The First Gunslinger

11

The following is the third part in an ongoing series. It is strongly recommended you read the previous parts before continuing.

You wouldn't really think a plane like that could crash. Sleek black exterior, geometric shapes, egregiously wide wings- the whole package. It practically screamed "If I crash, I will take out an entire city with me, bastards." But because God has something of a sense of humor, crash it did, and a plane like that crashes hard. Minutes before, Sean was sitting in the fake velvet-padded seat in the passenger area, staring out the sorry little cylindrical window that was available. The mesa below was cracked and hardened in an almost wizened fashion, like the face of an elderly man who had spent too much time in the sun during his past life. Sean considered they were probably over Nevada, or somewhere near the midwest. Earlier that week he had discovered that the Protection division offered vacation coupons, required you met your dissident suppression quota for the month. Apparently these weren't something the Authority had wanted to advertise very much, as he had to go to a dingy old basement in the Protection center to find any way to use them.

His train of thought was disjointed, lulled to a quiet haze by the muffled humming of the plane's engines. Though it was a military aircraft, this one had seemingly been hollowed out and repurposed as some kind of transport. The floor had been covered in a thick pastel blue carpet, with four loveseats lined up in rows through the cabin. The seats were scratchy, the velvet fake and smelling of bleach. All of this was, it seemed, an effort to lull the passenger- if there was any- into a hazed state of content. It had nearly worked on him, had it not been for the nearly sinister lack of any other passengers. It seemed not many Protection officers actually met their monthly suppression quota enough to qualify. He was shaken from his own thoughts by a canned feminine voice, emerging from the overhead speakers. It said something in some hispanic-sounding language, that he couldn't quite understand. He did catch one word, however, that being "turbulence." He didn't get a chance to dwell on it.

Looking back on it, it could have been a lot worse.

The crash was fast- a bit anticlimactic, judging from what he'd seen on television. Nothing exploded, the plane simply dipped into the scattered dunes below, as if someone had finally told it about gravity, and it decided it wanted to try it out. As it was descending, Sean thought he heard the rear engines sputtering to compensate. A frail plastic oxygen mask smacked him in the face from above, warning lights beginning to flash in the passenger cabin. Again he was unable to dwell on these revelations, as the air was quickly ripped from his chest by the cabin doors exploding outwards. He sputtered, grasping the plastic mask and firmly pressing it to his mouth. Just as he secured it around his head, consciousness was stripped away by the ever-increasing speed of the aircraft.

When he awoke again, there was a spiking pain along his spine. His vision was blurred, his skin encrusted in blazingly hot sand. He groaned, attempting to sit up, only to find that doing so resulted in even worse pain. He fell forward against the sand, blinking it out of his eyes as he hit the ground. There wasn't any time for this, he could vaguely hear fire through the obnoxious ringing in his ears. Sean lifted his head, gritting his teeth and beginning to crawl in what he hoped was the direction away from the remains of the aircraft. As the ringing subsided slightly, he tried to grasp another handful of sand, only to see it go through his fingers. Rather, where his fingers used to be. The sand matted against the stumps of his ring and middle fingers, ushering a groan from his crusted lips.

Up until that point it hadn't really set in just how battered he was from the crash, with what he could only hope was minor fragmentation of his spine, two missing fingers, and otherwise entirely burnt skin. Only his legs seemed to remain unscathed- probably due to his leather pants, with their padding and extraordinarily thick pockets. He thanked God for those pants, and he thanked God he had stuffed extra padding around his crotch that day in the armory. The blaring sun beat down upon his back, like a child holding a magnifying glass above an anthill. The air around him shimmered with heat, and he continued to crawl-slide his way down the side of the sand mound. It really didn't qualify as a dune, it wasn't smooth or angular. Just a pitiful little mound, sitting in the middle of the mesa, like a disappointing shriveled pearl in an already crippled clam. When he hit the base of the mound, he collapsed. Sleep overtook him in an instant, his elbows buckling against the sand.


He was really starting to get tired of blacking out. His head was spinning, the sky beginning to darken in almost sickly anticipation. If he didn't keep moving, soon, he might not be able to move at all. This was different than the other times he'd been injured- that was back in the city, where everything was flat and, for the most part, slippery. It was easy to get medical attention being an officer in the city, all you had to do was crawl into the nearest building and yell at whoever was in it. But now, in butt-fuck Nevada (was this Nevada?), he doubted there'd be any real civilization for miles. The Authority would probably investigate the crash, sure, but that'd take weeks. Some vacation.

The sky continued to blacken, at such an unnatural pace that even his boggled mind started to notice. Sean attempted to stand, only for his vision to quickly blink in and out, shattering into points of bright red light. He toppled over, and the dune swirled and fell alongside him. The world tipped on its side, and dissolved into a sea of savage redness. But before it could consume him, he was caught by the shoulders. He howled in spite of himself, the pain of his shrapnel-ridden back nigh unbearable. Sean craned his neck to see who his would-be savior was, only to be met with the sun-battered face of what he could only describe as the sheer embodiment of every Western cowboy hero cliché. His face, however, was hidden beneath a featureless white mask.

"Y'ain't lookin' too good, slick," the man said, his voice that of butter being dragged against sandpaper.

Sean tried to speak, to respond in kind- his usual snark had left him the moment the plane had touched the ground. All that came out was sputtering, wheezing coughs, like every drunk that got hit by a car in the city streets. How low a man could fall in the span of an hour, he thought. Had it been an hour? Hell if he knew.

"Come on then," His accent was thick, with a strangely alien quality to it. "Ain't doin' nobody good to die out 'ere, not when ya got work t'be doin'."

Sean could do nothing but watch as the cowboy dragged him across the desert. His sand-crusted face battered by the heat, he took this time to reflect on what the hell he thought he was doing out here. Vegas, that's where the plane was meant to be going. Was this anywhere near Vegas? Couldn't be too far, he thought. He'd ask the cowboy later, once he regained his strength. If he regained his strength, and the man didn't just rob him and leave him to die out in I-15.

He guessed it had been half an hour before the man laid him to rest. Sean didn't know when they had stopped moving, but he was now lying on a scratchy blanketed floor, within what looked like a tent. The man was sitting beside him; kneeling, actually. He felt some of the pain subside on his hand, as the cowboy rubbed some kind of ointment on it. Sean lulled his eyes towards a flash of light on the man's breast pocket, only to find there was some kind of badge there. A familiar badge, bearing an upside-down triangle contained within an octagon. A stupid symbol, and he loathed it. He loathed the fact he was currently wearing one himself- was he? He shifted his torso slightly, ignoring the hot rings of pain that shot up his back. Yes, that patch sewn into his coat was still there. That infernal patch, that disgusting badge of an organization ripped from a bad sixties science fiction novel. Sean tried to sit up slightly, marveling at how a man's pain tolerance could be so easily shattered if you hit him in the right spots.

"Aye, lie still," the cowboy grunted, unscrewing the cap on the ointment again.

Sean did so, not out of obedience but due to the sheer pain shooting down his back once again. The cowboy scoffed, pulling Sean's coat up and off him.

"We'll have ourselves a nice lil' palaver shortly, I say." He began applying the ointment to Sean's back. "But not 'til that back o' yours is fixed."

As he had nothing else to occupy himself with, Sean began taking a mental profile of the man that sat before him. The gunslinger was wearing some sort of scuffed leather coat, with a long brimmed hat. His only really interesting feature was his seeming lack of a face. He looked to wear some kind of white skinsuit mask, perfectly hiding most all his facial features. All that Sean could see was his almost unnaturally chiseled lower jaw, like one of those perfect storefront mannequins. Aside from that he seemed like every spaghetti Western protagonist, even down to the guns that hung from his belt. Though one of those guns stood out to him, almost glowing with its self-sustained importance. 'Cowboy' didn't really do the man justice, he thought. He was practically the embodiment of a gunslinger.

Whilst applying the ointment, the gunslinger spoke again. "You smoke?"

"Nah," Sean coughed, "That amazing shit's awful." He said 'amazing' as if it were a grasshopper that had jumped onto his tongue, and needed to be spat out.

The cowboy only responded in chuckling, moving and sealing the lid for the ointment.

"This is gonna sting for a bit, but that stuff's never failed me before. And, before you try to stand, it ain't miracle cure. Gon' take a while."

Sean nodded, managing to sit up slightly. "So what division are you, cowboy? You don't look like a researcher."

"Pr'tection, same as you," the gunslinger spat, his accent growing thicker by the second.

Sean didn't fully understand. "But you're an anomaly, right? What's your code?"

"I ain't the main anomaly." The gunslinger reputed, turning his gunbelt to show the utterly spotless steel revolver. "Oh-oh-two, this one is."

"Then what's your name, faceless gunslinger?"

At first he said nothing, only moving his hat down above his would-be eye sockets, before speaking one word.

"Serathiel."

Before he could respond, he was interrupted by an electronic buzz, coming from Sean's left. He turned to look, only to find his old standard-issue helmet, which the gunslinger had seemingly retrieved along with him from the crash. He moved to grab it, the helmet folding inward until only the visor remained. Sean held up the visor, seeing a writing message had appeared on its electronic glass surface.

Unit Commander: Congratulations are in order for being tasked with assisting the Eastwood-class Protector. As your Unit ID is not stationed in its area of influence, a comprehensive guide to maximizing your utility alongside this anomaly has been included in this notification.

Sean looked it over, chuckling to himself. "Eastwood class-"

"Not my choice o' naming."

He looked up, surveying the gunslinger again. "No, no, it fits you," he said, while absentmindedly browsing the briefing on the visor. "So where's the gun come from? It's not in here."

"Come, city slick, there's work to be done." Serathiel twisted his gunbelt back around, standing. Dodging the question. "Yer back should be good enough now, anyway."

As they exited the tent, they were greeted by three men on horseback. The one in the center bore a bolt-action, and was pointing it at the cowboy. The two on the sides were staring at Sean, not entirely sure what to make of him. Sean casually shifted his trench-coat to cover his gun, assuming a more frightened-looking persona.

"Now look'ere boys, we caught ourselves a gunslinger," The man in the middle said, shifting in his saddle.

Serathiel stared, before breaking into a chuckle. "Aye, Snaky. How ya doin', ya old bastard?"

"Pretty good, faceless son-uva bitch." He replied, seeming somewhat friendlier in tone.

"And Frank?"

The black man to the left responded; "Frank sent us."

The gunslinger nodded. "So didja bring a horse for me?"

"Well… Looks like we're-" The men snickered, Snaky assuming the response, giggling. "Looks like we're shy one horse."

"Looks like you brought two too many."

And before any of them could react, the gunslinger's hands were a blur of motion. Barely within a second's time, that silvery revolver was in the gunslinger's hand roaring with the force of a thunderclap. The men on horseback lay dead, holes burned into their foreheads before smoke even began to rise from the barrel.

"Jesus Christ-" Sean yelled, pulling his own pistol from its holster. There was no need, he realized, as he watched the men fall from their saddles.

Serathiel half-whispered "I say thankya for your horses, sirs," and mounted the one in the center. The horse seemingly didn't know what to make of him any more than Sean did.

"What the hell are you shooting from that thing? The wrath of God?"

The gunslinger simply chuckled his sandpaper laugh, gesturing to the empty horse beside him. "Get on, Major, we got bigger things to shoot."

Sean didn't bother questioning. He didn't want to, after that display. He simply mounted the horse and followed the cowboy off towards I-15.

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