In the war-torn wasteland known as Deathlands, desperation and destruction have replaced dreams and peace. Each day arrives with a new life-threatening challenge for wanderer Ryan Cawdor and his fellow band of survivors
FEAST OR FAMINE
Bizarre murders are taking place in a fertile farming community, and the locals are quick to point fingers at Ryan and his companions. But they know another culprit is responsible. A colony of mutants has been driven from its underground home, forced to find sustenance in the light of day. And only human flesh will satisfy their hunger. Caught between a rock and a horde of hungry cannibals, Ryan and the companions face an ultimatumhelp the cannies reclaim their territory, or risk becoming the next meal. Except something far more sinister and ravenouslurks beneath the lush fields
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"Wait," Ricky Morales said. "What was that?"
"Probably your imagination," Mildred Wyeth responded. She had stripped off her shirt to work in the humid heat of the hollow in her scavvied sports bra and khaki cargo pants. She straightened from sorting a pile of mostly unidentifiable scavvied tech, mostly metal parts and components J. B. Dix identified as electronics, and drew the back of her hand across her high, dark-skinned forehead. "Heat's making you see things."
But Ryan Cawdor was standing and staring intently at the spot in the brush above the excavation the kid had snapped his head around to look at.
"No," he said. "I think I saw something, too."
He had his palm resting on the grip of the SIG Sauer P226 blaster in its holster. He'd left his longblaster, a Steyr Scout Tactical, in the shade of a rickety lean-to.
He glanced at Jak Lauren, who stood on top of a heap of dirt, rocks, chunks of concrete, and bits and pieces of cloth, plastic and other debris that somehow hadn't degraded into the dense clay soil in the hundred or so years since skydark. The slender, slight young man shrugged. Despite the sticky mugginess he insisted on wearing his camouflage jacket, to which he'd sewn jagged shards of glass and metal fragments to discourage an in-fighting opponent from grabbing him. His adversary would get a further surprise if he grabbed the young man by the collar. Hidden razor blades would cause severe injury. Jak was swiveling his head, long white hair swinging above his shoulders, white-skinned brow furrowed over ruby eyes.
He sensed Ryan's attention and looked toward him. "Check out?" he asked.
"No," Ryan said. "If there's something out there, it knows the area better than we do."
Jak let his thin lips quirk contemptuously. "Could beat."
"Mebbe," Ryan said. "Mebbe not."
The white-haired youth frowned. Though a product of the Gulf Coast bayou countryeven hotter and double-steamier than thishe was proud of his wilderness skills. Indeed, his skills at stealth and tracking in any environmenteven urban ones, as alien to his upbringing as the dimpled face of the moon. And for a fact, he was good. Those skills had kept Ryan and the rest of his companions alive on many occasions.
"The pallid shadows again?" Doc asked. Doc was a tall, gaunt man with haunted blue eyes and rich silvery hair. Though he appeared to be in his late sixties, he was, in fact, in terms of years lived, in his thirties. Looked at in a different way, Dr. Theophilus Algernon Tanner was almost two and a half centuries old. The whitecoats of Operation Chronos had trawled him from the late 1800s to the twentieth century. When he proved to be a very difficult subject, they threw him into the future, to Deathlands, a prematurely aged husk.
That he had survived was a testament to his intrinsic toughness and drive to live. "Not sure," Ricky said, shaking his head. The kid had been with them for a while now, tramping the miles and enduring countless hardships with the rest of the companions. He was currently on watch, squatting at the edge of the sinkhole that had claimed some kind of small but well-equipped predark office building. He had his DeLisle carbine across his knees.
"Can find out," Jak said stubbornly. He hated to stay still for long, especially doing hard physical labor. He felt as if he should constantly be prowling whatever surroundings his companions happened to find themselves in, keeping watch, keeping them safe. And it chafed his spirit to be forced to do so while there seemed to be enemies about.
"Why don't we wait to see if they are a threat to us, Jak?" said Krysty Wroth, emerging from the large irregular hole in the rubble that led to the intact, buried sections of the small predark complex.
As she straightened, Ryan watched her appreciatively. Like Mildred, she had stripped off the man's shirt she wore in favor of her halter top. Also like Mildred, she had substantial need of the support it gave. Ryan never tired of watching the rise and fall of her breasts as she straightened. She took a handkerchief from her pants pocket and wiped her forehead. Her glorious red mane of hair was tied back in a green-and-white bandanna. Its strands stirred slightly, restless, despite the lack of so much as a sigh of wind here in this pit in the heavily wooded Pennyrile Hills. Each individual hair was a living thing, capable of motionand of feeling, which made the occasions she found it necessary to trim it something of an ordeal.
She wasn't just the most beautiful woman Ryan had ever seen, she was his life-mate. Jak looked at her.
"Want make sure don't," he said. The young man tended to expend words, especially things like pronouns and articles, as if they were drops of his own blood. The others had enough experience of interpreting his eccentrically clipped speech they could make out what he meant. Usually.
She smiled her dazzling smile. "They haven't tried anything so far," she pointed out. "But why don't you take over for Ricky on watch?"
Jak liked that suggestion. He nodded and scrambled up the treacherous, sliding slope as if he were half mountain goat, half wraith. Ricky was appreciative of the offer and picked his way cautiously back down to join the others beside the hole and their growing pile of the day's bounty.
Ricky was something of an apprentice to J.B., having learned weapons-making skills from his uncle Benito back home on Monster Island, and sharing with the man a special love for booby traps.
The Armorer was bent over the crate with a salvaged chunk of orange Formica on it, where their best swag of the day was piled. He had his battered fedora pushed to the back of his head and was scrutinizing the loot. "Mebbe what you're seeing is what the folks hereabouts call coamers" he said, picking up a piece of circuit board and holding it up to the dying sun's light.
"Grave robbers?" Ricky asked a little breathlessly, as he came up to join his mentor. "Could they be what's out there?"
"No one has seen them," Doc said. "They might indeed be our pale ghosts." Ricky swallowed.
The Pennyrile Hills were a fertile and somewhat secluded region of what had long ago been western Kentucky. The area was an irregular patch of rolling, thickly wooded country, dotted with sinkholes and crisscrossed by streams, roughly forty miles long by twenty across at the widest, set in the midst of a larger stretch of arid limestone plaina large green oasis amid desolation. Some freak of weather patterns provided it abundant rainfall, and protection from the acid rains that periodically scoured the rest of the surrounding karst country.
Therefore the people of the Pennyrile led a relatively isolated existence, and mostly seemed to like it that way. There were a few small villes, of the sort that boasted a mayor instead of a baron. Most of them were scattered in clans and remote cottages and camps, where they lived by subsistence farming, hunting, fishing, trapping, and cutting firewood and lumber. They generated sufficient surplus, on their own hook and through traders and travelers from outlands who found their way into the area, to make it worth the companions' while to sell the booty they took from the predark trove they had literally stumbled intothanks to Ricky not always watching where he put his feetrather than packing the richest haul on their backs and taking it somewhere else.
Ryan was glad the sunken facility had turned up in a sparsely populated area of the Pennyrile. It made sense, of course; if more people lived nearby, odds were that somebody would've found and plundered it decades earlier. But also the locals, while prosperous enough not to be desperate as a usual thing, yet not prosperous enough to attract coldhearts or conquerors, tended to be clannish, insular, and to view outlanders with extreme suspicion.
Still, mutual advantage was a universal language, even though it was one a surprising number of denizens of the postnuke world chose to remain deaf to, for reasons Ryan had long since given up trying to puzzle out. Whatever their misgivings or prejudices toward the tall, one-eyed man and his companions, they were glad enough to trade for the treasures the outlanders dug from the earth.
Conn, the proprietor of a gaudy house outside the ville of Sinkhole, was actually welcoming to outlanders, possibly as a concomitant of his occupation. In particular, Ryan thought, he provided a reasonably safe and clean environment in which to do business and even spend some proceeds of the interactions.
Ryan heaved a deep sigh. He was bone-tired from the day's exertion in the heat and humidity. The sweat ran freely from his shaggy black hair down his face, stinging his good eyehis right oneand tickling when it insinuated its way under the black patch that covered where the other had been.
Sometimes he had to remind himself that if he was this beat, the others had to be dragging themselves along by nothing more than sheer determination.
He walked over to the plunder table, stooped, picked up a clay jug and took a long drink. Then he poured water over his forehead and face. That was one good thing about this area: water was easy to come by. It was another minor wonder the sunken facility hadn't flooded to inaccessibility.
Doc said something about the sandstone cap underlying the soil keeping the water out here, even though the moisture had infiltrated somewhere nearby and scooped a gap in the soft underlying limestone bedrock. That was what led to the sinkhole opening up and eating the small but well-equipped field office complex, although Ryan suspected it had gotten more than a little help from the unnatural wave of monster earthquakes generated by the nukecaust.
"Right, people," he called. "Let's start powering down for the day."
"What have we got here, J.B.?" he asked his friend as he approached their plunder pile.
"Mostly junk like busted old office machinery," the Armorer said. He held up a stapler whose metal parts were almost as red as its hard-plastic shell from rust. "But now that we got down to where their workshop was, we stand to start really finding some prime scavvy."
"Weapons, maybe?" asked Ricky, dark eyes gleaming.
"More ammo, anyway," J.B. said.
They'd found substantial stores of ammunition in a weapons locker in what seemed to be the main office area. As far as they could tell, the structure had been built as a command center for some kind of mining operation nearby, whose nature they hadn't managed to discover, and all traces of which appeared to have been obliterated by earth upheavals and more than a hundred years of weather.
They couldn't use the cans of 5.56 mm bullets, since they lacked blasters that fired them. But there was a cache of 9 mm, 12-gauge, .45 ACP and 7.62 mm ammo that took care of replenishing their stocks for most of the armament they carried.
They found no .38 Special cartridges for the Czech ZKR 551 target revolver Mildred insisted on toting, even though that caliber was relatively common, nor anything for Doc's enormous LeMat. "If we find blasters, will we trade them?" Ricky asked.
J.B. grunted. "Locals favor black-powder blasters," he said, "mostly single-shot break-action shotguns or even muzzle-loaders. I kind of like the edge our firepower gives us over their smoke-poles, myself." Ryan nodded.
"They're not that friendly," he agreed. "Anyway, if we find modern blasters, they'll be well worth humping out of here when we shake the limestone dust of this place off our boot heels."
"Not soon, I hope," Krysty said. "The work here's hard, but at least we have a sheltered spot to live while we're doing it."
"Think this would be a good place to put down roots, Krysty?" Mildred asked in a bantering tone.
The taller woman shrugged. "It's always been my dream," she said, a faraway look in her emerald-green eyes. "To find someplace we can make a life."
"Node'll play out soon enough," Ryan told her. "And I don't see us as dirt farmers, anyway."
To his surprise he saw sadness in her face. "Sorry, lover," he said. "I know that's a sore spot for you. Reckon I shouldn't go poking it."
Mildred made an apologetic noise in her throat. "Yeah. My bad. I shouldn't tease you about it, Krysty."
She shook her head, making the beaded plaits in her hair clack together.
"The fact is," she said, "we could all use a break."
"What do you think this is, Millie?" J.B. asked.
She scowled but, for once, couldn't find an appropriate comeback.
"What about our mysterious friends up there?" Ricky asked, uneasily waving a hand.
"They're probably just figments of our overworked imaginations."
She stopped speaking abruptly, gazing upward, her eyes growing wide.
Something grazed Ryan's cheek on the blind side.
"Get down!" Krysty heard Ryan shout. She wheeled to see him following his own command, diving to the rubble-choked slope with his SIG Sauer in hand.
"Oh my God, I see them too!" she heard Mildred yell.
That was more than enough for Krysty. She whipped out her Glock 18C with the efficiency of frequent habit and threw herself down, as well. She was glad for the halter top confining her breasts offering at least some protection from the corner of a chunk of concrete that dug into her left one.
The bushes surrounding the pit were thrashing. Rocks and sticks were flying from them, thrown by unseen hands at the group. Unfortunately, despite the trees shielding them from casual discovery, the excavation was approximately the worst possible tactical situation to put themselves into. Everybody who knew where they were and wished them harm had the high ground.
Grinning, Jak reached into his jacket. His right hand came out wrapped inside the knuckle-duster hilt of a trench knife. The left whipped one of his butterfly knives open in a blur of precision. He started to move toward the attackers. "Jak, no!" Mildred yelled. "They look too much like you! We might shoot you by mistake!"
The young man froze. Right then Krysty caught a flash of a face peering at her from a gap in the screen of underbrush. To her shock it looked like the bleached-bone white of Jak's face, and the eyes staring at her from beneath matted white locks were the same blood color as their friend's. But Jak, despite the prejudice he frequently encounteredand tended to dispute loudly and forcefullywas no mutie himself, but an albino, subject to a genetic condition that predated the skydark by many generations.
The face Krysty saw, staring at her, was not right, somehow. The nose and jaw seemed pushed too far forward. It was a mostly human visage, but not entirely.
Then it was gone, and she saw other pallid bodies flitting out of clear view behind where it had been.
"What do we do?" J.B. called as a foot-long branch with green leaves still on it bounced harmlessly off his fedora.
A fist-sized stone bounced past Krysty's right cheek. "Blast them!" Ryan shouted.
The head-splitting roar of Jak's .357 Magnum Colt Python was the first response to Ryan's command. As a storm of blasterfire roared around her, the prone Krysty raised her Glock, but she had little to aim at. Doc's "pallid shadows" continued to live up to their name, flitting just outside of clear sight behind the brush or among the boles of the trees around the sinkhole. Especially not knowing whether or when they might face a concerted rush by their unknown foes, she was happy to take single shots as a hint of target revealed itself.
A scream rang out from above to Krysty's right, long, shuddering and unnervingly humanlike. It startled her, but it was no big surprise: plenty of muties were human, for all practical purposes, their "taint" notwithstanding. Some of them were indistinguishable from norms.
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