Read Downrigger Drift Online

Authors: James Axler

Tags: #Speculative Fiction Suspense

Downrigger Drift

Jak’s hand was red and swollen

The slash was dark, puffy and angry looking. It had stopped bleeding, but now it oozed a clear fluid. Mildred sniffed, then wrinkled her nose.

“Sweet-sour stink. Either those little bastards have some kind of venom in them, or their feces are more virulent than I first thought.”

J.B. squatted over one of the corpses, probing it with the tip of his flensing knife. “Fangs seem solid, not like a rattler’s, if that helps. I don’t see any poison sac in its mouth or throat, either.”

“Thanks, John. Whatever the cause, I have to radically revise my prognosis.”

“What do you mean?” Krysty asked.

Mildred glanced up. “Judging by how fast it’s progressing, instead of a day or two, Jak might have six to eight hours—if he’s lucky.”

Other titles in the Deathlands saga:

Genesis Echo

Shadowfall

Ground Zero

Emerald Fire

Bloodlines

Crossways

Keepers of the Sun

Circle Thrice

Eclipse at Noon

Stoneface

Bitter Fruit

Skydark

Demons of Eden

The Mars Arena

Watersleep

Nightmare Passage

Freedom Lost

Way of the Wolf

Dark Emblem

Crucible of Time

Starfall

Encounter: Collector’s Edition

Gemini Rising

Gaia’s Demise

Dark Reckoning

Shadow World

Pandora’s Redoubt

Rat King

Zero City

Savage Armada

Judas Strike

Shadow Fortress

Sunchild

Breakthrough

Salvation Road

Amazon Gate

Destiny’s Truth

Skydark Spawn

Damnation Road Show

Devil Riders

Bloodfire

Hellbenders

Separation

Death Hunt

Shaking Earth

Black Harvest

Vengeance Trail

Ritual Chill

Labyrinth

Sky Raider

Remember Tomorrow

Sunspot

Desert Kings

Apocalypse Unborn

Thunder Road

Plague Lords
    (Empire of Xibalba Book I)

Dark Resurrection
    (Empire of Xibalba Book II)

Eden’s Twilight

Desolation Crossing

Alpha Wave

Time Castaways

Prophecy

Blood Harvest

Arcadian’s Asylum

Baptism of Rage

Doom Helix

Moonfeast

JAMES AXLER

DEATHLANDS
®

Downrigger Drift

Nothing could be worse than the fear that one has given up too soon, and left one unexpended effort which might have saved the world.

—Jane Addams
(1860–1935)

THE DEATHLANDS SAGA

This world is their legacy, a world born in the violent nuclear spasm of 2001 that was the bitter outcome of a struggle for global dominance.

There is no real escape from this shockscape where life always hangs in the balance, vulnerable to newly demonic nature, barbarism, lawlessness.

But they are the warrior survivalists, and they endure—in the way of the lion, the hawk and the tiger, true to nature’s heart despite its ruination.

Ryan Cawdor:
The privileged son of an East Coast baron. Acquainted with betrayal from a tender age, he is a master of the hard realities.

Krysty Wroth:
Harmony ville’s own Titian-haired beauty, a woman with the strength of tempered steel. Her premonitions and Gaia powers have been fostered by her Mother Sonja.

J. B. Dix, the Armorer:
Weapons master and Ryan’s close ally, he, too, honed his skills traversing the Deathlands with the legendary Trader.

Doctor Theophilus Tanner:
Torn from his family and a gentler life in 1896, Doc has been thrown into a future he couldn’t have imagined.

Dr. Mildred Wyeth:
Her father was killed by the Ku Klux Klan, but her fate is not much lighter. Restored from predark cryogenic suspension, she brings twentieth-century healing skills to a nightmare.

Jak Lauren:
A true child of the wastelands, reared on adversity, loss and danger, the albino teenager is a fierce fighter and loyal friend.

Dean Cawdor:
Ryan’s young son by Sharona accepts the only world he knows, and yet he is the seedling bearing the promise of tomorrow.

In a world where all was lost, they are humanity’s last hope….

Chapter One

Ryan Cawdor clawed his way up from black unconsciousness one slow second at a time. His single blue eye fluttered, then opened to take in the familiar-yet-different ceiling of yet another mat-trans unit, his arms and legs sprawled out around him. Wisps of the ever-present white mist that accompanied the matter transfer function swirled around his face, dissipating into nothingness as his wits returned.

As jumps went, this one hadn’t been as bad as many—at least, not for him. The dark nightmares that could accompany each body-wrenching trip had been faint for once. Ryan dimly recalled a journey through a forest, and a strange sensation that he couldn’t place for a moment, recognizing it as peace and quiet only after a bit of pondering. That feeling vanished as quickly as it had come when he raised his head, only to lower it again as a pounding wave of nausea crashed through his skull. It was the one usual reaction to a jump. This time it felt like someone had stuck a stiletto into his ear and given his brains a good stirring.

“Mebbe not
that
used to it.” His tongue was dry and thick in his mouth, and an attempt to hawk up saliva left him coughing hot, fetid air. “Fireblasted whitecoats.” He was never sure what was worse, relying on the unknown technology of the mat-trans to instantly transport him and his companions to an undetermined location in the
blink of an eye, or wondering each time he entered one of the smooth-walled chambers if this was the time it would malfunction and scatter their molecules across the entire universe.

Slowly drawing in his arms, Ryan’s right hand spidered to his waist, where he felt the comforting grip of his holstered SIG-Sauer P-226 blaster under his fingers. Glancing left, he spotted the long outline of his Steyr SSG-70 sniper rifle on the floor next to him. Without rising, he reached for the weapon’s smooth walnut stock with his other hand, drawing it close.

The queasiness in his head abating, Ryan risked lifting his head again. The armaglass walls of the gateway chamber were a color he hadn’t seen before, and slumped around the chamber were his five traveling companions, all in various states of consciousness.

The first person his eyes fell on stared owlishly back at him through a pair of wire-framed glasses as he sat on the floor with his legs straight out in front of him. Wiry and short, with close-cropped hair and an intense gaze, J. B. Dix knew more about weapons, vehicles and munitions than anyone else living in Deathlands. Whether it was five different ways of taking out a mutie from a hundred yards away or setting a booby trap to ambush a convoy, the man known as the Armorer could handle either task with ease.

Adjusting the battered fedora that only left his head when he was asleep, the sallow man’s left eye dropped in what might have been a wink. “Gettin’ old.”

Ryan pushed himself up on his elbows, the rifle still in his hand. He wasn’t sure if the other man was referring to the situation or his general condition, but at the moment, he gave the only answer that made sense. “Yeah.”

The next person he saw was a woman, stretched out on the floor as if she might have been napping, her hair a luxuriant blaze of red that cascaded across her neck and shoulders. Apparently the jump had gone well for her, too, for instead of curling tightly around her neck, her semi-sentient tresses flowed loose, framing a face with high cheekbones, full lips, and eyes, currently closed, that were a brilliant emerald.

Ryan had had his share of lovers over the years, but none of them held a candle to Krysty Wroth. Beautiful, intelligent and lethal, she was his partner in every way imaginable.

He would chill for her.

He would die for her.

In the Deathlands, it was as simple as that.

Her long lashes opened, and she grinned at him, looking like a cat that had gotten the best of the cream. “Hello, lover. Nice sight to wake up to.”

“You’re not so bad yourself. How do you feel?”

“All right. This one wasn’t too bad, thank Gaia.”

“Yeah, ’bout time one of these damn things worked without trying to turn us inside out.”

A loud snort from next to her made both Krysty and Ryan glance over, each tensing to burst into action if necessary. But the man who’d made the noise simply smacked his lips, moaned softly and rolled over again, revealing a lined face surrounded by limp, gray-white hair. A small trickle of blood leaked from his patrician nose to drip on the floor as he snored, the bass sound rumbling off the walls.

Ryan rubbed his stubbled chin as he contemplated the enigma wrapped in a riddle wrapped in a mystery that was Theophilus Algernon Tanner. A man born out of time, he was a unique specimen, as he had lived in
the far-off past of the nineteenth century, way before skydark, when he had been time-trawled into the twentieth century, and then dumped into Deathlands without so much as a by-your-leave. The mental and physical strain of repeated jumps had left Doc’s mind more than unbalanced. On a good day, he could be a fount of information about history and times past. On a bad day, he rambled about things that made no sense to anyone, had imaginary conversations with people long dead, and acted a senile old fool.

J.B. had cautiously risen to his feet, stretching the kinks out of his back. “Doc awake?”

“Not yet. Give him a minute. Looks like it went hard for him.”

Blinking a few times, J.B. scanned the rest of the group with a glance. “Looks like Jak soiled himself.”

“Shut the fuck up, J.B.” The fifth member of their group pushed himself into a sitting position, his ruby-red eyes glittering from underneath a mane of frost-white hair hanging to his shoulders. He swept vomit from his chin with the back of a pale hand and spit on the floor. “Feel fine.”

J.B. smiled. “Equal parts piss and vinegar, as usual.”

Jak Lauren’s only response was a raised middle finger, drawing chuckles from both men. An albino from the deep swamps of what had once been the state of Louisiana a century earlier, the teenager had been with the group through many of their adventures across the Deathlands. At one point he’d settled down with a wife and child in the Southwest, but when they had been killed, he’d rejoined the group. Though shorter than J.B. and skinnier than Doc, Jak was one of the best hand-to-hand knife chillers Ryan had ever known.

Carefully wiping a drying crust of puke from his
jacket, Jak checked to make sure his .357 Magnum Colt Python was secure on his belt, and also the placement of his several leaf-bladed throwing knives hidden about his person.

“Oh, my aching brain. Sweet Jesus, will these damned jumps ever get any better?” The last member of their group was also stirring, raising brown hands to her forehead and holding it as she curled into a tight, sitting ball.

Ryan and J.B. exchanged glances, and the Armorer walked over, kneeling by her side.

“You okay, Mildred?”

“Yeah, yeah. It’s nothing I haven’t been through too many times before.” Mildred Wyeth raised her head, looking at the rest of them through squinted eyes. “Headache’s going away. Just give me a moment. Someday we gotta find a redoubt with a pharmacy that hasn’t been picked clean. What I wouldn’t give for an industrial-strength aspirin right now.”

“Settle for ammo—gettin’ lower than I like,” was J.B.’s matter-of-fact reply.

She looked at him with a rueful smile. “That is one of the differences between you and me, John. I just want to cure what ails me, and you’re intent on keeping yourself well-armed.”

“Both keep you from harm, don’t they?”

Mildred’s expression suddenly turned to a grimace of pain. “That they do, when you can find either.”

“Best way to do that is to start lookin’ now, isn’t it?” Ryan’s gaze flicked to the door that would lead them to the rest of the complex. The redoubts scattered throughout what was left of America and the rest of the world could hold great and terrible treasures. Often containing weapons, vehicles and equipment, some also contained
darker things, like the time-trawling equipment that had brought Doc to the future—or the cryogenic equipment that had held Mildred in perfect hibernation until she had been awoken by Ryan and his crew. A skilled physician, she knew much about the cryo-chambers, having worked on their development before being put in one herself, and was also the best pistol shot in the group, even surpassing Ryan and J.B. She had even won a medal in the last ever Olympics, back when it was considered a hobby, not a way of life.

Ryan rolled to his feet in a single smooth motion and extended a hand to Krysty. “We better rouse Doc. It’s time we find out where we are.”

“Never fear, my dear Ryan, I am fully awakened, cognizant of my surroundings, and more or less in full command of my mental and physical faculties, such as they are.”

With the help of his lion’s-head ebony swordstick, Doc rose to his feet, knees popping with the effort, and dusted off his ancient frock coat before favoring them all with a broad smile. “Let us sally forth and investigate whatever new labyrinth we find ourselves inhabiting this day.”

“Awake sure. Mouth already runnin’.” Jak shook his head, then glanced at the walls. “Color different.”

The walls of the mat-trans chambers were a bewildering variety of colors that seemed to have no rhyme or reason to them, from black to silver and every shade in between.

“Triple red, people. Let’s see what we can see.” A broad variety of weapons appeared in everyone’s hands. J.B. readied his ever-present mini-Uzi, flicking off the safety with his thumb. He had taken up a position to one
side, ready to catch anyone—or anything—outside in a lethal cross fire.

Although the self-sustaining redoubts had been built in secret and carefully hidden from the world more than a century earlier, the companions knew all too well that time had a way of revealing the concealed. The walls were sometimes breached. Until they knew for sure, the only way to go was slow, steady and ready to shoot anything that moved outside.

“Everyone set?” Ryan kept his blaster up and ready as he reached for the lever that would open the gateway door.

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