End Day

Axler, James

Published by Gold Eagle
ISBN 10: 0373626312 / ISBN 13: 9780373626311
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Synopsis: TIME WARPED  

Ryan Cawdor and his six companions struggle to survive postnuclear America, a grim new world where hope for the  future is lost amid the devastation. 

APOCALYPSE REDUX 

In pursuit of a hardened enemy?Magus?Ryan and the companions find themselves in a land more foreign than any they've encountered. After unwittingly slipping through a time hole, the group lands in twentieth-century New York City, getting their first glimpse of predark civilization. And they're not sure they like it. Only Mildred and Doc can appreciate this strange metropolis, but Armageddon is just seventy-two hours away, and Magus will stop at nothing to make sure Ryan and his team are destroyed on Nuke Day...

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.: Once again Veronica Currant found her attention wandering across the luxuriously appointed dining room, past the dark leather booths, crystal chandeliers and liveried waitstaff. It came to rest on the TV above the Manhattan restaurant's bar. Because the presidential inauguration was less than a day away, media was replaying the whole "lost ballot" business in excruciating detail: the characters in the Florida GOP implicated in the computer tampering conspiracy, and the Supreme Court decision that had ultimately determined the outcome of the election. The country was sick of hearing about it, and so was she. She just wanted it over with. After all, there were checks and balances built into the system, no matter who was elected. The Republicans had had three successive terms in the White House since 1980. How bad could a Democratic President be?

The tall, gaunt man on the other side of the table tapped his water goblet with a silver spoon to get her attention. "We were discussing terms on a multibook deal," Noah Prentiss reminded her.

It took an effort of will on her part not to stare at the swollen red knob of his nose and the constellations of tiny starbursts on his cheeks.

Prentiss was an alcoholic, low-rung literary agent. His low-rung client—a small pudgy man who bit his nails—sat to his left. They had turned their half of the white linen tablecloth into a veritable Jackson Pollack of red-wine spills, meat juice and grease spots, bits of discarded gristle, drips of Caesar dressing, shreds of romaine and escaped bread crumbs.

"Kyle and I have discussed the matter at length," Prentiss went on, "and feel a raise in advance is appropriate on the next Clanker contract."

Clanker was one of the eight-book series Veronica edited for a New York City paperback house. The central character of the same name was a steampunk cyborg—coal and wood fired.

"No one writes Clanky as good as me," Kyle Arthur Levinson boasted, somewhat thickly after four martinis and a half bottle of cabernet.

Veronica looked from one man to the other but did not reply. Silence in answer to a question was a negotiating technique she had learned from the five-foot-two pulp-fiction publisher, cigar-smoking entrepreneur and renowned tightwad who was her boss. It was a strategy that put the opposition at an immediate disadvantage.

If she had chosen to, she could have listed many reasons why Mr. Levinson didn't deserve more book contracts, let alone a raise in pay. He never turned in his assignments on time. Despite the advance outlines to the contrary, he wrote the same story over and over. Clanker aways ran short on energy at a crucial moment in the plot and broke up some chairs or bookshelves to burn in his brass firebox, thus saving the day. Levinson cannibalized action and sex scenes word for word from his own books. He never researched or fact-checked his work. He never read books by the other ghosts in the series, which created conflicts with canon. None of these issues set him apart from the rest of the stable—to one degree or another, all the writers were guilty of the same offenses. So why should he get more money?

Prentiss had an answer for that.

"Remember," the agent said, "Kyle's been on this series from the start. He helped build its current global audience."

"I'm the one who invented ol' Clanky's catch phrase, 'Stoke me!'"

That was hardly something Veronica could forget. Levinson used that tag line at least fifty times in every book, and she had to go through the manuscript and personally remove forty-five of them. Truth be told, "his" catch phrase for Clanker was stolen from "Stalk me!"—the catch phrase from another of the company's series, Slaughter Realms. Which in turn had been lifted from "Stake me!"—the catch phrase of the house's vampire line, Blood City.

Sometimes in the middle of an excruciating edit of one of his Clankers, she caught herself wishing he'd write "Choke me!" so she could strangle him with a clear conscience.

"We have come up with some numbers we'd like to run by you," Prentiss said, holding out a slip of paper.

Veronica took it and put it in her purse without looking at it. "A decision like this has to come from the top," she said. "I'm sure you understand…"

"Of course," Prentiss said. "I understand completely. Now, how about a little something sweet?"

Levinson was already scanning the dessert menu with keen interest.

Half an hour later Veronica was starting to feel hungry. She'd had only sparkling water to drink, a seafood risotto and an undressed green salad. Not wanting to prolong the ordeal by ordering more food, she paid the tab with a company credit card and left agent and client happily nursing their third brandies. She knew her boss wouldn't grouse about the bill. A $300 lunch was peanuts compared to actually giving Levinson a raise. Effective stalling cost money but paid off big time down the road when the writer became desperate. And sooner or later, writers always became desperate.

Outside the restaurant, the January temperature was in the high thirties; it felt colder because it was so damp. She thought about walking the five blocks back to the office but changed her mind. She had a big pile of manuscripts to edit at home, and she wanted to get out of her high heels and into a pair of comfy slippers. After hailing a passing taxi and getting in, she gave the driver the address of her apartment in the East Village.

Her thoughts returned to the Levinson problem.

That there were always worse writers out there had been pounded into her by painful experience. "Better the bad writer you know" was the company's longstanding philosophy. To overcome the failings of the stable, failings all too apparent to readers of the various series, and to keep her job, she'd had to master the relevant facts and skills herself. She had learned about weapons, tactics, martial arts, survival, engineering, astrophysics; the list went on and on. Despite the fact that she was only twenty-six, she was a mother figure to the writers she herded—a dispenser of sustenance, corrector of embarrassing mistakes, protector and defender. They were babies, all of them. Some white-haired or hairless, some toothless with age, but still helpless, whining babies.

The cab pulled up in front of her brownstone on a street lined wall-to-wall with similar narrow, multistory houses, all of the same, roughly 1850, vintage. Sickly, leafless trees grew out of spike-ringed holes in the sidewalk.

After paying the cabbie, she climbed the steep front stairs, unlocked the door and stepped into the small foyer. As she started up to her second-floor apartment, she considered blowing off work, putting her feet up and reading a good book for a change. A rumble from the floor above startled her. It sounded like a stampede of elephants. Looking up, she saw huge, dark figures lumbering down from the landing. They were as wide bodied as NFL players. The marble staircase shook under their combined weight. She flattened her back against the wall to keep from being trampled.

As they poured past, she saw there were eight or nine of them, all dressed in a kind of uniform: royal-purple satin hoodies and black satin jogging pants. She couldn't get a clear look at their faces because of the hoods and because they were moving so fast. She did see and recognize the skeletonized buttstocks of AKS-74U "Krinkovs," some of them slung under the hoodies, the abbreviated autorifles looking like children's toys. In the middle of the pack, apparently being guarded by the others, was a spindly, frail individual.

Was that Bob Dylan? she thought, turning to look as they crossed the foyer below and trooped out the front door. A rumor had started going around the block that morning that the famous balladeer had bought the brownstone next to this one, but no one had actually seen him yet. What was Bob Dylan doing in her building? The odd smell left in their wake made her wrinkle her nose.

When she peered over the second-floor landing, her heart sank. Her apartment door was standing wide open. Without thinking, she crossed the hall and rushed inside. The place had been trashed—furniture overturned, lamps broken, pictures knocked off the walls as if a whirlwind had struck. The television, stereo and computer were untouched. It smelled like a meth lab.

"Talu, Petey!" she called. "Lucy!"

The cats didn't come.

She found all three hiding, wide-eyed, in a corner under the bed. Much to her relief, they were unhurt.

Nothing seemed to be missing from the bedroom; everything was just as she had left it. The autographed black-and-white photo of a bearded, smiling Robertson Davies sat atop her dresser.

Oh crap, the Eagle! She jumped up and tore open her closet door. Behind cartons of neatly packed summer clothes on the top shelf, the lock box was still there. She opened it with the keypad and looked down with relief at the Bengal tiger-striped .44 Magnum Desert Eagle snug in its fitted foam case. It had been a strange gift from an even stranger man—restrainingorder strange.

Robert Marx, in addition to being bipolar and a con man, had authored a few books for the company's Western soft-core-porn line, Ramrod—that series' catch phrase was both obvious and literal. Veronica had never dated Marx, never saw him once outside the company offices, but he had become so enamored of her that out of the blue, he'd given her this $2,500, illegal-in-NYC pistol—the world's most powerful handgun, in fact. Something Marx thought incredibly funny.

Primarily to defend herself against him—and people like him—Veronica had learned at a range in Connecticut to shoot the monstrous thing. She'd initially had serious problems with muzzle control because of the weapon's weight—four-and-a-half pounds, fully loaded—and its tremendous recoil. To master it, she'd had to strengthen her wrists and forearms with dumbbell finger curls.

A loud, sudden noise from the living room made her stiffen. It sounded like something heavy had fallen. Maybe one of her floor-to-ceiling bookshelves had crashed to the floor.

They're back! was her only thought.

Veronica kicked off her heels. With the ease of much practice—and without chipping a nail—she slapped home the pistol's loaded magazine and chambered the first fat wadcutter round in the stack. Snatching the custom-molded earplugs from the case, she thumbed them into place as she moved to the bedroom door. When she burst into the living room with the auto-pistol in a two-handed grip, ready to fire, there was no one there. Above the toppled chairs and scattered manuscript pages, a weird gray mist swirled in the air.

Something terrible was about to happen. She could feel it in the pit of her stomach.

Firmly planting her feet, she aimed the Eagle at the churning, expanding cloud. As she stared over the iron sights, it occurred to her that she had finally and completely lost her mind.

Chapter Two The pain didn't stop when Ryan went blind in his one good eye.

Or when he stopped breathing. Or when his heart stopped beating.

Consciousness and sensation stubbornly remained while his body stretched and stretched, like a strand of spit, until it was a slithering ribbon a molecule high and a molecule wide. Until it was light years long. The cries of his companions were an unbroken wail, which he vibrated to, like a plucked guitar string.

It was nothing like the jump nightmares he had experienced before. The random, twisted horror stories peopled by ex-lovers, bloodthirsty muties and archenemies of his past were at least a comprehensible agony, with beginnings, middles and ends. There were no time signposts in this version of hell, nothing to separate one excruciating instant from the next. He was being stretched and stretched, but to where? To what? Had they been tricked into an endless loop of matter transfer, never arriving, forever in transit?

And the worst part of all: he had hit the button. Ma-gus's victory, their defeat, was by his own hand. His own bastard hand.

Suddenly the pressure seemed to ease a bit; before he could come to grips with the change, it reversed entirely. Instead of stretching, there was compression. Violent, dramatic compression at both ends, like g-forces trying to crush him flat, to drive the back of his head into the base of his spine, his ankles into his hipbones. Caught between the downward and upward forces, his insides were squashed. He just managed to roll onto his side as he projectile-vomited.

Choking and gasping for air, Ryan could feel the smooth floor beneath his cheek and temple.

He opened his eye and could see a dim light in the heart of the swirling fog.

They had arrived. Somewhere.

As he crawled toward the brightness, he felt as if he had been run over by a convoy of wags. His skin crackled strangely, as if tissue paper had been stuffed under it. The others were moving on all fours, also apparently unable to stand. He counted the dark shapes on either side of him—all were accounted for.

"Triple red," he said, or tried to say. His voice came out as a hoarse and almost inaudible croak.

None of them, himself included, had the strength to do more than drag their blasters along.

The edges of the porthole doorway were obscured by the dense, low-hanging fog. As he advanced hand over hand toward the center of the light, the hard glass turned into something softer under his palms and then his knees.

The gray mist began to lift from the floor. The door stood open.

He saw a pair of bare feet in front of him—small, pale, female feet, with red-painted toenails. As the fog dissipated, the woman came into full view. She was young and dressed as no Deathlander he'd ever seen—not even a baron's wife. Her clothes looked new and were of a strange style: a jacket tailored at the waist and a knee-length skirt snugged around the hips, both cut from the same shiny gray cloth. In her ears, there were sparkling jewel studs, what Ryan thought to be diamonds from pics he had seen. Her shoulder-length hair was brown with red highlights, her small nose freckled.

But what commanded his attention was the enormous gold handblaster she held pointed at them, hammer cocked back to fire. The hole in the business end looked as big as a sewer pipe. The slide and frame were black striped, like the pelt of a tiger. From her stance he could tell she knew what she was doing, and the yawning muzzle stayed rock steady. Her fingernail color matched that of her toes.

"This isn't happening," she said, a look of horror in her eyes. Then it passed and she said, "Don't move, any of you!"

Ryan tried to speak and couldn't make his throat muscles obey. A faint, wheezing noise escaped his lips.

To his right, Ricky was still retching, but nothing was coming out of his mouth. He had already vomited all down the front of his T-shirt. It was on his cheeks, his neck and in his hair, too. The youth's tan face looked deadly pale as he struggled to control the spasms.

The others seemed to have better weathered the storm—at l...

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Title: End Day
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