The bar and whorehouse was a lot like the town of Defiance, unpretentious, direct, pragmatic. NeedWant was an upfront, honest brothel, from the bloomers hanging off the line drying in the wind on the roof to the backlit red lantern screens discreetly advertising fantasies embodied...for a price. The afternoon breeze kicked dust around a lone rider as he pulled up before the door.
The man who used to be named Joe Dawson backed his modified Harley into the space just to the right of the entrance by habit, where his ride stayed close under the doorman’s eye. Joe preferred a fast getaway even in supposedly friendly territory.
Hitching his guitar case over his shoulder, he swung stiffly off the bike, fingercombing back the long dark hair that had escaped his leather tieback. He frowned at the hum of a straining servo in his artificial left knee. The right leg groaned in agreement. The power sources were tired and unhappy, and feeling neglected. He’d have to reward them later.
Squinting against the late afternoon sun and dusty wind, Joe noted a Bioman hunkered in the shadows of the alley beyond the brothel. He nodded, making deliberate eye contact. “Pierce,” he acknowledged in curt greeting to the demobilized Marine. Pierces were a rare find, nowadays--their higher functioning intelligence parameters hadn’t protected them from post-war backlash. He was startled to see one in Defiance, where rumor had it Biomen weren’t particularly welcome.
Joe approached carefully. The Pierce line of synthetic soldiers were created equal, but some now had a tendency to erratic behavior, and a few even turned a blind eye to their fellow Marines. But this Bioman shot up to his full height, and snapped a picture perfect salute adding a staccato, “Captain.”
Joe winced with the effort not to return the salute, and walked closer, lowering his voice. “Semper Fi, man. That war is over, and we are done with saluting.” Too many of the mass-produced Marine Biomen hadn’t been fully debriefed after the Pale Wars, and it left the undersocialized behemoths lost without their units, and vulnerable to exploiters. He reached out and clapped his hand on the incredibly wide shoulder, and squeezed, willing the cyborg to stand down, adding in a quiet voice, “As you were, Pierce. We’ll talk later. About the mission.”
In the dim light of the alley, a blue glow spread from the former Bio-Marine to Joe’s hand as their shared military issue nanites held a joyous reunion. Joe did his best to tamp it down--consorting with Biomen made regular people of all species nervous. Trading comm-nanites could get them both run out of town.
“Orders, sir?” the Pierce asked in a terribly familiar voice.
“Watch, and record.” The standing orders, once upon a time, for them all. “We’ll talk later,” he promised again, to reinforce his own commitment. The Bioman didn’t need reinforcement. They were created to obey, and were perilously easy to lead astray. Someday Joe would pay the Ferryman for his small part in that crime, as well. But he had other debts to collect here on what was left of Earth, first.
As the Pierce relaxed into a new watchful stance, Joe cast around to see if anyone observed. Attracting this kind of attention wasn’t in Joe’s plan on this trip, but he couldn’t leave the stray Pierces behind. They hadn’t left him behind, when it counted most.
Ambling back to the threshold of the bar, Joe blinked as his eyes adjusted to the dim interior. He nodded civilly to the doorman, sliding him a bit of scrip to prove he wasn’t panhandling, and to encourage him nicely to watch over his saddlebags. “I’m here about the advertisement for a house band.”
Eyes wide, the doorman stepped back, and waved off the money. “Welcome to the NeedWant,” he said hurriedly, and opened the door wide without even a token attempt to collect a cover charge.
So much for not being noticed.
Joe wished he could pretend it was respect for the musician, the guitar, and his brooding good looks and distinguished beard. But even in this era of otherness, his military-grade prosthetics did not go unnoticed. Being saluted by a ronin Bioman, especially a Pierce, marked him as a veteran of a part of the war everyone wanted to forget.
Gossip would get around. Locals might give him a wide berth for a while, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, depending on the local law. In some towns in the E-Rep, he’d been run out of town on a metaphorical rail when the story got around he was a former Bioman battalion officer. Embarrassing, but not fatal. Still, they only knew the half of it.
If they knew his full name, and the full story, he’d be shot on sight.
Kenya Rosewater prowled the bar, counting heads and mentally adding up bills versus receipts. Business was still way down after the hemorrhagic Irathian flu outbreak. Locals were still recovering, and very touchy about being touched. Visitors...well, tourism had gone into a bit of a decline after a plague quarantine. Kenya needed an attraction to break the ice.
She was starting to miss even her most problematic patrons, but Daytak Tarr was pretending to tread the straight-and-narrow while he ran for mayor. Nolan...well, she couldn’t exactly miss Nolan, because he was silently nursing a thunderous brood and a bottle of Misa Mash at the end of the bar. But he didn’t count. Their relationship was on indefinite hold while he puzzled out the real reason she wouldn’t accept his latest appointments.
Therefore, when a tall, dark stranger stepped into the saloon, she flashed her best professional smile and lured him to her side of the bar with her eyes alone. “My name is Kenya. Welcome to the NeedWant, Mister...?”
“Joe. ‘Mister’ is so last century, don’t you think?” he smiled, white teeth flashing. Kenya did admire and appreciate good dental hygiene in her patrons.
“The oldest profession has its standards,” Kenya countered, openly sizing him up as she sidled up to his right elbow. Something in the way he tightened his shoulder defined his discomfort zone, and she backed off. Almost an inch.
“I always enjoy watching a professional at work, Miz Kenya,” Joe answered with a touch of drawl. His eyes appraised in welcome appreciation, but he kept his hands politely to himself.
Old enough to learn manners, then, even after a long, dry spell. Dusty and road worn, of course, new arrivals always were. He might actually be cleaner than some of the locals under the collar. His long dark hair had silvering points, and fell around his ears and back over the collar of his leather jacket. His neat beard was trimmed and haircut layered, so the length was by preference, not negligence.
He had fine, large, strong hands and long, agile fingers. Not horned and lumpy like a miner’s, but not soft, either. He was no salesman, or grifter, or pimp, or professional card sharp.
Joe was armed, of course, he had that attitude, though nothing obvious or over-compensating. Nevertheless, she could feel Nolan wearily getting his “New guy in town” speech ready at the other end of the bar.
“What do you want, Joe? I’m here to make sure you get what you need.” Kenya put a little bit of extra spice on the house offer, just to needle Nolan out of his brood.
Maybe too much spice--Nolan straightened, and the handsome stranger noticed, reacting with a respectful but unintimidated nod more suited to a man twice his age. “A bath, a meal, a bed and a job, in roughly that order, if you are amenable,” Joe answered.
Kenya smiled, peeking under her lashes at Nolan before responding. “Looks like you might clean up nicely. A few more years on you than my usual rough hire, but ...experience counts.” She dropped her voice an octave. “You do have experience?”
“You have no idea,” Joe said, the gravity in his voice belied by the gleam in his eye.
“Of course, I conduct a thorough job interview before letting any new employees practice on our patrons.” Kenya caught Nolan wincing. But the newcomer just laughed, amused, not alarmed.
Hitching the guitar off his shoulder and placing it on the bar between them, Joe clarified, “I saw the help wanted ad for a house band down in New New Orleans, thought I might take a stab at it.”
Kenya raised an eyebrow. “Did you leave your band in your saddlebags?”
Joe drew out a small but sturdy armored key drive. “I carry the backup tracks here for the rowdy sets. For the rest, I can hold my own until I can hire local.”
“Business slowed down since I set the ad,” Kenya warned. “Plague stopped patrons from experiencing the full range of our offerings. It spread by touch.”
“So I heard,” Joe said, apparently unfazed by the recent threat. Or more desperate for a job than he looked. “So you could use something new to drum up business. Like live music.”
Straight to the point. But Kenya was too much of a businesswoman to take a flyer on a total unknown without testing the waters. “Shower, meal, audition, bed for one night, the rest to be discussed.”
Joe frowned, calling up unexpectedly deep lines. “Never mind. I’ll clean up in the washroom, if I have to,” he said, with a fleeting hint of a contrary temper. “I was under the impression you were under occupied.” The high whine of a stressed servo betrayed his unspoken issue as he shifted his leg under the bar.
“I am remiss. A private bath, if other conditions are met.” Kenya immediately revised, contrite she hadn’t anticipated the potential for embarrassment posed by a communal shower. Her prospective hire had a remarkably healthy air about him, considering he wasn’t running with all original equipment.
“They’re almost as good as real legs,” he explained in a milder tone. “Better in some ways. But too much water messes up the electronics.”
Kenya reached down, her fingers stopping just short of the seam of his Levis. “May I?” she asked, meeting Joe’s eyes squarely. “I have an appreciation of fine hardware.”
“Best not, darlin’,” Joe said, with an apologetic smile. “You don’t know where it’s been.”
“Yet,” Kenya promised firmly, now thoroughly intrigued.
“Oh...kay, new plan,” Joe temporized, pulling his guitar case closer, a little too late to disguise the quality and responsiveness of his suspension. “Audition first. Then we’ll refine the details.”
Smiling to herself, Kenya beckoned to the bartender as Joe walked over to inspect the small stage. “Have the guest tub prepared. Dinner, dessert, and all the frosting,” she added. When one dealt in wants and needs, it was important not to neglect ones own fantasies. Life was worth living.
Joe mentally kicked himself all the way to the stage. “After a century of hard living, you’d think a man would know better than to mix business with ‘business’.” He cast a jaundiced eye toward the sky. “Methos, are you laughing at me? Of course you are. You invented irony.”
The problem was, most of his body thought it was on the low side of 35, and seemed rather determined to stay there. He couldn’t afford to let just anyone close enough to get curious about out how that little disaster happened, much less a lady with such sharp eyes as this canny young hetaera. “And especially not in front of her yearning beau,” he muttered to himself.
Critically he eyed the small stage and mismatched amps, cobbled together into an antiquated sound board. He slowly ran his hand over the mike and monitor, shedding a few exploratory nanites to check the connections and do some micro repairs. The weird little bits of alien tech had been soaking with him for so long, they hated feedback as much as he did.
Joe opened the guitar case and set up quickly, taking the time to balance the output for the shape of the room. He kept an eye on the neglected boyfriend, his watch rewarded by a glimpse of a tarnished silver badge. “Dangerous waters,” he murmured to himself, and then stopped before he managed to incriminate himself. The mike had gone live. His nanites had a weird sense of humor.
Joe took his time tuning up. The strings had gone way flat after the long motorcycle tour up the dry gulch that used to be called the Mississippi. Finally, both he and his nanites were satisfied with the sound, and Joe felt his little alien houseguests curl up and relax, loosening up their grip on his bone and blood and tissue. They were aware in their obscure, nonverbal way, that Joe played his best when they didn’t try to modulate his biofeedback. Their grip loosened, but never, ever, let go.
Joe pulled in a deep breath and let it out slowly, not bothering to introduce himself to the few curious patrons who were still trying to sort their needs from their wants. He began picking out the intro to Robbie Robertson’s Somewhere Down Crazy River before diving into the plain narration. “I can see it now. The distant red neon shivering in the heat. I was feeling like a stranger in a strange land...” In his mind, he wrapped Kenya’s sweet, dangerous scent around the lyrics, and as he floated down the river of words, he gave himself the shivers.
Feeling Robbie’s ghost in the wires, Joe played on through into How to Get Clairvoyant while he had the groove. A disturbance at the door as he wound up the coda caught his attention. The doorman was trying to stop the Bioman Pierce from entering. The doorman wasn’t having a great deal of success, and the Lawkeeper was about to intervene. Joe caught Kenya’s unhappy eye. “He’s with me,” he said shortly.
Her hesitation lasted longer than he liked, but she finally nodded, pointing at the shadowed area behind the soundboard. The Bioman crouched like a boulder, still and heavy and comforting behind Joe’s shoulder, watching his back.
Joe rechannelled a flare of long-buried anger back into the music before the nanites panicked and went into military mode. He picked the guitar strings hard and clean on a touchstone melody, digging into old scars as he resurrected Dylan’s My Back Pages. Cynicism temporarily assuaged, he faded into Tom Thumb’s Blues, and he laughed as he sang about gravity slipping away.
Remembering he was here to audition, not preach old news or offend his hostess, Joe eased off over the rest of the set, pulling up some old standards with older roots that had begun re-evolving into folk tunes in the isolated pocket towns scattered through the badlands. He was pleased when the audience picked up the chorus in a few lays, making up for the lack of backup. The Lawkeeper surprised him with a quite passable baritone harmony, and he sent him a mostly friendly grin, which the lawman matched, tooth for tooth.
Joe would probably have kept playing until the last red lantern went out, but his nanites made a fuss about dehydration and fuel, and his legs were itching to be disengaged. More pressing, he needed to make plans for his most recently adopted roadie, Pierce. He couldn’t cut him loose now in an unfriendly camp.
The crowd had grown some as the set progressed, and he found himself picking out an old bulletproof Willie Nelson tune that got the joint rocking into the break, tying it off with Me and Paul, leaving them calling for more. “Now this old hoss needs some beer as well, if you’ll excuse me, ladies, gentlemen, brothers and sisters, and all shades in between.” Some of the crowd gathered around the stage, preventing a swift exit, stage left. Kenya sent along a draft of someone’s decent homebrew over the top of the crowd, so he lingered to visit with potential fans and possible allies.
One young Castithan annoyed himself to the front of the crowd and blithered on for a wearing while before Joe realized he was talking to the owner/operator of the local radio station. Alek? Alak? He’d ask Kenya later.
He eventually shook loose of the starstruck kid by autographing his bar napkin and promising an interview and some live songs for his show. He also slipped him a mini-drive of new songs specially recorded in New New Orleans for the independent radio stations on the way. In return, he exacted an open invitation to the radar array at the top of the old St. Louis Arch. The opportunity was almost too good to be true.
As the pale alien skipped off with his musical loot, Joe spied a recorder in his pocket. The DJ was a barefaced bootlegger, and sneakier than he looked. There was no telling how much of the show he caught, and how bad the fidelity. The fact he hadn’t mentioned it spoke to his character, or more specifically, lack thereof. He’d have to factor that creative shiftiness into his plans, such as they were.
Thoughtfully, he wrapped up the mike cords, stacking them neatly, and wiped down his guitar. Finally, as the last of the crowd drifted back to their fantasies, he shrugged off his reservations, and waved across the bar to Kenya. “As Adam used to say, ‘Planning is overrated’,” he said to himself and his nanites. “We’re on a roll.”
“Word of mouth is a wonderful thing,” Nolan said, surveying the crowd that Joe had attracted to the bar just in the hour he’d lavished on the tryout. “Kind of a showoff, don’t you think? Flash in the pan?”
“You’re just jealous.”
“Cautious.” Nolan’s features struggled for innocence, and failed.
“You have microphone envy. I heard you singing harmony when he rolled into that hoary old Johnny Cash song.” Kenya teased. “He’s good. In fact, he’s grand. That is, if I can afford the freight.”
“Welcome to my world,” Nolan muttered.
“Nothing. Warn your new musical wunderkind that I will come to collect his sidearm for the public safety as soon as I finish my drink. I saw that old six-gun poking out of his jacket when he reached for the beer. Damn antique. Could go off prematurely. Or not at all.”
“Be polite, Nolan,” Kenya kissed his cheek and waved to the bartender to pour one on the house. “Joe has been a perfect gentleman. Too perfect,” she added, her eyes twinkling with the challenge.
“That’s what I was afraid of,” Nolan said gloomily, rubbing at the lipstick mark as Kenya waltzed away to the stage.
“What’s your verdict?” Joe asked, clinking slightly as he lightly dropped to one artificial knee on the edge of the stage to hear the answer.
She answered him with a sneak attack, kissing him quickly on the lips before drawing back to respond, “Audition, check. You pass, as if you didn’t know. If I bribe you with a long, hot, bath and fine victuals, will you sign on the dotted line? The bed is...given.”
Joe stifled a laugh at Kenya’s artfully batted eyelashes, recovering his dignity, though his real reaction was betrayed by a fine heated flush spreading from his silvering temple to the hollow of his throat, and presumably to various sensitive parts of his anatomy that lay further south. “I’m easy, but not that easy,” he lied manfully, as he stowed his guitar safely in the case. “Half the take at the door on concert nights, ten percent of the bar, shift beer for the band, if I last long enough to hire one.”
“Five per cent of the bar after expenses, hired players come out of your pocket,” Kenya parried.
“Stern, but fair,” Joe agreed, a little too amiably, his air of reserve returning.
“There’s a catch, isn’t there?” Kenya sighed.
“I don’t do long term,” Joe admitted. “We’ll settle each night. That way, if I move on without warning, no one loses out.”
“And I have one more thing, also,” Kenya admitted. “Two more things, really. Little things.”
“Fire away,” Joe said, watching her with more care.
“I’ll need your full name for the Defiance tax rolls before I can pay you. And Nolan will need to lock up your gun.”
“Hah! Jumping right from frontier town to government bureaucracy. No time to stop and smell the freedom?” he asked, adding a sardonic western twang to his accent. “Just put me down as ‘Joe Crow.’ No middle name.“
“As in ‘Joe Crow and the Oracles’?” Kenya asked, astonished. “Alak said the Oracles played old Chicago before it slid into the lake. RadarRadio plays your Seacouver song, the one about the secret heroes of the last battle in the Pale Wars. It’s so sad!”
“Well, the title was Seacouver Deathwatch,” Joe snorted in self-derision. “It was bound to be depressing.”
“It is not!” Kenya denied. “I love the chorus about the Scotsman and the Scholar rising from the ashes. You have to play it for me.”
“It’s just a song I made up,” Joe said gently. “A pack of lies, like most war stories. I’ve got to confess, I’m surprised anyone your age remembers the Oracles.” The name seemed to conjure up both nostalgic and disturbing memories. “I lost track of the old band after the terraform. None of us ‘Oracles’ saw that coming. Hubris, right?”
“It seems like it takes a certain amount of hubris to travel the badlands solo,” Kenya said gently. “It is a lonely road.”
“Hubris, or stupidity,” Joe admitted. “I’ve been trying to kick both habits in my old age.”
“You aren’t that old,” Kenya protested. Even with the silver streaks highlighting his dark hair and beard, Joe looked a decade or so shy of Nolan’s mature forties. Leaving out the eyes, she decided, now bleak and haunted enough for a dozen decades.
“Trust me. I’m old enough to quit boasting about it.” His fingers ran over an unreadably faded sticker on the guitar case. “But there’s no records left to prove I was even born, now. Chicago was where I grew up. But I put down roots in Seacouver. Both gone, now.”
“I’m sorry. No wonder the song was so sad.” Kenya said softly, reading the layers of grief in his eyes. A very personal grief. “Did they survive? Your friends, the Scotsman? The Scholar?” she probed, half out of professional habit, half out of genuine interest.
Joe stared into his beer, before raising it in a silent, personal toast and draining the glass. “Never saw them again. Not that I don’t still look for them in every dive and juke joint in what’s left of North America. No offense,” he added. “You have a nice place, here.” Joe’s eyes narrowed. “You’re very good at leading questions.”
“It is one of the hidden pleasures of my job, getting to know my patrons.” She laid her hand on his arm, letting it linger lightly on an old tattoo on his inner wrist. The inked skin felt cool and metallic under her palm. Joe infinitesimally flinched, moving his arm away. Disquieted, Kenya returned to business. “To be honest, I’m still searching for the catch in your application. In the real world, I shouldn’’t be able to afford a performer of your caliber,” Kenya said, in a fit of honesty. “Is your name on a wanted poster somewhere?”
“Several somewheres, probably, but that was a different name, long ago and far away. And your bar is empty, and I think I can fill it. Can you afford not to take a chance?” Joe laid down the challenge.
Kenya stared at him, considering, before coming to her firm decision. “You’re hired. We’re a free town, here. What we do and who we are is nobody else’s affair.”
“Amen, sistah!” Joe sang with an infectious grin.
“But there’s that one last clause,” she reminded. It applies to all my employees. Doc Yewll checks you out. I do like to know who’s sleeping under my roof--as well as any critters that might be hitching a ride.”
Joe went very still. “Yewll?” he asked mildly, and he didn’t seem to realize his hand had curled into a fist over the top of the guitar case. “Sounds Indogene.”
“Is that a problem?” Kenya asked, a touch sharply. “After all, you’re buddying up with a Bioman.” She stopped right there, before she betrayed her own issues with the artificial conscripts. “The Doctor is in the house right now, doing the monthlies.”
“No. No problem at all. I am very much looking forward to meeting your Dr. Yewll.” The cold, unmusical undercurrent in his voice made Kenya send Nolan a measured look. The brooding suitor melted away, and Nolan stood and strolled to the nearer end of the bar, within earshot, all Lawkeeper. “Joe, are you armed?” Kenya asked carefully.
Joe’s eyes followed the spiral staircase up to the next level. “Is that a problem, too?” he asked, his attention no longer on Kenya.
“Defiance has a few rules about personal weapons,” she reminded in fair warning. Joe ignored the words. Her hackles rising, Kenya was beginning to wonder if it would be prudent to call the whole job off and send the musician packing, Joe Crow or no. Treading on the wild side was her perquisite, but harboring a threat to others was bad for business.
Of course, Dr. Yewll picked that very moment to make her entrance, stalking down the spiral staircase, harping, “Teddi needs to clean under hir bed. That is _not_ the way to recycle plastics. But otherwise, everyone is within normal parameters. For exceedingly generous values of ‘normal’.”
“I’ll take care of Teddi,” Kenya said swiftly, stepping between Yewll and the stage before Yewll could get closer. “Doctor, this is Joe, he’s going to be playing live music in the bar, if he agrees to the contract.”
“And you naturally want me to check him for parasites and STDs right away,” Yewll said, passing her gloved hand over her eyes, tired and annoyed. “A travelling minstrel? That explains the caterwauling. Might as well adopt a wild dog. No doubt a skinbag of fleas and viruses,” she added with characteristic rude pessimism.
Joe took the insult without word or movement, which only ratcheted Kenya’s worry. “One of your assistants is fine, if you’re too busy. Nolan needs to talk to him first. We can put it off,” she urged, trying to defuse the mounting tension by drowning it in quick, diplomatic words. Kenya had to work to maintain her smile. She was getting a very bad feeling where this was heading.
“We just averted one plague, I’m not letting another get a foothold. I’ll need to do a full workup,” Yewll declared with prickly irritation, still ignoring the tall man on the stage. “Bring him to the clinic now, before whatever he’s carrying is loosed on half the town. Are all you humans so lacking in a sense of timing?”
“My timing happens to be impeccable,” Joe stated coldly, slipping lithely off the stage, his knees snicking into place as he squared off. “You tell me: are all Indogenes gene-splicing vivisectionists?”
Joe had used his stage voice. All conversation in the bar stopped on a dime. Kenya noticed Nolan didn’t move, but cocked his head to catch every word. The few bar customers left, experienced in bar dynamics, chose the better part of valor and cleared out, and the bartender found pressing business in the kitchen.
Yewll’s eyes widened in surprise as she focused on her prospective patient for the first time. “A Dawson? Here? Impossible!” Kenya had never seen Yewll in a true state of shock. It was impressive how the inexpressive features started to...melt. Yewll literally pulled herself together, and with an air of furious accusation said, “All the Dawson prototypes were destroyed.”
“So sorry to disappoint,” Joe snarled, “I’m a person, not a prototype.” Gently but quite firmly he set Kenya aside, and started stalking slowly toward the doctor. His large, knurled hands were empty, but his whole attitude exuded ‘armed and dangerous.’
Nolan shoved off the bar, saying calmly, “Now everyone settle down. I’d like us to all sit and maybe share a beer. Let’s get it all out on the table and sort it peaceably. It sounds like this is a long story.”
Joe slowed, glancing quickly at the Lawkeeper, assessing the odds, then gave Kenya a quick look of apology. “Most war stories don’t have a good ending,” he said, resuming his advance.
“Don’t come any closer,” Doctor Yewll warned, and made the first move, reaching into her bag of instruments.
And then all hell broke loose.
Later, Kenya slowed her memory of the sequence of events down and reviewed them, but at the time it all seemed to happen at once.
Joe reached into his leather jacket, pulling out an old fashioned single action Colt .45, levelling it at the doctor.
Nolan unholstered his service piece, centering Joe in the gunsight. “Put it down. Now.”
Drawing first, but aiming a slow third, Doctor Yewll pointed a vicious little biomagnetic gun directly at Joe’s throat.
In return, Joe cocked the Colt, breaking the sudden silence. “Are you absolutely sure that will stop me?” he asked Yewll, with a fierce, uncaring joy in his voice that reminded Kenya of the final chorus of Joe’s ballad of lost Seacouver.
Looking into Joe’s eyes, Yewll made a sudden tactical decision, and shifted her aim. Now the biomagnetic energy siphon pointed straight at Kenya. “If you fire, even if I die, muscle retraction will discharge the weapon. I warn you, it is set to kill.”
Nolan’s gun didn’t waver from Joe, but he said angrily, “Put it down, Doctor. Or we’ll both shoot you.”
The tableau held for three more heartbeats as Kenya froze in the center of the triangle of fire.
Then very slowly, holding the Colt like a fragile piece of glass, Joe bent and placed it carefully on the floor before him, spreading his arms wide, and stepping forward as if welcoming destruction.
Yewll’s gun tracked away from Kenya and back to Joe, the true lodestone to her fear. “You’re the original,” she managed, between hitched breaths. “The project director called you Dawson Zero. You received the most advanced implants and nanotech that Indogene and Terran science had to offer. We saved your life. You walk again, because of us. And you turned on us all.”
“Joe Dawson was born in 1948,” Joe Crow scoffed. “The poor guy would be what, 98? Do I look like I’m pushing a century? You must have invested a lot of stock in the name, to get this upset. He was my grandfather, as it happens. Crow is just a cognomen. They say I’m the spitting image.”
Yewll spared a glance at Nolan. “Dawson took the Pierces off line in the Battle of Seacouver. You know how that turned out. Let me take him to the lab, and I’ll prove it. The Ark brain interface can’t lie.”
“Oh, but they can. Especially if you’re programming the lies.” Joe took a half-step closer. Kenya tensed, knowing the mortal damage a biomagnetic could inflict, sucking the very life energy out of its victims.
Nolan’s aim wavered between Joe and Yewll. “Another Indogene assassin, like that poor devil McClintock? How many others did the Votans build?”
“How many Biomen did the Earth Forces build with our stolen technology? And how many can you trust now?” Yewll snapped back. “Dawson was the worst of them.”
“No!” Kenya called out in protest. “Joe’s human. I’ve looked into his eyes. Nolan, you’ve heard the soul in his voice. We would know.”
Utterly incensed, Kenya gathered herself to rush Yewll and slap her into next week. This was her bar. Her home. No one threatened her people under her roof. But before she could bounce off the balls of her feet, Nolan grabbed her and hauled her back to illusory safety behind him. “Joe didn’t draw first!” she reminded him, furious.
“I know. But I need to know more before I pick sides,” Nolan said with infuriating calm.
Yewll took up her accusations again. “You liked the McClintock, Nolan. You treated him like a hero. As a reward? He almost killed the Mayor. And that was one of the experimental success stories. The Dawsons were a failure.”
“Gee, thanks,” Joe appeared to accept the slur as a twisted compliment. “They say I take after Grandpa something fierce.”
“Totally ungovernable. They’ll turn on you, every time.”
“It’s called ‘free will.’ I guess you don’t have the hang of it, yet,” Joe said, folding his arms over his chest and edging another step forward. “Don’t hold your light under a bushel basket, Doctor,” Joe said with deliberate insult. “Biotime was your baby.” Joe’s voice rang throughout the bar with a hard, bitter edge.
“You are lying, Dawson,” Yewll interrupted quickly.
“Honestly? I suck at lying.” Joe turned to address Nolan, picking his words carefully. “You’d change the family name too, if your namesake had pissed off as many people as mine did over the years. I’m not proud of everything he did. But you have to admire what he tried to do. Even the E-rep had a kill order out on him at the end. Old Joe was an old school Marine. Unit, Corps, God and Country. You served too. You know what that means. He stood by his buddies in the trenches, first.” Joe seemed to be enjoying his impromptu eulogy a little too much, considering there was a gun pointed at his gullet.
“The Dawsons were very good at lying,” Yewll persisted, shifting the gun lower, in clear warning.
Kenya disagreed. She had noted the way Joe twisted his face just slightly against a harmless, incidental lie or two that made it’s way into his contract negotiation. It was a subtle tell that Indogenes were culturally and psychologically ill-equipped to detect.
Joe looked at Yewll with a strange mix of disgust and pity. “The Dawsons were very good at not doing what they were told. That’s a different talent, altogether.”
“If you knew the whole story, Nolan, you’d shoot him down like a rabid dog. He’s crawling with unauthorized nanites.”
“You’re just angry because he used your own Biotime tech against you. After all, in the beginning, he was just a hostage, right? Your only effective hostage for your real puzzleman. Pierce Zero.” Joe’s voice rang throughout the bar with a hard, bitter edge.
“What was Biotime, Doc?” Nolan asked softly. “You never did say.”
“Life. Longevity. Leverage with your aging government officials. The ingrates stole the research and expedited Bioman construction after the war started. Priorities shifted. They suborned Dawson, made him the Pierces. Again and again, he ordered them into the most hopeless battles. And when the Pierces went down, they would make more. But Dawson survived. Every mission. He was there, every step of the way. Until he deserted. How does that make you feel, Nolan?”
“And what do you say, Joe?” Nolan asked, not missing the fact that Joe was repositioning himself as the accusation spun out.
“Wars don’t always end the way we want them to. Sure, I was with the Pierces. You might say, they adopted me, after old Joe went down. But Earth Forces deserted them. Left them to die. Not me. And not Joe Dawson. He crashed and burned trying to end the war.”
“In Seacouver?” Kenya asked softly, disturbing Yewll’s concentration enough that Joe stole another half step forward.
“That’s another war story. Life is full of them.” Joe shook his head. “Truth is, the family chronicles will tell you, Joe Dawson was an independent, stubborn, cantakerous old bird, who would have lived to a hundred and died in his sleep if he hadn’t fallen on an Ark.”
Yewll twitched, annoyed nearly beyond words. “You mean, an Ark fell on him. The Seacouver Arkfall is quite well documented. I know. I was there.”
“Believe me, that little fact is chronicled somewhere safe, where you’ll never find it. You tell your version, I’ll tell mine. The point is, the old Dawson went down in flames. The vivisection club can close the book. I’m happy to let Nolan decide who the war criminal is, here, and call in a jury if he has to.” Joe’s claims had the air of fact, but the feel of fiction. Yet his apparent age bore his story out.
Yewll was having none of an unpredictable human jury. “I have a more efficient plan. I’ll confirm the reports of your death in autopsy,” she promised, straightening her shoulders and squeezing her finger on the trigger of the biomagnetic weapon.
And then the Bioman Pierce was on her, reaching across to direct her fire down with one hand, while squeezing her throat closed with the other. “The standing order is to kill you,” Pierce said, ignoring Yewll as she kicked.
In the heat of the confrontation, while the crowd had fled, Pierce had remained, still, silent, forgotten. He had remained hunched, listening and watching in the corner behind the stage through the concert, all eyes eventually passing over and through him as if he were mere set dressing. Until, without word or nod, he had risen and rushed directly into Doctor Yewll’s line of fire and neutralized the threat.
Lawkeeper Nolan shifted to the new target. “Call him off, Joe,” he ordered. “Much as I hate to say it, the town needs a doctor more than a guitar player.”
“Your priorities are screwed up, buddy,” Joe said absently, not moving. In inarticulate answer, Yewll pulled the trigger. Pierce’s grip held the gun low and wide, but the biomagnetic tentacles spurted dangerously close to Joe’s foot, slithering harmlessly along the floor before retracting to recharge.
“You’re not helping, Doctor,” Kenya complained. “Nolan’s right, Joe. Whatever happened in the past, Doc Yewll saved the town from plague. We need her, for now.” Need, but not want, Kenya realized. “We’ll look for a replacement.”
Yewll’s white, pebbled skin was taking on a wet, silvery sheen, and her darker skull implants were swelling.
Nolan strode forward and held his gun to the Pierce’s head. “Stop him, or I will.” Toe to toe, Nolan and Joe took each other’s measure. Kenya held her breath as Yewll fought for hers. The last thing they all needed was a pissing match.
“Joe.” Kenya spoke firmly. “Now. She has as much protection under my roof as you do, until I say otherwise.”
And miracle of miracles, Joe heard. “Very well, Lady Kenya,” he said with odd formality. “Your place, your town, your call.”
Joe reached up and put his hand on the back of the Pierce’s neck. “The standing order is to kill,” the Pierce insisted, but slowly, his grip loosened and his head bowed. The cascading cloud of nanites exchanging places between them sparked blue and violet under the stage lights.
“I’ll have to put him to sleep to do a full reboot,” Joe said, clearly unhappy with himself and the decision.
Nolan stepped away with a grimace, lowering his weapon, brushing unconsciously at his clothes.
“What’s wrong with you?” Kenya asked, moving closer, fascinated.
“I’ve seen Biomen reprogrammed by their unit commanders before,” Nolan shrugged away a shudder. “Military manual claimed it wasn’t catching. Still, it always creeps me out.”
Keeping her hostess priorities in order, Kenya went to Yewll’s side to keep her head from bouncing off the floor after the Pierce released her. She inhaled in short, sharp gasps, her skull implant throbbing, her eyes fluttering closed.
“Clear the weapon first,” Joe warned, fretting as he gently laid the Pierce down. “The Indogene body may be half conscious, but the implants never sleep.” Stepping over the body, he reached down for the life-leaching gun.
Joe was right, Kenya realized muzzily as Yewll straight-armed her into the stage. The Indogene self-defense implants did not sleep. Without even opening her eyes, Doctor Yewll raised the biomagnetic weapon and shot Joe point blank in the chest.
Joe expected to wake up in jail, if he woke up at all, but if this was a jail cell, Lawkeeper Nolan had well-hidden facets to his personality. There were sheets, for one thing. And a pillow, for another, clean, and smooth, and sweet-smelling in the warm, moist air. Even his nanites were purring in sleepy, unalarmed content.
He cocked open one eye. Best of all, there was a Kenya, even softer, and smoother, and smelling of desire. As quickly as it occurred, Joe buried the thought. He was better at lying to himself than to the world, but it didn’t mean he stopped trying. “Have I died and gone to hetaera heaven?” he asked, not exactly joking.
“It was close, but no cigar,” Kenya said with a welcoming smile. “Luckily, the bioelectric setting was nonlethal, despite what she said. It seems Doctor Yewll’s oath extends that far.”
“Don’t bet the farm,” Joe warned darkly. “It’ll come up snake-eyes some day. Hey, shouldn’t I be in Nolan’s Graybar Hotel? Not that I’m complaining.”
“I posted bond. Nolan released you in my custody.”
Joe smiled as he imagined the pained expression on Nolan’s face as Kenya talked him into that little arrangement. “If this is jail, I want to see your dungeon,” he said, running his calloused hands over the linen.
Kenya said with a raised eyebrow. “That can be arranged.”
“I’m kidding,” Joe said hastily. He ran down his internal checks, coming up mostly green, with some key systems still sleeping. At the end, he mentally added ‘Woke up naked in someone else’s bed.’ ‘Check.’
Being more human than even the Indogenes gave him credit for, he lifted up the sheet and peeked anyway. Briefly panicking, he struggled upright, absent his prosthetic legs.
“Take it easy, Joe, they’re right here,” Kenya reassured, pointing at the legs stacked in the alcove next to the bed. “All cleaned up and charged up, just like you. Nolan and I stood over Doctor Yewll during the reset operation to make sure she didn’t use an Ark brain to reprogram anything. You should be good as new.”
“You two are a pair to draw to, aren’t you?” Joe’s fret hand twitched, then twitched again. The mere idea of Yewll poking into his innards made Joe’s blood run cold. The nanites inevitably picked up on his alarm, and crawled all over his skin and nervous system, looking for equally tiny spies or saboteurs.
“What’s wrong, Joe?” Kenya said, sitting on the edge of the bed and feeling his forehead, tucking up the sheet with a strangely motherly gesture as he shook. “Did Yewll sneak something by us?”
“I don’t know yet. It’s a reboot reaction. A bad one. It should pass in a minute, if there’s no malware. Give me the legs,” he demanded through clenching teeth. With shaking hands, he opened the access panels behind the calves, and ran his own personal system diagnostic on the legs as well. One by one, the servos hummed, the software hung, then cleared. “The telltails are green across the board,” he said, as his own internals calmed and tuned.
“The Pierce didn’t get sick when he woke up,” Kenya said, clearly still worried. “And before you freak out again, he’s happily guarding the door. I never felt so safe. Believe me, I never dreamed I’d say that about a Bioman, before.”
“He likes you, if he let you in alone. Thank you for giving him the watch.” Relief cascaded through his systems as that welcome news processed.
“Sorry for the troubles I caused you. I’ll ante up for the room and board.”
“I give one free day pass to people who save my life, though attempted suicide will invalidate the warranty. Please don’t walk into a gun again, Joe.”
“I’ll take it under advisement,” Joe said, as the tremors eased.
“Some people get hangovers, you get...rebootovers? Nanite attack, alcohol poisoning, walking unarmed into biomechanical siphons--people inflict the most interesting challenges upon themselves,” she said kindly with just a touch of mischief in her eye. “I wish I could recover this fast from a binge. You are fully recovered, I hope,” she said with a sideways glance. Her fingers walked teasingly down his arm, stopping just above his tattoo.
“Any second now,” he boasted, to hide a diffidence he could not blame on the reboot. He clicked the panels back into place and put the legs aside. He stared down at her hand, resting so trustfully on his skin, close enough to the tattoo interface that the nanites could line up in picoseconds and touch her. If he let them.
“Aren’t you afraid of me? After all Yewll’s warnings? She didn’t lie about everything. In fact, much as I hate to say it, most of what she said was true. Twisted, but true. And even your big, strong, Lawgiver is repelled by the nanites.”
Kenya considered his question seriously, but didn’t move her hand. “I admire a man with self control,” she said with earnest trust. Slowly, she drew her finger through the dark layer of nanites masquerading as a trefoil tattoo. They fled before her finger like children playing tag at the park, sinking with a tickle into his wrist. “You have exquisite self control.”
“If I had that much control, I wouldn’t have blown my cover in the bar in the first place,” Joe said with dark reasoning. “You would have just found Yewll in a ditch one day, no explanation, no motive, no means, and me with an alibi playing happily on the stage. Most of all, no witnesses.”
“You could have picked up your own gun and killed Doctor Yewll in the bar. Or you could have let the Pierce kill her, and walked away scot-free. But you didn’t. And you have a lot more reason to hurt her than to put me in harms way. It isn’t a part of your story.”
“I could have been telling some fibs,” Joe admitted sheepishly. “I’m no saint.”
“You can’t imagine how happy I am to hear that,” Kenya laughed. “Granted. You told some whoppers. But they are whoppers Nolan can live with, and Yewll can’t contradict without hanging herself.” Kenya stared into his eyes, searching for something. “Still, I know you have other stories. It’s in your gaze, and in your songs. I want to hear more, Joe Dawson.”
“So Joe Crow didn’t fly with you,” he said wryly.
“Sure it did. It’s the Phoenix myth, Joe, one of the oldest stories there is. The young Joe rises from the ashes of the old, transformed,” Kenya murmured, now kneading his shoulders and neck. Joe realized his tensing muscles were more revealing than any lie detector.
With conscious effort, he relaxed into her hands, sacrificing one long-guarded secret to her trust. “Sometimes the old stories are the best. I didn’t desert, despite what Yewll said. At least, not before the battle. I was detailed to infiltrate an Ark. You don’t want to know how. Or why. We managed to set off an explosion. And believe me...”
“...I don’t want to know why. Or how,” Kenya finished for him, easing the tension in the back of his neck, her skills professional, her touch highly personal.
“The Ark soft landed near Seacouver, for given definitions of ‘soft’. I was busted up, but the Pierces found me in the burning wreck before it blew. They saved the damaged Ark brain as well. The Pierces set my bones, the nanites completed the facelift. The Ark brain and I, we struck a deal. I let it go, it let me go, we all let the nanites go. We had a regular old Independence Day bash, nanites gone wild.”
“But you still have nanites,” Kenya pointed out with impeccable logic.
“Some of them left pretty damn fast. The Indogene behavior modification cadre, for one.” Joe damn well didn’t miss them, but for the volunteers who stayed, he felt a peculiar protective pang. “The rest? We...learned to walk together. Their awareness is different. Their experiences are pooled. They can leave any time they want. I don’t stop them.”
“Really?” Kenya wondered, dubious. “What would they do?”
“Some of them like to explore. I’ve left colonies from here to Calexico, Banff to New New Orleans. They like radio stations. Marine radios. Short wave ham radios, even. Go figure. I even left a colony at Wolfman Jack’s old tower in Sonora. But for the rest? I’m the only home they know.”
“RadarRadio, too?” Kenya inquired thoughtfully.
“I was going to take the crew to the Arch for a visit,” Joe admitted. “Some of them like to take a quick vacation, and then trundle back to the fold. Gives me a chance to shop a song or two with the DJs, if I’m lucky.”
“Can I come along?” she brightened. She held Joe’s wrist close to her lips, blowing playfully. “You too, little ones! We’ll have a picnic in the station. I’ve never done the top of the Arch.”
“Sure. Why not?” Joe agreed, ignoring a warning bell about what ‘done the top of the Arch’ entailed. “In fact, you have to. I’m in your custody,” he reminded with a rueful grin.
“What about other people? Who else would your nanites choose to take over?” Kenya asked, reveling in the frisson of risk.
“No one!” Joe backtracked, horrified at the thought. “The gene sequencing would be all wrong. There would be nothing for them to do. They can’t help. They can’t heal. That’s the real reason the Dawson line was labeled a failure. The scientists couldn’t pass on the benefits to the ‘investors’.”
That was another story that Joe was determined to take to his grave: the secret ingredient. Adam Pierce, his friend Methos, ostensibly collaborating with the Votan Collective, had kept him alive through the Indogene experiments with transfusions and marrow transplants from his own Immortal body and stolen slivers of Ark brain, corrupting the results.
Turning Joe Dawson into an accidental Immortal in the torturous process.
Joe still didn’t know how to thank Adam and MacLeod for their ultimately disastrous rescue attempt. He still wasn’t sure he could forgive them, either. He never had the chance. And when he tried to return the favor years later, bringing the whole Ark down in the process, neither could be found among the bodies of the scientists or crew.
It had been decades since the Ark went down. Joe still scanned the streets, the bars, the concert audiences for their faces. He would never stop. Observe. Record. The mission was hard wired, now
“But you mix your nanites with the Pierces,” Kenya interrupted his brown study, demanding his attention. “Aren’t they people in your book?”
“They’re my brothers. We communicate. We don’t invade each other,” Joe corrected sharply, then winced at his own touchiness. “Sorry. Yeah, I got the two-for-one deal. After I got away from the Indogenes, the Bioman project drafted me for the Resistance. Different piper, same old tune.” Joe closed his eyes for a moment. He was not going to go there.
“So, after Seacouver, you were able to let the Pierces go, too,” Kenya encouraged, not letting him shut her out. “Independence Day. Or is it an Emancipation Proclamation? That was very brave. The Earth Forces might have shot you for fomenting desertion, after all.”
They had. But Joe didn’t scar the way he used to. “They still could,” he warned her honestly. “In retrospect, it was a mistake. I moved too fast, because the Pierces were dying on the line too fast. Fungible. Disposable.” Joe allowed the old guilt to surface. “But when they were cut loose, they didn’t have the training to survive without unit cohesion and Corps support. They were too...young, for the lack of a better word. The ones I find now, I send up to a little place I homesteaded in the Banff Islands, to retrain in peace, with friends.”
“With Pierce Zero?” Kenya guessed, watching his face. “Or the manly MacLeod, hero of the Seacouver song?”
“Minx. All lies, remember? They’re gone. That story is over,” he growled, gently placing his finger over her lips.
“But I’m here,” she reminded, flicking her tongue out to trace the calloused tip. He quickly drew back only when she followed up with a nip, dispersing his blues.
“Someday, when I get tired of roving, maybe I’ll find someone bright and brave and beautiful. Someone like...you. Then I might settle down up there and see if I can’t make a little Joe Crow a reality. There’s room to grow up there.” He stopped, surprised at the confession. “Then again, I bet all the boys and a lot of the gals tell you the same thing.”
“You’re not roving anywhere, anytime soon, bucko,” Kenya announced sternly. “I paid the bail. You owe me a meal, a bath, and a room, and a song until I say you’re done. That could take weeks.”
“Months,” Joe teased, twirling the tip of his mustache.
“Years! You’re a high-risk hooligan! I may never let you out of my custody,” she claimed, imperiously tweaking some very sensitive hairs on his chest.
“No guarantees. I’m one bad hombre. No morals whatsoever.” Joe gathered her into his arms, laughing into her pillowy cleavage, stealing tasty kisses, teasing and teething the edge of her bodice. He hadn’t felt quite this human in a very long time. Kenya was winnowing under his skin in the way no nanite could dream or deliver.
And she was winnowing under the fine linen sheet, to boot. He captured her wandering hand. “Are you sure?” he asked, his voice dropping a half octave, nuzzling the nape of her neck with his mustache. “All you have to do is say ‘no’.”
“I’m a here-and-now kind of woman, Joe. I don’t care much about the past. And the Banff Islands are a long way off. What I do know, there’s room to grow down here, too,” Kenya said, trailing her free hand down the corded muscles of his torso, circling the hollow in his navel, and lower, to hook the edge of the soft linen sheet. It whispered over his skin as she pulled it down. “Lots of room. And all you have to do is say ‘yes’.”