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The howling sandstorm filled the Ohio desert like a boiling ocean of dirt and salt, making it impossible to tell where the land ended and the thundering heavens began. The dull red sun was long gone, swallowed whole by the tempest, the only illumination coming from the endless volleys of sheet lightning flashing in blue-white fury across the tumultuous sky.
Brutally pounded by the savage winds, six masked figures stumbled through the maelstrom resembling animated corpses freshly escaped from the grave. Ratty blankets were tied around their bodies as crude protection from the stinging grit, and torn strips of cloth were wrapped tightly around their faces to make breathing possible, only a tiny slit left open in front for them to dimly see through. Moving in a ragged line, their arms were linked together, only the combined weight of the companions keeping them on the ever-shifting ground.
In every direction sand dunes rose and fell like cresting waves on the ocean to briefly form yawning valleys that filled as quickly as they were formed. Hopping across the desert, a large mutie rabbit was caught in a depression and vanished beneath the flowing sands to never emerge again. Easing the grip on their blasters hidden under the whipping blankets, the companions turned away from that area and grimly kept moving. They hated losing all of that meat, but to try to harvest it now would only get them chilled.
Only this morning they had arrived at a peaceful ville on the Kentuck River and traded a handful of live brass for an old horse and new wooden cart. A doomie warned them not to venture into the Great Salt until after nightfall, but they had been eager to reach the Ohio redoubt to the north, and departed anyway. Only a few hours later, the roiling sandstorm had come over the western horizon like a tidal wave of destruction. The terrified horse had choked to death before they were able to rig a mask for the poor animal, and the companions had been forced to abandon their precious supplies to make a desperate journey back to the ville. But it was impossible to go against the hurricane-force winds, and the companions were resigned to traveling blindly to the east toward the unknown.
Without warning, a woman in the middle of the line yelled as the sand flowed out from under her boots, leaving her suspended in midair, supported only by the arms of the other companions. Tightening their hold on her, the people moved quickly away from the whirlpool until she was back on the ground once more. The woman shouted something at the others, but if it was advice, or her thanks, nobody could tell, the words lost in the deafening sandstorm.
Hunched low against the fierce wind, the big man at the front of the line slowed as something appeared out of the storm ahead. But a moment later he saw that it was only the wreckage of an ancient APC, an armored personnel carrier. The metal chassis was stripped bare of paint from decades of erosion, the hood buckled back to expose a corroded engine block, the wiring and rubber hoses lashing about like a nest of snakes.
As the companions shuffled past, the wind kicked up to briefly clear off the windshield, and behind the badly scratched plastic they could vaguely see a grinning skeleton strapped into the driver's seat, the tattered remains of a blue-and-gray uniform hanging off the bleached bones. At the end of the line, a stocky woman hugging a lumpy canvas bag bowed her head for a moment in silent prayer, and a tall man with silvery hair made a brief sign of the cross.
Suddenly the leader stumbled over something buried in the ground. At first he assumed it was a part of the APC. But the obstruction extended for several yards. Bending low, he cupped a hand protectively around his eyes and could just make out the regular pattern of predark bricks. It was part of a wall. There could be ruins nearby! If even pieces of the buildings were still erect, the companions could get out of the bastard storm for some much-needed rest.
Wordlessly tugging the others to follow, he moved along the ancient barrier until he found the end. A huge concrete eagle rose defiantly to face the storm, wings outspread as if about to take flight. Everybody took heart at the sight and quickly stumbled around the statue onto cracked pavement. As they crouched behind the brick wall, the force of the wind noticeably lessened, and they all took a moment to catch their breath before noticing the rusty remains of a car. This was a parking lot! Which meant they were very close to the ruins. Eagerly rallying, they charged back into the full power of the sandstorm.
Temporarily blinded by the windblown grit, the companions were forced to proceed more slowly, until a large dark shape loomed before them and once more the wind eased. Shuffling closer, they could make out the rough shape of a large cinder-block building. This side was solid, without any cracks, and a row of intact milky-white windows sat just under the roof. Nuking hell, could the whole damn place be intact? That raised their hopes again, but unfortunately there were no doors in sight nor any windows low enough to reach.
Hurrying around the corner, the group discovered a concrete loading dock fronted by a row of huge metal gates, the louvered steel sandblasted to a mirror polish. This was some sort of garage or warehouse! Scrambling onto the dock, the companions tried the handles, but the gates refused to budge. They were locked tight, with no keypads or keyholes in sight. However, searching along the wall, they soon found the mandatory fire exit. This door was also made of steel, without any handle or visible lock. But the companions had seen enough of these to know the weak points.
Moving closer to the door, a small person knelt as the others clustered around him as protection from the wind. Expertly running his fingers along the jamb for any traps, the wiry youth finally grunted in satisfaction, then hurriedly rummaged under his blanket to produce a small wad of grayish clay and a stubby black stick. Slapping the lump of C-4 plastic onto the fire door exactly in the middle, he stabbed in the timing pencil and snapped it off at the twenty-second mark.
As he stood, everybody moved to the far end of the dock. A few moments later there was a hard bang and the door violently swung aside, exposing the dark interior.
Moving fast, the companions scrambled through the doorway, loose sand billowing along with them like gritty smoke. As soon as they were all inside the building, the big man grabbed the door and forced it closed against the buffeting wind by sheer determination.
"Find something to block this!" Ryan Cawdor yelled, the words muffled by the dirty strips of cloth covering his face. "I can't hold this bastard shut forever!"
Nodding, Krysty, Mildred and Doc rushed to obey, while J.B. and Jak put their backs to the cinder-block wall and pulled out blasters just in case they were not alone.
In spite of the soft light coming through the sand-blasted windows, the interior of the building was murky with shadows, and the two men watched the pools of darkness for any suspicious movement. Slowly their sight adjusted to the gloom and they could see that the garage was a single huge room, about one hundred feet wide. The floor was smooth concrete, the faint remains of painted lines still dimly showing through the thin covering of sand and the long passage of time. The nearby wall was Peg-Board covered with hanging tools, while a workbench in front was littered with assorted small pieces of machinery. Heavy chains dangled from the overhead rafters and clumps of equipment stood scattered around, the hulking metal shapes dotted with shiny plastic controls.
"Nine o'clock is clear!" J. B. Dix shouted, easing his grip on the S&W M-4000 shotgun. He would have preferred to use the 9 mm Uzi machine pistol hanging under his blanket, but there was probably loose sand in the works and he would most likely only get off a few rounds before the rapidfire jammed. However, the deadly 12-gauge scattergun should be more than enough for anything they encountered in here, norm, mutie or droid.
"Three is same!" Jak Lauren added, watching the other direction. A big-bore Colt .357 Python was tight in the albino youth's hand, a leaf-shaped throwing knife held loosely in the other. If there had been anything waiting in the dark, the pale teen would have used the blade first, before spending a live round. When the horse died, the companions had been forced to choose between carrying extra food or ammo. No choice there. As his father had always liked to say, rice is nice, but brass will save your ass. True words, and there was always something trying to ace a person in the Deathlands.
As if in reply to the thought, the wind moaned louder through the ragged hole in the door, the stream of loose sand blowing across the murky garage. Pushed back slightly, Ryan grimly dug in his boots and slammed the door shut again. "Knife!" he bellowed.
Understanding what he meant, Jak stepped closer and rammed the blade between the door and the floor as a makeshift stop. Still holding the shotgun, J.B. joined them and together the three men put their shoulders to the trembling metal.
"Dark night, this is like trying to wrestle a grizzly bear!" J.B. cried out, angrily curling his chapped lips. There were red marks on his nose where glasses normally rested, and the wiry man was squinting against the windblown grit peppering his face. Without his wire-rimmed spectacles, J.B. was terribly nearsighted, but that wasn't really a problem inside the building.
"Worse!" Jak snarled through clenched teeth, his ruby-red eyes glaring hatefully. "Could always ace bear!"
Suddenly a sharp whistle sounded and everybody turned to see Krysty Wroth standing in a rectangle of window light, a wrapped hand resting on top of a large fifty-five-gallon steel drum.
"This one is full!" the woman shouted, tufts of crimson hair sticking out of her wrapping, the prehensile filaments moving defiantly against the acrid breeze.
Abandoning their own searches, Mildred and Doc hurried closer, and the three companions tipped the heavy container to awkwardly roll it across the garage, the loose sand crunching underfoot. As they approached, J.B. and Jak got out of the way and the five of them set the barrel firmly against the door. Easing his stance, Ryan grunted in satisfaction as the fire exit rattled slightly but stayed in place.
"That'll do," the one-eyed warrior said grudgingly. "But we better get another." Irritably, Ryan rubbed the back of his hand against the leather patch where his left eye used to be located. Sometimes in nightmares he could still see his brother's knife descending and feel the terrible stab of pain that haunted him for so many years afterward.
"And find something to block that nuking hole!" J.B. added, blinking repeatedly. He started to reach for the glasses in his shirt pocket, but forced himself to stop. These were his only good pairhis spares had hideous purple framesand he could not risk getting them damaged.
"Will this serve?" Doc Tanner asked in a deep stentorian bass, gesturing at a piece of corrugated steel lying on the floor.
"Yeah, looks good," Ryan growled, lumbering that way. He was tired and sore from battling the storm, but there was a lot to do before any of them could rest.
Each taking a side, Doc and Ryan tried to lift the ramp, but the thick plane of steel proved to be a lot heavier than it looked, and it took all six of the companions to cumbersomely hoist the corrugated sheet off the floor. As it moved, a grease pit was exposed, the shadowy depths lined with shelves filled with plastic bottles of lubricant, oil filters and miscellaneous objects.
Wary of where they stepped, the six companions moved carefully around the deep opening, and hauled the protective cover across the dark garage. Wiggling it between the shaking door and the barrel neatly sealed the hole, and the stinging wind died away completely. However, the companions added another fifty-five-gallon drum to the barricade, and then a third, before they were finally satisfied.
Lighting some candles, the companions dutifully checked their blasters, then did a second recce of the garage just to make sure they were truly alone. More than once they had entered a supposedly empty building only to be attacked by coldhearts hidden in a closet or to have a mutie drop down on them from the rafters. However, they took heart at the fact that there were no unusual smells in the air, just the expected reek of old grease, rust and decaying rubber.
There proved to be nothing lurking in the bathroom, utility closet or even hidden inside the refrigerator, the insides of which resembled a high-school lab experiment gone bad. There was a wooden desk in the corner, but the drawers contained only requisition logs, order forms, time sheets, pencils, paper clips and other assorted effluvia from the old world. Even the tools on the Peg-Board were only rusty ghosts, rendered into outlines from the sheer passage of implacable time. The garage was clear of anything dangerous or useful.
Gathering in the corner farthest from the blocked door, the companions gratefully undid the caked strips of cloth from around their faces, then loosened the ropes holding the blankets in place and gratefully dropped them to the floor.
"Never saw a bastard storm hit this fast before," Ryan growled, stretching his tired muscles. "If we hadn't found this place, we'd all have been on the last train west by now."
Tall and heavily muscled, the big man had a deeply scarred face, with a leather patch covering the puckered hole of his left eye. A bolt-action Steyr SSG-70 was strapped across his lumpy backpack, and a 9 mm SIG-Sauer blaster was holstered at his hip, right next to the curved sheath of a panga.
"Got that right, lover," Krysty agreed, listening to the thunder booming outside. A split second later lightning flashed outside the windows, casting the people in the garage into stark relief. "However, when I saw that concrete eagle outside, I knew we'd be okay."
A strikingly beautiful woman, Krysty was tall with ample curves and bright emerald eyes. Long crimson hair hung past her shoulders, the animated filaments flexing and moving around with a life of their own. A canvas-web belt of ammo pouches circled her waist, the checkered grip of an S&W .38 revolver jutting from a holster on her right hip. A large Bowie knife was sheathed on the left. Her worn blue cowboy boots were embroidered with the silvery outline of falcons, and a tattered bearskin coat hung over her shoulders.