Wagner Rides Again
By Rowena Zahnrei
The battered, wooden double doors to the saloon swung open with a surprisingly loud clatter.
Cessily Kincaid jumped slightly; then, taking a deep breath, she stepped into the dim, smoky room. The hard, glittering eyes of the rugged patrons bored into her back as she strode past their card tables on her way to the bar, making her fists and jaw muscles clench.
"What's yer poison, kid?" the rotund bartender asked bluntly, gesturing to the uneven bottles lining the shelf behind him. "We got whiskey or whiskey. Take yer pick."
Cessily straightened her silvery shoulders.
"Actually, I'm looking for the sheriff," she said, fighting to ignore the dusty men leering at her through tobacco-stained teeth. "Marta Wagner told me I would find him here."
The bartender quirked an eyebrow.
"Well, I don't know no Marta," he said, "but Sheriff Wagner's at the jailhouse. He brought in a couple o' Bull's Eye Marksman's men late last night, so he's gotta watch 'em 'till the federal marshal gets here."
Cessily turned on her heel, keeping her eyes fixed firmly on the door as she walked brusquely from the saloon and out into the blistering desert heat.
The jailhouse stood just down the block, across the broad dirt street from the bank. Its barred windows were too dusty to see through, but Cessily thought she could hear voices speaking inside the brick building so she forwent knocking and simply opened the door.
Sure enough, she spied the "sheriff" at once, his over-large feet propped comfortably on his cluttered desk and his concentration fixed on whittling something out of wood.
Cessily scowled, and slammed the heavy door against the outside heat.
The sheriff started at the sound, the front legs of his tilted chair slamming to the floor with a jarring THUMP.
Cessily crossed her arms and glared around the cramped jailhouse.
"Marta said you were training," she said accusingly. "This doesn't look like a training program to me."
The indigo sheriff quirked a shadowy eyebrow, and smiled.
"Cessily Kincaid, I presume." He spoke with a faint, German accent, his long tail swaying behind him as he rose to his feet to offer her his hand. "Kurt Wagner. I was told your plane wasn't arriving until nine."
She shot his three thick, fuzzy fingers a dubious look, but gave them a perfunctory shake.
"Yeah, well, I woke up early this morning so I took an earlier flight," she said. "Don't worry, you're not the only person I've surprised today."
Kurt nodded and sat back down, his golden eyes amused.
"I can imagine," he said wryly.
The silver-skinned girl's pale eyes burned.
"What exactly do you mean by that?" she demanded.
"Why don't you take a seat, Cessily," Kurt said calmly, "and we'll talk. Have you had anything to eat?"
"I ate on the plane," Cessily said, plunking her metallic form down into a rough, wooden chair. "So, what is this place?"
"You are in the town of Gold Dust," he said. "So called because of the singular way the dusty streets glitter in the sun. Surely you noticed on your way in."
Cessily straightened in her chair.
"Are you seriously telling me that's gold in the street?"
Kurt snickered a little at her expression.
"Pyrite, actually. It's practically worthless, but it does look pretty in the sunlight. Don't you think?"
"Why are you here?" she asked bluntly. "What kind of a sim-program is this anyway? I thought you were supposed to be an acrobat or something. Shouldn't you be, like, swinging from bars instead of playing sheriff in some made-up town?"
"Liebling, there are many ways to train," he said. "Being an X-Man requires more than physical stamina and combat skills. Excalibur specializes in counter-terrorism, which requires us to understand people and contexts, to learn, adapt, and plan on our feet rather than merely react to a threat. That's what I hope to teach you while you're here."
"That's what Mr. Summers said you'd say," Cessily muttered. "But I don't get why I can't learn this stuff in New York. Why'd I have to fly all the way to London?"
"I think Scott wanted us to meet in person," Kurt said. "And, since as the leader of Excalibur I have to stay with my team, it was easier to bring you to England than it would have been to arrange for me to come to you in New York. Understand?"
Cessily's scowl deepened, and she lowered her silvery eyes to her lap.
"So, then, what?" she growled. "You're supposed to be my role model, is that it? So that maybe, by watching some guy who's even more of a freak than I am, I'll start to feel better about my own mutation?"
Kurt's smile faded at once.
"Frankness is one thing," he said. "Rudeness is quite another. You were sent to train with me because of the nature of your powers. The decision had nothing to do with your appearance, or with mine. You are a shapeshifter, able to form the metal of your body into any shape, like liquid mercury. My daughter, Suzie, is also a shapeshifter, as was my mother. No one at the IX-MO Headquarters in New York has had as much interactive experience working with and training shapeshifters as I have. I can help you hone your powers, Cessily, but you have to be willing."
Cessily looked up, her silvery eyes wide. That wasn't what she'd expected to hear.
"Your...your daughter is a shapeshifter?" she repeated. "I—I didn't know that."
"Her mutation is different than yours," Kurt told her, "but your powers are quite similar."
Cessily winced, a sheepish flush warming her metallic face.
"I'm sorry," she said. "I just thought—"
"I know what you thought," Kurt interrupted, his eyes still sharp. "And, I can understand why you might think that. But if there is one thing you will learn before you leave here, it is that appearances—while important—are not everything. Take Destry, for example."
"Destry?" She squidged up her face. "Who's that?"
Kurt leaned back in his chair, his broad grin returning.
"I take it, then, that you have never seen the classic Western, "Destry Rides Again", starring the incomparable Marlene Dietrich—surely one of the loveliest performers of all time," he said, running a hand through his wavy hair.
"Seen it," Cessily scorned. "I've never even heard of it."
Kurt clapped his hand over his heart with a theatrical gasp.
"Liebling, we really must see about introducing you to the classics!"
Cessily snorted. But, Kurt was already in lecture-mode.
"Destry, meine Freundin," he said, "was the son of a famous sheriff who had been shot to death by outlaws. So, when he was called upon to take the role of sheriff himself, he refused to carry a gun."
"That's stupid," Cessily said. "He'd be street paste in two seconds in a scummy place like this."
"That's what the townsfolk thought, too," Kurt told her. "But Destry knew differently. He chose not to carry a gun, not because he couldn't use it, but because he understood that often just carrying a weapon can be enough to provoke a fight. He enforced the peace with words, but his enemies knew he had the guts and the training to back those words up with force if necessary. The challenge of this sim-program is not the fight. It's figuring out how to diffuse a conflict 'before' it erupts into violence. To my mind, such training is just as important—if not more so—than running through my combat course."
Cessily tilted her head, her sharp, silvery eyes looking him over as if seeing him for the first time.
"So that's why you're dressed up like a cowboy," she said. "You're playing the role of Destry."
"Well, sort of." Kurt smiled. "The movie inspired me to create this program, yes, but the obstacles here are a little more complicated than those Destry had to face. You see, in this town, the outlaws carry laser blasters and many have mutant powers. The saloon owner does still bear a striking resemblance to Marlene Dietrich, however."
He winked, and Cessily almost cracked a smile.
"Sounds kind of cool," she admitted. "So, Sheriff Wagner. Do you have a deputy in this town?"
Kurt cocked an eyebrow.
"Why?" he asked, putting on a rather good impression of Jimmy Stewart. "You offerin' to take the job?"
Cessily had to snicker at that.
"Well, since you're in the middle of the program anyway…"
Kurt nodded slowly, then stood up and held out his hand.
"Yer on, Kincaid," he said.
Cessily looked at his proffered hand for a moment, then grasped it with a genuine smile. It seemed training with Excalibur was going to be far more interesting than she would have imagined.