The Ruins of Kaldac
Book 34 of the Richard Blade Series
???? The sky was gray, and a chilly wind blew rain through empty windows, turning the dust onthe floor into mud. The tall man standing by the doorway looked out briefly at the foulweather, then shrugged and walked back into the room.
The man was not only tall. He was also heavily built, with a broad chest and muscle-corded armsand legs to match. He still moved with a light step which hinted at speed and coordination aswell as sheer muscle. His hair was black, and his skin was deeply tanned under the dirt. Hisskin also showed marks and ridges which could only be the scars of painful wounds. He was nakedexcept for a loinguard which gleamed in the dim light with a silvery metallic sheen, but inspite of the breeze he was not shivering.
The man's name was Richard Blade. He was probably the only man in any world who'd traveled intomore than thirty different Dimensions, fought deadly battles in all of them, and alwaysreturned alive.
Richard Blade didn't worry anymore about whether each Dimension he visited could really becalled a complete "world." One Dimension certainly reached out many light-years to the stars,but that didn't mean they all did. In some Dimensions he'd never seen more than an area smallerthan his native England. Neither made much difference to his chances of coming back alive.After a while he left the question of the Dimension's size more and more to Lord Leighton, thescientist who'd opened the road to new Dimensions. As long as he came back in one piece,Richard Blade, who was essentially a practical man, was content. Before he started travelingamong the Dimensions, he was a field operative for the secret British intelligence agency MI6A.
Lord Leighton was quite a different proposition. Before he discovered the road to newDimensions, he'd already had a long career as one of Britain's most brilliant scientists. Hewas born a hunchback, and polio twisted his legs when he was a child, but there was nothingwrong with his mind. Even his best friends would admit that there was a great deal wrong withhis manners, which were abominable, but even his worst enemies would admit that his mind was aprecision instrument of extraordinary brilliance.
Leighton had developed a theory that if the mind of a physically robust and highly intelligentman was linked to a powerful computer, a new form of intelligence would emerge. He choseRichard Blade, linked him to a computer of his own invention, and wound up sending RichardBlade off into an unknown world.
The discovery of what they called "Dimension X" was a complete accident, but that didn't makeit any less important. There had to be untapped natural resources and new scientificdiscoveries waiting out there in Dimension X. If they could just be brought home to Britain,then put to use....
Several years and several million pounds later, Project Dimension X was only a little ahead ofwhere it started. Richard Blade was still the only man who could travel into Dimension X andreturn alive. He still couldn't return to a particular Dimension except by accident. He stillcouldn't take much equipment with him or bring back anything except by chance. Some of what hebrought back was no more than exotic junk. Some of it was jewels or precious metals which couldat least be sold to raise money for the Project. Some of it was knowledge or technology which
would be priceless when and if it could be put to practical use.
However, things seemed to be looking up a trifle. Blade paced around the gloomy room andlistened to the rain, fingering the belt of his silvery loinguard. That was something based onDimension X technology, and he'd worn it safely through the transition into this Dimension!
Blade thought of the first time he'd seen the loinguard, just this morning. He'd arrived at theTower of London a few minutes early, then waited under the hard eyes of the Special Branch menwho guarded the entrance to the Project. Eventually J arrived, as erect and ageless as ever,looking like a retired civil servant rather than one of the great spymasters of modern times.He'd chosen Blade straight out of Oxford for MI6A. He still headed the agency, but now he wasalso chief of security for Project Dimension X. He was about the best qualified man for thejob, and it also let him keep a watchful eye out for Blade, who was the closest thing to a sonhe'd ever known.
The two men rode down in the elevator to the Project's complex buried two hundred feetunderground. Then they took the walk down the long gleaming corridor to the computer rooms. Bynow Blade could have walked the corridor blindfolded. As they passed the last of the electronicsentinels which monitored the corridor for intruders, J turned to Blade. "Leighton called melast night, Blade. Said he's got a surprise for us."
Blade managed to restrain his enthusiasm. A "surprise" from Lord Leighton could be almostanything. It was likely to be a new development the scientist thought he or J would oppose ifthey knew about it too far in advance. Lord Leighton's creativity and enthusiasm sometimes ranahead of his good judgment.
"Did he say anything else?"
J nodded. "He said it had to do with the Englor Alloy #2."
That was somewhat more encouraging. In one Dimension Blade found a country called Englor,strangely like Home Dimension England in many ways, locked in a deadly struggle with anopponent just as strangely like the Soviet Union. Englor's airplanes were built of alloys farbeyond anything in Home Dimension, and Blade brought back formulas and samples for several ofthem.
It turned out that the most powerful electrical field imaginable would flow through an objectmade of Alloy #2 from Englor as if it weren't there. When Blade traveled into Dimension X, hewas surrounded by a strong electrical field and couldn't wear anything which might disrupt itsflow. With equipment made of Alloy #2, he might hope to reach Dimension X in something morethan his bare skin, armed with something more than his bare hands!
Unfortunately there were problems in producing Englor Alloy #2 (EA 2 for short) with HomeDimension technology. The problems had been solved only to the point where a few ounces couldbe produced each day, at a cost of more than five pounds an ounce. On his last trip intoDimension X, Blade carried a length of wire made of EA 2. It made the round trip with him, soat least the theory about traveling with the alloy was sound enough. Now it seemed that LordLeighton might have some practical applications of the theory to show Blade and J.
Leighton met them at the entrance to the computer rooms and scuttled ahead of them to hisprivate workshop. He looked rather like a gnome hurrying to show his treasure. The surprise layon the wooden table in the workshop. Blade picked it up and turned it over several times in hishands. It was a loinguard shaped exactly like a standard athletic supporter but made entirelyof EA 2. Blade would have recognized the silvery sheen, the flexibility, and the light weighteven if J hadn't informed him.
Blade put the loinguard back on the table and looked at the scientist. "Thank you for thethought, sir. But I'm not one of those people who keep their brains between their legs."
A choking sound made Blade turn around. He saw J trying to stifle laughter. To give the olderman time to recover, Blade turned back to Leighton. "Joking aside, sir, why this particularpiece of equipment?"
"Two reasons," said Leighton. "One, it was the biggest thing we could make with the amount ofEA 2 we had and still have enough left over for further experiments. We could have made you asmall helmet, but we'd have had nothing left except your wire and some scraps and powder."
"Two, you've often carped about arriving in other dimensions stark naked. Well, now you havesomething to wear-an immodest garment, to be sure-nevertheless, it does cover you somewhat, andit does protect a vulnerable part of your body. You wouldn't deny that, would you?"
Blade laughed. "Hardly." An injury there could easily cripple a man from pain or loss of blood,even if it didn't castrate him, so maybe the silver loinguard did have some practical use. Itwas reassuring for Blade to realize that even if Lord Leighton sometimes acted like a madscientist, he still had Blade's best interests in mind. Blade remembered the splittingheadaches he used to have when he woke up in Dimension X, before Leighton invented the KALIcapsule. Sometimes those headaches were so bad he wouldn't have found it easy to either fightor run. The KALI capsule got rid of them, which improved his chances for survival.
But now Blade's mouth tightened as he remembered all the people the KALI capsule hadn't helpedto survive. Leighton had the seven-foot capsule controlled by a new, self-programming computer.The computer opened a path between the Dimensions to a monstrosity called the Ngaa. It killedmore than thirty people, put the whole world in danger, and nearly destroyed Project DimensionX before Blade fought and destroyed it in one of his grimmest battles.
One of the Ngaa's victims was Zoe Cornwall, once Blade's fiancee. He now knew that he was neverlikely to love another woman the same way, yet he would never be able to marry a woman hedidn't love as he'd loved Zoe. Considering how he made his living, that was probably just aswell, at least for the woman.
Still, Zoe should not have been dead! Blade had not allowed himself to grow bitter and nolonger held her death against Lord Leighton. He also did not let himself forget her. He had toremember that Lord Leighton's scientific genius was something like a two-edged sword, whichcould slash both friends and enemies.
Blade picked up the loinguard again. "Can I get this off in a hurry if I have to?"
"Yes." Leighton pointed. "See-there's a quick-release hook on the side."
Blade saw the hook but tested it several times before he put the loinguard back on the table.He still wasn't entirely sure this wasn't a bawdy joke by Lord Leighton, but it was also a stepon the way to arriving better-equipped-and better "dressed"-in Dimension X. That meantsurvival.
"I'll take a chance," he said. "What do you think, sir?" he asked J.
J frowned. "Well, Richard, it's your-ah, anatomy."
"And I might add, Richard," Leighton now said, "your traveling to and from Dimension X withthis garment brings us one step closer to making an alloy-wire weapon or even an alloy-wiresuit that will increase not only your survival chances but also those of another traveler toDimension X. Assuming you and the alloy return intact, and once we produce enough of the alloyin our laboratories, we can attempt to send someone else with you to Dimension X. You'd like acompanion, wouldn't you, Richard?"
Blade shrugged, but he well knew that the Project's success would be greatly enhanced ifsomeone else could be sent to Dimension X. That other person, lacking Blade's genius forsurvival, would need a special weapon or the alloy-wire suit for protection. And, yes, Bladethought, he would enjoy having a companion from home in Dimension X.
When Blade climbed into the seven-foot KALI capsule an hour later, he was wearing the silverloinguard. He also wore the usual coat of black grease to guard against electrical burns. Hewasn't exactly nervous, but anyone watching him would have noticed how carefully and thickly hegreased his penis and groin.
He lay down in the capsule, and the lid closed over him, to leave him in the familiarcoffinlike darkness with the lining of the capsule pressing against him everywhere. He felt theloinguard staying snugly in place. Good. It wouldn't make any difference at this end if itslipped out of position, but at the other end it might snag on something. That could beembarrassing.
Then the world around Blade dissolved in light and the KALI capsule seemed to vanish. Thecomputer room with the looming crackle-finished consoles was all around him, with Leighton atthe master control panel and J in the folding observer seat. He could see everything clearly,but it had all turned a hundred shades of blue. Leighton's white hair was an electric blue, thegray consoles were midnight blue, the red master switch was the color of a robin's egg
For a moment uncertainty caught Blade by the throat. The KALI capsule had never put him throughone of these psychedelic displays before. Was the loinguard affecting the electrical fieldaround him after all?
Then the blue laboratory exploded into a hundred shapeless pieces, each a different shade ofblue. A high-pitched whine like an enormous mosquito tore at Blade's ears. Then there was onlyblackness for a moment, and after that damp grass under his back and a chilly wind blowingacross his skin....
Now Blade continued to pace around the desolate room listening to the relentless sound of therain. He felt as if he was the only man in all of Dimension X.
Blade had found the room after a short search. When he first arrived in Dimension X he haddiscovered that he was sitting halfway up a steep hill covered with long grass. He felt notrace of a headache. He stood up, stretched his arms and legs, then unhooked his loinguard andexamined it. Both the loinguard and what it was intended to protect seemed to be intact. As heput the loinguard back on, a stronger gust of wind made the grass around him dance wildly. Thenthunder rumbled across the hillside and the gray skies overhead let loose with a downpour ofcold rain.
Blade had looked hastily around for shelter. Visibility was shrinking rapidly, so it was hardto make out details.
As far as he could tell, there were ruins at the bottom of the hill. He saw what looked likewalls with gaping windows, a tower reduced to a jagged fang, a rubble-choked street lined withtrees tossing their branches in the storm, but nothing which promised protection from theweather. He turned and looked uphill.
On the crest of the hill stood a grayish block which looked like an unruined building. Hewatched for a moment, looking for any signs of life, saw none, then started cautiously up thehill. He would have liked to run up to the nearest door and get out of the rain, but thebuilding was the most conspicuous object and probably the best shelter for miles around. Othersin the area might also have their eyes on it, and he didn't plan to walk into an ambush, so heproceeded slowly.
Blade stopped every few yards, noticing new details about the building each time. He saw thatone side of it was dark except for some blurred white shapes on the wall near the ground. Hesaw that one wing had nearly collapsed. Moss grew on some of the leaning slabs, while creepersgrew up the cracked walls and over the tiles of the roof.
At last he reached the hilltop and walked completely around the building. He suddenly realizedthat the blurred white shapes on the darkened wall were the silhouettes of human beings,distorted by many years of weathering. Blade had seen something similar-in photographs taken atHiroshima and Nagasaki. When the atomic bomb had exploded there, the flash darkened the wallsof buildings everywhere except where people had been standing close by. The victims' bodiesleft white shadows on the walls, just like these shadows Blade saw now. So there had been anatomic bomb explosion in this Dimension, Blade realized.
For a moment Blade considered moving on, to avoid any possible danger from lingering radiation.Then he realized that the darkened wall still showed traces of the bomb only because it was onthe side of the building away from the prevailing winds. On the other side the walls wereundarkened, and grass and plants were growing. Certainly enough time had passed for thebuilding to be free of any dangerous radioactivity. Blade tore a branch from a bush growing bythe door and made an improvised club, then strode into the building.
It was as deserted inside as it was outside, except for a few small skittering shapes whichimmediately vanished into the walls. They were about the size of mice but didn't move likethem. Blade thought of radiation-induced mutations.
In one room he had found blurred footprints, but they were in ankle-deep dust. Whoever made thefootprints had come and gone years ago. Blade found he had the choice of four rooms which werereasonably dry except for the rain blowing in through the windows. He'd picked the one with theleast dust, and now he finally stopped pacing and thinking about all the incidents leading upto his arrival in Dimension X. He decided he needed to get some sleep, and he curled up in thecorner farthest from the door but closest to the window. After a moment he sat up, unhooked hisloinguard, and wrapped it around his left hand. The club and the loinguard were the bestweapons he could hope for tonight, and the metal wire was getting cold against his bare skin.
Blade curled up again and started willing himself to go to sleep, in spite of the damp chill.He hoped Lord Leighton's plans to provide him with more survival equipment succeeded, andquickly. Right now he would have given a good deal for a down sleeping bag or even a blanketand thick pile of dry leaves!
By morning the wind had died and the rain was only a drizzle, although the sky was still adepressing gray. A few minutes of vigorous exercises got Blade's blood flowing again. By thetime he'd finished exercising, the clouds were beginning to break up. Visibility rapidlyincreased to several miles. That was enough to tell Blade that there were probably no friendsor enemies anywhere close enough to matter.
At the foot of the hill Blade saw a ruined city, hundreds of crumbling buildings along rubble-choked streets radiating out from a central tower. Beyond the city lay a solid wall of darkgreen forest. Beyond that Blade saw a line of what could have been either oddly-shaped hills ortruly gigantic buildings. At this distance and with clouds still lying low on the horizon, hecouldn't be sure.
Everything seemed weirdly lifeless. The city was half-overgrown with bushes and trees, and theforest beyond looked as dense as a jungle. Blade saw no tracks on the ground, no birds in theair. He couldn't hear any birds or insects even when he held his breath to listen, nothing butthe sigh and moan of the wind. After a while this eerie silence drove him into action. Hehurried around to the other side of the building and looked west.
On this side the hill sloped away more gently, leveling out in an immense grassy plain. Theplain began less than half a mile away and continued all the way to the horizon, as flat andfeatureless as a billiard table. Far off to the north Blade saw what looked like one end of anenormous bridge, with more ruined buildings clustered around it. He couldn't see what thebridge crossed, or any more signs of life than he'd seen elsewhere.
Blade tore off another branch and started tying it with lengths of vine to the first branch, tomake a heavier club. By the time he'd finished, his hands were red and sore from the acid sapof the creepers. He'd also decided to go east, exploring the ruined city at the foot of thehill, then cutting through the forest. What lay on the far side of the forest certainly lookedmore interesting than the plain to the west. The forest would also give him better shelter fromthe weather and probably more food. He took a last look around the ruined building, thenstarted down the hill.
It didn't take Blade long to see all of the ruined city he needed to see. One rubble-cloggedstreet or one house with its windows and doors gaping like the eye sockets of a skull lookedvery much like another. Like the building on the hill, the city had been abandoned forgenerations, possibly centuries. Unlike the building, it had been visited a number of times
after its people abandoned it. Blade saw ragged holes in a dozen walls, where fixtures had beenpulled or chopped free. He saw rooms swept almost clean of dust. Under an overhanging piece ofroof he found the remains of a campfire and a pile of animal droppings no more than a few weeksold. Blade looked briefly for the animals' tracks, then realized the night's rain would havecompletely wiped them out.
The visitors seldom went above the third floor and apparently never went into the cellars.Blade struggled down some of the crumbling, treacherous flights of stairs and found wholeuntouched piles of metal waiting for him. Much of it was so rusted or corroded he couldn't tellwhat it had been, but he found a piece with a sharp point just the right size to be used one-handed. He also found strips of a plasticlike material which he wrapped around one end of thepiece of metal to give him a better grip on this improvised knife. A longer strip of theplastic tied around his waist made a belt.
Blade came up from the last cellar faster than he'd gone down. It was definitely inhabited-byordinary-looking mice and by something considerably larger which never left the shadows in acorner. Blade could only hear its chittering and the scrabbling of claws, on stone, and smellan unbelievably rank odor.
By the time Blade left the city the clouds were almost gone, and it was a bright, if somewhatchilly, day. He could now see clearly that the tall shapes beyond the forest to the east werecolossal buildings. They stood so close together that some of them were linked by aerialbridges, and most of them looked nearly intact. Blade was sure that their appearance wasdeceptive, but the towers would provide better shelter than the ruins. They should also tellhim more about the fate of this Dimension and its people.
The moment Blade plunged into the forest, he was back in twilight. The trees grew in suchregular order that it was clear they'd been planted that way. No doubt the spaces between thetrees were wide enough when the park was laid out. Now, after long years of neglect, the groundbetween the trees was overgrown with bushes, ferns, and vines. Blade lost a good deal of skinpushing through some particularly thick patches. He kept going, since he didn't want to spendthe night in the forest or reach the city after dark if he could help it.
Around mid-afternoon he came out onto the bank of a sluggish, weed-choked stream, with anunmistakable path on the far bank. He probed the stream with a fallen branch and learned he'dbe swimming rather than wading across it. He was about to slip into the water when a patch ofthe weeds started swirling back and forth. Then a long row of black bony spines broke thesurface briefly, heading toward Blade. He pulled his foot out of the water just as the creatureswam close enough to give him a good look at it.
It looked like a cross between a giant catfish, a piranha, and a stingray. It had spines oneither side of its jaws as well as along its back, a large mouth full of needle-sharp teeth,and a long thin tail with a barb on the end. It was at least nine feet long and coal-blackexcept for sickly green eyes.
Blade decided that swimming across the stream might not be such a good idea after all. Hestarted working his way upstream, looking for bridges or fallen trees. He found neither, buteventually he came to the ruins of a small dam. Beyond the dam the stream spread out in a smalllake, but over the top of the dam the water was no more than ankle-deep. Blade crossed the topof the dam as fast as he dared go on the crumbling, slimy stones, keeping a watchful eye on thelake. Two sets of black spines rose near the dam only moments after he reached dry land and thepath.
Once on the path he moved more easily but also more cautiously. The existence of a path impliedthe existence of someone to make it, and Blade didn't want to surprise or be surprised by thatsomeone.
So he moved from one patch of cover to the next, looking and listening around him before eachmove. The path was obviously in fairly regular use, but there'd been too much rain last nighteven here under the trees to leave any footprints.
Roughly a mile down the path from the stream, Blade stopped abruptly. On either side of thepath, ferns, vines, bushes, and even small trees were crushed into the ground. A trail of moreof the same damage led off into the woods to the left. A large tree at the head of the trailshowed a black scar. Blade looked more closely at the tree. Something had gouged out bark andwood to a depth of at least six inches, and also burned the edges of the wound to charcoal.
Blade followed the trail. It came to an end within fifty yards, and the smell stopped Bladeeven sooner. Decay and insects hadn't left enough of the animal to make it worth going closer.It must have been about the size of a large bear, and its skull and ribs showed the same sortof blackening as the tree.
Blade began to wonder just how primitive the people of this Dimension were. They'd obviouslywrecked much of their civilization. Just as obviously, they had enough technology left toproduce a weapon very much like a laser. That didn't make them any less dangerous, of course.Civilized people can be as unfriendly to strangers as primitive ones. With machine guns,lasers, and artillery they can also be unfriendly at a much greater range and in a much moredestructive way.
It was also more important than before to get out of the woods before nightfall. Blade was surehe could outtalk, outfight, or if necessary outrun most human opponents. He wasn't nearly soconfident he could do the same with a creature ten times his weight and probably carnivorous.
Blade returned to the path and started off again, moving a good deal more briskly than before.
Blade covered at least two miles at a trot, then saw the path was sloping downhill. At the sametime the trees began to thin out. Soon Blade could make out the tumbled, overgrown stone blocksof a wall ahead. He climbed over the wall and picked his way across another stream on the half-submerged ruins of a bridge. After a few hundred yards more through young trees, Blade foundhimself on an open hillside. The sun was still well above the horizon. At the foot of the hillthe city of towers loomed against a pale sky. In the clear air Blade felt he could reach outand touch it. Even from this distance it showed remarkably little damage. Most of the windowsand doors were black and gaping, and here and there stone had crumbled or metal paneling hadcorroded through. Bushes sprouted from cracks in the streets, and the wreckage of one of theaerial bridges completely blocked an intersection. Otherwise the city might have been sleepingrather than dead. It was easy to tell that its builders had loved beauty and put that love intotheir city, without a thought for the war which their love of beauty hadn't been able toprevent.
On the hillside sloping down to the city, Blade saw clusters of ruined buildings. Some of theclusters were practically small towns in themselves, others were isolated and overgrown. The"suburbs" hadn't been so robustly built as the towers of the city itself.
In a way, Blade found the city of towers a more depressing sight than the ruins to the west. Hewas glad it was late enough in the day to give him an excuse to stay out of the city untilmorning. He didn't care for the thought of prowling dark streets where the least superstitiousman might find himself watching and listening for ghosts.
Blade stiffened as he realized the morbid and dangerous turn his thoughts were taking. He'dbeen letting his attention wander, at a time when he had to be even more alert than he'd beenin the forest. He took cover behind a bush and found that when he could no longer see thosedead towers looming over him, the gloomy thoughts went away.
He also realized that if he hadn't been alone he wouldn't have felt this way. He wouldn't betoo particular about the company, either. He remembered some of his old comrades from MI6A,dour men who seldom talked about anything except their profession and the price of whisky. Evenone of them would have been a relief.
Blade was as much a loner as any sane man can be. He wouldn't have joined MI6A in the firstplace if he wasn't. But even a man as naturally solitary as a cat can occasionally want someoneto talk to or at least to guard his back. But Blade didn't even have someone else who'd faced
the dangers of Dimension X and could swap stories with him over a bottle of Scotch! Accordingto Leighton, they were one step closer to sending someone else to Dimension X, once an alloy-weapon or suit could he manufactured to increase the survival chances. Still, even if such aprotective device were made, they'd still have to find someone who could travel into DimensionX and return alive and sane, and the search for such a person was as far from success as ever.
Blade decided that if he had a choice between a happy marriage in Home Dimension and a comrade-in-arms for travel into Dimension X, he'd choose the second. It was hard to imagine a womanworth marrying who would accept being shut out of most of her husband's working life. She wouldbe shut out-the Official Secrets Act would see to that. Even worse, she'd have a good chance ofending up a widow without ever being allowed to know how!
Blade rose, stepped out into the open, then stopped in midstride. Smoke and dust were risingfrom one of the clusters of ruins, less than half a mile away. Then he saw running figuresburst out of the ruins onto the open hillside. They seemed to be human, with dark skins orwearing dark clothing. Some ran singly, others in pairs. Darker shapes, low to the ground,seemed to be running after the people and among them. As Blade watched he saw the reddishflicker of sunset light on metal, then a longer, greenish glow which looked artificial. Lasers?
Blade drew his knife and started down the hill, using every bit of cover he could. Abouthalfway down the hill he saw what the low dark shapes were. He saw the short legs, the smoothbrown coats, the pointed heads with ugly red eyes, the obscenely hairless tails.
Rats the size of German Shepherds!
Blade charged out from behind a stretch of broken wall and plunged down the hill like anOlympic sprinter.
Blade loathed rats. He'd loathed them ever since a night on one of his first missions for MI6A.He'd spent that night in a hut on the outskirts of Calcutta, along with the rat-gnawed corpseof a baby no more than three months old. Ever since that night he'd killed rats any time he hada chance, coolly, efficiently, and as thoroughly as possible.
Blade went down the hill with all thoughts of having no one to guard his back quite forgotten.He didn't quite forget that he had a back to guard. He never went that far, one of the reasonshe was still alive after so many years of enough dangers to kill a dozen men. Instead ofstaying under cover of the ruins, Blade now stayed in the open, as far from any cover aspossible. Crumbling walls and fallen roofs could hide the rats. With his knife and club, Bladecould fight them safely only if he saw them coming a long way off. It would also help if hedidn't suddenly burst out of nowhere at the people fighting the rats. They might be just alittle bit trigger-happy right now!
Blade counted about a dozen people and at least twice that many rats. Four of the people seemedto be armed with rifles firing lasers or some other type of energy beam. The others carriedbows or spears. All of them carried short swords strapped to their hips. So far none of therats were close enough to make the people draw their swords.
The battle was moving uphill toward Blade, and the people were leaving a trail of dead or dyingrats behind them as they climbed. Every time one rat went down, two or three more seemed to popout of the ruins, and they were tough. Blade saw one lose a leg to a laser beam but keep comingon three legs until someone else put an arrow through its brain.
Most of the people were dressed in dark leather boots, trousers, and baggy shirts. Some alsowore heavy jackets studded with bits of metal, as a crude sort of armor. Blade saw one withboth a jacket and a rifle run up the hill toward him, then stop suddenly and turn withoutnoticing the Englishman. A moment later Blade himself had to stop. At his feet was a steep-sided ditch at least ten feet deep and half again as wide, the bottom overgrown with bushes andgrass. The angle of the slope had hidden the ditch from Blade.
Now Blade could see that the rifleman was a boy no more than seventeen years old, with longblue-tinged hair caught up in a pigtail and a red sash around his waist. He was kneeling and
firing at the oncoming rats with more enthusiasm than accuracy. Blade winced as he saw onelaser beam crisp grass at the feet of one of the boy's comrades.
Then suddenly the grass and bushes at the bottom of the ditch churned, and four of the ratsscrambled up the side toward the boy. "Behind you!" Blade shouted. The boy whirled, fingerclosing on the trigger of his rifle. Blade dove for the ground as a laser beam singed his hair.Then the first of the rats reached the boy. He drew his sword, but not before the rat was tooclose for him to hold it off. Its jaws closed on his leg, and Blade knew from his yell that theleather wasn't tough enough to keep out those yellow-white teeth. The boy hacked down with thesword, splitting the rat's skull but dropping his rifle. It hit the lip of the ditch, teetered,then rolled down a few feet to fetch up against a bush.
Before the rifle stopped rolling, Blade was gathering himself for a leap. As it stopped, hejumped. He landed on hands and knees close to the rifle but closer to one of the rats. Itlunged at him. Blade crouched and met it with knife in one hand and the other hand outstretchedto guard. He saw that these giant rats moved more slowly in proportion to their size thannormal rats.
As the rat closed, Blade's free hand shot forward, closing on the rat's ears. He jerked itshead back and his knife slashed, laying the rat's throat open. Then he picked it up one-handed,threw it at its two remaining comrades, and bent down to scoop up the laser rifle.
It looked so simple that Blade couldn't believe anyone could miss with it. Then he missed twoshots himself, and one rat got so close that he had to reverse the rifle and crush the rat'sskull with the butt. After that he realized he'd been using the laser like a normal bullet-firing weapon, leading his target and allowing for the wind. Laser beams moved at the speed oflight, unaffected by wind.
Blade killed the last of the four rats in the ditch with a long blast which nearly tore it intwo. It rolled down the slope, its charred guts trailing, to land almost on top of five morerats coming out of the same burrow. They milled around long enough for Blade to drop two ofthem with shots to the head. He killed a third as it scrambled upward, and burned the tail offa fourth. That slowed it down enough for the boy to kill it with a sword thrust between theeyes. The fifth rat reared up on its hind legs to attack the boy's throat. The boy thrust itthrough the stomach, its jaws closed on empty air inches short of his throat, and then Bladeburned halfway through its neck with his laser.
More rats were scurrying out of their burrow in the ditch as the last corpse rolled down. Bladescrambled up to join the boy on the edge before any of the new rats could start climbing up.The boy took one long look at Blade, examining him from head to foot. Then he shrugged andafter that seemed to find nothing unusual about fighting side by side with a nearly naked manhalf again his size and much lighter-skinned.
Blade picked off rats at long range, and the boy used his sword on any which got close. Hiswounded leg was bleeding freely, but the wounds didn't seem deep enough to slow him down. Theywere both too busy killing rats in the ditch to pay attention to the battle behind them.Blade's world shrank down to the matted, blood-smeared grass in the ditch, the blood-spatteredboy beside him, the hot rifle in his hands, and the steadily more overpowering smell of burnedrat flesh.
Eventually Blade's laser ran out of power in the middle of a burst. The rat was still alive,and the boy jumped down to kill it with his sword. He slipped on the grass and tumbled headover heels to the bottom of the ditch. Blade threw down his useless rifle and got ready tofinish off the rat with his knife.
Then a laser beam sizzled past Blade's ankles, and the rat's head exploded gruesomely. Heturned around, raising his knife. The man standing there was nearly his own size, with barearms corded with muscles and covered with scars. His head was shaved bald, and he wore amustache with small silver beads tied to each end. Wide golden eyes met Blade's for a moment,then shifted their gaze down into the ditch.