Authors: James Axler
Tags: #Speculative Fiction Suspense
Ryan opened his eye and discovered that the jump was over. He was sprawled on the cold floor of a mat-trans chamber, the electronic mists slowly fading. His SIG-Sauer pistol was digging into his hip and his leather eye patch was askew. Son of a bitch, what a nightmare he’d endured this time, the Deathlands warrior thought sluggishly, reality slowly returning like waves rushing toward shore. The dream about the Mutie Wars had been startlingly vivid.
Suddenly a severe pain hit Ryan and he grabbed his head in both hands until the throbbing subsided.
The jump-mares he suffered seemed to be getting worse. Mildred had told him time and again that it was a natural side effect of using the mat-trans units, instantly traveling from one redoubt to another, hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of miles apart. But nobody knew for sure. All of the whitecoats who had built the mat-trans units were long dead, and nobody had ever found an operating manual. Mildred had had a CD with codes, but that was long gone.
Personally, Ryan didn’t care much about the pain. Jumping hurt, and that was simply the price they paid for being able to move freely around Deathlands. As Trader often said, pain was life. Only the dead felt nothing.
Weakly, the man rose onto his arms and rolled over to rest against the armaglass wall. The material was deliciously cool through his jacket, and he gratefully pulled in lungfuls of air until his mind began to clear. He checked his weapons: a Steyr SSG-70 bolt-action longblaster, a 9 mm SIG-Sauer hand-blaster and a curved panga.
Adjusting his eye patch, Ryan looked around the chamber at the five people sprawled on the floor. They were panting hard and drenched in sweat. The shock of instantaneous travel through the predark machinery was always painful to the companions, but obviously this jump had been particularly bad for everybody.
A low moan sounded from a redheaded woman. Krysty Wroth lifted her face and wiped away a string of drool with the back of her hand.
“Hi, lover,” Krysty whispered hoarsely. The woman wore a shaggy black fur coat and green military fatigues. A gunbelt encircled her trim waist, supporting a holstered S&W .38 revolver, along with a couple of ammo pouches. A canvas backpack lay on the floor near her blue cowboy boots, the silver tips glistening in the harsh fluorescent light.
“Hey, yourself,” Ryan replied, smiling back. “Triple bitch of a jump, eh?”
“Been through worse,” Krysty said softly, then broke into a ragged cough. Once, they had jumped into a flooded redoubt full of rotting corpses. The stench was so overpowering that Krysty was still amazed that anyone had the presence of mind to hit the Last Destination button so they could jump out of there.
At the grim memory, she experimentally sniffed. The air of the redoubt smelled flat and artificial, without any trace of other living creatures. Good. Several times they had jumped somewhere only to find the walls had been breached and there were coldhearts or muties inside the redoubt. But this one smelled clean and empty.
“Here, drink this,” a stocky black woman said, proffering a battered canteen.
“Any chance it’s water?” Krysty asked hopefully, taking the container.
“Nope, a new batch of jump juice,” Mildred Wyeth replied, brushing a pair of beaded plaits from her face. The woman was dressed in a flannel work shirt and heavy denim pants tucked into U.S. Army boots. A Czech-made ZKR target pistol jutted from her gunbelt, and there was a worn canvas bag hanging at her side bearing the faded letters M*A*S*H.
Back in the twentieth century, Dr. Mildred Wyeth had been a physician who specialized in cryogenics research. On a crisp December day she had entered the hospital for what was deemed routine surgery. But there had been complications and she’d ended up in a cryogenic freezing unit, and slept through the nuclear holocaust. A hundred years later she was awakened by Ryan and the others to find a strange new world of radioactive ruins, acid rain storms, mutants and cannibals.
One of the physician’s projects was to try to perfect some sort of tonic that would ease the agony some of the companions endured following a jump. Sometimes the companions arrived at a redoubt racked with pain, vomiting their last meal, totally helpless for several minutes. In the Deathlands, that was a good way to get chilled. So far, none of her concoctions had helped much, but she always had hope for the next batch. These days, hope was all anybody had.
“Jump juice,” Krysty said without enthusiasm. Then she sighed and took a sip. She paused to swallow, then drank some more. “Gaia, this tastes like coffee!”
“It is, mostly,” Mildred replied, sitting upright. “U.S. Army-issue coffee mixed with sugar, honey, srag root and a few other things. I figured maybe a stimulant was needed more than a relaxant.”
“P-pass that over h-here,” J. B. Dix muttered, reaching out a hand. “Cold coffee sounds mighty good to m-me.” The wiry man was dressed in neutral-colored clothing, Army boots and a brown leather jacket that had seen better days. A 9 mm Uzi machine pistol hung off his left shoulder, a S&W M-4000 shotgun was across his back and his backpack bulged with odds and ends. Their old mentor, Trader, had nicknamed him “The Armorer” long ago, and the title fit perfectly. There wasn’t a weapon in existence that John Barrymore Dix couldn’t fire in his sleep or repair in the dark.
Krysty handed him the container and he took a swallow. He paused as if half expecting his stomach to rebel at the brew, but slowly he began to smile.
“Dark night, this is your best mix yet, Millie!” J.B. exclaimed in delight. “I think we have a winner here!”
“Pity I can’t make more.” Mildred sighed.
Pulling out a pair of wire-rimmed glasses from his shirt pocket, J.B. placed them on his face. “Why not?” he asked curiously. Already he was feeling better, the vertigo of the jump fading.
“About half of this is three-hundred-year-old Napoleon brandy,” she stated. “I doubt we’ll ever find another bottle of it again.”
“Shine is shine.”
“Oh, no, it isn’t. Trust me on this one, John.”
He grinned. “Always have before, Millie.” Reaching out to pat her hand in consolation, J.B. shared a private moment with the physician before passing the canteen to the next companion.
Brushing the snow-colored hair from his face, Jak Lauren took a long drink, some of the juice running down his chin. Lowering the canteen, the youth shook all over like a dog coming out of the rain. “Best batch yet!”
A true albino, Jak had been born in the swamps of Louisiana. The young hunter was dressed in loose camou clothing. Odd bits of razors, glass and feathers had been sewn into his jacket, making it camou for the new world. When hiding among the ruins of predark cities, Jak could all but disappear among the wreckage. And it would be painful if anyone grabbed him by his jacket. A massive .357 Magnum Colt Python hand-blaster rested on his right hip and countless leaf-bladed throwing knives were secreted upon his person. A knife was sheathed on his belt, and the handle of a small knife peeked from the top of his left boot.
“Hey, over here,” Ryan said, reaching out.
Turning, the teen relayed the partially filled container. Ryan took a couple of swigs, then handed the canteen to a tall silver-haired man slumped against the wall. Wordlessly accepting it, Doc Tanner drained the container before giving it back to Mildred.
“Th-thank you, my dear Ryan,” Doc whispered. “That was needed m-much more than I could p-possibly express.”
Tall and slim, Dr. Theophilus Algernon Tanner was dressed as if from another age in a frilly white shirt and a long frock coat. An ebony walking stick lay across his lap, the silver lion’s head peeking out between his strong fingers. A mammoth LeMat percussion pistol was holstered at his side, along with several pouches containing black powder and wadding for the Civil War blaster.
“Well, jumps always hit you and Jak hardest,” Mildred said, screwing the cap back on the canteen. “Probably from all the…” She paused awkwardly.
“Indeed, madam,” Doc whispered hoarsely.
Although only in his late thirties, Doc appeared to be in his sixties from an unexpected side effect of being trawled through time. The whitecoats of the twentieth century had performed experiments on Doc for years, trying to solve the mystery of why he was the only time traveler to survive the experience. Exasperated by Doc’s many escape attempts, the whitecoats had hurled him forward in time. Realizing a mistake had been made by doing that, agents of Operation Chronos still hunted for the man. One notable agent was Delphi. Part man, part machine, and all devil, Delphi had laid a devious trap for Ryan, knowing full well that Doc would be traveling with the man. The trick had nearly worked, but Doc escaped at the last moment, leaving Delphi buried alive in a collapsed tunnel. The rest of the companions believed that Delphi had bought the farm, but until Doc saw the cyborg’s lifeless body, he would never stop waiting for the demented monster to return.
“All right, let’s see where we are,” Ryan said, levering himself off the floor. The companions assumed their usual positions and drew their weapons as the one-eyed man walked to the chamber’s door and pressed the lever. The door opened onto an antechamber.
Each mat-trans unit had its own unique color, possibly to identify the location to travelers. But that was just a guess. Nobody knew for sure why the armaglass was a different color, or where all of the military personnel disappeared to after the nuke war. Or where they took the megatons of supplies previously stored inside the underground bunkers. The redoubts contained a thousand mysteries, the color codes being only one of them.
However, one constant in every redoubt was that the antechamber was usually small and always empty, except perhaps for a small table or chair, and was devoid of dust, a sterile void. But this room was large and stuffed to the ceiling with wooden boxes. There had to have been a hundred of them filling the room, each one absolutely identical to the other, aside from a black serial number stenciled on the side.
“What is all of this stuff?” J.B. demanded curtly.
“Dunno. Those aren’t predark mil numbers on the sides,” Ryan said slowly.
“It almost looks like somebody did a run,” Krysty stated. Her long red hair moved as if stirred by secret winds that only she could feel. “They jumped into the redoubt, tossed out the boxes from the mat-trans unit, then jumped out again.”
“A raiding party?” Doc muttered. “That could very well be, madam. As I recall, we did something similar ourselves once.”
“Yeah, chill Silas,” Jak growled, clicking back the hammer on his Colt Python. Dr. Silas Jamaisuous had been one of the predark inventors of the mat-trans unit and crazier than a shithouse mutie. “Think might be someone’s private cache?”
“Perhaps,” Mildred said slowly. “But look there!”
Squinting slightly, Ryan followed the woman’s finger and saw a crushed flower protruding from the stacks of boxes. A Deathlands daisy. The leaves were still green and the blossom was only starting to wilt.
“That’s fresh,” Krysty declared, raising her S&W .38 revolver. “Can’t be more than a day old, mebbe two at the most.”
“Which means that somebody has very recently been inside the redoubt,” Ryan growled, holstering the SIG-Sauer and sliding his Steyr SSG-70 longblaster off his shoulder. He worked the bolt. “All right, triple-red, people. Doc and Jak, Krysty and Mildred, stay inside the mat-trans unit so that nobody else can jump in here with us. J.B., check for traps. I’ll stand guard.”
With practiced ease, everybody did as they were told without comment.
Warily going to the nearest stack of crates, J.B. tilted back his battered fedora and carefully examined the boxes without touching anything. There were no trip wires that he could see, pressure switches or anything else dangerous in sight. But that didn’t mean the stack was safe.
“Well?” Ryan demanded, the deadly Steyr balanced in both hands.
“Tell you in a sec,” the Armorer replied, pulling out a small compass and waving it over the piles of containers. If there was any kind of a proximity sensor hidden among the boxes then the compass needle would flicker slightly from the magnetic field. However, the needle remained unresponsive and steady.
“Okay, we’re in the clear,” J.B. announced, tucking the compass away.
Casting an uneasy glance toward the exit door of the antechamber, Ryan went to the nearest pile of boxes. Choosing one, he briefly inspected it before drawing his panga and using the blade as a lever to force open the lid. The nails squealed in protest, and out puffed excelsior stuffing. Placing aside the lid, Ryan removed a fistful of the soft material and froze motionless.
Lying nestled in the stuffing was a severed human hand.