac."
"Hello, Evelyn." I replied sadly. "Long time, no see."
The Woman in Red – Evelyn, lovely Evelyn – turned towards me, revealing her face. Five years had done little damage to her looks, although her unblemished pale skin seemed out of place in the heat and the eyes seemed possessed of a lifeless glimmer.
She noticed the bottle grasped in my hand, held loosely by my side. "Oh, and you even bought wine! How delightful."
She beamed. "Why, the picnic of course!"
And sure enough, we had a picnic. REX set up a chequered blanket underneath the tree, and from places unknown produced a wicker basket filled to the brim with food and sliver utensils. We had fish and ham and bread and half a dozen fruits, along with the red wine I had liberated from Mal's Saloon. And it was nice. We joked and reminisced of old times and old friends. We laughed and smiled and toasted to trivial things. After an hour or three though, even the fastest athlete can't outrun the crushing tsunami of tragic reality. Evelyn plucked an olive off the serving stick and turned it between her slender fingers, before tossing it aside for the birds to come.
"I must say," She murmured quietly. ", you found your way here surprisingly quickly."
I sat up and shrugged nonchalantly. "Easy enough, especially when I figured out who was behind it. Sirius B…"
"Our first kiss." Evelyn noted wistfully.
That had been the first breadcrumb. Evelyn had left parts of a cartographer stone – basically a temporal satnav – on four planets. The first had been Sirius B; where Evelyn and I had shared our first kiss. The second had been Omega; where we had gotten married. Alaxium where we raised the children. And finally, there was Valhades, where I buried them.
I produced the stone from my pocket, and turned the onyx diamond over and examined it with bored disinterest. My insides were twisting in turmoil. "Evelyn…"
"Why shouldn't I just kill you now?" I asked simply. No hint of fury, or petulance or regret. I could've been asking about the weather.
She didn't bat an eyelid. "Because you won't."
Evelyn didn't flinch as the barrel of my gun came to rest aimed between her eyes. "Because you're a cowboy."
"A cowboy?" I repeated with a raised eyebrow. The gun didn't move.
Evelyn nodded. "A cowboy is a creature of romantic fantasy. An archetype of the Hollywood hero with the vague moral code, a heart of gold and an unbreakable sense of honour. In other words, a disguise and delusion to hide the truth of the gunslingers: the true gunslingers were liars and cheaters and frauds; without honour or a shred of integrity. They did not fight fair, and only fought those weaker."
"I'm going to assume that's a compliment."
"Perhaps." Evelyn whispered, barely audiable. "Perhaps."
I clenched my tired hands shut and . "You should be dead, Evelyn. You should've died with the kids."
Died, died, died, DEAD!
"Died?" Evelyn's face turned stony, a tempest brewing in her eyes. "Died because I saw the truth? The truth of Time? The lie the Bureau taught us? That we were cowboys doing the work of gunslingers?"
"What we did was necessary, dammit." I hissed. "History has to stay the path!"
"Why?!" She cried, leaping to her feet. "So all the famine, and war, and death and destruction and all the other terrible things we could have averted but didn't?"
"Evelyn, you can't mess with time. You can't predict the outcomes of going against the web of effect." I yelled back. Funnily, the gun had somehow returned to its holster.
"Oh, I can, Isaac, I can." Evelyn giggled; slipping into the cold embrace of insanity. "That's what I saw in the Twilit Plains, that day I stared into the Vortex Abyss –,"
"You stared into a tear in space-time, sweetheart, no one is meant to see pure time." I protested. "It killed you, Evelyn."
Just like you killed them.
"I saw what we could do." Evelyn declared. "If only we had the sense to act."
I shook my head in dejection. "Evelyn…"
"Would you like to see?"
At the edge of the abyss, in the Twilit Plain
Evelyn was lost to the endless pain
She stared into the abyss, the howling dark
It snapped her mind and broke my heart
Good kids died and love became dead
And Evelyn turned into the Woman in Red.
I think I figured out how come REX looked so old. Evelyn had had the poor robot digging into a mountain for four hundred years, to create her base of operations. The poor clanker had been forced to work alone. He had even built the lift we were now using to descend deeper into the mountain. The monstrous cavern was huge; easily a mile across and half in diameter, the inky blackness like some monstrous maw waiting to consume all.
I glanced across at Evelyn. "You know that's bad for his circuits, right?"
She ignored my chastisement. REX however seemed inclined to agree. "COMMENT: I am in need of an oil change."
The lift finished its journey and deposited us in a large stone atrium; the wall in front of us was made of thick glass and would allow us to look down onto the cavern floor; doors were to the left and right and cobbled together technology and computers and screens lined the stonework. I followed her as she approached the far wall. "Isn't it beautiful?" She breathed.
"I think it's horrifying." I muttered.
Below us was what could only be described as an assembly line. A factory in a mountain, producing what I guessed was an army of robots. It was almost like a living organism, the assembly line like a bloodstream of metal and dark oozing oil, with vein-like tubing pumping electric blue and metallic liquid around the production body while the whirring generator pulsed with a heartbeat; robotic arms leapt and danced around, attaching heads and limbs and wiring in a symphony of sparks and soldering.
"Let me guess…the robots are to take over the world so you can decide a new course of history."
"Such a clever boy." Evelyn pouted.
I snorted. "I was the school joker. You got valedictorian."
She giggled, before voicing the thought that had led me here. "Join me."
"Can't, or won't?"
She sighed. "We could be king and queen! Emperor and empress! Make time the way we want it."
I shook my head. "You know it doesn't work like that."
Cha-chit. I pulled back the hammer of the revolver and aimed it at her heart. She didn't seem surprised, or offended, or even concerned. REX simply watched on, his programming preventing him from interfering. I built him well. She raised an eyebrow. "You know you won't."
To my own surprise, I felt my hand clench and squeeze the trigger. When there was no bang, no round fired, Evelyn laughed. I stared at the gun in confusion, before pulling the hammer back again and firing. Still nothing. Click. Click. "How…"
"Sorry sweetie." She added with apologetic mocking. She must have rigged some sort of field up to stop the gunpowder from reacting and firing the bullets. Clever girl.
I sighed. "I'm sorry too."
Bang. For a moment, a single moment, it was as if nothing happened. Then, a shadow began to form on Evelyn's chest; dark and deeper than her dress. It spread out from the heart and she looked down in surprise and examined the wound with almost childlike fascination. I blew away the smoke from the barrel before holstering the gun and walking towards her. I caught her as she fell.
I smiled sadly and nodded towards one of the doors. On cue, the doors swung open with almost-dramatic flair opened to reveal an impossible figure clad in a black duster and Stetson , and a familiar revolver holstered at the thigh. Future-Me simply nodded, before swaggering over to the elevator with REX. He pressed a button, then just before the lift began to ascend, called out to me: "You got fifteen minutes till you turn the clocks back."
Evelyn nodded weakly, understanding kindling in her dulling eyes. "Of course; you time-travelled to deactivate the field." A cough. You could hear the blood in her lungs. "Perhaps you are a gunslinger after all."
"You know it sweetheart." I laughed shakily, cradling her and fighting back tears.
It's okay, it's okay, it's okay…
"You're going to a better place now." I promised her. "The kids'll be waiting for you."
"Thank you." Evelyn whispered gently. Her eyes began to flutter shut, and the last elements of sanity and reality abandoned her to the Reaper's arms. "Wake me up at seven, dear. I need to make them breakfast."
"Sure thing, dear." I stammered, hollowly, vacantly, with a weak attempt at steely flatness that failed miserably.
"Good night, Isaac." She whispered, before exhaling one final time. She died in my arms.
THE TWILIT PLAIN, ?
I buried her near the Vortex Abyss, seemed appropriate somehow. I had considered burying her with the children, but I think it was better here. She would never be disturbed here. I could make sure of that.
I dropped the shovel down and examined my handiwork. A simple rectangle of freshly turned dirt and a simple mahogany cross, which bore a simple golden plaque.
The Woman in Red
A/N: Heavy criticism wanted.