My First Trip in the Wyrm

“Can you hold them off for a few seconds?” the old man asked, already on the move. I grunted my assent and he climbed the rope ladder into the Brass Wyrm.

Without even a glance at the askew barn door, the old man hefted a large cannonball into the mouth of a forward-facing gun. I smiled at his plan and returned my attention to the easiest point of ingress. A low growl sounded from outside, then the weighty footfalls of a large beast. A large Vicksburg grey bounded into the barn, snarling, froth flying from his fangs as he took in the interior before settling his gaze on me. He pushed off with his right foot like a competitive runner. I raised my Model 3. I took my first shot a little prematurely. The bullet tore a ragged hole in the flesh on the side of the grey’s neck but he didn’t slow down. I kept my finger tight on the trigger and slapped the palm of my hand down hard on the hammer, like the flashier gunfighters do, and the gun bucked again. The recoil from the first shot had raised my barrel a bit, causing the second shot to tear upwards through the werewolf’s snout and into his brain. The body crumpled instantly, but momentum kept it traveling until it slid to rest at my feet.

On the barn door, a dark viscosity trickled slowly downward. Small flecks of the grey’s ruined skull littered the substance. The others outside would smell it and know their advance scout was dead. That might be good; it would tell them I was dangerous and ready for them and force them to lose precious time by coming up with an attack plan. Of course, vengeance and bloodlust could win out over meticulousness and the full force could rush in here to rip me apart. Either way, I would need more than four bullets. I breached my pistol and reloaded.

The old man complimented my shooting from above. I turned to grin at him and saw he held his finger to his lips, telling me to keep quiet. He patted the large cannon he had loaded and primed and mouthed, “Tell me when.” I nodded.

A minute had passed without incident, but the werewolves were still outside. I could hear shuffling outside of the barn and a few intermittent snarls. Finally, two thuds sounded through the barn as heavy objects hit opposite outside walls. Long claws splintered into the wood, disappeared, and then reappeared slightly higher. A shadow blocked the daylight from the askew door. They were trying to attack through the door and flank us by coming in from above.

“Now!” I yelled. The deck gun exploded with smoke and sound. The door exploded in a shower of wood particles. The werewolf who had been in the doorway lay on the ground with two-thirds of door in his chest. I could see a second werewolf down outside and, if it wasn’t dead, it was definitely not getting up any time soon.

“Grab on!” I looked up to see the old man pointing to the Brass Wyrm’s rope ladder.

“What?”

“Grab the ladder!”

“What the hell will that do for me?”

“Listen up. Them wolves’re fixin’ to come through the roof any second. You can grab the confounded ladder or you can stay here and see how long you last.”

I still didn’t understand how climbing the ladder into the dirigible would help us; we’d just be trapped in a smaller area. I grabbed on anyway. As soon as I did, the old man reached out of the bow of the Brass Wyrm to throw a switch on the wall of the barn. At first, nothing happened. Then, I could hear a few solenoids snapping into place followed by a pulsating hum that rose in pitch. The roof began to separate along its center seam and lift away. It was surreal and threw me for a loop, but I soon realized the entire roof was hinged like a large set of horizontal double doors. The hinges must have been powered by something I missed in the barn. The claws that were exploding through the wooden siding had stopped; probably the wolves had been frightened away or physically thrown off by the roof opening. When the doors had opened to a fully vertical position, the rings that had been tying the Wyrm down opened with a series of sharp snaps. We began to lift away from the ground.

Still on the ladder, now supported only by the rung I stood on and the one I clung to with my left arm, I took aim at the splintered, gaping hole that had once been the only (ground) entrance to the barn. Three Vicksburg greys clustered around the opening, ears back in fear but teeth exposed. I was out of range and swinging wildly on the rope ladder. Still, I aimed and fired, seeking only to hold them back. The bullet went wide, but did force the wolves to retreat a few paces. By this time, the Wyrm was completely clear of the barn and my ladder was rapidly following.

“Do you have a plan for these guys?” I asked.

“Yep. Killin’ ‘em. There ain’t but three V-wolves out there and some fancy dandy hangin’ back.”

Fancy was not the right way to describe a Vicksburg grey. When the Menace emerged from the treeline at Vicksburg, we thought they were unstoppable killing machines. Once we rallied and mounted our counter-attack, however, we noticed that a few of them were gimped in some fashion. In my first expedition, I came across a male with a severely underdeveloped right arm that seemed to be protecting a female with a torturously deformed spine. That was the exception, but the rule was matted fur interspersed with mange and a potently organic stench. The Vicksburg greys seemed to be more wild animal than most of the wild animals I’ve encountered. I suspect that they had interbred until only insatiable animalistic drives and human malaise remained.

I holstered my Model 3 and climbed higher on the ladder to see the “fancy dandy.” The old man was right. This was a different face of the Menace, not the blood-thirsty beasts of impulse we were used to. His fur was clean and well-kept; it almost looked like it had been combed. There was an unsettling intelligence behind his eyes that made his hulking stature even more unsettling. I had no doubt that he was the leader of this pack, that he had ordered the Vicksburg greys to climb the barn and attempt the pincer movement, or that his presence here was kismet.

As I was considering this, one final oddity about this wolf struck me. “He’s not grey,” I half-called, more in surprise to myself than to the old man. The Vicksburg greys were so named because they were all fairly monochrome. Some may have white patches or be a salt and peppery shade, but every single werewolf that has been observed in the States has had a coat that could be characterized as grey; most likely this is another trait caused by the high rates of inbreeding. This odd wolf was a dark, chestnut brown.

“Nope. And I have a feelin’ he heard you.” The old man must have heard me, as well. How loud had I been? The brown wolf had begun to back slowly away from the cabin and the greys.

“Go,” the old man commanded. “I’ll take care of these others.”

The Wyrm had been slowly descending foot by foot, but we were still much too high for me to able to step off the ladder. Instead, I wrapped my legs around the whole ladder – allowing my chaps to take up most of the friction burn – and used my hands to grasp every third wooden rungs as I slid down. I reached the ground in good time and not too much the worse for wear. My left inside thigh would be screaming later, but it could be ignored.

The wolf had a good lead on me, but there was a good two miles before the nearest alfalfa field. He ran down the half-beaten path the old man and I had ridden in on, which didn’t seem odd during the heat of the chase. I drew my weapon and fired one shot deliberately low and right, throwing up a cloud of dust just in front of my prey’s foot. The shot was a tactic they taught us in Topeka to end foot chases quickly when we were acting in our secondary capacity; to uphold law and order in our towns. Paramount to that was the “quick and judicious extermination of the Menace in designated jurisdictions.” I sometimes found that order contrary to the goal of eradicating the Menace from North America altogether. The US Sheriff Bureau didn’t care much for interrogation or intelligence, but I did.

Surprisingly, my shot did the trick. The wolf stopped running just past a patch of mesquites and raised his large arms over his head. I stopped running, too, but kept my gun trained on his back as I moved forward.

“On the ground,” I ordered.

“Sheriff Wilcox, surely you don’t need to humiliate him to ask a few questions, do you?”

The voice came from the other side of the mesquite thicket. Idiot! My desire to make the capture had forced me into the realm of sloppiness. I drew my bead on the brown wolf’s head and responded.

“Who is that?”

“H. Norman Price. I own a very profitable business in San Francisco.” A man in a dark vest and shirtsleeves stepped out from behind the mesquites to my left. If I wanted to keep an eye on him, I would have to use my periphery to watch the brown wolf. This was a bad position and I was sure H. Norman Price knew that.

He continued, “You’re pointing your gun at my associate. I’d appreciate it if you’d lower it and listen to a proposition.”

With their positioning dividing my attention, the gun wasn’t doing much good anyhow. I flipped it into the air and caught it by the barrel, placing my thumb and forefinger on two raised studs. Behind us, one of the Wyrm’s deck cannons boomed followed by two shots from a rifle.

“It doesn’t seem right for us to be standing here talking business while some of your kind get slaughtered.” I smiled a bit at the end, just to rub salt in the wound.

“Sheriff Wilcox, those drooling curs are no more ‘our kind’ than an orangutan is yours. I’ve seen more civilized behavior from the feral dogs that plague London.”

So he was a werewolf. That meant I could take one of them out and still have one left to question.

Price shifted his body into a more comfortable stance and adjusted his vest. “We’ve seen you in action, Sheriff Wilcox, so we know a handful of what you call ‘Vicksburg greys’ would be no match. We also know that, despite your remarkable proficiency for war, you’re not as unforgiving as some. I’m referencing, of course, the incident in Dakota Territory three months ago.

“So, I propose to you an understanding. You continue to uphold your duty and slay the greys; both our civilizations will be stronger for it. We’ll even help protect you and your loved ones and offer you financial assistance when needed. In return, you do not hunt us, nor do you mention our existence to your superiors in Topeka and Washington. It’s a good deal; many of the sheriffs in California have taken it.”

More gunfire came from the direction of the Wyrm. I put pressure on the studs on the barrel of my Model 3. The springs pressed back firmly, steeling my decision.

“What if I decline?” I asked.

Price shot me a fake, wood carved grin that showed each one of his teeth. “We have other arguments for you to consider.”

“Well then, I have to decline.”

At that, the brown wolf attacked.

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