Authors: James Axler
Tags: #Speculative Fiction Suspense
TORONTO • NEW YORK • LONDON
AMSTERDAM • PARIS • SYDNEY • HAMBURG
STOCKHOLM • ATHENS • TOKYO • MILAN
MADRID • WARSAW • BUDAPEST • AUCKLAND
Mankind, by the perverse depravity of their nature, esteem that which they have most desired as of no value the moment it is possessed, and torment themselves with fruitless wishes for that which is beyond their reach.
—François de Salignac de la
“Whoever they were, they sure didn’t believe in housekeeping,” Mildred Wyeth said dryly as she surveyed the smoke-blackened walls and the piles of trash that littered the floor of the redoubt room. Once an office, the comp terminals had been ripped from the walls, the desks had been broken up for firewood. The garbage spread across the room had the look of something long dead, a fire extinguished by the smoke-triggered sprinkler system.
Doc Tanner stood in the doorway behind Mildred Wyeth, shaking his head sadly and making tsking noises through his teeth. “Truly, this is a sad sign of the madness that descended on people when the fires rained from the heavens. Consider it, my dear doctor. From the condition of the wreckage, and the perfect stillness that seems to surround us, I would be not in the least surprised to learn that this was perpetrated some decades ago. Possibly almost a full century.”
“Your point being?” The black woman sighed. She knew where Doc was going with this, but wanted him to take the shortcut rather than the scenic route: she was tired, ached all over and had very little patience for Doc’s long-winded perorations.
“Simply this, my dear doctor. This small piece of carnage must have been perpetrated within a few years of what the whitecoats lovingly termed ‘nuclear winter,’ that age of madness…. As if giving it a natural and seemingly innocuous name would, in some way, atone for the foul—forgive me, I’m moving away from my theme,” he added, catching himself, “I merely meant to make the point that within a few years, people seemed to be reduced to the level of unthinking savages. The knowledge of old tech would not be wiped out that quickly.’
“Yeah, I know what you mean, Doc, but it isn’t always that simple, is it?” Mildred replied. “Panic sets in, rad sickness maybe…. Who’s to know the psychological state of anyone who managed to somehow drag themselves here through what was happening outside. Who’s to know, even, the psychological state of whoever was inside?”
“Myself, perhaps,” Doc uttered, his mouth set grim as memories of his time at the hands of scientists fluttered at the edges of his consciousness while he fought them back from a full remembrance that would drive him into madness once more. He shook his head, half dismissing the memories, half sorrowful at what conclusions he could draw. “If they were military men gone mad, then they were no more than the next in a long, long line,” he said softly. “Pray let us leave this as a memorial to their insanity.”
“I won’t disagree with you on that one, Doc.” Mildred turned on her heel and followed the old man into the corridor of the redoubt.
They had jumped into this place a few hours previously and their bodies were still recovering from the rigors of the mat-trans unit. To be broken down into molecules and transported across vast distances in the blink of an eye before being reassembled was hardly the ideal way to travel. The stresses placed on the psyche—let alone the human frame—were incalculable. Doc was one of those who found it hardest to recover and his mind always seemed to lag a little behind his body. Mildred was inclined to let him ramble at these times, especially if there was no immediate danger. And it did seem as though the redoubt had been invaded, looted and long-since abandoned.
The companions had split into three groups. Usually, Mildred would go with J.B., while Ryan and Krysty recced together, and Doc would accompany Jak. The sharp skills and instincts of the wiry albino teen would cover for Doc’s occasional frailties of mind and body. But after a mat-trans jump, Jak was always one of the last to fully recover. Something about his body makeup responded poorly to having itself ripped apart and reconstituted, and he was always weak for a while after, needing more time to recover. Chances were he was sharp, as Ryan always allowed them time to get it together, but chances were something the one-eyed man never took, so J.B. would ride shotgun for Jak until the redoubt was secured.
Secured—that would imply that there was anything left in the empty military base to be secured. As Mildred could see, the place had been gutted. Either a fleeing army presence or invaders who had in some way been able to gain access and had taken anything with them that wasn’t nailed down and could be of any use.
The situation worried the woman. They were short on supplies and the kitchens, sick bays and armories of these bases had come in useful in the past. It was especially reassuring when you had no idea which part of the continent you were currently walking under. Until they found a reliable map source or actually surfaced, they had no idea where they were geographically.
Mildred suddenly stopped and rubbed her eyes. She had to be more tired than she had realized, starting to let her thoughts stray in such a manner. She was aware of Doc at her elbow.
“Mildred, are you feeling quite yourself?” he asked solicitously.
“No, I don’t think I am, to tell you the truth,” she replied.
Doc’s next comment disarmed her totally. Shaking his head sadly, he said, “Madam, I fear you now know how I feel most of my life. Come, let us secure the area and report back,” he added, moving off and leaving her to gape at his bony frame receding down the corridor ahead of her.
They finished their recce, finding nothing to show any signs of life, and then returned to the anteroom adjoining the mat-trans chamber, where they were due to rendezvous.
The others were already waiting for them when they arrived. From their relaxed body posture and the fact there had been no audible signs of action, Doc and Mildred knew that theirs hadn’t been the only fruitless search. Briefly, she filled them in on what she had Doc had found.
“Guess we can rest up here for now—still daylight up top, though,” J.B. added, checking his wrist chron.
“We’re too exhausted to go into unknown territory right now,” Ryan said, shaking his head. His shaggy black mane came down over his forehead, almost but not quite obscuring the beginnings of the jagged scar that ran into his eye, continuing along his cheek beneath the eye patch that covered the empty socket. It only served to accentuate the penetrating ice-blue of his remaining orb, always focused on the task ahead. “Break out some of the self-heats we’ve got, then find one of the dorms that isn’t trashed and get some rest. We’ll have a watch rotation, even though this seems safe.”
“I figure the only thing that would chill us in here is the boredom,” Krysty added, “Which, come to think of it, wouldn’t be such a bad way to go.”
“Mebbe, but not yet,” Jak interjected.
The mood had lightened a little. Although the redoubt had yielded nothing, it seemed a safe place for one night’s rest, and rest was all they really wanted after the jump.
Moving from the antechamber to one of the dorms on another level, Mildred began to get a fuller picture of the redoubt, which seemed to be built on a smaller scale than some of the others in which they had landed. There were no levels with bays for transport beyond a few small wags and the levels seemed to be less spread out, with fewer rooms before they ascended. Mildred mentioned that and Ryan grinned.
“Yeah, well, I didn’t bring you this way just for fun,” he ventured. “Take a look in this room up here.” He led them into what had once been an office, indicating a room plan on the wall facing the door. It showed the full layout of the redoubt, with all the storage and habitation areas clearly marked. “It doesn’t look like this carried much in the way of heavy-duty equipment,” he remarked. “Mebbe it was just a kind of way station between two larger posts, carrying a few supplies and acting as some kind of lookout. Not many sec here and not many pickings for whoever got in here…unless it was them trying to get out.”
“I wondered about that—we both did,” Mildred added, catching Doc’s look. “If it was someone from outside coming in—”
“Don’t worry about that, Millie,” J.B. cut in. “Me and Jak took the top level. The main sec door is secured and we couldn’t find much in the way of damage to account for entry. No one can just hack their way in unless there’s been some kind of earth movement or they knew the sec code. And there’s only a few stress cracks in the tunnel walls near the top. If they knew the code, they haven’t been back for a long time. And if they were on their way out, they thought to close the door behind them.”
It was as close as the taciturn Armorer ever came to a joke and one of the longest speeches anyone had heard him make for some time. If nothing else, it signaled how relaxed he felt with the situation.
“So it’s okay for us to rest up here for a while before moving out,” Ryan stated. “But I wouldn’t want to hang around too long.”
“Why not?” Krysty asked. Her hair formed a titian-red halo around her head, even the cold blandness of the overhead neon was transformed into a warm glow of fire as it reflected the aura around her head. The curls and waves cascaded over her shoulders, running wild and free. This helped explain her question: the mutie genes running through her veins made her hair sensitive, and prehensile, responding to imminent danger by curling up protectively around her. The fact that it was so loose and free bespoke the complete lack of threat in the redoubt.
That hadn’t escaped the one-eyed man’s notice. “There might not be anyone around to harm us, but there are still some things I don’t trust.”
“I’m with you on that, boss man,” Mildred muttered, running her finger along the surface of the room plan and examining the gray residue that gathered on her fingertips. “Look at the dust on here,” she added.
Doc furrowed his brow. “Your logic escapes me, my dear woman. This has been uninhabited for a long while, I would guess. Naturally, there would be some kind of dust gathering.”
Krysty kissed her teeth, annoyed with herself at having missed the obvious. “Yeah, but this isn’t natural, is it, Doc? These redoubts have air conditioning and temperature and humidity control. They have some kind of weird antistatic device that keeps dust out of the atmosphere. So if there is dust, then it means that the air-filtration system isn’t working properly.”
“Exactly,” Ryan added. “If that part of it is down, then how do we know that our air is being recycled efficiently. How long will it last? Long enough, hopefully, to get some rest,” he continued, answering himself. “Mebbe it’s fine. I just don’t want to take chances.”
“Once more, I defer to your powers of observation,” Doc bowed. “Where we would be without you, I dread to think.”
“I could say the same about you,” Ryan answered with a grin. “So let’s eat, get rested and get moving.”
The companions left the room, taking another look at the one clear streak illuminating the plastic covering of the room plan beneath its tawdry layer of dust as they did so. Once they had ascended to a higher level in the redoubt and found a dorm that was relatively unscathed, they stripped down the equipment and bags that they carried, those things that were their lives and survival.
“Pity it has to be this shit again, but at least it keeps us going,” Krysty said sadly as she handed out the self-heats. The packages—cans or foil containers—contained within them all the nutrients they needed, heated by a mechanism within the packaging that was instigated by the act of opening. Unfortunately, the contents were tasteless and bland, the only traces of any flavor being colored by the chemicals that were used to preserve the contents. They were a last resort when there was nothing else to be found, but they did their job: they kept the companions alive and nourished.
The friends ate in silence, trying to keep their food down. It wasn’t easy. When they finished, Ryan was the first to his feet.
“I’m going to see if the showers are still working on this level. Mebbe it’ll wash away the taste of those fireblasted self-heats.”
Shower rooms were attached to each of the dorms and it took only a few moments for the one-eyed man to ascertain that the hot water systems and pumps were still in a roughly working order—roughly, because the temperature of the water fluctuated, despite the setting, and a couple of times the man had to be sharp enough to dodge red-hot or icy blasts of water as the old pumps faltered. Nonetheless, he felt refreshed when he emerged. Warning the others, he searched for fresh underwear in the dorm, hoping that whoever had looted the redoubt would have been looking for blasters and food, not clean clothing. They were lucky; there was enough for all of them.
It was a relaxed time; something they needed after the jump and before heading out into the unknown. They’d found one map in the redoubt, and perhaps they would find others if they looked in the morning, maps that might tell them where they had landed. But now, the only thing that mattered was to rest.
“I’ll take first watch,” Ryan announced. “Then we work it in shifts, alphabetical order,” he continued.
“Pray tell, friend Ryan, do I count as
for Doc, or
for Theophilus?” Doc questioned with a mischievous grin.
“Hell, I can’t remember the last time anyone called you anything but Doc,” Ryan laughed.
It answered the question and emphasized the relaxed mood. It was to prove an uneventful night, the only disturbance the changeover of watches. J.B. succeeded Jak, noticing that the albino youth seemed loathe to leave his post.
“Best to get some rest, Jak,” he said softly as he sought to relieve him.
“If can rest with nightmares,” Jak replied. “Always bad after jump. Not able to really rest until on outside, when need to be triple red.” Jak shrugged as he walked away and left J.B. to his post. Not for the first time, one of the companions found themselves wondering what really went on behind Jak’s impassive exterior.