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Over Ryan Cawdor's right shoulder, five scattered, flickering, red-orange suns dawned along the horizon line to the south, sandwiched between greasy black sea and menacing black sky. Across the expanse of flat water, maybe ten miles away, a string of Gulf coast oil rigs still burned, as they had day and night for more than a century. In the distance ahead of the one-eyed warrior, the real sunimmense and an even bloodier red, squashed into an ovoid by atmospheric distortionstruggled up from deep purple night.
Ryan and his five companions ran east through the slowly lifting darkness. They drove themselves at a brutal and unforgiving pace, down the granularized ruin of an ancient, asphalt road, kerchiefs tied over their noses and mouths.
Running through the Deathlands at night and over unfamiliar ground was risky business; in this case, not running was far riskier. For two and a half hours they had been hard at it.
Jak Lauren was on point. Ryan could see the wild child silhouetted by the hell ball of the emerging sun, his shoulder-length mane of white hair flying, his Magnum Colt Python in his fist. In wire-rimmed spectacles and screwed-down fedora, the diminutive J. B. Dix held down the column's rear with his M-4000 12-gauge pump. Ryan's lover, the long-legged Krysty Wroth, jogged on his left with her Smith & Wesson Model 640 .38-caliber revolver in hand. Krysty's emerald eyes searched the dim verge of the roadway ahead, her red, prehensile mutie hair drawn up into tight curls of alarm. Ryan carried his SIG-Sauer P-226 with a 9 mm round chambered, safety off, index finger stiffened outside the trigger guard. His prized long-blaster, a scoped, Steyr SSG 70 sniperrifle, was strapped tightly over his shoulder and back by its sling, slap-proofed.
Behind Ryan and Krysty, in the middle of the pack, were the group's pair of time travelers.
Theophilus Algernon Tanner had been ripped from the bosom of his young family in the late 1880s, time-trawled against his will by the whitecoats of Operation Chronos. Caught in their net, he had been dragged forward to 1998, the first subject to survive the time travel experiment. If the whitecoats expected their Victorian lab rat to appreciate the Big Picture and be grateful for the sake of science and the expansion of knowledge, they were very much disappointed. They were so arrogant, so oblivious, that they never considered his outrage over the kidnapping, or his continuing grief over the loss of his loved ones. After months of captivity and near-constant poking and prodding by Operation Chronos technicians, Tanner became an intractable embarrassment. Shortly before Armageddon, to be rid of him and as punishment for his truculence, the whitecoats sent the Harvard- and Oxford-educated scholar forward in time.
It was an act of intentional cruelty that had saved his life.
Doc Tanner didn't look over two hundred years old; he looked a fit sixty and his biological age was actually mid-thirties. His teeth were still excellent. A tall scarecrow in a tattered frock coat and tall leather boots, he loped with a sheathed, ebony sword cane in one hand and his massive, Civil War-era black-powder blaster in the other.
Beside him, Dr. Mildred Wyeth kept pace, ready to cut loose, deadly accurate, with her .38-caliber Czech-made ZKR 551 target revolver, the same make and model weapon that had helped her earn a freestyle shooting silver medal in the last-ever Olympic Games. The African-American physician had been cryogenically frozen on December 28, 2000, a few weeks prior to skydark, after an adverse reaction to anesthetic during surgery. Dr. Wyeth had slept in suspended animation for more than a century before the companions freed her. Like Tanner, Mildred was still in her midthirties, biologically speaking. As she ran, the beaded plaits of her hair clicked together, keeping time with her steady footfalls.
Along the shoulders of both sides of the road, thorny, tangled scrub brush grew waist high. The unbroken walls of cover were made to order for a close-range cross fire and ambush.
Using the predark mat-trans system was always a gamble because so many things could go wrong, midjump and postjump. The mat-trans gateways had been designed to surreptitiously move personnel and goods between the government's deep subterranean redoubts, which were scattered across the continent. The companions had no control over their destination, except that it was someplace other than where they started. This time they had materialized in a pitch-black, east Texas redoubt, perilously close to the Houston nuke-a-thon's ground zero.
Using precious flashlight batteries for illumination, they had attempted to jump again, but the system wouldn't power up. They tried the Last Destination button with the same result. They were stuck and in the dark. The redoubt's lights wouldn't come on, either. Apparently the nuke reactor had had one last burst of power left in it. They were radblasted lucky to have materialized at all.
To conserve their batteries, they had lit torches made of paper, cardboard and ragswhatever debris they could findand explored the deserted, underground complex, looking for a way out.
The reason why nothing worked soon became apparent. High-water marks stained the walls near the ceiling. The redoubt had been flooded at some time in the past. Dried mud, like beige talcum powder, coated walls, floors, comps, desktops, overturned chairs, and the crumbling litter of printout paper. Corrosive salts from the water had etched silicon chips and circuit boards into junk.
To keep from inhaling the potentially dangerous dust their footsteps raised, they had covered their faces with kerchiefs.
In a side room, they found a 3-D plastic topographic map of the Houston area, all the way to the Gulf coast. On the opposite wall was a row of large, glass-faced dials. J.B. and Ryan had brushed the dried mud from the faces and the engraved plastic labels beneath them. The units were radiation counters, connected to distant remote sensors. The name plates read: Central Houston, South Houston, Bunker Hill Village, Lynchburg, La Porte. The counters were nonfunctional; all but one of the needles was pinned in the redthe Barrett dial was stuck in mid-arc. Which had two possible meanings: that area had been hit by less radiation on nukeday, or the dial's mechanism had broken and its needle had fallen back from the little post at the far edge of the red.
Because the companions had no alternative, they took it to mean the former, that the Barrett direction was the only safe corridor leading away from ground zero. Every second they remained in the hotspot, they got a bigger dose of rads. Even though it was the middle of the night, they had to go, and go quickly.
There was another problem, too. Though they had water and jerky left in their packs, it wasn't enough to fuel a multiday journey. Not when they were running full-tilt. The Houston redoubt's stores, although untouched by looters, were useless to them. What wasn't ruined by the water was most likely contaminated by radiation carried in by the flooding, so there was nothing they could risk eating or drinking. Rad-tainted material was like a timebomb in the guts as well as the lungs, a constant source of poison that gradually sickened and eventually chilled.
After they found the exit to the surface and J.B. had taken a compass bearing, they headed south, cross country, until they intersected what was left of the old County Road 90. If they kept traveling east on the ruined road, they knew eventually they'd hit Louisiana, and safety. There was no way of knowing what the ambient rad levels actually were; that's why they kept the masks over their faces.
The gathering Texas dawn revealed a flat, featureless landscape, a plain of dense, twisted, black vegetation that the rising sun could not brighten or penetrate. To Ryan, the sea of brush looked like it had been burned by a terrible wildfire, but he knew it hadn't. The cruelly spiked scrub had sprung from the ashes of Armageddon, a stubborn mutation that defied the effects of toxic soil, air and water. Its fat, lobate fruitsa gaudy orange, and bigger than a man's fisthung in heavy clusters and lay in scattered, rotting piles along the shoulder. In the motionless air they gave off a sickeningly sweet smell, like an exploded joy-juice still.
Food gathering was not an option for them. They were too close to the Houston craters; the fruit wasn't safe to eat. And they had to cover as much ground as they could before the day really heated up and the threat of death by dehydration forced them to stop and find shade until evening.
They had made the right choice for a getaway route. Dawn also revealed that County Road 90 was well traveled. Narrow, knobby tires had gouged countless, crisscrossing ruts in the black asphalt sand. Predark motorbikes were the answer to the hellscape's ravaged highways. They used minimal fuel and could run at high speeds offroad to avoid pursuit. There was no chance of getting drive-wheels stuck in mud. Obstacles could be circumnavigated. Motorcycles were ideal for small-payload traders and bands of hit-and-git coldhearts. If someone was lucky enough to score one.
After the sun rose they holstered their sidearms; J.B. slung his scattergun. The likelihood of a surprise attack had diminished, as they could see for miles across the almost tabletop-flat landscape.
As Ryan ran, beads of perspiration trickled in a steady stream from his hairline, following the ragged edge of the welt of scar that split his left eyebrow. He kept brushing away the sweat to keep it from seeping under the black eyepatch he wore and burning into the socket emptied by a knife slash years ago. He couldn't brush away the familiar ache in the pit of his belly or the burning dryness in his throat. Hunger and thirst were elements of daily life in the hellscape, sometimes in the background, sometimes in the foreground, but always somewhere in the mix.
With Jak in the lead, the companions climbed a slight grade for about a mile under the brightening sky, then the roadbed curved to the right and began a long, straight descent through the stands of black scrub. Looking east from the highest point, Ryan saw the horizon was pale brown, not black. The scrub dead-ended in what appeared to be a definite borderline. He remembered a north-south running river valley from the redoubt's topo map. The brown had to be that valley. There was no hint of green life ahead, just a beige flatland of bare dirt and rock.
No ambush to worry about.
No shade, either.
Mebbe the river had dried up, he thought. Not that it really mattered. If there was water flowing above or below ground in the streambed, they didn't dare even wash their faces in it. They weren't far enough from ground zero for that. Before he and the others reached Louisiana, about 150 miles distant, the odds were good that to survive they would be drinking their own warm piss.
The companions coasted downhill, running in easy strides, taking advantage of the long, gradual grade. After another mile, when they were back on the flat but still five or six miles from the riverbed, over the rasp of his own breathing, Ryan heard the sawing throb of insects. Thousands upon thousands of them. Then he hit a wall of stink. A caustic, invisible fog; not excrement, but excrementlike, on a much grander, more symphonic scale. It was the hellscape's unmistakable signature scent: ruination, the choking, searing, off-gases of biological decay.
At the front of the file, Jak drew his Colt Python and signaled for the column to slow to a walk.
The others pulled their weapons and advanced with caution. The buzzing increased in volume and intensity.
Ryan looked over Jak's slim shoulder at what lay on the road ahead. Under a haze of flying insects, half-naked bodies, at least twenty of them, were scattered from one side to the other. Some faceup, some facedown. Pale skin was blotched purple and black. The flesh looked semisoft, like it was melting from the bones; the torsos and limbs were grotesquely bloated.
But not norm. Definitely not norm.
"Stickies," Jak announced as he led the others into the obstacle course of decomposition and swarming insects.
For noses, this version of the race of muties known as stickies had two holes in their flat faces. Legions of hairy black flies crawled in and out of the holes, and in and out of lipless, gaping maws lined with rows of black-edged needle teeth. Emptied eyesockets were packed with masses of juddering bugs, feeding, fighting, egg-laying.
Holding her kerchief tight to her face, her eyes watering from the stench, Mildred stopped and knelt beside one of the bodies.
Ryan could see the mutie's mouth and facial bones had partially dissolved; the inward collapse created a caldera effect in the hairless flab. The creature's bare, distended belly had burst a yawning seam right up the middle.
"No way of telling what chilled them, or when," Mildred said. "Daytime temperature has got to be over a hundred degrees around here. And they've been cooking on the black sand."
"Rot quick, too," Jak said.
Even in cold weather, Ryan thought. Dead stickies disintegrated and dissolved like burning candles.
"They could have eaten the fruit and gotten poisoned," Mildred speculated as she rose from her crouch. "Or they could have died from gunshot."
"The damned bugs are eating the bodies and they aren't dead," Krysty said, fanning flies from her eyes.
"Neither are the wire worms," J.B. said, gesturing with the muzzle of his Smith & Wesson scattergun.
Between the lips of the gaping fissure that ran from the corpse's pubis to sternum, a bolus of the blood-washed, hair-fine parasites squirmed weakly.
"It wasn't blasters that chilled them," J.B. said, thumbing his spectacles back up the bridge of his nose. "No empty shell casings on the road. No bullet holes in the muties, either."
"Too many of the abysmal creatures to be a mere ambush party," Doc pronounced gravely. "This, my dear friends, is a steed of a different hue."
Doc had put into words what they were all thinking.
During certain times of the year, the friends had encountered an odd mating ritual. Stickies swept across the hellscape in a living wave, gathering numbers to breed. Some, like these perhaps, dropped dead of exertion along the way. The muties mated en masse, indiscriminantly, for days at a time. To be caught in the path of their sexual rampage meant horrible death. Not just from the needle teeth. Stickies had adhesive glands in their palms and their fingers were lined with tiny suckers; they killed by pulling their victims limb from limb.
"You're right, Doc," Ryan said. "They're breeders."
"Mebbe we've missed them?" Krysty said hopefully. "Mebbe they've already passed us by."
"They're in front of us, then," Mildred said. "They could be anywhere ahead."