Authors: James Axler
Tags: #Speculative Fiction Suspense
“Wha' is it?” the child asked, peering up from the daisy chain she had been making on the little expanse of lawn before Balam's dwelling.
Balam looked at the child with those strange, fathomless eyes, and wondered if she might recognize the fear on his face, the fear that had threatened for just a moment to overwhelm him.
The child smiled at him, chuckling a little in that strange, deep way that human children will. “Uncle Bal-bal?” she asked. “Wha' is it?”
“The Ontic Library has been breached,” Balam said, his words heavy with meaning, fully aware that the child could never comprehend the gravity of them. “Pack some toys, Quav. We're going to visit some old friends.”
It had been almost three years since Balam had last spoken with the Cerberus rebels, but the time had come to do so once again.
Wreath of Fire
Tigers of Heaven
Tomb of Time
Devil in the Moon
Talon and Fang
Sea of Plague
Mad God's Wrath
Mask of the Sphinx
Children of the Serpent
Rim of the World
Lords of the Deep
Closing the Cosmic Eye
Pantheon of Vengeance
Warlord of the Pit
Fools are rewarded with nothing but more foolishness, but the wise are rewarded with knowledge.
Almost two hundred years after the global holocaust, Kane, a former Magistrate of Cobaltville, often thought the world had been lucky to survive at all after a nuclear device detonated in the Russian embassy in Washington, D.C. The aftermathâforever known as skydarkâreshaped continents and turned civilization into ashes.
Nearly depopulated, America became the Deathlandsâpoisoned by radiation, home to chaos and mutated life forms. Feudal rule reappeared in the form of baronies, while remote outposts clung to a brutish existence.
What eventually helped shape this wasteland were the redoubts, the secret preholocaust military installations with stores of weapons, and the home of gateways, the locational matter-transfer facilities. Some of the redoubts hid clues that had once fed wild theories of government cover-ups and alien visitations.
Rearmed from redoubt stockpiles, the barons consolidated their power and reclaimed technology for the villes. Their power, supported by some invisible authority, extended beyond their fortified walls to what was now called the Outlands. It was here that the rootstock of humanity survived, living with hellzones and chemical storms, hounded by Magistrates.
In the villes, rigid laws were enforcedâto atone for the sins of the past and prepare the way for a better future. That was the barons' public credo and their right-to-rule.
Kane, along with friend and fellow Magistrate Grant, had upheld that claim until a fateful Outlands expedition. A displaced piece of technologyâ¦a question to a keeper of the archivesâ¦a vague clue about alien mastersâand their world shifted radically. Suddenly, Brigid Baptiste, the archivist, faced summary execution, and Grant a quick termination. For
Kane there was forgiveness if he pledged his unquestioning allegiance to Baron Cobalt and his unknown masters and abandoned his friends.
But that allegiance would make him support a mysterious and alien power and deny loyalty and friends. Then what else was there?
Kane had been brought up solely to serve the ville. Brigid's only link with her family was her mother's red-gold hair, green eyes and supple form. Grant's clues to his lineage were his ebony skin and powerful physique. But Domi, she of the white hair, was an Outlander pressed into sexual servitude in Cobaltville. She at least knew her roots and was a reminder to the exiles that the outcasts belonged in the human family.
Parents, friends, communityâthe very rootedness of humanity was denied. With no continuity, there was no forward momentum to the future. And that was the cruxâwhen Kane began to wonder if there
For Kane, it wouldn't do. So the only way was outâway, way out.
After their escape, they found shelter at the forgotten Cerberus redoubt headed by Lakesh, a scientist, Cobaltville's head archivist, and secret opponent of the barons.
With their past turned into a lie, their future threatened, only one thing was left to give meaning to the outcasts. The hunger for freedom, the will to resist the hostile influences. And perhaps, by opposing, end them.
The elderly man was solidly built, with a wispy gray beard that sprouted from his chin like the gnarled roots of a potato plant. He stood watching the waves from his hiding place in an alleyway overlooking the beachfront as the setting sun painted the Pacific Ocean in hues of red and pink and orange.
As the waves lapped against the shore, the old man pulled the glass bottle from one of the voluminous pockets of his waterproof coat. Streaks of grime and patches of sweat marred its once-pristine appearance, evidence of his long trek from his prior home in the Canadian wilds. He was there under instruction; his master had sent him to recruit, as he had sent the other graduates from Tenth City.
The sounds of crashing waves in the distance, the old man methodically broke the seal and unscrewed the cap of the bottle of home-brewed gin, then lifted the vessel to his lips. His nose wrinkled as he caught a smell of the clear brew. The fiery stench caught in the back of his nose and throat, not so much a smell as a feeling, a heat.
Closing his eyes, the old man tipped the bottle and felt the cool liquid splash past his teeth, wash against his tongue and the sides of his mouth. After a brief moment, he pulled the bottle away and spit the mouthful of gin out across the stone slabs of the sidewalk. The liquid
fizzled there for a moment before running away along the incline of the alleyway and disappearing into the rudimentary opening of the local drainage system, a froth of saliva floating on its clear surface.
The elderly man stuck out his tongue, his eyes still screwed tight as he breathed out through the savage taste that now lined the inside of his mouth and stung at his lips. The raw taste of gin made him cough, and for a few moments he hacked and spluttered. Then his eyes opened and he pulled the capless bottle close once again, drawing it high until he held it over his own head. He looked up, seeing the dwindling sunlight dance across the surface of the bottle, feeling the weight of the liquid as it sloshed inside the clear glass. Then, closing his eyes once more, the old man deliberately tipped the bottle so that its contents poured over his upturned face, washing through his dirt-clotted hair and drenching his old clothes until his coat was sodden with gin.
Reeking of alcohol, the old man stepped out into the street, swaying left and right as though on the deck of a ship in a ferocious storm, and he began to heckle the nearest person, a pretty young woman rushing to the church hall with a sturdy bag over her shoulder, hoping to collect some of the newly arrived rations she had heard about. Frightened, the woman leaped back from the old man as he tottered from the alleyway and shouted nonsensically at her. Her heels clattered on the paving stones as she rushed away, but the old man had already dismissed her, moving on toward the beachfront and the next of his victims.
Prison had always been a breeding ground for recruitment, he knew. He only needed to get himself locked
in a cell for utopia to begin. The utopia his master had promised for every man, woman and child on the planet Earth. The utopia he had already embraced.
Every star was a different color. A thousand stars in the skyâa thousand different colors, no two the same.
It was as if the spectrum had lied to Pam all these years and that only now had she finally been allowed to open her eyes for the first time and truly see the universe around her. She wondered why the spectrum had been hiding all these marvelous hues, just out of sight, pretending to have its familiar selection of just seven bands of color when in actuality its variations were beyond comprehension.
Fifteen years old, Pam sat on the beach at the edge of the fishing ville called Hope, gazing up at the night sky as one thousand beautiful stars twinkled above her in their majestic greens and reds and blues and all those other colors that she didn't yet have names for. Beside her, Pam's boyfriend, Tony, was working at a little fire with a length of driftwood he had found washed up a ways along the coast. The driftwood stick, as well as that used for the fire itself, had once been a part of the grand pier that had jutted into the sea here, back before the earthquake had struck and a tidal wave had demolished it.
As Tony poked the fire, Pam turned her attention to the sea where the starlight twinkled across its surface like a flock of playful birds. Even in the inky darkness of night, Pam could see the breakers crashing downward
as the ocean sprinted toward the shore, only to pull back at the last second, clawing at the beach with foamy fingers.
She had moved here just a few months ago, had traveled across the Outlands along with her mother and her little sister, in their hurry to escape the dreadful destruction of their home in the towering ville of Beausoleil. An aerial bombing raid had punished Beausoleil, levelling the magnificent ville in the space of a few minutes, killing the sinful and the blameless indiscriminately. Among those casualties was Pam's father, caught up in the explosion that had felled the towering Administrative Monolith where he worked. His body had never been recovered.
In less than a day, the magnificent ville of Beausoleil had been rendered uninhabitable as thick, inky smoke plumed into the skies above it, visible for miles around like a beacon signaling its fate. At that signal, brigands had rapidly descended upon the remains faster than the Magistrates could repel them. Pam's mother had not wanted to leave the ville until she found her husband, but once the brigands appeared the whole area had descended into savagery, like something from the history books, from before the Program of Unification had fixed everything in the whole world. When she saw her mom packing the few items that had survived in their shattered apartment, Pam had asked about her dad, saying that they couldn't just leave him behind.
“This is no place for little girls,” Pam's mother had said, tears streaming down her face. A woman's shrill scream came from outside the ruined residential block even as she spokeâa scream that could just as well have come from Pam's mother's throat.
Pam had wanted to argue, but her sister, Rebecca, was just eight years old, and she really was a little girl.
And so together the family had exited the lurching remains of their smoldering residential block, avoiding the huge bomb craters as they hurried along the churned-up remnants of the road outside. There was a crowd on the street corner before them where two men argued loudly with a Magistrate dressed in black armor, the top half of his face hidden behind the intimidating helmet he wore. One of the men was shouting something about food, and before Pamela knew it the man threw a punch at the uniformed Mag. The solid blow connected with the official's jaw with a resounding crack, just below the extent of his protective helmet, and Pam heard herself gasp. She had never seen anyone attack a Magistrate, never in her fifteen years of life within the safe confines of Beausoleil's high walls.
As Pam watched, the black-garbed Mag staggered, doing a two-step dance to hold himself in place. As he did so, the Mag raised his right arm and the familiar form of his Sin Eater pistol appeared in his hand, propelled automatically from its wrist-mounted holster.
“Keep back!” the Magistrate ordered the crowd as he took a step toward the man who had struck him, his voice firm with anger.
The man who had struck out leered at the Mag, fury in his eyes. “Our families need to eat,” he shouted, closing in on the Mag, his face up close to the Magistrate's. His colleague, an unshaved, tired-looking man, stepped over to join him. “Outlanders are taking everything, swarming inside the walls like vermin. And you aren't doing anything.”
“Back!” the Mag ordered again, but the watching crowd was closing in on him now, the sounds of their
growing dissatisfaction buzzing around them like a swarm of angry hornets.
Pam's mom had hissed at her to get a move on. “We can't stay here,” she urged, pulling at little Rebecca's hand. She was crying silently, tears streaking her cheeks as if she'd been caught in a cloudburst.
Suddenly there was the sound of a gunshot, and the man who had been arguing with the Magistrate dropped to the ground like a sinking stone, a bloody stain blossoming on his shirt. Pam gasped and she heard her mom say an actual cuss word, which she had never done before, not ever.
“Come on, Pam,” her mother urged, rushing into a lurching alleyway that stood between the wreckage of two buildings, the jagged masonry reaching above like clawed hands.
Pam hurried after her mother and Rebecca, but she looked back for just a moment when she heard more gunfire. Behind her at the street corner, the crowd was rushing at the Magistrate as he shot rounds indiscriminately at them. A red-haired woman fell to the ground, her head erupting with blood as a bullet slammed into her once-beautiful face. Beside the woman, two men, one of them quite elderly, doubled over in pain as 9 mm bullets sprayed them from the nose of the Mag's Sin Eater. And then, as Pam watched, the Mag disappeared beneath the surging group, the staccato bursts of gunfire muffled by the press of bodies.
“Come on, Pam,” her mother's voice urged then, and Pam turned back to see her mother calling her from atop a little broken wall. Rebecca was clambering over it at her side, her school satchel hanging down by her hip on its leather strap. “Quickly now.”
Pam had run to catch up with what remained of her
family, her shoes slipping a little on the debris that littered the ground. Within half an hour the three of them crept through the shattered ville walls and left Beausoleil forever, never once looking back at the smoking ruins that nestled amid the greenery of old Tennessee.
Tired and disheveled, Pam, her mother and sister had traveled west until they ended up at Hope, along with so many other refugees. Something was happening in their world, something bigger than any of them comprehended. The nine villes, of which Beausoleil was just one, had lost their leaders, the hybrid barons. The demarcation lines of the baronies themselves were blurring as the once-proud villes fell, one by one. The baronies had brought order to the landmass that had once been called the Deathlands and, before that, the United States of America. The gemlike villes had brought security. Now that security was disappearing, and the whole country was drifting back toward a hell state.
Hope was a fishing village on the West Coast, a small, tight-knit community of less than two hundred people. When the baronies had started to fall, a surge of refugees had found their way here, building a shantytown on its outskirts, and bringing with them overcrowding, disease and crime. What had once been an idyllic community had turned into a place where it was every man for himself. That was until the tidal wave had pummelled most of those temporary favela dwellings to the ground and, curiously, from that destruction a strange new sense of community had emerged.
Pam recalled her wonderful apartment in the residential Enclaves of Beausoleil, where life was regimented and she had had to wear a uniform to go to school. By contrast, Hope was dirty and cluttered and her classroom
was a converted basement where she wasn't expected to wear a uniform. Indeed, some of her classmates didn't even wear shoes, and not through choice, either. But for all its grime and lack of sophistication, Hope was where Pam could sneak off to the beach and watch the waves, and where she and Tony could make out under the wreckage of the pier. After two months, Hope felt like home.
The ocean crashed once more against the shore and, as she chewed, Pam perceived something within those waves, the way the atoms clung together and broke apart like partners at a formal dance. And she saw, just for a moment, the way the whole dancing ocean was dragged to and fro by the pull of its bullying best friend, the moon, watching from above with its crescent sliver of cat's eye.
Smiling, Pam turned away from the crashing waves and saw Tony jab at the flames with his length of driftwood. Sparks spit from the fire as Tony hooked at the food that he had been cooking there, submerged deep in the popping flames. She and Tony had come across a clutch of little mollusks that had been washed up by the tide as they walked along the beach earlier that evening, and Pam had suggested cooking them here while they watched the sun disappear beneath the swell of the Pacific.
“Go on,” she had said. “It'll be dead romantic and that.”
Tony pulled a face. He didn't go much for romance, unless it involved having a fumble under her shirt while no one was looking. “Won't your mom be worried?” he asked.
“Nah,” Pamela assured him. “There's never any food
at home. She's probably out partying with someone even now.”
Tony nodded. He liked Pam's mom; she was all right. But after the tidal wave had hit Hope, the whole ville had been turned upside down and everyone was scrabbling to find enough to feed themselves, even more than they had before. So when Pam said “partying,” Tony knew that she really meant her mom was trading sex for food.
The weird mollusks they found washed ashore had hard shells the color of oil on water, and ranged in size from the very small to ones almost as big as Tony's clenched fistâthe same fist that had knocked out Tim Brin's front toothâbut they tasted all right once you cooked them for a bit. The flesh was kind of salty, tasting like the ocean, and they could be a bit chewy, but Tony and Pam didn't mind. It was good to smell them cooking, a brackish, sharp kind of tang drifting within the charcoal smoke of the fire. After they had eaten the first few, they had just become used to the texture and the taste, and it hadn't really mattered after that.
Using his stick, Tony pulled the last of the dead creatures from the fire, licking his lips as he caught the aroma of the cooking flesh where it lay on the shale before his resting knees. Then he cast the stick aside and, wrapping his hands in the tails of his shirt to protect them, picked up the flame-hot creature and cracked open its now-brittle shell. A hunk of jellylike meat flopped about inside, its color a pink so dull that it looked almost gray, the flesh still bubbling as a smoky white trail plumed from it.
Tony offered the mollusk to his girl. “Last one,” he said. “You want some?”
Pam looked at Tony and smiled. To her eyes, his face
seemed so beautiful, his fourteen-year-old skin smooth and taut, the fluffy dusting of his first beard cluttering his jaw. And she saw that the multicolored stars were reflected in his eyes, all those wonderful colors that she had never noticed before. “Half each,” she told him, holding her hand out for the cooked flesh as it was cooled by the sea breeze.
Tony tore the pink-gray meat apart and handed Pam half. As he leaned close, he kissed Pam next to her lips, a slobbering touch that included his tongue licking at the side of her face like a dog. Then, gazing into each other's eyes, they brought the flesh to their mouths and, giggling, sucked the juices before chewing and swallowing.
The meat left a salty taste on their tongues, as though they were eating the ocean itself. Tony looked at Pam as he felt that delicious flesh slide down his throat, and he saw how she seemed to glow beneath the multifaceted light of the moon. Above, up in the sky, he, too, saw the multicolored display that seemed to emanate from the stars. Like gods, he thought. Gods in the sky.
ANE RUBBED THE BACK
of his neck, feeling the tension there subside as he gazed out across the streets of Hope from the summit of the church steps. It was still busy out here despite day having given way to night, and a line of locals shuffled past on the steps as Kane tried to clear his whirring mind.
“Everything okay?” asked a familiar woman's voice from behind him.
Kane turned to see Brigid Baptiste pushing out of the rotting wooden doors of the old church to join him where he sat on the topmost stone step. Brigid was a beautiful woman, svelte of form with an athlete's
musculature and a ballet dancer's grace. Her hair was a vibrant red-gold, the color of sunset, and she had painted her full lips to match. Her bright green eyes stared back at Kane from her pale face, like twin emeralds glinting from the snow. Where her full lips spoke of sensuality, Brigid's high forehead suggested intellect, and in reality she was both of those aspects and many more besides. Brigid had been Kane's colleague in the Cerberus operation for several years, and though their relationship was strictly platonic, their closeness was often akin to that of siblings. They shared the mystical bond of anam-charas, soul-friends destined to meet over and over through eternal reincarnation stretching along the flowing stream of time itself.
Brigid had dressed in scuffed but durable leathers over her shadow suit. The shadow suit itself was a waferthin bodysuit that was able to deflect knife attacks, offer protection from contaminated environments and also had other remarkable properties including the ability to regulate its wearer's body temperature.
Kane nodded at Brigid's question as she took a place beside him on the cool stone step, crouching so that her face was close to his while the refugees shuffled past them in a slow-moving line. The pair had been cooped up in the church for over fourteen hours, working nonstop as they distributed reconstituted rations to the local population. Elsewhere in the sprawling shantytown that surrounded the ville, another field team was distributing medicines where they were most needed. Theirs was a mission of mercy, and something that the Cerberus people seemed to have had very little time for over the recent months thanks to a litany of problems, both within their home base and across the globe.