BY CHRIS CHASE
"AND THE TRUTH SHALL SET YOU FREE"
He plunged down...down through blackness darker than a starless night, darker than just an absence of light. He had no words to describe it.
He had barely a sense of self; a spark struggling to stay lit in a maelstrom.
The spark stayed lit though, and grew stronger. The sense of self became an identity, the identity carried with it a template of the body, to which the self is bound. A three point circle formed, as each went through the cycle, it lent it's growing energy to the other parts, which in turn did the same.
Memories came, adding more to the identity, which added more to self which added more to the image of the body.
There was a terrible wrenching, a tremendous pressure, crushing agonizing.
The darkness changed, became less. Colors began streaking through it, reds and greens, gaining strength until they swallowed the darkness, swirling at such speed that even the colors began to fade, leaving only a burning whiteness.
And from that whiteness, you could hear screams
He would be extremely happy if someone killed him right now.
He lay there, unable to move at first, then as strength sluggishly returned, unwilling. Moving brought the nausea on, but now, thinking about it only brought it on faster.
He was barely able to flop over on his shoulder as he vomited.
He refused to die by choking on his own bile.
Minutes after, he tried to speak in a dried, cracked voice.
"Cawdor? " he croaked out.
"Dix? Doc? "
"Anyone? " This was a quiet whisper.
He levered his eyes open, felt a stabbing pain lance through them, deep into his whirling brain.
The walls had changed.
They were now a brilliant arterial red, almost neon in its intensity.
They were all he could see.
He was alone.
In a dark place, twin balls of green fire burned.
A single word was said.
The lights began to dim inside the chamber as the lone man stumbled out, his eyes wavering slightly as his brain took another spin inside his head.
He stood just an inch below six feet, his face showing a trace of Native American blood. His dark, almost black eyes were set in a strong, dark-skinned face, the face framing a mouth that gave the impression of not smiling often.
His hair tumbled down over his shoulders loosely, having come untied in the chamber, the darkness of it seeming to merge with the black mil-spec coat he wore, which was over a vest and shirt of the same color, topping pants and boots of the same shade.
He almost looked like a shadow given life.
Dragging himself over to the nearest chair, he flopped down, regarding the dust that geysered from the chair, settling to the floor, joining the inch thick layer already there.
"Simon Graydon," he said to himself. The sound echoed in the room, and in his head. But as he continued, he found his mind clearing, the nausea retreating that much faster.
"Simon Graydon," he repeated. "Height: five feet, eleven inches. Weight: one hundred seventy two pounds. Age: Twenty. Hair: black. Eyes: dark brown. Taken from his mother's loving arms by his loving father, and given to the unloving arms of Project Paradigm personnel, under the auspices of The Prodigy Plan, in conjunction with the Huxley Matrix. Trained almost since birth to be a cold-blooded killer. Broke free of his leash, but was recaptured with the help of a female operative.
"Taken back to Paradigm, he proceeded to kill the wrinkled old bitch who had tormented him since he could remember. Handcuffed, he was pistol-whipped by the man who had overseen his training, the man who at that moment declared himself to be Simon's father. "
Looking at the silver ring he wore, Simon shook his head. "He was transferred to an unknown redoubt, and placed into stasis, where he was revived one hundred-odd years later, after a world-wide nuclear war. His rescuers consisted of a one-eyed man named Ryan Cawdor, his son Dean, two women, Krysty Wroth and Dr. Mildred Wyeth, a man by the name of J.B. Dix, a skinny old man called Dr. Theophilus Tanner and a knife loving albino kid that went by the name of Jak Lauren.
"After reviving the before mentioned Simon, the group decided to try their luck outside. But the other side of the vanadium security doors was apparently the home of a group of creatures known as stickies, ugly sucker handed monsters that, Simon was later informed, lived to kill."
Graydon sighed. "After surviving that encounter, Doctor Tanner, or Doc as he preferred to be called, gave Simon a crash course on the New United States, Or Deathlands as it's now called. After a day or so, since the doors were too heavily guarded by Stickies, the Mat-trans unit was used to depart."
Simon looked at a florescent light flicker over his head. "And now, Simon is alone."
"What the fuck happened to everyone?"
He heard a small sound, almost at his elbow. Simon glanced over, and wiped the dust from a comp-monitor, revealing the message it had spelled out.
It read: Transfer malfunction partial signal stabilization signal shunt initiated signal shunt successful transfer complete re-integration successful Redoubt Tango-Bravo signals green and clear press any button to resume normal ops
Simon breathed a sigh of relief.
Apparently, he had been separated from the others by a malfunction, either he or they had been sent to a different, more stable unit.
They were still alive.
And so, for a while anyway, was he.
The lights on the panel flickered, a pulsing of light beneath the dust.
One by one, they began going out.
With a whine, the comps immediately surrounding the Mat-trans unit went dead, one even puffed out a little smoke as the circuits died, old wiring eaten by that last burst of power.
A snap and crackle came from behind Simon, and he spun on the squeaking chair to see sparks shooting out from the comps by the exit door.
He flung himself from the chair, ignoring the aches still in his spine and the roiling in his stomach, and pushed himself through the curtain of fire that was beginning to race along the plastic shells of the equipment.
His mind, still a little scrambled, recognized the danger.
"One," his brain whispered,"some melting plastics emit Cyanide gas, causing breathing to be labored and sometimes shut down completely." Simon had used that ploy to make a termination look accidental.
"Two," the evil little voice said, as Simon plunged through the smoke, trying to find the door, "Dust, especially large amounts with little or no moisture has "
He found the door bar and pushed, spilling out into the hallway.
" a tendency to "
Simon pushed the door shut, the pneumatic arm, weakened by age, snapping off.
Graydon felt the explosion, rather than heard it, a shock wave rippling over, around and through him.
Through eyes squeezing shut, he caught a glimpse of the control room door exploding outward, propelled by a pillar of blood red and sun-yellow fire.
Instinctively he tried to curl up, cup his hands over his ears, but he was being buffeted around like a giant cat toy, and he could sense his arms and legs flung outward.
He slammed down hard on his back, then was picked up and flung into a wall, pain shooting up from his abused shoulders as they took the brunt of the impact.
Simon felt debris pelting him, felt the impact of something heavy close by.
He could feel the dust wash over him like water, getting into his clothing, filling his nose and ears.
Then, it was over.
As he slowly picked himself up, he sneezed, blowing the dust out of his nose. He opened his eyes, and blinked the dust from them, seeing nothing but darkness, swirling and shapeless in his mind's eye.
For a panicked second, Graydon thought he may been blinded by the blast, but after a few more seconds, he realized the lights in the room had been blown out, and that he could now see light shining from the doorway leading to the main part of the Redoubt, the door itself now ajar from the shockwave.
Pressing against the wall, Simon managed to stand, his entire body one large mass of pain. Experimentally, he moved all his limbs, breathed deeply and nearly sneezed his head off, but felt no grating of broken bones, nor a numbness in his body that would betray internal bleeding.
"Goddamn lucky, boy," he said into the air, relieved that he could hear his voice through the ringing in his ears.
Time to get the fuck out of here, he thought.
Before something else happens.
He staggered into the hallway, still coughing from the dust, and tried to shut the door behind him.
The door settled, then fell off snapped hinges, slamming to the ground with a loud bang!
Still a little shaken, Simon stared at it for a few seconds, then shook his head and continued down the hall, hopefully to find a way out.
The ringing in his ears faded after a little while, and his coughing finally stopped, though it left his chest feeling sore. His back was stiffening up, and he knew if he looked, he would find one mother of a bruise starting up.
Hell, he was lucky it was only a bruise.
Still, he forced himself to push on, using subtle isometrics to keep the muscles working, until he came to a door unlike the others.
It wasn't a sealed sec-door, but a frosted glass one, with the peeling gold flake spelling out:
Colonel A. Wilkens
Simon hesitantly pushed the door, and was surprised when it swung open easily, the square of light revealing what appeared to be an office, releasing a breath of musty air.
The dim hallway lighting cast a feeble pall into the room, showing a desk, a high backed chair, a series of bulky shapes along one wall, and a scattering of white squares along the floor and on the desk.
Simon felt around the side of the door, found what felt like a light switch and flipped it on.
The overhead lighting guttered to life, buzzing like a hive full of disturbed bees, giving only a dim light through the thick layer of ever-present dust.
But what was revealed was this: The squares were sheets of paper, all blank. The desk was covered in layers of paper and dust. Even the wall had a thick coating, almost obscuring the black smear that had exploded from the occupant of the chair.
Graydon leaned closer.
The woman had had a bad time of it near the end. The hair was patchy but long, the eyes had sunk back, becoming pits in the stretched-tight leathery face.
Holes in the skin told of great sores, disease possibly, but more likely radiation poisoning.
More evidence was the low number of teeth, fallen from the jaw and leaving gaps in the open mouth.
The top of her head was gone, and the contents of her head had left the blackness on the wall
Coming around the desk, his foot struck a heavy object on the floor. He bent to pick it up, brushing off the dust to reveal a revolver, a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson with a six-inch barrel. It was in remarkably good shape, due no doubt to the extreme dryness of the Redoubt.
With only a slight grating of dust in the works, Simon flipped out the cylinder, saw four unspent rounds, and two fired.
Looking closely at her head, Simon could see that only one shot was used.
Where did the other one go?
Graydon looked the body over closely, trying to determine if the head shot had been a second attempt, but he couldn't find another entry wound.
But he did brush the dust off to read her name patch.
She must have used the other round in another part of the complex, he realized, leaning against the desk, suddenly feeling his hip bump against something on the top. He glanced down, saw that one of the sheets of paper was covering something.
He lifted the dust-laden paper off, revealing a small device the size of a pack of cigarettes, looking to be in working order.
Graydon picked it up, and recognized it.
It was a digital recorder, a mini-disc rewriter with compression capabilities allowing three hours of recording time on a disc the size of a 3.5 diskette.
He pushed play, but the machine didn't respond.
"Batteries not included," Simon muttered.
But then he noticed the solar cells set into the side of the device as he began to replace it on the desk. On a whim, he stuck it into a thigh pocket, on the off chance that the device could be recharged.
Then he bent to search the desk drawers, checking for anything of use.
He found nothing but pencils brittle with dry rot, a steel metric and imperial ruler and an open pack of cigarettes which had long dried to dust in the first three drawers, but found a bonus when he opened the last.
Still in their wrappers were three colored butane lighters, and a small first aid kit, the lid open and the smelling salts gone, as well as the five alcohol swabs that were kept in this kind of setup.
He didn't find any more ammo for the .38, but wasn't surprised. The weapon wasn't standard military issue, making it a probable gift from someone, or part of a collection.
Graydon's musings were interrupted as the lights, already dim, began to flicker.
His eyes glanced up involuntarily, and then they slid down, seeing something he hadn't noticed before, set into the corner opposite the desk.
He now knew where the second bullet had gone.
Sprawled in the corner to the right of the door, obscured by dust and dim lighting lay another corpse, one leg curled underneath, the other straight out, the arms crossed over the stomach where they had landed after striking the open cabinets on either side.
Striding over to the body, Simon gave it a cursory look.
The man's face was in the same shape as the woman's, dried out open sores showing the illness that ravaged his body, the lack of teeth showing the stigma of rad-poisoning.
In his chest, just below the embroidered name patch was a small bullet hole, which had exploded out from his back in a fist sized exit wound, taking lung, heart and spine with it to splatter on the wall behind.
"Hawkins, K." Simon read. The bars on his OD fatigues showed him to be a lieutenant, and the shoulder patch said that he was attached to the forces of Redoubt Blue-Sierra.
Then, the lights hissed and snapped, then went out.
Graydon stood, and started towards the door only to trip over the feet of the dead Lt. Hawkins.
"How the stealthy assassin has fallen," Simon coughed out, getting to his feet. Dust billowed out around him as the door swung open, and he stepped out of the cloud into the hallway.
Simon looked back, saw the tragic figure of Col. Wilkins sitting open-jawed in her chair, framed by the pale outline of the hallway light.
He let the door close, and a wave of darkness blanketed Anne Wilkins, in her dusty tomb.
Fifteen minutes and a dozen sealed doors later, Simon found himself standing before the multi-ton sec-steel door that guarded the redoubt.
The ground was, if possible, dustier here, and the air was decidedly staler.
The lights had dimmed even more, and Graydon had to make use of one of the lighters to give him enough light to see by.
The Redoubt was in a terminal phase of shutdown, the energy surge from the Mat-trans seemingly doing more than simply melting down the controls to the chamber.
The hallway he was in was large, so large in fact, the light from the flame couldn't find the walls. The only way he had found the sec-door was by the numbered panel, glowing softly in the dark, waiting patiently.
He tapped in the code, 3-5-2, lifted the lever, waiting anxiously for the door to move.
After a few seconds, it began to lift, the clunking of counterweights sliding in damaged runners echoing loudly, fading just as an air line burst, causing a blast of air to stir the dust into choking clouds.
The door lifted slower, nearly stopping when it reached two feet.
Even through the clouds of dust, Simon could smell hydraulic oil spurting from rotten lines.
Without a thought, Simon, covered with gray dust dove towards the opening, landing on his shoulders, ending on his feet on the other side of the door.
He watched it rise another six inches, stop then plunge down, the weight driving it permanently into the ground, the shockwave causing the ground to tremble violently under Graydon's feet.
Simon stood there for a second, breathing air that wasn't heavy with dust, looking at the pressure cracks that stretched out from the now-sealed entrance.
If he had hesitated, or been a heartbeat slower
He shook off the chill that had begun to crawl up his spine, and instantly regretted it as his bruised back spasmed, then relaxed, the muscle feeling as if it were sliding off the bone. He gritted his teeth through it, then when it was over, Graydon began subtle isometric exercises, keeping the muscles worked and warm.
Then he looked around to see where he was.
He grunted softly.
Simon walked down the path.
After leaving the redoubt, he had found himself in what appeared to be a small hamlet, a tiny village of deserted, broken down houses lit red by the rising sun.
The sec-door had been built into the side of a hill at the town's edge.
Green weeds and trees sprouted up through cracks in the street, pushing aside the remains of dried, brittle debris. What full grown trees were standing appeared to be only twenty years old at the most, anything that looked older was brown and black and very very dead.
Sitting down on a park bench at the edge of what appeared to be a weed field, Simon pulled out the recorder, getting a better look at it, seeing that the paper had served as an adequate dust protector.
Pointing the solar panels at the sun, blazing through a series of purple black chemclouds, he saw the power indicator light flicker on, and the LCD panels darkened, the gauge showing the amount of charge that the panels were pulling in.
It would take a few hours for the batteries to charge fully.
But then, Simon had nothing but time.
So he let the sun warm his aching body, and let sleep claim him, so he could flush the remnants of the jump away.
But as he drifted off, he drew his weapon.
Smart people get dead last.
Meanwhile, the solar panels drank power, to give voice to the past
He blamed his exhaustion for what happened next.
He had slept most of the day away, and woke up, his stomach growling and thirst parching his throat.
The sun was just setting, it's warmth still soaking into his body, the black cloth having absorbed it, despite the gray dust that still covered him.
He saw that the recorder's power light now held steady, the entire day's worth of solar energy having recharged the unit. He reached for it with his right hand, then realized something.
His hand was empty.
The gun was gone.
His eyes flicked back and forth for an instant in vain, trying to see it, but he knew as he started that it was a doomed effort.
Because now, he registered them.
There were five of them, two females of indeterminate, though mature age, and three males of various ages, ranging from what appeared to be fifteen, to twenty years of age, ending at what appeared to be forty. They stank, reeking of body odor and from the uncured animal hides they wore as clothing
They were also as white as snow.
Their eyes literally blazed red in the twilight, and it took an instant to realize that it was actually the setting sun reflecting from their eyes like a cat's, caught in the night.
They were grinning at him, the oldest one caressing Simon's gun lovingly, saliva dripping from the inch long fangs, just missing the custom weapon.
They all had fangs.
They were all skinny as rails, skin stretched tight over wiry muscles, giving them an emaciated look, though Simon could tell by the way they held themselves perfectly still that they were much, much stronger than they looked.
"Bets thinks won't be funnin' after rabs tanight," giggled the one woman, her voice a high squeak, her words slurred a little by the over-sized canines.
The other agreed, tittering. "Good. Good and thick. And Gret don't just mean the drinkin', eh?"
"Cut yer jabbin'!" barked the youngest male. "We keep tied, feed rabs to him, we get good red for long time, yeah Pa?"
"Yeah," said the oldest male, smiling. "Good red. Not rab red, not dead red. Not red from sickies and twisties. Hot red. Yeah. All aces on line."
"We get, Pa?" asked the last male. He seemed to have a slight nervous twitch, making his head pull to the left with little jerks. His eyes burned like his soul was made of hellfire.
"Yeah," was the reply. "We get."
Then they were coming at him, hands extended, nails as long and thick as claws speared the air in search of him.
They were amazingly fast, but by their own admission, they had been feeding on small animals and sick or deformed people for a long time.
They were totally unprepared for the blurring speed of a trained killer.
Throwing himself off the bench, Simon ducked their grasping claws, twisting to the side, his right hand cross-drawing the big blade at his side.
It carved a path through the air, and seemed to slide past the female called 'Bets' ' leg, but she was suddenly down, screaming and clutching at the severed tendon.
Graydon kept the energy going, the blade's path arcing up, and the youngest male, the first to turn after that first failed pass looked down stupidly as his intestines spilled out in a mist of blood, black in the darkening of night.
The remaining woman shrieked, calling out.
"Boy!! Oh, no! Boy!"
"He done me, Ma," he said, sinking to his knees. He sounded surprised.
"Guess Ma and Boy won't fuck no more," Boy realized, then fell forward, crushing his exposed organs with a ghastly wet noise.
"You killed Boy!" The woman screamed. She ran straight for Simon, impaling herself on his knife. He pulled up and twisted his wrist instinctively even as her momentum pulled the weapon from his grasp.
She fell, writhing on the ground in her agony, blood jetting from her mouth as she gave voice to a last scream.
Simon didn't stop.
Speed had bought him the element of surprise, and his ability to butcher them when they seemed to think it was impossible made them hesitate.
His fist broke one of the older mutant's teeth as it struck, snapping his head to the side. A flat palm strike to the left eye caused enough pressure to crush the organ, and push the fluids back into the sinus cavity, the sudden pain and pressure making it difficult to breathe, not to mention the disorientation caused by the loss of half his sight.
Sensing movement behind him, Simon mule-kicked backwards, and he felt the impact as the sole of his boot sank into the last albino's abdomen, the air driven out in a blast of rancid air.
With the last one curled up on the ground, Simon quickly moved behind the one called "Pa", and cupping the back of his head and the point of his chin, snapped his neck with a deft twist of his hands.
He picked up the gun from where 'Pa' had dropped it, and aimed it at the hamstrung woman, reconsidering a moment later, lowering his arm.
He walked over to the last living male, and stepped on his throat, more feeling the hot red gaze than seeing it in the now almost gone light.
"You could've killed me when I was asleep," Simon said breathing heavily. "You could have beaten me to death with rocks, for Christ's sake. You wanted me alive."
"Why?" he asked.
"We wanted yer red, norm," was the reply.
"Yeah. You knows." He pointed to Boy, and the growing pool of blood that would soon soak into the ground. "Red."
"Re Blood? You're blood drinkers? Fuckin' Vampires?"
"Called that by oldies once."
He pointed to Bets. "We last. You let go? Not chill? Let us fuck and make babies?"
In answer, Simon trod down with all his weight, twisting his foot to maximize the damage.
The Vampire tried to escape, but the pressure was too sudden, the damage too immediate as his trachea collapsed.
Eyes and tongue bulged as he gasped out his last seconds of life.
He turned his attention to the woman.
"No," Bets moaned. "Just wanna live. Got to chill to live. All live gots to chill."
"Yeah," Simon said, pulling his knife from the other woman's body, a wet, sucking sound echoing in the quiet.
"I know. "
Simon left them where they lay.
He intended to be long gone by the time they started to stink, and the scavenger animals moved in, seeking this abundance of dead flesh.
Graydon found a building that smelled slightly of smoke, and investigating, found the remains of a fire in a fireplace, the ashes still warm.
This must have been the building where the mutant vampire family sheltered during the day.
Using brush from outside, and taking from the supply of wood piled to the side of the big room, Simon built a small fire to chase away the darkness for a while more.
By the time he was done, his back was screaming in pain, the initial rush from the fight before fading, the agony from the bruises he was sure were well on the way to black stabbing with every motion.
Even breathing began to hurt.
Reaching into the pouch at his side, he pulled out an MRE, and after opening it, began to munch on the food within, washing it down with water from a ring-pull.
As he finished, he pulled out the recorder, the light still holding steady, the battery still holding power.
He pushed Play.
"01-25-2001. O-eight-thirty two Ah, who gives a fuck," began the voice, female undoubtedly that of Colonel Anne Wilkins.
"Ive got to keep this short, so heres the quick version of what happened. "
"What happened to us all."
"We had received the Evac code on the eve of the nineteenth we had nearly completed our orders when the reports of the first bombs got to us. Washington D.C gone.
"We pressed on. "
The orders completed, we had begun closing the doors, when the bombs blew. Alarms began, and rads poured into the base, and my Tech-Sergeant screamed that a Neutron bomb had gone off nearby.
"Thinking back, its kind of ironic. If those damn doors hadve been a little faster, the Redoubt would have been impervious, the anti-radiation systems throwing out a high-rez magshield around the base.
"Ooops. Lets keep that between us, okay? Top-secret and all that shit. " She giggled, then coughed, clearing her throat.
"Anyway, with the doors open, we got a high level exposure that filtered down through the systems. Good thing its got a short half life, isnt it."
At this, Simon glanced at his rad-badge, which was pinned to the underside of his collar, and saw with a flash of relief that the indicator was firmly in the green.
"That was a joke. Neutrons are organic flash and fry only. Kill the living, keep the buildings so the enemy can move right on in. Only minor rads, and they go to background count in less than a couple of days."
The voice from the past continued.
"My commanding officers died first, every single one of them by their own hand. They had seen the effects of radiation poisoning in all those training vids, so they knew what they were in for.
"Easier and cleaner to take a bullet. Unfortunately, not all of us had the strength of will to do that at least, not then.
"A day after the burst, we started showing the signs.
"Sores that kept running, teeth loosening in bleeding gums, diaherria, fingernails and hair dropping out well, you get the idea.
"So we decided to have one last Party. The party to end all parties. The Officers Club supplied the booze, and the Med-lab chipped in with Grade-A Pharmies.
"You ever see Masque of the Red Death/? A true classic, timeless ."
The narrative was interrupted as Colonel Wilkins coughed violently, and the quality of the little units mike showed as Graydon heard the sound of liquid splattering, phlegm or
"Blood." Her voice was slurred now, as if she was settling into shock. Maybe she was.
The sound of spitting.
Then she continued, her voice a little clearer.
"Where was I? Oh yeah, the Party, with a capital P. I was comparing it to a classic vid. If youd seen it, you would get the imagery. A group of dancing people, staring into each others eyes, Death looking over their shoulders well, Im sure you get the picture.
"And one by one my people here fell, the drugs putting them to sleep, the liquor easing them along, their hearts slowing after the high, slowing stopping."
"I was the last one to fall, " she said. "I remember dancing by myself, all alone in a room full of the dead, all alone in a world of the dead then nothing."
The pictures coming to Simons mind chilled him, and his bruises protested as a shiver went through them.
What would it have been like to live through such a time, surrounded, like she said, by Death, knowing it was there, ready to take you shortly, giving you only the choice of a slow ending or a fast one?
"I woke up after a while," she continued. She chuckled. "Well, obviously. I could smell the dead around me, and to this minute, I swear that I could hear the rad-poisons eating away at them. They were bad, gums still drooling blood, open eyes red from burst vessels and the sores were still running, dripping toxic slime."
"Right at that moment, I coughed, and saw a handful of my teeth go right out with the spray of blood.
"I dont know how I got back here, to my office. I just seemed to wake up, and until I saw my hands, blotched and bleeding I thought maybe it had all been a dream."
Her voice was becoming slurred again, her breathing shallow and harsh.
"The pains starting again. I think Ill use Dads Graduation Day present, and take the easier way out."
There was the sound of a drawer sliding open, something being taken out, the drawer sliding shut.
"Glad I always kept this thing loaded. Dont think I could do it now God, how many people are out there, without a quick way?" Her voice stopped as the sound of a door slamming open overloaded the sensitive microphone for a second.
"Who..Hawkins!" Her surprise was evident in her voice. "Youre alive? I though everyone was Oh. Youre not. Youre just like me, a rad poisoned Zombie just stumbling around."
"Bitch," said a low raspy voice.
Simon saw that final act clearly.
Wilkins, ready for her final breath, likely with the gun up under her chin, staring at a radiation pocked man, a poisoned caricature with a rabid brain driving it along.
The start of a charge, the force of the bullet as it drove him back, releasing him from pain, slamming the body into the cabinets, and then the corpse sliding to the floor.
"Fuckin bitch " The voice faded.
Wilkins let out a near-hysterical laugh.
"I think hes still pissed about being passed over for promotion."
"Well,"she said, another cough echoing out, "Time to go."
Simon could hear the hammer clicking back.
"Hope whoever finds this, is having a better day than I am."
Simon could hear the gun clatter to the floor.
A few minutes later, the sound activated microphone clicked off, and the last notes of a piano faded away.
Seconds later, Beethovens Moonlight Sonata began playing.
Simon stared into the fire, listening.
The rising sun found Simon lying next to the ashes of his little fire.
He stayed in the little town, called Valenburg (according to a hanging sign on the desiccated town hall), Massachusetts for two days, letting his back heal, resting and searching this relatively safe haven at a leisurely pace.
The mutant vampire family had apparently not been here for long, as the houses and other buildings were for the most part unopened, almost as if the inhabitants had just left a while before.
Simon wondered at the proximity of this quaint little town so close to the Redoubt, until he opened up a modest little bungalow, and found a disintegrating uniform hanging in a bedroom closet, a cluster of medals in a small walnut case on a bedside table.
The base hadnt been constructed in the town, Simon deduced.
The town had been built around the base.
It would have been good camouflage, he thought, recalling the proliferation of spy satellites in those latter days.
No bases here, Mr. Russian satellite, just a quiet little resort town being built.
Apparently, it hadnt worked.
Graydon sighed, a small wave of sadness rolling over him, quickly quashed.
He closed his eyes, and when he opened them, they were hard and sharp as razored obsidian.
Ready for the Deathlands.
He left on the dawn of the third day.
Simon was tired of being alone, starting every time a bird shot from the foliage.
He had made a small camp in a space he had cleared in a patch of bush, an effective alarm in case anything tried to approach when he slept.
Graydon, his clothing still covered with the grey dust from the redoubt, settled for another night, his third since leaving the town.
Just as he leaned over to light his small fire, his ears heard a faint snap.
And then a series that lasted for nearly five minutes.
Simon replaced the lighter, checked his weapons, and following the fading echoes, began walking toward the sounds.
Toward the gunfire.
It took him three hours to get there, carefully checking his backtrail, making sure he left no trace.
He glanced again at the rad-badge pinned under his collar, and saw it trembling between green and yellow, likely the remains of fallout drifting in over the years.
Simon remembered the quick lecture he had received about the changes in the Deathlands wrought by the bombs and their poisoned legacy.
Hot spots were still prevalent , giving birth to monstrosity after monstrosity. Animal life was terminally altered by the rads, their bodies twisted before birth by the snapping of chromosomes, altering size, mentality, even shape and species.
Birds with gills, and fish with scaled feathers.
The nightmare that is the world.
It took no stretch of the imagination to visualize was happening up ahead.
He reasoned it was nearly one in the morning, the moon slipping past a pink cloud, shedding reddish light and dimly lighting the forest.
He shouldnt be hearing shouts and screams, or the sounds of heavy blows smacking into flesh.
There was also the rough rumbling of an engine, and the stench of gasoline and burned flesh.
Easing his pistol from the holster, he quietly charged it, then used the barrel to part the brush before him, and then gazed upon the scene from a nightmare.
Mary kept her eyes squeezed shut, trying to block out the sounds of her mother screaming under yet another ravisher, with hands cupped over her ears.
Her mother was one of five women on the Wag-train that had been heading for greener pastures, and one of the most gentle, with a delicate beauty glowing out from her ebony skin that had made men envious of her father, a blonde haired blue eyed white man.
He lay back in the darkness, with the back of his head blown away.
Mary had inherited her mothers looks, though she had also been bequeathed her fathers strength and blue eyes, giving her a less delicate but more fulsome beauty.
Mary was seventeen.
Her body ached from the fondling of rough hands that had stripped her of her clothing, the pinching and squeezing, and dirty words from drooling mouths telling her exactly was they had in mind for her mother and the other women of the train, and what would happen in the days to come.
But so far, she hadnt been touched.
So she huddled on the ground, naked to the world, trying to block out the sights and sounds around her.
Most of the men from the wags were dead, chilled in the short blasterfight from just hours before, the remainder were hanging by their wrists from nearby trees, blood dripping from wounds, fluids from blisters ran in clear rivulets over bruises.
Between their sessions with the women, the chillers slaked their sadistic passions on the men with clubs, blades and torch.
She didnt know why they hadnt turned their attentions on her, but she dreaded the moment when they did.
Mrs. Karlson, a woman in her forties, her husband dead in the ambush cried out from beneath the grunting man above her.
A final lunge, then the man rolled off of the woman, who lay there mumbling.
Mary could make out a few words, recognizing the passage from the old Bible that she had been given by her great-grandmother, a survivor of Skydark.
"Upon a tall horse will come a pale a pale rider "she said, her voice sinking with every word.
Mary opened her eyes a crack, and saw the woman who spoke, spread-eagled on the ground, arms and legs tied to stakes driven deep.
Blood ran down her thighs, her body covered with filth, both from the ground and the men who had been using her. Bruises decorated the once pretty womans face.
One eye was swelled shut, and as she gasped for air, bloody gapes showed where teeth had been knocked out.
Her hair, once a rich auburn had been singed off when the spare supply of gas for her husbands wag had exploded, the heat also burning blisters into her back, which were being ground into the dirt as a sudden spasm took her.
The beating, the burns and the rapes were just too much for her.
She was dying.
"His name will be " With a harsh rattling breath, she slumped in her bonds, bowls releasing, a final indignity even as she herself was released.
Mary felt a coldness settle over her and surround her heart.
"And his name will be Death," she finished, as a low rumbling filled the clearing.
The chillers leader had returned.
Everything fell silent as a wag door opened, then slammed shut.
The chillers stood, and stood at attention after they had buttoned or tied or zipped their pants shut, waiting, the only sounds coming from their victims as they lay there, weeping or groaning.
Mary looked up.
He stood there, a tall figure backlit by the wags headlights, a long, dark coat draped over broad shoulders, and a wide-brimmed hat.
Mary couldnt see his face, but she knew who it was. She had seen him many times before, always at Baron Rykers right hand, during Parades and trials and the release of the Barons indentured. She remembered the hot stare he had directed at her when her family and the others who had worked the seven years the Baron required for freedom were released from the Barony, jack rich, and well off with horse pulled and gas or steam driven wags, all loaded with possessions and supplies.
The Baron called such a release a "returning to the land," where the land could be reclaimed from the nukes that had scarred it, and from the ten years of winter and drought that had blighted it.
They had headed west for a few days, making good time until they had run into a mudslide blocking the one side of the fork they came upon.
The Wag-train had followed the fork, and ended up here, where they had been set upon by what they first took to be Outlaws, chillers rumored to be roaming the forests.
But the defenders were shocked to find that their attackers were the Barons own sec-force, lead by their commander
The call snapped the girl from her reverie. A doctor would have said she was slipping into shock, but since he was hanging from a tree, upside down with his throat cut, there was no-one to tell her that.
The figure turned to the man who had spoken, a fat, balding man whose ample bulk was crammed into too tight,patched up OD greens, which jingled from the shiny trinkets that decorated it, metal dangling from collar, cuffs and pockets.
"The men have been busy, Sir." The fat man said, rubbing his hands together. "But the girl is untouched, just as you ordered."
Mary felt that hot stare again, and shivered, her eyes wide open now, her blue eyes shining with tears threatening to spill.
The Sec-chief spoke, his voice deep and rumbling.
"Bring her to me."
With a scream, she was up and plunging into the forest, heedless of the twigs and branches that snagged at her, not caring what mutie dangers she may encounter, only caring about getting away from Sec-chief Hardiman, and his cruel followers.
Mary nearly screamed again as, in her panic, she ran into a tree, seeing only an outline in the darkness.
She did scream as the tree, a dust grey revealed in a quick flash of moonlight reached out and wrapped its arms around her.
A hand clamped down over her mouth.
"Shut up!" the figure hissed. "Shut up if you want to live!"
Simon watched from the bushes as the Gang of men had their way with the women, all of them staked out except for the girl near the fire, and a woman whose feet had gotten loose, her legs kicking and jerking as the man atop her grunted out his lust.
The assassin from the past tried to clamp down on the rage he felt bubbling up, but each shriek, each sob, each rutting slap of flesh only served to add more fuel to the fire.
Walk away, said a cold voice in the back of his head. Its not your fight. Not your concern!
His brain, imprinted with a lifetime of training by experts in their various covert fields, turned over option after option, but he couldnt see a solution through the red haze that drifted around the corners of his mind.
But his rage turned cold and crystalline when he saw the burned woman die, and the cold voice, as if realizing that it was too late to stop him, began advising him.
Too many, it said. Too many for a face to face.
The voice changed, became an image, a picture of a fourteen year old boy and an old man with burn scars on his arms.
Traps, he was saying. Traps for the front, black blade for the rear. Slow crawls in the night. Make your own rules, fight your way, not theirs.
He continued: Be quiet, be stealthy. Take the target when they get tired. The setting sun, the middle of a watch, two hours from dawn, just as the sun rises.
These are the best times to make your move.
Simon slid the gun back into its holster, and reached into his vest, pulling out a coiled wire.
One at a time, he decided.
A loud rumble filled the air, and a vehicle pulled into the clearing.
The girl, naked but untouched was only a few paces from Graydon, so he could see her cringe as the metal shod jeep came into view.
Beginning its life as a four-wheel drive, the vehicle was jacked up on heavy-duty springs and shocks, better to hold the weight of the plating welded around it.
A blister protruded from the top, with what looked to be an m-60 barrel pointing ahead.
The drivers door opened and closed, and Simon watched the tall figure stride into the light.
His angle was different from Marys, and his view was a little better.
Long brown hair, appearing to be streaked with white or grey draped over the collar of the long coat he wore, almost blending into the brown of the material.
The hair framed a face that would have been quite handsome, if not for the lines of cruelty around the mouth, and the three parallel scars that drifted over his left eye, which, though shadowed by the headlights behind him, looked darker than the other, slightly off.
A fat balding man scurried up, his jacket a magpies dream of glittlering trinkets.
A few seconds of conversation between the two, then the Sec-chief pointed to the girl.
"Bring her to me," the big man said.
Simon drew back into the darkness, fully hidden from any light in the clearing.
The girl screamed, then broke and ran, heading into the forest, Hardimans men looking stupidly at her retreating figure.
A plan forming in his head, Graydon ran after her.
Sec Chief Hardiman watched, not the girl, but his own lust-spent men staring at her as she ran, quickly disappearing into the dark.
His face was stoic, but his mind seethed with anger. How long would these fools just stand there and stare?
He roared: "Look alive, you triple stupe, jolt-brained gutterspawn! Get after her! If she isnt by my side, untouched, by dawn. Ill drag you behind my wag until the bone scrapes! "
Hardiman seized the fat man as he scurried by, followed by his red haired assistant, a freckle faced man muted by a sharp knife.
"Not you, Crow," Hardiman growled. "You stay. Get the survivors of our welcoming embrace together, and load them into the biggest working wag." He pointed to a long-bed loaded with cages containing goats and pigs, seed stock for a new settlement.
"And the animals, Sir?" Crow asked, sweat beading his brow. He was looking forward to the handling of the women. "What should we do with them.?"
"Release the ones from the cages we need, I think. Were far enough away from Rykerville that that any found would be taken to be wild. The rest of the animals we need for the next group. The survivors we need for the Pit."
"Yes Sir." Crow hurried off, his red-haired companion close behind.
Sec Chief Hardiman stared hard into the wood, his frown deepening into a scowl.
"Mary, Mary, quite contrary," he muttered. "Why do you cause me woe? Ive killed your dreams and made you scream, with many more pleasures to go."
The smile that followed would make the dead shudder.
Mary looked at Simon, her fear-filled eyes wide.
His clothing showed patches of black through the grey, giving him and odd, incomplete look. He had a blaster on his right hip, clipped to a web belt that resembled those she had seen on some of the mercies that swaggered through the town streets. On his left hip was a combat blade, big enough to be a short sword.
A pouch was slung over his shoulder, bulging with its contents.
He stood nearly a head taller than her, and his skin was dark under the dust, though not as dark as hers.
"Will you scream?" He asked. Mary shook her head.
He smiled, then removed his hand. "O.K."
He stepped back, and looked her up and down, half checking for injuries, and half not.
Mary blushed, and tried to cover herself with her hands, as if just remembering her nudity.
"Sorry," he said.
For second, there was an awkward silence between the two of them.
Then they both heard the pursuers, crashing through the brush.
"Shit!" Simon cursed. "Cmon!"
Mary allowed herself to be pulled along, gasping as the occasional branch rasped along her face, breasts and thighs.
But then she fell, her foot caught in a tree root. She cried out as she lost skin from her hands from catching herself.
Simon looked down at her, and the thought of letting her stay there to be found by her hunters, distracting them so he could get away flashed briefly through his mind.
The cold voice whispered,"Yes Its not your business anyway."
Mary, even through her tears, her pain and shock could see the decisions being weighed.
She held up a skinned hand.
"Please," she whispered quietly.
He knelt down beside her, and whispered in her ear. "Do you trust me?" he asked.
"I dont know."
"Then listen, and listen good," he hissed. "I cant fight them alone. I have to get them in smaller numbers, alone if possible."
"I need you to help me," he finished.
"How can I help "she stopped as she realized what he was asking.
"I need you to be "
"Bait," she finished.
Harker "Hack" James, named for a cough left from a childhood bout of pneumonia heard her first.
He had only begun his turn when Hardiman came back from searching for stragglers.
The slut had begun to whimper when he started, and began to scream when he really started going to work on her, which had suited him fine.
He liked it when he hurt other people, especially women. He knew he was doing his job for the Baron when the bruises bloomed and the blood flowed.
And the people died.
And walking through the woods, hearing that pathetic bitch sob, he knew that, though he couldnt touch her "that way", he could at least do a thorough job of searching her.
So he followed the sound, and broke through to a small open area, where he saw her, sweat shining in the moonlight, making her a dream of silver and ebony.
She huddled against a tree, curled up with her knees almost under her chin, crying softly, apparently oblivious to fact she had been found.
With his mind consumed by images of her body, he started forward, swatting absently at an insect that zipped by his left ear.
He felt warmth on his fingers.
Then he was on his knees, and had no recollection of how he had gotten there. His hands tingled, and Hack tried to lift them, but the effort was too great.
Then he was on his back, looking up. He could see the girls face above him now, and standing beside her was some big motherfucker covered with dust or something.
He tried to ask; "Who are you?", but suddenly found himself plunging down a tunnel, the girls face receding into a white light.
Then he heard laughter, cruel, heartless.
Getting closer .
Mary watched as Hack kicked out the last of his life, his upper body steaming from the blood that had gushed out.
She looked up at Simon as he cleaned his big blade.
"One," she said.
"One," agreed the assassin.
Mary shivered with cold, but didnt consider taking Hacks clothes, now soaked with blood as they were.
Simon handed her his coat, wearing his vest and black T-shirt to give himself complete freedom of movement.
It draped her to mid-thigh as she pulled it on, and her shivering increased, as if her body was just now realizing exactly how cold she had been.
"Willing to try again?" Graydon asked.
"Lets get the shitters," she answered through teeth clenched to stop them from chattering. She called up images of her father, his head shot away, and of her mother, screaming out her pain.
The anger, the hate that burned in her chest was hot enough to keep her warm through another Skydark, she was sure. She looked up at the man who had saved her, and saw the cold face of the hunter, and in his eyes, she saw death, watching.
The Pale Rider.
The sun was bloody, burning through two chemclouds that were striving to devour one another, lightning flickering back and forth between the two.
Hardiman watched the display, smiling slightly as the bigger cloud drifted forwards, a gigantic, nebulous amoeba devouring its gaseous prey.
In the hours since his return, and the girls escape, he seemingly hadnt moved a muscle, the small smile at the conclusion of the aerial "battle" his only sign of life.
His wide brimmed hat threw his face into shadow, a dark shroud that seemed to suit him.
"Call them back, Crow."
"Sir?" The fat man asked, sweat running down his face, despite the morning chill.
Hardimans voice dropped down to a dangerous pitch.
"I said, Call. Them. Back. Dont make me repeat myself again."
Crow stumbled back as if struck.
"Yes Sir! Y-Y-yes sir. Immediately sir." Crow looked to his voiceless companion and nodded.
The red-haired man turned toward the long bed wag, where the survivors were being held.
The men and women knelt in cages too small for them, huddled in matted straw and animal dung, the women sat there, naked and numb, staring out into space, while the men, weak from torture and blood loss clung to the wire walls, their eyes almost as dead as the souls of the men who had done this to them.
The mute climbed onto the wag, and wrestled with the cobbled together ignition until the engine rumbled to life, breathing out clouds of choking smoke.
He then laid on the horn, blaring it three times, then three more.
Deep in the forest, lawless men heard the call, and immediately began following their backtrail, heading for the collection of trucks.
None of them wanted to return without the girl, but one of them must have, or Hardiman wouldnt have signaled.
Twelve men had gone out, Hardimans special group, the only ones to know exactly what happened to the other colonizing groups before these, and what would happen to the ones after.
Crow counted out loud as they emerged from the dark forest.
"One." Tory Green, a black man named for his creamy, unblinking jade green eyes.
"Two." Bray, a swampie from Louisiana, a short stocky man with an uncanny ability to survive seemingly mortal wounds.
"Three." Ress was a scalie who had, by his own admission, escaped from a traveling zoo, like the one Gert Wolfram had when he traveled Deathlands showing off the then rare stickies.
"Four." Matthew, A seemingly norm male, he showed off a trace of mutie blood in his size, a tall seven and a half feet, and in his strength, which he showed off at a hint of trouble, ripping off limbs and crushing bones in his massive arms. And he liked doing it.
"Five." Krain. He was a skinny six-foot-sixer, and also the only man who could look Hardiman straight in the eye. The black man hung onto a Japanese Katana tucked into his belt, the scabbard looking well cared for. He had said he got it from a little slant-eyed runt dressed in robes of red-silk robes decorated with gold. That was all Krain knew about him, since he blasted the little man from behind. The silk robes had been ruined, but the sword was fine, and had served him well since.
Ten minutes passed, and two more men came out, newcomers to the group of Hardimans elite, both blonde, both blue eyed, and both triple crazed. Hardiman had never said why he had let these two join, but some suspected that it was either that, or have them burn down half of Rykerville before they were laid out.
Chris and Kris, spelled differently they would immediately point out, if their audience could spell. Just like fire and flame were different, but the same. They were ingenious pyromaniacs, with a love for the flame that even surpassed that of a stickie in a chilling frenzy.
Ten more minutes passed, and Crow felt a chill.
Where were the rest of them?
"Gone," said Hardiman, as if in answer to Crows silent question.
"S-sir?" Crow saw that he still had his earlier smile.
"Someone took them out. Chilled them. Removed the breath from their lungs and the light from their hearts." Hardiman intoned.
"How many, do you think," Crow asked, his head turning this way and that, as if trying to find an invisible enemy that was now creeping towards him. "How many to take out five of our people?"
"Our people, Crow?"
"I-I-I your people, Sir. " The magpie man stuttered on:" I meant, How many to take out five of your people."
"Thats what I thought you meant, Crow." Hardimans hand snaked out, and latched onto Crows throat. The fat mans eyes bulged, and his face reddened to a deep crimson.
"Now, no more slips of the tongue, yes?"
The fat mans head bobbed.
"Good. Very good. This crew is mine, Crow. You are mine. If your tongue flaps to the contrary again, Ill rip it out by the roots and nail it to your forehead. You understand me?"
Crow tried to respond, but darkness was edging in on his vision, his tongue protruding from between bluing lips. His hands, which had begun an abortive attempt to claw at his masters arm had grown too heavy to hold up, and now they hung limply at his sides.
Hardiman released him, and Crow fell to the ground, his face in the dirt as he tried to coax air back into his lungs.
The Sec-chief swept the hat from his head, fully revealing his face to the light of day.
And the cat-slit red eye that glittered in his left socket.
"How many, you asked?" Hardiman said to Crow, who was still trying to raise himself to hands and knees. Bands of deepening bruises were beginning to surround his throat.
Four hours before dawn: Casey Swanson, a former Maine whaler saw a flicker of movement in the darkness. Holding his breath, he heard the snapping of twigs, and the sound of bare feet thumping along the ground.
He slipped through the bushes, following his target.
Casey stepped through a mass of bushes, stopping when he saw the girl, huddled against a tree.
Her back was pressed against the trunk, the palms of her hands laying against it, thrusting her breasts into prominence.
Caseys eyes goggled, and he brushed aside a strand of web that had fallen across his face.
The web was hard and cold, but burned red-hot when it pulled hard against his throat, blood spraying as wire sliced through flesh, severing his trachea, filling his lungs with the red fluid even as it jetted from opened arteries.
The nearly decapitated man fell to the ground, his eyes staring hard at nothing.
Graydon stood above him, watching the corpse as it gave a final twitch.
Mary immediately began searching the dead man, no longer shying away from the blood as she had before with the previous victims of Simons stealth.
She found on the body a roll of Rykerville jack, a handful of shells for the .38 long barrel rebuilt stuck into his belt, a crudely made leather handled bowie knife, and a small plastic bag of Jolt.
"Whats that?" Simon asked, running the wire through the dead mans clothes, cleaning it.
"Jolt," Mary replied. "You want it?"
"Head buzzer. Never wanted to use it myself, but therere those who say its triple dreamy stuff."
She looked up at Simon. "How come you dont know what Jolt is? Everyones heard of it. Lots of people do it."
"Well, Im not from around these parts." Mary could see the scowl starting on his face, and changed the subject.
"Yknow, with all the running and chilling, I havent had a chance to ask you your name."
"Simon," he said, running the garrote through Caseys clothing, cleaning it.
Mary watched him from the corner of her eye.
He was standing there, caught by a beam of moonlight. His arms were bare, his only upper covering was the t-shirt and vest. He had blood smeared on his skin, and dirt smudged on his face, darkening it, though perspiration had left pale-looking streaks.
His hair was loose, untied. He knew he ran a danger of catching it, indeed he had an assortment of leaves and twigs dangling from it, but he traded that danger for the additional breaking up of his silhouette.
Mary had admired the way his muscles flexed as he moved.
She knew she had escaped by luck alone, and was still alive and untouched by virtue of having literally run into this man.
He wasnt exactly nice, nor exactly safe. But he wasnt evil like the thrill-chillers back by the wag-train.
"Simon," Mary asked, checking the .38, and finding the barrel clear and the chambers loaded. "Why did you help me?"
"Seemed like the right thing to do."
"Right thing to do would have been to keep going, not get involved."
"No," he replied. "That would have been the safe thing to do."
Simon pulled the twin edged Tekna from his boot, and applied it to a shirt he had taken from one of the men he had killed.
This man had been barrel-chested, and his shirt was quite wide all the way down. Cutting off the collar and slitting it across the shoulders a little, Simon then cut a strip from the bottom.
"Come over here a minute, will you?" he asked Mary, who did, her legs flashing a silver sheen of sweat in the intermittent moonlight.
She stepped up to him, and he knelt in front of her, his face in front of her stomach, his breath warming her skin.
She felt a pleasant tightness in her chest, and her breath caught in her throat as his arms went around her waist.
"What " Mary began, her hands reaching up to hold his head, feeling heat rising to her cheeks.
She felt his hands trace around her hips, and she felt his fingers working just over her midriff.
Mary felt something brush her legs, and looked down to them, seeing a shirt girding her hips, hanging just down below her knees, a slit in the side giving her freedom of movement, the buttons and the strip he had cut off, and was now tying holding the makeshift skirt in place.
Breathing quickly, she stepped back, and Simon looked at his handiwork.
"Sorry," Mary mumbled, remembering the rush she had felt, the touch of his hands, the feel of his hair "I thought well, I thought that "
"I was going to ask for a little something for my troubles?"
She watched Simon rising from his crouch, and looking closely, even in the darkness, she could have sworn he was blushing.
He cleared his throat.
"Dont worry," he said, and smiled.
"Weve got other things to worry about."
Mary felt, now, a sudden shame going through her. Her mother, raped only a few hours before, likely even now enduring obscenities at the hands of Hardiman, and here she was, wanting to get fucked by a near-total stranger.
She realized that she still held the dead mans gun in her hand, and she tucked it into the strip of cloth that was serving her as a belt.
The long-barreled weapon slid snugly into the small of her back, the belt holding it securely, the coat that Simon had given her to wear between their killing times covered it as she slipped it on.
Breaking the awkward silence that had sprung up between them, Mary asked, "What now, then? Do we try to get another one, using me?" Her hands began reaching for the coat she had just put back on, ready to shed it again.
"No,"replied Simon. He reached out, pulled the coat collar closed around her neck. "I think weve pushed our luck far enough with that trick. Hopefully, the odds have been whittled down enough to give us better odds."
His hand dropped down to the gun at his side.
"Ive never seen a blaster like that before," Mary said.
Simon smiled, sat down on a fallen tree that marked the edge of the small open patch. Mary sat down beside him, and Graydon could feel the heat of her body, warming him like a fire.
He cleared his throat again. ""Its a custom job, made to accept three different calibers. Basically, you jack the slide back, push here," he said, pointing to a button close to the thumb safety. "Push the slide forward, lift the assembly out, slap another one with a different round in, fill with ammo, and youre ready for a chilling."
Mary was only half listening.
Sitting down, she had begun to doze off as the nights exertions began to tell.
She leaned her head against his left shoulder, Simons back stiffening for a second, then tentatively put his left arm around her, his blaster forgotten in his hands.
He could feel her tremble, and held her tighter, at first because he though she was cold, then because he just wanted to.
It had been a long time since he could actually care about someone.
Mary, even in her half-sleep, could feel the change in his embrace, how it changed from something comforting, to something more.
She turned slightly, raised her head to look into his dark eyes.
Mary moved closer.
"Please," she whispered. She could barely hear herself.
But Graydon heard. He tipped his head down, lifted her chin with his left hand, and leaned, just an inch.
Their lips touched.
His chest felt tight, and his head felt as though it was spinning. He could feel her hands, tracing up and down his arms, leaving a tingling trail as they moved.
Then a twig snapped, instinct kicked in, and Simon pulled Mary with him behind the tree they were sitting on.
There was a whirring over his head, and a thunk resounded, gunshot loud in the near-morning silence as a slim bladed dagger buried its length into a tree, directly in line with where Simons head had been.
"Its not often that I miss, Senor." Said a rasping, heavily accented voice from the other side of the clearing.
Graydon cursed silently. Letting his attention wander had allowed the man to get close, and in the sudden, life-saving plunge, he had lost his gun.
"I have been following you," the voice continued, the spanish thick. "But you have left no trail. I have had to follow the bodies of my compadres, left after you butchered them like hogs."
"If the picture fits " said Simon. He tried to reach for his big blade, but couldnt pull it out of the sheath without raising himself up, out of cover of the tree. He reached down instead to the Tekna, and pulled the silver bladed weapon free.
"Come out." The voice requested. "I want to see your eyes when I kill you."
"Theyll be the last thing you see," Simon replied. He tried to judge the distance separating them by the sound of the mans voice.
Jump out and hope to take him by surprise?
Throw the blade, and maybe buy a second for the big blade, or even the gun?
"You have until the count of five," continued the voice. "Then, I step up to your miserable shelter and drop a frag gren."
"Right. I stick my head up, and you blow it off."
"I want you here, Senor. You know your work. I too have killed with the quick blade, and I ache to test myself against you. I have had too few tests lately."
"Very well. One."
Simon breathed deeply, knowing he would have only one chance.
He heard a whimper from beneath him.
He gazed down at Mary, her eyes squeezed shut.
"Alright! Alright! Im coming out!"
"Good, Senor. Good." The voice said, gloating. "Frag grens are so hard to come by these days."
Simon eased his head up, looked around.
He saw the man he had killed, the other man with the Mex accent standing over him, looking at the wound with clinical interest.
He was dressed in black, silver stitching glittering like frost in the light.
Long black hair framed an oval face, Mexican features stamped by a cruel life, scars criss-crossing it.
He had a wispy mustache, drooping over the corners of his mouth, both ends of which had silver beads dangling.
He wore a black sweater, a dark green web belt which held a Glock, the hammerless back distinctive, and what appeared to be a machete, the plastic handle removed, and replaced with a seven inch grip from a hatchet handle.
His feet were covered by leather-soled boots, all the better for creepy-crawling in the night.
His left thumb was hooked into the ring of a grenade, held in his right hand.
The Mexican looked over the man who was climbing over the log.
And smiled, hooking the gren into his belt.
He then unhooked the belt, letting it fall to the ground, two other grenades now visible. He maintained his grip on the machete as the belt fell, and Simon could hear the steel hissing as it slid free.
He stood there, a black and silver shadow in the night.
Simon replaced the Tekna, seating it snugly in its boot sheath, then, in one smooth motion, cross drew the bigger blade from its home on his left hip.
The blade was black, a slice of night. It measured an even twenty inches, making it more of a machete in its own right than a pure combat blade. Its grip was extended slightly, allowing index-middle finger and thumb from his left hand to add its power to his right.
The Mex smiled with gapped yellow teeth as the blade blade emerged.
Simon said nothing, gave no indication as he began inching his way forward, his blade held across his chest, right arm low, the point of the blade lining up with his left shoulder. His left hand was held out, fingers slightly curled, ready to grab.
He advanced, left foot forward.
The Mexican also advanced, his stance almost the same as Simons, except the machete was held low, sweeping from side to side, his head following the blades motion, though his eyes never left Graydons.
Simon feinted from two paces away, wanting to see his opponents reaction.
He merely smiled, the long blade continuing its movement.
"One question,"Simon asked. "Whats your name? It might help keep people off my ass if they knew I beat you at your own game."
"Carlos," the other man said. He laughed quietly. "No need to tell me yours. Ill fi9nd out from the slut."
Simon moved suddenly, his weapon an extension of himself, a blurring blackness.
Carlos met the flickering blade with his own, expertly deflecting the blow.
He immediately slashed, the diagonal sweep carving the air with a whistle, missing Simons neck as the man ducked.
Graydons leg swept out, catching Carlos just above the ankles, and knocking him on his ass.
Even as he fell, however, Carlos was swinging, and Simon had to roll desperately to avoid the blow, moving inside the attack, driving his shoulder into Carlos.
Carlos grabbed Graydons wrist, even as the other did the same, the two men standing there fighting for control, each trying to overpower the other.
Simon head-butted Carlos in the face, and Carlos tried to knee him in the groin, but was stopped by a hastily turned hip.
Spitting blood, Carlos tried to bite Simons face, but received his forehead in the mouth instead.
With a shared grunt, they pushed away from each other.
Simons body ached. The long night of running and killing was aggravating the half-healed briuses he had obtained at the Redoubt, as well as the damage the Mexicans vicious strength had inflicted. Blood was running down his forehead from where Carlos teeth had gouged it.
Pain was also in Carlos eyes. His eye and lips, smashed by Simon were beginning to swell, pulsing with pained heat in time with the many bruises and scrapes he had acquired this night.
They both knew, this was the end.
One way or the other.
Unspoken, the two gathered themselves for a last charge, both blades drawn back for maximum force, faces twisted into grimaces.
Carlos swung, the machete screaming through the night air.
Simon leaned to the side, and felt the tip of the blade score the vest and his skin.
The force of the swing turned Carlos completely around, leaving him open to Simon, whose own blade bit into the Mexicans back, eliciting a scream.
Blood sprayed for the second time in the small clearing.
Carlos fell to his knees before Simon, his eyes showing that he felt the hand of Death on his shoulder.
The machete fell, striking a spark from a stone.
He blinked, his eyes wavered.
He met Graydons gaze.
And, for an instant, the two knew each other better than the most intimate of lovers.
Simons eyes widened, and he drew the blade back, knowing that he was going to be too late.
Carlos wrist jerked, and a hold-out blaster, a big bore derringer shot out, his curled fingers catching the grip, finger tightening on the trigger.
To Graydon, the gun barrel was the size of train tunnel.
Then the gunshot echoed through the clearing.
Simon winced, expecting the slugs to tear into him, but felt nothing except the blood from the blade wound running down.
Carlos frowned, looking at his hand, fingers still curled around the blaster. His face became livid with concentration.
Then, he fell face down into the dirt, the blaster discharging harmlessly into the trees.
Slowly, Simon turned.
Mary stood from behind the fallen tree, her arms out, the.38 still smoking in her trembling hands.
His eyes met hers, just as they had met Carlos.
She began to shake, her teeth chattering. Tears sprang from her eyes, and her arms dropped, the gun pointing at the ground.
She then ran to him, nearly taking him off his feet, wrapping her arms around him.
Graydon held her tightly, stroking her hair. He tried to think of something to say, but could think of nothing, except
"Thank you," he whispered into her ear. She looked up at him, her eyes red-rimmed from tears and exhaustion.
"Ive Ive never had to chill anyone before," she stammered.
"Im sorry. I wanted to keep you out of it. I didnt want you to have to be like me."
"Im a killer, Mary. I was born to be a killer, raised to be a killer, and I was good at being a killer. If things had been a little different, it might have been me chasing you tonight, not helping you."
Mary shook her head.
"No," she said. "Youre not like them."
The way she said it seemed to warm his chest.
"No,"Simon agreed. He had thirty kills under his belt, successful assignments from the Paradigm people. If she was going to offer him absolution, who was he to refuse?
He knew then, that he would never allow anyone to hurt her.
He released her, and after a second, she released him.
Simon made his way over to the fallen tree, put his back against it, and sat down.
He looked up at the girl.
"Im tired, Mary." He stretched, trying to loosen the muscles that had knotted up.
"I need to get a little sleep."
"But my mother the others "
"Arent going to be helped if I fuck up like I did with Carlos there," he told her. Simon took a deep breath. "I want to help them too, Mary. But if we get killed, no-one gets away. Right?"
Mary nodded. "I understand. I can barely stand up myself," she admitted.
She sat down beside him, huddled against him. Her right arm went around his back, her left across his chest. She laid her head against his shoulder.
His left arm went over her shoulders, and drew her closer.
Simon scooped up his gun with his right hand, checked it with a critical eye and determined that the barrel was free and clear.
"Mary," he said. When she mmmed? in response, he asked her, "If Id lost the fight, youd have run away, right?"
"No," she said, raising her head slightly, and looking Simon in the eye. "Theyd have caught me sooner or later. Taken me to Hardiman, and then to Baron Ryker. You saw what they did to the others. Itd be worse with those two. People go into the Barons chambers, they dont come out the same."
"No," she said firmly. "I wouldnt have run. Id have swallowed a bullet right then and there."
Simon heard the determination in her voice, and knew that what she said was true. Slow death or quick, just like the soldiers in the Redoubt.
The more things change
"I understand," he replied. She snuggled her head back down.
"Now try to sleep. Then well plan our next move."
Hardimans mis-matched eyes scanned the survivors of the wag-train.
The Baron, he admitted to himself, had a good thing going here.
He would get some stupe bastards in the villes throughout his territory to indenture themselves to him for seven years, telling them that they would leave his service jack-rich, and sent off to another part of his lands to start up a new ville, equipped with wags and seed animals, ready for a fresh start.
During those years, hed work them like dogs, but tax them less than the unidentured, so-called "freemen" that resided in Rykerville. Gave people hope for a better life, and the Baron peace of mind.
After all, why plan a revolt, or hire a Baronblaster when hed let you build a home for yourself and your family, let you lay the foundations for a whole new ville and a useful life?
Hardiman snorted softly.
Triple stupes. Theyd be paraded out of the ville with Hardimans sec force as a honorguard, then left to travel their way.
At least for a while.
At least until Hardimans crew could catch up with them, leaving in the still of the night from the ville.
Letting them play a little, until it came time to take them to the Pit , where theyd
Crow disturbed his thoughts, pointing and shouting, "There! Its Carlos. Hes found her!"
Hardiman looked to see Carlos, long black hair hanging over his face dragging the struggling girl towards the Sec-chief, his machete gleaming in the morning light, smeared with tree sap where he had chopped a trail, and with darker fluids that gleamed a subtle shade of red.
He dropped her a few paces from his leader, then turned on his heel, and began to stride towards the other sec-men.
As he whirled, Hardiman caught a glimpse of his prize chillers face.
Carlos was pale, his facial scars a reddish pink series of lines. Blood trails ran down over his face, from his mouth, and around his cheeks and eyes.
The two silver beads he weighed down his mustache with gleamed.
He had been in a serious battle, this man had. His hair was stuck up with twigs, and blood crusted the holes that had been torn in his sweater, showing blood smeared skin beneath.
Hardiman looked at the girl.
She was pulling down the torn shirt that had flown open when she was dropped, modestly trying to cover herself, hiding from the eyes of the Sec-men who had grouped up, whistling and laughing as her hands did a mad scramble, tucking the shirt into the band around her stomach.
She glared at Hardiman, her blue eyes meeting his, and he could feel her anger lashing against him.
"Crow," he said. The fat man scurried up. "Take the girl to my wag. Make sure shes secure for the trip back to Rykerville. The Baron is anxiously awaiting her presence."
She screamed when Crow ran over, and seized her hair, pulling her, making her work her legs to keep the skin from being scraped off. She gained her feet, and launched a kick into the Fat mans groin.
Crow merely smiled.
"Too late, pretty. Baron already took care of that."
Then, with a surprising amount of force, his fist shot out, and Mary found herself lifted off her feet, and the air driven from her.
Only the fact that she hadnt eaten saved her from vomiting when her knees hit the dirt.
She spent the next few seconds trying to breathe, unable to stop a shriek as Crow grabbed her hair again.
Hardimans wag loomed closer.
As this was happening, the Sec-chief turned again to Carlos, and wondered who he had fought.
Who had the skills to match himself against so many men and nearly come out on top?
Who could the man be
Those silver-veined pants that Carlos was so proud of.
He wasnt wearing them.
The pants were black, true. But they were a military style with thigh pockets, bloused over black boots, unnoticed by the tired men, who were blinded from the relief of the captured girls return.
No-one noticed the long-blade sheath was already occupied.
No-one noticed, that is, until the machete flashed, and opened Kriss throat.
Hardiman opened his mouth, sucked in a breath.
Then Hardimans wag blew.
"Are you sure you want to do this?" Simon asked.
Mary nodded. She looked out of the bushes, into the clearing, where her mother and the others sat in cages, waiting their fate.
She slipped off the coat, and pulled up the shirt that had been serving her as a skirt, tucking the ends into the strip of material around her waist, pushing her arms through the sleeves that until now had been flopping comically around.
She tucked the .38 she had killed Carlos with inside the shirt, at the back, leaving enough loose shirt to conceal it.
The gun felt ice cold, pressed against her bare skin.
But, knowing the other part of the plan, and what Simon had to do, it was a minor inconvenience.
Simon shuffled out of his vest and shirt, slipped on Carlos sweater.
He breathed through his mouth for a few seconds, then, holding his breath, pulled something over his head.
Mary felt a little queasy, remembering the sight she had woken up to, Simon using the blade from his boot, tracing a line that ran red all around Carlos neck, the slurping, ripping sound as his fingers dug in, and pulled the skin right off of the mans skull, leaving a raw, red-dripping caricature on the ground.
Simon turned to Mary, who could see the silver beads at the mustaches ends waving.
Her stomach heaved, but only bitter bile had spattered the ground.
Now she watched him settle the grisly mask over his head, moving the flesh around, pushing open blood sealed eyelids, and separating lips.
"Itll only have to fool them for a few seconds," he had told her.
The former assassin looked at her, and wiggled the disguise around, trying unsuccessfully to get a better fit. He finally shook his head, and let the hair fall down over his face.
He then looked at his watch, held up two fingers.
"Good luck," she whispered.
He then grabbed her hair, and started into the clearing, pulling her along as she began struggling.
Meanwhile, a high-ex grenade ticked down, nestled snugly beside the gas tank of the armored jeep, the twist timer set just a minute before.
The blast picked up the end of the wag, the aux gas tanks blowing an instant after the main.
Bolts and rivets flew from the reinforced plating, one piece killing an old goat who, an instant before had been chewing on some straw.
The concussion stretched Hardiman out, and he lay there, dazzled by the flash and thunder, as was his men, who had been facing in that direction.
As the men regained their sight, the other Chris felt his throat opened up by a whisper-thin edge of steel. His bladder released with almost the same pressure as the jets of blood that spewed out from the wound.
Bray was the first to recover, the swampie pulling out a short hafted axe, a favored weapon of his people. Even blinded and concussed, his whirling brain retained the sight of the first Kris getting his throat slit, and knew he was next.
The others regained their sight seconds after, and just as they began pulling out their own weapon of choice, the man they all knew reached up, and as they stood there, frozen at this new sight, Carlos ripped his own face off, and threw it on the ground.
In that shattered instant of time, the machete whirred, and buried itself in Brays fleshy neck.
Graydon knew he had only one shot at this.
Even the most hardened of warriors could be shocked into freezing, if only for a second, by an unexpected sight.
The sight of Carlos ripping his face off was one such.
They stood there, frozen, the big one looking at the skin-mask as it hit the ground, reacting only when the short, stocky man squalled and fell, the machete buried in his neck.
Simons face was a mask of blackening blood, his teeth and eyes in sharp contrast as he gave a laugh, his face pulled into a grimace as he lost his grip on the stolen blade.
He drew his own blade, the titanium alloy whispering free.
Tory Green was halfway through drawing his prized sword when a black, steel toed boot kicked up into his groin, smearing his testicles against the pubic bone, the pure shock causing bile to rise, and darkness to fall across his eyes.
He fell, and began to choke to death.
Matthew, not bothering with a weapon slammed into Graydon, the first to realize the deception, and angry beyond words.
He and Carlos had been friends and lovers, and he would not allow this insult to continue!
Simon grunted under the impact, and felt his feet leave the ground as the giant picked him up. A single squeeze of the leg-thick arms, and his breath wheezed out, his ribs compressing, his hands flailing.
The knife had fallen at the initial impact, leaving him weaponless.
Behind Matthew, the others rubbed their eyes, trying to drive away the spots that danced about.
Simon thrashed about, his boots striking ineffectively against rock-hard thighs, fists unable to gain the leverage for a strike.
Matthew gave him a shake, loosened his arms for an instant in preparation of a second squeeze, this one to crack his opponents ribs and spine.
Graydon pulled his right arm free as the arms loosened, and plunged his thumb into Matthews left eye.
Crow was drawing opposite of the long-bed wag when the gren blew.
He fell to his knees, and felt heat wash over him as the fuel tanks went.
When he looked up, he found he was staring into he barrel of a very serviceable looking revolver.
"Fucker," Mary hissed, and pulled the trigger.
The bullet traveled the six inches between bore and brain before the blaster had a chance to buck from recoil.
Mary saw, as the gun rose, a hole punched into Crows forehead, the skin around it scorched by powder burn, and then a spray of blood and gray matter as the slug exited, burying itself, mangled and twisted into the dirt behind.
Crow flopped over, arms and legs spasming as his nervous system shut down.
Matthew howled as fluid spurted and ran down his cheek from his ruptured eye, and released his captive to clutch at his face.
Simon, falling to his knees, sucked in a breath as the big man stumbled away, still yelling.
Then, he drew his gun.
His aim was off, his hands trembling from adrenaline and the oxygen flooding his system as he took deep, gasping breaths, but he still triggered off a series of rounds into the still massed sec-men.
His pain faded as adrenaline metabolized.
One of the sec-men, a bulky man with a greenish, scaled tinge to his skin staggered back and fell as the Black Talon™ round took him through the stomach, the skin of the bullet peeling back into the distinctive serrated blades that razored through flesh, and punched a hole through his back, taking a chunk of spine with it.
Another round clipped a black man s shoulder. He yelped and ducked away, his green eyes wide.
One of those lulls that occur in the midst of battle descended, giving Simon a chance to get to his feet.
Hardimans wag burned fiercely, waves of heat billowing out, black smoke rising up, to catch in the breeze.
Retrieving his combat blade, Simon kicked the bloody machete from its resting place on the ground.
Something clicked in Graydons mind.
The scuff of feet behind him alerted him to peril, and he spun to meet it.
Barely in time, his upraised blade parried the attack, as Bray the swampie jumped on him, the short hafted axe batting away the others edged weapon.
Simon pivoted, reacting without thinking, and the swampie left his feet, landing on his shoulders, rolling back up, ready to attack again.
Simon was aghast at the damage the stocky man had taken, the terrible wound in his shoulder gaped, but only a little blood was seeping from the wound.
The shock must have been evident on Graydons face, because the man smiled, showing chipped yellow and greenish-black teeth.
Coming at him again, the swampie swung with even more force, and the gun flew from Simons fingers as he hastily raised it to block the blow.
Simon stepped past the return swing, getting inside the swampies reach. He seized the mans wrist, and Bray was once again flying through the air, landing heavily next to the green-eyed black man who was bleeding profusely from his shoulder, charging at the man from the past.
Simon executed a picture perfect spinning back kick, the heel breaking Tory Greens jaw, the deep treads of the boot tearing away flesh.
Green stumbled back, fell as shock began to set in.
The heel of Simons right hand smashed into the face of the swampie as he leapt up from beside the his fallen comrade, but the angle was wrong for a killing blow, and he stumbled back, nose broken.
As the swampie rubbed at the tears that sprang up from reaction to the blow to his nose, Simon kicked again, and Tory Greens eyes bulged as the steel-toed boot powered into his stomach, rupturing appendix, liver and stomach, as well as tearing the mans diaphragm and sending shock waves to the solar plexus.
Tory slipped into the Void, propelled by indescribable agony.
Mary grabbed the keys that jangled among Crows glittering treasures, and ran towards the animal wag. She climbed aboard, started trying to find the key to open her mothers cage, when arms surrounded her.
Crows mute, red-headed assistant picked her up from behind, and threw her against one of the cages, the wooden bars giving only slightly under the impact.
Dazed, she tried to draw her blaster, but felt it plucked from her trembling fingers.
She felt the shirt tighten around her throat, and then she was lifted up until her eyes met the blue eyes of the mute.
He smirked at her.
Mary gritted her teeth, and rammed her knee between his legs.
He dropped her, his eyes rolling back into his head, and the scar tissue that made up the remainder of his tongue protruded in a raspy wordless scream.
Mary searched for a weapon, grabbed the first thing she could find.
His hands grabbed his wounded parts, and as he fell, he saw through pain blurred eyes the metal tined pitchfork as it rose and fell, blood jetting from his stomach, spattering the young woman who rammed it down until his vision faded.
Mary scooped the keys up from where she had dropped them, and finally succeeded in finding the one that released her mother, who looked back at her with empty eyes.
She heard a shriek, and looking behind her, saw the giant stumble away from Simon, clutching his face.
She watched as Simon scrabbled for his weapons, then turned her attention back to her mother.
No reaction whatso ever. No life stirred behind those dark eyes, and Mary felt tears filling her blue ones.
"Girl," said a voice beside her. She looked, saw a man whose remaining three fingers gripped the bars of his cage. The other arm hung bonelessly. His face was so badly smashed and bloodied, she couldnt recognize him.
Mary," he said. He lifted his hand. "Please open the cages."
With a last, disparaging look at her mother, Mary turned to do just that.
Behind her, the sounds of battle ended with a sound like wood being chopped.
With the hardened edge of his right hand, Simon struck the swampie in the throat, the force that could break boards pressing the windpipe closed with the sound of crunching cartilage.
As he fell, the assassin turned to meet the charge of the bellowing giant, his face wet with fluids from his eye, red from the anger that propelled him beyond pain.
Steeping into the mans newly acquired blind side, Simon drove a punishing fist into the mans temple, within reach as Matthew stumbled, trying to turn to face his opponent.
Stars swirling in his limited vision, Matthew felt something hit his knee, dislocating it.
He fell to his hands and knee, the other one flopping uselessly, bent out at a painful angle.
And screamed again as a white-hot pain exploded inside his head.
Simon watched the big man writhed on the ground, hands cupped over his burst eardrums and his dislocated legs flopping about, adding to his misery.
The swampie clawed at his throat.
Graydon felt a hand clawing at his leg, and he looked down to see the gut-shot scaled mutant clawing at him, trailing his legs behind him like a kind of split tail.
Ress hissed at him.
Teeth broke as Simon caught him under the chin with his knee, lifting him, and setting the crippled creature on its back.
Simon picked up his blade, and as Ress refocused his eyes, he caught sight of the edge flashing, felt the kiss on his neck, then the world seemed to spin and go black.
Simon watched the scalies head roll across the ground, stopping at Matthew, who had lapsed into unconsciousness.
Then, he turned to face the so-called Sec-chief.
Who was gone.
Hours later, the group of people rested, some of the more canny trackers checking their back trail to ensure that any investigating sec-force wouldnt be able to find them.
Huddled around the small fire, they talked to each other, comforted each other.
The men were still hollow-eyed, but now, the blood that covered them was not theirs alone.
Matthew hadnt survived long after Mary succeeded in the release of her people.
Bray, miraculously, had disappeared., leaving a blood trail that had petered out shortly after leaving the clearing.
The survivors were all armed now, blasters scavenged by Mary and Simon from the Sec-men being put to good use.
The smaller animals had been linked up with ropes, and lead along, once again the trackers and hunters among them brushing dung off the trail they walked, protecting them from pursuers.
The wags had been fired.
Graydon stood a little apart from the people, these natives of Deathlands. He watched Mary comfort her mother, who had come out of shock only an hour before, and who had cried non-stop since.
Daughter held Mother giving all she could.
"Put that out," he said. The people stirred, standing. The ropes holding the animals were grabbed, and hands threw dirt on the fire, extinguishing it.
He pointed into the distance.
"Theres an old town about two-and a half days from here," he said. "I think itll do just fine for a place to go."
"Show us," she asked.
Graydon watched as the new inhabitants of the town of Valenburg gathered in the old town hall, which had been converted into a bed and breakfast before Skydark. He had driven them hard, reaching the ghost-town in two days instead of three.
He was amazed at the speed in which these people healed.
Most people, back in his time, would still be in the hospital from the pain alone.
But these people, they were fighters, toughened by a lifetime of harsh conditions.
He heard Mary behind him, talking to a man with only three fingers on his right hand. His other arm was in a sling, the splint visible, holding knitting bones together.
He held an aluminum baseball bat in his hand, using it at the monent as a walking stick.
He was telling Mary he would take the first watch.
Another amazing thing.
Mary had changed in the short time he had known her. She had obviously been a strong girl in the first place, doing what she had to do help him, and her people.
But they all seemed to look to her now, all of them, as a leader, someone who would do anything to help those she cared for.
He hoped they understood just what it was she had done to set them free, what it had cost.
He remembered the shaking girl who had just killed for the first time.
His back twinged, and he felt the stiffness of the forced march, the scrapes and bruises he had gotten before, during and after that battle beginning to tell.
He sat down on a stiff, high-backed chair, leaned back and closed his eyes.
Simon didnt realize he was drifting off, sleep stealing in, until he was gently nudged, muscles screaming in torment as he tensed, bringing him that much faster to full awareness.
Mary stood there in the dying firelight, dressed in a white blouse and a blue skirt that fell below her knees.
He could feel her blue eyes on him.
She leaned forward, and he could feel her breath ghosting across his skin.
"Cmon," she whispered, pulling on his hand. "Ive found a place where you can stretch out."
Simon stood, and allowed her to lead him along, threading their way past sleeping people, and passing the small area they had converted into a temporary stable for the animals.
They finally entered a room, after climbing a winding set of stairs, where a single candle burned on a nightstand. A bed lay there, and fresh sheets were on it.
"Thank you," he said.
Simon felt her lips brush his.
Mary lay there, trailing her fingers along the ridges of hard muscle lining Simons stomach.
This was the only part of his body above the sheets that covered them both.
Her hand reached up, smoothed hair away from his brow, still wet with sweat.
He shivered a little in his sleep, and as she watched, his eyes began moving rapidly, and a soft moan escaped his lips.
What was he seeing, she wondered. What could make a man like him shiver and shake so?
She smiled, remembering just an hour before
She had left the room, listening just outside at the sound of boots clumping on the floor, the sound of clothing sliding off, the squeak of bedsprings.
She knocked, and not waiting for a response opened the door, stepped in, and locked it behind her.
The candle still burned, so she could see the alarm on his face.
"Is something wrong?" he asked. Mary saw that he held his gun in his right hand. She suspected that he had been about to put it under his pillow, but had interrupted him.
"No," she said, reaching up, and unbuttoning her blouse.
Simon tried to say something, but his mouth had gone completely dry. He watched her undress slowly, in complete silence.
She posed for an instant, for him, giving him a moment to admire, then she leaned forward, and pinched out the candle before sliding into the bed next to Simon.
"Mary.." he began, but she laid a finger gently across his mouth, silencing him.
"Shhh," she whispered. " its alright."
"Your people are going to kill me, if they find you here."
Her teeth flashed white against her café-au-lait skin. "After that rescue, they probably would sleep with you themselves."
Her fingers began a descent along his stomach, inching under the covers.
"But your mother.."
"Knows exactly what Im doing, and where I am."
Her hand reached lower. "Whats wrong? Dont you want to Oohh, you do."
Simons breath caught as her fingers curled around him.
"I do want you." He whispered into the darkness, gasping as she started to stroke.
"I want you too," she said back, moaning when his callused fingers rolled a stiffened nipple.
"I want so much," she said. "But now, this minute, I want you to make love to me." She moaned again as Simons fingers delved down, finding arousal well on its way.
He ducked down, and Mary felt his breath warming her skin as he went lower, lower, finding her sex, warm and willing, the sensitive bud ready as lips circled, and his tongue flicked.
For a lifetime, Mary was aware of nothing but a golden pleasure burning within her, until she shuddered, a peak was reached, and her body was taken out of her control, her hands alternately pushing Graydons head away, and trying to pull him closer, her legs stiffened and thrashed.
Graydon raised himself up, and lay down full length beside her, and Mary rolled atop him, straddling him, all the while looking into his dark eyes.
Simon saw a myriad of emotions go through her eyes as she looked down at him.
Desire was too weak a word, lust was just a fraction.
Love was possible.
And surprisingly, he felt those same possibilities echoing within himself.
Her hand moved down, and he felt himself guided, holding his breath as he felt warmth encircling him.
Graydon felt resistance, but before he could say anything, Mary forced herself down.
The young womans eyes widened.
"Mary," Simon began, seeing her pain, feeling it echoed.
She shook her head, again laying a finger across his lips.
"Shh," she said, a single tear rolling down her cheek. "Give me a minute."
"But I "
Mary shook her head. "Please dont." she whispered. "Dont say anything. I wanted this, wanted it this way, in a nice quiet place, private."
She kissed him. "With someone who cares."
She moved slightly, and Simon could feel a fluttering.
"Youve seen how it can
be. I didnt want my first time to
This time, Simon hushed her.
"Itll never happen," he said. "Not while Im here. "
He moved slightly beneath her, and Mary moaned as a new sensation began.
There was no more talk
Hardiman stood in a circle of light, dirt and sweat plastered on his face.
It seemed to him that he had been running for days, at least before he found some transport just outside of a ville of inbreds he had stumbled across, a lone sickly horse that had died within sight of the ville.
The horses owner was lying face up in the mud of his pig pen, stomach opened by a serrated knife Hardiman carried, likely near eaten by the almost wild boars he had kept there.
Twin balls of green fire looked down on him, blinking at him from the darkness.
"You failed to bring me the girl," The Baron growled.
"You allowed her and her people to escape."
"No, sir. I allowed nothing." Hardiman felt sweat beading anew as he said this.
"You contradict me?"
"I was there, sir."
Silence stretched, time marked only by the blinking of the green fires.
"There was a man " began Hardiman, breaking the silence.
"I have seen," said the Baron. "I have dreamed. I have seen the girl, and the awesome power she possesses. Only a few have such as she. I have seen the shadow that stands behind her, beside her, before her, protecting her, Death reaching out from the past, squeezing the breath from those who would bring her harm. Seeking absolution in her presence."
"If this shadow is the man you say chilled all your men., then we face a grave danger."
"All I need, Baron, is a couple of men I can teach myself, and some good blasters, not the rebuilts we use around the villes, and I can get the nuke-shitter." Hardiman said, feeling disgusted at the note of pleading that had crept into his voice.
"You had your chance, Hardiman." The Barons voice had become deeper, more controlled.
To Hardiman, the orbs seemed to grow bigger, and they began descending in the darkness, until the Sec-chief could hear the scuff of feet on the concrete floor.
He could almost make out the Barons form when an unseen blow struck, lifting the big man off his feet, stretching him out on the ground a full fifteen feet from the circle.
Only his strength saved him from a broken neck, or more.
"Choose your men. Teach them better than the others you had before. I will tell you when to begin your search."
The Sec-chief, through the haze that fogged his brain, saw the green fires vanish, and sensed the Baron moving away.
He tried to stand, but could only manage hands and knees.
He looked up, blood running from his mouth where a tooth had gouged his cheek inside, and saw the green fires were in their accustomed place.
"I do not discipline twice." The Baron said. " You bare my marks. You are mine. Do not fail me again."
Hardiman reached up with a trembling hand, and traced the scars that crossed over his red cats eye.
"I am yours, Baron."
A door, made of Predark metals slid to the side, a faint light from the wall aiding the dim light from the now opened room.
Row upon row of weapons there, blasters, blades, plas-ex, grens and rockets, ammunition of all types sat patiently in their own sealed containers.
Lips curled over inch long incisors in an inhuman smile.
In the dim light, green eyes burned.
For those who would be heroes
My mother, Ruby Ann, a teacher and hero in her own right
My Father, Lloyd, a(semi-)retired farmer who with heroic effort put up with me
My sister, Cynthia, learning to be a hero to others through veterinary medicine
My Aunt Sally, who shares my twisted sense of humor and what a good book comprises
My Grandmother, Laura, who despite a childhood accident rose to surpass the the roles expected of women in her day and age, a hero to my whole family
My wife, Carolyn
Who, despite it all
Believes in me