Authors: James Axler
The party put down their canteens, water bottles and stacked their meager store of provisions on the main console of the control room. One by one they filed past and took their seats on the mat-trans floor. Krysty went and put her hand on the lever. Ryan was always the last man in. He was always the one to pull the lever and the first one to step out of the chamber. Watching him do it had always given Krysty confidence. She felt very nervous now but kept it off her face. “Everyone ready?”
J.B. nodded. “Let's go.”
Krysty shut the door and quickly sat on the floor disk as a mist began to fill the chamber. The lights began to flicker and the sucking darkness started to pull her in into oblivion. Krysty screamed in rage rather than fear this time as the lightning suddenly sledgehammered behind her eyes. She wasn't going to meet Ryan. Krysty screamed on in agony as she felt the savage wrenching for the second time as the universe seemed to pull every last fiber of her being in a separate direction but stopped just short of ripping her apart.
Krysty collapsed face-first into a puddle of her own bile and lay shuddering for long moments. Locks of her mutant hair snapped and twisted like beheaded snakes. Her battered brain knew she had been left behind again and she was still in the same redoubt. Instinct curled her fingers around the grips of her snub-nosed blaster. She pushed herself to her hands and knees and another wave of nausea ran its course through her. A clinical part of her noted dark, internal blood mixed in with the mess that had nothing to do with her bleeding nose. J.B. lay a few feet away, clutching his Uzi like an anchor as he was racked by his own gastrointestinal fireworks. Krysty could have wept.
Jak and Mildred were gone.
Krysty reeled onto her knees and mentally bucked herself up as she stood. Her hand shook as she pressed the lever and the chamber door hissed open. The comp was peeping. Data was scrolling. The supplies were still there. The corridor outside echoed with the sounds of besieging stickies.
Three more days.
Ryan's broken rib stabbed and sawed at his side with each stroke of the oar. The sea was calm and the current slight, but they were still pushing a craft shaped like a brick across several klicks of open ocean. Doc was clearly no longer invigorated by the call of the sea. Each dip of the paddle was a groan and each return was a wheeze of effort, and Ryan felt his injured and exhausted body falling into the rhythm. The only good news about the journey was the morning fog. The big island was a dark smudge in the distance, and it would take a keen eye to make out the little makeshift raft in the vastness.
“I was on the rowing teamâ¦when I attended universityâ¦you know,” Doc gasped. “I fearâ¦I have sinceâ¦lostâ¦my wind.”
“Save your wind for the sea, Doc.” Ryan dug his cut-down oar into the Lantic. “We're getting close.”
Waves boomed and hissed ahead of them as the ocean met the land. Both men instinctively dug down and dug harder as the big island loomed ahead of them like Leviathan in the fog. Doc suddenly gave a little sigh, and Ryan felt the sea change beneath them, as well. They had passed some invisible barrier in the waters and now rather than fighting the ocean current they were being pulled in by the tide. Ryan had scanned
the beachheads the previous late afternoon and seen little in the way of obstacles, but he worried about the rocks and reefs he couldn't see. “We're coming in.”
“Indeedâ¦I believe we are.” Doc set his oar aside and took the crude tiller.
The raft slopped and dipped as the waves slapped it, but so far the surf wasn't bad and Doc began to guide them in. Four barrels set in a square were very difficult to capsize. Despite several stomach-dropping descents down wave faces and being soaked to the skin, they were heading straight for the beach. Rather than rising up and down in booming waves they were suddenly in surf that sizzled like bacon. They gathered speed and Ryan could see the dull yellow sand of the beach ahead of them. “Nice work, Doc. Weâ”
Both men went flying as one corner of the raft smashed into a sandbar and the little craft went vertical. Ryan's rib screamed at him as he took a shoulder roll in the surf and came up on his feet with a splash. Doc ate a mouthful of beach and rose spitting and blinking sand from his eyes. Water churned around them as the wave receded. Doc splashed seawater onto his face and spluttered as they slogged up past the water line. “We have made landfall.”
Ryan began to haul the raft onto the beach. It took long minutes for the two exhausted men to get the raft past the waterline and against the cliff. They piled seaweed on top to camouflage it, but most things in nature weren't square and covered with weed.
“A most suspicious lump,” Doc opined.
“Check your powder.” Ryan unslung his Steyr longblaster.
Doc drew his LeMat revolver from the waxed canvas
pouch he kept inside his jacket and made sure his powder was still dry. “How shall we proceed?”
“Talking with this Barat is a gamble, but we need to find out the cycle on the mat-trans. He might know it. We bluff our way in and bluff our way out and make him think it's to his advantage to help us.” Ryan gave Doc a measuring look. “You better be at your baronial best.”
Doc gave Ryan a sweeping bow in return and doffed his nonexistent hat. “Baron Theophilus Algernon Tanner, shipwrecked royalty, at your service.”
“You don't serve, Doc. You give orders.”
“Ah.” Doc snapped his fingers at Ryan imperiously. “You, knave! Attend me.”
They moved down the beach. The smaller island had been a rambling affair of hills and dunes. The land here was more rough-hewn. The beach was a thin strip of sand abutting tall and jagged cliffs. They followed the strand westward for several miles toward the ville. Twice they saw the gray shadows of masted ships in the fog. Buoys clanked to mark the path through the rock-strewed channel as they got close to the wharf. Ryan stopped. Doc started as his companion put a hand to his chest. “What? Is thereâ”
Ryan put a finger to his lips and then pointed. The black mouth of a cave gaped out of a jumble of rocks at the base of the cliff. Ryan examined the sand. Seaweed and barnacles on the rocks around the cave mouth indicated the water reached right up during high tide, and it had erased any footprints or signs of passage. Ryan stared at the cave and knew without a doubt he was being watched.
Doc shivered and Ryan knew the old man felt it, too. Doc took comfort in Shakespeare. “âBy the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes.'”
“Something's in that cave, all right,” Ryan agreed. “And it's got bastard bad intentions.”
The click-click-clack of Doc's ancient single-action blaster seemed very loud even over the boom of the surf. It made a final click as he set the hammer to fire the shotgun barrel. “Hold fire, Doc,” Ryan said. “You shoot, the whole ville will hear it.” Ryan's eye narrowed. “And whatever's in there isn't raising a ruckus.”
“You know?” Doc shivered again. “I almost wish it were.”
Ryan and Doc were both getting the same vibe. They had both been to terrible places where terrible things had happened. There were places in the Deathlands imprinted with the horrors they had witnessed that almost had a palpable aura of their own. Almost a life of their own. The cave was a very bad place, and there was something very bad inside it. That something was watching them now with a very cold will to chill them.
“Shall we double back?” Doc asked quietly. “Perhaps there is another way inland, or perhaps we might find a scaleable spot along the cliffs.”
Ryan felt the chiller in the dark, and he knew it was feeling him, too. He really didn't want to walk past that cave, but neither did he want to go swimming again. He was reminded of how insistent Ago had been about not coming to the island at night. He thought of Roque and his crew hiding from the sun beneath wide hats, long coats and smoked lenses. “I don't think it's coming out.”
Ryan shook his head. “I don't think it can. At least not until nightfall.”
“Then let us proceed as quickly as possible while the day is still ahead of us.” Doc gave the cave another leery look. “One at a time, or together?”
Ryan hefted the Steyr. “I'll cover you. Don't shoot unless something actually comes out.”
“Indeed.” Doc drew his sword stick. Interminable moments passed as he crept warily down the little strip of sand. At this bend in the beach there was barely more than a scant ten yards between the cave mouth and the sea. Ryan kept his crosshairs on the cave but whatever lurked within was staying back. Doc almost sagged with relief as he crossed out of the cave's line of sight. He sheathed his sword and knelt behind a boulder, taking his LeMat in a firm, two-handed hold to cover the cave. “I am ready.”
There was no point in creeping. Both Ryan and the lurker knew the other was there. Ryan strode down the beach as though he owned it, daring the chiller in the dark to do something about it.
“Ryan!” Doc shouted.
The rock was the size of Ryan's head. It flew out of the cave as if it had been thrown by a catapult. Ryan dived for the sand. The rock ruffled his hair in passing and smashed into the surf with a tremendous splash. The one-eyed tucked into a roll and his hand snaked out to snatch up a rock the size of a hen's egg. He rose and flung his stone dead center for the cave mouth like he was trying to hit the last train west. He was rewarded by the meaty thud of rock meeting flesh. He'd hoped to be rewarded with a cry of pain or at least an outraged roar. What he felt were eyes
burning into his back as he ran out the line of fire. Ryan knew as long as he stayed on this island he had an enemy, and he knew if he was still here by nightfall that the cold-heart lurking in the dark was going to come looking.
Before it was over someone was going to take that train.
HEY'RE IN THE VENTILATION
ducts,” J.B. said.
Krysty looked up. She had been dozing, but as she listened she could hear the muffled thumps and scrapes of stickies squirming their way through the ducts. “How come they didn't do that before?”
“Dunno,” J.B. said. “Nobody's been here in a long while. Mebbe this generation never learned.”
Krysty was reminded of the piles of bones, cracked for their marrow and scattered throughout the corridors. “They're learning now.”
J.B. was reminded of the stickies trying to extrude themselves through the three-inch gap between the steel door and the wall. He glanced at the ventilation grills in the room, which had been punched out from the inside long ago. The redoubt was a predark military facility. It wouldn't have air ducts a spy or saboteur could crawl through. The openings were mere twelve-by-six-inch rectangles. The redoubts were wonders of engineering, but the twentieth-century architects hadn't built with assaulting stickies in mind. In his mind's eye J.B. could imagine the stickies in the ducts, dislocating their bones and pulling themselves along with sluglike muscular contractions anchored by their suction-cupped fingers.
It wasn't a good image.
Krysty filled her hands with blaster and blade. “What's the plan, J.B.?”
“Can't come through the ducts more than one at a time.” J.B. pushed off his scattergun's safety. “Mebbe we chill the ones in front. Make a pile of them. That'll confuse them.”
“They'll figure to just push them forward.”
“Until they do, that's the plan.” The Armorer nodded. “Go check the door.”
Krysty walked out into the hall. “Gaia!”
A stickie was halfway through the opening. Pushing past the unyielding steel had turned its skull into a stepped-on melon. That didn't seem to be hindering its progress. The stickie's flattened chest snapped and crackled and popped back into place as its torso rein-flated. Its hips were posing something of a problem, but the grotesque crunching and grinding noises as it pulled its pelvis against the gap implied it was making progress.
Krysty's blaster cracked once and chilled it through the skull. The crunching and grinding turned to snapping and tearing as its brethren devoured its lower half in a frenzy to get to the opening. “J.B.!” Krysty called. “They can get through the door!”
J.B. took a knee beside one of the ventilation ducts, removed his survival flashlight and gave the generator handle a few cranks before shining it down the shaft. He scowled. There it was, a stickie, one hell of a lot closer than he would have liked. Its squeezed-out-of-shape skull was impossibly jammed against its outstretched arm in the tiny space. Nonetheless, it splayed out its suckered fingers and its rubbery muscles squirmed beneath its flesh, conspiring to pull it forward a few more inches. J.B. spit in disgust. “Dark night.”
He fired his M-4000 and filled the duct with buck.
J.B. racked a fresh round into his scattergun and peered down the shaft again. The stickie was mostly a gooey mess now. J.B. rose and walked over to the other duct. One peek showed him the same situation. The stickie worming its way up the other duct blinked into the glare of J.B.'s flashlight before resuming its creeping progress. J.B. let fly with another buckshot blast that obliterated the stickie's hand, arm and face. For the barest of seconds there was a moment of blessed silence.
The shattered stickie's jammed-up corpse jerked a little and J.B. heard the crunch of bones as the mutie behind began chewing its way toward him through its friend from the toes up.
Krysty walked in reloading the round she had spent in the hallway. “Given time, they can get through that door.”
“Heard you.” He glanced up as the thumping and bumping in the ceiling continued and pondered the unpleasant idea of the stickies ripping their way out of the ducts and falling upon him and Krysty through the light fixtures.
“How are we on chron, again?” Krysty asked wearily. She already knew, but she vainly hoped that somehow J.B. or maybe even Gaia herself would give her a happier answer.
J.B. looked at the mat-trans comp unhappily as she shucked fresh shells past the loading gate of his blaster. “Two more days.”