Authors: James Axler
Mildred turned the note over and looked at the date scratched beneath the bird sketch. “Doc wrote this three days ago.”
Jak nodded. “Not been back.”
Mildred shivered again. “Make a fire.”
Jak frowned out at the rain. “Driftwood's wet.” He dug into the pocket of his jacket and pulled out a handful of hexamine fuel tabs and bounced them once meaningfully in his hand. Each cube had a burn time of about fifteen minutes. “Two hours.”
Jak nodded and took out flint and steel. He wrapped a fuel cube in a scrap of char cloth from his backpack. Sparks shot as he scraped the steel and magnesium rods together. It only took him two strikes and Mildred sighed as the tiny fire came to life. She warmed her hands over it and gave Jak her most winning smile across the fire. “You're the man, Jak.”
Jak nodded at the wisdom of the statement.
Jak sighed and stuck out his hand. “Note.” Jak studied the words for a moment and handed it back. He drew one of his throwing knives as he rose and headed for the door. “Be back.”
Mildred gave Jak a suspicious look. “You're not going to hunt down Doc's penguin, are you?”
Jak held up the sketch. “Puffin.”
“How the hell do you know what a puffin is? Tell me you aren't going out there to kill Doc's puffin.”
Jak gave one of his rare smiles. “Our puffin.”
Mildred's stomach betrayed her and growled in
agreement. A part of her mind was already hoping it tasted like chicken. “Well, possession is nine-tenths of the law.”
Jak blinked. Half the time he couldn't fathom her predark gibberish. He turned and stepped into the night with his blade glittering between his fingers.
“Might as well be talking to myself.” Mildred sighed. She turned her attention to the body and began talking to herself out of habit as she went into medical doctor mode. “Deceased is a Caucasian female, mid to late teens. Body shows obvious signs of acute starvation. Final cause of death most likely dehydration once victim became nonambulatory.” Mildred shook her head sadly as she examined the body. “Girl, you went the hard way.” She peered at the puncture marks Doc had noted. The holes on her inner arms were large and the bruising was bad. Just looking at them told her the IV needle had to have been fourteen gauge or bigger. It looked like work from Doc's time rather than hers, and it was pretty clear to her that someone had been drawing blood rather than administering fluids.
Jak called out of the darkness so he wouldn't get shot by mistake. “Back!”
“That was quick!” Mildred called back. “Come ahead.”
Jak came in holding Doc's bird by its webbed feet. Mildred mentally corrected herself. Their puffin. Her chicken dinner. Jak tossed down a bundle of branches of driftwood suitable for roasting sticks. Mildred took out her knife and began shaving points on the likeliest-looking pair. Jak got busy dressing the bird. He filleted the serving portions of meat off the bone and removed the giblets. He stuffed the guts and odds and ends back into the carcass for bait. At first light he would try his
luck at rock fishing. Puffins were chubby birds, and he warmed some fat over the fire and rubbed the meat with it. He threaded cubed meat and giblets onto sticks and handed one to Mildred as he put two more hexamine tabs on the fire.
Mildred began salivating as the smell of roasting puffin kabobs began to fill the blockhouse. Mildred eyed Jak's jacket. It was like a superhero's utility belt. You could never tell what Jak was holding. “Don't suppose you have any marshmallows in there?”
Jak peered at her. “What?”
Jak stoically returned his attention to roasting his puffin.
Mildred didn't bother with the Hershey bars. Anyone who habitually dropped their prepositions and articles was too good a straight man for his own good, and hers. Baiting Doc was infinitely more fun. But Mildred was cold, tired and more than a little scared. She searched for a subject that might tempt Jak into blurting out a few more monosyllables than usual. Generally his favorite subjects were knives and food. “Doc mentioned a fishing boat. Maybe tomorrow we'll be eatingâ” Jak's head snapped up. His ruby gaze burned intently out into the darkness surrounding the broken blockhouse. Mildred had seen that look before. She had a terrible, sinking feeling she wasn't going to get to eat her barbecued puffin. She drew her blaster and spoke low. “Company?”
Jak rose and stepped on the fire. Night had fallen outside. The hexamine cubes were crushed and smothered beneath Jak's boot, and the blockhouse plunged into darkness. Mildred heard him thumb back the hammer on his Colt. “Trans,” he said softly. Together
they moved to the doorway of the mat-trans chamber. They knelt within and put the door of the blockhouse into a cross fire. Outside the wind moaned and the drizzling rain pattered. Collected water on the roof dripped through the shattered ceiling.
Mildred whispered, “What's our status?”
“Surrounded,” Jak replied.
Jak grunted agreement.
Mildred's eyes ached with effort as she tried to perceive anything in the inky blackness. She blinked as she caught site of something through one of the empty windows. “Jak, nine o'clock.”
Something was moving. Mildred squinted. It was like a few tiny orange fireflies moving up and down and winking in and out. They were coming toward the blockhouse. The fireflies suddenly multiplied and started acting crazy. Mildred did the math. Someone was carrying something covered and burning. Feet slapped on the wet rock of the escarpment outside. Someone had broken into a run. “Jak! They've got some kind of bombâ”
The interior of the blockhouse strobed with the muzzle-blasts from Jak's Magnum blaster. Mildred's .38 joined it. A big bundle of something flew through the window. Pottery shattered as it hit the floor of the blockhouse. A bucket load of red-hot coals spilled over the abandoned puffin kabobs. Something black and dirtlike mixed with the coals as the ceramic components of the bomb shattered. The coals flared brightly and then black fumes as thick as smoke began billowing out of the burning mess.
“Trans!” Jak shouted.
Mildred hit the lever to close the door and activate the mat-trans, but it failed just as it had done on the last hundred attempts. The mat-trans was still locked into its seventy-two-hour cycle. Jak's blaster boomed, but the enemy was making no attempt to assault. They were letting whatever filth they had thrown do their work for them. Mildred got her first whiff of the fumes and nearly gagged. It smelled like some rotting sweet combination of burned sugar and incense. The moaning wind blew through the empty windows and doorway of the blockhouse, and the foul smoke billowed straight into the mat-trans chamber like sentient barbecue smoke chasing its chosen victim at a cookout. Mildred covered her mouth and nose with her hands, but it did no good. She had to breathe.
“Jak!” Mildred hacked and choked. Jak didn't answer. She couldn't see anything through the smoke and darkness other than the smoldering coals on the floor and the dark fumes endlessly blossoming out of them. The light of the coals began spinning. Mildred closed her eyes and the entire planet spun. She opened her eyes again and squeezed off two more rounds at nothing in particular. Her eyes were burning. Her lungs were burning. She felt like she was violently drunk on tequila. Her hammer clicked on an empty chamber. Mildred fell to her knees and threw up. She tried to stand again and realized she had dropped her blaster. She knelt and fumbled for it in the darkness, but she couldn't find it. Mildred's eyelids felt like they were filled with hot sand and as heavy as a mountain. It was nice to close them. It was nicer down here. Someone had wrapped her brain in soft, fuzzy blanket. The smoke was rising, and
the cold air at floor level was refreshing. Mildred blinked and when she opened her eyes she didn't remember lying down. The surface of the mat-trans floor was blissfully cool against the side of her face.
Mildred closed her eyes again.
The stickie erupted out of the duct in slow motion, like toothpaste out of a tube. J.B.'s shotgun blast had smeared away a great deal of its face and head. As the stickie was pushed outward, it dripped congealed goo from its cratered skull into the control room. Its narrow, dislocated shoulders crackled and popped as it was squeezed forth like sausage. J.B. slung the M-4000 and hefted his Uzi, pushing the selector lever to semiauto and dropped to one knee as he waited for the dead stickie to finish extruding.
The stickie's corpse popped like a cork.
J.B. got off one shot and then the mutie's cadaver flew into him like they were lovers who'd been separated for years. J.B. saw stars as they went skull-to-skull. Jellied blood and brain filled his eyes and mouth as he fell backward, gagging as he tried to disentangle himself. There was nothing left of the stickie below its rib cage. J.B. shouted as something grabbed his ankle.
Krysty snapped awake at the sound of the blaster shot and scooped up her weapon.
“J.B.!” The Armorer was flat on his back and covered with gore as he wrestled with approximately half of a dead stickie. Spindly arms dragged him by the ankle toward the duct. Krysty leaped forward and grabbed a rubbery wrist. She leaned in to get off a head shot down
the duct. The stickie let go of J.B. with one hand and grabbed Krysty. She screamed as suckers bit into her flesh, and the stickie yanked her to her knees. She could see the mutie's head impossibly hunched between its arms in the duct. Krysty arm-wrestled with the creature and quickly began to lose. The rubbery, boa-constrictor-like strength of the stickie was sickening. Her blaster fell with a clatter as her hand went numb. Any progress she made helped pull the stickie out of the duct. Krysty spun in the mutie's suckered grip. She braced one boot against the wall and then drove the heel of the other again and again into the stickie's face. It hissed and cooed and bit at the stacked heel.
J.B. rolled the corpse away and did a sit-up. “Move!”
Krysty yanked her foot back and J.B. shoved the barrel of his Uzi down the duct and into the stickie's mouth. He pulled the trigger once and the stickie's arms went limp. J.B. ripped his boot out of its dead grip. He pulled a bandanna out of his pocket and began wiping the gore from his face.
“Gaia!” Krysty snarled as she pulled her wrist free. The stickie's hand suckers popped and made wet kissing noises as they very reluctantly loosened their hold on her flesh. Krysty flexed her hand as circulation returned and grimaced. Her forearm was a mass of circular lamprey-like wounds. There was hardly anything in the Deathlands more septic than any orifice in a stickie's body. J.B.'s eyes would bear washing out if they could spare the water.
Krysty jumped as the stickie twitched.
J.B. shook his head as he heaved himself to his feet. “It's just the one behind.”
“J.B., we need toâ¦” Krysty's shoulders sagged in exhaustion. She shook her head at the other duct. “J.B.!”
The Armorer looked across the room and saw a pale head bulging against the opening. Whatever body sub-luxation the stickies were capable of in life was being forced upon this dead one by the weight of numbers behind it. Its skull and shoulder filled every available bit of space. The jammed skull strained with the pressure being exerted behind it.
J.B. finished wiping down his weapon and tossed away his soiled bandanna.
“J.B., they're stuck in there. Worming around in pipes. Can't you just blow them up or something?”
“I blow the ducts then they really are in the ceilings and the walls.” J.B. gave the light fixture panel above them another unhappy look. “Then they're in here.” He had been considering some kind of shaped charge to go burning down the ducts but they were sheet metal and he couldn't risk weakening any section, much less ripping them open. J.B. walked over to the duct and this time stood back a prudent distance as the mutie corpse slowly squeezed through.
“So what do we do?” Krysty asked.
“Dunno.” The Armorer took a deep breath and checked his chron. It had nothing good to tell him. He looked back and forth between the two ducts and out toward the hall where the assault on the door continued. The enemy had three access points, and it was only a matter of time before all that squeezing and squirming finally popped a duct. “But we can't afford to sleep anymore.”
HE LONG BLACK WAG
pulled to a halt. Doc peered out the tinted windows at the manse. The stone wall surrounding it was tall and topped with a wrought-iron
fence with sharpened spikes. Night had fallen, and the driver and the two sec men had removed their glasses, hats and gloves. Doc noted the same long-toothed mouths, purplish gums and lavender tint beneath the fingernails. However, the men all had either black or brown eyes. The manse was well lit, just as the inside of the sec station had been. The inhabitants of the large isle weren't sensitive to light. They were very sensitive to the rays of the sun. Doc was starting to come to some conclusions.
The wag had come at sundown and despite Doc's protestations they had forced him to leave Ryan behind in the holding cell, naked and raving in fevered dreams. On the drive into the hillsides Doc saw farms and vineyards. He found that nearly every home and building was of fortlike construction, and he was interested to find that he saw nothing in the way of horses, oxen or farm animals.
Doc also found the wrinklies who had been conspicuously absent on the smaller isle.
They all wore the same simple homespun. However, unlike their young brethren on the smaller isle who glowed with health, these men and women were stooped from hard labor, and all over the age of twenty-five. Many were moving wagons and toting bales. All of them without exception walked with a very suspicious limp. Many bore signs of the lash. Others had fresh bandages covering their inner arms.
All of them moved swiftly and fearfully as the sun set.
Doc began coming to other unsavory conclusions, as well.
The sec man beside the old man motioned with a huge, double-barreled blaster that looked suitable for elephant hunting. “Out.”
Doc exited the wag and was escorted into the manse. The interior was opulent by Deathlands standards and furnished in a hodge-podge of ancient, predark and cruder new manufactured items. Baron Barat stood in the foyer. He wore an elegant red-and-gold brocade robe for the occasion. A semiauto blaster was tucked into the belt for the occasion, as well. “Ah, good evening, Dr. Tanner, thank you for coming.”
“Doctor? I am Baron Theophilus Algernonâ¦” Doc trailed off under Barat's bemused gaze. Doc sighed defeatedly. When the drug had violated Ryan, he had called out to him, and called him Doc.
The baron smiled in satisfaction. The admission of the first lie was the key point in any interrogation. “Come, Doctor, will you join me in my study? Nero, you may accompany us.” The baron turned without waiting for an answer. Doc considered the blade hidden within his cane but decided he wished to learn more. Nero prodded him with his blaster and Doc followed the baron into his parlor. The room was wall-to-wall books of every description and age. A cheery fire burned in the little fireplace.
Doc decided on flattery as his own opening gambit. “I see you and many of your citizens speak excellent English.”
“Ah, well.” The baron smiled and gestured at the chair in front of his desk. “We have maintained a tutorial-based education system here as best we can, though I must admit it trickles down somewhat slowly from the high to the low. In many ways it is the second language of our island.”
Doc noticed his LeMat on the desk and noted it was unloaded. He took his seat and Barat gestured at the con
fiscated weapon. “I must say, Dr. Tanner, that is a grand old piece you have there. It is remarkable that it still functions.”
“Yes.” Doc gazed fondly upon the ancient blaster. “Nearly as old as I am.”
The baron smiled, not knowing how true the statement was.
“Nero.” Barat motioned his sec man and nodded to the sideboard by the fire. Nero brought a decanter and two glasses. “Will you join me in my evening constitutional, Doctor?”
Doc eyed the amber liquid warily.
Barat laughed. “Fear not, it is merely Madeira.”
“Then I would be delighted,” Doc replied.
Nero poured and Barat raised his glass. “To your health.”
“And yours.” Doc sipped the amber liquid. His closed eyes in near ecstasy. It had been over two hundred years since he had drunk Madeira. “Is this Sercial?” Doc took another sip. “No, Rainwater, bless my stars and garters, a real Rainwater Madeira.”
The baron was plainly shocked. “You are the first man not of this island I have ever met who would know the difference. May I offer you a cigar?”
Doc leaned forward eagerly. “Oh, indeed!”
The baron removed a pair of thick, blunt cigars from a humidor on his desk and handed one to Doc. Nero approached with a candelabra and the baron and Doc both leaned across the desk to light their cigars. Nero refilled Doc's glass. Doc and Barat spent long moments silently smoking and sipping fortified wine. The baron smiled. “You approve?”
Doc leaned back with a sigh and blew heavy blue
smoke toward the still ceiling fan. “People in my time always touted Cuban tobacco, but I always felt it was too powerful. I preferred Jamaican shag, much as I preferred Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee.”
The baron's black eyes starred at Doc unblinkingly.
Doc blinked. The wine, the tobacco and the antiquity of the surroundings were flooding him with memories and feelings he could barely suppress. Despite Barat's civility, this was an interrogation. They were playing chess, and Doc realized he had made some very bad moves. Doc tried to maintain his poker face. He waved the cigar casually. “Tell me, Baron, from where did you procure it?”
The baron smiled to reveal his too-long teeth but his black eyes were hard. “Fogo.”
“Fogo Island?” Doc sat up straighter. “The Cape Verde Islands survived, then?”
“Some of them.” The baron stared very long at Doc before answering. “The voyage is somewhat long and perilous, but we do occasional trade with them.”
Doc drew himself up in his chair. “Let me speak plainly, Baron. Clearly, I amâ”
The baron cut him off with an impatient wave of his hand. “Let us not bandy words, Doctor. Clearly you and your sec man are not the shipwrecked sailors you pretend.”
Doc finished his Madeira and sighed. “I fear you have discovered our ruse.”
“So then, you admit you came through the matter-transfer device on the escarpment.”
“Indeed I do.” He gestured at the decanter. “May I?”
The baron gestured at the cut crystal generously. “Please.”
Doc refilled his glass.
Barat's black eyes went predatory. “Clearly, you are no baron. You are a fascinating conversationalist, I will admit, but you do not carry the weight of authority nor command across your shoulders like your sec man does. Indeed I believe he is the true leader here. You are a historian of some kind, using your knowledge to fool your way from ville to ville, from jump to jump, hoping to get a meal and perhaps supplies before moving on.”
Doc sighed inwardly. He was living history rather than a historian, but the baron was close to the mark on their intentions. Ryan had told him to be a baron until told otherwise, but Doc knew all too well he was a terrible liar and Barat was seeing through him all too well. “I am a doctor of natural sciences and philosophy.”
“I am prepared to render you all services I am capable of in return for the safety of my friend,” Doc offered.
“I believe I am in a position to make you to do whatever I wish, regardless of the final disposition of your companion.”
“Hmm.” Things were going from bad to worse. Doc stalled for time. “I gather you realize the mat-trans device has been set to transfer only two people at a time and is set upon a timer. I have never encountered such a preset and have jumped many times. Would you be so kind as to tell me what the timing and the purpose of the cycle is?”
Baron Barat ignored the question. “I pray you, Dr. Tanner, tell me, how many more are there in your party?”
Doc ignored the question in turn and glanced around. “You have quite an impressive library, Baron. May I?”
“Please.” The baron gestured about the room. “Avail yourself. We have time.”
So, Doc thought, he feels no haste about the timer. Doc walked among the bookshelves with Nero as his hulking, somber shadow. Doc found many volumes he was familiar with as well as many predark books well after his time. Just looking at the books and tomes and touching them gave him great pleasure. The baron watched with benevolent malice, like a cat watching a mouse move around a closed room. Doc stalled. He wasn't particularly afraid of dying, indeed being slaughtered in a well-stocked library while drinking Madeira, smoking a cigar and having an educated conversation was a far better fate than anything the Deathlands was likely to offer him. Most important, Doc had seen Ryan Cawdor escape from worse dungeons than Jorge-Teo's well-buttressed but primitive establishment, and Doc was prepared to buy Ryan every second of the baron's attention he could, whatever the cost. Doc suddenly smiled and stopped by a volume for several long moments.
The baron raised a mocking eyebrow. “Something intrigues you, Doctor?”
Doc pulled forth an ancient copy of
The Time Machine
Barat smiled at the choice. “Ah, H. G. Wellsâ¦a true classic. I whiled away many happy hours in my youth reading his works.”
Doc absently ran his finger down the spine of the book. Despite its advanced age it had been lovingly preserved, far more lovingly than he had. He sighed in memory. “Yes, Herbert was an interesting man. I met him when he was studying biology at the Royal College of Science under T. H. Huxley.”
Baron Barat stared. “Youâ¦met him?”