An Excerpt from
Deathlands: Cannibal Moon
Mildred brushed the sweat from her eyes with the back of her hand, then wiped her fingers dry on her BDU pants. By feel, she broke open her revolver and replaced the single, spent shell. She softly clicked closed the six-shot cylinder.
Dr. Wyeth didn’t know how many maneaters were in the cave. Cannies usually ran in hunting packs of ten or less. They used footspeed and the cover of night to snatch away the weakest, the dumbest, the easiest chills. This night the no name ville had been hit by multiple packs simultaneously, all competing for the spoils. Cannies didn’t like to share. And when push came to shove they ate each other,
Mildred reached into her right pants pocket. With her fingertips she counted four, full Speedloaders. She took one out and palmed it in her left hand.
The ZKR ready to rip, she stooped to enter the cave. Inside the arch, the ceiling was eight or nine feet high. The walls were about that far apart, too. There was no guard on duty. Moving quietly, Mildred followed the faint light around a bend. Beyond it, the cave walls necked down and a ratty, brown polyester blanket blocked her path. It hung from the ceiling to the dirt floor, leaking yellow points of light from a hundred holes and small rips.
From the other side, she heard voices. And soft whimpering.
Mildred stepped up and peeked through a hole in blanket. It took a couple of seconds for her eyes to adjust to the glare of light, which came from a stone-ringed firepit in the middle of a wide chamber. She counted three. No. Four cannies. She couldn’t tell whether the cave went on or deadended. Strewn in a corner was a pile of fire-blackened human bones. From the angle she had she couldn’t see the children, but the whimpering was definitely theirs.
With a sweep of her hand, Dr. Wyeth pushed back the blanket, looking over the ZKR’s sights. She caught the bastards flatfooted.
The Czech .38 boomed deafeningly in the tightly enclosed space. The closest cannie, a tall man with a bushy, foot-long chin beard, took the up-angled round through his left eyesocket. His hair, skull, and brain matter spraypainted the cave ceiling and he toppled over, rigid from head to toe with shock, like a felled tree.
Two others leaned over a boy and a girl who were huddled in a corner. The cannies whirled around at the gunshot, the slivers of fileting knives flashing in the firelight. Unblinking, Mildred shot them both rapid fire, placing one slug below each breastbone.
Muzzle climb was her old and trusted friend, and she rode it onto the fourth target who had grabbed up a blaster and was coming at her fast. As the cannie charged, he swung the side by side scattergun from the hip. The full length weapon came around slowly. Way too slowly.
Center chest, point blank, Mildred tapped him three times. Puhppowpow! As she pivoted away, the cannie’s filthy cotton shirt and matted chest hair burst into flames. Dead on his feet, he dropped to his knees, then crashed in a cloud of dust at her boot tops.
With the ZKR aimed at the ceiling, she broke open the cylinder and flicked out the smoking empties. Muzzle down, her feet braced wide apart, her steady, deft fingers fitted the Speedloader in place and twisted the cartridge release.
She felt a rush of breeze on her neck as the blanket over the entrance whipped aside. In the next instant, something heavy slammed into the back of her head. Her knees buckled under her. Everything went black. She didn’t feel the ground when it flew up and hit her in the face.
When Mildred opened her eyes, the world spun madly around her. She had a splitting headache. She tried to focus and was overcome by a wave of nausea. She shut her eyes and leaned back against what felt like a rough wooden post. It was wedged tightly between the cave floor and ceiling. Her wrists were lashed around the post behind her; her ankles laced to its base. The bonds were skillfully tied. There was no wiggle room, and no stretch whatsoever.
As she waited for the vertigo to pass, she recalled the seconds prior to her blackout. She had been poleaxed from behind. That was the source of her throbbing headache.
Opening her eyes again, she looked up into a gaunt, unshaven face.
At that moment she realized that a possible skull fracture was the least of her worries.
The cannie’s right cheek was marred by a burn scar, a swathe of shiny pink, pockmarked skin where whiskers no longer grew. To Dr. Wyeth, it looked like a near-miss from a close range blackpowder discharge. A victim fighting for his or her life had failed to hit the pointblank ten-ring. The cannie had no eyebrow or eyelashes on that side. His right eyelid was shriveled up to nothing and the eyeball was milky white like a hardboiled egg, cooked in its socket by a flash of Pyrodex. The bastard’s breath stunk like a three-week-old corpse.
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
Stalactites of gray hung glistening from both his nostrils. The thick discharge had smeared and crusted like a snail trail through the dark stubble that covered his upper lip and chin. He was infected with the scourge of Deathland’s cannibal clans. A contagious, blood-born, inevitably fatal disease known far and wide as “the oozies.”
Mildred looked past him. There were two more cannies. Live ones. The trio had entered the cave as she had started shooting, probably rejoining their running buddies for a share in the spoils. With no one covering her back, she had left herself open to attack.
The two kids were still alive, huddled in each other’s arms on the dirt floor, crying softly. From stories told on their mothers’ knees, they knew what was coming next.
The scarred one smiled down at her, showing off yellow incisors filed to points. He was the pack leader. The Alpha wolf. Without a word, he reached around her hip and groped her buttocks. Not in a sexual way. His interest was entirely culinary. Mildred tried to twist away from his powerful fingers. He squeezed harder, until she stopped struggling, then he let go.
“She’s a tough one,” Alpha wolf said to his pals. “We’ve got to pit roast her. Slow fire, wrapped in wet leaves. Let her cook all day.”
The other two cannies stepped closer. They had hollow-cheeked faces, skinny arms and legs. Bloated pot bellies.
“Or we could slice her into steaks,” offered the nearly bald one. “Pound ‘em flat with a rock. Quick fry ‘em in baby fat.” The fringe along the sides of his head fell in long, greasy coils to his shoulders.
The third cannie licked his cracked lips. He had a narrow groove across his forehead where the bone had been crushed by a blow, mebbe by a tire iron or piece of Rebar.
Mildred looked from face to grimy face. Gray pendulums of snot swayed from their noses. Gray discharge leaked from their filthy earholes. They were all goners. Terminal stage oozies.
There had been no such disease in the scientific literature when Mildred Wyeth had graduated from medical school. There had been no such disease when years later she had undergone a relatively minor surgical procedure and had experienced a negative reaction to the anesthetic. In a last ditch attempt to save her life, her colleagues had put her in cryogenic stasis. That had been shortly before the cataclysmic events of January 21, 2001. After sleeping through the end of western civilization, and a century or so thereafter, she had been revived by Ryan Cawdor and the others, reborn into a strange and violent new world.
Medical science no longer existed. What information there was, was anecdotal and unsubstantiated. Rumors and lies. Lies and rumors. From her own limited experience over the years, Mildred had come to no conclusions about the true nature of cannies, or their fatal affliction. They didn’t exhibit the gigantism or chimerism found in Deathlands’ other mutated species. Unlike stickies, scalies, and stumpies, they passed for norms. It was possible they weren’t muties at all, that their behavior wasn’t genetically mandated. Superficially at least, their flesh-eating seemed more like an addiction. One taste of human flesh and they were forever hooked. Oozie infection only seemed to increase their depravity, giving them a bottomless hunger.
In human history, cannibalism was almost always a ceremonial choice, Mildred knew. Eating one’s fallen or captured enemies was a way of taking their physical and spiritual power; it was never the mainstay of diet. Epidemiological studies that might have answered the questions about cannies were no longer an option. That kind of research had vanished forever, along with the Centers for Disease Control.
Dr. Mildred Wyeth stood disarmed and helpless, facing a truly horrendous fate, but she wasn’t thinking about herself, nor about how far she had come to die so miserably. She was thinking about the children. The only way she could protect them was by getting eaten first. There was still a remote chance her companions would track her to the cave before the cannies got hungry again.
“I did your packmates a favor when I blew them apart,” she taunted her captors. “It was mercy chilling. You ought to thank me for easing their way to hell. Dying from the oozies is triple hard, as you boys are finding out. First come the uncontrollable hand tremors, then you start shitting yourselves. You can’t digest human flesh anymore, but you can’t eat anything else. You eat more and more but still you slowly starve, until you’re too weak to fight off the blades of your own blood brothers.”
“We’ve been final stage for over a year,” Rebar head bragged. “Still hunting strong. Took our medicine...”
In Deathlands, whitecoated doctors and scientists had been replaced by raggedy charlatans riding from ville to ville in donkey carts, dispensing homemade potions and elixirs in recycled plastic pop bottles. They were miles away by the time their customers started dropping dead from the “medicine.”
“There’s no drug for what you’ve got,” Mildred said. “It’s turning your brains to pus. That’s what’s dripping onto your boots.”
“You don’t know shit about shit, Lamb Chop,” Alpha wolf said, his carrion breath gusting in her face.
“Let’s eat the bitch first,” snarled the bald one. “Pay her back for chillin’ half our crew. The kids’ll keep.”
“Gotta much better idea,” the head cannie said. He drew a long knife from a sheath hidden in the top of his lace-up boot. It was a predark Ka-Bar with a black Kraton handle. Alpha wolf knelt down beside the first cannie Mildred had shot. He lifted the dead man by the armpits, holding the torso propped upright. Using the knife’s bluesteel pommel, he pulped the residue of brains left in the cratered skull. Mortar and pestle. When he was satisfied with the result, he tipped the man’s head, slopping the lumpy mess into a tin plate.
“Old Tom, here, is gonna have his revenge,” he said, shoving aside the corpse. “Open her mouth.”
Mildred went rigid against the pole. She clenched her teeth with all her might.
Twenty filthy fingernails couldn’t pry her jaws apart, four hands couldn’t hold her head still.
Alpha wolf broke the stalemate, sucker-punching her in the stomach. The others exploited her moment of weakness. Baldy pulled down her bottom jaw, Rebar forced a thick stick crossways, between her back molars.
Mildred couldn’t snap the stick and close her mouth. She couldn’t dislodge it by shaking her head. She flexed her throat muscles, shutting her gullet, her eyes wide with panic.
Then came the metallic taste of the plate on her tongue, followed by warm goo flooding her mouth. Before she could cough out the pureed brains, hard fingers pinched off her nostrils and a calloused palm covered her mouth.
Dr. Wyeth’s stomach heaved violently, but she couldn’t expel a single drop. The resulting explosion of pressure only drove it up into her sinuses.
“How do you like it?” Alpha wolf inquired, pinning the back of her head to the pole and holding it there.
The taste of death was shrill, feral, fecal. The stench in her nose burned like battery acid.
With the hands shutting off her air, it was either swallow or suffocate.
She wanted to suffocate, but the choice was not hers to make. Her nervous system’s hard-wiring wouldn’t allow it. Just before she passed out, she swallowed.
When Alpha wolf released her, she gasped a breath, then projectile vomited across the cave floor.
The cannies brayed at her dry heaving, and her frantic coughing and spitting. “You been dosed good,” the bald one said.
“You’ll be hungry for long pig in no time,” Alpha wolf added, wiping his leaking nose on the back of his hand.
“The oozies might chill me, but it won’t make me a radblasted cannie,” Mildred said defiantly.
“You think cannies are born that way?”
The monsters laughed some more.
“Which came first, the cannie or the oozies?” Alpha wolf asked her. “Guess you’re gonna find out.” Then he glanced over at the children, his good eye narrowed to a slit. “Throw some more wood on that fire,” he told his packmates. “Let’s get something cooking. I don’t know about you guys, but I’m fuckin’ starvin’.”
|From the book: Cannibal Moon
By: James Axler
Imprint and Series: Gold Eagle/Deathlands
Publication Date: 07/03
Copyright © 2007
By: Worldwide Library
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher.
The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books