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Authors: James Axler

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Perception Fault

BOOK: Perception Fault
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“Ryan!”

Heedless of his own injuries, J.B. bolted to his side, firing his Uzi through the veil of smoke. Grabbing Ryan by the legs, he dragged him back to the wall. “How bad is it?”

“Not…good. I know that much,” Ryan gritted. He brought his trembling neck muscles under control to look down at his shoulders, seeing a lot of blood and the jagged end of a bone poking up through the skin.

J.B. gingerly explored the wound. “This is going to hurt a lot.” The Armorer eased himself under his old friend’s right arm, eliciting a groan of pain from him as he gripped his hand tight to keep him in place.

When J.B. stood, Ryan nearly passed out from the agony shooting through his shoulders. The Armorer half dragged the one-eyed man forward, intent on getting clear of the underground pit and getting help for Ryan….

Other titles in the Deathlands saga:

Keepers of the Sun

Circle Thrice

Eclipse at Noon

Stoneface

Bitter Fruit

Skydark

Demons of Eden

The Mars Arena

Watersleep

Nightmare Passage

Freedom Lost

Way of the Wolf

Dark Emblem

Crucible of Time

Starfall

Encounter:

Collector’s Edition

Gemini Rising

Gaia’s Demise

Dark Reckoning

Shadow World

Pandora’s Redoubt

Rat King

Zero City

Savage Armada

Judas Strike

Shadow Fortress

Sunchild

Breakthrough

Salvation Road

Amazon Gate

Destiny’s Truth

Skydark Spawn

Damnation Road Show

Devil Riders

Bloodfire

Hellbenders

Separation

Death Hunt

Shaking Earth

Black Harvest

Vengeance Trail

Ritual Chill

Atlantis Reprise

Labyrinth

Strontium Swamp

Shatter Zone

Perdition Valley

Cannibal Moon

Sky Raider

Remember Tomorrow

Sunspot

Desert Kings

Apocalypse Unborn

Thunder Road

Plague Lords

(Empire of Xibalba Book I)

Dark Resurrection

(Empire of Xibalba Book II)

Eden’s Twilight

Desolation Crossing

Alpha Wave

Time Castaways

Prophecy

Blood Harvest

Arcadian’s Asylum

Baptism of Rage

Doom Helix

Moonfeast

Downrigger Drift

Playfair’s Axiom

Tainted Cascade

JAMES AXLER

DEATH LANDS
®

Perception Fault

Every new stroke of civilization has cost the lives of countless brave men, who have fallen defeated by the “dragon,” in their efforts to win the apples of the Hesperides, or the fleece of gold. Fallen in their efforts to overcome the old, half sordid savagery of the lower stages of creation, and win the next stage.

—D. H. Lawrence
1885–1930

THE DEATHLANDS SAGA

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.

Ryan Cawdor: The privileged son of an East Coast baron. Acquainted with betrayal from a tender age, he is a master of the hard realities.

Krysty Wroth: 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.

Jak Lauren: A true child of the wastelands, reared on adversity, loss and danger, the albino teenager is a fierce fighter and loyal friend.

Dean Cawdor: 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….

Chapter One

Crouched behind a half-ruined wall, Ryan Cawdor wiped gritty concrete dust from his tanned face, black eye patch and curly black hair. He peeked around the left side of the barrier, searching for the person with the longblaster who’d come within a couple inches of sending him on the last train west.

The day had started well enough. He and his companions had come out of a mat-trans near what they thought were the ruins of what used to be Denver, Colorado. It was an area they were fairly familiar with, since two of their group had grown up around these parts. Traveling north to check out the ville, they had reached the outskirts without incident. The quiet should have been a warning. They had just set up a campsite with an outdoor fire they’d thought was sheltered from passing eyes, and were roasting their freshly killed dinner. But as Krysty Wroth was turning the giant, heronlike bird on their makeshift spit, she had looked up with that shocked expression everyone knew all too well, sending each of the other five diving for weapons, cover or both. The first shot had cracked out a second later, and now the group was pinned down and facing an unknown force.

The ambush had been well planned and executed. But the targets the raiders had chosen weren’t farmers or traders traveling the Deathlands hawking their wares.
They weren’t even a ragtag band of mercies looking for work, their blasters available for hire to anyone who had the jack.

Ryan and his five companions had spent years roaming the length and breadth of the radiation and chem-ravaged land that had been called America long ago. They had encountered much during their journeys, from mutant animals and humanoids of every shape and size to power-hungry barons carving out their empires from the postholocaust savagery, offering refuge—of a sort—to anyone who could pay or barter for the price of admission.

The companions had met just about every variety of man, mutant or monster inhabiting this world—and had left many of them on their back, staring sightlessly at the sky while their lifeblood leaked into the dirt. Each member of the group was a master of chilling in just about every way, shape and form possible, with Ryan perhaps the best of them all—a fact these coldhearts were about to find out the hard way.

He glanced over at his old friend, J. B. Dix, who held his mini-Uzi tucked into his shoulder. The sallow-faced man was hunched down behind the same wall as Ryan, but his expression was as calm as if he were strolling through a mountain meadow in spring.

Ryan risked another peek out only to draw another bullet for his trouble, the lead slug ricocheting off the side of the wall. “See anything?”

“Not yet. They picked a good time to spring this surprise. Dusk means better cover, and they used the fire as their targeting point, neatly pinning us near it.”

“What I really want to know is how we’re going to get the drop on them.”

The short, bespectacled man adjusted the battered
fedora on his head and half turned to Ryan. “Working on it. You got a line on anyone else?”

“Krysty and Jak took cover to my right, about ten yards out. Don’t know where Mildred and Doc.”

“Mildred ended up on the other side of the street, in that falling-down house with half a second floor. That could be useful. Probably better that Doc’s taken cover. He can man the fort with me.”

Ryan wrinkled his nose as he smelled burning meat. Their untended dinner was going up in flames. “Fireblast and fuck! There goes the turkey.” Adding insult to injury, another large-caliber round cracked out, and the carcass burst apart in an explosion of half-raw meat, bone fragments and watery liquid. Ryan snarled, his growling stomach adding its own comment on the travesty that had just happened in front of him. “Now they’ve really pissed me off.”

“Sure would help if you could get a bead on where that longblaster is.”

“Dammit, I—” Ryan paused, replaying the exploding meal in his mind’s eye, particularly where the bullet had come from. The coldheart had gotten cocky—he’d started playing with them and given Ryan valuable information about his position with that last shot. “About twenty-five feet off the ground, probably third-story window or roof, mebbe one hundred yards straight ahead on the other side of this wall.”

“All right, then. They’ll be running at least two teams of two, mebbe three out to flank us while that longblaster keeps our heads down. Means some of us go hunting.”

Ryan’s lips peeled back in a wolfish grin. “I’m game. Care to fill me in on your plan?”

J.B. grinned. “We’ll outflank the flankers, you go up
the middle and take out the longblaster. Isn’t that what we’ve been discussing?”

Ryan slapped his oldest friend on the shoulder. “Trader always said never to split up your group. Half your force is—”

“Half your firepower, I know, I know. He also said, ‘Find yourself ambushed and your best chance of not buying the farm is to go forward like goose shit off a shovel. They won’t be expecting that.’”

Ryan nodded. “Just wanna make sure we don’t make the wrong choice, that’s all.”

“Since when have you ever been worried about that? Just make sure you don’t get your ticket punched today.” J.B. whistled, low yet loud. The couple on Ryan’s right, the beautiful, flame-haired Krysty and a skinny, albino teenager, Jak Lauren, glanced over. With a series of hand signals, he instructed them what to do. A pair of nods, and they disappeared around the far corner of the crumbling shop, the glass in its large windows long gone.

J.B. turned to the black woman peeking out from a gaping doorway in a building that still had its walls. He pointed up, held up two fingers, then pantomimed shooting a pistol. With a curt nod, she disappeared into the darkness.

J.B. raised his subgun so the barrel just poked over the top of the wall. “I’ll find Doc later. Get ready to move.”

Ryan had already done so, securing his Steyr SSG-70 longblaster across his back and checking the broad-bladed eighteen-inch panga sheathed on his left hip and the narrow-bladed flensing knife at his belt before crouch-walking to the far end of the wall, poised for flight. His right hand was filled with his Sig
Sauer P-226 pistol with its integral silencer, the perfect weapon for close-quarter urban hunting—if the sound suppressor worked—which it often didn’t. “Ready when you are.”

J.B. squeezed his mini-Uzi’s trigger three times, sending short bursts in the direction of the sniper. Ryan would have bet that the man known as the Armorer had come close to hitting the building the sniper was holed up in, just by using the brief description of where the last shot had come from.

However, that was of little consequence, since the moment J.B. fired, Ryan had burst from cover to reach the nearest building. Even as he ran, he heard the louder boom of the longblaster in the distance and felt something pluck at his sleeve as he ran to a large pile of debris topped with a still-intact roof.

Taking a moment to get his breath and bearings, the one-eyed man peeked underneath the roof to find a narrow passageway running down its entire length—the perfect hidey-hole for what he needed to do. Dropping to his knees, he peered inside. The tunnel appeared empty in the dim light. Nevertheless, he drew his thin-bladed flensing knife and placed it between his teeth before crawling into the hole, not wanting to be surprised by any occupants that might be resting inside.

 

A
S A CHILD
, J.B.
HAD ONCE SEEN
a working targeting comp that an outlander tinker had managed to get working. Attached to a car battery, it had been able to calculate the trajectory, azimuth and range of something called an M110 self-propelled howitzer to hit targets up to four miles away.

J.B. had been fascinated by the blinking display, ignoring the adults’ pointed questions about where the
man had gotten the device and how he’d managed to figure out how it worked. He was simply captivated by the complete and utter accuracy of the machine, no emotion, just simple math and logic used in its calculations to place the bomb where it was supposed to go.

Now, some thirty-odd years later, if anyone had said his own mind worked much like that targeting comp, he would have regarded them with a long, flat stare.

The Armorer had already narrowed down what kind of longblaster they were facing—
hunting gun, perhaps
Remington
bolt-action, .308 caliber
—and taken his measure of the person behind the sights. The coldheart was calm, picked his shots well. From Ryan’s estimates, he’d triangulated where the coldheart was, and had aimed high to allow the bursts from his mini-Uzi a chance to arc into the building. A long shot, to be sure, but he had faced death so many times he’d lost count of how often he thought he might have glimpsed the shadow of the conductor waiting to take him aboard the last train to the coast. He fully expected this to be one of those times, as well.

A muffled knock on the wall let him know Mildred was in position. Thinking about the stocky, opinionated predark black woman and the relationship they shared caused the corners of his mouth to twitch up in what might have been a smile, flicking across his face before it vanished again as he turned to the task at hand—providing a very noticeable target without actually getting himself shot.

Readying the mini-Uzi again, he fired two single shots, hoping to make the approaching coldhearts think he was running low on ammo. That was only one of the surprises he had in store for any attackers who had
the misfortune to stumble across him in the gathering darkness.

He gripped the mini-Uzi tightly and squeezed off two more shots. Knowing exactly how many shots were left in the magazine, J.B. pressed the trigger once, then again, hearing the loud click as the firing pin fell on an empty chamber, and pulled the trigger twice more, wincing at the potential damage the pin might be suffering as he did so. He heard the crackle of the fire and the oily hiss of the shattered bird carcass as it crisped in the flames, but J.B.’s ears were focused on the sounds coming from outside the firelight—the scrape of a boot on concrete, the clink of metal on metal as the leftmost team snuck closer to try to get the drop on their targets. With him on one side and Mildred on the other, it was a perfect situation to take them out in a lethal cross fire.

The soft snick of a full magazine slotting into the mini-Uzi’s handle made J.B. look down. Almost of their own accord, his hands had removed the subgun’s empty stick mag and replaced it with a full one from the pocket of his jacket while he’d been listening to their enemies approach. Slowly drawing the cocking handle back, he set the weapon beside him and picked up the second surprise he was going to spring on the raiders. They just had to come a few steps closer….

He was just about to roll out and spray lethal lead when a loud stage whisper carried across the campsite to his ears. “John Barrymore, is that you?”

Dark night! he thought as the movement on the other side of the wall stopped.
Doc, you triple-stupe, sometimes you’re more trouble than you’re worth.

Before he could alter his plan, J.B. heard running footsteps from behind him, and then a gruff voice calling out, “Move an’ yer dead, old man!”

 

H
AIR TIGHTLY COILED AT HER
nape, Krysty Wroth moved through the twilight like a panther tracking its prey—swift, intelligent, remorseless. They were out here somewhere, and she was going to find them and put them on the ground before they did the same to her and her friends. The titian-haired beauty’s S&W blaster was at her side, held low but ready to fire at a moment’s notice. Her hand-tooled blue cowboy boots clicked on debris as she picked her way through what had been an abandoned store, the once spotless and level tile floor now buckled and slanting, covered with dust, dirt and fragments of glass from its shattered windows.

She knew Jak was advancing parallel with her a few paces to her right, his snow-white hair only somewhat muted in the night. She’d suggested that he cover it more than once, but the albino teen had refused, saying he didn’t like wearing anything on his head, even though she had seen him wear an old army cap on at least one occasion. She didn’t argue, however—if it made him a more likely target to their enemies, so be it. Besides, she knew he could take care of himself, with or without a blaster.

J.B.’s instructions had been clear—
advance under cover and find a place to ambush attackers
—and she intended to follow them to the letter. She knew it was risky, but she trusted the small man almost as much as she trusted Ryan, and knew he wouldn’t have placed them here if there was no chance of getting the job done.

A long counter that ran across the room was also warped and collapsing. Behind it was a space where someone had waited on customers long ago, selling whatever goods they had, and another set of counters that lined the back wall. They looked sturdy enough,
however, and Krysty would be able to crouch under the window set several feet up on the wall, even using it as a blaster port if necessary.

She hissed at Jak, who had prowled to the gaping back door, making not a whisper of noise as he’d crept through the room. At her signal, he squatted in the shadow next to the opening, his big .357 Magnum Colt Python almost dwarfing his hands. Krysty held up her closed fist, the signal to stay where he was, then pointed to the window. Jak shrugged, watching her lithe form as she climbed up on the shelf, which creaked a bit under her weight, but held. Standing next to the opening, she cautiously leaned out far enough to get a view of the shattered street outside. Nothing seemed to be moving. Where the hell are they? she wondered.

“Bored. Let’s go.” Jak’s whisper made her start, since it came from only a few feet away. She turned just far enough to see his pale face gleam in the rising moon. He was trying very hard not to stare at her ass, currently uncovered by her shaggy bearskin coat, which she had left near the fire.

She shook her head. “We let them come to us, remember?”

The albino teen shook his head. “Too long. Die waitin’ fuckers to come.”

Krysty took one last look outside—still no one there. She knew they couldn’t have passed the pair—there was no way they wouldn’t have seen the coldhearts. “All right. Get back to the door, and we’ll go to the next building. Wait for me there.”

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