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L.A. Larkin, Thirst

Posted April 29, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

Today's freebie comes courtesy of Louisa Larkin, whose antarctic thriller, Thirst, I've been meaning to run here for a while. It's a longer than usual freebie, about 3000 words, so you might want to save it for a bus trip or a lunchtime read. It proves conclusively, I think, that girls can do splodey. The chilly feel of the descriptive passages comes from the trip she took to Antarctica to research this bad boy. That's right. To the south fucking pole.

Makes my Google Earth efforts like a bit shoddy.

Anyway, long story short, somebody is killing off the members of Australia's research station down there. I suspect villainy.

Like the laptop in front of him, Luke Searle was finally in sleep mode, slumped forward over the desk. His head of disheveled hair rested on his crossed arms. Outside, it was minus forty one degrees Celsius. Antarctica’s howling katabatic winds swept icy spindrift across the glacier and battered the exterior walls of Hope Station. Luke had tried everything he could think of to get the phone, radio and internet to work, but with no success. He was a glaciologist, not a comms officer. But after Mac’s and Dave’s sudden deaths, Luke was their only hope of contacting the outside world. He knew there had to be a way of rebooting the whole system and reloading the IOS images program, but he couldn’t find it anywhere on the server. And he couldn’t find the back-up discs either. Eventually, exhaustion had claimed him.

But his sleep was sporadic. He’d woken twice from the same nightmare: Mac was calling his name, over and over from inside the crevasse. Mac’s arms were raised towards Luke, begging for help, as Luke stretched over the lip of the fissure, desperately trying to reach him. But Luke was too far away. He thrashed about but couldn’t get any closer.

Luke woke up with a start to find he had knocked over his empty coffee mug. Luke squinted at the bright lights overhead, rubbed his eyes and checked the time: 2:43 am. The station was silent except for the low thrum of the generators and the rhythmic snoring of its occupants. Craig’s was the loudest. Even with his bedroom door shut his guttural gruntings resounded through the living quarters like a sow at feeding time.

Normally this would have made Luke smile, but not tonight. He yawned and resumed his search for IOS images on Mac’s laptop, until his eyelids gradually closed and he fell asleep again. Something hit the outside of the sleeping quarters but the sixty-centimetre-thick aluminium walls, filled with polystyrene insulation, absorbed the sound. No-one inside heard it.

Minutes later, Luke coughed in his sleep. He coughed again, this time more violently, and awoke. Where was he? His eyes stung and he was surrounded by a haze. He breathed in and it made him choke. He shot his hand out and hit the laptop which lit up like a Christmas tree. Yes, the communications room. But why no power except for the equipment still running on batteries?

A scream that sounded like an animal being torn apart pierced his eardrums. He stood so fast the chair toppled backwards. Fire. The station was on fire. Their worst nightmare. Luke had no idea who that scream came from but it was excruciating. A man’s voice. He realised it had to be Tubs, Craig or Blue.

Luke opened the door and was met by dense, acrid smoke. The emergency floor lighting provided a dull glow. At the end of the corridor the door to Craig’s room was a hole surrounded by a circle of flames. Luke ran to the bathroom, seized a towel and turned on the shower tap. The nozzle only dribbled. Why wasn’t there water? The towel was damp, but not enough. He threw it into a shower cubicle to mop up whatever moisture was left.

With a wet towel over his head and arms, he approached the archway of fire that was the entrance to Craig’s room. Above the doorway the roof was alight with golden waves that appeared to flow into the smoke filled room. Backdraft, Luke realised. When Craig had opened his door to escape, the flames had been sucked into the vacuum. Luke ducked low and charged in.

Craig was rolling on the floor, his hair and clothes alight. Despite the thick smoke Luke saw that Craig’s face was red-raw with burns, waxy and ghoulish. Luke threw the towel over him to starve the flames of oxygen. Craig stopped moving. Luke coughed as the smoke burned his lungs.

He pulled the towel away. Craig’s face had melted and not a hair on his head, beard or eyebrows remained. His hands were like gnarled claws, twisted in agony, the skin bubbling. The poor man moaned and then was still. Luke touched the raw flesh of his neck to check for a pulse but there wasn’t one. Luke stepped back, then, horrified, he noticed his hands were covered with bits of Craig’s skin.

‘Luke!’ A voice called, hoarse and unrecognisable.

Luke felt light-headed and confused. A flaming piece of timber from the ceiling collapsed, landing an arm’s length from him. Adrenalin and panic fought for supremacy of his body. The heat felt as though it was singeing his skin through his clothing. The towel was now useless, so he picked up Craig’s desk chair and held it over his head as he ran through the doorway.

In the corridor, Luke dropped the smouldering chair. Tubs – the station chef - had the fire extinguisher and was spraying dry powder onto the flaming walls. He only had on his candy-striped thermals – he’d been sleeping in them – and, incongruously, his expedition boots. It had been drilled into them that in an emergency they had to put on their boots. They couldn’t walk outside without them.

‘The others?’ Luke shouted.

‘Exit 1,’ Tubs spluttered. ‘Craig?’

‘Dead.’

Luke’s eyes were streaming caustic tears and he could barely see. Tubs stopped his useless attempts to quell the fire and the two stumbled down the corridor towards the exit. As they passed the kitchen another part of the ceiling collapsed behind them. The cold night air was sucked in, further fuelling the flames. They turned a corner to see Blue – the doctor - in shorts and an open parka hurl himself at the door. It didn’t budge. Sue, dressed in pink brushed cotton pyjamas and hiking boots, was kicking at it. ‘It won’t budge,’ yelled Blue above the roar of the flames.

‘Maddie?’ coughed Luke.

‘Went to check Exit 2,’ shouted Blue.

‘Shit!’ said Luke glancing back down the burning corridor. His station leader had guts.

‘The door, Luke!’ screamed Sue, her round face creased with fear. Luke shook his head. How could it be jammed? Tubs had shoveled away the snow yesterday. Luke threw the full force of his weight into the door. Fit and strong, his broad shoulders had no impact. And again. The door creaked but didn’t budge. Tubs tried to ram it open with the fire extinguisher but it held tight.

‘Exit 2?’ gasped Blue.

Luke nodded and they ran, crouching low to avoid the suffocating smoke and flames. Why wasn’t the ventilation working? They stepped around burning debris. The heat was unbearable but Luke knew the smoke would kill them first. They reached the first internal fire door and shut it behind them. This would give them ninety minutes, as long as the fire was only at one end of the station.

Sue fell to her knees. She couldn’t breathe. The smoke was everywhere. Luke pulled her to her feet and held her up. He had never realised how short she was till then, having always thought of her as one of the lads. He now realised how her personality had made her seem larger than life.

‘Get to Exit 2 and look out for Maddie,’ said Luke, wheezing. He dragged Sue past the mess and the kitchen, towards the laboratories. ‘Maddie,’ he tried to shout, but his voice was strangled and weak.

The further they stumbled towards Exit 2, the thicker the smoke became. Not good, thought Luke. Like an apparition, Maddie stumbled through the smoky darkness towards them.

She fell to her knees, gasping for breath. ‘Both exits are blocked,’ Maddie said, her freckled face smudged with grime. ‘Fire’s coming from both directions.’ She was wearing the same clothes as last night. She must have fallen asleep fully dressed. ‘I was about to … try the lift.’

‘Power’s out,’ Sue croaked .

‘Break a window?’ Luke said.

‘Triple glazed. Take… too long,’ Maddie coughed.

Luke’s mind worked with hang-over like slowness and his lungs felt as if they were being torn to shreds. He peered into an inferno of flames coming at them in a pincer movement.

‘Lift shaft!’ he said. ‘Follow me.’

They moved deeper into the stinging smoke like drunks, tripping and falling. Luke shut another fire door but the conflagration seemed to be all around them. At the lift, Maddie leaned against the wall, unable to stand.

‘The ladder,’ Luke said as he tried to open the maintenance door to the lift shaft. It was locked and the key was in Maddie’s office on the other side of the corridor fire door. ‘It’s locked - I’ll get a knife. The kitchen.’

Blue grabbed his arm. ‘I’ll go. You’ll need to carry Sue - I can’t,’ he said, nodding at Sue who lay semi-conscious on the floor. Blue lurched back down the corridor in the direction of the kitchen.

‘Lie low,’ Maddie directed them, ‘Avoid the smoke.’

Before anyone could respond an explosion shook the whole station, throwing them to the floor. It tore at their eardrums. Debris hurtled through the air. Luke felt something hit him in the back and bounce off. Ting, thwack, crack, as metal, wood and glass fell around them. The heat felt like a blowtorch. Maddie shrieked. Luke looked up and could see she was hugging her left calf.

Disoriented, Luke’s balance was shot to pieces. Tiny shards of glass were embedded in his hands. What had exploded? What in God’s name was going on? The fireball had come from the direction of the kitchen but Luke didn’t want to believe Blue must be dead. Tubs had been thrown against the wall and lay winded.

Maddie sat up, hands trembling as she stared in shock at the triangular piece of metal protruding from the side of her leg. Sue stared blankly at Luke, her mouth opening and closing like a ventriloquist’s doll. She was impaled on a length of steel pipe.

‘God, no,’ said Luke crawling on all fours.

Sue tried to say something, then her mouth stopped moving. He couldn’t find any pulse and for a moment he felt completely overwhelmed. His head dropped forward onto his chest. Tubs was now sitting up, stunned. He touched his face and stared at his bloody hands like a child fascinated by a strange new toy.

‘Luke,’ pleaded Maddie. He stared at her, his face blank, uncomprehending. ‘Luke!’ she said, louder this time. ‘Help me!’ He moved at last and knelt at her side.

‘Get it out!’ she screamed, holding her leg and rocking backwards and forwards in excruciating pain.

‘Not now,’ he gasped. ‘You have to stand. Come on! There could be another explosion.’

‘You fucking bastard.’ she screamed. ‘Get it out!’

The encroaching smoke was getting thicker, as though moving in on cornered prey. Luke smelt diesel and petrol and his alarm increased. On his knees, barely able to see through tears thick with soot and grime, he searched for another piece of metal, feeling his way through the detritus. His hand landed on one and he stood weakly, almost collapsing into the lift maintenance door. He forced the piece of metal into the gap between the door and the wall and using brute force, broke the lock. The door swung open.

Unsteadily, Luke peered down the lift shaft. The air inside was pretty clear and the ladder was still there. Their first bit of luck. ‘Tubs, snap out of it. Help me lift Maddie.’

Coming out of his stupor, Tubs helped Luke. They placed their hands underneath her armpits and pulled her up. She leaned against the wall.

‘Can you climb down the ladder?’ Luke asked her.

‘I’ll have to,’ Maddie managed to say. ‘We can’t leave Sue.’

‘She’s dead, Maddie.’ He coughed. ‘So is Blue.’

She looked back at the source of the explosion and nodded.

‘I’ll go first,’ Luke said, ‘so if you slip, I’ll catch you. Tubs, you go last, and shut the door behind you, for God’s sake. Keep the smoke out.’

Tubs choked out a ‘Got it.’

Luke started his descent, relishing the clearer air in the lift shaft. Maddie took her first step down the ladder, using her stronger leg first. One way or another, her wounded leg had to bear her weight, but it was clearly agony as the metal dug into her muscle. She groaned with each step.

‘You’re doing well. Just a little bit further,’ Luke called up to her. The thought flashed though his mind that Craig had built the ladder, but wasn’t with them. He pushed it away: they weren’t safe yet and they’d need to break through the maintenance door at the bottom of the lift shaft. Luke looked down at the bare steel roof of the lift, stationary at the garage level. The gap between the cage and the shaft walls was just wide enough for one person. Luke reached the bottom rung.

‘Hang on while I get this door open,’ he called up.

Maddie’s trouser leg was soaked with blood. She clung to the ladder, gulping air as she rested her weight on her good leg.

Luke leaned his back against the lift cage and kicked at the shaft door. It opened easily as it was designed to open outwards. What greeted Luke took his breath away. He’d hoped the garage was free of fire, but the wooden storage containers in the corner were burning, as was the snow tractor. The flames were dangerously near the snowmobiles.

‘Hurry!’ he yelled. ‘Get down here!’ Fearing more explosions, the panic in his voice brought the limping Maddie and then Tubs quickly to his side.

Luke knew the sound of gunfire, but it was so totally unexpected that he was slow to react. No Antarctic station had weapons and military action was banned. As a bullet fizzed past his right ear he grabbed Maddie and they plunged to the ground.

Tubs hit the floor with a thud. ‘Jesus! I’m shot. I’m bloody well shot,’ he screamed, clutching his chest.

The gunfire started again. It was coming from somewhere near the main garage doors.

‘The snowmobiles,’ whispered Maddie.

The keys were still in them. The quad bikes were further away and even if they had been able to cope with soft snow – which they couldn’t - their tyres were on fire. It had to be the snowmobiles. Through the thick, foul smoke, Luke tried to locate the shelf under the workbench where he stashed his tools. He couldn’t help but glance momentarily at the two white body bags containing Mac and Dave, raised above the flames as if on a funeral pyre.

‘Can you drive?’ he asked Maddie.

She nodded, clutching her leg.

‘Gotta get into the work overalls, otherwise we’ll die of cold,’ he said, nodding to where the bright yellow, all-in-one waterproof freezer suits hung on hooks. They were used by all maintenance staff for outdoors work and were fleece lined for warmth. Tubs, in particular, who was only in his thermals, had no hope of survival without them.

For a moment Luke was wryly thankful for the smoke that was their only protection from the gunman. ‘Wait here,’ he said and crawled on his belly across the floor to the freezer suits. Above the crackle of the flames, Luke heard radio chatter - it wasn’t in English. He reached the legs of the first overall and, still prone, he tugged at the material. But the all-in-one suit stayed on the hook. He yanked harder and the loop of material at the collar tore free. Luke did the same with two more, then bundled them under his arms and crawled back to Tubs and Maddie.

Bullets zinged over Luke, the shooter unable to see his target. Tubs was lying on his side, his grey thermal top soaked with dark blood seeping through his fingers.

Luke paused, horrified, then pulled himself together. ‘This’ll hurt, I’m sorry’ he said, pushing Tub’s legs into the overalls and then rolling him from side to side as he pulled it up. Tubs gagged with the pain.

Maddie tore at the waterproof material with her teeth, yanking apart the stitching on the left leg so she could get both the shrapnel and her leg inside. She struggled into her suit, using her hands to force her wounded leg inside.

‘Follow me,’ Luke said to Maddie. He looked at Tubs. ‘Mate, when I bring the snowmobile near you, you gotta get on, okay? Can you get up?’ Tubs nodded, the bloody stain now hidden by his yellow suit.

Luke crawled along the floor, followed by Maddie. He grabbed a hammer and threw it at one of the metal storage containers at the other end of the garage. The gunman opened fire at the container and Luke scuttled towards the snowmobiles hoping to reach the furthest one with the full tank, but the gunfire turned in their direction. He jumped on Mac’s snowmobile and Maddie took Dave’s.

Luke sped off and, leaning over, pulled Tubs onto the seat behind him. Tubs yelped in agony. Then briefly checking Maddie was okay, he charged for the open garage doors and the source of the gunfire. It was suicidal but he had no choice. He heard shouting outside, angry, sharp. Luke burst out of the garage, followed by Maddie, and began driving in a zigzag, which Maddie mimicked. Without goggles, the raw polar air tore at his eyes. They needed headlights but Luke knew that would make them an easy target. As they careened into the darkness, the shooting began again, this time from several directions. Luke glanced back and saw the silhouette of a man firing at them. Behind him, the station was burning in startling oranges and reds.

‘Stop,’ panted Tubs, slouching forward.

‘We can’t stop,’ called Luke over his shoulder. He could just make out Maddie, accelerating ahead. He called out, but she didn’t hear so he gunned the engine to catch up. He waved at her to get her attention and she slowed.

‘Go to the fire hut - emergency supplies,’ she shouted.

Luke made a cutting motion at his throat and they stopped. ‘Too close,’ he said. ‘They’ll find us.’

‘Where?’ she asked in desperation.

‘The Zodiac,’ he replied. They had no other options. With their station destroyed and the emergency hut out of bounds, their only hope was to escape in their inflatable boat. How they would stay alive after that, Luke had no idea.

‘No,’ she said, ‘We need shelter - Mac’s hut.’

Of course. Built a few months ago, it wasn’t on the plans or any map. It was on a pebbly beach they’d christened ‘the Nest’ because of all the Adelie penguin nesting sites in the area. It wasn’t far from where they’d left the Zodiac.

‘Perfect,’ he said, nodding.

‘Got to lie down’ said Tubs, whose grip around Luke’s waist was weakening.

‘Not long, mate. Keep your head down out of the wind,’ said Luke. He pulled Tubs’ arms tighter around him. Tubs groaned but hung on. Maddie had moved off.

Before he followed, Luke took one last look at Hope Station. Their home had been turned into hell on earth.

4 Responses to ‘L.A. Larkin, Thirst’

Dino not to be confused with reckons...

Posted April 29, 2013

JB,

Wow.

Are you certain she is not 'ghost writing' for a Bounder?

Say it isn't so.

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Barnesm swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted April 29, 2013

Thats brilliant, will post more once I have thought over.

Fits nicely with my recent media which included Tobias Buckwell's 'Artic Rising', and having just watched the not picked up pilot 'Borealis' (really enjoyed, sorry it wasn't given a series) and with SyFy's Ronald D Moore's commissioned series 'Helix' set in the cold we may be seeing a boom in this sub-genre.

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Dick swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted April 29, 2013

I reckon they're fucked, so it would be interesting to see where she takes it from there.

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Tony McFadden is gonna tell you...

Posted May 4, 2013

Great. Took a Thriller writing course from her at the Australian Writers' Centre. She certainly knows her stuff.

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Mr Phelan, givin' it away

Posted April 19, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

Hey kids, do you like zombies? Do you like free stuff? Well Mr James Phelan is givin' away the zombie goodness on Amazon and all the other platforms too this weekend, with the first of his Chasers series going out the door for exactly zero dollars.

I'f you'd like another free taste, I got an extract from book two below:

Automatic gunfire rang out. Bullets pinged and zapped off metal and concrete. The soldiers were shooting. Falling glass and dust sent me sprawling. They were shooting at me. I stayed behind the taxi and knelt closer to the pavement in a tight huddle, my hands over my ears. I got as close to the ground as I could. I shook. My knees and forehead on the cold wet ground. My breath fogging before my face. I tried to move lower, to crawl my way into the earth.

The shooting stopped. I took my hands off my ears, but I could still hardly hear. I closed my eyes. I’d already seen enough death and if it was coming for me now, I did not want to know in

advance. Sound began to return, a ringing in my ears soon replaced by the thrumming engines of the trucks passing close. I heard walking, the crunching of snow. Someone was coming, closing. I opened my eyes. I was pushed over, flat to the ground. I looked up and a man with a rifle was standing over me. Not at all the boy I’d imagined from afar. He had a short ragged beard, like he’d last shaved without a mirror, with a thick moustache covering his top lip. A gas mask hung under his chin, loose as if ready to pull on at a moment’s notice. He wore a bulletproof vest over a plastic camouflage jumpsuit, a white parka over his shoulders.

Black boots. Big black boots.

His rifle had a timber stock and a black steel scope, like a hunting rifle. It was steady in his hands, and pointed directly at me. I looked beyond this appendage to the man, and I realised his issue with me: He thinks I’m a Chaser. Or worse, the enemy.

I said, ‘Don’t kill me.’

His expression didn’t change. The man’s eyes, framed behind glasses, told what could have been a lie: that he didn’t have it in him to kill me. Or that was what I chose to see. Every second of hesitation gave me hope. Here was a man standing over me, a man with his own choices to make, his own unpredictable nature to contend with.

‘Please. Don’t. Don’t do it.’ I tried a smile, a friendly gesture. ‘Look, see? I’m not sick . . .’

My throat gave out with ‘sick’; a croaking, hoarse, feeble cry, all I had after so many days of soliloquy.

I showed him my empty hands, how I was unarmed, on the ground, at his mercy. Yesterday, maybe I would not have been so willing to submit, but today, now, I wanted to live, to hear what he had to say, to learn what was out there, to somehow get home.

I pleaded softly, ‘I’m not the enemy . . .’

He reached down and I inched away, shuffling back in the wet snow from both the threat of his grasp and his pointed rifle, but he took a long stride after me and dragged me to my feet. He held me up by my collar, at arm’s length, shaking me to see how I’d react. I didn’t fight him. His three colleagues stood beside the pair of all-terrain trucks with their monster-sized tyres and stared.

This man who held me turned around and shouted:

‘He’s not sick.’

‘So?’ one of his colleagues replied as he climbed back into the truck. Visible through the open back flap of the canvas-topped truck was a container the size of a small car with USAMRIID stencilled on the side of it.

‘They said they were all sick . . .’ the soldier holding me said quietly to himself, dangling me in mid-air, his gaze locked on mine.

‘Forget him!’ The shout rattled around the empty street. ‘We gotta hustle.’

‘Shoot him!’ yelled another. ‘Do the kid a favour.’ He slammed the cab door of the second truck and it motored off in the cleared wake of the first. The last soldier remained, watching closely from the other side of the street, cradling his rifle. If this one here doesn’t kill me, that one will, won’t he? I swallowed hard.

Should I run? Twist away and run? Zigzag my way around debris and hope they miss?

‘Please . . .’ I said to the one who held me. He had a name tag on his vest: STARKEY. ‘Please, Starkey, I’m not sick. You can’t kill me.’

‘Kill him!’ The order echoed across the street. Guns entitled men to do anything. They were clearly Americans, so why shoot me? Out of anger for what’s happened here?

Out of fear? No, these were outsiders. They probably knew what was going on here, they had information. I was more afraid than he could ever be. I pleaded with my eyes. I didn’t want to die, and now, more than that, I wanted to know. I wanted to talk, to ask questions, to listen and learn.

He let me go. ‘How old are you?’

‘Sixteen,’ I replied.

‘We’re moving!’

‘I’ll catch up!’ Starkey yelled across to his buddy, who shook his head and remained standing there, rifle slung in his arms like a child. ‘Where were you when this attack happened?’

‘Here.’ I was too frightened to lie.

‘Here in this street?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘A subway; I was in a subway.’

He nodded. ‘How many like you?’

‘Like me?’

‘Not sick.’

‘I don’t know.’

‘How many are you staying with?’

‘Just me.’

‘What?’

‘I’m alone,’ I replied.

I could see what he was thinking. That I was crazy. That I’d probably just crawled out of some blackened, deserted building, completely out of step with what was going on, a raving lunatic. No matter what stirrings of sympathy he may have felt, he couldn’t get away from the fact that I might just be mad and so, in my own way, just as dangerous as the infected people. Maybe I would have thought that too.

I tried to explain. ‘There’s this girl – Felicity. She might be in Central Park still. That’s where I’m heading. There might be others. I just haven’t seen anyone in person—’

‘Well, kid, I’ve seen a lot. I’ve seen good people do things that don’t make no sense,’ he said, not looking at me. ‘No sense. You understand?’

I nodded. He’d done stuff, too, probably.

‘Soon there’ll be— there’ll be people coming through here, and it’ll get out of hand – it’ll be something you don’t want to see . . .’

‘Why wouldn’t I want to see people?’

I’d dreamed of seeing people for twelve days . . .

He looked over at his comrades. Soldiers, on the road to nowhere. One of them turned, leaning from his truck window, and made a gesture to Starkey to hurry up. The vehicle had rounded the intersection up ahead.

‘We’re getting left behind!’ the other guy yelled, and finally moved on, jogging after his friend and then climbing into the second truck.

Starkey turned to leave.

‘Who are you?’ I asked him.

‘I’m nobody,’ he said as he held his rifle with both hands. ‘Just— Just keep your head down, kid. Won’t be long.’

Won’t be long? ‘What won’t be long?’

He walked away. Square shoulders filling out his plastic parka. Hope departing. Just like that. No answer. I ran after him. Fell into step beside him. His eyes scanned the street. The guy’s expression was stone. He looked down at me like I was nothing. Like I, and all this around us, was too big a problem for one man and his buddies to deal with.

‘Don’t make me stay here,’ I pleaded, falling into step beside him, heading for the departing trucks. ‘There’s thousands of those infected—’

‘They won’t last much longer,’ he said. ‘They’ll become ill and worse due to injury and exposure, lack of nutrition, all that. They can’t last long on just water . . .’

‘No, you don’t understand, there’s another kind of infected—’

‘I’ve seen, kid,’ he said, zipping his collar up tight against a horizontal snow drift. ‘There are two clear groups of the infected. Yeah? I’ve seen that. Those who are literally bloodthirsty killers, and those who are content with any liquid to survive. Either way, both groups need fluid constantly; got themselves some kind of psychogenic polydipsia, they need to drink. It’s the why that bothers me – why the two different conditions . . .’

He seemed lost in the thought, a thousand-mile stare.

‘That’s why you’re here?’

He eventually shrugged in reply.

‘Maybe the ones who chase after people were already screwed up?’ I said. ‘Murderers and criminals, stuff like that.’

‘Maybe, kid,’ he said, looking at his trucks. ‘But I doubt it.’

‘They’re driven to kill for blood,’ I said urgently. ‘I’ve seen them. They prey on others, take advantage of them. They’re getting stronger while the rest – the general population of infected – are getting weaker. The gap is growing bigger. The weak congregate, for safety maybe. They flock to where there’s easy water, they make do. The strong are in smaller packs, plenty are doing it alone, and they’re as strong as they were on day one, maybe even more so.’

‘The ones just drinking water will die out if they don’t start getting some nutrients in them,’ Starkey said. ‘Hell, we’ve already seen plenty who hyper-hydrated to the point of fatal disturbance in brain functions.’

‘The others?’

‘The others . . .’ he shrugged. ‘Well, they might just be around forever.’

17 Responses to ‘Mr Phelan, givin' it away’

Blarkon swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted April 19, 2013

I got these for Mini-Blarkon when they came out. He was 9 and devoured them.

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Bangar asserts...

Posted April 19, 2013

An excellant series, be aware it is cleverly written.

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Naut is gonna tell you...

Posted April 19, 2013

Some of his best work .

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JP is gonna tell you...

Posted April 19, 2013

Nice one.

And FYI it's free on all digital platforms until Monday.

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Barnesm swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted April 19, 2013

I too enjoyed these three books in the Chaser series, a welcome addition to the burgeoning sub-genre of the teen zombie apocalypse and I would recommend these as an excellent introduction for any young’ns that require schooling on the handling of the modern, 28 days later type, rage zombies.

I will go download the e-book, not because I need it but I assume it raises Mr Phelan's profile within amazon which is a worthwhile thing for me to do when it costs me nothing but a little time and bandwidth.

Unless John or Orin explain by some mechanism that I wasn’t aware that some how by doing this provides no boost the Mr Phelans profile in which case at worst I have spent a few minutes I would have otherwise wasted, at this time of night, probably downloading tentacle porn.

Barnesm is gonna tell you...

Posted April 20, 2013

SHINNY

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Barnesm reckons...

Posted April 19, 2013

and I thought Monday free reading stuff day?

oh and this is my new favourite thing http://robotshaming.tumblr.com/

John Birmingham ducks in to say...

Posted April 20, 2013

Monday normally, yeah. But the free stuff runs out on Monday.

Barnesm mutters...

Posted April 21, 2013

Good point

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Therbs is gonna tell you...

Posted April 20, 2013

Yeah, a fine zed series for young 'uns, especially given the Potter froth and emo vampire twattism of recent times.

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WarDog would have you know...

Posted April 20, 2013

Mmm still $13.99 on Google Play

Barnesm would have you know...

Posted April 20, 2013

yeah, need to go to Amazon for this one

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TC asserts...

Posted April 20, 2013

Sold. ...or not sold, as the case may be. Glad you posted that bit, JB, I was planning to give it a miss regardless of being free but from that quick read I'm keen to see more.

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Bunyip would have you know...

Posted April 21, 2013

Just purchased it for the minion. She is dubious, but I'm hopefull on a peer recommendation. I mean sheesh, what would I know about genre fiction?

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pi ducks in to say...

Posted April 21, 2013

Gawd I love my kindle

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Trashman has opinions thus...

Posted April 23, 2013

Not free on Amazon in the UK or US...

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Freebie Monday. The Seraphim Sequence

Posted March 25, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

Aploz for getting this up late but I spent most of the day on the hop, running from doctor to dentist to doctor. I read Nathan Farrugia's Chimera Vector last year, with a view to giving it a cover line, which I duly delivered.

“Farrugia! Bringin’ the awesome from the first headshot to the last ‘splosion.”

Vector told the story of a woman raised by a secret cabal of secretive guys who control everything in secret, until one day her programming goes awry and she turns rogue.

What's not to like?

Seraphim Sequence follows up nicely with all of the headshots and splosions I was looking forward to reading again.

# # #

Damien closed his eyes, opened his mouth and let his ears do the searching. The air-conditioning rumbled at a low frequency and the fluorescent lights buzzed at a higher frequency. He filtered those out and tuned to the frequencies between.

Footsteps. Light, rubber-soled. Moving tentatively around the supermarket. He tried to identify them, make out how many and who was closer. He could hear one set that was particularly close. Two aisles left, a fraction back. He needed to calm his breathing, in through the nose and out through the mouth. If his heart rate jumped any higher he’d hit the gray zone: even more adrenaline. A state of hyper-vigilance. He wouldn’t be able to move his fingers, he wouldn’t be able to think at all, he’d lose his peripheral vision and maybe lose his hearing completely. If that happened, he was as good as dead.

He opened his eyes. Staring him in the face: sugar, spice and all things nice.

He had an idea.

He selected a miniature bottle of paprika powder and held it between his teeth, then carefully moved to the rear of the supermarket. There would be more soldiers at the front than the rear to cover any attempted escape. On the way he snatched a box of Koko Krunch cereal. The koala on the front promised a Jango Fett figurine inside. He reached the end of the aisle and, cereal box in one hand, P99 in the other, checked his right. No soldiers at the end of the aisles, yet.

He retreated past a rack of egg cartons and emptied the cereal box in his wake. The cocoa shells skittered across the lino floor, along with a solitary plastic figurine in Mandalorian armor. Damien withdrew to the far right corner of the supermarket: an open aisle with generous displays of fruit and vegetables. No soldiers. Yet. He had thirty seconds at most.

He snatched an egg carton and emptied it in front of Jango Fett. The eggs broke across the floor. Taking the paprika bottle from between his teeth, he ducked out of view and tuned to the footsteps again. They were careful and faint, but their rubber soles occasionally gave a faint squeak. He pinged several at the other end, near the entrance.

He moved along the vegetables to the front of the supermarket, but held back a few feet. He unscrewed the cap from the paprika and waited. He needed to time this right.

The cereal he’d poured on the floor was to cover his blind spot and serve as an early warning system in case anyone tried to get the jump on him. The eggs were a precautionary measure in case he couldn’t cover himself in time. Even if the soldier didn’t slip — the egg yolks were more noticeable than oil — it would still slow them down by a second or two. And that would be the difference between alive Damien and dead Damien.

As CT soldiers, they’d drill for scenarios similar to this on a daily basis, their reaction times shaved to nothing. Chimera vectors or not, he knew that all it would take was a round to the head or the artery in his neck and he’d be dead in seconds.

Around the corner he confirmed two nearby soldiers. Moving now would be suicide. He picked up a nearby fruit — a coconut — and hurled it over to the rear of the aisle. It landed with a hollow clonk. Footsteps shifted and moved toward him. These soldiers weren’t stupid; he would take the corner wide.

Damien closed his eyes, listened. He heard the footsteps approach. And another set, about five feet behind. There was another soldier in the aisle directly behind Damien, halfway down. The others were too far away to pinpoint.

His heartrate had receded now. He’d managed to calm himself to the point where he had maximum awareness, maximum cognitive functioning, high physical functioning and good bloodflow. He knew what needed to be done.

He turned and shook the paprika bottle at the soldier. The powder shot out and coated the soldier’s face. His eyes were protected by goggles, but the paprika still blinded him and filled his nostrils.

Damien had to expose himself now. He moved into view, firing his P99 one-handed. The soldier in the next aisle pivoted, subcarbine barrel aiming for Damien’s chest. Damien fired his first shot on the move, then his second. The first went wide. The second caught the soldier through the goggles. Damien followed instinctively with a third. The slide on his P99 locked to the rear.

He slammed the butt of his P99 into the nose of the paprika-sprayed soldier, then brought the pistol down, guiding the soldier’s subcarbine to one side and clear of his own body. He brought his other fist up, empty paprika bottle still firmly in hand, and jabbed it into the operator’s Adam’s apple.

Damien moved his attention to the aisles and the supermarket’s front. He was close enough to make an escape, but already he could see two more soldiers emerging from the aisles ahead, shotguns, submachine guns and subcarbines locking onto him. He still had the paprika soldier as a shield, and the guy wasn’t dead yet. He could run, but he’d be lucky to make it ten feet.

Two soldiers positioned themselves for a better shot, moving in an arc on both sides. There wasn’t much space at the front of the supermarket. The soldier on the left was cut off by an aisle and the soldier on the right was hampered by cash registers. Damien pushed his paprika soldier closer toward them, planted one leg behind the soldier and jerked his helmet to one side. He stumbled toward his colleague on the left, trapping them both in a corner.

Damien pressed the paprika soldier’s subcarbine against his belly and, leaving room for the ejection port, aimed at the operator on the right. He squeezed and a burst of rounds caught the soldier in the stomach. Following through with the motion, Damien drove his elbow into paprika soldier’s face. His head snapped backward, smearing Damien’s hand with spice, and his helmet collided with the left soldier who was now cornered behind him. Damien sidestepped the paprika soldier and moved toward the left soldier.

The guy saw him coming and quickly adjusted tactics. He brought his subcarbine to bear, magazine pointed at Damien, and used it as a blunt instrument. Damien caught the magazine and flipped it up and over. The subcarbine spun in the soldier’s hands until it was in Damien’s grasp. He turned his hips, driving the muzzle into the soldier’s stomach and knocking the air from him. Then he thrust the muzzle upward, catching the soldier under the chin.

In the same movement, Damien withdrew the subcarbine and forced it down on the unbalanced paprika soldier’s forehead. Paprika soldier fell backward. Damien squatted, his knee positioned under the guy’s spine as he fell. He bounced off Damien’s knee and rolled across the crimson-spattered floor.

In his peripheral vision, Damien spotted the right soldier getting to his knees, shotgun in both hands. He’d taken the rounds in his stomach — protected by a vest.

Damien slammed the butt of his subcarbine into the left soldier’s groin. He gave a silent scream and collapsed. Damien aimed the subcarbine and fired a three-round burst into the shotgun soldier’s head. He jerked the subcarbine back, driving the butt into the left soldier a second time. This time, the butt connected with the soldier’s head and rendered him unconscious.

Damien heard a crunch from his left, in the distance. Someone was trying to circle around, stepping over the discarded Koko Krunch. Another soldier appeared in front of him, five aisles ahead. Damien took cover in the aisle on his left, pausing for a moment to check himself over. Adrenaline masked pain, so he needed to run a free hand over his body for anything sticky or wet. No injuries, just the soldiers’ blood. He ran to the rear of the supermarket. Subcarbine in one hand, he scooped up a large rectangular tin of oil and windmilled it, still running. He heard someone slip on the broken eggs, a weapon clattering to the floor.

There were footsteps ahead. Two pairs.

Damien kept his movements light and fast, the tin of oil swinging and the subcarbine aiming from the hip. It wouldn’t be accurate, but he needed to close this gap as quickly as he could. Inside of twenty meters, a rifle or pistol wasn’t particularly effective.

The operator on the left appeared, barrel just visible. Damien released the oil tin and watched it fly toward the firearm. By the time the tin reached the end of the aisle, the soldier had walked into range. The tin caught him in the shoulder and rolled into the side of his helmet. He recoiled from the blow, falling against the glass display of cold meats with a satisfying smack.

Damien grabbed whatever was to hand — a bottle of vinegar — and smashed it across a second soldier as he appeared on the right. The bottle struck him in the chest, not the head as Damien had hoped. He brought his boot into the side of the soldier’s leg. The operator slipped and, covered in vinegar, fell into a display of frypans.

Damien snatched a frypan as they tumbled and brought it around to the soldier on his left, who was now coated in egg and cocoa shells. But before he could strike with the frypan, they both slipped and fell together on the egg-slicked floor.

‘Fuck,’ Damien said.

8 Responses to ‘Freebie Monday. The Seraphim Sequence’

damian has opinions thus...

Posted March 25, 2013

Fuck, indeed.

John Birmingham has opinions thus...

Posted March 25, 2013

Ha. Droll.

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Bunyip reckons...

Posted March 25, 2013

Cinematic, and a beguiling scattering of details. Loved the foci on sound and smell. Oh, and something something body kinematics something something...

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Barnesm swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted March 26, 2013

Look its good, great even but i needs a touch more something?

Zombies.

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Matthew K swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted March 26, 2013

Oh so now this site lets me log in? Whatever.

As Bunyip said though thought given to sensory input, very evocative, puts you there. "Foci" hurhurhurhurhur, you said foci.

I've got an CO2 pistol version of a Walther P99, very comfortable grip. Horrible trigger.

I shot a fox with it today. It ran off faster than it sauntered in. Of course, it didn't kill it, it's an air pistol. It stung it's arse though. That fox won't come back. Well, not until it feels like it anyway.

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NBlob mumbles...

Posted March 26, 2013

oh my word

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Rhino would have you know...

Posted March 26, 2013

Whoa ... looked up The Chimera Vector on Amazon and the kindle version is FREE ... FREE I tells ya. Snapped that right up and it'll go to the top of the queue.

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Barnesm asserts...

Posted March 26, 2013

Aces Rhino thanks for the tip just bought a copy myself for $0.00 for my Kindle.

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Ferris Bueller's Day of the Undead

Posted March 18, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

Welcome to the Book Extract parlour. Once a week, usually Monday's, I'll try and get you a free look at something cool coming out soon, or just released. For this, our first attempt, however, I'm putting up a print-only piece I did for Frankie magazine late last year. To mark some sort of Ferris milestone, or something. The brief was to imagine his life twenty years on.

Of course, I had to write a zombie story.

You known me. I'm Jeannie. I run the infirmary. And the hydroponic station?I helped set your arm that time you came off the quad bike getting away from Rooney.

Remember? Jeannie! Jeannie Bueller.

Sometimes some of the guys call me Shauna.………(Sigh).Yes. I'm Ferris's sister.

No! Don't! I don't want to hear about it. We do not need to ‘Save Ferris’. We need to find him and put him down. He's gone. Don't you understand? He thought the rules didn't apply to him. He thought he was special. He thought… no, he didn't think. He never does. Never did, sorry. He believed he was different to everybody else and he could just do as he damn well pleased.

You know he took the Warthog out with him, don't you? The only safe transport we have. The only way we have of keeping in contact with the other fortresses now that the radio's gone down. Oh, and remind me to tell you about my brother's contribution to that little snafu one day. He… what? Well of course I know he's been taking the Warthog out the joyrides with his stupid girlfriend. I'm the one who volunteered to pull the extra shifts in the motor pool when Edson got eaten. I'm the one who ponied up for the fucking minty fresh blood transfusion you enjoyed after your little quad bike accident and then backed up to do maintenance on the hog. Where I was able to check the odometer. Where I was able to confirm what I knew all along, that Ferris and his fucking glove puppet Cameron had been using the Warthog without authorization.

Three hundred miles they put on the clock. Three hundred and one and seven tenths to be exact, which I can, because God help me somebody has to around here. Three hundred and one point seven miles miles worth of gas and hard driving and wear and fucking tear because don't you believe for a moment any of Cameron's bullshit that he sticks to the cleared roads and drives only fast enough to keep ahead of the hunting packs.

Three hundred and one miles. As close to Three hundred and two as makes no god damn difference. In one goddamned day. I will bet you a weeks worth of rations they took that thing all the way up to Chicago and back. In one day. Probably drove it around Wrigley Field with half the city shambling after them.

I just… I just don't understand.I just don't understand why he gets all the breaks and everybody covers for him. It's his fault that Rooney ended up the way he did, you know. All torn up, dragging half a severed leg behind him and and groaning Ferris's name over and over again. You ever heard of one of them doing that before? Well? No. Me neither. The most you ever get out of them is, “Braaaaaiiinnnnz.” But not Mr. Rooney. Oh no. He was so intent on finding my brother after the last time he had one of his ‘days off’ that when one of the cannibal herds were finished with him the last thing anyone saw was his leftovers dragging themselves up the road croaking, “Ferrrrisssssss.”

So don't tell me… what? You want what?……No I am not giving you any donations for the Save Ferris drive. I've got about 3 bullets and one half chewed Twinkie to last me until resupply on Friday and I am deeply fucking dis-interested in being told I'm a heartless wench for not putting in. Honestly. You people. He will be the death of you. For a little while, anyway, until you reanimate.

My brother is not a hero. My brother is not our savior. He is a selfish, inconsiderate manchild who perfectly encapsulates the Romney era's near solipsist end-of-the-worldview and insatiable appetite for immediate gratification, which, when you think about it, makes him not a thousand miles removed from the creeping hordes of the undead out there on the other side of the Wall.

In a nutshell, I hate my brother.……No, I didn't blow him away, but I will if he tries clawing his way over the Wall. And you wouldn't want to be in my firing line when that happens.I'm not being a bitch. I don't know why everyone says that about me. I just need you all to understand that everything has changed. We have to grow up. All that crap that Ferris used to go on about, you know, finding the joy in life, because life moves so fast that if you don't stop and look around once in a while you could miss it, well those days are over. They've been over since the day that the dead decided they were missing life too and so they came back for seconds.We can't afford to live like that anymore. There are no days off for anyone. Not now, not ever again.… We will never see those days again… and… I'll never see my brother again… I'll never…

What?

He's what? Where? No. How? I just… I'm speechless. Fucking speechless. How did he get all those sausages from Frellmans? Huh? Did anybody think to ask what he was doing, dancing down the trestle tables in the canteen throwing fucking sausages around like party treats? That factory is nearly 150 miles away. It's a fortress, a real fortress. With battlements and boiling oil and everything. Ask yourself, please just ask yourself, how did he get there and back? How did he even get in? Abe Frellman doesn't share anything with anyone. Not even the magnificent Ferris Bueller.I… he, he…I'll, oh, just forget about it and give me a fucking sausage.

17 Responses to ‘Ferris Bueller's Day of the Undead’

Jacques Stahl mumbles...

Posted March 18, 2013

Mmmmmm..........sausages!

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Barnesm would have you know...

Posted March 18, 2013

Thanks to this story I think I am now a little bit in love with Jeannie Bueller.

Greta story.

Darth Greybeard asserts...

Posted March 18, 2013

Hang on, are you a "bit in love" with Jeannie Bueller or Greta Story - or both, you polyamorous cad?

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pitpat mumbles...

Posted March 18, 2013

great read to start off the week. Sausages were sourced from where exactly? Frellmans sure, and Frellmans has a whole bunch of pigs out the back...hmmm. I reckon Ferris fckin Buelluer sourced his sausages from the living dead.

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Paul_Nicholas_Boylan would have you know...

Posted March 18, 2013

I cannot help but wonder about the possible details surrounding an alternate reality where, in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, a fortress sausage factory prospers. I think that's the real story.

Darth Greybeard ducks in to say...

Posted March 18, 2013

Paul, I understand that a reasonably fresh and properly cooked zombie is quite safe. And they're said to taste like pork. Although I suspect the snags would be heavily spiced.

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Barnesm mutters...

Posted March 18, 2013

Next up The Deathstar an Inside job

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Nocturnalist reckons...

Posted March 18, 2013

"Selfish, inconsiderate manchild" is pretty much on the money. I didn't see what was to admire about Ferris apart from a certain animal cunning that was heavily buttressed by screenwriter/director fiat. I suppose I still have the geekboy's deep and reflexive distrust of slick, cocky alpha-male types.

Maybe it'd be different if I'd encountered Ferris as a teenager, rather than as an adult seeing the film for the first time deep in the middle of an all-night marathon at Electric Shadows, but actually I suspect I'd have had the same reaction only stronger.

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Bunyip swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted March 18, 2013

I think we need to define the terms mind and lost. Especially the later, because to lose something, you need to have possessed it in the first place.

And the term mind. Do we mean as in "Havock was mindful of the bloodsplatter, as he swung his cricket bat" or do we mean "Figleaf's mind was resplendent with images of dancing Zergs, as he pulled on another bucket bong"?

And whilst we are at it, it might be useful if we all just agree on definitions for reality and munter.

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JG puts forth...

Posted March 18, 2013

Monday numbering.

  1. Sibling rivalry. Jeannie's a bit of a whinger, what? She certainly jumps out the page. Feisty.
  2. I love that word 'manchild'. Irresistable.
  3. Abe--you told me your sausage factory was a cover story. Pictures or it didn't happen. I don't believe in sausage factories in Queanbeyan.

Damn, better defrost me a couple of snags. Sausages FTW.

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AgingGamer is gonna tell you...

Posted March 18, 2013

Why has no one commented on the Halo reference with the inclusion of a warthog as Ferris' car of choice. And is Microsoft and Peter Jackson angry at him having it or just "shuffling" with everyone else?

Barnesm swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted March 18, 2013

DId anyone notice the mention of the Warthog from Halo games in the story. The vehicle which is involved in more physics defining clips than almost any other in science fiction. Other than Mass Effects Mako.

Matthew K reckons...

Posted March 19, 2013

In the future vehicles will handle like shit apparently. I've got ME2 and haven't seen a Mako. Haven't finished it mind you.

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Aaron reckons...

Posted June 11, 2013

Wasnt it "Abe Froman" who was the sausage king of chicago? Unless its spelt differently than its pronounced...

John Birmingham is gonna tell you...

Posted June 11, 2013

It's an in joke.

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Stalin's Hammer: Rome

Posted January 31, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

Prologue

April 13, 1955: central Siberia

Joseph Stalin knew he was being watched. He closed his eyes and adjusted the soft, red blanket that covered his legs, like a child hiding under his bed covers, thinking that if he could not see the monster, the monster could not see him. The sun was warm on his face, and bright, through his paper-thin eyelids. Sitting there in his wheelchair, his face turned up, eyes closed, it was possible to imagine the whole world was a pink, warm womb.

He let his chin slowly fall to his chest before opening his eyes and turning his glare on Beria. “We are delayed, Lavrenty Pavlovich. To what end?”

Stalin patted his pockets, looking for his old pipe, forgetting that he had not smoked in years. The doctors had said it would kill him. Frustrated at the delay, frustrated at the doctors, angry that he could not enjoy a simple pipe, his scowl grew darker. Once upon a time the hardest men in Russia had quailed at the sight of him playing with that pipe. To turn it this way and that, to stroke the bowl with his thumb while never moving to pack even one shred of tobacco in there – that was enough to signal his displeasure. Enough to make strong men quiver with fear. Now when he patted his pockets, he just looked like an old cripple, forgetful and failing.

Still, what little colour Beria had in his face leached away at the thunderous look on Stalin’s. That was something.

“No delay. There is no delay, comrade. Everything is running to schedule.”

The chief of the Functional Projects Bureau stammered over his last words and nervously checked the iPad he carried. A rare and valuable working model, an Apple original, one of the last before the ‘flex’ models debuted, and salvaged from the emergence of the British stealth destroyer way back in 1942, it was still sleeker and more powerful than anything Functional Projects had managed to produce. Then again, it was also vastly more elegant and powerful than any of the cheaper Samsung or Google flexipads they had also salvaged.

Stalin waved him off with a backhanded gesture. “Gah. Enough excuses, Lavrenty Pavlovich. Begin the demonstration. I have many days of travel to return to Moscow. Push your buttons. Bring down the sky. Be done with it.”

“The satellite is almost in position now,” Beria assured him. “We must retire inside.”

His bodyguard leaned forward. “Vozhd?” he asked, seeking permission to move him.

“Yes, yes,” said Stalin, who did not really want to give up his place in the sun. The winters grew longer as he grew older. He was certain of it. He enjoyed the mild spring weather, but soon enough, too soon, the leaves on the small stand of trees outside his apartment back in the Kremlin would turn red again, then gold, then brown as winter stalked back into the land. What did those books say? The ones his daughter loved, from the broken future. Winter was coming? His last perhaps. He adjusted the blanket again – an old habit, it had not moved – and tried to not let his disappointment show as his guard wheeled him off the terrace out of the sun and back inside the bunker.

He felt the chill as soon as they passed into the shadows of the deep concrete passageway. Solid iron blast doors rumbled behind him as the small party of high officials, bureaucrats and technicians filed in, trudging in procession to the bunker from which they would monitor the test. Moisture leaked from the thick concrete walls, giving Stalin pause to worry about his arthritis. He regretted having insisted on traveling all the way out here to witness the test firing for himself. Then he smiled. Beria undoubtedly regretted it more, and that was cause for some mild amusement. Stalin knew his deputy premier would be fretting now, squirming inside like a greasy little weasel, anxious that nothing should go wrong.

The tension in the control room was tangible. He could feel it on his skin, taste it even at the back of his mouth. It was a familiar taste, of a fine vintage. He had been supping on men’s fear for so long now he believed he could take some nourishment from it. The scientists and military officers – no, they were NKVD Spetsnaz; Beria’s thralls, not Red Army, he reminded himself – all did their best to avoid catching his gaze. Beria scuttled about, snapping and hissing at the technical staff, his spidery white fingers stabbing so hard at the screen of the iPad that Stalin thought he might punch it to the floor. That would be amusing.

His bodyguard – it was Yagi today – wheeled him past banks of computer terminals, monitoring screens, and control boards dense with flashing lights and illuminated buttons. The supreme leader of the Soviet Union understood none of it. The technology was all plundered from the far and impossible future, the world that could not be.

He would never see that particular future. He knew that, of course. Accepted it. Life ebbed away from him now – in spite of all the new “miracle” medical treatments and organ therapies, life itself retreated from Joseph Stalin on a quickening tide of years and minutes. But nobody else would see the future from whence Kolhammer and his international fleet had Emerged either, because he would not let it come to pass. He would not let it be, this false future where Putinist thugs and bandits ruled the Rodina, where the revolution was mocked and mourned. And dead.

It would not be.

At a word from him, as long as Beria had done his job, the sky would fall in on the world outside this bunker, and the real future would draw that much closer. Yagi brought him to a stop a few feet from the viewing port created especially for him. The armored glass was 7 inches thick, they had told him, and the reinforced concrete wall of the bunker at least 3 feet deep. Peering through this personal viewport was a little like looking down a short tunnel. The glass distorted the view somewhat, and gave it a dark green tinge. Steel shutters stood ready to slam down if needed, but he could not see them. Nobody could. Only a wheelchair-bound Stalin and one of the technicians, who was a dwarf, were of a height to have an unimpeded view through the port. Everybody else had to make do with the viewing screens. There were dozens of them about, but the two largest ones hung from the wall directly in front of him, above the viewing slit.

The room was chilly, because of all the infernal computers, which always seemed to be in danger of overheating. The cold, stale, recycled air irritated his eyes and seeped into his bones, but it awoke his senses, and he did want to see this. It was why he had traveled so far east, beyond the natural barrier of the mountains.

Involuntarily he glanced upwards, imagining American satellites prowling overhead, peering down on him. But there was only the low ceiling of unrendered cement. And above that – tons of rock.

“You are sure Kolhammer is not watching this on some television in the White House?” he growled at Beria. “They are always watching us.”

Startled out of some reverie, the NKVD boss jumped a little, and even squeaked. He was more nervous than usual. “We have done our best, our utmost, to draw their attention away from the proving grounds,” he said, stammering as before. “Ten Red Army divisions and fraternal bloc forces are exercising as close to the Oder as we dare. There have been incidents. I made sure of that personally. What satellite cover they do not have watching us there will be trained on Admiral Koniev’s newly unmasked fleet base. Our strategic forces are ready to test fire a fusion warhead to mask the geologic signal. This is all settled, Vozhd. By your very self.”

Stalin waved him away again, a stock gesture when dealing with Beria. He knew everything the man had just said, but he wanted him to repeat it. If Beria’s plan to mask the Hammer Fall test failed, Comrade Beria would pay the price. Not Stalin.

Klaxons and sirens began to sound all around them, and somewhere in the distance he heard the deep, bass rumble of more blast doors sliding into place. The countdown clock between the two large viewing screens clicked over to ten minutes.

In spite of his weariness and his age – he should have been dead two years now – in spite of all that he had done and seen, Joseph Stalin could not help but feel a flicker of excitement in his chest. Well, hopefully it was just excitement … After his last heart attack, the doctors had told him (or rather suggested, very mildly) that he might need to think about cutting back to one serving each day of his favorite lamb stew. He wiggled his fingers now, marveling at how old his hands looked, how skeletal and heavily veined.

1953, he thought.

These hands through which his blood still flowed, with which he could still touch the world, they should have clawed at the last moments of life in 1953. On March 5 – as a massive stroke shredded his brain and twisted his body into a crippled, piss-stained mess.

He smiled at the thought. He was still here. For now. Inside, he still felt like a twenty-year-old revolutionary, but his body was failing him. Even with his blood washed clean by a fresh, transplanted liver, even with improbably tiny machines regulating his heartbeat and sweeping toxins from his body, it was failing him. He should have been used to it, he supposed. So many had failed him over the decades. Their bodies, at least, he could pile up like cordwood. His own, he was stuck with, mostly, despite the efforts of his transplant surgeons and pharmacists.

The Vozhd had simply given too much to the struggle over the years. That was why he was so excited and intrigued by the possibilities of today’s test. Since the reactionary Kolhammer forces had Emerged from the Gordian knot of history at the Battle of Midway, Joseph Stalin had lived every day with the knowledge that he had limited time to set history right, to secure the revolution, and his place in it.

Emerged from history, and destroyed it, he thought. Destroyed the settled history of the twentieth century, and the twenty-first century after that. It was still a wonder to him how nobody in the West could see the obvious truth of it. How the very impossibility of Admiral Kolhammer’s arrival from the year 2021 through this ‘wormhole’ spoke to the impossibility of the future from which he had come.

He grunted in frustration, setting off a momentary panic amongst his hangers-on, but he ignored them.

The forces of history operate like a machine, he thought, as technicians and dogsbodies fussed about him. History: driving human progress from barbarity to civilization, from the feudal to the capitalist, and then inevitably on to the final socialist stages. A history in which the USSR fell was simply not possible. Reality was not engineered in such a fashion. Thus history had righted itself with the destructive miracle of the Emergence.

Or rather, it had started to right itself. The revolutionary work of men was in the hands of men, of course. Stalin hoped that today they would come one crucial step closer to completing that work.

“Two minutes, Vozhd,” said Beria, surprising him.

Where had the time gone? Stalin shook his head, disgusted. He had been daydreaming again. He leaned forward to peer out through the armored glass. A nameless valley fell away from them hundreds of feet below, disappearing into the haze. Ten miles away, hundreds of obsolete tanks and trucks, many of them salvaged from the battlefields of the Great Patriotic War, waited on the valley floor. He was aware of increased tension behind him as the technicians hurried through their last-minute procedures. Literally – the last-minute procedures. The countdown clock had reached sixty seconds. Beria really had nothing to do, setting himself to annoy everyone with his pestering and interference as he did it.

“Leave them alone, Lavrenty Pavlovich!” Stalin ordered. “Let them do their duty.”

Chastened, the chief engineer – Pah, that was a laugh! – of the Functional Projects Bureau quit bustling around and hovering at the shoulders of his senior men. He opened and closed the cover of his flexipad a number of times, before setting it down on a steel workbench and shuffling over to stand beside Stalin.

“There is nothing left to do but wait,” he said.

“Then we shall wait,” replied the Vozhd.

The final countdown was strangely disappointing. A disembodied voice on the public address system took them through the last few seconds: “Three … two … one … launch …” But of course there were no rockets to roar or shake the earth beneath their feet.

“How long?” asked Stalin.

Beria seemed unnaturally pleased to have a question he could answer promptly. “Less than two minutes,” he said with confidence. “These are the small, tactical rods we are testing today. They will launch from low orbit and accelerate to 9000 meters per second.”

Stalin scowled at him, stealing some of that confidence away. “And we are safe here in this bunker?”

“Oh yes,” said Beria, with apparent relief. “We would not dare test the largest of the rods like this. They are designed to reduce mountains, such as this, to smoking craters.”

“Like Tunguska?”

Beria hesitated, as though it were a trick question. Which in a way it was. The scientists and engineers – real scientists and real engineers, unlike Beria – had briefed him well at the start of this project. They had to. It was a massive investment of the state’s resources, and one that drew money and men away from one of Stalin’s pet projects: the electronic storage of human memory and consciousness. His gaze faltered for a moment, slipping away from Beria to stare at the back of his old, liver-spotted hands again.

“Vozhd?”

“Pah! Do not bother,” Stalin told him, worried that his mind had wandered again. “I know about Tunguska. I know how it was different. The rock from space – a giant snowball, they told me – it exploded in the air. These rods will not.”

“No,” said Beria. “Look …” He bent his knees and leaned forward, pointing toward the viewing aperture, even though the giant screens hanging above it afforded a grand, God-like view of the entire valley.

The dictator peered out through the armored-glass slit but found himself watching the screens too. They had split into windows to display the video feeds from a dozen cameras scattered up and down the valley. None of the hundreds of tanks, trucks and APCs out there were moving; they sat warmed by the afternoon sun. Stalin opened his mouth to say something when he thought he spotted a flight of birds sweeping across the scene, but before he could form the words, bright white streaks of light speared down from the sky. He saw the flash of impact through the glass just a moment before the very planet heaved and rumbled in shock. His mouth dropped open in surprise as the roaring noise of impact and detonation reached deep inside the bunker.

There was little and less to see on the screens, which didn’t so much blank out as “white out”. He squinted involuntarily before turning his attention back to the viewing port. Beria too had bent over again to look through it, as other men and women, some in uniform and some in coveralls and lab coats, did the same. A few flinched away, as an enormous fireball raced up the valley toward them. Stalin thought he could make out the pressure wave that preceded it, flattening the sea of grass and a few small saplings that stood between the foot of the mountain bunker and the point of impact.

Then heavy steel shutters slammed down, blocking off even that view. A few people jumped. But not the supreme leader of the Soviet people. He closed his eyes and imagined the sun, warm on his face, and bright even through his eyelids.

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