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«Ice and Fire», James Axler

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"Pro captu lectoris habent sua fata libelli," said Terentianus Maurus, around A.D 200. This is particularly true if the reader is my line editor, Cathy Haddad. This book is for her, with thanks for her always positive and friendly support.

This ae nighte, this ae nighte, every nighte and alle, Fire and sleet and candle-lighte, and Christe receive thy soule.

From the medieval ballad, "The Lyke-Wake Dirge"

Chapter One

Ryan Cawdor's fingers flexed, brushing against the polished metal floor of the mat-trans chamber. He was still struggling back from the dark depths of unconsciousness. The tip of his right index finger touched something sticky and warm, a little below body temperature. The finger moved a crabbing inch farther, investigating the substance.

Ryan's one good eye blinked open for a moment, looking down at his hand.

"Blood," he said.

Blood it was — a dark pool of it, nearly eighteen inches across, crusting at the edges. Ryan touched again, checking that he was conscious, feeling the too-familiar stickiness.

The chamber still smelled flat and bitter from the gases released during the jump, and the metal disks in floor and ceiling were creaking faintly as they cooled down.

The armaglass walls were a pallid, translucent gray color. The gateway that they'd just left had been walled in a deep, brilliant turquoise. Ryan remembered that, remembered it because it had reminded him so much of the Indian jewelry of the far Southwest.

He closed his eye again and took slow deep breaths, trying to speed his recovery. The jumps always scrambled everyone's brains, making them feel as if the contents of their skulls had been drained, freeze-dried, sandblasted and then returned. While Ryan had been out, his head had slumped and the patch over the blind socket of his left eye had become uncomfortable. He lifted a hand and adjusted it, opened his right eye and tried once more to focus on the crimson puddle.

Blood meant that someone was bleeding — Ryan could deduce that much, despite the mind tremor of a gateway jump. He blinked and followed the blood to its source.

"Fireblast," he sighed.

Doc Tanner had suffered one of his sporadic nosebleeds during the period of blackout. Blood ran from his hawkish nose, through his grizzled stubble, down the furrows of his chin. It dribbled across his neck and over his stained blue denim shirt, pattering in an uncertain trickle onto the floor.

Trying to collect his thoughts, Ryan looked around the hexagonal room. Despite the bleeding nose, Doc seemed to be all right.

Doctor Theophilus Algernon Tanner looked to be around sixty years old. By one measure of time he was only about thirty. By another kind of temporal yardstick he was somewhere close to two hundred and twenty-eight.

During the 1990s — eight or nine years before the skies had darkened with missiles and the civilized world disappeared forever, American scientists were working on different aspects of a top-secret program, under the umbrella name of the Totality Concept. The aspect that affected the life of Doc Tanner was a part of Overproject Whisper, called the Cerberus Project.

The hidden gateways — mat-trans chambers — were in closely guarded fortresses or redoubts, which were scattered across North America.

But they didn't just transport a man in a flicker of frozen time from place to place. The scientists believed they could also be used to breach the last barrier. Time. And in that misguided belief, they experimented in trawling a human being from the past.

The failures were many, and horrifying. The one partial success was Doc Tanner.

Married with two young children, Doc had been a respected man of science, in the year of Our Lord 1896...

Ryan's reminiscence was checked as the old man coughed, spluttered and wiped a gnarled hand over his chin, bringing it away smeared with blood.

November, two hundred years ago: the young scientist had been tugged forward through time to become the prize guinea pig in Project Cerberus. But Doc had never been the sort of person to sit quiet. After a number of combative years he became so troublesome that the faceless men had a choice. Terminate him with extreme rectitude or chron-jump him again. So Doc had been flung a hundred years into the future. A few weeks later all of the scientists he had left behind perished in the rad blasts of the last world war.

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