Authors: James Axler
Ryan and Doc examined the ville through their optics. “This ville is old,” Doc said. “Plainly it was already old in my time. The cobblestone streets are original.” They scanned the steep streets and crowded narrow buildings. “Almost all the modern construction, buildings from Mildred's time, have rotted away. Like the church on the sister isle, it is the ancient and solid construction that has survived. It is Mediterranean in style, in keeping with their presumed Portuguese forebears. Everything fashioned post the apocalypse is plank-and-beam or dry-mortared stone. Clearly the present generation has not the skill to copy the ancient buildings.”
Ryan ran his eye appraisingly over the ville. Far too many people in the Deathlands were still feasting on the bones of Mildred's predark time. This island appeared to have escaped skydark and transitioned fairly smoothly. Ryan grimaced and considered the chill-pale Roque and his crew. He noted the heavy iron-bound doors of all the houses. None that he saw had first-floor windows, the lower windows of those of older construction were either bricked up or barred, and that brought his thoughts back to whatever it was that awaited the night in the cave behind them. The island hadn't escaped skydark entirely.
Not by a long shot.
Men in long coats and wide hats moved about on the streets. Some few more were engaged in activities on the dock. Others Ryan assumed to be women wore equally dark-hooded robes and veils. A clutch of them were busy down on the beach harvesting buckets of shellfish from the rocks.
“And in what fashion should the Grand Turk and his illustrious vagabond enter upon the stage?” Doc asked.
Ryan simply stared.
“How shall weâ¦make our play?” Doc tried.
Ryan had been giving that some thought. “What you said this morning. Shipwrecked royalty. It's not bad. We tell them we went down in the storm. Since they lost Roque, they might buy it. With your fancy talk and Latin you might convince them you're somebody to be reckoned with. Try to make some discreet inquiries about the mat-trans.”
“I'm your right hand. I'll just stand around and look mean. We haven't seen much in the way of blasters or sec men. Tell them there were two more ships with us, and if they didn't go down they're looking for us, and tell them they're big. If they think you got a few dozen guys like me looking for you, that might keep them honest. You? Be charming. Be imperious. Be a baron. Don't bastard it up.”
Decorus Imperiosus Rex
, so shall I be,” Doc assured him.
“Let's get fed.”
They emerged from their hide among the boulders. The strand opened up to a decent stretch of beach around the harbor. Doc drew himself up to his full height and spun his cane jauntily as he walked down the sand.
The women bolted erect from their labors to reveal veiled faces and smoked lenses. They made suitable sounds of alarm and then hiked up their robes with gloved hands as they scuttled toward the pier. Ryan kept his Steyr at port arms. Doc wasn't exactly acting like a baron, but to his credit he didn't appear to be afraid of anything. The men on the docks and boats drew knives and clutched at gaffs. Others ran full-tilt into the ville shouting. Ryan and Doc ignored them all and mounted the stone steps that descended between the ville and the sand. The area had a fountain and formed a bit of a ville square before the twisting streets wound up into the steep hillsides.
A church bell began ringing in alarm.
Doc stopped and struck a pose with one fist on his hip and the other on his cane. He made an imperious gesture with his hand. Ryan bellowed up at the ville. “Baron Theophilus Algernon Tanner seeks words with the baron of this island!” The cliffs on either side of the harbor gave his voice a nice echo. Doc whispered in Latin.
Ryan roared out, and punctuated it with a full auto burst from his blaster into the air. “Baron Theophilus Algernon Tanner
peto lacuna per Baron ilei Insula!
A phalanx of men in black came charging down the cobblestones. The man in the lead had some kind of assault blaster. The five men behind him had long double-barrel blasters, apparently homegrown, and probably black powder. The street behind them began to fill with men carrying single-barrel blasters, axes, shovels, sledges and anything else that was heavy or bladed.
Doc looked utterly unimpressed. Ryan took two steps forward to interpose himself between Doc and the mob
and arranged his scarred features into their hardest look. His body language radiated that very little was keeping him in check from chilling them all. The leading man was tall and whip-thin. A sparse beard and mustache were visible beneath the shadow of his broad hat. He had a predark blaster in an open holster on his belt. As he halted, so did his men and the mob behind them. Clearly there was fear. Ryan detected the people here weren't used to being surprised. It seemed certain they were used to occasional visitors from the mat-trans and perhaps spying a sail upon the sea. They weren't expecting company dropping out of nowhere on their doorstep.
“I heard.” The leader spoke. Ryan was reminded of the accents when he had been to Amazonia. “Youâ¦speak English?”
“You.” Doc snapped his fingers. “Your name.”
“Jorge-Teo.” The man came an inch from snapping to attention. “Constable Jorge-Teo.”
Doc waved a dismissing hand. “Show us to Baron Barat.”
Ryan's stomach tightened. Doc was already blowing it.
Ryan could hear Jorge-Teo's eyes widening behind his dark glasses. “Youâ¦know the baron?”
Doc peered down his nose from his six-foot, four-inch height and recovered nicely. His voice dropped an intolerant octave. “We are aware of him.”
“Will you join me in my office?”
“We will.” Doc turned his eye upon the crowd and raised an eyebrow. The constable began shouting and the ville folk turned from mob to gawkers as they moved to either side of the street. Constable Jorge-Teo's men made a move to arrange themselves in escort around Doc. Ryan stopped that with an ugly smile. The island
sec men backed down and led Ryan and Doc up the steep street. They came to a ledge of flat land that formed another square. The building they walked toward was old even before skydark but was recognizable as a sec station. A police station as they would have called it back in the day.
They went through the heavy wooden doors. Inside were some desks and holding cells. Ryan's arctic-blue eye slid over a rack of long blasters chained in place through the trigger guards. Two of the weapons were bolt-action predark hunting blasters and two more were double-barreled scatter-blasters of the same vintage. In other racks along the walls Ryan saw nets and traps. Still more held boar spears, catch poles and whaling lances. They seemed of recent manufacture, and well used and well maintained. The ville was rolling their own black powder but predark blasters and their ammunition were in short supply.
The constable pointed to a table and a pair of chairs. Doc ignored them and went straight to the back office. Doc flung the door open and took command of the constable's desk. Ryan stood behind like a tombstone. The constable and his posse shifted from foot to foot beneath Ryan's unrelenting gaze. Doc consulted his chron and rolled his eyes.
Ryan's head turned at the sound of a wag outside.
The constable and his men were visibly relieved. The station door swung open and two tall men wearing the universal island attire of black hats, caped coats and dark glasses entered, openly carrying long, predark blasters. Their plastic furniture had long ago been replaced with local wood stocks and grips and the original matte-black finish replaced with gray phosphate. J.B. probably could have identified them in
stantly. Ryan noted the hilts of swords protruding from out of their coats. Baron Barat followed. He was of medium height and wore the dark island garb; however, his was of finer cut and well tailored to his frame. The baron walked up to Jorge-Teo and their faces disappeared as they tilted their broad hats together. They consulted together in whispers for a few moments, and then the baron strode into the office and sat in front of Doc. He removed his gloves and handed them to one of his sec men. His skin was chalk-white and the nails on his fingers purplish. His long black hair had streaks of silver and fell loose to his shoulders. He removed his dark glasses and Ryan wasn't surprised to see the man from the portrait in the smaller island church gazing upon him with cool curiosity.
He turned his attention to Doc and gave him a cold, sharklike smile. His teeth were as gleaming white as Doc's, but the baron's purple gums had receded to make them appear entirely too long. It was the smile of a skull. “Baronâ¦Tanner, is it?”
Ryan spoke low and threatening. “Baron Theophilus Algernon Tanner, Baron of Strafford and Baron of Maine.”
“Americans,” the baron said. The skeleton smile stayed painted on Barat's face. The black eyes remained cold. His English was heavily accented but predark educated and formal. “Forgive me, Baron Tanner, but I have spoken with my constable, and I do not remember making your acquaintance.”
“Your constable exaggerates. I did not claim to have had the honor of your acquaintance, dear Baron. I merely informed your constable that I was aware of you.”
“Aware of me?”
“Aware of your island,” Doc corrected.
Ryan eyed the disposition of the sec men again and readied himself to start blasting. Doc sounded like he was about to drop the ball. Doc waved an impatient hand at Ryan and handed off. Ryan gave Baron Barat a withering look. “We've recced it.”
The baron's face froze.
Ryan went with gut instinct. “It's not hard to move among you. Particularly during the day.”
The baron flinched and Ryan knew he had given him a gut shot where it hurt. Barat raised a hand to Jorge-Teo and spoke a few words in Portuguese. The constable left and the baron returned to Doc. “Forgive me, Baron. I have neglected my duties as host.” Jorge-Teo came in with a tray bearing a carafe of wine, cheese and smoked fish. The constable poured wine. Doc nodded at Ryan, who assumed the role of royal food taster and picked up the goblet.
Baron Barat sighed and took up his own cup. He toasted vaguely toward Ryan and drained the goblet. He set the empty glass down, smacked his lips with relish and smiled condescendingly. Ryan took a swig from the goblet. The wine was heavier and sweeter than the communion wine on the sister island. Ryan poured it back and set the goblet down in front of Doc. The constable refilled the glass.
Doc ignored it. “Baron, let me be blunt. My ship, the
, went down in the other night's storm.”
The baron kept his poker face, but Ryan could almost hear him considering his own lost boat and calculating.
“I believe my escort shipsâ”
The baron blinked. “Your escort ships?”
was a cargo ship and was heavily laden. The
are warships and faster. Last I saw of them from the
, they were running ahead of the storm. We signaled them with
lanterns before we went down. They will of course return in a few days' time.”
Ryan sensed Baron Barat's discomfiture. Doc was playing his hand well. Now if he could justâRyan's stomach reared within him like a striking cobra. He tried to bring up his blaster to bear but his stomach ejected its contents so violently it almost tore the lining of his throat. Ryan fell to his hands and knees as sickness that made a mat-trans jump feel like an after-dinner belch racked him. “Doc! Iâ”
Ryan went fetal as his bowels spasmed.
Doc's hand froze on the grips of his blaster as the baron's sec men leveled their weapons. One was pointed at Doc. The other at aimed at Ryan's retching form on the floor. Jorge-Teo relieved Doc of his LeMat, then knelt and relieved Ryan of his weapons. Doc struggled to maintain an imperious mien. “You disappoint me, Baron.”
The baron ignored Doc and poured himself another glass of wine. He swirled it in his glass and admired its color before sipping it. He peered down at Ryan in mock sympathy. “Sadly, one's first few experiences with our native lotus are somewhatâ¦purgative. For one who imbibes it for the first time, I must admit he was given a very powerful dose. I fear his dreams shall not be pleasant.”
“Baron Barat, I must protest thisâ”
Barat turned to the constable. “It has been three days since we lost Roque.” He held up his glass. “I feel the draft upon me, and must sleep until the effects have passed. You know what must be done.”
“Yes, Baron.” Jorge-Teo grinned unpleasantly at Ryan and Doc. “And what of these two?”
“Put the sec man in a cell. He will be of use to no one for at least a day.”
They both looked at Doc. “And the baron?” the constable asked.
.” Barat gave Doc a very hard and measuring look. “Make him comfortable.” The skull-face smile returned once more. “I will speak with this man again after I have slept. Bring him to the manor come sundown.”
IGHT HAD NEARLY
fallen. Mildred stood and peered out into the drizzling rain and fog. They had spent the afternoon exploring the tiny island and found damn little. She shivered in the cold ocean breeze and stepped back inside the shattered blockhouse. Mildred took out Doc's note and read it again for lack of anything better to do. On one side was a picture of what looked to her like some kind of penguin. On the back Doc's spidery longhand read:
If you are reading this missive then you have successfully journeyed through the mat-trans. A boat approaches, time constrains me to brevity. In summary:
-being picked up by fishing boat
-believe we are in an island chain upon the Atlantic
-disposition of natives unknown
-circumstances of corpse most curious (Mildred, please take note of marks on deceased's inner arms.)
-presume us to be upon the big island.
Your faithful servant in all things,