Authors: James Axler
“Good.” Ryan's Steyr was slung, but his hand was never far from the blaster on his hip. “Let's go.”
Captain Roque gestured toward the boat and they
boarded the felucca. The crew poled off, and the sail filled with the coming storm winds. The vessel began to cut swiftly through the sea. Roque reached into a pot and drew forth an octopus about the size of his hand. Its arms flailed, but he swiftly brought it up to his mouth and bit it between the eyes. The cephalopod shuddered and the captain swiftly cut off its eight arms. He dropped them into a clay pot, and when he pulled them back out they were sheened with oil and the red flecks of hot chilies. Roque offered one of the still vaguely squirming appendages to Ryan.
Short of his fellow human beings there was hardly anything that walked, flapped, flopped or crawled across the Deathlands that Ryan hadn't eaten. He nodded his thanks and shoved the tentacle into his mouth. It was on the chewy side, but the meat wasn't bad and the lime, hot pepper and olive oil made it genuinely tasty. The pepper oil blossomed down Ryan's throat and the heat was welcome. Ryan shoved another into his mouth and again nodded his thanks. Roque smiled and either his gums had receded or he had very long teeth. He turned and offered some to Doc.
The old man chewed his tentacle meditatively. “
sauce, definitely Portuguese. The lime is an interesting addition.”
A crewman wearing dark glasses approached and held up a leather wine bag. Ryan took it and poured a long squeeze of rough red wine down his burning throat.
He snapped his head aside as another crewman in shades behind him swung a belaying pin at his skull.
Ryan Cawdor had a prodigious reputation in the Deathlands. It was said that if you faced the one-eyed man in a fight and blinked, then you got chilled in the
dark. The crewman in shades screamed and clutched at his eyes as Ryan slapped the bag across his face and the smoked glass lenses flew from his face. Ryan's blaster filled his other fist. A round from the SIG-Sauer punched out the lenses of the second fisher's dark glasses and dropped him to the deck. Ryan put two rounds through the back of the screaming man's hands and dropped him skull-chilled next to his friend.
The one-eyed man snarled as a three-inch iron hook ripped into the flesh between his thumb and forefinger. Roque yanked his gaff and the SIG-Sauer spun out of Ryan's hand as his flesh parted. The captain snapped the gaff around, and the needle-sharp steel hook pierced Ryan's jacket and sank between his ribs. Ryan grasped the shaft, but his adversary twisted the gaff with practiced ease and hooked his fifth rib. Ryan snarled in rage as Roque yanked the gaff and snapped the bone. The hook squirmed beneath Ryan's rib cage as the captain turned the gaff 180 degrees and went for the rib above. Roque was a powerful man, and with seven feet of shaft between them there was nowhere for the one-eyed man to go. Ryan unleathered his panga. The eighteen-inch blade rasped from its sheath and he chopped the blade once, twice, three times against the weathered shaft of the gaff before it splintered in two.
Roque stepped back with four feet of broken stick in his hands. Ryan's lips skinned back from his teeth as he unhooked his rib cage. He lashed out with the panga, and Roque desperately brought up his remaining wood to block. Ryan looped the gaff left-handed up between Roque's legs and hooked it through his scrotum. The captain screamed like an animal as Ryan hauled him forward for the kill by his lowest organs. Roque's
torment ended in arterial spray as the panga painted a red smile beneath his chin.
Ryan ripped the gaff free of its reproductive moorings and turned toward what remained of the fight.
Doc had not deigned to draw his revolver. He had been a trained swordsman in his youth and fought duels at university. Fishers with belaying pins stood no chance against him whatsoever. Three crewmen lay chilled among the nets and octopus pots, each dispatched with a single thrust through the left breast. The last crewman came at Doc with a fishing spear, the tripod blade of barbed spikes shooting for his face. Ryan spun his longblaster on its sling, but there was no need. Doc effortlessly turned the spear thrust aside with his blade and lunged like a fencer. The fisher went as limp as the boneless octopi in the pots as Doc's steel chilled him through the heart. The old man recovered his blade and came on guard, but he had no more opponents.
Drawn up to his full height with his long silver hair and coat blowing about him and a bloody blade in hand, Doc looked as formidable as Ryan ever remembered. “Nice work, Doc.”
The scholar drew his handkerchief, wiped his blade, slid it back inside his cane and locked it with a twist. “Thank you. I believe the sea air is doing me good.”
Ryan glanced up at the clouds. There was a good chance the sea air was going to chill them right quick. There was a storm coming, and the island was still miles away. “You know we just chilled the entire crew.”
Doc stared at the carnage strewing the deck and blinked up at the clouds, his shoulders sagging as he did the math. “Oh, bother.”
“Yeah, but you've had a hand on a tiller, right?” Ryan
asked. He cut strips from the dead men's clothing and bound his ribs and wrapped his hand.
Doc helped him tie off the bandages. “Only the smallest of pleasure craft and then only on a lake upon a summer idyll.” Doc swiftly moved toward the tiller. “I believe I can aim us at the larger island. After all, we have traveled on many a boat.” Thunder rolled and the first wet drops of water began slapping the deck and diluting the blood it was awash in. Ryan snapped out his spyglass and examined the ocean between them and their destination. Rocks rose up in front of them like a field of tombstones in the water. “Doc, we got rocks ahead.”
Doc tucked his cane beneath his belt. “Are you sure?”
Ryan put his spyglass away and grabbed a line. “Bastard sure.”
Doc's knuckles went white on the tiller. “Oh, bother.”
“Gaia!” was the last decent thing that came out of Krysty's mouth for several minutes as she slapped, punched and berated the mat-trans control panel with ever more colorful bawdy house language. J.B. ran an ancient toothbrush around the bolt of his Uzi and enjoyed the show. The flame-haired woman wasn't exactly hard on the eyes, and when she was angry it was something to see. “Won't do any good,” the Armorer opined. “It seems to be on some kind of timer.”
Krysty's rage went glacial as she turned her jade gaze on him. J.B. prudently went back to cleaning his blaster. Krysty spoke low. “Try again.”
J.B. sighed and went into the main control room for the tenth time. He had a well-deserved reputation as a man who knew his blasters. But a mat-trans was a challenge of a higher order, and he was totally at a loss. The control panel was a complete mystery. The situation was quite simple. The mat-trans had sent two of the companions somewhere, and now appeared to be on some sort of cycle. One of the comps had come online and was scrolling comp code that left J.B. baffled. No combination of button-pressing or typing in commands on Mildred's part had elicited any response. The cycle appeared to be locked in. It was clearly a situation of hurry up and wait. J.B. studied Mildred. Both she and
the mat-trans were products of the twentieth century, but he knew from past experience that comp code had never been her thing, try as she might.
Mildred was more concerned at the moment on the stickie that was currently trying to extrude itself through the door. Mildred wasn't exactly the squeamish type. She was a medical doctor; and since her rude awakening in the Deathlands had seen some of the vilest crimes against man and nature imaginable. But somehow, like clockwork, when the very sickest shit came downâ¦
There was always a stickie involved.
She watched in revolted fascination as through some form of stickie contortionism one individual had wormed a spindly arm through the gap between the wall and the jammed door. Mildred recoiled in disgust as the suckered, spatulate, fish-white hand opened and beckoned toward her as if in invitation. Suckers opened and closed in obscene, sphincterlike lust for her flesh. The huge, flat, black eye pressed to the opening never blinked or wavered as the stickie slowly squirmed itself against the gap. The stickie's shoulder suddenly popped like a gunshot. Mildred yelped and leaped back as six more inches of arm shot toward her face like a striking snake.
Mildred folded her arms across her chest and jerked her head at Jak. “Jak! I'm not going to waste brass on his pasty ass!”
Jak rose and quietly palmed one of his leaf-bladed throwing knives.
Mildred shook her head in disgust as the dislocated arm wormed around the inside of the door. The hand crawled about like a spider as it searched for some kind of egress. Suckered toes began curling around the bottom of the door like caterpillars dragging a flattened,
distended foot and then a horribly turning ankle through the gap. Up higher the stickie's clavicle stood out like drumstick as it began to push its dislocated shoulder through the opening.
Jak's ruby eyes narrowed curiously at the tiny gap in door and the gourd-shaped skull pressing against it “Head?”
“I have no idea butâ” Mildred's eyes flared as the stickie pushed its face against the gap in answer. “Noâ¦fuckingâ¦way.”
The stickie's jaw unhinged with a pop. Needle teeth scraped against the steel door as the creature literally began dragging its distended lower jaw through by its tongue.
“Uh-uh.” Mildred watched in mounting moral outrage. “No.”
The stickie's cheek pressed against the door and the huge black eye began to bulge out of its socket through the gap. Mildred put her fists on her hips. “Oh, hell, no.” Mildred pointed a condemning finger at the self-compressing mutation. “Jak?”
Jak's knife glittered through the air. The bulging black eye popped like a cyst as the blade passed through and sank into brain. The albino teen lunged and retrieved his blade as the mutie sagged. The stickies outside hooted and cooed. The dead stickie left far more violently than it had tried to enter. Its bones snapped and cracked as its brethren yanked its body back through the gap and fell upon it in a feeding frenzy.
Mildred whirled and waved her arms at no one in particular. “You see that? You see that? Little bastards are doing yoga now!”
No one in the room knew what yoga was. J.B. hadn't
liked what he'd seen, either. He'd never seen a stickie pull a circus stunt quite like that before. “Jak, keep an eye on the door. If one can do it, then mebbe another can, too. We don't want them oozing in while we're asleep.”
Jak nodded and squatted on his heels in front of the portal. He began walking a throwing knife across his fingers like a coin trick as fresh, rubbery white hands began wiggling, pulling and probing at the door.
It was going to be a long night.
YAN SLOGGED ASHORE
, dragging Doc's limp, coughing body with him. The felucca had broken up on the rocks between the gateway crag and the islands. He had seized a piece of wreckage in one arm and held Doc in a death grip with the other as the wind and waves had had their way with them for an hour before depositing them on the beach. Ryan gazed at the empty rolling dunes. He and Doc were on the wrong island, and his snapped rib ached like fire. He hauled Doc a few feet above the tide line and dropped him exhaustedly to the sand. Ryan was cold down to the bone and soaked through, but his mouth was nothing but dry salt. He took out his canteen and took long slow gulps from it before bringing it down to Doc's lips. The old man sucked at the canteen in semiconscious greed. Ryan let him drink his fill. They'd seen campfire smoke. Where there was campfire smoke, there'd be water. “You all right?”
Doc flopped back to the sand like a fish. “A bit battered, but I must say battling the ocean was strangely invigorating.”
Doc didn't look anything remotely invigorated. He looked more like a dog left out in the rain toâ“Dog!”
Ryan's hand was numb with cold and ached with the hooking from Captain Roque's gaff, but his blaster was in his hand rattlesnake quick.
He blinked as a dog stood atop the dune and wagged its tail at him.
During the time of the skydark the family dog had become an immediate source of food. Packs of wild strays that had taken to eating their former human masters had been ruthlessly trapped, shot and eaten in return. Ryan had seen pictures of predark house pets, and the idea of people keeping animals that couldn't earn their keep, much less deliberately breeding so many useless mutations into an animal was beyond his comprehension. For the most part only dogs of the working, sporting and herding groups had survived into the age of the Deathlands. Whatever working specialty a dog might have, whether hunting, herding or hauling, their primary function was still guarding. They were both alarms and the first line of defense against mutant marauder and night-creeping norm alike. Most had been bred up in size and savagery, and all were trained to attack strangers on sight. This dog was a shaggy black color with a mop of hair falling over its eyes. At fifty pounds it was a bit runty by Deathlands standards but still had good lines. The strangest thing about the dog was its attitude. It gazed upon Ryan and Doc in tail-wagging, tongue-lolling, happy stupid expectancy.
Doc creakily pushed himself to his feet. “Cao da Serra de Aires.”
Ryan kept his 9 mm blaster leveled. “What?”
“An Aires Mountain Dog. A shepherd dog from the Aires Mountains, north of the Tagus River.” Doc nodded knowingly. “A Portuguese breed.”
“So why isn't it trying to chill us?” Ryan shook his head in mild disgust at the happy dog. “It's not even barking.”
“I suspect it does not regard humans as enemies.”
Rustling was alive and well in the Deathlands, and a herd dog that didn't bark at strangers struck Ryan about as useful as bird shit on pump handle. He looked up at the sound of bells. The bleating sounds carried over the sound of the surf. A girl came over a dune being followed by a flock of snowy-white goats. The girl stopped at the sight of the two strangers, then shocked both Ryan and Doc by waving happily at them. Ryan observed her as she and her herd waded through the waist-high beach grass. She had long, unbound golden-brown hair, golden-brown tanned skin and golden-brown eyes. The effect was made more dramatic by the simple, chestnut-colored homespun shift she wore. Leather sandals shod her feet, and she wore a simple leather purse over one shoulder and a bota bag over the other. Ryan noted the corpse on the escarpment had been wearing the same outfit and kept his eye on the shepherd's crook she carried. Looks were deceiving and he had been on both ends of a skillfully wielded piece of wood.
The girl approached them guilelessly. Up close her slim arms and legs belied a chest that strained at the homespun enclosing it. She smiled with big white teeth and in every way was the healthiest specimen Ryan or Doc had seen in quite some time. Doc nodded in a friendly fashion at the dog. “Cao da Serra de Aires?”
“Noâ¦” The girl's nose wrinkled delightfully. “Boo.”
Ryan regarded Doc dryly. “I think the dog's name is Boo, Doc.”
“Hmmâ¦yes.” Doc scratched his chin. “Boo.”
Boo thumped his tail in the sand at Doc. The girl beamed and pointed to herself. “Vava!”
“Vava!” Doc bowed. “Dr. Theophilus Algernon Tanner, at yourâ¦” Doc trailed off as the girl stared at him blankly. He sighed and smiled as he pointed at Ryan and himself. “Ryanâ¦Doc.”
The girl's smile spread across her face like the sun. “Rianâ¦Doke.”
“Doc?” Ryan shot the old man a look. “The dog doesn't bark and the girl likes strangers.”
“I must admit it is unusual,” Doc agreed. “Even in my time a lone shepherd girl and her dog would be wary of strange men. Clearly neither has been exposed to any sort of predation.”
“Or it's some sort of trap. I'm thinkingâ” Ryan wasn't often shocked but even he was taken aback when the girl softly wrapped her hands around his. She ignored the blaster he held and raised the gaff wound to her lips and kissed it. The huge golden-brown eyes gazed upward at Ryan with an innocence that bordered on the erotic as she said something soothing in her own language.
Doc gave Ryan a wry look of his own. “All better?”
“Uh, yeahâ¦” Ryan forced a smile onto his face. “Doc? You tell her to take her hand off my blaster orâ”
The girl tossed her crook to the sand. “Boo!”
Boo picked up the stick and happily trotted off. The girl kept Ryan's hand in one of hers and took Doc's hand in her other. Ryan and Doc exchanged looks. “Doc?”
“Like lambs to the slaughter?” Doc suggested.
Vava gave their hands a slightly impatient tug. “Dunno,” Ryan said. He had learned the hard way to
read a trap. The girl gave off nothing but wide-eyed goodwill. Boo the dog was positively anomalous. Then again, in the very best traps the bait had no idea it was bait. Circumstances decided it. They couldn't stay here, and goats implied a hot meal. Ryan sighed and put his blaster in his other hand. He was almost equal with both. “Doc, give her your left.”
“Give her your left hand. Keep your right on your blaster.”
“Ah, yes. I see.” Vava smiled happily as the hand- and blaster-holding was arranged and led them into the dunes. The goats followed with their tin bells tinkling. Ryan surveyed the countryside. The dunes gave way to rolling grassland, rock formations and thin, windswept forest between the hills. The island wasn't a tropical paradise but everything was a healthy green and the needle on Ryan's rad counter never moved as they walked. Golden-brown fields waved in the sea breeze and he spied a few thatched huts on top of some of the hills. Several times people in the distance waved at them. They cut through a field and Doc ran his hand through the heavy sprays of grain.
“Pearl millet. Wheat, rice and corn overshadowed millet in the Americas except as feed for livestock, but in Africa, India and Asia millet has been a staple cereal grain since ancient times. It is a cereal grain well-adapted to soil low in fertility and high salinity.”
“That's real interesting, Doc,” Ryan said.
Doc frowned. “I assure you sarcasm is uncalled-for.”
“It's not sarcasm.” Ryan tracked his eye across the breadth of the horizon. “This rocky soil isn't bad, but it's workable. These people are making the most of it, but I noticed one thing.”
“Good heavens, you are right!” Doc saw it. “They are not fishing.”
“That's right. They're growing grain, raising goats and wearing homespun, but I haven't seen a boat, a pier or a net, and right across the water there's a ville where they got buildings, sailboats and they're eating octopus in sauce.”
“It is a conundrum,” Doc admitted. “And our Vava is wearing the same clothing as the poor girl by the mat-trans.”
“But Vava isn't wearing a chron and I doubt she's carrying a blaster.”
They came to a little valley. Sheltered from the omnipresent ocean wind the oaks grew tall rather than twisted and among them sat a little cluster of thatched huts. Ryan stopped just short of drooling as the smell of a goat roasting on a spit wafted toward him on the breeze. They descended the steep goat path and three young men around the barbecue pit rose to meet them. All wore homespun tunics and crude leather sandals like Vava and had the same tanned, golden-brown good looks. Vava and the man in front talked for a few moments. He was tall enough to look Ryan in the eye, looked as healthy as a horse and about as strong.
Vava waved at him by way of introduction. “Ago.”
Ryan remembered his meeting with Roque on the dock and spoke the only word of Portuguese he knew. “
, Ago.” He motioned at Doc and himself. “Ryan, Doc.”