By Roumonte Emi (竜主天 蝦)
illustrated by dumplingyum
The red-dirt scrublands of West Texas had been blasted flat by the sun long ago, until there wasn’t so much as an anthill as far as the eye could see. Gnarled mesquite trees and tufts of desert grass clung to life wherever they could, adding a gray sort of green to the endless expanse of reddish-brown, but the scrubland and everything in it was dwarfed by the monstrous bowl of the sky overhead. The sun hung high, a tight ball of searing white light that roasted everything below to a crisp. There were railway tracks running on forever into the distance both east and west, the crossties a sullen, rusty black too hot to look at, let alone touch. A man could stand by the tracks and watch the train approach for hours, slowly growing larger without getting any closer at all, just swelling on the horizon like a fattening tick.
A town with the inventive and half-wrong name of Shit Mesa huddled on the railway line. If the train put a man in mind of a tick Shit Mesa was a parasite in reality, battened onto the railway station and feeding off the money that the train brought in. It wasn’t much money. It wasn’t much of a town, either. Half peeling boards and half slumping adobe, it shimmered in the heat. Nothing much moved.
The train, when it finally wheezed into the station, wasn’t much to look at either: an ancient Skinner & Whartz coal-burning locomotive, a fat teardrop of a thing relegated to the country milk runs after years of service in some smarter metropolis. It had been classy once, but now its verdigris-copper sides were battered and blackened with age and two of its argon tubes were burnt out. Those few people mad or desperate enough to be out in the midday heat lifted their heads to watch the train arrive. The cluster of old men that occupied the shady porch outside the general store had seen it all before, and they watched with incurious eyes; a couple of wagon drivers waiting to make their fortunes traded tired complaints about the wait; an unfortunate boy on an errand for his mother took off his hat and fanned himself, considering the horse troughs; a slat-sided yellow dog wheezed around the length of its dust-pink tongue and found a pool of shade in which to flop out, one eye cocked open to watch the train, just in case someone was mad enough to come to a town like Shit Mesa.
Today their endless everyday vigil was rewarded as a passenger stepped off the train, the subject of much covert scrutiny even before his foot could touch the hard-packed earth. Visitors were rare enough, let alone professional men, and whatever else this visitor was he was a professional of some kind. A doctor, possibly, or else some kind of confidence man. Pale as a Yankee, fresh as a daisy, he wore a three-piece gray suit, a city boy’s bowler hat, and a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles that caught the sunlight and threw it back. His mouth was set in a solemn, unsmiling line, and he carried a heavy leather valise. The townsfolk were curious, in a head-down sideways-glancing sort of way: towns like this one didn’t get professional men often, and those that came didn’t stay.
The bespectacled man stepped away from the train and glanced back and forth, taking in the town. His expression didn’t change. If he knew that he was being watched, he gave no sign; instead he turned to the train and said something that didn’t carry too far. There was a moment of silence, then a second man got off the train, his boot hitting the ground with a dull and carrying thud.
The curious watchers went still with superstitious fright. There wasn’t a man, woman, or child in Texas who didn’t know that battered profile, those rangy muscles, that loose-jointed bow-legged walk. Every newsrag in the state had printed the famous etching of Steve Bucknell with his boot square in the middle of a clockwork militiaman’s back, twisting the thing’s arm up and back with a frightening lack of emotion on his plug-ugly face. His exploits were the stuff of legend. They had passed into legend, along with their perpetrator, or so everyone had thought.
Steve Bucknell resettled his Stetson on his head and flicked his coat back to clear the revolvers he wore strapped to his thighs. He knew that he was being watched, all right, and he couldn’t bring himself to care, literally could not make himself care. He felt their fright and accounted it respect. He was accustomed to a certain amount of respect.
“Hey, mister,” one of the wagon drivers said, lazing against the wall of the station while the train scraped coal into its belching gut. Steve grunted, barely glancing in the man’s direction, but the driver persisted. “Ain’t you Steve Bucknell?”
“Yep,” said Steve.
“Huh.” The wagon driver flicked his hat back and mopped at his sweaty forehead. He was a hard, scrawny man, burnt a leathery brown by the sun, and his eyes ranged over Steve without much respect at all. “Heard you was dead.”
“Abe Rackham blew up his mine with you and him both still in it. Newsboys said.”
“You don’t look that dead to me.”
“I ain’t,” Steve said. He looked at the driver, finally, and the man jumped and nearly fell on his ass: there was nothing but a mess of whirling, brassy gears where the left side of Steve Bucknell’s face had been, with a polished sphere of turquoise buried in the center for a blind and lightning-struck eye. “I ain’t dead,” Steve said, “but I was.”
The driver pursed his lips and eventually managed a shaky whistle. “Whoo, God damn,” he said. “I can believe it.”
“Can’t die yet,” Steve said. He looked away again. The wagon driver went weak in the knees with relief as Steve Bucknell set off down what passed for the main street of Shit Mesa. “Can’t die yet,” Steve repeated, mostly to himself. The words were undercut by the whisper-soft whirring sound of thousands of tiny gears working in sync. “Ain’t nothin’ in this world or the next can make me die before I bring Jim Corcoran to justice.”
Pat was the only one close enough to hear him, and he didn’t say anything. Pat had heard it all before. As they got closer to Shit Mesa’s one hotel (which was also Shit Mesa’s one saloon and whorehouse) Steve slowed, falling back a step, letting Pat step onto the porch before him. Steve feared neither man nor machina nor God and he looked forward to the day when he could let himself wind down and die with a grim sort of anticipation, but all the same he did prefer not to cause a scene. He ducked his head into his collar, letting the wide brim of his hat cover most of his face, then followed Pat into the saloon.
The dimness of the bar was a stunning relief after the sun-baked brightness of the street. Come nightfall the place would fill up no matter what those fat cats in Washington said about a man’s right to take a drink, but right now there were only a handful of people taking refuge from their lives: a couple of nerved-up career souses with empty wet spots on the bar in front of them, a wilting mustachioed bartender in a red vest, and a cheap machina piano player with his metal claws frozen in mid-chord over the keys, waiting with his painted-on grin for someone to plug a penny into the slot on the back of his head. Doubtless there were whores around somewhere. Steve wondered if they’d be flesh or clockwork; some towns counted one kind more dear, some towns the other.
Pat stepped on up to the bar, setting his valise carefully at his feet. “We’d like a room,” he said.
The bartender relaxed a fraction, although there was still suspicion in his eyes. “Y’all can have your choice,” he said. His eyes flicked curiously to the silent shape of Steve, then drifted back to Pat. “We got three all the same size, clean, with good locks on the doors.”
“Furthest from the stairs, then,” said Pat. “Is there a lightning rod on the roof?”
“Lightning–” The bartender broke off there. “You a clocksmith?”
“I prefer the term ‘mechanical engineer’.” Pat’s smile was quick to come and go. “But, yes, I’m a clocksmith.”
The bartender stooped to pull the hotel register out from under the bar, transforming into the innkeeper just like that. “Good to have you, then,” he said. “You’re interested in doing a little work around in the place to help pay for your room, just give a shout. Durned things are always breaking down.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Pat said pleasantly, inking his details into the register in a fine copperplate hand. Patrick Hitchens–Fort Worth, Texas–engineer–Aug. 3 1927. He laid the pen across the register and pushed the book towards Steve, silent at his side. “The lightning rod?”
“Oh! Plumb forgot. Yessir, we’ve got a whip and coil and the rooms are all wired in. You need something stronger, you let me know.”
Pat’s smile flicked on and off again. “I’ll do that,” he said, reaching into his jacket for his purse.
Steve picked up the pen. Steven Bucknell, he wrote while Pat paid for their room. Fort Worth, Texas.
He barely hesitated before adding Texas Ranger, ret.
The room wasn’t much, but it was better than Steve had been expecting from a town of this size. The bed was a good size and not too saggy in the middle, the bedspread faded but serviceable. The dresser had a sheet of polished brass over it which could pass as a mirror if a man weren’t too picky. In the corner there was a tin bathtub with a sign over it that said BATHS 5c.
What Steve was most relieved to see was the corroded metal hatch in the wall. A old-fashioned glass-and-mercury meter set in the hatch cover registered a charge of nearly eighty percent, more than enough. “Just give me a moment,” said Pat, taking off his natty bowler and fanning himself with it. His dirty-blond hair fell in his eyes and Pat shoved it back with a sigh that turned into a faint, resigned laugh. “My God, it’s hot.”
“Take your time,” Steve said. He shrugged out of his greatcoat then set about unstrapping his guns from his thighs. It was strange: he knew it was hot. He could look out the window and see the dictionary definition of ‘hot’. He could even chat with a stranger about the heat, if it came to that–but he didn’t feel it much, not any more. It was always a shock to notice that his skin was sweaty. Steve hung his gunbelt on the peg by the bed, then sat down to pull off his boots.
Pat put his valise on the floor and squatted in front of it, snapping it open. “Need help with those?” he asked, light glinting off his glasses as he glanced up.
“Nah,” Steve said. A fine mist of sand poured onto the floor as he wrenched off first one boot, then the other. Not too much but enough to make Pat’s brow wrinkle. “It’s fine,” Steve said. “Ain’t got past my socks.”
“Yes, well, I hope not.” Pat smiled, a real smile this time. “Any problems? Anything hitching?”
Steve’s own smile was a crooked and tentative thing, little more than a seam in his sun-worn face. “Told you I’m fine. Just need a recharge, mostly.”
“Sand’d probably pour out of your innards if I bent you over,” Pat said, rolling his eyes. “I know what you mean when you say that you’re ‘fine’.”
“Yep, I mean I’m fine,” Steve said. “You worry too much.”
Pat stood up, a thick black coil of electrical cable slung over one shoulder. The five copper endings swung loose and heavy against his thigh. “I’m… not sure that that’s possible, actually,” he said, pushing up his glasses with an idle gesture. “I could spend every waking moment cleaning and adjusting your works and never getting ahead–gives me plenty to worry about.”
“Pssh, you built me a sight better than that.” Steve picked at the buttons of his shirt. “This ain’t nothin’ short of a miracle, what you’ve done here, and I hate to hear you put yourself down over it.”
“I wasn’t–” Pat broke off there and flapped one hand at Steve. “Oh, just take your damned clothes off.”
Steve’s face creased into another smile. “Workin’ on it,” he said. Another few seconds and his shirt dropped to the bed. Wincing away from the mirror on the wall Steve fumbled with the buttons of his pants, his remaining eye narrowed against the glare from his left arm.
Pat leaned back against the dresser and pulled down the knot of his tie. “You know, I wish you’d stop telling people you came back from the dead,” he said in a conversational tone. “It’s not true.”
“Well,” Steve said. His pants dropped to the floor and he stepped out of them, leaving himself something like naked in the harsh afternoon light. “It ain’t exactly a lie, neither.”
“Your heart never once stopped,” Pat pointed out. “Side nearest the door work for you?”
“Works,” Steve said. “And this ain’t about my heart, not so much. It’s about what happened up here.” He tapped the side of his head with a light metallic sound. “The Steve Bucknell up there, he ain’t the same fellow he once was.”
Pat looked Steve up and down, his lips pursed. “Well,” he said. “The Steve Bucknell down there isn’t exactly the same either, so I suppose that’s only fair.”
Steve spread his arms in a gesture that looked like acceptance. “So there you go,” he said. He ran his remaining hand over the stiff bristles of his ash-brown hair, his fingertips avoiding the high dividing line between flesh and metal with the ease of long practice. Fully half his skull was delicate clockwork now, a weird whirling conglomeration of brass, copper, and steel. Heavy copper cables made up the left half of his throat, the beating pulse under one side of his jaw matched by a clicking flywheel under the other. One eye and ear had been replaced with approximations of themselves, unfortunately only for show. A miracle worker Pat might have been, but even his bag of tricks couldn’t give Steve back the sight in his left eye; the turquoise sphere was just a gimmick to match the merciless sky-blue eye that was still left to him. His left ear was mounted in the proper place, but it was only a metal thing that kept Steve’s hat from falling over his eyes.
His left arm and leg were both entirely mechanical, masterworks of cable and piston and strut that flexed and caught like the real things. Intermeshed gears spread across his chest, wrapping his still-human ribcage, protected by a literal breastplate fashioned from etched and gold-washed steel; a bundle of steel cables lashed across Steve’s back to curl forward over his right shoulder. His exposed metal shoulderblades were perfect replicas of the bones that had once been underneath, like tiny metal wings clapped hard against his back. In every case the joins between flesh and metal were perfect undulating things that followed the lines of Steve’s own hard-muscled body. Clothed, the illusion was nearly flawless. Uncovered, it was a work of art–a work of science.
Steve sat carefully on the side of the bed, gritting his teeth as the wood groaned. The metal carapace that kept him alive weighed close to three hundred pounds, powered by necessity via a series of electrical generators imbedded in the works. It made a man careful, that much weight. It made a man dangerous in ways he’d never anticipated. Finally the bed consented to hold him and Steve stretched out. His left arm he raised above his head, the metal hand curling into a loose fist on the pillow. “All right,” he said.
Pat joined him on the bed, trailing the fat black cable behind him. One end was plugged into the wall panel; the cable stretched across the floor and snaked onto the bed, dividing at the other end into five round, heavy plugs. Settling up against Steve’s side with as much aplomb as he could muster Pat picked up one of the plugs in one hand and flipped open Steve’s breastplate with the other, revealing the works. “Brace,” he said.
Steve shut his eye. “Go on.”
Pat slid his fingers into Steve’s chest, into the hollow space between the gears’ teeth where the internal power switch lived. They grazed off the switch, sending a weary bolt of lightning along Steve’s spine–then Pat caught the switch and flicked it down and Steve’s world went down into a dark and choking place.
It came back up half a second later, barely, as Pat jammed the plug into the socket buried under Steve’s arm. It gave Steve enough power to run his vitals if not much else. He couldn’t have moved so much as an inch with his metal side shut off, but at least he could breathe again. Pat’s fingers found the socket high up on Steve’s ribcage and slotted in the second plug. “All right?” he asked.
“Fine,” said Steve. Now that the initial unpleasantness was over he was light-headed, his skin tingling. The sockets were strung out in a line down Steve’s left side, where his lowered arm would cover them, and Pat was plugging him into the wall one socket at a time: the third socket in his rib cage, the fourth above his waist, and finally the last at his hip, just north of his ass. Woozy with the charge Steve glanced down along the line of his body and snorted out a weary laugh. “John’s up,” he said.
“You really don’t have to mention it every time,” Pat said primly, edging backwards away from Steve, Steve’s power cord, and Steve’s useless hard-on.
Steve grinned up at the ceiling. “Sure I do,” he said. “Hell, I’m just glad I didn’t lose that there along with the rest. Always nice to see John Thomas rear his head. Reminds me that I’m still a man under all this metal.”
“I could have told you that.” Pat stood up and dusted off his hands, his hair in unruly spikes. His eyes were firmly on the floor. “I’m going to go ahead and oil the works tonight, I think. We won’t have much time tomorrow and I’d hate for you to break down in the middle of something crucial.”
“Sounds like a plan.” Steve idly itched at his chest. “Mind if we eat first? I try and eat after oiling, everything tastes like machinery.”
Pat cleared his throat. “That’s what I was thinking,” he said. “If you don’t mind, I think I’ll go downstairs while you charge. Wash the dust out of my throat.” His laugh was short. “Maybe it’ll help convince the barkeep that we’re not revenuers.”
“Go ahead,” Steve said. “Can’t be easy looking at me like this, I know.”
“It’s not–” Pat’s voice cracked in sympathy and he broke off there. “I’ll take a look at their machina while I’m down there, I think,” he said, his voice rough. “See if I can’t earn back a dollar or two. I’ll be back up in a couple of hours with dinner.” He cleared his throat again. “You want a sheet over you?”
Steve cracked an eye. Pat was staring at himself in the brass mirror, straightening his tie. Steve looked back up at the ceiling. “Too hot,” he said. “Just bring me my guns and then lock the door behind you.”
Pat raked his fingers through his shaggy blond hair, putting it back in some kind of order, then turned away from the mirror. His eyes skittered over Steve’s supine figure and away again–Steve couldn’t blame Pat for that, he knew he was a sight–before Pat hurried past, plucking the gunbelt from the wall and putting it into Steve’s questing right hand. “Lie still,” Pat said, as he usually did. The door closed behind him and he was gone. A moment later the lock clattered into place.
Steve arranged the gunbelt across his midsection, loosening one gun. His left side might have been shut down but his right hand was as swift as ever. That done, there was nothing left to do but lie still and charge. Reflectively he prodded the inside of his left cheek with his tongue. The join between flesh and metal was odd enough on the outside, but inside his mouth it felt even stranger and he’d never been able to leave it alone. He considered putting his hand on himself–arm-wrestling with John Thomas always put them both to sleep, afterwards–then dismissed it as too much damned trouble and dozed off instead.
Steve woke again to Pat’s rap on the door, already reholstering the revolver he’d drawn out of long habit. The sunlight was at a different angle now, the light yellower with age. He’d been out for a couple of hours, looked like, and his clockworks were buzzing in the hopped-up way that meant their charge was full. “Yeah,” Steve called, his voice rusty.
“Coming in, Steve,” Pat called back. “I’m alone.” The key rattled in the lock.
Steve shuffled the gunbelt off to one side. The sunlight lay across his mismatched thighs now, making the left one glitter like a handful of bronze filings. Everything that was still flesh was covered in a fine sheen of sweat. Must be hot, Steve thought. Sure enough, Pat winced back when he opened the door. “My God, it’s a sweatbox in here,” he said.
“Didn’t notice so much.”
“No, and I’m worried about that, too.” Pat bent down to fetch the tray off the floor. Out of hands, he kicked the door shut behind him. “Let me just put this down and I’ll get you started back up.”
Steve swiped the sweat from his forehead. “I’d be obliged if you’d lock the door first.”
“Of course! Of course.” Pat put down the tray and hurried back across to lock the door, loosening his tie as he went.
The transition from wall current back to generator power was always easier. Plug in while the gennies were still running and they were apt to overload from the hit, but they didn’t give a good goddamn if the wall current went away again. Sitting on the bed by Steve’s hip Pat wrestled four of the five plugs loose, leaving Steve running off the one in the middle. “Brace,” he said, easing Steve’s breastplate open and baring the works once more.
“Yep,” said Steve.
Pat insinuated his fingers into the hole in Steve’s chest again, his jaw clenched. Steve’s generators came back up with a rising rumble that soon settled into a healthy whirring sound. The resurgence of power jolted out along Steve’s metallic nerves. His hand spasmed. Pat shut Steve’s chest again; Steve sighed and sat up, reaching for his pants, careful not to jostle the last plug.
Once he was half-decent and able to shamble about the room under his own power (so to speak) Steve fell on his dinner like a ravening coyote. It wasn’t only his machina half that burned its fuel like a spendthrift these days. Like everything else in Shit Mesa the food was bad but not bad enough to be revolting, and anyway Steve didn’t care enough to raise a fuss. Pat sat astride a battered chair and pared his nails short with his pocketknife. His eyes were narrow and measuring behind his spectacles.
Outside the sunlight grew more and more sullen, fading from a dirty yellow to a muddy orange and finally, in the last few moments, to the clear and otherworldly pink of a West Texas sunset. A sluggish breeze finally crept over the windowsill; below their window the bar’s neon sign popped on, adding its own hum to the night. Out in the scrub the cicadas were singing their monotonous song. Pat eventually blew out a breath and heaved himself to his feet, the cheap electric lamp snapping alight under his hand. “Whenever you’re ready,” he said.
“Whenever’s fine.” Steve turned his back and shucked off his pants again, draping them over the edge of the empty tub.
This time Pat joined him, stripping out of his suit with a weary efficiency, pausing to fold each piece before laying it on the chair. Oiling Steve’s works was a lengthy, messy, thankless task–one of Steve’s first memories after the implantation was of Pat in gray mechanic’s coveralls, his hair standing away from his head in thick greasy spikes and his eyes huge behind heavy magnifying goggles, smeared from head to toe with machine oil and gazing down at Steve in heavy-lidded exhaustion–and no matter how careful they both were they were bound to wind up ruining whatever they wore. The lingering heat of the day made nudity something of a relief and Pat stripped himself down to his shorts and undershirt without complaint.
Mindful of prying eyes Steve kept away from the windows. “You look just about all in,” he said, studying Pat with a critical eye. “Maybe you ought to buy yourself a whore before bed, get your head straight.”
“Hah!” said Pat, hunkering down in front of his valise. “I tuned up their God-damned ‘whores for them this afternoon, and let me tell you, you couldn’t pay me to use one of those poor old machina. You know it’s a bad town when one of the ‘whores is missing an arm and half her head and they keep her running anyway, because hell, it’s a clockwhore–” his voice roughened into a sarcastic whine “–we ain’t payin’ to fuck her arm.”
Steve hid his grin behind his hand. “Well, hell, Pat, bar’s got a neon-tube sign out front, I thought it was a class place for sure.”
“I’ll tell you something for free,” Pat said, leveling his gaze at Steve. “One of those clockwhores is going to slip a piston within the year and some poor prospector is going to get his dick pulled right off. Tell you something else: they’ll keep on using her even then. Put a steel band around the slipped piston, nickname her ‘Tricky Nicky’, and set her to charge half-price, because after all she might take it into her head to do it again.”
Steve pressed his lips together and looked away, trying not to smile. Pat watched him for a moment, then snorted in agreement and rose to his feet, a folded-up rubber sheet under one arm. Downstairs the hubbub lurched forward in short bursts, punctuated by the thumping of the piano. Pat flicked out the heavy sheet and let it fall down onto the bed. “Sit,” he said, picking up the oilcan. Steve sat.
It wasn’t until late that night that they talked about it at all. The hullabaloo from downstairs was worse than ever, and the neon outside their window kept broadcasting its reddish-orange signal into the night, and what little breeze there had been had long since died away in the face of that heat; it wasn’t a night that encouraged sleep.
Steve lay on his back and stared up at the ceiling, his right arm crossed over his chest to toy with the copper collar of the plug still socketed into his ribs. There were five greenish-white firefly lights pulsing off the ceiling, all five of Steve’s generators reporting themselves charged and working. He’d been watching the lights rise and fall for a while.
Pat was a little huddle on the other side of the bed, curled up on its edge to give Steve as much room as he could. In the semi-darkness he was damned near as pale as his underthings. He was strong enough for his size but still he was milky-pale and hairless, neatly made but fundamentally soft, as unlike the weatherbeaten Steve as a marble statue. Moody but brilliant. The calluses on his hands came from tools and honest work, and with those hands he could build miracles. Why an educated man who could make brass dance to his tune like that chose to live on a windswept ranch outside of Fort Worth instead of making his fortune in Dallas, Steve would never know. His fingers touched a slowly-purring gear and fell away again. “I’m indebted to you for the care,” he said.
“The sad thing is that you don’t really feel that way,” Pat said, as naturally as if this conversation had been meandering on for an hour. “Intellectually you know that you are, and I don’t mean to imply that you’re dishonorable, but you don’t feel that debt in your bones like you used to.”
“I know,” said Steve.
“I did what I could,” Pat said, his back unforthcoming in the darkness. “But you’re losing more feeling day by day. By the grace of God you’re still a man, Steve, but you react like a machina half the time, and it pains me to see it.”
Steve shut his eye. “Doesn’t have to last forever. Just has to last long enough.”
“Well,” said Pat, his voice desolate. “I hope it does.”
“Ain’t one man in a million gets a second chance like this,” Steve said. “I’m grateful for it.”
After a long moment, Pat chuckled hollowly. “That’s what I mean, Steve. Are you?”
“I am,” Steve insisted. “Still got that much left in me.”
“Well. Good.” Pat was quiet for a long, long time while the hooraw raged on below. “Some genius I am,” he finally said.
“Don’t you ever hate yourself for this,” Steve said. “Don’t you do that. You gave me back my life when no one else in this world coulda done it, and even if it ain’t perfect, I am grateful for another chance to see my cause on through.”
Pat didn’t reply, and after a while, Steve shut his eye. His jaw set, making his mouth a thin, grim line. Jesus God, he thought, as close as he got to praying these days. Don’t You take this away from me now. Don’t You give with one hand and take with the other, not about this. Let me bring Corcoran to justice. I’ve already asked so God-damned much of You, what’s one more little thing on that side of the ledger?
Early the next morning they rode out of town, ignoring the eyes that followed them. Word had gotten around. By the time they walked into the livery stable every person in Shit Mesa knew that Steve Bucknell was in town on someone’s trail; half a dozen men had dropped everything and left town in the dead of night, each of them knowing in his heart that it was him that Steve Bucknell had come after. They had all been wrong, of course, but they weren’t to know, and anyway Steve didn’t mind if his reputation haunted the scum of the earth.
Pat’s rented horse was an ordinary chestnut mare but the only horse in town capable of carrying Steve was a massive cow-headed draft horse with hooves like dinner plates. Somewhere back in that gelding’s lineage there was a good English-bred Tyneside draft, but ever since then his ancestors had been bred to whatever was available, including cows and kitchen tables. Still, he was strong as an ox and slightly faster than walking. He trotted after Pat’s mare willingly enough.
Their packs held enough food and water for three days. The valise hung from the front of Pat’s saddle and bounced off the mare’s shoulder as she trotted. In the early hours of the day Pat rode like an Englishman, upright and bouncing slightly in the saddle as his horse went along; when he tired he slumped in the saddle like a sack of oats. Despite being hampered by the sheer size of his beast Steve rode loose and easy in his saddle, squinting at the horizon, ready for trouble.
They rode generally south from Shit Mesa, keeping the sun over their left shoulders. The land didn’t vary an inch. Somewhere to the west was El Paso and the mountains that went with it, but out here the most striking feature of the terrain was a mess of prairie-dog holes. Neither man said much as the day heated up around them.
The first landmark rose off to one side about two hours after they’d set out: a mesquite tree that had managed to grow tall enough to deliver frontier justice. A pair of nooses hung from its limbs, both empty, although there was a scattering of old bones at the tree’s foot. On the tree’s trunk was an ancient, unreadable sign. The sun had blasted the words clean off the boards.
A trail led away from the hanging tree. It wasn’t so much a horse trail as it was the opposite of one: someone drove an donkey cart out here regularly, and the donkeys fertilized the land on the way, as animals do. Desert grasses, ever opportunistic, grew out of the donkey shit, leaving a straight gray-green trail pointing towards the west for anyone who knew how to see it. Steve hawked and spat to clear the dust out of his mouth. “Looters,” he said. “Bet they come out here every so often just to see if anyone’s been hanged.”
“Seems like a poor way to make a living,” said Pat.
Their horses swung west, following the donkey-shit trail. “Probably worth it just for the clothes,” Steve said.
Pat laughed, a small and humorless sound. “Or for the bodies,” he said.
“Wasn’t going to say it,” Steve said, directing his own faint smile down at the horn of his saddle. “Guess I ain’t surprised you know, though.”
“I’ve been accused of playing Frankenstein often enough,” Pat agreed. “I almost wish it were true. It would have been easier to give you a dead man’s arm and leg than to forge you new ones from scratch.”
Steve slapped at his thigh. “All in all, I think I’m happier with these,” he said. “Don’t cotton to wearing someone else’s skin.”
“Galvanists are all madmen in any case,” said Pat. Steve didn’t have anything to say to that, so he let the conversation lapse.
The crumbling adobe hovel appeared on the horizon half an hour later and crouched there for an hour to come. It was unpleasant even at this remove, half-melted and somehow sullen-looking. A second clay building with a tall tin chimney stood out back, belching gray-black smoke into the air despite the heat of the day; the land all around was silvered over with ash and blackened with charcoal. The charnel-house smell made Pat curl a hand under his nose and look ill. Steve could smell it clear enough but it didn’t bother him much, which bothered him. “Fat for candles and ash for lye,” he said. “And jerked meat, if you’re not particular.”
“God,” said Pat. “God.”
Eventually they got close enough to skirt the building, keeping a wary eye on the waxed-paper windows and the curtained doorway. Everything was still, too still; if the house’s owner was present he’d hunkered down to wait them out. A second gray-green trail led away from the hovel towards the southwest and they turned to follow it. It led them to a small and dirty pond not ten minutes’ ride away, its muddy banks marked deeply with human and animal tracks. A clutch of greedy mesquite trees clung to the rim of the pond. They reined in long enough to water the horses and eat a quick meal, all the while watching their back-trail in case the scavenger decided to put in an appearance.
From the watering hole they struck out straight south again, following the directions they’d been given. The sun beat down on them from directly above; Pat was obliged to break out his compass to keep their trail true. This duty kept him alert for a while, but eventually Pat stopped watching the trail and let his horse plug on after Steve’s, his attention focused on the compass. He’d been quiet for a while but somehow he contrived to be quieter yet. After half an hour of this Steve said, “Second thoughts?”
“What? No.” Pat didn’t quite bristle, but he twitched his shoulders straight. “I said I’d help you see this through, didn’t I? I’m a man of my word, even if I’m no Ranger.”
Steve pushed his fingers into his coat pocket. “Figure you are now,” he said, skimming something silver at Pat.
Pat snapped it out of the air. “What?” he said, then went silent, turning the Ranger badge in his fingers. A simple star in a circle, once stamped out of a Mexican five-peso piece, although you wouldn’t know it to look at the badge now. Steve had carried it for so long that all the details had rubbed off.
Steve kept an eye on Pat even as he kept an eye on the distance. “Keep it,” he said. “Don’t wear it where it shows, but keep it close to hand. I don’t rightly know if I ever had the right to deputize a man, and I know I ain’t got the right to now, but I figure I owe you that much.”
“Deputy.” Pat snorted. “Jesus, I’m no lawman, Steve.”
Steve shrugged. “That makes two of us,” he said.
“But it’s your badge–”
“Keep it,” Steve said. “I want you to have it for the fight that’s coming. Let it help keep you steady.”
“I’m not going to run out on you,” Pat said, offended.
Steve pinched the bridge of his nose. “I ain’t doin’ this well,” he said, mostly to himself. His hand fell and his eye rose to watch the horizon. “I know you ain’t a coward,” he said. “Ain’t no coward on this earth woulda come into that mine after me, no matter what kinda ruckus he heard. But you did.”
Pat went silent, concentrating on his mount. After a long moment he huffed out a laugh and stole a sheepish glance at Steve. “I’m not sure if that made me a brave man or a fool, honestly.”
“Tell you the truth, I ain’t sure about that either,” said Steve, his face creasing into that smile. “But you ain’t a coward, and I know it for a fact, and that there’s my point.”
Pat rubbed his thumb over the badge’s worn face, then sighed and tucked it into his jacket. “It still feels wrong,” he said.
“Don’t let it,” said Steve. “It’s just a hunk of metal. I got my true badge here–” He tapped his chest over his heart. His finger rang off his metal breastplate, startling him. It made him snort with laughter. “See?” he said after a moment.
“Maybe I should have engraved your star on there,” Pat said. “Some day I will, if you’ll remind me.”
“I’d be obliged,” said Steve. Something about the gravity of the idea made him catch and hold his breath. “I guess I ain’t a lawman no more, bein’ dead–but I’m still the law and I’d like to remember that.”
Pat snorted, dispelling Steve’s momentary melancholy. “You’re not dead, Steve. I keep telling you that.”
“That’s true,” said Steve. “Course, I don’t exactly feel alive either, if you know what I mean.” He could have kicked himself for it even as he said it, as Pat reshouldered that guilty burden he always carried. “Pat, don’t take it personal,” Steve said.
“I suppose now is not the time,” Pat agreed, passing a hand over his face. His eye glinted from behind his fingers as he studied Steve’s face (probably not as covertly as he might wish). “Do you think Corcoran’s there, Steve? Really think so?”
Steve’s jaw went hard. “Think so,” he said.
“Good,” said Pat. “I hope so. Maybe after Corcoran’s been dealt with I can fix what ails you–maybe…” Whatever else he was going to say he shut his mouth on it with a snap. He didn’t look at Steve again for a long time.
The ruined town jutted from the ground like a jawful of broken teeth. Steve reined the gelding in and paused to consider it.
In this blighted land settlers tended to light like dragonflies wherever there was water, and the remains of a well still gaped in the town square, such as it was. The town had been prosperous once, Steve was sure, but drought or Indians or disease had taken their toll on the place and now the only building left mostly intact was the adobe-walled church, its high cross casting a ragged shadow over the ruins. The rest of the buildings were just rectangular places and high-stepping chunks of wall. “I don’t see anyone,” Pat said, shading his eyes with his hand. “Think he’s in the church?”
“Maybe,” said Steve. “Maybe under it. Corcoran digs.” Unthinkingly he touched his arm, aware of metal under the cloth.
“Hm.” Pat pursed his lips. “So what’s the plan? Are we going to wait for nightfall?”
Steve considered it. “No,” he finally said, touching his heels to the gelding’s sides. “Anyone comes this way, they’re just naturally gonna try and water their horses at that there well. It’d look less suspicious to ride on in.”
Pat squawked and kicked his mare after Steve’s gelding, falling back into step a couple of paces behind. Steve pushed back his greatcoat and meditatively loosened his revolvers in their holsters, ensuring that they rode light. All of a sudden he was aware of every little thing: the flexing of Pat’s fingers on his reins, the twitch of the gelding’s skin as it shrugged off a fly, the skittering of some small animal’s flight out in the scrub.
Time stretched like melting rubber as they rode. The last few hundred yards took years to cover; inside his glove Steve’s knuckles were white with the tension. Unfriendly eyes seemed to be watching them from every little chink in the ruined walls. Did that shadow shift? Was that the glint of a rifle barrel in the sun? Had that been the slow scrape of a boot against stone or just his imagination? Steve wasn’t sure just how far he could trust his instincts any more; before he’d have believed his sixth sense without question but now he had to wonder if his instincts weren’t going the way of his finer feelings, lost in the lulling hum of meshing gears. Machina could do damned near anything but Steve had never seen one display anything like a self-preservation instinct–Steve forced the thought away. That was the kind of thought that made a man second-guess himself and he didn’t have that luxury at the moment. It didn’t matter in any case. Steve Bucknell would chase Jim Corcoran if he were obliged to crawl blind and naked through the wasteland to do it. Nothing else would so much as slow him down.
The hairs on the back of his neck prickled. A bead of cold sweat rolled down his spine, taking its time. Steve swiped his hand over his forehead, clearing sweat away from his one remaining eye, and forced himself to ride like a man who didn’t expect trouble. Beside him Pat was still, his face without expression, his fingers twitching on the reins once, then again. It wasn’t much of a tell but it told Steve enough: Pat could take a watch apart and put it back together while blindfolded. Ordinarily he had the steadiest hands Steve had ever seen. Pat wasn’t precisely scared, but he was nerved up to a high pitch. Steve had to trust that he wouldn’t break under the strain.
Their horses plodded on into the ruined town. The road here was wide and hard-packed, marked with the ghosts of wagon-wheel ruts. If there had been so much as a breath of breeze on this boiling day it might have blown a skirl of sand across that rock-hard surface; as it was nothing moved but their horses and the drop of sweat rolling down the small of Steve’s back. A few ruined walls still stood to their left and right. Soon enough, behind them as well. Were they surrounded now or was this ghost town as uninhabited as it looked? Steve’s nerves prickled, forcing him to grit his teeth against the waiting shudder. The sweatdrop reached his belt and soaked into the already-sodden cloth of his pants, leaving nothing behind but a maddening itch. Pat stifled a cough against his fist.
Steve was wound to a killing pitch by the time their horses came out into the ruined town square. The well in the center was sizable and had once had a ring of clay bricks around it; half of them were missing now, gone to powder, and the wooden winch was just a scatter of bone-dry splinters on the ground. Steve dismounted with a grunt and led the gelding the last few feet, keeping close to the animal’s massive body. Beside him Pat did the same, letting the mare’s reins play out as he led her towards the well.
A crumpled thing on the ground proved to be a leather bucket, not new but still functional, covered with a crust of dried sand that could have been hours old or weeks old. Fifty feet of good hemp rope connected the bucket’s handle to a fat wooden stake driven into the earth. Water still glittered in the darkness at the bottom of the well. Travelers looking out for their own or residents looking out for themselves? Steve grunted and picked up the bucket. It was dry. That didn’t mean much.
Pat eyed the bucket speculatively, then turned on one heel to look out at the ruined town. Here in the heart of enemy territory–maybe–he suddenly seemed as calm as the water at the bottom of the well. Steve had to envy him that. “Pat,” he said, his voice raw with inhaled sand.
“Might want to get your valise down.”
“Ah,” said Pat. He turned to his saddle.
Steve let the rope play out, lowering the bucket into the well. It hit the water with a dull smacking sound and bobbed for a moment before turning on its side and sinking; Steve hauled it back up. The water that came up was clay-ey but pleasantly cool. Steve let the gelding plunge his nose into the bucket and drink his fill.
The valise hit the ground at Pat’s feet and Pat crouched over it, making a show of rummaging while Steve watered the mare in her turn. The town around them was silent, too still, and the faint clinking of Pat’s equipment sounded like the crashing of cymbals. Still nothing happened. Steve let his eye play over the town. “Think I’m gonna go look at that church before we move on,” Steve said. Pat glanced up; their eyes met and Pat nodded. Steve handed Pat the gelding’s reins and passed under the shadow of the cross.
The church had been an impressive building once and still was after its fashion. Its clay walls had been made well and were still sturdy. A walled walkway ran around its top, remnant of a time when a mission church might also be a town’s last line of defense. Once upon a time the townsfolk had paid dearly for a pair of arched wooden doors to adorn their place of worship; one still hung crookedly from its hinges, half-ajar, its scrollwork cracked and broken. The other door lay on the ground like a bridge leading into the sanctuary. A few yellowish-black shapes whirred around, intent on their own business; Steve paused, then hunkered down, knowing what he was likely to see. There in the shade underneath the fallen door was a wasps’ nest the size of a malformed cow’s skull, filling in every inch of empty space between the wood and the church steps. Anyone stepping onto that inviting bridge would soon regret it. Steve edged past and let himself into the church through the half-open door.
Dust motes danced in the church’s interior, lit by the shafts of sunlight stabbing in through the holes in the roof. After the brilliance of the day, however, Steve’s dazzled eye couldn’t see much beyond dim shapes. His first confused impression was of more yellowjacket nests, amorphous sucking things grown up along the walls–but his nose told him differently, and the sound that he’d first taken to be wasps buzzing was something else entirely. His eye cleared enough to show him the gaping pit where the altar had been and then he realized what he’d taken to be wasps’ nests were hissing moonshine stills, swathed in rubber sheeting to keep their power cores from arcing–
“Revenooers!” a voice bawled from the back of the church. A gun cracked. A bullet whined off the adobe wall above Steve’s head and shocked everything into motion.
Steve hissed out an oath and broke for the door. The church was a deathtrap. A babble of voices rose behind him, five or six of them, betraying everything from terror to anticipation–another bullet passed by as he burst through the doors, so close that he could feel the tug against his cheek. Deliberately, gritting his teeth, Steve leaped onto the fallen door in his retreat. The monstrous weight of him drove it down with a crunch that wasn’t all splintering wood and then Steve was away, holding onto his hat with one hand. Behind him the buzzing rose to a roar; intent on their prey his pursuers burst from the church doors and ran face-first into the cloud of infuriated yellowjackets. The screaming followed Steve across the square.
Pat and the horses were nowhere to be seen. Steve ran for the closest bit of cover, a half-fallen wall that had once been part of a general store. As he ran he caught a fleeting glimpse of the cow-headed gelding out in the maze of fallen houses, tucked away out of the line of fire, and he knew a moment of purest gratitude for Pat’s smarts. Steve dove behind the half-wall. His guns leaped into his hands like startled jackrabbits. He fired once into the air just to let his opponents know where he stood on things, then risked a glance around the side of the wall.
One of his pursuers was down and thrashing in front of the doors, clawing at his throat and turning purple. Foam ran from his mouth. Wasps still crawled over him here and there but most of the yellowjackets were in the air again, swarming angrily around without a specific aim in mind. The rest of the men were dim shapes darting from house to house. A rifle cracked, kicking up a plume of red dust ten feet from where Steve knelt. Steve snorted. With aim like that he didn’t have much to worry about.
“Steve, it’s me,” someone hissed from behind him. Pat scrambled up, keeping low, his valise still in one hand. “What’s happening?”
“Moonshiners,” Steve said. “Church is full of stills–” The rifleman stuck his head out to take aim and Steve snapped off a shot. The man vanished–hit or just prudent, Steve wasn’t sure. “I ran ’em into a nest of yellowjackets so they’re none too happy.”
“I saw.” Pat scrubbed a hand over his face. He looked drawn and ill but not frightened. “What about Corcoran?”
A man broke from the side of the church, pistol in one hand. Steve shot him. The man coughed out a sound and crashed onto his face in the town square. Blood soaked into the dirt underneath him. “He’s here,” Steve said. “Or he was. Half the church’s been dug up and ain’t no one digs like Corcoran.”
“All right,” Pat said. “What now?”
“These fellas are pretty hot to kill us,” Steve said. “Guess we deal with that first.”
Pat’s little smile wavered on his face. “I guess so,” he said. “How many are they? Do you know?”
“Five or six, I had to guess. Got two down, maybe three–” Steve’s arm flicked out and he fired at another moving figure. Someone howled. “Maybe four,” Steve corrected himself. “Be willing to bet most of them’ll run for it once they come to their senses.”
Pat put his back against the wall, scanning the town behind them. “I don’t see anything moving behind us,” he said after a moment.
“Don’t think they coulda got that far yet,” said Steve. “Still, keep an eye out. Shout out if you see anything–”
“WHAT IN HELL’S GOING ON OUT HERE?”
The voice boomed through the ghost town like a cannon firing. Startled, Pat squeaked, then bit his cheek in embarrassment; Steve went still. An unpleasant smile grew on his face, tight and half-mad. “Corcoran,” he breathed.
‘Steam-Shovel’ Jim Corcoran stomped back and forth across the mission top of the church. He was a mountain of a man, a giant choleric Irishman with curly black hair and wild yellow-brown eyes, but few people got close enough to appreciate the madness in his gaze: where his right arm should have been Jim Corcoran bore a black-iron steam shovel fully seven feet long. A fat-bellied coal furnace burned where the hump of his right shoulder had once been, powering the monstrous limb that even now scraped its shovel against the church’s facade and threw up clouds of powdered clay that fell to agitate the yellowjackets. The clanking apparatus belched clouds of coal smoke and steam from every seam. Steve Bucknell might have been a work of the clocksmith’s art but Jim Corcoran was a blacksmith’s nightmare brought to life. Corcoran digs–Corcoran digs, indeed! “My God,” Pat whispered, reverence in his voice. “That’s awful.”
“WHERE ARE YOU?” Jim Corcoran shouted, shaking the shovel in their general direction like another man might shake his fist. “WHO’S THERE? COME OUT AND I’LL TWIST YOUR HEAD OFF FOR YOU!”
“Ain’t pretty, is it?” Steve said, taking a moment to reload his revolvers. Empty cartridges fell to the ground at his feet. “Gotta say, I think you did a better job–”
A roar of something like laughter interrupted him. The yellowjackets had swarmed to take their remaining fury out on Corcoran–unwisely. With a shout of good humor Corcoran cocked back the shovel on his mechanical arm and shot a long stream of fire from the hinge, playing it across the cloud of wasps. Tiny smoking husks pattered to the ground like rain. “WAS THAT ALL?” he bellowed, craning back and forth, looking for the remnants of his gang. “A FEW BUGS SCARED YOU BOYS?”
“Gotta get him down from there somehow,” Steve said. “Ain’t got a clear shot from here, not with that arm going, and I’m damned if I’m gonna drag him down the stairs once he’s dead.” They looked at each other, then Steve looked down at his left hand. “Probably strong enough,” he said, throwing his glove into the dirt. Light spangled off the metal. “Let’s do it.”
“DICK, YOU DEAD? PETE? BOYS?”
Steve threw off his coat. Pat grabbed the back of Steve’s shirt and shoved it up, baring his back all the way to the shoulders. “We’ve got one shot at this,” Pat panted, his hand falling to Steve’s spine. “You miss and he’s liable to roast us both.”
“Ain’t gonna miss,” Steve said, bracing himself. His metal fingers flexed. “Just say when.”
“SOMEONE BETTER ANSWER ME!”
“Oh, I’ll answer you,” Steve muttered. “I’ll answer you, you no-count son-of-a-bitch…” Pat’s fingers caught under the wing of Steve’s left shoulderblade and popped it open like a cabinet door. Steve bit back a groan as Pat’s hand plunged into his back, catching hold of the handle there–it didn’t hurt, but the strangeness of Pat’s hand inside him nearly overcame him every time.
“Count of three,” Pat breathed, his fingers flexing inside Steve’s works. “On three, you point your hand and I’ll fire.”
“Right,” Steve said. “One. Two. Three–” He jabbed his hand forward like he was forking the sign of the evil eye at Corcoran.
The glint of light on metal caught Corcoran’s eye, and he started to turn, his eyes widening. “WHAT–” he bellowed, and then Pat pulled down the handle. Steve’s arm cracked like a rifle and his hand exploded off his wrist, winging across the square like a lasso and trailing silvery filament chain behind it. Jim Corcoran lurched back, raising his shovel-arm in self-defense, but too late: Steve’s hand punched into his chest, scrabbled over the steam shovel, and caught on a piston strut. Steve reared up and back, digging in his heels and yanking with all his might. Three hundred pounds of metal made a man mighty strong. With a bellow Jim Corcoran jerked forward, hit the low wall, and tumbled over it, crashing to the hard-packed earth fifteen feet below with a deafening echoing clangor like a train derailing.
The generators roared underneath Steve’s shirt, struggling to keep up with the sudden demand. Ignoring them Pat leaped up beside Steve and thrust his hand into Steve’s shoulder again, twisting the handle. Steve’s hand leaped from the dirt as the chain retracted with a screaming sound. His hand smacked into his wrist with a sweet, clear sound like a bell struck with a hammer, driving away the last lingering echoes of Corcoran’s crash. Pat smacked Steve’s shoulderblade shut again. His nimble fingers brushed the catch closed.
Steve flexed his fingers, then shrugged his shoulders to make his shirt fall, then brushed his shirt-tails away from his guns. “Get down,” he said, his voice a cold, cold thing. “Stay out of sight.” Pat nodded and dropped. Steve stepped into the town square, eye fixed on the unmoving bulk of Jim Corcoran. For a moment he was a perfect target silhouetted between the half-wall of the old general store and the side of the church but the ‘shiners were either too scared to shoot him or long gone. Gunsmoke leaked from his left arm, sieving through the cloth of his shirt to leave a gray trail in the air behind him; ten steps further and Steve’s overloaded gennies all vented steam with a squealing hiss, adding a corona of white vapor to the mix. Steve ignored everything in favor of the massive huddled shape on the ground.
Corcoran stirred, then heaved himself onto his hand and knees, the steam shovel pawing at the ground. He shook his head to clear it. Spit flew from his slack lips to spatter across the dry ground. “Christ,” the big man groaned.
“Corcoran,” Steve said, coming to a fogbound halt a prudent distance away. His voice was soft with satisfaction. His fingers did a slow flexing dance over the butt of one revolver.
“Bucknell?” Corcoran reared up onto his knees, then lumbered to his feet. He staggered a little, slamming the shovel to the ground for balance. His face split into a madman’s grin. “Thought you was dead!”
Steve took a single circling step to the right, refusing to look away. “Well, I ain’t,” he said. Corcoran was barefoot and bare-chested, his hair still wild from sleep–the big man had been having himself a little siesta–but all the same Steve wasn’t inclined to give him an inch of leeway. “You and your boys tried, I’ll give you that.”
Corcoran’s bellow of laughter boomed off the square. He was lurching back and forth like a maddened bull, the shovel’s teeth scraping long furrows in the earth. The furnace by his right cheek roared with flame. “Guess that durned fool Rackham was good for something after all! You ain’t looking so good, old friend.”
“I ain’t your friend,” Steve said through gritted teeth. “I aim to bring you in, Corcoran. You gonna come quiet?”
“Still? Jesus! You cling to my ass worse’n my ex-wife!” The shovel blade rose into the air like a snake, interposing itself between Steve and the rest of Corcoran. “Hell no I ain’t gonna come quiet,” Corcoran said, still grinning. Dirty steam vented from his elbow joint with a hiss. “You want me, Bucknell, you come and take me.”
“Gladly.” Steve Bucknell’s gun leaped into his right hand. He sighted at Corcoran’s leg and pulled the trigger, just a hair’s breadth too slow–the bullet whined off the threshing iron arm. Jim Corcoran bellowed out another laugh and lunged forward, the shovel lashing out. Pat yelled something from under cover but Steve wasn’t listening, not when his worst enemy was so close to hand–
Steve threw up his left arm and took the shovel blow against the metal. He knew it was a mistake as soon as he heard the crunch. Pat had built him well but he was still a complicated piece of machinery and there wasn’t a machina on this earth that could stand up to a sledgehammer for long. Delicate struts bent, the pistons seizing up, his left hand freezing into an awkward, useless claw. Three hundred pounds of metal made a man mighty strong, all right, but he wasn’t the only horse in this race with three hundred pounds of metal at his disposal–the followthrough hurled him twenty feet away, staggering to keep his feet. “God damn,” Steve groaned, and he fired at Corcoran’s head, making the monster fall back.
“Steve!” Pat cried. He started to rise.
“Stay down!” Steve snapped. “This ain’t your fight!”
Howling with laughter Jim Corcoran pounded across the square, the ground shaking under his weight, the steam shovel whipping back and forth in front of him as he ran. Whenever it hit the earth it threw up a rain of red dirt and left behind a scar. “Just like old times!” Corcoran cried, his teeth bared in a crazy grin. “Glad you came by, Bucknell–I sorta missed you!”
Steve fell back a step, then flung himself away from that hurtling shovel. He landed awkwardly on his crippled left side and grunted as he hit, his Colt snapping out to fire–Corcoran backhanded the gun from his hand with a casual gesture. Shoving at the earth with his heels Steve strove to backpedal, but his busted left arm was tangling him up and he couldn’t get out of the way. The shovel rose into the air and Steve fought to get out from under it and watched his second death come for him all at the same time–
All of existence exploded into a blue-white light so intense that the world froze around it. For a heartbeat of time the beam lay across Corcoran’s shoulder like it had always been there, pinning the monster in place. Steve clearly heard his heart thump once against his ribs in the ensuing blinding silence, the sound seeming to boom on forever–then the beam vanished and Jim Corcoran staggered backwards, a twisted and fiery ruin where his powering furnace had been.
Pat dropped the burnt-out hand cannon back into his valise. “Steve, you can’t take those blows!” Pat cried again, now that Steve was disposed to listen. “I didn’t know what you were aiming to fight–I didn’t build you to handle that kind of hammering!”
“Figured that out right quick,” Steve said, lurching to his feet. “Still, that’s got him, obliged for the help–”
Red-faced with rage Jim Corcoran roared and lunged forward again, his now-useless shovel-arm dragging on the ground behind him. Steve scrabbled at his left hip, struggling to cross-draw the other Colt, and realized too late that he wasn’t the target any more. Corcoran dug a heel into the earth, his mighty shoulders heaving, and through sheer grit threw his broken steam shovel around in a deadly whistling arc–the missile crashed into the half-wall above Pat and blew it to flinders. Pat had just enough time to look up before the iron bludgeon brought the whole thing down on his head. Steve caught a single clear glimpse of Pat’s spectacles flying across the square as a half-rotted timber slammed into the side of his face and then Pat was down, gone, buried under a mountain of rubble. Coals flew from Corcoran’s destroyed furnace to scatter over the debris.
Steve’s answer was an incoherent howl of grief and rage. Snatching the Colt from his left hip he pulled the trigger again and again, forcing Corcoran to cower behind his dead arm, driving the monster back step after step until the revolver was empty. Lunging to one side Steve snatched up his other gun again and caught hold of himself–“God knows what all you’ve done, Corcoran, but if you’ve killed him I’ll see you hang for his murder first and foremost!” Steve spat out a mouthful of sand, spit, and bloody machine oil. His voice rose to a shout. “I SWEAR IT!”
“Come and get me, then!” Jim Corcoran bellowed, weaving back and forth, his head ducked down. He caught one of his wrist pistons in his other hand and hauled the shovel up off the ground by main strength. “Come and get me–or go save your friend! Choice’s yours!”
Startled, Steve risked a glance over his shoulder. The pile of rubble under which Pat was buried was on fire, the rotten wood all too quick to catch from Corcoran’s coals. Still Steve wavered, his heart pulling him in two directions, purely unable to choose between his hate and his duty–he turned back to Corcoran just as the man heaved the dead shovel-blade at his own feet. It broke through the earth with hateful ease and Jim Corcoran vanished from sight in a plume of red-brown dust, vanishing into the tunnels that no doubt riddled the earth beneath this sorry ghost town. “Another time, Bucknell!” Corcoran roared.
“CORCORAN!” Steve howled, sending a final, useless bullet in that direction. Tottering on his feet he raged for a good five seconds while the orange flames crawled across the boards… then he jammed his revolver back into its holster and raced to Pat. His forearm was broken, his hand useless, but Steve wedged his upper arm into the rubble and levered it up with all the strength at his disposal, which was considerable. Another squealing explosion of steam burst from his generators, soaking the cloth of his shirt, but the largest chunk of the broken wall heaved up a few precious inches. Steve thrust his hand into the gap, caught the back of Pat’s jacket, and hauled his friend free.
Pat thumped out of the rubble like a dead thing, his limbs flopping limply on the ground. He’d been a natty-looking fellow once, but no longer: he was filthy, battered, and singed, his suit torn near to ribbons and fit only for a scarecrow. The side of his face was all over blood but his chest rose and fell when Steve flipped him over. Steve shut his eye in relief. “Steve?” Pat whispered, his eyelids fluttering, one hand groping up at Steve’s face.
“You lie still,” Steve said, his voice dull. Pat’s fingers patted at his face, slipping over the gears of his left cheek, and Steve forced himself not to wince away from the touch.
Pat coughed and his hand fell away from Steve’s face. “I’m sorry, Steve.”
“Don’t be.” Steve glanced over his shoulder. The ‘shiners were liable to come back at any second and Corcoran was still around. They needed to go. Steve touched Pat’s shoulder, then gripped it. “Ain’t your fault.”
It was a battered and heartsick pair that rode back into Shit Mesa that evening. The news of it ran ahead of them, clearing the streets. Ragged and bruised Pat slumped in his saddle like a dead man, a dirty bandage tied around his head, his shaking fingers knotted about his saddle-horn; Steve’s left arm jerked and whined and caught whenever he moved it, making the gelding flatten his ears and wring his tail. A flat rattlesnake’s stare advertised that he was in no mood for idle chatter.
Pat pretty near fell off his horse in front of the saloon, staggering a step before he caught himself. One lens of his glasses was cracked straight across, which lent him a rakish drunkard’s air. Steve caught the mare’s reins. “Go on upstairs,” he said. Pat didn’t argue, just stumbled into the saloon.
Pressing his lips thin Steve walked the horses back to the livery stable. His hand ached from when Corcoran had smashed the gun out of it. The rest of him ached from the battering that he’d taken. The busted machina arm didn’t hurt, not precisely, but it clawed at him anyway, assaulting him with the sense that all was not right.
The chatter in the bar died away as Steve slammed on in through the swinging doors, even the machina piano player winding down and stopping in mid-tune. Every eye in the place was on him for a heartbeat of time–then every eye jumped away and found somewhere else to be in a big hurry. The bartender clutched at the edge of the bar and swallowed. Ignoring the crowd Steve stumped up to the bar and laid his mechanical arm across it, fixing the quailing barkeep with his mismatched clockwork stare. “I want a bath drawn,” Steve rasped, hearing the sand in his gullet. “And I want a bottle of whatever you’ve got that’s still sealed.”
“The law–” The bartender’s protest choked off. Steve’s metal hand was curling jerkily into a fist, clawing deep scratches in the wood with frightening ease. “Yessir,” the barkeep said, his throat working. Without further ado he scrabbled around under the bar and came up with a dusty bottle of Canadian whisky with the government strip still on it. “Do you need a glass?”
Steve stared at the damned fool for a second then recollected to himself his goal. “Yep,” he said. “One.” The bartender stuck a glass on the bottle’s neck and Steve picked up the whole shebang. “And the bath,” Steve said.
The barkeep nodded. “I’ll get it started.”
“Good,” said Steve. He stalked on up the stairs, leaving the stunned silence behind him. The upstairs hallway was dark and momentarily empty, lit by a single dim lamp that produced more shadows than it did light, and in that first moment of solitude Steve nearly crumpled to the ground under the weight of his rage and terrible despair. He staggered to one side, every muscle and metal fiber in his body aiming to drive him to his knees, and only purest grit kept him on his feet. Grit, and the need to see to Pat. Steve had never been one to shirk his responsibilities and he didn’t mean to become that man now.
The unlocked door swung open at his touch. The room had been closed up all day and now the air was thick and hot, like trying to breathe boiling water; sweat burst out on Steve’s brow and he swiped it away. Pat was crumpled across the bed, still dressed, one arm flung across his eyes. Underneath the yellowish glare of the lamp he looked even worse. He was usually such a fastidious soul and to see him beaten down and covered in dirt and not caring was a horror all its own. “Pat,” Steve said, setting the bottle on the dresser and turning the glass upright. Pat made a faint and groggy sound. “You got a bath coming,” Steve said. “Figured you could use it.”
“A bath,” Pat repeated, his voice dull.
Steve broke the bottle’s seal and wrestled the cork free. The smell of the whisky was a slap to the face and Steve slugged it back straight from the bottle. Once he’d had his taste he filled the glass and carried it across to Pat. “Sit up,” Steve said. “Drink.”
For a moment it didn’t seem like Pat had heard him–then Pat groaned and pushed himself painfully upright. He took the glass in both shaking hands and stared down at his own reflection in the whisky’s quivering surface. “Do you hate me, Steve?”
“Don’t hate you,” Steve said, turning back to the bottle. “Told you it wasn’t your fault.”
“You’re angry, though.”
“Not with you!” Steve’s fist crashed into his thigh. “I ain’t angry with you. With me, sure. With Corcoran, always. But I ain’t…” He trailed off. “I was,” he admitted, eventually. “When we was riding back and the weight of it was heaviest. But I wasn’t in my right mind then and if there’s someone I shouldn’t never be mad at, it’s you.”
Pat made a vague sound. It might have been agreement. He brought up the glass and slugged his whisky back, shuddering afterwards and baring his teeth. “I am sorry,” he said.
“I know,” said Steve. “You said. But you ain’t got nothing to be sorry for.” He passed his good hand across his face, fingers shying away from the gears. “I am angry,” Steve admitted, his voice low. “I am like to die of it. But it ain’t got nothing to do with you and that’s a fact.”
Pat nodded, never quite looking up. After a moment he held out his glass. Steve refilled it, then settled in with the bottle. They drank in silence for a few minutes. “I can fix the arm,” Pat finally said, his voice still small. “It’s really only a busted piston rod and the dented frame. It won’t be pretty, but I can at least get it moving correctly before we sleep.”
“I’d be obliged,” Steve said. “It don’t hurt, precisely, but it feels wrong.”
“I can imagine,” said Pat. He snorted. “Listen to me,” he said. “As if I could even imagine what it’s like to be partly machina. What the hell do I know? I just make the damned things, I’ve never been one.”
Steve smacked the top of the dresser. “Quit that,” he said. “I ain’t gonna sit here and listen to you hate yourself. You saved my God-damned life a year ago and you saved it again this afternoon and you are probably the best man I have ever known, for all that you can’t seem to figure that out.” He threw back another burning slug of the whisky. “I don’t know why in hell you’re always so hard on yourself, Pat. Seems like every time something goes wrong you want it to be your fault.”
“It’s–” The rest of the sentence was lost in a sharp bark of despairing laughter. “Aren’t we a pair,” Pat said, rolling his empty glass between his palms. “Aren’t we a hell of a pair.”
“Can’t be healthy,” Steve said. He would have gone on but he heard footsteps in the hall outside. Steve put down the bottle and rested his hand on the butt of his revolver, waiting. Pat squeezed his eyes shut.
Someone knocked on the door. “Bath!” a feminine voice called.
“Yep,” Steve said. His hand fell away from his gun.
The door clicked open. The nightmarish creature that tripped in did so on tiptoe, because of how she was molded; she couldn’t walk very fast, but what clockwhore needed to? Their rubber-coated legs were meant for wrapping around a man’s hips, not for walking. What was left of her face was a caricature of a woman’s, or a clown’s, all cheap paint and tinsel eyelashes. A few tattered red curls still clung to the back of her head but age and ill use had scalped her and taken off half her face in the bargain. Greenish gears turned in the exposed head wound; Steve found that he couldn’t look at her and looked at the floor instead.
The ‘whore carried a steaming metal milk can that was half as tall as she was, toting it along in her remaining hand like it weighed nothing. Upon noticing their eyes upon her she made a trilling mechanical sound like laughing and tripped on over to the tub, her rubbery ass switching back and forth in a way that was probably meant to be alluring but was instead mostly ridiculous. She put the milk can into the tub and knocked it over, then plucked it out again, handling it easily enough for all that she was a one-handed creature; once that was done she attacked the pump at the bath’s head, adding lukewarm water until some switch in her head deemed the bath ‘correct’. “There!” she said brightly. “I’d be happy to-to-to stay and wash your-your back for you, mister…” Her remaining eye batted itself. A small strip of her eyelashes tore off and fell to the floor.
Steve risked a glance at Pat and found Pat staring studiously off at the far wall. “I can leave, you want me to,” Steve offered.
“No!” Pat yelped. He swallowed. “No, that’s all right,” he said, a bit steadier. He glanced at the clockwhore and away again. “Thank you for bringing the bath, ma’am,” he said, “but you don’t need to stay. I’ll be all right.”
“Phooey,” said the clockwhore, pouting with a grinding sound. “Well, you just call ou-out if you change your mi-mind.” She picked up the empty milk can and tippy-toed on out, closing the door behind her.
For a moment they were both quiet, occupied with their own grim thoughts. “God damn,” Steve finally said, his voice dull with horror.
“God,” Pat echoed, sounding equally horrified. His hand drifted up and pulled loose what had once been his tie; Pat looked at it, hitched out an unpleasant laugh, and dropped the dirty thing on the floor. His fingers were slow as they unbuttoned his jacket and dipped in, fetching out his little shovel purse and his ever-present notebook and finally that familiar bright circle of silver. Pat went still, gazing down at the worn Ranger badge in the palm of his hand. Eventually he put it down. Like a man in a particularly bad dream Pat wrestled his way out of his dirt-smeared jacket next, then his vest, and then his shirt, his undershirt, and the filthy bandage tied around his head. The side of his face was caked solid with dirt and dried blood, a monstrous swirl of bruise covering his eye and the cheekbone underneath it.
Steve turned his head to give Pat what privacy he could and caught sight of the pitcher and basin on the dresser. “Gonna take some of this water while it’s still clean,” Steve said. He picked up the pitcher and dunked it into the tub.
“Feel free,” Pat said behind him, slow and discouraged. He climbed into the tub still clutching his mostly-empty glass in one hand, lowering himself into the water with a wince and a hiss. A new coat of sweat burst out all over his skin. He groaned and shut his eyes.
Steve finished shucking off his own shirt and picked up the bottle again. “Here,” he said, conscientiously topping up Pat’s glass.
“I shouldn’t be drinking this much,” Pat muttered, tossing back the whisky. “I don’t drink like this any more.”
“Don’t know that anyone does,” said Steve. “Figured we could use it, though.” His crippled left arm made it difficult to wrestle himself out of his clothes but he managed, wincing as the hinge in his elbow scraped to a halt with a screech of metal on metal. Steve wetted the washrag and swiped a clean patch across his forehead, keeping his eye off his reflection in the mirror as best he could. It wasn’t much of a mirror in any case, its brass dull with age, and as long as Steve didn’t stare he could almost fool his eye into seeing him as whole. Steve worked his way down, scrubbing the dirt from his skin and working up a good clean sweat in the bargain.
Beside him Pat was quiet. Occasionally he would shift and send water lapping up against the sides of the tin tub; occasionally the bottom of the glass would ring off the tub’s edge as Pat lifted it and lowered it again. Steve stole a glance at him in the mirror and found Pat watching him, his eyes tired. “Probably worse’n it sounds,” Steve said, flexing his left arm a little and making it screech.
“Probably,” Pat agreed, tilting his head back to drain off the last of his whisky. He put the glass onto the windowsill and cupped up a double handful of water, splashing it onto his face and rubbing away the caked-on blood. The water in the tub turned pinkish. The abrasion that spread over half his face started to bleed again. Steve looked away.
A little rill of sand swirled in the bottom of the washbasin by the time that Steve finished up and sprawled out on the bed to dry. As soon as Pat was done with his bath they could see to Steve’s arm and then get some sleep–his works would need another oiling but as far as Steve was concerned that could wait for tomorrow. Pat would probably protest but Steve thought he could bring him around.
He was dozing a bit by the time he heard Pat pull the plug on the tub and stand up with a great splash. Steve cracked an eye. Pat, not a prepossessing fellow at the best of times, was currently an awful sight to behold. His wet hair was slicked straight back, exposing the battered side of his face to the air. Other, smaller scrapes and bruises were littered up and down his body, livid against his flushed skin, leaving him looking like he’d gotten in a fight with a wildcat–but he’d live, Steve thought, and he’d heal up after a space, and some day he might again be the same man he’d been this morning.
“I’m going to need to shut down your gennies before I crack into your arm,” Pat said once he was dry and pulling on a clean pair of shorts. His voice was thick with drink but he seemed steady enough otherwise.
Steve nodded. “Figured as much.” He couldn’t lift his left arm above his head but he managed to clear all five of the plugs with some struggle, even if they both winced at the screech that his elbow made.
Pat shrugged into his undershirt and took the coiled rubber cord down from its peg. “We should probably clean your works tonight but I’m too damned tired. Think you can wait until tomorrow?”
“Yep,” Steve said, relieved.
Pat flipped open the metal panel in the wall. “Fifty-four percent. Should be plenty.” Trailing the cord behind himself he crawled onto the bed with Steve. His hands were steady despite the drink and his exhaustion, but every movement was slow and deliberate and Pat used both hands to gentle open Steve’s breastplate before settling down against his side. “Brace,” said Pat.
“Braced,” Steve said. Pat’s fingers slid into his chest, trailing their own little miasma of steam.
Steve woke up again a few seconds later to a world more comfortable than the one he’d left. With his works shut off he was no longer getting assaulted with his body’s constant alarm that something was wrong with his left arm; the electricity from the wall flowed along his nerves like a balm, with the usual side effect. “Hello, John,” Steve said weakly, groping for the bottle of whisky and throwing back another slug. “Good to see you’re still with us.”
Pat didn’t take him to task for it this time. Instead he finished plugging Steve into the wall and then slid off the bed, fetching his tool-kit from his valise. The wind rattled by outside with a brief and mournful howl, a breeze creeping in through the open window. Pat crawled back onto the bed, settling in cross-legged by Steve’s head and stretching Steve’s useless left arm across his lap. Half-drunk on whisky and power Steve dozed for a while, listening with half an ear to the clanking and scraping. He toted this body around but he didn’t know the first thing about how it worked, except that it needed oil and electricity and lots of careful cleaning; the mechanics of it baffled him and the repair work left him sick to his stomach. Pat had his elbow in several pieces, his bent forearm stripped down to a stick and connected to his upper arm by only a handful of wires. Steve glanced at it once and then had to look away. “Gonna end up like one of them clockwhores, all rusting and falling apart,” he said.
“Nonsense,” Pat said, disassembling the bent piston. “For one thing, she wouldn’t look anywhere near that bad if she’d had regular maintenance all along, like you have. And for another, you’re missing a few key parts.”
“I got plenty of parts,” said Steve, flicking a finger against his still-hard prick and making it bounce against his belly. “Just the wrong parts, I guess.”
Pat’s smile was absent but it was there. When he had something to focus on he was a lot less likely to sink into self-pity–“I wouldn’t call them the wrong parts,” he said. “Just… not proper clockwhore parts. Now, if that’s what you want…”
“That a threat?”
“Maybe.” Pat bent over Steve’s arm and slotted a piece back onto his frame. “If you keep breaking the ones I gave you I might run out and have to make do.”
Steve shut his eye. “Guess I do need a new career,” he said weakly. It came out more bitter than he’d intended.
“That isn’t funny.”
“Not much good for anything else any more.” The lurking despair roared forward and caught Steve again, dragging him down in a spill of whisky. “Here I got this second chance and it’s wasted–”
“Stop it,” Pat said, his voice level.
“I swore I’d bring Corcoran down before I let myself die,” said Steve. He ground the heel of his hand into his eye socket, savagely tamping down the ache in his skull. “Hurts like hell to break my word like this, that’s all.”
For a moment Pat didn’t say anything. His fingers drummed on Steve’s arm. “So that’s it, then,” Pat finally said. “You’re giving up.”
“Hell, you said it yourself, Pat, I ain’t gonna last much longer. Who knows how long it’ll take to root Corcoran out of hiding again–and even if I do, what’ll I do then? Bastard woulda had me today if you hadn’t been there–”
“And I’ll come with you again,” Pat said. “I said I would, didn’t I?” He lunged forward over Steve’s disassembled arm, pinning it between his crossed legs and his belly as he scrabbled at the bed. “That’s why you gave me this, isn’t it?” he said, popping upright with Steve’s Ranger badge glinting between his fingers.
Steve’s mouth opened, then closed again. “Suppose so,” he finally said. He would have turned his head away if he’d been able.
“So quit your bellyaching.” Pat put the badge back down. “I don’t want to hear it.”
“Seems like I owe you an apology, Pat.” Steve’s next breath shuddered in his throat. “Never thought you was soft, not exactly, but I thought today would change your mind–”
“No, I’m pretty soft,” Pat said. “We can’t all be like you, Steve. But I gave you my word and soft or not, I intend to honor it.”
Steve couldn’t precisely nod but he shut his eye in acknowledgement. “Never meant to imply you wasn’t a man of your word, Pat. Never meant that.”
“Maybe you didn’t mean to, but you did,” Pat said. “I know you’re speaking from a low place and so I won’t take offense. I know what the low places can do to a man.”
“A low place,” Steve repeated. “That’s it exactly. A low place.”
Pat straightened Steve’s broken arm across his lap, his fingers tracing down the length of what remained of Steve’s forearm. “You’re broken, but I’ll fix you,” Pat said. “I’ll make you better, make you into something that can stand up to that shovel-arm. And I will find a way to keep your body and soul together until we bring that monster to justice. You hear me, Ranger?”
Steve found himself overcome by shame. For all that it was an unfamiliar emotion he recognized it for what it was. “… I hear you. I ain’t myself tonight and I thank you for setting me right.”
“Good. Now pass me that God-damned bottle.”
Steve groped for the neck of the bottle. “Guess you’re right,” he said, passing it over. “We are a hell of a pair.”
“That we are,” Pat said. He took another slug of the whisky, then picked up his tools again. “Let’s get your arm put back together.”
He was right about that too: it wasn’t pretty. The struts that gave the works their proper shape had been straightened, but the metal was still kinked and would be until Pat could get Steve back to Fort Worth and the forge. There was a ripple to the metal of the piston that looked fragile. Still, it would serve. Pat’s hands moved over Steve’s arm with a grace and sureness that was all their own, reassembling Steve like he was a child’s picture puzzle. By the time Pat put in the last bolt Steve had banished both his despair and the shame of it; Steve wished he could blame the drink or the nerve-lulling effect of his works but deep in his heart he knew that neither one was the cause.
Pat lifted Steve’s arm with a little grunt. It took him both hands to do it: with the power out it was a dead weight. Still, the arm flexed easily when Pat bent it, without so much as a whisper of metal against metal. “There,” said Pat. He lifted Steve’s arm and arranged it on the pillow in its usual place.
“Damned sight better,” said Steve. “You finish up that whisky now. Help you sleep.”
Pat needed no prompting. He threw back the last of the whisky, then slumped back against the bed’s headboard with his cheeks flaming and his eyelids drooping. “That’s it,” Pat said, his voice thick again. “I’m drunk.” Dazedly he looked over the mess of his tools scattered across the bedspread, then started fumbling them back into their kit.
“Drunk’s good,” Steve said.
“Drunk’s good,” Pat agreed. His questing fingers lit on Steve’s badge; Pat held it up in front of his face and rolled it back and forth, watching the yellow lamplight play off the metal. “I could just… solder this on,” he said, the fingers of his other hand groping for his little soldering iron. “Right over your heart, where it belongs.”
“You keep it,” Steve said. His right hand curled over his breastplate, whether in thought or in protection he did not know. “I want you to have it. Seems right.”
Pat ran his thumb over the little star, then sighed and tucked the badge into his tool-kit. “If you change your mind… let me know.”
“I know.” Rolling down to the foot of the bed Pat put his tool-kit back into his valise, along with his purse and his notebook.
Steve got as comfortable as he might. The thumping hooraw from downstairs was as loud as ever–they’d forgotten to be scared of him after a while–and the heat was oppressive even if Steve couldn’t properly feel it. Everywhere that he still had skin he was slick with sweat. He knew that despite the drink it would be hours before he slept, but all the same he intended to try as soon as Pat shut off the lamp. He itched at his belly, waiting.
Pat stayed just where he was, though, slumped at the foot of the bed, staring down at his hands. The lamp went on burning, moths battering themselves against the glass chimney. From this angle Pat didn’t look so hurt. Just drunk and tired. Steve could sympathize. “Pat?” he prompted.
Pat looked up at that. His swollen eye lent him a cockeyed look that was all at odds with the morose set of his mouth and the exhaustion etched across his face. Pat started to say something and then he stopped, his fingers twining about themselves in his lap. He looked at Steve until Steve would have dearly loved to shift and turn away, to hide the unnatural sight of his works from that unflinching scrutiny. Only the drink made Pat able to look him in the eye without wincing away, Steve knew, and it was Pat who had made him the way he was. “Steve, I’m drunk,” Pat finally said.
“I know,” said Steve.
“I haven’t… been this drunk in years,” Pat said. Through an effort of will his words were not slurred although they sounded too precise and came in little spurts. “Drink’s harder to come by now and I never felt… like making the effort.”
“Damned fool thing, too. Man ought to have the right to a drink after a long day.”
Pat flapped a hand at Steve. “Politics,” he said. “What can you do?”
“Guess you can keep on,” Steve said. “Try and do what’s right.”
“What’s right,” Pat said. He finally looked away. “How do you… know what’s right?”
Steve almost could have smiled if Pat wouldn’t have taken it the wrong way. Drunken conversations always did take a turn for the maudlin. “Well, you don’t always,” he said. “Sometimes a man’s gotta make his best guess and hope he didn’t make a mistake.”
“Huh,” said Pat. “God, I’m drunk.” He made a little sound that might have been a laugh and looked back at Steve. “There’s… something wrong with one of your fingers,” Pat said, catching his breath, sounding for all the world like he’d just run too far. The flush in his cheeks was a deep and mottled thing now, two wine stains that stood out against his natural color. “I’m probably too drunk to do anything about it, but… I want to take a look.”
Steve rolled his eye up into his head to try and see, but of course he couldn’t, not with his hand above his head. “Wouldn’t be surprised,” he said. “All right. I ain’t inclined to sleep presently in any case.”
Pat crawled back up to the head of the bed and settled down at Steve’s side, reaching up to fumble with the metal hand. There was no feeling in it but Steve could hear the faint sounds of hinges working; they sounded fine to him but he wasn’t the expert. “Huh,” said Pat. “Let me see your other hand.”
Steve put his right hand up over his head. Pat took Steve’s hand in his own and pressed it down against the metal one, interlacing flesh and metal fingers with drunk and painstaking care. Even now the sensation was so odd that Steve had to fight back a shudder as Pat folded those metal fingers down over the back of his hand and straightened them again. “This one is over… overextended a hair off true,” Pat said, flexing one metal finger. “I’m going to… fold your fingers around your wrist and see if it won’t… click back into place.”
“Well, all right,” Steve said. Truth be told he didn’t quite understand what Pat was getting at but there shouldn’t be any harm in it. Pat took Steve’s intact hand and laid it across the metal palm of the other; his own hands, still steady, bent the steel fingers about Steve’s wrist like a handcuff, pressing them down until Steve had a tight grip on himself.
For a long moment Pat sat still, both hands cupped around Steve’s to keep the metal hand curled into place. “I’m sorry, Steve,” he finally said.
“Thought we went over all that already,” said Steve.
“I’m sorry,” Pat said again. He jammed a finger into Steve’s works and yanked a piston out of true, and Steve’s metal hand clamped down on his wrist and froze.
Any number of things went through Steve’s mind as he jerked against his own grip and found that he could not break it. Pat had built him well and true, all right. Steve didn’t know for what nefarious purpose Pat had pinned his hand but he could not think of a single reason for it that didn’t make the hairs on the back of his neck rise–Pat’s hand came to rest on the brassy side of his face. “Try not to hate me, Steve,” Pat said unevenly. “Tell you the truth I already half hate myself for this, but it’s too late to turn back now.”
Warily Steve tested his grip upon himself again and found it no less implacable than before. With his works shut off and his left hand restraining his right there wasn’t much left to him. “I don’t know what it is you aim to do here,” Steve said, “but whatever it is, maybe you’d best aim again.”
Pat said nothing. He couldn’t look at Steve, not directly, so he watched his own hand instead. His finger traced a gentle circle around the circumference of one of the gears that meshed underneath Steve’s cheek. For all that Steve could not feel it he could see it plain. “I ain’t angry,” Steve said, startled to find that it was true. “Least, I ain’t angry yet. I don’t want to be sore at you–best you let me go, Pat. Whatever it is, we can hash it out like men.”
Still Pat said nothing. His fingers traced down along the metal line of Steve’s jaw and Pat watched them go, breathing through his mouth like he had a head cold. There was a weird light in his eyes, magnified by his glasses. Steve could not turn his head and as such he lost track of Pat’s hand for a while, although Pat’s eyes were always on it and Steve could track those right enough. Eventually Pat lifted his hand from the curve of Steve’s shoulder and laid it flat over Steve’s breastplate close to where his heart must have been. “Did you ever wonder about this pattern etched into the metal?” Pat said, his voice gone dull with loathing. “Did you ever wonder why I did it?”
Steve could not fathom what Pat was on about but whatever it was, he didn’t care for it. “No,” he said carefully. “Can’t say that I did. Figured you must have your reasons.”
“Polished metal takes fingerprints so easily,” Pat said. “It’s nearly impossible to keep clean, polished metal. Especially if it’s meant to be handled–” All of a sudden he choked back a sob like a frustrated child. “I turned it on a rose engine by hand, like the inside of a pocketwatch…”
For all that his reputation claimed otherwise Steve Bucknell was not a man immune to fear. It was fear that he felt now. Whatever was going on here, in this grimy little oven of a room, it left him sore afraid, and not in the least bit for himself. “I reckon it keeps the glare down,” he ventured.
“Yes,” Pat choked. He caught hold of himself again. “That too.” His voice was still thick and dull. “Horologists call it damaskeening–isn’t that a ridiculous word for something so pretty?” Steve didn’t know what to say to that, so he said nothing, and after a moment Pat swallowed another sound. His fingers traced the outlines of the muscles that had been hammered into Steve’s breastplate–Pat shut his eyes and shuddered out a breath.
“Pat, you need to stop this,” Steve said, alarmed. “You ain’t doing yourself no good.”
“You don’t understand how crazy it makes me!” Pat said, his voice suddenly all on edge. His eyes flew open and locked onto Steve’s. Pat made a horrible choking sound in the back of his throat. “I left Dallas to get away from it, and then you… a whole year of this… you don’t even understand what it is that you’ve done! What you’re doing! My God, all this time…”
“Then tell me,” Steve grated out. “Whatever it is, it can’t be half so bad as making me fear you’ve lost your mind.”
“Lost my mind,” Pat repeated bitterly. “Lost my mind!” His hand flashed out–his steady, clever, callused hand–and caught up Steve’s prick where it lay, still hard as a rock from the influence of the electricity.
Steve’s human side jerked from the bed with such force that he nearly dragged his metal side along. It had been so long since any hand besides his own had taken hold of him that Steve’s sight purely grayed out for a moment, and by the time he managed to reclaim it Steve thought he might understand a thing or two, for all that understanding was not precisely a comfort. Dimly he could see Pat’s mouth working but Steve could not for the life of him hear the words; when Pat’s voice faded back in it was not a shout but rather a controlled and choking expression of disgust that grated up and out of Pat’s throat like so much sand. “Do you see?” Pat was rasping, his face all twisted up and flushed an unhealthy red. His hand tightened on Steve’s prick and pulled upwards, milking a groan from Steve’s throat. “Do you understand now?”
“Ain’t the clockworks,” Steve managed to say. “Is it.”
“Of course not!” Pat threw his head to the side, staring in horror at the far wall. “My God, if I only wanted clockworks I could have it–I could build it! Anything I wanted!”
“But it–” Steve was forced to pause and suck in a breath through his suddenly-narrowed throat as Pat’s clever hands proved themselves clever again “–it helps, don’t it.”
“It is,” Pat proclaimed, “the crowning touch.” His beaten face contorted, his lips peeling back from his teeth. Some of his wounds cracked and started to bleed sluggishly once more.
Steve sought after something to say in response to that and failed to find the words. Pat’s hand was harsh on him but Steve had always been as tough as old oak, even before a frantic Pat had pulled his smoking remains out of Abe Rackham’s tottering, crumbling, thundering mineworks just minutes before they fell in with a roar that shook the world–no, Pat’s hard hand on him was purely a relief, a realization which forced Steve’s one remaining eye to narrow. He felt that he ought to have an opinion on this matter. He seemed to recall that he might have back when he was still alive and whole. But just like all the rest of his finer feelings (and a few of his coarser ones) his opinions on the sex of the hand’s owner had ceased to matter to his increasingly machina-dominated mind; all that was left was the vague idea that this was not how it usually went, and that was an idea that could not stand for long against the primal glory of it.
However Pat interpreted Steve’s silence, it didn’t make him happy. He made a spitting sound and dropped Steve’s prick back onto his belly–Steve bit back another groan at that–then dragged his undershirt off over his head. His round and battered face was red with exertion and drink, his mouth twisted up in disgust; his hair fell into his furious eyes, nearly hiding the broken lenses of his glasses. “Pat,” Steve said, uneasy.
Pat ignored him. Falling onto one hip by Steve’s side he wrestled himself out of his shorts as well, revealing a lot of flushed skin and scabbed-over wounds. He tossed away his shorts and rose unsteadily onto his knees, showing Steve his own fat prick jutting angrily from his groin.
“Pat, I can’t let you do this to yourself,” Steve said, his fingers flexing impotently over his head. “You’ll only do yourself more harm.”
“Shut up,” Pat said unevenly. Wobbling on his knees he scrubbed one hand down his reddened face, then looked at the blood on his hand in something like horror.
“You take advantage of me when I’m tied down and against it, that’s something you can’t never take back.” Steve fought against the urge to wet his lips. “You’ll always be that man after, that’s what I’m saying. Always be the man who did that. Truth is I don’t know if you’re strong enough to stand up to being that man.”
Pat made that terrible choking sound again, strangling on a sob before he could bray it out. “No, probably not,” he gritted out, grinding the heels of his hands into his eye sockets to push back the unmanly tears; all of a sudden he thumped back down onto his hip, all the fight gone out of him as quickly as it had come. “God,” he choked. “God.”
“Don’t you beat yourself up,” Steve said, fighting to keep his voice firm. Now that the storm had passed he was weak with relief, if not precisely limp with it. “It ain’t all right but I’m willing to believe that it’s the whisky in you that brought this on. I can forgive that. Just let me go and we won’t say nothing else about it.”
For a long moment Pat sat there unmoving, every breath a harsh sound. Steve waited, all on edge. In the end it was a burst of coarse laughter from downstairs that got Pat moving again; Pat fumbled blindly for Steve’s upraised arm, his eyes now as red as his face. Misery poured off him in waves as his deft fingertips found the displaced piston and pressed it back into place. For a moment, nothing. Then, with a total lack of fanfare, Steve’s metal hand hitched, tightened, and fell open again–Steve ripped his hand free of his own relaxing grip and grabbed the closest thing to hand, a handful of Pat’s wet and tousled hair.
Nothing else was needed. Reflexively Pat jerked away from Steve’s hand, got brought up short, and lost his balance. He sprawled startled and heavy across Steve’s chest, his naked body giving off steam heat like a train engine–Pat’s surprise at being caught rapidly gave way to panic over his fate. His breath broke from him in short gasps as he fought desperately to break free or at least to rise; his eyes were wide and frantic, nearly mad, all of it putting Steve in mind, however unfairly, of a bronco being broke to saddle. Steve yanked Pat down again and threw that arm around Pat’s neck instead, pinning him where he was. Pat still fought against it but Steve’s hold on him was as implacable as iron, and now every one of Pat’s short and panicked gasps came with the Lord’s name underneath it, “Jesus, Jesus…”
“It’s all right,” Steve insisted, his own voice low and raw with sympathy. “Pat, it’s all right, it’s all right, you can stop, Pat…”
No matter what Steve said Pat couldn’t stop. Steve was forced to let him wear himself out. Pat battered himself against Steve’s rawboned frame without managing to loosen that oak-thewed arm even an inch; finally he collapsed on top of Steve, blowing like a horse and dripping with sweat. “It’s all right,” Steve said again once Pat had calmed. Pat’s only answer was an indecipherable, miserable sound that vibrated against the side of Steve’s neck. Steve wished with all his might that he might at least tilt his head to the side, but he couldn’t, so he let his voice drop instead. “You know I owe you.”
Pat went still save for his heart rabbiting along against Steve’s chest. “I owe you,” Steve said again. He caught the muscle between Pat’s neck and shoulder in his one good hand and gave it an awkward squeeze. “It’s all right, Pat. I owe you more’n I can ever pay. That’s what you want, you take it and you take it freely. Them restraints ain’t necessary–”
“God damn it, I don’t want your pity!” Pat croaked, his despair giving him the energy for one last futile jerk against Steve’s arm. Failing to break free he struck awkwardly at Steve instead, but in his extremity he chose the wrong hand and only managed to strike Steve’s steel breastplate a ringing blow. His yelp made Steve wince. The pain drove the last scraps of resistance from Pat’s frame and he curled up on top of Steve, squeezing his wounded hand into a white-knuckled fist.
“Ain’t pity,” Steve said, once everything was quiet again. He loosened up a little but didn’t quite dare let go. “I ain’t precisely comfortable admitting this, but all I could think was how long it’s been–”
He didn’t get much further than that before Pat laughed bitterly and buried his face against Steve’s shoulder. “Oh, God, that’s not you–that’s machina logic talking,” he said.
“Maybe so,” Steve said quietly. “I know I have lost a lot. Only reason I ain’t lost everything is you.”
Steve knew that Pat was weakening. The other man was shivering atop him despite the sweat that slicked them both; Pat had long since quit fighting and caught hold of Steve’s wrist with both hands, not to rip that arm away, just to hold on to something that seemed stable. Still, he’d touched Pat in a vulnerable place and they were destined to fight over it for just a while longer. “You don’t want this,” Pat said. “You just think I want it. If it’s not pity you’re offering it’s just a… just a business transaction–do you intend to play clockwhore for me every time you need a stripped gear fixed? Is that going to be it?”
“Because you don’t have to,” Pat said, squeezing his eyes shut. “That’s not why I fixed you. That’s probably hard for you to believe now that I’ve gone and done this–”
“I know,” said Steve. Pat subsided. “I know,” Steve said again.
“I know I haven’t got much dignity left but… if you’ve got an ounce of real pity in you you’ll let me preserve what little I still have.” Pat shuddered again. “Let me go, Steve. We’ll put it behind us–we won’t speak of it again.”
Steve thought about it. For a long moment he thought about it. Deep in his heart (or what was left of it) he knew that Pat was right: there wasn’t much left to him besides muffled animal instinct and old ingrained habits, and he was only offering Pat what was left because Pat had briefly seemed to want it–yet the old Steve Bucknell had never been known for his pity. “Pat,” Steve said.
Pat made a despondent noise.
“Let’s take me down to one plug,” Steve said. “I ain’t actually lost that much charge and I’d rather be able to move.”
“In case I pull another fool stunt like this one, huh,” Pat said. His hand fell away from Steve’s wrist and caught blindly on the topmost plug.
Steve waited. His restraining arm kept Pat’s face mashed against his shoulder–it forced Pat to find and pull the plugs by feel, his fingers groping down Steve’s side from one plug to the next, trailing over polished metal ribs and the elaborate clockworks that they protected. It was unfair and Steve knew it, but he didn’t let it stop him. Pat was already quivering again by the time he’d worked the second plug free, a quiver that evolved into a bone-deep shudder when Pat’s hand trailed out over Steve’s hip to catch at the lowermost plug. In order to reach it Pat had been forced to turn inside Steve’s arm, to roll over onto his stomach on top of Steve, and there was something pushing at Steve’s belly that made him think Pat wasn’t as opposed to the idea as he was letting on. Pat eased the last plug free, splayed his hand out over Steve’s hip for a moment, then forced himself to let it go. Steve nodded. “Turn me on.”
“You’ll have to let me up…” Pat’s voice was uneven. “I’m laying on your breastplate.”
Steve loosened up. His hand fell away to grip the back of Pat’s neck. “Go on,” he said.
Pat tried to slide off Steve and onto the safe territory of the bed again. Steve’s hand brought him up short. Pat pinned Steve with a helpless, frightened glare. “Steve…”
Steve was merciless. “Go on.”
Unable to do otherwise Pat propped himself up and caught at the edge of Steve’s breastplate with shaking fingers, popping it open to reveal a brassy mess of clockworks and the gap in the center like a dark hole in Steve’s heart. Pat made a little gaspy sound that might have been a laugh or a sob or maybe the word ‘Brace’ and then his fingers plunged in–Steve did not bother to muffle the hiss that Pat’s fingers drove out of him. Pat’s answering hiss was maybe sympathy or maybe something else. His fingers caught on the switch and brought it down with a swift stroke.
The shock of it jolted out along Steve’s metal side. The generators whirled up and caught, the rising rumble half-muffled by the weight of Pat still heavy atop Steve. Steve flexed his metal fingers, as always caught up in the power and the relief of still having fingers to move–then he put that hand on Pat’s cheek, running his steel thumb along Pat’s cheekbone.
Pat froze. His cheeks went red again. Behind his cracked spectacles his eyes were huge and in them for just a moment was a look of the purest betrayal, although Steve did not rightly know which one of them Pat accounted the betrayer. “Oh God damn it,” Pat breathed. Without looking he fumbled Steve’s breastplate closed.
Gingerly Steve closed the metal tips of his fingers around the earpiece of Pat’s spectacles. “Look at that,” he said, drawing Pat’s glasses away from his face as gently as he could. It was tricky work–his machina side didn’t afford him much in the way of sensation, and given that he could crush Pat’s skull without much trouble, it required some close attention to make sure that he didn’t do something untoward–but eventually Steve had the glasses and a careful little shake even folded them away. “Look,” Steve said, putting the glasses down on Pat’s side of the bed. “Look at this miracle you made and tell me that ain’t worth any price you could name.”
Pat ducked his head as best he could with Steve’s other hand tight on the back of his neck. “I can’t look,” Pat said, his voice an uncommon mix of desolation and amusement. “I don’t have my glasses on.”
It startled a little snort of laughter out of Steve. “Well, then, feel,” he said, putting that hand back on Pat’s face, the tips of his fingers sinking into Pat’s hair.
Like a man in a dream Pat curled his hand over Steve’s metal one, pressing it to his cheek. “This is unfair,” he pointed out.
“I know,” said Steve. “Figure I’m strong enough to live with knowing that, after.”
“You don’t even want this–”
“It ain’t often we get what we want out of life,” Steve said, knowing in his heart that he’d won. “Me, I reckon it’s fair to take what we’re offered instead.”
Pat huffed out an unsteady breath. “Sometimes I wish you didn’t have an answer for everything,” he said. It wasn’t bitter, only cool and sarcastic, which Steve privately considered to be Pat at his best. Pat’s hands were damp with sweat when they caught at Steve’s face–damp, and soft underneath the rinds of callus–and Pat cringed back even as he leaned forward, but still he managed to kiss Steve without dying or panicking again.
Like so much else kissing was a notion that was largely foreign to Steve. He knew what it was and he’d sported with it a time or two in his youth, but when a man takes the law as his bride he makes a marriage that’s missing several vital particulars. Still, Pat seemed set on it. For a long moment he just pressed his lips to Steve’s in a gesture both innocent and oddly sweet, a kiss like the sort Steve had been accustomed to trading with farm-girls when he was a little rascal of twelve, but it proved to be only a beginning. Pat made a muffled little sound and let his lips part, his tongue flirting across Steve’s lips before finding its way past. It struck Steve as strange but not unpleasant. Pat’s mouth tasted like whisky and a little bit like blood and what was underneath was probably just the taste of Pat–not a taste that Steve had expected to come to know, but still, not unpleasant.
Cautiously Steve attempted to answer Pat in kind. In truth he wasn’t all that interested in the proceedings except for Pat’s sake. Still, that lack of interest meant that he didn’t hate it and for all that he might ordinarily despise the clockworks for it he was glad to be able to give something back to Pat. Pat was a good man but he needed looking after–
Pat’s sweaty hand slipped from the brassy side of Steve’s face to catch at the steel cage over the works on his chest. Pat groaned into Steve’s mouth and shifted atop him, coming to rest astraddle Steve’s narrow hips; his prick fell heavily onto Steve’s, nestled snugly in a sweat-hot valley that was half flesh and half metal. Their bellies pressed together, their cocks got caught up between them, and belatedly Steve woke up and took an interest. Indeed, he was aware of a sudden rush of interest that left him both light-headed and as eager as a adolescent. Without thinking about it he rose up and caught at Pat’s hips with both hands to shift him down just a tad and he’d have done more than that if Pat hadn’t broken off their kiss with a sudden and airless yelp. Steve winced and jerked his metal hand away. “God damn, Pat, I’m sorry, I don’t know my own damn strength–”
“No!” Pat coughed, caught his breath, and added, “No, that wasn’t it.” He heaved the bulk of himself up just a few inches, allowing Steve to see the double ring of tiny red marks bitten into the inside of Pat’s thigh where it had gotten caught up in the working mechanism of Steve’s hip. “I told you I didn’t build you for this,” Pat said with a little flicker of a nervous smile. It made them both laugh a little. The laughter helped in some unfathomable way.
“Well, how do we get around it?” Steve asked, his hand hovering uncertainly somewhere around Pat’s chest. “You’ll have to show me.”
“I think–” Pat rose up onto his wide-planted knees, his hands thrown out for balance. Without his glasses his face had a soft, dazed look, like he was looking at something that Steve couldn’t see. “I don’t know,” he admitted, laughing a little at his discomfort; abruptly he sat down across Steve’s thighs again, shifting his leg so that it would be clear of Steve’s hip mechanism. His prick fell against Steve’s with a gentle rubbery thump that somehow knocked the wind clear out of Pat–carefully, keeping an eye on Steve, Pat gathered them both up and made a bundle of them in his hands.
For all that they were the same piece of male flesh they couldn’t have looked less alike. Pat’s was fat and heavy, pale at the base but ending in a dull red club that matched the brickish shade of his cheeks; Steve’s was your everyday no-nonsense sort of thing, a weathered tan mottled with purple at the end. Caught together in Pat’s hands they both looked odd. Steve blew out a steadying breath and tilted up his hips, afraid that he was going to do Pat’s leg another mischief but unable to resist the warmth of Pat’s hands. Blood throbbed in his temples; there was something throbbing at his groin, too, but Steve was unable to determine if it was his prick or Pat’s or, as seemed most likely, both at once.
Ordinarily it wasn’t Steve’s way to interfere with Pat’s handiwork–he’d long since learned to stay out of the way and let Pat work–but Steve knew how this was supposed to go (or at least he fancied he did) so he brought up his own hands and added them to the mix. His metal fingers brushed against the back of Pat’s hand. Pat made a soft nothing of a sound and lifted that hand away. “Go on,” he said, anxious and eager all at once. Steve figured he knew what Pat wanted so he gingerly tented his metal hand about Pat’s own prick, desperate to be gentle about it. Three hundred pounds of metal made a man mighty dangerous, sometimes against his own will–but judging by the whimper that Pat made, his prick jumping and bouncing inside the cage of those fingers, Steve had done just right. “Let… let me have both of them, Steve,” Pat said, his voice hoarse. Steve closed his other hand about the heavy, clubbed end of Pat’s cock, holding on to the whole of it, astounded at finding himself in this position.
There was nothing familiar about this, for all that he’d thought there might be. He handled his own prick every day but it didn’t compare. The heat of Pat’s was different, and the curve of it was backwards, away from Steve’s belly; the thing in his hands was plump and heavy and hopping like a bug in a skillet. Steve gave it a little tug and Pat swayed forward, a low cry bursting from his throat. Downstairs someone slotted a penny into the piano machina and the racket redoubled.
A lingering fear led Steve to extricate his metal hand and curl it over Pat’s hip instead. Pat groaned at the loss but all the same he seemed to understand it, substituting his own ordinary hand in its place. Somehow they ended up with their right hands tangled together about their pricks, fingers linked in a hand-shake stranger than any Steve had ever been a party to; Pat’s free hand rose to rope the heads together, letting them nose out between his widely-spread fingers. “Like this,” Pat said. “Together–” and he pulled Steve’s hand up along them both in a stroke that purely encompassed the world.
Steve’s mouth fell open and he could not for the life of him close it again. “My God,” he groaned as they worked themselves together, each managing to get a taste of how the other one liked it. Steve’s own habit tended towards the quick and sensible, a few plain strokes neither hard nor soft that brought John Thomas off without much fuss and bother–but Pat’s hands were clever and his taste was for rougher things, and the first rippling squeeze of his fingers nearly undid Steve entirely. “My God,” he said again, blood slamming about in his temples like it was striving to escape.
Pat was quiet. He’d always been good with words but here he wasn’t bothering with them at all, just mouthing the air and chewing on his lips, his eyelids fluttering shut. Steve ran his metal hand up along Pat’s side and watched the man shudder underneath it. If he could just sit up a little–Steve’s wish was the clockworks’ command. Steve’s shoulders rolled up off the bed as he reached for Pat, the gears in his chest clashing with tiny noises, his steel fingers finding and curling over Pat’s unwounded cheek.
Pat’s eyes flicked open to reveal themselves mazed with distress, although it wasn’t the common sort of distress with which Steve was familiar. Amazed at himself Steve ran the pad of his metal thumb over Pat’s lower lip, not caring in the least that dampness would cause that expensive steel to rust. Pat’s mouth opened under the slight pressure of Steve’s thumb and he let out another of those low and wavering cries like Steve had helped it to escape. Steve found himself almost painfully aware not only of that but of everything else besides. Indeed, for a moment he fancied that he could feel the flushed heat of Pat’s face against his palm, which might have been a miraculous conglomeration of pistons and plates but was still a nerveless one as far as Steve knew.
For an endless time they worked themselves together, Pat’s clever hands bringing Steve’s along for the ride. Every long entangled stroke shot a bolt of lightning out along Steve’s nerves, or at least along those nerves that he had left to him. His mind spun and hummed, leaving him aware not only of the heat and sweat of Pat atop him but of the ugly room around them and the ruckus from downstairs, not only of the small and private noises that they made but of the dirty yellow lamplight and the moths that loved it so, not only of the feel of them both so hard and yet so like damp velvet against his palm but of the humming of the neon sign underneath the window. Finally, just when Steve had determined that he couldn’t hold out much longer, Pat made a helpless little hissing sound that proved to be an attempt at Steve’s name when he tried again. “Ste… Steve.”
“Yep,” Steve managed to say. He couldn’t manage much else.
“Hold on… oh God hold on tight!” No longer content with just their hands Pat rose up an inch or so and hammered his prick up and into their grip, the length of it catching and slipping along Steve’s own, lubricated with sweat and a little dab of something else entirely. It focused Steve’s mind like nothing else could and he hung on for dear life as Pat worked himself in and out of their linked hands, leaving Steve astonished at Pat’s cock swelling further inside their grip, just enough to push his fingers apart. He ought to have known the signs and yet somehow Steve was taken entirely by surprise when Pat cried out and came. It made no sense, but how it felt! With Pat’s cock pulsing out its urgent message against his and everything so hot and slippery, so that suddenly their hands slipped right along without the least bit of trouble, and a few stray splatters falling onto Steve’s sweat-slick belly–Steve made a face that must have been downright foolish and then jerked up into his own little surprise with a hoarse sound.
The surprise didn’t stay little, not for long. It started out as an old familiar friend (and a most welcome one, truth be told) but Steve had been light-headed to begin with and the extra push just plain overcame him. Everything that Steve was got swept away in the flood–he thought he might have made another noise before the floodgates burst and everything went gray around him.
He came to eventually, dimly aware that Pat was squeezing his arm in an urgent sort of way. Things came back in bits and pieces, never in the right order: he was breathing harsh and shallow and quick, someone had stuck another penny in the piano machina downstairs, his eye was so tightly shut that his head was aching, the night was hot and wet and still–Jesus God, he thought, I can feel that–the neon sign was still sputtering away outside the window, and he had a red-faced Pat clutched against his chest with an amount of force such that it was a wonder that the man had any ribs left unbroken. Steve jerked his clockwork arm away with all haste, his seamed face squeezing shut in a wince; Pat whooped in a relieved breath, the blood starting to fade from his cheeks. Steve cleared his throat. “You all right?”
“I’ll live.” Pat held up a hand, grimaced at it, and wiped it clean against his hip. “I’m pretty sure.”
“Good,” said Steve. His metal arm lay safe and uninvolved on the bedspread but his right arm stayed where it was, thrown across Pat’s shoulders. Steve lay there for a long minute aware of how hot it was in the room, how sweaty Pat was against his chest, how sticky his hand was against Pat’s back–he was uncomfortable, by God, and how long had it been since he’d felt anything as complicated and useless as discomfort? Steve Bucknell’s eye might have been dry as a bone but there was still a suspicious little lump in his throat, and he suspected that if he were to be called upon to speak he might croak like a frog. Steve cleared his throat a fair number of times. “Gonna have to do that some more,” he said once he felt safe in doing so.
Pat lifted his head to show him a look of purest foggy-eyed disbelief. “Tell you the truth,” Pat said, “that’s… not what I’d expected to hear.”
“Naw, it’s–” Steve broke off there and twirled a hand at his temple. “Feels like it broke something loose in my head.”
Pat’s face drained of color and he threw himself upright, reaching for the delicate works on the side of Steve’s face and only pulling his messy hand back at the last moment. It took Steve a moment to figure the problem and then he coughed out a laugh and grabbed Pat’s hands in his. “Don’t mean like that,” he said. “Ain’t nothing to do with your works, they are as fine as ever. I meant… in my head.” He could see by the look on Pat’s face that Pat did not understand and truth be told Steve wasn’t sure that he did either. “In my mind,” he added to clarify. “I ain’t good with emotions but I know ’em when I see ’em.”
“Steve, I’m drunk, I’ve got no idea what you’re on about,” Pat said plaintively. He took this opportunity to ease off Steve and settle on the bed again. “Either you’re trying to say that I’ve driven you crazy or you think you’re in love or something–” Pat shut his mouth with a click and went scarlet.
Steve snorted. “Ain’t gonna go that far,” he said, although he tousled Pat’s already-tousled hair in an attempt to take the sting out of it. “All’s I’m saying is that it is damn hot in here.”
“You’re still not making any sense.”
“It’s hot,” said Steve. “Why, I’m downright uncomfortable.”
Pat fumbled his glasses back onto his face and blinked rapidly, uncomprehending. “So am I.”
“No, you ain’t hearing me.” Steve chuckled under his breath. “It’s hot, Pat. I feel hot.”
Drunk or not Pat got it then, his mouth falling open. He looked so damned foolish that Steve gave in to the urge to laugh. It was not a common urge. It took Steve a minute to remember how. He’d never been much for emotion his whole life and so he hadn’t known what to mourn when he’d started to lose it–he’d only been aware that something was missing and without it he wasn’t the man he’d once been. He’d thought it had been gone forever, whatever it was, lost to the accident that was still aiming to kill him or killed off by the machina that kept him alive–now here he was, laughing, a whole host of finer feelings temporarily at his command. With luck and Pat’s unstinting help he might yet live long enough to bring Corcoran to justice–“Quick,” Steve said, catching Pat’s hand in his, never mind that it was the metal one. “While I still got the urge and the ability I want you to know that I am grateful to you, right down to my bones. I can’t ever say how indebted I am–I ain’t good with words–but I knew it then and I know it now and Jesus God but I hope to know it later.”
“I didn’t doubt it,” Pat said faintly.
Steve had to clear his throat of that lump again. “You doubted it but that’s all right. I can’t blame you for that.”
“Even if I did…” Pat waved a hand, taking in the bed and their unclothed and messy state. “I… think you’ve proved your point on that matter, Steve.”
“Reckon I did,” said Steve, with a slow grin. “You know what, I reckon I did.”
Excellent narrative, a pleasure to read, enhanced by the fact that I am Steve Bucknell.