Authors: James Axler
The pain was like nothing Ricky had ever experienced. It was like nothing he ever imagined. He had always been afraid of being burned alive, and tried to imagine how awful that would feel.
Now he couldn’t imagine it could be worse than this.
The sensation was on the whole probably not that different than being on fire, but he felt the special strange throb of a poison sting. Plus the awful knowledge that he had foreign toxins running through his blood.
For a moment all he could do was jump around and yell. There was just no controlling the reaction. That it happened to one of the most sensitive spots on his entire body—one very special and dear to him, as an adolescent boy—didn’t help.
The flash of a longblaster going off right at him, the bang of the shot and the crack of the ball going past his ear faster than sound snapped his self-control back in place in a hell of a hurry.
Two riders were bearing down on him, one winging out to his left, one to his right. Rather than doing the smart thing—dismounting and taking a shot from a steady platform—they had chosen to blaze away at the gallop.
The man to Ricky’s right had fired a carbine that looked like some kind of Civil War replica—his uncle had taught him history along with weaponsmithing; the two just went hand in hand, he explained. The rider approaching from the left fired a lever-action longblaster, one-handed. The shot went so high the blast noise didn’t hit Ricky nearly as bad as the first shot’s had.
Unable to manage recocking their weapons singlehanded, both riders stuck them back in saddle scabbards by their legs. The man on Ricky’s left drew some kind of steel-head hatchet or tomahawk. The one to the right produced a full-cavalry saber. Whooping like sailors on a three-day bender, they spurred right at the boy.
His wits back, and his blaster as well, Ricky had a cold choice to make. He could shoot one. The other—well, if he missed his cut, his scary-huge horse would simply smash the life out of him with those pounding iron-shod hooves.
The man with the swinging sword scared Ricky more. He got a flash sight picture on the rider’s center of mass, between the rows of shiny brass buttons, and squeezed the trigger.
As he did, the man’s black horse took a little bit of a bound to clear some irregularity in the rapidly diminishing stretch of ground between it and Ricky. The bullet smacked into the man’s lower left side. He reeled. The saber fell from his hand, and the horse veered aside.
His partner loomed over Ricky, blotting the sun with a monstrous shadow. The tomahawk swung high. Seeing the flash of grinning teeth in the shadowed face, Ricky threw his blaster upward in what he knew was a futile attempt to ward off the deathblow.
The man stiffened. A black plume burst from his shadowed chest, turning red when it hit the sunlight. It splashed hot across Ricky’s face.
This horse shied away too as the distinctive sound of Ryan’s Tactical longblaster reached the ears of the boy whose life he’d just saved.
* * *
her Smith & Wesson 640 on the trio of drivers her friends had captured alive. One had gotten away. Another had pulled out a single-shot flintlock handblaster and tried to shoot Doc. A bullet from Ryan’s rifle had ended that plan.
At least one of the outriders had escaped wounded but alive. Possibly he’d stay that way, if Ricky’s shot hadn’t pierced his stomach wall—or if his higher-ups had antibiotics they were willing to share with a common trooper, and one who, moreover, had failed to safeguard their precious wag train.
Krysty hadn’t taken part in the ambush. She’d been tending and guarding their horses, as well as the mules they’d led to carry away any particularly valuable, and portable, scabbie from the convoy. She was the logical choice. Though she was a good shot, her snub-barreled handblaster was the least useful of all in a full-on firefight.
Of course, she was used to pitching in and fighting side by side with the others, bravely, skillfully and to excellent effect. She would have been more outraged than anyone at the very idea that Ryan was trying to shield her from danger.
Not that he would dare dream up any such a stupe notion. Their was little on the ravaged Earth, burrowing beneath its soil, or flying in the sky above it, that Ryan Cawdor feared. But he would like to avoid the righteous wrath of his flame-haired life mate.
Anyway, it hadn’t been such a big risk—this time. It had gone incredibly smoothly for such things. She knew well they’d gotten lucky in that, and their targets were arrogant and thus sloppy. They wouldn’t get such an easy crack at their foes again.
The only thing resembling a real wound any of them had gotten had been incurred by their newest member, Ricky Morales. And as painful as that was, she suspected the most lasting blow he’d taken was to his pride.
He stood to one side now, his trousers pooled around his shins. Mildred squatted before him, scowling professionally at him. His face, which he kept carefully averted from the rest of the party, was as bright red as she guessed his wounded penis had to be.
“No permanent damage,” Mildred said. “You aren’t allergic to fire-ant bites. Or you’d be dead by now. Other than washing your penis, and giving you some aspirin for the pain and inflammation, there’s not a lot to be done for you.”
“Wondered why the boy jumped up and started yowling like a panther with its tail stepped on like that,” Ryan said. “Got to say I kind of understand it now.”
“Too bad the villain young Ricky shot managed to get away,” Doc said. He had stuffed his LeMat back in the shoulder rig he wore under his coat, and was now brandishing the slim sword he’d drawn from his ebony swordstick, for no particular reason Krysty could discern. Since he wasn’t brandishing it at them—Theophilus Tanner was a peaceful soul by nature; that was part of his problem—even the captives ignored him.
“Don’t hurt us,” the wounded driver was saying, over and over. He was cradling his arms against his chest. That was mostly where he’d been cut by Jak’s big knife in their brief scuffle before he’d given up trying to grab a weapon and surrendered.
Krysty was rather surprised Jak had let him live. While few of the group had any compunction about finishing off anybody who might later come back and threaten them again, even Krysty, or Mildred with her antique predark qualms, the wag drivers were unlikely to pose the least danger to her and her friends. In the unlikely event they ever crossed paths again.
“I know something,” he said. “I got a secret. Don’t chill us, and I’ll tell you.”
Since no one was actually threatening them—Krysty was more holding the handblasters and looking purposefully at them than covering them, herself—she wondered if he might be going a little shocky from pain and blood loss. Mildred had promised to patch him up after she’d tended to Ricky.
The other drivers looked at him in disgust. “That crazy yarn again, Norvell,” said the older one, a stumpy brown-haired guy of about thirty. “Give it up.”
“It’s true, I tell ya,” Norvell said. “There’s a place buried not far from here. Some kinda secret. All filled with cement metal walls and old-days stuff!”
“Where might that be, friend?” asked Doc, looking at him with sudden interest.
He wasn’t the only one whose ears had perked up. Ryan had mentioned thinking there was a redoubt in the vicinity. If it had a working mat-trans, it might enable them to leave the Des Moines River Valley and its bizarre war far behind.
“Nowhere,” said the other driver. This one was a young woman with greasy black hair sticking out from under a black hat. “Just in his addled head.”
“I tell you it’s true!” he insisted. “My Aunt Goosy saw it when she was just a kid. She found it poking around, back when the Uplanders still paid tribute to the Association. She even brought out a souvenir, a wondrous thing, she said, gleaming black plastic with colored lights that still came on and everything!”
“And where might that have gotten to, Norvell?” Krysty asked in her most soothing voice.
Norvell shook his head sadly. “Away. She was on her way back to the farm when some coldheart took a potshot at her. Hit her in the head. Din’t kill her, but knocked her stone out for a night and a day. When she come to, her fabulous thingamajig was gone. Her clothes, too—the story gets pretty fuzzy, at that point.”
“So I take it your Aunt Goosy never recollected exactly where she found this underground treasure house,” Ryan said.
He stood on the buckboard of the third in line while Jak rummaged around inside. The oxen had been unharnessed and driven off with swats to their broad rumps. They had gone about thirty yards and begun to crop the grass in a small, contented herd.
Norvell shook his head. “Her wits was always somewhat scrambled after the event,” he admitted. “But it was somewheres north, that I know. Out right around where the Uplander Army is right now, I reckon. Say, could somebody give me hand, patch me up here? Or mebbe at least let me make a bandage to cut down the bleeding? Getting a little light in the head here.”
“You was always light in the head, Norvell,” one of his comrades said. “Your crazy Aunt Goosy, too.”
“Pull your pants up, young man,” Mildred said to Ricky, as she stood. “You’re as patched as modern medicine can make you. And by modern I naturally mean over a century after the end of actual civilization.”
She turned to Norvell. “Okay, buddy, your turn. And stop whining. I’ve been cut like that, and I’ve been bitten by fire ants, too. Given where this poor kid got his, it hurts way worse. And I am not in the mood.”
Obeying Mildred’s command, Ricky turned and buttoned his fly. His smooth, young olive-skinned face creased into worried lines as he looked at the captive drivers.
“We gonna chill them?” he asked.
Norvell, already wilting under Mildred’s professional scrutiny, emitted a whimper. The others just looked bored. Or resigned. They were used to having their fates decided by others, Krysty knew. Armed others, who thereby held the power of life and death over the common folk.
“Dark night!” J.B. said. “Why in the name of glowing night shit would we go and do a thing like that, boy?”
Ricky looked even more miserable. He idolized J.B.
“They, uh, they can identify us!”
Ryan laughed. “What’s wrong with that, kid? I want that treacherous bastard Jed to know who stung his dick the way that ant did you.”
Ricky turned beet-red. Nonetheless Krysty saw his worry smooth into relief.
“I’m not usually willing to cross the road for vengeance,” Ryan said, “for less than bloodshed. Bad business and it doesn’t load me any blasters. But after what Jed did to us, I’m pleased to take such vengeance as opportunity offers.”
“Anything of interest in that wag, Jak?” J.B. called out. He had replaced his shotgun with his Uzi machine pistol and was standing on top of the odd humped hummock he’d hidden behind prior to the ambush. The highest spot in the immediate vicinity, it gave the best lookout against approaching strangers. Such as a Protector cavalry patrol.
Jak came out holding his arms up to the sides. One fist held a yellow dress. The other held something black and lacy.
“More lady things,” he called out. “Don’t understand. Why bother?” His expression was about the same as if he were toting week-dead prairie-dog carcasses.
Ryan shook his head. “We did get some good stuff,” he said. “Some meds. Some black powder and caps, which will make a nice boom when we burn what we can’t carry off. But mostly it seems like booze and this stuff. Why would they bother shipping all that to an army camp.”
Krysty and Mildred exchanged looks. Then they both burst out laughing.
“They have women at the Protector camp,” Doc said. “As well as at that of our new employers.”
“Don’t know why they wouldn’t send that stuff by boat, anyhow,” J.B. added.
“Boat’s slow,” Norvell said. “Upstream and all. Got to pole, or get pulled by ox teams, same as the wag.”
“Everybody likes booze,” Ryan said. “But the dresses and dreck?”
“Clearly,” Krysty said, “you men have a lot to learn about women yet.”
The strains of sweet music filtered out through the open windows of the big house where Al had shifted his headquarters as Doc and friends approached. Doc’s heart filled with bittersweet emotion. Ah, he thought. Yes.
Eine kleine Nachtmusik.
It was in almost a dreamlike state that he followed their cavalry-officer escort, Ryan, and his friends inside the baron’s big house. After the outdoor morning, cloudy though it was, the house was dim. Doc blinked several times before his eyes adjusted fully.
Baron Al sat in the parlor with his bearded face propped on a fist and a scowl beetling his brows. Flanking him stood a man Doc recognized as Colonel Turnbull and a strikingly beautiful blonde woman in a low-cut green silk gown. Various lesser officers stood by chatting. By the wall to Doc’s left, the string ensemble played. Incredibly, the instruments were in good condition. More incredible was the fact that people could read music.
The young officer who had escorted them approached the Uplander commander to announce his mercie raiding party had returned. Though the beautiful blonde looked a combination of bored and pained, the baron sat up and visibly brightened.
It came to Doc that, in his admittedly most limited experience of their new employer, he had never seen the baron simply sitting. He had always been doing something.
He called for Ryan and his friends to step up. At Al’s request Ryan gave a concise account of their doings and the outcome, in that admirably professional way of his, with amplifications provided by the Armorer or the others as needed. For his part Doc was called on to contribute little, and he found his eye straying often to the blonde who stood at Al’s elbow looking progressively more mutinous.
It was only natural. In terms of years actually lived through, experienced, Theophilus Tanner was a man in his mid to late thirties—even he had lost track by now. And chronologically he should have been dust long before skydark ever occurred, now a century and more past. His experiences after being time-trawled from his home and the bosom of his family had prematurely aged him in many ways, but hadn’t taken a toll on his fine intellect, honed as it had been at Harvard and Oxford.
But he still had a fairly young man’s eye for feminine pulchritude. Or maybe that was something that never really went away.
Certainly the woman, whom he took for Baron Al’s current wife, Jessie Rae, was highly magnetic to the masculine eye. Her sunshine-yellow hair was piled on her head in intricate and expensive curls. Her face was perfection suited to a statue, with a slightly snubbed nose and blue eyes, even if the alabaster smoothness of her brow was somewhat spoiled by a little frown, and her red lips pressed into a pout.
But somehow, as admirable as her outline and the details within were, she seemed to keep blurring into features less showily gorgeous and yet infinitely more beautiful and dear, beneath a prim bun of brown hair. But, ah, when Emily let down her long, lustrous hair, behind properly closed doors, that primness was set aside so thoroughly as to take a man’s breath away.... “So you let the drivers go?” the woman said in a petulant tone. “Just like that?”
“What would you’ve had them do, Jessie Rae?” the baron asked, confirming Doc’s none-too-difficult guess as to her identity.
“Why, tortured them for information,” she said. “Or killed them. They’re the enemy, aren’t they?”
“They’re just drivers,” Ryan said. A man who knew him as well as Doc did could hear an edge of distaste to his voice. The lean and wolflike one-eyed man had been the recipient of sufficient feminine attention in his time to have gained a certain immunity to it. And he was well armored in the scarcely less extravagant but far less...brittle beauty of Krysty Wroth. “They don’t know much. Their bosses just tell them where to go and tell them to git. And it wasn’t as if they weren’t eager enough to talk as it was.”
“Then why didn’t you chill them?” she asked challengingly.
“Jessie Rae,” the baron said, and Doc thought to hear something he’d never have expected from this man: the slightest hint of hesitant quaver in his bluff, gruff voice. “It’s not like they’re soldiers. Or even volunteers, for that matter. They’re just workers. Ain’t like they got much choice in what they do.”
Her pretty features pinched in an unpretty moue of distaste and even hatred. “Then shouldn’t they be destroyed to damage their baron, the way your men would burn their crops?”
“Lady,” Cody Turnbull said, “calm yourself. We all know your enmity toward our common foe is unmatched. But the general’s right. We maintain certain civilized standards of behavior, even if our enemies don’t. And for all their roughhewn appearance, clearly our new employees are men and women of principle.”
Doc thought he heard Jak half suppress a snigger at that. He was certain Ryan himself would scoff at the notion. But as for himself, Doc was more than half inclined to agree. Harsh principles, perhaps; and certainly principles shaped to fit the unyielding dictates of survival in an uncompromisingly brutal world. But indeed they all had principles, strong ones. None stronger than Ryan himself.
Jessie Rae tossed her head. The spit-curls dangling before each dainty ear flew in fine contempt.
“Men.” She turned and marched out, accompanied by a pair of serving women who had been standing so unobtrusively behind her that Doc hadn’t noticed them.
“Enough.” Al’s growl interrupted the music. Apparently the quartet understood it was directed at them.
“Go on,” he said. “Git. I’ve heard enough, thank you kindly.”
“Baron,” the colonel said, “think what your wife will say? You know she wants you to have more culture.”
“Well, she ain’t here anymore, now is she, Cody? What she don’t know won’t do her a lick of harm.”
As the musicians hastily broke off and began to gather up their instruments, Al turned to Doc.
“Sorry to interrupt your listening, Doc,” he said. “Fact is, my ears were all full of fine music. But you seem to have an appreciation for it, sir.”
“Indeed, Baron,” Doc said. “I’ve always considered the Serenade No. 13 for Strings in G major to be Mozart at his finest.”
The baron’s big flushed face—sweating, as usual, though it wasn’t all that warm even inside—rumpled in a grimace.
“If you say so.”
Al graced his visitors with a smile. “You’ve done good, my friends,” he said. “And I did good to hire you. Now, let me have the rest.”
With his customary admirable succinctness, Ryan completed his report.
But Doc was no longer aware of his surroundings. He was going away, into the almost diabolically beautiful strains of Mozart, and the even more beautiful world of his dreams...his memories...where Emily and Jolyon and Rachel always lived.
And where he always lived with them.
* * *
down the dirt road from the Protector camp to the site where the ill-fated supply wag convoy had met its ill fate.
As he came upon where he reckoned the spot to be, he saw a draw, currently not running water although the bottom was damp, and showed the hoofprints of about a dozen horses. The cut bank would provide nicely complete concealment from the road and the convoy.
He didn’t dismount yet, just brought his black mare to a halt and leaned out of the saddle to peer down at the imprinted earth. There were some prints of boots interspersed among the hoof marks. Cowboy boots. By the length of stride and their depth they were worn by a woman, tall and more heavily built than average. But muscular, he reckoned. Not fat.
Nodding, he rode on.
The ashes in the bed of the charcoal wag had gone cold. Standing next to the burnout, Snake Eye judged that had happened before the light, chill rain began to drizzle from bullet-colored overcast onto his black hat and duster.
The canvas canopy had burned completely away, leaving not even charred scraps hanging from the blackened and heat-sagged metal hoops that had held it up. Inside lay bundles of burned cloth.
He shrugged and turned away, concluding they were clothing for the higher officers and their ladies. Uniforms, to call them by the most complimentary name, for the lesser ranks would’ve come by flatboat up the Des Moines. If the Protectors bothered to send such at all. This had been a relatively small convoy, with a relatively stiff guard complement. That suggested high-value cargo.
Snake Eye surveyed the other wags. One had burned out so completely it wasn’t much more than a scatter of ashes with charred wheels lying in it, and even the canopy supports melted to stubs and slag. High-quality drink for the baron and his buddies, Snake Eye judged. That would account for the added heat: better fuel.
There had clearly been a fifth wag. He could tell by the shallow blackened crater with the axles and random chunks of debris buried in it, and the general pattern of wreckage thrown out by one or more powerful blasts. Apparently that wag had carried barrels of gunpowder, which the marauders had quite professionally used to blow everything to hell.
He had identified where most of the ambushers had hidden on his ride in. It wasn’t hard to spot where they’d gone to ground. They’d picked obvious hiding places. Why wouldn’t they? It wasn’t as if the convoy or even its army escorts were expecting trouble so far behind their own lines. They hadn’t been wary of driving into good ambush ground here, any more than they had been going into equally good spots to lay traps on the way from Hugoville. No reason to.
Not before this. He chuckled slightly to himself. He was used to being his own best company anyway.
Cawdor and his friends—if his suspicions were correct, and that’s who the perpetrators were—were living up to their reputations.
Leaving his horse to graze, with reins trailing to the ground, he walked back to examine the ambushers’ location more clearly. What he found significant was precisely what he didn’t find: empties. The ambushers had obviously done a thorough job picking up their spent casings.
He found where four had hidden to the left of the track—west—and one to the east. That left one unaccounted-for by accounts he’d gleaned of the group over the past few years—reports he’d followed up with interest that only increased as he learned more tantalizing hints and scraps. Or two, if what Jed and his retinue had said about an extra member was correct.
And in this case Snake Eye saw no reason to doubt even a baron’s word.
He recalled the survivor’s feverish half-conscious account. A search along the convoy’s back trail showed Snake Eye’s trained vision flattened grass behind a hummock west of the line of march. A sixth ambusher had taken position there. On the small side, a woman or boy. Boy, he decided from the tracks.
Moving back to the ambush site proper, Snake Eye ran his gaze over the corpses. The chillers had left them for the wolves. They hadn’t omitted to strip them of their boots and search them for any valuables, as Snake Eye confirmed quickly.
He noted that three of them had been shot from the direction of the grassy hummock south, one in the back of the head, one in the side and one in the front. Snake Eye found it interesting that apparently that shooter had seemingly sniped at least one of the convoy guards without alerting the rest.
The survivor had said he heard no sound from the blaster that wounded him. Jed’s sec men were inclined to chalk that up to the heat of battle, where sometimes men heard little but the roaring of their pulse in their own ears. Or just didn’t notice what they heard.
Now he wasn’t so sure. The slug the healer had dug out of the wounded trooper was a copper-jacketed .45—“modern” ammo in the sense that it hailed from the twentieth century and the era of smokeless powder. A handblaster bullet. Could the shooter from the rear of the wag train have made such expert shots with a silenced handblaster?
The survivor said he didn’t think it was possible any of the drivers survived. But Snake Eye found only one body that was clearly a civilian. Apparently Cawdor had let the others escape.
Snake Eye smiled thinly. It just went to confirm what he’d learned about the man: that he didn’t enjoy chilling for its own sake, took no joy in the simple act of chilling. As Snake Eye most definitely did.
But Snake Eye didn’t chill without necessity any more than Cawdor and his people did. In his case, well, he liked drinking alcohol, too. But he indulged in it sparingly. He indulged sparingly in killing for much the same reasons: to keep his edge; and to avoid becoming intoxicated.
Also professionalism, of course. Chilling was what he was paid to do; it made no more sense to go around the country putting the freeze on people at random than it did a carpenter to run around building cabinets out in the back of beyond. And finally, because Snake Eye understood the distinction, generally lost even among the baronial classes, between
Smiling with the satisfaction of a job well done, he headed back to his horse. The missing convoy riders had left a trail easy to follow as a predark superhighway. And why shouldn’t they? They had no motive for stealth, just speed—to get clear away before the coldhearts who’d wiped out their convoy changed their minds. Anyway, they weren’t professional evaders.
He put his boot to the stirrup and swung into the saddle. He didn’t know what information he might glean from accounts from actual survivors. But then, that was why a man sought information in the first place, wasn’t it?
Snake Eyes clucked and booted his mare’s black flanks and set out at a trot, following the slogging, obvious tracks. West.