“In the hands of a shootist, there is no weapon deadlier than a revolver and no shootist deadlier than Eli Warren.” – A Brief History of The Gunfighter by Counsel Scribe Sara Brezal
Eli was acutely aware of extreme discomfort long before he even opened his eyes to see where he was. The ground was cold and hard with what felt like ridges pressing up into his bare skin. He felt almost naked lying on the floor, his head pounding and he had a soreness that went deep. He forced his eyes open and was met with a bright light from an overhead lamp that set his eyes screaming in pain. Once he had adjusted to the harsh light, he saw a steel-grated ceiling, dark gray. After a second he realized that the steel ceiling wasn’t a ceiling at all but the top of a small cell.
How did I end up here? He tried to think but even that meager effort put his head aflame.
“Oh good, the man’s awake. Are you well, good sir? I say, sir, are you well?”
The voice was thin and soft with a silky accent that Eli was unfamiliar with. Slowly and with great effort, Eli sat up on his elbows and looked around. He saw he was in a bare cage no more than five feet wide by eight feet long. Just outside the bars he saw more cages, one of which was occupied by a short, thin man with long, dark hair tied back in a braid. The man sat crouched, his head cocked to one side and asked, “Good sir, I take it you are at least alive? Does the sir have a name?” The man’s odd way of speech would have confused Eli even with a clear head. Eli just sat there, blinking at the odd little man in a blank confusion. The man stared back with a look of complete calm, as if this sort of thing happened all the time to him. After a few seconds, the man leaped up from the crouching position he was in and said “You, good sir, have the great honor of addressing Darro Bladebraker, expert marksman, master of the fine art of appropriation and swordsman of great renown. It is truly a privilege to make your acquaintance, good and noble sir.”
Master of the fine art of appropriation? Eli rolled the phrase around in his head. “A thief,” was all Eli could muster. “You’re a thief.”
The man called Darro looked hurt. “You wound me, good sir, I am merely an entrepreneur. An impresario.”
“Be quiet.” Eli commanded as he forced himself to a sitting position. He saw that was not naked as he originally thought, just down to an undershirt and his pants. All his gear was missing, including his gun. His gun! The thought of being without his gun almost sent him into a panic. He could make do with any gun, but his gun was one of a kind. He had to find it quickly. Eli stood up slowly, wincing in pain from the effort. Darro watched with great interest and asked, “So, sir, if you will not tell me your name, will you at least tell me what planet we are on?”
“Trinite,” Eli responded, head swimming from standing. He saw the cell had a fold-up bunk attached to the wall. He pulled it out and sat down, resting his head in his hands. He was trying so hard to remember how he had gotten here. The last thing he remembered was drinking in a saloon just outside of Ironden, and the next, he was waking up here. Had he gotten that drunk that fast and been thrown in the drunk tank to sleep it off? If so, this was nothing like any drunk tank he had ever seen before. And that didn’t explain who this Darro was or why he talked so damned strange.
Darro started pacing the short length of his cell. “Trinite, you say? Are you sure? I reside on the great and illustrious planet of Balidor. Why, I have never even heard of, what was it called, Trinite? Where is it located within the Empirium?”
“It’s not. It’s a Spacer planet, a mining world.”
“Oh dear,” Darro sounded as if he would faint. “A Spacer world? I can’t abide Spacer worlds, so uncouth. Still, I will have to make do. So, back to the matter at hand, I have given you my name, would you do me the great honor of giving me yours?”
“Eli. Eli Warren.” He stood up slowly with the automatic gesture of shaking the man’s hand only to remember that he was in a cell and separated by several feet and sat back down.
“Well, Mr. Warren, now that we are properly introduced, might I be so bold as to ask, do you perchance happen to have a price on your head? A rude question, I know, but we appear to be in a conundrum that seems to precipitate slight breaches in etiquette.”
Eli stared back at the man trying to figure out what exactly he had just asked him. The only part of the question that made any sense to him was, “Do you have a price on your head?” If that’s what this odd man wanted to know, why didn’t he just ask? Eli thought about it. He wasn’t sure if he had a bounty on him right now or not. Eli was used to being wanted from time to time, but at the moment, he didn’t think he was. “I’m not sure,” he responded. “But I take it you do.”
“Oh, most certainly, my good friend, and I do say I would think you have one as well. I have been here, wherever here is, for three days. I have not seen any sign of our captors other than a daily delivery of food and drink through a wall slot. I believe we have been taken by bounty hunters. Seeing as I can detect no cameras or surveillance equipment, I would think they are second rate at best.”
Eli scoffed, “Second rate wouldn’t be able to capture me this easily.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure, good sir. The number of bruises you have sustained seems to suggest you put up quite a fight. Tell me, do you have an unusually large headache? I would think that you do. There is a rather nasty burn at the side of your temple. The kind left by a shock glove if held too long. Such an injury would knock you out and cause a bit of memory loss. Do you remember being brought here? No, I should think not. In any case, I do believe it is time we made our escape, wouldn’t you say?”
Darro stood by the cell door punching buttons on the keypad attached to it. “Well, as loath as I am to admit it, I was waiting for someone the likes of you. See, as talented and resourceful as I am, without my equipment, I am little more than a very exceptional and overqualified doorman.” With that, the door to his cell swung open. “As I said, shall we?”
Eli looked hard at the man. “What makes you think I trust you?”
Darro softly chuckled. “Oh, my good Mr. Warren, I suspect you trust me as little as I trust you. I simply see no other viable alternative presenting itself at the moment.” Darro walked over to Eli’s cell door and began pushing at the keypad. “If I could have made my escape by myself, I would have. As resourceful and cunning as I am, I am not one who stands much chance in a fair fight. You, on the other hand, seem like a man who is no stranger to the melee arts. Now, of course, we could sit here and wait for our captors to present themselves and their intentions, but since they are most likely going to sell us to the authorities, I would rather, as they say, make a break for it.” The door opened, and Eli stood to join his would-be partner.
They made their way down a corridor that led to a T-junction. Darro looked around, frantically searching for some kind of terminal. Jutting out of a wall niche was a small screen and keyboard. He dashed to it and began typing away. “If you would be so kind as to keep a look out, I must see if I can find where the storage rooms are. I simply must retrieve my personal effects.” Eli stood back and tried to determine if anyone was coming, but the hallway turned at both ends and there was a constant humming noise that made it difficult to hear anything besides what was right near him.
Darro suddenly jumped and gave a soft cheer. “Here it is, here it is! Come, we must hurry, the storage room is just below us one level. There is an access tube right here.” He pointed down toward a small port in the floor about two and a half feet wide. Once through the port, they dropped into a large, well-lit room filled with boxes and lockers. Eli had begun looking through a trunk for his gun when he looked up and saw a window set in the wall. The view was a star-filled night sky. But that’s not right, he thought. Why was the window showing the sky if it was pointed out the side of the building? He should be seeing land of some kind. He walked closer to the window. Maybe they were in a very tall building, and he would have to look down to see the ground. As he looked closer, he saw a great, open, star-filled void into nothingness. Space. He was in space; that was the only explanation. Eli had never been in space, but knew that space was a cold, dark, vacuum that didn’t support life. His breath caught in his throat. Darro was saying something behind him, but he couldn’t hear him clearly. The void, he thought. There’s nothing between me and emptiness but this window. What if it breaks? He would be sucked out, unable to breathe. He couldn’t breathe now—what was happening? Eli grabbed at his throat as if to remove someone else’s hand from it but found nothing there. He tried to speak, but all he could get out was a whisper, all the time staring into that great vast emptiness. Panic was hitting him. The window. If something should happen to it, was all he could think. Suddenly Darro was grabbing him by the shoulders, saying, “Eli, look at me, not the window, at me! That’s it. Now look at the floor. Do you see it? It’s solid. Feel the gravity. Breathe the air. You are all right.”
Eli looked at him with round, horrified eyes. “The window…”
“Is not going to open,” Darro finished. “I was hoping to avoid this, but it seems that we must deal with this now if we are to proceed. Space can be…disturbing if you are not used to it. The first time I saw it, I was a boy and cried for nearly an hour. Some go mad and try to claw their eyes out. You will be just fine. Just breathe and remember, we are safe in the ship.”
Eli’s instincts took over. You are a gunfighter, he thought. You control your fear, make it your slave, bend it to your will. After a few moments, he was breathing normally. He turned and looked out the window again. The fear jumped up, but this time he caught it, forced it back down. He went back to looking for his gear. They’d only gone through half of the boxes when, from beyond a door, they heard voices growing steadily stronger. Eli looked over at Darro, who was still crouched over a trunk.
“I would suggest you properly greet our soon-to-be-arriving guests,” Darro stated, never moving from the box.
Eli turned toward the door as he heard one man address another.
“Just two days to the jump gate and another to Chorwald and it’s pay day. Within the week, we will be living it up on a beach, drinking Sour Hells, surrounded by women spending credits like they’re water.”
Eli watched the lock slide over and the door slowly open.
He broke into the fighting style in which he was trained. Not the heavy, ham-fistedness of the drunken barroom boxer, nor the smooth movements of the martial artists. It was simply based on knowing the body’s natural weak points and exploiting them. Cause the most amount of damage with the least amount of effort and least amount of danger to one’s hands. A broken hand, which was merely an inconvenience to most men, could mean death for Eli. It would mean he couldn’t shoot with that hand until healed, and if it didn’t heal right, it meant the loss of speed, aim and dexterity—all things essential to the gunfighter.
Eli struck the first man through the door in the nose, driving the cartilage into his brain with the heel of his palm. The man was dead before he hit the floor. The second man stumbled in with some kind of gun in hand. Eli hit him hard in the shoulder, snapping his clavicle like a twig. The man’s arm flopped down, dropping the gun. Eli chopped at his throat, crushing his windpipe. The man went bug-eyed as he collapsed to his knees, trying to gasp for air. Eli grabbed his head and twisted, snapping his neck in a quick jerk. He remembered his instruction on fighting: “Some men talk of an honorable fight,” his instructor had said. “Honor is a boy’s wet dream. A man who comes to kill you will do so with every advantage he has. If he wants your life, make him work for it.”
Just as the last man died, Darro found the box he had been looking for. Eli turned around to see Darro adjusting the gear that he had stated would help them escape. The man’s garb was as confusing as his speech. He had some form of headgear that covered his left eye with a small transparent disk. His hands were covered with some sort of glove that had small wires running up his arms to a vest that was made of what looked like tiny mirrors. Hanging on his hips were holsters that carried some sort of gun that Eli had never seen before and a short thin sword in a scabbard. Darro looked to Eli and said, “There, that should be it. I do believe I have all I need. Did you find your belongings?”
Eli looked around one last time, and in a corner saw a small safe with a keypad. Darro followed his gaze and began typing on the buttons. As the safe door opened, Eli was overcome with a wash of relief. There, in the safe, was his gun. The ancient black revolver. He grabbed the gun and checked the shells in the cylinder. All six rounds were still in their place, the sides still glowed with a soft red hue. Good, he thought. He hated to think he would have to find a way to recast the shells in a place like this. He found his holster and gun belt in a box adjacent to the safe and fitted it around his waist. He slid the gun neatly into the holster, gathered up the rest of his belongings, and turned to face a horrified Darro.
“That’s your weapon?” he asked, barely holding back his rage. “For the love of space get rid of it!”
Eli stared back at him in honest confusion. “Why?” was all he could think to say.
“Why?! It’s a gun you fool! A gun that shoots bullets! Do you have any notion as to what would happen if, for instance, you missed?!? It would rip right through the hull of the ship—that is, of course, if it didn’t hit a power conduit or fuel line first! The outcome of all those delightful scenarios would be death. You would kill us all, and I do mean all of us! So, for the very last time, get rid of it!”
“No.” The answer was plain and in a fashion that gave no room for argument. “I will have to make do without using it, but I will not leave it here.”
“Fine, if that’s how you will be, then at least use this.” Darro handed Eli one of his blasters.
It felt queer in his hand; the weight and balance were all wrong. In place of a trigger, it had a thumb contact and no sights to speak of at all. Eli frowned, “This won’t do.” He handed he blaster back. “I’ll make do, there’s no need to worry about me.”
Darro re holstered the blaster. “Oh I wasn’t thinking of you. I mean to live though this particular ordeal and by no means will I be slowed down by you. Weaponless or no, if you fall behind, I see no reason to help you.”
Eli and Darro skulked silently down the hall toward the drop ship bay that they had found on the computer screen. Eli felt strange going into a fight without his gun in hand. Despite being deadly with unarmed fighting, his first weapon had always been his gun.
They came upon some sort of pressure door that was labeled Shuttle Bay. Darro crouched down and began tapping on the pad strapped to his wrist.
“We will have to be very precise and deliberate in our next step, Eli. I will sneak past the men in the next room and gain access to one of the shuttles. Then, as I start the engines, you must distract the guards long enough for me to start the launch procedures. Once that is done, you must get aboard and I will launch the ship. From there, it is only a matter of disabling their launch codes from our ship’s computer, dropping you off at whatever planet we happen to be near, and then our arrangement will come to its end.”
“Agreed,” Eli nodded. He was growing tired of this man. So far, he had shown almost no skill in a fight but still regarded Eli as an albatross. Still, Eli knew he couldn’t fly a ship without this irritating man’s help. The plan was weak, but Eli couldn’t come up with a better one. “How will you get past the guards?” he asked with more than a little hint of distance in his voice.
Darro stood and smiled wickedly. “Come now, dear Eli, you know me so little?” As he finished speaking, Darro began to flicker and phase out of sight without movement on his part. Eli stepped back in confusion and fear. Was the man a wizard, some rogue mage from the Crimson Counsel? Eli had killed every man he had ever needed to, but he had never faced a age and wasn’t sure if he could kill one. On instinct, Eli pulled his gun and cursed, “Sorcerer!”
“Put that away, you ignorant fool. There’s no magic in this. I stole a prototype stealth vest from a Spacer trade ship some months ago. It renders the wearer transparent.”
Eli saw it now. As the panic melted from him, he looked and found that if he concentrated hard enough, he could still make out Darro’s image. The effect was ghostly, but at a glance he would go unnoticed.
“Give me two minutes, and then distract the guards. I will need at least three minutes to start the ship.”
With that, the image of Darro opened the door behind him, and they both slipped in unnoticed. Eli ducked behind a stack of crates and tried to get an idea of the dimensions of the shuttle bay. He immediately saw two problems. One, the bay was much larger than he had thought it to be. There was no way to distract the guards in a subtle fashion as he had intended. Instead, to get the guards’ attention, he would have to make his presence fully known, which would inevitably start a firefight that he had no way of returning fire in. Second, there was more than one dropship—three, in fact—and he wasn’t sure which one Darro planned on taking. Still, Eli saw no alternative but to go with his part of the plan. If that bastard leaves me here, I will hunt him down to whatever planet he runs to.
The two minutes were up as Eli stood up from cover. He wasn’t sure what he was going to shout at first but found quickly that it wasn’t a problem.
One of the guards saw him at once and shouted, “What the fuck?! Prisoner escape! Get him!”
Another shouted, “It’s Warren! Set for max stun!”
At once, Eli was hit with several bursts of light from the blasters in each man’s hands. Eli was no stranger to being shot with lead bullets, having received several shots in his youth, but never was he shot with a blaster. A bolt hit him in the chest and he looked down, expecting blood. All he found was a slight burned spot on his shirt, but the pain was intense. Still, seeing that there was no penetration, Eli felt no panic. He tucked back down behind the crates. Let them come to me, he thought, killing two men with his bare hands with the element of surprise on his side was one thing; killing five or maybe six armed and armored men was something completely different.
Eli knew he had almost no hope of success. Survival was his only hope. He heard two men approaching from either side of the crates that hid him. Eli leaped up and grabbed one by the face shield and tried to chop at his throat. The meat of his hand met with armor. The man laughed and swung the butt of his blaster rifle into Eli’s gut. Eli doubled over in a grunt of pain. Without hesitation, Eli shouldered the man, lifting him off his feet and slamming him down hard on his back. As soon as the first guard was down, the other guards started firing at Eli, hitting him in the arms and chest, sending pain pulsing through him. Eli tried to remain standing, but he could feel his left leg begin to give out.
He still wasn’t sure which ship Darro had boarded, but he didn’t care. Eli broke into a run toward the ships. The run quickly turned into a sort of quick limp, the bolts of light hitting his thighs. Out of nowhere, Eli saw two blasts being fired in front of him, tracing over his shoulder and hitting two of the guards behind him. He heard screams from his rear and turned to see guards being consumed in a strange electric fire. A third man who was farther back had stopped firing and began to take aim at Eli, then dropped his gun and grabbed the sides of his head, screaming. An electronic shock seemed to wrap around his face as he collapsed and died.
Darro emerged out of thin air and ran to Eli. “Come, Eli, there was a problem with the ship. I’ll spare you the gritty details as we are still being fired upon.” Eli looked up to see the other two guards taking aim from the far side of the shuttle bay. “Hurry, their blasters were only set to stun. The effect should wear off soon. We must get to an escape pod. It may be our last hope.” Darro wrapped Eli’s arm over his shoulder as they quickly moved toward the door, blaster bolts sailing past them from the other direction. They hurried toward a small, round door along the wall, and as it opened, Darro threw Eli inside, diving in after him. With a few quick buttons, Eli heard a voice over a speaker say, “Emergency escape pod activated.” As the effect of the blaster stun began to wear off, Eli became aware of movement and looked out the port window to see the side of the bounty hunters’ ship fading away from them. “Plotting course for nearest planet.” The pod seemed to be running itself.
Darro sat across from Eli. “Well, dear friend, this is not going to work as well as I had wanted it to. The pod will take us to whatever the nearest planet is, which I suspect is yours, but I wasn’t able to jam the bounty hunters’ launch codes. I believe their next course of action will be to follow us down and simply apprehend us once more. Still, it was a valiant effort.”
Eli and Darro quickly disembarked from the landed escape pod to find they had landed on the edge of a great expanse of desert. A thunderous boom came from the sky above as the bounty hunters’ dropship entered the atmosphere. Looking up, Eli asked, “How long?”
“Two minutes, maybe less.” Darro was surveying the land, trying to form some kind of plan. Eli checked the cylinder of his black pistol. Six rounds sat in their places, pulsing softly with a faint reddish hue. “Go,” he said suddenly, “Go and hide.”
Darro started off without argument until he saw Eli was not following him. “What are you planning to do?”
Without turning his head, Eli responded, “I make my stand here.”
The dropship landed thirty yards from Eli. He stood, eyes closed, hands limp at his sides, slowly breathing. He concentrated on his breath, his heart rate, slowing both down as he thought, “I am shapeless. I am water. My gun and I are one. I am gunslinger, and before me, none will stand.”
The crew of the dropship poured out of the bay door and formed up. Five in all, armed and armored, they were an impressive sight. The first man called out, “Eli Warren! Darro Bladebraker! Turn yourselves in and no harm will come to you. Resist and—well, Darro isn’t worth much dead, but you are, Warren!”
Eli slowly opened his eyes and looked at the men. Time felt sluggish as Eli’s hand went for his gun in its holster. The pull was smooth and steady from decades of doing this very act a thousand times before. He thumbed back the hammer and pulled the trigger, sending the first round toward the first man’s head before his arm was even level. Eli knew exactly where it would go. The bullets always went where he told them to go. Just as the first round left the barrel, he fanned the hammer back with his off hand and fired again, this time at the head of the second man, and again at a third. The act had taken less than a second, but as Eli stood, arm outstretched, off hand just hovering over the hammer, as the three man dropped soundlessly to the ground.
There was a pause that seemed to last for an eternity. Eli’s senses were on fire, soaking in and consuming everything around him. He saw every twitch, heard every movement. Without warning, Eli dashed toward the remaining two men. In a panic, they both opened fire, hitting Eli’s left shoulder. His mind registered the hit, but Eli felt no pain. A mad holy rage had taken him. He would be not be stopped. Eli saw the man on the right raise his blaster. Anticipating the shot, Eli dove into a roll, the bolt of light missing him. Eli came up on one knee and fired, sending a bullet to the man’s neck. He clawed at the wound as blood begin spraying, soaking the other shooter. Eli fired once more, knocking the man’s helmet from his head. The look Eli saw was that of fear. “What do you say, hunter,” Eli shouted. “My last bullet to your whole clip?” The man trembled. “I’ll leave you with your life and this tale to tell others if you leave now. If not,” Eli thumbed back the hammer of his gun one last time, “I’ll send you to meet your brothers in hell!”
The man dropped his rifle and stumbled back onto the ship. Soon it was lifting into the air as Eli holstered his gun. Darro emerged from behind some nearby rocks with a look of awe that he quickly concealed. “You could have killed him. Then I would have a ship.”
“True, but alive he’ll tell other bounty hunters and maybe they will think twice about trying to hunt us next time.”
“This fact was not lost on me, my good friend Eli. Say, you wouldn’t happen to have a ship around here? Not that I’m sure where here is.”
Eli looked at his surroundings. “No.”
“Well, what do you have on this miserable little lump in space?”
“Little enough. Come, I’ll show you.”
With that, they began walking toward the nearest town off in the distance.