Authors: Craig Sargent
Stone managed to mutter, through lips that felt puffy.
“Brave words from a man who can’t move a muscle,” Patton laughed, turning to the others who joined in. Stone looked down for
the first time and saw what he was tied to. He was standing, raised up on an X-shaped wooden structure, hands and feet stretched
apart and chained to the four ends of the archaic device.
“We found this,” Patton said, reaching out and tapping the wood just below Stone’s outstretched arm. “It came from a museum
and was once used for precisely the purpose we’re going to put it to tonight.” He looked at Stone expectantly. And sure enough
the imprisoned man had to bite.
“And what purpose is that?”
“Torture, obviously,” the General replied, sweeping his hands around the aluminum framed hut. “In fact, I had this place constructed
just for you. Because I knew we’d meet again. And that was all I wanted.”
Here ahead forward suddenly and Stone’s head slammed back against the wood…
The Last Ranger
The Savage Stronghold
The Madman’s Mansion
The Rabid Brigadier
The Warlord’s Revenge
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HE SKELETONS burned like black jewels in the snow-filled air. What was left of their charred ash skin glowed with little red
shivers of dancing flame along the outer edges. Most of the flesh on the five bodies had been reduced to a charcoallike material,
similar to something found at the bottom of a campfire long after the wood had burned down. These sculptures of ash had been
set aflame from a phosphorus bomb that had fallen in their midst. Then they had been human—their screams had attested to that.
Now, after the consuming fire had bitten and chewed through all that was flammable on the human body, they were no longer
human but just mounds of shimmering ash, a form of carbon that began crumbling in the cold winds that swept across them—blowing
the black dust of what had been ears, noses, fingers, cocks, into the dawn air in small swirling jetties of human flotsam
Martin Stone walked past them, a look of profound disgust on his blood-streaked face. It was hard to tell if the dead sons
of bitches were friends or enemies, or if the concept even had meaning anymore. Everyone was his enemy as far as he could
see. Friends were enemies whom you used for a short while. And then they tried to kill you unless you got them first. It was
that simple. He hadn’t made up the fucking rules, that was for damned sure. But he knew what they were. And he’d be a fool
not to follow them.
There was a sudden crunching sound beneath his boots, and Stone looked down to see that he’d stepped through what had been
a head or a chest or some damned thing on another one of the crisp pieces of human popcorn. He yanked his foot out with a
jerk and almost jumped backward, revolted by the disintegrating piece of humanity. A whole shitload of dust followed the pull
of the leg and the black flakes and particles exploded up in his face as if a dust bomb had gone off. He was suddenly covered
in a cloud of the foul black stuff. Stone waved his hands like propellers in front of him as he rushed forward, sneezing and
coughing out the particles of the dead. After about twenty feet he seemed to be clear of the corpse storm, so he stopped,
went down on one knee, and rested. The entire experience had made him dizzy. He had just had too damned much over the last
twenty-four hours. Almost more than a man could bear.
Stone heard a snorting sound behind him and snapped his head up sharply, reaching for the .44 Magnum that hung at his side,
holster flap open, ready for quick draw and fire. But all that his eyes beheld was a bedraggled-looking dog, his pitbull Excaliber,
all ninety pounds of white-and-brown-hided cannonball sneezing and spitting up a storm as it tried to eject the foul ashes
from its nose and mouth. Somehow, though it really wasn’t funny at all, the sight made Stone laugh, and once he started laughing,
he couldn’t stop. His mouth opened and closed and opened again, and sounds came out that seemed like they weren’t even his.
Stone knew even as he laughed that he wasn’t laughing over anything funny—but over all the pain and death around him. ’Cause
if he didn’t laugh, he’d cry or end it all. And so he laughed and laughed, his lungs heaving, his eyes rimming with tears
for minutes until it hurt so bad, he could hardly breathe. Completely breathless, he stopped. The pitbull was now standing
about two feet away, resting on its back paws and staring up at the poor boy with a look of utmost concern as if he were thinking
his master had finally gone completely bananas. The dog had always been apprehensive that this might happen from the very
start. Its last master had been killed, and this one had always seemed a little edgy. So the dog growled softly beneath its
breath as if trying to exorcise the demon of laughing sickness that had taken over its numero-uno food supplier.
“Come here, you dumb dog,” Stone said at last, drying his eyes with the edge of a blood-soaked strip of material he had tied
around his arm where he had taken a bullet in the battle for Fort Bradley only hours before. The wound was still oozing, but
the constant flow of blood it had been spouting had dropped to almost nil. “Now I know why I keep you around, you mangy son
of a bitch,” Stone said. He scratched the bullterrier around the ears and noticed that the thing was absolutely coated with
blood and specks of flesh, little wounds and burns; even pieces of twisted shrapnel and twigs covered its coat. “’Cause you
make me laugh,” Stone continued, “and you’re about the only goddamn thing that does in a world that basically doesn’t have
shit to laugh about. But I’ll tell you something else, pal—you need a fucking bath. You look like shit, you know that?” The
pitbull whined and got a hangdog kind of expression. Then it raised its head up toward Stone with a skeptical glance, as if
to say, “Have you taken a look at yourself lately?”
Stone rose to his feet from his kneeling position and felt a wave of dizziness and nausea sweep through, and he almost buckled
“Come on, come on,” he said sharply to himself, gritting his teeth hard. Now wasn’t the fucking time to pass out. Not in the
middle of a battle zone where the bodies were still smoldering. He raised his head and focused on the flames that rose everywhere
around him, rose from what had been Fort Bradley, home of the New American Army, the NAA, until about six o’clock that morning.
That was until Martin Stone—accompanied by a force of motorcycle-gang killers, Mafia hitmen, mountain bandits, and general
all-around psychotic murderers under his momentary command—had attacked and, from the looks of it, pretty much done in what
had been perhaps the largest “military” base in the country —a fortified installation with nearly five hundred men, artillery,
helicopters, even a whole parking lot full of tanks. That’s what it had been, anyway. But no more. Now secondary explosions
still raged like bonfires, and spires of smoke coming from every section of the fort all joined together and rose up through
the melting snow to build a dome of orange and red that extended up half a mile into the sky.
It had been one of the hardest decisions Stone had ever made in his life—and he had had to make some damned hard ones lately.
The New American Army could have done great things for the surrounding wastelands, for the towns and roads ruled by the cutthroats
and slime who now seemed to run things in America. The NAA could have been the first real challenge to the crime lords who
ruled it all. Except for one thing—General Patton III, the man who ran it. At first Stone had been taken in by his words,
his charm, his vision of an America cleansed of the filth, restored to its former beauty and power. But then Stone had seen
deeper into the man’s plans, had heard him talk of the “extermination” of certain races and religions. Had heard him speak
of the “purification by fire that must occur.” And Stone had come to see that the man wasn’t a good man but an evil one, perhaps
one of the darkest who had ever lived. And incredibly dangerous because he was far smarter than the common crime lords, and
because he had that most dangerous of all motivations—a self-righteous cause. And Martin Stone had known that it was possible,
very possible, that the general would succeed. Then the world would see the “Pax Pattoni” that would last ten thousand years.
A peace of slaves, a peace of the dead.
Stone looked around, spat out another gob of human ash, and started forward, moving very slowly, as his senses were on full
alert for some reason. He tried to erase the image of General Patton’s eyes staring at him with pure hate. “You’re the greatest
traitor America has ever known,” Patton had said before he had tried to kill Stone. He hadn’t succeeded, but Martin Stone
had no illusions that that state of affairs was going to last very long. That would-be Führer had escaped and headed toward
one of two missile silos under his command. Silos that each contained a ten-megaton missile. Patton had vowed to take Stone
out if it was the last thing he ever did. And if Stone knew one thing about the general, it was that he kept his word. Stone
glanced up and tried to see through the thick snow that just kept dropping from the skies as if all the tears of the dead
had crystallized and an endless stream of them had waterfalled down. But it was too thick to penetrate, at least for his eyes.
Yet in his tightening guts, somehow he could feel his location being fed into a computer, could feel a missile’s electronic
brain digesting just who it was supposed to annihilate into the tiniest of glowing atoms.
Stone wasn’t even sure what the hell it was he was looking for as he moved forward, stepping over debris, as vehicles burned
on all sides of him. Perhaps a clue as to just where the hell the general had fled. There was still sporadic fighting going
on here and there in the distance, though clearly the bulk of it was over. His only hope was that Patton had left some indication
as to just where the other missile silos were. Stone knew that there were at least two, possibly three of the still functioning
underground launchpads somewhere in Colorado and Utah. The asshole would take out the whole damned state if he launched. Talk
about overkill—Patton was ready to destroy some of the most beautiful forests, lakes, and rivers that were left in the whole
country just to get one man—him. Stone wondered if he’d hurt the fellow’s feelings just a little.