Authors: James Axler
Tags: #Fiction, #Action & Adventure
ENDANGERED SPECIES: MAN
Dedicated to the protection of humanity in the twenty-third century, the Cerberus warriors have repelled numerous alien parasites that would prey on mankind. But the Cerberus team clashes with otherworldly scavengers wielding technology far in advance of their own when they investigate a spaceship crash site.
The spaceship belongs to citizens of a magnificent airborne city located in a quantum rift. They have been hording alien technology and using the superscience they’d stolen to build a futuristic haven. But their benevolent ruler is about to be challenged for his throne, a challenge that threatens to turn earth into a testing ground for alien weapons of unimaginable destruction. Unless the Cerberus warriors can find a way to stop the escalating crisis.
The four brutish figures stared down the barrel of Brigid's gun
Then they began to march down the corridor toward her.
Should she shoot to wound? Fire a warning shot? Take one of these monsters down?
Caution won out. Brigid aimed above the approaching figures and fired. They slowed momentarily as the blast ripped into the wall in a burst of splintering wood. Then they started moving again, faster this time.
Brigid targeted one of the two in the middle. Aiming for his legs, she sent another bullet hurtling through the air. It struck the thing in his right hip, but Brigid felt little satisfaction as the false man flipped over and dropped to the floor.
His colleagues slowed, but only for an instant. Brigid saw the fallen one roll back up to stand. Her bullet had struck him, but whatever they were made of, it was a lot stronger than human flesh.
“Stay back!” She blasted again, and heard several bullets strike flesh with a familiar dull, wet sound.
And then the first of the monstrous figures was upon her.
Other titles in this series:
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
Cradle of Destiny
Our knowledge is a receding mirage in an expanding desert of ignorance.
âWill Durant, 1885â1981
The Road to Outlands—From Secret Government Files to the Future
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 aftermath—forever known as skydark—reshaped continents and turned civilization into ashes.
Nearly depopulated, America became the Deathlands—poisoned 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 enforced—to 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 technology…a question to a keeper of the archives…a vague clue about alien masters—and 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, community—the very rootedness of humanity was denied. With no continuity, there was no forward momentum to the future. And that was the crux—when Kane began to wonder if there was a future.
For Kane, it wouldn’t do. So the only way was out—way, 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.
Acre, Haifa Bay, January 1190
The Holy Land looked like hell.
Flecks of ice swirled in the air before settling on the exposed skin of the dead soldiers where they lay in the shadow of the city wall. Their armor was caked with mud so cold it had veins of ice running through it now. Mud and something elseâblood, its redness turned brown as its vibrant color rusted in the air, making it almost indistinguishable from the mud that had marred their clothing.
James Henry awoke on that bloody field, dreams of his home hundreds of miles away ebbing from his brain as it tripped back into the waking world. He was cold, his metal-plate armor like a cage of ice around his body, his flesh shivering inside. He still held his sword, his hand cinched around it so tightly that it had frozen in place.
He opened his eyes to the predawn darkness, the sky an eerie shade of blue-black, as if it had been bruised. There was something sticking to his left eye, clamping it so that it wouldn't open properly. He reached up with a hand gloved in metal that made it heavy and hard to manipulate, and wiped at his eye as carefully as he could.
It was sleep. Sleep and blood, crusting over his eyelashes, clinging to them like a film. He swept his fingers over the eye again, rubbing gingerly until the gunk snapped away in red-and-orange flecks. A moment later, those flecks were lost to the sand, a single grain among a billion others.
There was barely any noise out here, Henry realized. It didn't come as a surpriseâhe had been here on Richard's pilgrimage for over a year and camped close to the spot outside the walled city of Acre for some four months. The nights were always quiet. What noises they heard came not from the city but from the animals that hid in the daytime, appearing only fleetingly as their night work demanded.
James Henry lay there gathering his wits, striving to recall how he had come to be lying here, facedown in the mud. King Richard had mounted a push against the walls of the city, he recalled, calling all of his knights and soldiers to the battlefield as they pressed against Saladin's forces. Saladin's people had the higher ground here, the high walls of the sand-colored city providing ample defense from their attackers.
They had dropped things on the Faithful of Saint Peter, poured scalding oils that would turn a knight's armor into an oven, roasting him alive before he could remove it. They had used arrows, too, and spears, and they had fought with barely domesticated animals whose training had extended only so far as to make their targets those chosen by man rather than those they would choose themselvesâthough that difference was negligible.
And then the soldiers had come, pouring from the city in a great flood tide, swords held high in cruel warning. James had been struck by the colors as he always was, the brightly colored robes these locals wore as they came to meet their Christian visitors.
They had fought like mad things, swords cleaving the air with sunlight flashes, men crying in exertion and desperation and pain. The Lord was watching and the pilgrimage was a just one, a need to secure the corner of Earth where everything of value had begun.
The battle had started in the early afternoon and had continued long into the night, as wave after wave of soldiers from both sides had joined the fray. Richard's prestige forces all bore the red cross on their tabards, his soldiers bearing the same on their dirt-encrusted clothes; Saladin's army wore the colors of the East, bright in the sun of the late afternoon, dulling to a uniform gray-indigo as it set.
Now, with dawn nudging toward the horizon, James Henry found himself sprawled in the mud beyond the city walls, his body cold, his head heavy. Around him there were bodies; some were men he knew. He could not remember being struck, and he could feel no wound, no tell-tale warm dampness where blood had gathered about his body. He had fallen from exhaustion, then, unwounded but tired beyond comprehension, lugging a suit of metal on his body like a snail carrying its shell.
He had imagined that the Holy Land would be warm, a place of sunlight and tranquility, of green plants and singing birds. But it wasn't. The plants offered sparse cover when you were at war with the locals, and any singing birds had long since departed the battlefields for fear of getting caught in the crossfire or, more likely, eaten by the invading pilgrims who craved sustenance in this little corner of hell. It could get stupidly hot by the afternoon, but it was beastly cold once the sun set.
Henry clambered to his feet, rising from the ground like a felled English oak in reverse, struggling to move in the metal suit. Normally he would have an aide to help him with such maneuvers, but there was no one else about, only dead men lying in blood that had long since mingled to become one mighty crimson smear on the land.
He stood at last, his movements in the armor like those of a ridiculously heavy mannequin given the semblance of life by a puppeteer. He used his sword, the one he had never relinquished, even in sleep, to help him stand, leaning his weight against it, its tip pressed into the mud. There was ice on the mud, a thin film that cracked as the sword touched it.
Henry looked at the sleeping city, then turned his attention to the sky. The sun had not yet risen but it would, and soon. Already he could see that blush of orange suffused with white where the sun played the last seconds of hide-and-seek with the horizon, waiting to reveal itself.
He watched the sky for a few moments, gathering his wits. And as he stood there, the knight in mud-caked armor saw something flicker on the horizon. It was gold, like that fabled star over Bethlehem, shimmering in the predawn light. It was shaped like a star, too, but one that had been cut in half across its horizontal, leaving only the points that stuck up to the heavens, a flat base all that was left below.
Henry blinked, feeling the tiredness in his muscles, wondering if he was still half-asleep. The star flickered again, twinkling on the horizon, swimming in and out of existence as if it was not quite solid.
“What are youâ?” Henry muttered, crossing himself as he had when he had pledged his allegiance to King Richard and made the vow that would only be fulfilled when they reached Jerusalem.
The strange star shimmered, the reaching rays of the rising sun catching its edges, lighting the flat line that formed its base in fiery gold and brass.
Momentarily the knight looked away, scanning the debris of the battlefield where a half-dozen soldiers lay, Muslims and Christians both. He was the only one who had survived, and he dared not call to the city and alert them to his presence, no matter how much he desired to share this experience and confirm it was truly happening. Men saw strange things when they were dying, he knew, and he feared blood loss was causing this vision of the rushing star.
The half star winked one last time before fading from his view like a painting seen only through steam, gone again forever.
James Henry watched the spot in the sky where the thing had been, his breathing slow and deep, waiting for it to reappear. But it did not. Closing his eyes, the lids heavy with sleep and cold, the Englishman turned away from the sky and began his long trek back to camp where Richard's forces would welcome him with open arms with warm food and with the safety of numbers he needed to rest his tired body.
But it was only natural that he turn back, just once, just to be sure that the bisected star was no longer there. So he turned his head, peering over his shoulder, and he saw the second miracle, just as in the tales he had heard in church. There was a second star now, smaller but shining with the same golden intensity, standing in the sky where the first had been. The first star, the one that was abbreviated on its center line, had not reappeared, but this smaller one seemed to be waiting in the same place and growing larger.
No, Henry realized, it wasn't growing largerâit was coming closer. Painted the gold of the sun's rays, the star shot across the heavens like a streak of light, its shape ill-defined, the sunlight twinkling across its surface in ever-changing patterns.
The knight watched as the star became bigger, bigger still. It was accompanied now by a noise like galloping horses, like one hundred hooves drumming across the heavens in perfect unison. The star tore across the sky and clipped low over the sandy-colored buildings of Acre, hurtling over Henry's head. The noise became louder as it shot directly overhead, as though mighty steeds had been unleashed, and he could feel the heat emanating from it even down here, two hundred feet below. Around him, the flecks of ice that were swirling in the morning air rose, lifted up as if by a magnet, drawn to the passing star as it blasted across the sky. The star continued on, rushing toward the camp where his fellow pilgrims slept.
The thought struck Henry out of nowhere: it will kill us should it strike at such speed
The magic of the whole moment had gone; now all he cared about was his brethren down by the coast.
Henry ran, or ran as best he could in the heavy armor, metal plates clanking like the sounds from a smithy's shop.
The star continued to grow, igniting the heavens with a trail of fire the way oil can be set alight and sent on a hurried race across a tabletop. The trail waited above him, burning in the heavens before ebbing to a spark as the star continued its trip. James had never seen its like before, but he could see where it was heading now, and he could estimate that it would land with some force on the ground, a shooting star brought down by its weight.
The star trailed across the sky in a burning streak for another three seconds...four...five...before plummeting behind a ridge where Henry could no longer see it. He continued hurrying toward it, driving his aching body on, unable to truly run in the suit of armor.
A moment later, the sound of drumming hoofbeats stopped, and James watched the overhead path of flame flicker and die, the sky just the sky once more. Behind him, his own hurried footprints sat like hammer indentations in the icy mud, the flecks of frost still batting about in the wind.
Over the ridge. James Henry was breathless now, his skin ruddy with sweat, the cold flakes of ice melting as they touched his exposed face. He stood at the crest of the ridge, sword before him, blade tip in the dirt to steady his weary body. The star waited on the other side, its body glowing yellow-gold as flames. It was smaller than he had imagined, but it was still large, the size of a farmer's cottage or a stable back home. As he looked at it, he saw that the fiery yellow was marred with blocks of black in geometric shapes, squares and oblongs, the lines perfectly straight.
The star had left a trail in the dirt, the mud turned to water in a line where it had touched down, a long streak of puddle cloudy with soil.
The camp was not far from here. A mile maybe? Not even that. The star had missed it but it had been close by the reckoning of cosmic things.
Henry drew his sword from the dirt and stepped closer, trekking down the muddy bank, walking sideways to keep his balance. Closer, the star did not look so much like a star as a pebble, smooth and oval with those black shapes drawn flat on the surface. The glow of the star was ebbing as Henry watched, its lightning color turning the rich golden of burnished brass, then darkening further as he watched until it reminded him of caramelized sugar or the crust of freshly baked bread.
Something hissed as the surface darkened and Henry watched as one of those black forms bowed out and upward, revealing a trapezoid shape in the surface of the star. The top and bottom lines of the trapezoid were parallel, but the bottom was much wider than the top. It was dark, but there was light there, too, small traces of light in colored lines.
Henry watched, knowing not what it was he was looking at. He had come to the Holy Land to secure access to Jerusalem; he did not want for bravery. But thisâthis was beyond his comprehension, a star fallen from heaven, waiting on the outskirts of his camp.
Then a figure appeared, framed in the trapezoid, which Henry realized was a doorâa door into a star. It was a man, white skinned and dressed in armor the like of which Henry had never seen. The figure had a beard like his, but where Henry's was a muddy brown the stranger's was blond as the sun's rays. The figure carried a weapon, too, though it took Henry a moment to recognize it; it looked like a sickle but it was longer and it glowed the green and gold of the ocean's surface catching sunlight.
Henry looked at the figure as it emerged from the star, a cloak billowing behind it as it stepped on Earth soil. It was then that Henry knew just what he had to do. He sank to his kneesâgraceless in the restraints of the armorâand bowed his head. Henry was a knight for Richard the Lionheart, and had willingly joined him on this pilgrimage to safeguard the Holy Land. He knew a savior when he saw one.