Two Smoking Barrels
The man sat, drumming his fingers on the plain grey table, obviously annoyed. Like the table, everything in the room was a drab military grey, making the muted browns of his clothing stand out. He was tall, dressed in a leather duster that had faint mystical sigils inscribed upon it. The combination of the duster, his boots, the string tie around his neck, and the floppy, somewhat western hat atop his head gave him a very distinct cowboy-ish appearance. He stood, rummaged around in an inside pocket of his duster, and pulled out a box of cigarillos and wooden matches.
Muttering to himself, he lit one of the cigarillos. The smoke framed his tanned, lined face as he shook out the match. He rolled his shoulders and replaced the cigarillos and matches back into his duster. He squinted, clenching the cigarillo in tight lips, as the smoke floated up past his eyes. The smoke seemed to linger around one of his eyes, one that had an odd starburst scar outlining it. Taking a long pull on the cigarillo, he exhaled, but his jaw never relaxed; he was obviously annoyed.
He pulled the chair back out and sat, arms crossed, fidgeting uncomfortably. It wasn’t too long after that a woman, a technician of some sort, judging by her uniform, entered the room, armed with a notebook, a recording device, and several pens. She was young, mid-twenties, with long black hair pulled into a smart ponytail.
She took several minutes to get her inventory arranged just so before clicking on her recorder and saying into a microphone, “Lori Austin interviewing.... what is it you go by again? Oh yes, Two Smoking Barrels.... civilian name, Dave Dawson.
“Before we start, sir, I’m going to have to ask you to put that cigarette out. There’s no smoking in here.”
“Darlin’,” Dave said, “I’m here to help. If you want it, fine. If you don’t, that’s fine too. My smoking here, in this room, isn’t going to change that at all. I get that this is a stress test for me... put me in an uncomfortable situation, see how I handle it. But what you’re forgetting...” He blew a puff of smoke up towards the ceiling, “... is that you’re not just interviewing me. I’m interviewing you, too.”
“Sir, I have to insist...”
He cut her off, scowling. “Do you want to talk to me or not?”
Lori hurriedly scribbled several lines in her notebook, muttering to herself as she did. She switched pens and simply said, “Fine. Shall we start? Why don’t you tell me about yourself and what you have to offer Vanguard?”
Dave waited several seconds before speaking. He drew in and blew out another puff of smoke from his cigarillo.
He stared at the wall, staring at it as if he was looking at something else. His eyes then turned to the glowing end of his cigarillo, studying it before speaking. “It’s kinda funny how the universe works, at least as far as I understand things,” he said, speaking with an unmistakable Texan twang. “For example, magik. And I mean magik as in tapping into the forces that hold the universe together, not, ‘Pick a card’ type stuff.”
He drew a long draft on a cigarillo, blowing smoke rings and chuckling at his failed attempt to create any discernible circles. “That was a hot mess, wasn’t it? There was a time when I could make perfect rings without trying. Which is why, I reckon, I’m talking to you now.”
“I’m sorry,” Lori said, looking up from her notebook. “I don’t follow. What does blowing smoke rings have to do with your interest in Vanguard?”
“I’m getting there, but the story has to take its own course,” the man said, drawing again on his cigarillo. He blew the smoke out through his nose, reminding Lori of a dragon. And there was that old saying about dragons and not meddling in their affairs. She added that to her notes while he continued.
“See, magik, that stuff of the universe, is in... around... contained by everything. But everyone... everything... is different. Even though magik is in everything, it’s there in different levels. And different things have the ability to tap into that magik, to reshape it.” He pulled another long draw on his cigarillo. “And I used to be able to do some impressive things with magik.
“You know that old saw about the seventh son of a seventh son? That was me. I am the seventh son of a seventh son. Great things were expected of me. My family has been practitioners of magik for a long time, a lot of them just working simple spells and incantations in the hills of Texas . Some of my kin were blessed. Some of us had to work hard at it. For me, it just... flowed. It was like breathing. I took it for granted.”
He took a long pull on the cigarillo and studied the glowing ember at the end again. Eventually, he exhaled the smoke after what was an uncomfortable pause. “I was really good with fire. I could make it do things. I could shape it, wield it.. make it dance. It was part of me. I was part of it. I could do so much good with it...”
His gaze dropped to the floor. “Then the Rikti attacked,” he said is a very quiet voice.
He paused again, taking several deep breaths while staring at the floor. When he lifted his gaze to meet Lori’s, his eyes shone with multiple emotions: sadness, anger, hatred.
"I came up here to help a few years before the first Rikti invasion. Made quite a name for myself, too. Back in those days, I went by the moniker ‘Incendiary.’”
Lori looked up again. “Incendiary? He hasn’t been seen in years. He just vanished, apparently. And I’m sorry, sir, but you don’t match his description. I find it hard to believe…”
He cut her off. “Just hear me out.” He blew smoke out angrily towards her.
“I came up here from Texas to help out where I could,” he said. “Was making quite a name for myself too. I then met my wife… well, my soon-to-be wife, I suppose. She didn’t want me risking my life fighting maniacs like those in Arachnos, especially once we got married.” He stared at the lit end of the cigarillo again. “So I retired… stopped. Vanished. However you want to say it right after she told me she was pregnant.
“Life was good then. I had a steady job, a family on the way. Even decided to get us a dog. We had a great little place in White Plains. Then the Rikti invaded. Their blasted ship…" His voice took an edge. "The one that carved that trench… that attack ruined my life.”
He glared at Lori. “My home, my dog, my wife…" he swallowed hard. "My child,” he continued on through clenched teeth, “I lost everything when they attacked. And I swore then and there that no one else should live through that. I was determined to pay those scum back in kind for what they had taken from me.”
“I am so very sor…” Lori began.
“Save your pity. I don’t need or want it.”
He clenched his fists several times and then flicked an ash angrily from the cigarillo. “Being Little Miss Military, I’m sure you know about the whole Alpha and Omega gambit, right?” He didn’t give Lori time enough to answer. “I volunteered for the Omega Team. I used to be that good with my magik. I was accepted. I was prepared to die to help folks here. To get some revenge. Hell’s bells, I wish I had died.”
Looking aghast at the man, Lori’s mouth hung open. “You... you were on the Omega Squad? Why... How are you here? How did you escape from their world?”
His eyes blazed at hers, the hatred... the anger shining clearly in them. “I didn’t escape, Missy," he said softly. "I never made it through the darn portal.”
Lori’s eyes narrowed. “Go on,” she said.
“We were there... all of us... waiting. Invisible. This may surprise you, but I’ve never been that athletic. Never had to be... My magik sustained me. Who needed to run when I could heat the air around me to fly? Why chase someone when I could throw fire at them or shape it into tiny creatures that would chase them for me? No, I wasn’t in the best of shape then.” He chuckled faintly. “Tin Mage used to kid me that I was human and out of shape. I’d throw back at him that he was a robot and could wield magik....”
Lori interrupted him, her head cocked to the side. “You knew Tin Mage?” she asked, skeptical.
“Nice guy, for a robot. He was more human than a lot of humans, you ask me. Sick sense of humor on that guy..” He shook his head and went back to staring at the ember on his cigarillo. He replaced it in his mouth and pulled on it again, holding the smoke in for a while before breathing it back out in a large cloud.
His mouth tightened back into a thin line. “I was in the rear of the team, running towards the portal. Twern’t the fastest, but I was getting there...” Dave paused. “One of those blasted Rikti psychics or maguses or whatever they call themeselves ‘heard’ me. Found me. He then noticed Ajax , catching him in some sort of beam. That distraction allowed me to focus my will and turn around to confront the hoard of Rikti that came streaming towards us.
“I wasn’t about to let the others get caught,. They had a job to do, and I was dead no matter what happened. So I turned to fight. I poured my energy out... I went elemental, like a force of nature. I set the air about me afire, desperately knowing that the team needed to get through the portal. I knew I wasn’t going to live, just like I knew that I wasn’t going to let any of my other team members get caught.” His gaze dropped to the floor and his shoulders slumped.
Lori stared at him, dumbfounded. After a long pause, she prompted him to continue. “And...”
He lifted his head to stare at her, his eyes burning, his anger almost palpable. “And darlin’, any of those bastard Rikti that took a step towards me, I dealt with. I was a one man shield against the portal. Those Rikti bastards paid in blood for every one they sent near me.”
He suddenly deflated a bit, sagging into his chair. “Then the portal exploded. To this day, I don’t know if it was my doing or someone else’s. Took me by complete surprise. You ever catch an explosion in your back, sweetheart? I felt like I’d been hit by a truck. Hell, by three trucks.”
Lori scribbled a few more notes before the man continued. “And yet you’re here.” She simply said.
“That explosion tore right through me, tossed me around like a ragdoll. It hurt me bad. I was exhausted, hurt... near death. My eye,” he gestured with a thumb towards his scar outlined eye, “was bleeding and I couldn’t see out of it. I was hurt and hurt bad. Then this big Rikti in red armor came over to me. My legs were broken. I was bleeding all over, and I laughed at him. I spat at him and laughed in his face. I knew I was screwed. So did he. I knew he was screwed. So did he. I don’t think Big Red liked that.”
Dave winced and rubbed his shoulder. “He pulled out one of those nasty swords they carry and he cut my arm off at the shoulder. You ever pop a chicken thigh bone out of the socket? Yep, that’s what he did. He then did that to both my knees. I thought I was hurt, but this bastard showed me what pain is. He was taking some sick delight in carving me up like that.”
“But you seem fine,” Lori said.
“Darlin’ my story ain’t done yet.” He took a short, sharp drag on the cigarillo. “I was tired, delirious, and hurt. Bad. I managed a little magik with my one good hand. I blinded him with some bright flashes, clouded his vision with some smoke, and created a tiny little imp out of fire to distract him.”
“That hardly seems like enough to handle U’kon Gr'ai,” Lori said.
“Oh, it wasn’t," he said, softly. "Twere Ajax that saved my life. He had slipped out of that beam somehow and took a flying leap right at Big Red. Bounced right off of him, but distracted him. It was like a fly taking on a horse, but Ajax kept getting back up, taking swings at Big Red. My little imp pulled me out of that fight.”
He looked back at the floor. “I owe my life to Ajax. That’s all I can remember,” Dave said, dropping the cigarillo to the floor where it sat for a second before he crushed it out with his boot.
“But your dossier doesn’t say anything about fire powers. According to our files, you weren’t part of the Omega Team...” Lori started to say.
“Again, darlin’, let me tell my own darn story. You ever figure that maybe... just maybe your sneaks don’t know everything?” He paused, and swallowed hard.
“Dave Dawson, Hank Dawson’s son, Incendiary… whoever I used to be... that man died that day. Not many folks know that I was on the Omega Team, let alone survived it.” He rubbed his hand over his graying, close-cropped beard. “I never left any messages in that stupid time capsule Hero 1 wanted because it didn’t matter. My life ended long before the Omega Team’s gambit. I didn’t care to be remembered. I just wanted to make sure that the rest of the world had a future. For them to remember me was just... arrogant. I didn’t do it to be a hero. Heroes just are. To crave recognition or to be remembered from beyond the grave is just... dumb.”
Lori tapped her pen against pursed lips and simply said, “And yet here you are, not only alive, but walking, talking, not missing any limbs, and claiming you were part of the Omega Team. Care to explain that?”
Dave shook his head. “I don’t know what happened to Ajax . I don’t know how I made it out. I think my little imp dragged me to where the Alpha team could find me. I woke up in a hospital with all kinds of tubes and wires in me. Caitlin Murray-Davies and Jonathan St. John Smythe were hovering around me as I drifted into and out of consciousness.”
Dave stared at Lori for a long pause and then asked, “Missy, do you know that there exists balance in this universe? That everything has an opposite?”
Lori just shook her head, taking frantic notes as she studied him.
“For magik, the opposite is technology. The two exist, but they don’t play well together. Far as I understand things, it’s like matter and anti-matter. The stronger the one, the more it effects the other. Get me too near a computer, I’ll blow it up. Get someone like Positron up near some fledgling mage, the mage would likely faint. Why do you think that the really powerful wizards tend to keep to themselves?”
Dave glared at Lori. “Those bastards didn’t know what they were doing to me. They were determined to make me whole again, to repair me after the beating I had at the hands of the Rikti. ‘Prototypes’ they called them...”
He paused and studied Lori. “You’re a little young, but do you remember that old TV show, ‘The Six Million Dollar Man?’”
Lori nodded, slowly, worried that this man had lost his grip on reality.
“They replaced the guy’s limbs with electronics?”
She nodded slowly again.
“They grafted onto me electronic arms, legs, and,” he jabbed a thumb angrily at his scarred eye, “my eye. Everything was fine as long as I was sedated and not moving.
“Those two scientists were hovering above me as the drugs wore off,” He took several deep breaths before visibly relaxing a little. “Hell’s bells, can’t blame ‘em. They didn’t know. They didn’t understand.”
“Understand what?” Lori asked as she continued her frantic writing.
“It was all going to backfire.” Dave hung his head. “I had too much magik. Their technology was too great, a miracle of modern technology.” He swallowed hard. “I twitched my limbs and the magik and the tech... well, they went at it. I was in agony. The powers in each were raging through my body. My eye,” he gestured at his scar, “pretty much set fire to my face. I writhed in pain for about ten minutes, the powers darn near killing me. Again.
“After I passed out, they tried to remove them. But the battle between my magik and the tech….” he shrugged. “They were locked in battle. I think the geeks said, ‘The grafts had fused themselves to my body.’ Tweren’t no way of getting them off without killing me.”
Lori sat, dumbstruck at this. She finally regained herself and asked, “But what about the Tin Mage? He wielded magic, but was a robot...”
“Can’t say I understand that myself. But, I reckon it’s because each piece... each part of him was somehow infused with magik, and darlin’, ‘it’s ‘magik,’ not, ‘magic...’” Dave shrugged. “The magik was in him before he became a mage or a miracle of modern technology. At least, that’s my guess.”
Lori scribbled some more notes. “So, you passed out, and...” she prompted
Dave shrugged. “When I finally woke up, I couldn’t control my limbs. Couldn’t see out of my bad eye either. I was basically a blind cripple.”
“But you’re walking!” Lori said, shaking her head at the tale.
“Wasn’t for a long time. Would’ve killed myself then and there, if I could have. Them doctors wanted me to stay, that they’d fix me… fix their mistakes… maybe fix their guilt… but I didn’t want to be a research project. I didn’t want to be seen like that.
“So I left.”
“And you went where?” Lori asked.
“Lived on the streets for a few years, mostly. Watched the Lost rise in number. Saw a lot of green heroes on the streets getting their asses handed to them. Just tried to live, best I could.”
“And again, you hardly seem homeless,” Lori said.
“Darlin’, I know you’re not believin’ me, but hear me out. I woke up one evenin’ and realized I could see the difference between light and dark out of my bad eye,” he said, jabbing a thumb towards the starburst. “After a few weeks, my sight had returned. Near as I can figure,” he said, “the war between the magik and tech had called a truce. With my sight returned, I tried to focus on my arm and leg, just to get them to move. Done a pretty good job with that too,” he said opening and closing a fist several times."
"And your miraculous fire powers?" Lori asked.
"Gone. Remember the smoke rings, darlin'?" Dave said in repsonse.
"Uh huh. That's convenient," Lori said, sarcastically. “So why the archaic pistols?”
Dave shrugged. “Needed something to fight back with, and the newer stuff never did work well around me.” His hand dropped to the grip of one of the pistols, a flintlock. “And they’re two different guns, so that if one is screwed up, I still have one left.”
Lori jotted a few more notes, nodding all the while. She then looked up at him, somewhat surprised. “Hang on, if you’re worried about your weaponry being harmed by its proximity, doesn’t that mean your ‘magik,’” she placed extra emphasis on the term that time, “is still there?”
“Don’t know. Perhaps. Perhaps not. It could be that I’d be fine armed with some high tech weaponry, maybe one of those fancy laser sighted pistols y’all carry these days. But why chance it?” Dave grinned at her. “Pretty sharp of you to catch that. I can see the Lady Grey is as sharp as she ever was at surrounding herself with smart ones.”
“You know the Lady Grey?” Lori asked, surprised yet again by this man.
“Knew. But it’s been years, and... well, she was never happy to see me. I think I rub her the wrong way. Too country for her tastes. She's all about 'high tea and crumpets.' I'm the kind that enjoys a good ol' fashioned pig pull." He paused for a moment, then added, "I’m not even sure she knows I’m still alive.”
Lori wrote some other things down, shaking her head. She looked up at Dave, asking, “OK, so you’re an 'ex-fire wielding wizard.'" She made air quotes. "One that was badly hurt as part of the Omega Team, was almost dismembered by U'Kon Gr'ai. You have cybernetic implants grafted to your body, lived for several years as one of the homeless, and were a one-time compatriot of the Lady Grey. Oh, and you have two ancient pistols strapped to your hips. Have I missed anything?”
Dave chuckled. “Darlin’, there’s a bit more to me than that. Ya see, while the technology in my ‘cybernetic implants,’ as y’all call them, is blocking my magik, my magik is messing with the technology. The two seem to have reached an agreement, though.”
“I don’t follow,” Lori said.
“Didn’t expect ya to,” Dave said, still grinning. “See, all that magik with the fire, that’s essentially me controlling heat, and those science types will tell ya that heat is just making molecules and atoms and whatever move faster.”
“Your point?” Lori asked, growing agitated.
“Darlin’, while I can’t make things burn anymore, these limbs have subtly changed what I can do.”
“Mr. Dawson, please. We have many recruits here, and if you’re going to waste my time with some half-cocked story... Just get to the point.”
Dave grinned and shrugged. “Better to just show you.” He thrust his palm at her, a blue glow surrounding his arm and her body. “There ya go, darlin’.” he said, grinning at her, obviously pleased with himself.
“Which is?” Lori asked, plainly agitated.
“Humor me, missy. Just run. Across the room.”
“And why would I?”
“It’s a demonstration, remember?”
“Oh, all right, fine. If it’ll get you out of....” Lori stood and in a blink was across the room. He mouth was agape. “Is this.... Have you....”
“Yeah, darlin’. Super speed. It won’t last too long, as your body will disperse whatever energy I’ve imbued you with. But enjoy it while it lasts.”
Standing, he settled the duster about his shoulders. “Seems I can do a lot with speed these days. I can steal it from people, slowing them down. I can slow weapons so they do less damage. I can speed up the body’s healing process. I can take energy right out of people’s muscles, making them fall over with exhaustion.
“And while I may not be able to create a firestorm anymore, I have a score to settle with Big Red and the rest of the Rikti. That’s why I’m here, offering up my services, as diminished as they are now, to Vanguard. Heard there's this new squad out tearing up the Rikti, and I want in on that. Would've been here sooner, but it just took me a while to learn this here techno-magik. Now, if you’ll excuse me...”
He stood, tipped the brim of his hat to her, and walked out of the grey room, leaving Lori to stare after him. She slowly gathered her things up from the table, turned off the recorder, and left a blur as she sped to turn in her report.