Deathlands: Apocalypse Unborn
From a distance of fifteen feet, Ryan Cawdor observed the frigate’s captain, a mountain of brown skin and black tattoos seated behind a makeshift desk. Naked to waist, his torso and arms were decorated with intertwined thorny vines; his front teeth, top and bottom, were filed to triangular, shark-like points. But most striking was the gruesome facial branding. Four parallel ridges of pink scar tissue ran over the bridge of his wide nose and down his broad cheeks. The corners of his mouth had been likewise disfigured, they twisted upward in a perpetual, manic grin.
Ryan recognized the Islander blood, what more than a century ago would have been called Maori or Fijian. The captain’s black hair hung in a rope-like braid down past the middle of his back. He had gold rings on every thick finger and both thumbs. A Government Model 1911 Colt pistol with an extended, high capacity magazine lay on the tabletop. The .45’s hammer was locked back, the grip safety permanently held down with tight wraps of waxed cord. Next to his hand, it looked like child’s toy. The armed, half-naked men at the stairway were Islanders, too. They held their AK-47s casually aimed at the next man in line. Safeties off. Firing lanes clear. Index fingers braced against the outside of trigger guards.
The three mercies standing in front of Ryan wore grease-stained canvas dusters and scarred lace-up boots. They carried blueless but well-oiled 9mm Heckler and Koch machine pistols on shoulder slings. They kept their hands in view and well away from their blasters. The first guy in line, presumably the trio’s head man, sported a broad-brimmed leather hat pulled down low over his eyes.
The captain waved them forward. “Where are you boys from?” he said, pencil point poised against the open log book.
“We come from Siana country, over near Fayette,” the mercie leader replied in a gravelly voice. “A bastard long walk...”
“Who did you crew for in Fayette?”
“Crewed for ourselves. We’ve been wolf-packin’ for the last six, eight months.”
Wolf pack was Deathland-ese for a band of roaming, free lance robber-chillers. And not negative job experience under the circumstances.
The captain didn’t ask for any of their names. He didn’t start writing in the log book, either. At his elbow was a pile of tarnished metal discs with neck thongs. Every disc had a different stamped number. Those he handed a tag got a berth on the white ship and free passage south, to promised mayhem, glory, and riches.
“I heard there’s lots of cannies roaming the bayous around Fayette these days,” the captain said.
Cannies were cannibals, arguably Deathlands most degraded and depraved human subculture. They operated in small, highly mobile clans, joining forces to hunt, to chill, to feed on the weak and the unwary. In a pinch, they dined on each other.
“No more than any place else,” the mercie said.
“We had a few maneaters slip aboard the last trip,” the captain said. “Guess they thought it was gonna be a floating picnic. It wasn’t. Bystanders got caught in the crossfire. Helluva mess.” The captain put a yellow plastic bucket on the table. “You mind spitting in this?”
The mercie leader didn’t look back at his pals; he didn’t take his eyes off the four AK-47s pointed at the center of his chest. He shrugged. “You want some spit, I’ll give you spit.” Holding the rim of the bucket close to his lips, he hawked resonantly and expelled a stringy gob, mopping the blowback off his chin stubble with his duster sleeve.
The captain reached under the table for a quart Mason jar three-quarters-full of liquid. The fluid was the color of burgundy wine, but when he poured a little into the bucket, it dripped thick and slow. Holding the bucket at arm’s length, the captain sluiced around the contents, then dumped a foaming mess out onto the deck. The liquid was no longer ruby red. It wasn’t even pale pink. It was the color of predark concrete. “Gray means oozies,” he told the mercie leader as he set aside the bucket. “But you already know that...”
Ryan Cawdor took a quick, careful step to one side. Oozies was the cannie plague. Spread by the eating of human flesh, it produced weeping lesions inside the victim’s brain; in its final stage, a thick, gray pus leaked from ears and nostrils. As Ryan planted his feet, his fingers an inch from the butt of his holstered SIG-Sauer P-226, from under the table came a shotgun’s deafening roar.
The table’s front legs hopped from the ground and the mercie vaulted backwards, arms spread wide, enveloped in a billowing white cloud that twinkled with tiny comets of burning blackpowder. He landed flat on his back, a smouldering, gory crater blown from hip to hip. The awful swathe of destruction was the product of not one, but two simultaneously discharging 12-gauge barrels, the product of a muzzle loader packed with metal scrap and bent nails.
The other two mercies jumped through the smoke for the railing; before the Islander crew could open fire, they dove headfirst over it.
Their splashdowns were punctuated by the clatter of Kalashnikovs. The Islanders fired over the rail, full auto. The passenger wannabes rushed to that side of the pier, shouting and potshotting at the pale shapes swimming towards shore four feet under the surface. Ryan drew his handblaster, but didn’t join the fray. There was no need. Concentrated bullet impacts churned the water to a fine froth. First one, then the other body popped up, no longer moving, leaking red from dozens of wounds. At which point, the shooting abruptly stopped.
Behind them on the deck, the mortally wounded cannie jittered—heels drumming, back arching, teeth snapping, gray mucous bubbling from his nostrils and ears. The double scattergun blast had gutted him, but missed his heart and lungs. Ryan crouched upwind, just beyond the cannie’s reach, raised his pistol and fired once, putting a 9mm round in front of the cannie’s left ear, blowing infected brains out the far side of his head.
As he reholstered the SIG, the crewmen rolled the corpse off the pier.
The background racket resumed at once. Along the queue, sec men and slavers pushed and threatened each other, jockeying for dominance. Brief fist and bladefights broke out. Caged anomalies shrieked and moaned in mortal terror. The looming mass of fog, the drifting gun and woodsmoke, and the overwhelming reek of death from beneath the pier added to the atmosphere.
Only one creature in all of Deathlands could have recruited and assembled such a gathering.
Magus. Steel Eyes. The thing that wouldn’t die.
Once he had been one hundred percent, flesh and blood human. How long ago that was, or where he had come from was not known. As his organic parts—limbs, organs, sensory arrays—failed due to age or damage, he had used inorganics—nanotech circuit boards, memory chips, servos, pumps, and titanium struts—to make the necessary repairs to himself. The melding of mechanical and biomechanical subsystems had prolonged Magus’s life, but the result was not a pretty sight. Blood, machine oil, and pus seeped from the joins of angry meat to gleaming metal, erratic clicking sounds, like a box of cheap wind-up clocks, came from inside his round torso, and he was enveloped in the rank odor of his own putrefaction.
Over the years, Ryan and his companions had crossed the creature’s path more than once, witnessing the unspeakable cruelties he wrought on the innocent and unwary. Ever the Puppetmaster, Magus relied on norm and mutie minions to do his wetwork, and to cover his retreat into the shadows. Steel Eyes had long ago cut out his own humanity; if he still had a heart, that organ was made of plastic and kevlar. Animated by a seemingly bottomless evil, this reeking, lurching contraption terrified and awed the even Deathlands’ most degenerate human trash. He attracted lesser villains like moths to a black flame.
In the past, Magus had toyed with randomly selected, living game pieces, amusing himself by sowing localized horror, apparently on a whim. Attacks on remote, poorly defended villes required relatively small hitcrews, which could be assembled from the front porch of almost any gaudy in the hellscape. His slavery/natural resource extraction operations used the same breed of enforcers. Magus was never out of pocket for any of his criminal enterprises. Slave laborers worked for free and mass murderers were paid in the spoils of carnage.
Something new and infinitely more menacing had drawn Ryan and the others halfway across Deathlands to the pier on Morro Bay. In the last month or so, groups of drifters, traders, and refugees had passed the word along the network of eroded predark interstates, through roadside and dry river bottom campsites, shanty villes, skeletonized major cities, from gaudy to gaudy all the way to the eastern baronies. Steel Eyes was recruiting an army of blackhearts. The call had been sent across the whole of the hellscape. Those who signed on were guaranteed jack, jolt, and joy juice in unlimited quantities, and the opportunity to indulge in savagery unheardof since nukeday.
Magus had never shown any ambition for conquest before. He had been content to play on the margins of Deathlands’ disjointed feudal system—squabbling baronies separated by vast, lawless territories. He seemed as interested in concealing his whereabouts, his motives, and the true extent of his power as he was in wreaking havoc on the defenseless. Until now the location of his home base was anybody’s guess—that it would be in the west coast’s most nuked-out zone, in a place no one would dare look, made perfect sense.
The captain gestured for Ryan to approach the interview table. Wide-set, heavy-lidded brown eyes took in his battle worn face.
A face impossible to disguise.
A knife slash years ago had cost Cawdor his left eye and had marked his eyebrow and cheek with a jagged, lightning bolt scar. A black eye patch covered the empty socket. Losing an eye was a common enough injury in Deathlands, where fighting was often hand to hand with edged weapons. Other men were as tall, with similar rangy builds and long dark hair. Few had an eye so blue. Fewer still carried an eighteen-inch panga knife in a leg sheath and a scoped Steyr SSG-70 long blaster. But there was no sign of recognition from the Islander captain. Which was just as well because diving off the pier was not going to save life and limb. Either the captain had never heard of the one-eyed man’s exploits, or he failed to identify Ryan without his constant companions at his side.
Ryan stared at the man’s heavily scarred forearms. This was no decorative disfigurement. The oval-shaped, long-healed wounds were three-and-a-half inches across. He had lost great divots of flesh, clear down to the bone.
“Why’d you waste a good centerfire bullet on that cannie?” the captain asked. “He was gonna be deadmeat in five minutes, tops.”
Cawdor would’ve shot a rabid stickie in that condition, but Magus wasn’t in the market for mercy chillers.
“Had a clear shot on the radbastard,” Ryan told him. “Wanted to get in my licks while I could.”
“Sec man. Came up under Baron Zepp.”
“Down Florida way.”
Ryan nodded. “Greenglades.”
“Old Zepp got himself chilled.”
“He was still breathing when I moved west.”
“Why’d you leave?”
“Needed a change of climate.”
The captain didn’t ask for his name—names had a tendency to change, before and after wetwork—but he looked hard at the .308 caliber, bolt action Steyr slung over Ryan’s shoulder. “You any good with that longblaster?”
“Good enough to keep it.”
It was the kind of rare, high-end weapon that most folks would chill for, given the opportunity.
The mountain of brown stared up at Cawdor’s face. “But not good enough to keep your eye?”
Ryan smiled. “One’s all I need.”
“Here,” the captain said, shoving the yellow bucket across the table at him. “Spit.”
Ryan obliged. When the mixed sputum and blood poured out red, the crewmen let the aimpoints of their AKs drift away from his chest.
“Call me Captain, or Captain Eng,” said the seated man. He picked a token from the pile, wrote down the number in his log, then tossed Ryan the disk. “From now on you are called 46. Wear that tag around your neck at all times. Don’t lose it. Without it, you won’t be fed or paid. Go down the gangway and wait on the dock. You’ll be told what to do. Make no trouble, and you’ll have no trouble.”
Cawdor nodded, although trouble was exactly what he had in mind. He and his friends had missed the chance to chill Magus before.
If they missed this time, all of Deathlands would pay the price.
|From the book: Apocalypse Unborn
By: James Axler
Imprint and Series: Gold Eagle/Deathlands
Publication Date: (year/month) 08/06
Copyright © 2008
By: Worldwide Library
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher.
The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books