This is for MH who made me believe in the reality of the deus ex machina.
With thanks and the best of friendship.
Ryan Cawdor blinked, wincing as he tried to sit up. The lights still glowed in the patterned metal plates set in the floor and ceiling. The armored glass walls were pale blue streaked with gray. Instinctively his hand fell to the smooth butt of the SIG-Sauer P-226 9 mm pistol on his hip.
There was the now-familiar feeling of nausea as he backed against the wall, shaking his head to clear the cobwebs of the mat-trans jump. Only a frozen moment ago he and his colleagues had been facing death in the Darks, the mountainous region that had once been called Montana. Now they were?..
"Where the firestorm are we?" he muttered.
It was their fifth jump within an hour. Each one had been accompanied by a gut-wrenching sickness and a whirling in the brain, as if every single particle of tissue was being dissolved and spun through a suction pump.
Ryan couldn't even begin to think how the complex machines might work. Probably nobody now alive had any ideas. All of that came from before the war.
Nearly a hundred years had passed since Doomsday — high noon on the twentieth day of January in the year of our Lord 2001. The last day of our Lord. The missiles rose and the skies darkened. The death toll was countless and humanity stood on the brink of extinction. But there were survivors. There will always be survivors.
From the caves and mines and shelters, they emerged to find a changed world where a nuclear winter raged for nearly a generation. But again there were survivors. And they bred and their children bred.
Three generations and close to a hundred years passed. Most of the United States was changed. Deserts in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico became fiery nuke hot spots where storms carrying rain of undiluted acid howled in from the Gulf. Most of California had slipped unprotesting into the seething Pacific. Volcanoes and earthquakes had changed the maps forever.
Except that there weren't any maps.
On the East Coast, the big cities crumbled in the endless rain. From the lawless elements rose a new breed of leader, barons who ran their own fiefdoms like medieval lords, paying armies of mercenaries to protect and expand their borders.
In the middle of the country, known as the Deathlands, civilization was reduced to several scattered communities linked by a frail network of poor roads. Along these roads came the merchants, trading in food or supplies or medicine or blasters, and roving bands of freakish muties that set ambushes and raped and killed. And, on occasion, indulged their taste for human flesh.
Best known of the merchants was the man called the Trader. And the most respected, was his first lieutenant, Ryan Cawdor.
Ryan sat still, fighting to steady his breathing. Sweating, he wiped his face, his fingers touching the patch over his left eye. Then he traced the long, puckered scar that ran down the right side of his face, then tugged at the corner of his narrow mouth.
His mouth was dry and he licked his lips. His first firefight back East had occurred when he was twelve. That was nineteen years ago. A skinny kid with a mop of curly black hair, hefting a battered Armalite. For the first time, killing a man. Funny how you remembered the first. Remembered the first man you killed. First woman you made love to.
Both times Ryan had been twelve. On a trip into the Appalachians he'd met a web-fingered mutie and blew half his guts away, spilling the loops of greasy intestines into the man's lap. First woman had been a mulatto whore in a bawdy house near Butcher's Creek.
What brought all that back? "Yeah," he whispered, to himself. "Mouth gets dry and your hands get wet. Mebbe should be the other way round."
Hearing a low groan, he looked to one side of the chamber. It was Finnegan. Fat, jolly Finn, with a red stain drying to brown on his hip, where Hennings had bled on him as Finn hauled his friend to safety. Henn lay still, his breathing ragged and harsh, blood still oozing from the ax-cut along his thigh. Hunaker was corning around. She was on her hands and knees, fiercely shaking her head, forcing the clinging darkness from her mind. She sensed Ryan watching her and looked up at him, running her hand through her cropped green hair.
"Hurts like a bastard, don't it, Ryan? Like a fuckin’ bastard."
"Yeah," he agreed.
Okie, the tall, good-looking blaster, heaved herself to her feet in a single, fluid movement, cradling her M-16A1 autocarbine, its eleven-inch barrel like a material extension of her own sullen aggression. Ryan noticed that her wounded shoulder had nearly stopped bleeding.
On the other side of the chamber, J.B. Dix wiped the back of his neck. His eyes blinked twice behind wire-rimmed glasses, and he coughed, clearing his throat.
"Not so bad, this time." J.B. was a man of few words.
Next to him, Krysty Wroth stirred. For her, the passage had been worse than usual, and she was doubled over, coughing and retching dryly. Her long red hair, brighter than fire, tumbled to the floor, seeming to move with its own sentient life. Ryan watched her, still prey to his own warring emotions. The girl they'd rescued from muties only a few short weeks ago had managed to affect him as no other woman ever had. With her dazzling green eyes and wonderful body, Krysty had attracted every man on the war wagon. It had seemed utterly logical that she and Ryan should make love.
But only in the last couple of hours had the realization dawned on him that the girl was a mutie. Under extreme stress she could produce a burst of violent muscular energy that was awesome. He still hadn't sorted out how he felt about falling in love with a mutie.
"How's Doc?" he asked, moving unsteadily across the hexagonal room, stooping by the hunched figure of the old man.
Doc was huddled over, his hands clasped between his legs. His cracked boots were smeared with drying mud, and dirt was smeared across the shoulders of his faded frock coat. His battered stovepipe hat was at his side, its crown dented. Tangled gray hair spilled over narrow shoulders. As Ryan nudged him with the toe of his boot, Doc stirred and moaned, his mouth sagging open, showing his peculiarly perfect teeth.
"C'mon, Doc," Ryan said. "Let's find out where you've taken us this time."
"Time, my dear sir," spluttered the old man. "Time is present and also past and, perhaps, even present in the future. Is that where we've jumped?"
"Where?" asked J.B. standing beside Ryan.
"Where what?" replied Doc.
"Leave him be," said Krysty, pulling herself up, straightening her hair. "Poor old bastard's never all here."
The truth was that Doc was never quite anywhere. They'd rescued him some days earlier from a tortured thralldom in a township called Mocsin, southeast of the Darks. The boss of the town had been Jordan Teague, whose corpse now lay somewhere among the smoldering ruins of Mocsin. Ryan and the others had narrowly escaped the enmity of Teague's head sec man, Cort Strasser. Strasser had been Doc's prime tormentor and had used his malign ingenuity to constantly fashion new humiliations for the old-timer.
There was something uncanny about Doc. Despite his frequent ravings and long silences, he seemed to have arcane knowledge of the past. Even the far past, before the wars. But his brain had been so addled by Strasser's cruelty that coherent thought seemed beyond him. Ryan doubted that Doc would ever return to what men called normal.
"Everyone ready? Henn, how's the leg?"
"Not bad, Ryan. I got me another if'n this one buys the farm."
"One leg less to piss down," sniggered Finnegan, ducking Henn's attempt to knock his head off with a roundhouse right.
"The shoulder, Okie?" Ryan asked.
"Stiffening. Never saw what hit me. Arrow, mebbe? I'm fine. We goin' out?"
Ryan moved toward the heavy door to the gateway, but J.B. stopped him. "Best check the weapons. Sooner's better'n later."
J.B. had been the armorer to the Trader for more than nine years, joining the Trader's group about a year after Ryan Cawdor. Despite his mild, almost scholarly appearance, J.B. Dix knew more about armaments than anyone alive. When the world exploded in 2001, every single industrial center vanished in a nuclear cloud. Since then, the manufacture of guns had virtually ceased. But all over the country were hidden stockpiles that had been packed with the requisite tools of war nearly a century ago. And J.B. Dix knew about all of them.
For a couple of minutes the chamber echoed with the clicking of bolts and the testing of springs. Ejected cartridges rattled brassily on the metal floor as the group tested the action of their handguns and rifles.
Ryan drew his panga from its scabbard, felt the honed edge with his thumb, nodded his approval and slid the eighteen-inch blade back out of sight.
Krysty removed her three slim, leaf-bladed throwing knives from the bandolier across her chest, flicking them casually from hand to hand, finding the points of balance.
Only Doc had no weapon. He dusted off his tall hat and attempted to brush his frock coat clean.
"Ready?" said Ryan, getting nods of approval all around. "Then let's go."
The door opened smoothly with the hiss of an air lock. As he led his group into the adjoining room, Ryan heard the faint sound of a distant siren and stopped to listen, but it faded out.
Rectangular and roughly five paces long by three wide, the room was similar to those that he'd seen in other gateways in other redoubts. There was a plastic table on one side and four shelves on the other and nothing else in the room except a polished copper bowl on the table. Hunaker picked the bowl up and peered inside.
"Nothin'. Mebbe somethin' dried at the bottom. Brown crust like blood."
She banged it back down, and it rang like a temple bell, the noise surprisingly loud. Ryan glared at her, and she tried an apologetic half smile. With Hun that was better than nothing.
The far door was shut. If this was like the other redoubts they'd briefly explored, the room beyond would be the main control site for the matter-transmitter complex. Ryan drew his handgun, the weight of the fifteen-shot SIG-Sauer comforting. Around him, the others readied themselves. That was one of the good things about the Trader's training: nobody needed to be told what to do in this sort of situation. You got your finger on the trigger, nerves stretched tight, eyes moving. It was a time when mistakes got made and men died.
One of the things that Ryan liked about the P-226 was its safety. The pistol fired when you pulled the trigger. Not before. Not when you dropped it. He remembered Brecht, the bearded tail gunner from War Wag Two, dropping his old Beretta 92. That was enough to set it off and the bullet hit Karen Mutter, the oldest woman aboard any of the war wags, in her left buttock. Her scream could have shattered crystal at a half mile.
She had been among the dead at Mocsin.
The door opened on a greased track, and Ryan Cawdor stepped through the doorway. It was just like the others. Consoles of whirring instruments, lights flashing red and blue and green. Banks of comps with tape loops that jittered on as they had for a hundred years. It was a great tribute to the technical skill of the engineers before the Chill that these things still functioned after a century of neglect.
He sniffed the air, trying to catch some clue that might prepare him for what lay behind the massive door to the gateway. His limited experience told him it should open on a corridor that was part of a fortress built like some of the stockpiles that they'd found in the last few years.
He flicked on the rad counter in his lapel. It cheeped and muttered quietly, but there was nothing of the fearful crackling that would indicate a hot spot.
"Clean," said J.B., rubbing a finger along the top of one of the consoles, showing it to Ryan.
"Don't spill any dirty blood, Hennings," warned Finnegan, chuckling at his own joke. The tall black limping along at the rear of the party didn't bother to reply.
To the right of the polished metal door was a green lever set at the single word Closed. Cautiously Ryan eased the lever upward toward the word Open.
There was a whisper of gears meshing, and the door began to move sideways. As soon as it had opened a couple of inches, Ryan stopped it. Very carefully he put his good eye to the gap, looking both ways. Sniffing again.
"Anythin'?" asked Okie.
"No. Blank wall. But... I think... seems like I can smell food."
"Food?" Finnegan quickly repeated.
"Yeah, it smells like meat cooking, but it's very faint, maybe from some days ago."
The rad counter was silent, surprising Ryan. What kind of place was this, he wondered, that had virtually no radiation? Had to be a place where there'd been no fighting. Or where they'd used some low-yield weapons with short half-lives.
"Any idea where the fuck we are, Doc?" he asked, leaving the door barely open.
"Not a clue, my dear fellow. Trouble with these jumps. All the control instructions long gone. They took care that the redoubts held nothing, in case any Russkies came sauntering along. All coded and tucked away. All gone?"
"Russkies?" said Krysty Wroth. "Back in Harmony, my Uncle Tyas McNann used to talk to Peter Maritza, about Russkies."
"Russians," J.B. said. "Used to call 'em reds, 'cause they killed so many people. Huge land out west of us beyond where the coast all fell in. Mean bastards — so the old books I read kept sayin' about 'em."
"I'm openin' the door." Ryan pushed the lever all the way up, and the door slid open, revealing a blank wall and a narrow corridor running in either direction as far as they could see. Not that they could see very far; the passage was gently curved, its ends out of sight.
Joining Ryan, they entered the corridor, fanning out with guns ready. He tasted the air again, still catching the elusive but undeniable scent of cooking.
"I can smell it, too," whispered Finnegan. "Good meat stew and fresh bread. That way," he said, pointing to the left.
"Best go that way," said Hennings. "Fat little tub ain't never wrong 'bout food. He'd ride the tongue of the mouth of hell for a mug of broth."
"Left it is," agreed Ryan, leading them off, his bootheels ringing uncomfortably loudly on the stone floor.
This redoubt was different from the others they'd seen. There were no rooms opening off the main corridor, just a long bare passage with a high domed ceiling. At its zenith, lights were deeply recessed behind thick glass. The walls were a restful cream color, unmarked by the passage of the hundred years or so since the place was built.
"See any tracks, Hun?" Ryan asked, after walking a couple of hundred paces.
The girl knelt, placing a hand on the stone, lowering her head until the stubble of her green hair brushed the floor. The others watched. Hunaker was probably the best scout in the group; the Trader had often complimented her about it.
"It's cleaned," she said. "Swept in the last few days by a buggy with fat, soft tires. There's a layer of rubber down here that's real old, like someone's been drivin' the buggy for fuckin' years. No prints."