As Baron Kendrick Haldane crossed the fields enroute to his riverside compound, his subjects, old and young, tipped their hats and smiled up at him. They knew nothing of the deal about to be struck. Though Haldane had been made baron by popular acclaim, his fiefdom was not a democracy. The good people of Nuevaville didn’t want participatory government; they wanted a leader, a father figure, someone in charge who was stronger and more intelligent than they were. Success or failure, survival or extinction was the Baron-For-Life’s sole responsibility.
Parked in the lane in front of the side by side, double-wide trailers that housed his residence and administrative offices was a convoy of armored predark wags. Hummers. Winnebago Braves. Military six by sixes. One of the vehicles, a veritable landship with a skin of gunmetal gray steel plate, dwarfed all the others. The metal windshield had two wide rows of louvred view slits for the driver and navigator. There were also view slits above each of the firing ports that ringed its perimeter at four-foot intervals. Bulletproof skirts protected the three sets of wheels; amidships and rear, the wheels were doubled. A full length steel skidplate protected the undercarriage from improvised road mines and satchel charges. On the roof, fore and aft, heavy, swivel-mounted machine guns controlled 360 degrees of terrain.
The wags’ crews and sec men lounged around cable spool tables set out under a pair of oak trees.
Small children peeked at the convoy and its personnel from behind the rock outcrops that bordered the lane. From their delighted expressions, they thought the carny had come to town. When Haldane angrily waved them off, they scattered, out of harm’s way.
The baron had positioned his ville defense force in the surrounding buildings, ditches, and fields. From these hiding places, they aimed RPGs at the parked vehicles and the seated men, insuring that any attempt at a double cross would end as quickly as it started, a massed grenade attack turning wags into burning hulks—and men into dismembered corpses—in a matter of seconds.
Haldane could hear the big wag’s power generators droning as he approached the crewmembers and security teams. There was as much Nuevaville rabbit stew on their beards and forearms as there was on their plates. Those not eating were busy drinking green beer from recycled antifreeze jugs and smoking handrolled cigarettes and cheroots. Their predark milspec weapons were prominently displayed. The Heckler and Koch 9mm MP5 A3, collapsible rear stock submachine guns showed no wear, no scratches in their blueing. They looked brand new, right out of the Cosmoline.
The visitors didn’t rise in deference or salute as Haldane passed. Some ignored him, most stared with unconcealed contempt. The baron had come face to face with plenty of road and river trash in his day, but this gang was different. And not just because of the quality and condition of their blasters. They had no fear of him.
Or perhaps they had a far greater fear of their employer.
The sec men and drivers were uniformly large—tall, well fed, and muscular. They all sported an excess of the scarifications and brandings that passed for body decoration in the hellscape. Angry red tears perpetually dripped down cheeks. Mouths were widened at the corners and turned up into obscene, permanent grins. Spiral brands formed symbolic third eyes in the middle of foreheads. Inch-wide, half-round welts, snakes of scars, wound around bare arms from wrist to shoulder. Ground-in dirt caked their hands and faces and the sides of their heavy black boots.
Haldane entered the big wag via a porthole door amidships. The light inside the narrow metal corridor was dim and filled with the most horrible smell, a combination of slaughterhouse in July and death bed, blood and pus and bodily wastes. It took his breath away. To the right, down the access way, a sec man with shoulder-length, blond dreadlocks motioned impatiently for him to approach.
“Did you talk to your god?” the guard asked, holding the muzzle of his H & K pointed at the baron’s bowels, his finger resting lightly on the trigger.
“No,” Haldane replied, “God talked to me, through his chosen oracle.”
“Ain’t but one true god in Deathlands, Baron, and he’s waiting for you back there.” The sec man hooked a thumb over his shoulder in the direction of the wag’s rear salon.
As Haldane started to walk past, the sentry put out his free hand and said, “Gimme that blaster.”
The baron let him take the Remington 1100, then started down the hall. On his right were evenly spaced firing ports and view slits. On his left were riveted metal walls and closed metal doors.
He was fifteen feet from the entrance to the rear stateroom when he heard a shrill, whimpering sound over the generators’ steady throb. The sound was instantly recognizable. It made his heart thud in his ears and his blood run cold. He sprinted for the door and without knocking, threw it back and burst into the salon.
Inside everything was in disarray. The lamplit work benches and tables that choked the middle of the room were cluttered with surgical tools, rusting cans, and piles of rags. Under the tables were buckets of what looked like dirty transmission fluid. Floor-to-ceiling metal shelves overflowed with electronic and computer parts. In front of a double ceramic sink streaked with blood was a 55-gallon plastic barrel in which floated human body parts. The concentrated reek of abbatoir made his eyes water and his gorge rise.
In the gloom on the far side of the jumble of tables, something moved on the broad, rear bench seat. Haldane caught a glimpse of a face, of sorts. In a full moon of festering flesh sat eyes like chromed hens’ eggs.
An ancient, unblinking evil.
That would not let itself die.
When Haldane moved closer, he saw the small blond-haired child sitting ever so still on the creature’s lap. It was his son, Thorne. The boy’s blue eyes wore an expression he had never seen before. And never wanted to see again. Thorne was paralyzed with terror. A half-metal, half-human claw rested easily on the back of the boy’s slender neck.
“You have a very inquisitive child here, Baron,” the Magus said. “He asked me for a guided tour of my war wag. I think I have satisfied his curiousity.”
Thorne Haldane looked up at his father, desperate to be away, but afraid to move a muscle.
As adrenalin flooded the baron’s veins, a mechanized hand slipped down to cover the center of the child’s chest.
“He has such a strong little heart,” Magus said.
The clanking laugh than emanated from the spider-like torso jolted Haldane to the core, as did the implied threat.
Magus was not a child molester.
He was something infinitely worse.
“Come here, Son,” Haldane said.
Steel Eyes held the boy fast on his lap, and the baron sensed the creature’s insane jealousy, his envy of the budding young life.
Haldane had a nine-inch killing dirk concealed up his sleeve. A weapon designed to open a wound that would never close. But where to stab, which of the rat’s nest of plastic tubes and colorful wires to cut? And failing a one-strike, instant chill, those metal fingers would crush his child’s head like a piece of ripe fruit.
The dirk remained in its forearm sheath.
“Son, come to me. You have no business here.”
Magus did not try to stop the boy as he cautiously slipped off his lap. Thorne hurried between the tables to hide behind his father’s stout legs. The six-year-old clung to the back of his BDU pants.
From the bench seat came a faint, high-pitched whirring sound as the pupils in Magus’s metal eyes dilated. Then he opened his mouth and licked his lips with an all too human tongue. When he closed his jaws, the supporting guy wires slid into the grommets set in titanium cheek braces.
It was said, and widely believed, that this monstrous, suppurating creature experimented with the organs of other people in order to find ways to improve his own ability to function. It was said that Magus was so removed from his human origins that he performed operations on himself. He could turn off his pain centers and yank out and replace his own innards, like components of a wag motor.
There would be no experiments on Haldane’s only son. Not while the baron still drew breath. Without a word, he picked up the boy and carried him down the hall, past the grinning sec man, to the porthole door.
“They grabbed me and brought me in here, Daddy,” Thorne told him. “I didn’t wanna see this place.”
“I know you didn’t. It’s okay, now,” Haldane said as he put the child down. He opened the door and whispered in his son’s ear, “Run, Thorne. Run!”
The boy jumped to the ground and took off down the lane like a shot, through the first spattering of rain. Lightning arced across the northern sky, and a moment later, thunder rumbled.
As Haldane turned back for the salon, his hands began to tremble and shake. His mouth tasted like he’d been sucking on a bullet. This was how Magus took and maintained control of even the strongest, the bravest of men; this was how he corrupted them. He showed them their most terrible fear, and that he had the power to make it come to pass.
Steel Eyes dealt in weapons of mass destruction, the deadliest instruments that civilization had ever produced. No one knew for certain how he got access to the predark technology, whether he stole it from the secret redoubts scattered around the nuked-out world, or whether, as was rumored, he jumped back in time to rob it from the past. Either way, Magus was much more than a trader in rare and dangerous goods. Although he didn’t seek to acquire territory or to amass armies, his spies were said to be everywhere. He didn’t aspire to baronhood, but he pulled strings behind the scenes like a puppetmaster, applying pressure here, pressure there, for motives that were unfathomable.
The baron reentered the salon and stepped right up to Magus. Close enough to see the inflamed joins of live meat and polished metal. Through the rear window’s view slits, in downslanting shafts of light, fat flies buzzed and zigzagged.
“You shouldn’t have touched my son,” Haldane said.
“I did him no harm,” Magus countered. “I am not contagious. It was an educational experience for him. He saw the greatest miracle of whitecoat science at close range.”
With Thorne’s life out of the mix, an instant chill strike wasn’t necessary. The baron could have taken his time with the killing dirk, absorbing whatever punishment the mechanized hands dished out, stabbing and slashing until the creature finally died. He would have done so with relish, but he needed Magus, to save his barony.
“Before we proceed,” Haldane said, “I want assurances that the loss of life will be confined.”
“I never give guarantees,” Magus said. “The weapons systems I have brought you are indiscriminate by design. My sources tell me that even as we speak, the Impaler is advancing on Sunspot with a large military force. He will rout your small detachment of soldiers, take over the ville, and reestablish his staging point for another hit and run attack on Nuevaville. Yes or no, Haldane. I need your decision, now.”
The puppetmaster understood the trap in which Haldane and his arch enemy were caught. Both controlled minor fiefdoms with small populations and large, mostly uninhabitable territories. Malosh wanted the natural resources of Haldane’s barony, Haldane wanted to protect them. Haldane could not defeat Malosh’s mobile army, Malosh could not defeat his hardened defenses. Neither had alliances of mutual defense with baronies on their other borders.
For the past five years, Haldane and his western neighbor had battled across an ill-defined boundary, losing blood and treasure in a steady flow, and the key to staging or holding off successful attacks was Sunspot. The remote ville had the misfortune of standing roughly halfway between the barons’ respective capitals, on the most direct overland route. For military purposes, it was a strategic lynchpin, a place for an army recover after the long desert trek, a place to store supplies and gather reinforcements. For years, control of Sunspot had swung back and forth between the adversaries, with the ville folk caught in the middle.
Haldane saw the fighting and the loss of life as a waste of precious resources and time. The constant conflict kept him from developing economic relationships with the wealthy eastern baronies, from building new trade routes, from bringing more prosperity to his people. It kept him from giving them a future.
Magus had appeared on his doorstep with a long term solution to the problem. The only way to end the stalemate was to obliterate Sunspot ville and make it useless to either side.
For some to live, others had to die.
The price of peace was mass murder.
Haldane knew if Magus offered Malosh the same opportunity, he would jump at it. Not to use against Sunspot. To use against the defenses of Nueva Las Cruces. Not to end to the conflict at a gentlemen’s draw, but to win a one-sided victory.
The storm had closed in. Thunder boomed directly overhead. A hard rain rattled the landship’s roof.
“Show me what you’ve brought,” the baron said.
Magus lurched from the bench seat with speed and agility that surprised Haldane. He whipped aside a tarp on the floor, exposing a pair of lidless crates. They were painted olive drab, and bore the mark of the hammer and sickle. Inside one, in neat rows, were point-nosed artillery projectiles. The second crate held cased propellant charges. Like the wag crews’ H and Ks, it all looked straight-from-the-armory, brand spanking new.
“The chem weapon warheads are fired by the Soviet Lyagusha D-30 122mm howitzer,” Magus said. “Its maximum range is a little more than nine miles.”
“And you have this gun?”
“Where is it?”
“Safely hidden between here and the proposed target.”
Haldane examined the munitions with care. “There are two kinds of shells in the crate,” he remarked.
“That’s right. You have a choice to make, Baron. Would you prefer nerve or blister gas?”
|From the book: Sunspot
By: James Axler
Imprint and Series: Gold Eagle/Deathlands
Publication Date: (year/month) 12/07
Copyright © 2007
By: Worldwide Library
® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher.
The edition published by arrangement with Harlequin Books S.A.