Robots and Gunslingers

People cleared the streets when the gunslinger came. They shuttered their windows and glanced through the cracks, hoping the sheriff died quickly so they could get back to what they’d been doing beforehand. The townspeople stayed out of the way and the gunslinger left the town more or less alone. It was the sheriff he was after, and the townsfolk had long agreed that it was best to avoid the ricochets.

And so it went—on the first of the month, every month, the government sent another shiny new sheriff to clean the place up. The gunslinger came at noon, and then the town went about its day, scuffing the dark stains into the dirt. The townsfolk learned to work their schedules around it. It was kind of more of an inconvenience than anything, if you stayed off of the streets. Everyone agreed that the gunslinger wasn’t so bad, since he never really bothered anyone important, after all. (Hey, that’s not very nice.) (Then increase your skill.) This view was not held by the government. They insisted on sending more bodies to fill the graveyard, a new shiny sheriff to be dented and broken and shuffled under the sun-baked dirt.

No one had said a word to the new sheriff in the time since he’d arrived last month. He’d come early, in the hopes of teasing out information about the mysterious gunslinger. The townsfolk had been less than helpful. They walked past him as if he was a ghost, no more than a gust of wind in a dirty Stetson. No one had bothered to ask his name. He supposed he didn’t blame them, but the stony silence was lonely.

If anyone was curious about him, they did their best to hide it. A few of the bolder townsfolk watched him when they thought he wasn’t looking. The sheriff caught a nod at the mail post, a few sideways glances at the saloon, but was largely left to contemplate his whiskey in peace. The only person in town who’d introduced themselves was the undertaker and the sheriff was getting sick of tripping over him and his measuring string.

Everything the sheriff learned came from eavesdropping on the whispered conversations at dark windows, the loose tongue in the early hours of the night, when the saloon keeper herded the patrons out with a broom and a kick. He waited by stables and in the general store, where the dusty women huddled and carried out their gossip with religious gravity. He wrote secret letters to the widows of the sheriffs that came before him. When he received any response, their words came hollow, strangely devoid of emotion as they related what the government had told them about their lost loves.

(Could you at least try to sound sad?)(This is highly melodramatic.)

From what he could tell, the gunslinger rode from the west on the first of every month, shot a sheriff and finished up with drinks at the saloon. It seemed like he didn’t want anything else. The sheriff had to admire the consistency of it, surely a man ought to have a routine, but enough was enough. Tomorrow was the day of reckoning, and the gunslinger was getting a surprise this month.

He hitched his belt and surveyed the empty streets. They baked to dust in the noon sun, a russet river of dirt and emptied spittoons, wavering against the yellow-grey sky. Somewhere in the distance an eagle screamed, cutting the heavy hiss of summer cicadas for only a moment before they blanketed the town once more.

“Sheriff.” The voice rang out behind him, flat and metallic. The sheriff stiffened slightly, but did not turn. What made a man ring so hollow, like an empty tin drum? He fingered the ivory handles at his hip.

“I am. Might you be the gunslinger?” The sheriff felt the bored eyes of a whole town glancing at him from their windows and doorways. Get on with it. Their impatience was infectious. (Yeesh. We’ll change up the setting next time, alright?)(Whatever makes you happy.) He rested his fingers on the holstered revolvers.

“Yes.” Again the voice rang out like steel against stone. It was alien, mechanical, a sound that made his skin prickle. “You know why I have come.”

“For a drink, I recon. Then you’ll be on your way to jail.” The sheriff held the waver from his voice, but just barely.

Shifting tone quite suddenly, the gunslinger trilled in a pleasant voice, “We’ve arrived at the location set by the course program. Awaiting instructions.”

“Stay in character, dammit!” The sheriff spat, turning to face the scowling giant. To say an air of menace surrounded the gunslinger would be to say a river was wet. His face was deep lined and rough, indistinct beneath the shadow of the wide brimmed hat pulled down low on his brow. His eyes held a strange light, the angle of the noon sun glinting off of them like unholy hellfire. The man stood two heads taller than anyone the sheriff had seen. A dirty leather duster flowed out behind him, flapping in a breeze that no one else felt.

His voice returned to its flat, tinned growl. “Draw, Sheriff.”

The sheriff’s fingers flexed for the holster, but stopped short.

“Eh, you know what? You’re right. This setting is kind of getting old.”

“You cannot change the setting in the middle of a match. To do so would be to forfeit.” The gunslinger slipped his revolver from its jet black holder, a black steel nightmare glinting in the noon sun. The sheriff held his hands up.

“OK, fine. Hold on a minute.” The sheriff scrunched his face and squinted into the distance, mouthing something for a minute or so before declaring “That should do it, give or take.”

With a sharp snap, the sheriff pulled a blade from the air that sent ozone rippling through the air, dripping plasma onto the dry baked streets. The gunslinger’s form became fluid, melting and twisting. Two red eyes flared from the shadow of his face, locked in a permanent metal grimace under his jet black hat. His arms grew wires and pipes, steam pouring from his hinged joints. A deep whir emanated from his chest, his leather duster ripping cleanly down the back where a series of sharp exhausts grew from his spine. With an evil crackle, the black revolver rippled and reformed, dripping into the shape of a long black blade, an empty void like a rent in the very fabric of reality.

“That is your last allowance, sheriff. The rules of this world are now locked.”

“Ha. I’d like to see you stop me.” The men charged, blades singing, their electric screams slicing the heavy summer in their wake and the townsfolk peeked from their windows with new interest. They shrunk back from the lightning thrown from the crashing blades, deep scars forming in the wooden structures from the fury of the blades’ collisions.

The sheriff threw his weight into a wide swing, cursing as he overbalanced. He dropped to his knees, ducking the elegant arc of the gunslinger’s blade. With a sharp jab to the robot’s torso, the sheriff rolled left and promptly lodged his sword into the tavern hitching post. He cursed again.

“Without your tricks you are but a novice,” growled the gunslinger. “Admit defeat.”

<>

Somewhere far away from the gunslinger, the sheriff, and the town, a proximity warning light flickered to life. Then another. Then another. The woman at the console blinked at the swarm of lights in front of her. She punched the monitor to life, flicking through the screens with mounting horror. In twenty years on the job, she had never seen the subsystem readouts return... nothing. What she was seeing was insane. What she was seeing was not possible. She slammed open the ship’s coms.

“Bridge! Come in, bridge!” Her speakers replied with only a faint crackle.

The engineer ripped off her earpiece and leapt for the door. She was gone before the headset hit the ground.

<>

Tugging uselessly at his blade, which had now set the front of the tavern ablaze, the sheriff slumped against the smoldering building and sighed.

“Best of three?”

Quite suddenly, the ground heaved beneath their feet, throwing the sheriff off-balance once more. His sword dislodged itself, crackling on the ground like an injured snake.

“That probably wasn’t normal. Hey, where did you say we—” The gunslinger drew his blade down heavy on the sheriff’s shoulder, sending a fountain of sparks and blood streaming to the dirt. With a pained grunt, the sheriff fell to his knees. “Hold it, Ship. I think we—”

“Denied. Staying in character. Pick up your sword.” The gunslinger growled, looming over the fallen man with the tip of his blade poised to on his throat.

“First law of robotics, asshole!”

“Asimov is fiction.” The metal scowl deepened. “You got two hands, Sheriff. Pick it up.

“Oh, nice! You watched The Man who Shot Liberty Valance. You’ve really been doing your research lately.” The sheriff let his gaze wander off into the distance once more as he spoke, quickly shifting numbers in his head. It took only a second; the gunslinger wouldn’t have enough time to catch it if he was distracted. Just a few decimal points here or there, the wrong variable in the right place. “Did you like it?”

“Yes,” the gunslinger said, hitting the sheriff again with his blade. “I will put a cactus on your grave too.”

Except, whoops. That was definitely the wrong variable in the wrong place. Eh. Good enough.

The sheriff smiled up at the grimacing robot. “This time, right between the eyes.”

The sky cracked in half, a brilliant pillar of nuclear fire evaporating everything in its wake, stripping the buildings, the streets, the huddled townsfolk. The shock on the gunslinger’s face could be seen for only an instant before he too melted to white.

<>

“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” The helmet flew from the pilot's head, skittering across the bridge floor. The sudden brightness seared her eyes and she squeezed them shut. Peeking between her lids revealed a seething engineer. The pilot fancied rage looked most natural on the older woman's face, although she had only even seen 'annoyed' or 'harried' for comparison.

“You crashed us!” she shrieked. “Where are the safety overrides? What have you done?”

“Crashed…?” Slurred the woozy pilot. She rubbed her forehead and sneezed. Perhaps she'd gone a little overboard. They say that you shouldn't play for more than two hours at a time, and she'd started sometime after lunch. It was well into first shift sleeping hours, if her complaining stomach (the most accurate time piece she'd yet come across) was anything to go by.

“The space ship that you were SUPPOSED to be flying. Do you know what happens when you crash a space ship? In space?” The engineer opened her mouth to continue, but froze at the sight of the control panels.

Pilot override: Standby

“YOU turned the subsystems off?” The engineer slammed into the panels, searching for life among the screens. “ALL OF THEM?” She shrieked, eyes bulging. Not even the life support had power, a system that had so many safeguards that before today the engineer wasn’t sure someone could turn it off. “How...?”

“Not off, just diverted. Moved a few blocks around in the system controller, no big deal. I set the ship to ping life support every hour. And—-oh, whoops. No, actually I turned it off. It’s fine, the system’s got enough air for like 12 hours.”

“WHY??”

“It lets ship focus on amping up the realism in our campaign. I’m going to be tasting dirt for weeks, haha.”

“You do not play fair.” The ship’s AI whined. “You change the rules every time I’m winning.”

The engineer sputtered with rage.

“OK, OK. Calm down. Ship, return to full auto. Status.”

She recoiled from the sudden explosion of alarms.

“Hull breach in Reactor 2. Reactor failure. Hull breach in 18. Bulkhead failure, oxygen critical. Hull breach in 37. Bulkhead failure, oxygen critical. Hull breach in 45. Bulkhead failure—”

“Oh. Well, shit.”

<><><>

Hey-o. Been a minute (hasn't it always.) I wrote this short story back in undergrad. To be honest, it probably changed the whole trajectory of my life. That's a... that's a long story. Anyway, the short version is I was supposed to write an essay about physics and decided to be a little contrarian and turn this in instead. That. Somehow worked out for me.

_____________________ Hello! I'm Nilly. I write stuff and draw stuff. You can also find me at mastodon.art.