He stood there, ankle deep in the mist that swirled about him, feeling a chill penetrate the long, fur-trimmed coat. He pulled the white scarf with the weighted ends a little tighter around his neck, then adjusted the eye patch over the raw,red rimmed socket of his left eye.
His good eye scanned the group before him, making out only outlines and shadows. His ears, honed by a lifetime of survival, could make out their muttering and whispers.
He knew they were talking about him.
That, for some reason, made him angry.
"RYAN CAWDOR!" yelled a voice behind him.
Before his last name hit the air, the one-eyed man was moving, spinning around,his hands going for the panga and the gun slung on either hip. His hands slapped empty leather.
Now, his ears were assailed by something even more grating to his nerves than those strange whispers.
The sound of skin on skin echoed as they applauded him.
A hand came down on his shoulder, and he spun, his clenched fist arcing around in a blow that would break both the unknown targets jaw and neck, such was it's rage driven power.
The old man facing him caught the fist with his own battle scarred hand easily and, holding a cigar with the other hand puffed a blue cloud into the younger man's face.
Ryan stumbled back, blinded by the harsh smoke, and rubbed frantically at his watering eye.
When it cleared, the old man was gone.
The Trader was gone.
It was obvious now. He was dreaming.
He was asleep, the flame-haired beauty of Krysty Wroth curled up with him, bodies together like spoons, her sentient mutant hair twitching slightly as she slept, tickling his nose like it sometimes did.
His long-time friend, J.B. Dix was likely on watch, pacing out in the darkness, watching over the camp, and watching over his own lady love Dr. Mildred Wyeth, the woman from the past, frozen when a simple medical operation turned deadly.
Twitching in his sleep like a dog dreaming of better days, Dr Theophilus Tanner, with his cracked knee boots and old fashioned frock coat, would be snoring loud enough to scare away the most ferocious mutie predator, with his lion's-head sword stick and Lemat handgun at the ready in case the mutie proved braver than most.
Also in the circle of comrades and friends would be Jak Lauren, an albino from the wasteland that was once the bayous of Louisiana before recent earthslips and other, unknown circumstances turned the lushness of the green into the reddish dust of a hi-rad desert.
Jak could be asleep or awake. Ryan could never tell until trouble was about to strike unseen, and then Jak would explode into action, hair flowing behind him like white fire.
Then of course, there was Dean. Son of Ryan and Sharona Carson, a feral rutting bitch that a young Ryan had done the dance of lust with over ten years before. Sharona had disapppeared when her husband, Baron Alias Carson had botched the hi-jacking of one of Traders convoys in the south west, down near Old Mex.
A decade of living with his mother on the road had left it's mark on Dean, a boy who had sent more men on the last train west than a lot of men thrice his age. Sometimes Ryan could see the stirrings of the same rage that sometimes threatened to erupt from him echoed in the boy's eyes.
"If you're done with the preamble Cawdor," said a hissing voice from the mist," we'd like to continue with the trial."
Knowing that he was dreaming, Ryan smiled.
"Go for it."
"YOU LEFT ME, RYAN CAWDOR! LEFT ME 'N ABE WITH STRAUB AND THE BRUSHWOODERS AND THE SCABBIES!!!!"
"You never used to whine,Trader." Ryan said, slowly turning towards the old man who had just screamed at him."'Sides, you pushed us away, and Abe jumped after you, when the raft started driftin' away from that stinkin' sulfer shore. We wanted to come back, but we couldn't throw away the chance you had given us. J.B. agreed, so we went on." Ryan crossed his arms, looking directly into the man's eyes.
"You can't blame me for that," he finished softly. The figure of Trader melted back into the mist.
Then Ryan was smashed to the ground by a stocky, muscular man.
The Russian who had pursued a motley group of raiders from Siberia to Alaska, who had then seen the hated United States as easy pickings, until dissuaded from dreams of empire by Ryan and his band. The Russian whom Ryan had embarrassed then fled from after a mat-trans jump to the Soviet Union,and had nearly succeded in killing Ryan when a mutant creature had struck after another jump. The same muscular bald man who had somehow survived the mutie attack, then had, unknowingly, stolen Ryan's son to work in the sulfer mines in Canada. The man who ran said mine with a fist of cold forged steel. The man who plunged to his death, locked in the embrace of a killer droid that had lusted after Cawdor's blood as much as he.
Ryan rolled over, flinging the powerful man away from him, then stood, ready to kick or punch, with all the variations between.
The thick walrus moustache curled as the stocky man snarled, his eyes flashing madness. This Zimyanin was almost the direct opposite of the man Ryan had known, the iron control extending not only to his men and their actions, but to himself, was gone.
This man was a slavering maniac.
The thought itself took only a second, but at it's completion the stocky Russian was again in the air, hands clawing at Cawdor's face, the face twisted as the man screamed; "No machines to stop me this time, One-eye! I'll take your head off, then I'll find your woman, fuck her 'til she's screaming, then twist her head off too! I'll hunt down your son, and use him for a slave! Then, when I've rebuilt my army, I'll let them use him until I decide to rip his heart out with my bare hands!! Die you bastard! Die!!"
Thick sausage sized fingers missed Ryan's jerked back head, but closed around the muscular neck, instantly exerting a force that would have crushed the throat of an ordinary man.
But Ryan was no ordinary man. His hands, instead of going for his opponent's, lashed out, striking with fists of solid muscle and bone, snapping the bald head back and forth, back and forth...but the smashed face of the Russian always snapped back, the insane grin still there, framed by the blood and bruising of the battering Ryan had given it
Spots began to dance in Cawdor's eyes, and he felt his arms, from the shoulders down, begin to go weak. But with a last flash of anger, Ryan gripped the Russian's face, sank fingers deep, and yanked with his last remaining strength.
Almost in slow motion, Ryan's hand pulled away from his enemy, trailing blood and gore as Zimyanin screamed and fell back, clutching the ruin of his face. Ryan flicked his hand, and the ripped flesh and blood he held fell into the swirling mist.
Zimyanin knelt, sobbing, tears of blood falling.
"You've torn from me my life, my carreer, my country and now my face," said the man, his voice muffled. "You take, Cawdor. You take and take and take. What do you give?" The stripped face turned to him, and Zimyanin looked at him with half a human face, and half a grinning death's head.
"What do you give?"
"What I can, Gregori. What I can." The one eyes man took a step forward, and the ruined face of the Russian twisted and he hunched to power himself off the ground.
Ryan, expecting this last, rabid attack kicked out with the steel-tipped toe of his combat boot, caught the Russian square on the point of his chin, lifting the stocky man up into the air, and landing him flat on his back, covered by the mist.
Cawdor turned and stalked away, knowing without looking that the Russian, Gregori Zimyanin, was gone.
The hissing voice returned;"So you've survived him again, eh Cawdor? Well, you've survived a lot of people, most of who trusted in you. I've never trusted anyone, and I've never been disappointed by that belief. People are shit. And you, most of all."
Ryan unwound the scarf from around his neck, made the motions of wiping Zimyanin's blood from his hands with it. Then he gripped the red-stained silk tightly.
Then, turning around, Ryan saw the blackest cold-heart he had the displeasure of knowing.
The man gave a lop-sided smile that didn't come close to his eyes. Everything Ryan remembered about the sadistic former sec-man was there, from the sleek black leather to the stretched tight skin, from the face smashed by a thrown .45, to the four fingered hand that Jak had broken a finger on, which had later become gangrenous, prompting Strasser to amputate the blackened, twisted digit.
"You look good for a man who cut his own throat." Ryan said, his hands adjusting their grip on the scarf. "But then, you were the hardest bastard to put down that I ever come up against."
The near skeletal man bowed formally. "Thank you, Cawdor." the now hidden face said. "I have you to thank for giving me that..."
What ever Strasser was about to say was cut off as the end of the scarf whipped down from an overhand arc, and the lead weight sewn within smashed down into the back of the man's head.
Not wasting the chance as Strasser stumbled, Ryan stepped forward, and with a deft flip of his wrists, looped the scarf about Strasser's skinny neck and pulled it tight, placing his knee in the small of the other man's back for leverage.
Strasser clawed at the scarf, clawed at Cawdor, clawed for his life, but in the end his feet kicked out in a dance of death, the stench of feces filled the air, and Strasser died again.
Cawdor pulled the scarf from the corpse's throat, and measuring the distance, launched a kick at the man's head, feeling the impact all the way up to his knee, seeing the skull collapse, hearing the vertebrae snap like rotten twigs.
Ryan looked up from his kill, and saw on a horizon now marked by a rising sun,a long line of dead enemies marching towards him, more topping the horizon, and, Ryan sensed more beyond, waiting their turn at him.
There would always be more.
The hissing voice said from behind;" And the verdict is...."
Ryan opened his eye.
"Hellfire!" Ryan exclaimed, slamming down the mug in his right hand. "That was fine coffee sub!"
Ryan was in rare high spirits. The jump had landed them in a mat-trans chamber in one piece, always a good sign, no cracks in the red-striped sea-green armaglass, and no malfunctioning comps in the control room. The air was clean, though a little tinny from the constant recirculation, and the static dusters
were still working, making the rooms they had checked look as though they had just been abandoned the day before, instead of a century. The lights came on, activated by motion sensor, showing that the power in the military base was constant and, for the most part, worry free.
Ryan Cawdor hadn't woke from the jump sick, as was usual, but only felt like he had tossed and turned for a long, long night. He reflected that was infinitely more preferable than the common gut-wrenching nausea.
The others had woken much the same way, except for Doc, always the last, and Dean, who had nearly taken J.B.'s head off with a kick when the older man had poked him to wake him up. J.B. had merely stepped back as the boot stirred the air near his face.
Dean hadn't apoligized, and Dix had kept his peace about it, though Ryan's opinion swayed to his son, figuring Dix should have known better.
The dream he had during the jump was fresh in his memory, but Ryan couldn't see any sort of prophetic meaning in it. A realist, he knew it just showed that of all the men he had ever traveled or fought with, he was still the best, and most important, the one still living.
Still, later tonight he would ask Krysty what she thought of the dream. Sometimes both her book learning and her mutie insights could winnow out little details that Ryan could over look.
He shifted back to reality, and tuned in halfway through one of Doc's stories, this one about watching some sort of race with speedwags, listening to someone drone on about stats, and chugging the thin beer sold at some of these events.
Ryan, for an instant, thought about how things hadn't truly changed that much. Barons would some times have races like that, with horses or the cobbled together cars that a mechanic had assembled from mismatched parts. The beer, sometimes good, sometimes truly gross would flow like water as the spectators would watch and drink, and forget their own lives for awhile.
Dix echoed Ryan's unspoken thought. "Y'know Doc, Races like that still happen. Mechanics put together cars, and if they last through most of the race, or mebbe even finish, which would be a bonus, then the Baron would put'em on his payroll, maintaining his own wags."
"Sounds like that would be worthwhile," said the black woman at his side. "A chance to sleep in a bed, not hving to worry what might try to crawl into it, three squares and all the metal you would want to play with. A grease monkey's dream."
"I must say, Dr. Wyeth," Doc droned. "I think you've been spending altogether to much time with our John Barrymore. Do you realize that you have even begun to speak the same? I daresay, if this continues, Mr. Dix will soon braiding and beading his hair, and speaking of the benifits of proper fingernail care."
Mildred flipped the old man the finger. "Care about this finger, you old fart. Better to be short and to the point than to be an endless bag of wind with none."
Doc smiled, and Ryan saw the old man's hand clench in triumph. "Why dear lady, you have just described your height and the shape of your head." Then he wheeled around and ran off down the hall, Mildred in hot pursuit, waving a plastic spatula in the air like a sword of old.
A few short seconds later, Doc's laughter was cut off by a loud swish, then he yelped at the top of his lungs.
"Nice see kids getting along." Said the red-eyed youth sitting at the end of the table.
Another yelp cut the air. "And that's for the pointy head joke, you old goat!"
"Ouch," muttered J.B. Unbidden, his own jump dream came to mind, which had involved himself, Mildred and a large quantity of clear sweet cooking oil.
He smiled slightly.
MIldred came back into the room, tossed the spatula onto the counter, and snatched up her cup, swirling the coffee-sub around in her mouth before swallowing.
"Y'know," she said, "Since the jump, I just can't seem to get the taste of cooking oil out of my mouth."
Ducking his head, Dix felt his cheeks redden slightly as again, the dream flashed through his head.
"Something on your mind, J.B.?"said the Red head sitting beside Ryan, a mischevious glitter in her emerald eyes. Sometimes against her will, her mutie talents forced Krysty to "see" things, and her smile let J.B. Dix know that she had "seen" some, if not all of the jump dream.
"You all right, John?" Mildred asked. "You look a little flushed."
"I...um....I'm fine, Millie," J.B. said. "I think I'll go do the rounds." J.B. jammed his beloved fedora down on his head, and studiouly avoiding the eyes of Krysty Wroth who was straining herself, holding back her laughter, and stalked out, hunching his shoulders as the redhead's laughter burst out behind him.
He muttered the one word that summed up all the trials and tribulations of mankind from the beginning of time.
Dean looked questioningly at his father, who looked at Krysty rolling on the floor. The going on thirteen year-old often found adults a more enigmatic race than any mutie ever born and secretly, he dreaded the day he would: A) Understand them.
and B) become one of them.
He often reflected on how his life had changed. Only ayear before, he had been fighting off pervs during his time in a Scalie-run slavecamp, gutting fish by day, and using a stolen knife, his would-be rapists by night.
But that had changed when his father had come in a night of fire and thunder, looking like the Hero from some of the stories 'Rona had told him when he was little. Many of these stories had been about his father, and sometimes Dean wanted to ask his father about them. Had he, for example really killed half a village of stickies by himself, holding them off until his war wags came and mopped up the survivors?
Dean snapped back to the here and now as his father snapped; "Dammit Dean! I'm talking to you!"
Dean's eyes flicked back and forth, taking in the scene, barely changed, except Krysty Wroth was now sitting back on the bench that ran the length of the table, wiping her reddened eyes.
Mildred was nowhere to be seen, nor was Jak.
"What!" Dean snapped back, immediately wantiing to bite his tongue. He didn't know why his father, whom he loved very much sometimes raised such ire with only a few words. Why sometimes, in the middle of the night, Dean would wake, think about the past day, and feel a wave of raw, red rage wash over him, at a remembered word or correction from the man he resembled in so many ways.
"Sorry," he muttered, as his father's single eye flashed dangerously in the stark white light of the kitchen. He noticed though, that Krysty's hand was on Ryan's arm, holding him back, if only a little.
"I said, 'Go and find Doc.'" Ryan rasped, the scar on his face throbbing painfully. "We haven't had a chance to fully check this place out yet."
"Sure." Keeping his eyes directly on his father's face, Dean stood, and walked out the door, following the sounds of Doc's voice, which was, in a strong off-key, advertising the questionable virtues of some gaudyhouse the group of travellers had passed some time before.
"Easy, lover." Krysty breathed in his ear. She could feel those muscles she loved, those muscles that crushed her to him in the deep of the night tensing with the urge to knock the young boy across the room. "Take it easy. He said he was sorry."
Ryan wheeled on her. The old anger that she had seen him take more and more control over was threatening to boil over the restraints he had put around it. At this point in time, she was reminded that despite the caring he showed towards the group, and the love and tenderness he showed toward Dean as a father, and herself as a lover, Ryan Cawdor was a very, very dangerous man.
Despite that, she felt a sudden need to possess this man. Now.
Ryan breathed hard, trying to calm himself. "Saying he's sorry don't change the fact he's talked back Krysty. Here, that can be corrected. Out there, in a firefight, questioning what I say could get us all, including himself killed."
He turned from her, and poured himself another mug of coffee-sub, though he'd had about all he could drink. He just wanted something to take his mind off of Dean, and his slowly growing rebellion against Ryan.
"You truly don't see the problem, do you Ryan?" Krysty said, the corners of her lips moving upward slightly. She had "felt" the instant regret, and the confusion from Dean, and she had an inkling of what it was caused by.
"Fireblast, Krysty!" Ryan said, turning back to her. "If I knew the problem, I'd fix it! As it is I'm ready to beat the snot out of him!"
"I don't think even you can fix this problem, lover," she said. She looked deep into that single blue eye that had seen so much, with both of her emerald ones. "But I know a problem you can solve." Her hand slithered down his chest, and hooking her fingers into his belt began leading him toward the hall that lead to a single, darkened room containing a desk, and a remarkably preserved couch.
Dean had caught up to Doc as the old man had was about to turn a corner, his baritone voice now singing about a teapot, a spoon and the use of suger. A real song or not, Doc's voice still echoed dangerously down the corridor.
If any guards had been here to hear it, they probably would have come down here just to shut the triple-stupe up with a 5.56 gag.
Of course, if any were coming, Doc's voice would drown them out like the motor of a rough running warwag.
Trying to think of a quiet way to silence the old man beyond cutting his throat, Dean found himself distracted by a glowing button on a door that Doc had just passed. Examining it more closely, Dean started violently as Doc launched into the beginning of a very long and very loud song he called an operetta, learned from an Italian classmate of his when he had been a young man in the 1800's.
"DOC!" Dean yelled."SHUT UP!!!"
"My apolegies, young Master Cawdor," Doc whispered. "I'm afraid that sometiimes my mind wanders into a much safer past sometimes, if I'm not careful. What have you found?"
Dean put his ear to the door. "I can hear a humming sound," he said. "Some sort of generator, mebbe? The button might be some kinda buzzer, like the one on the door leading to old man Brody's office back at the school ."
" Think you we should push it and see what happens?" Doc said, his mind now fully in the present. His curiosity whetted, the old man could become as tenacious as a mutie pitbull.
Dean hesitated, remembering his father's mood when he left. The time Dean had spent traveling with Ryan Cawdor had taught him that you don't go anywhere, open any door without his say so.
The overbearing one eyed bastard!!!
Dean pulled back from the door, startled by the vehemence of his own thoughts. Where had that come from? He shook his head, physically clearing the red-rimmed emotions theatening to spill over. He looked down, and saw his hands were actually shaking from the effort. A sweat had broken out on his forehead, and he could feel a tiny pulse pounding in his temple.
Dean's distress seemed to penetrate the curiosity of the old man beside him. Doc placed his hand on the boy's shoulder and...leapt back with surprising grace as Dean swung around, face red, one hand knocking loose Doc's reassuring grip, and the other hand drawing his prized turquoise handled knife with shocking speed.
Doc exclaimed, yelling, "By the three Kennedys!" as he backed up farther, nearly stumbling over his lion-head swordcane. The boy's face, red, the skin pulled tight revealing a deathgrin of gritted teeth belonged to a mindless savage, not the son of the man Doc Tanner held in the highest esteem.
The boy, whose every action emanated menace suddenly drew back, and his face flushed a deeper red.
Dean felt the acute embarassment run through him like acid. His vision tinged with red, he had seen Doc cringing back, holding the sword stick up, as if trying to ward off some kiind of mutie monster. The thing that brought Dean to his senses, was the realization that the monster was him.
Dean, still holding the knife ran away, farther down the corridor, ducking into an open room and slamming the door shut behind. He curled up in a corner, knees drawn to his chest. He felt tears running down his face. What was happening to him? Why was he acting crazier than a rad-blasted mutie with his ass on fire?
Ryan looked at Krysty, a smile tinged with annoyance on his face. He looked down at her while he buttoned his pants, and she looked up at him, brushing a strand of her hair from her face, her lovely frame stretched out on the couch, her pants down around her ankles.
Ryan admitted to himself that the immensly satisfying quickie they had just finished had taken the edge off, and had promised to make their bedding down tonight an even more pleasurable occasion than normal, but inside he was more than a little angry, but with himself, for letting himself be distracted by Krysty before they had fully checked out the redoubt they were now in.
Cawdor gazed at his lover as she wriggled her pants back up over her hips, and reflected that, regarding Krysty Wroth, he didn't fight temptation all that hard.
If Trader was still traveling with them, or if Ryan was still with the convoy of Trader's trucks, he would've been called into the old man's office, asked to close the door behind him, and after doing so beaten half to death by the man, as a lesson to not be such a stupe.
To get his mind on another subject, and to get the sudden picture of the old man in his dream out of his head, Ryan checked the heft of the panga, and asked Krysty what she thought Dean's problem was.
"It's as plain as the patch on your face, Ryan," she answered, her eyes still gleaming from their lovemaking. "But you're too close to see it."
Ryan sighed. "I want riddles, I'll ask Doc to tell me a story. From you, I want a straight answer!"
Krysty realized that the situation with Dean was truly getting to Ryan, and she regretted the teasing she had been poking at him. But would he take a straight answer any better?
Time to find out.
"He's growing up, Ryan."
"That's it? That's your great revelation? Stickie shit, Krysty! I know he's growing up! He's near thirteen, as far as I can reckon. I caught him using J.B.'s pocket mirror the other day, seeing if he could start a beard! He's started growing like a weed, and...and..."
"And started getting moody, wanting to be by himself and probably starting to have some really interesting dreams." Krysty said. She had caught Dean staring out into space one day, and her mutie gifts had flashed an image through her mind, involving a stallion, a jar of honey, Dean with a sweeping moustache and very adult body...and Krysty herself as the damsel in distress, thanking the hero of the story with the only thing of value she possessed...
She smiled at Ryan. "I think it's time you had a little talk with him, lover. It might help him get a grip on these feelings he's having."
The redhead nearly laughed as Ryan visibly cringed at her words. "Fireblast, Krysty! I don't know what to say to him, or how to say it. The last few times we've talked have near ended up as fights!"
"Ryan Cawdor!" Krysty said. "You can wade through a lake of blood and guts, you can kill without hesitation or sleepless nights after, do anything for your friends to keep them alive but you're afraid to tell your own son about the facts of life? As I recall from what Dean's told us, Sharona didn't have a lot of time to tell him about that, only about how to stay alive! Well, her advice worked, Dean survived until you found him. Now, it's your turn to do some talking!"
"But...but..." Ryan was a little confused. How had he lost control of this situation? And why the hell was he so squemish about...the talk?
Krysty pointed to the door. Her eyes, before glittering with sexual afterglow, now sparked with a real anger. She stood there like a statue topped with fire, unmoving until Ryan himself began to go towards the door. She broke her immobility, strode over to him as he reached for the doorknob, and wrapped her arms around him.
"This will make things better between the two of you," she whispered into his ear. She then kissed his cheek and pushed him out the door.
Then, they heard Doc's startled yell, and they began running.
By the time they reached the old man, Mildred and J.B. had were there, with Jak just rounding the corner. The black woman was talking to Doc, who stood against the wall, his cane tapping incessently on the floor, echoing like firecrackers.
"Nice of you to join us," J.B. quipped, squinting slightly at the trio. His own weapons were holstered and slung, showing that whatever danger Doc had encountered was no longer there. Ryan holstered the Sig-sauer P-226, and Krysty slipped her own Smith and Wesson back into it's holster as well, Jak doing the same with the satin finish .357 he carried.
"What happened, Doc?" Ryan asked. The old man chuckled.
"I'm afraid I overreacted a touch, my one-eyed companion. When we came upon this door, I'm afraid I upset him somehow, and he turned on me with the rage of the berserker a-burning in his eyes." The oldster's hands shook a little, and he resumed tapping the floor again with his cane, giving them something else to do.
"Who overreacted, Doc? What the fuck happened, and..." realizing the party was one short, "...where the fuck is Dean?"
Doc pointed the ferrule of his walking stick down the hall. "Young Master Cawdor is in one of the rooms down this hallway, though I fear I cannot say which one. I was busy, as you might say, trying not to piss my pants." He bowed to Mildred and Krysty, and said;"Begging your pardon for the language, dear lady. Oh, and you too, Dr.Wyeth."
"Speaking of which," Mildred replied. "Piss off."
Jak chuckled, loud in the silence. Everyone turned to look at him.
He looked back with his ruby eyes.
"What I say?"
In the room where Dean had taken refuge,only one small light burned, keeping the space only dimly lit. He could barely hear the other's voices echoing down the hall, and dreaded the thought of his father finding him.
After all, going after Doc with his knife rated a little more than a harsh word on Ryan Cawdor's shitmeter.
Dean, lost in his own head still heard the slight scuffing sounds, with senses sharpened by a lifetime in the Deathlands. His knife was out in a heartbeat, his Browning High-Power a beat after.
Then Death looked at him with glowing red eyes and inches long teeth.
Krysty's hair coiled tightly around her head even as she 'felt' the boy's panic flash out like a light in the darkness.
"Ryan!" she exclaimed, dashing down the hall, Cawdor hot on her heels, the others close behind. She drew her gun, and the group followed her example, the sounds of hammers being cocked and slides pulling back drowned in their own thundering footsteps, silence the furthest thiing from their minds.
There was a yell from behind a door. Ryan tried it, found it locked. He tried kicking it, found the mil-spec door resisted his initial attack.
There was a series of gunshots from the enclosed room, and a slug dimpled the metal door less than an inch from Ryan's face. He jerked back, and with another kick, now fueled both by fear for his son and anger at the stray round bent the door inward slightly, the jamb slipping out of the groove.
With speed born of fright, Dean fired one-handed, and felt his wrist bent back painfully by the recoil. The shape he had fired at started at the sound, and slipped back into the shadows. Not wasteing a second, the boy brought the knife up to his mouth, held it in his clenched teeth, freeing his other hand to help control the pistol's mule-kick of a recoil.
Dean saw the shape again, fired a double shot, one striking the shape, the other striking the door as the gun bucked.
Then Dean finally could make out the shape of the thing before him.
A Deathland mutie rat. The size of a large dog, the rat sported dexterious hands, tipped with inches long talons which, though wickedly curved and capable of massive damage to an unprotected foe, did nothing to take away from the long fangs drooling just a few feet from Dean's groin.
The rat tensed, and Dean pulled the trigger, expecting a roar, and a flash of powder flame licking out to carress the head of the snarling beast. Instead...
Dean's last conscious thought as the rat began an almost graceful, slow motion leap, was the word shouted out by most people just as the Reaper himself turns to look you square in the eyes.
Ryan's third kick suceeded in opening the door, and he rushed inside, seeing lit in the rectangle of the open door the rat as it landed on Dean, claws flashing, instantly dripping red.
"NNOOO!" Ryan screamed, jumping on the huge mutie rat. His arm circled the muzzle of the rad-spawned monster, shutting it's mouth and pulling it away from Dean. The mutation left the unresisting prey beneath him, and turned it's attention to the annoyance on his back.
Never before had the rat been challenged, not since the day it was born, bursting from it's mother's belly and devouring her a little later in short order. It had hunted the others of it's kind, until no more were left. Then, one day, nearly dead from hunger and berserk from the gnawing in it's belly, the rat knocked over and tore into a box full of silver foiled blocks and discovered the wonders of Meals Ready to Eat, food ment to last centuries.
That had been, by human reckoning a month ago and now, after devouring all the food it could find, was now on the verge of eating raw red meat again.
If only this flea would get off it's back.
Ryan jammed the Sig-sauer into the creature's ribcage, and fired off a burst that made the thing squeal and writhe in agony, throwing the one-eyed man off.
Ryan landed hard, wind whooshing from his lungs, the gun clattering away into the darkness. The rat scuttled around, wary of the two-leg that had hurt it, and from the darkness claws shot out, and snagged Ryan's pantleg, dragging him into the shadows.
Ryan saw Dean leap onto the rat's back, just as the elder Cawdor himself had done just an instant before. The boy's arm rose and fell, and the blade in his hand flashed a dripping red.
Bleeding, shot and stabbed, the mutant rodent changed tactics, and tried to get away, but the two Cawdors would have none of that. In an instant, Ryan's hand drew the panga at his side, and with a terrific back-handed slash sheared off the creature's right arm, iliciting another squeal as red ichor sprayed Ryan's face.
Dean suddenly went limp, sliding off of the monster's back. and Ryan kicked up, both feet smashing into the rat's muzzle and chest, lifting it into the air for an instant.
Which was all it took.
MIldred, crouching at the door, was the group's finest shot, acknowledged by both Cawdor and Dix as probably the best in all of Deathlands, but even she couldn't get a clear shot at the mutie as it fought on the floor with father and son. The lighting, the stacked boxes all worked against her, until Ryan's kick gave her a clear shot.
Her revolver, a ZKR 551 target gun fired a .38 slug that burst the rat's right eye, bounced around inside the skull and exited through the underside of the creature's muzzle. The wound alone was enough to totally destroy the nervous system and end it's life, but the boom! of Jak's .357 and the boom-hiss of J.B.'s Smith and Wesson M-4000 fired flechettes destroyed not only the remnents of the creature's brain, but of most of it's other organs as well, the multiple impacts causing the the carcass to literally explode.
Ryan stood, covered with blood and gore, a little shaken by the nearness of the thing. He looked at the others.
"Thanks," he said. Then his heart nearly stopped as he saw the form of his son lying on the floor, covered in blood.
And lying so,so still...
Ryan stood, looking over his son who was as white as the sheets he lay upon. The events of the last frenzied hour ran through his mind again.
He had knelt by his son, feeling for a pulse, fearing the worst. Felt the relief as he felt the artery pulse beneath his fingers.
Mildred had knelt by him, and pulled apart the lad's shirt, revealing the deep gashes left by the rat's savage attack on the boy.
"They're deep, but nothing a few stitches won't fix. No muscles damaged, as far as I can tell, but the light in here sucks large. We need to get him out of here, at least into the hallway so's I can check him out better."
J.B. and Jak had gone into the room, and checked it out to make sure there were no more of the mutie monstrosities. What they found was a smashed box of military MREs, one of five stacked in there. Also, they found a metal case, about one foot by eight inches which, when opened revealed a mess of foil-wrapped chem glow sticks," Good for about four hours apiece," the armorer had told the albino.
Dix had told Ryan later.
Ryan and Mildred meanwhile, had lifted and carried the unconscious boy into the hall, Doc and Krysty covering both ways, just in case.
Nobody got dead in Deathlands by being careful.
There, she took another look. "Skin torn, not as deep as I first though, though he'll still need some stitching done. Good thing his clothes are good quality, not the shitty rags I've seen on some people in Deathlands. They probably saved him from a worse mauling." She felt the back of Dean's head. "Good sized knot back here, got it when the thing jumped him, I imagine. But it's not bad enough to keep a kid like Dean down for long. His head has to be at least as hard as your's is , Ryan."
"Then why the fuck is he out, Mildred?" Cawdor asked, dread tightening around his heart.
Krysty put her hand in his. His fingers squeezed in thanks.
J.B. and Jak came back out. "Other than that ugly mother in there," Dix said, pointing at the store room with his thumb, "there's nothing to worry about. Looks like the thing's been eating some old food blocks for the last few days. There's a lot of foil on the floor, and teeth marks on the smashed box."
The sallow-faced man knelt down by the boy. "How's the boy?"
"In a word J.B., " Mildred said, "Unknown. He's out like a light, and I don't know why."
Jak spoke up, holding the giant rodent's severed arm. "Think found problem," he said, turning the limb so that the palm was facing up. Everyone looked closely as Jak explained what he had discovered.
"Big fucker had fang on hand, looks hollow like a watersnake's back home."
Mildred looked closer, and saw that Jak was right."Motherfucker!! The ki...er...Jak's right. This thing has a spur like a platypus. Likely had one on the other arm before we blew the shit out of it. Don't know what the toxin it had does, but it doesn't seem to be working on the autonomic nervous system, lungs and heart, or Dean'd be in real deep shit, instead of the plain shit he's in now."
She turned to J.B. "You and Ryan take him down to the infirmary we found." She turned to Ryan, "That's...ah...where we were when we heard Doc." Mildred took the arm from Jak, saying; "There's a small
lab in there. Only a microscope and some other crap. But if I can remember enough from my Toxicology classes, maybe I can whip up an anti-venin." She held up the rat's clawed arm like a sceptre.
"That is, if this fucker's got any juice left."
That had been an hour before.
They had carried the boy into the room marked with a red cross on the door, and at Mildred's direction, placed him on the bed farthest from the doorway. Ryan was too concerned for his son, but Krysty and Jak noted that while the other beds were still made, waiting for patients that would never come, one bed in the corner was more than a little messed up.
Mildred was puttering around in the small laboratory, helped a little by Doc Tanner, who had read up on snakebites and poisons once, during his incarceration by the time-trawling white coats of Project Cerberus. He had done so in the small hope that, if freed he could find a snake whose venom was so painful that the victims could have a living preview of the hell that they so richly deserved.
Ryan, for the hundredth time, looked around the room. Big enough for twenty beds, the room had been kept safe from the rat by a heavy door . The tinny smell of constantly recirculated air was heavy, and mixed unpleasently with the odor of the antiseptics Mildred had used on Dean. The floor was an uninspired green, and the walls were a light absorbing pinkish.
"Look like bloody puke," was Jak's description.
The place must have been run with tight discipline right up to the end. No graffetti decorated the halls, as it had in most redoubts they had found themselves in, a last defiant "Fuck you!!" to a God that later they had fallen on their knees to pray to, in those last few moments of life.
"J.B." The sallow-faced man turned to his old friend. Ryan was holding his son's hand, as if trying to will his own strength into the boy's body. "Check this fuckin' place over. You and Jak and Krysty. Make sure there's no more of those big fuckers lurkin' in the shadows. Check for stuff we can use when we leave. Dean should be up and about soon enough."
"Sure." J.B. Dix, never one for using two words when one will do, turned and gestured for Jak to follow. Krysty hesitated.
"I know what you're gonna say, Krysty. I don't want to hear it," Ryan said. "Mildred and Doc are workin' on an antidote for the poison. I have to stay here with Dean. I...can't leave him here alone. Jak and J.B. and you are the only ones left to scout around. With your 'feelings', you should be able to tell if there's any more danger here. I need you to make sure everyone else will be all right."
Krysty leaned over, and kissed the curly-haired, one-eyed man she loved.
"I know," she said.
Those two words hung heavy with meaning between them as she turned to go, following Dix and Jak.
Mildred walked quietly out of the lab, Doc shuffling out behind her, head hung low.
"I'm sorry Ryan, but there wasn't any toxin left in the spursack. It could've been forced out when it spasmed when you amputated it. Or..." she left off, the direction of her gaze telling Ryan exactly where the poison could have gone.
"If the amount of toxin is small...he could wake up any time. If not...well, we should know either way soon." Dr. Wyeth squeezed the one-eyed man's shoulder.
Time, For Ryan....stood still.
Until Dean's eyelids fluttered, and his fingers squeezed his father's hand.
And the world began to turn again.
By Ryan's wristchron, it was eleven pm when Dean finally woke up fully. He had been in and out of consciousness for the last three hours, each wakeful period longer than the last. His eyes, glazed and red-rimmed from the residual effects of the toxin became clearer and more aware as time went on, until Ryan could feel them burning into him, even through the light doze he had slipped into.
Ryan gathered Dean up into his arms, holding the boy tightly. In the back of his mind, he knew the boy should be getting an ass-chewing for the events leading to this moment, but he decided that could wait for a while longer.
At exactly midnight, Krysty, Jak and J.B. Dix stepped into the med-wing where Ryan and Dean were. They had left Doc and MIldred in the little mess hall they had been in before, both asleep, arms cradling heads on the table top, coffee-sub cold in their cups.
Krysty stopped the other two from coming in, and she turned to them, her emerald eyes glittering with tears. Both J.B. and Jak looked around her, and saw the man they had heard described as a "savage coldheart," asleep in a chair with his son, wrapped in a blanket, perched on his lap, head on the sleeping man's shoulder.
Jak let out a breath, like he had been holding it the whole time Dean had been unconscious.
"Yeah," agreed Dix, furiously wiping suddenly misted glasses.
Two days had passed since the attack, and Dean was ready to kill.
The poison had been some sort of paralytic toxin, deadening his nerves so that his limbs wouldn't function. The effect, though not fatal was long lasting.
Dean sweated with the effort of relieving himself in the bedpan. He felt an unreasoning fury boiling in his stomach, spreading like a wild fire through the rest of his body at his helplessness.
Dean, even as a young child had possessed an almost mutie ability to avoid sickness. He and Sharona had traveled through bleak pestholes, on their journey to anywhere, that had been so illness ridden that even the mutie vultures circling above, shading the village with twenty foot wingspans, wouldn't descend until the meat had been dead for a very, very long time.
He had never awoken with a sore throat, a dry cough or a fever. The only sicknesses he had ever had were colds, and his inherent vitality showed even there, as he shrugged the effects of the virus off in short order.
But now, with the hormones of a teenager rampaging through his body, giving him the energy that older people only dimly remembered, he was stuck in a bed, strength sluggishly returning.
Mildred had sat with him for a time, telling Dean what the poison had done to him.
No long-lasting effects, she had said. She had him grip her hand and squeeze, and later told him that as the days wore on, his hand would get stronger and stronger.
All this, Dean remembered, even as the smell of hot urine wafted over him from the recently used pan.
Tears threatened to spill over his face as he braced his arms behind him, and pressed, trying to lever himself into a sitting position. His arms shook, and Dean 's heartbeat echoed in his ears.
But, by microinches and long, painful shards of time, the young Cawdor persevered, and sat up.
A battle won.
The door opened, and Dean turned his head, the motion hardly painful anymore, a sign the gashes Mildred stitched were healing fast.
"Hello, Dean." Ryan came over to the bed, pulled a chair to the bedside, and sat down. He looked like he was about to say something, but then changed his mind.
And again. Ryan opened his mouth,sucked in air but nothing came out.
Then:" Dean, it's time we had a talk."
After the talk, during which Ryan had stumblingly spoken with his son, (bringing a quickly hidden smile to the boy's lips) the elder Cawdor had excused himself, relief evident on his face.
Soon after, Jak came to visit, and the two of them talked, Jak answering Dean's questions as only a teenager can, as teenagers had done for each other for as long as the race had walked.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
In the time Dean had been recovering, the rest of the group had explored as much of the Redoubt as they could. Many of the doors, as usual, were sealed tight, and Ryan's foot stilled ached from the battering open of the door to save Dean. The huge vanadium-steel sec door waited patiently, hiding the outside from them, just as it hid the inside from the out.
The glowsticks that J.B. and Jak had found were split up equally among the group, with a number set aside for Dean, when he was up and about. They also loaded up on the MRE's in the undamaged boxes,
four per person, again setting some aside for Dean.
Forgotten in this time, the locked door with the single glowing button sat undisturbed, waiting.
Dean rolled off the bed.
Sick of the weakness he had decided,as all men do, to prove his masculinity and said to whatever Deity who still watched over the wastes of Deathlands to go fuck himself.
Dean barely stopped his face from smacking into the cold concrete floor with tremor wracked arms. Pulling his knees beneath his body, young Cawdor, using the bar across the foot of the bed stood, and he stayed in place as the room spun.
Sweat ran down his face, blinding him. His heart felt as though it was trying to smash it's way out of his chest, and hot and cold waves moved up and down his body.
But after a minute, the spell passed and Dean felt better.
He took his hand from the supporting bedframe, and stood without effort.
Suddenly, like a dam breaking Dean felt the strength of his body return as the last of the rat's poison was cleansed from his blood. He felt like doing somersaults, cartwheels...anything that took effort and energy, just to show he could.
Unable to stop himself, a yell burst from him.
Krysty 'felt' Dean's recovery just before the yell, echoing down the hallways, reached them.
The next day.
Ryan pulled on his clothes, buckled his belt, made sure the panga and pistol were just so. He winced as a muscle protested slightly, pulled in the night during a particularly ferocious bout of lovemaking with his red-haired lover.
His mind replayed that battle of the sexes.
Using lips, fingers and tongue, Ryan had aroused Krysty to a fever pitch, sweat beading her body, but hadn't let her climax. To Krysty, it was a pleasurable torture, and one she had repaid Cawdor for, using her mouth, hands and fingers, leaving him groaning in frustration time and again.
Finally though, neither could stand it stand it any longer, and with a moan echoed by Krysty, Ryan sank himself deeply into her, feeling the butterfly fluttering of her internal muscles, the fingernails as they scratched gently down his back, the long, well toned legs as they locked about him.
Ryan felt himself stirring again.
"Jack for your thoughts?" Krysty said, sliding up behind him, and pressing her still uncovered body into his back. Ryan turned, and encircled her in his arms, holding her tight.
She shivered at the strength she felt, and at the intensity of the emotions that poured from Cawdor to her, heartbeat accelerating, a slight sheen of sweat appearing on her forehead, the hot roiling of renewed arousal rising from her loins to engulf her whole.
Cawdor's head bent slightly, and her's rose. Their lips met...
And the moment was shattered as a light knocking, sounding to them as loud as a gunshot, echoed in the room they had claimed as their own.
"I say, Master Cawdor. Have you and the titan-haired young lady arisen yet? Young Dean has reminded us of one room we have not yet perused the contents of. We thought we would check it before setting off on our outside excursion." Doc's voice sounded slightly muffled, and Ryan felt the sudden suspicion that the old bastard had known exactly what he was interupting, and was stifling his laughter.
"Shit," he whispered to into Krysty's ear.
"Before we jump," she said ,pulling away, and slipping into bra, panties, pants and shirt. "When we come back, we'll take another night for ourselves."
"You bet." Ryan said, grinning at her, a little arrogance playfully creeping into his voice. "We'll see if I can meet your incessant demands on my body."
He ducked as she threw a pillow at him, then watched her as she pulled on her silver tipped boots.
She smiled at him when she was done.
"Time to face the world."
They gathered at the door, these six comrades in arms.
Weapons loaded and cocked, they all waited as the tall, one-eyed man pressed the glowing button, and they all heard the buzz-click of an electronic lock clicking off.
The door, unlike the ones in the hallway that swung open, and the vanadium sec door that rose like a steel wall into the ceiling, slid to the side, the only sound a slight hiss of compressed air, and the slight grating of a little rock dust in the track.
The group stood and stared at the hallway, crudely carved from the living rock. On the wall was posted a sign:"ALL ENTRY RESTRICTED TO SECURITY LEVELS B15 OR HIGHER."
"B-15?" J.B. muttered, just loud enough to be heard.
Lights hung from wires, not inset like in the rest of the redoubt. The air was still tinny, but carried with it another smell, one that Dr. Mildred Winonia Wyeth recognized.
"Coolant," she whispered.
Her heart soared. This could be another Cryo depot! Her mind whirled with the sudden influx of thoughts the odor had sparked.
Even, she thought, even if the place wasn't completed, there could still be medicines there we could use. Had to have stims for helping them wake, tranqs and downers to calm, equipment to test blood.
And if this redoubt was built to house military or scientists or politicians and help them survive the ravages of a nuclear war, then there would also be survival equipment, radiation meters and badges, more MREs!
She pushed ahead of the others, barely heeding Ryan's muttered warnings. She was no idiot! She knew not to touch anything she didn't know, watch for trip wires on the floor, explosives taped to the wall.
During her residency, she had seen exactly what mankind could do to itself. She knew not to get dragged down by her species' idiocy.
The hall ended in a large cavern, within which were boxes upon boxes, stacked neatly, like a child's toys, waiting patiently to play.
But their attention was taken up by the three pods that stood amoung those boxes.
Cryonic tubes, within which could be seen swirling, silver-blue mists., and two humanoid shapes. The monitoring equipment sat there, working patiently, showing that they still functioned.
For an instant, the foremost tube's occupant was shown by a slight swirl of the coolent.
Mildred knew that was a bad sign. She was familiar with this type of pod. The one she had been preserved in had been an older model, based on liquid preservatives. This one was a newer, top-of-the-line(as it were) model, easily transportable, supposedly needing a shorter time to freeze and thaw using a gas instead of a much harder to maintain unstable liquid. The preserving mists should be a solid mass, swirling, to show that the circulation was functioning but not enough to see the face. Perhaps only a dim outline should be seen.
She looked closer, as did the others, heard J.B. grunt in barely muffled disgust.
A malfunction had occured.
The occupant they could see was dead. His(her?) face was sloughing from the grinning skull, the eyes so sunken they were only a memory. The rest of the body was revealed in slow swirling glimpses that soon forced Doc to look away, then Krysty who walked to the other pod, accompanied by Dean and Jak, both of whom were quickly bored with the discovery of the only commodity the Deathlands had plenty of.
And that was Death.
"Man," said Ryan, trying to put together a picture of this unfortunate. "Black hair, what's left. Good teeth. Not much muscle though. Not a soldier I reckon, 'less he was some uppercrust Full bird or Star put here at the last minute. Hmm, some sorta weapon. J.B.?"
"Detonics .45. Silvered finish, can see the glint through the mist and shit. Not really a combat weapon, too flashy...but if he was last minute, maybe he just took it from some guard, before he got gassed and froze?"
"Yeah." Ryan peered closer, squinting his one good eye. "Guy's pretty much naked, just underwear. But I think he's got some sort of ring on, just about ready to drop off his finger...it's got some sort of insignia on it. "
"Mildred, J.B. , can you make it out?"
"Not right off hand, " Mildred said. She bent closer. "No pun intended. Ooops..." She grabbed at a square of paper that fluttered down, disturbed by a casual brush of her hand.
She held it up, and the three of them found themselves looking at the faded picture of a strong featured man, a severe haircut topping a dark-skinned face that perhaps showed a trace of native American blood.
The dark eyes seemed to bore into you.
Ryan felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise.
"Is it just me, or does this guy look familiar?"
"Uh-huh." J.B. said. "Maybe we saw his picture at one of the other redoubts...no."
"I know what you mean John." Mildred stared at the picture intently. "It wasn't a picture...it was in the flesh. Y'know, he looks like..."
"Holy shit!!!" The three jumped, Ryan's hand leaping to the 9 mil at his side. He snarled at Dean, who was bouncing up and down, waving another picture in the air.
Unseen for the moment, Krysty's face paled. She put her hand to her forehead, like she had a sudden headache. Her hair flared about her head for a second, then hung back down. Her hand reached for a glowing red button marked:" EMERGENCY RELEASE."
Dean meanwhile, had run up to his father and handed him the picture, which the one-eyed man looked at, widening his eye as memory associated a name to go with the face he saw.
He handed the picture to Mildred, who gasped at the same time as Dix, looking over her shoulder
started with impossible recognition.
Though no-one said anything, Dean could tell that they were all thinking the same thing.
Their revelation was interupted as an alarm began, the electric horn droned until a sudden malfunction seized it, dying down until it sounded like a goose giving it's last, dying breath. A red light began rotating on the top of the Plexiglass tubes, and a voice from a long dead time began saying;"Emergency Speed Thaw! Use Only In Greatest Need! See Security Manuel, Page Sixteen, Section 1.16.E...Heading:Speed Thaw Authorization."
Ryan turned to see Krysty standing there, a dawning of comprehension growing in her green eyes, her finger still on the red-lit button. A black panel glowed to life and a digital readout began counting down, starting at 2:00:00, then 1:59:59...
"What the Fuck!!!" Ryan roared. He crossed the space between them, and seized the red haired woman by the arms above the elbows. Instinctivly, she turned to her right slightly, and then whipped her left arm, rotating it at the elbow, around both of his arms, trapping them. The unexpected pressure popped his fingers from her limbs, allowing the sudden drawing back of her right arm, heel of her hand ready to smash forward into Ryan's nose, shattering the cartilage and bone, and sending fragments exploding into his brain.
At that instant, Ryan knew he was staring eternity in the face.
Then the tableu was broken as with a swirl of white, Jak tackled them both, his slight frame driven at such a speed that all three tumbled down in a heap.
In a heartbeat, everything changed. Ryan broke free of Krysty's hold, rolling away and to his feet, facing the woman who had, just a second before, been ready to chill him.
But Krysty stayed on the ground, her knees drawn up to her chest, tears running down her face as she sucked in deep, wracking breaths, sobbing uncontrolably.
Ryan, ready to defend himself an instant before, was immediatly on his knees beside her, gathering the woman he loved into his arms, holding her as she sobbed, listening as she gasped out,"Couldn't stop...had to push the button..."felt" I had to...like...like Hell-eyes was here again...making me..."
Ryan hushed her, stroked her hair, feeling it pull away from him, then watched as it curled around his fingers, accepting his touch, showing that Krysty was calming down.
Mildred and J.B., Doc, Jak and Dean stood around them, then as one turned away, leaving the two to their own private moment.
1:30:00. "I can't see it bein' him," Ryan said, looking at the figure in the mist. So far, the computers had handled the thawing flawlessly. "After all, he didn't die then, he died just a while back."
1:15:00. "I have a theory, my dear Cawdor. What about the process they had at the Crichton Institute? Perhaps they weren't the first to discover it after all..."
1:00:00. Dean, bored with standing around began, with the help of Jak and J.B., to open some of the boxes that were stacked within the room. They found a box with assorted ammo, enough nine mil to resupply everyone who needed it, some 5.56 that they really didn't need, but J.B. took a handful anyway.
After all, all ammo was at a premium. A single, perfect bullet could buy what passed for a fine meal in Deathlands, for more than one person.
They found some 7.62 as well, good for Ryan's Steyr. He was still busy, Krysty having cried herself into a light, restless sleep. Her strength had been sapped by the sudden blackout, as if she had been struggling against the unexpected demands her mutie power had placed on her, much as if she had been using her Gaia powers, with which she could, bare-handed, easily rip a man to pieces.
She twitched and trembled, moaning a little, her head resting on Ryan's lap.
"What fuck's this?" Jak asked Dix, holding up a small leather case. J.B. took it, opened it up, finding that the small pouch actually had several pockets, not just the one. Within the pockets were several tubes, springs and screws, and placed seperatly, all in a row were three clips, each one for a different caliber.
J.B. picked up one of the tubes, looked inside, frowned. He picked up another, and then the third.
"What," said Dean, squinting over his shoulder. J.B. handed the boy one of the tubes.
"Take a look."
Dean squinted, looking through. "It looks like a blaster barrel," he said. "But it's double fucked. Smooth, no rifleing for the bullet. Slug would tumble before it went a hundred feet."
"Prob'ly less." J.B. said, inwardly pleased at the boy's alacrity. "And all three are the same. Smooth bore, short range. Forty-five cal, nine mil and a two-two barrel. The frame has to be around here someplace." And with that, J.B. started digging into the box they had found the case in.
Jak and Dean looked at each other, then at Dix, who was rooting around, happy as a pig in shit as he lifted out a box of forty-five ammo, and a box of twenty-two magnum rounds.
"Why," Dean asked, " would anyone make a blaster with three fucked up barrels, then stick'em in here?"
"Only one reason I can think of," the sallow man said. "Short range, close up work. Hey, I found it."
He held up what looked to be a piece of scrap metal. Sitting down by the leather case, his fingers danced nimbly, and a small bore .22 semiauto blaster lay in his hands.
"Whaddya mean,"Dean said, his face getting a little flushed. He wanted a fuckin' straight answer, not a fuckin' pop quiz, like old man Brody had the teachers at his school spring on the unsuspecting students!
"It's an assassin's weapon, Dean."Mildred said. She was looking at the screen that showed the vital signs of the thawing freezie, watching that all proceeded as it should. But she could spare a little attention to Dean's question. "If John finds the frame, it'll have no markings, no serial number. Fireing pin can probably be adjusted so's it'll hit the cap differently. No comparable marks on lost shell casings. No rifling in the barrel for the same reason, no scoring on any recovered slugs to compare to other deaths."
"Hmm. And now, for the fifty thousand dollar question. Who does the gun belong to?" Doc said, leaning on his walking stick. "Does it belong to contestant number one, the amazing Jell-o man, or to contestant number two, our mysteriously familiar, mist enshrouded friend?"
"Jell-o has the hardware," replied J.B., his voice muffled, as he disassembled the small bore, then in a show of manual dexterity, reassembled it into a nine millimeter semi.
"Leading me to believe he had something to fear from his frozen compatriot."
0:20:00. Krysty had woken ten minutes before. Her eyes were clear, and her hair shimmered with the fiery radiance that Ryan had come to love. She had reached up, and pulling Ryan down to her, had given him a long, slow kiss that had gotten his blood boiling.
"Good morning," she whispered in his ear.
"Actually, it's 'good afternoon,' " Ryan whispered back, looking at his wristchron, which read 12:01. "Good to have you back."
0:10:00. An electronic tone sounded from the monitor speakers, a pinging that ceased in exactly one minute.
Mildred said:"That was the signal that all was well, and the subject was about ready. The cryo-resuss team would have gone to full alert, and been ready with everything from drugs to shock paddles if the final stage didn't go as planned."
"What if freezie stupe, or triple warped?" Jak asked.
No-one answered, but both J.B. and Ryan pulled the slides back on their respective weapons, the Sig-sauer and the Uzi, and waited.
0:05:00. "Any last words?" Doc asked. Mildred glared at him. "Didn't expect anything of value from you, Dr. Wyeth. Don't strain yourself."
At his back, Mildred gave him a double finger salute, muttering;" Yeah, fuck you, you old goat."
"Both of you. Shut it." Ryan said.
0:00:59 The EKG began beeping faster, leaping from a rate equaling thirty beats a minute to sixty, then to eighty, hitting a hundred and twenty at the thirty second mark, then dropping down to fifty at the ten second mark.
Dean and Jak, both looking closely saw the fingers clench on the figure's right hand.
"Moving," warned Jak. Ryan gestured for them to get back.
Now, all of them had their weapons out, hammers back.
The top of the capsules opened. The one whose occupant was in the shadowlands opened first, releasing an awesome stench into the room, like that of a belly ripped dead cow. Dean nearly lost it, and Doc did, scurrying around a stack of boxes, and vomiting noisily on the floor.
Jak's nose wrinkled, but he had smelled worse when he lived in the swamps, leading the rebels against Baron Tourment.
Ryan and J.B., veterans of countless excursions knew the smell as well.
Krysty called upon her inner powers and ignored the odor, blocking it out.
Mildred had no such defense, but pulled her shirt collar up, filtering out the worst.
Ryan walked over and slammed the lid back down, and the smell was quickly sucked away by the air circulation system, quickly becoming a memory.
Then, the other opened.
From the last swirling mists, a hand slowly emerged. Trembling, it grasped the edge of the pod, and began hauling the rest of it's body up. The arm, dark skinned and well muscled, flexed as a tremor went through it.
They next saw the top of the head, the hair plastered down by the remaining chemicals. The hair was black, a shiny glossy mop that was tied back with what looked like a piece of boot lace. It was only a little shorter than Jak's own white hair.
The man pulled himself fully from the cryo-tube, and finally stood on trembling, sharply defined legs. The underwear he wore did nothing to hide his manhood, soaked as they were, but the translucent white made his dusky skin seem even darker.
His stomach was lean and well defined, swelling up to a deep chest and wide shoulders, again lined with lean, well defined muscle.
He looked to stand a hair under six feet tall.
He stood for a second then turned his head, dark eyes skimming over the boxes and the equipment, coming to rest on the little group.
Ryan took a step, breaking away from the rest of the party.
The dark eyes focussed on the one-eyed man who spoke.
Everyone's fingers tightened on their triggers, ready to fire if the freezie went completely nukeshit.
But he just stood there, swaying slightly. His lips moved, but his words were slurred, as if the cryo-process hadn't been fully flushed from his system.
"Micheal...brother," he said, a frown creasing his face. It was as if he knew the words should be sharper, and much clearer. It was as if his body was a step-and-a-half behind his brain.
"Hey, Dad." Ryan spared a quick glance over to his son. "Freezie's a double-stupe, but he knows Micheal's name." Dean's brown eyes never looked away from the doppleganger.
"What'll we do with him?"
"We let him recover," said Ryan firmly. "But we keep a triple-red watch on him. We still don't know who he is, despite what he said."
"Brother...Micheal," the man muttered again. He shook his head slowly, nearly losing his balance.
"Think you he could be another from Nil-Vanity? Taken from the monastarial fold as was he? Huzzy, buzzy. Fuzzy, was he?" Doc asked, his mind beginning a brief spinout, his own memories of his trawling coming back to haunt him.
Krysty recognized the signs, and gently grabbed his arm, giving him a slight shake, enough to bring him back to the here and now, where Doc was sometimes only a visitor.
"My thanks to you, dear lady," he said, giving her a small bow. "The old mind likes to take a little detour from reality every now and then. Most often at the damnedest times. A gift that keeps giving forever, compliments of Operation Cerberus and the Totality Concept."
"Totality..." said the man. He took a step towards Doc. Then another. "...Concept. Project Paradigm...Nil-Vanity...where? Do...you know...where?"
Then he collapsed, landing at Doc and Krysty's feet.
Krysty knelt, checking for a pulse.
Doc just stood there, dumbfounded.
They had carried him back to the medical treatment room, laid him out one of the beds.
The others had gone back to the freezing room, checking the remaining boxes. They had found, during the time it took to thaw out the Micheal-lookalike, clothing, tough black combat clothing, with a mottled grey and black body vest, looking much like the camoflauge vest Jak had worn, sans the bits of razored metal sewn into the fabric.
Only Doc Tanner, Dean and Mildred remained, left with the comment from Ryan:"If he wakes up O.K., let us know. If he wakes still triple stupe, chill him. We don't need the hassle, and we'd prob'ly be doin' him a favor."
Mildred, using one of the sealed syringes she found in a desk drawer took a sample of blood from the new "Brother Micheal", and checked it under the microscope in the small, woefully incomplete lab, seeing if she could discover the reason for the young man's sluggishness.
Her own experience with freezing was that of a long, long sleep, then a sharp awakening, with everything clear in her mind. From the look of his body, which appeared to be in excellent health, he should have snapped out of the stasis he had been in with little or no trouble at all.
Dean said that he had to take a leak. "Fine, fine," Mildred muttered, waving him off.
She dripped a little of the blood onto a slide, then squinted into the lens of the microscope as she slid the piece of sterilized glass in place.
It didn't take too long. "Bingo!" she exclaimed, pumping a fist in the air.
For a second, Doc though she was going to go into a little victory dance. "And what, pray tell, have you found, Dr. Wyeth? A foreign substance in the young man's blood, perhaps?"
Mildred froze in mid-dance, started just before Doc started talking. "You old goat! How'd you know?"
"Anybody with half-a-brain could reason it out," Doc said smugly. "After all, look at the facts. From the young man's build, I'd said that ordinarily he would be a'brimming with energy. He has the look of a sharp wit too, not the slow, slurring speech of a backwoods hillbilly with too few branches on his family tree."
Doc began pacing the small space in the tiny room, three steps one way, turn, three steps back, turn, again. His hands clasped behind him, he took on the look of a world weary teacher instructing a slightly inadequate class of soldiers on the merits of footcare. "Also, I believe you once said that the machinery in a freeze unit purges and neutralizes the anesthetizing agents used during the process, so this sargassian morass that he seems to be in must be from something else, something that would not be removed by the process. And as a 'guest' of the oh-so-courteous Project Cerberus, I have a most personal knowledge of the methods they use to control the behavior of their 'specimens', of which I was the prize."
Mildred noticed the bitterness that had crept into the man's voice. And would have said something to comfort him, since she too was a stranger from another time. But she had other things on her mind at that instant.
Such as the bright silver scalpel that had been pressed against her throat.
"Where am I?"
Doc, his back to Mildred wheeled about at the muttered question. His exclaimation was choked off as the speaker yanked the Doctor off her feet with the arm he had wrapped around her, the crook of his arm holding her left arm, his hand grasping her right. In his other hand, a blade was poised for a killing stroke, just above the throbbing artery.
He showed no strain at holding Mildred aloft. Doc felt a shiver go through him, not only because of the ease that this young man had taken control, but at the emptiness of his eyes. He had seen emptiness like that before, in the eyes of the whitecoats that had taken him from his beloved Emily and his children, the eyes of Cort Strasser as he tortured helpless men and women, Doc included in that number.
The eyes that were devoid of anything, be that heart, mind or soul.
"Where am I?" The man repeated, his eyes scanning the room. Satisfied they were alone, he turned his full attention on Doc, letting him know that he meant business by pressing the blade against Mildred's throat, drawing just a small bead of blood.
But Doc's brain suddenly took a sharp left turn, and he was back in the 1990's, end of the century, surrounded by the empty eyed men, but this time, instead of being alone, his darling Emily was there, being threatened by one of them. The fact that the man was nearly naked escaped Doc as swiftly as his sanity.
Only Emily mattered.
"Please," he whispered. "Don't hurt my wife."
"Oh, crap," Mildred muttered. "Not now, Doc. Not now."
"I don't want to hurt her, old man. I want to know where I am, and who you are."
"Is this another game of your's, sirrah?" Doc said, tears beginning to run down his face. "Haven't you and your kind toyed with me enough. Please leave Emily alone."
"I'd say that your husband's slipped a cog or three, Emily." The man's arm loosened slightly, and Mildred's feet touched the ground. She could feel the circulation returning to her lower arms and hands, cut off by the man's grip.
"He's not my husband," she whispered. "He was taken from his family by Project Cerberus." Mildred reasoned that if this guy was frozen against his will, as the drugs and Doc's own testimony seemed to indicate, then the fact that he wasn't the only prisoner of the military operation might sway things their way. And it did....for about three seconds.
Dean had just finished taking his leak, taking a few minutes to check himself in the mirror, pulling open his shirt to check the stitches that had started to itch incredibly. He saw the first few dark hairs beginning to sprout as he began the inexorable climb to manhood. Unbidden, his thoughts turned to sounds heard in the night, the moans coming from Krysty and his father during their lovemaking.
Dean, a product of the Deathlands no less than his father knew those sounds, often heard as a child as his mother had 'bartered' for a tank of gas, some food or enough jack to get them to the next stop. 'Rona had given herself to other men only out of love for her son. Krysty gave herself to Ryan for love of the man.
The boy who was becoming a young man faster than his father had realized, was glad his father had found someone. Of course, it didn't hurt that Krysty was so beautiful...
Dean found himself sporting a steel hard erection that tented out his pants.
"Great," he muttered, trying to adjust himself so it wasn't so obvious.
He heard the shouted word;"BULLSHIT!" from the med-room, and realized that the voice was not that of Jak, J.B., Doc or his father.
His erection instantly melted.
Dean pulled his gun, and not thinking of the consequences, cat-footed quickly back the way he came.
"It's true," Mildred said, trying to keep her cool. "His name is Doctor Theophilus Algernon Tanner. He was born in...in...Vermont! Febuary 14,1868. He was trawled as an experiment, then sent forward when they didn't want him anymore."
"Mmm-hmm. And I suppose that you were trawled too?" His tone told Mildred that her story impressed him exactly zero percent. " Sorry, 'Emily', I'm afraid I don't believe you." She felt the arm tense around her, then he released her, flinging her away as Doc's de-railed mind suddenly snapped back to reality. His sudden shout and the hissing of the steel being drawn from the walking-stick alerted the revived freezie to his sudden peril.
With a twirl of his fingers, he reversed the scalpel, and stood there, waiting for the old man's charge, the small blade in his hand ready to stab.
Mildred reached for her gun, realized that it was on the counter, on the other side of the two men.
Doc lunged, a quick darting thrust that would have seated itself in the man's chest, between the ribs just left of center. Doc was picturing the timimg of the stroke, the twisting of the wrist that would follow it's stabbing impact.
That is, if the target had been there. To Doc, the man seemed to flow out of the way, the small blade lying against his forearm deflecting the blow with deceptive ease. There was a blur of motion, then the man was only a half step away, his free hand grasping Doc's outstretched arm, twisting and Doc felt his feet leave the floor, then his back hit the same floor...hard.
The breath left his lungs with an audible whoosh! and Doc found himself looking at the sparkling blade of the scalpel.
"Who are you?" The man asked, his breath only a little heavier. "You're not Project Paradigm personnel. I know all three of them. Well, two. I killed the other one just before they stuck me in that tube."
He looked at Mildred, "The survival groups in the news have mostly been white supremist rednecks with toys too big for them to keep hidden for long. I don't think they'd let a black into their group. Stands against what they see America as. Home of the free, as long as they're the right color. So you're not from them. Did the public finally take too much shit from the Goverment and can the whole bunch of them? If so, thanks for the ticket out of here. I wanna go watch the hangin'."
There was a click, and the man felt cold metal press up against the back of his neck.
"Aw, shit," he said calmly. The gun pressed harder, and he flicked his wrist, the scalpel tinkling on the floor, skidding away.
Mildred got to her feet, stepped around the frozen tableau, and picked up her gun.
She cocked it, aimed it at her fellow freezie's head, and said:"O.K. Dean, move away from him. And get your father. This guy is going nowhere."
From behind his head, he heard a boy's voice say ;"Right Mildred." He turned his head slightly and saw a kid on the verge of manhood pull away from him, putting a Browning High-Power into what looked like a well-worn holster. What's more, the kid looked like he knew how to use it, not on targets, but from his eyes, on living people.
His hands held out from his sides, the man stood, allowing Doc Tanner to scramble to his feet.
Smiling wryly, he said;"I'm not exactly in Kansas anymore, am I?"
Doc pulled out the Lemat, hauled back the hammer. Sighting down the barrel, he said:" I would say most definitly not, sir."
Back at the cave, the four friends had just about finished looking through the boxes, the plastic lids folded back, exposing what lay within.
They had found a treasure trove. New rad badges to replace the ones that had malfunctioned over time. Good rubber slickers, possible indicators of being near a large lake, or possibly even the East Coast. The West coast wasn't even considered, as the earthshaker nukes planted before the dark winter had activated the San Andreas fault, destroying California and any redoubt close enough to see the ocean.
Three complete first aid kits, all with manuals and including sterilized instruments and drugs, both antibiotic and pain relief.
Also, they found a box of .38 caliber shells, which Krysty pocketed. She had been running low on the high-quality ammo from the before days, and dreaded having to use the homemades found at ville markets. These repacked shells more often as not misfired, about two in ten, with another one in ten being so overcharged with powder the slug would be slightly misaligned with the barrel, jamming during loading if you were lucky, exploding in your face if the Gods needed a laugh.
They also found boots of various sizes, more tough, black clothing , and two powerful flashlights,
with three batteries apiece. Two of the powercells were decomposed, internal acids eating and melting until the containers they were in resembled some sculptor's nightmare in plastic and metal.
The other batteries worked fine.
They were packing up what they could carry, when Dean came flying through the open sec door, gaining yet another curse from his father.
"Dean!" Ryan yelled, his heartrate immediatly accelerating, his hand stopping short of pulling his gun. "Rad-blasted kid! You nearly got yourself chilled!"
"Sorry Dad," Dean said, sliding to a stop on the carved rock-and-dirt floor. "But you said if he were to wake up, we was to tell you."
"We were to tell you," Krysty corrected automatically, her eyes widening as the news Dean brought soaked in.
"Let's go talk to our freezie," Ryan said.
Jak said nothing. J.B. only grunted, tactiturn as always, wiping the sweat smeared lenses of his glasses clean with a bit of cloth.
They had let the recovered freezie wrap himself in a robe, though they had taken the belt. The man sat, looking somewhat amused as Dean came into the room.
"All the people who tried to get the drop on me and died. And I get caught by some wet behind the ears kid." The man drew the robe a little tighter about him.
Ryan took an instant to study the man, now that the last of the chemicals from the cryonics tube had dried.
Superfically, he did resemble Micheal Brother, the same dark skin, the same dark eyes and the slim muscular build. But this man was slightly bigger, topping Micheal by an inch or two, and must have weighed in at one-sixty or so.
The one thing that differentiated the two though, was the birthmark. On the man's left hand was a red mottled pattern, looking a little like the craters on the moon, when it showed it's face through the chem-clouds.
He wasn't a clone, but he was definitly the same blood, making him...
The man nodded to the one-eyed man. "Yes. Micheal was my little brother by about thirty seconds. My name is Simon."
Jak spoke. "No last name?"
Simon shook his head.
"You raised in Nil-Vanity like Micheal?" J.B. asked. His finger was slightly touching the trigger of the Smith and Wesson M-4000. He was still pissed, though he didn't show it, about Mildred's close call. He really wanted to take the man's face off with a round of fletchettes, but his fighting brain forced him to acknowledge the fact that if the situations had been reversed, he would likely have done the same thing himself.
That bought Simon a little leeway.
Simon shook his head. "No, " he said. "I was given to the loving arms of Project Paradigm before Micheal even hit the air. I saw myself taken from my mother, on video, when I was seven. I had developed a remarkable memory, you see. Had too. The tutors at the project weren't very forgiving if you forgot what they taught you. Electro-shock treatments, drugs and plain old fashioned beatings designed to wring every little bit of effort from me were used. Music played all the time, and books and comp displays were used to teach me. After the video, they started on my real education."
Simon had developed a far away look, his eyes piercing the barrier of time, seeing what had been done to him.
Doc gently prodded. "What did they start teaching you?"
"When I was eight, I could break an inch thick oak board with my fist. When I was nine, I learned the exact pressure needed to break the human neck, and I was made to practice on corpses. At first..."
"One day, they brought me a kid, a little girl. She was retarded, or something. Maybe they had just drugged her. I dunno. They made me stand before her, this person who was about my age,and put my hands on her head. Then they told me to kill her. And you know, I wanted to. I wanted to obey. But I could feel her life, pounding through her veins as I touched her neck, ready to apply the pressure...and I couldn't. And I can remember crying as I told them so.
"So the man who would become my control pulled out his gun, and fired. Two days into my tenth year, I felt human blood and brains splatter across my face, smell the copper and the shit as she fell, losing all control as her body shut down.
"He told me that the next time I disobeyed, he'd do the same to me, and use my brother instead."
Simon looked into Ryan's face. "It was a revelation. I had a brother that they would use. Abuse. Clarity hit me. I had felt what my brother would go through, if I didn't obey."
"So I plunged into my studies. Old men came to me in the night, showing me guns, knives, how to hit a man to cripple and kill. They taught me stealth and hiding. Explosives. "
"While they did this, they educated me about the outside world as well. History, mathematics, languages. The customs of other countries. The ways of war, and how to fight them."
"And still, they beat me. Even when they knew I had done nothing wrong, they came in the middle of the night, when I was asleep and grabbed me, held me down. Beat me with belts and bamboo strips and fists and feet.
"I learned how to sleep light, and how to avoid sleeping altogether. "
Simon leaned back, propping his hands behind him, leaving him inclined on the bed.
"I turned seventeen, and as a present, they brought me another girl. This one was my age again, and again, they told me to kill her. She wasn't drugged this time. She knew what was happening, but she didn't know that I was supposed to end her life. She ran to me, because we were the same age, and cried to me that she had been kidnapped by these men.
A single tear trailed down Simon's cheek, unnoticed.
The room had become quiet, tension filled the air as the group awaited the inevitable conclusion.
"This time, I didn't hesitate."
"After that, along with my schooling in the mundane aspects of the world, and of life and death, I was taught the secrets of the Intellegence world. Cloak and dagger, infiltration and investigation. Sex and seduction."
"I was given more people to kill. I just switched off everything that made me me, and went on like a juggernaut, a machine that only knew how to obey. And obey I did."
"By the time they let me out into the world I already had ten kills under my belt, three of them, I later discovered, were serial killers of the worst kind. Smart, intellegent, handsome and strong, they were perfect for rounding out my training. Deserving victims."
"Showing you that by killing, you could make things better?" Mildred asked.
Simon shook his head.
"No. Showing me that the strong can die as easily as the weak."
"Jesus." Mildred stood, a little shaky, and left the room.
"In my time of service I killed thirty people, assassinated them by order of The Project. Domestic action, foreign nationals...it didn't matter."
Simon smiled. "Then, on my twentieth birthday, I was sighting down the barrel of an M-16, getting ready to slip on the scope and kill the mayor of some little shithole town that had pissed someone off, when I see a litle figure toddling along. I pick up the scope, and look. I see this little girl, about six or seven, and I remember that other little girl, and the stink of blood and brains on my face. And clarity hit me again.
"I packed the gun and left. I evaded the searchers for three months, until they tricked me and pulled me in like I had a hook through my lip."
"I can remember being chained and shackled. Brought before my control, slapped hard by the man. I think he expected me to start blubbering, and askiing for forgiveness that I had disappointed him. I should have, I guess. A couple of months and I would've been able to get close enough to kill him. But instead, I laughed in his face. I guess he realized that he had lost control of me for sure then."
He called in a scientist he called Behavior One.
"She was a wrinkled old hag," Simon said. "Probably liked to torture kittens as a child just to see what would happen."
Control asked her how long the conversion would take.
She told him that modifications would take only a short time, only a three month or so, since subliminal indoctrination had been going on since early childhood. So Simon would no longer be needed.
Simon knew then that they were talking about Micheal.
"They told me that Nil-Vanity had been set up as a dumping ground for Project Paradigm rejects and failures. However, it also served as a perfect prepping ground for future subjects, since they were completly shut off from the world. No outside influence, and the entire population of the place trained to obey without question."
"Seems to me," J.B. said, " that Micheal had a lot of questions."
"But when he was given an order, I'll bet he obeyed it, especially if he was given a leader- or father-figure to follow." Simon countered.
J.B. merely shrugged.
"That explains a lot," Krysty said. "Like why they had the trawling equipment set for Micheal in the first place. Two tests at once. Testing the trawling, and get Micheal for this conversion process."
Doc replied to Simon's statement;" He did for awhile, but after a number of jumps he became agitated and withdrawn, everything around him becoming a conspiracy, everybody doing what they could to hold him down." Doc stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Though at the end, he did seem to come around."
"Nice quiet place, where he was needed, but could be by himself for a time?"
"Yeah, at farm," Said Jak. " Christina's and mine. Helped out there, fencing and feeding animals and shit."
"He was working through the subliminal orders. Breaking them down, one by one. He didn't have a trigger like I did, a stepping stone. He had to figure out his own way. What happened to him?"
"Killed himself," said Dean. "Saw Christina and the baby die. Couldn't do nothin'. We came back from hunting, found them, and him hiding in the corner. "
Ryan took up the story:"He told us what had happened, then in the middle of the night, left us a note, went to the barn, and hung himself."
Simon bowed his head. "The first and foremost of the commands given to us was 'succeed or die'. He didn't succeed in saving your people, so he killed himself as punishment. Like a self-destruct in his head."
Mildred asked,"What happened to this Scientist, Behavior One?"
Simon smiled. "She got too close to me, thought I was like one of her specimens, tied and helpless. I head-butted her in the face, and broke her nose. The bone shards turned her twisted brain into apple sauce.
Then Control started clubbing me with the pistol he had, and then the next thing I remember, I'm seeing you gathered around, packing enough heat to take over a small country."
"Matter of fact, the only reason I'm telling you all this is the fact that if you're who you say you are, my best chances of living are if I hang around with you for a while."
"If you're gonna be with us Simon," Ryan said. "Mebbe you should know who we are, and what we do, when we can." Simon nodded, and Ryan began the introductions.
They stood at the sec-door entrance to the Redoubt, all of them ready. All had their weapons out, including Simon, who dressed in black combat clothing resembled a shadow with a cannon in his fist.
He had gotten his gun from J.B. who had given it up reluctantly. He had then reassembled the weapon with a practiced ease, finally slapping the .45 caliber clip into the butt. He had a long combat knife strapped to his left leg, and a thin-bladed Tekna tucked into his right combat boot. He wore a vest that had a number of pockets, each one filled with ammo of various sizes. He slipped on a dark pair of aviator sunglasses, the florescent lights glinting off of the silver ring he had taken from the dead man in the other pod.
That man had been his control. Why he had been frozen at all was a mystery. Just as strange was the fact that Simon had been frozen, and not just killed outright.
Why had they been transported here?
The prenuke military mind had stumped Ryan for years, and with this new acquision to the group, the murkiness had only gotten darker.
The mystery of the man Simon called Control, his familiar photoed face, had been cleared up by Simon, who had been told the truth as he was being pummeled that last time.
The man's name had been Tyras Graydon, a project man of secret rank, obviously high in the chain of command for Project Paradigm.
He was also the father of Simon and Micheal.
Ryan came back to the here and now as J.B. repeated;" Ready, Ryan?"
"Yeah, let's get out of here, see where we ended up this time." Doc punched the code in, and Dean lay down on the floor, the better to see if anything was out there. Everyone was on triple-red, as always when leaving a Redoubt for the first time. Doc stood by the door control, ready to stop the door at a moments notice.
The sec door raised smoothly, the multi-ton slab moving in near silence on heavy-duty hydralics.
"See anything, son?" Ryan asked. He relaxed only slightly when the lad gave him the thumbs up.
He nodded to Doc, and the old man pushed the lever the rest of the way up, stopping the door when it hit the six-foot mark.
Mildred looked out, breathed deeply. "Marvelous," she said, her gaze, like that of the others swept over the expanse of woods below them, flocks of birds flying about the treetops.
Everyone had smiles on their faces, after being in the redoubt for so long, a dry desert would have been welcome. This was an unexpected pleasure.
In the air was a slight smell of woodsmoke and fish.
There were people nearby.
Even J.B. had a smile on his face, a rarity for him, right up to the point he saw the footprint on the ground in front of the door. Looking closer, he saw the remnants of a large fire, the burned twigs beginning to look more like bones.
The foot prints themselves seemed slightly off, like they were covered with bumps or...
"Black Dust!" he began in warning.
Then the stickies attacked.
Doc hit the door lever, the sec door beginning it's descent, sealing the Redoubt after a few long, long seconds. Then, they were alone in the Redoubt with the seven stickies that had gotten in, under the dropping door, an eighth one screaming in a high fluting voice, the weight of the vanadium steel scissoring it's legs below the hips, clean as a surgeon's scalpel through warm butter.
Simon stood there, wide-eyed as a stickie advanced towards him, fingers spread and the suckers making audible little kissing sounds. The creature slobbered in it's delight at this seemingly unresisting target.
Ryan aimed and fired the Sig-sauer, the nine millimeter round hitting the stickie directly in the bottom of two residual noses that were stacked on the mutant's face, giving it an odd, blurry look. The face disappeared though, as the slug carved through the nose, shattering the bone behind, continuing on, now tumbling, the force sucking the mutie's face inward like a mini-implode gren had gone off. The bullets trajectory angled up, and popped the top of the skull off like a grisly cap, complete with a clump of matted, greasy hair, now well layered with blood and shredded brains.
Krysty had wounded her opponent, a .38 slug to the shoulder that only made the stickie even madder. It stumbled forward, and the loincloth it wore swung over to the side, revealing a massive, horse sized penis that was beginning to show definite signs of arousal.
"I think not," Krysty muttered, her right leg swinging back, then forward, the chiseled silver point of her boot crushing the mutie's testicles, and nearly severing the horse cock.
The stickie's blood shot out, spattering the floor , growing into a stream that began to weaken almost immediatly as the nukespawn began dying. However, knowing the tenacity of the stickie, Krysty placed the barrel of her snub-nose in lilne with the thing's head, and pulled the trigger. Brains the stickie never used to begin with spilled out of the hole in it's head.
J.B. raked the Uzi back and forth, the steady stream of lead chopping into the stickie's bodies, having little effect on the tough creatures. However, he did hold them long enough for Mildred to line up their heads with her Czech target pistol.
Snap. Snap. Snap. The sounds went unnoticed in the din, but the results did not. One by one, Mildred's lethal accuracy exploded the heads of her targets, the stickies actually taking a few steps forward until the body realized the massivly underpowered brains had stopped sending signals.
They hit the ground at the same time.
Dean had ducked and weaved in front of the stickie facing him, his blaster ready when the mutie suddenly sprouted a silver tongue from it's left eye, followed by another from the right. It staggered around blind, until Doc's Lemat thundered from only a few feet away, tearing a hole into it's chest that you could stick an arm through.
Then, and only then they turned to their newest member.
The stickie had only just reached Simon, who had drawn both combat knife and gun, left hand and right. The mutie reached for him, and Simon stood, his eyes dark and diamond hard.
Krysty shivered. She would tell Ryan later that she could feel the coldness radiating from him, a beacon that was saying :"Stay back or die!" To her, it was like he had become a machine.
The stickie lunged forward, one arm stretching out for Simon's face.
But he was no longer there. Spinning around, he sidestepped the initial grab, moving outside the long armed reach of the mutant, and swung his arm up, over and down, the knife in his left hand coming down like a butcher's cleaver, the arc ending at the stickie's wrist, lopping it off in a spray of watery, slightly piscine smelling blood.
The stickie merely swung it's other arm, seemingly unfazed by the loss of it's hand, and succeeded in grabbing the man's knife by the blade. Normally a stupid thing to do, the grip of the stickie, augmented by the powerful suctions cups on it's fingers and palm, held the knife in an unbreakable hold, surprising Simon as he tried to yank the blade from it's hand.
Then the stickie pulled him towards it's mouth, which opened to reveal a triple row of shark like teeth, all dripping with thick drool.
Recovering quickly, Simon leaned back, pistoned a foot into the things chest, knocking it back, then followed with the pistol butt across the mouth, breaking a handful of teeth.
He was rewarded with a blast of the stickie's nauseating breath, and a buffet from the handless arm, the limb hitting him with the force of a fleshy baseball bat.
"Let go of the shittin' knife!!" Ryan roared. The Sig-sauer was ready, but he was unable to fire, the play between Simon and the stickie making a shot impossible. "Mildred?"
"No, Ryan. Sorry"
But by then, no-one was needed. The stickie had been hitting Simon with his forearm, but changed it's tactics and tried to knee the black-clad man in the groin. Simon turned his hip, deflecting the blow, and continued, twisting around and drawing up his knee, stomping outward into the inside of the stickie's left knee, which was supporting all it's weight.
The cartilage shattered, the joint bending at a ninty-degree angle. The damage was so catastrophic that even the rad twisted mind of the stickie registered it, and as it fell, letting go of the knife to grab at it's leg, it began to scream like a pig being castrated.
Breathing hard, Simon lined up the head and pulled the trigger once, the custom-made assassin's weapon spitting out a .45 hollow point that struck the forehead of the writhing mutant, the back pressure of the impact popping both eyes from their sockets, leaving them to dangle on the dead mutant's face.
"Fuck," he said quietly. His eyes, still dark, seemed to become warm again. He holstered the gun, and wiped the blade of his heavy combat knife on a semi-clean piece of cloth he cut from one stickie's clothing.
J.B. cleared his throat. "You know this means we can't get out, Ryan."
Ryan nodded. "Yeah. Would've been nice to breathe some good air, but it could be worse. After all, we're all stocked up on ammo and food, got some replacement clothes, and a couple of sets of boots to trade if we ever get to a ville. Plus, we've got Simon, who can handle himself pretty good. A good addition to the group. "
"So what do we do, lover. Go back to the gate, make another jump?"
"Yeah. But we'll stay another day, rest up from that fight, tell Simon some of the things to do and not to do while he's with us."
"If I may, Master Cawdor, I think I could instruct the lad on proper Deathlands etiquette," Doc said, tapping his cane in his excitment at teaching again. "And what I miss, I'm sure young Dean Cawdor and Mister Jak Lauren will be able to furnish some first hand information on."
Dean groaned, and unseen, Jak closed his eyes tightly, as if in pain.
Ryan smiled. "O.K. Doc, you've got the job."
A smile on his face, Doc strode over to Simon, and began talking quietly to the man, who thrust the combat blade into it's sheath.
Ryan grabbed Krysty around the waist, then looked at J.B. " Make sure these fuckers are dead, then hit the sack."
Dix nodded. Mildred would help, and then they would retire together for the night.
"As for us," he whispered into Krysty's ear, "I think we got plans of our own."
She nuzzled his ear, then whispered:"I love you Ryan Cawdor."
"And it's we've got plans."
Ryan closed his eye.
Deep in a forest, populated by wary birds, animals and nearly animal stickies, a group of the grunting, whistling mutants gathered about their holy place, a shiny door covering the way to Stickie paradise. They had told each other of the great fires they burned there, of the door opening and letting a chosen few into a place where fire flashed and thundered.
For the next visit.
THIS STORY WRITTEN BY CHRIS CHASE.
I'D LIKE TO THANK MY WIFE, CAROLYN FOR HER
ENCOURAGEMENT, AND CHRIS VAN DEELEN
FOR HOSTING BOTH THIS CONTEST, AND THE
BEST DEATHLANDS SITE ON THE 'NET
ALSO, I'D LIKE TO THANK LAURENCE JAMES, FOR BRINGING
US A DARK WORLD WHERE GOOD PEOPLE
CAN STILL MAKE A DIFFERENCE