How far would you go to change humanity's fate?
Jared Cartwright has spent the last two years delving into the twisted, scarred wastelands of an earth ravaged by nuclear war. The rich and powerful have taken to the oceans and skies on floating utopias, escaping destruction and leaving the rest of humanity to fend off the mutated creatures that roam the earth.
To face his new reality, Jared must become an apex predator if he hopes to survive. He must evolve beyond human limitations to confront those that left mankind to die.
Jared’s quest takes a new turn when he discovers dragons are real.
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Jared stood at the precipice of almost certain danger, the yawning black chasm simultaneously beckoning and repelling him. The last six months of exploration led him to this moment, and now he hesitated to follow through. For months he'd searched for evidence of others.
In a city this size he expected to find something. Remnants of a battle, bones picked clean by the many carnivorous creatures that roamed the area, or anything worth scavenging. However, the only evidence he'd found was a series of tags painted on the walls around the perimeter of New York City. Only one set of markings, distinct in their pattern, delved further into the streets of the once great city. It was these patterns he found himself following, stupidly assuming he'd find treasure at the end of the veritable rainbow. Except there was no leprechaun or pot of gold, only a staircase descending into utter darkness. A faded sign announced it as "Metro Tr ..."
Jared shrugged. He didn't know for certain, but he'd read about old means of transportation before the nuclear wars obliterated most of the planet.
Taut as a bowstring, his eyes and ears strained, Jared looked for any sign of predators. In a city this large, he was at the bottom of the food chain, and his only protection was his father's Colt Peacemaker, a .45 caliber revolver. In the two years since he'd left his home colony, it'd saved his life on more occasions than he could count. Absentmindedly, he reached down to finger the weapon in its holster, contemplating if he dared risk the underbelly of the city.
Six rounds ...
Agonizing over the decision, Jared flicked his gaze to the corner of his vision. A holographic outline of his body floated, where a countdown timer showing a little more than two months remaining. It represented how many nanites he had left before he needed to use an injector and replenish his stores. These microscopic machines were the only thing preventing humans from dying excruciating, radioactive deaths. He hoped the trail leading down would end at the body of whomever left all the tags, and that they had some of the life-giving injectors on them. On the other hand, it was a gamble and he had no way to know for sure without making the trip.
What should I do ...
Jared sighed and ran his hand through his hair. It was a two-month journey back home, and he wasn't sure he'd survive the trip before his body deteriorated from radiation poisoning, or some creature overpowered him when his body began to weaken.
His mind screamed at him to run the other way, but Jared ignored it and walked back to the staircase leading down. He couldn't discern the bottom even with his ability to see in the dark. Slowly, he crept down the stairs, gun at the ready. It felt like an eternity until he reached the bottom. Time became irrelevant as every minute stretched into what felt like hours. He jumped at every creak and sifting of pebbles. At the bottom, the markings pointed off into the darkness. An absolute darkness that pressed in on him. The shadows writhed at the corners of his vision. The hair on the back of his neck stood on end as cold shivers raced down his spine. The natural sunlight failed to penetrate the inky black and Jared's eyes transitioned to night vision, a by-product of nanite enhancements. It seemed that when pushed into extreme circumstances, or survival depended on something, the nanites adapted and allowed him to obtain special abilities, like night vision and the ability to survive extreme temperatures.
Just as he started relaxing, Jared heard a soft scrape and a nearly imperceptible pressure as something brushed past his head.
He flicked the safety off the Colt .45 as he threw himself to the floor. His eyes widened at the creature. A grotesque, mutated lizard clung to the ceiling, its legs coiled to spring at him. Thick, discolored saliva dripped from fangs as long as his arm, dozens of golden spider-like eyes following his movements. With no hesitation, Jared squeezed the trigger. The creature's head exploded in a shower of black ichor and bits of gray brain matter. It plummeted towards him. He shoved away from it, barely avoiding being crushed by its shiny silver body as it slammed into the concrete floor. The quick evasion did nothing to prevent the shower of blood and gore. Spluttering and spitting, he tried to eliminate the metallic tasting remnants that made it into his mouth.
Jared shook his head, the gunshot ringing in his ears. He needed to move, and fast. The gunshot might've been a homing beacon for more of these things. Desperate to put distance between himself and the disgusting creature, Jared sprinted up the tunnel following the other explorer's path. While he ran, he kept his eyes peeled, careful to watch the ceiling for more of the lizards.
Jared no longer cared about stealth or caution. He needed to find the body, recover the supplies, and get out of the city. He rounded the next corner following the markings and almost fell headlong into a large crater. He caught himself on the edge and wind-milled his arms to regain balance. His tiptoes teetered on the edge of the crater and he felt his balance shift back and forth. Finally, after a several moments of sheer terror, his balance returned, and he managed to step back from the ledge.
He'd almost fallen into a pit that looked like the site of a bomb detonation. A closer examination revealed piles of bones, refuse, and a collection of random equipment.
Tilting his head to the side and moving further from the corner, Jared tried to determine what he'd found.
It looks like — His mouth dropped open in astonishment. It's a nest.
The blood drained from his face, and he shrank against the wall, cursing himself for making this journey. Paralyzed in fear, it took him several minutes before he was calm enough to peek around the corner. The last marking he'd followed ended a couple pillars back, and he didn't see a new one. Fear coursed through him as he realized this might be the farthest his guide had made it. As if fate were playing a cruel joke on him, it was then he spotted a pair of black boots at the bottom of the nest. Jared slid to the ground and buried his face in his hands.
The explorer. I've come too far to abandon this farce now. With shaky legs, he rose and skirted the massive nest.
Psyching himself up, Jared repeated a mantra in his mind. It's just a crater, it's just a crater ... If he dwelled on the nest and what might live in it, he'd succumb to cowardice and flee.
Delicately, he picked his way through the pile of refuse, periodically stopping to extricate large bones that blocked his path. It was eerily quiet, the only sound his ragged breathing as he tried to push past the overpowering scent of rot. With each passing moment, his anxiety grew.
This is taking too long, and I don't want to be here when this thing returns!
Finally reaching the pair of worn leather boots, he started extracting bone after bone, looking for any other equipment. Several minutes later, he uncovered a tattered backpack hooked over a human ribcage. An audible gulp escaped his throat as he looked into the empty eye sockets of the skull that used to sit atop the skeleton. Holding his breath, Jared bent closer and breathed through his mouth. The smell of death and decay intensified and raised bile to the back of his throat.
Careful not to disturb the rest of the pile, Jared unhooked the straps from a cracked shoulder blade and what was left of the rib cage. He'd successfully extracted the pack and turned to leave when a strange object partially hidden by yellowing skeleton limbs caught his attention. Already in over his head, Jared looked closer, eager to find anything of value. He reached out and felt heat emanating from what looked like a large rock.
Strange, he thought.
As his fingers brushed the strange object, a jolt of electricity shot through his hand.
"Ow!" Jared grunted and snatched his hand away. "What is this thing?"
Curiosity piqued, he reached out again. When his fingers neared the object, the hair on the back of his hand stood on end. Jared snatched his hand back again and decided that he needed to bring whatever this was with him. This was by far the most unique object he'd ever come across. If it generated some kind of electricity, it could be invaluable to him during his travels. As quickly and quietly as possible, Jared slid his pack off his back, stuffed the other explorer's gear inside, and grabbed a spare shirt to wrap up the strange object. The electrified rock secured, Jared began the painful process of picking his way back across the crater to climb back up to the platform.
His trip up proved much easier, and he breathed a sigh of relief after he'd made it to the platform. No sooner had he reached it than he felt a reverberation through the ground. Thinking it was his nerves and imagination, he ignored it until he distinctly felt the vibration and with it a distant thump.
What the — Panic flooded through him. What could make the earth shake?
No way was he waiting to find out. Jared sprinted back the way he'd come. Just as he passed the decapitated corpse of the lizard, an ear-splitting roar shook his body to the core. A violent thrashing and growling erupted behind him as the unknown creature unleashed mayhem in the tunnel he'd just vacated. A moment later, a wave of intense agony assaulted his mind, causing him to stumble into the wall.
Jared glanced over his shoulder at his bag and contemplated dropping whatever it was he stole, but instead he bolted up the stairs, taking them four at a time as he sprinted up the shaft of daylight in the distance. Before he reached the halfway point, he caught sight of something lunging at him from his periphery. Ducking, another lizard-like creature soared over his head, crashing into the wall. He didn't pause, but raced up the stairs, the creature fast on his heels. Jared dove through the opening, the sun's golden rays bathing him in warmth. The split-second of euphoria didn't last as the lizard launched through the opening, landing right on top of him.
Dangit! Stupid. Idiotic.
He violently reprimanded himself for thinking these creatures confined to the underground tunnel. The lizard pinned his arm before he managed to free his Colt. The overgrown reptile snapped at his face, its shiny metallic head filled with razor-sharp teeth and fangs. Gooey, hot saliva bathed his head and obscured his vision.
Straining his muscles, Jared tried to force the creature off, but failed. It was strong, and if he didn't find some way to turn the tables, it would rip into his face.
In a desperate move, Jared slammed his feet down and thrust his pelvis upward, throwing the lizard back just enough to extricate his Colt. He angled the revolver into the body of the creature and squeezed the trigger three times before the lizard stopped moving.
Soaked to the bone in gore from both scuffles, Jared recovered quickly, picked up his pack from where it'd fallen, and sprinted for the city's edge.
The gigantic creature raged beneath the city, judging from the echoing of rock crumbling behind him. He thanked his good fortune no other creatures barred his path, and whatever he'd angered hadn't surfaced to track him yet.
His panicked flight led to his safe haven, a small room in the remnants of the Statue of Liberty. Breathing heavily, Jared dove into his hideaway beneath the melted hunk of rusting statue. When he'd first come to New York, he'd cleared out the entry and made his own barrier he could bar from the within.
Safe in his bunker, he sat back against the wall in exhaustion. He didn't know how much time passed, but from the slant of the sun's orange rays peeking in through the cracks, it neared dusk. He didn't need the light to see, but trepidations about what the night would bring made him wish for the day to last longer.
"I almost died in there," Jared muttered to himself. "This backpack better be worth the risk. There's no freaking way I'm going back into that city."
Even hours after the harrowing experience, he shook with adrenaline and fear. He could do nothing but sit there in abject terror waiting for his body to give him a moment's reprieve. Eventually, it gave way to exhaustion and pushed him into a fitful slumber.
When he woke several hours later, he could still hear distant shrieking and buildings collapsing. Thankfully, it didn't sound like it was any closer.
Rested and ready to see what treasures he'd found, Jared pulled out the explorer's pack from his own. The mysterious electrical object discarded to one side, he opened the flap on the other pack.
"Whoa," breathed Jared.
Inside lay five injectors. More than he'd even seen in one place, let alone in the possession of one person.
"I guess this explains why I didn't find anything around the city," Jared rambled to himself, his voice tinged with excitement.
Feverishly, Jared examined the rest of the contents. He found half a dozen munitions credits, a form of currency for any explorer. He could get several boxes of ammo for one credit. Up until a couple years ago, he'd reloaded his own bullets using a press his family owned. As much as he'd wanted to bring it with him, it was much too bulky to carry around in his new life.
Sometimes colonies exchanged the credits for weapons, but most often it was only ammo, as pistols and rifles became too rare to trade. The credit could also buy phase batteries, but he'd need a phase pistol for that to be useful. There was very little chance someone like him would ever hold one of the coveted weapons. A single phase pistol was more valuable than an entire armory, and very few people ever laid their eyes on one, much less claimed ownership of one.
No sense dwelling on what I'll never have, thought Jared as he pushed thoughts of phase weapons from his mind.
Besides the injectors and credits, he found a notebook with a bunch of scrawling in it and a small black ballistics case. The pages of the notebook sported dog-eared corners and stains, making many of them illegible. The scribblings made little sense to him, but he suspected it was a journal documenting the places this person had visited. One of the pages held a crude map outlining a zig zagging path through NYC. It showed which paths they'd taken, confirming Jared's suspicion that it was the same path he'd traversed.
Setting the notebook aside, he opened the black ballistics case.
"What? How?" Jared asked incredulously. There, in all its glory, was a phase pistol with two full battery packs. "Why in the world didn't this person use the weapon while they explored the city?"
His question went unanswered, but a disturbing thought crept in.
Did they have a second phase pistol? Why else would this one still be in its case? Did I leave it behind in that nest?
A pang of sadness and loss made him curse his cowardice. If he'd just spent a few more seconds, he might have two of them now.
Jared's shoulders sagged. Nothing I can do about it now.
The sadness was fleeting as he quickly switched his Colt to the other side and strapped the phase pistol to his right thigh. He didn't insert the power pack just yet. He needed to learn how to use it first. Having only seen pictures of one before, he knew little about their functionality. His future was looking up. The phase pistol alone could set him up for a life of comfort, or what approximated comfort in this destroyed world, if he chose to sell it.
For a fleeting moment, Jared thought about gaining access to the cities above, but quickly dismissed the idea. Before the war, wealthy billionaires pooled their resources to create floating islands in the oceans and skies that allowed only the elite of society to survive the nuclear fallout. The remainder of the population they considered an acceptable loss. Not everyone outside the islands died, but many of them wished they had as technological advancements became obsolete and a new dark age began. Clearly, those in power in the cities had no desire to help the rest of the world, and Jared wanted nothing to do with them.
Turning his thoughts back to the epic find, he forgot all about the strange object an arm's length away. His thoughts revolved around the countdown on his status screen and spurred him to pick up one of the nanite injectors. In his haste to extend his nanite supply, his hand brushed the side of the strange electrical rock he'd stolen, sending another jolt up his arm.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Radioactive Evolution"
Copyright © 2018 Richard Hummel.
Excerpted by permission of Hummel Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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