James Axler

Red Holocaust

This is for MH who made me believe in the reality of the deus ex machina.

With thanks and the best of friendship.

Chapter One

Ryan Cawdor blinked, wincing as he tried to sit up. The lights still glowed in the patterned metal plates set in the floor and ceiling. The armored glass walls were pale blue streaked with gray. Instinctively his hand fell to the smooth butt of the SIG-Sauer P-226 9 mm pistol on his hip.

There was the now-familiar feeling of nausea as he backed against the wall, shaking his head to clear the cobwebs of the mat-trans jump. Only a frozen moment ago he and his colleagues had been facing death in the Darks, the mountainous region that had once been called Montana. Now they were?..

'Where the firestorm are we?' he muttered.

It was their fifth jump within an hour. Each one had been accompanied by a gut-wrenching sickness and a whirling in the brain, as if every single particle of tissue was being dissolved and spun through a suction pump.

Ryan couldn't even begin to think how the complex machines might work. Probably nobody now alive had any ideas. All of that came from before the war.

* * *

Nearly a hundred years had passed since Doomsday — high noon on the twentieth day of January in the year of our Lord 2001. The last day of our Lord. The missiles rose and the skies darkened. The death toll was countless and humanity stood on the brink of extinction. But there were survivors. There will always be survivors.

From the caves and mines and shelters, they emerged to find a changed world where a nuclear winter raged for nearly a generation. But again there were survivors. And they bred and their children bred.

Three generations and close to a hundred years passed. Most of the United States was changed. Deserts in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico became fiery nuke hot spots where storms carrying rain of undiluted acid howled in from the Gulf. Most of California had slipped unprotesting into the seething Pacific. Volcanoes and earthquakes had changed the maps forever.

Except that there weren't any maps.

On the East Coast, the big cities crumbled in the endless rain. From the lawless elements rose a new breed of leader, barons who ran their own fiefdoms like medieval lords, paying armies of mercenaries to protect and expand their borders.

In the middle of the country, known as the Deathlands, civilization was reduced to several scattered communities linked by a frail network of poor roads. Along these roads came the merchants, trading in food or supplies or medicine or blasters, and roving bands of freakish muties that set ambushes and raped and killed. And, on occasion, indulged their taste for human flesh.

Best known of the merchants was the man called the Trader. And the most respected, was his first lieutenant, Ryan Cawdor.

* * *

Ryan sat still, fighting to steady his breathing. Sweating, he wiped his face, his fingers touching the patch over his left eye. Then he traced the long, puckered scar that ran down the right side of his face, then tugged at the corner of his narrow mouth.

His mouth was dry and he licked his lips. His first firefight back East had occurred when he was twelve. That was nineteen years ago. A skinny kid with a mop of curly black hair, hefting a battered Armalite. For the first time, killing a man. Funny how you remembered the first. Remembered the first man you killed. First woman you made love to.

Both times Ryan had been twelve. On a trip into the Appalachians he'd met a web-fingered mutie and blew half his guts away, spilling the loops of greasy intestines into the man's lap. First woman had been a mulatto whore in a bawdy house near Butcher's Creek.

What brought all that back? 'Yeah,' he whispered, to himself. 'Mouth gets dry and your hands get wet. Mebbe should be the other way round.'

Hearing a low groan, he looked to one side of the chamber. It was Finnegan. Fat, jolly Finn, with a red stain drying to brown on his hip, where Hennings had bled on him as Finn hauled his friend to safety. Henn lay still, his breathing ragged and harsh, blood still oozing from the ax-cut along his thigh. Hunaker was corning around. She was on her hands and knees, fiercely shaking her head, forcing the clinging darkness from her mind. She sensed Ryan watching her and looked up at him, running her hand through her cropped green hair.

'Hurts like a bastard, don't it, Ryan? Like a fuckin’ bastard.'

'Yeah,' he agreed.

Okie, the tall, good-looking blaster, heaved herself to her feet in a single, fluid movement, cradling her M- 16A1 autocarbine, its eleven-inch barrel like a material extension of her own sullen aggression. Ryan noticed that her wounded shoulder had nearly stopped bleeding.

On the other side of the chamber, J.B. Dix wiped the back of his neck. His eyes blinked twice behind wire- rimmed glasses, and he coughed, clearing his throat.

'Not so bad, this time.' J.B. was a man of few words.

Next to him, Krysty Wroth stirred. For her, the passage had been worse than usual, and she was doubled over, coughing and retching dryly. Her long red hair, brighter than fire, tumbled to the floor, seeming to move with its own sentient life. Ryan watched her, still prey to his own warring emotions. The girl they'd rescued from muties only a few short weeks ago had managed to affect him as no other woman ever had. With her dazzling green eyes and wonderful body, Krysty had attracted every man on the war wagon. It had seemed utterly logical that she and Ryan should make love.

But only in the last couple of hours had the realization dawned on him that the girl was a mutie. Under extreme stress she could produce a burst of violent muscular energy that was awesome. He still hadn't sorted out how he felt about falling in love with a mutie.

'How's Doc?' he asked, moving unsteadily across the hexagonal room, stooping by the hunched figure of the old man.

Doc was huddled over, his hands clasped between his legs. His cracked boots were smeared with drying mud, and dirt was smeared across the shoulders of his faded frock coat. His battered stovepipe hat was at his side, its crown dented. Tangled gray hair spilled over narrow shoulders. As Ryan nudged him with the toe of his boot, Doc stirred and moaned, his mouth sagging open, showing his peculiarly perfect teeth.

'C'mon, Doc,' Ryan said. 'Let's find out where you've taken us this time.'

'Time, my dear sir,' spluttered the old man. 'Time is present and also past and, perhaps, even present in the future. Is that where we've jumped?'

'Where?' asked J.B. standing beside Ryan.

'Where what?' replied Doc.

'Leave him be,' said Krysty, pulling herself up, straightening her hair. 'Poor old bastard's never all here.'

The truth was that Doc was never quite anywhere. They'd rescued him some days earlier from a tortured thralldom in a township called Mocsin, southeast of the Darks. The boss of the town had been Jordan Teague, whose corpse now lay somewhere among the smoldering ruins of Mocsin. Ryan and the others had narrowly escaped the enmity of Teague's head sec man, Cort Strasser. Strasser had been Doc's prime tormentor and had used his malign ingenuity to constantly fashion new humiliations for the old-timer.

There was something uncanny about Doc. Despite his frequent ravings and long silences, he seemed to have arcane knowledge of the past. Even the far past, before the wars. But his brain had been so addled by

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