The giant hurricane twisted its deadly way across the open waters. The wind and rain bands whipped the waves into a maddened frenzy of sound and motion.
The storm was so large that motion from it was felt even two miles below the surface. Hundreds of years ago, there had been no light this deep. Now, the ocean floor was alive with light and human life.
There were four distinct types of humanity that lived beneath the waves. The first were the Natives – sallow-skinned and green-eyed water-breathers who were directly descended from the ancient Atlanteans. These water-dwellers required special equipment to walk the streets of the domed settlements on the ocean floor.
Secondly, were the Sapiens. These were air-breathing humans of all races. They lived in the domed settlements and required special equipment to breathe and speak underwater.
The third type of human was the Gills. These were children – of either race – who had been surgically altered to be able to breathe either water or air. As they grew, the skills became part of them. This surgery had recently been outlawed – but it was still done in secret. More often than not, it was done to the children of grown Gills.
Finally, there were the Mixeds. Generally considered the dregs of society, these were the product of a union between a Native and a Sapiens. Without fail, they favoured the sapiens parent – with one notable exception: Their eyes -- clear, pure green. Emerald green, some called it, though emeralds were few and far between.
The current strengthened and the clear blue of the water deepened to indigo as the hurricane worked its havoc above. The chieftain of the Native band stood in the drift, dark green eyes scanning the miles of waves above him. “Trouble comes, he breathed.
Behind him, in the medical building, a newborn’s lusty wail rose. He smiled to hear it. “…my grandson….”
And all the while, men on private transports were stealthily approaching the settlement.
As the hurricane blew above, so one was brewing below.
Stormy was also the word to describe the man who entered the airlock several miles away. He stepped off his personal transport and let it hover beside him.
All personal transports were a strange blend of cybernetics and a large land beast once known as a horse. Because each had biological components, each had a distinct personality. This one was shying slightly – startled by the unexpectedly boisterous atmosphere in the domed settlement.
“Easy, boy,” the man soothed, petting its neck as he looked over the settlement. “Four Corners,” he read the readout above the gate. “Huh. Well, good a place as any, I reckon.” He moved into the settlement, removing the Converter from his nose and breathing in air for the first time in days.
“Identity?” the man behind the desk of the Boarding House asked, stylus already poised above the paper.
“Chris Larabee,” the black-clad man ground out.
“Welcome to Four Corners, sir!” he smiled.
Chris just nodded and headed to his bunk. He tried to ignore the little voice screaming in his head that his destiny would find him in the morning.
The chieftain carried his grandson out and let the water kiss the infant’s cheeks. “My grandson!” he announced. “May the gods smile on him!”
Cheers went up and then died down as the band on personal transports entered the camp. The chieftain locked eyes with the leader and his own face went grim. He handed the infant back to his mother, who moved toward safety.
Only then did the chieftain lift his chin and demand, “What do you want?”
The leader graced him with a tight smile. “My men and I need provisions.”
The chieftain’s eyes swept down the line of mounted men, seeing the faded purple colour of the tattered uniforms. “We will share our provisions with you – if your intentions are honourable.”
“Honourable?” he chuckled. “We fight for our freedom – what could be more honourable?” “
You wear Federation colours,” the chieftain pointed out. “That particular war has been over for years. There’s no need to keep waging it. Return to your families – it’s over.”
His eyes flashed. “Then, sir, we are the ghosts of the Federation. Am I to assume you will deny us provisions, then?” Before the chieftain could answer, the leader made up his own mind. “Very well! Take what provisions you find, men!”
The chieftain protested vigorously as the purple-clad men swarmed over his village. Moments later, the scream of a young woman rang through the water.
The leader followed the noise and found one of his men on top of a Native woman, trying to pull her dress off. With a growl, he jerked the man off and threw him across the hut. “PROVISIONS!” he roared. “NOTHING ELSE!”
The man gulped as he ran. “Aye, Colonel Anderson!”
Anderson growled as he moved out. He glared at the man who stopped him. “WHAT?” he roared.
The man wordlessly held out a mask.
Anderson’s eyes widened as he took it. He rubbed his fingers over it. “…gold….” He found the chieftain. “I think this will provide us very well….where is the rest of it?”
“There is no more.”
“Don’t LIE to me!” Anderson lifted the chieftain off his feet. “WHERE?”
“I do not lie,” he ground out. “There is no more.”
Anderson shoved him away and bellowed for the cannon.
Human nature never changed. Humanity might have retreated underwater, but still they found ways to make weapons. Guns and cannons now fired their projectiles underwater -- modified to work with, not against, the water pressure.
That was what was brought out now. The electronic controls were used, and the cannon roared.
Screams echoed as the cannon plowed a hole in the ocean floor. Anderson ordered a chest to be placed in it.
“Fill it,” he ordered. “You have three days. Fill it with gold upon my return – or I will level your village.”
And they rode out.
“What do we do?” the chieftain’s second asked him.
“The only thing we can to,” the chieftain answered. “Get help.”
Chris walked from the restaurant and headed down the streets of the settlement. He frowned as he leaned against a post and watched the town go by.
Like most large new domed settlements, this Four Corners attracted people of every stripe. The arrival of two older Native men was noticed and filed away.
Chris’s attention was drawn to a man with long hair and a bandanna around his neck. He was sweeping the sidewalk in front of a mercantile. To his surprise, the man blinked and turned to face him.
Chris cocked an eyebrow. Interesting….
His attention was then drawn to a commotion down the street. Men were dragging a struggling larger man down a flight of stairs.
“Stop this!” a woman screamed, running out into the street. “Nathan didn’t kill your boss, the bends did! Nothing can help that once it’s started!”
Chris frowned and glanced down at the older man who’d come up beside him. “What’s that about?”
“They arrived last night – leader was sick. Nathan tried, but there was nothin’ he could do.”
“Where’s the sheriff?”
“There.” He pointed at two men riding out of town on transports. “Him and his deputy. Dammit, the bastard took my transport!” He took a deep breath and continued. “Nathan’s the best thing we’ve got for a medic…. They’re just looking for someone to blame.”
The woman kept trying to stop the men, but they bowled her over and drug Nathan to the old shipwreck that served as the graveyard.
The man with the bandanna came out of the mercantile, holding a rifle. “You take that outta here,” a man bellowed as he followed him out, “and you’re fired!”
“Hell,” the man glared at him. “So not only do I gotta worry ‘bout bein’ killed, I gotta worry ‘bout a new job, too!”
Chris grinned. He liked this guy! The man raised his eyes – blue met green. Chris held his gaze and jerked his head toward the scene by the shipwreck.
Ya with me?
The blue-eyed man nodded once. With ya. Let’s go.
Chris nodded in return and stepped off the sidewalk. He fell in easy step beside the blue-eyed man and they marched down the street toward the shipwreck.
Nathan never stopped struggling. The men threw a sturdy rope over a jutting beam on the wreck. The other end was fashioned into a noose and thrust around a mightily protesting Nathan’s neck.
With whoops of joy and shots into the air, the ruffians settled Nathan onto a personal transport. A murmur ran through those assembled as Chris and his new friend approached.
From the back of the crowd one voice rose. “What are you doing? This isn’t where you get off!”
Laughter rang out. “It is now!”
Chris and his friend ignored that tiny commotion and walked into the fence around the shipwreck. The instigator of the hanging whirled and saw them. “What the hell do you want?”
Chris nodded toward Nathan. “Cut him loose,” he ordered, his voice cold and deadly-calm.
The man beside him nodded and replied it the same tone, “Reckon you lot’d be happier if you just rode away.”
“Rode away?” the instigator laughed. “Rode away? Not a chance!”
Chris waited till the laughter had settled a bit, and then asked in the same deadly-calm voice: “You boys tried to perforate the dome back there. Anybody stop to reload?”
All laughter stopped. Suddenly the instigator growled and drew his sidearm.
Without a word to each other, Chris and his friend flung themselves in opposite directions. Bullets flew between them, then the men re-sighted toward the separated men.
The noise spooked the already rattled transport, and it shot out from under Nathan. Nathan tensed his neck muscles and tried to untie the ropes at his wrists. To bring them to the ropes around his neck would only choke him faster….
Chris and his new friend communicated without words one more time. Chris focused his weapons on the mob – whose numbers were rapidly dwindling – and his friend ducked behind a large piece of debris and aimed at the rope holding Nathan off the ground. He cursed as his shot just missed.
“…behind--!” Nathan gasped.
The long-haired man whirled and snapped off one shot. His next one neatly severed the rope and sent Nathan onto his hands and knees, gasping for air.
The mob fled, all but one. This one decided Chris’s back would be an easy target.
Nathan’s hands flew. He jerked a knife from a holster and flung it. With a grunt, the man went down.
It was over.
However, someone forgot to mention that to the young man who ran up beside Chris, brandishing a gun. “I got him! I got him!” He sighted---
And Chris grabbed the gunsight and jerked it down so that it was pointed at the sand. “You don’t shoot nobody in the back!” he gasped, aghast at the pup’s ignorance. Releasing the gun and turning his back on the boy, he looked at his new friend. “Name’s Chris Larabee.”
“Vin Tanner. New in town?”
“Last week.” He reset the hammer on the rifle.
Chris let his eyes run down the thin figure. “Shark hunter?”
A corner of the mouth lifted. “Among other things.”
Nathan cleared his throat. “One of you lot wanna pull that knife outta that body and cut me loose?”
Vin did that as the woman who’d tried to stop the mob alone ran up. “Gentlemen! I’m the editor of the ‘Four Corners Clarion’ newsfiche – Where did you come from?”
Chris and Vin looked at each other and spoke in unison, down to inflections. “Tavern.”
They began to walk away, and the woman spluttered, ‘Hey! I-I want to talk to you! Where are you going?”
Again, the locking of eyes. Again, the unison speech. “Tavern.”
Nathan grinned at her as she followed them. Vin handed the rifle back to his ex-boss. “Thanks. Sight’s a little off.”
The man smiled and held up a hand. “You can keep it.”
Vin broke into a surprised, delighted smile. “Much obliged.” He took the rifle and followed his new friends.
In the tavern, Chris ordered, “Whiskey.”
Vin jerked his head toward Nathan. “An’ give one to the doc here.”
Nathan glared at him. “Not a medic. Served under one in the war – picked up what I could there.”
The liquor arrived, and the three lifted their glasses. The hair on their necks rose, and they turned as one.
Facing them were a Native chieftain and his Second. The chieftain spoke, his voice slightly distorted by his breathing apparatus.
“We wish to hire you.”
“Thirty-five dollars,” was the assayer’s verdict as the small blob of gold was handed back to the chieftain.
He looked up at Chris, his green eyes sincere. “It is all we have to offer.”
Chris looked from the chieftain to his second and asked calmly, “What kind of odds are we looking at?”
After a moment, the chieftain asked, “Would twenty men frighten you?”
“Nadaskay,” the second hissed, and was silenced by an upraised hand.
“Nadaskay?” Chris asked. “Is that your name?” At his nod, Chris nodded as well.
“Three against twenty,” Vin mused. “Not great odds.”
“I know someone who might help,” Nathan mused. “If I can convince him.”
“So do I,” Chris began to smile, “if we can get him out of bed.”
BANG! BANG! BANG! “All right, you!” a gruff voice bellowed. “You, in there with my wife!”
“Ooh my stars!” the busty blonde gasped as her head popped up from the clinch. “It’s my Billy!”
“Your husband?” the mustachioed man gasped as he jumped up. “I thought he was in prison!”
“He is! I-I mean he was! Oh, Buck, he’ll kill ya!”
“Not if I’m gone,” Buck said as he threw on his pants. One final passionate kiss and Buck was out of the window.
The pounding had gotten more strident, and now the door burst open, revealing – Vin! “Sorry, ma’am,” he said with a cheeky grin. “Wrong room.” He closed the door, leaving the stunned woman spluttering.
Below, on the sidewalk, Buck finished fastening his pants and shrugged his shirt onto his shoulders.
“Mornin’, Buck,” a voice drawled behind him. “Sleep well?”
“CHRIS!” Buck whirled and threw his arms around his dark-clad friend, pounding his back. “You old war-dog!”
“Careful, Buck,” Chris warned with an amused grin, “Folks’ll talk.” After a few moments more of small talk, Chris told him of the Native village.
Buck buttoned his shirt as Vin walked up. “What’re the odds?”
“With you? Four against twenty.”
Buck whistled. “Damn, Stud….he with you?” Chris nodded and he studied Vin for a moment. Then he asked, “There gonna be women there?”
Vin chuckled and shook his head in amusement. Chris smiled as well. “I reckon.”
“Count me in.”
“Meet us at the edge of the settlement in three hours. We ride then.” As he and Vin walked back toward the tavern, they were met by a grim-faced Nathan.
“He turned us down,” Nathan reported. “Says he’s workin’ out his penance. His name’s Josiah and he used t’be a priest.”
Vin frowned. “Used t’be?”
Nathan shrugged. “Has a little trouble turnin’ the other cheek.”
They walked into the tavern to find a shooting contest going on. “Beat that, if y’can, fancy-pants!” a man laughed.
A well-dressed man drained his glass and stood unsteadily. He took wobbly aim, took a step forward – and slid on a bottle. His shot hit the rafters as he went down.
Laughter rang out. “Y’give up?” a man laughed.
“Nonsense.” He picked himself up and dusted himself off. Flat brown eyes that revealed no emotion met the watchers’. “I was merely…encumbered by the debris on the floor. Pin it up.”
An ace of spades was pinned on the dartboard. Switching to his left hand, he took careful aim. Six shots rang out.
A single hold appeared in the centre of the ace.
Silence reigned, then the gasps went up. “He hit all six bullets dead-on!”
The man smiled, and a gilded tooth appeared. He looked around with that eerily unexpressive brown gaze and said, “Well. It would appear, gentlemen, the pot is mine.”
A meaty hand slammed down onto the pile of money. “You sure got sober fast!”
The situation went rapidly downhill from there. A concealed gun soon slid into the man’s hand and his face was as cold as his eyes. “Back off!”
“Hell, we know you only got two shots in that pea-shooter!” his opponent challenged.
“Then you fellows had best discuss amongst yourselves which of you is goin’ to die.” He moved away from them and found himself next to Chris.
“First shot was louder than the others,” Chris murmured for the man’s ears alone.
Those expressionless eyes never left the knot of men just barely in abeyance. “What are you intimatin’, sir?”
Chris looked at him and, just as softly, added, “First shot was real. Last five were black powder--- blanks.”
Brown eyes slid to look at him, then the gilded grin shone briefly. “Well, sir, I abhor gamblin’ and as such, leave nothin’ to chance.”
Chris chuckled. “Got a job that might get you away from all this.”
“Really? How much?”
“If we can get enough men – five dollars apiece.”
He snorted. “Five dollars wouldn’t pay for my bullets.” He glared toward Nathan, who was sending angry looks at him. Dark-skins had suffered in the Federation, and the man had an accent like one of the Federation’s elite. Seeing the glare, he asked coldly, “Is he with you?”
Nathan’s eyes narrowed.
“Not interested,” the man growled, leaving the tavern. Not once did he turn his back.
“That was uncomfortable,” Nathan growled under his breath.
At the allotted time, the men met at the edge of town. Chris counted noses – four men. He’d hoped for more – planned for at least two more….
A large man Chris had never seen before rode up. Nathan broke into a delighted grin. “Josiah! You comin’ with us?”
“Yup,” his deep voice rumbled.
“What changed your mind?”
“Squid,” Josiah answered cryptically.
Vin frowned at him. “What does that mean?”
“Death,” was the calm answer.
Nathan’s eyes widened. “Whose?”
A slight grin touched the big man’s lips. “Probably mine.”
Chris smiled at him – slightly. “Welcome aboard.”
The five looked toward the airlocks, and Chris opened his mouth to give marching orders. He was interrupted by a bright voice chirping, “Hi! I’m JD Dunne!”
They turned to see the boy from the attempted hanging riding up beside them. “And I can ride!” he announced, turning his personal transport in a circle. “And I can shoot!” He drew a gun and did so.
His transport reared and he went soaring.
“And he can fly!” the man from the bar laughed as he rode up.
JD landed unceremoniously in the feeding rough and came up gagging and spluttering oily water.
“And he can swim!” Buck laughed.
“Go home, kid!” Chris ordered and the chuckling men regrouped, ignoring JD’s “Blast!”
Chris looked at the newcomer. “Thought you weren’t interested.”
“Ah, but that was before I knew I would be riding with a genuine celebrity! My name’s Ezra, by the way. Ezra Standish.”
Chris nodded in acknowledgment of the name. The others introduced themselves, and Chris began, “I’m Chr—“
“Chris Larabee,” Ezra said. “I know who you are, thanks to the widow Travis.” He pulled out a blue reader – the universal colour of information readers. “The afternoon edition of the Four Corners Clarion.” He turned it on and read aloud:
“’Chaos reigned in our quiet little town today as notorious mercenary Chris Larabee and a small band of ruffians—‘”
Chris snatched the reader from his hand and glared at it. He got off the back of his transport and bombed to the building with ‘Clarion’ written on it.
The woman who’d tried to stop the hanging looked up, startled as he kicked the door in. “Mister Larabee,” she said calmly.
He flung the reader onto her desk, watching as it bounced off of her terminal. “What the hell is this?”
“The afternoon edition,” she replied calmly.
“’Band of ruffians’?” Chris snarled. “I only met one of them before today and he wasn’t even there! You have an obligation to the truth--“
She stood. “I have an obligation to this town. If that means stretching the truth and your reputation to keep the bad element out of town, so be it!”
He slammed his hand down on the desk. “Lady,” he roared, “I am the bad element!” Leaving her staring after him pop-eyed, he stormed out of the building.
Vin met him at the doorway. “Are you okay?”
“I’m pissed off,” he sighed, calming down some. “But I’ll be okay. Where’s the others?”
“Waiting at the edge of town for us. Bout this Ezra fella – why’d you want a cheat an’ a con on the team?”
Chris smiled genuinely at him. “We may need one.”
Meeting up at the edge of town, Chris opened the bag and lifted out six Converters. “We’re going to a Native village – undomed – so –“
Buck took one. Nathan took one. Josiah held up a hand. “My father was a preacher – a missionary to the Natives. The entire family are Gills.”
Chris nodded and looked at Vin. One thin shoulder lifted in an easy shrug. “I’m a Gill too. I was raised by Natives, so….”
Chris nodded and held the fourth Converter out to Ezra. Brown eyes met green, and Ezra sighed. “Put it away,” he said with a tired sigh as his hands rose as if to rub his eyes.
“Three Gills, all right!” Buck laughed.
“No. I’m not a Gill.” Chris saw two reddish-brown discs drop into Ezra’s hand and barely suppressed the gasp as brilliantly emerald eyes raised to meet his own hazel-green ones.
“You’re a Mixed,” he heard Nathan gasp.
Those eyes swung to him. “You still want me?” It sounded for all the world as if he was expecting a “No!” answer. Obviously it had happened before – and Chris suddenly realised why the Mixed had hidden his distinctive eyes.
Without a word, Chris rode closer and held out his hand.
Ezra blinked at him, visibly confused. At last, those eyes held emotion!
“Give me the lenses,” Chris gently ordered. “When you ride with us – you ride as yourself.”
Another slow, astonished blink, and Ezra dropped the coloured contact lenses into the outstretched hand.
Chris slid the lenses into his shirt pocket and nodded toward the airlock, fitting his Converter onto his wrists, ankles, waist and neck. As he slid the cannula into his nose, he issued the order for the very first time.
The six rode into the Native encampment. The chieftain walked out and spread his hands. “Greetings!” he announced warmly. “I greet you with hostility!”
Despite the tense situation, Chris felt himself smiling. “I think you mean hospitality.”
The chieftain laughed and bowed slightly. “I am Nadaskay.”
“I know, you told us in the bar,” Chris chuckled. “I’m Chris Larabee, and these are my men – Vin Tanner, Nathan Jackson, uhm…”
“Ezra Standish,” they introduced themselves.
Chris nodded and turned to his right. “And this is Buck Wilm—“ The place to his right was empty! “…ington? Buck?”
A call echoed from the rocks. Buck rode into the camp, dragging a figure behind his transport. “Looky what I found followin’ us!” He laughed as he pushed the figure forward.
Chris’s eyes widened as he saw the boy from the graveyard! The Converter marked him as a Sapiens, and he was glaring at Buck.
“Let him go, Buck,” Chris ordered, and Buck released the rope. “I thought I told you to go home.”
The boy marched right up to him, meeting his cold glare with blazing hazel eyes. “Look – I came out here to fight alongside men like you! I look up to you, and all you can do is tell me to go home?!”
Chris studied him for a long moment, and then gave a quick, sharp nod. “Welcome aboard, kid.” He turned to walk away.
“All right!” the boy laughed. “I’m JD Dunne, and I swear you won’t regret this!”
Chris allowed a tired sigh to escape him. “I already do.”
The next few hours were busy ones. The Natives had not expected these strangers to include them in the fight preparations! But include them they did – train them they did.
Ezra even got the children involved!
Soon, there was a lull in the preparations. Vin removed his binoculars from the saddlebag and frowned as he saw a commotion in the distance. “Riders comin’ in!” he called.
Nadaskay sighed. “They come…”
The seven protectors scrambled to their places. Chris peered out over the lip of the roof he was crouched on and let out a sharp gasp at the amount of transports heading their way.
“I thought you said there were twenty men!” he hissed.
“No,” Nadaskay said calmly. “I merely asked if twenty men would frighten you.”
“Twenty, no!” Chris growled, making sure his ammunition was in reach. “Forty, YES!”
Nadaskay gave him a gentle smile, and checked his own ammo. “And so it begins….”
CONTINUE to part two