03: The Council of Four-Zero

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Previously: A young farm boy called Josh of Allentown proves to the new commander of the Buffalo Bill’s that he can not only ride a bucking bronco, but that he shoots the sharpest shot in the frontier. It was a dry frontier, plagued with the longest drought in the ‘many worlds’ of the Near Ages - which the commander overcame - bringing rain and plenty.

Four years later this lone gunslinger, Josh of Allentown, is found terribly wounded in his darkest hour after an unseen attack. Outpost specialists of Buffalo Bill’s Mafia, including Captain Tyrod Taylor, introduce Josh to New Fort York and the friendly, wing-eating town at it’s gate. The peace is shattered when a spaceship crashes into the sand and out flies a man from the future...





“The Council of Four-Zero”




Present Day

Buffalo Nation



Once, in the Near Ages, a black scratch split the full moons.

To Josh of Allentown, silent in the melee of arguments around him, it looked like a knife had gashed open a canvas-painting of the galaxy. Only it was real.

“The Weakening is upon us!”

All the voices stopped.

Prairie crickets and POP-SNAPS from the council-fire resumed. Dozens of cowboy hats & headdresses turned.

Lieutenant General McDermott had said it. “T’is early, but the first black border of The Weakening Season is there ta’ see in our skies.”

Josh, who knew nothing of what this meant, looked from the black scratch to the new guy newer than him across the big fire.

“I come from - the Future -!" Josh remembered. He was a man, strong, but ordinary with spectacles. The chief difference was that he wore a transforming armor exoskeleton; a metal that glowed, hummed and mirrored him as a shadow as he tossed his apple core into the fire.

Apparently Josh had anticipated the conversation as General Beane next-spoke of the very same man, “Four-Zero Miller Class is here at first prospect, upon my urgent request. While he is clearly not acclimated yet to our ways and way of it, this council is called because, he too, is now one of us.”

“Here-here,” said Captain Taylor low but fully heard. He sat beside Josh and didn’t raise his head, only his red tin cup, “Welcome to our Mafia.”

“Hey-ey-ey-ey!” Cried Blizzard Dancer with his chin to the stars.

“HEY-EY-EY-EY!” Echoed all of the sachems, heroes, generals and gun crews around the blazing council flames.

“Hey-ey-ey-ey!” Repeated Blizzard Dancer.

“HEY-EY-EY-EY!” Boomed the Buffalo Bills.

Four-Zero Miller Class clanked to a knee and bowed his head deeply to his wrist. A tuft of triangular hair exposed on scalp. “Deep- obeisance-, my comrades-.”

Bear Morse glared coldly at Four-Zero.




Josh looked into the other fire-lit faces around him.

Men who had ridden in immediately that night from the open range after they heard the space-crash and the many whistles from New Fort York. They rode pintos, burros, ox-carts and mustangs. Some brought stage coaches, others dog-packs and one a bear cub roped to his travois.

McDermott ordered an immediate council meeting and the leaders gathered under the stars, looking up at the black scratch. As Blizzard Dancer opened councils with the native Haudenosaunee ‘Words Before All Else’ Josh had seen their scars. What battles challenged these warriors? They were each hardened veterans. What adventures? Totems, tattoos, scents, and weapons of endless variety decorated their unique costumes. And what am I doing here, a kid?

That last question still turned in his mind after Four-Zero’s installation and Lieutenant General McDermott took over, “The onslaught of threats and raids are too then upon us,” his irish accent paused. “We’ve stores of Dignity in our silos and have rightly given the rest off in the form of water to the Great Land and Lakes around us. That is our way.”

“Hey-ey!”

“Hey-ey,” some men agreed.

“Even if it makes protecting our Dignity more challenged. We defend not just a walled Fort, but we defend our very dirt!”

“Defend our Dirt.”

“Defend our Dirt!” Intellectuals and giants alike echoed that, Josh saw in a quick glance over his shoulder.

“From whom?” Josh whispered to Captain Taylor.

“From any threat in the Near Ages. And there are many. More than thirty.” He whispered back.

“Or else what?” He asked low.

“Or else this,” said Captain Taylor in full voice, drawing attention suddenly. Josh looked out at the eyes; he didn’t even see the hit. It wasn’t hard - but Captain Taylor’s knuckles tapped Josh’s left cheekbone twice.

He flinched.

Josh touched the spot and felt his own tattoo. XVII.

Seventeen.

Seventeen-Years of:

“Drought. Famine. Pain.” Said the Captain clearly, raising his eyes to Josh’s.

Josh, a child of the Great Drought, knew the thirst and suffering behind those words more than most.

“Each world chooses what to make their Dignity resources into, ours is water and a healthy wilderness for all the realm,” began Gardener Dawkins, standing, “But for all the worlds, it is prosperity, and losing it, Dignity, leads to their suffering.”

“Our mission ‘ere,” McDermott joined in, “is to ensure this world has enough for her needs, and beyond that, to target any War Lord in the Near Ages who hoards it.”

“Who is hoarding Dignity General?”

A surge of gears pushed Miller Class to a great scale.

“Los- Angeles-“ cut in the metallic voice.

The hulking mass pivoted as the man’s head with the triangle patch turned, “Permission- Sir-“

“Granted,” said McDermott, sitting.

“My- friends- of the fifth Squadron- RAMs- Robot- Augmented- Marines- fought in the Winter War-. No unit class could- could- defeat us-.” Between broken sentences, his iron breath amplified, “When the sup- sup- super collapse occurred- and the powers came- we trapped- our enemy in- in- the Sophon of our own- own- Age. We were victorious-.” The man connected to the machine sat down heavy, something was draining. Each time he stuttered the glowing lights muted black. “They- they- we- took it all.”

Mister Hyde, Esquire, stepped forward into the firelight looking across at his Lieutenant General.

“Go ahead, Mister Hyde.“

“These Marines’s Autocrat…”

“Their head-honcho,” translated Poyer.

“Yes, Kroken. He was not only in command of an unstoppable military force under the powers of a super collapse, and the conqueror of un-matchable Dignity, but also, did so, within his own jurisdictional power.”

“They could, and did, amend ‘The Untouchable Laws’ governing Dignity,” emphasized Poyer.

“What does that mean?” Asked Tiny Bear Morse, a giant.

Mister Hyde read off a new document, “By the dutiful requirements of the law, Kroken Mineral Corporation, as majority owners of the resource families known commonly as ‘Dignity,’ partner with the home legislative body, Kroken Land Corporation, who presided over the Winter War’s terms of surrender. Together, and in complete cooperation, they hereby pass Law One (01): Any ‘Dignity’ within the jurisdictional limits of Kroken Land Corporation, the Greater Los Angeles Realm or the remaining realms of the known and unknown Near Ages is sole property of the Kroken Parent Corporation.”

“I asked what it meant?” Repeated Bear Morse.

“Not only can these RAM Squadrons seize Dignity by trade, force or cunning, as has been the way of “The Untouchable Laws” forever. But all Dignity, everywhere, by rights, must be surrendered to them, and courts themselves can order confiscation,” Poyer explained.

“It creates a new battlefront,” said General Beane, from the shadows behind the Sachems. “One that is not limited to artillery and rough riders, but that targets civilians. Our Mafiafolk and the peoples of each world in the Near Ages.”

“Many civilians in Losinglands don’t have Dignity to spare. Or live on credits,” said Doc, seeing people around this very fire who had lived through The Great Drought, where even the fort had nothing to protect, let alone the wagons and homesteads.

“They know this. It is is either inconsequential to their greed, or their ultimate goal,” said Poyer looking down from his friends’ eyes.

“For any person of the Near Ages who fail to comply, will be incarcerated in debt to the Corporation,” warned Mister Hyde.

The Mafiafolk, my family — not only in new drought, but slaves?

“What good are more mouths to feed in their Los Angeles? It is already too crushed by crowds.” Said Bigfoot Phillips.

“We suspect they seek laborers to expand their Corporate realm into our off-worlds,” said General Beane.

“This cannot- not- not- not- not- happen-,” said Four Zero, smashing his battery pack to keep functioning. “Their way is dead-dead-death- col-col-collapse.”

So that’s why he left? Some causes cannot pay you enough, Josh thought, reading the pain in the robot-man’s eyes.

“A cancer.” It was Doc Edmunds. For some reason his eyes connected with Josh’s and his message burrowed into him. “It’s a crushing culture that harvests any river into piping, any forest into pills, any community into addictions. And then it kills.” Josh shivered, Doc looked away, “Like it did in St. Louis.”

An audible gasp rose from the men at the mention of the lost city.

“And Cleveland before that,” said Poyer.

These were names Josh did not know, but could feel the gravity on the group. They must stop them, thought Josh, They must try, it was true-

“Evil,” someone said.

It was a word that wasn’t used lightly, for many evil results spill from just intent. But not this time.

“We have Admiral Brady to thank for this maneuver,” concluded Mister Hyde, as if it should be obvious. “The Immortal read the stars of super collapse in the last war and drew his armada to homeport for an annihilation trap.”

Admiral Brady, thought Josh, the…

“Bedtime story who ain’t real?” Said Captain Taylor quiet to Josh.

“During the self-crowning coronation on the deck of the Unrecognized Fleet the Admiral-King remade ‘The Untouchable Laws’ to the same end and purpose. Unprecedented, and unstoppable, like he so often is.”

“With all that power, on a two front war…how was Brady finally blocked?” Asked Gardener Dawkins.

“Us- -“ said the machine-voice of the RAM. “And only us- We took- took- him in- in- LA trap- trap. He bargained for release- He taught- his way- and we never- never- never look- looked back.”

“And you did the same yourselves,” growled Morse. “Evil-for-Evil.” He stood up, tall.

“Easy,” said Dawkins.

Morse walked closer to the weak-seeming Four-Zero, “Did anyone hear he called his former squadron of monopolists ‘his friends’?” Four-Zero looked up and the robot helmet-plates followed with stutters. “Why are you here, Stranger?”

“Bear, we should be grateful,” spoke up Hawkeye Johnson.

“We once welcomed you to this council with ‘Hey-ey’s,’” said Doc Edmunds, moving between Bear Morse and the sitting Four-Zero.

“From the same Age!” Morse pushed past Doc to look down at Four-Zero, “You don’t fool me. You caused the Weakening, Marine. You connected our borders. Sure, one would come, but you chose to push your engine here. Why does a rich mercenary leave the luxuries of super-space and an unstoppable squadron under power for a dirt road and log fort? Why?”

Four-Zero did not stand. “It is an- an- empty- land. It is- is- quiet. You- You- You have no space-antennae or- or- or- sophon net- network. In hours without fis- fission cables my R-RAM suit is use-less. This dep-dep-riv-riv-ation makes me sad.”

“There it is,” said Bear Morse adjusting his suspenders out of nerves. “Some truth.”

“But I chose- chose you any- any-way B- Bear. You- have the best-one-only chance- chance- to break the- unstop- unstoppables.” The flashing lights dimmed around Four-Zero so only fire lit his eyes now.

“…Well,” Bear Morse took a breath, “I agree with you there.” He gave him a quick tap on the robot-shoulder.

“That is our only mission now men,” McDermott commanded, “There be no other Weakening that will matter nothin’ if we can’t break the lock on LA’s hoard & corrupted law! It’s early, yes, and it ain’t no easy round up - the future marines were unstopped. But we got one of the good ones of their own ranks and a hellfire of our own behind him.”

“But how? In a bare-knuckle brawl? In a poker game?” Asked Digger Parker

“They’d stack that too with as much Dignity as they control,” said another Bill.

They were right, thought Josh, the RAM Squad technology made them unstoppable. And this would be a raid into their own fortification.

“What makes us different than the Royal Bengal Empire or The Immortal Admiral’s fleet? The new cook!?”

Several eyes looked to Cookie, the youngest, who shrunk into the grass.

“We may collapse - “ Began McDermott, “We may destroy ourselves. But someone must lead a change! It will be a victory for the Near Ages if, even in our defeat, we permit another platoon to learn some weakness because we engaged. This is bigger than our own Dignity - we have enough for peace - this, is to keep tyrants from makin’ cages of it!”

“Then who will be left to defend our families if we charge off a cliff!?”

“Who said that?” Asked Morse.

Sixteen armies fell to them in battle!”

“Who said it!?” Yelled Morse.

“Send me.”

“What if I did, Tiny?” Sneered Bigfoot Phillips, sticking his gut into Morse's path.

The two heavies shoved and lashed out, opposite sides of the same coin.

“Perhaps the best action is to feign tribute and raid weaker realms for Dignity!”

“Send me.”

Even that rambling Digger stopped his yarn to look to Josh. Everyone else already had.

“I am of no cost to you. Send me sir.” Josh looked to McDermott, “I have spent four years riding The Wests, I can learn of the trail from Four-Zero. I understand Los Angeles has more than ten-times our population and a squadron of Marines may engage me - but I will take any Dignity and disrupt any infrastructure that I can. If I go down - you all will be here in full for the entire Weakening Season to defend Fort York.” Josh used a fist to tap his XVII tattoo of the seventeen-year drought and his heart, where the memory rests, “If there is a chance, I must try.”

“I’ll be his watch,” said Gardener Dawkins immediately to the Lieutenant General.

McDermott looked back and forth at the former Boy Maverick and the gardener.

“Odds like that, you’ll need a Doc,” said Doc. He stepped in with them.

“Four- Zero- Mill-Mill-Miller Class-. Ar-Armed and- mobili-i-i-ized,” the flashing robot moved forward.

“Then I’d better keep an eye on him,” said Tiny Bear Morse, “And plug him in.”

The two lawyers moved forward and nodded their heads, “Brute battle may play a hand, but it is the rules of the game that determine the fate of the Near Ages.”

Utah Davis asked, “Could you use a spy for this insurgence?”

“How ‘bout two?” Added McKenzie Slim.

Bowie Knox came forward in his bearskins, “I’m goin’.”

The Coachmen stepped forward, then Boom Boom Milano, “Hi, How-are-ya,” and the six heavies of the Gun-crew.

Captain Taylor stood up. His spurs and chrome pistols glittering. He put his arm on the shoulder of Josh of Allentown. He didn’t say anything - he didn’t need to.

“I’ll do whatever I can to help you sir,” said Josh.

Captain Taylor took a breath and offered a warm smile, “Then lead these men into Greatness.”

“What?”

“Greatness.”

Josh backed up a step.

“No, no, Captain, this is your gang - I’m just here to help!” he exclaimed. “I’m not ready.”

“And I’m not ready to ride into the sunset. But you don’t need to be ready to get started.”

“Captain- ” but Josh didn’t know what to say.

“These Bills are yours now,” Taylor clapped him on the shoulder again, tapped the cheek, and walked for his stallion. Josh was left in the center of the hardened, rag-tag members of the Buffalo Bills.

“Greatness kid!” Shouted Captain Taylor without lookin’ back, until he did, laughing, “You got the names for it!”



Before dawn steam cascaded over the sleek chromium sides of the Stampede.

It snaked out of New Fort York. The last Bills pounced onto it’s stairs and railings after shutting the Western Gate.

BuuuOOOOOOHHH!

It’s whistle roared in the dark - aiming at that dark - leaving the lightening horizon.

Hawkeye Johnson lay flat on the top of the fourth Pullman car watching the purple galaxy and shifting twilights for changes or danger. Satisfied that the Stampede would make it to speed he opened the hatch, surfing on the silver bullet across the prairies, and dropped in.

“The Weakening is near half,” he reported.

“Noted. Thank you,” said McDermott, tossing motorized and alloy gear from Four-Zero to his men of particular skills. Many cowboys in the ornate mahogany and mirrors of the Pullman already looked bald with synthetic caps to adhere to plastic helmets, and then there were the onesies.

Josh wasn't overly impressed with them as he stretched his shoulder blades. Despite it glowing in weird places - like where ab-muscles should be, even for the big guts - it was just like another layer of skin. Only thing was, Josh already had skin, and his could also detect temperate changes, wind information - even pain is sometimes a life-saving warning system. It seemed like a lot of trade-offs for something that still didn't offer the protection of the jeans he folded up.

He felt something crack in the pocket.

That letter. Josh pulled out the pony express envelope the little boy Cade delivered to him just...was that only last night!?

Inside Josh found a handwritten note from several Clan Mothers of the Buffalo Nation and Mafia. Last winter, when word reached them that the wounded boy had lost his horse in battle, they felt great remorse. It described how they did not meet Filly, but the knew the pain of losing a best friend and sister. A collection was taken across the frontier. Even those with nearly nothing gave increments of seventeen to the basket -- vegetables, wampum beads, even oat-beans.

As Josh solemnly buried Filly, 100 bushels of donations were hauled in by rail-car and the Mafia raised a foaling barn in her honor. The extra stipend helped the town's first veterinarian and her husband move in. They called it Rich Stables, because of it's value to the community.

Josh thought he was above a chair until he butt thudded off the ground and wall.

Best to sit or their kind of love’ll knock you over, Josh remembered Captain Taylor saying.

"Be at peace, girl," Josh said to the spirit of his horse, "You done all you could and more."

And so had this Mafia. From that moment, tears falling, he vowed to do whatever he could to serve this People, this family. They deserved better, so he would give them his best.

A surge from the Weakening hole caused the single-pane windows to rattle.

“This here is the real deal boys!” Said Utah Davis, “Starting with the boss!”

“Aye, no boss, the king!” Said Bowie Knox.

Hammerhead Moss hummed the tune of the folk song, Seven Nation Army.

“She- Shield- Armor,” said Four-Zero, “Quantit- Quantit- Quantity Six,” handing up the six defensive implements.

“Bigfoot. Rawhide. Beau Boogie. Bear.” Said McDermott, throwing the hexagon-tiled metal, “Dawkins. Allentown.”

“Me sir? RAM Armor?”

“Ha. 'S not RAM - only fifty RAM suits s’is in the Near Ages,” said McKenzie Slim, adjusting nano-fiber gloves, “Four-Zero’s forty - being one of the last. What’s he’s is smuggled on his crafts’s is just Spaceman Recruit toys.”

“Armor, son,” McDermott confirmed. “The Terminator will target you.”

“Take it.” Dawkins knew what that meant even if Josh didn’t. The gunslinger had the letter carefully put away and was back at the table. Dawkins twisted his wrist which popped and activated the shield - WAM! - hex layers blasted outward from their own edges.

Space men? In the pueblo? I was there in the Fore Years, Los Angeles was just a dusty mission town.”

“Wait, why are you saying that?” Dawkins put down his helmet and leaned to Josh across the table. “Where do you think we’re going right now?”

“Los Angeles, the Spanish Pueblo. What are you saying?”

“Okay, no one told you. You don’t know what you signed up for,” said Dawkins, worried.

“I signed up for a chance to stop this corrupt power before it’s too late! -And I get that I might not get what it all means exactly but I know enough!"

"What's that?" asked Dawkins pointing to the black hole.

"That's - that's called a Weakening and it's a big, empty, hole in the blue-part of the sky,” tapping the window a little too hard, “And- and- this is, uhm…shield armor,” finished Josh, matter-of-fact, holding it up.

WAM! The shield quadrupled in size, shattering a beautiful glass sconce between windows.

“Ha. That…was intended.”

Dawkins didn’t smile.

“Lieutenant General!” Hawkeye called, “Weakening One is at Full!”

All of the men moved to the windows with dark pupils reflecting the enormous pupil of the predawn skies.

“Seriously brother,” said Dawkins.

Josh noticed the undulating black reflection in the broken shards. The black pit chewed through the canvas of this Western Painting. As big as a mountain now.

The Stampede, rattling, began a wide curve toward it, it’s horn muffled quiet from inside the swaying carriage, and the winds of the space-sky. Rattling. Rattling.

“Dawkins, does the Weakening not…take us to Los Angeles?”

Another whistle blew. Moss, eyes closed, kept humming the tune louder over the rumbles and shakes.

“The Stampede take us to Los Angeles…But the Weakening takes us through time.”

All glass smashed in The Stampede!

Every window, every lamp, every cup, tray and barometer at once!

Dawkins burst open his shield as splinters crashed off it, saving Josh's neck.

Four-Zero anchored onto the molding and surged with fission light!

“Fully-charged-” said the RAM suit.

Moss’s Seven Nation Army seemed to distort, amplify and glitch all around them, and it wasn’t a folk tune anymore!

“Heavy! Pressure! System!” Yelled Milano, holding himself outside the winds of the carriage with only one massive arm.

Time!?

Josh rammed his head out the window and looked backwards. The train was small on the landscape. Chromium, blue and red streaks sped through the portal chaos they reflected. "Buffalo Bill’s Wild West and Congress of Rough Riders of the World,” it read. Wild indeed.

And His.

His Buffalo Bills.

Back there, behind, were two worlds. Split like a window in the sky. Through the Weakening’s pupil was the same land, rockscapes, and river they had come from. Outside of it’s circled edge, the same land, constellations and mountain ranges continued - though the river was piping and the vegetation missing.

“How about that!?” Cried Dawkins.

“Two worlds at once!” Marveled the farm boy of Allentown.

One world! Two times!”

Split by the edge of The Weakening's window frame, an orange fire grew on the horizon behind the shaking tracks.

The sun, split by a black scratch.

On one side it rose orange and graceful in a time of gunslingers and horses, it's other side was a white-yellow chemical in a time of robotic armies and spacecraft.

The Sun.

The Dawn.

BuuuOOOOOOHHH!

The first light of a new season glared on the silver Stampede racing for the unstopped marines.

Josh turned to face forward.

To face not a pueblo of hundreds, but…

Los Angeles, 2049.




Tune in This Week for a thrilling New Chapter of Buffalo Bill’s Mafia!


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