The Forever Engine – Snippet 33

Without lowering the Webley, I scanned the target for signs of light.

“Not very good shooting, I’m afraid,” Gordon said. “Only one shot even on the paper.”

I fired three more rounds, took another step to the left, and then immediately broke open the revolver. A release wheel popped all six empty casings out.

“Better,” Gordon said. “At least you’re on the paper and one round is in the black. There probably wasn’t much call for a translator to actually fire his weapon.”

“You wouldn’t think so,” I answered.

I dug six more rounds out of my pocket, but without a speed loader it took way too long to get all of them in. As soon as I did, I clicked the Webley shut and raised it back into my tactical stance, fired three rounds, and took two steps to the right.

“You might try firing just one round until you’ve got the hang of it,” Gordon said, but then frowned when he looked at the target. “That’s actually a rather good grouping. Still low and to the right.”

Three more rounds, step to the right, revolver open, spent brass tinkling on the deck.

“Still low and right, not quite as tight as last time, but respectable. Keep at it. You may end up able to hit something after all.”

“Thanks. Say, do me a favor, would you? At least keep an open mind about the plan?”

He turned and walked away without answering me. He’d fired a total of one round. For what? Was it even worth cleaning his pistol for one round? Well, that was his business, not mine. I had thirty-eight rounds out of the box still to fire.

Twenty-four rounds later, as I broke open the revolver and ejected the spent brass, Gabi spoke from behind me.

“You have many strange habits while you shoot,” she said.

I turned to her and pulled the cotton out of my left ear. She sat on an equipment locker, had on riding breeches and a lacy blouse with big sleeves, open at the throat as if she’d dressed hurriedly. Her loose hair floated around her face in the wind.

“Hey, I thought you were going to sleep in.”

I clicked the revolver closed. I had started experimenting with holding pairs of rounds between my fingers, like a speed strip, and I was getting faster at reloading.

“Who can sleep with all this bang-bang-bang? Why do you step to the side after you shoot, as if you are dancing?”

“People under stress lose their peripheral vision. They see the world as if through a tunnel. If you step to the side, you step out of their tunnel, and it confuses them. They have to take a moment and look for you.”

“Surely not! This is a joke, oui?”

“Not a joke, cheri. Have you ever fainted?”

She nodded.

“Before you faint, first you lose your peripheral vision, then your central vision loses fine resolution and color. Remember? It is because certain parts of your brain become starved for oxygen. People under stress have similar experiences.”

She frowned and thought about that for a moment. Finally she nodded.

Bien. But the target, it does not shoot back. Why make the mincing step now?”

I hadn’t thought of it as mincing, and I didn’t much care for the image that brought to mind.

“If someone does shoot at me, I will be under stress as well. I may forget to step sideways up here.” I tapped my head with my fingertips. “I have to remember it down here,” and I tapped my leg, “so I do it over and over again. It’s like whistling. You have to think about how to do it at first, but after you whistle enough you don’t think about how to make your lips form a certain shape to make a certain sound. You only think the sound, and your lips remember how to do the rest.”

“Really? I cannot whistle,” she said. “Can you teach me?”

That was something I was learning about Gabi: if you weren’t careful, you could get whiplash from the sudden changes of direction in the conversation.

“Sure. I taught Sarah.”

“The Terminator,” Gabi said, and then looked out past the target outrigger at the clouds floating near the rusty-gold horizon. “If possible you will leave us to return to her, your daughter.” She made it a statement, not a question. “Our time has not been kind to you so far. But if it were, you would still leave, yes?”

“Of course.”

She turned and looked me in the eyes.

“It is not because she needs you. This you have told me already. It must be because you need her. But why?”

And that was Gabi, too. Maybe everyone who knew my real story wondered that, but none asked it. It was personal, and of course they all knew the answer, or at least knew how they would answer the question, which to them was the same thing because they believed that everyone was pretty much the same inside as they were. But Gabi had no such illusions.

“Don’t you feel that way about someone in your family?” I asked.

“There is no family. I was my mother’s only child. She was not married, so she lived in the convent for a while, and then she left and now she is dead. I was raised by the nuns. I never met my father.” She shrugged as if to say this was no tragedy, it was simply what was.

“So tell me why,” she repeated. “Please.”

I almost didn’t answer, but there was an aching need in her question — not a need for me, but rather a need to understand the world around her. It was the first evidence of emotional vulnerability I had seen in her, and it opened my eyes. I understood her. For a moment, just a moment, I saw the world through her head, and none of the people in it made any sense. They argued, laughed, loved, raged, wept, and all for reasons which defied her understanding, all seemingly at random.

A wave of melancholy swept over me as I realized the extent to which she was alone in the world, and probably always would be, standing on the outside of a house watching the party inside through a window, smiling at the jokes she couldn’t quite make out, wondering at the cascades of inexplicable emotions, separated from all of it by a single pane of glass which she had no means of breaking.

She at least deserved an honest answer, even if she wouldn’t understand that, either.

“It’s the only relationship in my life I haven’t fucked up.”

She looked at the clouds and thought about that for a while.

“It must be good to have such a relationship,” she said at last.

I sat down on the locker next to her and put my arm around her, and she rested her head on my shoulder.