hundred mile an hour winds scoured the fused glass plains, dumping sterile,
irradiated soil into the yawning gulf of a bomb crater.
lightning flashed through the ionized atmosphere, the thunder lost in the
screaming sound of a violated Nature’s cries. Red-hot pellets of glass fell,
born from clouds of war-strewn dust and the white-hot fury lancing through them.
miles from the crater, twisted and shiny smooth metal peeked out of the ground,
machinery thrown there by the force of the missile’s detonation. What they had
been, the wreckage gave no clue, for any identifying marks had been long since
scorched and sandblasted off.
months on end, the twisted pile lay there, alternately covered and revealed by
the winds, like treasure uncovered by a shrieking tide.
built up, arcing from one piece to the next in little ribbons of blue, until
sparks rained down from them, the charge building until the first charge arced
upwards, into the clouds, and the returning bolt smashed down, through the
clumps of packed dirt, to shatter the fused ground in a blast of sheer
side of a metal drum lay there, exposed, the paint blackened and pitted, still
smoking from the nearness of the strike.
months passed, and the drum sat there, half buried, blasted smooth and shiny by
the perpetual winds, until a stone, little bigger than a pea, was picked up by
the wind, and flung at the drum at
just the right angle, striking between pits put there by other stones that had
tore through the metal like a bullet.
a reddish gas pored out, swept away by the wind to points unknown.
a Genie released.
Simon and Mary looked back at the still rising pall of smoke coming from the ruins of Rykerville, made red by the sunlight that filtered through the chemclouds that floated above. The air was still, and hung heavily on them, humidity from the storm of the day before being drawn up into the air, rising only to fall again somewhere else, hopefully someplace cleaner.
Graydon wiped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his shirt, sweat salts gleaming white against the nightblack he wore.
Similarly dressed, Mary leaned against him, her eyes following the smoke as it rose to the heavens, fading into nothing.
They had risen early this morning, letting the others wake up at their own pace, watched over by the big Garrett Morgan. Walking through the woodland, Mary had walked back along the trail they had followed the night before, stopping when they hit the treeline.
Clinically, Simon checked the area surrounding the fired ville, his dark eyes looking for survivors, scavengers, muties…but saw nothing.
No life around this dead ville at all.
Mary’s eyes saw the ville alive again, traders going in and out through the gates, the indentured released and the shops puffing smoke from baking and cooking.
She saw it as it was, before the mutie cancer Baron Ryker had brewed was shown to her, before her Mother and Father had died.
Before her miscarriage.
It had only been a little over a week ago, staring into the bucket of bloody water, but she could still see every detail of what it held.
She blinked, and her blue eyes saw the smoke rising.
Sam stretched and rolled over onto his side, pushing himself up on one arm, even as he let out a lung-rattling cough. He hawked, then spat into the fire that was smoldering nearby. He blinked rapidly, then reached into his shirt pocket, pulling out a pair of glasses and placing them over his eyes, which distorted to owlish proportions as they focused.
He rose to his feet, gritting his teeth as pain lanced through joints that had grown chilled in the night. He sniffed, then spit into the fire again.
His eyes picked out the sleeping form of Tanna, only the top of her head exposed, the rest wrapped up in a blanket. She was a beautiful girl, on the verge of becoming a beautiful woman, her oriental features delicate and inviting. Sam felt an almost fatherly love swell up in his chest as he watched her sleep.
After all, he may be old, but a beautiful girl could still make his blood pump.
Patting the grips of the bowies counter-slung at his belt, he adjusted the still unfamiliar weight of the long-barrel .44 magnum, seated neatly in a hand-tooled rig, just behind the massive blade on his right side, his first weapon of choice.
He stretched again, squinting at the tears that sprang up unbidden from his eyes, pain lancing through his body.
Yeah, he thought. Like I said last night to Garret. Gettin’ old.
Speaking of which…Sam glanced at the big man, who was stirring the fire, coaxing it into a last bit of life.
Garret Morgan stood a hair over six foot four inches, making him a virtual giant among the shrunken common folk of the Deathlands. And unlike Sam, tall himself but gangly, Garret was heavily muscled, well-proportioned with an economy of movement that, at first glance gave the impression Garret had traded muscle for brains, a somewhat common trade-off.
Until violence brewed, and he showed that he was in no way slow-witted.
He wore a cured leather shirt that laced up the front, darkened from the sweat of the days before. It was sleeveless, showing the thick muscles flexing as he thrust a green branch into the fire’s embers, which flared as air got into the smoldering coals.
His pants were leather as well, tucked into the tops of knee high homespun boots, which were patched in various places. A glinting of steel showed the barbed wire that was banded onto the boots, held in place by thick straps of the omnipresent leather, the barbs just above the ankles.
His brown eyes looked into the fire, as if waiting for a revelation. His hair, a dark brown was untouched by gray, though lines of hard living on his face and around his eyes showed that was a situation that wouldn’t last. He looked to be in his early thirties, but with the conditions that man lived in these days, that could mean he was ten years younger.
He held a battered but serviceable M-16 in his left hand, the butt on the ground, the bore sighting in on the sky. In most places, this weapon was considered godlike, with the ability to spew death in a mighty blast of thunder.
The clip was full, two others hung heavy in the pouch at his side. He also had a Beretta tucked into his belt, fifteen bullets in the clip, with twenty loose in the pouch. Stamped on the side was the serial number, and the model number 92F.
The bushes thrashed as another man stepped out, cinching up his pants, his arm bumping the wood stocked blaster slung on his shoulder.
John Stentson was a shootist from Rykerville, famed throughout the ville with his uncanny skill with a blaster. He had survived the mutie attack that had wiped out, to a man, the people of Rykerville and had battled his way out of the dying town, eventually meeting up with Sam, Garret and Tanna.
He was slightly above average height for the Deathlands, about five foot eight, and stocky. He seemed built to be solid, not a twitch unless he wanted to. This control was one of the reasons his longblasting was so frighteningly accurate. He’d heard that in the past, before Skydark, ammo had been so plentiful that people gathered to test their skills against each other. The story he’d heard said that the best of them were so controlled that they fired between the jumping of their own heartbeats, sometimes scoring ten-from-ten on distant targets.
He’d often wondered how he would have fared.
He adjusted the strap of his blaster, trying for a comfortable position. He sure missed his old Sharps .50. Had always been a bitch to load, and was heavy as an arma-wag, but he could take the nuts off a fly at a half mile. The AK-47 was a good tradeoff though, good power and heavy 7.62mm slugs. Most of the renegades they’d chilled had been armed with them, so the group had a good supply of both blasters and ammo.
“Mornin’” He said, nodding to Morgan and Sam. “Nothin’ like a good piss to start the day off right.”
Sam pulled a battered pot from a stained cloth sack that had, not long before, been a pillowcase from his Casino and Gaudyhouse and held it up.
“I was thinkin’ more of a good cup of coffee-sub in the mornin’,” he said, holding the pot out to the shootist. “That is, if’n you’d go to the stream and get some water for it.”
“Christ, old man. I got you some venison last night, didn’t I?”
Sam grinned. “Yep. And mighty fine meat it was too. But now I need somethin’ to wash it down with. So while yer up…”
John gave an exaggerated sigh. “Shit. I should’ve stayed back at the ville.”
And took the pot, striding in the direction of the stream.
“Nice man, for a blasterman,” Tanna said, sitting up. She stretched, both Sam and Morgan’s eyes drawn to her breasts as they strained the material covering them.
Both looked away.
“Not so sure you should be getting’ him to do stuff like fetchin’ water, Sam.” She looked at the old man, frowning at the way his eyes wouldn’t meet hers. “He might get offended. And we need his blaster to get away from here.”
“Nukefire girl,” Sam snorted, holding back a laugh. “I’m just having a little fun. And he knows it. But if’n it’ll make you feel better, next time, you can get the water.”
“We should go,” Simon told Mary. She’d blinked back the first tears since her escape from Ryker, but when Simon had pulled her close into an embrace, she lost control, and had cried uncontrollably, her tears soaking into Simon’s shirt.
Simon held her, stroking her hair, not knowing how to help her, not knowing what else to do. So they both stood there, two figures dressed in midnight black, holding each other close.
Eventually, Mary pushed herself away, wiping her nose on a gun-oil scented cloth. Her blue eyes, set against her café-au-lait skin were haunted.
Concerned, Simon asked; “Are you alright?” feeling like an idiot as he did, knowing she wasn’t.
Mary nodded. “Better,” she replied. She still had an empty feeling in her gut, but it was fading. She’d feel it for the rest of her life, but never would it be as bad as it had been. She knew that she herself was her parents third child, the first lost to the hacking cough when he was a mere three weeks old, the second, her sister, was born dead, common enough in the Deathlands. A child’s death was harsh, but you had to force yourself to go on, putting might-have-beens behind.
“Yeah,” she continued. She took a deep breath, grateful that the wind was still blowing at their backs, keeping the smoke and cooked meat smell away. “You’re right, we should leave. But…where’re we gonna go?”
“I’m thinking the next ville,” Simon told her. “Someone should be told about Ryker’s mutie army. Anything that can take out a ville of…what, a thousand people, give or take a hundred traders or so should be a concern to anyone.”
“The closest territory is…” Mary trailed off, finding that she couldn’t think of the name of the next Barony. She’d never been told by anyone. Rykerville had been her whole world, until a night of blood and fire, and a dust covered savior. “I don’t know,” she admitted, embarrassed at her ignorance. “I’ve never needed to know. Rykerville was the only place I’ve ever lived, and the settlement we were going to start was as far as I was probably ever going to go.”
Simon nodded. “I understand,” he told her. His eyes scanned the treeline behind them, never resting on one place too long. “There was a time, centuries before Skydark, when someone’s whole world, his whole life, was spent in one little area maybe twenty miles around. Widely traveled people would maybe travel eighty miles from their homes.”
He rested his arm across her shoulders.
“Don’t worry about it. Maybe one of the others know.”
The smell of coffee-sub greeted them when Mary and Simon returned, Simon scratching absently where the side of his face was scabbed over, wounds left by a mutie in Rykers employ. Bray, a swampie, had been nearly unkillable, shrugging off mortal wounds like most norms would shrug off a bee sting. It had finally taken a full clip from a heavy .45 to keep him down.
Simon shook his head slightly as they walked into the small camp.
So much had changed from his time. Not much of it for the better.
But, at the same time, things were much more honest.
Barons made no pretense of being benevolent, not like the politicians and policymakers of the twentieth century. You knew where you stood with the leaders of the Deathlands.
He recalled a saying from Rykerville he’d heard: “If a Baron demands, he’s strong. If he asks, he’s weak. If he smiles, watch your back.”
He accepted the tin cup handed to him by Tanna and sipped, braced for the bitter, burned acorn flavor of coffee-sub, but was pleasantly surprised with the smooth mild flavor.
His raised eyebrow was answered by Tanna.
“My father knew three things,” she said. “He knew how to gamble. He knew how to fight, and he knew how to use the world around him, especially plants.”
“He was an herbalist?” Simon asked, taking another sip.
Tanna nodded. “That was the word he used. He showed me some things. How to ease pain, stop infections, what can be eaten,” she nodded at the bubbling pot. “And what can be drunk.”
Sam looked up from checking the edge of one of his knives. “He could make medicines?”
“Could be handy at the next ville if’n you know some ‘a what he did.” Sam told her. “Daggerville’s Baron’s said to be sick alla time, can’t sleep, can’t fight ‘cause his joints hurt all the time. You know anything fer that?”
Tanna nodded. “ I know some things for pain,” she replied. “Salves mostly. I can make some in a day or so. I just need to find the right leaves.”
“Later,” Simon said. The others looked at him. “We’ve got to go. We were lucky last night that Ryker’s muties didn’t come any farther than they did. Tonight, I’ll bet the fuckers’ll roam. And we won’t want to be here.”
Sam nodded. “Yep. We was gonna go last night, but then the sec-men showed.”
Simon sat, looked thoughtful for an instant.
“Think they got transport?” Morgan asked. Simon raised an eyebrow.
Mary gave a slight nod to her lover.
“I’d bet on it.” Simon replied, remembering a set of keys he’d found on one of the stone-chillers.
John Stentson pulled back the bolt on his blaster.
“Then let’s find it.”
He looked through windows made from old bottles melted down and poured into moulds. Impurities flecked the surface, specks of black here and there. The glass was more translucent than transparent, only allowing light, not sight through it’s distorting, wavering flaws.
He was an old man, older than anyone else he’d ever met. His teeth were barely a memory, his hair only a wisp fringing his ears. Hunched over, he looked more like a dwarf, misshapen at birth by the nukeblight, not at all like the six feet he’d stood in the proud days of his youth. When he breathed, he could hear, even above the wheezing of his lungs the creaking of weakened bone, worn ribs waiting to crack from the labor of breathing for far too many years.
Mordicai, who’d forgotten his last name before the Baron was even born, blinked rheumy eyes as a beam of sunlight broke free from the chemclouds and shone on his face.
The old man shuffled away from the window as the beam faded. He turned toward the bed he slept in, the bed soon to be his deathbed, he felt.
Death, at long last was coming for him.
He could feel the bony fingers tapping him on the shoulder, waiting for him to turn around.
He sighed, lay down…and struggled to keep breathing, defiant to the last.
Quickly, he passed into sleep. He’d sleep there for an hour, then rise, perhaps eat from the offerings left to him by people who remembered his legend, though those were becoming fewer, as they died, and he lived on, their children leaving less and less for him, uncaring for the covenant that their parents had offered.
Memories passed through his sleeping mind, sharper than the images of the waking mind. He remembered the shining steel and gleaming polished stone, the squeaking of rubber soled shoes on waxed concrete. The smell of predark, industrial cleaners that smelled of citrus. The smile of a woman as she moved on him, her flesh sweating over him, her sex squeezing gently as her head flung back.
The old man smiled in his sleep, dreaming of the past that had condemned him.
They moved two by two through the forest, following the trail the sec-men had made. Birds chirped around them, some not even disturbed by the passing of the party beneath them.
John led the way, his blaster slung behind him as he bent to examine a footprint pressed into the grassy loam. Morgan stood just behind him, his M-16 held at the ready, his finger ready to loose a barrage of 5.56 rounds.
Behind him were Tanna and Sam, who rested his left arm on one of his jutting knife hilts, while the girl watched Morgan and Stentson as they followed the track, her eyes spotting and identifying various plants and their properties. She would bend and pick some every now and then, putting them into the pillow case she carried, to be sorted, tied or used later.
Taking up slack was Simon and Mary, who walked along silently, even though they were the most heavily burdened of the group, with backpacks stuffed full, and military body armor weighing them down. Sweat beaded on Simon’s forehead, and he saw Mary was also sweating, salts standing out on her clothing in white, wavering lines.
But she made no complaint.
Simon adjusted the straps of the pack again, easing the pressure that was cutting into his shoulders, then he checked his weapons again, in a motion that was becoming automatic.
First, his handgun, a .45 caliber H&K USSOCOM Phase II, the military version of the civilian USP45 pistol, a big, black polymer framed handcannon, generically referred to in Deathlands argot as a “big-ass blaster.” The extended barrel protruded from the slide, for the included silencer which when attached would extend the muzzle nearly nine inches.
At the moment, it was loaded with 230-grain black-coated SXT rounds, which fired fifty feet faster than the Black Talon™ rounds he was used to.
Then he checked the blade at his side.
The big blade, which at twenty inches was more of a short sword, was the only thing he retained from his past, his original blaster, a modular multi-round assassin’s gun was gone, along with the ring he’d taken from his dead fathers rotting finger.
The metal of the blade was a titanium alloy, anodized flat black for night work, and held a razor’s edge with very little upkeep.
He checked the flensing knife he had clipped to the belt at the small of his back, just below the vest he wore. The thin blade was razor sharp, and Simon considered using it later to shave the stubble that was beginning to rough up his face.
Stentson held up a hand, and everyone stopped, crouching down. He pointed towards a stand of trees, with a abnormally thick growth of bushes about it. Looking closer, they could see what John had spotted, that a number of the bushes had been shorn off near the root, and piled up.
“I’m checking for boobies,” John whispered. He began crawling on his belly, checking for wires, though realistically, the sec-men would’ve boobied the wag itself, knowing the only way somebody would find it out here was if they were dead.
“I’ll look for hiders,” Simon hissed, then slid backwards, slipped the backpack off, and vanished into the undergrowth, disappearing in the darkness of the shadows, and the near perpetual twilight of the glowing chemclouds that choked the sky.
“He’s good,” Sam hissed to Mary. “Quiet as mist.”
Morgan tapped Sam on the shoulder, pointing to where John now stood, next to the pile of brush.
Simon slid through the grass, under the low hanging branches of trees and brush. His dark eyes scanned back and forth, searching for anything out of the ordinary.
That brought a smile to his lips for a moment.
Whatever that meant these days.
He came to a stop, something registering in his mind that his eyes hadn’t caught yet. He tried the trick of looking out the corner of his eye, using peripheral vision, then zeroing in on what he had subconsciously seen.
A pair of boots stuck out from under a tree, moving slightly, like the wearer was moving them to music, except the movements were too jerky for that.
Drawing his black blade, holding it point down, he pulled himself forward.
The owner of the boots moaned. Simon frowned as the sound was repeated.
It was a sound of ecstacy, of pure unadulterated bliss.
On a hunch, Graydon picked up and threw a stone, the small rock striking the foot closest to him, the only response a repeated groan of pleasure.
Getting to his feet, Graydon duck walked over to the man, likely a sentry left by the sec-men to guard their ride, only to recoil in horror, nearly falling then getting his feet back under him and backing away, a thrill of horror clutching at his chest.
The man lay there, the silver ‘R’ on his chest glinting in the occasional flare from an overhead chemcloud. He held an ancient looking .38 in his right hand, pointing away from him. His clothing was in good repair, one of the perks of being a sec-man. A half opened folding knife had fallen out of the man’s left hand, the SpyderCo™ serrated blade shining like a steel coal in the dimness.
Simon heard a slight cheeping from his left side, and sweat burst from his forehead, washing away the grime and dirt from his crawl.
Transfering the blade from his left hand to his right, Simon lifted the collar of his shirt, tucked under the armor, and the volume of the beeping increased slightly.
He glanced at the rad-badge, seeing the indicator edging into the near edge of yellow, out of the green.
Dangerous, but not instantly lethal.
Not as lethal as what he was staring at.
The moaning sec-man’s skin was rippling, lines tracing along his arms and face, as if something were swimming through the man. His eyes were white, not rolled up, but leeched of all color, and Simon could see something moving just beyond them. Hands clutched convulsively, and veins moved with something other than a pulse.
There was a ripping sound, and Simon stumbled back, then he turned and ran back in the direction of the others, heedless of any traps that may have been set.
Anything to get away from the horror he’d just seen.
The horror of the man’s flesh bursting open, spilling out huge reddish worms that twisted and gnarled, turning upon each other and their dying host, devouring themselves in a bloody feast.
Simon didn’t look back, didn’t see the boots flop over to the side, or the clothes flutter as worms fought each other for the still warm meat they had sprung from.
All he knew was that he could hear a chittering, almost overwhelming the sounds of hundreds of sucking, working mouths.
He ran harder.
John was looking over the wag, having pulled the bushes away after making sure they weren’t wired. Morgan was with him, leaving Tanna and Sam to keep watch, while Mary sorted through the effects of her pack. She hadn’t been able to keep an accurate inventory as Simon had packed things into both, so now, with some spare time, she was determined to find out what he’d given her to carry.
Back at the wag, a lightly armored vehicle that was so hybridized that it no longer bore any resemblance to the Ford truck it had once been, Morgan pointed at a white wire protruding from under the dash.
“There it is,” he said. “Look for a switch under there.” John grunted and forced himself under, the only one of the two of them who could wedge himself in the space beneath.
“Fetch this, look there,” he muttered. “I swear, I’m gonna blast somebody.” He found the switch, and flipped it. Then, with a lot of grunting, he pulled himself out, to see Morgan’s grinning face.
“Did you say something?”
“I said I found something.” He nodded towards the ignition. “Give’er a try.”
Morgan climbed aboard, turned the key Simon had given him.
The engine coughed, then roared to rattling life!
John slapped the side of the wag. “Yeah, you whoreson! Yeah!” He looked at Morgan, and said; “Give it some juice!”
With no gas pedal, Morgan pulled what he assumed to be the throttle, a geared lever that had a spring lock and grip release. When he pulled, the engine coughed again, then got stronger, the engine burning the ill-processed gas better as it warmed.
The muffler, apparently in good shape, kept the noise of the engine down to a dull rumble, allowing conversation.
John asked; “What’s the fuel gauge say?”
Morgan glanced at it. “ ‘Bout half-full. But I don’t trust it. Could be a whole lot less, and we’re burnin’ it up.” He eased the throttle back to it’s lowest setting, then shut it down. “Let’s look around in here a bit,” he suggested. He looked in the back, where supplies were crammed. They could all fit now, with some cramping, but if they could find some gas stored back there, then a little more room could be made as the empties were discarded, or tied to the roof.
Calling Tanna over, the three of them began their work sorting through the collected mess in the back of the truck. Near the back, they found what they were looking for, three olive drab cans that sloshed near full, which, when opened filled the tight interior with the smell of gas and moonshine.
“We supposed to burn it or drink it?” asked John. Morgan gestured at the open gas intake.
The shootist snorted, then tipped the end up, listening to the gurgling as the can emptied.
While John did that, Morgan took another look at their new wag. A thin skin of steel had been riveted over the doors and windshield, coming down over the hood and stopping midway at the radiator. Another sheet was welded to this one, but angled up, anchored to where the bumper would have been, forming a wedge, and protecting the engine from the front.
Heavier plate had been riveted to the sides and back, showing fading rust spots where the acid had scoured the oxides off, leaving shining metal beneath. The tires were protected by a projecting ridge of metal, sticking five inches from the side, with sheets of light steel hanging from chains that swayed slightly in the breeze. The metal would swing from side to side, striking the sides of the wag, but would give good protection from arrows or the muzzle-loading blasters that the common folk had.
His inspection was interrupted by Simon, who burst out of the brush and charged for the wag.
Sam cursed, startled by the man, as did John, who nearly let go a burst from the AK-47 he held.
“Everyone! In the wag! Now!” Simon shouted, latching onto Mary’s arm just as she finished stuffing the last of her belongings into the backpack.
John swept the area with the muzzle of his blaster, looking for an enemy, leaving the empty gas can on the ground. He didn’t see anything.
Sam grabbed the young man. “What’s comin’?” he demanded, gasping as the arm he’d grabbed flung him off with an almost contemptible ease.
Simon whirled, faced the old man. “Worms, old man. I saw worms. Eating a sec-man they’d left to guard the wag. They burst outta his belly, and all he could do was moan. They got him chewed to the bone by now, the way they were going…and I’ll bet that they follow my trail right back here.”
He pushed Mary toward the wag, not being very gentle. “We’re hauling ass now! Any one wants to come, get it in gear.”
Sam’s face had paled. “Worms? Big, ‘bout a foot long?”
Sam plunged into the wag after Mary crawled in, followed by the others. Morgan slammed the door shut, and turned the key.
And nothing happened.
“Motherfucker!” Morgan cursed, slamming his hand against the dash. Then he tried again.
The engine sputtered this time, then caught with a rumble. Morgan pulled the gear shift, an automatic, and settled it into ‘D’, then pulled the throttle lever back.
With a lurch, the wag started forward, the protective wheel-plates clanging against the riveted steel sides. Morgan aimed for a small stand of brush, and the sheer weight of the wag bulldozed through, leaving sheared off stumps.
He hauled the wheel to the left, and the wag settled into a pathway worn by Traders and travelers on their way to and from Rykerville.
Sam was shouting over the clamor of the wheel-plates.
“Chemstorm must’ve gone through a hotspot. I’ve seen it before! It must’ve sucked up some’a them bastards an’ dropped’em here. They’ll die inna few days, but them wood’re gonna be fucked while they’re there! I heard tella ‘em when my Ma ‘n Pa was still alive. They live in hotspots, eat any meat they kin find. Turn green just before they die. But if’n they’re red, yer dead, my Pa would say. He told me that seein’ ‘em at work was the scariest thing he’d ever seen.”
Simon, now over his fear, grinned at Mary. “Well,” he said loudly, over the noise. “They sure scared the crap outta me.”
There was a startled gasp in the darkness.
An old hand flailed about, found and turned the wick on a coal-oil lantern. The old man, blinking his rheumy eyes at the sudden light struggled up, until he was sitting. He swung his legs, stiff with age over the side of his cot, and settled them on the ground.
Wiping at the sweat on his face, he felt the whiskers rasp against the callused pads on his fingers, realized he needed to shave.
Before the Commander…
Blinking again, he realized where he was, when he was and exhaled loudly.
Why had he woken up, he asked himself. Had he felt Death coming, walking through his dreams, reaching out to lead him to rest?
Cursing himself for a coward, knowing that if he’d slept longer maybe he’d be free of this crippled old body, he stood, feeling every joint in his body crack.
A pot of steaming coffee-sub sat on his table, put there not much more than five minutes before.
Likely, he told himself, likely that was what had woke him. Someone creeping into his little room, setting down the pot with a slight clatter, starting the slide to wakefulness.
He chuckled with a sense of gallows humor.
“I’ve got to stop this fuckin’ wag!” Morgan roared. He pressed on the brake, then eased the throttle lever down to it’s lowest setting. Then he twisted the key, shutting down the engine, filling the wag with silence, which was louder than the engine’s rumble.
They’d lost the muffler nearly three hours before, on a jutting rock that had miraculously missed the oilpan, transmission and gas tank. The engine had roared since then, deafening the passengers of the wag.
Morgan opened the door, and stepped out, stretching his arms, leaning back and feeling vertebrae pop. His ears, always a little sensitive were ringing now, the pitch rising and falling, each wave in time with the pounding of his aching head. He stumbled around the back of the wag, his bladder near full to bursting.
Behind him, everyone else clambered out, each grateful that the hellish ride was over for the nonce.
Mary sat down on the ground, her hands cupping her ears, tears squeezing out from between closed eyelids. Her world was a whining, banging madhouse, only now beginning to fade.
She blinked, saw the shape of Simon looking down at her, concern plainly on his face.
He knelt, looked into her tear-filled eyes. “Are you all right?” he asked her, placing a hand on her shoulder.
She nodded in reply, not yet trusting her voice.
Simon nodded, then stood and looked around, blinking as his gaze took in their surroundings.
The road they’d been following had faded into a hard-packed trail, weaving between rocks covered with lichens, and tall trees covered with leaves and filled with shadows. Just beyond the stand was a hill, or what remained of one, earth tremors having knocked it down, only to raise it again, this time split deeply down the middle, thrusting up through a large patch of trees like a broken tooth.
No birds fluttered in the gloom, and no animals stirred the grass or leaves.
Simon looked over his right shoulder as he heard someone walking up behind him.
John stopped alongside, drawing even with Simon. “This is the worst place we could’a stopped,” he said. Simon nodded his agreement.
“Could have been better. Not much we can do about it though. Morgan was going crazy from the noise, and so was Mary.”
Simon’s eyes flicked. Was that movement just ahead? “You’d better go around and make sure Morgan’s all right. Sam and the girls, too. And while you’re over there, check our back trail. I’m betting a lot of traders stop here before they go on.”
Hearing a quiet note of urgency in Simon’s voice, John nodded, unslung his weapon and pulled back the bolt as he passed Sam and the young oriental girl Tanna.
Both looked up at the familiar noise, and as Tanna opened her mouth to speak, Sam laid a hand on her shoulder, silencing her and nodded at the passing shootist.
“Yeah,” the old man said quietly. He laid a hand on the grip of one of the Bowies.
Dark eyes stared out at the wag and it’s passengers. The eyes settled longest on the women, then swept back to the machine. The owner of the eyes knew that others would be looking at the blasters the men carried, the clothes they wore, the stuff they carried.
All of them knew their jobs, knew when to strike.
The outlaws had lived and preyed here for the last few years, living off the traders that foolishly traveled singly along this trail, leaving the other, more heavily armed caravans alone.
A copper bound club was clutched in memory and anticipation.
Single wags like this were the meat on the table, he thought to himself, the passing thought of meat drawing a silent snicker from the watcher. They’d wait for the signal, then set out on them, killing the men, stealing everything they had, and using the women until they were too hoarse from screaming. Then, into the pot they’d go.
Lips pulled back over blackened, file-sharpened teeth.
Yeah, slutmeat was always best if tenderized a little.
Waiting for the sign, the cannie’s disjointed thoughts tripped along, opening doors on visions of red, bloody slaughter.
Standing well back, hidden in the trees, feverishly bright eyes glinted. A hand, scarred from fire reached up, caressing the glinting cross that hung from his neck, a holy item from times past. Long gray hair moved slightly in the breeze, framing a face lined with hard years. Teeth, yellowed but still strong bared slowly as the hand, blessed by the cross, eased down, under the dark coat of tattered canvas.
Mary’s blue eyes blinked.
For an instant, through rapidly drying tears, she thought she’d seen a man’s shape in the trees, revealed by a swaying limb. She squinted, trying to see through the darkness, the hairs on her arms rising, her breathing beginning to speed up, rising blood pressure and adrenaline surges wiping away her headache in a flood.
She felt something click in her eyes, and sweat burst from her forehead as the woodlands shot towards her as though she were looking through a spyglass. She could almost see the veins of the leaves, and the swirl of pollen in the slight wind, which felt to her to be a rushing, deafening windstorm.
Mary could see the dark patched clothing of a man, and behind him, with startling clarity the shapes of more men.
Morgan knew there was trouble.
He knew it when his palms suddenly became damp, and his mouth dried completely.
He looked around, doing a doubletake when his eyes settled on shrub growing on a small mound, how it was brown, the leaves curling, while other shrubs around it were green and healthy.
Immediately, his gaze raked over his surroundings, picking up at least six of the dead plants.
Just before the ground beneath them erupted.
Mary's breath caught in her throat as figures surged from the woods, waving pitted blades and clubs, hauling on long barreled homemade blasters, sending out snarling dogs the size of wolves before them.
She drew her blaster, and triggered it in a heartbeat. One of the lead dogs fell, howling it’s pain as it’s left front leg blew off at the shoulder. Her blaster roared again, and the man behind the dog fell, bone and intestine blowing out his back in a welter of blood.
Simon’s blaster was also speaking, joining the cacophony as Tanna’s sawed-off erupted in flame. .45 slugs and double ought pellets shot out, rupturing flesh and breaking bone, blood misting the air like a crimson fog.
Long-blasters cracked, and from the clouds of poorly made black powder, balls flew out in subsonic corkscrews, none of them hitting their targets, but near misses kicked up clods of dirt at their feet.
Simon dropped a clip, slapped another home.
Began firing again.
A hand, deep in the darkness of the woods raised, fingers splayed.
Morgan fired his blaster, the M-16 blowing holes in the figures that crawled out of the holes beneath the shrubs, canvas coverings stuck with twigs and dirt flinging back. They hefted clubs, and homemade leafspring blades, forged in clay furnaces back in their camp.
The blaster clicked empty, and Morgan Garrett smashed the butt of the assault rifle into the face of the closest of the attackers, shattering teeth and skull alike.
Then he was swept over like a sand castle in a tidal wave.
Sam saw the giant go down, and fired the last round in his wheel gun into the mass boiling before him, then he dropped the useless blaster, his hands filling with his blades.
He held his left blade point down, against his forearm. The other he held point up, a momentary flash of sunlight making the blade shine like a mirror.
He swayed slightly as the first came at him, catching the steel pipe with the right blade, deflecting it, and letting momentum carry his attacker past him, the man stumbling. Then the man shrieked as the left bowie stabbed down, impaling his heart.
He dropped, then Sam swung the heavy blade in his right hand, and opened the side of another’s neck, arterial spray jetting, blinding his companions, two more of whom fell to the ground, victims to Sam’s uncanny skill before the remaining rammed into the old man, and a metal club rose and fell.
The hand remained up.
Mary was on her third clip, shell casings glinting around her on the ground when she heard Tanna scream.
She spun, and saw the old man fall beneath the wave. Her blaster kicked in her hand, and in one of those moments that hangs forever, saw the metal club shatter and fly from the wielder’s hand as it began it’s second arc towards Sam’s bleeding head.
The slide locked open, and Mary fumbled for another. There was a brief moment of pain as a copper bound club spun from the mass of attackers and rebounded from her skull, then darkness fell across her eyes.
John fired methodically, single shots taking out stomachs, groins, heads and throats. He cursed as he wasted three bullets on an exceptionally large raider, rivaling Morgan in height, though not bulk. The 7.62 slugs broke bones as they plowed through, but the man kept coming, falling only feet away.
John had seen the big Morgan fall, snarled as Sam had been swept under. He saw the slaughter at Rykerville again, people falling beneath a horde of crazed Muties, and with a grimace of determination, he flicked the selector to full, emptying the curved clip in one long hail of death.
The wall of attackers was flung back by the blast of supersonic steel.
He dropped the clip, and grabbed another from his pouch, the weight comforting as he lifted it, the sliding click a sweet melody as it seated, the pulling back of the bolt and thunk of it’s return a warrior’s drum roll, and the sound of firing a shout from God himself.
Bodies littered the ground around them, Simon blinking sweat from his eyes, trying to hear past the ringing in his ears. His arms ached from the recoil of his blaster, the small pile of clips at his feet a testimonial to the number of rounds fired.
Breathing heavily, his eyes searched for attackers, seeing none. He saw Sam, his hands feebly moving as Morgan, scraped and bruised, rivulets of blood dripping from a knife wound in his shoulder, lifted two bodies off of the old man, each one impaled to the hilt by Sam’s blades. John stumbled through the smokey air, the rifle probing the air before him, searching for another target.
The raiders were all dead, some twenty in all, not including the dogs that had run away. They had been completely overcome in those first few seconds by the group’s superior firepower, mowed down to a man.
Then, his eyes stopped, and with a shout of despair, Simon sprang towards the dark clothed figure sprawled out on the ground, his eyes settling on the blood pooling around her head.
He fell down beside her, gently lifting Mary’s head, feeling her pulse strong beneath his fingers, sluggish blood flowing from her scalp, where a ragged gash gaped.
He heard Tanna gasp, and looking up, saw her looking over his shoulder.
Graydon slowly turned his head, looked back on the wood, and at the line of figures emerging from the gloom.
In the dark of the wood, the hand slashed down.