Authors: Anthony Eichenlaub
Peace in an Age
Metal and Men
Anthony W. Eichenlaub
Copyright © 2016 by Anthony W. Eichenlaub
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof
may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever
without the express written permission of the publisher
except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Cover Art by: Deranged Doctor Design
To: Isaac and Gabe,
who lead me in a new adventure every day
There’s a moment between the time something breaks and the time it goes bad. It’s a moment of tension, like standing on the edge of a canyon when the other side is a gray wash of fog. It’s like touching the sky. There are a lot of words for that time before things really go wrong.
I call it peace.
Four years had passed since I was sheriff of the town of Dead Oak. I’d given up on trying to set right every wrong in Texas, and the peace that had followed formed something like happiness for me. Four years I walked the desert with the Hopi in the South Chihuahuan Desert. Life was dry and hot and tough, but we scraped our living out of that hard-packed land. The tech of the world, with its neural enhancements, human cybernetics, and genetic modifications, passed them right by. They didn’t need it.
My left arm was Texas Army–issued black metal—a long, three-fingered clamp designed to crush heads and heft heavy weapons. Most others could get away from tech, but not me. It was too much a part of me.
My skidder’s antigrav hummed smoothly fifty meters above the flatlands. The topaz flames that had once decorated the sides of the skidder were now faded, scraped away by dust and wind. The skidder wasn’t in as good a shape as it used to be, but neither was I. Skidders were flying motorcycles named for their propensity to fail at high speeds, leaving their rider skidding across the ground in a spectacular demise. This one was more and more a risk each day, which is why I was scouring the desert looking for an upgrade.
The horses thundered across the plain in some hurry to get from nowhere to nowhere. Their faint shapes were barely visible in the dust cloud. Reds and browns dominated the herd. One lone black ran in front of the rest. The black turned hard and the whole team followed.
I turned too.
Twisting the accelerator, I braced myself for a burst of speed. It didn’t come. I twisted again.
The horses galloped, headed straight for a canyon. Perfect. I’d corner them and catch the black, lead it back to the village. Maybe the rest would even follow.
I twisted again. Kicked at the rockets with the heel of my boot.
With a crack of thunder, the skidder burst forward. My cowboy hat flew off my head. Metal fingers gripped tight while every other part of me flailed helplessly in the wind. Muscles strained against the pressure.
Hooves thundered. Dust choked my lungs. The horses below me split from the group, peeling off left or right. The fastest headed straight for the canyon. Slowing and dropping, I fell in behind them.
A lasso hung from my hip. Carefully, keeping my metal left hand clamped hard to the handlebars, I loosened the lasso and readied it. It looped easily onto a hook on my skidder and I gave myself a bit of slack.
With another crack of blue flame, my skidder burst forward. I cursed, dropping the lasso as my body flew from the seat. Again, my metal hand held tight where my muscles failed. The rope dropped loose, loop dragging useless across the ground.
More horses broke from the team. Half of them were gone. Then more. As I pulled myself back up to position, only the black remained in front of me. The rocky soil blurred by, only a couple meters below my boots. I gritted my teeth and hunkered down. The black was almost close enough to touch.
The original plan was to herd them into the canyon, trap them in a dead end, but as the canyon grew closer the black veered right. The idea of jumping off the skidder and mounting the horse crossed my mind, but since I wasn’t stupid or suicidal I put the idea on a back burner. The lasso was my best bet.
The lasso still dragged across the ground.
It caught on a rock the size of a longhorn. Slack snapped out of it in a second. The skidder twisted hard and stopped. I didn’t.
I hit dirt and skidded hard along a flat stretch of ground, catching cactus and scrub grass to slow down. At that speed, it would have been nothing to bash a head open or snap a neck. Nothing ever seemed to go so easy for me. Rocky earth scraped through my duster, my shirt, and then the skin of my back.
Then there was pain. Hours seemed to pass. I’d failed. What was the point in moving? Defeat wasn’t going anywhere. Me and failure were just fine there on the ground. Alone.
My hat flew through the air and landed on my chest.
“Howdy,” someone said. A man.
The sun was too damn hot and my body hurt too damn much for me to remember that there was such a thing as polite. I didn’t respond.
“Zane Edwards,” the man said. He offered his hand, though it was hard to tell if it was intended as a lift-up or just a shake. I didn’t take it.
“J.D.,” I said, still prone. The sun was making a towering silhouette of him, so I lifted the hat from my chest and used it to shield my eyes. “You just passing through?”
Zane removed his black hat and held it to his chest. “No, sir. As a matter of fact, I was hoping to meet you out here.” He was wearing a prim suit of black and gray with a tight shoestring necktie. His beard was closely cropped, a few days of shadow trimmed and styled with immaculate precision. The glint in his eye was part amusement and part tech.
“Don’t see many city boys out these parts.” I sat up, wincing. My whole back was rubbed raw and the hot wind set the whole thing afire.
He nodded. I wondered how he had found me. With little tech in my possession, there weren’t a lot of good ways to track me. He might have learned my approximate location from my tribe, but that implies earning their trust. That’s not something a city boy could easily earn. He might have tracked my skidder, but to my knowledge the device had been stripped of any location-sensitive equipment years ago. I might’ve asked how he found me, but asking implies not knowing, so I stayed silent.
I wrenched myself up off the ground. Zane stood a bit shorter than myself, and not much younger if the gray in his beard were any measure. He had the kind of smile that made a person think there was an inside joke that nobody else was getting. His eyes twinkled with amusement as they tracked up and down my disheveled form. For an instant, I felt conscious of my dust-covered coat and ruined clothes, but really it still wasn’t far off from the best I could show him. Judging by the draft on my backside, he might be seeing more than he bargained for.
After a minute, I offered my hand and he shook it. It was a firm grip, but not overly so.
“You been looking long?” I said.
“No, sir.” Zane smiled and nodded to my skidder, which still hovered a couple meters up. “Didn’t have any trouble spotting you once I knew how to look.”
I grunted and started limping over to the skidder. Zane followed.
“My employer has need of someone with your talents, Mr. Crow.”
“There it is, then.”
“Yes, sir. There it is.” Zane straightened his tie. “There are few out here who can help us, and Charles Goodwin himself gave us your name.”
“Goodwin? That son of a bitch?” I had met the man once, but didn’t think I had made much of a good impression. Or, rather, the impression had been fist-shaped and not likely to win any employment opportunities.
“He didn’t have so many good words for you either.” Zane looked like he was picking his words carefully. “But he seemed to think you were the kind of man who could be persuaded to help.”
“You don’t know how stubborn I am.”
“You don’t know how persuasive I can be.” That smile again.
My skidder hung crooked in the air like a boat taking on water. The rope was pulled taut by the continued pressure from the antigrav, but the rockets were powered off completely. The sad wreck of a skidder just limped there, seeming to bemoan the fact that it may never be fast again. Straining against the stiffness in my back, I reached up and cut power. The whole thing dropped like a granite balloon.
Zane caught it.
He gently lowered the machine to the red earth, hardly showing any effort.
I nodded my appreciation and put my hat back on. Zane was a modder, then. Tech was even more prevalent in the city, so it was no surprise that he’d be more machine than flesh. It was impressive that I couldn’t see it. Except for a slight sheen on his skin, there wasn’t any indication of it.
“I rely on technology,” Zane said.
“Most people do. That’s why I’m here.”
I nodded. “I’ll leave them to it.”
“Not you, though. You can see what’s really there.”
My rope was still looped around a rock, so I untied it and started coiling it up. Zane watched in silence. Once the rope was ready, I hooked it to my belt and climbed aboard the skidder. Antigrav hummed as it powered back up and soon I was nearly a meter up.
“People need your help, J.D.” Zane walked a short distance and a vehicle appeared in front of him, seemingly from nowhere. It was a beauty of a ride, hot-rod red with a fender that flared up in the front. Its open top revealed plush leather seats and chrome trim. “Innocent people. They’re being used. Maybe killed. We need a man who can handle a gun and doesn’t have modded sight or hearing.”
“Plenty of people like that.” As soon as I said it, I doubted if it was true. Modified eyes and ears were very common. Most folks who had taken up a career that involved weapons already had some mods. If not, they’d get them fast or they’d be dead. Competition among armed groups is a fierce motivator for improvement.
I urged my ride forward at full speed. The rocky Texas landscape rolled behind me.
Without functioning rockets, the skidder couldn’t do more than five or ten kilometers an hour. It was going to be a long ride back to the tribe. I’d planned for a long trip, but the hope had been to return with horses, not a broken ride and a bruised ass. Still, it was better than walking. I laced my fingers behind my head, leaned back, and kicked my feet up to rest on the handlebars.
“You know you can’t outrun me.” Pulling up beside me, Zane flashed his crooked smile in my direction.
“My world’s a lot smaller these days,” I said. “When someone in the tribe needs a ditch cleared, I clear it. When they need a longhorn tracked, I track it. I do plenty good for my people.”
“I’m sure you do.”
“The rest of the world’s on its own. Your world and me are square. Maybe it goes to the crapper. Maybe it pulls through. My business is to make sure my own people survive. We do that by not messing with your people. That’s just how it needs to be.”
The time passed in silence for a while. Kilometers passed.
Finally, Zane spoke. “I understand.”
That made me blink. Did he really understand? Could he possibly know what it was like to struggle for twenty years, trying to bring justice to a land that just wasn’t going to have it? Could he understand what it meant to see suffering and be powerless to stop it? He couldn’t. It must have been a new ploy to convince me to do whatever it is he wanted.
Zane tossed something my way and I caught it. It was a metal circle, like a coin. One side had a thin, shiny tendril snaking out of it.
“If you change your mind,” Zane said, “just stick that in your ear.”
“Not likely I’ll do that.”
“No, it’s not.”
Zane pulled forward and fell in line in front of my skidder. He climbed out onto the trunk in the back and looped a towline around the front of my bike. Without saying another word, he returned to his vehicle and slowly accelerated.
“Tucker Hale,” I shouted over the rush of wind.
“Tucker Hale. You’re looking for a man who ain’t modded and can handle a gun. Look for a guy named Tucker Hale. He’s an old army buddy. He’ll take your money. Might not thank you for it.”
Zane smiled and tipped his hat. “Much appreciated, Mr. Crow.”