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The Warded Gunslinger

A Space Western Novella with Magic
A gunslinger on the run. A distant mining outpost. And the ruthless boss that rules it.

I came into Jackson Depot on one engine, scraping the Bucket along the sand before managing to get her to stop. Not great, but not quite a crash.

I chalked it up as a successful landing.

Jake – The Warded Gunslinger – doesn’t want much in life. A place to hide, a good meal, and a quiet time with his pet void dragon hatchling. The small mining colony of Jackson Depot seems to promise just that.

But when Jake’s short-lived peace is shattered by a gangster boss and his army, and the hatchling is stolen, it’s time for Jake to pick up his guns!

The Warded Gunslinger is a short novel of guns and magic in a distant future, where dragons are real, warpstone ships roam the galaxy, and courage sets heroes apart from villains. It’s got cowboys and gangsters, found family, true companions, and magitech in a sprawling space opera.

The Warded Gunslinger is the first standalone novella in the Warded Gunslinger series: short, action-packed novels/novellas in the style of the old SF and Western pulps – an equal mix of Star Wars, and the Clint Eastwood/Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns that you can read in an hour or two.

“A fascinating combination of western, scifi and magic with very interesting and well-described characters. The action is fast moving and constant making this an excellent introduction to this series.”

– Pat T.


“A fast paced space western, with a lot of action, a fair amount of shooting, and magic that entirely serves this purpose too.”

– Marvin O.

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Chapter 1

I came into Jackson Depot on one engine, scraping the Bucket along the sand before managing to get her to stop. Not great, but not quite a crash, and within the port beacon’s 200-meter radius.

I chalked it up as a successful landing.

Scanners said the atmosphere was breathable, just a tiny bit toxic, but nothing my mageshield couldn’t handle. My encyclopedia agreed, calling Jackson Depot a booming settlement boasting exceptional hospitality. Judging by the lack of heat signatures on the scanners, or anyone visible, I’d say the entry had been written by a marketing specialist.

It was a town, though, clumps of squat buildings half-surrounded by a massive granite cliff, all of it bathing in the dark-blue light of a full moon. Hopefully, one of those buildings contained a repair shop, and another a fuel depot. Without either, I would be enjoying Jackson Depot’s exceptional hospitality for the rest of my life.

The cliff seemed to hold someone – multiple someones. There were pale yellow lights about fifty meters up, shining from small windows starkly visible in the night. Looked like candles on a chocolate cake. Everything else was dark. Only the red bead of the port beacon added color to the landscape.

Great, another deadtown. I seemed to have a penchant for failing settlements.

I grabbed my rifle and foil, thought better of it, closed my gun locker, thought better of that, too, and put a short-barreled Chimer in a pistol holster on my back. Then I added the comforting weight of a flameblade in the hidden scabbard on the inside of my pant leg, the scabbard’s worn leather polished smooth, just sticky enough against my leg to remind me it was there if I needed it.

Both holster and scabbard were warded, as well as I could. They should be invisible to a standard scan, as long as it was cursory or the port authority official was bribable.

Finally, I put a pound of kibble in the hatchling’s bowl, even though he wasn’t due to wake for another week. I settled my stockman on my head, feeling secure beneath my hat’s wide, warded brim, shut and warded my airlock, and left my ship to walk in the blue light of the local moon.

The port was freezing.

Jackson was one of those places that existed because of once upon a time: once upon a time, someone had found something worthwhile nearby, and now people were too stubborn to move away.

It was a dry, dusty place, where fine sand the color of sepia rose to clog my nostrils with every step. A dozen buildings squatted around the port’s perimeter: low, rounded structures like overturned soup bowls. No one was in sight, but the few lights still glimmered on the sheer, gray cliff face in the distance. I tried to remember how many there had been when I landed, and if there were more now, but couldn’t make up my mind.

Sensible people to stay inside. It was cold enough that my nostril hairs froze. Didn’t hide the smell of ammonia, though. Stink never freezes.

There was no gun scanner, no magedowser. Neither was there a customs official or a sheriff’s aide waiting for me. Looked like the local officials didn’t take their jobs too seriously. I could have smuggled a horde of bluegrubs carrying assault cannons, and nobody would have stopped me. Jackson Depot was shaping up to be a boring, lawless, no-chit-chat place.

I liked it already.

Somehow, I’d landed in the perfect spot to hide out, get the Bucket repaired, and maybe make a few grams on the side. With luck, someone might even have a warpstone I could scrounge. If they didn’t, it’d be down to my mechanic skills in order to lift off again, and my single remaining engine was already in a bad way.

I reached the port beacon, a metal pole with a tally box at the bottom and a ten-meter steel beam with a red guide-light at the top. The readout said twenty grams. No time limits, so I guessed if you landed once, you could stay for as long as you wished.

Not that anyone had. The Bucket was the only ship marring the sepia sand. That was a bad sign. No ships meant no repairs and no fuel.

The wind had pushed the sand into small dunes all over the landing zone, which was what had caused the tooth-jarring bouncing as I landed. The port maintenance authority didn’t take its job too seriously, either.

I shoved a twenty-gram chit into the tally box. The box spat it out. I rubbed the chit on my jacket lining, getting some static electricity going. Sometimes the code chips get clogged.

The tally box refused the chit again.

“Burn,” I said and, seeing as nobody was around to listen, I added: “Voidmunching crud box.”

“Ye gotta feed real helion in,” said a scratchy voice from a speaker I hadn’t noticed. “None of that bank code crud.”

“Say what?” I said.

“Real helion, or we slap a late fee on you,” said the voice. Male. Sounded like he was talking through a mouthful of gruel. “What are you hauling?”

“Vanilla,” I said.

“Vanilla?” rasped the voice.

“It’s a spice,” I said. “Used for adding flavor to sweets and baked goods. Also liquor. I have the best quality.”

“Not on my list,” the voice said, “so yer fine. Only the helion for berthing. The late fee’s fifty percent per day. Council’s orders.”

“Hold your guns,” I said. “I’ve got your burning helion.”

I trekked back to the Bucket to get it, freezing my nose off all the way. Muttering profanities didn’t exactly keep me warm, but it helped my disposition while I walked. The airlock had gunked up, and the motor struggled as it opened. That didn’t improve my mood, either. At least the storage locker worked fine, the hinges oiled and the lock solid. Even the pale-blue LED strip turned on without a hitch. I spend my time in space on upkeep, when I got the parts.

My hidden, coded cash-box had room for thousands of vials, yet held only a few handfuls. I much preferred to pay with code chips, which I’d had to accept as payment for a previous job. Unfortunately, most people preferred real helium-3. If nothing else, you could power your fusion engine with it. I grabbed a stack of twenty ten-gram vials and shoved it into my pocket.

Thus equipped, I trekked back to the beacon and deposited my helion into the slot. The armored polymer vials reminded me of giant pills: clear, rounded tubes the size of my pinkie. Twenty grams of pure helium-3 plunked into the receiver. The tally box beeped.

“Want me to set ye up an account?” said the scratchy voice. It still sounded old and grouchy, but maybe that was just the local accent.

Cursing inwardly, I dropped another twenty grams into the slot, figuring it a bribe, and was mighty surprised when my hand com flashed a logo for the Jackson Depot Warehouse and Emporium, with a twenty-gram credit statement beneath it. I surrendered six vials more, watching my credit rating increase with each one. If it was a scam, I wanted to be on the right side of the scammer. Someone able to forge trans-space bank codes would be good to know.

Of course, it could be a legitimate banking operation. And I could be a legitimate trader. Still, my optimistic view of human nature keeps ambushing me, although not enough to make me gamble all my helion. I kept ten vials safe in my pocket. They didn’t even cause my jacket to slip, the armor sewn beneath the leather keeping the shape nice and comfortable. Stylish and functional, leather and warded armor plates. I’d spent a great deal of time getting it just right.

“Hey,” I said. “Anywhere to eat, wash up, and get some tech around here, in that order?”

“Sure-e,” said the voice. “Want me to drive you?”

That, I couldn’t resist.

Scratchy voice turned out to be a kid in his late teens, his face covered with enough zits to make a dermatologist salivate. Very tall, very skinny, as befitted a low-gravity world. His family must have lived here for a long time to evolve like this. Or they’d gotten a leg-up with some black-market genetics kit before even emigrating. It wasn’t unheard of.

The kid drove a two-seater electric trike enclosed by a heated environmental bubble. The trike had seen better days, the bubble’s polymer all scratched and dim, but it looked warm and the kid didn’t wear a gun. I got in. The bucket seats were built to the kid’s scale, engulfing me and making me feel like a toddler. At least the seat belt was adjustable for the height-challenged.

“Tomlin,” the kid said, holding out his fist.

I bumped it. “Jake,” I said.

“Is that a real Javelin?” Tomlin said, nodding toward the Bucket. “What’d you call it?”

“Yes,” I said, “and her name is the Bucket of Diamonds.”

“Nice name,” Tomlin said, without apparent irony, and the engine whined as the trike set into motion.

I mined him for information by treating him like an expert and VIP rolled into one. This consisted of asking questions and otherwise keeping my mouth shut.

Turns out the encyclopedia had been right. So had I.

Jackson Depot had a population of some four hundred souls, and yes, there was an inn of sorts. The phlebotinum deposits had run dry before Tomlin’s dad was born, but everyone kept hanging on, either mining old, low-yield veins, or else figuring out schemes to lure settlers, money, and fame to this end of the sector, with no success. Anything with half a mind seemed to want to avoid Jackson.

The more I listened to the kid, the more I liked the place. A small planet, point-six g, no water, no minerals of value. Nothing to bring in the Federals, or the Syndicates. Even the pirate lords had left it alone for the past hundred years or so.

The trike whined through a large opening in the granite wall. The opening looked like an abandoned mine entrance, except for the steel blast doors on each side.

“What are those for?” I asked.

“Weather gets bad, sometimes,” Tomlin said, shrugging as if it was inconsequential.

“Any risk to my ship?” I said, getting another shrug.

“Ol’ Alistair can always bring out the blower and dig it out,” he said, then caught the ominous silence and added, “happens all the time.”

That didn’t calm me much, and I decided to forego leisure and focus on repairs.

The inn convinced me otherwise. It was a barren, gray room, absolutely huge. I could have parked the Bucket in it. No windows, and walls scarred by heavy mining equipment. A long bar carved from granite took up one side, flanked by polished stainless steel bar stools. It heightened the whole abandoned mine vibe.

A set of industrial-strength heating coils hung from the distant ceiling, glowing orange hot. The heat was enough to make me positively disposed to the innkeepers. The smells pushed me to ebullient. Garlic. Sage. Rosemary. Fried bell peppers, fried grubbers, and above all, fried meat. I sniffed like a starving dog.

“What’s on the grill?” I said.

Tomlin gave me a grin. “Me da’s got the best rat farm on all of Jackson,” he said.

Which, if I had been the kind to keep small pets, I might have balked at. I’m not, so I didn’t.

“Well then,” I said, feeling saliva pooling in my mouth. “Let’s eat rat.”

I was halfway into my third ratburger, slices of real onion and fresh lettuce crunching like fireworks in my mouth, when I became aware that the ambiance had changed.

The room had been empty, except for me, Tomlin, and Tomlin’s ma, a gray-haired woman with a bunch of missing teeth and a smile that made up for them a thousand-fold.

Ma Tomlin had pushed burgers at me with almost the same enthusiasm as she had pushed them at Tomlin himself, stating how growing boys needed their meat. Whether she included me in the ‘growing boys’ category she didn’t say, and I didn’t inquire. She stood there, holding a white-enameled steel plate, ready with the next burger for whoever of us who finished first, when the sound changed.

You can tell a lot by the sound of a room. Not the noise it produces, but the sound, the way the people in it talk and move and breathe.

The Jackson Depot Inn went from three people glutting, talking, and snickering, to two people breathing shallowly, and me, trying to swallow my last bite before whatever was happening happened.

Two men had come in. They were making their way across the hangar-like main hall. The left-hand man was slender, dressed all in black: black boots, black jeans, black coat, slim black tie. A thin, black mustache clung to his upper lip. Only his shirt and skin weren’t black, both sallow.

The right-hand man was huge, of the scary type.

Big-boned didn’t begin to describe him. Tomlin and his ma were both tall and slender, on account of the low gravity, I figured. Huge-and-menacing was tall and broad, like a cargo mech made out of meat. He had a long-barreled autogun in a side-draw holster on his hip, a black monstrosity with a bore I could have fit a finger into. No manufacturer’s mark on the grip panel that I could see. Homemade, most likely.

Brains and muscle, to my eyes. I was right, except the wrong way around.

Black-and-slim sauntered up to the bar disk cut from the rock and leaned against the granite. Huge-and-menacing came right up to Ma Tomlin.

“Hello Karice,” he said. He had a squeaky voice, like a helium-breather. An accent, too, something smoother and more rolling than the Jackson folk.

“Baylen,” said Ma Tomlin. “What can I do for you?”

She seemed hospitality itself, although the smile she gave huge Baylen was tight-lipped, hiding her teeth.

“More like what we can do for you,” said Baylen. “Isn’t that right, Maurice?”

Ma Tomlin handed him two brown bottles, already opened.

“On the house,” she said, studiously not looking at black-and-slim Maurice. Her hands shook, very slightly, as did her voice.

Baylen took the bottles, turning his back on Maurice and sitting down by my side. He offered me a bottle, but I pointed to my half-full glass of water.

“No thanks,” I said, “but I appreciate the thought.”

Baylen shrugged, lifting his own bottle to his lips.

“I hear you’re a trader,” he said. “Running a nice little Javelin.”

Everything fell into place. This wasn’t about the Tomlins. I was about to be shaken down by the local goons.

“Not for sale,” I said, treating the situations as if he’d offered me a simple business deal. “But I have two hundred kilos of prime vanilla that’s up for grabs.”

That stumped him.

“Vanilla?” he said.

“Vanilla,” I echoed. “From the Haven Reaches. It’s a spice, used for baking and confectionery.”

“I know what vanilla is,” Baylen said. “But no one trades in Jackson except the Consortium.”

I shrugged. “I already have an account with the Jackson Depot Emporium,” I said. Probably a stupid move, but he annoyed me. I almost wished he’d go for his gun.

Tomlin opened his mouth, but Baylen tapped his finger against the bar, hard, and Tomlin swallowed whatever it was he was about to say.

“You are mistaken,” Baylen said.

I gave him my best confused look, keying up my hand com and making a show of scrolling through my transactions, all the while keeping his hands and hips in view. A man can’t do crud without moving his hands or feet.

I showed him my credit rating at the Emporium.

“You misunderstand me,” Baylen said. “Maurice.”

Maurice did his best to turn his black-and-slim into a dark-and-menacing impression, leaning in and trying to leer. It didn’t quite succeed. He looked more like he’d start laughing manically at any moment. Then he held out his empty hand.

A tiny flame flickered to life in his palm. It danced over his fingers, blue braided with orange winding around his digits. Then it jumped into the air, where it grew into a roaring pillar of fire, thick as my torso, before shooting skyward and charring a sizable portion of the ceiling. One of the heating coils sparked and failed, the power cable likely melted through.

It was actually fairly impressive for a crud-hole dirt mage. I almost pulled my flameblade, my hand falling to my thigh before I stopped myself.

I have a dislike for intimidation, unless I’m the one doing it, but I wasn’t in a position to interfere in the affairs of others. After all, I had the hatchling to consider.

Ma Tomlin silently pushed over a small stack of helion vials, low denominations, about ten grams in total.

“Thank you kindly,” Baylen said, shoveling the vials into his pocket with a plate-sized hand. Then he grabbed Ma Tomlin’s last burger, collected Maurice, who looked a bit worn and pale after his showmanship, and started walking out.

“We’ll be expecting your share by tomorrow,” he called over his shoulder.

It took me a second to realize he was talking to me. So much for hanging around quietly, repairing my ship.

“I’m sorry,” said Tomlin. He was white as ice, even his zits pale, and he was clenching the bar as hard as he could, as if holding himself back from violence.

Cute. The kid thought he could take down a dirt mage.

“That happen a lot?” I said.

“Every month,” Ma Tomlin said. “Ten years now.”

“And the council of yours doesn’t do anything, because…”

“Council?” Ma Tomlin said.

I jerked my chin at Young Tomlin. “Your kid said you had a council. Threatened me with a fifty percent late fee for landing with it.”

Ma Tomlin spat air. “Old Baylen’s the council,” she said. “He’s the sheriff, too.”

“Get a new sheriff,” I suggested.

“Who’d want the job?” Ma Tomlin said. “You?”

For a heartbeat, I was tempted to say yes, just to see her reaction. Then I shook my head. “Not one for working, or fighting,” I said. “Better to live by your wits and trades.”

That made Tomlin pull a face like a squashed lemon. Apparently he was a candidate for the sheriff’s position. I hoped he wouldn’t get killed over it.

Ma Tomlin bobbed her head. “Wise words,” she said. “You should listen to them.” This was clearly directed at Young Tomlin. It didn’t make him any happier.

“You still want a room?” he said.

“Sure,” I said, “and a bath, but that can wait. Who’s your best mechanic?”

“Hao,” said Tomlin, shining like a LED strip hooked to a high-voltage cable. “Got her own shop in the Deep Down. Want me to take you?”

I nodded. Then I pulled out a half-gram vial and a thirty-gram sample jar of vanilla and put them on the bar.

“That real vanilla?” asked Ma Tomlin.

“Sure is,” I said. “Prime grade, from the Haven Reaches.”

She pushed the jar back.

“Can’t afford it,” she said.

“Then accept it as a gift,” I said, returning the jar to its original position with a slight bow.

She frowned.

“It’s too much,” she said, pushing the jar away. I pushed it back.

“You got shook down on account of me,” I said. “We both know it. This the least I can do.”

“They’d have come either way,” Ma Tomlin said, but she kept the jar.

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