Authors: James Axler
“So tell me where exactly.”
“Nope,” Earnie said. “Then I wouldn’t be no more use to you, now, would I? What do you got to say to that, Mr. Triple-Smart Mercie? But somebody else who knows the secret—that’d be Big Erl. We were partnered-up about it, but sadly matters took a turn southward between us.
“So now, all that’s standing in the way of you and me joining up and getting rich as barons ourselves is Erl his own blubber-ass self! So let’s just say we negotiate a deal, you and me? You chill Erl and I’ll let you in on half!”
“Done,” Snake Eye said. And he brought up the blaster and shot Earnie right out from behind his own triumphant grin.
He stood a moment, the handblaster held down by his side, shaking his head at his slumped victim.
“The poor fools,” he said, “always say too much and hear what they want to hear. And now I’ll take it all, thank you kindly.”
He slid the piece back in its tooled-leather holster.
“See, old man,” he said, “it’s as I told you. I
keep a contract.”
“Well,” Mildred Wyeth said, staring into the low, pallid blue and yellow flames of their campfire, “this sucks.”
They had pitched camp in a low patch of the rolling countryside that, according to the sighting J. B. Dix had taken on his minisextant before the sun went down, had to be part of what in her day they called southeastern Iowa. They liked low ground because it kept them from being silhouetted to prying eyes. Even sometimes allowed them to build a small fire without much concern the light would betray them.
The fuel didn’t produce much light nor heat. Nor did the dried cow flop impart a flavor Mildred found pleasing to the brace of prairie dogs Jak Lauren had roasted over the fire while his new best friend Ricky Morales kept watch.
Her companions scarfed them down, of course, as if they were slices of predark chocolate cake slathered with thick icing. Mildred had to admit that she had eaten worse, so she helped herself to the stringy, shit-smoked rat meat.
“Why, my dear Dr. Wyeth,” Doc said, “we have found ourselves in much more pressing straits, as surely you recall.”
Doc Tanner had an excuse for talking like a professor out of the history books: he
He was even older than she was, chronologically, although in years actually lived through, awake and aware, not so much, though she looked to be in her late thirties and he seemed to be crowding seventy. She had been put into experimental cryogenic sleep when something went wrong during exploratory abdominal surgery—right before the U.S. and the Soviet Union had at last gone to war. Doc had been trolled from his happy family in the 1890s by a cadre of scientists from Mildred’s own day, and cynically dumped into the future when he proved to be a difficult subject.
“More urgent, yeah,” she said. “But it’s the irony that’s pissing me off.”
“What irony’s that, Mildred?” Krysty Wroth asked. The redhead had her long, strong, shapely legs bent beneath her in what Mildred could clearly see was far too graceful to go by the name of a squat. Her green eyes took in the dingy light of the flames and cast them back as glints of emerald radiance. Her long red hair stirred about her shoulders in a way that bore no relationship to the restlessness of the spring night air.
The night was cool to the crisp edge of chilly. The breeze that stirred the low dim flames like a ladle stirring flavorless gruel would bite deep and hard if it came any fresher. The night insects hadn’t found their voices yet. Some cows lowed off in the distance.
“This broken world can hardly muster a ville bigger than a hundred people,” she said, “much less a good, solid war. And here we’ve gone and landed ourselves right smack-dab in the middle of the real deal.”
“Shit happens,” Ryan Cawdor said.
The tall, rangy man stood with his back to the fire, the breeze flapping his shaggy black hair, and his coattails around his calves. His lone eye, she knew, was gazing off across the rolling countryside. He wasn’t comfortable with their setting and circumstances, either. Not that anyplace in the here and now could be called reassuring for a man or woman born into the times, any more than relative newcomers like Mildred and Doc.
She did reflect, bitterly, on how it was just her luck that one of the lamer catchphrases from her own day would survive the intervening century.
“Sometimes it happens to us.”
They had jumped into a redoubt that afternoon from Puerto Rico, courtesy of the mysterious mat-trans network. They and only a few others knew of the device’s existence. Mildred had long since decided not to cling to those memories. They were nothing she cared to cherish. And there were so many of them...
The redoubt had been thoroughly gutted. Like some, it didn’t seem to have successfully weathered the storm that had blown away the world Mildred had known. What had left it with its door jammed open she couldn’t guess; the only nuke hot spot she knew of in the vicinity was near what had been Des Moines, miles in the northwest. There didn’t seem to have been a lot of other nukes going off in the immediate vicinity. The colossal earthquakes that accompanied the missiles’ fall might have done the trick.
Some animals had ventured inside. Small skeletons lay among scattered debris that had long since itself decayed to a sort of compost in the echoing, sterile concrete corridors. Soil and rock slipping from the hillside beneath which the redoubt was buried had covered the entrance long ago. They’d had a hard job working with knives and a folding Swiss-made entrenching tool J.B. carried strapped to his pack before digging their way out into what remained of the day’s light.
They’d been rewarded by the sounds of shots and shouts and screams coming their way, fast.
By running flat-out they’d made it to the shelter of a stand of saplings by a small stream that meandered through a valley amid low round hills. Fortunately the spring bloom had leafed out the brush that was clumped around and between the skinny trees enough to offer concealment for the companions.
The two men who were carrying on a running fight on horseback raced over a nearby ridge. From the thick green-gray smoke cloud that traveled along with the skirmish, the companions could tell they were firing black-powder blasters, something prevalent in parts of the Deathlands where stocks of predark ammunition were starting to run dry. About twenty other riders seemed to be trying to kill one another, as well.
The fighters had managed to do little apparent damage to one another before their running fight headed up the far slope of the little valley and away out of sight. Still they left a couple of men lying on the ground behind them. One lay stone-still. The other moved and moaned.
The key thing was, one was dressed all in green, and the other all in blue, as were some of the riders who’d made it past, if not intact, then fit enough to stay in the saddles of their sweat-lathered mounts. The rest, Mildred had seen as they splashed through the stream not forty yards away, all wore cloths of either blue or green tied around their upper arms.
When the last horse’s tail vanished over the green grassy rise, Ryan led his companions from their cover. They sprinted along the stream, at right angles, more or less, to the skirmishers’ axis of travel. It was neither the way the combatants had come from, nor where they were going.
None had spared so much as a thought to giving some kind of help to the wounded man. To her shame, even Mildred—a physician born in the twentieth century gave it no more than a flicker of a thought before joining the others in a run. Now was not the time; giving aid might jeopardize her friends.
She’d get used to it all. Someday. She hoped.
* * *
sinking into blood and fire to the west when Ryan selected the campsite. They were as far away from where they’d encountered the cavalry battle as they could take themselves before they had to stop for the night. Whether it was far enough—only time and fate would tell.
Somewhere out in the night a fox barked to his mate. Mildred stiffened; it wasn’t a call Jak used with them—they favored bird calls for those undecipherable warnings and signals—but it didn’t mean some other party might not. And even if they weren’t in a war zone, “outlander” these days was just another word for
But the others showed no sign of tension. So Mildred, with a sigh, let go of her own. Sometimes a fox was just a fox, she reassured herself. They’d probably be nursing cubs in their den now, she knew.
“How the hell can they even field a whole army, anyway?” she asked when conversation turned to the battle. “Much less two?”
“This is rich country,” Krysty said. “Lush and vibrant.”
“But most villes we’ve visited, even the better-off ones, can barely muster enough sec men for one of those patrols we avoided today,” Mildred said. “And something tells me that little set-to was just a sideshow to the main attraction.”
“The uniforms,” Doc said, “and their arms suggest both are part of far larger organizations.”
“Don’t get stuck thinking in terms of just one ville, either, Mildred,” J.B. said. He took off his wire-rimmed specs and polished them with a clean rag from his shirt pocket. “Could be there’s an alliance. Couple alliances, one against the other, by what we saw today.”
Ryan nodded. He had hunkered down now to gaze moodily into the dying fire.
“We had allies back in Front Royal,” he said. “Not so many as enemies, of course. But yeah, it happens.”
“We saw some pretty fair alliances in our travels with the Trader, didn’t we, Ryan?” J.B. said, putting his glasses back on. “One or two pretty brisk wars between them, too.”
He chuckled. “And being the sorts of natural trouble magnets we all were,” he said, “didn’t we go and get mixed up in a few of them ourselves?”
“Those were the days,” Ryan agreed with a grin.
“So why don’t we see alliances springing up among the real hardscrabble villes, places where it’s more than a full-time job scraping together the food and water to get by every day?” Mildred asked. “You’d think it’d be more natural for
to band together. Pool their resources, you know?”
“Barons like to keep a fist closed tightly on what they think of as theirs,” Krysty said. “The less they have, the harder they want to clutch, it seems like.”
“Everyone feels that way, always,” Doc said. “The idea that poverty ennobles is a foolish conceit, but a very ancient one, possibly as ancient as civilization itself. Want makes all of us hoard whatever small scraps we may have. Only in times of relative plenty—even if it is still a most mean existence—are we free to think in terms of cooperation and sharing. Barons are people, too, after all.”
“For a certain definition of ‘people,’” Mildred said.
“It’s not as if we haven’t seen starving mothers offering their babies for food,” Krysty said.
A sort of infinite sadness weighted her words. For all that she seemed actively callous to Mildred’s refined twentieth-century feelings sometimes, she in fact had the most
nature of anyone Mildred had ever known; only nurses from back in her day came close. It was just that the standard of compassion a person could afford, and still keep their own body and soul together, had changed as harshly as the world.
“So the very lushness of this country may conduce to baronial cooperation,” Doc said.
“Got a point there, Doc,” J.B. said. “But there’s something more. Land this rich offers rich pickings. Like a newly dead buffalo cow draws wolves and coyotes and wild dogs, and rumor of a fresh redoubt being found draws scavengers of the two-legged kind. It’d bring the hungry and the hard.”
“I wonder what they’re fighting about?” Ricky Morales asked. Jak had replaced him on sentry duty after wolfing his own portion of roast prairie dog.
“What do people ever fight for, boy?” Doc asked. “Plunder, territory, power. And always, vanity.
Vanitas, vanitas, omnia vanitas
Hunkered down at Mildred’s side like a lean brown fox, J.B. chuckled. “Where barons are concerned, I reckon it’s usually that last thing,” he said. “That and plain cussedness. And, see, once you get barons starting to join up against outlanders, well, what’s more natural than they start looking to join up to grab what the other has?”
Ryan slapped palms on his thighs.
“Well,” he said, “good to get some idea what we’re up against. But going farther without more solid information—such as where the main armies are, and where they’re likely to be headed—won’t load any magazines for us.”
“What do we do now, lover?” Krysty asked.
“Right now,” Ryan said, “I’m going to sleep.”
From his tone he meant just that. Mildred could sympathize. After their run, and the jump that preceded it, a good night’s rest was all she could handle right now herself.
“I mean, after?” Krysty asked.
“We need to get out of here!” Ricky said.
Then his dark eyes got big, as he wondered if he’d screwed up by talking out of turn among the grown-ups. He was a kid, about sixteen years old, whom they’d picked up during an inadvertent jaunt to his monster-ridden home island of Puerto Rico. Unsurprisingly, he was considerably darker than Jak, and somewhat taller, which wasn’t hard for anyone to accomplish, since Jak Lauren was a slight albino with shoulder-length white hair and ruby eyes. Initially thrown together with the band by fate, Ricky had quickly made himself one of them, saving their lives individually and collectively at several turns before they managed to get to a gateway off Monster Island. He still pined for his adored older sister, Yamile, who’d been kidnapped by coldhearts and sold to mainland slavers, and still harbored hopes he’d cross her trail again someday.
He’d fit in quickly and relatively smoothly, or he wouldn’t be with the companions now. A natural tinker by nature, weaponsmith by training and cunning trap-maker by inclination, he had almost instantly become doted on by J.B., whom he idolized—almost as much as he obviously did Ryan Cawdor.
Jak had been prickly toward the newcomer at first, the adolescent-male hormones kicking him into reflex rivalry with another male a few years younger. But Ricky had proved his value to the exacting standards of Jak as well, and the natural affinity of a couple of youths roughly the same age amid a gaggle of grown-ups overcame testosterone poisoning.
But in the small, relatively well-to-do and proper ville where Ricky came from, children were taught to be seen and not heard.
So the thing about this group that made them so strong—made them family, so far as Mildred was concerned, and she knew she was not the only one—was that once you were accepted, your contributions were valued for what they were actually worth, not on any other basis. Each member brought a necessary part to the functioning—surviving—whole. If Ricky, or Jak, or any of them said something foolish, then they could expect the others to slap them down a notch.
But the black-haired youth said only what Mildred suspected all the rest were thinking. She sure was.
“We may be best served scouting tomorrow,” Doc said, “in order to locate the main armies.”