The world's last wizards protect the 19th century from their lost parents' nemesis.
|Oh, no! No! Little Pete stopped what he was doing and just stared at the nightmare that was pulling itself up over the cliff. Frisky had told Little Pete that the Big Bad Toy wasn’t dead, but Pete hadn’t wanted to believe him. It sure had seemed like it died when Pete tore the power ball out of it. Frisky said that the power unit was gone, but the center parsessin’ thing was still, um, funk-shun-al. Or something like that. It was getting harder and harder to think.
Remembering what Frisky said was so hard… The Big Bad Toy, he said, was only one part of the mech that was trying to take control of all the surviving household service drones from the city.
Those mechs used to be the helpers of the people who lived there before the Last World War. The Big Bad Toy was a leftover security command drone from the big weapons factory. Frisky didn’t know how it survived when they blasted the factory into black glass, but it had, and without its masters to control it, its brain had gone crazy. It knew that Frisky’s Daddy was alive, and it sensed the power from Frisky’s house. Like everybody else, it was power-hungry – power-starved, in fact. It wanted the power, so it was going around gathering an army of mechs to attack Frisky’s house. Frisky was out scouting for his Daddy when he saw Pete, and tried to lead him away from danger.
Frisky was real happy when he got to meet Pete’s Daddy and Mommy, and Mister Trevor and Aunt Lily, too. He wanted to bring them all home, but he knew the bad mechs would chase them, once the Big Bad Toy’s other pieces found him and they all got back together.
Pete hadn’t wanted to believe, but he believed now.
His hands were busy with the parts of the thing Frisky had said to make, before he went off to get his Daddy. Pete didn’t know how long Frisky would be, so he couldn’t count on his friend coming back in time to save them. He had to finish this thing!
But his fingers were so numb and fumbly. He kept dropping stuff, and then having to search for it on the ground in the dark, and his eyes weren’t working so good, either.
The power cell was hooked up to the eye-light tube, and the extra lens was screwed into place on the front. The handle thing was attached to the base, and the trigger button installed, but it still didn’t power up. Pete couldn’t figure out what was wrong.
The mechs all screeched at once, and rushed forward. Mommy and Daddy and Mister Trevor all started shooting. Aunt Lily was coming toward him.
“Pete? Are you all right? Is there anything I can do to help you?”
“I dunno, Aunt Lily,” he said, his voice shaking with the tears he was holding inside. “I had the black wire-thing hooked up to that terminal, and the red one to that, but it still doesn’t work.” The tears broke loose as he wailed, “I can’t remember what Frisky said!”
Aunt Lily knelt down next to him and put her arm around his shoulders. “It’s all right, sweetheart,” she said, and her voice was real soothing. “Do you think maybe they are backward?”
“Try the black one there and the red one there.”
Pete got real excited. She might just be right! His fingers shook as he undid the fastener on the red wire and pulled it loose, and then did the same on the black one. He moved it to the other terminal and fastened it tight. Then he took hold of the red wire and placed it against the other post.
A spark flared, and his nerves got the better of him. His hand jerked back and tore the wire loose from the power cell.
“Oh, no! Now look what I did!”
The sounds of battle were distracting him; he kept glancing back over his shoulder, where his parents and Mister Trevor were being forced backward, closer and closer to where Pete sat.
Pete started to cry.
“I-I can’t do it,” he wailed, “I just can’t! I want to go home!”
“Shhh,” whispered Aunt Lily into his ear. “There, there, Pete. You’re a big boy, now. We mustn’t give up. I know you can do it. Look, just attach the wire to the post, and then we’ll see if we can’t fix the other end together, hm?”
“O-okay,” he said. He trusted Aunt Lily; maybe they could fix it together. He attached the wire’s fastener to the terminal.
“Good, Pete. Very good,” said Aunt Lily. “Now, let’s see if we can’t draw some power together, all right?” She took his hand, and said, “Close your eyes and think of the stream, Pete; imagine it flowing through your body.”
“Is it cold, or is it warm?”
“Which do you prefer?”
“Then it’s warm. It’s warm, and blue, and it’s rushing up through the soles of your feet into your legs, and up through your body and head, and then it’s shooting down your arms, into your hands, your fingers…”
And it was. Pete’s whole body felt warm for the first time since he fell asleep in the Frisky Piebald.
“Now,” said Aunt Lily, “open your eyes, Peter, and send the power into that wire.”
He opened his eyes. His whole body, and Aunt Lily’s too, was aglow with blue light. He looked down at the wire and thought the power into it. Then, he pushed the broken end back into the actuator thing and pushed more power into it. He didn’t know how, but he could feel the wire reconnect and fuse solidly in place.
“I did it! Aunt Lily! We did it!”
Aunt Lily smiled at him sleepily, as the blue light winked out. “Go now, my dear. Go and save us.”
Pete didn’t like the way she looked. “What about you, Aunt Lily?”
“I will stay right here, dear. I’m… tired…”
The battle was going badly. There were fewer gunshots, and the Big Bad Toy was coming forward. But Pete was scared to leave Aunt Lily.
“Go, dear, please,” she said. “Before it’s too late.”
And it almost was. Mister Trevor’s guns were empty, and he was using the body of a dead mech to beat away the others that were moving in for the kill. Mommy and Daddy were back to back; their bullets must be almost gone, too.
“Okay, Aunt Lily,” Pete said reluctantly, and stood. With a last look at the ugly thing that had his beautiful aunt inside it, Little Pete turned and went off to war.
* * *
It looked like it was all over but the dyin’. Heath and Sally had moved back to back, and there were rollers, crawlers, creepers and hoppers all around them. He was down to his last six shots. A hopper sprang for his throat and he shot it - make that five shots. Sally just snapped the cylinder closed on her last six. It was almost like the blasted machines were playing with them this time; they could all just rush in at once and Heath and Sally would be done, but they took turns dodging in and out, and the faster ones were good enough that he and Sally both had wasted bullets on misses.
Heath didn’t know why they were dragging it out, but he was willing to take however many extra seconds of life the things would allow. A couple of creepers snagged hold of Trevor’s legs and he went down under a heap of hoppers. That looked to be the cue for that big bastard Trevor called the General and Pete had called the Big Bad Toy to move in, and for the last wave to come on Heath and Sally.
They came on so fast and hard that Heath didn’t even have a chance to use up his last five bullets before they were on him and bearing him down to the ground. Before he knew it, they held him fast, his arms and legs pinned to the ground by a couple dozen of the heavy little contraptions. Sally was still on her feet, God love her, trying to fight her way to Little Pete, but she ran out of bullets, and the General came up behind her and grabbed hold of her with one of its weird-looking pod-fingered hands. It lifted her from the ground.
“Let me go, you bug-legged chamber pot!” She shouted at it and fought as hard as she could, thrashing her legs and twisting her body to and fro. Heath winced as she hammered at its steel fingers with his spare Colt. None of it affected the General in the slightest. At last she left off, and hung from its grip while one of the many eye-lights inside the slits on the General’s shell - now that she’d mentioned it, it did look like a big chamber pot - scanned her.
It lifted her up high and brought her in to hover over a section of its body in front of the wheeled control unit. The armor panels there swung up and out to reveal a dark space that was filled with a steaming, foul-smelling liquid.
One of its red eyes trained on Heath, another one on Trevor. Heath could feel the pure nastiness oozing out of that light. With its other hand, it picked up a shot-up mech by one of its legs and slowly dipped it into the liquid. The stuff hissed like the Infernal Serpent itself, and big, poisonous-looking clouds of steam poured out of the hole. The General lifted the mech out a ways, just to show us what was goin’ to happen to us. The metal beast had been eaten away; the part that hadn’t been dipped was dripping jelly-like stuff all over. Where the drops hit the rock, they started eating holes in it.
This is no mindless tool, thought Heath. This thing is aware, alive, and as smart or smarter than any of us. It was able to enjoy its victory, to rub its victims’ noses in it. He didn’t know if it was evil or not, but it sure wasn’t sentimental. It tossed the half-eaten mech carelessly aside, raised Sally a bit higher, and moved her toward its stomach.
Sally was a gutsy woman, Heath knew; she had been through a hell of a lot in her life, but this was more than anybody could take. As the General slowly moved her toward its vat of churning acid, she started to scream.
“Sally!” Heath couldn’t stand it, either. He knew that hollering was useless, and that it might just be what the damned General wanted, but he couldn’t help himself. “Let her go you blasted monster! Let go! Sally!”
She was almost over the vat. Another second or two, and she would be in the poison gas cloud. She strained to look back over her shoulder until she could see him. “I love you, Heath!”
“I-“ Heath’s voice broke. “I love you, too, Sal,” he finished, and tears filled his eyes.
“You leave my Mommy alone, you bad toy!” Little Pete’s voice was loud as an avalanche. Heath blinked the tears away in time to see his son charge forward out of the gloom, blazing with blue light and holding onto the strangest-looking pistol that Heath had ever seen. The boy aimed it at the General and when he pressed the trigger button, a bright beam of ruby-red light shot from the muzzle and hit the arm that held Sally, cutting it clean off, right by the opening in its body. The arm and Sally both fell to the ground.
With a squeal that sounded to Heath like the cry of some enraged jungle predator, the General snapped its armor plates closed and charged straight at Pete. Nimbler than Heath would ever have thought that revenant body could be, Pete changed direction and dodged off to one side.
As the General charged past, Pete’s light-gun clipped off one of its front legs. It stumbled, unable to change direction fast enough, crashed into Pete’s mech-wagon and tumbled over it, barely missing Lily where she lay huddled on the ground. It scrambled back to its feet and screeched again. It must have been crazy with anger, because all the little mechs, even the ones that weren’t holding Heath and Trevor just stayed frozen where they were, like they didn’t want to call attention to themselves. The General ignored them completely and came after Pete again, racing across the bare granite with its one remaining arm stretched out before it, every one of the finger-pods opened and spinning, arcing, pounding or burning.
Pete stood stock-still at the side of the valley, the steep slope of jagged granite rocks behind him. With a hand as steady as any gunslinger’s, he aimed his pistol at the charging monster and pressed the trigger. The red beam lanced out and hit the General right in the slit where its eyes looked out of the front armor plates. Pete held the button while the General clickety-clacked toward him. The ray gun bored into the monster’s innards, cutting through a whole hell of a lot of stuff, to judge by the sound and the clouds of black smoke pouring out of it.
At the very last second, Pete let off the trigger and leaped to the side again. The General charged full speed into the jagged slope of rock Pete had been standing in front of. With a great, metal-rending crunch, the General’s chamber pot body hit the rocks, bounced almost straight up and crashed down again onto the hard, rough granite.
The damned thing still wasn’t done, though. Its seven remaining legs scrabbled beneath it until they could get some leverage. With a screech of stressed metal that sounded like a hollow echo of its rage, the General lifted itself from the rocks and turned around to face Pete.
It started to move forward, but its legs collapsed beneath it. Its one remaining arm twitched a couple of times, then dropped to the ground. One by one, the finger pods fell silent. Heath let out a breath he hadn’t known he was holding. It looks like Pete's done it!
But then, the controller that nested in the crater on its shell stirred and climbed out. The army of mechs that had been still and silent now began to move toward Pete. Soon, he would be surrounded. He waved his pistol from side to side, apparently not knowing which one to shoot first.
“The controller,” yelled Trevor. “Shoot the controller spider, Pete!”
Pete grinned and raised his pistol, aiming at the spider. He shot, but the thing skittered aside, and Pete’s bolt just cut another hole in the General’s still body. He tracked the thing, trying to get another shot, but the others started to move in. In another second, they would be on him.
Pete shot again, and missed again. Then he had to take out the closest of the mech soldiers. He swept the beam across the front rank, and took out half a dozen of them with one blast. Nice weapon, Heath thought. I could use one of them my own self.
Pete brought the pistol up for another try at the controller, pressed the trigger, and the pistol sputtered and died.
The controller stopped its dodging, and squealed at him, a mocking noise that made Heath’s blood boil. Then it moved forward, its army moving in for the kill.
“Run, Pete!” yelled Sally from where she lay, still in the grip of the General’s severed arm. “Get out of here!”
But it was too late for Pete to run. He was hemmed in with the granite slope at his back, and the mech army closing in on three sides. Sally started to cry, but Pete stood tall, facing the end bravely. He had fought well; Heath was proud of his son. Tears blurred his vision again.
The first mech brave enough to leap onto Pete got whacked with the pistol for its trouble and thrown back into three of its fellow soldiers. But that one leap released the floodgates. They rolled over him in a wave, bearing him to the ground, the bulge where he lay boiling with metal manipulators.
Then, a new voice shouted a strange phrase, and a bolt of lightning shot out of the dark sky and blasted the controller to bits. Instantly, all of the little mechs released Heath and ran for the cliff’s edge as fast as they could travel. Heath sat up quickly and looked around for his Colt. He scrambled and found it on the ground ten feet away, but when he brought up there was nothing to shoot at. The mech army was skedaddling over the cliff, and Frisky was making a beeline for Pete, who was slowly sitting up. Trevor was up and moving, too, toward where his sister still lay in the gloom by the wrecked mech-wagon.
Heath got to his feet and went to Sally. She lay on the ground, the heavy steel arm weighing her down, its fingers tightly wrapped around her. She gave him one of her wry grins.
“Hey there, sweetheart,” he said.
“Hey there, yourself, sheriff.”
He knelt and started wrenching the fingers away from her middle. “Looks like we’ll live for awhile longer.”
“I’m sure glad you didn’t get digested.”
He got the last of the fingers loose enough for her to slip free, and she took his hand. He hauled her to her feet and into a hug even tighter than the one she had just escaped. She hugged him back just as tightly. He wanted to tell her again how much he loved her, but they both knew that well enough. They turned and went, arm in arm, to see to their son.
Pete was sitting with Frisky; the little mech was, for once, holding still and letting him hug it. Their son was laughing and crying at the same time, as relief and joy gradually replaced his fear.
"I knew you'd come back, Frisky! I just knew it!" He looked up at them, grinning. "Mommy! Daddy! He came back! Frisky came back! He saved me!"
"If it hadn't been for you, young man," said the voice that had cast the spell that ended the battle, "we would have been too late. You are a hero."
They all turned to see a tall, thin man with long, white hair and a beard, trimmed to about three or four inches below his chin. He smiled at them, and stepped forward to kneel beside Pete. He frowned as he wove a knot of blue and sent it into the corpse that housed Heath’s son.
“This body is obviously not your own, but your spirit has such strength… Yes. It will suffice for the present.” With a warm smile and a friendly squeeze of Pete’s shoulder, the wizard stood and turned to Sally and Heath.
"Welcome to my valley, friends. I’m very happy to see you. We don't get many visitors here. You, in fact, are the first."
"Thank you, sir," said Heath, "for chasing off them hungry machines. If you hadn't done, I reckon we'd be junk food by now."
"Yes," replied the man, "the mechs have survived the end of their world, but, like it, they are doomed, and I believe they know it. I fear it makes them quite desperate."
"They are not alone in desperation," said Trevor, from behind him, "for I fear that my sister is dying."
The man turned to face the gunslinger and drew in a shocked breath. Trevor's eyes, too, grew wide as they lifted from Lily. The two men stared at each other for a long moment.
“Hello, father,” said the gunslinger.