Bloodlands (A Novel of the Bloodlands)

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9780441020621: Bloodlands (A Novel of the Bloodlands)

It was called the New Badlands, home to the survivors of a cataclysm that altered the entire nation. Then the vampires arrived, and it was rechristened the Bloodlands. Not because of the vampire, but because of the gun-for-hire who'd decided to slay every monster in the country by any and every means necessary.

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When I saw the stranger weaving through the newly settled dusk on my visz monitor, he looked like a lie—a mirage, half wavering fantasy, half dust in my eyes. Chaplin didn't even believe me when I told him about it, but then again, he knew that I'd stayed partway sane only because of one altered version of the truth or another. It always took him some good thought before he ever put stock in what I did or said, and I wouldn't blame him, or anyone else, for that. Lies and omissions were how we lived out here in the nowheres. It was how we made sure strangers like this one on the visz never paid mind to us.

We lied about reality to survive.

Hell, I would lie to anyone, even you.

When I grabbed my old revolver from the wall arsenal, that must've lent some credence to the situation for Chaplin. He looked at the visz, seeing that I was telling him true about a stranger coming toward us.

"Think he's another one of them?" I asked, while keeping an eye on the screen. "Think this guy's one of Stamp's?"

My dog chuffed, then padded over close to me, leaning against my leg. His long tail curled over my boot, like a child wrapping an arm round a protector.

Not that I'm all that good at protecting. Sometimes I even think that Chaplin does a better job of guarding me than the other way round. There's a lot of ways a person needs to be protected.

Strung tight with tension, I adjusted a knob on the visz's side to get a better look at the approaching stranger. The long view was gloomy with the surreal blur of the camera's night vision, streaking his movements as he lurched even nearer to my underground home. Could he somehow see this earthen dwelling, even though I'd taken great care to disguise the entrance amongst the scrub and mounded landscape?

Chaplin made a garbled sound, and I rested a hand on his furry head.

"Don't worry," I said. "I'll bet he saunters right past us."

I didn't even believe myself this time.

My dog softly yowled, as if chewing on words. To anyone not trained in Canine, his sentiments would be inarticulate. But years ago, when I was no more than a pup myself, I'd begged my dad for one of the Intel Dogs he bred and trained at his lab. Dad had obliged only just before we'd been forced to flee our Dallas home much later; then Chaplin had become necessary for survival—a watchdog genetically tooled to be more intelligent than most humans. Stronger, too. He was also a balm for us after my mom and brother had been murdered right in the home we'd abandoned.

I guess I needed Chaplin more than ever now, long after the murders and one year after my dad had taken his own life. My dog wasn't just my best friend—he was my only friend. In particular, he was nice to have round at night. Nice to have round whenever I thought about what waited outside the dirt-packed walls.

Just thinking about outside made the phantom scars on my body itch, but I forced myself not to touch them. They'd only bring back what had supposedly healed.

Now Chaplin growled low in his throat, his brown-haired ears lying flat against his skull as he backed toward a door barring a tunnel that connected our domain to one of the underground caverns.

I offered him a nod, a show of unity that didn't need to be voiced between the two of us. Then I turned back to the visz, which showed the stranger in post-stumble pause.

When I found him staring right back at me, my heart jerked, sending my adrenaline bursting to a hum that I fought to contain. His eyes were rendered luminescent by the camera's night vision and…

It was like he could somehow see the camouflaged lens.

Like he knew we were in here.

Pacing my breathing, calming myself lest I lose control—God-all help me if I did—I hefted down a mini-crossbow from the wall, then stuffed my revolver into a holster built into my wide belt. I loaded the bow with a bolt because it'd be quieter than the bullets if I should have to defend my home. Bullets might attract attention.

"If he's one of Stamp's men," I said, "I'll show him a lesson about coming here when he's drunk and looking for trouble. Stamp's got to be sending his crew to poke round, just like that other man who was already here."

My dog didn't make a sound, and I was glad about that. Neither of us wanted to talk about Stamp's workers. Meanwhile, the stranger loomed closer on the visz, his features coming into shocking focus.

Something in my stomach fisted at the sight of his facial wounds, but I battled back the clench, the emotion. Battled hard, until all that was left was a tremor that only reminded me I wasn't safe.

Then my dog crept to my side and stared at the visz, too, almost like he'd been drawn closer. He let out a long, sympathetic whimper.

Hurt, was what Chaplin's sound meant. The man is hurt.

I tried to glance away but couldn't. The blood enthralled me, even more than it had when I was young, back before my family had been attacked and before the world had almost ended. Back when the media had first started entertaining the masses with violent news images, films of close-up war casualties in North Korea and public executions that people had clamored to witness in real life. Carnerotica, it had come to be called, until that form of amusement had become old hat under the new thrill of the subliminal fantasies I heard they were airing on TV now.

This man was a lot like one of those old executions.

The visz's pale night vision showed his face to be a wounded map to nowhere, etched with open gashes on his forehead and cheeks. Blood and dirt seemed to crust his short-sheared hair. His battered mouth opened round a word.

"Help."

Chaplin whimpered again. Hurt.

"Maybe that's what he hopes we believe." I gripped my crossbow all the harder, sweat breaking out over my skin, even though summer was a season away—a dry, brutal time that made staying inside my shelter all the wiser.

When Chaplin cocked his head, I realized that, for the first time, I couldn't exactly translate what his gesture meant. He was acting addled, off-kilter. Off-guard.

Inexplicably, a sense of isolation expanded in my chest, filling me up so there was no room for much else. I didn't like this sudden lack of simpatico that separated me from my only real ally left from better days.

"You're posing like you're going soft, boy. Where's the wariness in you?"

Chaplin turned his big brown eyes in my direction, emitting a series of whines. I still didn't understand, even though I could translate. It was his gaze that befuddled me, because it brimmed with foreign haziness, an utter lack of focus.

The dog wanted to help the stranger?

"You think we should open the door and let him in for nursing and shelter?"

Chaplin wagged his tail.

"Jay-sus."

He still wagged.

"Hell, it doesn't matter that Dad and I spent sweat upon sweat trying to disguise the dwelling so it'd be quiet and unnoticeable. It doesn't matter that, if Stamp's sending his men round to search out more water for his property, he might resort to trickery to get one of his guys inside here and drag us off the property. Most of all, you know what we have to lose by letting anyone near. No, you're just sitting there cocking your head and flashing your browns and begging like none of that is of consequence."

The dog just kept cocking and flashing while the stranger's visage hovered in the visz, as if gauging the hidden device.

Chaplin gnawed out a few more muddled sounds. He asked for help.

I turned away, forcing my concentration on the visz again. It was as if I were stuck in one of my nightmares, where Chaplin had finally given up on me and had decided to go his own way, leaving me behind.

On the screen, the stranger crumpled to his knees and hunched over in what looked to be agony. Chaplin winced, then stamped round, fidgety.

But letting the man in would be too much of a risk… in so many ways. Yes, he was wounded, and I felt for him. I'd been wounded, too, way back when. But that was exactly why I couldn't drag him inside. I knew better than to welcome anything in.

And I knew the rest of the community would probably feel the same way. From the sights I often saw on the viszes, which were trained on the underground common area where other New Badlanders had begun gathering again recently, I could tell that the world hadn't changed fast enough for anyone to be trusting strangers. The bad guys were still out there, and Johnson Stamp might prove to be one of them. According to gossip, he'd permanently moved here about a month ago, establishing a setup for uncovering water in the area, seeing as the earth didn't produce a whole lot of it for regular folk these days. Of course, corporations had the means to desalinate ocean water and seed clouds, but their services came at a steep price few could afford without indebting themselves body and soul. Water was life, especially in an out-of-the-way place like the New Badlands.

The stranger made one last pain-ragged appeal over the visz.

"No… harm," he croaked out, lifting his head back up in supplication.

Then I saw something I couldn't be sure of. His eyes, already whitened by the camera's night vision, flared, reminding me of a gunslinger opening his jacket to show that he wasn't armed.

I sucked in a breath when he hit the ground again, dust wisping up round his flattened body like smoke seething out of the earth.

Chaplin whined deep in his throat, an accusation.

Well, screw him and his dog brain. Maybe his Intel was rubbing off him, what with living out here in the wilds. Maybe we'd all have every last bit of sense bleached from us soon. Wouldn't surprise me, seeing as I was halfway there already.

I ignored the visz and clung to my crossbow, still remembering that odd flash in the stranger's eyes, riddled by it.

Chaplin put his paw on my boot and I said, "I'm not falling for his tricks."

Hurt, he repeated.

"And his hurt trumps what might happen to us should we let him in, whether or not he's Stamp's man?"

No answer from Chaplin on that, because he probably had enough brain cells working to realize that this stranger could be a million things spelling a last mistake. Besides exposing our home, there was a chance that he was one of the bad guys himself—and bad guys would pull anything to make their way in life. See, after old prophecies had come to a head—things like pestilence and earthly change—the bads had taken advantage of all the chaos. The mosquito epidemic had wiped out and separated much of the population in the old States, and terrorism had coerced the normal, law-abiding citizens to take homebound jobs, where they only face-to-faced with their core families. But that was only the start.

U.S.-based terrorists had rigged massive charges along the quake faults of the West Coast to blow off some of the "devil-ridden" area, and the government had extended full security for the good of the country. But a lot of people thought the government could be just as bad as any enemy, and they'd left the urban hubs, seeking safety on compounds or isolated places like the New Badlands. From that point on, bad guys had risen from the ashes all over the place. There'd been a spike in identity theft, so we'd dug the ID chips out from under our skin. We stopped using the Internet and mass tools of communication. We basically wiped ourselves off the face of society since the government—which had even stopped pretending that it wasn't composed of many a bad guy itself—had been too slow to regulate privacy information legislation.

That was when bad guys seized even more identities and properties with impunity. Basically, to live nowadays, even if the government was said to have been weakened by out-of-country monetary sanctions, you had to decide whether to eat or be eaten. And, right now, I wasn't about to put myself on a banquet table.

When I checked the visz one last time, I saw that the screen was empty. A trickle of sweat slid down my temple. Eat or be eaten, I thought again.

But Chaplin didn't seem to get it. If someone had helped you when you needed it…

"Stop," I said before he could really cut into me. "Don't be talking about that. You know better."

The dog merely waited me out, big-browning me with those eyes. It was almost like I could see exactly what he was thinking, too: images of my mom and preteen brother reaching out, screaming while covered with blood as the bad guys got to them. To us.

If someone had helped us when we needed it…

Damn it all. Maybe the only thing separating us from the world we were hiding from was moments like this, when you could make the choice to do more than just stand by while someone else fell.

Could I just help the guy a little, then send him on his way? Was it possible? I did have an arsenal of weapons on my side, after all.

I had a lot of things he'd be afraid of, except I wasn't so willing to use everything at my disposal. He could thank me for that later.

Damn it. Damn it.

I raised a finger to Chaplin, but it trembled. "You'd better be right. If this man's fooling us with those injuries, I'll gun him off good and make sure Stamp knows we're not buying whatever he might be bringing. Then you and me are going to have a talk about common sense."

My dog shifted from one paw to the other, happy as could be. His gaze seemed… what? Inappropriately misty? Bright?

Adrenaline thudding, I set down my crossbow and rechecked my revolver. It'd been made in the early 2000s but would work fine, bolstered by the modifications and the old ammunition, plus the homemade, I'd loaded into it.

I couldn't believe I was doing this. Stupid. But Chaplin would never let me forget that I was no better than a bad guy if I didn't at least see if the stranger was truly wounded. The dog had put up with a lot from me, and someday, I'd push him over the line. I didn't want that day to be now.

With a hard glance at him, I tucked the revolver back into its holster, grabbed the crossbow, then moved toward the wooden ladder. I slowly climbed toward the exit panel, wanting to take the high ground in case I needed it.

God-all, when was the last time I'd willingly been outside? To hell with Chaplin for reminding me that this was the right and decent thing to do. To hell with him for playing that horrific card.

I heaved in oxygen, held my breath, slamming open the panel and emerging into the darkening dusk. Through my night sights, I scanned the area for traps.

Nothing amiss.

Or maybe not.

I scanned a second time while the night air baked over me: dragon's breath, they called the extreme conditions forced by all the changes.

Heartbeat tangling, I smoothed myself out as I breathed. Breathed.

At the same time, I kept thinking: Outside. I'm outside. I should get back in…

Trying to shove my doubts away, I maneuvered over the dry, rock-bitten hill until I slid to the ground. A few sharp blades of cockroach grass, named because it'd sprung up in defiance of the harsh weather, pricked through my pants.

Inside. Get back inside…

Now I went a step farther, shutting myself from feeling altogether: smelling, intaking, experiencing. Then I approached the stranger, aiming my crossbow at his chest. It'd be quite a sight when he opened his eyes. Hopefully, he'd report back to Stamp that there was nothing near here worth even a third look....

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