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The Waste Lands



Now there were other voices, some shrieking, some yelling, all furi-ous. Eddie rolled off Susannah's chair-it tottered on one wheel before deciding to stay up-and stared in the direction from which the dwarf had come. A ragged mob of about twenty men and women had appeared, some coming from around the corner, others pushing through the mats of foliage which obscured the corner building's arches, materializing from the smoke of the dwarf's grenade like evil spirits. Most were wearing blue headscarves and all were carrying weapons-a varied (and somehow pitiful) assortment of them which included rusty swords, dull knives, and splintery clubs. Eddie saw one man defiantly waving a hammer. Pubes, Eddie thought. We interrupted their necktie party, and they're pissed as hell about it.

A tangle of shouts-Kill the Grays! Kill them both! They've done for Luster, God kill their eyes!-arose from this charming group as they caught sight of Susannah in her wheelchair and Eddie, who was now crouched on one knee before it. The man in the forefront was wearing a kilt-like wrap and waving a cutlass. He brandished this wildly (he would have decapitated the heavyset woman standing close behind him, had she not ducked) and then charged. The others followed, yelling happily.

Roland's gun pounded its bright thunder into the windy, overcast day, and the top of the kilt-wearing Pube's head lifted off. The sallow skin of the woman who had almost been decapitated by his cutlass was suddenly stippled with red rain and she voiced a sound of barking dismay. The others came on past the woman and the dead man, raving and wild-eyed.

"Eddie!" Susannah screamed, and fired again. A man wearing a silk-lined cape and knee-boots collapsed into the street.

Eddie groped for the' Ruger and had one panicky moment when he thought he had lost it. The butt of the gun had somehow slipped down inside the waistband of his pants. He wrapped his hand around it and yanked hard. The fu**ing thing wouldn't come. The sight at the end of the barrel had somehow gotten stuck in his underwear.

Susannah fired three closely spaced shots. Each found a target, but the oncoming Pubes didn't slow.

"Eddie, help me!"

Eddie tore his pants open, feeling like some cut-rate version of Superman, and finally managed to free the Ruger. He hit the safety with the heel of his left palm, placed his elbow on his leg just above the knee, and began to fire. There was no need to think-no need to even aim. Roland had told them that in battle a gunslinger's hands worked on their own, and Eddie now discovered it was true. It would have been hard for a blind man to miss at this range, anyway. Susannah had cut the numbers of the charging Pubes to no more than fifteen; Eddie went through the remainder like a storm wind in a wheatfield, dropping four in less than two seconds.

Now the single face of the mob, that look of glazed and mindless eagerness, began to break apart. The man with the hammer abruptly tossed his weapon aside and ran for it, limping extravagantly on a pair of arthritis-twisted legs. He was followed by two others. The rest of them milled uncertainly in the street. "Come on, you deucies!" a relatively young man snarled. He wore his blue scarf around his throat like a rally-racer's ascot. He was bald except for two fluffs of frizzy red hair, one on each side of his head. To Susannah, this fellow looked like Clarabell the Clown; to Eddie he looked like Ronald McDonald; to both of them he looked like trouble. He threw a home-made spear that might have started life as a steel tableleg. It clattered harmlessly into the street to Eddie and Susannah's right. "Come on, I say! We can get em if we all stick togeth-"

"Sorry, guy," Eddie murmured, and shot him in the chest. Clarabell/Ronald staggered backward, one hand going to his shirt. He stared at Eddie with huge eyes that told his tale with heartbreaking clarity: this wasn't supposed to happen. The hand dropped heavily to the young man's side. A single runlet of blood, incredibly bright in the gray day, slipped from the comer of his mouth. The few remaining Pubes stared at him mutely as he slipped to his knees, and one of them turned to run. "Not at all," Eddie said. "Stay put, my retarded friend, or you're going to get a good look at the clearing where your path ends." He raised his voice. "Drop em, boys and girls! All of em! Now!"

"You ..." the dying man whispered. "You . . . gunslinger?" "That's right," Eddie said. His eyes surveyed the remaining Pubes grimly. "Cry your . . . pardon," the man with the frizzy red hair gasped, and then he fell forward onto his face.

"Gunslingers?" one of the others asked. His tone was one of dawning horror and realization.

"Well, you're stupid, but you ain't deaf," Susannah said, "and that's somethin, anyway." She waggled the barrel of the gun, which Eddie was quite sure was empty. For that matter, how many rounds could be left in the Ruger? He realized he didn't have any idea how many rounds the clip held, and cursed himself for a fool . . . but had he really believed it could come to something like this? He didn't think so. "You heard him, folks. Drop em. Recess is over." One by one, they complied. The woman who was wearing a pint or so of Mr. Sword-and-Kilt's blood on her face said, "You shouldn't've killed Winston, missus-'twas his birthday, so it was."

"Well, I guess he should have stayed home and eaten some more birthday cake," Eddie said. Given the overall quality of this experience, he didn't find either the woman's comment or his own response at all surreal. There was one other woman among the remaining Pubes, a scrawny thing whose long blonde hair was coming out in big patches, as if she had the mange. Eddie observed her sidling toward the dead dwarf-and the potential safety of the overgrown arches beyond him-and put a bullet into the cracked cement close by her foot. He had no idea what he wanted with her, but what he didn't want was one of them giving the rest of them ideas. For one thing, he was afraid of what his hands might do if the sickly, sullen people before him tried to run. Whatever his head thought about this gunslinging business, his hands had discovered they liked it just fine.

"Stand where you are, beautiful. Officer Friendly says play it safe." He glanced at Susannah and was disturbed by the grayish quality of her complexion. "Suze, you all right?" he asked in a lower voice. "Yes."

"You're not going to faint or anything, are you? Because-" "No." She looked at him with eyes so dark they were like caves. "It's just that I never shot anyone before . . . okay?"

Well, you better get used to it rose to his lips. He bit it back and returned his gaze to the five people who remained before them. They were looking at him and Susannah with a species of sullen fear which nevertheless stopped well short of terror.

Shit, most of them have forgotten what terror is, he thought. Joy, sadness, love . . . same thing. I don't think they feel much of anything, anymore. They've been living in this purgatory too long.

Then he remembered the laughter, the excited cries, the lounge-act applause, and revised his thinking. There was at least one thing that still got their motors running, one thing that still pushed their buttons. Spanker could have testified to that.

"Who's in charge here?" Eddie asked. He was watching the intersec-tion behind the little group very carefully in case the others should get their courage back. So far he saw and heard nothing alarming from that direction. He thought that the others had probably left this ragged crew to its fate. They looked at each other uncertainly, and finally the woman with the blood-spattered face spoke up. "Spanker was, but when the god-drums started up this time, it was Spanker's stone what come out of the hat and we set him to dance. I guess Winston would have come next, but you did for him with your god-rotted guns, so you did." She wiped blood deliberately from her cheek, looked at it, and then returned her sullen glance to Eddie. "Well, what do you think Winston was trying to do to me with his god-rotted spear?" Eddie asked. He was disgusted to find the woman had actually made him feel guilty about what he had done. "Trim my sideburns?" "Killed Frank 'n Luster, too," she went on doggedly, "and what are you? Either Grays, which is bad, or a couple of god-rotted outlanders, which is worse. Who's left for the Pubes in City North? Topsy, I sup-pose-Topsy the Sailor-but he ain't here, is he? Took his boat and went off downriver, ay, so he did, and god rot him, too, says I!"

Susannah had ceased listening; her mind had fixed with horrified fascination on something the woman had said earlier. It was Spanker's stone what come out of the hat and we set him to dance. She remembered reading Shirley Jackson's story "The Lottery" in college and understood that these people, the degenerate descendents of the original Pubes, were living Jackson's nightmare. No wonder they weren't capable of any strong emotion when they knew they would have to participate in such a grisly drawing not once a year, as in the story, but two or three times each day.

"Why?" she asked the bloody woman in a harsh, horrified voice. "Why do you do it?"

The woman looked at Susannah as if she was the world's biggest fool. "Why? So the ghosts what live in the machines won't take over the bodies of those who have died here-Pubes and Grays alike-and send them up through the holes in the streets to eat us. Any fool knows that." "There are no such things as ghosts," Susannah said, and her voice sounded like so much meaningless quacking to her own ears. Of course there were. In this world, there were ghosts everywhere. Nevertheless, she pushed ahead. "What you call the god-drums is only a tape stuck in a machine. That's really all it is." Sudden inspiration struck her and she added: "Or maybe the Grays are doing it on purpose-did you ever think of that? They live in the other part of the city, don't they? And under it, as well? They've always wanted you out. Maybe they've just hit on a really efficient way of getting you guys to do their work for them."

The bloody woman was standing next to an elderly gent wearing what looked like the world's oldest bowler hat and a pair of frayed khaki shorts. Now he stepped forward and spoke to her with a patina of good manners that turned his underlying contempt into a dagger with razor-sharp edges. "You are quite wrong, Madam Gunslinger. There are a great many machines under Lud, and there are ghosts in all of them- demonous spirits which bear only ill will to mortal men and women. These demon-ghosts are very capable of raising the dead . . . and in Lud, there are a great many dead to raise." "Listen," Eddie said. "Have you ever seen one of these zombies with your own eyes, Jeeves? Have any of you?"

Jeeves curled his lip and said nothing-but that lip-curl really said it all. What else could one expect, it asked, from outlanders who used guns as a substitute for understanding?

Eddie decided it would be best to close off the whole line of discus-sion. He had never been cut out for missionary work, anyway. He wag-gled the Ruger at the bloodstained woman. "You and your friend there- the one who looks like an English butler on his day off-are going to take us to the railroad station. After that, we can all say goodbye, and I'll tell you the truth: that's going to make my fuckin day."

"Railroad station?" the guy who looked like Jeeves the Butler asked. "What is a railroad station?"

"Take us to the cradle," Susannah said. "Take us to Blaine." This finally rattled Jeeves; an expression of shocked horror replaced the world-weary contempt with which he had thus far treated them. "You can't go there!" he cried. "The cradle is forbidden ground, and Blaine is the most dangerous of all Lud's ghosts!"

Forbidden ground? Eddie thought. Great. If it's the truth, at least we'll be able to stop worrying about you as**oles. It was also nice to hear that there still was a Blaine ... or that these people thought there was, anyway. The others were staring at Eddie and Susannah with expressions of uncomprehending amazement; it was as if the interlopers had suggested to a bunch of born-again Christians that they hunt up the Ark of the Covenant and turn it into a pay toilet.

Eddie raised the Ruger until the center of Jeeves's forehead lay in the sight. "We're going," he said, "and if you don't want to join your ancestors right here and now, I suggest you stop pissing and moaning and take us there." Jeeves and the bloodstained woman exchanged an uncertain glance, but when the man in the bowler hat looked back at Eddie and Susannah, his face was firm and set. "Shoot us if you like," he said. "We'd sooner die here than there." "You folks are a bunch of sick motherfuckers with dying on the brain!" Susannah cried at them. "Nobody has to die! Just take us where we want to go, for the love of God!"

The woman said somberly, "But it is death to enter Blaine's cradle, mum, so it is. For Blaine sleeps, and he who disturbs his rest must pay a high price." "Come on, beautiful," Eddie snapped. "You can't smell the coffee with your head up your ass."

"I don't know what that means," she said with an odd and perplexing dignity. "It means you can take us to the cradle and risk the Wrath of Blaine, or you can stand your ground here and experience the Wrath of Eddie. It doesn't have to be a nice clean head-shot, you know. I can take you a piece at a time, and I'm feeling just mean enough to do it. I'm having a very bad day in your city-the music sucks, everybody has a bad case of b.o., and the first guy we saw threw a grenade at us and kidnapped our friend. So what do you say?" "Why would you go to Blaine in any case?" one of the others asked. "He stirs no more from his berth in the cradle-not for years now. He has even stopped speaking in his many voices and laughing." Speaking in his many voices and laughing? Eddie thought. He looked at Susannah. She looked back and shrugged.

"Ardis was the last to go nigh Blaine," the bloodstained woman said. Jeeves nodded somberly. "Ardis always was a fool when he were in drink. Blaine asked him some question. I heard it, hut it made no sense to me-something about the mother of ravens, I think-and when Ardis couldn't answer what was asked, Blaine slew him with blue fire."

"Electricity?" Eddie asked.

Jeeves and the bloodstained woman both nodded. "Ay," the woman said. "Electricity, so it were called in the old days, so it were." "You don't have to go in with us," Susannah proposed suddenly. "Just get us within sight of the place. We'll go the rest of the way on our own." The woman looked at her mistrustfully, and then Jeeves pulled her head close to his lips and mumbled in her ear for a while. The other Pubes stood behind them in a ragged line, looking at Eddie and Susannah with the dazed eyes of people who have survived a bad air-raid.




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