The man called Twelve is a hired gun, taking his laser pistol from planet to planet, hiring his services out to the highest bidder. He finds himself on Glycon-Prime, a new colony at the edge of space. On the hunt for work, Twelve blows into a small, frontier town only to find a massacre. The only survivors? A trio of young children, devastated by the murder of their families and hellbent on hiring the gunslinger to help them get revenge on the leader of the vicious mutants responsible, the man known only as "The Serpent's Head."
In my quest to find examples of the many different flavors of sci-fi, I was instantly entranced by the world presented in The Serpent's Head. Not unlike Firefly, which exercises the frontier angle of early planetary colonization, The Serpent's Head has a very western vibe. It presents modern takes on the classic gunslinger character, and wraps it in a combination of old west archetypes and realistic takes on terraforming. – Joseph R. Lallo
"Bryan Young is an imaginative writer who has a director's eye, a film historian's perspective, a critic's cynicism, and a genre fan's enthusiasm. It's an interesting mix. I look forward to seeing everything he writes."– Aaron Allston, New York Times Bestselling writer
"The Serpent's Head by Bryan Young is a science-fiction western that asks not only that but so much more in a enjoyable and fun novel that will keep readers turning the page."– Bria Lavorgna, Tosche Station
"Probably my new favorite of Bryan Young's work (and I really enjoyed Lost at the Con). A great space western that keeps your attention with a mysterious protagonist. Thumbs-up!"– James "Jawa" Floyd, Club Jade
For a world so new to life, it seemed as though Glycon-Prime was dying.
But the stranger in the tattered serape knew better, riding his mount through the expanse of red-soiled wastelands toward life and work. The mounts didn't come cheap, but they were reliable. The stranger reckoned he'd spent most of his reward money on the animal, just to get to the next town and the next job. But he had enough left over to feed himself and buy a few canteens of water, which, in the end, was all he needed.
On these frontier planets, towns and villages were always few and far between. It was always a free-for-all at the beginning, with colonists, merchants, and miners, trekking off in every direction and settling wherever they could find a good vein of underground water or ore.
Clip-clopping along, he was a lone figure on the landscape, covered head to toe in the fine red dust of the transforming planet. The stubble across his face made the strong line of his chin fuzzy. His lips, for the most part, stayed closed, tight like a crease in his face. The only bit of a color not tainted by the red of the planet were his eyes, horizon blue, and reflecting a steely resolve.
Looking down at his worn, filthy hands, red with Glyconian grime, chapped from dryness, and leathered from sun exposure, he cursed himself, wishing he could have afforded a speeder.
"A speeder would have been faster," a digital voice said, emanating from the strap on the stranger's left wrist.
"What good would faster do if you still haven't found me my next job?" he snapped back.
The computer intelligence didn't respond, only went to work, scouring newsfeeds through the system, looking for a paying gig for the gunsel that programmed him.
His mount, some alien cross between a mule and an alpaca the locals called a dromid, carried his weight easily and didn't need much water. Since it was hairless, revealing strong muscles along the length of its bulbous shape, and tinted red like everything else on Glycon-Prime, the gunslinger could only assume that it was either from the new, forsaken planet, or engineered to live on it. Either way, it was surefooted, strong of back, and didn't stink as bad as the mounts on the last planet he'd called home. Sure, it took a week to travel a road that would have taken a speeder only a few hours, but the stranger didn't mind.
He didn't want to see anybody anyway.
"This world seems rougher than the others, Twelve," his wrist-bound companion said. "There's not much work, and according to the satellite data, the weather isn't going to be in our favor for much longer. It's only going to get warmer."
"Just shut up and find me that job, Zeke. Or at least the next town."
"My name is not, Zeke, sir."
"And mine's not Twelve."
"You gonna find me that job, or am I gonna have to shut you down?"
Flipping the reins and bringing the dromid to a quicker pace, he tried not to be annoyed. Despite the struggle, the man called Twelve much preferred the nomadic lifestyle provided by bounty hunting on frontier worlds than living in space or in some sprawling, planet-sized megalopolis. Skipping from one dusty town to the next, sending his digital assistant into the networked space of the world so he didn't have to be bothered, he made an eager, honest living, usually on the right side of the law.
It was a living he understood.
Perhaps "living" was a bit of a stretch.
He was surviving.
And when Glycon-Prime had developed into something that more resembled the planet-cities of developed worlds and less like the wild lands, the dark stranger would pick up and move on to another outlying star system and start all over.
It gave him plenty of time to be alone.
"Still no job, sir. But I do have a blip of a town on the map."
Twelve raised the underside of his wrist to look at Zeke. Strapped around his arm was a leather belt about 10 centimeters wide that held tight to him and was home to the brilliant computer intelligence and display that made up the whole of Zeke's consciousness.
On the display, Zeke had provided a topographical map of the flat spread of land. Across it ran a dark red line that the man recognized as the route they had plotted to the next major city. Far off to the side was a blinking green dot.
"That," the wrist-computer said, "is a small settlement called Nine Mine City, sir."
"Any work listed?"
"There was some work there a bit ago, according to the system, but the last listing expired a dozen rotations ago."
"Hm," the man said.
He didn't always get jobs off the feed. Sometimes small merchants who couldn't afford the listing fee hired him to scare off the mutants; other times the peasants hired him to scare off the merchants.
The feed seemed to be mostly filled with contracts that came from the corporate interests that built the atmospheric processing facilities and agricultural centers. It was easy for them to pay to eliminate problems, but more often than not, it felt like they were the bad guys. Bookies and gamblers were frequent clients, looking to take down debtors. His favorite source of employment, though, was the government. Usually, they had him tracking down a genuine, no-good bad guy.
If times were tight enough, he'd take a job from anywhere, but there was something grimly satisfying about taking down evil men in a life where satisfaction was a constant mirage on the horizon.
As he rocked back and forth slowly on his mount, a thin smile cracked across his dry lips. It was a knowing smile. He was more than capable of being the bad guy, too.
"Twelve," Zeke's voice interrupted, stealing the smile from his face, "shall I plot a route to Nine Mine City?"
He clicked the dromid to a stop, looking off to the horizon on his left. Somewhere, far beyond the curve of Glycon-Prime, he imagined a quaint little town where families settled and the saloonkeeper was honest. Children played in the streets, but a shadow loomed over the streets of the town, and only the light of the mysterious man arriving atop his mount could save them all.
He smirked. "May as well."
After two more days of riding, camping each night just off the wide, smooth ribbon of magnetic speeder trail that served as the road, he noticed the red-gray speck at the end of the line. The contours of a city grew with every step he forced the dromid to take.
A column of smoke billowed from somewhere in town or behind it, leaving a gray stripe against the red of the world.
"Sir," his computer said, trying to get his attention.
"What, Zeke?" he raised his wrist to talk to the contraption there.
"Are you sure this is a city? Wouldn't we have seen some traffic, in or out, if there was some bustle to this place?"
Even from a distance, characterizing it as a city was a hyperbolic stretch. It contained perhaps a dozen buildings, maybe two, half of them houses. And now that he thought about it, there really hadn't been any speeders of any sort on the trail in the two days they'd been traveling.
"You're the computer. You tell me."
"I've not found a trace of outgoing communication from this place for more than a full rotation."
"There's gotta be a reason."
"Perhaps a storm knocked out their communications array?"
Curiosity hit him in the gut like a fist, and he thought back to what he needed. Even if he wanted to turn back, he didn't have enough water to make it back through the desert and back to another town. He had no local money, and his credit had dwindled.
He didn't have much of a choice but to head into the mystery of Nine Mine City, and he knew it.
"We'll find out, I suppose, won't we?"
Another twenty minutes of riding down the trail, and he had finally reached the outlying buildings of the village and was surprised by their construction. Most were squat, adobe affairs, painted white to reflect the sun, but coated in the red dust of Glycon, as everything was. Surprise hit him; a few of the buildings even seemed constructed of old-fashioned wood.
"That seem right to you?" he asked.
"Wood is rare this far out in the galaxy," Zeke responded.
There were no trees on Glycon-Prime, at least not any mature enough to produce wood. Anything made of wood would have had to have been imported by starship, making it prohibitively expensive.
Twelve slid down from his saddle, grateful for the chance to stretch his legs, and he walked the rest of the way in to give things a closer look. Leading his mount by the reins, he wandered closer to the "wood" building, close enough to see the wood grain was simulated on a metallic material.
"See? It's fake," he told Zeke.
Harumphing, he kept on walking. If there was a thing he couldn't stand, it was simulated decadence.
His eyes wandered up and down the empty street, wondering where the action was and why things seemed so deserted. The unnatural silence unnerved him. He sought out the comfortable sounds of motors and electrical workings common to a town and couldn't hear the buzzing that one would find normally.
Ignoring the quiet, he instead focused on the hope of a job.
"Still no work on the feed?"
If there were a contract to be had in any town, the saloon was as good a place as any to find it. Either the law was there to clean up trouble and perhaps they needed help, or perhaps the trouble was waiting around for an answer to their illicit prayers.
Either way, saloons were the best place to get a drink.
Leading his animal up the road further, he found quickly that the saloon wasn't hard to locate. It looked like every other saloon on the backwater planet, right down to the batwing doors. He wondered why they were so fancied out here in the rim, but banished the thought. He had bigger things to wonder about.
He hitched the dromid to a piece of metal railing on the front porch of the saloon and walked up to the threshold. Taking a breath, he slowly swung the door open and walked inside the dim, dingy barroom.
Like the town itself, so too was the bar free of life. The only figure in the room was his own reflection in the paneled mirror behind the bar.
Were his eyes playing tricks?
"Hello?" His voice echoed in the vacant hall. "Anybody in here?"
"I'm here," Zeke said, matter-of-factly, but no other voice responded.
A breeze whipped through the room, kicking up a layer of blood colored sand, carrying it from one side to the other.
Bringing the computer on his wrist close to his mouth, he whispered harshly. "Stay quiet."
Zeke complied, his light winked off angrily.
Twelve wondered if a computer could be offended, then realized he didn't care. Approaching the bar, he thought, perhaps, someone might be hiding there behind it, hoping not to be seen.
Could the whole town be out in the mines?
He knew mining was a key staple to the local economy, but he'd never known a saloonkeeper to leave an open shop to take up prospecting. But if there really were nine mines, the townsfolk could be engaged in any sort of arrangement.
The state of disarray behind the bar told a different story, though, and the stranger discarded that conclusion. The cabinets full of bad liquor seemed picked through, and only a few half-full bottles remained. With no one to object, the gunslinger came around the counter, seeking out a glass not covered in grime. He found one hiding beneath a dishrag and placed it on the bar. Then, he selected the bottle with the fanciest printing on it and with liquid still in it. He uncorked it. Taking a sniff, he decided it was good enough and poured himself a shot.
Slugging it back, he resolved to find out exactly what the devil was going on in Nine Mine City.