Authors: James Axler
Tags: #Speculative Fiction Suspense
The future rose from the ashes of nuke-scorched America with a vengeance. The unchecked wrath of Deathlands pits Ryan Cawdor and his companions against long odds. But their skill as survivors, strategists and warriors is unmatched and they’ve held on to something more precious than life: their humanity. They nurture the hope that somewhere, hidden amidst the grotesquerie of a tortured land, safety and sanctuary awaits.
Bartering their expertise to a nautical band of brilliant technomads, Ryan’s group finds trouble waiting in the steaming, fetid swamplands of the Louisiana Gulf. Merciless storms and pirates strand them in Haven. But the barony’s inviting name masks a ville hijacked by fear, territorial conflict and monstrous horror. With the gravely injured Krysty Wroth’s fate uncertain, a desperate Ryan aids the strange but hospitable Baron Blackwell in his effort to save Haven from a genetic blood curse. He’ll succeed, provided his luck—and his options—don’t run out first.
A hippo-size foot caught Ryan in the side
The kick seemed to be almost in slow motion, yet was monstrously powerful. It threw him out of the water and onto his back on the wet grass.
He heard screams, shots. Shaking his head to clear his eye of water, he saw an unbelievable sight: a man as tall as himself, with a trim waist, powerful chest, bare from the waist up, his skin and long flying hair as albino-white as Jak Lauren’s, swinging a pair of swords at a group of swampies while other men surged out of the wind-whipped brush, holding spears, cutlasses and longblasters.
Then a pale fist the size of Ryan’s head slammed into his solar plexus, doubling him like a dying caterpillar. The air erupted out of him, and he passed out.
Other titles in the Deathlands saga:
Plague Lords: (Empire of Xibalba Book I)
Dark Resurrection: (Empire of Xibalba Book II)
Baptism of Rage
Demons of Eden
The Mars Arena
Way of the Wolf
Crucible of Time
Encounter: Collector’s Edition
Damnation Road Show
Oh, Creator! Can monsters exist in the sight of him who alone knows how they were invented, how they invented themselves, and how they might not have invented themselves?
—Charles Baudelaire 1821–1867
THE DEATHLANDS SAGA
This world is their legacy, a world born in the violent nuclear spasm of 2001 that was the bitter outcome of a struggle for global dominance.
There is no real escape from this shockscape where life always hangs in the balance, vulnerable to newly demonic nature, barbarism, lawlessness.
But they are the warrior survivalists, and they endure—in the way of the lion, the hawk and the tiger, true to nature’s heart despite its ruination.
Ryan Cawdor: The privileged son of an East Coast baron. Acquainted with betrayal from a tender age, he is a master of the hard realities.
Krysty Wroth: Harmony ville’s own Titian-haired beauty, a woman with the strength of tempered steel. Her premonitions and Gaia powers have been fostered by her Mother Sonja.
J. B. Dix, the Armorer: Weapons master and Ryan’s close ally, he, too, honed his skills traversing the Deathlands with the legendary Trader.
Doctor Theophilus Tanner: Torn from his family and a gentler life in 1896, Doc has been thrown into a future he couldn’t have imagined.
Dr. Mildred Wyeth: Her father was killed by the Ku Klux Klan, but her fate is not much lighter. Restored from predark cryogenic suspension, she brings twentieth-century healing skills to a nightmare.
Jak Lauren: A true child of the wastelands, reared on adversity, loss and danger, the albino teenager is a fierce fighter and loyal friend.
Dean Cawdor: Ryan’s young son by Sharona accepts the only world he knows, and yet he is the seedling bearing the promise of tomorrow.
In a world where all was lost, they are humanity’s last hope....
With a loud splash, something huge flew out of the black bayou water and smashed to pieces the water-strider boat pedal-driven by the gangly young Tech-nomad called Scooter. The motion of the dark form breaking the surface had caught Krysty Wroth’s eye as she stood in the stinging sun by the rail of the yacht
talking with Mildred Wyeth. Now she stared horrorstruck as the enormous shape slid back below the surface as if being absorbed into the thick water. Her long red hair stirred around her shoulders, although there wasn’t a breath of wind on the bayou.
A cry of fury and despair came from
the lead ship of the Tech-nomad convoy. Krysty looked that way to see a woman built not that much differently than she was, buxom and broad-shouldered, standing in the prow shouting for someone to do something. She had a brush of russet hair, and was dressed in a dark green tank top and baggy camou cargo pants with lots of pockets, clothing the Tech-nomads seemed to like.
“That’s Jenn,” Mildred said. “The poor bastard’s woman.”
The group’s healer, Mildred was shorter than Krysty and stockier. A fairly light-skinned black woman, she, like Krysty, wore a long-sleeved shirt. And like the ivory-skinned Krysty, she had a tendency to burn in the harsh Gulf of Mexico sunlight. Her hair, braided into beaded plaits, was covered by a floppy canvas hat.
“They’re all around us!” a voice shouted. Krysty looked around to see mounds resembling living hills of water rolling on all sides of the little fleet. The other water-striders were fleeing as fast as their pilots’ legs could drive them. Their function was to scout out danger.
Krysty saw Ryan, the companions’ nominal leader, up on the
’s bow beside Jenn, forward of the first of its three weird cylindrical rotor sails. The tall and rangy man, his long black hair tossed by the stiff breeze, shouldered his Steyr sniper rifle, bringing the eyepiece of its telescopic sight to his single piercing blue eye. Despite the danger of the vast dark plunging forms surrounding him, Krysty’s heart thrilled to the sight of him. To her he epitomized everything good about a man in a desolate world.
Beside Ryan the slim form of Jak Lauren crouched on the rail, clutching a guyline in one hand. His big .357 Magnum Colt Python revolver glinted in the other. Krysty thought the albino team resembled an updated version of a typical pirate from one of the few picture books she’d read as a girl. Which was ironic, in that pirates were a major reason the normally pacific—and reclusive—Tech-nomads had hired the six companions onto the convoy. The companions and Tech-nomads had a history.
In general Ryan and his companions were aboard to provide protection against nautical dangers. Such as seaborne raiders—and whatever the gray shapes were, easily the size of land wags, humping the dark water all around and vanishing beneath.
“These people are pretty well-heeled for pacifists,” Mildred muttered, unslinging the weapon their employers had lent her to augment her favored ZKR 551 target revolver. It was an M-1 Garand semiautomatic military rifle that had been elderly when Mildred herself was born, decades before the skydark. Longblasters were also coming into view up on the white rotor-ship ahead of them. Jenn waved bare sun-browned arms, shouting at people not to shoot for fear of hitting Scooter.
To Krysty’s distress she could see no sign of the pilot of the stricken scout boat. Just a few long splinters of wreckage bobbing near a green bank of the broad pool the convoy was crossing, between stands of cypress hung with Spanish moss.
“Whatever these creatures are, they must weigh tons,” Krysty said.
“Not much hope for that poor man,” Mildred agreed. “Damn thing looked as if it came down right on top of him.”
Shots cracked from the
Jenn screamed. Ryan lowered his SSG to grab her upper arm and give her a good shake.
lurched below Krysty’s feet and she lost her balance. Mildred’s hand clamping on the woman’s arm saved her from slamming her ribs against the sailboat’s lovingly polished brass rail. She smiled and nodded her gratitude.
The ship’s captain strode up to them with long strides of her long slim legs. Her name was Isis. She had long silver hair caught in a topknot that hung far down her slim back. Her complexion was dark olive, her face narrow, high-cheekboned, with dark eyes set on a slant and showing distinct epicanthic folds. She was a tall woman, and was ignoring a little grubby hairy guy in shorts whose splayed bare feet were padding on the deck, taking two steps to her one to keep up.
“I told you, Ice,” he was saying. “I told you and told you. These things
power craft. It’s in their genes from predark.”
“It’s dead calm here, Jammer,” she said without urgency. “If we spend too much time sitting like logs in one place, the Black Gang’ll be all over us.”
Stopping by Krysty, she held out a long, dark object with one bare arm.
“Here,” she said. “That thump was one of these mutie monsters trying to stave in our hull. My sailing master’s right. They hate us. And they’re big enough to take us down if they get a good run.”
Despite her own substantial strength, Krysty almost dropped the object when she accepted it in both hands. It was a Browning Automatic Rifle; she knew it weighed upward of twenty pounds.
“Time to earn your keep,” Isis said. Her disreputable-looking companion, Jammer, dropped a canvas bag full of loaded 20-round magazines at her feet. The heavy BAR, actually a light machine gun—
being a relative term—shot the same ammo as Mildred’s Garand, .30-06. It was potent enough that both women, neither of whom was shy about firearms or afraid of a little recoil, were glad their longblasters were both on the hefty side. Especially since they didn’t have to carry the things.
That was the sweetest part of this gig: they didn’t have to hump it at all. They had ridden a hundred miles of Gulf Coast with no more effort than it took to get along with their employers. They admittedly could be a prickly bunch, although as Mildred said they preferred to avoid conflict rather than to seek it out.
And now conflict had sought them out.
those things?” Mildred called after the captain as she moved on, snapping orders to her crew in a voice that cracked like a whip without being raised.
“Big and pissed,” Isis said without turning her head. “Shoot them.”
With a loud, meaty thump the
heeled hard to starboard, throwing Krysty and Mildred against the port rail. Krysty set her butt on the low rounded housing of a gangway that led below and swung her legs across. Her companion putted around abaft the housing, clutching her beefy rifle and muttering.
The corrugated rubber soles of the red-haired beauty’s boots thumped the deck. The far rail was still angled up against the sky. Peering over, she saw a vast gray shape rolling in the thick, murky water alongside the
’s sleek hull.
“Crap!” Mildred exclaimed, joining Krysty and peering over. The gray mound disappeared, then came back with another shuddering impact, trying to capsize the seventy-foot yacht and making a good go of it. “Whatever those things are, you shoot them and they find out, there’s gonna be trouble!”
“One way to find out,” Krysty said grimly. She shouldered her heavy weapon, hung it over the rail with the muzzle not three feet from the heaving gray back, and fired.
She took no pleasure in harming any of Gaia’s creatures, but Krysty was no more a vegetarian than she was a pacifist. She respected, indeed in effect worshipped, the natural cycle of life. It had amused her once, when Mildred told her an activist of her own childhood years had recorded a song called, “I Don’t Eat Animals and They Don’t Eat Me.”
“They did, though, when her time came,” Krysty had observed.
Mildred had just stared at her, then broke up laughing.
The Browning roared. Its steel-shod butt jackhammered Krysty’s shoulder even though she was snugging it in firmly, the way the shooter of a longblaster should. A yellow-and-blue flame jetted from the black barrel and almost licked the gray wet hide. An arc of shiny brass casings spurted away to one side, twinkling in the sun, looking incongruously like droplets from a seaman pissing over the rail.
Holes appeared in what had to be immensely thick hide, and black blood spurted. Chunks of blubber and hide were blasted away.
Though its head was under water, the creature uttered a roar of pain and outrage. It bubbled up around the great shape as it vanished hurriedly and with amazing smoothness into the black water. Its vehemence rocked the boat.
“Did you kill it?” Mildred asked, peering doubtfully at the roil of water. Then she ducked back as a big fleshy fluke sent a parting shot of water geysering up at the women. Mildred jumped back with a yell.
Krysty just turned to shield her blaster from the bulk of the water. The slog of swamp water against the back of her head and shoulders was neither cool nor refreshing. It would take forever to dry in air that seemed scarcely less wet than the bayou itself, and would stink while it was doing it. But that, too, was part of Nature.
“Doubt it,” she said.
and the Tech-nomad squadron under the guidance of a long drink of water called Long Tom had happened to fetch up in a little trading post called Port Landrieu at the same time. The companions were looking for work. The Tech-nomads had it: delivering a load of meds and medical equipment to a healer in the ville of Haven to the east, far enough up an estuary to have at least a little protection from the savage storms that rolled in from the Lantic.
For two days the three-boat convoy hugged the coast, slipping inland when the ever-shifting interconnections of the confusing skein of bayous and ponds made it possible to move laterally that way. Ryan and his friends were dubious about the densely grown swamp country. Jak had grown up in it and knew it well enough to know just how unwelcoming it was—although he had also, as a mere boy, proved to be among its most dangerous predators. Their employers, though, assured them that as bad as the bayous were, the open Gulf was worse.
The friends had enough experience of the Gulf and its special terrors not to doubt that.
But the trip had proved uneventful, even though the Tech-nomads were vocally uneasy about the depredations of a particularly potent and nasty band of pirates calling themselves the Black Gang. Sight of a number of unfamiliar sails just on the horizon to the southeast had sent the convoy ducking up a stream late the evening before.
The companions had breathed a collective sigh of relief when the three ships, accompanied by a cloud of half a dozen surprisingly fast little pedal-powered scout boats, had embarked onto what looked like a small, placid, green-scummed lake. Some of the bayous they’d negotiated that very morning were narrow enough for a coldheart to step right aboard from the bank. Or even for some poisonous snake, a water moc or a copperhead, to drop from a dangling tree limb right onto the deck. Or onto an unsuspecting crew person’s head.
Then the big angry whatever had smashed Scooter and his water-striding scout boat to splinters.
Mildred whipped up her heavy Garand and fired. She was a stocky woman, and after years tramping the Deathlands with her newfound friends not much of it was fat. The rifle roared, and Mildred yelped and dropped it. Only the fact she had the sling wrapped around her arm kept it from dropping into the tea-colored water.
Twenty yards from the
a big, bulky, smoothed-off shape plunged back under water as fast as it had appeared, leaving a loud snort and a plume of vented air hanging above where it had been. Just before it vanished, Krysty caught a glimpse of a blunt muzzle and a glaring red-rimmed eye. Mildred was grimacing and holding her wrist with her left hand.
Quickly slinging her own massive weapon, Krysty grabbed the longblaster, eased the strap free of the wounded woman and lowered it to the deck.
“What happened?” she asked, disengaging Mildred’s wounded right hand. The doctor seemed disinclined to let go. Without even thinking about it, Krysty pulled the hand free.
“You’ve skinned your thumb pretty badly,” she said.
“Sprained it, too,” Mildred grumbled. “Now I know what the phrase ‘M-1 thumb’ means.”
Krysty shook her head. “The Tech-nomads warned you. The bolt slams right back on you.”
“Tell me about it. I’m not used to a rifle anyway. And it doesn’t feel natural to keep my thumb on the same side as the fingers, instead of grasping the rifle like I would a pistol grip.”
“We need to get this cleaned up and bound.”
“Screw that! Screw the damn rifle, too.” With her left hand she reached around and grabbed the blocky black revolver from the holster on her right hip. “This may not do much when I hit, but at least I
hit something with it!”
“And shoot one-handed,” Krysty said. She unslung her BAR and started looked around for targets.