“Vot do you see? Vot is my fated destiny?” Brother Feodor Petrovic’s fingers brushed up and down against the three cross beams of the copper Orthodox cross that hung across his barrel chest.
The Romani soothsayer seated across from Petrovic made a pinching gesture with her index finger and thumb, followed by a horizontal slicing motion. Black hair separated a woolen shawl from an unlined face, but her dark eyes had seen far more than her apparent youth implied. Now those eyes pierced the Russian priest’s cloth face mask and burrowed deep into his soul. She then returned to scrying the crystal ball nestled between them. Chastened to silence, Petrovic nevertheless leaned forward to await the gypsy’s divination of how to remove his curse.
Both a priest of the Russian Orthodox church and a hunter of monsters, Petrovic traversed the realms of secular and profane, natural and occult. Which is why with his faith wavering, Petrovic now found himself in a small darkened room in a lady’s boarding house in the hardscrabble mining outpost of Pick ‘Em Up, Arizona. His fate, and perhaps his mortal soul now rested within the faintly glowing orb cradled between Madame Rham’s cupped palms.
Slowly the orb cleared and then filled with smokey tendrils that appeared to intermingle with the incense and oils scenting the room. The smoke then congealed towards the base of the crystal ball before forming a series of shadowy images. Madam Rham’s intonations coaxed them forth. “Blood. Moon. Chaos. Horses and Death…” Madame Rham’s husky voice portended ill, but failed to discern a path forward, let alone a cure for the affliction that dogged Petrovic.
Petrovic clutched his cross as the visions danced within the orb. Again he queried the fortune teller. “Vot does it mean for me and my future?”
Madam Rham adjusted her shawl while observing the angular script and curlicues that adorned Petrovic’s vestments before addressing her customer. “Carpathian? No. You are NOT of the mountains of Carpathia that birthed my ancestors, yet you have been tainted by her darkened forests. But you are from across the woods, by the Dnieper steppes.” She paused as she looked through the translucent oilskin guarding the room’s small window and saw the shadowed outline of a horse and buckboard. “I do not know who or what you are. But what you are NOT is a Cossack.” The gypsy spat out the last word. “And that, Brother Feodor Petrovic, is good enough for me.” Madame Rham perched her head on steepled hands. “I can not help or cure you. I can only show you a way. Your long journey remains far from done. Your path, however, leads just due south, almost to the border. There are folk who labor to bend the earth’s energy to their ends. They wield powerful machines.” The globe once again became clear. Madame Rham covered it with a smaller version of her shawl and carefully replaced it on a carved wooden stand.
“Vot town or place is this you speak of? How will I know when I have found it?”
Madame Rham gestured towards the door and the waiting buckboard. “It will reveal itself. Be one with the horse. Just be the horse. Now go.”
Petrovic slowly rose from his seat and made his way to the door, and from there outside to the dusty street. The driver that he had hired in Tombstone sprawled in slumber across the bench. The mare had not been untethered from the buckboard, but nickered softly as Petrovic approached. Startled awake, the driver composed himself. “Back to town, good sir?” he asked.
“No, I need you to drive me south of here,” said Petrovic.
“Dunno about that, sir. That’s some mighty fierce territory. What the Cowboys don’t get you, Mexican bandidos will. Most are rustlers, but many will shoot you just coz.”
“Vell, that’s vere I’m headed.”
“Bisbee to seek your fortune? That’s what passes for civilization down thataway.”
“I do not know. I just know my way is south of here.” Petrovic gestured back towards the boarding house that he had just exited. “The soothsayer said there were men who make powerful machines.”
The driver thought for a moment before giving Petrovic a long, hard look. “I’ve heard tell of such wonders. Mad Science they call it. I don’t know much ‘bout ‘em, but Mad is enough for me to steer clear of ‘em.”
Petrovic tossed a small leather pouch at the driver. “Vell, once again, that’s vere I’m heading. And I’d be obliged if you’d take me there.”
The driver loosened the drawstrings and peered inside, and whistled as he saw enough ghost rock to double his fare. “Hop aboard, good sir. I believe I’ve heard tell of a place east of Charleston. We’ll avoid the town, as it’s infested with Cowboys.”
Petrovic grunted as he hoisted himself aboard next to the driver. Clucking the mare into motion, the driver turned the buckboard around and set out along a track paralleling the willow-lined wash of the San Pedro River. Neither Petrovic nor the driver noticed a large, grey cat jumping up into the rear of the buckboard. The feline found an old saddle blanket, washed itself, stretched and yawned, before finally curling up for a nap.
Dr. Delphi Wallis stood cross-armed as she eyeballed the metallic suit in front of her.
“Dr. Wallis, you need to attach the ghost rock power core. Then adjust the torque on the arms.” Professor Aloysious Roe wheeled his chair to and fro as he directed his protégé in adjusting and calibrating the Entrepreneur’s ultimate combination of armor, weapon, and conveyance. Dr. Delphi Wallis was a neophyte in the former two categories, but she could make contraptions move from one spot to another like nobody’s business.
“Righto, Professor Roe,” said Wallis. The scientist adjusted her goggles and whistled a merry tune as she performed the requisite actions. The power core glowed green and emanated a steady high pitched whine as it converted ghost rock to usable energy. As she once again stepped back to scrutinize her ongoing handiwork, Wallis noticed an opening in the armor’s torso. She grabbed a ball peen hammer along with a rivet from a nearby set of bins. After positioning the rivet in the hole, she gave it a solid whack with the peen’s flat side.
“No, Dr. Wallis, do not…,” Roe’s voice trailed off as he realized that his words either went unheard or unheeded. In either case, discretion was the better part of valor and he zoomed his chair behind the safety of a stout wooden work table.
The armor began shaking and steam billowed forth from the power core’s edges. “Blimey. Fire in the hole!” Dr. Delphi Wallis dove for cover just as the gadget exploded.
Fragments of armor whizzed by the scientists. Several more minutes elapsed as dust and debris continued to waft and settle throughout the nether regions of the barn housing the Arizona incarnation of the Wagner Memorial Ranch. Professor Roe wheeled over to Dr. Wallis and ascertained that she too had survived her mishap.
“Doctor. Delphi. Wallis. By the degrees vested to you by Cambridge University, you of all scientists should understand the basics of pressure.”
“Umm, air and fluids move from high pressure to low pressure. That’s fundamental.”
“Yes, Dr. Wallis. Most fundamental indeed.”
“So there is more pressure inside the suit than the surrounding air outside.”
“Do go on, Dr. Wallis.”
Wallis’ expression changed from furrowed concentration to realized epiphany. “So that torso opening served as a vent for excess steam generated by the ghost rock reaction to escape.”
Professor Roe gave an exasperated sigh. “Your scientific acumen is only exceeded by your sparkling wit and charming personality. And once again, a shilling and a tuppence short, as well as just a hair late. Of course, the vent released pressure. So why in tarnation did you seal it shut?”
Dr. Wallis shrugged. “Oopsies. Looks like I have to go tweak the settings on the ornithopter.”
“A most capital idea,” said Roe to Wallis’ receding backside.
Professor Roe sighed as he surveyed the damage littered throughout the barn. He wheeled his chair outside and made his way to the adjoining bunkhouse. “Luke. Luke where are you? LUKE. I need you in the workshop and I need you now.” After a minute without any response, Roe strained forward with his cane to reach the iron knocker. He then proceeded to pound it back and forth until he heard footsteps and drowsy voices from within.
A burly man opened the door and peered down through lidded eyes at the Professor. “Waddya want?” He stepped back in shock as he recognized his boss. “Uh, sorry Professor Roe. What brings you to our humble abode this fine day?”
“I need Luke, and the sooner, the better,” said Roe.
The man turned back inside. “Luke, Boss-man’s gotta job for you.”
More shuffling and scraping of someone hurriedly putting on clothes. Eventually a sallow faced boy emerged from the dim room and joined his fellow bunkmate at the door. “What you got for me, Professor Roe? What is it and where am I going?” he asked.
“No errand this time. But Dr. Wallis had an unfortunate mishap in the lab. I need you to get it straightened up and squared away.”
“Not again? Another cleanup? That’s Marty’s job. For the last time, I’m an errand boy, not a janitor.” Luke turned to go back to his cot.
“And for the umpteenth last time, Marty remains in Gomorra. Yes, his job is to keep the lab spick and span. But he simply will not leave Miss Borne’s side. Here in the desert of Cochise County, Arizona Territory we all must do what it takes to keep the Ranch up and running. And right here, right now, this very instant, I need you, Luke, to clean up Dr. Wallis’ accident. Thank you very much.” Roe swiveled his chair and proceeded back to the lab.
Grumbling, Luke followed him and once inside proceeded to survey the damage. He let out a long whistle. “Golly, Dr. Wallis has certainly outdone herself this time.” He found a wide brushed broom and began sweeping the debris outside. Luke coughed as a burst of dust enveloped the smaller cloud raised by his vigorous sweeping. He looked up to see a buckboard pull into the scrabbly yard.
“Hello, permission to enter,” said the wagon’s driver. He raised his empty right hand to demonstrate his peaceful intentions. “I’ve brought a visitor from Tombstone via Pick ‘Em Up. He seeks something that you fellas make.”
“Not mine to give. I’ll fetch my master.” Luke turned and receded back into the Wagner Memorial Ranch lab building.
A short while later, Professor Roe wheeled his way out of the barn and into the courtyard where the wagon’s occupants waited. “State your name and business,” he said.
A burly man with a dark cloak and white mask and vestments descended. “I am Brother Feodor Petrovic. I come from Russia to both escape my fate and alter my destiny.”
Roe remained impassive, only his arched eyebrow indicated that Petrovic could continue his narrative.
“I have been afflicted with a horrible curse,” said Petrovic. “A soothsayer in Pick ‘Em Up prophesied that I should ‘be the horse,’” he said.
“Horses would be with the Cowboys in Stockyard, about 50 kilometers southeast of here.”
“Fortune tellers speak in riddles. I believe she meant a machine, not one with real flesh.”
“Follow me.” Professor Roe wheeled around and reentered the barn, motioning for Petrovic to follow him inside.
Petrovic blinked and peered around as his eyes adjusted to the gloom of the barn. Gadgets and contraptions in various states of assembly and repair littered the building. Try as he might, however, he could not discern anything that resembled a beast that held the key to his destiny. “Vere is this vondrous horse that I came all this way for?”
“I believe it was a metaphor,” said Roe. Noticing Petrovic’s blank look, he continued. “We don’t actually make horses, you understand. A ‘horse’ is simply our way of describing any device that carries someone from one place to another.”
Petrovic nodded in understanding. “Ah, so if you took a buggy that moved on its own, it vould be a ‘horseless carriage,’ but you’d still just call it a ‘horse?’”
“Good enough for the Queen’s work, I suppose. But you’re not here to discuss the semantics of science, are you? Despite your clerical garb, you strike me as more of a man of action, no?”
Again, Petrovic nodded. “Und vere is dis carriage, horse, device?”
Professor Roe pointed towards the debris pile that Luke had gathered and swept outside. “That was it, but we had um, an unfortunate incident.”
Petrovic followed Roe’s gesture. Crestfallen, he eyed the cluttered heap, realizing that his arduous journey was so close to fulfillment, but alas, just too late. Glancing into the darker recesses of the barn he refocused his eyes. As sensitive as they now were to daylight, they were doubly acute in dark and near-dark conditions. Towards the far side of the barn, resting as if seated, he spied what appeared to be a suit of armor. “Vot is dat over there in the corner?” He motioned over to it.
“Oh that, that was a prototype of what we tested today. It almost worked, but ultimately we deemed it too unreliable for use.”
“I was sent here by a gypsy. I did not come all this way for nothing. Dat is vot you call a ‘horse,’ da?”
Roe gave a grudging nod. “Yes, that is a mechanical conveyance. It is far more than just transport, however. In the wrong hands and without exercising the utmost caution, it is extremely dangerous.”
Petrovic nervously took a step back. Opening his mouth he started to say something but paused as the sound of hooves and whinnies announced more arrivals to the Entrepreneurs’ complex.
“Halloooo the camp. Anyone there?” An unseen voice called out.
A quick shake of Roe’s head indicated that Luke had drawn the short straw to greet the new arrivals. With a sigh and a resigned shrug, the errand boy once again trudged outside.
Petrovic waited until curiosity got the better of Roe and the Professor moved to follow Luke outside. With him distracted, Petrovic proceeded to further investigate the suit. Most of it appeared to be some sort of metallic alloy with joints pleated, accordian style, and made of tanned leather. He noticed a round indention in the middle of the torso region. A small pail next to the suit contained several large nodules of a greenish mineral. Petrovic had seen the Bayou Vermilion engineers stoke the engines of their locomotives with similar rocks.
“Refined ghost rock,” he thought – that’s what powers the suit.
A quick glance behind him confirmed that Roe was still preoccupied with the unseen arrivals. His mind made up, Petrovic picked up a nodule, letting out a faint yelp of surprise at the unexpected warmth.
Another glance back confirmed that Roe hadn’t reacted to the noise, and so Petrovic returned to his task.
“Scrying Gypsy, I hope you told me true,” he muttered.
With a grunt, he lifted the heavy suit upright. Like a sarcophagus, the suit opened outward. While not an exact fit, Petrovic was able to squirm his considerable girth inside. Almost of its own volition, it closed with a hiss as it sealed itself shut. After he affixed and adjusted the bulbous helmet, Petrovic reached out with a gloved hand, this time successfully picking up a piece of ghost rock. Taking a deep breath, he carefully placed the rock into the center depression.
The familiar banshee whine of released ghost rock filled the barn. Petrovic felt a surge of energy within him as his life force mingled with the ghost rock’s energy release. His head filled with thoughts and desires, all he could think of was blood – warm, nourishing, life-sustaining blood.
A voice roared within his head. “You are mine now. Your soul shall become one with mine. Your life is my salvation.”
“Who are you? What are you? Why are you doing this to me?” Petrovic’s years of wrestling with Hell-spawned creatures grounded him as he mentally squared off against this demonic aggressor.
“Call me Ishmael for all I care. You now serve me and exist at my whim.”
“No. Never.” Petrovic tried to remove the suit’s helmet to no avail. Somehow he just couldn’t find the rivets, let alone use his bulky mitts to begin unfastening them. As he scrambled to find a way out of the suit, a clatter of horses and whinnies diverted his attention back towards the yard outside.
Professor Roe stared up at the mounted rider, Winchester rifle held casually across his saddle. The nonchalance of it all did not fool Roe for a second. From his seat it was clear that no matter how casual the scene looked, the gun was pointed directly at his chest. Glancing beyond the lead rider he saw a posse of three more horsemen also with rifles drawn. This trio, however, made no pretense of being at ease. Each gun pointed squarely at him.
But who were they? None of the men wore red sashes or other telltale signs of the Cowboys. With growing suspicion Roe lowered his gaze in apparent deference, breath catching at the sight of the Circle M brand of the Morgan Cattle Company. The thugs might be locals, not fit for even the low standards of the Cowboys. Their familiar looking leader, on the other hand, had come all the way from Gomorra, California, and with his own trusted steed to boot.
Looking back up at the leader, Roe mustered every gram of British resolve at his command. “You came here for…?,” he asked.
“You darn well know what I came for. I’m Lane Healey and I’m here to collect Yagn’s armored suit. It ain’t in Gomorra, and it better be here. I want it, and I want it this instant.”
Wordlessly, Professor Roe used his cane to point to the scrap heap littering the front corner of the barn’s doorway. “You are bloody welcome to it. Take it and begone.”
Lane Healey glanced at the pile then looked back at him. “That is not what I came for. And if Morgan’s entrepreneurs made something once, they made it two or three times. Where is your back-up unit? I’ll take that off your hands.”
“You gotta beef? Then why don’t you pick one with me?” The shrill voice came from overhead. As one they all looked up to see the outline of Dr Wallis straddled beneath an ornithopter’s paired wings and spinning fan.
Lane brought his gun up too late. The staccato chatter of the Winchester sent bullets whizzing harmlessly behind the ornithoper’s tail as Dr. Delphi Wallis swooped up and around. Taking advantage of the distraction Professor Roe and Luke dashed back to the safety of the barn, only to scatter again as a hulking form surged forth with an enraged bellow.
A fusillade of bullets bounced off and whizzed around Petrovic as he rushed towards the horsemen. “Blood.” “Destroy them all.” “Feed.” “Chaos and destruction.” The inner voices screamed out, dueling for his soul. But he retained his focus on the immediate danger manifested by the horsemen. Their leader appeared distracted by something in the air, so he continued charging the ones shooting him. Out of ammunition and without time to reload, they attempted to scatter. Petrovic reached the trailing rider, grabbed him by the torso and flung him off the horse, slamming him into the hard-packed dirt. The ghost rock core shrieked and Petrovic’s legs surged with power, embracing and intertwining with his own pulsating life force. He caught up to the second rider. As the rider used his reins to urge his horse onward, Petrovic reached up and twisted the rider’s free arm backwards. Aided by the suit’s power, he snapped the arm backwards with a sickening crack. Startled, the horse threw his rider, whose blood geysered out past the protruding bony shards while the rider howled his death’s agony.
Petrovic’s voices dueted in frenzied ecstasy as he doggedly bore down on the remaining rider. Try as he might, he couldn’t gain position to grab or throw the rider as he had with the first two. In desperation, Petrovic threw himself at the horse, embracing the rear hocks. Horse, rider, and Petrovic went down in a tangled sprawl. Petrovic crawled over and clubbed his fist into the man’s face which exploded in yet another shower of bone and blood. The rider’s horse writhed on the ground. As he had done to its rider, Petrovic staggered over to the horse and caved in its skull.
Petrovic turned to see the winged woman standing over the posse’s leader, who was beseeching supplication.
“Kill. Feed. Kill. Feed.” The voices volleyed back and forth, exhorting Petrovic to consummate his blood lust. Almost of its own volition, the ghost rock core went from a whine to a purr to silence as it powered down. Steam hissed as pressure escaped from the suit. Startled, Petrovic shrugged and to his surprise found that he could lift the helmet, but nevertheless could not open the suit itself. Salivating as his front fangs extruded, and unconscious to all but his primal urges, Petrovic leaned down and bit into the dead horse’s haunch. He drank the still warm blood until the carcass had no more to give. Sated and exhausted, he passed out with the voices still bickering with each other over his soul.
Delphi Wallis aimed her auto-revolver at the dark-clad man on his knees before her. “Whoever you are, get your hands up, and keep them there.”
Lane Healey noticed the woman’s quavering voice along with the tremble of hands tightly gripping the butt of an auto-revolver. Her gloved fingers were too thick to fit into the trigger guard, let alone squeeze off shot. “She’s a gadgeteer, not a fighter,” Lane thought to himself.
“All right, Miss, you got the drop on me.” He steadied himself with his left hand, even as his right hand blurred as his Colt Peacemaker cleared its holster. “But now, we’re even. Put your gun down, and get your hands up.”
Startled, Delphi complied. Her auto-revolver discharged as it landed, harmlessly spraying dirt along the bullets’ errant paths.
Lane didn’t flinch. “Very good, Miss.” He noticed one of Delphi’s gloves was oddly whorled and thicker than the other. He pointed to it with his own gun. “What’s that?” he asked.
“Oh that? It’s just my Loose-Endinator. Just look at the Loose-Endinator,” said Wallis.
“What the heck is a Loose-Endinator? And why should I look at the Loose-Endinator?” asked Healey.
Where Dr. Wallis’ voice and hands once wavered, both were now completely steady and firm. “You really should look deep into the Loose-Endinator,” She repeated.
Healey’s eyes never wavered from the upraised glove. “Yes, I am looking at the Loose-Endinator,” he said.
Satisfied that her gadget had worked as intended, Dr. Wallis took charge of the situation. “Lead your horse and follow me to the edge of the yard.”
Lane Healey wordlessly complied as he followed Dr. Wallis.
Once they reached the outskirts of the Wagner Memorial Ranch, Dr. Wallis turned to her subject, and once again held her left hand up to Lane’s eye level. “You will now forget everything that happened today up to this point.”
Lane did not reply, but Wallis knew from his blank stare that her device had worked, leaving him hypnotised.
“Mount your horse.” Again he wordlessly complied with the order. “You will ride hard and fast to Bisbee. Then you will go to the Copper Pit and enjoy their finest whiskey. GO NOW!” Her final order she delivered in a slightly raised voice which caused both the horse and Lane Healey to race off in a cloud of dust. Neither noticed the grey cat that leapt up behind Healey’s saddle and settled in along the rolled up bedroll just before the horse raced off.
The sun beat down upon Petrovic as he came to his senses. He blinked as he shielded his eyes, the coppery taste of blood still upon his lips.
“The horse, my Lord, what have I done?” he thought.
He dared a glance to the side, but instead of a drained equine, he saw a pair of legs. Still confused, he propped himself up with one arm, still shielding his eyes with his other. The legs belonged to the small lad, but he was not alone. With him, stood the woman scientist, as well as the distinguished Professor in his wheeled chair-like contraption. He gingerly turned his head in the other direction, carefully shaking off the daze. The suit lay open beside the dead horse.
“Vot happened here?” he asked.
Roe wheeled over to face the Russian cleric. “We were attacked by someone who used to belong to our collective organization. You, ahem, put on a right bloody good show yourself. Suffice to say that neither that man nor his posse will be troubling us again any time soon.”
“That armored suit. It’s something more than vot you intended, da?”
“Well, I did try to warn you,” Roe replied. That was our first attempt. Our second attempt was safer, but we had a slight problem this morning with shall we say, ahem, calibration.” Roe gave a slight nod towards Dr. Wallis, who blushed as she looked down.
“I don’t know much about Mad Science, but your gadgets run on ghost rock. Hard to control, but usually predictable in hands such as yours, da?”
“Usually is the key word. There are forces beyond this world and its knowledge. Such a one manifested itself via the suit’s ghost rock core. Poor Oliver never stood a chance. He went insane and died from shock.”
“Then why did you not destroy it?”
“As far as I can tell, the presence is stuck between worlds. It cannot or will not return from whence it came, but it cannot fully escape into our world. I fear that destroying the suit will release the being fully into our world. And that, my dear cleric, would be a terrible thing indeed.”
“And why did I survive?”
Professor Roe pivoted his chair and pointed with his cane to the dead and now bloodless horse still lying in the yard. He then swiveled back and pointed square at Petrovic’s face. “I have heard of your kind. Walking among us, while using the cover of darkness to feast on life’s vital fluid itself. Brother Feodor Petrovic, like what haunts that suit, you too are no longer fully of this world. Your mortal strength and spirit alone would not have saved you.”
“Kill me now and end this madness. Release me from my curse, then.” Brother Petrovic splayed his overcoat, exposing his chest as he kneeled in supplication.
“No, Brother Petrovic, it is not upon me to decide your time.”
Petrovic let his overcoat fall back upon his chest. He stood up, clutching his crucifix as he did so.
“But, it is clear that you have, ahem, useful powers and abilities. It will be some time before we can assemble another suit. You certainly have some affinity for that one,” said Roe. He looked the man up and down and then again out into the yard as he surveyed the scattered corpses. “For a priest, you have evident training and uncanny skill in the fighting arts. Perhaps the gypsy prophesied correctly. Perhaps you are meant to be one with the horse. Perhaps that is indeed your horse.”
Petrovic inhaled sharply and staggered back at the enormity of Professor Roe’s words. His salvation was indeed at hand. Then he realized that the unseen spirit would only amplify his curse, and not remove it. And next time or the time after, he might not be able to sate his primal urges with feeding from a single beast. He might not be able to extract himself, remaining trapped within, damned for whatever days the fates allotted him.
“You would work for us, but we can protect you as you would protect us,” said Roe.
In that instant, Petrovic realized that he would not only be held thrall to the unseen and unnamed spirit, but to the Entrepreneurs and the moneyed interests that they served. With the Lord’s help, he would bear his burden alone. “No, that suit and your employ may be what I need. But it is the least of what I want.” He turned, and without a glance back, mounted the passenger side of the buckboard. With a cluck and a flicked whip the driver, looking a little relieved to be moving again, took Brother Feodor Petrovic back to Tombstone.