Prologue: A Brief History of Angel City and the Collapse of the Shaman Rail Line
2000 years ago, the Four Great Ships Salvation, Absolution, Redemption and Phoenix, crossed the edge of a dying universe and entered another to start life anew. Aboard Salvation were three psychics, Talon Konstantine, his daughter, Regan, and Daigoro. Each of them possessed the powers of the three star angels, Shaman, Firefly and Yuusei, who were created when the universe was born to protect the creatures of the universe from threats like the Void that had consumed the one from which they had so recently fled. The chronicles written at that time claim the existence of a fourth star angel psychic, called Samurai, who stayed behind to seal the Void. There is no evidence today of this mysterious fourth psychic except that the Void has not encroached this universe.
The people brought with them the tools they would need to recreate life on whatever planets they discovered, but Shaman warned them to be wary of making the same mistakes they had in the past. Whole planets had turned to deserts when natural resources were exhausted. There were better ways to sustain life than to pillage a planet and steal what the planet itself needed to survive. The people put their heads together and soon came up with innumerable ingenious ways to work with the planets, leaving room, of course, to adjust for unexpected finds.
After five years, the Four Great Ships reached habitable solar systems. Salvation touched down in a field of wild blueberries not far from what shortly became known as Konstantine Ridge, a spine of short, rugged mountains separating the grassy plains from a harsh desert and a salty ocean beyond. The planet was named Salvation. It was the first to be colonized by the refugees, and under the guidance of the three psychics, it flourished.
Absolution and Phoenix had similar success, although the environment on the planet that became known as Phoenix was harsher. Redemption was lost in a sudden and violent storm of meteors as it attempted to enter the atmosphere of a planet. Soon that entire system was pounded into dust by meteors, and Redemption's wreckage was never recovered.
It is on Phoenix that we find the story of Angel City and the train line that connected Angel City to the outlying towns.
Angel City was the first city to be successfully established on Phoenix. Ten cities before it had come and gone, the people vanished as if they had never been there. Sands from the immense southern desert consumed whole towns in a matter of days. Angel City was built inside the hull of the ship Phoenix, and clever engineers soon worked out ways to suck the sand into huge vacuums that blew the sand right back out to the desert. Large sand blowers were later built to clear areas for other towns. The system had its glitches; notably, the tragedy of the town with the odd name of Rune. Two years after Rune was up and running, the system failed. The vacuums sucked in nearly half the residents, spitting them out somewhere deep in the cruel southern desert. None of those unfortunate people were ever found. One hopes they died quickly and didn't suffer the suffocating heat and scorching sun. Rune was never rebuilt. The remaining inhabitants of the town moved back into Angel City.
Soon the population became widespread. Transportation became an issue. A railway was proposed, but fueling a train became a hotly debated topic. Fossil fuels had long been abandoned for natural power, such as the wind and the sun, which Phoenix does not lack, and nuclear fuel rods.
Deep within the crust of the planet were strong currents of energy known as leylines. The engineers realized that these could be used to run the trains as long as there was a powerful psychic aboard the train who could channel the energy of the leylines.
It was a brilliant solution. It was a seemingly inexhaustible source of power. Within a few decades of the Shaman Rail Line's inception, psychic energy was being used for nearly everything. However, this was not without its cost. The leylines quickly began to evaporate. Some speculated that the lines were moving to avoid the abuse being dealt to them. While studies showed that some lines did seem to migrate, this movement was due to natural drift rather than conscious effort on the part of the lines. The Conductors then had to pour even more of their own energy into running the trains. Many died as a result, and in 1977, the Conductors went on strike.
Enraged at the sudden loss of mobility, the government of Angel City began to kidnap anyone with even the weakest psychic powers and force them to run the trains. This lasted a mere two years before war erupted between the Conductors' Union and Angel City.
Towards the close of 1979, the Train War was winding down. In November of that year, the Shaman Rail Line was derailed. Thousands of miles of track were destroyed. In some places, the track appeared to have melted, while in others it was shattered like glass. In Angel City, the government buildings suffered an identical fate. A mysterious man in black appeared the morning after and declared the war at an end. There was speculation that this man was the star angel Shaman, but he vanished after his declaration and was never seen again.
Since then, the outlying towns have managed to rebuild and move on. Angel City is quite literally a ghost town. There is scant talk of repairing the railway and finding a better way to run it, but no one is willing to take on such an unpopular project. Twenty years after the end of the Train War, Phoenix is considered the bad part of the universe. The inhabitants are skittish and quick to draw weapons. The sands blow in mercilessly, and the vacuums break down more often as engineers leave the planet for more lucrative opportunities. There are robbers and bandits of every sort. Gunfights take place almost daily in some towns.
The last known Conductor of the Shaman Rail Line was a young girl named Hara Michiyo. It was her father, Taiki, who led the Conductors' Union during the war. Taiki was killed, but Michiyo was never found. It was widely rumored that she possessed the power of the star angel Yuusei, the one who moves. Bounty hunters pour in from every corner of the universe to look for Michiyo, but none has been successful. Indeed, none has been seen alive again after embarking on the search. Whether they succumb to the desert, the people or Michiyo herself is a mystery that may never be solved.
Now, in 1999, the leylines are shifting further east than ever before. Ghostly train whistles break the still, dark nights. New rumors circulate daily as even more bounty hunters arrive. Whatever is causing the leylines to shift, it will take more than ordinary bounty hunters to stop it and save Phoenix.
* * *
The Immortal Guns of Talon Konstantine: Twins!
Kuroda Kumiko steps into the dusty saloon in a town called Whatcheer. She blinks in the dimness and pulls her pink handkerchief down from her nose and mouth. She's covered in dust caked to her skin with sweat. She eyes the people in the bar, trying not to make eye contact. They all look pretty tough, and she's not ready to stir the pot just yet. She drops her hands to her sides, close to her guns, and strides towards the bar.
On her right, crowded around a table littered with playing cards, shot glasses and empty bottles, are Lily "the Hammer" Hambrick, Josey Kidd and Little Sister. The deadly Trinity Gang. They're worth ten billion stars, dead or alive. That's a lot of cash, and Kumiko is certain she can take out all three women with no problem. Especially since they're pretty drunk and their weapons aren't out on the table. Kumiko tries not to grin, but she does, just a little. Lily glares at her. Kumiko lowers her head and keeps walking towards the bar.
A somewhat lumpy, dark skinned man in a white tee shirt and pants stands behind the bar. He rubs out a beer mug with his apron. Kumiko sees the outline of a gun under the apron. The bartender's dark eyes are sharp, despite his bored expression. He must be used to this kind of crowd, she thinks. She wonders if he knows about the bounty on the Trinity Gang. She feels a momentary pang of moral conflict. He probably needs the money more than she does, but she would hate for him to get in the way. Maybe she'll give him some of the stars. After all, she just wants the fame. The money is icing on the cake.
She sees the real trouble at a table in the corner on her left. She feels her eyes get wide, and she has to stifle a gasp. It's one of the Seraphim twins! she thinks. She lets her eyes wander in that direction just to confirm. She's right. She's never seen one of them in real life, but she's heard enough descriptions and seen the computer composite images. His hair is as red as blood, and his eyes are dark. She can't tell if his eyes are black or midnight blue. She's heard both, but no one ever gets close enough to the Seraphim twins to find out for sure. His clothes are black and mostly leather, and she can't see his weapons. She wonders which one of them he is. She wonders where the other one is. They're never apart. She wonders why they're there. Then she frowns. Collecting on the Trinity Gang just got twice as hard. She notices that he's looking at her, specifically at her weapons. A slow smirk spreads across his face. Jerk, she thinks. But he is kinda cute.
Kumiko carries two slug guns. They're silver, and the handles are polished rose quartz. They're brand new and have never been fired. The gun belt they rest in is new also. It's made of black leather, buffed to a shine with a red paste that gives the leather the look of wood. The leather creaks still when she moves. The straps that snap over the butts of the guns to keep them in place are stiff. Drawing could be a problem. She starts to realize that she could be in trouble.
She sits down at the bar. The bartender focuses on her and stops rubbing the mug. "Um, hi," she says. "I'll have a double vodka."
He doesn't question her. In most of the towns on Phoenix, there's no legal drinking age like there is on Salvation and Absolution. Here, if you can pay for it, you can have it. Kumiko has never actually had vodka. She's had Fukusuke, beer made by trolls, a few times and thought it was okay. It just sounds better to order vodka. The bartender sets a glass down in front of her and pours a measure of clear liquid into it. He could be serving her water for all she knows, but water doesn't smell like that. Then again, on Phoenix, it might.
Kumiko lifts the glass to her lips and hears the clicking of a gun being drawn and cocked. She cringes. The bartender ducks down behind the bar. That's what she was afraid of. Lily the Hammer recognized her when she walked in. Maybe being a famous bounty hunter isn't such a good idea.
"You're Kuroda Kumiko, aren't you?" Lily asks. Her words are slurred.
Kumiko puts the glass down. She's got to try to be calm, but her hands are shaking. "So what if I am?" she asks without turning to face Lily.
"I've heard about you."
Kumiko takes a deep breath and turns around. She notices that the other Seraphim twin has returned to the table, and they are both watching. She feels slightly embarrassed. She smiles her brightest smile at Lily. "That's, like, so neat that you've heard of me!" she says. "Would you like an autograph? It's so nice to know that I have adoring fans." She takes a bright pink marker from her back pocket and slides off the barstool. "I just love signing autographs. It makes me feel so special." She walks up to Lily. Lily sways on her feet. Kumiko takes hold of the barrel of Lily's gun and scrawls her name down the length of it. Lily grumbles. "There ya go! Oh, don't thank me. It's no big deal. It's great meeting fans. What did you say your name was?"
Lily takes a few steps back and raises her gun again.
Josey and Little Sister stand up. Everyone else in the bar, except the Seraphim twins, runs for the door. Kumiko drops her hands to the butts of her guns and tries to look serious. The twins are giggling at her. She reminds herself to reevaluate the outfit she's wearing. Maybe a pink and white color scheme isn't good for a bounty hunter.
"You won't take us alive!" Lily screams.
Kumiko tries to draw, but the snaps won't open. She just barely dives out of the way before Lily begins to fire. Lily's shots wouldn't have hit her anyway. Lily's too drunk, but the bottles on the shelf behind the bar take a few hits, spilling strong smelling clear and amber liquids all over the floor. "Oh shit," the bartender moans.
Kumiko turns a table over for cover and crouches there, trying to pull up the straps with her thumbs. They won't budge. She looks down and yanks at the straps one at a time until finally, they come undone and she draws. Just as she's about to stand up and fire, she hears a single gunshot. It doesn't sound like anything she's ever heard before. It practically sings. She hears a gun hit the floor. Lily screeches. Kumiko peaks around the table. One of the twins is holding a gun in his left hand. Smoke curls from the barrel. The other twin has hauled the bartender out from behind the bar and shoved him towards a back door. "Wow, nice shot," he says to his brother.
"You fucking bastard!" Lily screams. She clutches her right hand to her chest. Her middle finger and her ring finger are gone. Kumiko spots them on the floor near Lily's gun. She almost feels sick and ducks behind the table again. "Josey! Sister! Get them!"
Lily dives for her gun. There's another singing shot. The gun skitters further across the floor, and Lily screams again. Kumiko peeks around the edge of the table. Lily's left hand is now the same as her right. She curls up on the floor, pressing both hands between her thighs and moaning in pain. The second twin has drawn his gun, but his is in his right hand. Kumiko is glad there's some way to tell them apart, but she's still not sure which is which. It doesn't matter. They're about to take her bounty away from her.
"You won't get away with this!" Josey says. She whips two small semi-automatic weapons out from under her long brown coat. She aims them at the twins. Her hands tremble. "You ? you ? freaks! Die!" She squeezes the triggers. The twins roll out of the way, one to the left, one to the right. Josey tries to follow them both with her guns, but she's not hitting much of anything. Kumiko stands up and fires. She hits Josey's right elbow. Josey immediately whips her other gun around towards Kumiko without releasing the trigger. Kumiko squeals when she's pulled back down behind the table and dragged into a corner as Josey turns the table into splinters. Kumiko blushes when she looks around and finds herself in the arms of the left-handed Seraphim twin.
"Hey! Quit that!" the right-handed twin shouts. "Don't pick on little girls playing dress up."
Kumiko opens her mouth to protest. The left-handed twin covers her mouth. "I suggest you shut up and stay out the way," he says.
She pulls his hand away. "But I really am a bounty hunter!" she says.
"Yeah, and I'm the president of France."
"Just stay down."
Josey releases the trigger and swings around on the right-handed twin. The left-handed one creeps forward. The twins fire their guns at the exact same time, blowing holes in Josey's kneecaps. She hits the floor, howling in pain.
Little Sister, who isn't very little at all, is standing in front of the door. She looks uncertain. It's a better idea to run, but she can't leave Lily and Josey. She's wanted to get her hands on the Seraphim twins for a while. They've put her nine brothers in jail. They've put a lot of her friends in jail. The Trinity Gang used to have six members, but thanks to the Seraphims, Heidi Holloway, Theresa St. Croix and Gerty "the Gutter" Ganymede are all behind bars. Little Sister has to stay and fight. Besides, if she runs, they'll chase her down. Right now, she's not sober enough to run very far.
One of the twins steps in front of her from the right, his gun in his left hand, aimed right between her eyes. "Double your pleasure," he says. He smirks.
The other one comes in from the left, his gun in his right hand. He's a mirror image of his brother. Little Sister thinks for a second that there was only ever one of them. "Double your fun!" the right-handed twin says.
Before they can finish whatever stupid thing they were going to say, Little Sister raises her right arm. She balls her hand into a fist, and a rocket launcher pops out of her forearm.
"Oh shit!" the twins shout.
They dive out of the way as Little Sister fires. The rocket plows into the bar and explodes. The alcohol catches on fire. Kumiko sprints for the door. She starts coordinating the fire fighting effort before she really even thinks about what she's doing. She doesn't notice when the twins drag the Trinity Gang out of the burning bar and tie them up. She's vaguely aware that they help get the fire out, get yelled at by the bartender and sheepishly promise to pay for a new bar.
"And inventory!" the bartender screams. "That shit isn't cheap on this planet! You boys oughta be more careful! Damn it, if your daddy was still around, I'd have him spank the both of you until you can't sit down for a week!"
"Put it on our tab, Rollie," one of them says.
Rollie shakes his head. "You don't even know how much your tab is, do you?"
They shake their heads.
"Well, it's gonna be pretty damn big now. And if you don't pay up soon, I'll send her after you!" Rollie points to Kumiko.
Kumiko glares at them.
The twins cover their mouths with their hands, as if to keep from screaming in fear. "
I'm afraid," one says.
"Terrified," the other agrees.
"Dangerous," they say together.
"Get the hell out of my town!" Rollie shouts. "And don't come back without the money!"
They sigh as Rollie walks away.
"Well, that was fun. Let's do it again some day. What do you think, Kaine? Was that fun or what?"
"You're so gloomy. Cut it out or you'll give me a bad name."
"Your name is bad, Jynx."
They stare at the damp, charred remains of the bar in silence.
Kumiko clenches her fists and stalks over to them. "You bastards!" she shouts.
"Why's everyone call us that?" Jynx asks. "Didn't we get in under the wire?"
"Yeah, by all of two days," Kaine says. "Still, that's legit. So, no, Miss Kumiko, we are not bastards."
"You stole my bounty!" Kumiko shouts.
"Damn, that's rude of us," Jynx says.
"We're sorry," they say together.
"Stop that!" Kumiko shouts. "You're confusing me. I can't tell you apart."
"I'm Jynx," Jynx says. "He's Kaine. I'm older than he is."
"By what? A minute? You were just getting in my way," Kaine says.
"You owe me ten billion stars!" Kumiko says.
"Where are we gonna get that kinda cash?"
"We're already in the hole for Rollie's bar," Jynx says.
"Oh wait! I know!"
They point to the spot where the Trinity Gang is sitting, tied up and bandaged.
"What the hell?" Kumiko asks.
"All yours, Miss Kumiko," Jynx says.
"We don't need them," Kaine says.
"That's not why we're here."
Kumiko blinks. "Oh," she says. "Um ... um."
"But if you don't want them ..." Kaine says.
"Oh no you don't. I didn't come all the way out here to go home empty handed."
Jynx (or is it Kaine? Kumiko wonders) starts to say something, and then he suddenly turns away, coughing hard into his hands. Kaine (or is it Jynx? she wonders again) watches his brother. When Jynx drops his hands and straightens up again, Kumiko swears she sees a few small white feathers fall from his hands. They look at each other but say nothing. She supposes they don't really need to talk. She looks at the ground, but she doesn't see any feathers. Weird, she thinks.
"We'll help you take them to the sheriff's office so you can collect," Kaine says.
"Damn right you will," Kumiko says. She smiles and holds up her right index finger. "But first, I'm gonna figure out a way to tell you two apart."
"Oh, no. I don't like this," Jynx says.
"No scars, please. I'm too pretty. Disfigure him," Kaine says.
"Hey! I'm better looking than you are!"
"Shut up!" Kumiko shouts. "You're both exactly the same! So." She digs through her backpack. "Oh, that's perfect. It's just what I need." She pulls out a black leather collar with a large silver bell on it.
"No!" Jynx says.
"Not that!" Kaine says.
"Anything but that!" they say together.
"Eenie meanie minie mo," Kumiko says, pointing to one then the other. "Catch a bounty by its toe."
"Help," Jynx says.
"This is gonna hurt," Kaine says.
They clutch each other's arms and tremble.
Kumiko ignores them. "My mother told me to pick the very best one and you are not it!" Her finger is aimed at the one she thinks is Kaine.
Jynx pulls himself away and brushes off his arms. "Loser," he says. "But I always loved you, you know that, right?"
Kaine growls at Jynx.
Kumiko smiles and slaps the collar around Kaine's neck. He tugs at it. "You can't take it off," she says. He reaches for a knife to cut it. "You can't do that either." She flips the bell. It jingles brightly. Kaine's cheeks redden.
Jynx falls on the ground, wrapping his arms around his stomach and laughing.
Kumiko giggles. "Now I can tell you apart," she says. "Wait, which one are you again? Kaine?"
"Get this fucking thing off me," Kaine says.
Jynx stops laughing. "But Kaine, it's so you!" he says. Then he goes back to rolling on the ground and laughing.
Growling, Kaine jumps on his brother. The bell jingles. Jynx laughs. Kumiko watches them wrestle. She smiles. They really aren't as bad as their reputation makes them out to be. Although some of the other rumors she's heard could still be true. She thinks about the feathers Jynx coughed up. They aren't normal, that's for sure. But what are they?