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Ryan lay flat on his back, naked, cold. He stared up into black, nothingness all around him. He raised his head, struck something just an inch above his forehead and felt pain run through his face. The pain made his nose twitch, as if he needed to sneeze, and a flash of brightness seemed to lance across his eyes in a firework burst.
He moved more cautiously the second time, arms first, feeling around him. There were walls to either side of where he lay, their cool hardness running the length of his body. Ryan estimated that there was no more than an inch gap between the limits of his broad shoulders and those cool walls, as if he had been placed in a narrow tunnel.
He flexed his feet, noticing for the first time that he was not wearing his boots. Those boots had been with him for more miles of Deathlands road than he cared to remember. He would have removed them to sleep, but he could not recall where or when that had been. But now he was naked, his body cold.
When he stretched his toes, he felt another wall, pressing close enough that he could not stretch his feet to their fullest extension. Above too, a wall or roof pressed at his feet, and he could not bend his knees without meeting it.
Where was he?
His face still hurt. It was more than just the sudden shock of striking the panel above him, he knew. There was a rawness there, running down the left side of his face, where he had lost an eye to his deranged brother, Harvey, who had made a power grab to rule the barony of Front Royal. That had been a long time ago, before Trader, before J.B. and the others, before the long roads of the Deathlands.
Something nagged at Ryan as he thought that, and he reached up to his face and probed gently, tracing the cicatrix scar and continuing to the eye patch that should cover his missing eye. The patch was gone.
Ryan closed his eyelids and touched at the depression of flesh all around his left eye, reaching for the alien thing he could sense was there. When his fingers touched the surface of the eyelid, he could feel something hard pressing back: An eye? He had an eye where he not had an eye in more than twenty years.
"An eye," Ryan whispered, barely believing it. The words hissed out and were gone, but saying them somehow made it more real in the darkness.
He ran the tips of his fingers across the surface of the closed eyelid, brought up his other hand and did the same with his right eye. They felt similar but different. The right eye gave under a little pressure, sprung, like a lump of jelly quivering on a plate. The left eye was harder with no give, more like a rock that had been planed off and worked into the empty socket.
He had been cycloptic for so long that he had almost forgotten what it had felt like to have two eyes, the way it changed how one saw dimensions and distance. In darkness, Ryan could tell nothing about the new orb that resided within his left socket. It could be dead, unworkable.
Ryan drew his fingers away and opened his eyes, staring into the darkness once more. He could see nothing, just blackness, the way the countryside got at night when the moon was in hiding and the stars had been painted over by clouds. And yet, he could see something, the way that even in complete darkness a person could still see something-edges, shapes.
"Where am I?" Ryan muttered, reaching up again for that panel that rested above him. "And how the nuking hell did I get here?"
His mind drifted back, recalling the last hours that he could remember.
* * *
It had been raining right outside the mat-trans chamber. Ryan and his six companions had materialized inside the familiar hexagonal chamber, whose armaglass walls were tinted the color of grass at the height of summer, when it had not seen water for a month.
Ryan had led the way out, opening the chamber door, his blaster-a SIG Sauer P226-held ready in his right hand: mat-trans jumping was dangerous.
The mat-trans was a matter-transfer system used by the U.S. military, with sender-receiver units located in hidden redoubts dotted across what had once been the United States of America and several other countries. The United States was no longer what it once was, ruined by the nuclear exchange of 2001 that had seen the U.S. and its ideological counterpart, the Soviet Union, engage in a push-button conflict that had lasted little more than a few hours. Afterward, North America and other parts of the world had been left in scarred ruins.
After the nukecaust came the radiation, warping what survived into something that at times was barely endurable. A hundred years later, Ryan and his companions trekked the lost roads of what was now known as the Deathlands, hoping to find something better, searching for a promise of a better tomorrow.
The companions used the mat-trans to travel the Deathlands, but their method of transportation was unreliable. A CD containing destination codes had been lost, so when they entered the chamber and initiated a jump, they never knew where they'd end up.
However, the mat-trans had one advantage over conventional travel-it was by and large secret, and utilized by few others.
"All clear here," Ryan announced as he stepped from the mat-trans doorway, crossed the anteroom and scanned the control room immediately beyond.
The one-eyed man stood in an area that resembled a predark greenhouse, with rain pouring through a large gap in the roof. That meant that this part of the redoubt was aboveground. Plants were everywhere, corded creepers twisting down the walls and across the surfaces of the ancient comp desks that ran in twin lines through the control room. Reeds and ferns spread across the room in spearheads, one group driving into the other like some alien game of chess. Flowers were dotted here and there, spotting the room with flourishes of color, as if a deranged artist had dropped paint on the swath of green.
Ancient lights flickered to life, automatically engaged by the movement sensors that detected that the mat-trans had been operated. The lights flickered for a few seconds before finally dying. Ryan peered at the ceiling. The fluorescent lights had been overwhelmed by creeping vines. Luckily, the hole in the roof provided enough illumination.
The floor was soft, and when Ryan looked down he saw a thick green carpet of moss stretched across the whole room beneath the plants. It smelled of life and of decay.
Ryan was a tall man with broad shoulders and a curly mane of black hair. His face, considered by some to be handsome, was hard and lean, bearing the scars of that lifeor-death struggle with his brother, Harvey. He wore a black leather eye patch over his missing left eye, the tied knot hidden within his thick hair.
Ryan was followed from the mat-trans by his second-in-command, a shorter man called John Barrymore-or J.B.-Dix. He wore a battered brown fedora and a pair round-framed spectacles was propped on his nose. An expert in blasters, explosives and booby traps, J.B. was also known as "the Armorer." He was the companions' weaponsmith.
He stepped from the mat-trans door with a mini-Uzi in his hands, while other weaponry was hidden in various pockets and pouches. J.B. also carried a satchel on a leather strap crosswise over his chest, within which were detonators, explosives and a variety of ammunition and spare parts.
Jak Lauren, the third member of the group and a unique presence in any environment, sniffed the air as he crept from the mat-trans chamber.
"Smell wrong," Jak said, shaking his head.
A few inches over five feet tall, Jak was a slim man with the physique of an adolescent.. He was an albino, with chalk-white skin and bone-white hair, and eyes the color of blood. He moved fluidly like a stalking cat, his .357 Magnum Colt Python blaster raised and ready in his hands. Jak was a master of the blade, and had several throwing knives secreted about his clothing.
Behind Jak, the remaining members of Ryan's team were passing through the chamber doorway and anteroom, then into the redoubt's control room.
First came Krysty Wroth, a tall, curvaceous woman of stunning beauty whose vivid emerald eyes were mesmerizing. But it was always her long, bright red hair that people noticed first because it seemed to be almost alive. In fact, Krysty's hair was very much alive-she was a mutie, and her hair responded to her circumstances and moods, twisting or uncurling depending on her state of mind.
"It smells okay to me," Krysty said with a smile.
The next member of the group laughed at Krysty's comment. "Jak always thinks something's wrong," he said. He was a handsome youth named Ricky Morales, sixteen years old with shiny black hair and dark brown eyes. He held his Webley Mk VI revolver so casually in one hand that it gave the impression that he had been carrying the weapon since birth. Ricky hailed from a small seaport on an island once known as Puerto Rico but was now called Monster Island. An even-tempered youth with a happy-go-lucky attitude, Ricky had traveled with the companions only a short time, but he fit in well. He looked up to Ryan and the others, especially J.B., who reminded him of his uncle, Benito, who had been a weaponsmith too.
Striding behind Ricky, Doc Tanner thrust his ebony sword stick in front of his younger companion to draw his attention. Doc was dressed in a long black frock coat with a dirt-stained white shirt and dark pants beneath. "Watch your tongue, lad," Doc said. "Jak hass never steered us wrong."
Ricky began to argue but stopped himself. Doc was right, he knew. These people had worked together without him for a long time, and the fact that they had survived all that time was a testament to their effectiveness as a unit. Gently mocking Jak's pessimism was one thing; questioning the albino was quite something else.
"Sorry," Ricky said, turning his head from Doc to Jak. "I was just kidding around."
"No harm done," Doc said, lowering his sword stick. He was a tall man, almost scarecrowlike in appearance, with long silver-white hair. Doc looked old but that appearance belied a far more complicated life story. A man of great learning, Doc had been born in the year 1868 and for the first thirty-odd years had enjoyed a relatively ordinary life. However, in 1896, Doc had been the unwilling subject of time trawling technology and had found himself scooped out of his own time period and taken to the twentieth century to be studied by the white-coated scientists of Project Chronos.
However, Doc proved a rather less pacific subject than the whitecoats had hoped, and so in a second twist of cruel fate, he had been flung another hundred into the future, into the Deathlands. The shock of such time travel had left Doc artificially aged, so while his features and body were that of a man of some sixty or more years, his mind still clung to the memory of being far younger. To further compound his difficulties, the time journeys had left Doc's mind addled, and while he suffered fewer bouts of madness these days, his early days with Ryan's crew had been marred by heightened stress levels, panic attacks and the general sense of not really knowing who or where he was.
Despite all that, Doc was a valuable asset to the group, not only for his knowledge of the predark world, but also on the far more practical level of his ability with a blaster. Doc's weapon of choice was a replica LeMat pistol.
The final member of the group was a stocky, African-American woman named Mildred Wyeth, who, like Doc, was born in another era, but who had traveled through time in a rather more conventional manner. She had been born in 1964, and eventually became a physician, specializing in cryogenic research.
While in her mid-thirties, Mildred suffered complications during abdominal surgery. In an attempt to save her life, the decision had been made to cryogenically preserve her-just a few days before the nuclear conflict erupted. She had been freed from her frozen capsule by Ryan's crew. She had remained with them ever since, forming a romantic bond with J.B. and providing the ongoing field medicine necessary to the group.
"Don't tease the kid, Doc," Mildred warned, an undercurrent to her tone. She liked Ricky-in some ways he reminded her of her brother, Josh, when he had been that age.
"I am not teasing," Doc replied. "I am just setting the lad straight lest he ignore the warnings of his elders."
Mildred shook her head. "'Elders.' I never did like that term."
Mildred and Doc's bickering was a constant, but it was good-natured. On this occasion, Doc let the point go-they needed to be alert right now, ready at the drop of a hat to face potential dangers in this new environment.
The companions made their way through the knee-deep foliage that had all but overtaken the interior of the control room.
It was unusual to see a redoubt this close to the surface. Most of them were located deep underground, and all had been designed to repel direct bombardment by weaponry up to and including a nuclear bomb. Whether they could survive a nuke was not certain, but anything short of that would struggle to make a dent. However, what the redoubts had not been built to withstand were the vast tectonic and environmental shifts that had racked the Earth since the nukecaust. What weapons had failed to do, Mother Nature had done with aplomb, mashing the plates of the earth together beneath the redoubt and opening up a great fissure in the foundations. It was this shift that had caused chunks of the redoubt to break open, creating the vast hole in the redoubt's ceiling.
Doc followed the group past the channel of pouring rain, passing his sword stick through it and taking a moment to examine the results. The sword stick was jet-black with a silver lion's head handle. Few knew that a sword was hidden within the walking cane.
The rain clung to the sword stick, glistening there with a wisp of vapor. "The lad is correct," Doc agreed as he sniffed at the rain. "There is a definite tang to this downpour. We must be careful."
"We always are," Ryan responded, pushing his way through the room to a sliding door of vanadium steel that would grant them access to the corridor outside. A keypad, stained brown where its metal casing had rusted, was located beside the door set in the concrete wall to the right. Ryan punched in the usual 3-5-2 code which would open the door. He detected a hiss coming from his left, but the metal door refused to move aside.
Standing at Ryan's side, J.B. eyed the door and sucked thoughtfully at his teeth.
"Jammed tight," Ryan confirmed. While doors, like the lighting in the redoubt, would have been automatically reengaged with the activation of the mat-trans the dense vegetation or the humidity had obviously infiltrated and corrupted the mechanics.
"Want me to blast it open?" J.B. asked. The Armorer was adept with explosives as well as firearms-it would be little effort for him to obliterate the door.
"No," Ryan said after a few seconds' consideration. "We'll go up instead," he said, indicating the hole in the ceiling. "It's the path of least resistance."
J.B. nodded, and the two men joined the other companions in contemplating the easiest route to the opening above them.
"Jak? Do you reckon you can get up there and drop a line to us?"
Jak grinned, looking somehow sinister in the ghostly light that ebbed through the gap above, and holstered his blaster.
"Just watch out for the acid rain. If it gets worse, you could get burned," J.B. reminded as Jak scrambled up the sturdy-looking trunk of a creeper and worked his way farther into the canopy.