Read Desert Kings Online

Authors: James Axler

Tags: #Speculative Fiction Suspense

Desert Kings (3 page)

Taking a position near the door to the corridor, Ryan stood guard and J.B. punched in the code, then eased into the hallway as the door snicked open, Uzi at the ready. He disappeared from sight for a moment, then stuck his head back into the control room.

“All clear,” J.B. reported. “Nothing in sight, but the usual doors.”

Gathering in the corridor, the companions waited, listening for sounds of movement. When satisfied, they advanced on triple-red, opening each door and checking every room. Normally, these were offices for the base personnel. But in this redoubt each room was piled haphazardly with mil supplies: one room full of combat boots, another stacked high with dark green fatigues, the next with bedrolls and after that backpacks.

“What did you say about an army?” Krysty asked sarcastically, pushing open a door with the barrel of her wheel gun. Inside were lumpy canvas bags containing compact tents. “There’s enough stuff here to equip an entire ville of sec men!”

“Just no weps yet,” Ryan corrected, checking inside a closet. He wanted to stop and loot the place, as he needed a new pair of boots bad. But first and foremost, they had to know if there was anybody else in the redoubt.

When the companions finished the level, they ignored the elevator and used the concrete stairs to proceed straight down to the bottom level. There was little to search there as the entire level was filled with a silently working fusion reactor located behind thick lead walls. Some of the controls on the master control panel were blinking in the red, but they had found other redoubts doing the exact same thing, and the machines were still working smoothly years later. Whatever the flashing lights meant, it had nothing to do with malfunctioning equipment.

Now with their backs clear, Ryan led the way up into the redoubt, going from floor to floor, checking every room for any sign of the dreaded cyborg. But aside from the cornucopia of clothing and bedrolls on the fifth level, the rest of the redoubt was empty of anything useful. There wasn’t a scrap of paper in the wastebaskets or even a roll of toilet paper in the crappers. It seemed as if the redoubt had been effectively emptied long before Delphi started hauling in fresh equipment. Of course that left the big question of where was he getting the supplies?

In the kitchen, the companions found all of the refrigerators softly humming, clean and ready to be used, but totally devoid of anything edible. The rows of ovens worked normally, and the faucets delivered clean water. But that was all. There wasn’t even salt and pepper in the table shakers or napkins in the steel holders.

“Okay, time for the armory,” Ryan decided, shifting the pack on his back. His stomach was grumbling slightly, and the thought of the self-heats they had found the previous week made his mouth water, even though the food was usually tasteless. But this was not the time or the place for chow. Soon enough they would know if the base was empty, and then they could break out some food.

The others judiciously agreed and proceeded with extreme care, with J.B. checking for traps all along the way. They stopped a couple of times to listen to strange noises, creaking and a soft pattering from overhead, but there was nothing in sight and they proceeded, if a bit more slowly.

Reaching the next level, Ryan found the lock on the stairwell door was partially melted, a small, clean hole penetrating completely through the thick metal. Obviously the cyborg had been there. Must have used that damn laser Doc had told them about, the one-eyed man thought. Tentatively, he touched the metal with a fingertip and found it smooth and cool. But that meant nothing. The steel would have been room temperature after only a few hours.

Crouching to peer through the hole, Ryan saw only the usual corridor on the other side, a long, straight hall that led past the elevator bank and ended at a massive armored door. The armory. When the base was fully staffed, the corridor would be a death trap, with no place to hide or take cover from snipers. Now it was just a passageway, although once before they had gotten trapped inside a cage that dropped down from the ceiling.

Gently, Ryan pushed at the door with the barrel of his longblaster. As it swung open there came a soft exhalation of warm air, closely followed by a strange hum and a series of soft pattering again. But this time he heard it clearly. It almost sounded like rain. Had a pipe busted? Or mebbe a sink was overflowing on the top level.

Taking the lead, Ryan proceeded down the corridor, with the rest of the companions fanned out behind him so as to not offer a group target. They reached the door without incident.

Going to the keypad on the wall, Krysty tapped in the 3-2-5 access code. Nothing happened.

She repeated the code, and this time the lock disengaged. The door slid aside, revealing a bare floor covered with scratch marks. The companions discovered that the room was completely empty. Sadly, this was the condition that they found most redoubts: stripped to the walls, every blaster, lightbulb and fork gone, removed by the predark soldiers after skydark and taken—well, somewhere else. They had no idea where.

“Okay, let’s do a standard hunt,” Ryan said, removing his finger from the trigger of the SIG-Sauer. “Check under the racks for anything dropped, and be sure to look in the garbage cans.”

Peering around a corner, J.B. called out, “I don’t think that’s necessary this time!”

Joining the man, the rest of the companions paused in puzzlement. The area past the corner was as vacant as the front of the armory—except for a long row of wooden coffins on the cold floor.

“Is this the abode of vampires?” Doc muttered uneasily.

“Far from East Coast,” Jak said, referring to the ville the companions had visited once. The locals called themselves the People, and lived off human blood. They weren’t exactly the vampires of legend that Mildred had shown them in the vids, but close enough.

“Ten…fifteen…twenty…thirty of them,” Krysty said, her hand tightening on her S&W revolver. Her thumb brushed against the smooth steel where a hammer would have been located for most other blasters. But the Model 640 had an internal hammer, making it perfect for firing from inside a coat pocket.

“Odd place for a mortuary,” Mildred stated.

“Mebbe they aren’t for deaders,” Ryan answered.

“What else would you put in a coffin?”

“Let’s find out,” J.B. suggested. Going to the first coffin, the Armorer knelt to check for traps, then pulled out a knife and wiggled the steel blade into the thin crack between the side and the lid. Pressing downward, he got some play, and moved to the other side to try again. This time the nails squealed in protest, then the lid came loose and crashed to the floor, the noise preternaturally loud in the cavernous room.

“Are…are those what I think they are?” Mildred whispered, looking inside.

“Son of a bitch,” Ryan muttered, holstering his blaster. Filling the coffin were AK-47 assault rifles, Kalashnikov rapid-fires. The blue-steel barrels gleamed with oil, and the wooden stock shone with polish. He lifted one of the predark blasters, testing the weight in a knowledgeable hand.

“Seem brand-new,” Jak said suspiciously, taking another weapon. He worked the bolt and raised the AK-47 so that the overhead fluorescent lights could shine down the barrel.

“Clean!” the teenager announced, releasing the bolt so that it snapped back into position. “All need ammo, and good to go.”

Already at the next coffin, Jak got the lid off and chuckled at the sight of all the curved magazines for the weapons. Inspecting one, he naturally found it empty. The brass in an autoloader was pushed upward by a spring. Leave the weapon loaded for too long and the spring got weak and the blaster jammed in the middle of a fight. It was the price a person paid for having a rapid-fire that required constantly loading and unloading the ammo clips.

The third coffin was full of loose 7.62 mm brass for the rapid-fires. The next couple contained more clips, then more Kalashnikovs, more ammo and, finally, grens. Hundreds upon hundreds of them. Just simple HE charges, no thermite or Willie Peter. White phosphorous, as Mildred called it. But still, it was more grens than the companions had ever seen before except for the Alaskan redoubt.

The last coffin contained assorted survival supplies, folding knives, canteens, Aqua-Pure tabs and the like. A baron’s ransom in irreplaceable tech.

Judiciously, J.B. and Ryan chose a couple of the grens and disassembled them on the spot. But there were no traps, no gimmicks. The explosive mil charges were fully functional, the small wads of C-4 moist and soft. Then the two men went back and used their knives to remove the lead for some of the cartridges and poured out the powder. They half expected it to be sand or sawdust. But the silvery dust looked normal, and when Ryan touched it with the flame of a butane lighter the propellant flared brightly and yielded no smoke.

“Smokeless gunpowder.” J.B. chuckled in delight. Most of the blasters they found stored in the redoubts were loaded with cordite. Greasy stuff that gave off almost no smoke but smelled like a mutie’s fart. This stuff gave off no smoke at all, none, and there was no smell. The Armorer knew how to make black powder and how to convert that into gunpowder. Fulminating guncotton, nitro, plas, those were no prob. Easy pie. But this stuff was a kind of predark chem far beyond his capabilities.

Sitting cross-legged on the cold floor, Jak began to insert live brass into an empty clip. When it was full, he placed it aside and started on another. Doc joined him at the task and they began stacking the loaded magazines.

The rest of the companions stood guard, keeping a close watch on the open door.

“Must be about a hundred of the rapid-fires,” Krysty said slowly, biting a lip. “And mebbe a million rounds.”

“Closer to two million as I figure it,” Mildred said, scrunching her face. “Spare body parts downstairs and enough blasters here for an army. What is the son of a bitch planning?”

“Could be trade goods,” J.B. theorized, running a hand along the satiny finish of a Kalashnikov. He took a clip from the pile and gently inserted it into the receiver, then worked the bolt to chamber a round. “A man could buy a whole ville with just a couple of these.”

“Or take over a dozen,” Ryan added grimly.

“Baron Delphi?”

“Why not? Last time he gave M-16 assault rifles to the people he hired to kill us and capture Doc. Mebbe now he plans to carve out an empire…” Ryan didn’t finish the thought, but he could see that everybody else was also reaching the same conclusion. After creating his kingdom, the cyborg would come after Doc and the rest of them again. Only this time, instead of facing four coldhearts, the companions could be facing a bastard army. A real army, hundreds of sec men armed with rapid-fires. They had tangled with something similar in Shiloh, but back then the companions did a nightcreep and used the element of surprise. That would not be the case this time.

“What puzzles me is the use of these coffins,” Doc said, placing aside another full clip. “It is most unlikely that these funeral containers were all that he could obtain to transport the blasters. It seems more likely that—”

“Fireblast, he must have been smuggling them out of someplace,” Ryan said, completing the old man’s thought, rubbing his chin. The last time, the cyborg seemed to have unlimited supplies. But now he was smuggling weapons? The only logical reason why he’d be doing that: the bastard cyborg had more enemies than just the companions.

“All right, everybody grab a spare blaster and some grens,” Ryan announced, taking a loaded AK-47 and sliding the strap over a shoulder. “I want to check out the last few levels of this redoubt, then go outside and find out where we are.”

“And then what?” Mildred asked, filling her pockets with spare ammo clips. “Should we send all of this stuff on another one-way trip to nowhere like the last batch?”

But before the Deathlands warrior could respond, the soft pattering sound came again, closer this time and from directly above them. As the companions looked curiously upward, the ceiling shimmered like a heat mirage in the desert and a dark figure came into view. Eight metal legs extended from a globular body with red crystal eyes on the front and a stubby little weapon of some kind mounted on the side.

“Droid!” Ryan cursed, diving to the side as he cut loose with a long burst from the Kalashnikov.

The stuttering stream of AP rounds hammered the machine, doing scant damage. Then the scuttling droid fired back, a sizzling energy beam from the tiny weapon hitting Ryan directly in the chest.

Chapter Three

A soft, dry wind blew over the weedy landscape, carrying the faint smell of salt. High in the sky above Nevada, dark purple clouds rumbled ominously and sheet lightning flashed brightly, momentarily parting the roiling cover to expose a fiery orange sky.

Lumbering out of the bushes, the monster slid down the steep clay bank and landed with a splash in the shallow river. Standing ten feet tall, the colossal griz bear studied the rushing water. The river was quite shallow in that area of the forest, no more than a few feet deep. Huge boulders jutted from the churning surface, the spray creating a shimmering rainbow above the flow. Wiggling through the rocky shallows were big silvery trout, golden salmon and huge schools of bright-orange sunfish resembling underwater fire. In the deeper parts black-hued catfish wiggled along the bottom eating everything they encountered without prejudice. They smelled odd, and the bear consumed them only when there was nothing else available.

In the warm summer months, the griz would travel downstream to the cliffs where there were freshwater crabs, huge blue things that tasted wonderful, the snapping pinchers easily avoided. Other forest predators savored the delicious rock-dwellers, but none of them dared to challenge the powerful griz. Wolves, cougars, even the giant bull moose avoided the monstrous killer. The griz was the largest creature in the entire mountain forest, and the unchallenged master of the entire valley.

There came a flash of gold in the rushing water and the bear lashed out a massive paw. The surface of the river smacked loudly, and a wiggling salmon bounced into the misty air. Quickly bending forward, the griz snapped powerful jaws shut on the flapping fish, the skull bones audibly cracking.

Contentedly sitting in the cold water, the bear used both paws to rip the huge salmon apart, happily gnawing on the tasty internal organs. Pale blood splattered the thick fur of the beast as it contentedly consumed all of the dying fish, then afterward it daintily washed the warm gore off its paws and lazily rose to head back for the bank.

However, as it neared the grass, the animal paused at the sound of rustling leaves and instantly growled menacingly, its haunches rising slightly in preparation for a jump. Then its nose caught a strange smell in the air. Galvanized in raw terror, all thoughts of fighting vanished. The griz turned tail to charge for the deeper water in the middle of the river.

But it barely traveled a yard when a humanoid figure jumped out of the treetop and landed squarely on the back of the forest killer. The griz bear snarled in fury as the hooting stickie slapped it with both hands, the deadly suckers adhering to the fur and flesh. With a jerk, the hands were raised, crimson gobbets of flesh ripping free from the startled bear. Violently shuddering, the wounded animal roared in agony and rolled over. But the stickie stayed in place and again plunged the sucker-covered hands deeper into the ghastly openings, pulling out more flesh with one hand and pieces of beating organs with the other.

Agony exploded inside the griz as blood sprayed into the air from the ruptured arteries. As the mutie consumed the still-living flesh, the griz mindlessly turned to run away, careening off a partially submerged tree and then slamming directly into a boulder. Broken fangs and blood erupted from the brutal impact, and the bear jerked back for a split instant, only to charge forward again, trying to reach the deep waters downstream. But its great strength was fading fast and every step was blinding agony, the sounds of eating from the thing riding on top stealing what little reason the animal possessed. It weakly tried to rub the stickie off by hitting a boulder, then the desperate animal rolled over again, keeping its attacker under the water for as long as possible before surfacing. But it was to no avail. Blood dripped off the big bear, the river running red.

Slowing noticeably, the bear could feel no pain anymore and somehow knew the end was near. Summoning its last bits of strength, the griz rose on its hind legs to bellow a challenge at the world, then it collapsed into the running water with a tremendous splash and lay still, its great lungs laboring to draw ragged breaths. Sight faded to darkness and a terrible cold filled the beast as its thoughts became confused and muddled.

Steadfastly continuing to eat, the happy stickie barely noticed when the whimpering bear finally stopped moving and collapsed dead in the cold water. When it reached the still-warm fish in the belly, the mutie hooted in delight at the unexpected prize.

As it extracted the partially chewed food, the stickie paused at the sound of a low rumble. Usually loud noises were good. Explosions and fire always meant norms were nearby, and they sometimes had prizes worth stealing. But this was different somehow, and it rapidly grew louder. Timidly, the worried stickie looked at the stormy sky, the roiling clouds of black and fiery orange crackling with sheet lightning. There was a kind of rain that fell sometimes, every drop burning worse than the orange-beast that consumed wood. Once it had seen another stickie caught in a downpour of the fire-rain before it could reach a cave. The flesh of the mutie dissolved, exposing the white sticks underneath, then those fell apart, and still the fire-rain continued, destroying animals and plants, until there were only rocks and bad ground. When the rain stopped, the mutie had fled far away, but still it feared the return of the bad water.

Sluggishly, the mutie recalled that the fire-rain had a very specific smell, similar to old bird eggs, and there was no trace of the fire-rain smell. This had to be something else. Some new animal perhaps? Drooling slightly, the stickie hooted in delight. The females were always delighted to get new meat, and would reward him by spreading their legs.

In a splintery crash, the armored war wag plowed through the row of trees, the heavy treads flattening the laurel bushes into pulp. Hooting a challenge, the stickie rose to wave both sucker-covered hands at the strange angular beast, then charged in attack. Jumping high, it sailed toward the rolling thing, but suddenly there came a series of loud bangs, the noises so close together they almost seemed to be one long explosion.

Tremendous pain ripped through the stickie as the heavy-duty combat rounds tore it apart. The mutie fell into the dirty river alongside the cooling corpse of the giant bear, slayer and victim joined together forever in death.

Rolling uncaring over the bodies, the lead APC crushed them in the mud and rocks as three more war wags appeared from the forest. Each of the armored machines was draped with sandbags for additional protection, the windows only tiny slits to prevent an enemy from shooting inside the vehicles. Instead of wheels, they rolled on armored treads, and the vented barrels of rapid-fires jutted from each side like the quills of a porcupine. On the top of the lead wag was a scarred dome, the stubby barrel of a 20 mm Vulcan minigun sweeping the opposite shoreline for any possible dangers. The next wag had a missile pod on top, the firing hatch closed at the moment, and the last two vehicles were armed with the fluted barrels of high-pressure flame-throwers. Blue-tinted smoke blew from the exhaust pipes rising from the roof of the war machines. The metal plating under the patched sandbags was badly scarred in several locations, but there were no breaches in sight.

As indomitable as mountains, the armored wags jounced across the Nelson River, the water sluiced off several layers of old blood, tufts of human hair and several mutie suckers coming loose from behind the ramming prow to wash away.

Sparkling with droplets, the war wags lumbered up the opposite bank, the prows rising high to crash down onto the grassland. The big diesel engines revved in power and the machines increased in speed.

“Smack on target.” Zane Bellany chuckled, sliding shut the steel hatch on the left blasterport and holstering his rapid-fire. It took two tries because of the cramped quarters, but the man finally got the Webley .44 wheel gun back into leather.

As bald as a rock, Bellany sported an enormous head that seemed to merge with his incredibly hairy chest. His clothes were clean, but heavily patched, and crude tattoos were visible on every inch of his exposed skin. A machete hung at his side, tucked in a rattlesnake-skin sheath.

“Waste of ammo.” The driver snorted, feeding the power plant more juice. The gauges on the illuminated dashboard flickered in response. As the wag surged forward, a piece of the aced stickie came loose and fell off the array of welded iron bars covering the windshield.

Unconcerned, Bellany shrugged as he reached for the half-eaten sandwich lying on the dashboard. “Don’t worry about it,” he said, taking a mouthful and chewing. “We got plenty.”

Concentrating on steering the huge transport, the driver merely grunted in reply. He was a newbie to the convoy and still had trouble getting his head around the idea of having enough ammo. All of his life the man had watched grim people fight to the death with fists, knives and clubs over the ownership of a single live brass. Yet the four wags of the convoy had cases of the stuff.

Upon joining the convoy, the driver had been given,
a leather gunbelt containing a pristine S&W .357 revolver, the double row of loops across the back holding a total of thirty live brass. Thirty! It was a fortune in brass, but that was nothing compared to the stack of boxes stored in the armory. Grens, rockets, all kinds of predark mil shit. Just fragging incredible. How the chief kept finding the tons of stuff he had no idea.

Along with the blasters, Chief Rogan often unearthed predark meds, crystals that you could dissolve in water and drink to cure the Black Cough, the Blind Shakes, all sorts of triple-bad ills. The meds were worth a thousand times more than any blaster, yet the chief regularly gave them away. At first that seemed like an incredible waste. But whenever they returned to those villes, the convoys were greeted warmly and nobody tried to jack them in the night, sell them rad water, or any of the other feeb tricks some locals used to rip off outlanders.

Finished with the sandwich, Bellany brushed the crumbs off his shirt and reached over a shoulder to grab a roll of paper. Carefully untying the piece of cloth holding it closed, Bellany studied the hand-drawn map, then checked the compass on the dashboard before raising his head to note the landscape outside. After the river was supposed to be a series of foothills, and than a deep valley…right. They were nearly at their goal. Rolling up the map again, he tucked it back into the honeycomb and grabbed a mike from a clip attached to the ceiling.

“Okay, everybody get razor,” Bellany said, the words echoing throughout the long wag. “And somebody wake up the chief. We’re almost there.”

“And sooner than expected,” a familiar voice said from behind.

Turning, Bellany smiled in greeting at the man standing in the doorway. “We didn’t run into any trouble like last time, sir,” he said, hanging up the mike.

“Then what were you shooting at?” Chief “John Rogan” asked, frowning slightly. The man was wearing a mil jumpsuit bleached a dull gray to match his pale combat boots. Two different blasters rode in a wide gunbelt and a short crystal wand was tucked into a shoulder holster. The others had no idea what the thing was, but naturally assumed it was a weapon of some kind.

“Just a stickie,” Bellany said. “Nothing important.”

Damn it, he missed stickies? Curse the bad luck for them to be found when he was out of the control room! “Stickies, eh? Well, as you say, nothing important,” Rogan lied, limping across the cabin.

As the convoy leader took a seat, Bellany forced himself not to comment on the man’s condition. Pale and thin, Rogan always looked rather sickly, a condition that had tricked a lot of coldhearts into trying to ace the norm for his blasters. But the chief was still here while the others were now residents in the worm hotel. In spite of appearances, Rogan was lightning-fast with a blaster and rarely missed. Privately, Bellany thought it was more than possible that the chief had just a touch of mutie in his blood, but wisely never mentioned the idea out loud. Chief Rogan hated all muties with a violence that bordered on madness.

Limping to the gunner chair, the man who called himself John Rogan awkwardly eased into the seat. Studying the grille covering the front windshield, he buckled on the seat belt usually ignored by all of the other members of his crew. There were some scattered bloodstains on the metal, but no appreciable damage. Good. It had taken him quite a while to steal these four trucks from the Alaska redoubt controlled by Department Coldfire, and getting replacements was totally out of the question. If another operative of Coldfire ever found him, or worse, somebody from TITAN, then the cyborg would be ruthlessly executed on sight.

But the fools cannot kill what they cannot find, Delphi noted sagely.

However, he was still annoyed about missing the stickies, though. The cyborg would have appreciated one last attempt at raising their intelligence. But so far, the only muties that Delphi had directly encountered were flapjacks, runts and those annoying little water rat things. Whatever the hell those were! That doomie called Haviva had warned him about teeth in the dirty water, and she had been right. Teeth in the water. The phrase had stayed in his mind. And the fat little muties had been nothing but teeth in the dirty marshland water. The horrible things aced four of his men before they could escape.
Teeth in the water.
Delphi was extremely glad the deadly rodents were far behind them now. On the other hand, he wanted to find just one more group of stickies. He still had some faint hopes for his broken children, but it was starting to fade away. They might simply be too stupid to ever train.

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