“Some wish they would have killed the Gun of Dawn when they had the chance. Then shudder to think of the cost of such a task.” – The Coming of the Gun of Dawn by Counsel Scribe Sara Brezal.
Private Cran Horne heard the barracks’ alarm and was up putting on his uniform before he had even realized something was happening. Years of training in the Space Marines had taught him to be ready at a moment’s notice, which was good, considering he rarely had more than that to prepare. He was fitting his boots on when a tall man entered the barracks room and shouted, “All right, Marines! I want you suited up and in the briefing room in ten minutes!” No other orders were given or needed.
Cran looked up and saw that some men were already making their way to the briefing room. He zipped up his boots and headed to join them. Once in the room, Cran took his seat and looked around. All told, there were 100 men and women here, the full count of the platoon. The lieutenant entered the room from a door to the left of a stage where a display was set up and shouted, “Attention!”
The whole platoon stood up and became silent as a short, older man walked in, placed some papers he was carrying down, and said quietly, “As you were.” The platoon sat down and the briefing began.
“Ladies and gentlemen, my name is admiral Konright and I come with a mission. Right now we are in orbit around planet 8265, better known as Trinite. Our target is a small city in Quadrant Two, Sector Five that the locals call New Pump City. Our goal is to land in the city, set up a perimeter, and secure a building in the center of town. From there, we wait until Special Operations arrives.” At this, the platoon began murmuring to one another. The lieutenant stood up and shouted, “As you were!” The room became silent.
Cran thought to himself, Special operations? This must be big. They are the best- trained unit in the guild, tough as nails.
The admiral continued the briefing. “I want this to go down by the numbers, people. You are going in hot but are not to engage any targets unless given authorization. We will be dropping in at 0700 local time, so I’m sure we will be a surprise to the people just starting their day. Your job is to keep this cool and precise. Do you understand?”
“Sir, yes sir,” was the answer in unison.
“Then I will turn you over to your commanding officer.”
The lieutenant shouted, “Alright people, you heard the man. We got a job to do! I want you geared up and ready to go in fifteen minutes. Predrop count down starts in twenty. Let’s move!”
Cran stood up and headed toward his weapon locker.
Cran sat, strapped in his seat of the orbital drop ship awaiting final countdown. He always hated this part. His training had prepared him for just about anything, but he never could seem to get used to drops. It was the way his stomach was flung up into his throat then; as the ship pointed nose first toward the planet, his chest was pushed back and he would have to hold his breath to keep from blacking out.
He found it best to try and keep his mind on other things, mainly the mission after the drop. Why would special ops be concerned with a small backwater town on this out-of-the-way planet? Maybe the miners there had discovered something rare, some kind of new energy source. But if that was the case, why the S.O.? They were never called out except for missions of extreme danger and secrecy. Every once in a while, you would hear of an S.O. mission where someone had to be bumped off, or a local militia was shouting about independence from the guild. Those were the type of conflicts where you wanted things done nice and quiet like. Leave no loose ends.
Cran’s thoughts snapped back to the drop as the flight master said over the intercom, “Three, two, ready, DROP!” The ship plummeted out of the hangar and began its fall toward the planet below. Cran closed his eyes and tried to force his stomach back to its normal place. Then, as the ship went nose first, he began the breathing technique he’d had drilled into his head. Cran held his breath and counted: three, two, one. He grunted the air out of his lungs and took in another breath. He would have to keep doing this for the next few seconds until the ship hit the lower atmosphere and the G forces were lowered. Then the hard part would be over.
After what felt like an eternity, the ship did just what it was supposed to and they began landing procedures. Cran grabbed the blast rifle that was secured in a rack about his head and did a final check of his gear. The lieutenant shouted, “Thirty seconds to L.Z.”
The sun rose slowly over the horizon as the people of New Pump City began their day. All except the patrons of The Hand Well Tavern, who were still drinking from the night before. The Hand Well was the only tavern in New Pump that never closed after they learned many preferred beer with their breakfast over coffee.
It was just about time for the shift change for the piano player when suddenly a man burst through the swinging doors and shouted, “Spacers! Spacers be comin’ in drop ships! At least a hundred men by the looks of things!”
“What in the great hell are you talking about, Frank?” asked a man playing cards in the far corner. “Ain’t no reason for Spacers to be comin’ here. Probably just smugglers come to make a buy. Now either sit your ass down and have a drink or get the hell out of here!”
Frank started to move when suddenly a large man in Spacer armor shouldered his way into the bar, throwing Frank aside. He was soon followed by an equally armored woman who stepped to the opposite side of the doorway. The whole saloon dropped to the floor at the site of the armed troops. All but one man sitting inconspicuously at the far end of the bar. The marines drew their aim on the man and said, “On the ground, now!”
The man, who was dressed in a very fine black suit, responded without looking up, “Not until I finish my drink. Maybe not even then.” The marines briefly looked at each other in confusion, then turned back to shout at the man again. Before they got the chance, a tall woman in a black trench coat and beret with a Spacer logo on it walked in and said calmly. “That won’t be necessary, soldier. I do believe he is the one we came for. Mr. Eli Warren, would you kindly come with us?”
Eli looked up slowly at her and threw back his drink. He stood up and tossed a gold piece to the bartender, who was still cowering below the bar. He walked out the saloon door and saw the nearly one hundred or so Spacer troops securing the town square. As the marines fitted handcuffs on Eli’s wrists, he looked to the woman in black and asked, “Do you think you brought enough men?”
Eli was forced down into a hard metal chair. The table in front of him had all of his possessions organized on top of it. His saddle pack, a small purse of gold coins, assorted trinkets of various uses and an ancient black revolver. The room was small and barely held the two guards standing at either side of the only door. Eli sat calmly with his hands, still in cuffs, placed on his lap. Despite his rage toward his captors, he showed no emotion. His curiosity as to exactly why these people wanted him slightly outweighed his anger. They were Spacers; that was plain enough to see. No one else would have built a base this advanced out here in the middle of nowhere. But why him? Spacers never cared much for the people of Trinite, or any planet; all they cared about was the raw materials the planet produced. Eli wasn’t a miner or some town official, so he could see no reason why they wanted him.
After several minutes, the door behind Eli opened and the woman in black entered with a folder under her arm. She had taken off her trench coat to reveal an officer’s uniform. She looked down at his cuffs and sighed, “I apologize; those should have been removed when they brought you here. Allow me.” She unlocked the cuffs and sat down in a chair on the opposite side of the table. “Can I offer you something to drink? Coffee or tea, perhaps?”
Eli thought, So, we’re playing the good cop, I see. Did they really think so little of him that he would be brought in by such an old ploy? “Whiskey,” was his only response. A slight hint of confusion flashed on the woman’s face in the briefest of instants before she composed herself and nodded to one of the guards. The look on her face, despite its briefness, spoke volumes to Eli. If a man wanting whiskey at any hour surprised her, then she definitely wasn’t from here and hadn’t been stationed here long.
The guard brought a delicate-looking glass filled one-quarter of the way with a dark spirit. Eli picked it up and sipped it. It was a finer quality than he was used to. He set the glass down and said nothing. Whoever this Spacer was, she had the upper hand and Eli would do nothing to increase that hand. Silence would undoubtedly cause her to wonder what he was thinking. Slowly she paced the width of the room and began reading the folder in her hand as if it was the first time seeing it.
“Eli Warren. Age, unknown. Place of birth, unknown. Current whereabouts, unknown. You are a hard man to find, Mr. Warren. In the past week, none of my operatives could find anyone who even knew what you looked like, let alone where you could be found.”
God, he thought, this woman is hurling information at me. So her “operatives,” not her, have been here only a week. He was surprised they had found him that quickly. Still, the number of people the Spacers seem to have devoted to his location was a bit much. They must have wanted him pretty bad.
She continued, “The stories some people tell about you are pretty hard to believe, some even fantastic. One person claimed you trained under the famous gunslinger Cort Owen, but that would make you almost one hundred and you don’t look like you could be over fifty. Another man claimed you shot and killed all three of the God’s Gun assassins with one bullet.”
Eli responded drily, “I hadn’t heard that one before. Who do you think I am?”
“I think you’re just a drifter with a good shot and a lot of luck, but my superiors feel otherwise.”
This news did not please Eli at all. He didn’t like the idea of anyone in the Spacer Guild having even heard of him, especially the higher ups. He had a level of anonymity that he wished to retain. The woman sat down across from him and said, “I have a job offer.”
“The answer is no.”
“You don’t know what the job is.”
“It doesn’t matter. I know how you Spacers work. You have a problem, you nuke it from orbit. Problem solved. You don’t need me.”
She chuckled at that. “Mr. Warren, you should know that the production and use of nuclear weapons is strictly forbidden by both the Space Guild and the Emperium. Besides, the problem we have is something we wish to handle a bit more…inconspicuously.”
“Yes, I see, sending a hundred men in ships to get me should go unnoticed,” Eli responded sarcastically. He had grown tired of this game and wanted to get to the point.
“A show of force was deemed necessary. Besides, it should add to your already larger than life reputation. But I digress. Have you ever heard of a group known as the Thuggee?”
The royal assassins of the Emperium, rumored to be so elite in the art of killing that only the head of royal houses could afford their services. Eli thought. “I’ve heard of them, what are they to me?”
“Three weeks ago a Thuggee assassin went rogue and fled to this planet. We tracked him down to an abandoned Spacer prison facility that was set up before the planet was deemed suitable for mining.”
Eli looked into the woman’s eyes. “You know where he is. Just send in some of your troops and flush him out. You don’t need me.”
“We tried that already. After the first dozen or so casualties, we decided to try a different approach. You.”
“And what makes you think I will help you? I have no reason to stick out my neck for you or anyone else.”
“Does the name Coddingtown mean anything to you, Mr. Warren?”
Damn, he thought, now they have me by the balls and worse yet, they know it. It’s no wonder they were so cavalier with their information. They were holding a trump card the whole time.
The woman looked down at her folder. “It says here you are a wanted man for what happened to Coddingtown. It says you destroyed the whole town, killing everyone in the process.”
Coddingtown was an accident, but there is no one left alive to confirm my innocence, Eli thought bitterly.
“No wonder you went to such great lengths to hide your identity. If you do this for us, the Space Guild will forgive the town’s destruction and forget the many deaths you have caused.”
No, Eli thought. Nothing you do could make people forget those deaths. The name Eli Warren will still be known, and known for death.
“Fine,” he spit out, “I’ll do it.”
“Good, we can get you any equipment you need, guns, high grade armor, explosives…”
“Just my belongings.” Eli responded plainly.
The woman looked down at the table with Eli’s things on it. “This?” she said with a tone of disbelief. “An old revolver with no ammunition, and an ancient bullet mold? Mr. Warren, I can offer you cutting-edge technology and weapons.”
“All I will need from you is some information and I will be on my way.” He stood up and picked a lambskin roll sitting on the table, undid the leather strap and revealed a hand-drawn map that looked old and hard used. “First off, where are we now?”
“We are in Quadrant…”
“On the map!” Eli sharply interrupted.
The woman looked down and pointed to a spot just east of a mountain range.
“And the target?” Eli asked.
The woman moved her finger east about three inches.
Eli rolled up the map and began repacking his things in his saddlebag. “It will take me three days to walk there, another day to get the job done and three more days to walk back. If you don’t hear from me in a week, I am more than likely dead.”
“We can fly you out there in a few hours—” the women started.
“I walk.” There was no room for argument in Eli’s voice. If he was to do this, he would do it his way and that was that. As he finished packing his things, he turned and began walking out the door. The women in black said, “Mr. Warren, you never gave me a chance to give you my name. You may need it later.”
“No” Eli said, “I won’t.”
Eli sat over the fire working the last of his bullets in the ancient cast. As the round cooled in the mold, he whispered a soft prayer. “Darkest day and cursed night, guild my bullet and give it flight.” Six rounds, six prayers. The old man who had given him the cast told him the bullets would not work unless the prayers were said, and Eli was not fool enough to put that statement to the test. Curse that old man, he thought. He called himself The Alchemist, and Eli had sought him looking for answers. All he got was this damned mold and even more questions.
Eli ejected the round from the mold and held it in his hands. The ruin molded in the side of the round glowed a soft reddish hue. Eli knew very little of magic but knew enough to be afraid of it, and this mold scared him. He quickly put the bullet in the black revolver’s cylinder. As much as the mold scared him, the gun scared him even more. Eli had carried the black gun for years with no ammo, seeming to not be able to part with it. The ancient mold was the only way to get bullets that would fit the gun, or at least that’s what The Alchemist had told him. He looked down at the gun and tried to remember the last time he had filled all six chambers. He rarely need more than one. Still, he had never tried to kill a member of the Thuggee before, either. Eli had the stomach for killing, but he took no pleasure from it. The fact that it was his only apparent skill had to be a cosmic joke. He looked down at his hands and thought, Why couldn’t these be miner’s hands, or farmer’s hands? No these are gunfighter hands? He cursed whatever deity blessed him with them.
Eli looked down into a valley at the building set at the base of a mountain. It had been built at a time when Trinite was to be used as a prison planet, but the discovery of the alloy trinitanium had laid that plan to rest. That was over 150 years ago, and the prison, advanced for its time as it was, had sat there unused and abandoned.
Eli collected his things. It would be dawn soon and he wanted to be done with this job. It was full-on morning by the time he made it down the hill to the main prison building. He found the front entrance door barred but was able to climb in a side window. Pulling his gun from its holster, he made his way through a maze of pipes and air ducts. This must be a maintenance corridor, he thought as he groped in the darkness. The corridor led to a large room where the pipes and ducts went out in all directions. The room’s only light source came from hundreds of little candles that lined the ductwork. Eli thumbed back the hammer on his revolver. This is not what he had expected, not even close.
“Eli Warren.” A voice called out to him, echoing off the steel walls. Eli spun, trying to determine where it had come from.
“Eli Jacobs Warren.” Eli’s blood went cold. No one knew his whole name, his true name. There was power in one’s true name, dangerous power, and if this assassin knew even a little magic, he could kill Eli with it…or worse. Eli circled around, his back as close to the wall as possible. He tried desperately to slow his breathing and heartbeat down; he had to stay in control. Any sympathy Eli had for this man, any thoughts of sparing his life, were gone. His death was now a matter of necessity. No one could know his true name.
“Yes,” the voice called out, “I know much about you Eli, much and more. I know you have been to The Alchemist. I know you have the gun and I know its true purpose. You are Shakti, and that is why you must die.”
The title, if that was what it was, had no meaning to Eli. He had never heard such a name before.
“That is why I instigated this whole charade,” the voice continued. “Simply luring you here wasn’t enough. I needed someone to force you.”
So, this man had used the Spacers to force him into a trap, Eli thought. The Spacers had no idea that they were being used. Eli’s eyes darted all over the huge room, looking for any sign of movement. No matter what this person knew, Eli was still what he was, a gunfighter—and a damn good one. That’s when Eli heard the thwomp of a dart gun and saw a small shaft appear in his upper thigh. “Damn!” he grunted.
“Yes, Eli, the poison works fast, a death far to simple for someone like you, but it will do. If I don’t kill you, the Necromancer will, and all of creation will be his slave then.”
Eli felt the dart’s venom start to course through him. His vision slowed and started to blur; his mind was starting to fog. Eli fell to one knee, struggling to remain upright. A figure emerged from a mess of pipes and began walking toward him. The man was tall and thin, wearing flowing silks and a turban on a head of black hair and dark beard. Eli aimed and fired but missed, the drug taking its hold on him.
One chance, he thought, must get him close. Eli dropped his other knee as the man approached, drawing a large dagger.
“Your limbs should be very numb by now. Please forgive me, Eli. I have no hate toward you, but you simply must die. If I could find you, then surely the Necromancer will, too. If he has the gun and your blood…well, that simply must not happen.” He raised the dagger over his head and started chanting in a tongue that Eli did not know.
Now, Eli thought. With all the strength that remained in him, he stood up and thrust his gun into the man’s stomach, firing. The man dropped the dagger and slumped to the floor.
“How?” he choked, spitting up blood. “The poison…”
“Didn’t work.” Eli finished, struggling to remain standing.
“You don’t understand,” the Thuggee whispered. “You must die. You have to die. You are Shakti. It has been prophesied..” The word trailed off as the man died.
Eli returned the gun to his holster and started limping back toward the window he had come in through. Shakti. Eli didn’t know what the word meant, didn’t know if he wanted to find out. The word had a foul taste to it and left unsettling questions in his mind. Who was this Necromancer and why did he need Eli’s blood? The thought of a prophecy left him even more unsettled. Eli was unsure what had started here today, but he was sure that it would end in blood…and rage.