Optimal Outer Control has gone rogue. While bounty hunters have been dispatched to find her hidden in some sort of magical kingdom run by a rodent-human hybrid steamboat captain-turned sorcerer, I have made arrangements. Below is a sneak peek; part of a story soon to appear in an anthology called The Good Fight 5: The Golden Age alongside the likes of Jim Zoetewey, author of Legion Of Nothing. The byline of this one is some strange person called Psychopomp Gecko. Enjoy, minds of an alternate dimension!
“What’s the Department of the Treasury doing in Arizona looking for an old cowboy outlaw in the year 1929 anyhow?” asked the soldier in the blue uniform. He looked back at the two gentlemen who were visiting the lone prisoner. The shorter, stouter one in grey pants and suspenders stretched ominously over his pristine white shirt looked up to his tall, thin, mustachioed compatriot in the tweed pants, jacket, and dark red vest.
“He’s a bank robber, see,” said the taller fellow.
The stout fellow spoke up, “And train robber.”
“And a stagecoach robber,” the tall one said. “He steals money. We’re the department that deals with money. Ipso facto, we want a word with him about a case we’re working. I hear someone’s going to rob a train. We think he can help us think like the train robbers.”
“Oh. Okay,” said the soldier. “You should know, he’s a strange one. There’ll be times, I swear, he lays there for days. A fella on one detail swears he wasn’t breathing.”
“That’s why you put him all the way in the back of the jail?” asked the stout man.
The soldier nodded. “He smells bad, too.”
They came around the bend and saw a man sitting up in the last cell on the left, tying a bandana around his face.
“Does he always know someone’s coming?” asked the shorter of the Treasury agents.
“That’s the echo,” said the soldier, gesturing to the walls. He let them pass. “Let me know if you need anything.”
The tall agent winked at his shorter compatriot. The shorter man socked the guard in the face. The guard’s head bounced off the wall before slumping into the arms of the short man, who set him down gingerly. The short man then readjusted the brass knuckles he wore. He took the guard’s bolt-action rifle and moved to the corner to keep an eye out.
The taller fellow smiled at the silently sitting prisoner with scars peeking out from around the bandana covering his face. The prisoner’s hat couldn’t hide the mess of dirty curls that fell from beneath it, and he stank as though he had been in his tanned leather jacket, faded white shirt, and buckskin pants for years. What skin of his showed was a rich reddish-brown from a life in the sun, even after his occupancy in the cell. Mindful of the time, the tall man started in. “I am Thornbridge. My partner is Mr. Staker. We have need to remove important items from the possession of an individual for remuneration.”
“We steal stuff!” Staker called back.
The man in the cell said nothing. After a moment, Thornbridge continued, “We understand you are skilled in dealing with trains, yes? In return, we would free you and pay you a portion of the proceeds. It has to be more stimulating than your experience heretofore.” Thornbridge reached inside his coat and retrieved a lockpick. “I shall have you free if you but say the word, Mr. Herschel ‘Haint’ Reed.”
Reed stood up, pulling off his hat and beating it against his leg to knock the dust off before setting it back on top of graying curls. “Fine.”
Thornbridge waited a moment for more acknowledgement, then set to work. He squinted at the lock and pulled out a jeweler’s loupe. This one didn’t magnify anything. Instead, he peered through it and through the metal on the exterior of the lock. “Mind the door, my good fellow. I’ll have you out after a bit of poke and prod.”
Reed said nothing. He just stared. Thornbridge found his gaze drifting upward to the imprisoned outlaw, making out scars of wounds too numerous and ill-placed for a man to survive. He nearly found himself glancing through the bandana that covered Reed’s face, but a green glow issuing from the man’s eyes convinced him to pay attention to his own business. Scarcely two minutes later, Thornbridge made good on his word and released the captive.
Reed strode over to the soldier on the ground, whose head wobbled. When the guard awoke, it was to his former captive now leaning over him. The soldier reached down for his sidearm but too late. The steely grip of the escapee caught his forearm. Reed, silent as ever, pulled the man’s forearm well away from the handgun as if the soldier wasn’t straining. The wide-eyed soldier reached across his waist with the other hand instead and took a punch to his face that put him back out. Reed helped himself to the man’s pistol, a Colt 1911.
“Staker!” called Thornbridge, hefting the downed man’s legs. “Help me with him.” He nodded toward the open cell. “Let’s get him gagged and in there.”
“There are easier ways to keep him quiet,” Reed said. “The escape will be loud enough.”
“We have our ways and means,” Thornbridge said. Staker handed the rifle off to Reed to help move and hogtie the guard using the guard’s own uniform. The unfortunate soldier was just waking up again when Staker shoved a portion of the man’s pantlegs into his mouth and knotted the rest of the leg around his face. Thornbridge shut the door on him and the pair clapped their hands free of dirt.
Reed lounged against the wall, hat tipped down over his face. “Done yet?”
“If you want it done right,” Staker started.
And Thornbridge finished, “Then you want it done right. We, my good sir, do it right.”
“They got another couple’a guards at the exit,” Reed informed them. “Take your time with them and we’ll be here ’til next shift..”
Thornbridge raised a finger. “Our plan accounts for that,” he said.
Staker nodded. “We have help.”
“If your help couldn’t get me out of the cell…” Reed left the statement of doubt dangling.
Staker looked up to Thornbridge, who pulled out a pocket watch. He raised one finger in the air then, on cue, pointed toward the hallway. “Let’s go.”
The trio turned and began their approach toward the jail’s exit. Closer to the guard room, they heard distant shouts. By the time they had the guard station in sight, the guards themselves were too busy peering out the barred windows where the yelling came from. Reed braced the rifle in his right arm and the pistol in his left, easing closer to take them by surprise. His first shots with the handgun found their target. The other soldier turned, unaware and unperturbed by the near miss that had befallen him. He drew a bead on the old outlaw who dropped the bolt action rifle from his right hand and tossed his own confiscated 1911 over to take its place.
Thornbridge and Staker pressed themselves against the wall as the two exchanged bullets. The remaining guard dropped. Reed didn’t, though he did bang a fist against his side and pulled his jacket tighter against himself.
“I would have sworn…” Thornbridge started to say, glancing at the back of Reed’s jacket. Staker glanced at him and scooped up the fallen rifle. Reed was already helping himself to additional cartridges and a gunbelt from the fallen soldiers, then took possession of an unused rifle.
When the door swung in, the freed outlaw whirled on the newest individual to bar their path. It was a woman taller than all save Thornbridge, wearing flared denim jeans and a shirt that exposed her forearms and belly while portraying a kitten riding a unicorn through the night sky. She was far too pale to have spent any appreciable time outside. She winked, boots jangling as she stepped in, a jacket of black leather thrown over one shoulder. “Heya boys.Your ride’s here,” she said, then tilted her head to angle the solitary purple curl of her short, half-blue, half-purple hair out of her eyes.
Thornbridge and Staker each went around her on a different side to exit. Reed cocked his head, studying her. “Who are you?” he asked after a few seconds.
She held out her free hand. “I’m The Millenial.”
Reed took his hat off, freeing his curly, greying locks, and held it in his left to shake her hand. “Miss Millenial. Herschel Reed.”
She giggled. “I’m not a miss.” When the outlaw looked her up and down again, she added, “I’m an enby.”
“I thought you said Millenial?” he asked.
They snorted and let go of Reed’s hand. “It means I’m non-binary. I’m from the future, when there aren’t just men and women. Come with me if you want to live a little.” They led Reed out, laughing to theirself about something while the outlaw set his hat back on his head.
Reed checked around for guards and whatever trick would aid their escape. What he saw was a troop of soldiers reduced to children. One sat near them, laughing and moving his hands through the air. Another, situated on the wooden palisade around the perimeter, clung tight to the walkway and gaped down at the one-story drop like he found himself at the edge of a cliff. He heard a shout, but when Reed whirled and drew on the man, he found a lieutenant running around pantless, flapping his arms.
Staker and Thornbridge were already waiting by them in softly curved, bright metal contraption that rested on black rubber. The pair were shoving at each other before Thornbridge opened a door and sat down in a chair affixed to the interior of the apparatus. He made a taunting face toward Staker, who opened a door behind that one to sit in a similar seat behind Thornbridge.
Reed looked over the horseless carriage. “Mini. It’s a woman who put her brand on this carriage?”
Millenial slid over the hood. “ Hurry now, questions later. I don’t know how long the acid I stoned the soldiers with is going to stay good. They won’t stay in the sky with diamonds forever.”
Utterly perplexed, Reed tried the door behind the one Millenial theirself, finding himself squashed onto a soft bench with Staker. The rotund man coughed and asked, “Did you have to bring so many guns with you? It’s just the one train.”
Reed raised an eyebrow, then held on tight as the horseless carriage kicked up dust and sped them out of the fort that had been his home for the past decade, and into the desert.