Authors: James Axler
HARLEQUIN ENTERPRISES LTD.Prologue
The creature exploded out of the laurel bushes and charged across the dirt road, its four arms raised for a fast chill, the black talons dripping green venom.
“Ambush!” sec chief Charles Donovan cried, flicking off the safety on his massive crossbow. “Gene and Rosemary, stay with the cart! Everybody else, form a firing line!”
As the team of horses whinnied in fear, the sec man in the buckboard wagon holding the reins tried to control the animals while his partner lifted a balanced pair of throwing axes into view. Meanwhile the rest of the platoon brandished their crossbows and formed a defensive line between the charging monster and the imperial treasure cart. Assuming a marksman stance, Donovan aimed his heavy crossbow and fired. A split second later the other sec men did the same with their smaller version, unleashing a maelstrom of wooden shafts.
Bristling with arrows, the creature recoiled from the staggering impacts, but the heavy wooden slats covering the giant man were not penetrated. Bellowing loudly, the armored coldheart shook his two arms in rage, the fake arms suspended underneath them duplicating the motion precisely. Then a second armored man came out of the bushes, closely followed by two more.
“Keep firing!” Donovan bellowed, reaching over a shoulder to pull a stone quarrel from the quiver on his back.
At the sight of the additional coldhearts, the Anchor ville sec men needed no prompting to work the levers on their complex crossbows, the wooden machinery automatically drawing back the bow string and feeding another half-size arrow into the firing notch from the box magazine mounted on top. They fired in unison, and one of the attackers dropped to a knee, blood pouring from a small gap between his leg and belly.
Stepping protectively in front of their wounded brother, the other coldhearts coughed inside their misshapen headmasks, and something flashed across the dirt road too fast to see clearly.
Dropping their weapons, two of the sec men staggered backward. Gurgling horribly, they raked fingernails along their throats, desperately clawing at the tiny feathered darts buried in their skin. Already their flesh was turning a bilious green, and flecks of foam began to appear on their deathly pale lips.
Pausing for only a moment, Donovan mercifully shot an arrow through the head of the nearest sec man, while the rest of the platoon did the same for the second man. There was no antidote for kraken poison.
Reloading quickly, the sec men fired again, wounding another of what they called Hillies. Retreating slightly, the coldhearts coughed again, but ready thistime, the sec men managed to dodge the incoming darts successfully. However, that was when Donovan suddenly noticed a dozen figures moving among the trees edging the road. Shitfire, he thought, the rad-suckers had to have brought along the whole tribe for this attack! The grim man had no idea how the bastards knew about the cargo in the treasure wag, but there was no way he was going to let his baron’s prize fall into the dirty hands of these stinking inbreed throwbacks.
Tossing aside his loaded crossbow, Donovan clawed open the sealed holster at his side and hauled a predark blaster into view. Lovingly polished every day, the revolver shone rainbow bright with the reflected lights of the aurora borealis filling the sky.
“Akhmed, Hannigan, watch the trees,” Donovan shouted, sliding a single brass round into the blaster and closing the cylinder with a jerk of his wrist. “Everybody else, flanking positions.”
Launching another volley, the sec men hastily reloaded and quickly formed a wing formation behind their chief. Coughing out more darts, the Hillies bellowed angrily, then charged, concentrating on a young sec man struggling to clear an arrow jammed in the loading mechanism of his crossbow.
Hastily taking aim, Donovan fired, and a Hilly stopped running, blood pouring from the mouth of his carved wooden mask. But even as the dying coldheart sank to his knees, the rest of the Hillies converged on the teenager just as the jam came free. The sec man raised his weapon and fired, but the half-arrow only dully thudded into the thick chest armor of the leadcoldheart. Then the others struck, the bear talons on their four arms raking the youth, slicing him open and ripping out bloody gobbets of flesh.
Horribly shrieking, the sec man went backward, his uniform slashed apart and soaked with blood. Feebly, the youth clutched the ruin of his face, an eyeball dangling between his bloody fingers on the end of some white ganglia, then his belly opened wide and ropy intestines slithered out, steaming from the cold air as they fell onto the cold ground.
Without hesitation, the sec men aced their friend, then savagely hammered the hated mountain men with flight after flight of half-arrows, focusing on the narrow opening of the mouth in their grotesque masks. Waving their double set of arms as a distraction did nothing this time, and two of the Hillies slowed, red fluids trickling out of their wooden collars.
Unexpectedly, a boomerang flashed over the sec men to brutally hit the mask of an undamaged Hilly. The deadly ’rang did no damage to the stout oak armor, but the attack distracted the coldhearts for a moment, just enough time for Donovan to finish unearthing a second bullet.
Hastily firing, the sec chief carefully took out the knee of a Hilly, gore and splinters spraying into the trees. In a strangled cry, the coldheart feebly grabbed the wounded leg with his gigantic wooden gloves, trying to staunch the flow of life. However, designed to be frightening, the gloves were useless for the simple task and the blood continued to flow unchecked.
At the sight, the lead Hilly paused for a long moment, arrows hitting his armor in a steady patter. But he yanked something from around his waist and threw it down hard. Instantly there was an explosion of dark smoke, the roiling cloud rapidly swelling to fill the road for yards.
Quickly backing away from the mysterious fumes, the Anchor sec men shot half-arrows blindly into the smoke, but there were no answering thunks of a hit. Only the sound of heavy footsteps heading away, down the roadway toward the nearby shore.
With a start, Donovan realized that the mountain men had to be trying to reach a boat, which could only mean reinforcements, more weapons or, worse, escape. Nuke that drek! the sec chief mentally snarled. Nobody aced one of his sec men and lived to tell the fragging tale.
Donovan pulled in a deep breath and charged into the fumes, braced for a wave of searing pain. But nothing occurred, and when he finally had to breathe, there was only a sweet smell of flowers and kelp. Shitfire, it was only smoke, not poison.
“Stay with the wag,” the chief sec man bellowed, redoubling his speed into the murky cloud. “These gleebs are mine!”
“But, sir…” a sec woman began, taking a step forward.
“This could be a diversion,” Donovan shouted, pulling out an obsidian ax. “Stay with the wag.”
Just then something flew through the smoke, leaving spiraling contrails behind. So they had more darts, eh? Donovan grimaced, and tightened his grip on the ax and blaster.
Shouting a rally cry, the sec chief dodged to the side, and, as expected, more darts flashed by, missing him by only a few inches. Pausing to listen for their footsteps, Donovan heard only the rustle of the leaves in the trees, then there came the soft sound of waves cresting on the beach. Zigzagging through the smoke, the sec chief ran as fast as he could and as the fumes began to thin, there were the Hillies, both brandishing axes and coming his way. Another damn trap.
Diving forward, the man rolled under the swing of the double blades and came up standing behind the coldhearts. Shoving his blaster against the neck of the closest one, he fired, and the wooden helmet was blown off the man’s head, his face exploding outward in a horrible geyser of teeth and eyes.
As the last Hilly spun around, Donovan saw that it was their leader, the elaborate designs on the armor proclaiming his exalted rank. The two men locked gazes for a full heartbeat, each testing for any sign of fear, then they swung their war axes in unison. The heavy obsidian blades met in a strident crash and each ax shattered, razor-sharp shards of green volcanic glass flying everywhere.
Cursing vehemently, Donovan backed away, wiping at his stinging eyes, while the Hilly chuckled and pulled out a granite knife, the feathered edge gleaming bright as steel.
Swinging up his blaster, Donovan expertly met the thrust and stone clanged off metal, the sound loud in the thinning smoke.
“Shoulda stayed with your ville boys,” the coldheart said, a narrow slit displaying rows of rotten teeth.
Caught by surprise, Donovan almost flinched from the wave of fetid breath. It was worse than a burning dung pit. But the sec chief forced himself to stay close, and slam the wooden shaft of the broken ax against the side of the Hilly’s head. The wooden helmet thumped and shifted slightly, covering the coldheart’s eyes.
Snarling curses, the Hilly pulled back, one gloved hand fumbling with his helmet while the other waved the granite blade around wildly.
Accidentally the blade scored a blood slash across Donovan’s chest, and he cried out in pain. Then he changed targets and with his ax handle started battering at the arm holding the blade. Spitting in rage, the Hilly clawed for a lumpy globe hanging from around his waist, but Donovan smacked the hand aside and went on hammering the wooden glove. Splinters came free and the coldheart tried to shift the blade to his other glove, but Donovan managed to smack it away and the blade went spinning into the forest and disappeared among the bushes. The Hilly dropped his gloves and grabbed the sec chief by the throat.
Fighting to draw a breath, Donovan slammed his fists into the belly of the coldheart, but only managed to skin his knuckles against the battered armor. Thrusting upward, he then attempted to jam his fingers into an eye, but the slits were too narrow.
Chuckling, the Hilly tightened his hold, his thumbs crushing deep into the neck of the struggling man. “Time to die, ville boy,” the coldheart whispered.
Refusing to surrender, Donovan kept punching away even as his lungs began to ache then burn with theirneed for air. His heart was pounding in his chest and there was a growing ringing in his ears. Suddenly the world began to blur then spin out of control, black spots swimming in his sight, when the Hilly jerked and bizarrely released his grip.
Gasping for air, Donovan backed away and saw that an arrow was embedded in the Hilly’s helmet, blood trickling along the shaft.
Massaging his sore throat, Donovan looked up just as the treasure wag rolled into view out of the smoke, every sec man steadily firing flight after flight of half-arrows at the Hilly, the sec woman, Rosemary, triggering Donovan’s big crossbow.
Snarling in rage, the Hilly reached for a smoke bomb on his belt, and Rosemary fired, the heavy shaft pinning his bare hand to the wooden armor. The coldheart shrieked at the pain, then half-arrows slammed into his other hand, slicing off fingers.
Gibbering from the agony, the coldheart attempted to flee, clearly planning to simply throw himself off the cliff to escape his tormentors. But as he turned, a bald sec man threw a bolo. The stones tied to lengths of stout rawhide neatly spun across the intervening space and wrapped themselves tightly around the Hilly’s armored legs, trapping him in place.
Stopping the treasure wag, the sec men poured onto the road and swarmed the helpless coldheart, concentrating their half-arrows for the narrow eye slits in the wooden mask. The terrified mountain man raised his wounded arm as protection, and a flurry of half-arrows nailed it permanently in place.
“Pax! Pax!” the Hilly cried. “I surrender!”
“Tough,” Donovan croaked in a barely recognizable voice. He held out an empty hand, and somebody slapped an ax into his palm.
Tightening a fist around the fish-hide grip, the sec chief swung the weapon with all of his might and buried the polished granite blade deep into the back of the weeping coldheart. Then shouting curses, Donovan began hacking at the Hilly as if chopping down a tree. Chips flew off under the brutal impacts of the granite blade, then leather padding came into view and finally human skin….
When he was finished, Donovan wiped the cracked blade clean on his pants and returned the borrowed weapon to the bald sec man.
“Thanks,” Donovan whispered.
“Always got your back,” Hannigan said proudly, slinging the weapon over a shoulder. “Now we go after those others in the forest?”
In a rush of anger Donovan tried to speak, but could only cough for a few minutes. Akhmed passed over a gourd, and the sec chief pulled out the cork to pour the contents down his aching throat. The shine burned like fire, then the tenderness eased and he took his first deep breath for what seemed like an eternity.
“No,” the sec chief said, speaking almost normally. “There could be more tricks, more traps. We’re heading for home, and not stopping for anything until we have a wall around our asses again. Savvy?”
“No need to rush, Chief,” Gene said, both hands on the reins controlling the horses. “Whatever those thingswere in the forest, they skedaddled the minute that Hilly started eating dirt.”
“Hillies,” Rosemary snorted in contempt, resting a throwing ax on a shoulder. In spite of wearing the largest size of body armor available, her ample breasts were simply much too big, and deliciously muffined over the top. Every man privately enjoyed the delightful sight, but the sec woman’s dire expertise with a throwing ax kept them all respectful and courteous even when far away from the ville on patrol. “Think they knew what we’re carrying?” The woman glanced into the cart. Set among their piles of supplies, barrels of water and such was a wooden strongbox bolted to the floorboards. Without explosives, it would take a day to chop into the box, and the only way to steal it was to take the whole cart. This was the best the ville had, but what it contained was more valuable than black powder.
Making a face, Hannigan grunted. “Shitfire, if they knew what was in that box, the bastards would have sent a dozen coldhearts after us.”
“Can the chatter, and go collect your arrows,” Donovan ordered, passing the gourd back to Akhmed. “The damn things don’t grow on trees, ya know.”
Chuckling at the very old joke, the sec men dutifully retrieved the spent arrows, carefully pocketing the fletching and stone heads found with broken shafts. Sadly, quite a few of the half-arrows were gone, lost in the forest.
Reclaiming his crossbow, Donovan slung it over a shoulder, then hunted for the blaster. He found it in the bushes, undamaged, just smeared with blood and dirt.
“Here, I got the lead back for you, Chief,” MacDouglas said, proffering a small disfigured blob of gray metal.
“Thanks, Mack,” Donavan said, tucking the slug in a shirt pocket along with the spent brass.
“Excuse me, sir?” a bald sec man asked respectfully.
“What is it, Carson?”
“What should we do about the others?” the man asked, looking forlornly up the roadway. The herbal smoke was almost completely gone now, and the bodies of the fallen sec men could be clearly seen.
“We’re short on time,” the sec chief began, but then relented. “But we’ll wait. Take a shovel and bury your kin. Save their crossbows for the baron, but you can have everything else for their kin.”
“You want a hand?” Akhmed asked, tucking some loose fletching into a pocket.
Shaking his head, Carson got a shovel from the cart, then trundled off to drag a tattered corpse into the bushes and perform the odious task in private.
Shrugging his crossbow into a more comfortable position, Hannigan scowled at the aced Hilly lying mutilated in the churned dirt. “That was a hell of a scary mask,” he said, speaking as if the words had a bad taste. “Ya think the bastard based it upon a real mutie? Something from one of the outer islands? Those got hit a lot worse than us in the endwar.”
“Makes sense,” Akhmed replied, clearly unconvinced. “Unless the ocean currents have changed again. Remember when that mutie that looked like a man butwas covered with suckers washed ashore from the mainland?”
“Oh, don’t be a feeb,” Gene snapped impatiently. “There ain’t no mainland anymore. The whole damn world got nuked during the Big Heat. There’s only this chain of islands, nothing more. Baron Griffin says so.”
The unflappable sec man shrugged in dismissal. “If you say so, cousin.” Thunder rumbled above and Donavan climbed into the back of the cart to drape a tarpaulin over the strongbox. It didn’t really need the additional protection, even if it was acid rain coming, but he felt it wise to be cautious with this cargo. A slave had found the treasure on the shore, of all places, and immediately turned it over to Baron Griffin for the promised reward of freedom. It was granted, the baron always kept his word. However, once the former slave was outside the ville where none of the civies could see, the sec men on the walls had shot him down in cold blood. Slaves were not allowed on the beach under any circumstances, and the punishment was death. The ancient laws ruled supreme on Royal Island, even when their transgression yielded the greatest treasure in the world.
Metal. A big jagged chunk of rusty, corroded, glorious metal. Almost a full ten pounds. None of the sec men had any idea what the irregular lump had once been, but soon the ville blacksmith would convert it into a new hinge for the front gate, edging for a dozen knives and deadly tips for a hundred war arrows, vital protection needed by the ville against the hairy-ass barbs in the west, and that tricky bitch Wainwright to the fareast. Anchor ville sat smack between the two, cursed with a baron more interested in dance and song than chilling. They were thankful for his wife. Lady Griffin was more of a warrior than any ten sec men in the ville.
Including me, Donovan grudgingly admitted in private. Plus, the busty woman was also a lusty sex partner. The woman fought like a sec man and fucked like a gaudy slut. Now, that was a real woman! A proper ruler for any ville. It was just bad luck that the Book of Blood had decreed she had to marry that smiling feeb from Northpoint ville. But then, the Book had to be obeyed. End of discussion. Only the throwbacks, barbs and Hillies screwed whomever they wished, which was why so many of them were born…different.
Dragging the dirty shovel behind, Carson returned from the bushes, looking years older. Shoving the wooden tool into a leather boot set alongside the cart, the sec man wordlessly assumed his position alongside Gene on the front seat. His shoulders were slumped, but his rapidfire crossbow was primed, and Carson looked hard at the foggy bushes and trees, as if eager for an attack on the group so that he would have an excuse to chill something, anything at all.
“All right, mount up,” Donovan commanded, sitting on the treasure box and placing the loaded crossbow across his lap. “Let’s go home.”
High over, the cloudy sky was alive with the multicolored radiance of the daily aurora borealis. Softly in the distance, thunder rumbled, warning of an approaching storm.Chapter One
The thud of a heavy bolt disengaging echoed in the Stygian gloom. Then with squealing hinges, the oval portal in the rusty wall ponderously swung aside, resisting every inch of the way.
Holding road flares and blasters, two men stepped through the opening and warily looked around the darkness, ready for any possible danger. The sputtering flares gave off a wellspring of light, but there was nothing in sight but some old-fashioned gym lockers attached to the riveted steel walls and a couple of plastic benches thick with dust.
“Fireblast, where the fuck are we?” Ryan Cawdor muttered uneasily, tightening his grip on a SIG-Sauer 9 mm blaster. A Steyr longblaster was hung across the broad back of the one-eyed man, and a panga was sheathed at his side.
“Beats the hell out of me,” J. B. Dix muttered uneasily, the harsh light of the road flare reflecting off his wire-rimmed glasses. “But it doesn’t resemble any redoubt I’ve ever seen before.”
Dressed in a worn jacket and battered fedora, the wiry man was cradling a Smith&Wesson M-4000 shotgun in both hands, and an Uzi machine blaster hungacross his back. At his side was a lumpy munitions bag packed with high-explosive ordnance, a homemade pipe bomb jutting out slightly for easy access.
“Agreed,” Ryan growled, straining to hear any movement in the murky shadows. But the silence seemed absolute, as if they were the last two people in the world.
This room should have been the control room for the redoubt, jammed full of humming machinery, winking lights and scrolling monitors. Instead, it seemed to be inside some kind of abandoned gymnasium. Even stranger, there was a strong smell of living green plants in the dusty atmosphere, which should have been flat-out impossible.
Built by the U.S. government before the last nuke war, the redoubts, massive military fortifications controlled by banks of advanced computers, were hidden underground, safely sealed away from the outside world. Powered by the limitless energy of nuclear reactors, the subterranean forts were safe havens of clean air and purified water, a tiny oasis of life secretly buried deep within the radioactive hellzone of North America.
When the companions had arrived at this location, the mat-trans unit promptly blew and everything had gone dark. Patiently, they’d waited for the system to automatically reboot. But when that didn’t happen, they were left with no other option than to proceed deeper into the strange redoubt and hope that they could find an exit to the surface. The possibility that the redoubt was located at the bottom of a glowing nuke crater or covered by the wreckage of a fallen skyscraper wassomething they tried very hard not to think about. If this was the end of the trail, so be it. Everybody died, that was just the price you paid for the gift of life.
Reaching the middle of the metal room, Ryan and J.B. exhaled in relief as they spotted a way out of the gymnasium, a circular metal door closed with an old-fashioned wheel lock, as if it were a bank vault. However, this door was heavily encrusted with corrosion, big flakes of rust fallen to the floor like autumn leaves. It was an unnerving sight.
After whistling sharply, Ryan waited expectantly. A few moments later four more people stepped from the gateway in combat formation, each of them carrying heavy backpacks, a softly hissing butane cigarette lighter and a loaded blaster.
“How peculiar, do…do I smell ivy?” Doc Tanner rumbled in a deep bass voice, brandishing a weapon in each fist.
Tall and slim, Theophilus Algernon Tanner seemed to have stepped out of another age with his frilly shirt and long frock coat. But the silver-haired scholar also sported a strictly utilitarian LeMat handcannon, along with a slim sword of Spanish steel, the edge gleaming razor-bright in the fiery light of the road flares.
“Ivy? Sure as hell hope not,” Krysty Wroth muttered.
The woman breathed in deeply, then let it out slow. Okay, she could smell plants nearby, but there was no trace of the hated ivy. Relaxing slightly, the woman eased her grip on the S&W Model 640 revolver.
A natural beauty, the redhead’s ample curves were barely contained by her Air Force duty fatigues. A bearskin coat was draped over her shapely shoulders. A lumpy backpack hung off a shoulder, and a gunbelt was strapped low around her hips.
“Weird place, what is?” Jak Lauren drawled, arching a snow-colored eyebrow. A big-bore .357 Magnum Colt Python was balanced in the pale hand of the albino teenager, the hammer already cocked into the firing position in case of trouble. A large Bowie knife was sheathed on his gunbelt, and the handle of another blade could be seen tucked into his combat boot.
“My guess would be some kind of a ready room,” Dr. Mildred Weyth countered, easing her grip on a Czech ZKR .38 target revolver. The stocky woman was dressed entirely in Army fatigues, and a small canvas medical bag hung at her side.
Before the maelstrom that ended civilization, Mildred had been a physician, but a medical accident had landed her in an experimental cryogenic freezing unit. A hundred years later, Mildred awoke to the living nightmare of the Deathlands, and soon joined the companions, both her vaunted medical skills and sharp-shooting ability earning her a place among their ranks.
“A ready room, yeah, that makes sense,” J.B. said hesitantly, tilting back his fedora. “Someplace where the predark soldiers arriving via the mat-trans unit could change into their uniforms.”
“Or out of them,” Ryan said, warily using the barrel of the SIG-Sauer to tease open the latch on a locker. As he gently pushed aside the thin metal door, the hinges squealed in protest and a small rain of reddish flecks sprinkled to the riveted floor.
Inside the locker Ryan found the moldy remains of what looked like civilian clothing hung neatly on hangers: sneakers on the floor, a Mets baseball cap on a small shelf, along with a small mirror and a few personal items covered with a thick layer of dust. Checking the door, the man found the expected picture of a smiling young woman cradling a newborn in her arms, the faint residue of a lipstick kiss still on the faded photograph. She was very pretty and wearing an incredibly skimpy bikini. Moving the flare closer for a better look, the Deathlands warrior then blinked at the sight of a gray plastic box on the shelf.
Balancing the flare on the edge of a bench, Ryan took down the box and slid the plastic lock to the side. The lid came free with a faint crack to expose a spotlessly clean .44 Ruger revolver, along with a cardboard box of ammunition. There was a brass brush for cleaning the cylinders, and even a small plastic bottle of homogenized gun oil.
Opening the box, Ryan half expected it to only contain some wad-cutters, cheap bullets used for target practice. They were virtually useless in a fight these days, except at point-blank range.
However, to his surprise, the box was nearly full of regulation U.S. Army combat cartridges, semijacketed hollowpoints, as deadly as brass came, and the ammo was in perfect condition. The man could not believe his luck. Thirty-four live rounds.
“Ready room, my ass. This is a ward room,” J.B. exclaimed, eagerly going to the next locker and pushing open the corroded door. Hanging inside was moredecaying clothing, a three-piece suit this time covered with tiny mushrooms, and on the shelf was an open gun case. The 9 mm Beretta pistol had been reduced to an irregular lump from the pervasive damp, the deadly weapon now as harmless as a roll of toilet paper.
Checking a locker in another row, Mildred discovered the sad remains of a flower-print dress, along with a matching half-jacket, and scarf. On the shelf were a few containers that the physician recognized as pricey cosmetics: organic foundation, dusting powder, mascara, a small tube of lipstick and a fancy glass perfume bottle. At the sight, the woman felt a rush of bittersweet memories from ancient high-school proms and dating medical students at college.
Reaching out to tenderly stroke the dress, Mildred frowned as the flimsy material crumbled away at her touch, the past returning to the past. However, hanging behind the rotting strips of cloth was a small shoulder holster containing a slim Beretta Belle. The 9 mm weapon was exactly what a woman would carry to not disturb the flowing lines of a formal ballgown or lightweight summer jacket. Interesting.
Gingerly extracting the blaster, Mildred saw that it was only streaked with surface corrosion. The Beretta could probably be salvaged with a thorough cleaning. Dropping the clip, Mildred found it fully loaded with oily cartridges that looked in fairly decent condition. Then she blinked. Those weren’t standard lead bullets, but Black Talons, armor-piercing rounds, extremely illegal for anybody to carry except special government agents.
Returning the blaster to the holster, Mildred rummaged about to locate a tiny decorative purse. As expected, she found only a plastic-coated driver’s license, some folded bills now thick with gray fuzz, an expired credit card, a lump of crud that might have once been some candy breath mints and a folded leather wallet. Opening it carefully, Mildred saw a faded picture of the owner, a slim blonde with a lot of freckles, and a laminated government-issue identification card bearing the Great Seal of the United States, and the embossed seal of the United States Navy, Special Operations.
“Well, I’ll be damned, this woman was Navy Intelligence,” Mildred said.
“A sec man?” Jak asked.
“An extremely good sec person,” Mildred corrected, with an odd sense of pride.
“Indeed, madam,” Doc said thoughtfully, easing down the hammer on his LeMat. “But more important, if she was a member of the United States Navy, then mayhap we are currently on a ship of some kind.” While the rest of the companions used modern-day weaponry, the Vermont scholar preferred his antique Civil War handcannon, primarily because it came from his own century. The black powder revolver was a deadly piece of home that the time traveler carried in his gunbelt as a constant reminder of better times, and better days, in a much more civilized world.
“A ship? That would explain the riveted walls and floors,” Krysty muttered, quickly checking the ceiling for vid cams or traps.
“Don’t feel waves,” Jak said carefully, trying to getany subtle sense of motion. “Not drifting at sea. Maybe in dock?”
“Not necessarily. If this is a ship, it would have to be enormous to hold a mat-trans unit,” J.B. theorized, adjusting his glasses. “Anything that huge and we’d never feel the waves unless trapped in the middle of a hurricane, and maybe not even then.”
“An aircraft carrier was certainly large enough to carry a mat-trans unit,” Mildred said, folding shut the Navy commission booklet. “The vessels were often called oceangoing cities, they were so huge. A carrier held a hundred jetfighters and a crew of over a thousand. More important, they were powered by nuclear reactors.”
“Tumbledown,” Jak said, as if that explained the matter.
Everybody present understood the cryptic reference. When skydark scorched the world, radioactive debris from the nuked cities rained down across the world. Houses had been found on mountaintops, toilet seats in the middle of a desert. Anything close to an atomic blast was vaporized, and after that objects melted and burned, but then they simply went airborne, including office buildings, suspension bridges and sometimes even warships.
“Buried alive,” J.B. whispered, his throat going tight.
“I consider that highly unlikely, my friend,” Doc rumbled pleasantly, recalling the brief smell of fresh greenery. “Plants need sunshine to live, even that accursed mutant ivy. So, whatever type of vessel this is, there must be a breach in the hull, and thus direct egress to the outside world.”
“Sounds reasonable,” J.B. said uneasily. “But the sooner we see daylight, the better.”
“Agreed,” Ryan stated roughly. “But we’re not leaving all of this live brass behind. Everybody grab a partner and do a fast recce of the lockers. Take only the brass, leave the blasters behind for a scav later.”
Nodding their agreement, the companions got busy. Moving steadily through the array of lockers, they soon amassed a staggering collection of clips, magazines, speed loaders and loose brass in a wide assortment of calibers, along with a couple of blasters in reasonably good condition. If there were any villes nearby, a functioning weapon could buy them a week of hot meals and clean beds, as well as other items in trade. There had even been a few grens, but the military spheres were so thick with layers of corrosion, any attempt to use the deadly explosive charges would be tantamount to suicide.
Naturally, there had not been anything usable for Doc’s black powder LeMat amid the civilian arsenal, but the scholar had discovered a .44 Ruger revolver, a sturdy weapon of devastating power, along with a full box of fifty hollowpoint Magnum cartridges.
Sheathing his sword into an ebony walking stick, Doc twisted the lion’s-head newel on top to lock it tight, then tucked the stick into his gunbelt. Testing the balance of the two monstrous handcannons, the old man decided that the combination was too much for him to easily handle, and wisely slipped the Ruger into one of his deep empty pockets.
Finished with their scavenging, the companionstucked away their various finds, then, assuming a combat formation, approached the circular door. The formidable barrier was veined with heavy bolt, the locking wheel situated in the middle. Ryan illuminated the door with a road flare and saw that it was firmly locked. But rust had eaten away the metal along the edge of the jamb, and there was a definite breeze blowing into the ready room, carrying a faint trace of plantlife and something else.
Pointing at the others, Ryan directed them to flanking positions on either side of the door while J.B. knelt on the floor and checked for traps. Angling his flare to give his friend some light, Ryan watched the man run fingertips along the rough surface of the door. Then he pressed an ear to the metal to try to detect any mechanical movements, and finally passed a compass along the material to check for any magnetic sensors or proximity triggers. After a few moments the Armorer tucked the compass away and smiled, proclaiming it was clean. At least, as far as he could tell.
Holstering his blaster, Ryan passed the flare to J.B. and exchanged positions with the man. Taking hold of the locking wheel, Ryan tried to turn the handle, but it stubbornly refused to move. Reaching into a pocket, he pulled out a small bottle of gun oil and squirted a few drops on the spindle and hinges, then tried again. Still nothing.
Brushing off some loose flakes of rust from the wheel, Ryan spit on his hands and got a firm grip. Bracing his boots for a better stance, the big man tried once more, this time putting his whole body into the effort,but very carefully increasing the pressure slowly to make sure the corroded metal didn’t shatter, sealing them inside the room forever. They had explosives, but sealed into a steel box, those would only be used as the very last resort.
Long moments passed with nothing happening. Then there came an audible crack and Ryan nearly fell over as the wheel came free and began to turn easily. As the bolts disengaged, he started to walk backward, slowly hauling the door open against the loudly protesting hinges.
Sharing glances, the companions said nothing, but it was painfully obvious that any hope they had of staying covert was now completely gone. If there was anybody else in the vicinity, they knew that somebody was coming out of the ready room.
As the thick door cleared the jamb, J.B. squinted into the darkness on the other side. “Okay, looks clear…son of a bitch!” he shouted, and the shotgun boomed.
In the bright muzzle-flash, something large was briefly seen in the outside corridor. Then a metal arm extended through the doorway and mechanical pinchers brushed aside the shotgun to close around the man’s throat with a hard clang.
THICK FOG MOVED OVER the walls of Northpoint ville like a misty river flowing steady across the high stone walls. Somewhere in the distance, low thunder rumbled, and from the nearby ocean came the sound of rough waves crashing upon a rocky shore.
Crackling torches were set at regular intervals alongthe wall, giving the sec men walking patrol on the top plenty of light, and every structure inside the ville was brightly illuminated by the yellowish glow of fish-oil lanterns or the cheery blaze of a fireplace. A hundred stoves blazed bright and hot inside the ramshackle huts of the ville like imprisoned stars, the delicious waves of fragrant heat banishing the eternal fog and affording the inhabitants a small zone of clear air within the confines of the ville. Winter had never been a problem in Northpoint. A nearly limitless forest of pine trees grew on the outer islands, so wood was always in abundant supply, and the freshwater bay teemed with fish, most of them not muties, so there was more than sufficient food for all. Only salt, precious, life-giving salt, was in desperately short supply.
But with any luck that problem would soon be solved forever, Baron Wainwright thought privately, taking another sip of the mulled wine.
Set in the center of the log cabins, smokehouses, barracks, patched leather tents and stone fishing shacks was a pristine field of neatly tended grass, as smooth as a piece of predark glass. Standing tightly packed on the field was a large crowd of civies gathered around an old whipping post where a naked man stood, his wrists bound with rope to the crossbar of the infamous learning tree. Tiny rivulets of blood trickled down his skinny shanks, oozing steadily from the crisscross of open wounds covering his back. The tattered remains of a uniform lay on the grass around his trembling feet, and both arms were marred with glassy patches of freshly burned skin.
“Twenty-seven!” the executioner announced, and lashed out once more with a coiled whip. The smooth length of green leather cracked across the raw flesh of the prisoner, but he only shook and groaned in response.
“Burn the bastard!” a young woman yelled, spittle flying from her mouth. “Slit open his belly and feed his guts to the river snakes!”
“No, make it last! Whip him harder!” an old woman snarled from the crowd, the face of the wrinklie contorted into a feral mask of raw hatred.
“Cut off his balls!”
The furious civilians roared their approval at that idea, and after a moment the executioner nodded in agreement. Tossing aside the lightweight horsewhip, he extracted a much heavier, knotted bullwhip from the canvas bag hanging at his side. The muscular man uncoiled the full length onto the dewy grass, creating a brief rainbow effect from the reflected light of the nearby torches. A touch of beauty amid the field of pain. Then he expertly flicked the bullwhip a few times, making the stout leather strips crack louder than a blaster to test the action. Hearing the noise, the prisoner bowed his head and wept openly, knowing the hell that was to come.
Sitting on a rosewood throne on a fieldstone dais, Baron Brenda Wainwright refilled her bone chalice with a wooden flask, waiting for the torture to continue. She disliked watching punishment details, but her presence here was necessary as the absolute ruler of the ville. She had blasters in her private arsenal, lots of them, but thesec men obeyed her commands primarily because the baron was smart. She constantly outwitted their enemies and always found some clever new way to put food on the table and, more important, salt. Without that precious commodity, everybody in the ville would have been aced decades ago. No matter what herbs or potions the healers tried, people needed salt the way a candle needed a wick, without it, they simply got weaker and weaker then just stopped working entirely. Even the dead were boiled down in the smokehouse, reduced to their very essence to reclaim every single grain. Salt was life.
Which was why we’re having a public execution, the baron reminded herself. That old doomie had better have been right about this. The ville was down to less than a hundredweight of salt in the armory, barely enough to last them until spring. If this plan didn’t work, then there would be no choice but to declare war on Anchor ville. Brother fighting brother, a civil war. The thought was intolerable. Not new, just intolerable.
Dressed for combat on this special day, the woman was wearing a heavy blue gown cut high in the front to show off her new snakeskin boots. A gift from a secret lover. An ebony cascade of long hair hung loose around her stern face, artfully disguising the fact that she was missing an ear from a mutie attack when she was a small child. A necklace of the creature’s polished teeth was draped around her badly scarred throat as a grim remembrance of that dark day, and a black leather bodice supported her full breasts. A wide gunbelt circled her trim waist, embroideredgloves tucked into the front, a sheathed knife and holstered blaster riding at her hips. Ancient plastic rings of outlandish design adorned both thumbs, and an intricately carved wooden bracelet studded with tiny bits of sparkling car window glass flashed from her left wrist.
Finished testing his deadly tool, the executioner adjusted his fish-leather mask and looked at the baron. Everybody knew it was the blacksmith, but the social custom of pretending that the executioner was from another ville still held.
The baron waved a hand in authorization. Grinning fiercely, the executioner lashed out with the bullwhip, and the prisoner violently shook all over from the brutal strike, a wellspring of fresh blood gushing from the deep cut across his shoulders. Laughing and cheering, the crowd voiced its hearty approval.
Trying not to scowl, the baron refilled her mug from the flask and took a small sip of the dark brew. Death was part of life, as unstoppable as the morning fog. However, the old doomie known as Mad Pete had deemed that this particular demise was absolutely necessary to the welfare of the ville. Even then, she disliked casual chilling so much that the baron had waited patiently, and then impatiently, until some triple-stupe fool broke a major law and could honestly and fairly be executed. If he had been drunk on duty, or stolen a lick of salt, the bastard would have simply been beaten to death and sent to the boiling pot in the smokehouse. But he had done much worse by forcing himself upon the wife of another sec man. No matter who you were,rape was a capital offense in every ville along Royal Island. End of discussion. Her hands were clean.
At that, Wainwright almost smiled. Well, at least on this particular death, she internally chuckled. Nobody ruled a ville without knowing how to chill. She had been planning to remove her fat brother from the Oak Throne when he’d greedily eaten an unknown type of fish and died of food poisoning. As father had always said, stupidity was its own reward. True words.
“It’s almost time, Baron,” sec chief Emile LeFontaine muttered, flexing his monstrous hands. Standing at the Maple Throne, the hulking giant held a perfectly balanced obsidian throwing ax in a gloved hand, and there was a longblaster strapped across his wide back, protected from the harsh elements by a thick wolfskin sheath, the snarling head of the beast peeking over his shoulder in a most disturbing manner.
Nodding in understanding, the baron checked the blaster at her hip, making sure the weapon was fully loaded with six live rounds. Mad Pete had predicted this day would come, and she had immediately started preparations.
Suddenly the weakening prisoner cried out for the first time, and the townsfolk joyously voiced their full approval. Their desire to see him punished was almost palpable, like waves of heat radiating from the stove.
Tossing aside the blood-soaked bullwhip, the executioner pulled a fresh one from the green leather bag at his side. But just then the prisoner howled again, louder this time, even though he was standing limply at the learning tree.
“Silence!” the baron commanded, rising from her throne.
In ragged stages, the mob stopped making noise, and this time everybody heard the low ghostly moan, echoing over the ville as if coming down from the cloudy sky.
“Sweet nuking hell, that came from the sea,” the sec chief whispered, his scarred face going pale. “The screams of the prisoner must have caught the attention of…of….”
Slowly a dark mountain of flesh rose from the other side of the ville wall, six huge, inhuman eyes glaring down at the scene of torture even as a hundred tentacles began to crawl over the granite block wall.
“Kraken!” a sec man on the wall shouted, firing his crossbow.
Then a tentacle wrapped around his waist and the cursing man was hauled out of view.
As the alarm bell began to sound, the civies started screaming and racing around in a blind panic. Trying to control her breathing, Baron Wainwright could only stare in wonder at the mountain of flesh looming over the wall. So the old doomie had been right! The death screams of the condemned man had summoned a kraken. Now, the colossal mutie would level the ville, unless the defenses held. However, the sec men had been preparing for this battle for a year. Hopefully it would be enough.
“Defend the ville,” the baron yelled, pulling a Navy flare gun from her gunbelt and firing the charge straight up into the fog. The explosion of colored lights distracted the mutie, several long tentacles reaching upward for the sizzling charge slowly drifting downward on a tiny parachute.
As the kraken rose behind the ville wall, ropy tentacles extended into the streets searching among the stone houses for anything edible. A stray dog sniffing at the barrels of fish offal was caught and hauled bodily into the gaping maw of the horrendous creature.
By now, the sec men were launching swarms of arrows into the goliath. But if they did any damage it was not readily apparent, and the mutie continued feeding upon the population.
Scampering out of an alley, a gaudy slut tried to get back into the tavern when ropy death came wiggling out of the sky and grabbed her around the neck. Shrieking in terror, the slut pulled a bone knife from her bodice and started wildly stabbing at the tentacle. But the resilient hide was too tough for the blade, and she was hauled upward, going over the wall, cursing and fighting until the very end.
Meanwhile teams of sec men in the guard towers feverishly operated the hand cranks to pull back the mighty arbalests. The giant crossbows were thirty feet long, and used three bows working in conjunction. Each arrow was twice the size of a man, and the barbed head was edged with thin strips of genuine predark steel.
“Pull, you lazy bastards!” a sergeant bellowed. “Pull or die!”
Attracted by the shout, the kraken headed toward the guard tower, and Baron Wainwright quickly fired another flare. Once more, the beast turned to try to catchthe descending flare, giving the team of sec men just enough time to load the arrow into the arbalest, the catch engaging with a hard thunk.
Grabbing the aiming yoke, the burly sergeant swung the colossal weapon around toward the mutie, aimed and yanked hard on the release lever. There came a groan of wooden gears, then the triple bows let fly and the giant arrow went straight into the kraken’s throat.
Bellowing in rage and pain, the mutie turned toward the source of the agony, its tentacles lashing out wildly.
But more giant arrows were launched from the other guard towers, and the kraken twisted madly in the deadly cross fire, roaring defiantly.
A catapult snapped upward from the roof of the barracks, and a wooden barrel arched gracefully upward. It sailed over the guard towers and ignited a split second before crashing on top of the kraken. Covered with burning shine, the mutie went insane, lashing its tentacles around and knocking a dozen sec men off the walls. A flurry of crossbow arrows slammed into the beast, as additional firebombs hammered the creature. However, the attacks were only enraging the beast, and it sent several long tentacles snaking into the ville to snatch away the bloody corpse of the prisoner, leaving behind the ragged stumps of his arms still tied to the learning tree.
Inside their ramshackle homes, the civies were quaking with fear, muttering prayers to forgotten deities.
In a crash of splinters, the gate leading to the dockyard slammed open and a host of writhing tentacles entered the ville. But forewarned of the attack by the baron, the fishermen had a double line of cracklingbonfires already burning between the gate and the rows of homes. Hesitating in front of the wall of flames, the kraken tried to find a way around the painful barrier, then it attempted to go underneath, and finally withdrew. It reappeared a few moments later, the tentacles shoving several fishing boats taken from the docks to crash a path through the fiery obstruction.
“Baron…” sec chief LeFontaine said as a question, his face tense, a throwing ax in his hand.
“Not yet, my friend,” the baron muttered, loading the last flare.
More firebombs and arbalest arrows slammed into the monster, along with a score of spears, boomerangs and a fishing harpoon that just missed going into one of the huge, inhuman eyes.
Dodging a tentacle, a sec woman fell off the wall and crashed onto the roof of a shed. The distance was not very great, but she did not rise again, and after a few seconds something red began to trickle down the side of the building.
“Milady, please…” the sec chief begged, taking a half step toward the tumultuous combat. His face was flushed and he was breathing heavily from the strain of not joining his troops in combat.
“Just a few ticks more, Sergeant,” Wainwright said gently, cradling the flare gun protectively in both hands.
Unexpectedly, the body rolled off the little shed as the roof slid aside, exposing a honeycomb of bamboo tubes. A nest of fuses dangled from the rear of each and as the baron watched in growing horror, a torch was touched to the group fuse, setting them aflame.
“No! Too soon!” Wainwright cried.
“Too late,” LeFontaine replied curtly.
With no other choice, the baron jumped off the dais and raced into the middle of the ville square. Raising both hands, she carefully aimed the flare gun and fired. The charge thumped from the wide barrel and streaked away to hit the kraken in the face. Snapping around with surprising speed, the colossus stared down at the tiny norm in open hatred and moved along the wall, its tentacles reaching out for the fresh meat.
In a stuttering series of smoky explosions, the top row of bamboo tubes unleashed a dozen homie rockets, closely followed by the second row, then the rest.
The rockets flashed upward and slammed into the kraken, disappearing into the mottled hide. Howling in anger, the mutie probed the tiny wounds with some tentacles just as the next wave of rockets struck, and then the first salvo detonated.
Gobbets of raw flesh exploded like a geyser from the monster, sending out a ghastly spray of piss-yellow blood. That was when the next shed lost its roof and more black-powder rockets launched, peppering the monstrosity with high-explosive death.
Bawing in agony, the kraken lashed out mindlessly as the new rockets detonated inside the beast. Literally torn apart from within, a tentacle went limp, an eye turned dead-white and torrents of yellow blood gushed from the hideous wounds.
Enthusiastically cheering, the sec men redoubled their assault on the mutie, the arbalests now targeting the open wounds.
Turning to flee, the weakening mutie discovered there were iron chains attached to the arrows, the barbed heads caught deep within the belly of the beast in exactly the same way its own tentacles dragged a victim to their death in its cavernous maw.
Its inhuman brain sluggishly comprehending that death was coming, the kraken threw itself at the ville wall, hammering the stone ramparts with its full weight. The entire shoreside wall trembled from the impacts, and several sec men lost their grips and fell screaming onto the cobblestone streets below with grisly results. But even as the baron watched, the struggles of the creature became noticeably weaker, the rush of blood increasing.
“More rockets!” Wainwright yelled, running toward the thrashing kraken. “Fire them all!”
A grip of iron grabbed her arm, stopping the woman in her tracks.
“No closer, Baron,” sec chief LeFontaine commanded. “I won’t allow it.”
Contorting her face into a sneer, the baron started to reach for her blaster, then grudgingly relented, realizing the wisdom of the caution. Any animal was at its most dangerous when it was wounded and dying.
Chewing on the chains to try to get free, the kraken was hit with a third wave of rockets and then a fourth, the last few of them going completely through the mutie and coming out the other side to arch away over the bay. Yellow blood was everywhere, flowing down the sides of the stone wall and forming deep puddles in the street.
In a final rush of hatred, the dying kraken reached out with every working tentacle and wrapped eacharound the nearest guard tower and squeezed hard. Astonishingly, the support timbers audibly creaked from the titanic strain, and a wealth of crossbeams fell away like dry autumn leaves. As the tower began to tilt, the sec men inside cursed at the unexpected tactic and tried to hold on to the railing for dear life.
That was when there came a high-pitched keen of a steam whistle from the other side of the wall, and more rockets slammed into the back of the beast, widening the exit holes of the arrows.
Shuddering all over, the kraken released the guard tower and sluggishly tried for the bay once more, but again it was stopped by the iron chains. Mewling weakly, the creature reached out with a gory tentacle, the tip just managing to reach the cold, clear water of the bay. Then it sagged and went still, the flood of blood quickly slowing to a trickle, and then stopping entirely.
Instantly a new bell began to clang. Minutes later every man, woman and child in the ville stormed out of the dockyard gates, each equipped with a wicker basket and a sharp obsidian knife. Resembling an army of ants, the people crawled over the chilled mutie and started to slice off pieces. Meanwhile, sec men armed with torches and axes began to hack apart the corpse, chopping a tunnel into the thing, and soon disappeared inside.
“It worked! We aced a kraken!” The baron chortled, slapping her sec chief on the back. “What a glorious day!”
“You can load that into a damn crossbow and fire it,”LeFontaine agreed wholeheartedly, rubbing his hands together. “We’ll get enough salt from the gizzard to last the ville for months, for years.”
“Plus, there’s enough good leather for everybody to get new boots, belts and winter jackets,” she agreed with a smile, watching the harvest progress. “Sinew for a thousand crossbows, enough bones to…well, for any damn thing we need until further notice.” Plus, that bitch at Anchor ville would pay a baron’s ransom in metal for a single pint of kraken blood. But Wainwright kept that observation to herself. In the right circumstances, the blood of a kraken was the most valuable thing in the world.
“Sadly, we lost the dockyard gate, a horse and at least a dozen sec men,” LeFontaine muttered unhappily. The dogs and the gaudy slut were of no real importance.
“Yes, a pity,” Wainwright agreed. “But still, a price that I would be willing to pay anytime for the death of a kraken. The bay belongs to us now. No more will our fishing boats be pulled underwater, the crew drowned, the catch destroyed.”
“Aye, that’s good news. Too bad we can’t eat the meat,” LeFontaine said. “I hear it tastes fine, but soon afterward…” He gave a shiver. Any further embellishment was unnecessary.
“Leave some outside the wall for the Hillies to steal,” the baron ordered. “Maybe we can ace two birds with one stone, eh?”
“By your command, Baron,” the sec chief agreed, giving a small bow. “I live to serve.”
Trying not to smile, the baron acknowledged theformal action with a prim nod of her head, mentally deciding to reward the man for his action later in her private bedchamber.
As for the ville, both the civies and sec men would spend the rest of the day and most of the night dissecting the mountainous mutie, scavenging everything of value. Even the fat of the monster could be boiled down into a crude form of tallow for candles. When that odious task was accomplished, the crew of the Wendigo would haul what remained of the bedraggled corpse out into the deep water near Liar’s Gate, so that the smell of the decaying corpse would scare away any other kraken for years.
The baron ruefully smiled. Then she would open the royal wine cellar and authorize a shore party the likes of which had never been seen before! It would be a day of rest for the slaves and roasted meat for the civies, while the sec men would revel in enough shine, sluts and song to satisfy even their warrior appetites.
Feeling exhausted, and exhilarated, the baron started back for the stone dais to watch over the rest of the harvesting. In the back of her mind, the woman tried desperately to ignore the rest of the doomie’s prophesy, that soon after this day-of-days the ville would be destroyed, and she would be forced into the ultimate act of depravity—marriage to a blood kin.Chapter Two
As the robotic arm started dragging the struggling J.B. out of the ready room, the companions saw a hulking machine of some kind filling the outside corridor.
There was a domed head and a cylindrical body with treads on the bottom like an army tank. More important, the machine possessed six arms, each of them brandishing spinning buzzsaws, pinchers or pneumatic hammers. The terrible sight fueled them with cold adrenaline. This wasn’t a sec hunter droid, but it was clearly built for the same purpose—to ruthlessly chill invaders.
As Ryan scrambled from behind the heavy door, Doc assumed a firing stance and grimly triggered the LeMat. The weapon boomed and the huge .44 miniball of the Civil War handcannon slammed into the joint of the pinchers, cracking the seal, and amber hydraulic fluid gushed out like opening a vein. As the pressure dropped, J.B. forced the pinchers apart and wiggled free to drop flat and get out of the way of the others. Quickly withdrawing the damaged limb, the robot extended two more arms, each tipped with a spinning buzzsaw.
Now unencumbered by the presence of their friend, the rest of the companions cut loose with a fusillade ofdestruction, the volley of rounds hammering the big machine. Scrambling to his feet, J.B. swung around the Uzi and raked the droid with a long spray of 9 mm Parabellum rounds.
Stabbing out with a ferruled arm, the droid sent a buzzsaw straight toward the closest companion. Jerking aside, Jak felt a tug on his hair and saw some loose strands float away.
Raking the big droid with their combined weaponry, the companions pulled back to gain valuable combat room. However, the machine was too large to get through the hatchway, and all it could do was reach out with ferruled limbs, the buzzsaw jabbing for their faces and hands. Unlike a sec hunter, there were no visible eyes on this droid. Aiming for the silvery dome on top, Ryan pumped several 9 mm rounds into the shiny head of the machine. The hollowpoint rounds ricocheted off the shiny material, but the dome bent and the droid began to wildly jerk, the metal arms flailing uncontrollably.
Focusing all of their blasters on the head, the companions mercilessly hammered the droid until it began to turn randomly, the armored treads going in different directions. Suddenly smoke began to rise from the joints, fat electrical sparks crawled over the machine, and then it went stock-still, a low hum rapidly building in volume and in power.
Biting back a curse, Ryan and Krysty both rushed for the door and together slammed it shut. They only turned the locking wheel an inch before there came a deafening explosion from the other side. The entireready room shook, the locker doors flopping open, miscellaneous items tumbling to the riveted floor as a crimson snowstorm of rust sprinkled down from the ceiling.
Waiting a few minutes for the reverberations to die away, Ryan gingerly probed the wheel to find it extremely warm, but not too hot to touch. Pausing to reload his blaster, he boldly cracked open the circular door once more and looked outside.
There was a smoky dent in the steel corridor, the walls bulging outward slightly. However there was no sign of the droid, only a scattering of partially melted machine parts littering the floor.
“Wh-what a piece of drek,” J.B. panted, swinging the Uzi behind his back to reclaim the scattergun. “A sec droid would have been much tougher to chill.” Taking spare cartridges from the shoulder strap, he worked the pump and fed them into the weapon.
“True enough,” Ryan countered, squinting his good eye to try to see into the shadows beyond the nimbus of the road flare. “But we better stay on triple red. If this thing had caught us in the open, we’d have bought the farm for sure.”
Just then, the road flare sputtered and died.
Cursing under his breath, Ryan pulled out his last flare and scraped it across the rough wall until the tip sparked. The flare gushed into smoky flame.
“I just hope this is some sort of a redoubt and not a predark warship,” Krysty stated, thumbing fresh rounds into her blaster. “Those were actually designed to be a maze of corridors, ladders and passageways to confuse any potential invaders.”
“Quite so, dear lady,” Doc muttered. “There is little chance of us successfully finding the egress in an unfamiliar locale through pitch darkness.”
“Finding what?” Jak asked, arching an eyebrow.
Doc smiled tolerantly as if addressing a student. “The exit.”
The teen nodded. “Gotcha.”
“Well, we wouldn’t be in absolute darkness,” Mildred retorted, releasing her butane lighter and tucking it into a pocket. “Not quite, anyway.”
Rummaging in her med kit, the woman unearthed a battered flashlight and pumped the handle of the survivalist tool until the batteries were recharged, then she pressed the switch. A weak beam issued from the ancient device, and she played it around the war-torn corridor, making sure there were no still functioning pieces of the war machine.
With his blaster at the ready, Ryan eased into the corridor, listening closely for any creaks or groans from the floor. The dented metal seemed stable, but he had been fooled before. And even a short fall onto steel could ace him just as sure as lead in the head from a blaster.
Past the blast zone, the metal corridor was covered with pale filaments that he soon recognized as roots. They covered the ceiling, and hung thick on the walls, extending out of sight in either direction. Scowling, the man glanced at the wall opposite the ready room. In every redoubt, that was always the location of a wall map showing new personnel where everything was to be found. The lack of a map, or any sign that a map had once been there, was proof positive to him that this was not a redoubt.
“Okay, anybody got an idea which way we should try?” Ryan asked, looking in one direction, then the other. Both went on for a hundred paces to end at an intersection with a ladder.
“Left,” Jak stated confidently, jerking his Colt in that direction.
“Now, how do you know that?” Mildred asked curiously, warily hefting her ZKR.
Stoically, the albino teen shrugged. “Roots thinner to the right, thicker to the left. So that way out.”
“Elementary, my dear Watson,” Doc said appreciatively.
Having heard the quote many times before, Jak merely smiled in reply.
“You do know that Holmes never actually said that, don’t you?” Mildred asked. “Not in the books, anyway. Only the movies.”
“I am literate, madam,” Doc replied with a sniff.
Ignoring the banter, the companions sidled carefully around the blaster crater, and Ryan took the lead. Heading to the left, the companions found a lot of closed hatches along the walls. If there had been time, they would have eagerly done a fast recon for anything useful. But right now, getting outside was the goal.
Spying some lumps on the floor up ahead, Ryan slowed his advance, but soon he saw they were only a couple of crumbling skeletons covered with roots, the tendrils entwined among the loose bones and moldy strips of clothing. A gold ring glistened on the finger bones of a hand no longer attached to anything, and silver dots shone from the loose teeth inside a lopsided skull.
“This might tell us something,” Mildred said, kneeling to inspect the plastic ID badge still pinned to a piece of uniform lying on a skeleton. Reverently, she lifted the rectangle from the morass of plant roots and human remains. “It seems that we are inside a U.S. Navy ship after all, the—” she bent and angled the badge to try to catch the light better “—the…USS Grover Harrington.”
“Indeed, and who was that, madam?” Doc asked, craning his neck for a better look. “Some politician, perhaps?”
Placing the badge down, the physician stood. “Never heard of the guy. He must have been an admiral.”
“Don’t care who, what is?” Jak asked pragmatically.
“Sorry, again I have no idea,” the woman replied honestly, wiping off her hands. “This could be anything from an aircraft carrier to a missile frigate.”
“Well, at least we know it’s a boat,” Ryan said, easing his stance slightly. “Which means up is the way out.”
Reaching the intersection, Ryan paused at the sight of a wide breach on the metal floor. The hole didn’t appear to have been caused by an explosion as the edges were feathered with corrosion, not bent and twisted from the force of a detonation. That was when he heard the slow drip of water from above. A split second later, a drop plummeted past the man, directly through the hole and into the darkness below.
Kneeling slightly, Ryan lowered the flare into the darkness and froze at the sight of another robotic droid, apparently the same model as the one they had just aced. However, this one was in even worse shape, thedome already cracked, several of the rusty arms lying on the deck nearby, and a broken tread was hanging limply off the gears.
“Not much of a danger there,” J.B. said with a touch of satisfaction in his voice.
“Not unless we trip over it,” Krysty agreed.
“What are those boxes behind it?” Mildred asked curiously, angling the beam of her flashlight.
The weak beam did little to alleviate the murky interior, but slowly their sight grew accustomed to the darkness. Lining the rust-streaked walls in orderly rows were stacks of plastic storage boxes, faded numbers stenciled along the sides to identify the contents.
“Those are full of MRE food packs!” Ryan exclaimed. “And those others contain ballistic vests!”
“I see some Hummers and an LAV in the back!” J.B. called, grinning widely. “And the boxes over here are full of boots, field surgery kits, radios…there’s even one marked for freaking LAW rocket launchers.”
“Excelsior!” Doc whooped in triumph. “We have hit the motherload of supplies.”
“This much ordnance must have been en route to a military outpost when the world ended,” Mildred guessed, chewing a lip. “Perhaps even a redoubt.”
“Quite true, madam.”
“Maybe,” Ryan muttered, in taciturn agreement. This was turning into one of the richest jumps they had ever made. But the man automatically distrusted anything this easy. If something looked too good to be true, it almost invariably was.
“Looks good, but how reach?” Jak said with a frown,estimating the distance to the floor below. “That fifty-foot drop. How reach?”
“We can’t,” Krysty stated flatly, shifting her attention to the flare. It was already half consumed. “But once we get outside, we can come back with torches and rope. Even if there are no villes in the area, we can easily make those ourselves.”
Starting to agree, Ryan paused as there came a soft thumping. Fireblast, that sounded like a hydraulic pump. It seemed that some small part of the warship was still in working condition.
Something moved in the shadows. Ryan scowled as another droid rolled into the light.
This new machine was perfect, not a speck of rust or a scratch on the chassis. Even worse, instead of buzzsaws and hammers, this model sported a tribarrel Gatling gun in lieu of a left arm, the enclosed Niagara-style ammunition belt going into a wide hopper attached to the back of the droid.
Grunting at the sight, Ryan froze as the domed head instantly swiveled upward at the small noise to look directly at him, the Gatling swiveling, giving off a hydraulic sigh as it copied the gesture.
Lurching into action, Ryan threw his arms wide to push the other companions out of the way. They cleared the hole and a split second later, a chattering maelstrom erupted out of the opening. The noisy column of hot lead hammered along the riveted ceiling, blowing off the layers of corrosion, a barrage of ricochets musically zinging away in every direction. Mildred cried out and Jak grunted loudly as they both were hit by the misshapen slugs.
Yanking a pipe bomb from his bag, J.B. started to light the fuse, but then paused. They were sitting over a cargo hold packed with military ordnance. One bomb could easily start a chain reaction of detonations that would remove this ship, and the companions, from the face of the Earth. They couldn’t even shoot back without risking a damn explosion!
Suddenly the blasterfire ceased, and there was a series of hard clicks, then silence, almost as if the machine had run out of ammo.
Scowling in disbelief, Ryan took a spent brass from his pocket and flipped it toward the hole. As it hit the rusty edge, there immediately came a fiery response. He nodded in grim satisfaction. Yeah, thought so. Pretending to be out of brass was an old trick to try to lure an enemy into sneaking a peek so that you could blow off his or her head. The droid was well-programmed in military tactics. He would remember that when they returned.
Silently motioning the others to follow, Ryan crawled away from the jagged opening until they were at the base of the ladder.
“That damn machine was playing possum!” Krysty said angrily. At the soft words there came a short burst from the hole, but it soon stopped.
“Which probably means it can’t come after us,” J.B. stated, removing his fedora to smooth down his hair before jamming it back into position. “This droid didn’t activate until there was an explosion. This is the reserve force. It’s not going to leave that cargo bay under any circumstances.”
“Then we should be safe until trying to enter,” Doc rumbled, using a thumb to ease down the hammer on the LeMat.
“Unless there are others,” Ryan countered, grabbing the lowest rung of the old ladder. He shook it hard, and when nothing fell off, the man stood and holstered the SIG-Sauer. “But that’s tomorrow’s problem. We’ll find some way to take out that droid later.”
“If ship still here,” Jak added dourly, pressing a handkerchief to the bloody score along his neck. The teen couldn’t see the damage, but knew that it was only a flesh wound.
“And if those boxes aren’t empty,” Mildred rejoined, tying off a field dressing on her forearm. An inch higher and the ricochet would have taken off her elbow.
“Paranoid,” Doc sniffed in disdain.
“Cynic,” the physician corrected, finishing the bandage.
Seeing the others were ready, Ryan started to climb up the ladder, holding the flare so that it stuck out to the side. It was pretty low by now, and he had no intention of stopping for anything until they reached daylight.
After twenty feet or so, they reached the next deck. Rising from the access hole, they checked for any more droids, then proceeded directly to the next ladder. Having done some exploring in other predark warships, the companions found this familiar territory.
As they ascended, the roots became thicker. Soon, more of the predark crew was discovered, the tendrils deeply embedded into the moldy remains. Mildredfought off the urge to rip out the plants, while Krysty found the sight comforting. People ate plants to live, and when they died, the plants consumed them in return. It was the circle of life.
Five decks later the first of the leaves appeared, diamond-shaped and dark green with a thin blue stripe. Obviously a mutie, but the smell was that of ordinary kudzu. Both Ryan and J.B. checked the rad counters clipped to their lapels, but there was no discernible background radiation.
Reaching a remarkably clean level, the companions quickly passed by the security office, the pile of spent brass and skeletons on the deck proclaiming a major firefight. There was even some wreckage from a couple of the droids. However, there was no way of telling if the fight had been the crew repelling hostile invaders, or staging a mutiny. Or even worse, a rebellion by the machines. J.B. fought back a sigh as they climbed higher. There was probably a wealth of weaponry inside the office, but time was short and—
With a wild sputter, the last flare died.
Pumping the handle of her flashlight, Mildred passed the device up to Ryan, and he tucked it into his shirt pocket. The beam was very weak, but a lot better than trying to climb while holding a candle. Now, their speed increased, and as the reek of the flare dissipated, they began to detect the smell of freshwater, along with the dulcet aroma of flowers.
At the next level, Ryan saw there were no more ladders, and allowed himself a smile as a cool breeze came from the darkness to the right. However as he advanced,the flashlight revealed that the passageway was blocked solid with plant life, the walls festooned with orchids of every color imaginable. The place resembled a rainforest more than the inside of a battleship.
Drawing the panga, he hacked and slashed a crude path through the foliage until finding an open hatchway. Sheathing the blade, Ryan drew the SIG-Sauer and stepped over the jamb to emerge into bright sunlight. Blinking against the harsh glare, he braced for an attack.
Nothing happened. The deck was covered with a thick carpet of moss, and flowery vines hung from above.
Ryan could only vaguely detect a railing, marking this as an observation balcony. Then he changed that to a battle station at the sight of a large lump of rusty machine parts that could have been a machine-gun nest, or perhaps even a Vulcan minicannon, but there was no way of telling anymore. There was a bird nest perched on top of the debris, and a small pine tree grew out sideways, the trunk molded into a twisted spiral by the gentle ocean wind.
Stretching in front of the man was a large body of blue water, low waves cresting onto a wide pebble beach. Hills rose to a rocky plateau, and then abruptly jutted upward into snowcapped mountains. A thick fog moved stealthily along the lowlands, masking any signs of civilization.
Stepping into view, Krysty blinked at the sunlight, keeping a tight grip on her blaster. “That looks like the ocean,” she said hesitantly. “But there’s no smell of salt. Could this be some sort of an inland sea?”
“Makes sense,” Ryan replied tersely. “Or at least a bastard big lake.”
“Some of them are as big as an ocean,” Krysty commented, walking over to the railing and looking down. It was an easy hundred feet from the balcony to the choppy surface of the water. She scanned the shoreline for the remains of a dockyard, but there was nothing in sight. Now she understood why the vessel had never been looted. From stem to stern, keel to radar mast, the dense foliage completely covered the ship. She could not tell the size, or shape, of the vessel, much less where it stopped and the land began. To anybody passing, the ship would simply seem another irregular foothill, just one lost among a dozen others.
With the scattergun leading the way, J.B. came next, followed closely by Mildred, then Jak and Doc. The companions moved with practiced ease, each keeping a safe distance from the others to not offer an enemy a group target. There were a lot of ways to get aced, and stupidity was the most common.
“Looks like Oregon,” Mildred said, closing her jacket. The damp air was cold, almost enough to make her breath fog. That was when she noticed the play of colors from above and looked skyward. “Good Lord, that’s an aurora borealis!” she cried in delight. “John, are we near the North Pole?”
“Could be Canada,” Jak stated coolly. “Been before.”
“Or Iceland, or even Siberia,” J.B. said with a frown, remembering the time they had jumped to Russia.
“Nonsense, dear lady, it is much too warm for eitherof those icy locales,” Doc replied, turning up his collar. But then he paused. “However, since we have found deserts in Japan, and swamps in Nevada, we could be anywhere.”
“Well, I can’t take a reading through these clouds,” J.B. said. “But we’ll find out where this is, sooner or later.”
“This is a magnificent view, though,” Doc commented, looking over the oceanic vista. There seemed to be some small islands far ahead, but he could not be sure at this range.
“Hell of fall, too,” Jak retorted, glancing over the railing into the waves so very far below. It had to be an easy fifty feet, maybe more.
“We’re not going to jump, that’s for damn sure,” J.B. stated. “Any sign of stairs or another ladder?”
But before any of the companions could start a search, a strident roar of blasterfire annihilated the curtain of vegetation hanging over the exit. Lightning-fast, the companions took cover behind the pile of corroded machinery and leveled their blasters at the smoking hatchway.
“By the Three Kennedys, the dastardly machine did come after us!” Doc bellowed, thumbing back the hammer of the LeMat.
“No room to maneuver here,” Ryan snarled. “Gotta shut that door. Cover me!”
As the companions sent a hail of lead into the hatchway, Ryan charged around the debris and crossed the balcony in under a heartbeat, to throw himself flat against the vine-covered wall. From inside the corridor,he clearly heard the rumble of armored treads over the constant ricochets of the incoming barrage. Holstering his blaster, Ryan grabbed the old portal and shoved hard. Nothing happened. He tried again with the same result, then saw that the hinges were hopelessly choked with rust and tiny vines.
Shoving two fingers into his mouth, Ryan sharply whistled and made a motion at the open hatchway. Nodding in understanding, J.B. pulled a pipe bomb out of his munitions bag and tossed it over. Making the catch, Ryan pulled out a butane lighter, bit the bomb fuse in two, and started the nubbin burning.
Knowing what to do next, the rest of the companions pulled out their spare blasters and sent a double fusillade of hot lead into the open doorway. Raising a splayed hand, Ryan silently counted down from five, and as he dropped the last finger, the others instantly stopped firing. He tossed the pipe bomb into the corridor, getting only a very brief glance inside as the explosive charge clattered along the floor to stop in the middle of the four hulking guardians jammed into the narrow corridor. Nuking hell, he thought, the cargo droid had to have called in reinforcements!
Jerking out of the hatchway, Ryan barely got behind steel when the pipe bomb violently detonated, the concussion shaking the vessel for yards.
“There’s four of them!” Ryan bellowed at the top of his lungs.
Startled at the news, J.B. grimaced as he pulled out a gren, flipped off the arming lever, pulled the pin and whipped the bomb forward in a sideways pitch. Themilitary sphere hit the door and bounced inside to erupt into a searing light, and writhing tongues of chemical fire bellowed out from the hatchway, the volcanic heat wave withering the vines for yards as hundreds of leaves turned brown and fell away to expose the bare hull underneath.
“Okay, the thermite will hold them for a few minutes,” J.B. stated. “But that was my only gren.”
“Move with a purpose, people,” Ryan commanded, heading for the bow. The foothills were only a short distance from the ship, and once on land, the companions could easily disappear among the boulders and trees. Even if the machines followed, their treads would become hopelessly mired in the soft ground, making them easy pickings.
However, there was no clear way off the balcony, the stairs or access ladder, which were hidden under multiple layers of moss, flowering vines and bird droppings. Risking a step off the balcony, Ryan saw his boot punch straight through a leafy canopy to reveal only open space. He tried again with the same results.
Holstering their spare blasters, the companions pulled out blades and wildly slashed at the plants. But there only seemed to be more vines underneath, layer after layer, in an endless procession. Going to the railing, Ryan looked down at the choppy water of the lake and tried to guess the distance. Roughly fifty feet.
Unexpectedly, a sizzling beam of light stabbed through the wall alongside the roaring conflagration. Steadily the power beam drew a line in the ancientmetal, rising up from the deck about twelve feet, and then slowly starting to move sideways.
Caught reloading the ZKR, Mildred almost dropped a handful of brass at the horrible sight. Sweet Jesus, the robotic sons of bitches were cutting themselves a new exit around the thermite! A hundred possibilities flashed through her mind like riffling playing cards, and she chose the most logical. The prime rule with every machine in existence was that electrical circuits did not like water. Therefore, her decision was made.
“Follow me,” Mildred shouted, jumping over the railing to hurtle toward the choppy water of the lake. Without pause, the other companions were right behind the bold physician.
Plummeting through the chilly air, the fall seemed to take the companions forever, as if the universe had slowed to aid the escape. But they knew better and hugged their belongings tightly, trying to brace for the coming impact, which was going to be bad.
A cataclysm of pain engulfed the companions as they plunged into the turgid lake, the biting cold almost stealing the breath from their lungs. The agony was unbelievable. It was as if every inch of their bodies was being stabbed with tiny knives.
As expected, their clothing resisted for only a few seconds, then quickly soaked through, a fresh wave of cold reaching their vulnerable skin as their weight increased tenfold.
Half expecting to hit the bottom and shatter their legs, the companions rode the wave of torment, preparing for even worse.
An unknown length of time passed and incredibly their descent began to slow, and the companions started to sluggishly rise. Fueled by a fierce determination to live, the companions forced their limbs to move, desperately swimming for the surface, the ancient scuba mantra of “always follow the bubbles” keeping them going in the right direction.
Erupting through the waves, the gasping companions greedily drank in the bitterly cold air, then shivered in renewed torment as a chill invaded their aching lungs, sapping away even more of their failing strength. But that was of no real concern. They had survived. Now it was only a dozen yards or so until they were safe on shore.
Swimming in steady strokes, Ryan quickly glanced around to see if everybody was present and accounted for when a large metallic object violently smacked into the choppy water, the armed guardian promptly disappearing below the lolling waves.Chapter Three
Standing on the lee of the rocky shore, a blonde woman lifted a wooden flute to her lips and began to softly play.
Made of whalebone, the delicately carved musical instrument had been a parting gift from her father, just before Mad Pete threw her off a cliff.
The music slowed as she almost smiled at the memory. Oh, it was true that the old man had been triple crazy. Yet he was also oddly wise, and always gentle. It took years before the child could understand that her loving father had acted more insane than he really was to keep the baron from taking her to his bed. Not a marriage bed, just the one he kept hidden from his wife in a stone shed behind the Citadel, where nobody else could witness what happened to other young girls in the dark of a foggy night. Named Victoria by the baron, but called Summer Liana by her father, her first lesson in life had been that deception could be more useful as a knife. Mad Pete had taught the young girl many secret things in the privacy of their hut, patiently waiting until she became an adult of eighteen winters before casting her into the world to live free or die. It was cruel, but necessary.
May the moon goddess bless you for that brutal actof kindness, dear father, Liana prayed silently in her mind. As a well of raw emotion made her throat tighten, she accidentally blew a sour note on the flute. Instantly the subtle motions in the lake stopped.
Frowning, the teenager redoubled her concentration, blocking out the bittersweet memories of her lost childhood and the fierce stabs of hunger in her belly. Thrown into the sea wearing only the rawhide dress and soft slippers of a slave, Liana now wore a warm robe made of moose hide and waterproof beaver-skin boots. A grass rope was tied at her waist, and a large wooden knife was sheathed at her hip, with another tucked into her left boot. A spear rested in the dirt nearby. There was even a flat stone with a razor-sharp edge hidden under her rawhide dress in case of emergency. Such as, if somebody got a look at her eyes. A woven bag of river reeds hung across her back, bulging with everything she possessed, which sadly wasn’t very much.
There had been no berries to be found on the mountain bushes, potatoes in the fields, frogs in the swamp, snails, or even eggs in the bird nests hidden along the north cliffs. Liana was accustomed to feeling hungry, as food was always in short supply for a runaway slave, but this winter was particularly lean and the teenager knew that she had to learn how to forage for herself or else join her beloved father on the last train west.
As her stomach grumbled loudly once more, Liana forced her mind to relax, and the music flowed clear and sweet across the misty bay. The wind ruffled the long blond hair hanging across her face, almost pushing it aside, but the lard carefully rubbed into the strandskept them in place. Since her birth, nobody had ever gotten a good look at her face, which was why she was still alive. Her eyes revealed the awful truth, and throwbacks were slain on sight.
Soon there was an answering tug in the back of her mind and she almost smiled at the sight of a black snake rising to the surface and coming straight toward her. Excellent!
Stepping back slightly, Liana continued to play the flute. The snake blindly charged her, going over the edge of the small pit and tumbling to the bottom. Startled, the snake lashed about, trying to get out, but the sides of the hole were much too steep. Hissing in unbridled fury, the snake eventually calmed, moving to the rhythm of the music, and then bizarrely fell asleep.
Overjoyed, Liana could not believe the sight. The song was working! Her father had been right once again. While he could see the future, she was able to command the lower animals. Never again would she be hungry. What a glorious day!
As a young girl, Liana dimly remembered her grandy scoffing at the notion that she could summon snakes with a musical instrument. “Snakes ain’t got no ears!” she raged, waving her walking stick. “I’ve eaten enough of them to know that! How can you summon a thing with music if it can’t hear?” And it was true, the snakes had no discernible ears. Yet her father had insisted that someday they would come to her call. Nothing else, just snakes. But that was enough to fill her belly, even in the bad times after the acid rains came to burn the land clean.
Wishing to test the range of her new ability, Liana played on, using her mind to probe into the murky depths of the cold sea. She found more snakes, and several eels, a rare delicacy reserved purely for those of royal blood. What a feast she would have back in her little cave!
Deciding that she could not wait that long, Liana tucked away the flute and yanked the spear from the ground. Stabbing a particularly fat snake in the pit, she hauled it out impaled. The dying creature thrashed for only a few seconds, then slumped and went still.
Using her belt knife, the young woman carefully peeled off the valuable skin and placed it aside, then scooped out the guts and tossed them into the weeds for the creatures of the field. Nothing bloody was ever allowed to fall into the lake, as that could summon a kraken, the most horrible creature in the world.
Using a piece of flint and some dry grass, Liana soon started a fire and fed the tiny blaze sticks, then branches, until it was a roaring campfire. Savoring the warmth, she stuck the snake on a greenstick and put it over the flames, the delicious aroma of roasting meat a tantalizing torment. Her empty stomach rumbled in anticipation, and she stole a tiny piece of the raw flesh to hold it in abeyance for just a few more minutes.
Humming happily to herself, Liana only vaguely heard a whooshing noise from behind when there was a terrible pain at the back of her head, and blackness filled the universe.
She never quite fully lost consciousness, but she fell helpless to the ground, the snake falling into the flames to disappear in an explosion of embers and smoke.
Dimly through the hammering in her ears, Liana could hear the sound of boots crunching on loose pebbles, and rough hands flipped her over. Dark shapes stood nearby, and she tried to speak, but could only manage a sort of wet burble. Her tongue felt thick and the world kept spinning around.
“Hot damn, look, boys, it’s a slut!” A man chortled. “Guess we got a meal, and a ride!”
Cold horror exploded in her guts at the casual pronouncement of rape, and Liana blinked to try to clear her vision. The savage pounding at the back of her head made it difficult, but she ordered the pain away and suddenly could see once more.
There were ten of them, large men with beards, wearing dirty robes of mismatched furs. Their hair was matted with sticks and mud, with grisly necklaces of dried human ears hanging around their throats. Each was heavily armed with stone weapons, knives and axes, plus each carried a crossbow slung over a shoulder. Goddess protect me, she prayed. These were Hillies.
Kneeling alongside her, a redheaded man was binding her wrists with lengths of rawhide, while another cleaned the blood and hair off a boomerang on his sleeve. Dimly, she recognized it as her own blond hair, and cursed herself for a fool. Struck from behind! Hunger had distracted her for a few minutes, and now she would have to pay the ultimate price.
Feebly, she tried to resist and the cold edge of a stone knife was pressed against her throat.
“Stop wiggling or I’ll gut you like a fish,” a Hillysnarled, displaying rotten teeth, his breath fetid with shine and wolfweed. “That won’t ace ya, but you’ll sure wish it had. Savvy?”
Liana nodded her understanding, her mind racing to find some way to get loose, get free, escape. But if she struggled too hard, it might show them the truth, and death would swiftly follow.
Finished binding her wrists, the Hilly began running his hands over her clothing, taking away everything in her pockets, and then cutting away the rope belt to spread open her coat. Shivering from the rush of cold air, Liana felt sick at the leering faces of the mountain savages looking down at her.
“Hey, lookit there. Bitch has got a whole pit full of snakes,” a blond man muttered, kicking some loose dirt into the hole. The snakes awoke and hissed angrily. “How the frag did she do that without a net?”
“Don’t know, don’t care,” a bald man said. “Ask her after we’re done, but I wanna start pumping right now.”
“Wait your turn, gleeb,” the redhead barked, sheathing his blade. “Now strip the bitch, and make sure she ain’t hiding a blade.”
“We already know what she’s hiding!” the fat Hilly said, rubbing a hand across his mouth.
Trying not to burst into tears, Liana winced at their raucous laughter, and the stone knives slashed away her clothing, soon leaving her exposed on the cold, hard ground. Filthy hands fondled her as the last of her clothing was removed, then the Hillies jerked away as if she had suddenly become red-hot.
“Well, nuke me,” a tall man whispered, tossing awaya shredded piece of her rawhide dress. “Looks like we got us a runaway slave!”
“That’s the mark for Anchor ville,” another said in wonder, rubbing a finger along the chained eagle burned into her shoulder. “The baron there will pay a fortune in steel for this little bitch.”
“I…am a singer,” Liana croaked, knowing there was nothing to try but the truth. “I can summon snakes. All you want, at any time. I’ll…I’ll be a good slave. Y-your ville will never go hungry again!” She swallowed hard. “But don’t send me back. Please!”
The faces of the Hillies underwent a variety of expressions as they considered the matter from every angle.
“We got enough food,” the leader said, loosening the belt around his waist. His pants fell away, revealing that he was more than ready. “Grab her legs, boys, I’m going in!”
With those dire words, fear filled her mind and Liana knew that her only escape would be on the last train west. So be it. She could at least rob the bastards of their fun. Shaking her head as hard as she could, the woman felt her long bangs shift and the Hillies recoil in horror.
S LOSHING OUT OF THE OCEAN, the cresting waves knocking them forward, the bedraggled companions staggered onto the shore, panting for breath and drawing their blasters.
Weakly shuffling behind some boulders for cover, the friends caught their breath as yet another droidrolled off the balcony of the warship and plummeted into the water, only to vanish beneath the surface and then violently explode. A few moments later, a boiling geyser erupted upward, only to come back down to spread outward as a warm and gentle rain.
“Triple stupe feebs.” J.B. sneered in disdain, lowering the Uzi. “If that keeps up, there’ll soon be no more droids on the bastard ship.” The man was drenched, his hair and clothing steadily dripping water.
“Lake bigger than ship,” Jak agreed, his white hair plastered to his head, giving him a vaguely corpselike appearance.
“The bastard comps must have gone haywire over the decades,” Ryan said, fighting a shiver.
“Personally, I was thankful for the wash,” Doc stated, visibly trembling. “I was starting to name my flies.”
It was an exaggeration, but everybody understood the feeling. The past couple of redoubts had not possessed working showers, only hot water in the kitchen, and the companions had washed using the kitchen sink. But in spite of that, they had started to become noticeably ripe. A dunk into frigid water was no shower, but it would do for the moment.
“We need a fire quick, or we’re going to get sick,” Krysty stated, her soggy hair flexing as if trying to dislodge the water droplets. “There’s enough driftwood about, but this wind is going to ace us eventually.”
Just then, another droid rolled off the ship, the machines still in hot pursuit of the invaders. There was the usual underwater detonation and rain.
“Okay, these things aren’t going to be troubling us any,” Ryan decided, shouldering his Steyr longblaster. “Let’s get into the forest and find some bastard shelter before we freeze solid.” Flexing his hands, the man gently rubbed a finger under his eyepatch. The cold was making the old wound ache something fierce.
“Shelter and coffee,” Doc countered, holstering the useless LeMat. The Civil War handcannon had many positive attributes, but it was not waterproof like a modern-day blaster. After their immersion, the black powder in the cylinder was dribbling out of the barrel like dark blood. The weapon would be useless until thoroughly dried, cleaned and reloaded. The Ruger was still in his frock coat pocket, but he was saving that until needed. There had been no chance to thoroughly clean the blaster yet, and it was possible that pulling the trigger would be the very last thing his right hand ever did in this world.
Taking hold of his walking stick, Doc twisted the lion’s-head newel to unlock the mechanism and draw his sword.
Starting to offer a suggestion of digging a pit, Jak caught a movement in the air and smiled. A bat! Spinning, he strode toward the nearby cliff and there it was, a large opening in the side of the rock formation.
Whistling sharply for the others, the teenager drew his blaster and butane lighter, then carefully proceeded inside. Caves were natural shelters, and also one of the most dangerous places in existence. Aside from the possibility of a cave-in sealing a person inside, or tumbling into a cavern, or getting lost, bears liked to hibernate in caves, as well as rats, bats, lions, wolverines and a host of muties who delighted in eating human flesh.
However, Jak soon saw that the precautions had not been necessary. The cave ended after a hundred feet or so, narrowing into a crevice too small for anything larger than a mouse to traverse. Obviously the bat had not come from this particular cave. Fair enough. With all of those boulders outside, the cliffs were probably honeycombed with caves and tunnels.
Off to the side of the cave was a small pool, only a few inches deep, the crystal-clear water full of albino crayfish. Since the companions had plenty of food, Jak ignored the tiny creatures, leaving them in peace. A real hunter never aced for pleasure, but only to put food on the table.
Suddenly there came a whistle from behind, and the teenager answered without even turning. Soon, there came the sound of boots on stone.
“Dear God, it feels good to get out of the wind,” Mildred said, playing about her flashlight. “Any occupants in here, Jak?”
“We alone,” the albino teen replied, then gestured with his blaster. “Right now, anyway.” There was the remnants of a campfire and a few gnawed bones tossed into a corner. Clearly, somebody had used the cave as a campsite once.
“Looks fine,” Ryan said, studying the smooth ceiling. “Good job, Jak.”
The teenager shrugged. “Easy find cave, know how.”
Softly in the distance, there came another watery explosion.
“Well, I’ll cook dinner if somebody else gets the firewood,” J.B. offered, easing his sodden munitions bag to the rocky floor. The spare blasters clattered as they came to a rest.
“We better find something to block the mouth first,” Mildred corrected. “Let’s try to roll one of the smaller boulders in first to help block the wind.”
“And keep in the heat.” Krysty laughed weakly, then she frowned unexpectedly.
“Something wrong, lover?” Ryan asked, pausing in the act of removing his fur-lined coat. Soaked with water, the garment felt like it weighed a hundred pounds.
Her hair flexing in a wild corona, Krysty said nothing as she looked around the cave, then suddenly lurched back outside with a drawn blaster in her hand.
“Krysty?” Ryan repeated in growing concern, joining her outside the cave.
The woman gave no reply, lost in a private world. Just for a second, there had been a flutter in her mind. Screwing her eyelids shut, the woman blocked out the distractions of the world—the sound of the ocean, the cold wind, even the voices of her friends, concentrating solely on the ghostly sensation.
However, strain as she might, nothing more could be felt. Then she heard a faint cry from the direction of a low dune. Surging into action, the woman pelted in that direction. Whatever was happening, that had not been a cry of surprise or gladness.
A steep embankment formed a dune that sloped upward to a grassy plateau. Krysty took it at a run, herbreath visibly puffing as she reached the top. The rocks were slippery under her muddy cowboy boots and she nearly fell several times before reaching the top of the steppe. A split second later Ryan and the others arrived, staying quiet and letting her take the lead.
Hesitantly, Krysty moved forward, a blaster in each hand.
The area was thick with scraggy grass, along with tall reeds. To the left was the forest of pine trees, the air sweet with their scent. That seemed a logical place for somebody to make camp, but the cry had come from the right, so she raced back toward the lake.
Bushes and reeds blocked her view, but the woman cried out in pain once more, and then there came the curse of a man.
Redoubling their speed, the companions crested a low rise to come upon a small clearing filled with hairy men surrounding a blond woman waving around a fishing spear. She was completely naked, her body covered with bruises, but the men were slashed in a dozen places, blood trickling from shallow cuts in their fur coats. Her wrists were lashed together, but the men seemed to be getting the worst of the fight. One big man had missing teeth, his jaw still dripping blood, another had a broken nose, and a third was missing a large patch of hair, his scalp oozing a clear fluid. Every time they tried to get close she would jab for their hands, and the men retreated, sucking the wounds. However, they did not go very far.
Forcibly holding Krysty back, Ryan went low in the reeds to stay out of sight for a moment to gauge the situation. Rushing into the unknown was a good way to get aced. This looked like a gangbang, but things were not always as they seemed. The blonde could have been a gaudy slut bought for the night and the men had caught her stealing. Acing her would only be justice. On the other hand, this could be a trap to lure in passing travelers.
Grunting savagely, one of the men rushed forward, and the blonde thrust the spear toward him, then slashed it sideways. Caught by surprise, the man cursed as the blade opened his cheek. Blood gushed out, and he quickly retreated.
Spotting the companions, the blonde smiled in obvious relief, then her expression darkened. “Run,” she screamed, raw terror in her husky voice. “Run for your lives!”
As those exact words repeated inside her mind, all doubt was gone, and Krysty knew for a fact this was the source of the previous cry for help. We’re coming, sister, Krysty mentally shouted back, but if the blonde heard, she gave no indication.
Hesitantly glancing backward, unsure if this was a trick of some kind, the hairy men recoiled at the sight of the companions, then cursed vehemently and dived for their dropped weapons.
“Sec men,” a tall coldheart shouted, grabbing a boomerang and whipping it forward. “Ace ’em, boys!”
Spinning across the campsite, the edge of the wooden boomerang glinted with sharp pieces of glass, and it parted the reeds at throat level, leaving a clear path behind.
But the companions were already gone, ducking among the weeds and bushes. Instinctively they expected to hear the crackle of blasters, but there only came another boomerang, closely followed by a spear, and then a flurry of crossbow arrows. However, the barrage did nothing, not even coming close to the crouching companions.
Encouraged by that, Mildred stood and fired both the Beretta and the ZKR.
Hit in the arm, a coldheart cursed and dropped his crossbow. But the next man spun fast, and something small flashed across the clearing, getting wider every second.
Before she could dodge, Mildred was hit by a bolo, the stones and rawhide strips wrapping tightly around her throat. Unable to breathe, the physician clawed at strands on her neck. Snarling in rage, Jak lunged for the woman with a knife in his hands.
Hauling up his longblaster, Ryan shot two of the men dead before he had to take cover again as another boomerang cut through the reeds. Rolling to the side, the one-eyed man took cover behind a fallen log, and felt it shake from the arrival of several arrows, the stone tip of one going all the way through and missing him by inches.
Appearing from behind a tree, J.B. fired the shotgun. Catching the blast full in the chest, a coldheart went sailing off the cliff to disappear below.
“Did ya see? Did ya?” a man shouted excitedly.
“By the sky gods…” a coldheart whispered. “They have blasters! Working blasters!”
“Get that steel!” their leader bellowed, surging forward.
Yanking a gren from her pocket, Krysty primed the bomb and tossed it at the charging group of men. Incredibly, one of them reached up to catch the explosive charge.
“Hey, this ain’t no sleepy bomb,” he said in growing astonishment. “It’s…it’s made out of metal. They be throwing metal at us!”
“Don’t be a feeb,” the leader snarled, reloading his crossbow.
But the coldheart started walking. “No, looky here.” Then the grenade detonated, and the man was violently reduced into a gory cloud, steaming gobbets of flesh wetly smacking into the rocks and trees.
“Boomers!” a coldheart gasped. “They got boomers!”
“Frag ’em!” the leader shouted, firing blindly into the reeds. “Just get that steel.”
Standing, Doc leveled the Ruger and triggered a fast six shots, the .357 Magnum blaster bellowing smoke and flame. Three of the coldhearts fell with gaping wounds in their chests, but the other two were only nicked by the Magnum’s rounds, the sixth shot going wild. Cursing the inaccuracy of the unfamiliar weapon, Doc crouched and started thumbing in more rounds. Then from out of nowhere, a boomerang sliced through the reeds at knee level, smacking the wheelgun from his grip and sending him tumbling into the grass, his hands torn and bloody.
The cry caught the blonde woman’s attention, andshe saw the handsome face of the silver-haired man for only a moment before he vanished into the reeds. Her heart leaped at the sight, then Liana jerked her attention back to the fight. Biting a lip, she shoved her hands toward the rocks forming a circle around the campfire, and began to saw her bonds back and forth along the rough edge of a jagged stone. The heat from the fire was almost intolerable, but she kept doggedly at the action until the rawhide strips parted and fell away. She was free!
“Hey,” Liana shouted.
Cursing, a coldheart turned fast, furious that he had forgotten about the slut for this long. But as he looked her way, she threw the fishing spear and it thudded directly into his groin.
Shrieking insanely, the coldheart dropped his weapons to grab the wooden shaft obscenely jutting from the ruin of his manhood.
“You fragging bitch!” another coldheart roared, throwing a boomerang. Oddly, it came apart in mid-flight to reveal that it was actually two pieces.
Desperately trying to get out of the way, Liana managed to avoid one of the sections, but the other caught her in the forehead with a hard crack. Sighing, she slumped to the dirt, feebly twitching.
As if infuriated over the act, the snakes in the pit started hissing louder than ever, sounding as if they were being boiled alive.
Rising from the reeds along the edge of the cliff, a grinning coldheart stood with Mildred’s dropped blaster in his grip. Fumbling with the Beretta, he sentseveral booming rounds at the companions, then J.B. cut him in two with the shotgun.
Spinning a sling to nearly invisible speed, another coldheart let fly a stone. It missed Doc, but hit a nearby rock and shattered into a thousand pieces, the shrapnel peppering the time traveler. Spitting a curse, Doc fired back and missed. As the coldheart began to spin another rock to chilling speed, Ryan took him out with a hollowpoint round to the knee. Letting go of the sling, the wounded man cried out as he stumbled into the campfire. As his clothing caught fire, Doc aimed, using both hands, and blew away most of his throat, cutting off the wild shrieks of pain. Still aflame, the body tumbled off the cliff.
With the blonde out of the way, J.B. leveled the Uzi and opened fire, burning through a full clip of 9 mm Parabellum rounds. The shocked coldhearts were torn to pieces.
Moving forward, fast and low, the companions swept across the bloody campsite, chilling every coldheart they found with ruthless efficiency. Tucking away the Ruger, Doc used his sword to slash the throat of every man, just in case one of them was only pretending.
While Ryan and J.B. stood guard over the campsite, Jak and Krysty gathered firewood and Mildred knelt alongside the unconscious woman to check for any serious damage. Privately, Mildred fumed over losing her weapon, but concentrated on the task at hand. Thankfully, the blonde seemed fine, just undernourished, and with a knot on her head that was going to be very tender for quite a long time. The pretty blonde was goingto have a monumental headache when she awoke, but that was infinitely better than the alternative. However, now that the rush of battle was over, Mildred’s wet clothes were starting to feel clammy once more; every gust of wind from the ocean sent a shiver through the woman.
“How is she doing?” Krysty inquired, dumping an armload of loose sticks onto the dying campfire. The dully glowing embers pulsed into life under the deluge of dry fuel, rapidly building into a roaring blaze.
“She’ll be fine,” the physician declared, realizing slightly under the waves of heat. “Just battered and bruised.”
“They not ride?” Jak asked, adding more fuel to the fire.
Brushing back the long hair of the woman to expose her face, Mildred wearily smiled. “No, we got here in time.”
“Glad about that,” J.B. said, handing the physician the dropped Beretta. She accepted it gratefully.
“The filthy blackguards,” Doc growled, the sound of hate thick in his voice. “They perished too quickly for justice. A nice long hanging would have been their reward back in Vermont.”
Cleaning off his sword on a headless corpse, Doc sheathed the blade and started to remove his damp frock coat, but then he paused and instead kicked over the body of the largest coldheart to strip the corpse of its dry furs. He draped them over the woman, covering her naked body.
“Looks like they ambushed her while cooking dinner,” J.B. said, studying the footprints in the dirt. “Guess she forget to rig a trip line.”
“Stupe place for a campsite, anyway,” Ryan agreed, resting the plastic stock of the Steyr on a hip.
“Wonder if this was her first time outside a ville,” J.B. added, rubbing his jaw. The lee side of the cliff sloped down to the water, the other end rising high above the rocky shore, which meant that when the coldhearts had attacked, she had nowhere to go aside from jumping onto the rocky shoreline. Glancing over the edge of the cliff, the man saw the crumpled bodies of several coldhearts sprawled on the beach, their red guts splayed across the shiny pebbles, only inches from the cresting waves.
“Even then, she held off ten coldhearts all by herself,” Krysty said, feeling a strange touch of pride at the act. “Naked and alone, she fought ten men. She may not be very experienced, but she’s got guts.”
“A mighty tough lady,” Ryan agreed, giving his highest compliment. Then he scowled and kicked away a snake wiggling across the ground.
That was when the hissing pit caught his attention, and Ryan strode over for a closer examination. The hole was only a few feet deep, but absolutely jammed full of live snakes. He looked around for a net, but there were none in sight. Now how the frag did she catch this many snakes without using a net? Ryan knew how to tickle a fish out of water, but you couldn’t do that with a damn snake. It would just twist around and bite you. Then he saw something in the grass and lifted a small bone flute into view.
“She singer!” Jak exclaimed.
“Maybe,” Krysty agreed hesitantly. “I heard her in my mind back in the cave. That’s how I knew to come here.”
“She asked for help?” Ryan said suspiciously.
“Not in actual words, no.” Krysty smiled ruefully. “It was more like a feeling of desperate need.”
Grunting in reply, Ryan tossed her the flute, and Krysty tucked it into a pocket for safekeeping.
“All right, let’s get my patient off this exposed butte and back into our cave,” Mildred directed, rising stiffly. “I want to get some hot broth in her as soon as…What the hell?” With a jerk, the woman kicked away a snake that had been circling around her boots—a water moccasin.
The deadly snake went sailing to land a few yards away, but immediately went straight back.
“Don’t let bite!” Jak cried, and threw a knife. Rising for a strike, the snake was beheaded and dropped limply to the ground.
But even as it died, several additional snakes came out of the reeds, hissing angrily. Most were harmless black snakes, but mixed among them were several larger varieties that shook rattles or brandished long fangs that glistened with venom. The astonished albino simply could not believe it. Snakes never attacked in groups! How was this possible?
Swinging up their blasters, the companions shot down the first wave of poisonous snakes, ignoring their nonlethal cousins. But more of the creatures kept coming up the dune, completely cutting off any possibleroute to the mainland. Maintaining a steady barrage, the companions aced the deadly reptiles, while the harmless black snakes circled their boots, to converge on the unconscious woman. Hissing constantly, the black snakes crawled over the woman, trying to get between her and the companions.
“Dark night, they’re here for her!” J.B. said, swinging around the scattergun. “She wasn’t calling you, but summoning an army!” Every boom of the shotgun announced the demise of a score of snakes, but more were coming out of the lake in an endless swarm.
“But she asleep!” Jak snarled, blowing the guts out of another water moccasin.
“Tell them that!” Krysty retorted, shooting in a two-hand grip.
As the snakes crawled over the aced coldhearts, they paused to savage the warm bodies, biting the aced men repeatedly in the face, hands and throat, often carrying away tiny morsels of raw flesh.
“Fireblast!” Ryan cursed, firing his blaster nonstop. Cut off from the mainland, the companions were trapped, neatly boxed on the crest of the sloping dune. The grass was alive with tiny eyes full of hate. Then another wave of snakes washed onto the shore, heading for the dune.
“Mildred, wake her up, or blow her brains out!” Ryan commanded, dropping a spent magazine to hastily reload.
Dropping to her knees, Mildred slapped the woman twice. “Wake up!” she shouted, then grabbed her by the shoulders and shook hard. “We’re friends! The coldhearts are aced! Call off your snakes!” There was no response.
“It’s no use,” Mildred declared. “She’s too far out of it for me to ever rouse in time.”
“Sister, help me.” Krysty spoke calmly, putting every ounce of her strength into the heartfelt plea.
There was a pause, and then the woman fluttered her lids, but nothing more.
However, the physician took heart at the reaction, small as it was, and shifted her aim to fire the Check ZKR right alongside the ear of the blonde, the roar of the concussion actually riffling her hair.
Abruptly jerking awake, Liana looked around in confusion at the companions shooting snakes, then she saw Doc hacking at the swarm of reptiles, the gory blade rising and falling. It was the tall man who had aced the leader of the Hillies!
Instantly understanding what was happening, Liana weakly tried to summon the strength needed for a song, but the pain in her head swelled in response, and she fell once more into a pool of deep black that seemed to have no bottom.
ROLLING TO THE EDGE of the battle station, the last guardian droid paused, then decided to go no farther. It would stay with the ship.
The military programming inside the core CPU reacted strongly to that, but buried under the millions of lines of code coursing through the memory banks, the ancient, original command of self-preservation surged to overwhelm the hastily written dictates of the U.S. Navy High Command.
Trundling back into the battered corridor, theguardian proceeded toward the elevator. Pursuit had failed to apprehend the invaders. Now it would assume a passive role and wait….Chapter Four
Soft voices murmured to each other in conversation. There was the scent of pine in the air, and the crackle of a campfire. The smell of cooking snake meat was mixed with the aroma of something else…something new, and deliciously powerful…then there came a guttural laugh….
With a violent lurch, Liana awoke to find herself inside a small cave. Five strangers, two of them women, were sitting around a low campfire, laughing and talking, their hands full of plates piled with food or steaming plastic cups. A wide assortment of weapons that she could not identify hung off their belts, along with some odd knives, the glass blades having a strange blue tint, almost as if lake water had been solidified hard as rock. Bizarre. Even more strange, the women also carried weapons and were not chained in any manner that Liana could see, and were talking directly to the men as if they were equals and not slaves. Perhaps these were sec men from Northpoint. That was the only ville on the world with a female baron. In most other places women were merely sluts, only good for cooking and cleaning, birthing and bedding.
That gave her some hope, then a dull pain throbbedin her head and the memories of the fight came rushing back. These were the outlanders who had saved her from the Hillies. Then she scowled. Saved her for what, was the question. She had heard tales of people who actually ate other people as if they were animals. And there were terrible legends about the mainlanders who did even worse things, ghastly, ungodly things, especially to pretty young girls. Even a mutie like me, she thought.
With her heart pounding, Liana looked around for the tall man with silver hair, but he was nowhere to be seen, and her fledgling hopes and dreams collapsed like a felled tree. Obviously, he had sold her to these others.
Trying not to make any noise, Liana eased a hand down her body and was startled to discover that she was fully dressed. The unseen garments were as soft as the clothing of a baron, and there was something on her feet even more comfortable than a pair of deerskin moccasins. She wanted to see, but did not dare to attract any attention.
Surreptitiously, the woman examined between her legs, but there was no pain or soreness, not even dried blood. Clearly, she had not been taken while unconscious. That sent a wave of cold through her guts. It could only mean they were going to bring her back undamaged to Baron Griffin for the reward. Dear goddess no, anything, she prayed, but that.
Desperately, Liana looked about for some way out of the cave, but the only opening was past the five coldhearts, and partially blocked by a large boulder and an odd arrangement of torn bushes lashed together into acrude curtain. Was that done to keep out the night flyers who lived in caves? How very clever!
“Ah, I see you are finally awake,” Mildred said, stirring the contents of a simmering pot with a green stick. “I was hoping that the smell of food would bring you around. Hunger is one of the most powerful of the primordial triggers.”
Hunkering lower into the fur blankets, Liana said nothing, having no idea what the majority of those words meant.
“How is your head? Feeling any better?”
Ever so slowly, Liana nodded.
“Hope you don’t mind, but we took all the snakes,” Ryan said, stuffing a forkful of blackened meat into his mouth. “Didn’t want food going to waste.”
“Fresh snake.” Jak grinned happily. “Been long time. One of my favs.”
“Want some food, or coffee?” J.B. asked, proffering a cup. “It’s not coffee-sub, either, but the real stuff from a predark tin.” That wasn’t exactly correct, but the Armorer was guessing that the woman would probably think an MRE food pack was magic. Or worse, evil. Lots of folks these days still held tech, any tech aside from blasters, in extremely low esteem.
Unsure of what to do, Liana waited, and then finally shook her head. She had no idea what “coughy” was, but the smell was so good she assumed it had to be some sort of a drug, like jolt or wolfweed.
Turning away from the cheery fire, a tall woman with long red hair smiled in a friendly manner, and Liana found herself instinctively responding in turn.
“I’ve never met a singer before,” Krysty said. “That is a mighty valuable talent.”
“No, please, don’t ace me!” Liana cried in terror. “I’m not a mutie. I’m not! I found those snakes. Honest!” From sheer force of habit, she reached up to touch her face and found that her hair had been combed to the sides. These newcomers could see her eyes. They knew the truth.
The terror on her face was plain for everybody to see, and the companions could easily guess the reasons why. There had to be a rad crater in the area, and for decades children had been born horribly malformed. Over time, any deviation from the norm would be unclean, maybe even blasphemous, and more than sufficient justification for being aced on the spot, even newborn babes.
“Oh calm down, we know that you are not a mutie,” Mildred said soothingly in her best doctor-to-patient manner. Lifting the stick from the pot of stew, she took a lick, then added some pepper.
The casual nature of the statement took the blonde by surprise. “You…do?” she whispered.
“Shitfire, think me mutie just ’cause my skin?” Jak asked with a laugh, taking a sip from his cup.
“No, of course not, master,” Liana replied hastily, bowing her head in respect.
“Cut that drek out right now,” Ryan snapped irritably, furrowing his brow. “Nobody here is a baron or a sec man. We’re just folk, same as you.”
Liana started to speak, but nothing would come out. Did…did they really consider her a norm?
“Dear God, girl, do people think you are a mutie because you are Oriental?” Mildred admonished curtly, laying aside the plate to fill another.
Utterly confused, Liana said nothing.
“Your eyes,” the physician explained patiently. “Do folks believe you are a mutie because of how your eyes are shaped, and the color of your skin?”
A long moment paused in tense silence.
“Yes,” Liana said in a very small voice, almost bursting into tears.
“Horse shit,” Jak drawled, draining the cup. “Double horse shit! Just part Japanese, or Chinese, or something. Seen hundreds like you. Nothing special.”
“Really?” she asked, hope thick in her voice.
“Sure.” Which was only a partial lie. He had seen a lot of folks with Asian blood in their veins, but only a handful of them also with blond hair.
Astonishing herself, Liana managed to screwed up the courage to ask, “Where did you see them, sir?”
Ignoring the honorific, Jak refilled his cup. “All over the Deathlands,” he said honestly. “Front Royal, Two-Son ville, Hammertown, Norleans, IronHat, near the Washington Hole…” He grinned. “Would tell how many, but can’t count high.”
She seemed relieved at the news, then excited. “I don’t know any of those villes,” Liana said, trying to control her emotions. “Where on the world are they?”
The odd turn of phrase caught Ryan’s attention. On the world, not in the world. He was starting to get a crazy idea about this place, but it couldn’t be confirmed until the dawn when J.B. could check their location on his sextant.
Wiping her mouth clean on a handkerchief, Krysty accepted a second plate of snake stew from Mildred, then added some salt and dug in with gusto.
Astonished, Liana could only gasp at the wanton display of wealth. Metal, now salt. And there was so much, they mixed it into food! Not even the barons were that rich. Just who were these people?
“So, what ville are you from?” Ryan asked, watching her reactions carefully. So, salt was valuable stuff, eh?
“I was born in the wildwoods,” Liana said, the words spoken far too quickly. “Never even seen the inside of a ville.”
“Yeah, me, too,” Ryan lied in return. “By the way, don’t you want your stuff?”
“There on your right.”
Looking down, Liana gasped. Lying on a clean piece of white cloth was her beloved flute, as well as a sheathed knife, a crossbow and a quiver of arrows.
“Your share of stuff from acing the coldhearts,” Ryan said gruffly, returning to his interrupted dinner. “You’re not a slave, or our new slut, or any damn thing else. If you want to leave, there’s the door.”
“We won’t stop you,” Krysty added. “You have my word on that, little sister.”
Completely flummoxed by the incredible offer, Liana couldn’t think of what to do next. Ryan and Krysty exchanged a fast smile. Yeah, they both had thought so. The woman probably had never owned a thing in her life aside from that flute, plus the clotheson her back, and maybe not even them. The companions would need a local guide to show them what baron could be trusted, where the rad pits and stickie nests were hidden, and so on, and this was the easiest way to get the woman on their side. It was a bargaining tactic Ryan had learned from his days with the Trader long ago. Give the other person everything they wanted, but ask for nothing in return, and they would bend themselves over double trying to repay you with info. It would be a matter of honor.
Hesitantly, Liana reached out to touch the items, then looked at the companions as if asking permission. They artfully paid her no attention whatsoever, and the woman hurriedly dragged everything out of sight under the furs.
“By the way, the name is J. B. Dix,” the Armorer said, putting aside his plate.
Liana started to reply with the name she had used all of her life in Anchor ville, the hated Victoria, the family name supposedly a dark secret. But something deep inside made her feel that would be wrong, and she yielded to the urge. “I’m Liana,” she replied.
“No last name?” Jak asked.
“Me? I’m no baron,” Liana scoffed.
Warming his hands to the fire, Ryan stored that info away. Never use a last name here. Already, the woman was paying for all the brass they had used chilling the coldhearts.
In short order, introductions were exchanged as the woman strapped on her new weapons. The crossbow was as familiar as air to the woman, but the knife…godsof the atom, she had never seen bone this hard and sharp. It shone bright like winter ice.
“Well, it’s time for me to go stand guard duty,” J.B. said, slinging the scattergun and taking one last sip of coffee. “See you in a couple of hours.”
Going to the entrance, he pushed aside the curtain of thorny bushes and eased into the night.
“There is still plenty of food,” Mildred offered once more, taking a seat on a rock, her coat folded on top as a cushion. “Mostly, it is just snake, but we also have some rice mixed with canned veggies.”
Eagerly scooting closer to the fire, Liana accepted a plate, marveling over the strange material it was made from until the smell of the stew hit her, then she dug in with gusto using her fingers. Tactfully, the others said nothing about the nearby fork and spoon.
“Goof!” Liana mumbled happily, barely able to speak from the sheer volume of food stuffed into her mouth.
Allowing the starving woman to eat in peace for a while, Krysty then started the conversation going in the direction she wanted. As her mother always said, give a little, get a lot.
“Well, Liana, I’m very impressed with your ability,” Krysty said, resting an elbow on her knee to lean forward. “Have you always been able to summon snakes?”
Blinking, the woman swallowed. “Sure. I’ve always been a singer.”
“Can you summon anything else?” Mildred inquired, adding some powdered milk to the predark coffee.
“Only ever needed snakes,” Liana answered simply.
Fair enough, Krysty supposed. Those were a handy source of meat and leather. “What about the fog? When does it clear?”
Licking her hand clean, Liana seemed confused by that question. “Fog?” she asked hesitantly.
The lack of a reply caught Krysty off guard. “The…you know, the stuff out there that looks like smoke.”
“You mean, the air?” Liana said with a frown.
Annoyed, Ryan scowled. Fireblast! If the locals didn’t even have a word for the fog, then it probably never went away. There had to be a rad crater, or a volcano, in the vicinity boiling a section of the ocean into steam, creating a permanent shroud over the land. That was bad news. Without a clear view of the sun, J.B. would never be able to find out exactly where they were this time.
Just then, there was a rustle from the entrance and Doc entered, sliding the massive LeMat into a holster.
“Do I smell coffee?” he said as a greeting. He saw Liana and smiled widely, displaying his oddly perfect teeth. “Ah, I see that our guest has finally left the land of Nod! Welcome back, dear lady, I trust you are comfortable?”
“Fine, yes, no damage,” Liana said in a rush, feeling oddly naked, even though she was fully dressed. The tall outlander affected her in the most disturbing way. He was very handsome, almost striking, and while the silver hair made him appear to be a wrinklie, this close she could see that was wrong. The tall man carried himself with the assurance of a seasoned sec man. But there was something in his face that she could not readily define.
“Doc, say hello to Liana,” Mildred said with a mischievous grin. “Miss Liana, may I present Dr. Theophilus Algernon Tanner.”
“Charmed, dear lady,” Doc said, giving a courtly bow.
Looking into his smiling eyes, Liana saw something that she had only known from her father, something she scarcely even had a word for—kindness. Somehow, the woman felt sure that this was a man who would never harm her, no matter what.
“I saw what you did to those coldhearts,” Liana blurted, blushing slightly. “For some of the fight, anyway.”
“Indeed? Well, I am always glad to assist a damsel in distress,” Doc demurred gallantly, suddenly feeling very awkward.
“Thank you,” Liana whispered, throwing her arms around his neck and hugging tight. Then she unexpectedly burst into tears.
Standing as if hit with a poleax, Doc did nothing for an inordinate length of time. Then ever so slowly, the scholar placed his arms around the young woman and gently returned the gesture, moving as if he were afraid that something might break, and not necessarily the beautiful young woman in his arms.
Outside the cave, there came a flash of lightning, closely followed by a crackling peal of thunder, and then it began to rain, the shower rapidly escalating until the wild maelstrom that sounded like the end of the world.Chapter Five
Once, it had been the skull of a kraken, but now it was the terrible throne room of Anchor ville. The mouth and eyes had been closed with stout wooden shutters, and the interior walls delicately carved with scenes of victorious battle, along with the legendary downfall of the predark world. At this time of night, the throne room was normally full of people, sec men, servants and stewards. But by the command of the baron, it had been completely emptied for a very special visitor.
Standing uncomfortable in the palatial grandeur, the bearded Hilly was completely dressed in badly cured furs, their pungent reek almost overpowering. As a sign of goodwill, none of his stone weapons had been taken. However, both of the other people in the throne room were armed with working blasters.
“Exactly how much metal are we talking here?” Baron Wainwright asked, leaning back in her throne. The carved symbol of a holy maple leaf framed her head perfectly. “A pound? Two pounds?”
“My lady, more than the weight of a man,” the Hilly replied, uneasily hitching up the rope belt around his waist.
“How much?” sec chief LeFontaine retorted. “I should ace you on the spot for lying to my baron!”
“No, it’s true!” the Hilly cried, raising his hands in protest. “I watched the jacking from the bushes in the forest. Planned on taking whatever was left behind. But I saw that the outlanders were covered with metal, all different kinds! There was metal in their backpacks, on their faces, around their necks, mixed into their clothing…”
Listening to the rambling of the outcast, Wainwright and LeFontaine said nothing, but their expressions clearly stated that their interest was quickly fading. Metal worn as mere decorations? What utter and complete drek.
“An’ they had blasters like I never seen!” the Hilly went on, feeling the sale slip away between his fingers. “I know it sounds crazy, but the things shot faster than a dozen imperial crossbows, and spit out tiny gold pieces of metal that sparkled in the firelight!”
That caught the baron short, and she studied the man with renewed intent. That sounded like the outlanders had working rapidfires. Could that possibly be true? What few blasters existed on the world came from mainlanders who accidentally landed here after storms. However, nobody had arrived on these shores for a long time. Years, decades!
“These blasters,” LeFontaine said carefully. “The golden pieces came out the bottom, right?”
Puzzled, the Hilly frowned. “No, they popped out the side. Kinda made an arch as they flew away.”
“How did they load them?”
“Shoved in little boxes.” Then he added, “But first they had to move some kind of stick on the top. Dunno what it did.”
An arming bolt! That was enough for the baron. There was no way this unwashed feeb could possibly know how a rapidfire worked, unless he had actually seen one in action.
“All right, little man, I’ll pay your price,” Baron Wainwright said eagerly. “Fifty horses, fifty slaves, ten crossbows and a hundred arrows.”
“Done!” She smiled, then spit on a palm and they shook to seal the deal. “Now, tell me more about these outlanders. Tell me everything.”
IT WAS LONG after midnight before the thunder and lightning finally began to recede, the pounding rain easing into a gentle patter before stopping entirely as the autumnal storm slowly moved out to sea.
Ryan was on guard duty inside the cave, sitting on a rock with the Steyr leaning against the nearby cave wall. The SIG-Sauer was tucked into the holster of his gunbelt, and he was testing the action on his new acquisition from the Navy ship, a Desert Eagle. The big-bore weapon was a real handcannon, the wide magazine holding only seven fat .50-caliber rounds. The recoil would be awful, but anything hit by the weapon would be aced, probably damn near blown in two. Unfortunately there was only the one magazine of seven rounds, so Ryan planned to save the handcannon in case they returned to the ship.
Setting aside the Desert Eagle, Ryan rose and grabbed the Steyr to check outside. The clouds were gone from overhead, and in the east the sun was just starting to rise. Excellent!
Grunting in satisfaction, Ryan went back inside the cave to quickly walk around the blazing campfire.
“Hey,” Ryan said, nudging the bare foot of the Armorer with his combat boot.
Instantly the man was awake, and the U.S. Army blanket shifted to reveal the Uzi machine blaster in his grip.
“Trouble?” J.B. asked, squinting. His glasses were on a natural shelf set into the rocky wall, safe from any possibility of getting rolled on and crushed during sleep. Lying right next to the glasses was the recently cleaned and oiled 9 mm FN Hershel blaster. The logo on the checkered Zytel grip marked it as the property of NATO, but what that was doing inside an American warship was anybody’s guess.
“Better.” Ryan grinned. “We’ve got sky.”
J.B. threw off the blankets. Hastily pulling on and lacing his boots, J.B. donned his glasses and grabbed the dry munitions bag to hurry outside.
The morning air felt crisp and clean as a yawning J.B. sloshed across the sodden ground to reach the shore. Black storm clouds rumbled on the western horizon, but a glorious sun was rising in the east, the reddish sky brightening into dawn. Unfortunately the ever-present cloud of toxic chems and rads was already starting to roll in from the south, and J.B. knew that he only had a few minutes to get this right. There would be no second chances.
With Ryan standing nearby as protection, the Armorer set the Uzi on top of a damp boulder, and swung the minisextant to his eye. Expertly focusing it on the rising sun, he then carefully placed the mirrors and started working the numbers.
Watching the area for any possible danger, Ryan said nothing, letting the man work in peace. A few moments later the rest of the companions stumbled from the cave, their hands full of blasters and rolls of bog paper.
Muttering equations under his breath, J.B. pulled a plastic-coated map from the munitions bag.
“Okay,” he said, biting a lip. “We are…yep, we’re on Royal Island in Lake Superior, smack between Canada and Michigan.”
“That lake?” Jak asked with a scowl.
In the morning light, the albino teen could clearly see for miles in every direction, and there was nothing in sight but flat open water to the misty horizon.
“Well, technically it is a lake,” Mildred replied, closing her jacket. “But really it is an inland sea, hundreds of miles wide and over a thousand feet deep in some spots.”
“Good God, madam, that would make it roughly the same size as England!” Doc espoused, his tousled hair sticking out in every direction. His clothes were rumpled, but the LeMat was spotlessly clean, primed and ready.
“Pretty damn close,” Mildred agreed, stomping her boots to encourage circulation.
“Fireblast! There’s no way we are ever going to paddle across that on a raft,” Ryan stated, resting the Steyr across his broad shoulders.
“Not and survive,” J.B. agreed, folding the map before tucking it into the plastic bag. “Now, Canada is to the north, and only a few miles away. However—”
“Travel in that direction is forbidden because of Red Mountain,” Liana interrupted, shifting uncomfortably in her new clothing. The spare denim pants and sneakers had come from Mildred, the socks and shirt from Krysty. The clothing was a little tight in some spots and a tad baggy in others, but it was still the finest clothing she had ever worn.
Adjusting his eyepatch, Ryan scowled darkly. Red Mountain, that was the local name for what had to be a major volcano. The woman had told them about that after dinner. The volcano was huge, probably a series of volcanoes, the lava flow boiling the lake for several miles and generating the eternal fog that was already starting to creep across the landscape once more.
Oddly, Liana had also said that was the direction that most of the muties on the island came from, and that anybody traveling toward the mountains soon died coughing blood with their hair falling out. That strongly indicated the chain of volcanoes was not natural formation, but had been caused by skydark. The whole bastard world had been changed forever by the bombs of the last war. Mildred called it nuclear landscaping, or nukescaping for short.
Red Mountain. A rad mountain was more likely, Ryan thought. “Not much of a choice here,” he stated. “Canada is closer, but fragging unreachable. Which makes the only safe way to travel being south to Michigan.”
“Across two hundred miles of open sea,” Doc rumbled, smoothing down his unruly hair.
Suddenly there came a faint cry from the trees on the rill of a nearby cliff, and a stingwing lanced down to splash into the lake, and then reappear almost instantly with a wriggling fish impaled on its needle-sharp beak. Flying back to the trees, the stingwing tore the fish apart, blood and entrails raining out in a hellish contrail.
“Looks like we use Jak’s plan,” J.B. stated, shifting the munitions bag on his shoulder to a more comfortable position.
“Looks like,” Ryan agreed. “We either buy or steal a boat from some ville.”
“Only Anchor and Northpoint have boats large enough to carry seven people,” Liana started, then paused nervously. When nobody objected, or corrected her math, she continued with an excited feeling in her stomach. Except for her father, the young woman had lived alone her whole life. Now to have companions made her feel different somehow, bolder, more alive.
“Think they’d be interested in doing some biz?” Ryan asked, turning her way.
Addressed directly, like an equal, Liana almost lied, wishing to please the big man, then paused and told the brutal truth. “Not Northpoint, they don’t want anybody else to own boats,” she said. “But…Anchor might. The baron is a fool.”
“That is where you formerly served as a slave?” Doc asked gently, leaning on the ebony stick. The previous night, Liana had been given a blanket near the fire, but sometime during the night she had moved it closer to him, right alongside, almost touching. That bothpleased and troubled the scholar, his mind awhirl with conflicting emotions.
“No, I was a slave at Northpoint,” Liana stated. “But by now the birds have spread the word of my escape, and I’m worth a full pound of metal to any ville that takes me live so that Baron Wainwright can strap me to the learning tree.” Involuntarily she shuddered at the possibility, and the rest of the companions clearly got the idea of what would happen—death by slow, public torture.
“Then you’ll just wait in the hills with everybody else until we return,” Ryan stated, sensing the fright in the woman. “If they think you’re a mutie because of those eyes, they’ll think the same thing about Krysty and Jak.”
“There is nobody like them in any of the villes,” Liana agreed.
“Nobody good as, ya mean.” Jak grinned confidently.
“And is there anybody like me?” Mildred asked pointedly.
Liana blinked. “There’s plenty of women in the ville,” she answered, unsure of the question. “Do you mean the beaded hair?”
“Never mind.” Mildred smiled. If the girl didn’t even understand the question, then her skin color would not be a problem.
“And I can’t go because of these,” J.B. added, touching his wire-rimmed glasses. “I’m not blind yet, but near enough to matter in a fight.”
“Besides, we’ll need to keep watch in case Ryanand Mildred get into trouble,” Krysty stated. “Always have to prepare for the worst, as Doc likes to say.”
“Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst,” Doc corrected her. “Ben Franklin was a very wise man.”
“You…you want me to help guard him?” Liana asked in frank disbelief, staring up at the one-eyed man. Ryan was easily twice her size, with hands that looked capable of squeezing a kraken to death.
“Anybody can get captured,” Krysty commented sagely. “Besides, we never divide the group unless absolutely necessary. Those coldhearts could have friends. Left here alone you’d be easy pickings for them. Best to keep everybody together.”
That would also remove the possibility of her running ahead to tell the baron about the companions to earn her freedom, J.B. noted privately. He didn’t think that was likely, but he had been fooled before. A pretty face sometimes hid an ugly mind.
“At the very least, you will need to show us where the ville is located,” Doc said with a gentle smile.
Eagerly, Liana nodded. “I can do that easy.”
As if unaware that there was anybody else on the lakeshore, Doc beamed in unabashed pleasure at the younger woman and she responded in kind.
“Any good with crossbow?” Jak asked teasingly.
In a blur, the woman turned and fired, the arrow flashing past the teenager so close that it shook the feathers along his jacket. A split second later, there was a small cry of pain and a squirrel dropped out of the branches of a pine tree to land twitching on the ground, shot directly through the head. Almost instantly, aswarm of black beetles converged on the body and began tearing it into pieces.
“She-et,” Jak drawled, giving the word two syllables. “Do fine!”
Already reloading the weapon, Liana preened under the unaccustomed praise.
“Breakfast before anything else.” Mildred yawned. “Empty bellies make empty minds.”
“Well, it’s my turn to cook,” Ryan said, rubbing a hand across his unshaved jaw. He would have liked to shave, but it would be better if he looked rough when negotiating with folks who didn’t have any metal. “Is there any of the stew left?”
“Nope,” Jak said with an apologetic shrug.
Knowing the appetite of the teenager, Ryan accepted that. “Fair enough. I’ll use some of the MRE packs.”
“Be glad to help,” Liana offered. “I’m a very good cook.”
“Me, too,” Ryan replied tolerantly. “This time you watch, learn how we do things, then you can make lunch. Fair enough?” The man understood her eagerness to be seen as a valuable member of the group. But he wasn’t quite ready to trust the newcomer enough to consume anything she made out of sight.
“Done and done,” Liana said, and offered a hand, as if sealing a deal.
The smiling man and serious woman shook, then got busy gathering more driftwood, while the others took their turns in the bushes and washing in the cold lake.
Seeing his refection in a tide pool, Doc decided toshave. Using a scrap of soap recovered from a distant redoubt, he worked up some lather, then used his belt knife, running the flame of a butane lighter along the edge first to make sure it was clean. Over the years, the blade had been thrust into far too many bodies, both norm and mutie, to risk using without sterilization.
Soon, the time traveler was freshly scraped, his face shiny pink, with only a small cut on his chin. A single red drop of blood fell into the water and faded away from sight into the murky depths.Chapter Six
Leaving the cave behind, the companions trundled inland, going high into the foothills then across a woodsy glen.
Breakfast had been MRE envelopes of pancakes and syrup, French toast and scrambled eggs, plus packets of hot chocolate. Liana marveled over the foodstuff, but passed on the hot chocolate for some of the coffee, savoring the dark roast Colombian as if it was made from precious salt. From her sounds of pleasure, it clearly tasted even better than she had imagined.
As the day progressed, the thick fog returned, masking the landscape until it was impossible to see more than a few yards in any direction.
Irritably, Ryan realized this condition made the scope of his Steyr useless. Any chilling on Royal Island would be up close and personal, knives and blasters only.
Preparing to bargain with the local baron, Ryan and Mildred had already removed anything they carried that was made of metal: belt buckles, rad counter, belt knives and such, including their combat boots. The footwear wasn’t made of metal, but was in far too good shape. The spare Army blankets had been convertedinto crude ponchos, held in place by pieces of hemp rope, with additional pieces lashed into place around their bare feet as crude rag boots. Doc said the idea came from the Middle Ages.
Trying to look the role of sec men from one of the outer islands, both Ryan and Mildred were armed with a crossbow and quiver, stone knives, wooden boomerang and bolo. However, secreted inside their shirts, under their ponchos, were their blasters and a few grens, just in case of emergencies.
The two companions also carried a couple of gifts for the baron, hopefully more than enough to buy a boat and fishing nets. The companions had no conceivable use for the nets, but since it was forbidden to leave the island, they would make for a good cover story, as Mildred liked to say. A reasonable lie used to hide the uncomfortable truth.
Slowly the hours passed as the companions crossed a wide field of daisies growing in wild profusion around the corpse of what might have been a mutie spider, but it was impossible to tell anymore. Just to be safe, J.B. primed a Molotov and watched the trees for any unusually large webs.
Reaching the forest once more, the companions climbed a ragged hill covered with pine trees only to quickly go around a small bay, the rad counters of Ryan and J.B. both clicking steadily upward.
“That’s Dead Man Bay,” Liana said with a shiver, making a protective gesture in the air. “It looks safe, but drink that water, or even eat a fish from there, and all you hair falls out, then you start bleeding from the gums.”
“And then?” Krysty prompted. The bay seemed perfectly normal, but the counters were almost off the scale.
“And then the sec men shovel dirt over you,” the blonde replied. “They used to feed the bodies to the crabs, but then the women started having bad babies for some reason, so the baron made them stop.”
“Crabs eat corpse, then you eat crabs?” Jak asked, shifting his backpack.
“That reason,” he replied succinctly.
“Heavy metal poisoning,” Mildred explained with a sigh. Strontium, thulium, cobalt, the list of lethal isotopes was nearly endless. Most likely, the bay had been hit by a Russian MIRV, a warhead containing not a single, massive, thermonuclear bomb, but a dozen tactical nukes. However, she knew better than to raise the possibility to the others. They simply did not care. A nuke was a nuke, end of discussion.
“Are you a whitecoat?” Liana asked sharply, her eyes narrowing in suspicion.
“Healer, just a healer,” Mildred replied, sensing possible danger.
After a while Liana nodded in acceptance and continued walking, her legs moving fast as she tried to keep abreast of Doc with his long stride.
The masked sun was in the afternoon sky by the time the companions started to run across traces of the ville—repairs done to the dirt road from the summer rains, farmland already harvested for the coming winter, acres of tree stumps with the splintery stumps giving mute testimony to the backbreaking task of using a stone ax, and a crude bridge spanning a dry ravine that was probably a raging torrent in the spring.
Finding a relatively secluded area, masked from the surrounding hills by a copse of maple trees, Ryan and Mildred divested themselves of their larger metal items, the spare blasters and brass going to Jak, the Steyr to Krysty, and the med kit to Doc. Double-checking each other for anything metallic, Ryan and Mildred then rubbed some loose dirt into their hair and clothing to enhance the idea that they had walked to Anchor from the far end of the known world.
“Okay, we part company here,” Ryan said, hefting a loaded crossbow. The weight was awkward, so he shifted the grip until it properly balanced. A small detail like that could easily get them aced if the local sec men were any good at their jobs. “Whether we get a boat, or not, we’ll meet you at the grotto that Liana told us about.”
“We’ll be there,” J.B. replied earnestly, stashing away the possessions. “And if you’re not back by midnight, we’ll come looking for you.”
“Damn well better.”
“Watch out for the Wendigo!” the blonde warned again, knowing that she was repeating herself, but feeling it was necessary. She had once seen the terrible thing in action, and her new friends had not. It was not a sight the woman would ever forget.
“The Wendigo?” Krysty asked with a scowl.
“Unless I am mistaken, that comes from a Canadian myth about an unstoppable monster,” Doc replied. “Atrapper went mad from hunger, ate a friend and the Indian gods cursed him forever.”
“Unstoppable monster.” Jak nodded. “Good name war wag.”
“Hopefully it is just advertising, and not an accurate description,” Mildred said, double-checking her clothing one last time. The rag boots were surprisingly comfortable, but the physician knew that would cease at the first touch of moisture. Rain puddles were now to be avoided like landmines.
As the companions slipped into the bushes, Jak waited until they were past before following along behind, a leafy branch in his pale hands erasing any trace of their passage.
“The Trader used to do something similar with sage bushes,” Ryan commented. “Said he learned it from the Sioux when he was a kid.” The one-eyed man almost smiled. “Seems kind of funny thinking of the Trader that way, learning things, instead of teaching others.”
“Even the great Socrates had a teacher as a child,” Mildred replied. One of her professors had said that civilization was merely the accumulated wisdom of everybody who had ever lived. Smart words. With all of her heart, the physician hoped that in the future people would be smart enough to never allow another skydark. The universe rarely gave anybody a second chance.
When the others were completely out of sight, Ryan and Mildred stolidly returned to the main road, then walked back toward the lake for a mile, before turning and starting for the ville again. Along the way, the manand woman sharply watched the trees and hillsides for any signs of perimeter guards, sentries or outriders, but saw only songbirds, stingwings and an abundance of squirrels. Whatever else was wrong with the island, at least food was plentiful, which was a nice change from the vast sterile deserts of the western Deathlands.
A few miles later the ville rose into view. Situated on the side of a cliff, the walls were composed of irregularly shaped stones, joined with a blue material that was probably river clay. Sec men and women armed with crossbows walked along the top of the structure, and a guard tower rose high above the ville, the pillbox on top bristled with wooden spears like a frightened porcupine.
“Protection from the kraken?” Mildred asked out of the corner of her mouth.
Adjusting his eyepatch, Ryan merely nodded in agreement. Perhaps the bastard lake muties really were as large as Liana had informed them. If so, that could put a real crimp in their plans to reach the mainland in a fishing boat. The journey would be tough enough without dodging a hungry mutie larger than a predark warehouse.
The front gate of the ville was made of interlocking logs, the bark stripped off and the smooth bare wood studded with wooden spikes and shiny pieces of volcanic glass. Only the hinges were metal. Then Ryan looked again. Correction, two of the six hinges were metal, the rest were carved from stone.
Unlike every other ville Ryan and Mildred had ever encountered, the front gate was wide open, with no guards in sight. However, there was another log walljust past the gate, neatly blocking any view of the ville. That was standard in most villes. The second wall was a shatter zone, designed to break the charge of any invaders and to give the ville sec men an excellent place to shoot at the enemy from relative safety.
Strolling closer, Ryan could hear the sounds of ville life, raised voices, a dog barking, laughter and cursing, a drunk was singing, a newborn crying, and there was the steady, never-ending chopping of wood.
When they were only a few yards away, a muttered curse came from off to one side and a sec man scrambled out of a brick kiosk, holding a large crossbow. Each brick in the kiosk was a different color, showing they had been salvaged from several ruins, and there was a firing slit in the side, subtle movements on the other side showing the gatekeeper was not alone.
“Hold it there, outlanders!” the sec man commanded, swinging up his weapon until it wasn’t exactly pointing in their direction, but close enough to be used if desired.
The guard looked dangerous, but Mildred internally sighed at the sight of the large black man, his skin even darker than her own. Once more, Liana was right. She was just regular folks here.
The huge sec man was dressed in thick furs, with a stone-throwing ax hanging from a thong at his side. The leather-wrapped handle was old and worn, the stone blade nicked in several places, but polished to a mirror sheen. It was clearly a deadly weapon that saw a lot of constant use.
“Sure thing,” Ryan said in an even tone, his owncrossbow pointing at the ground, but with an arrow notched and ready.
“What’s your biz in Anchor?” the sec man demanded, a finger resting on the trigger of his weapon.
“Just here to buy a boat,” Ryan replied, trying to appear anxious.
“Buy a boat?” That seemed to confuse the man. “What for? They’re easy enough to make out of bark.”
“Don’t want a fragging canoe, we need a fishing boat,” Ryan answered curtly. “A big one. Got a whole ville to feed, and mine got swept out to sea in a storm last week.”
“Along with our master carpenter,” Mildred added on impulse. “You ever try to make one of those things without any tools?”
“Hell, no, and don’t ever wanna try, either.” The guard chuckled, changing the aim of his weapon. “Well, come on in. Guess you’re telling the truth. We do have the best carpenters on the world. A man can notch that into his crossbow!”
“Everybody knows that flies straight,” Ryan agreed, resting his crossbow on a shoulder. “Is there a toll?” This was a weak point in their masquerade as locals, and he just had to bull through. As a slave, Liana had never entered the ville by the gate, and thus had no idea if there was payment due.
“Toll?” the sec man asked, puzzled over the word.
“We heard from a Northpoint sec man that folks had to give the payment of a good arrow to get into Anchor.” Mildred ad-libbed, trying to cover the gaff by playing on the natural rivalry of the two largest villes. “Wethought it was a lie, of course, but still…” She shrugged, but didn’t finish the sentence.
“Those, dirty, inbreed, mutie-kissing, sons of bitches,” the gatekeeper growled in clear hatred, his hands twisting on the wooden stock of the crossbow. “No, there ain’t no nuking toll. Never even heard of such a triple crazy thing before.”
“Hey, you know Northpoint,” Ryan said with a shrug.
“You got that right, friend.” The guard barked a laugh and stepped aside. “Welcome to Anchor. No riding a slave unless you ask permission first. Knife fights ain’t allowed in the gaudy house, only bare fists. Piss in the lake, not the street, or else you get ten lashes. Twenty for lying to a sec man, fifty lashes for refusing to obey a direct order. Savvy?”
“No prob,” Ryan replied amiably, thumbing the safety on his weapon. “Where would we find the baron, anyway?”
“Don’t worry about that, he’ll find you!” the guard replied gruffly, going back into the kiosk.
Ambling through the gate and around the shatter zone, the two companions were instantly immersed into a living mandella of noise, smoke and motion. The air was redolent with the smells of baking bread, frying fish, horse dung and boiling laundry. The perfume of civilization.
Laughing and cursing, pushing and shoving, civies and sec men were everywhere, each going in a different direction. Squealing children ran underfoot chasing rats, then a falcon swooped down from overhead andstole their prize. Sitting around in clusters, elders nimbly stitched repairs to ripped fishing nets, their conversations lost in the overlapping din. A burly woman walked by with a yoke across her wide shoulders to support a pair of large buckets full of freshly made charcoal, the blackened lumps still smoking. Inside a circle of rope, two men had stripped down to the waist and were having a bloody fistfight, while other norms watched and placed wagers. A smiling stone worker slapped his apprentice on the back in congratulations as the teenager successfully split a piece of granite into a set of perfect knife blades.
In the open doorway of a log cabin, a beautiful young woman with an infant suckling at her breast was stirring a cauldron of bubbling maple syrup, the aroma so sweet to the companions that it was almost sickening. Crystallized sticks of maple candy hung from the eaves. At another cabin, a man was diligently smearing fresh mud along a wide split in a seam.
The busy ville was alive with commerce, and nobody paid attention to the companions as they strolled along. Which was just fine by them—the less they were noticed, the better. However, Mildred secretly reveled in the commotion. Any kind of civilization was better than none. Then the physician saw the dreaded learning tree, the wooden stocks and wide leather straps darkly seasoned with overlapping blood stains, and she quickly revised her opinion. Clearly some societies were better than others.
“Found it!” Ryan said in grim satisfaction, moving quickly in a new direction.
Lurching forward, Mildred rushed to stay close as the one-eyed man slipped into the bustling crowd and disappeared from sight.Chapter Seven
Down in the bowels of the Harrington, the ceiling lights sluggishly flickered several times, then they came back on, filling the engine room with a blinding corona of power.
Surveying the assorted wreckage to the main engine and primary tokomac power reactor, the sec droid made a command decision. Several small hatches opened in the armored chassis of the machine and out rushed a score of small repair robots. Resembling mechanical spiders, the robots looked at the massive damage and started to rush forward when the sec droid issued an electronic command to override their programming.
Pausing for only a nanosecond to digest the new information, the robots changed direction to converge on the auxiliary power plant. Crawling over the hulking machine, they conducted a preliminary assessment, noting every nick and ding, then patiently waited until the sec droid gave them permission to start the repairs.
Instantly their dozens of small lasers pulsed into life, cutting away the dented access panels. As one of the heavy pieces of shielding came loose, the robots scuttled inside and crawled everywhere, measuring, testing and probing, to finely analyze the internal damage.
Patiently, the sec droid waited for their detailed report. Soon enough, power would be restored to the entire vessel. Then it would immediately turn the power back off, making the Harrington appear to be dead once more, a helpless prey for the invaders. When they eventually returned, the power would come crashing back on and every hatch would slam shut, trapping them inside. That was when the sec droid would attack. The invaders would be confused, and frightened, easy prey for the military juggernaut.
However, if for some unknown reason it seemed that the invaders might destroy the droid and seize control of the vessel, it would have no choice but to detonate the scuttling charges hidden inside the keel of the carrier. They were only atomic charges, no more than a few kilotons yield. But that would be more than enough to destroy the Harrington. Either way, win, lose or draw, the mat-trans would never fall into the hands of the enemy.
With the patience of steel, the machine began to run a systems check on its various weapons systems. Everything was under control. Now it was only a matter of time.
R EJOINING R YAN, Mildred matched his long stride, one hand artfully brushing the pocket of her dirty furs to check on her ZKR blaster. With any luck, they wouldn’t need weapons today. But luck had been evading the companions lately, and it was always wise to be prepared for trouble. The heavy gren in her pocket was a comforting weight.
Moving among the mob of civies, the armed sec men were easy to spot in their matching uniforms—all of them were shaved bald and sported a small goatee. Ryan could only assume they did it to help recognize one another even in the thickest fog. Actually, it was a bastard smart idea.
The homes in the ville were the expected conglomeration of rebuilt predark structures, log cabins and ramshackle huts. But they were all laid out in neat lines, the streets wide and paved with loose white stones. Harnessed elks pulled crude carts loaded with wood, and a sec woman rode by on a horse, a long line of slaves hobbling along behind. Lengths of rawhide were tied between their ankles and a thick rope was attached to wooden collars. In spite of the chill, they were dressed in rags, and hauling a wheeled cart full of giant arrows over ten feet long.
“So they have an arbalest,” Mildred muttered, glancing at the rooftops. “That’s good to know.” If she remembered correctly, the weapon had a tremendous range.
Grunting in reply, Ryan studied the ville, trying to get the feel of the place. A smart man could learn a lot with his eyes open and his mouth shut. Even if Liana had not told about the shortage of metal on the island, the companions would have figured it out for themselves in short order. Everything was either made of wood, stone or leather.
On a corner, drunken laughter came from a tavern, and gaudy sluts lounged in the second-floor windows, smoking home-rolled cigs, their breasts exposed forpotential customers. In a large corral, a herd of bleating goats was being milked by somber teenagers intent upon their task, and nearby lay huge wheels of cheese drying in the weak sunlight, the rind thickly coated with beeswax. Past that, a butcher was chopping apart the carcass of a moose, a line of civies waiting impatiently for the big woman to finish, their arms full of empty wicker baskets.
In the far corner of the ville was a row of gallows, the killing bar extended over the wall, a rotting corpse dangling from a noose and swaying gently in the breeze.
“Smart,” Mildred said, impressed. “Just leave the body there as a warning to newcomers, and when the flesh rots, it’ll simply drop off.”
“Plus, that high up, the wind would help reduce the smell,” Ryan agreed, trying to see through the bustling throng for the Wendigo. But so far, there was no sign of it.
Situated behind a split-rail fence, a sec man was sitting in a rocking chair, a loaded crossbow in his hands and a massive black wolf-dog panting on the ground near his boots. A spiked leather collar announced that the beast was a pet, and not a wild animal.
Protected by a stout wooden fence, the companions could just barely see a large iron kettle with a roaring fire underneath. A coiled copper tube attached to the top to slowly drip a clear fluid into ceramic jugs. The tangy smell of raw alcohol was thick around the still, almost overpowering.
“If the shine is here, the Wendigo must be close,”Ryan noted, looking around the ville, through the hustling mob.
“Over there,” Mildred said, tilting her head.
Sure enough, the dreaded machine stood less than a hundred feet away, sitting in the middle of the ville square, for everybody to see and marvel over.
“Smart. Newcomers have probably never seen that much metal in their whole bastard lives,” Ryan sagely guessed.
“The Wendigo,” Mildred said, the name suddenly having resonance now that she could see the war wag. “This would really put the fear of the baron into their bones.”
Ryan grunted in agreement. According to Liana, Northpoint ville ruled the sea with their infamous steamship, Warhammer, but Anchor was the undisputed master of the dry land from the eastern shore to the western mountains with the deadly Wendigo.
Supposedly named after a mythical beast, the war wag was huge, as large as any predark tank, boasting overlapping armor plating and eight huge tires. There was no cannon, but it was armed with a brace of heavy machine guns, and what could only be a crude flamethrower. Blasterports dotted the sides, and two fluted exhaust pipes rose from the rear of the machine. Each was protected by a hood and surrounded by a small iron cage to prevent anything from being thrown into them and into the vulnerable engine.
Sitting motionless on the green grass, the Wendigo radiated a feeling of lethal power, and no fence or guards were necessary to keep the civies from gettingtoo close. In a land almost completely devoid of metal, the armed might of the Wendigo was disturbing, almost obscene.
“Now where is…Yeah. There he is,” Ryan said in quiet satisfaction. “I knew he’d be close.”
“The master likes to keep his dogs close at hand,” Mildred noted dryly.
Only a few paces away from the hulking war wag was a wooden dais topped with a pair of thrones. The chairs were ornately carved with an endless motif of eagles and stars, the backs draped with beautiful white wolf fur. Sitting in the thrones and holding court over some bound prisoners were the absolute rulers of the ville, Baron Griffin and his lady.
Stroking the feathers of a falcon resting on the arm of his throne, Baron Nolan Griffin was heavily muscled and covered with tattoos, more closely resembling a sailor than a ruling baron. His clothing was spotlessly clean, and he wore several pieces of metal to show his wealth, a thick silver necklace, a high school signet ring and a large predark wristwatch in remarkably good condition. A crude half-circle of hammered iron served the baron as a makeshift crown and two holstered blasters rode low in a fancy gunbelt.
Clearly much older than her husband, Lady Barbara Griffin was as plump as a gaudy house madam, yet her breasts were so small that they disappeared behind an embroidered leather bodice. Her auburn hair was long, and hung loose around a stern face that held no trace of mercy. The woman wore a flowing gown trimmed in white fur, with a silk scarf wrapped about her pudgythroat. A sawed-off shotgun rode in a large holster that had to have been specifically designed for the ungainly blaster. Metal rings were on every finger, and silver loops hung from both of her ears.
Standing alongside an iron brazier full of glowing hot charcoal was a large man with a blond crewcut, his bearing, scars and holstered blaster proclaiming that he was either the only son of the baron or the sec chief.
Kneeling on the cold ground in front of the baron and his wife was a pair of men, their hands and legs lashed together. Their clothes were in tatters, and bloody welts crisscrossed their backs.
“But, my lord, I reported this man for stealing the salt from the barracks of the sec men!” one of the prisoners called in a hoarse voice. He had a full head of hair and wore the loose clothing of a civie. “Why am I also being punished?”
His head bowed, the other man said nothing, his fate already sealed. He could only hope for the clemency of a swift execution on the gallows.
“Why? You dare to ask that? Because you are also a thief!” Lady Griffin growled in barely contained rage. “You were seen licking the block when you thought nobody was watching!”
“B-but I had to make sure it really was salt…” the man said lamely.
“Don’t you have a nose?” Sec chief Donovan snarled in open hatred. “My lord, let me ace this fool here and now!”
Surreptitiously, Ryan and Mildred exchanged glances. Salt was in short supply, eh? That only madesense on an island in the middle of a freshwater lake. They had seen what a lack of salt did to a person out in the broiling desert of the Deathlands. First came a terrible thirst, then mounting weakness, closely followed by mental confusion, and finally death. It was an ugly way to get chilled.
Placing the falcon on a nearby wooden perch, Baron Griffin thought about the request. “Granted,” he said without any trace of emotion. “Slit his throat and boil him down to recover the salt.”
Grinning, the sec chief leaped off the dais, pulling out a blade. The prisoner had only a moment to gasp in shock before the blade flashed through the air and he fell gurgling to the ground, his hot blood steaming as it pumped onto the cold grass.
Wiping the blade clean on the clothes of the dying man, Donovan sheathed the weapon, then hawked and spit on the fool.
“As for you…” the baron said, turning to address the thief. “Twenty-five lashes for the theft, and ten more for trying to escape.”
Prepared for much worse, the prisoner could not believe his good luck. Was that all? He was going to live!
“Then take his eyes so that he won’t be able to ever steal again,” Lady Griffin added, a hint of a smile playing on her full lips.
The surrounding crowd roared their approval and the terrified prisoner began wildly twisting and turning, trying to get free.
Snapping his fingers, sec chief Donovan pointed at the bound man and a gang of sec men descended uponhim with raised clubs and proceeded to pound every trace of defiance out of the condemned thief. Battered and bruised, the prisoner fell gasping to the ground, openly weeping. Then the hooded figure of the ville executioner walked out of the crowd, a curved blade held in a gloved hand.
Some of the civies watched in fascination, others turned away in disgust, but soon the odious task was done, and the unconscious prisoner was dragged off to the learning tree to wait until he woke to receive the rest of his sentence.
“Well, you were right,” Mildred said, shifting the boomerang in her belt to a more comfortable position. “The baron does like to hold court in sight of his war wag.”
“That’s just common sense,” Ryan replied, involuntarily touching the patch on his face in sympathy. “You always have to make the people remember you’re the greatest victory, or their own mortality. Sec men chill with blasters, but a baron rules through fear.”
Judging this was as good a time as any, Ryan raised an arm high and began walking toward the dais. “Metal!” he shouted. “I’ve got metal for the baron!”
As the startled crowd got hastily out of the way, the baron and his wife glowered at the stranger walking boldly forward. The black-haired man was not familiar to them, and carried himself with the calm assurance of a seasoned warrior.
Carefully studying the man, sec chief Donovan rested a hand on his blaster. He had no idea who the fellow was, but his guts said this was a nuke-storm of trouble coming.
“And who are you?” Baron Griffin demanded.
“Finnigan, sir,” Ryan replied, using the name of an old friend who no longer walked the Deathlands. “And this be my wife, Holly.”
Trying to appear humble, Mildred gave an awkward curtsy.
“Odd accent. Where are you from?” Donovan asked in a hard tone, his fingers tripping the handle of the big bore blaster.
“Saddle Brook,” Ryan replied. “A little fishing ville on the outer islands, near the Broke Place.” He had no idea what that meant, and neither did Liana, but she claimed that was all anybody called it, the Broke Place.
Incredibly, Lady Griffin perked up at that. “Saddle Brook? Why, I was born there!”
Keeping his face neutral, Ryan internally cursed the bad luck, then saw the baron fight to hide a smile. Clever bitch, it was just a trick to try to expose a liar. Whatever else they might be, these people were not fools.
“Sorry, my lady, but I don’t seem to recall ever seeing you there,” Ryan said in mock apology. “Could have sworn that I knew everybody from the Saddle.” He shrugged. “Guess I was wrong.”
Nodding in satisfaction as if the stranger had just passed some kind of a test, Baron Griffin dismissed the matter with a gesture. “You two can talk about old times later,” he said, leaning forward. “Now, what was this about metal, eh? Found a tin can, did you? Or perhaps a nail?”
“We can always use more of those,” Donovan sniffed in marked disinterest.
“Show the baron, woman!” Ryan barked, jerking a thumb at the baron. “That be why we here!”
Meekly, Mildred stepped forward, offering a small wad of folded cloth.
Scowling uncertainly, the baron hesitantly took the bundle and unwrapped the oil cloth to gasp out loud. Lying in the palm of his hand was a blaster. Not the rusted remains of one, but an intact blaster, the steel as smooth as polished bone.
Lifting the blaster, the baron felt a visceral thrill surge through his gut at the weight of the steel in his hand. His own weapons were nowhere near as heavy. This blaster was a monster! Easily twice the caliber of the one he inherited from his father, and he from his father before, possession of the weapon going all the way back to skydark.
“Careful, my lord, it be loaded,” Ryan warned.
The baron raised an eyebrow at that, and warily cracked the cylinder to extract a live brass, the metal shiny bright, the lead cut into the deadly cross pattern of a dum-dum. It was incredible. Live brass! He checked and found two more in the weapon, plus two empties. Five brass, three of them live!
“This is truly quite a find,” Lady Griffin said, seemingly unable to catch her breath. “You did well, outlander, to bring it directly to us. Failure to do so is a slow death on the learning tree. Or worse, the slave pits.”
In dark harmony, there came the distant crack of a bullwhip, followed by the anguished scream of a slave.
“That is as it should be, my lady,” Mildred answeredquickly, spreading her arms. “Only barons and their sec men should touch metal.” She smiled, and hoped it didn’t look like a grimace. The fragging boomerang was digging into her hip again, and bothering a sore rib she had acquired when the companions abruptly departed from the warship in the bay.
If the baroness noticed anything wrong, she made no comment. But she looked steadily at the physician in a most unnerving manner.
Sensing that something might be wrong, Mildred decided to not speak again unless spoken to directly.
“Well, Finnigan, this is the prize of a lifetime,” Baron Griffin stated in heartfelt honesty, removing the cartridges to spin the cylinder, then load it again. “So tell me, what do you want as a reward? A year of easy living in the gaudy house? Two horses? Ten crossbows? A hundred slaves?”
Pretending to scratch under his eyepatch, Ryan struggled to not show his disgust at the callous hierarchy of life. “Just a boat, my lord, one large enough for fishing, and six nets,” Ryan said, putting a touch of eagerness into the words. “Plus, all the food it can carry. My boat sank in a storm last week and now…” He shrugged.
“The ville is starving without the boat.” The baron nodded in understanding, passing the blaster to his sec chief. “Yes, I see, of course.”
Accepting the weapon, Donovan tucked it away for later cleaning and a thorough examination. Nobody was going to fire the new weapon until it had been completely disassembled and checked for traps. The fatslut Wainwright was triple clever, and not above sending one of her sec men to pose as an outlander with a trick blaster as a gift to ace her cousin. The baron of Northpoint never attacked straight-on, but always hit from the side, like a damn lake snake. The joke among his troops was, if you hear nothing in the fog, it had to be Wainwright on the move.
“A boat and two nets, you said?” Baron Griffin asked, deliberately getting the numbers wrong.
Instantly, Ryan felt his long years of training under the tutelage of the Trader flare into action as the negotiations began in earnest. “Beg pardon, my lord, it was six nets and a ton of food,” he said incorrectly.
“Oh, yes. Six nets and ten barrels of dried fish.”
“Twenty barrels and five more of grain.”
“Ridiculous! Ten and five.”
“Six, ten and ten.”
“Done!” The baron grinned in pleasure. “We have a deal, outlander.” He paused and then added, “You could have asked for more.”
Knowing that was true, Ryan shrugged. “I only asked for what was needed, my lord. Not going to ask for a horse if I can’t ride.”
“Wise words,” the baron acknowledged, then spit into his palm and offered his hand. “My sec men will escort you to the dockyard, and you can choose a boat from my fleet. Anything under twenty feet is yours. Slaves will deliver the food and nets before nightfall.”
“Thank you, my lord!” Ryan said, accepting the hand and shaking to seal the deal.
“Please also allow me to give you a small gift,” LadyGriffin purred, sliding a worn plastic bracelet off her wrist.
“Thank you, my lady,” Mildred replied with a forced grin, trying to appease the woman. In her time, the garish trinket was the kind of thing you could buy from a vending machine for a quarter.
However, as the physician reached out to accept the bracelet, Lady Griffin roughly grabbed her hand and pulled Mildred closer, staring intently at her face, and then nodding in grim satisfaction.
“Yes, I thought so!” Lady Griffin shouted in triumph. “Look there, metal! The outlander bitch has steel in her mouth!”
Jerking free from the grip, Mildred stared at the woman as if she were insane, then the truth of the matter hit her like an express train. Her fillings! She had completely forgotten about the fillings in her back molars.
“Steel in her teeth?” the baron asked with a frown, then his face hardened. “Mainlanders! Only mainlanders do that twisted perversion!”
Snapping his head around at the wild accusation, sec chief Donovan started to frown, then saw the grim expression on the face of the outlander. So it was true, these were mainlanders! “Close the gate!” the man bellowed, drawing his blaster. “Protect the baron!”
But as fast as the sec chief was, Ryan matched his speed, whipping out the SIG-Sauer in a blur of motion, and the two men fired simultaneously at each other in point-blank range.Chapter Eight
The fog was heavy along the shore, and with their crossbows leading the way, the Northpoint sec men warily pushed aside the curtain of thorny bushes to enter the dark cave.
The last to enter was the Hilly, the mountain man brandishing a weapon in each hand, his every sense alert for the presence of the one-eyed giant who led the pack of outlanders. He had seen the nuking bastard in action, and had no wish to ever face the big man in battle. A knife in the back would do just fine.
As the sec men moved deeper into the cave, their torches revealed nobody hidden inside the rocky passageway, only the remains of an abandoned campsite, a few broken arrows, some food scraps and a wad of strange paper that smelled like food but was as shiny as metal.
“What the frag is it?” a sec man asked in obvious confusion.
“Dunno,” sec chief LeFontaine muttered, fondling a piece. The material was as soft as leather, and made a sound like dry autumn leaves being crumpled when he closed his fist. Yet when the man opened his hand, the stuff sprang back into the original shape. Bizarre.
“We better bring that back to the baron,” a beefy sec woman stated. “Just in case it’s…ya know…”
“Yeah, guess so,” LeFontaine agreed. It gave him a thrill to think there might be a wad of metal in his pocket.
“Well, whatever that drek is, there’s no big honking pile of blasters waiting for us, that’s for damn sure,” a sec woman declared irritably, playing the light of her torch around the cave. “I always did think that inbred throwback was shitting in our ears.”
“No, I swear the outlanders were here!” the Hilly cried.
Frowning, a sec man chuffed him to the ground. “Shut the frag up,” he growled menacingly. “Or ya get more!”
“No need for that yet,” LeFontaine growled, then paused to retrieve something shiny from the cold ashes of the campfire.
At first, he couldn’t quite identify what it was, never having seen anything like it before. Then his mind coalesced around the object and he gasped in astonishment. It was a spoon! A bent spoon made of solid metal, left behind with the trash as if it was of no importance whatsoever, completely worthless.
“Release the Hilly,” LeFontaine ordered, marveling over the incredible utensil. “He was telling it straight, boys. The outlanders were here, and packing more steel than even the lord high bastard Griffin his own damn self!”
The hand that had hit the Hilly now reached out to offer him assistance to get back on his feet. Ignoring it,the mountain man stood and dusted off his ragged furs. There were a million things he wanted to say, but now was not the time or the place.
“So what are we waiting for?” the Hilly demanded. “Let’s go track down the mutie lovers, and get those blasters!”
The sec men cheered, and LeFontaine led the way outside to the waiting horses.
Climbing onto his mount, LeFontaine shook the reins and started forward at a slow walk. “All right, I want a full recce of the beach!” he said gruffly. “They probably swept the dirt to disguise which direction they went in, but nobody can do it forever. Spread out! Find their damn tracks, and it’s a week of beef, bed and beer for the man who does!”
The sec men burst into eager smiles at the generous offer, but then their expressions melted into frowns as a mountain of mottled hide rose from the nearby lake, the colossal figure of the kraken blotting out the foggy sun.
Snarling virulent curses, the sec men swung up their crossbows to cut loose with a flurry of arrows. They hit the mutie hard, the wooden shafts going into the fletching. Ignoring the attack, the monstrous thing howled as dozens of ropy tentacles snaked out of the waves to grab a horse by the legs. Screaming in terror, the animal was hauled into the lake and disappeared beneath the choppy surface.
“Retreat!” LeFontaine bellowed, kicking his horse in the flanks and charging for the nearby forest. The sec chief had a full five rounds of live brass in his wheelgun, but against a kraken he might as well be throwing pinecones.
Galloping off the beach, the Northpoint sec men raced for their lives. If they could just get deep enough into the trees, the sheer size of the mutie would prevent it from following. They knew it was a desperate gamble, but there was no other choice. Only a feeb fought a hopeless battle.
Oddly, the Hilly did nothing, standing motionless near the mouth of the cave, a hand covering his mouth.
Astonished, LeFontaine and the sec men had no idea what the feeb was doing, and didn’t nuking care. If the Hilly wanted to see a kraken from the inside, that was his choice. But they were going to live!
Bent over their animals, trying to urge them to greater speed, the sec chief and his troops were near the tree line, when suddenly they were engulfed in writhing tentacles.
Indiscriminately, random men and horses were grabbed and bodily dragged back to the lake. Briefly, they shrieked in raw terror, then were hauled below the waves and out of sight.
Reaching the forest, the rest of the sec men sighed in relief, and slowed their advance to keep from getting knocked from their horses by the endless array of low-hanging branches.
“Think we’re safe now?” a sec woman panted, not daring to look backward.
Before anybody could reply, a mottled tentacle lifted her out of the saddle and into the sky. The other sec men heard her scream, but not for very long.
Realizing escape was impossible, LeFontaine reinedhis horse to a halt under a large oak tree and slipped out of the saddle. Stepping away from the animal, he covered his mouth with a hand and tried not to breathe too loudly. With his heart pounding in his chest, the sec chief burned to tell the others what to do, but knew that would only mean his own demise. They had to figure it out on their own, or buy the farm.
“What the frag are you doing, sir?” a sec man demanded, and then was gone. A few seconds later a bloody boot descended from the sky, the foot still laced tightly inside.
As comprehension dawned, the few remaining sec men brought their horses to a standstill and clambered off, to creep away from the animals as quietly as possible. Set free, the horses bolted deeper into the forest and, one by one, their death screams could be heard from the sky above, heading back toward the lake.
Only a few seconds later, the sec men were alone in the dim forest, a chilly breeze murmuring through the pine needles and stirring the carpet of oak leaves around their boots.
Nobody dared to move, or speak, for an inordinate length of time. Then a new sound began to permeate the woods. Looking curiously around, the sec men blanched as they saw the deadly tentacles of the kraken wiggling along the mossy ground, the questing tip probing every tree, rock and bush in an orderly search for the hidden food.
AS THE TWO MEN FIRED, the soft chug of the SIG-Sauer was lost in the thunderous discharge of the Colt revolver,and they both jerked backward, Ryan grazed across the throat, Donovan spraying blood from a shoulder wound.
“Blasters! The outlanders have more blasters!” Baron Griffin shouted, fumbling for his twin weapons.
Knowing the jig was up, Mildred ruthlessly shot the man smack in the chest. Dropping one of the weapons, the baron staggered backward, splinters showing from the ragged hole in his shirt.
The crafty son of a bitch was wearing wooden body armor, she realized. Now aiming at the baron’s face, Mildred quickly switched targets as Lady Griffin unlimbered her sawed-off shotgun and thumbed back the hammer. Neatly, the physician blew the weapon out of her hands with a well-placed shot from the ZKR. Mildred knew it was foolish, but she still hesitated to ace another woman without provocation, a terrible moral holdover from the twentieth century.
Torn from her grip, the shotgun discharged into the back of a throne and slammed the startled baron off the dais. Screaming in pain, Lady Griffin dropped to her knees, clutching a broken hand to her ripped bodice.
Shooting the sec chief in the chest with a similar lack of results, Ryan triggered his blaster at the falcon, and the bird exploded over Donovan, covering the man with blood and feathers. Blinded, the sec chief clawed at the gore on his face while waving his Colt around and shooting randomly. Feeling the breeze of a passing round on his cheek, Ryan put hot lead into the big man. Crimson erupted from the sec chief’s knee, and from the sleeve of the muscular arm frantically rubbing at his face.
Falling to the floor of the dais, a badly woundedDonovan shot back once more and knocked over the brazier, pieces of flaming charcoal spraying out like a meteor shower as a swirling cloud of black soot filled the chilly air.
By now the ville was in total chaos, screaming civies running around madly, horses whinnying in terror, elks bawing, dogs barking. But the cry of “outlanders” and “blasters” steadily grew louder as it spread across the ville.
Putting a fast five rounds into the roiling smoke covering the fallen sec chief, Ryan heard an answering grunt of pain, then hastily reloaded and turned his attention to the onrushing squad of sec men. He took out the people loading crossbows, then something came at him from his blind side, and Ryan ducked as a boomerang spun by, missing him by inches.
In the distance, Baron Griffin was limping into a squad of sec men and shouting orders. Brandishing weapons, the troops charged toward the dais, firing arrows and twirling deadly bolos overhead. Gunning them down, Ryan felt a brief urge to be furious at the physician for nuking the scam. But that brass wouldn’t load. They had made a mistake, and now had to pay the price. That was life. And death, he added solemnly.
Stepping out of the thick smoke masking the dais, Mildred appeared with the Czech ZKR at the ready, her other hand holding the collar of the panting Lady Griffin. In ragged stages, the barrage of arrows and the spears coming their way slowed and then stopped completely, the ville sec men unwilling to harm the baron’swife, augmented by their clear terror of the working blasters.
“Let us leave, and she lives!” Mildred bellowed, then fired into the tumultuous crowd edging the ville green. With most of his face removed, a sec man fell back, the bolo spinning in his hands going high into the trees.
Doing the same thing in the other direction, Ryan started to ask a question when he saw Lady Griffin pull a hidden knife from within her bodice and press the sharp stone tip against her own throat.
“You’re never gonna take me to that bitch Wainwright alive!” she growled defiantly, her fist tightening in preparation.
Seeing the raw determination in her face, Ryan knew there was no use trying to convince the woman they had nothing to do with the other baron. In a world of paranoids, nobody believed the truth. “Okay, then we surrender,” the one-eyed man said, dropping his blaster.
Gasping at the action, Lady Griffin eased her muscles, and Mildred swung her blaster hard and fast, the barrel cracking across the temple of the other woman with surgical precision. Giving a little shudder, Lady Griffin released the knife and slumped unconscious to the cold grass.
Around the green, the sec men paused, not sure if their ruler was aced or not, then rushed forward in a wave, pulling out knives and axes. As Ryan and Mildred mowed them down, there unexpectedly came a long trumpet from the guard tower high above the ville, and the gate in the wall began to slowly rumble closed.Then the sec man blowing the horn seemed to jump out of the tower to plummet to a grisly death. A moment later, there came the crack of the Steyr longblaster rolling down from the nearby foothills. However, the gate continued moving until it boomed shut.
“Fireblast, only one way out of here now,” Ryan muttered, snapping off shots. Swinging an arbalest around, the sec men fell, clutching red bellies.
“Yeah, I know,” Mildred growled, dumping out spent rounds to hastily reload. She closed the revolver with a snap of her wrist. “Lead the way, my friend.”
While Mildred laid down suppressive fire, Ryan pulled his only gren from a pocket, yanked loose the arming pin, flipped off the safety lever and threw the deadly explosive charge at the Wendigo.
The military sphere hit the grass and rolled directly underneath the war wag just as a swarm of sec men piled into the machine. With a sputtering roar, the diesel engine came to life…and the gren detonated. The strident blast blew the Wendigo apart, flaming chunks of men and machine flying outward in every direction.
Even as everybody ran away from the explosion, Ryan and Mildred raced toward the wreckage, using the expanding cloud of dark smoke as makeshift cover. Now that they were away from the baron’s wife, there would be nothing to stop the sec men from attacking with everything they had. Unless, of course, the companions were long gone.
As Ryan and Mildred pelted cross the field, the Steyr spoke again from the foothills, abruptly ending the life of a sec man struggling to aim a black-powder longblaster. Stopping a few yards away from the burning wreckage, Ryan snapped off rounds from the SIG-Sauer, as Mildred prepared her gren and lofted it high to sail over the fence surrounding the bubbling still.
As it landed inside the barricade, the guards raced away in terror, but it was already too late. The military charge cut loose and the huge still erupted, hundreds of gallons of shine igniting into a staggering fireball. Shrapnel tore the fence to pieces, and the limp bodies of the sec men went airborne, the deafening concussion of the double explosion echoing among the rows of cabins and tents throughout the entire ville sounding louder than doomsday.
Waiting for the concussion to dissipate, Ryan and Mildred once again ran toward the explosion, the SIG-Sauer and ZKR removing any potential opposition. Halfway there, they changed direction and headed toward the gallows. There were few sec men in this area of the ville, but that was only to be expected. Nobody considered the execution yard a weakness in their defense. What prisoner would ever rush pell-mell toward his or her own demise? But that mistake would serve the companions well this day.
Holding a throwing ax, a young sec woman valiantly tried to block their way with a wooden shield. Shooting her in the boot, Ryan and Mildred ran past the yelling teenager and proceeded up the long flight of stairs.
Behind them, thick smoke was extending across the ville, the descending umbrella of burning shine setting the roofs of a dozen buildings on fire. Horses, elk and herds of terrified goats were running rampant in thestreets, trampling civies and sec men alike, and seriously hindering the clumsy efforts to battle the spreading conflagration with buckets of water drawn from the artesian well.
Halfway up the stairs, the two companions saw a group of sec men climb on top of the only brick building in the ville, obviously the baron’s home. Three of the men attacked with their crossbows, but the half-arrows were unable to reach the staircase, and arched down into the chaos of the streets. However, the third sec man lit the fuse on a thick bamboo tube, then began to swing the homemade gren overhead at the end of a rope.
Both Ryan and Mildred cursed and quickly took aim. Before they could shoot, the man crumpled and the sizzling bamboo tube sailed away to land near the empty dais, violently exploding and throwing out chunks of wood and other debris.
Resuming their hectic sprint up the stairs, the two companions could only assume that had been the work of the Steyr, but the report of the longblaster could not be heard over the growing riot in the streets of the beleaguered ville. The destruction of the still had inadvertently set the slaves loose, and they were extracting a swift and terrible revenge upon the brutal overseers before running toward the gate, their hands dripping blood. Some of the sec men were trying to stop the mass escape, but without orders from their baron or sec chief, their efforts were proving futile, and often disastrous.
Reaching the top level of the gallows, the companions paused to catch their breath. “Good luck, guys,”Mildred panted, watching the slaves battle it out with the sec men near the shatter zone.
“They should have stolen some weapons first,” Ryan countered, untying a rope from a cleat. Handing it to the physician, he took another for himself. Checking the distance, the companions jumped off the gallows to swing out over the stone wall and simply let go.
Their journey forward seemed impossibly brief compared to the fall from the Harrington, and knowing what to expect, Ryan and Mildred braced themselves just before splashing into the freezing water of the Great Lake.
The icy shock banished the exhaustion from their bodies and galvanized their efforts to start swimming toward the surface even before slowing to a stop. However, it was a good thing that the companions had left most of their heavier items behind as the cloth boots soon became soaked, the cold numbing their feet and slowing their efforts considerably.
Fighting to the surface, Ryan and Mildred gasped for air and instantly started for the shore. Irregularly shaped boulders dotted the expanse of the wide bay, waves crashing against them and throwing out an icy mist that nearly formed snow. There was also the gentle tug of a tide below the surface, both Ryan and Mildred surprised that such a thing could exist in a lake, no matter how large.
Suddenly there was a flurry of motion above and a hail of arrows stabbed into the surface around the companions, the wooden shafts oddly hissing as they disappeared into the water. Firebrands! Then from underwater, there came a muffled whomp, and a small geyser bubbled upward.
More firebrands arrived as the companions struggled onto the pebble beach and finally out of range. Shaking the water off their bodies, Ryan and Mildred saw that the beach was covered with hundreds of blue-shell crabs, most of them sitting directly under the dangling corpse, patiently waiting for the ripe meat to fall. Remembering the advice from Liana, they moved carefully through the colony, trying not to step on any of the creatures. Just then a large rock plummeted from above, smashing onto the beach and chilling a dozen crabs. That seemed to wake the rest of them, and the army of crabs scuttled forward to examine the new arrivals.
Brushing back her wet plaits, Mildred cursed at the realization that the sec men were now dropping rocks on them from the wall. Clever bastards.
Trying to kick a crab aside with his wet boot, Ryan saw the thing attach itself to the cloth and start crawling up his leg. Quickly drawing the SIG-Sauer, he shook the blaster to make sure there was no water in the barrel, then blew the crab off his boot with a well-placed shot.
Every crab on the beach went motionless at the sound of the weapon, then the smell of fresh blood reached them, and they wildly converged upon Ryan, their pinchers clattering and snipping. After all, everything that fell from the sky was dead, and easy pickings.
Low on ammo, Ryan had to place his shots, the hollowpoint rounds making the body of each crab explode.Pulling out the Czech ZKR, Mildred shot the largest crab in the face, hoping to intimidate the rest. The soft-lead punched a neat hole in the mouth, then came out the back end in a grisly spray of pale flesh and slimy organs. Still horribly alive, the squealing creature began to crawl in a circle, going nowhere fast. In a rush, some of the other crabs attacked it, savagely removing legs and eyestalks, consuming it alive.
Now shooting only to wound, the companions soon cleared a path to the base of the cliff, the scuttling horde turning upon itself in a cannibal frenzy. Soon the battle became pandemic, quickly spreading across the beach like some horrible new disease.
Ryan and Mildred quickly reloaded, then stomped their sodden blanket boots, trying to squeeze out the excess moisture.
Incredibly, there was a splash from the lake as a sec man dived into the water.
Quickly aiming their blasters, the companions relaxed as they saw a crimson red pool rise to the surface, the wellspring of life spreading outward in every direction.
Almost instantly, the army of crabs abandoned their internecine combat and rushed into the bloody lake, disappearing below the choppy waves.
Taking advantage of the distraction, Ryan and Mildred raced along the base of the cliff until reaching a low rill. Clambering over the lava ridge, they dropped down the other side only a moment before a hail of half-arrows peppered the barrier. Suddenly a massive arrow from an arbalest slammed into the rill, smashingthrough and plowing deep into the pebble beach on the other side.
Keeping to the lee side of the larger boulders on the beach, Ryan and Mildred dodged from one to the other, staying constantly on the move, until the natural curve of the island finally took them out of the range of the ville crossbows.Chapter Nine
A thick carpeting of lush green grass covered the wide hill, a copse of tall oak trees standing on the crest like an arboreal crown. A feathery rainbow of songbirds twittered in the leafy branches, and a cottontail coney darted among the laurel bushes in search of food. Off to the side, a hulking stone gargoyle sat amid a plethora of clover. The decorative statue was cracked across its weathered visage, giving the fantastic creature a lopsided grin.
Oddly, there were no other remnants of a predark city in sight, and so it was impossible to tell if the gargoyle was all that remained of a once-mighty metropolis, or if the statue was merely windblown trash, just a chunk of debris that tumbled down from the sky into the sylvan field from a thermonuclear explosion a thousand miles away.
Suddenly, a long black tube extended from behind the gargoyle to sweep along the rocky coast.
“Okay, they made it to dry land,” Krysty announced, her relief painfully obvious. Lowering the yard-long Navy telescope, she compacted it back to the size of a soup can.
Crouched on the other side of the protective statue,J.B. lowered the longblaster. “That’s good to know,” the wiry man said, working the arming bolt on the Steyr to open the breech and insert a fresh magazine. “Because the damn smoke is so thick in the ville, I can’t find anybody else to ace.”
“Nobody worth live brass,” Jak corrected, squinting into the distance. There were still a lot of sec men running around on the wall, but shoot too many of them, and the fall of the bodies would reveal the direction of the attack. The prime rule for sniping an opponent was to never let them know where you were hidden.
Opening a canteen, the albino teen smiled. Liana had been right. The hilltop was perfect to recce the ville. The wild bushes gave good cover, and the statue of the predark mutie would confuse anybody looking for snipers.
“Unfortunately, I fear that a choice of targets will not be a problem, John Barrymore,” Doc rumbled, wiping the loose dirt from his hands. “Because here come the Visigoths!”
Promptly, J.B. and Krysty swung up their optical devices, but it wasn’t necessary. The companions could clearly see that the huge front gate of the ville was already in motion, swinging outward. A dozen sec men on horseback galloped out of the ville hard and fast, the riders hellbent for leather, the big mounts huffing in the chilly air.
“I only hope the diversion works,” Kristy said, pulling off her gloves and flexing tired fingers.
Cradling the loaded crossbow, Liana started to speak when a large pack of cougars charged out of the gates to disappear in the thick bushes.
“Blind Norad, the baron released the cats!” she cried out in fear. “They’ll find Ryan and Mildred long before the riders do, and maul them bad.”
“Only maul?” Krysty asked, surprised. “The cats don’t chill their prey?”
The blonde woman shook her head. “No, ma’am, they just cripple them for the sec men to take alive.”
Tucking away the telescope, Krysty frowned. That sounded like real trouble.
“Not if I can help it,” J.B. said, swinging up the Steyr and searching for the cats. But they were gone, vanished into the bushes edging the dirt road.
“All right, let’s move,” Krysty said, drawing her two revolvers and heading into the trees.
“Are we going to rondee with the others at the natural bridge?” Liana asked, staying close to the tall redhead. “That’s a good place to stage a fight. The sec men can only attack us from one direction.”
The staggering disadvantages of fighting on an open bridge were so many that the companions decided simply not to comment. She would soon see the truth of the matter for herself.
“No, my dear, we shall rendezvous with them near the cliff,” Doc rumbled, rotating the cylinder of the Ruger to check the load, and then doing the same to the LeMat. “It is never wise to surrender the high ground.”
“Then why didn’t we just stay here, and roll those boulders down on the sec men as they rode past?” Liana demanded, shifting her grip on the crossbow.
“Maybe we would have aced them, and then again, maybe not,” J.B. replied, aiming the Steyr down the hill,his finger resting alongside the trigger. “But with the valley below us blocked, now they have to go through the forest.”
Squinting in that direction, Liana looked at the wide expanse of trees. “Hoping they’ll get lost?” she asked vaguely.
“Hardly.” Krysty snorted. “See that area with no bird nests, no squirrels?”
“Yes,” Liana answered hesitantly.
“Then watch and learn, my dear,” Doc said, scowling darkly at the wide expanse of forest, the branches of the trees stirred only by a gentle breeze coming in from the Great Lake.
S TAYING IN A TIGHT FORMATION, the Anchor sec men rode fast along the old dirt road, their blasters out and primed. The baron had armed them with the unheard-of bounty of ten live brass, and an order to chill on sight. Naturally, they would have preferred to take them both alive for a little payback, but orders were orders.
Oddly, a recent avalanche blocked the way to the stone bridge, but the road through the apple orchard was wide and clear. Wary of more snipers, the sec men slowed their mounts and closely watched the shadows for any hostile intentions.
“Funny there ain’t no birds or nothing in the trees,” a sec woman noted tersely, her body rocking to the motion of her horse.
“Don’t like that,” an elderly sec man muttered.
Spotting motion in the thick canopy of branches, a corporal fired his crossbow upward. “They’re in thetrees!” he yelled. As the arrow disappeared, there came an answering smack, and something large fell to the ground, pulsating and undulating.
“Flapjack!” a sec woman screamed, her horse rearing in terror.
The flapjack touched the belly of the nearest horse, and the animal immediately went motionless in incredible pain. Then the creature’s boneless limb began to pump red, siphoning blood from the animal.
Snarling in rage, a sec man fired his crossbow directly at the mutie, but the feathered shaft went straight through the gelatinous creature, only to bury itself deep underground.
“Blasters!” the corporal bellowed, hauling out a revolver.
Just then, the leaves rustled and another flapjack fell directly onto the startled man, completely covering his head. The corporal gave a muffled scream and raised both hands to paw off the amorphous creature. But his arms become instantly mired in the sticky ooze covering the flapjack. The mutie tinted crimson with the corporal’s blood as his hair and eyes disappeared, followed by his ears and lips.
Shrieking insanely, the corporal went silent as the amorphous mutie flowed into his mouth, ramming a path down his throat. Still in the saddle, the corporal violently shuddered as the thing started to dissolve him from the inside, the flapjack nearly purring as it feasted on the raw flesh and brains.
Leveling her blaster at the nightmarish mutie, a sec woman aimed and fired, the rounds blasting a deep furrow through the flapjack and blowing apart the partially consumed head of the corporal. Cursing vehemently, another sec man took aim with his shotgun and stroked the trigger. In a thunderous bellow, the flapjack was blown apart, along with the remains of the aced corporal, gobbets of the weird translucent flesh flying about the forest to smack into the trees and ground.
Almost losing control of his stallion, a large sec man burbled in terror as a piece of the mutie hit his cheek, the thick beard turning white under the furious assault of the organic acids.
“Don’t touch it!” a sec woman commanded. Pulling out a throwing ax, she expertly swung it, cutting off the bushy beard, the wad of pulsating hair falling to the leafy ground.
“Th-thanks,” the sec man panted, clutching the reins in both hands.
That single word seemed to be the clarion call to war for the flapjacks as they dropped from the shadowy boughs by the dozens, the gelatinous killers landing on the sec force and its horses.
Shooting blasters and slashing with their stone knives, the dying sec men and women fought for their lives, but it was hopeless, and soon the forest trail was strewed with dissolving bodies, humans and horses alike buried under the pulsating mounds of the gorging flapjacks.
“Retreat!” one of the few survivors commanded, reining in her dappled mare to neatly avoid a plummeting flapjack.
As it lay there on the ground, she started to shoot,but since the thing had no visible targets such as a brain, or heart, the sec woman held back and kicked her horse into a gallop. The urge was to simply ride over the thing, killing it beneath the sharp hooves of the animal, but she had seen what these monsters could do, and decided not to take the risk. There were old sec men, and there were bold sec men, but nobody ever heard of any old, bold sec men.
As the four remaining sec men wheeled their mounts around to head back to the ville, small flapjacks pelted from the trees, the infant muties smacking all over the horses. As the acid started to burn, the animals reared, kicking wildly, and the riders were thrown to the hard ground.
Hastily scrambling to their feet, the sec men fired their blasters at anything nearby, a growing panic stealing their years of training. A horse was mortally wounded and instinctively kicked back. A sec man’s knee cracked audibly and he dropped to land face-first onto a flapjack.
As he began to thrash around, the nearest man swung his ax down to sever the spine of the doomed man, then swung the ax sideways to slam into the ribs of a sec woman. Caught in the act of aiming the blaster at the man, she doubled over from the impact of the stone blade, the blaster firing into her own boot.
Burbling blood, she collapsed to the leaves and several flapjacks immediately started undulating toward the smell of fresh meat.
Glancing in every direction, the last sec man saw that he was momentarily in the clear, and tossed away theax to increase his speed as he desperately sprinted for the edge of the forest. The horrible sounds of the feasting grew dimmer as he sprinted along, then there came a subtle movement from above. Instantly, he dived to the side, and a flapjack missed smacking into him by the thickness of a prayer.
Rolling under a thornbush, the sec man came out scratched, but alive, and began to zigzag through the trees, never moving in a straight line for more than three paces. More muties dropped from above, but each one missed. Suddenly the sec man exploded out of the shadows and slowed to a stumble, unable to believe his fantastic luck. He was out of the forest and in the clear. Made it. He had made it, and was going to live!
CENTERING THE CROSSHAIRS on the face of the panting sec man, J.B. stroked the trigger of the Steyr and a 7.62 mm hollowpoint round sent the coward tumbling into the eternal.
“By the lost gods,” Liana breathed, not sure if she was impressed or not. “You aced them all with a single shot!” The former slave had trouble speaking the next words. “How…how did you know this was going to happen?” Plaintively, Liana looked in their eyes hoping to see a glimmer of her father’s abilities, but the companions merely smiled, completely unaware of the silent question.
“Readiness is all,” Doc said in a singsong tone.
“Didn’t know trick would work,” Jak said, turning away from the ghastly feeding in the trees. “Just hoped. Good plans do.”
“And whenever possible, try to use any natural features of the land against your opponent,” J.B. added, clicking the safety back on the Steyr and slinging it over a shoulder. “Slow them down in mud, try to get them to take cover in a bush you know has a beehive in it, that sort of thing.”
“The earth is always a powerful ally,” Krysty added, lengthening her stride down the sloping foothill.
As the group proceeded down the hill and into a wild bramble of laurel bushes and tall weeds, Liana tested the wisdom of the new words, and found them strong, so stored the information away for later. If she was going to stay with these coldhearts—companions—then she had better start getting razor triple fast.
Shyly sneaking a look at Doc, Liana made a decision and surreptitiously reached out to grab several handfuls of the pretty flowers to stuff into a pocket. Better safe than sorry.
Crossing a wide field, the companions encountered hundreds of irregular chunks of concrete, the material weathered almost to the point where it resembled natural stone. There were even a few more pieces of the gargoyles scattered around, along with the shattered remains of a granite cross. This was the debris from a destroyed church. Doc sighed at the desecration, while the others simply kept walking, the dead past of no more interest to them than the unreachable stars.
The sound of the crashing waves on the beach was discernible long before the companions saw the Great Lake. Studying the area carefully, they decided it was safe enough to proceed, but Jak stood guard while theothers began to slide down the sloping hill on the seat of their pants, boots and hands alone keeping them from tumbling head-over-heels.
When the companions reached the beach, Doc and Krysty stood guard while J.B. swung around the Uzi to keep watch over Jak as he slid to join them.
Slapping the dust from her clothes, Liana was very happy the others had given her pants to wear instead of her usual dress. They really came in handy holding off scratches from brambles and such, and pockets were a marvel all by themselves. Slaves were not allowed such things, but she had them now.