Authors: James Axler
Tags: #Speculative Fiction Suspense
“Yeah. I feel it, too,” Jak said, a concealed knife dropping into his hand from his sleeve.
“Better stay in the mat-trans,” Ryan said. “If we come back with a droid on us, we’ll need backup.”
Turning away, he saw that J.B. was already at the oval hatch, looking for traps.
“Clear,” the Armorer reported.
“Okay, friends, triple red.” SIG-Sauer at the ready, the one-eyed man pressed down the lever and the hatch swung open silently. Then with a snarl, Ryan instantly stepped backward, dropping into a crouch.
In the next room, several men in Navy uniforms operated the controls of the humming comps….
Keepers of the Sun
Eclipse at Noon
Demons of Eden
The Mars Arena
Way of the Wolf
Crucible of Time
Damnation Road Show
(Empire of Xibalba Book I)
(Empire of Xibalba Book II)
Baptism of Rage
They sang the song eternal, and strove to drums infernal. Then marched-marched-marched to the edge of the world. The damned fools sang as they marched to the edge of the world.
—Private A. B. Hassan,
Confederate Army 1861
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.
The privileged son of an East Coast baron. Acquainted with betrayal from a tender age, he is a master of the hard realities.
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.
A true child of the wastelands, reared on adversity, loss and danger, the albino teenager is a fierce fighter and loyal friend.
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….
Pretending to scratch his belly, Ryan Cawdor loosened the 9 mm blaster at his side. A seasoned veteran of hundreds of fights, the man knew when the blood was about to hit the fan. It was chilling time, that much was certain. Death was close. He just wasn’t sure from which direction. Not yet, anyway.
A tall man with broad shoulders, Ryan had long curly black hair, and a badly scarred face that rarely knew a smile. A wicked heavy eighteen-inch blade called a panga was sheathed on his thigh, a holstered SIG-Sauer 9 mm blaster balancing the oversize blade on the other side. A bolt-action Steyr longblaster hung from a shoulder. Spare ammunition filled the loops in his leather gunbelt, marking him as a wealthy man, and also a deadly killer. Brass was better than gold, as the saying went, and the Deathlands was filled with the unmarked graves of strong men who had been brutally aced for a single live round. To display that much live brass meant that you were tough enough to keep it, and thus served as a clear warning to anybody smarter than a stickie to stay away—or else.
Crude alcohol lanterns hung from the overhead wooden beams, filling the tavern with a murky blue light, and swirling clouds of pungent smoke filled the air of the Busted Axle like a morning mist on distant
mountains. Everybody seemed to be puffing on homemade cigs, or corncob pipes, and the roaring blaze in the brick fireplace was leaking smoke out the sides to add a rich woodsy smell to the mixture of tobacco, maryjane and a local favorite called coot, hemp rope cigars soaked in sweet shine.
Most of the people in the tavern were eating dinner at their tables, hunched over the hubcap plates as if they were afraid somebody might try to jack the horse meat stew, which was highly unlikely. Uniformed sec men were playing dominoes at a large table near the front door, their scarred faces scowling in concentration. Each man had a handblaster tucked into his belt, and a flintlock longblaster hanging from the back of his chair, shiny chunks of flint jutting out from the cocked hammers. The museum pieces were in perfect working condition, and in a world where a single round of live brass bought a person a few days of food and bed, the black-powder rifles were the standard weapons for many ville sec men. No other table in the tavern was close enough for another patron to try for a grab. A drunken outlander had tried anyway, and his corpse was cooling outside, waiting for the loser of the game to bury the triple-stupe fool.
Small piles of live brass lay in front of each sec man, and everybody seemed to be playing with one hand hidden under the table clutching the handle of a knife. Just in case, as Baron Harrison always liked to say. The only cure for stupidity was a hot dose of lead in the head. True words, indeed.
In the corner, a young boy without shoes was playing a dilapidated upright piano with considerable skill, but
there was no jack in the tip jar perched on top. On the second-floor balcony, a host of gaudy sluts leaned over the battered wooden railing, their bare breasts openly on display to entice new customers upstairs for fifteen minutes of sweaty delight.
Telling jokes and pouring shine behind a plywood counter, the bartender was a tall man named Mark Michalowski, a thin man with a shaved head and a wide, easy grin.
Gathered along the counter were a couple of sluts and a dozen burly men. Mountain men from the looks of them, Ryan guessed, remembering a friend of his from a long time ago. The hunters were dirty, unshaved, and dressed entirely in clothing made from animal hides: griz bear boots, deerskin pants and shirts, beaver coats and coonskin caps, minus the tails. They looked friendly enough, but machetes hung at their backs and muzzle-loading longblasters hung across their shoulders. The men looked so similar to one another that Ryan knew they had to be close kin, and from a pretty damn small gene pool, at that. Which only made them that much more dangerous. The only true law in the Deathlands was that kin helped kin, especially in a fight.
The mountain men were talking low among themselves, drinking shots of shine from cracked plastic tumblers and stuffing their bearded faces with handfuls of salted popcorn as if they’d never encountered the stuff before. Ryan knew that the locals used the stuff to feed their pigs when it got stale, but when it was fresh, Big Mike the bartender gave it away free, the heavy coating of rock salt a mighty inducement for his customers to drink more shine, and eventually end
upstairs where their pockets could really be emptied. The one-eyed man knew that there was no such thing as a free lunch. That phrase had never been so nuking true than in the desert ville of Hobart where everything had a price. Baron Felix Harrison was so crooked that he could eat soup with a corkscrew, and the sooner Ryan and his companions were out of this rad pit the better he’d like it. But for the moment, they were trapped. Nobody could leave Hobart without a signed pass, and those were damn near impossible to get from the baron. However, Ryan knew one of the ville sec men from his days riding shotgun with the Trader, and the man was going to meet Ryan here at any moment.
“Ya wanna refill?” a serving girl asked, the wooden tray expertly balanced on an outthrust hip as if it was nailed there.
The teenager was shapely and well proportioned, with a lot of cleavage showing over the top of her tight leather bodice. Unfortunately her face was horribly scarred from once being caught in an acid rain storm, and her features were nearly destroyed. What little there was remaining had twisted into a permanent scowl as if she hated the whole nuking world and wished it to die screaming, as had her youthful beauty. Even her long auburn hair was sprinkled with white from the ravages of the acid rain. Only her full breasts seemed to have been spared. They were pink and plump, and damn near perfect.
Ryan had heard several of the customers call the teenage girl Crate, and guessed that was a short version of Crater-face, the nickname given because of her ghastly resemblance to the moon. Unconsciously touching the
disfiguring knife scar that crossed his own face, Ryan felt a tug of camaraderie for the disfigured girl.
“Just some more beer and bread,” Ryan said, tossing over a .22 cartridge. “And lean over more when you bring it, honey.” He had no real interest in bedding the girl, but Doc always liked to say that good manners cost nothing. Which was true enough, the man supposed.
Making the catch with a free hand, Crate seemed startled by the crude pass, then clearly warmed to the idea. “This much brass will get ya the best beer we got, and some time with me in the back room, if ya like,” she whispered, a suggestion of a smile appearing briefly on her distorted lips. “I’m good. Damn good, and I don’t mind facing the wrong way, if you know what I mean.”
Clearly hearing the need in her voice, Ryan understood that in spite of working in a tavern situated under a gaudy house, the girl had never shared a bed with anybody before. The local boys had to be feebs. The fruit of the desert cactus looked like a brain tumor and was covered with more barbed needles than a mutie porcupine, but inside was the sweetest damn pulp a person ever tasted. Mother-nuking-ambrosia. Ryan knew that ugly didn’t tell you drek about what juicy treasures waited for a smart man on the inside of an apron.
“So what do they call you?” Ryan asked, looking directly into her face. Her eyes were bright and alive with intelligence.
“Crate,” she muttered, both cheeks turning bright red.
“Short for Catherine, eh?”
The girl blinked in surprise at that, then smiled broadly and leaned over to rest an elbow on the table, both breasts nearly spilling out of her bodice. “You can load that into your blaster,” she said in a throaty purr. “Short for Catherine.” Impulsively she reached out to touch his face. “I’ll bet the other guy lost a lot more in the fight.”
“Damn straight he did,” Ryan muttered, adjusting the leather patch covering the empty socket that had once held his left eye. His own brother had taken the eye in an effort to chill Ryan and claim the throne of their home ville, Front Royal. However, in the end, Harvey was breathing dirt, while Ryan was still walking the shattered earth, so there was no question to him who won that fragging knife fight.
In fact, Ryan and the companions had been on their way from Ohio to visit friends at Front Royal when an avalanche had closed off the only pass and they had been forced to circle around through Hobart. Now all they wanted to do was to get out again, as soon as possible.
“Well, what do ya say?” Catherine asked eagerly.
But before Ryan could answer, the front door swung open and Derby Joe Schwartz sauntered inside. Tall and slim, the man appeared to be made out of nothing but bones and darkly tanned skin. His scraggly hair hung to his shoulders, and a battered old derby rested on top, an eagle feather sticking out of the leather band. Blasters rode on each hip, and a cloth star was sewn onto his shirt, showing he was the sec boss for the entire ville.
Whistling sharply, Ryan caught the man’s attention, and Joe nodded in greeting, already heading over.
“I’ll have to put a timer on that ride, Catherine. My friend is here, and biz comes first,” Ryan said, patting her on the rear. It was nice, warm and well-rounded. The man didn’t finish the offer because soon he would be long gone, but Ryan never saw the profit in hurting somebody weaker than yourself just because you could.
“Anytime, anywhere, Blackie,” Catherine stated, her damaged face alive with raw sentiment. The girl unexpectedly leaned in to kiss him hard on the mouth, then turned to rush away through the smoky tavern and disappear into the steamy kitchen.
“Hey,” Joe said, pulling out a chair and sitting in it backward to keep a clear and fast access to his blasters. “How drunk are you to be sucking face with Crater?”
“The name’s Catherine,” Ryan replied, a rare smile coming and going just as fast. “And, brother, the man who corrals that mare is in for the ride of his life.”
“That so?” Joe asked, tilting back his derby to expose a large bald spot. “A fellow could forget that face, if she could really cook.” Then he smiled lewdly. “Who knows, mebbe she even knows how to do stuff in the kitchen!”
Slapping their palms together into a shake, the old friends shared a mutual laugh. Then the men jerked their hands back and clawed for weapons. The subtle sound had almost been lost in the sea of conversations filling the tavern, but somebody somewhere had just worked the pump-action on a scattergun. The noise was unmistakable.
“Nothing behind you,” Ryan growled, easing the SIG-Sauer into his lap.
“Look south by southeast,” Joe answered softly, both of his hands out of sight below the table.
Risking a glance sideways, Ryan saw a bearded man eating stew at a small table in the corner of the tavern. A fat gaudy slut was lounging alongside, smoking a cig and drinking shine.
“Nuking hell that was good!” the man said, stuffing the wooden spoon into a pocket, then lifting the plate to lick it clean.
“Honey, if you bed like you eat, I’m not going to survive going upstairs,” the gaudy slut drawled, lifting a glass of shine in mock salute. She was a plump blonde wearing a thin cotton dress, and it was plain to see that she wasn’t wearing anything under the clothing but a lot of bare skin.
“Hungry. Ain’t eaten for a week,” the man replied, wiping his mouth on a sleeve. The gesture made his coat part, showing that he was carrying a brace of handcannons tucked into a gunbelt, with two more riding in a rope shoulder holster.
“And now you’ve eaten enough to last for a week.” She laughed, leaning back in her chair to spread her legs wide. That made her dress ride high, exposing a lot of smooth thigh and a host of lewd tattoos.
The man looked where he was supposed to, and grinned. “No need to prime the pump, darling.” He chortled, hitching his gunbelt higher. “Just let me drop some ballast, and I’ll ride you till dawn!”
“About time!” she answered, lifting the glass again, and this time draining it completely.
Moving quickly, the big man lumbered toward the side door of the tavern marked with a small half-moon.
But just as he cleared the last table, a scattergun roared, blowing the door off its hinges in an explosion of lead and splinters.
“Hold it right there, Brinkman!” a gruff voice bellowed, and there came the sound of a scattergun being worked.
Instantly the entire tavern went still, until the only sound came from the crackling log in the fireplace.
His hands only inches away from the blasters on his belt, the man stopped moving, then slowly turned his head to see the bartender aiming a predark 12-gauge in his direction.
“What’s the jam in your breech?” Brinkman demanded, puzzled, his fingers itching to reach for iron. “I paid for the meal already, and the fat slut, too!”
“Don’t know, don’t care,” Mark replied, leveling the scattergun. His friendly smile was gone, replaced with a grim expression of raw hatred. “But last summer I was in a convoy that got jacked by some coldhearts. My wife got shot in the belly and took a week to die.”
“Nothing to do with me,” Brinkman answered, sweat appearing on his brow. “I ain’t never been to the Great Salt.”
Both Ryan and Derby Joe grunted in disgust at the amateurish gaff. The feeb had just confessed to everything.
“Didn’t say where it happened, Brinkman,” Mark whispered, moving the barrel of the weapon down a little to point at the stomach of the other man. “Hey, Joe!”
“Right here, Mark,” Joe, replied, easing out his weap
ons. The blasters were big-bore Ruger .44 Magnums, the muzzles pitted and worn from constant use.
“You want him?” Mark asked, his sight intent upon the coldheart.
“I’d be happy to have him dance in the air for ya, but the outlander ain’t done anything wrong in Hobart,” Joe answered truthfully. “So if you shoot him cold, then I gotta take you in. The baron won’t stand for it.” Then he smiled coldly. “Unless it’s a fair fight, of course.”
“Understood,” Mark stated, dropping the primed weapon and immediately going for the small blaster holstered behind his back.
Instantly, Brinkman went for the blasters on his hips, then both men drew and fired in unison. The double explosion of the black-powder weapons filled the smoky tavern with dark fumes so thick that it was nearly impossible to see what had happened.