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Inhaltsangabe: MORTAL RIFTS
When Doc is taken captive by a band of marauders in what was once Nebraska, Ryan and the companions rally to get him back. But they aren't just fighting the local muties. They're also up against the area's terrifying terrain, which shifts and morphs at a moment's notice. With their options dwindling in this mazelike region that doesn't obey the laws of physics, the team joins forces with a beautiful and deadly woman who evens the odds on the battlefield. But while this warrior seems to be on their side, she has a secret agenda that could spell the end for them all...
THE AMERICAN NIGHTMARE
Since the nukecaust, the American dream has been reduced to a daily fight for survival. In the hellish landscape of Deathlands, few dare to dream of a better tomorrow. But Ryan Cawdor and his companions press on, driven by the need for a future less treacherous than the present.
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The blast took Ryan Cawdor and his companions by surprise, knocking everyone off their feet before they knew what had hit them.
As Ryan crashed to the ground, he twisted and gaped through the smoke for a glimpse of who or what had attacked them.
A slender mutie stood not fifty yards away, his crimson skin glinting in the blazing sunlight. He scowled at Ryan from behind the sights of a shoulder-mounted, jury-rigged gren launcher.
There was no time to shout a warning. The mutie's hand was on the firing mechanism.
Ryan swung up his Steyr Scout Tactical longblaster, which already had a round chambered. Sucking in a deep breath to steady his hand, he sighted on the mutie and squeezed the trigger.
The one-eyed man was an experienced marksman. His shooting skills had played a major role in his surviving for so long in the hellish Deathlands—all that was left of the United States after the world blew up in 2001. So he knew for a fact that as soon as he pulled the trigger he'd fired a kill shot.
Ryan felt an unsettling stillness all around him, like the calm that descended before a terrible storm. Then he experienced an odd sensation, a combination of powerful suction and expulsion all at once, equally balanced.
Suddenly, a wave of force slammed into him. His body buzzed and shivered as he hung in the wave's grip, caught like a moth in a spiderweb.
The wave held him there for a split second, then it let him go with a shock like a blow below the belt. As he gasped at the wrenching release, he saw the sun-scorched ground between him and the mutie ripple as if it was the surface of a lake.
A low hum started, building to a deep rumble that Ryan felt in his chest and bones. Then a flash of light exploded in front of him. When it faded, he saw that a tall rock wall now stood between him and the mutie.
It wasn't an optical illusion. Ryan grimaced at a puff of dust springing from the striated reddish-brown rock wall. It was kicked up by the bullet he'd fired, the one that had been frozen and unfrozen in midair on its way to the mutie.
"Fireblast!" Ryan cursed.
"What the hell? Where did that come from?" asked J. B. Dix, Ryan's longtime friend and one of his traveling companions. Known as the Armorer because of his mastery of all manner of weapons, J.B. was on the ground a few feet away. He'd been toppled by the gren blast like the rest of the team and was staying down out of the line of fire.
"Beats me." Ryan rolled over to face forward again. Fresh rounds were punching across the flat land up ahead, fired from the blasters of the muties in the trenches. For the moment, at least, the greatest danger lay in that direction.
Lining up a nearby mutie in his sights, Ryan fired his Scout, grazing the side of the enemy's head. Ryan's companions smoothly followed his lead. J.B. flung himself around on his belly and whipped up his Mini-Uzi to open fire on the nearest trench.
"Where any this come from?" Jak, an albino who spoke as few words as possible, flipped onto his knees and aimed his .357 Magnum Colt Python at another trench. "Land look solid before. No trenches." At the first sign of a mutie popping up, he cracked off a shot and the mutie's head exploded like a watermelon on a target range.
"Nice shot!" Ricky Morales scrambled up beside Jak. If he felt any aftereffects from the gren blast, he didn't show it.
Ricky swung up his De Lisle carbine and swept it left while Jak swept his Python right. Seconds later, both young men were filling the noonday air with sizzling lead and hitting mutie targets on opposite ends of the middle trench.
Mildred Wyeth and Doc Tanner chimed in soon enough, adding to the storm of blasterfire over the flats. That left only one member of the team whose blaster was silent.
That member was Krysty Wroth, Ryan Cawdor's life mate.
Quickly noticing the absence of the bark of her Glock 18C blaster, Ryan checked left, then right. There she was, twisting in the dust some twenty yards away, hands tangled in her long red hair.
"Krysty!" Ryan shouted over the cacophony of weapon fire, but she didn't seem to hear him.
Though the battle was in full swing, Mildred looked his way instantly. Following his gaze, she caught sight of Krysty.
Stuffing her .38-caliber ZKR 551 revolver into the waistband of her fatigue pants, Mildred scurried on hands and knees behind the firing line. A predark physician as well as a fighter, she was well used to putting her neck on the line to provide medical care for her teammates.
When she got to Krysty, though, Mildred saw no blood or bullet wounds, which was good…but that also meant the cause of her friend's distress was still unknown.
And it was getting worse by the minute, apparently. As Mildred reached for the side of Krysty's throat to get a pulse, the redhead swatted the physician's hand away.
"What's going on back there?" In the midst of the raging fight, Ryan kept looking over his shoulder at Krysty and Mildred. His right eye—he'd lost the left one long ago in a fight with his brother—was wide with concern for the red-haired beauty who made his life of constant struggle in the Deathlands worth living.
"I don't know yet!" Mildred yelled.
"Some form of seizure, perchance?" Doc suggested between blasts from his .44-caliber LeMat revolver. The blaster was a replica of a famous weapon from the mid to late 1800s—a time period, amazingly, that Doc called home. A man of the nineteenth century, he'd been snatched through time by a group of predark scientists. Then, when Doc had proved to be a difficult test subject, he was shunted to the future, to the Deathlands, where he'd been ever since.
Just then, a mutie's shot sliced past, close enough for Mildred to hear the hiss of its passing. Startled, she let out a surprised cry and fell back from her knees to her butt. "Keep me from getting killed, and you'll be the first to know!" she snapped.
Doc, who was on his belly like Ryan and J.B., pulled his blaster farther to the right and squeezed off a round. He wasn't the best shot of the group, but this time he winged a mutie's shoulder, sending the copper-skinned enemy screeching back into his trench.
"My dear Dr. Wyeth, I am doing my utmost to achieve exactly that desired outcome!"
"Less talk, more kill! That my desired outcome!" shouted Jak as he, too, cracked off a shot.
Ryan, meanwhile, forced himself to shut out the chaos and deepen his focus. He had to set aside his worries about Krysty and find the best way through this mess without losing his people.
The situation was pretty clear-cut, except for the apparently shifting geography. Quite simply, the day had gone sideways, as days often happened in the Deathlands.
Ryan and his companions had jumped via mat-trans to a redoubt near Ogallala, Nebraska, at the southern edge of the Sandhills. Finding the redoubt nearly stripped of supplies and transport, the companions had set out on foot, heading north in search of food. But they'd gone only a few miles when a heavily armed band of hostile muties had ambushed them.
Now the muties had Ryan and his companions pinned down; the enemy's ranks were thinning, but the companions were still outnumbered.
"J.B.!" It took all Ryan's willpower to ignore Krysty's cries and call out to the Armorer. "Let's rain down some hell on these bastards?"
J.B. grinned and unclipped a red-jacketed gren from his belt. "I like the way you think!" He tossed the bomb to Ryan, then freed up another for himself.
"Jak, Ricky," Ryan called. "You ready for an up close and personal gopher shoot?"
"You know it!" Ricky shouted.
"Enjoy flush outta holes," Jak said. "See how run."
"Move on my signal." Ryan nodded at J.B. "Count it."
"You got it."
Ryan tightened his grip on the plunger of the gren and pulled the pin with his teeth. He let loose another round from the longblaster, driving down a mutie who'd been climbing out of a trench, then rolled on his side and hauled the gren back for a big throw.
"Three!" shouted J.B., also winding up for the pitch. "Two!" He rattled off one more series of shots from the Mini-Uzi, then finished the count. "One!"
With that, Ryan wrenched his arm forward as hard as he could and released the gren. He saw it spin through the air, J.B.'s arcing alongside it.
Seconds after the two grens fell, a pair of explosions erupted in the trench, spraying rock and dirt and body parts in all directions. The ground shook, and screams pierced the air.
The barrage of blasterfire stopped, at least for a moment, and that was all the time Ryan's team needed. He gave his people the signal he'd promised, which in this case was to leap up and lead the charge himself, longblaster left behind and SIG-Sauer at the ready.
Muties in the rear trenches popped their heads up like rabbits, but it was too late. Ryan, J.B., Jak and Ricky were on them in a flash, racing through the cloud of smoke and dust from the explosion like avenging angels roaring through the gates of hell.
Each person cut loose with everything he had, determined to make the most of the opportunity. Now that they had the high ground and the run of the battlefield, they intended to end this conflict, which they'd never asked for in the first place.
Only two muties remained at the far ends of the first trench after the gren blast, throwing off wild shots among the burned and battered corpses of their dead brethren. These survivors went down in short order under Ryan's and J.B.'s blasters, screaming as their bodies spouted fountains of blood.
Meanwhile, Jak and Ricky vaulted the first trench without slowing and sprinted to the next. The two young fighters opened fire as soon as the barrels of their blasters crossed the rim, pelting the occupants with a shower of blistering slugs. More screams and spurting blood filled the air from below as half a dozen muties danced a jerky dance of death.
With the first trench quickly cleared and the second in the process of being scoured, Ryan and J.B. leapfrogged to the third. This time, though, they encountered opposition beyond the wild shots of panicked muties.
Just as Ryan and J.B. jumped the second trench, a mutie popped up from the third with a shotgun pointing in Ryan's direction. As the shotgun roared, the one-eyed man threw himself down hard, dodging the spread of buckshot; then he rolled over fast and came up on one knee with his SIG-Sauer P-226 searching for a target.
He didn't have to worry about the mutie with the shotgun, though, as J.B. was already peppering him with rounds from the Mini-Uzi. But as soon as that mutie dropped, two more popped up from the same trench…and five more from the next one back. All of them were armed with longblasters, revolvers or shotguns, and every blaster barrel was pointing in Ryan's or J.B.'s direction.
At that exact moment, Krysty let out a piercing shriek, the loudest yet.
Gritting his teeth, Ryan forced himself not to run to her side. Instead, he methodically fired rounds at the two nearest muties, driving one back underground and killing the other with a shot to the eye socket.
That gave the five in the fourth trench time to get off a series of shots—but the barrage didn't last. Fresh from clearing the second trench, Jak and Ricky moved up and added their blasters to the front line.
Together, the four companions unleashed their own barrage, forcing the five muties down; then they advanced. As J.B. took care of the single shooter left in the third trench, Ryan, Jak and Ricky hopped over it and darted to the rim of the fourth. Bullets flew up at them, preventing them from getting a clear look over the edge, so they settled for flicking out their blaster barrels and laying down fire where the shooting was happening.
As screams erupted and the blasterfire from below became sparser, Ryan, Jak and Ricky grew bolder and leaned over the rim for a better view. By then, only three of the muties were still on their feet; Ryan and Jak each picked off one, and J.B. joined the party and took out the third.
"Think we got 'em all?" J.B. threw down more rounds from the Mini-Uzi, making sure everyone in the trench was dead for real.
"Who know?" Jak swung up his Python and turned a slow circle, looking around. "This place full surprises."
For a moment, the landscape was quiet except for the soft trickle of settling dust in the bullet-riddled trenches.
Then, suddenly, Krysty let loose the loudest scream of all. It was so long and loud and full of pain, it could have been a howl released from the depths of torture or childbirth.
Ryan whirled in her direction, ready to run…and then he froze. A familiar stillness closed in around him, like the calm he'd felt before the rock wall had appeared between him and the grenade-launching mutie.
Once again, he had that feeling of something lurching out of place, followed by powerful suction and expulsion in perfect balance. When the balance broke, a wave of force shot through him, holding him paralyzed.
An instant later, the wave let him go. The release spun him and nearly bowled him over, but he stayed on his feet through sheer force of will, which meant he had a ringside seat to see what happened next. J.B., Jak and Ricky had fallen around him, but Ryan was upright and alert.
As he watched, dizzy and shaking, the ground at his feet rippled and changed. There were flashes of light, popping across the plain one after another like giant fireflies, and the trenches that held the corpses disappeared, becoming indistinguishable from the rest of the flatland.
Still, the ripples continued to flow forward, heading for the trio of human targets in the distance.
Heart pounding with urgency, Ryan ran toward them.
He saw Krysty continuing to writhe on the ground, flinging her head from side to side while Mildred tried in vain to restrain her. Doc stood over them both with his sword in one hand and the LeMat in the other, shouting something as he watched the ripples flow toward them.
Impact would come in mere seconds. Ryan ran as hard as he could, his legs pumping like pistons in the engine of a speeding wag, but he knew he wouldn't reach his friends in time.
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