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The convoy's lead tug rumbled onward through the dead-still night. Diesel engines shook the deck under Ryan's boot soles; thick smoke poured from the twin stacks atop the superstructure, enveloping the stern in caustic particulate. Deep breathing was difficult. The smoke burned his one good eye and it left an awful, scorched petrochemical taste in his mouth.
Way nukin' better than rowing, though, Ryan told himself. He'd had enough rowing to last him the rest of his life.
Oars shipped, the Matachìn were powering toward what he figured was their ultimate destination.
The Lantic had turned black-glass-smooth under a starry, moonless sky. In the distance, on the starboard side, its oily surface reflected a narrow band made up of brilliant points of lightwhite, yellow, red, greendotting, demarcating an otherwise invisible shoreline. As the bow crested the widely spaced swells, the lights lurched skyward then abruptly dropped. Landfall, the first in more than three weeks, drew inexorably closer.
The lights definitely weren't from fires or torches or anything combustible; Ryan knew that because they didn't flicker or throb. They glowed steadily.
Which meant electricity.
Massive quantities of electricity.
Power to burn, in fact.
What bobbed ahead of them was no looted carcass of an underground redoubt, no shit-hammered, hand-to-mouth ville, no nuked-out urban ruin. This was a city, as cities were rumored of old, and from more than a mile offshore it looked to be very much alive.
Ryan glanced at the exhausted human forms hunched on the benches around him. In the deck lights, the slaves' filthy cheeks were streaked by tears, their lips trembling, their eyeswide with fear and panic at the prospect of an unknown fate.
Faced with the self-same prospect, his companions had drawn on the last of their physical and mental reserves, turning hard-eyed, resolute, deadly focused. Like Ryan, Mildred, Doc, Jak, Krysty and J.B. were a breed apart, their spirits tempered in the furnace of continual conflict and bodily risk. Unlike their Deathlander fellow slaves, they had little interest in finding a comfortable hole to hunker down in, nor in shouldering leather traces and dragging an iron-tipped plow over rocky soil, nor in crawling through the radioactive nukeglass massifs in search of predark spoils, nor in selling their considerable fighting skills to the highest-bidding baron. They were addicted to the kind of absolute freedom only the hell-scape could provide.
Aboard Tempest, in what now seemed like another life, when Doc had proposed they join Harmonica Tom on a southern hemisphere voyage of discovery, none of them ever dreamed it would be undertaken in chains and at the point of a lash.
Now the impossible situation in which Ryan and his comrades found themselves trapped was about to change.
Maybe for the worse.
In the latter they saw a crack of daylight.
Ryan nudged Mildred gently with his elbow, nodded toward the crescent of lights, and said, "So, that's what the world looked like before hellday?"
"Pretty much," she replied.
From the bench on the far side of Mildred, J.B. leaned forward and asked, "Where in nukin' hell are we? That's all still Mex, right?"
"I think it's Veracruz," the twentieth-century, physician freezie said. "Or maybe Tampico. They were the two closest big port cities."
One of the Matachìn deck-watch leaned in under the sheet metal awning beside them. He was tricked out in full battle armor. Hanging by his hands on the pipe strut, he unleashed armpit stench with both barrels. There was spattered blood on the canvas scabbard of his gut-hook machete. It was still wet, and it was most certainly human. Slaves too weak to row routinely got the long edge across the backs of their necks before they were tossed over the side like so much garbage. A crazy triumphant look in his eyes, the pirate spoke rapid-fire down at Mildred. Overhearing the words, the Matachìn idling nearby looked on in amusement.
"What did the bastard say to you?" Ryan asked.
Mildred translated. "He said we're looking at Veracruz City."
"He said more than that," J.B. prompted.
"Yeah, he did," she admitted. "He said next to his world, Deathlands is nothing but shit, and that we Deathlanders will always be shit."
"An assessment that might have carried more weight," Doc remarked aridly from a seat on the bench directly behind them, "had his own hairstyle not been adorned with dried sea gull excreta."
"You're absolutely right," Ryan told the pirate. "We're shit and you're not."
The Matachìn scowled and as he did so his right hand dropped to his hip and the pommel of his braided leather lash. English was beyond him, but tone transcended the language barrier.
Mildred spoke up quickly, putting Ryan's remark into Spanish. Evidently the sarcasm was lost in translation.
With a satisfied sneer, the pirate turned back to his shipmates.
As the ship angled closer to shore, the lay of the coast gradually revealed itself. The curve of a southward-pointing peninsula became distinct from the landmass immediately behind it. The tug beelined for a blinking green beacon that marked the deep channel at the tip of the breakwater. When the ship rounded the bend into the protection of the harbor, they hit the wall of trapped heat and suffocating humidity radiating off the land.
The ship's horn blasted overhead; the sister ships behind chimed in, as well, announcing the Matachìn convoy's triumphant return to what Ryan could only guess was its point of origin.
In the lee of the peninsula, under scattered bright lights on tall stanchions, were the remains of a commercial shipyard docks and cargo cranes. The scale of the development dwarfed what they had seen at Port Arthur ville. The structures hadn't escaped Armageddon unscathed, though. It looked like they had been slammed by tidal waves or earthquakes. Most of the metal-frame industrial buildings were flattened to their concrete pads. Towering cargo cranes canted at odd angles; some had toppled into the water. The enormous docks were broken, wide sections of decking were missing; moored to the remnants were a hodge-podge of small trading vessels. Beyond the docks, where the peninsula met the mainland, stood a power plant that was fully operational. Floodlights illuminated clouds of smoke or steam from a trio of tall stacks. Over the noise of the diesels, the complex emitted a steady, high-pitched hum.
The lead tug continued, hugging the inside of the peninsula, passing within a hundred yards of another immense structure a fortress made of heavily weathered, light gray stone, also dramatically lit. Apparently constructed on an offshore island, it was connected to the mainland by a low, stone bridge. Above its crenellated battlements, at either end of the enclosed compound, were cylindrical observation towers. Huge iron anchor rings hung in a row just above the waterline. In front of the high-arched entrance gate, small motor launches were tied up to mooring cleats. Eroded stone sentry boxes bracketed the gate.
The mini-island fortress was a time-worn anachronism, but it had been built to last; it had survived nukeday virtually intact, whereas the twentieth-century artifacts that surrounded it had not.
"It's an old Spanish fort from colonial days," Doc ventured. "Probably six hundred or more years old. Those massive, triangular blockhouses outside the corners of the bastion walls are called ravelins. They were designed to defend the main perimeter from attack by offering a protected position for flanking fire. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries Spaniards used stone forts like that to store gold and silver mined from the New World. It could also defend the city from pirates and foreign invadersFrench, English, American."
Even bathed in hard, bright light, evil seem to emanate from the structure, from the very seams in its masonry.
Ancient squatting evil.
A consequence of the uncounted thousands who had died as prisoners in its belly, between its teeth, under its claws.
"The question is, what is it now?" Mildred said.
"Those cannons sticking out of the battlements sure as hell aren't six-hundred-year-old muzzleloaders," J.B. said. "If I had to guess I'd say they're at least 106 mm with mebbe a one-mile range. That means nobody comes in or goes out of the harbor without coming under their sights."
As the tug motored through the sheltered waters of the harbor, past the fort's arched gate, a gaggle of armed men spilled through it, waving and cheering in welcome. They didn't look anything like the Matachìn. No dreads. No battle armor. They weren't wearing uniforms as such, more like insignia. They all had crimson sashes over their right shoulders and opposite hips, and they wore off-white straw cowboy hats with rolled brims. Their shoulder-slung weapons were different from what the Matachìn carried. The wire-stocked, stamped-steel submachine guns were much more compact, like Uzi knock-offs, with the mags inside the pistol grips. Men in crimson sashes continued to pour out of the gate, onto the dock.
"Sec man garrison," Ryan said flatly.
Fireworks whistled from the battlements, arcing high into the black sky, and there exploding into coruscating patterns of green, gold and red.
The tug chugged on, turning left for the nearby mainland.
Looking over his shoulder at the wreckage of the peninsula, Ryan guessed that it had taken the brunt of nukeday tidal waves, in effect absorbing most of the energy before it reached the city on the inside of the harbor.
Off the bow, Veracruz glowed incandescent against the black-velvet sky. The one-eyed warrior could make out individual pinpoints of light from the upper story windows of the tallest buildings. At the edge of the city, a long pier jutted into the water; it was overlooked by a lighthouse.
When the tug came within four hundred yards of the pier, Ryan saw it was packed end to end; thousands of people had assembled and were waiting for them to arrive. Another hundred yards closer and he could see that the overloaded dock was just the tip of the crowd, which stretched unbroken, back into the brightly lit city streets. There was no telling how far back it went. The throng was like a single entity, a vast amoeba-thing in constant, chaotic motion, only kept from spilling out in all directions by the building walls on either side. Between celebratory blasts of the ships' horns, Ryan heard yelling and blaring fragments of music. The din got even louder as the tug pulled alongside the pier. The music caterwaul singing backed by frenzied fiddle, drums and guitarboomed down from loudspeakers mounted on the lamp posts.
A sea of sweaty, brown faces greeted them.
The wildly excited citizens of Veracruz waved Day-Glo-colored plastic pennants emblazoned with unintelligible symbols. They held ten times larger-than-life-size papier-mâché heads on long poles, which they jigged up and down. Some of the paper sculptures had flat noses, ornate headdresses and leering mouths lined with cruel fangs. The colors were bizarre instead of lifelikeglistening green or pink skins, pointed black tongues, insane red and purple eyes with yellow pupils. Ryan strained to read the words written across their neckplates: Atapul the First; Atapul the Second; and so on, up to Atapul the Tenth.
They were names, he figured.
Ryan had no clue what the stylized images represented, whether they were gods or barons, but the meaning of some of the other sculpted faces was all too apparent. Bobbing in front of him on pikes were gigantic human heads with a ghastly bluish pallor, bleeding from nose, eyes and mouths. Cheeks and foreheads were speckled with red dots. Their expressions were fixed in rictus agony and terror.
Plague like the one that had struck Padre Island.
Mildred squeezed his arm hard to get his attention, then raised her manacled hands to point toward the landward, lighthouse end of the pier.
There, not thirty yards away, on the end of a wooden pole, ten times life size, was Ryan's own face, or a close approximation thereof. It was crudely rendered and painted, but all the pertinent details were there: the black eye patch, the scar that split his brow, the dark curly hair, the single surviving eye, the bearded cheeks, the square chin. The only difference was, the patch and scar had been reversed on the sculpture, as if he was staring into a mirror.
There were more of the giant, eye-patch faces spaced here and there among the seething throng.
"What the fuck?" Ryan said.
Harmonica Tom stood at the helm of Tempest, feathering the engine's throttle to maintain a constant safe distance from the row of ship lights in front of him. He ran the forty-foot vessel blacked-out, as he had done every night for the last three weeks, every night since he'd escaped from Padre Island. Finding the pirate convoy after dark was a piece of cake for the seasoned skipper. The six target boats were always lit up, mast, bow and stern; this to help keep them from crashing into one another.
During the day, Tom had to lay back in his pursuit for fear a crow's-nest lookout would glimpse his mast tops astern. The last thing he wanted was for part of the fleet to peel off and double back to check out who was following its wake. The seagoing trader was sure they'd have no trouble recognizing Tempest: he'd already used it to kick their asses once. Unfortunately, he'd only managed to sink a single ship, while damaging two others. The fallback in pursuit meant he had to do some zigging and zagging to find the convoy again after sundown.
No problem this night, though.
The Matachìn ships were under engine power; even the slave galley tugs were burning diesel. And they were heading in toward the coast, making for the corona of shimmering lights low on the horizon.
By Tom's map reckoning, it had to be Veracruz.
It was starting to look like the fire talkers' stories were all true. That there really was a wider and more prosperous world than Deathlands, existing invisibly, simultaneously, from nukeday forward.
When he had first heard the tales of civilization's survival in the south, Tom had wanted to get in on the ground floor, to be the first to establish peaceful commerce, to forge trade links with the more advanced culture, and thereby get his hands on some of its fabled material wealth. But after seeing what the dreadlocked emissaries of that culture had done to Padre Island, the entrepreneurship fantasies vanished. Payback had become his single-minded goal.
And payback was his forte.
Like other Deathlands traders, Harmonica Tom Wolf had committed his share of morally questionable deeds over the yearssome might even call them "atrocities." It was part of staying in business, and staying alive. He had systematically eliminated rivals trying to encroach on his territory. He had closed deals with hot lead and cold steel instead of smiles and handshakes. He had transported cargos of uncut jolt and high explosives without thinking twice. He had never purposefully messed with women and kids, though. And when he had sent another trader or coldheart on the last train west, it had always been a chill-or-be-chilled situation, and it was usually face-to-face, if not nose-to-nose.