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July 08, 2024

Dust

By Mel Trent

The Immortal Guns of Talon Konstantine: Dust

I.

"Is it just me, or is there something way wrong here?" Kumiko asks.

They entered Dust twenty minutes ago. It's almost midnight. They expected things to be shut down, but that isn't exactly what they've found. They didn't think too much of the damage to the brown metal sign outside of town that said, "Welcome to Dust! Pop. 5318. Enjoy our famous Pancakes!" The sign was twisted and folded nearly in half, but they figured it was because of the sand storm. Now they're starting to rethink that theory.

Jynx steps out of a saloon. "Just like all the rest," he says. "Empty. It's like the storm picked 'em up and put 'em somewhere else."

"I guess that means no famous pancakes," Kaine says.

"I was really looking forward to that."

"But at least we won't have to worry about finding a place to stay."

"Are we sure we want to stay here?" Kumiko asks. "This is creepy."

"The next closest town is Grave," Jynx says.

"It's abandoned," Kaine says.

"Okay, that's creepier," Kumiko says. "If that's possible."

"You think Winthrop has anything to do with this?" Jynx asks.

"I don't know. I don't see any blood," Kaine says.

"I think we need to know a little more about her and whatever she took from the tech lab," Kumiko says.

"There's a thought."

"If only there were a computer in this town," Jynx says.

"There isn't a single computer?" Kumiko asks.

"Nope. It caught a virus in 1992 and had to be destroyed. It was a sad day." Jynx looks down at his feet and sniffles. "Poor Judy. I miss that machine. She deserved so much better."

"Get over it, Jynx," Kaine says. "You're the one who fucked it up."

"I did not!"

"Did too."

"Did not."

Kumiko groans and rolls her eyes as Jynx and Kaine continue to argue. She looks over her shoulder as she follows them down the street towards one of the town's two hotels. She gets the strangest feeling that they aren't as alone in Dust as they think.

The Nightshade Hotel seems to have suffered the same fate as every building in town. The place is empty, as if the people had just evaporated. The guest ledger lies open on the counter. The pen is on the floor. Kaine picks it up and looks over the ledger. The last signature is incomplete. Something on the floor behind the counter catches his eye. He hops over the counter to investigate while Jynx and Kumiko survey the rest of the building.

In the restaurant, they find half eaten meals. They find an eyeball in a glass of scotch.

"Oh, that's gross," Kumiko says.

Jynx picks up the glass and studies the eye. The pupil dilates. He fishes the eye out of the glass. "It's a cybernetic eye," he says.

Kaine comes into the restaurant with something small and metallic in his hand. "Whatever did this, it doesn't like metal," he says. He shows them what's in his hand. It's a small hearing aid.

"Some kind of biological disintegrator or something," Jynx says. He shows Kaine the eye he found. The pupil dilates again as it focuses on Kaine.

"Why would anyone even make a weapon like that?" Kumiko asks.

"Because humans have this silly notion about maintaining peace by preparing for war. Just in case something comes out of the far ends of the universe to tears us to pieces, we'll need to be able to disintegrate it."

"And if it knows we can do that, it'll stay away," Kaine says. "It's bullshit. Because what comes out of the far ends isn't likely to be what humans think it will be."

Kumiko wonders if Kaine has had a vision about some kind of creature coming to destroy humans. It sounds to her like he knows something, but she doesn't ask. She doesn't want to know. "But if it only likes flesh, why aren't there clothes?" she asks.

"Clothes are biodegradable," Jynx says. "Metals aren't."

"It must have been that armor she was wearing," Kaine says. "I bet she's still around here somewhere."

"We'll find her in the morning. I'm tired."

They sign the ledger, find a key and go up to the room. The twins fall asleep right away, but Kumiko can't close her eyes. The gaslights from outside cast a ghostly white glow through the window. She watches Kaine's face for a long time. Eventually, she falls asleep and dreams about a big party with pink and white flowers everywhere and a huge white cake.

II.

Winston Cash stops the trudging vehicle abruptly. His daughter, Pollie, watches him as he climbs down from the driver's side and kneels down to inspect something in the sand. His other apprentice, Iai, merely grits his teeth and forces himself not to start swearing at Winston.

Winston pushes his duster out behind him and strokes his mustache. Buried in the sand is something small and silver. He calls his apprentices down. "What do you see?" he asks when they are standing next to him.

Pollie bends down and squints at the object. "Something metal," she says.

"Yes," Winston says proudly. Pollie is only seventeen, but Winston thinks she's making great progress in learning to be a tracker. Iai, on the other hand ... well, you can't teach everyone.

"I smell blood," Iai says. "It's a bullet. There must have been a fight during the storm." He looks around at the sand. "You'll find scattershot as well." He points it out. "They were heading towards Dust. The attacker went west, away from them." He gets back into the vehicle and folds his arms across his chest.

Winston looks at Pollie. Pollie shrugs. That's the most Iai has spoken in the four months he's worked for Superior C & D as Winston's apprentice. Winston thought the boy was strange to begin with, but ever since they got to Phoenix, Iai has seemed somewhat nervous. Winston wonders if it's because of the Seraphim boy. Someone like that makes everyone nervous.

Winston digs the bullet out of the sand and stares at it as it lies in his palm. It's not an ordinary bullet. It looks like it might be made out of silver, but it isn't. It's heavier and brighter than silver. He rolls it around in his hand. "This one missed," he says.

Iai wants to say "no shit," but he doesn't. It's not likely that the result of his impatience will be pleasant.

Winston and Pollie climb back into the vehicle. Winston looks at Iai's reflection in the rearview mirror. "How many were here, do you think?" he asks.

Iai holds up four fingers. Two angels, one human, one demon. He doesn't share that information. For some reason that Iai can't quite comprehend, Winston is convinced that only one of Jacob Seraphim's sons survived, and Winston isn't likely to realize that the boys are star angels anyway. Iai has always been able to feel the presence of the angels. For him, there is no question. Every time Shaman has gone out, it's come back. Firefly went out once, but it, too, returned. Yuusei gives him more trouble. Yuusei is lost.

"Four," Winston mutters. He was hoping the answer was three. Hobbs said there were two of them plus the girl, but Winston is positive that Hobbs is senile and probably half blind. Hobbs also said one of the boys was wearing a collar with a bell on it. That just sounded too strange. "So the wounded attacker went towards Hopesprings, probably. I'd say just a random thief. And they went on to Dust to try to collect on Winthrop. Well, let's go. Maybe we can beat them to the punch."

Random thief my ass, Iai thinks as Winston jerks the vehicle into gear. He looks west and hopes the demon decides to stay away and that the other two demons he feels are not close enough to get to the twins before he does.

III.

Kumiko wakes up to the sound of a bell ringing. She sits up and rubs her eyes. "What are you doing?" she asks.

Kaine stops yanking on the collar. "What do you think I'm doing?" he asks.

"Making too much noise!" Jynx says and throws the blankets over his head.

"You can't take it off," Kumiko says. "It's a biolock. Unless I take it off myself, it'll stay on for the rest of my life."

Kaine tries not to flinch as part of his vision flashes through his head. He watches himself lurching down the busted tracks towards Hara Michiyo. The collar isn't around his neck. He gets up and walks out of the room.

"Was it something I said?" Kumiko asks.

Jynx sits up and stares at the doorway. He tries to talk to Kaine, but Kaine shuts him out. Jynx knows what the problem is. He doesn't need to ask. "No," he says. "It's his vision."

"Oh. It must have been pretty bad."

"He was alone."

Kumiko chews on her thumb. She thinks of a million things to say and questions to ask, but none of them seem right. She thinks of going after Kaine and telling him ... what, exactly, she's not sure. Maybe she could just hug him. Or kiss him. She feels her cheeks getting hot.

"It doesn't have to be that way," Jynx says. "Visions are subject to change. And if I have anything to do with it, that one will change."

Kumiko takes her thumb out of her mouth to say something.

"I got dibs on the shower!" Jynx shouts. He bolts out of the bed and into the bathroom so fast that Kumiko doesn't even have time to think of something to say.

IV.

Kaine goes to the gasworks first and shuts down all the gas mains. Slowly, all the lights in Dust flicker out, and the faint hissing of the gas flowing through the underground pipes dies. The pipes knock and clank. He listens closely. There's only wind from outside and a tiny shriek from the hotel as the water goes cold on Kumiko's shower.

He searches everywhere he can think of for signs of life. He can't even find cockroaches. In some places, even the wood used to build the homes has been turned to dust. The fish that used to swim in the fountain at the town square are gone. He watches the sky for a while. He sees a couple of buzzards, but when they get close to Dust, they fly around it as if something is blocking their path.

The only place he hasn't looked in is the church. The doors were locked when he got there. He's pretty sure that if he had busted the doors down, he would have found Arizona Winthrop inside. She's terrified, and he decides not to take the chance that she'll make him disappear like she did the rest of the town.

As he walks back towards the hotel, he feels the ground rumble beneath his feet. He stops and stares at the ground, waiting for it to crack open. It's not an earthquake. His heart clenches but doesn't stop. The vision is just a flash. A train car whips past him. The windows are dark. Reflected in the glass, he sees the faces of a thousand ghosts. Then the vision is gone. A train whistle cracks the silence.

V.

McBride looks over his shoulder when he hears the train whistle in the distance. Dust is a brown drop on the white horizon, enveloped in rippling waves of heat. He almost expects to see the whole town crumble as he watches it. He had passed through at dawn, looked in on the sleeping children and left them to their own devices. He hadn't thought the train would start running this soon. She knows the twins are there. She'll be ready.

In the east, he sees the rambling approach of Memphis Mulligan's 'Mazin' Mirage. The caravan will pass Grave and head towards Dust. McBride figures it might be a good idea to tell Mulligan that Dust is a ghost town, but he was never one for wasting good ideas on the likes of Mulligan.

McBride pulls his hat down over his eyes, crushes a wind scorpion under his heel as it tries to attack his toes and moves north towards Angel City.

VI.

Jynx stumbles down the rickety wooden steps as the ground shakes underneath him, and he coughs up feathers. The sound of the train whistle sends chills through his blood. Firefly whispers, "The white feather comes."

He scratches his head. "I'm not really good with riddles," he says.

The rumbling has stopped, and the whistle is gone. Kaine looks up from the ground. "Since when did the train run underground?" he asks.

Kumiko steps out of the hotel. She's relieved to see Kaine, but she tries not to let it show. She sees him blush a little and do everything he can to avoid looking at her. "Was that the Shaman Rail Line?" she asks. "I thought it didn't run any more."

"It doesn't," Jynx says. "It hasn't run in twenty years. It's ..."

"Underground," Kaine says.

"That doesn't make any sense," Kumiko says.

"But it's there."

"Do you think ..." Jynx says.

"She's doing it?"

"Maybe we're all imagining it?" Kumiko asks.

Jynx and Kaine shrug.

"Maybe," Kaine says.

"Yeah, maybe whatever made all the people go away can create hallucinations of trains going by," Jynx says.

"I told you not to eat the mushrooms."

"So did you find anything interesting?"

"Well, if you count the fact that there's no life here whatsoever as interesting, then yeah. What did Firefly say?"

"The white feather comes."

"What the hell does that mean?"

"Beats me. I don't think it's another star demon. That'd be a weak name for a demon. They should have names like Killer or Terror or Butch."

"Butch?" Kumiko asks.

Jynx shrugs. "Sounded okay at the time."

"All right, so what are we doing now? Is Winthrop here?"

"She's in the church," Kaine says. "She's got the doors locked, and I don't think it's a good idea to go busting down the doors. She's scared, and she could still take us out like she did everyone else."

"So what do we do? Knock and say 'Avon calling'?"

"We could go in the back door," Jynx says. "It's not locked."

"That might still spook her more. We'll need some way to subdue her. Oh, wait. I've got a tranquillizer gun. I'll sneak in the back and --"

"No, that's still too dangerous," Kaine says. "I'll do it."

"What, so she'll hear your little jingle bell and blast us to nothing? I don't think so. I'll do it," Jynx says.

Kumiko digs in her backpack for the tranquillizer gun. "It's my gun," she says. "And don't think I won't knock you two out if you get in my way."

With the gun in her hand, Kumiko walks past them and heads for the church. She stops. "Wait. Where's the church?" she asks.

"It's the one with the stained glass windows to the left," Kaine says.

"Um, right. Thanks."

Jynx puts his elbow on Kaine's shoulder. "Okay, now tell me you don't like her," he says.

"Shut up," Kaine says. He shoves Jynx's elbow away. "Let's go back her up in case something goes wrong."

The Church of the Universal Fire is a lovely building with one of the most celebrated pieces of stained glass artistry in the universe adorning its red brick fa?ade. On clear mornings, the rising sun hits the glass, and the image of the phoenix at the center of it looks like a flame. That morning is dusty and dull because of the sand storm, but Kumiko can't help but stare at the glass. Its soothing aura is surreal. She can almost feel the heat of the flaming bird rising out of the pile of black ashes. She can almost hear the beating wings of the white doves that follow it, and the open hands towards which the phoenix and the doves ascend are the most comforting pair of hands she has ever seen.

So when the Bible, weighted with two brass candlesticks and a purple stole comes crashing through the phoenix, Kumiko is understandably upset. She doesn't even notice the tiny cuts on her face and throat, mostly because they heal within seconds.

She stares down at the Bible and candlesticks. "That ... that ... that was ..." She stomps her foot on the ground.

Jynx picks up the bundle and unties it, letting the stole and the candlesticks fall to the ground. The Bible falls open. Across the inside cover, there are two words smeared on the yellowing paper in blood. "Go Away."

Kumiko shudders.

"Somebody's having a bad day," Jynx says.

"She didn't mean to kill them all," Kaine says. "She can't control what she took."

Kumiko thinks that's a very strange thing for him to say and starts to tell him but doesn't when she notices that his eyes have suddenly turned pale blue.

"She could still be saved."

"That's gonna be tricky," Jynx says.

Kaine's eyes darken again. He looks at the blood smeared Bible. "We're good at tricks," he says. He takes the Bible from Jynx and walks towards the front door. He knocks.

From inside the church, there's scraping and dragging and then a thud as the pulpit hits the doors.

"We're not here to hurt you," Kaine says. "And you can't hurt us."

"I thought she could disintegrate us," Kumiko says.

"Don't tell her that," Jynx says.

"If you don't unlock the door, I'll have to bust it down," Kaine says. "We can help you."

A brass collection bowl spins out through the busted stain glass window. Jynx and Kumiko duck as it whizzes over their heads.

"The Bible says, 'Thou shalt not throw collection plates at people'!" Jynx says.

"It does?" Kumiko asks.

"Yeah. Chapter one, verse one, Book of Jynx. Wrote it myself."

Kumiko rolls her eyes.

Kaine draws his gun. "All right, we'll do this your way," he says. He kicks in the doors. For a second, he's wrapped in shadows. When the shadows pass, small white feathers seesaw to the ground.

Jynx grits his teeth. "Damn it, I hate it when he does that," he mutters. He pulls his gun and follows his brother into the church.

Kumiko looks at the shards of broken glass for a second. She trades the tranquillizer gun for a real gun and steps into the church.

Arizona Winthrop has backed herself into a corner and picked up a pew. She's shaking, and her hands are bleeding. The bioarmor she stole from the lab on Salvation covers everything but her hands and her head. The color of the armor matches the grey light inside the church. It's trying to camouflage her, but it doesn't quite blend in.

"Put the pew down and back away slowly," Jynx says.

Arizona shuffles her feet and brandishes the pew. She makes a muffled sound behind her barred lips.

Kaine holds the Bible out to her. "Which verse?" he asks.

She looks at him and notices the bell around his neck. Her eyes twitch.

"I kinda like the stuff about forgiveness."

Arizona nervously eyes Jynx and Kumiko. She looks at Kaine again, then at Jynx, then back at Kaine. She knows who they are. She just never thought she'd see them in person. It's almost an honor to have been tracked down by the Seraphim twins. She knows she won't get away. She drops the pew.

Kaine puts his gun away and takes a few steps towards her, still holding the Bible out to her. She reaches out for it. Somewhere in the armor, something clicks. Her eyes widen. She tries to open her mouth to scream. Blood begins to dribble from the holes in her lips where the bar passes through. Kaine puts his hand on the breastplate and closes his eyes.

"No, damn it," Jynx says. "Are you crazy?"

Kaine says nothing. His face goes pale. A cold sweat breaks out on his skin. Sharp pain runs up his left arm. He feels dizzy and short of breath, but the machine under his hand is listening to him. It shuts down and turns gunmetal grey. It won't release Arizona. It wasn't designed to be taken off. It forms a molecular bond with its wearer that's supposed to give the wearer greater control over the functions of the armor, but there's a flaw in the design. It doesn't know not to respond to fear. It was supposed to be worn by a solider who was trained to suppress his emotions and give the armor only logical commands. Kaine can't quite see how to disable the armor permanently, and he's run out of time. His heart squeezes tight and stops.

Jynx is ready. He catches Kaine in his arms as Kaine stumbles away from Arizona. He shoves the needle into Kaine's chest and waits. He's terrified that one day the medication won't work, and he won't be able to get Kaine's heart going again. Or that they'll run out and not be able to get more before the next time Kaine has a vision. It always seems like it takes forever. He doesn't notice that Arizona is inching towards the doors.

Kumiko watches Arizona to keep her mind off of the fact that Kaine has just had another heart attack. When Arizona breaks into a run, Kumiko blocks her path. Arizona tries to fight, but with the armor shut down, her superhuman strength is gone. Kumiko cracks her across the temple with the butt of her gun. Arizona crumples to the floor.

"You fucking idiot!" Jynx says when Kaine sits up. "What the hell were you thinking?"

"What was I supposed to do?" Kaine asks. "Did you want to get disintegrated?"

"Well, no ? but couldn't you have just found a switch or something?"

"I did."

"Don't do that any more."

"Okay, I won't."

"Moron."

"What are we going to do with her now?" Kumiko asks. "There's no one to turn her in to."

"We'll have to take her to Hopesprings," Kaine says. "The Mirage should be here soon. We can ride with them."

"We need to find out who she works for," Jynx says. "And why she stole the armor."

"What happened to the money she stole?" Kumiko asks.

"It's around here somewhere. We'll ask her when she wakes up."

VII.

Arizona lets Kumiko bandage her wounded hands and take the metal bar out of her lips. She doesn't see that she has much choice but to answer their questions. They'll find out sooner or later, and they've been so kind to her. They deserve the truth. She wishes that she could talk to Kaine alone. She doesn't know why she feels so drawn to him. Maybe it's just his power she feels, but she doesn't think so. It was something in the way he offered her forgiveness; not as something that he chose to offer but as something that she hadn't seen was there for her to have. She doesn't think she deserves such kindness, especially after almost killing him, but he doesn't seem to have changed his mind.

"Who are you working for?" Jynx asks.

Arizona doesn't answer. She looks at Kaine.

"It's all right," Kaine says.

"Hara Michiyo," Arizona says. Her voice is strained and small. It sounds strange to her. She hasn't heard her voice in years. "I used to live in Truth. But ... but there's not much there any more. She offered a way out."

"By having you becoming a thief?" Kumiko asks. "That doesn't sound like much of a lifestyle upgrade, if you ask me."

"I didn't."

"Well, excuse me."

Arizona glares at Kumiko. "You aren't worthy to love him."

"What?" Kumiko's cheeks start to turn bright pink.

"Okay, that's enough of that," Kaine says. "What did she want you to do for her?"

"Fix the trains," Arizona says. "She said the planet was alive, and if the leylines kept shifting, we might all die. But the trains have to run again. They have to be ready before Phoenix pulls all of her leylines away."

"So the trains are running again," Jynx says.

"What about the armor?" Kaine asks. "Why did she want that?"

"Because you're going to kill her," Arizona says. "I wasn't supposed to put it on, but the alarms went off, and I panicked. I couldn't think of any other way out. The others were all caught. I didn't want to disappoint her. I won't disappoint her." She leans towards Kaine and puts her hands on his. "Are you still willing to forgive me?"

She's gonna turn the armor on again, Kaine thinks. Get out now. "Of course," he says to Arizona.

Jynx scrambles to his feet. He grabs Kumiko's arm and pulls her up.

Arizona leans closer to Kaine and whispers in his ear. He doesn't really hear what she says. Something inside the armor clicks, and it turns black. He pulls himself away from her and turns towards the door. There's not enough time. He grabs Jynx and Kumiko and shoves them to the floor. He gets the shield up just before the armor explodes. He's glad he turned off the gas mains. Otherwise, they wouldn't have a chance to survive. He's not sure how long he can sustain the shield. He can feel bricks, wood, plaster, metal and flesh raining down on it. The pains in his chest aren't sharp, so he ignores it and puts everything he has into holding the shield up long enough for the debris to stop falling on them. He doesn't know if he makes it or not. The church is still coming down on them when he blacks out.

Jynx opens his eyes. He blinks. His head is ringing. Things swim in and out of focus. Slowly, he becomes aware of a weight on top of him. He tries to sit up, but Kaine's body keeps him down. "Kaine," he says. He gets no response. He squirms out from under Kaine. He sits on what's left of the church floor, holding Kaine in his lap. He presses his fingers to Kaine's neck. There's no pulse, and Kaine isn't breathing. "You stupid asshole!" he shouts. He fumbles for the tube of needles and hopes it hasn't been too long.

Kumiko wakes up with a groan. "What the hell was that?" she asks.

"Winthrop blew herself up," Jynx says. With a grimace, he shoves another needle into Kaine's chest. "Come on, damn it. Don't do this to me now." But nothing happens. He starts to pull out another needle.

"No, don't waste it," Kumiko says. "Try CPR."

"I don't know CPR."

"Oh hell." She crawls over to Jynx and gently pulls Kaine away. She lays him flat on the ground, tilts his head back, pinches his nose closed and puts her mouth on his. A minute later, Kaine's heart starts beating again, and he breathes on his own. "You know, you can't keep doing this," she says as he sits up.

"Sorry. It's not like I died on purpose," Kaine says.

"Moron," Jynx says. "Are you okay?"

"Yeah, I think so."

"Don't do that again."

"As long as we don't have to deal with any more self-destructing nutcases, I won't. We should get out of here."

"Are you sure you can walk?"

"I'll be fine."

Slowly, they make their way out of Dust, and Kaine decides not to tell them about the vision he just had.

Article © Mel Trent. All rights reserved.
Published on 2007-11-19
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