Read Desert Kings Online

Authors: James Axler

Tags: #Speculative Fiction Suspense

Desert Kings (9 page)

Going to the workbench, Ryan grabbed the ax and hurried down the stairs with the other two men. At each level, they paused to check the elevator doors, but saw nothing amiss. Finally they smelled smoke, and wisps of fumes faintly colored the air, the wall vents already struggling to clear atmosphere.

Reaching the bottom level, they ran past the nuclear reactor and paused at the sight of roiling clouds of smoke coming from the bulging elevator doors. Diligently, the wall vents were audibly trying to clear away the pollution, but more fumes were issuing from the elevator than the vents could dissipate.

Proceeding carefully, Ryan crept along the wall, with Doc and Jak close behind, their big-bore blasters at the ready. Gesturing, Ryan directed the men to take positions behind the massive steel pipes feeding water to the cooling units of the nuclear reactor. They nodded and assumed firing stances. Alone, Ryan moved closer to the elevator and strained to hear any movement behind the battered doors. But there was only the steady crackle of the dying flames.

Unexpectedly, a strange rushing noise came from the ceiling and a deluge of white foam gushed out from hidden fire sprinklers. With a curse, Doc holstered his wet LeMat, the black powder rendered useless from the moisture, and swung up his AK-47, easing back the arming bolt as quietly as possible.

Covered with the sticky goo, Ryan eased closer to the double doors, waited a minute, then slipped the ax blade into the charred rubber seal. Bracing his boots against the slippery floor, he twisted the wooden handle and the doors squealed in torment as they were forced aside, then jammed solid in the wall. A wall of smoke rolled out to fill the corridor with Stygian darkness.

Quickly stepping back, Ryan blinked the smoke from his eye trying to see inside the cage, then something metallic moved and the head of the droid filled the opening.

The needler hissed, chewing a hole through the wall, missing Ryan by a good foot, then it started angling in his direction. Summoning every ounce of his remaining strength, the Deathlands warrior swung the fire ax with both arms and buried it to the shaft into the damaged eye of the machine.

Jerking wildly, the droid yanked the ax from his grip as it began shaking and shuddering, fat blue sparks crawling all over the damaged hull. The needler fired randomly at the floor and ceiling, then ran empty.

Ryan pulled his SIG-Sauer and put an entire clip into the other eyehole, hammering the metal aside. A moment later Doc and Jak were at his side, handcannons booming thunder, the heavy-caliber rounds hammering deeper, and farther, into the armored machine. For some reason that seemed to reduce the shuddering, and Ryan sensed danger, so he grabbed the ax to pull it free with a grinding noise, then slammed it in again.

The ceiling foam slowed to a trickle as the resilient machine turned toward Ryan. Doc drew his LeMat, shoved the barrel into a tiny rent and hoped the weapon would fire. The foot-long lance of flame from the pitted muzzle seemed to fill the interior, and the droid went motionless, then dropped limply to the floor of the elevator.

Not trusting the predark machine, Ryan retrieved the ax and hacked at the body of the droid until the protective armor sheathing came off, revealing the interior workings. Now the three men fired their weapons into the complex assemblage of advanced technology until the delicate circuitry was reduced to a pile of loose debris.

“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” Doc mumbled.

“Frag that mutie shit,” Jak countered, reaching into the machine to grab a handful of loose wiring and throwing it down the dripping white corridor. “Now, aced for sure.”

“A most wise precaution, my young friend,” Doc replied, wiping the foam off his face. “This is a particularly redoubtable opponent, and its demise is not yet assured.”

“Now it nuking is,” Ryan said, stuffing his last gren into the head of the droid and pulling the pin.

Running for cover, the three men just made it behind the water pipes as the gren detonated, blowing a blast of wiring and chips across the corridor for a dozen yards. The litter hit the floor and skidded along, leaving a score of tiny contrails in bubbly chems.

“Okay, back to the armory for more grens and ammo,” Ryan stated, touching his throat. The flame-retardant foam was stinging his many cuts, although none of them seemed life-threatening. Just annoying. “After that we hit the showers and leave.”

“Are we to make a jump, sir?” Doc asked, arching an eyebrow.

“Hell no,” Jak answered curtly.

“Damn straight,” Ryan said, striding off in a determined gait. “We’re going outside after that Delphi and end him.” Just then, his stomach growled in hunger again, but Ryan ignored it completely. Food would come later. There was more chilling to be done this day.

Chapter Five

After rearming themselves, the companions went to the garage level of the redoubt and checked inside the egg-shaped LAV for anything useful. Delphi had a lot of advanced weaponry they might be able to use against him. Unfortunately the wag had seemed to have been stripped to the walls, possibly to make room for the droid to get inside to wait for the cyborg to return. Everything was gone, even the chair from the control board and the engine. The LAV was an empty shell.

“Pity.” J.B. sighed, setting down a pillowcase full of grens he had brought along. “However, I can still leave him a little something to remember us by.”

“Need any help?” Jak asked eagerly.

“Sure. You start stringing the trip wire.”

Leaving the two men to their work, the rest of the companions gathered by the towering black doors.

“Did anybody else notice that the droid acted as if it could understand what we were saying?” Krysty asked.

“Maybe it could,” Mildred suggested. “Intelligent machines were being experimented with in my time. I guess whoever Delphi worked for…”

“Coldfire,” Doc said, expelling the word as if it were a piece of rotten food. “Department Coldfire. I seem to recall that it is a division of Overproject Whisper, the lunatics who built the redoubts!”

“Whitecoats,” Ryan growled, putting a wealth of bitter feelings into the single word.

“Quite right, sir,” Doc said. “Thank God that TITAN is around to keep…” The man paused, a strange expression on his face, then he turned toward the wag. “John Barrymore, how is the work progressing?”

Puzzled, the three companions glanced at one another.

“It’ll go faster if you stop jeckling me!” J.B. answered from inside the vehicle.

“That’s heckling!”

“Whatever!”

“Ah, are you okay, Doc?” Ryan asked, taking the man by the shoulder.

The old man turned to face him with a smile. “Certainly, my friend, never better. Why do you ask?”

“What was that you said about…Titan?” Mildred asked carefully.

“The Titans?” Doc repeated, stroking his jaw. “Why, those were the ancient giants that the Greek gods stole Mount Olympus from to control the Earth. Fascinating story, but why ever did you ask about them now?”

Nobody spoke for a moment. Clearly, something was going on with the man, but they had no idea what.

“Oh, no reason,” Mildred said hastily. “I was just thinking how the droid was like something from Greek mythology. A guardian of the rainbow bridge.”

“Tsk, tsk. That’s Norse mythology, madam.”

“Really? My mistake.”

Just then, J.B. walked backward from the wag, holding up both hands. “Easy now,” he warned. “Steady! This is tricky part!”

“Tell something not know!” Jak retorted, also moving backward down the short flight of stairs. In his hand, the teen was holding a spool of wire. The other end was inside the vehicle, and he was keeping the length very taut. As he reached the floor, Jak stepped aside and J.B. carefully closed the hatch on the wire, snipping it off the end. Then both men scrambled to get clear. After a few minutes when nothing happened, they relaxed.

“Done and done!” J.B. announced, straightening his hat. “When Delphi tries that door, we’ll hear it on other side of world!”

“Not be enough left to load empty brass!” Jak grinned mercilessly.

“Then, pray, let us proceed,” Doc rumbled, drawing the LeMat to check the fresh load in the blaster. “The sooner started, the sooner finished.
Ergo sum est
, eh, my dear Ryan?”

“Bet your ass,” Ryan agreed, sharing a private look with Krysty and Mildred. They were unable to talk freely at the moment with Doc standing among them, but the man’s bizarre behavior would be discussed later.

Positioning themselves in front of the blast doors in a combat formation, the companions stayed razor while Krysty punched in the exit code on a small keypad recessed into the wall, then pressed the lever. There came the expected rumble of heavy machinery under the floor, then the sound of working hydraulics, and the nukeproof doors loudly unlocked and opened with a low rumble. A wave of cold washed over the companions as they gradually saw a solid wall of rushing water completely blocking the exit.

“Dark night, we’re under a waterfall!” J.B. exclaimed, resting the barrel of his AK-47 on a shoulder. A fine mist was coming into the tunnel, making everything damp.

“Good way hide redoubt,” Jak commented.

Going to the edge of the slippery floor, Ryan experimentally held out a hand and let the falling cascade impact his fingers. The water hit hard, but not with pummeling force, so this was clearly not a big waterfall.

“We’re going to need some rope,” Mildred said, holstering her blaster. “No way we’re going to try to breach that without support.”

A coil of rope had been spotted in the tool room of the garage and quickly retrieved. Lashing one end around Ryan, the rest of the companions took hold of the other end and tried to brace themselves.

“We could loop this once around the wag,” Doc suggested, glancing at the vehicle.

Shifting his grip on the rope, Jak snorted in contempt.

“Too risky,” J.B. answered. “Jak and I have that baby rigged to blow if Delphi farts too hard. Stay as far away from that wag as possible.”

“Accepted.”

“Good safety tip, thank you, Egon,” Mildred said in a singsong voice that meant she was quoting somebody.

Wrapping the end of the rope around his own middle, Doc gave the woman a quizzical glance, but she could only shrug in reply. The film
Ghostbusters
was one of her favorite movies, but its humor was a little too bizarre to try to explain to a schoolteacher from the 1880s.

Seeing that the others had dug in as best they could, Ryan shuffled forward again, moving closer to the edge, feeling the companions tighten the rope lashed around his waist. The cool spray felt refreshing on his face and, squinting his good eye, Ryan could almost see through the shimmering wall. Can’t be that deep then, he realized. Shallow and slow. This was just camou, and not a barrier to keep out folks.

His sleeves were already soaked, droplets of condensed mist trickling down his face into his shirt. He had taken off his jacket, but the man still felt like he was carrying fifty pounds of clothing.

“Ready?” the one-eyed man called over a shoulder, fingering the edge of the doorway.

“Abso-fragging-lutely!” J.B. shouted back over the muted roar of the fall.

Taking a deep breath, Ryan placed an arm over his head and stuck his face into the rushing water. The falls pounded on his arms, but not hard enough to knock him over. Extending a foot, he felt nothing beyond the tunnel, then stabbed downward with the AK-47. There was no resistance until the longblaster was completely submerged. There was a ledge about four feet away. Good enough.

Pulling back, Ryan gulped some air, brushed the sodden hair from his face, hunched his shoulders, and walked out of the tunnel. There was a moment of disorientation as he fell, then plunged into water. It rose to his chest before his boots hit rock. With the water pouring all around him, Ryan held his breath and waited a moment to make sure it was stable. Then he tugged once on the rope, saying that he was still alive, and got an answering tug before moving forward once more. Carefully placing one boot ahead of the other, he moved from a ledge of smooth rock to an uneven surface that felt like pebbles and stones. He was drenched to the skin by now, and felt that his lungs were about to give out, when he suddenly stepped out of the waterfalls and into open air.

Drawing air through his nose, Ryan touched the SIG-Sauer at his side, scanning the area for any danger. He was standing waist-deep in a wide pool, or rather, a small lake, with steeply sloped sides of what looked like red clay. Were they back in Virginia?

That was when he noticed the moss covering the boulders jutting from the lake and the tall banyan trees lining the shore. Oranges grew in abundance, along with other fruits that Ryan could not identify. There were numerous birds sitting in the trees, none of them looking like muties, and then a monkey dashed along the treetops screeching and yelling as other monkeys gave pursuit. A motion in the water caught his attention, and Ryan saw a black snake with diamond markings of yellow and blue glide along the bottom of the lake. There was a large lump in its midsection proclaiming a recent kill, but he kept track of its progress until the snake was out of sight.

Glancing at the sky, Ryan saw the usual maelstrom of purple and orange clouds filling the heavens, the occasional bolt of lightning zipping from one to cloud to strike another.

Tugging on the rope for more play, Ryan started to wade toward shore. A school of tiny fish resembling an underwater rainbow darted past the man. That made Ryan ease his stance slightly. If there were any large predators in the pool, the fish would be long gone. But he still kept a careful watch for the return of the diamondback snake. Most animals killed for food, but there were some that aced others just because they could. Man was not alone in chilling for sport.

Reaching the shore, Ryan maneuvered clumsily through the ankle-deep mud and crawled onto dry ground. The grass was freckled with tiny flowers and he recognized them as the same type found inside the mat-trans chamber. The cyborg had been here.

Slowly straightening, Ryan let the water drip off his clothes as he studied the thick jungle. Straight ahead was a sort of path, the thick bushes mashed to the ground.

Past the bushes was a broken stand of bamboo, the splintered shafts scattered around and the stumps already a yard high. That looked like the passage of a heavy wag to him. Maybe even a war wag. With the egg-shaped wag inoperable, the cyborg would have needed new transportation. And there could have been anything parked in the garage, even an APC or a tank.

Kneeling, Ryan examined the crushed leaves, but there was no sign of tire tracks or tread marks. And bamboo was the fastest-growing plant in the world, according to Mildred. Under the right conditions it could rise several inches a day. Which meant there was no way to even guess how long it had been since the wag, or wags, forced its way through the dense foliage. But certainly no more than a week. That matched the condition of the flowers in the mat-trans. Delphi had been here only a few days ago.

A weak tug came on the rope, and Ryan jerked back twice in reply, saying it was safe for the others to exit. As the rope went slack, he holstered the blaster and started undoing the knot when the jungle around him went eerily silent.

Mouthing a curse, Ryan clawed for the SIG-Sauer as a large figure moved in the shadows under a banyan tree. Instinctively, the man fired twice and a bellowing roar sounded as something with four arms rushed into the light. Fireblast, it was a hunter!

Moving fast to the side, Ryan pumped five more rounds into the hideous creature before it was upon him. Wrapping all four arms around his chest, the gorilla-like animal squeezed with monstrous strength, and Ryan felt his ribs creak with awful pressure. Nuking hell, the mutie had seven rounds in it and was still trying to ace him! But the slugs were probably why Ryan was still alive. The 9 mm rounds weakened the creature enough to give Ryan a fighting chance.

Wiggling the SIG-Sauer against the dark fur, Ryan fired off three more rounds, keeping his head low so the mutie couldn’t reach his vulnerable throat. The creature grunted loudly from the impact of each hot slug into its leg and upper thigh, then the grip loosened slightly. Wiggling an arm free, Ryan shoved the blaster under the snarling jaw and triggered the last two rounds. The muzzle-flame engulfed the beast’s face, and its head rocked back from the triphammer blows of the steel-jacketed bone-shredders.

As the arms dropped away, Ryan kicked the mutie, but the blow seemed to have no effect as the dying animal staggered away, blood gushing from the ghastly wounds. Then it turned and insanely roared to charge again with a grim intensity. Normal or mutated, Ryan knew that look. It was going to take him with it onto the last train west.

With no time to reload, Ryan dropped the blaster and drew his panga to meet the charge with a slash of razor-sharp steel. The mutie stumbled to the side, trying to get around the man, and Ryan lashed out with the flat of the blast slashing the exposed throat from ear to ear.

Gurgling horribly, the hunter grabbed at the ruin of its neck, crimson life pumping onto the ground. Yanking the AK-47 off his shoulder, Ryan stitched the mutie from groin to crown and it stumbled away to collapse into the bushes. There was a mighty exhalation, and it went still.

Sheathing his knife, Ryan grabbed the SIG-Sauer from the grass and shoved the empty blaster back into its holster, never looking away from the steaming jungle. He’d encountered that type of mutie previously, and the hunters always traveled in packs. He had to get back into the redoubt fast. His ribs ached, but there was no wheezing when he breathed, which meant there were no broken bones. He was thankful for that.

Stepping awkwardly down the slope, Ryan saw something move in the trees and fired a short burst in its direction. If he hit anything, there came no answering cry of pain.

Wading back into the lake, he nearly slipped on a slimy rock, but caught himself from going into the water when six more hunters dropped from the trees and charged. Incredibly, they paused at the edge of the water.

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