From the crest of the hill where Gil watched, the endless herd of restless, cobalt-skinned cattle seemed to wind like a writhing snake around the dusty crags of the Arizona desert. The stiff leather of his saddle squeaked as his horse shifted under him, its eyes rolling in uneasiness at the faint thunder of hooves that floated up from the valley below them.
Gil winced and re-adjusted his fedora, which was as battered as he was. Despite the harsh rigor that had filled almost all of the thirty-eight years of his life, there had been nothing to prepare him for the abrasive treatment of a hard leather saddle rubbing the flesh off his thighs for six hours of plodding travel under a skin-peeling desert sun. He couldn’t complain, though—blistered legs sure beat the radiation torture he would have faced if he had stayed back in Europania.
Turning his head, Gil shot a glance at the thick-boned gladiator of a cowboy who sat several feet away. Lounging on his monster of a horse, Bax was humming again, expressionless behind his tinted wraparounds. It was the song he usually hummed, sometimes sang a few bars from, something about Amazing Greats. The rich tenor voice sounded strange coming from the two-hundred-fifty pound man with the sleeveless trench coat and two days of stubble on his rocky jaw, but Gil had gotten used to it in the several weeks he’d known Bax. He’d had to get used to a lot of things since coming to the New American Colonies.
“How long, do you think?” Gil said.
Bax pushed his sunglasses up to rub his nose with a thick forefinger. “An hour and a half, maybe. These cows’ll be gone by then.”
Gil turned back to the valley, flooded by the noisy stampede of animals. For the first time he caught a glimpse of a flapping red flannel shirt amid the dust, one of the hard-nosed cowmen responsible for driving the huge herd of cow flesh to their ultimate destination and eventual demise–the United Territories of California. The cows were a product of the world before the Collapse—a source of food engineered by some ancient, now unattainable science. Luckily for the Post-Collapse world, they remained even after the world-wide cataclysm that destroyed technology and buried most of the world in a confused period of chaos that lasted for half a century. Now they were the main food source of the world, from the New American Colonies to Europania to the United Afri-Asio States.
In a way, the cattle had been the origin of everything that had happened to him in the past month. Almost the first thing he had seen after stepping off the ironclad transport and onto the Californian dock was Bax’s hulking body flying through the air and wrestling down one of the blue-skinned, two-thousand-pound animals just before it could trample a little girl who had fallen down in the street.
And it had all started with Bax.
Gil shot another look at his companion, who had resumed his throaty humming. “Have you ever done this before?”
The hum stopped.
“A few times.”
The cowboy spoke with no hint of tension under his smooth American drawl, but Gil noticed the fingers that started to curl into a ball, the involuntary twitch of the bicep. He nodded and looked away. What an enigma the big Yank was.
Gil had his ideas about the man’s past, but he never prodded—never asked about the quick agility in the cowboy’s movements that bespoke years of training, or the automatic triple-barreled shotgun that protruded from under his trench coat.
Or the roughly-carved wooden cross that hung from the cowboy’s neck. Gil was well aware of the connotations of the symbol–not the type of talisman you’d normally expect to see a hardened, lawless western man wearing.
Gil gave a mental shrug. It was fair enough. Bax never asked him about the glove he always wore on his right hand, even when eating or sleeping.
Some questions were better left unasked.
On the horizon, a train whistle sounded faintly against the overcast sky. Bax straightened, turning toward the sound. “He’s early.”
“Good. I wasn’t liking the idea of sitting on this animal for another hour.” Gil glanced down at the scene below. The last straggling remnants of the cattle herd drained through the gorge, revealing the railroad tracks that cut the valley in two “I’ll just get into position, then?”
Bax nodded and touched the brim of his hat in a casual salute. “See you down there.”
Working his horse down the rocky incline of the gorge, Gil shook his head at the irony of the entire matter. After weeks of running away, he was doing exactly what he thought he’d come to the colonies to escape.
But something was different, this time. Gil flexed his hand, feeling the steady power course under the thick leather of his glove, and the corner of his mouth quirked in a grim smile.
This time, the man on the train really deserved to die.
The train tore by with a deafening whistle.
In one quick movement, Gil stepped forward and grabbed the side of the baggage car as it shot by, clamping his fedora to his head with his free hand. With a force that would have ripped an average man’s wrist from its socket, Gil was tugged up alongside the train, and the side of the gorge became a red blur as it blasted past with the speed of the train.
Gil inched his way along the narrow platform the toes of his boots just barely found a foothold on, hugging the cold metal of the baggage car, until he reached the door. A heavy padlock hung from the opening lever, but a swift chop from his right hand fixed that.
There were times when having a metal arm had considerable perks.
A heavy thump behind him announced that Bax had made his landing on the top of the train. No wasting time. Bracing his hundred-and-eighty-pound body against the door, Gil threw it open.
Gil barreled into the cramped interior of the baggage car, and the two men inside recoiled, blinking at the intrusion. The nearest guard groped for the pistol on his belt, but Gil was too fast, seizing his arm and catapulting him over his back and out the open door. The rush of wind bombarding the train drowned out the man’s shriek, and Gil whirled to face the next guard.
The guard raised a machete, gasping an oath. Gil raised his arm.
A clunk, and the steel blade bounced harmlessly off Gil’s forearm. The guard’s eyes went wide, and he tried to duck, but Gil’s fist took him in the chin, throwing his head back with a decisive snap.
Gil shoved the man’s body out the door with his boot, glancing down at his right arm. The machete had torn the heavy cloth of his overcoat, letting a sliver of dull iron show through.
Couldn’t have that. Gil tore a strip of cloth from his undershirt, wrapping it around his arm and tying it off as a temporary bandage. He held it up to the dirty yellow shaft of light coming through the only window of the car, examining his work, and gave a nod. That would have to do.
He slid his hand over the door leading to the next car. The spies at the train station had reported four guards, and he had just taken out two. One would be on the top of the train—Bax would be taking care of him—but there was a good chance the other would be in the next passenger car, keeping a gun on the hostages. If there was shooting in a small car packed with innocent civilians…
Gil winced. No way around it. He would just have to move fast.
Gil slammed the door open and ducked into a roll, coming up in an aggressive crouch. Then he saw the hostages.
Dead. All of them.
A dull fire built in his throat as he stared on the scene, people lolling in their seats and on the ground in twisted agony, looks of terror frozen on their features. They’d been gassed.
Gil stepped over a body, hands clenching into angry fists as his eye fell on a mother still clutching her infant child to her chest, covering its face with the fabric of her skirt, trying to protect it from the noxious fumes that had filled the compartment. Images surfaced in his mind, pictures of other twisted bodies, bodies from the past. Bodies that hadn’t deserved death any more than these had.
Spitting an oath, Gil strode down the narrow aisle toward the door and pushed aside the stiff corpse of a man who clung to the knob of the door, frozen in his last hope of escape. His own regrets and nightmares could wait. The wooden door splintered under a blow of his fist, and he stepped through the wreckage.
The car he entered was lush with deep maroon carpet and furniture and a golden chandelier hung from the low ceiling, brushing the top of Gil’s fedora as he moved further in. It was the kind of transportation that only the wealthiest could afford. Probably the notable American politician who had been one of the passengers on the train when it had left the station.
But the man lounging in the easy chair at the end of the car was no politician.
Gil stood motionless in the center of the compartment, hands tense. The man in the easy chair seemed preoccupied in the pages of an expensive hardcover, and gave no indication that he had heard Gil’s entrance. Gil waited.
The man held up a thin forefinger. “I have given my guards strict instruction that I am to be disturbed only on the most grave of emergencies, and that entering without first giving a proper and dignified knock on the door will be punished in a most dramatic manner.” He turned a page. “I must therefore assume that the person who just entered my car in such a rude fashion must not be one of my guards. From there it is only logical to presume that said person is here to kill me.”
Gil didn’t move. “Your presumption would be correct.”
“Normally in this situation I would call for my guards,” the man went on, “but judging from present circumstances I think it’s safe to assume that they are probably dead.”
“That would also be correct.”
“Fascinating.” The man raised his head, focusing his liquid brown eyes on Gil. “I don’t suppose you’d take anything to drink? The previous owner of this car had excellent tastes in coffee, it seems, as well as literature.”
“I don’t drink before I kill people.” Gil moved a step closer. “It ruins the flavor.”
The man chuckled and folded his book closed, regarding Gil with an amused half-smile. “I won’t pretend not to recognize you, Agent Gil Grey. What I find perplexing is why the American government chose you of all people to kill me. Did the Coalition get tired of you?”
Gil gave a hard smile. “The Americans didn’t like you killing their people, and I was in the area. It’s not too hard to imagine, really.” He flexed his hand. Time for the accusation speech. “Eduardo Blake, as the head and mastermind of the assassin’s guild known as the Fatherleague, you are guilty of treason, theft on a grand scale, and the wanton killings of thousands of American and Europanian citizens. Do you have anything to say in your defense?”
Eduardo chuckled, displaying columns of perfect white teeth. He was still a young man, just into his mid-thirties, and the nickname that had been bestowed on him by the Europanian government, “Pretty Spaniard”, still held true. A handsome destroyer.
“So you’re a lawyer now, Gil. Pardon me while I engage in mirth.”
“Go ahead, if it makes you feel any better about dying.”
Eduardo shook his head, grinning. “They kicked you out, didn’t they? The Coalition let you go.” He leaned closer. “Or wanted to kill you, maybe? Tell me, Grey, did you get tired of doing their dirty work for them?”
Gil’s mouth tightened. “Goodbye, Eduardo.”
He raised his right arm, jaw clenched in concentration. Triggering the transformation. Beneath the leather of his glove, he could feel the surge, the whirr of the gears as they shifted the metal of his hand into another shape. His glove split down the middle as a shining black revolver emerged, pointing directly at Eduardo’s heart.
A bullet zinged out of the barrel. A perfect kill shot. Eduardo’s eyes widened.
Gil gave a start. The other man still sat in his chair, looking down at his chest with a thoughtful expression.
“So.” Eduardo raised his head, a crooked smile on his face. “You’re one of those. I had wondered.” His smile thinned. “It just so happens that I’m an upgrade.”
The Spaniard stood up, the sleeve of his left arm tearing in the same way Gil’s glove had. Dark metal emerged, six thin barrels that were fused together in a circle.
Instinct triggered in and Gil threw himself to the side as gunfire peppered the wall behind him. He groaned. Eduardo was another metalarm—that would explain the ricochet. He had metal not just on his arm, but probably part of his chest as well.
He ducked behind a couch, mind racing. The shelter was no good—the powerful automatic weapon Eduardo was using would easily penetrate the furniture. He had to keep moving.
Bax, where are you?
Gil leaped out from behind the couch as bullets shredded through it. He came out of a roll and fired off two shots at Eduardo’s head. But the Spaniard was already ducking.
Before Gil could react, the side of Eduardo’s weapon smashed into his temple, and the room exploded in pain. He staggered back, trying to fix his sights on the man’s forehead, but Eduardo was too fast. Gil cried out as the man’s iron-toed boot slammed into his ribs, knocking him to the ground. Then the boot stomped on his right arm, pinning it.
“Being in our line of work is a strange thing, Agent Grey,” Eduardo murmured as Gil struggled against his boot. “A normal freelancing killer like me, we’re hunted like rats. The vermin of the earth. But one that has a contract and a license from the Powers-That-Be, they’re holy, somehow. Justified, just because they work for the right people.”
Gil stopped struggling. “I never wanted to kill people,” he spat through his teeth. “I was never like you.”
“Oh, that’s what everybody says.” Eduardo leaned closer. “But you still did it, didn’t you? The only difference between us is that I’m not afraid to admit that I do what I do because I enjoy it.” He pointed his gun at Gil’s head. “For the same reason that I’m going to enjoy this very much.”
The window shattered.
Eduardo whirled, but kept his weapon pointed at Gil’s temple. A large form hit the carpet and bounced to a crouch, automatic shotgun at the ready.
Gil exhaled. “I was wondering when you’d show.”
Bax nodded at the Spaniard. “Hey, Eduardo. It’s been awhile.”
Eduardo’s nostrils flared, shock registering on his sallow features for the first time that evening. But it was only a moment before he recovered his smooth smile again. “Hello, dead.”
“Not as dead as you thought, apparently.”
“Not as dead as your family, no.” Eduardo’s voice was silky. “Were the deaths of your wife and little boy not enough for you, Baxter?”
The cowboy’s hand turned white around the handle of his weapon, but his face remained expressionless. “Don’t make me mad, Eduardo.”
A fresh wave of pain shot through Gil’s arm, and he bit his teeth together. “Go ahead and take your time with the cordialities, Bax, now that I’ve just got comfortable.”
Eduardo’s face was bent into an unpleasant smile. “Have patience, Agent. It’s not every day I get to pass time with an old employee.”
Employee? Gil strained his neck to look at Bax. “You know what he’s talking about?”
“Sorry I never told you, Gil,” Bax said, still staring at Eduardo. “It wasn’t something I was proud of.”
“You worked for him?”
“One of my best, until he got stupid,” Eduardo said. “Stupid and soft. But they say that’s what religion does to a man.”
“I got tired of killing,” Bax said.
“So you say.” Eduardo gestured to the shotgun. “And yet here you stand with that fancy gun of yours, about to blow a crater in my chest. Brings back the memories, doesn’t it?” He leaned forward. “You are planning on killing me, aren’t you? Because you don’t seem to be in much of a hurry about it, my friend.”
Gil squirmed under Eduardo’s boot. The edges of his vision were growing foggy, receding into red mist. “Bax, just shoot him.”
A muscle in Bax’s jaw twitched. “First he’s got to tell me about the bombs.”
“Two big ones. Opposite sides of the train.” The cowboy raised the triple-barrel of his shotgun several inches, pointing it at the Spaniard’s head. “Care to talk about it, boss?”
Eduardo’s looked at the ground and chuckled. “Oh yes, the bombs. I’d almost forgotten the bombs.”
“Tell me why, Ed. And take your foot off my friend’s shoulder.”
The Spaniard lifted his foot, and Gil rolled to the side, gasping at the wave of relief that submerged him.
“You know where this train is headed, don’t you?” said Eduardo. “The United Territories of California. The industrial hub of this wonderful new world.” The metal of his left arm began shifting with a grinding of gears, shrinking into itself until it was once again limb-shaped. “This one little country that feeds the starving masses of the world. Touching to think about, really.”
Bax gave a slow nod. “And the train’s headed right into the middle of it. With enough explosives to wipe half of the Territories off the map.”
“More than enough.”
A chill trickled up Gil’s spine, and he looked from the rugged face of the cowboy to the mocking features of the Spaniard. Like Eduardo had said, the Territories fed the world. If they were destroyed…
Gil struggled to one knee, biting his cheek at the fresh wave of pain that tore through his abdomen. “Execute that scum. We’ve got to stop this train.”
Bax didn’t move. Eduardo let out a mocking laugh.
“I’m afraid you can’t stop this train, agent.”
“I’ve got the controls hardwired into a computer. It’s not stopping for anybody.” Eduardo gave a lazy shrug. “Until it reaches its destination, that is.”
Gil gritted his teeth. “That’s a lie. There haven’t been any computers since the Collapse.”
“Oh, that’s what they tell you,” said Eduardo, with a casual glance out the window. “There’s a lot about the world you don’t know, Agent.”
The muzzle of Bax’s weapon floated menacingly in front of Eduardo’s face. “I should kill you right now.”
“Says the man who’s tired of killing.” Eduardo’s eyelid flickered as he stared down the shotgun barrel. “You want to pull that trigger, don’t you? You’re a finger-length away from the revenge you want so much. One finger.” His voice was growing softer, sing-song. “Do you want me to tell you why you won’t ever kill me?”
“Shoot him!” shouted Gil.
Bax wasn’t looking at Gil. “Tell me.”
“Because you don’t understand the true meaning of life.” Eduardo cocked his head. “Life doesn’t live, it kills. All those people in that city, they’re all going to die sooner or later. I’m just aiding in the process.”
“You’re wrong,” Bax said.
A smooth chuckle rippled out of the Spaniard’s throat. “You idiots. Both of you, thinking that you can do anything to stop inevitability. If you think about it, I’m the true creator. I’m the only one doing anything that will truly last.”
Something in Gil’s chest twisted. The Spaniard was looking at Bax, but every word he spoke was an arrow sinking deep into Gil’s soul. He gritted his teeth, trying to grind out the bile that came with the images resurfacing in his mind. Bodies. So many bodies.
“The only true creation is destruction,” said Eduardo. “Destruction is God.”
“Not my God,” said Bax.
“Oh, Baxter.” Eduardo shook his head, still laughing. “The amusing thing is, deep down you know what I mean, don’t you? I’ve seen you kill. I’ve seen you destroy. People don’t change, Baxter. They just hide from themselves.”
The cowboy’s face was drawn, and the muscles of his jaw were working like pumps under the bronze of his skin. “You’re wrong, Eduardo. You don’t know anything about people. You don’t know anything about life. You don’t know anything about God.”
“How many more, Baxter?” said Eduardo. “How many more lives will you take before you realize the truth?”
“Just one,” said Bax.
The shotgun roared.
The body of the Pretty Spaniard hit the floor of the baggage car like a sack of apples, twisted smile still stretched across his face.
Bax stood looking down at Eduardo, once again expressionless behind the shield of his sunglasses. “I had to kill him.”
Gil nodded. “Yeah.”
“He would have tried to stop me.”
“It’s what we came here for, isn’t it?” Gil staggered to one knee, squeezing his eyes shut against the wave of hurting that crashed into him again. He welcomed the pain. It made him stop thinking the poisonous words that still seemed to echo around the car, in his mind. People don’t change. They just hide from themselves.
“It wasn’t what we should have come for.” Bax was still looking down. “I’m seeing that now.”
“What are you talking about?”
The big cowboy straightened and slung his shotgun over his back. “You might want to get off the train.”
Gil raised his eyebrows. “Without you?”
“Yes.” Bax didn’t look at him. “I know you’re hurt. Wish I could give you better way of getting you off this thing than jumping, but like he said—” –he nodded his head at the corpse— “—this train isn’t stopping for anybody.”
Gil shakily pulled himself to his feet. “You aren’t thinking there’s anything you can do to stop those bombs from going off, are you?”
“I’m going to set them off here. Before we get out of the desert.”
“With you still on it?”
“Yes.” Bax started walking toward the door. “Hopefully this thing’ll be far enough away from you by the time I set ’em off that the blast won’t reach you.”
Gil shook his head in disbelief. “You want me to jump off and leave you here. To die.”
The cowboy turned around. “Do you believe what he was talking about, all that stuff about destruction and inevitability?”
“More or less.” Gil tried a chuckle, but it choked in his throat. “You don’t?”
“No.” The cowboy turned his back again. “Every minute counts. Better jump fast.”
Gil turned and took a tentative, wobbling step toward the door of the car. Something caught his mind, and he stopped. That wooden cross around the cowboy’s neck. “You’re a Christian, aren’t you?”
“Jump while you still can.”
“You’re crazy.” Gil felt sick as he made his painful, stumbling way toward the door. “Crazy as that Spaniard.”
He put his hand on the door, and it swelled under his touch. The train was moving at sickening speed, but even in this pitiful, beat-up state he knew how to fall. He’d make it.
Gil almost shoved back the door, but something stopped him. Behind him the cowboy was singing again. That song, the one about Amazing Greats.
No, wait. Grace. It was Amazing Grace. He’d heard the song before. A long, long time ago.
He knew what the cross meant. He knew what the song meant.
He knew why he’d been running all these years.
Something seemed to snap in his chest. Without really knowing why, he turned around. “How are you planning on setting these things off, anyway?”
Bax stopped singing and shot him a glance. “Those bombs have safety detonators. If I pull them out fast enough, they’ll go off.”
“Once I pull the first one, I’ve got two minutes to pull the other one before the system resets and cancels the detonation.”
“You said they were on opposite sides of the train.”
The big man didn’t blink. “I’ll run fast.”
There was a short silence, and then Gil stepped forward. “I changed my mind.”
“You need to get off.”
“I’m not getting off.”
The pain in Gil’s side escalated to a dizzying crescendo as he stepped inside the last train car. It was almost a miracle he’d made it this far–the distance had been longer than he thought. A sobbing laugh broke from between his lips. He still didn’t quite know why he was doing it. He wasn’t an old man–he had years ahead of him. Why was he sacrificing those years for a city of people he had never known, for a world that spurned him?
Because it was right, somehow. Because Eduardo was wrong.
The bomb was in plain sight, hulking at the end of the bare storage car like an iron monster. Among the mass of wires and grey metal, Gil saw the red pull lever that Bax had told him about.
He stood still, and the words buried deep in his memory began drifting out, singing through his mind, accompanied by the faint, almost-forgotten chords of an ancient church organ.
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.
That saved a wretch like me.
He stumbled forward, gripping the lever with numbed fingers. Waiting for the signal.
I once was lost, but now I’m found.
Was blind, but now I see.
The faint blast of Bax’s shotgun broke through his thoughts, and he nodded. It was a good time.
He pulled the detonator.