Tim Waggoner: The Last Mile

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Tim Waggoner The Last Mile
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    The Last Mile
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The Last Mile: краткое содержание, описание и аннотация

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All Dan wanted was to be a good husband and father, to provide for his wife and daughter, to keep them fed, warm, and safe. But then the malevolent godlike beings called the Masters arrived, and their darkness spread across the world, reshaping it into a twisted realm of savagery and madness. In exchange for his family’s protection, Dan now serves one of these alien gods, obtaining human sacrifices to feed his Master’s eternal hunger. Like so many people since the world changed, Alice has had to do unspeakable things to survive. Unfortunately for her, she’s Dan’s choice for his next sacrifice. Now Dan drives along the shattered remnants of an old-world highway, headed for his Master’s lair, Alice bound hand and foot in the backseat of his car. Dan may not like what he’s become, but he’ll do whatever it takes to protect his loved ones. Alice doesn’t intend to relinquish her life so easily, though, and she plans to escape, no matter the cost. But in the World After, everything—animals, plants, even the land itself—has become a predator, and the journey to the Master’s lair is an almost guaranteed suicide run. But Dan won’t give up, and he won’t stop fighting. Not until he makes it through the Last Mile.

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Tim Waggoner


This one’s for Sutter Cane

Dan gripped the steering wheel tighter as his ancient Oldsmobile juddered across cracked and broken asphalt. He knew he should slow down, but considering what he carried in the backseat, he couldn’t afford to. There were far too many hungry things out here who’d kill—or worse—steal his prize.

C’mon, baby, just hold together for one more run… please…

It wasn’t a prayer, not exactly. Like everyone else in the World After, Dan knew there was no use in praying. If you wanted any special favors, you had to sacrifice to get them. The brand on his forehead—the scarred flesh swollen and feverish—was ample reminder of that. The heat blazing from his thrall-mark was growing more intolerable by the moment, and he gritted his teeth against the pain of his Master’s summons.

I’m on my way! Dan had no idea if his Master could hear his thoughts, especially from this distance, but the pain didn’t lessen. He knew it wouldn’t, not until he’d made his delivery. Good thing that his thoughts weren’t heard, he decided. Drawing attention to himself would probably just get him more pain as a goad to travel faster.

The road he sped along used to be Interstate 75, a major highway running through southwest Ohio, but now most people referred to it simply as the Way. Since the Masters’ arrival, the surface had become warped, the asphalt shot through with fissures. Jagged chunks of road stuck up at odd angles, and large subsidences were all-too-common hazards. Thick stalklike weeds sprouted between the cracks: ugly, distorted things, crimson thorns protruding from rough tree-bark surfaces, barbs dripping poisonous slime. Despite the speed with which he drove, the thorn-stalks managed to sway out of the path of his car, moving aside or bending down so he could drive over them. And those stalks that couldn’t get out of the way of his tires withdrew into the cracks from which they’d sprung, rising once more after he’d passed. While the thorn-stalks were by no means the worst things inhabiting the World After, Dan hated the sinuous, serpentine way they moved, and no matter how many runs he made, he didn’t think he’d ever get used to the damn things.

Though thorn-stalks grew thick on the highway, the land on either side was completely barren, the ground smooth and sickly gray, as if all life had been leeched from it. But Dan knew there was life out there—at least what passed for life in the World After—lying hidden, waiting for anyone foolish enough to come here in the first place and suicidal enough to leave the meager protection offered by the Way. If Dan were to stop the Olds, park, and step out of his vehicle here, even his thrall-mark might not be enough to save him. That’s why he traveled prepared: a 9mm, a large hunting knife, and a machete lay within easy reach on the passenger seat. He used to have a shotgun, too, but he’d lost it during his last run, and as punishment for his carelessness, his Master hadn’t allowed him to replace it yet. As punishments went in the World After, Dan thought he’d gotten off light.

The sky was filled with a sour yellow haze, like fog but not quite. Dan had once read about the pollution that choked cities during the beginning of the Industrial Revolution in the late 1800s. He imagined it would have looked something like this sky—a perpetual haze that was always the same, without any variance to mark the difference between day and night. If, indeed, there was any now.

The outside air was cold, and though Dan drove with the windows up, the Olds’ heater hadn’t worked for years, even before the Masters’ arrival, and the inside of the car was chilly. But that was good: the cold helped keep him awake and alert. He hoped it would stay like this. The temperature in the World After could vary wildly at times, going from freezing to sweltering in the blink of an eye. He much preferred making a run in the cold than in the heat. The thorn-stalks grew more aggressive when it was warm, and Dan had heard stories from other thralls that, when it was really hot out, the plant creatures became frenzied and tried to puncture car tires. Dan didn’t know if the tales were true—if such attacks took place, no one had ever survived to confirm them—but he’d rather not find out for himself.

A soft moan came from the backseat, startling him. He glanced over his shoulder, and through the chicken-wire mesh that he’d erected as a barrier between the front and back seats, he saw that the girl was beginning to stir. Great. He hated it when they woke up. Making a run was hard enough without having to keep an eye on a passenger, and delivering them to his Master was far easier when he didn’t have to look them in the eye. Last time…

He turned forward to face the road once more. If he was lucky, maybe she’d lapse back into unconsciousness. But he knew he couldn’t count on luck. No one could, not anymore.

* * *

Alice was first aware of a terrible throbbing in her head, made all the worse by being jostled around. A moan escaped her lips, and she tried to retreat into the comforting darkness where there was no pain, no awareness, no anything. But despite her efforts—or perhaps in a perverse way, because of them—she found herself becoming increasingly awake. She didn’t want to open her eyes, because if she did, then she would be forced to acknowledge her surroundings, and in turn she would have to deal with whatever had happened to her. Whatever had occurred, it was undoubtedly bad, and considering just how bad things could get in the World After, she’d prefer to remain unconscious.

She opened her eyes anyway.

She saw a ceiling, a dome light, and realized she was lying on the backseat of a car. A moving car, which explained the jostling. She tried to push herself into a sitting position, but she couldn’t move her arms. She raised her head—setting off a fresh wave of pain behind her eyes—and saw that her wrists were bound with duct tape. Her knees were up so she couldn’t see her feet, but it took her only a second to try and move them, confirming that her ankles were likewise bound. She felt panic surge in her chest, and before she could stop herself, she drew in a gasping breath.

“Guess you’re awake, huh?”

The man didn’t turn around to look at her. His voice was calm, devoid of emotion, but that was nothing special. Everyone sounded like that these days. All she could see through the chicken-wire barrier was shaggy black hair spilling onto the shoulders of a brown leather jacket. She couldn’t tell how old the man was, but there was a bit of gray mixed in with the black, and she guessed he was in his late thirties to mid-forties. She had no idea who he was, nor how she’d gotten here, but she’d bet it had something to do with the pain throbbing in her skull.

A memory flashed through her mind then: standing in an alley, rooting through a trash can, searching for scraps of anything that resembled food. The trash offered slim pickings—people didn’t throw much away anymore—but she’d managed to find an apple core with a little bit of fruit left on it. She was just bringing the rotting treasure to her mouth when she heard the scrape of a shoe behind her. Before she could react, she’d been struck on the back of the head by something hard: a gun butt or knife handle, she guessed. Light exploded behind her eyes, followed by darkness.

That’s when he took me, she thought. Damn it, if I’d only been faster!

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