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Blood of Heirs. By Alicia Wanstall-Burke

Posted October 29 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

Alicia has been proofing my final manuscripts for a while now, usually offering more value than I pay for by picking out more than simple typos and line errors. While toiling away in my proofreader dungeons she's also been working on her own first novel and I'm very happy to have an extract below. I'm about a qurter of the way through and I think it a triumph. She worked on this book for four years and you can see the care taken in every line. The characterisation, the scene setting and world building, the intricate weaving together of narrative arcs. It earns the hastag #triumph. I have an advance copy, but I'm going to buy one for myself anyway because she earned that too.

It's Amazon exclusive, but available on KU if you're a subscriber. This link will take you to the local store.

Chapter Six
The Disputed Territory, Western Orthia

Morning broke with a shattering horn blast and screaming headache. Barely able to peel his eyes open, Ran groaned and pulled a blanket over his head to block out the cold light of day. His breath stank and his stomach rolled uneasily, not helped by the thought of what waited outside. He was due his traditional morning vomit, but this time it was not only fuelled by the overpowering stench of death and excrement, but a roaring hangover. The thought did him no favours and he fought the bile burning the back of his throat.


Another furious blast of horns cut through Ran’s head with the grace of a blunt axe and his eyes tore themselves open, heedless of the protests from his headache. There was something wrong with that call. It wasn’t the standard rouse played to wake the troops at sunrise—it was a desperate and hurried call to arms.


Ran sat up fast and the tent spun around him. Frantic shouts and the clash of steel banished the fog in his mind and he scrambled to pull his boots over yesterday’s socks.


‘Ranoth! Up, now!’ Duke Ronart bellowed and threw back the dividing curtain. ‘Get your blade, boy!’


‘What’s going on?’ Ran stumbled to his sword belt as his father’s massive hand collected him by the arm and shoved him through the tent’s rear door.


The grey light of an overcast day blinded him and he collided with an unseen soldier rushing past. Ronart’s grip tightened and dragged him into a run. Ran pumped his legs hard to keep up, blinking to clear his reluctant eyes and shift the dizziness from his vision.


His father charged on like an enraged bull, roaring orders and shoving soldiers aside as if they weighed nothing. There was nothing Ran could do but follow and hope his father didn’t lose hold of his arm.


‘Father, what’s happening?’ he shouted into the storm of men and horses tearing through the camp.


‘They mounted an attack! A fucking dawn attack! I’ll have their general’s guts for breakfast when I’m done, then I’ll ride across the bloody border and raze Wodurin to the fucking ground!’


‘The Woaden are attacking? How did they get this close?’ Ran couldn’t believe it. It made no sense. How had they crossed the lines without anyone noticing?


Cold realisation washed through him and he shivered.


The Hill…


Had Captain Denover failed to hold the advance at the Ford? Had the lines broken because Ran had lost the Hill?


The duke stopped and rounded on Ran, his hands squeezing his son’s shoulders so hard he thought the bones might pop from the joints. ‘I don’t know. Look Ran, you have to get out of here. I can’t have you here if this goes to shit. You understand me? I should never have brought you here, not this late in the campaign. You have to go…’


‘But I can stay, I can—’


A howl of rage filled the air and the duke stabbed his sword into the space beside Ran’s head. Ran spun away as a spray of blood hit the side of his face and he staggered back from the gurgling corpse of a Woaden soldier. Ronart’s sword had skewered the attacker’s throat, and blood flooded down the front of the man’s armour as his sword arm fell limp at his side.


Ran’s meagre challenge of his father’s decision died in his throat. With a flick, Ronart freed the body from his blade and resumed his grasp on Ran’s arm. He didn’t argue or resist. Instead he found himself silently praying to whatever gods were listening that he and his father might make it through this alive.


A vanguard of Orthian soldiers swarmed them as they hurried forwards, dirt and blood muting the shining silver shield etched on their armour; the crown, scythe and pickaxe of his father’s arms completely covered in muck.


‘Sir, this way!’ A marshal shouted and the group veered right, following the marshal and cutting a path through the chaos to the rear of the Orthian camp.


Ran glanced back at the battle and his breath caught in his throat. Imperial soldiers teemed through the encampment, swooping on it like ravenous vultures on a carcass.


The Orthian troops struggled to form a counter attack under the assault, scrambling to retreat and conserve their strength and numbers. Duke Ronart was right—the end of a campaign was a mess. The tired, battle-worn soldiers caught in the onslaught dropped quickly and without much of a fight. Many frantically glanced his way before turning on their heels and bolting into the woods and Ran’s heart skipped a beat.


The men looked at him, at his father, and saw their leaders not simply retreating, but fleeing. They didn’t see a duke taking his son to the rear of the fight—they saw a duke making a break for safety while leaving his troops for dead.


‘Father, stop!’ Ran snapped away from his father’s grip and the duke shuddered to a halt, keen eyes scanning the fight. ‘They’re fleeing because we’re running!’


Through the mud and blood, soldiers deserted in droves, scrambling to the relative safety of other camps dotted along the ridge. The controlled retreat formations, drilled endlessly in the fields near Usmein, collapsed into frantic sprinting. If they had any hope of forcing the Woaden back into the Disputed Territory, they had to bring the retreat under control, and quickly. They had to, or the Imperial Army would spread into Orthia and devour it from within.


‘Fuck me, Tenner sound the retreat horns and get them to pull back like soldiers, not piss-weak children!’ The duke seethed and cursed furiously at the failure of his troops to hold their composure.


Ran tightened his belt and pushed his dark, tangled hair from his eyes. ‘We can turn them back, Father, we just need to form the lines again.’ His study of hundreds of years of battle tactics and wars across Coraidin bubbled to the surface of his mind amidst the disaster of the attack.
‘No, Ran. You have to go.’


‘No, Father, you need—’


Duke Ronart shook his son violently and Ran swallowed his objection. ‘You can’t be here, son. Not my heir; not here, not today. I won’t do to you what was done to my brother. You need to get back to Usmein and raise the alarm. Get the court in order and sort out your mother and sisters. I’ll turn this herd of cats around, but you have to get home.’


Ronart glanced around as if searching for his next move in the chaos and blood. Soldiers roared around them, the deafening crash of blades shattering the morning amongst the screams of frantic horses. The stench of voided bowels hit Ran like a punch in the face, his eyes watering and his stomach lurching.


‘Fuck’s sake, I haven’t a squad to spare.’ Ronart whistled and waved at a soldier, aged in his twenties, holding the reins of a few wide-eyed horses. ‘You! Report!’


‘Brit Doon, sir!’ The soldier gave a sharp salute. ‘Watcher, Duke’s Guard.’


Ronart propelled Ran towards the soldier and the waiting horses. ‘Take him to Usmein as quick as these beasts will carry you. Do not stop, not for anyone or anything. By the gods, I’ll use your skull as an ale mug if he doesn’t make it.’


The soldier gave another salute and without a word, grabbed Ran by the knee and hoisted him into the saddle. The mount shied and threw its head, the chaos too much for it to abide. Despite his terror, Ran’s blood ran cold at the idea of leaving his father in the thick of a battle. The Empire had never broken the lines like this, not in all the decades since the war began. And sons weren’t meant to abandon their fathers when things turned sour and the fate of the duchy hung in the balance.


‘Aye there lad, let’s do as the duke orders, eh?’ Brit Doon said and Ran jerked from staring at the fight to see him already atop another of the horses. Brit gave him a quick, reassuring smile and snatched the reins of Ran’s horse. ‘I don’t fancy my skull filled with ale I’m not alive to drink.’
The watcher kicked his steed and shouted above the battle’s roar. The horses didn’t need any extra encouragement and flew into a barely controlled eastward gallop. The last Ran heard of the fight was the hiss of an arrow over his head and the thwack of several more hitting the dirt beside the horse’s flashing hooves. After that, there was nothing but his breath and the hammering beat of his frenzied heart.


***


Brit forced Ran to ride until he thought his body would collapse in on itself, pushing the horses to the edge of what was considered a reasonable pace if you wanted the beasts to survive. They kept off the road, travelling the quiet lanes and tracks that farmers used to move between their fields and villages. At nightfall, Ran hoped they might rest awhile, but Brit wasn’t interested. He led the horses onward, leaving Ran to doze in the saddle.


‘We should stop,’ Ran suggested for the fourteenth time since sunset. The hard ride from Signal Hill the previous day had left him saddle-sore and extraordinarily fatigued, and he ached to rest, even for a moment. His backside had gone numb, along with the insides of his thighs. His ankles burned from holding the same angle in the stirrups and he hadn’t felt his toes in a long while.
‘You heard the duke. No stopping.’ Brit spat in the dirt and ducked under a low hanging branch.
Ran screwed his face into a frown. Surely his father hadn’t meant for them to ride through the night! ‘The horses need a break. If they snap an ankle in the shadows–’


‘They’re fine at a walk,’ Brit cut him off without even turning his head.


This time Ran swallowed his dissent and glared into the evening. The cold bit into his hands despite the gloves he found in the saddlebags and the north wind had begun to cut through the fabric of his trousers. If he did eventually convince Brit to stop for the night, there was no guarantee he could actually climb down or walk away from the horse. He might manage it at a crawl, but only with his elbows—there was no sensation left in any of his fingers. They would stop soon, even if Ran had to order the soldier to do so.


‘Here, this is a decent place to camp. There’s probably a stream nearby,’ Ran suggested, taking one last stab at subtlety before he had to resort to pulling rank and issuing an outright order. He was a prince of the realm and a captain, after all.


The watcher coughed and spat. ‘Can’t stop here. No one stops here. Besides, Duke’s orders. No stopping.’


Ranoth narrowed his eyes at Brit’s swaying back in the dim moonlight. ‘What are you talking about? There’s nothing here but trees and hills.’


‘Why’d you reckon that is?’ Brit glanced back at the prince. ‘Not bad land around here. Not too rocky even though we’re near the quarries and the gold mines are off to the south there. Not bad here at all, but there’s nothin’. Just these trackways and the road to the Territory.’


Passing through the area on his way to the front, Ran hadn’t taken much notice of the surrounding countryside. To him, one farm seemed identical to the next, and for miles and miles, that’s all he’d thought there was to see. Now it was dark and the only faint light fell from the moon, filtered through bands of high cloud and treetops. If anyone lived nearby, their location would be marked by the glow from a farmhouse hearth, or the soft sounds of grazing animals, or working dogs barking in the distance. A bird or two, owls by their screeching, lifted off from nearby branches. Besides the whisper of their wings in the cool air, there was nothing.


Except…


‘There’s a house!’ Ran pointed at a shadowy structure of large square stones on a cleared hill crest a few hundred yards from the road. He jerked on the reins and kicked his horse harder than the animal deserved. Why spend a freezing night in the saddle when succour was so close?
‘Oi!’ Brit’s curse echoed in the silent valley. ‘What’re you doing?’


‘Getting us a bed!’ Ran shouted back without looking. Even a pile of hay in the barn would be enough. The tenants would surely lend the duke’s son some hospitality, especially on such a frigid night. A chill in the air promised the road would be icy by morning.


At a short stone fence before the house, he swung down and stumbled through a weathered gate jammed open on the path. No light shone from the uncovered window, and Ran reasoned the owner was likely preparing for bed in another room. He rubbed his numb hands together and reached to bang on the door.


‘No!’ cried Brit.


Ranoth’s fist hit the timber panel with a boom.


The door fell inward, splintering on the flagstone floor and the air in his lungs vanished. The impact should have echoed with an almighty crash, but Ran heard nothing. Stunned and wide eyed, he dropped to his knees and stared.


Human skeletons filled the room beyond from floor to ceiling.


There was no telling if a hearth or more rooms lay further in. Mounds of bones and skulls clogged up every available space, brilliant white and dull, dusty grey in the moonlight.
‘Shit…’ whispered Ran.


‘Come back towards me, lad.’ Brit’s hushed command reached him and he obliged, shuffling backwards.


‘What is this place?’ His voice broke.


‘Come on! This is no place to have a chat!’


Deep in the shadows of the house, the hollow eyes of a thousand skulls scrutinised his retreat. Did they wonder where he was going? Did they think he’d come to join them in their lonely countryside tomb? Ran knew the souls once dancing in those black voids were with the Dark Rider in the Underworld, but the fact didn’t ease his hammering heart or settle his quivering lips. The eyes of the dead glared, unmoved by his fear, and Ran gave a startled squeak when the gate pressed into his back, barring his way.


He blinked and she appeared—white blonde hair and skin as pale as the moon, translucent enough to see through to the heaps of skeletons. She lay unmoving across the doorway, between the threshold and the bones, long naked limbs pressed against the floor, her back exposed to the bitterly cold air through the fabric of a shredded shift. Her dead eyes stared into the space between them, unseeing, empty.


A shiver prickled across Ran’s skin. His heart hammered against the wall of his chest and his throat contracted around a scream, choking him as his mouth gaped at the body in the house.
He squeezed his eyes shut.


She’s in my imagination… She’s not real… Get a grip on yourself…


His eyes opened and hers blinked, now clear and blue. She paid no attention to Brit, the soldier was close to losing his wits as he screamed at Ran to get out of the yard. He had seen the ghost and the bones and was howling curses, promising to feed Ran his sword if he didn’t move. But his voice sounded far away, as if he were shouting across a yawning abyss.


‘Go,’ said the dead girl, blue lips moving in a whisper.


A cold hand reached inside Ran’s head and wrapped bony fingers around his mind. He shuddered and winced, pain lancing through his eye sockets.


‘Go, before they find you. They take all they find. Run…. Run! RUN!’


Ran’s jaw and body tensed then the grip on his consciousness eased and the girl’s eyes faded back to stone dead. Without warning her body lurched to the right, jerking and scraping across floor as if dragged by some unholy beast, before disappearing into the house.


Ran finally found his voice and screamed.


His legs scrabbled against the cold dirt of the pathway and a pair of hands snagged the back of his coat. He struggled but the grip was tighter, stronger, and his arms were unfit to fight the doom waiting in the house of bones.


‘Stop flapping about and get over the fence! By the Dark Rider’s balls, let’s go!’ The hands heaved him over the low wall and dumped him on the ground. He looked up and Brit gripped his jacket by the collar. ‘Up, now!’


Ran didn’t need to be told twice. He sprinted wildly for his unimpressed horse and collected the reins, his weariness banished by fear. Brit sprang into the saddle and spurred his mount, not waiting to see if Ran followed.

(Available at Amazon).

7 Responses to ‘Blood of Heirs. By Alicia Wanstall-Burke’

jl mumbles...

Posted October 29
This I must read. It pulled me along effortlessly, I raced to the end. Will buy now.

jl mumbles...

Posted October 29
Done. Hopefully the first of many US sales, Alicia.

insomniac has opinions thus...

Posted October 29
Agreed. You really can't stop reading.

jl puts forth...

Posted November 23
Took me a couple of weeks to get to it (very busy with research for another project), but darn am I glad I did. This book is very, very good. Loved the ending. Denizens of the 'Burger, check it out.

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alfettesfalconer puts forth...

Posted October 30
Yep, that's a page-turner for sure. I love the Australianisms too:

"I’ll ride across the bloody border and raze Wodurin to the fucking ground"

"I can’t have you here if this goes to shit."

"Fuck me, Tenner sound the retreat horns and get them to pull back like soldiers, not piss-weak children!"

Does any other nationality use piss-weak as an insult like Australians do? I hope not.

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jason asserts...

Posted October 31
Just picked it up for a little holiday reading, Alicia, Mr King and Marcus Zusak. Just a pity JL and JB don't have anything new out.

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AuntyLou ducks in to say...

Posted November 11
Jolly good stuff! So good that I bought it. Looking forward to the rest of the story.

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Extract. Immolation. Jason Lambright

Posted May 11, 2017 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

Battle Shock

December 2345 Earth Standard, planet H-476, 49.4 days after landfall

Sons of the mothers who gave you
Honor and gift of birth
Strike with the knife till blood and life
Run out upon the earth.

—Robert Leckie, “The Battle of the Tenaru, August 21, 1942”


Lt. Col. Paul Thompson was making a dying world die faster. His soldiers, Third Battalion of the 405th Infantry Regiment, were assaulting the Harpies’ last holdout on the world the human forces had labeled H-476. The unlovely, devastated planet lay deep in the Harpies’ sector of settled worlds. Humanity was making good its threat to destroy the aliens’ civilization; millions of soldiers were fighting on dozens of worlds to tear out the Harpies, root and branch.

It was an ugly, squalid, deadly affair, and Paul had been recalled from retirement to participate. And here he was, driving his soldiers forward into the bowels of Aerie 325. His Bravo Company was currently the “main effort,” and as Paul watched his stats on his helmet’s visual display, the people assigned to his unit were dropping like flies.

Paul was doing his best to save his soldiers. But when a soldier’s unit was picked to be in the vanguard of an attack on a heavily defended structure, there is only so much one soldier can do. And Paul had done everything in his power for his people. He had trained his soldiers, he led from the front during forty-nine days of combat, and he had used up his assigned Punishment Battalion.

The partial body at his feet attested to that fact. Paul glanced downward and noted the corpse was shrouded in a prewar M-15 armored suit. Only the damned in the Punishment formations used those things these days. Paul and his troops were in the new M-42s.

A few of the original six hundred or so convicts were still alive; they had done their one task well. They had been driven pell-mell at the aerie with area-denial bots at their backs and shaped charges in their hands. When they opened a breach in the aerie’s walls with their sacrifice, Paul’s battalion had been right behind them.

And now here he stood, in the basement of the aerie with bat-like mounds of Harpy dead and fragments of his people. His newly promoted staff surrounded him, and they all were laboring to bring this slaughter about. His line companies were pushing upward, clambering up walls, fighting along arches and ramps, and killing everything that moved. Progress was slow, but it was steady and grim.

Paul knew that once his battalion reached Command’s chosen figure of 50 percent casualties that they would be withdrawn, and First Battalion of the 405th would take his place. But that was no comfort to him at all. It meant that precisely 325 of his people had to die before this nightmare would be over.

That meant 325 families who would have to be notified that their dear one had suffered a “hero’s death” near a star not even visible from Earth.

Having been through the process before, Paul almost wished he would die here before having to do that again.

A flying Harpy crashed to ruin by Paul’s feet. Without a thought, Paul shot the creature with his pistol. Just to make sure, he shot it again. The sounds of battle, muffled by his helmet, droned in his ears. The rattle of an auto, the grating zing of a rail gun, the explosion of a round hitting rock, the clang of a suit blasted to ruin—these sounds were his intimate companions, and they were burned into his soul like a brand.

His wearable connectivity device, his halo, crackled. John Stevenson, his Bravo Six, was about to speak. “Dragon Six, this is Bravo Six,” Stevenson said.

Paul was Dragon Six, the commander of a battalion nicknamed the “Dragons.” How original, Paul thought for the umpteenth time. He replied to Stevenson.

“Send it, Bravo Six.”

“Uh, roger, sir. Be advised, my company has hit heavy resistance at the top of the ramp, requesting reinforcements.”

Paul glanced at his battle schematic. The ramp was a structure along his battalion’s main axis of attack; it probably led up toward this aerie’s command structure. It had to be taken; it was a bottleneck for further progress. Paul’s readout showed that Bravo had taken 41 percent casualties. In his mind’s eye, Paul saw the tracers and corpses and heard the confused staccato chatter on the squad and platoon nets. If he would have wanted to, he could have pulled up the battle from any of his troopers’ halos, alive or dead, and watched for himself. But he didn’t need to. He knew what combat looked like oh so well.

Bravo was going to have to suck it up.

“Request denied, Six. Rotate your people as we discussed earlier, and take that fucking ramp. Once you have done that, Alpha will do a passage of lines, and you guys go into the reserve. Any questions?”

Paul imagined Stevenson hated his guts right about now.

A pause. “No, sir, no questions. Bravo Six, out.” Stevenson’s voice sounded hollow and drained.

Paul sent out a prompt to his battle staff. He wanted to get closer to the main effort—that is, the ramp and Bravo Company. Of course, in his suit, he couldn’t see the expressions on his staff’s faces, but he knew they despised his idea. It wasn’t safe where they were now, let alone closer to the ramp. Without a word, he and his staff moved up a wall and passed in single file over an arch to get closer to the scene.

Some tracer rounds flashed past, and his supply officer’s suit automatically dodged a Harpy round. A crater flashed in his wake. Paul’s M-372 cannon barked. The distant, distinctive clank from a dead soldier’s suit being impacted sounded across the guano-filled void. Paul’s staff started to pass through Alpha Company’s area, his battalion reserve. They were getting closer to Bravo Company; the din of battle grew acute.

Alpha Company’s commander appeared in Paul’s visual.

“Dragon Six, this is Alpha Six. What’s up?” Subordinate commanders always wanted to know the scoop when the BC, the battalion commander, showed up in the area of operations.

Paul spoke to Lieutenant Tsongas’s image. “Headed toward Bravo. Sounds hot up there.”

He watched Tsongas nod. “Rog, sir,” Tsongas said.

Paul silently wished him luck.

Paul and his staff threaded past waiting troopers. He imagined he knew what they felt—namely, that they were next and that their deaths might be upon them. Paul had been one of them once; he had stood in their ranks what seemed like an eternity ago. And now, through the tricks of a cruel God, he was in command. And he had to crack this nut.

His own mortality didn’t weigh heavily on him; he had resigned himself to death long ago. What he worried about was the deaths of those in his command, even though they thought he was cold and cruel. When his people looked at him, they saw a prewar survivor, a veteran of Brasilia, and a hard-bitten, slightly crazed leader.

When he looked at himself, he saw a mess.

And now he was getting close to Bravo. He and his group were on the leading edge of Alpha’s area. Paul knew that if he looked around the corner he was behind, he would see the ramp.

The din of combat was a roar. Purple Harpy blood was splashed about with alien mortal remains, and every other square foot of the area contained a chunk of trooper. They were Paul’s troops—his responsibility.

He placed a call.

“Bravo Six, this is Dragon Six. Am approaching your AO. What is your situation?”

Stevenson answered, his voice a low, panting monotone. “We’ve taken the ramp. Come take a look.” He dispensed with the “sir.”

“Rog, Stevenson. Good work.” Paul took a second to push orders to Alpha, and then he continued. “Coming up.” He started to move, wondering if he was more likely to catch a round from the Harpies or from Stevenson. Paul pinged his staff and directed them to stay in place, but his major sergeant, Joanna Matherson, followed him.

As Paul cleared the corner, his eyes fell on the battlefield within a battlefield. It was a collage of stuff he didn’t want to see: a Harpy intertwined with a half suit; a trooper’s head; a large streak of Harpy blood on a wall, with the dead alien beneath it; a trooper cowering behind a chunk of something, holding her helmet with both hands; craters; smoke; and blood.

As fast as hell, Paul and Matherson beelined toward Stevenson’s position, clearing a path in alternating bounds. As Paul moved, he checked Bravo’s battle schematic and statistics. A squad from Bravo had gained the top of the ramp, and they were holding. Another squad was moving forward to consolidate the foothold. The rest of the company was waiting. When Paul looked at their stats, he realized that a lot of them would be waiting forever. Fifty-four percent of Bravo Company was dead. Sixty-seven of his soldiers were gone.

Stevenson awaited him by the ramp itself, behind some fallen arcane machine with holes blasted in it. Paul kicked a Harpy out of the way and moved by Stevenson. Matherson linked up with the new sergeant first of the company.

After a minute, Paul broke the silence. He looked at his schematic and saw Alpha was passing through Bravo’s position.

“Captain Stevenson, you are relieved,” Paul said.

“Roger, sir. I’m a lieutenant, though.”

Paul imagined Stevenson followed with a mental “dumb ass.”

“No, Captain, you aren’t,” Paul said. “Gather up your troops, and go into reserve once Alpha comes through. You’ve done enough for now.”

Stevenson didn’t say anything; he just rocked his suit in a manner that signaled “yeah.” Nothing more passed between them.

The first soldiers from Alpha Company passed the two men. They were moving fast and erratically across the ramp. Paul’s experienced eye judged them to be veterans. Paul heard the zing of the rail gun at exactly the same moment as he watched one of the troops die in a photo-strobe flash; the clang reached his ears a split second later. A trooper who was waiting by the ramp to cross over paused. The squad leader or platoon sergeant kicked him or her into motion.

That soldier died, too.

Paul knew that this was bad. No one else from Alpha was moving to cross the ramp, and the toehold on the opposite side had to be reinforced, now. He also knew that he hated chickenshits. He had hated them his whole career. One type of commander would order his men to die while chewing on a peanut butter sandwich, whereas another type would share the dangers and lead. Paul had known for a long time which type of commander he was.

He placed an all-call.

“Come on, fuckers.”

And he started to bound across the ramp.

1 Responses to ‘Extract. Immolation. Jason Lambright’

Rhino would have you know...

Posted May 13, 2017
Damnnnnnn

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A sample chapter before I go: The Cruel Stars.

Posted March 8, 2017 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

The rock turned silently within hard vacuum and the young woman with it. She pressed her nose to the porthole which fogged with her breath while she waited for night to sweep over this part of the base again. It would come, dark and frozen, within a few minutes, revealing the star field of the local volume, the vast blue-green pearl of the planet far below, and the lights of the nearest Hab, another naval station, like this hollowed-out moonlet, but not.

Lucinda waited for the stars. In the right mood, in a rare abstracted moment, she sometimes wondered at the way they wrapped themselves around you, seeming both intimate and infinite at the same time. As she wondered, dusk came pouring over the small mountain range to the east, advancing in a wave of fast shadows and lengthening pools of inky blackness. She could not see the darkness coming for her on this part of the rock, but she imagined it now swallowing the local area point defences and the gaping maw of the docks. The entrance to the port was always illuminated, but the lights would soon burn with a severe brilliance in the accelerated night.

She was not floating, but she still felt light and only barely in touch with the deck in the standard quarter-gee provided by the moonlet’s mass here at the surface.

“Lieutenant Hardy?”

Surprised out of her reverie, she jumped a little, reaching out reflexively to nearest wall to arrest herself before she could take gentle flight. She was embarrassed at being caught out so.

“Yes,” she said, her voice catching just a little as she turned away from the view, reorienting herself to the spare, utilitarian lines and angles of the transit lounge. As grim as were the outlines of the RAN base and the lunar surface from which its outer shell emerged, the transit lounge was altogether less pleasant to contemplate. At least she thought so after the third hour of waiting here. The glow strips on the carbon armour walls were old enough to need replacing months ago. Rows of hard o-plastic seating looked bleached and brittle under the weak lighting. She was the only other officer in the space. The only other person for the last hour. This part of the facility was restricted and foot traffic was thin.

“Sorry for the delay, ma’am,” said the young man, saluting. He was a second lieutenant, just out of the Academy she guessed from his age and eagerness and his eyes went a little wide as he took in the campaign ribbons on her jacket. He wore dark blue general duty coveralls and carried a sidearm low on his thigh. Lucinda, in her black and white dress uniform, felt awkward in spite of her advantage in rank and experience.

She returned his salute and tried to ignore the feeling that seemed to steal upon her with every new posting, that she was simply masquerading as an officer and would soon be found out.

“You have the advantage of me, Lieutenant…?”

He stared at her blankly for a second, amplifying that sense of dislocation and fragile pretence. Then he smiled.

“Oh. Sorry. You’re not plugged into the shipnet yet. Bannon, ma’am. Lieutenant Ian Bannon. Junior Grade.”

They shook hands, close enough in rank for the informal gesture. His eyes flitted briefly to the colored rows of decorations again, but she could forgive him that. He wore no decoration beyond the stitched half-bar on one collar tab.

“Sorry,” he said, when he realised she’d caught him checking out the fruit salad, but he smiled as he apologised. He had a boyish grin that Lucinda imagined had been getting him out of trouble his whole life. He looked very practised in its use. “They told me you fought in the Javan War,” he said, catching sight of her duffel bag under the front row of seats and reaching for it before she could. Lucinda almost told him not to. She preferred to look out for herself. But Bannon held the lesser rank and it would have been a slight to her if he had not offered. He lifted it carefully in the low-G, testing its mass. Nodding when had the measure of the load.

“They said you were promoted in the field,” he said, leading her toward the exit. “From ensign to lieutenant.”

His enthusiasm was getting away from him. Not looking where he was going, he banged his knee into a chair and cussed, then apologised for cussing. The bag floated up slowly, like an improbable novelty ballon.

“Whoa there,” he said, adjusting his grip and stance and nearly tumbling over while he wrestled the duffel bag and his own mass back under control.

“Damn,” he grinned. “Been in spin and ship grav too long.”

He shrugged off the moment where she would have blushed fiercely with embarrassment.

Lucinda found she could not help but like him. But also, she could not let him go on.

“Thank you,” she said, nodding at the bag. “But I went into the war as a baby Louie, just like you. And I came out a fully grown LT simply because it went on long enough for my turn to come around.”

Bannon, unconvinced, gave her a theatrically dubious side-eye as they exited the Spartan surrounds of the transit lounge.

“No. The Chief told me you were promoted in the field. And the Chief is never wrong. He told me that too.”

She shrugged and essayed a small uncertain smile.

“I would never want to correct a Chief Petty Officer,” she said—and she was not lying—“but the first promotion, from ensign, that wasn’t in the war. It was nothing, really. Just a small engagement during a counter-piracy patrol.”

“Okay,” he grinned, as though he knew she was hiding some greater truth. “If you say so.”

They walked down a long, wide corridor. The passageway twisted like an elongated strand of DNA, and curved down into the body of the rock. She could feel their descent in the slope under her feet and in the increasing pull of gravity. There were no more portholes to the surface, only screens carrying data feeds and imagery from around the base. At first they passed by no other personnel, but the traffic in automats and bot trains was moderate to busy, and once an Autonomous Combat Intellect floated past. They saluted the black, ovoid lozenge. It pulsed in acknowledgement, turning briefly purple, before a male voice, said, “Lieutenant Hardy, Lieutenant Bannon, good evening to you both.

The Intellect drifted on serenely.

They watched it disappear around the twisting curvilinear passage.

“Those guys,” said Bannon, shaking his head. “So chill.”

The corridor spiralled down for another five minutes. Lucinda’s duffel bag grew visibly heavy in her colleague’s hand. She did not so much make conversation as ride it downslope. Bannon, unlike her, wasn’t shy of talking about himself. By the time they left the long spiral passage they had completely inverted themselves relative to the surface and stood in a secure reception bay, enjoying one Earth-standard grav, provided by the moonlet’s power-assisted spin. She also knew all about Bannon’s family (wealthy but not yet ennobled), his service (just beginning), and the ship’s command group (pretty chill, except for…)

“Except for this guy,” he muttered out the corner of mouth.

“Bannon! Where the hell have you been?”

Hardy started at the barking voice, as much at the accent as the volume and sharpness. The rich, stentorian tones of someone who grew up at court on the Armedalan home-world were unmistakable, especially when the speaker made an extra special effort to gild their speech in gold leaf.

The reception bay was a small area, not much larger than the transit lounge where she’d spent so many hours. The walls and ceiling were bare rock, save for a thin but obvious coating of sealant, shining under the glow strips. Three of the four security checkpoints were closed. The fourth stood open and a man in day uniform stomped through. He wore the insignia a First Lieutenant and Bannon snapped to attention. Hardy stood at ease. The man did not outrank her. Not in any military sense.

His expression turned dark as he took in her lack of deference.

“Lieutenant Hardy?” he asked, giving her the impression that it was an onerous and unwelcome duty to even say her name.

“Yes, Lieutenant?”

She left the question open. For the merest second he had almost elicited a ‘Yessir!’ from her, his long experience of assumed privilege conspiring with her trained obedience to the chain of command to force a submission to which he was not due. Not while he served in uniform.

“You took your time, Lieutenant,” the officer complained.

He did not offer his name. Perhaps she was supposed to know him, or know of him?

“I was waiting at surface level transit, as per my travel orders… Lieutenant,” she said, annoyed by how much his tone of voice seemed to compel her to call him ‘sir’. Bannon, she sensed, remained at attention beside her.

Lucinda guessed herself to be in the presence of some minor scion of the Royal House, serving his three years before taking up a directorship on one of the Habs or possibly even down on the planet below. He was a First Lifer, like her. Like all of them. Junior officers were always First Lifers. After all, who would go back for a second bite of that cherry?

The anonymous princeling, or count, or whatever he was, lost focus while he consulted his neural net. A lieutenant, she reminded herself, he was just a lieutenant, like her, possibly with even less time in service. He stared through her and Bannon, who was still standing rigidly to attention and saying nothing. It was the first time he’d shut up since she’d met him. Lucinda was tempted to grab an image cap of the nameless officer and run a personnel search while he made them wait. See if she could track down his ‘legend’, the public record of his naval service. See if he’d been the sort of second or third tier wastrel who kept the scandal services and gossip archives busy before he had to sign on.

But she kept her interface shut down and her expression neutral. She didn’t want to give him the satisfaction. He seemed to getting altogether too much satisfaction from Bannon’s discomfort and her irritation.

His eyes came back from searching the middle distance and he smirked.

“A charity case, eh?”

She felt her cheeks beginning to burn and knowing that she was blushing only made it worse. Lucinda stared at him, refusing to drop her gaze. Her anger growing. Beside her, Bannon remained as silent and still as the hard vacuum outside.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Did Naval Records get it wrong?”

He made a show of checking his neural net again, although she doubted he even bothered pulling it up. He simply pretended.

“It’s says you were recommended for officer training school by Habitat Welfare because…” again, the play of consulting records, “…because your father was transported to a debtor colony.”

The still anonymous lieutenant sucked air in through his teeth. “I wouldn’t go lending money to this one, Bannon,” he snorted. “Would you?”

Bannon took just half a second too long to answer.

“Well?” asked the Lieutenant, sensing more fun to be had in that moment of hesitation. “Would you?”

Still at parade ground attention, Lieutenant Bannon seemed to be struggling to lift a great weight, as though Lucinda’s kit bag, which he still carried, had somehow increased its mass tenfold.

“If Lieutenant Hardy was in need of a loan, Lieutenant Reence,” he said at last. “I would be happy to help her. As, I’m sure, she would do for me.”

Lucinda smiled. She knew who he was now. Or who his family, at any rate. House Reence. And that was the same thing really.

“Of course I would, Ian,” she said.

Reence did not smile. He seemed about to double down on whatever game he was playing when he suddenly came to attention as rigidly as Bannon. Lucinda followed his lead. Something or someone behind her had brought the young man’s theatre of cruelty to an end.

“Ah. Excellent,” said a gruff male voice. It sounded bearish but kindly.

Lieutenant Reence performed a textbook salute.

Lucinda and Bannon followed suit as the eerily glowing, spherical jewel of an Autonomous Combat Intellect floated up at chest level. It was smaller than the Intellect they had passed on the upper levels. That had been oblong in form and at least a metre in length.

This entity was much smaller, a ship’s Intellect, rather than a Fleet Level adept. About the size and shape of a baseball, it looked like nothing so much as an itinerant blackhole, turned sentient and footloose.

“Is this our new tactical officer?” it asked, although it knew full well who she was. The Intellects knew everything. “Lieutenant Hardy? Welcome aboard, young lady. I’ve heard marvellous things about you from Admiralty, and from the Intellect 4717, who was with you during that spot of bother with those dreadful pirate fellows in the Archon System. Come along, Reence!” The Intellect scolded. “We have a genuine hero piping aboard. I hope you’ve seen to the supper arrangements. Captain Dickinson will expect the silver service. It’s not every day we welcome a Medal of Honour winner to the wardroom. Remind me again, Reence. Do you have a Medal of Honour? I can’t quite recall you winning one, which is odd, because as you know my memory is virtually infinite and actually infallible.”

The Intellect moved off with regal grace, clearing a path through the security barrier and humming a tune Lucinda thought she recognised from a musical she’d seen back on Armedale, during a rare weekend off from the Academy.

“You didn’t tell me about the medal,” Bannon stage whispered as they fell in behind the merrily humming super-intelligence. Lieutenant Reence stalked ahead of them, but behind the Intellect.

“The records were sealed,” she said.

The Intellect should not have known, and if it did know it should not have revealed that it knew.

But the Intellects were like that.

You never really knew that the hell they were thinking.

44 Responses to ‘A sample chapter before I go: The Cruel Stars.’

EMM reckons...

Posted March 8, 2017
Benevolent asshole AIs? Sign me up!

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WarDog reckons...

Posted March 8, 2017
Oooh, I'm going to like this one. How long do we have to wait?

John Birmingham puts forth...

Posted March 8, 2017
Who knows!?! It's trade published and I'm submitting in about six weeks. Could be later this year. Could be next.

Jerre asserts...

Posted March 12, 2017
HELL YES!!!!I like the sample...a lot.

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Therbs mumbles...

Posted March 8, 2017
I'm thinking that Reence gets his beans cashed in the maw of a Space Lizard's laser cannon set on full auto. Globules of Reence floating in zero g.

insomniac has opinions thus...

Posted March 8, 2017
I'm guessing Reence is a reference to Reince Priebus, of Trump's admin fame, who reminds me of Christopher Pyne, so yes, I agree wholeheartedly to the bean cashing and more.

John Birmingham puts forth...

Posted March 8, 2017
I do love Reince Priebus as a villains name. And Reence is too close to that. But maybe Reinz?

insomniac swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted March 8, 2017
I dunno, but this is why you need us

she_jedi swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted March 9, 2017
Yes you should totally get us to choose your villain names for you :)

LOVE THIS! Can't wait to see more.

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Surtac is gonna tell you...

Posted March 9, 2017
I'm loving this already. Want moar. Now.

<Goes to wait (im)patiently in the corner.>

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Jevon Kasitch swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted March 9, 2017
Very good fun. I like the world building already. Excellent character definition in so short a space.

Typo on the bottom of page 6: "He wore the insignia a First..."

I assume that should be "...of a First...'

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Gutz asserts...

Posted March 9, 2017
Coming from someone with zero writing chops and better suited to a Steve Buscemi style comic relief, i say Schwing!!

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Oldy ducks in to say...

Posted March 9, 2017
Possible typo?

P2
"...reaching out reflexively to nearest wall..." should it be "the nearest wall"?

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Bondiboy66 would have you know...

Posted March 9, 2017
Nice little appetizer! Looking forward to the main course!

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Surtac mumbles...

Posted March 10, 2017
Oh, and should it be 'what the hell' rather than 'that the hell' in that last line?

(Just had to re-read it this morning.)

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Gilligan would have you know...

Posted March 10, 2017
Super excite. The "Cruel Sea" audiobook was a staple of road trips in my youth (that and "633 Squadron"). I'm also loving the clear world building and 40s/Napoleonic mashup of tone re; officer class, etc..

For my devalued 2c, I'd suggest Reinz reads a bit easier and is nice and punchy. Will he be a Bennett, all shirker and bluster, or do we get a grudging respect 'cause he can actual do stuff?

10/10, would military sci-fi again.

Spanner would have you know...

Posted March 10, 2017
Brilliant. I read the Cruel Sea as a kid many times. J.E. McDonald's Gimmie the Boats.

Imma go download these to listen to again.

Gilligan mumbles...

Posted March 15, 2017
Several of the audio books we used to listen to Canberra-Sussex Inlet and 1CAMD-Sussex Inlet (both about 2-3 hours, depending on traffic) have particular passages that have stuck with me.

"Cruel Sea" has a post-torpedo description of dealing with casualties that includes a seaman holding an arm "flayed from wrist to shoulder by scalding steam", and the interaction between the new toff-y officer and the more experienced officers discussing Bennett and his use of the phrase "do not come the acid with me".

And all the Hitchikers' Guide audio book versions with partial soundscapes and a bit more production value than just some guy in a studio. And ready by Stephen Moore, so Marvin was definitely Marvin.

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Dave W would have you know...

Posted March 10, 2017
I very much like.

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Spanner ducks in to say...

Posted March 10, 2017
Shut up and take my money.

Oh wait you did that already.

Refunded it.

Dammit now take my money again.

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Blarkon asserts...

Posted March 10, 2017
There's space lizards and splosions coming though right? Character development kinda has to be there I suppose, but splosions and space lizard turn Space Opera into Space Literature.

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Turlogh Dubh O'Brien would have you know...

Posted March 11, 2017
I'd like to know more about the Javan War...I love little side notes like that. Needless to say, I'm hooked.

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NBlob would have you know...

Posted March 11, 2017
Good.
Tricky to put human scale drama in a very spacious neighbourhood.

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Sudragon is gonna tell you...

Posted March 11, 2017
Physics problem.

The base is spinning to produce 'gravity', with our protagonist 'not quite floating' in a quarter G (mass of rock gravity) at the outside edge of the asteroid and walking in one G (spin gravity) at the reception bay deeper within the rock. This is backward. If the spin produces one G at reception, the transit bay would have the windows in the floor and be running at more than one G, not a quarter.

John Birmingham swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted March 12, 2017
Would it, though. It's not just under the surface, or 'shell' of the moonlet. It's ON the surface. A quite conventional moonbase. That's why they have the DNA loop to turn you upside down as you go int the interior.

Sudragon is gonna tell you...

Posted March 12, 2017
Is the whole base spinning...or just an internal structure?

insomniac has opinions thus...

Posted March 12, 2017
It's a hollowed out moonlet so when they do the DNA thing are they now standing on the inside of the shell? Like an easter egg perhaps. I'm no physics genius but that works doesn't it? You're being pushed onto the "floor" by the spin, whereas on the surface you're being held by conventional mass gravity, although you have removed a lot of the mass now. The more mass you remove the weaker the gravity, and you'd need a pretty big moonlet to get quarter g. Earth sized maybe.

Sudragon mumbles...

Posted March 12, 2017
Hokay.

Using spin to make 'gravity', you have minimum radii you can use to prevent side effects from Coriolis forces (basically..things falling in curves from the viewpoint of the people spinning with the vessel. It's going to make Cricket interesting in the big habs, but I digress). One of these things is pressure gradients in the plumbing. (Human body...lots of plumbing...Bad Things happen)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_torus
1 rpm at 900m equals approximately 1 G. Outside edge of torus is moving at 2*pi*r per minute

thats 5655m/minute or 1.5m/s. 5.4 km/h.

Let's look at 'surface gravity' One quarter 'G' is about 2.54 m/s^2, putting the base in a body between the size of the Moon (1.62m/s^2) and Mercury (3.7m/s^2)

Surface gravity of Ceres, biggest local 'rock' (not counting Pluto) is one fortieth of a G (.27 m/s^2) and it has a diameter of 945 km.

I am not an astrophysicist. Or a rocket scientist.

insomniac ducks in to say...

Posted March 12, 2017
Agree on the moon/mercury g thing but that's the mass you need. A hollowed out moonlet would have to have a larger radius to achieve the same mass, and resultant quarter g.

insomniac mutters...

Posted March 12, 2017
All that plus
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terrarium_(space_habitat)

John Birmingham asserts...

Posted March 13, 2017
Insomniac gets the gold star.

insomniac is gonna tell you...

Posted March 13, 2017
I will proudly display it alongside my next greatest physics achievement: a C+ in an open book physics 101 exam.

Sudragon mutters...

Posted March 13, 2017
A question, if I may? Does our erstwhile Author confer with Military types concerning details of military attitudes, weapons and tactics?

John Birmingham mumbles...

Posted March 14, 2017
Sometimes. Mostly with Murph. IN this case though, because the series is so far in the future, I can just make shit up.

jason would have you know...

Posted March 14, 2017
Jason Lambright is my go to guy for any weaponry and tactical advice. Just reading his books gave me a good education in that sphere.

sharky has opinions thus...

Posted March 15, 2017
When is it supposed to be, in an Earth timeline like 2645 AD, or just "once upon a time, a long way away"?

John Birmingham puts forth...

Posted March 15, 2017
It's about a thousand years from now

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pedrogb swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted March 11, 2017
You guys are so thinky.
I enjoyed it, looking forward to a good read.
Splodey is good.

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Don Bagert reckons...

Posted March 12, 2017
Space opera?

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Rhino puts forth...

Posted March 13, 2017
Get in my Kindle!

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jl ducks in to say...

Posted March 14, 2017
This is the type of stuff that drew me into sci-fi as a kid and never let up. When it comes out, I'll put more pennies in the Birmingham Bank.

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Dave C reckons...

Posted March 15, 2017
Finally had time to read properly. Like much.

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HAVOCK21 mutters...

Posted March 15, 2017
FKN YEAH BABY!. Not to shabby at all bimminghum. She reminds me of a younger version of Jane Willet! yummy, very very fkn yummy!

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Varley puts forth...

Posted April 13, 2017
Thank God another book from John, I can't find a decent thing to read and am reduced to trolling through the sci fi section at amazon.

Cant wait for all of the projects you mentioned.

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Respond to 'A sample chapter before I go: The Cruel Stars.'

A Girl in Time. Chapter Two

Posted December 1, 2016 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

Georgia had argued that sushi was not a great choice on a cold, wet night in November. She wanted Greek, of course; her last name was Eliadis. But Cady loved sushi. They had hot dishes, too. And BuzzFeed Guy was paying.

“Matt. His name is Matt, not BuzzFeed Guy,” Georgia stage-whispered. He was away from the table when Cady arrived. “And you're going to give him a great interview, because he's going to be my new boyfriend, and he's going to give it to me six ways from Tuesday.”

The restaurant was about ten minutes from being crowded. The seats at the sushi train were all taken, and all but a couple of booths were full. They were in one of the booths, because you never ate from the train unless you wanted to catch an express ride to food poisoning. Four empty beer bottles on their table spoke to how well Georgia and BuzzFeed Guy—Matt—were getting along.

Cady made herself say his name five times so that she wouldn't forget. She would make herself say it at least twice in the first couple of minutes, just to fix it in her memory.

“Stop saying his name,” said Georgia, digging a knuckle into her ribs. “He's mine. You were too late. So don't think you can come in here with your sad little Jessica Jones look and steal my future husband away from me.”

Cady squealed and laughed and tried to slide away from her friend, and completely forgot the name of BuzzFeed Guy when she looked up and found him smiling at the pair of them from the end of the table. He was good-looking. Movie star good-looking. And even though she had promised herself she would remember his name, because that's what grown-ups did, one look at this guy and all rational thought climbed aboard the sushi train and choofed away, possibly never to return.

“Hi, BuzzFeed Guy,” she said.

“Hi, Murder Girl,” he volleyed back, sliding into the booth across from them, carrying three beers.

“Matt,” said Georgia, emphasizing his name, “this is Cadence McCall. Cady, this is Matt Aleveda. He will be your BuzzFeed journalist tonight.”

They shook hands while Cady struggled to think of something to say other than, "Oh my, you're cute." She could see why Georgia wanted to rush him out the door and into bed. All of her strategies for this interview, all of the carefully prepared little pull quotes she had already imagined featuring on the front page of the site between “Tay Tay and Beyonce’s Cage Match” and “37 Pictures of Dogs Who Just Can't Even Anymore” … they all flew right out of her head.

“You want to order?” he asked, saving her from the vast embarrassment of staring at him and saying nothing, just grinning like an idiot.

She nodded and swigged at her beer, mostly to hide behind the bottle for a couple of seconds to regain her balance. She felt Georgia kicking her under the table as if to say, "See, see, I said he was cute."

“I like the hot ones,” she said, before hurrying on. “The hot dishes, I mean.”

A bright hot flush bloomed somewhere beneath her tee shirt and spread to her face. She knew it was coming. Knew it was going to be bad. And that just made it worse.

“That's why we should’ve had Greek,” said Georgia. “Do you like Greek food, Matt?” she asked.

“My grandmother was Greek,” he said, his smile completely authentic. “She was a cook on a big cattle ranch down in Arizona. That's where she met my granddad. He was a vaquero, a cowboy from Mexico. So yes, I do like Greek food.”

“Then next time we go to Lola, and moneybags here pays.”

“Hey, I don't get paid for another month, you know,” said Cady.

“Okay then. Yanni's, and then Lola.”

“So you haven't made any money off the app yet?” Matt asked. “That seems almost weird. It's been number one for weeks now.”

“It takes a while to confirm the sales,” she said. “Sixty days, usually.”

Talking about her game, Cady started to recover her poise. It was as though the earthquake which had threatened to knock her on her ass stopped, leaving her shaken, but suddenly surefooted. The restaurant was getting noisy as more people came in to take the last seats, and the patrons who were already there raised their voices to talk over each other.

“Do you mind if I ask what sort of a payday you're looking at?”

She didn't mind at all.

“Four and a half million dollars initially. It'll fall away after that, after Murder City drops off the front page and then the best seller lists. But I can probably make do.”

She felt Georgia's foot tapping her ankle again.

What? Was she being a jerk? This was why her friend had come along with her. Cady wasn't always the best judge of what to say in these situations.

“Sweet,” said Matt, clearly impressed. “Explains all the clones.”

“They're garbage apps,” said Cady, and Georgia kicked her. Hard. Matt noticed.

“It's true,” Cady insisted. “They are. And I feel really strongly about this. I spent a long time working on that game. I maxed out my credit cards. Ate grungy rice and fish heads. I slept in a cot in front of my computer. I did the work. It paid off. I'm not going to be modest about it.”

“No reason to be,” Matt said as a waitress appeared to take their order. “If you were a guy, it wouldn't be an issue.”

Georgia dug her fingers into Cady's arm.

“Mine,” she whispered.

Matt reminded them he was picking up the tab, and they over-ordered. Cady doubled up on the tempura seafood platter with an extra serve of Dungeness crab.

“Rice and grungy fish heads, remember?” she said when Georgia gave her The Look.
They discussed the games industry: “Nintendo should just give up on hardware.”
Sushi trains: “Most of the time they're like, “This is what comes back on the train line from the toxic waste factory.”

And the latest superhero movie, another failed Green Lantern reboot. A particular hate-favorite of Cady's.

“The love interest dragged. Again. The super villain was more sentient smog bank than relatable nemesis. Again. And while you have to love the idea of the green man's powers—your flight, your mad awesome combat skills, a workable indestructibility, and that whole of energy-into-mass conversion thing—they just didn't sell me on the Lantern having any chance at kicking Superman's ass, which is the gold standard in these matters. One star. Would not even torrent.”
Matt was recording the conversation by then.

“So, you guys. You're besties, right? Where'd you meet?”

“College. At a self-defense workshop,” said Georgia.

“Seriously?”

“Seriously. Have you seen the data on campus rape?” said Cady, using a pair of chopsticks to awkwardly move a large piece of fried crab meat into her bowl.

“So you're like unstoppable killing machines of death?” he asked, with poker-faced sincerity.

“Worse,” Georgia answered. “Female game devs.”

“Our superpower is ruining everything,” said Cady.

“So, Georgia, did you help Cady on Murder City?”

“Nope. It's all her own work. She doesn't play well with others.”

“It's true,” said Cady. “I'm just a girl with mad coding skills, but no people skills.”

“And your diagnosis,” Georgia prodded. “Don't be modest. You're a high functioning sociopath too.”

“According to 4Chan.”

Matt took out a Field Notes reporter’s notebook. It looked to be about half full already.

“According to Reddit,” he said, flipping through the pages, “you're an insufferable lesbian, and every boy you ever dated died mysteriously after placing five-star reviews of Murder City in the gaming press.”

“The technical term is ‘corrupt gaming press’.”

“I stand corrected.”

“You're actually sitting down,” Georgia teased. “This is why nobody trusts the media anymore.”

More food arrived. More food than they needed.

The restaurant was uncomfortably hot and noisy with the crowd by then. A family moved into the booth behind Matt, a single dad and three daughters. They looked young, the oldest possibly not even in school yet, and they were hideously excited. Their father looked pained as the girls launched themselves at the moving buffet.

“Choose careful, girls. I only got thirty bucks to get us through. Maybe some avocado rolls?”

Cady was looking directly at him when he spoke, and his eyes locked on hers, his voice trailing away at the end, the three hungry children ignoring him completely. She felt herself blushing again. Without asking Georgia or Matt, she grabbed the plate of hand rolls which had just arrived at their table, stood up, and walked them back to the next booth.

“We over-ordered,” she said. “You should have these.”

The girls fell on the food.

“Rocket ships!” the oldest one cried out.

Their dad started to say, “That won't be necessary—”

But Cady spoke over him.

“Yeah it will. We ordered too much. Chill. It's all good.”

She spotted their waitress a few tables over, and before anyone could stop her, she marched over, pointed out her booth and the family next to it, and explained she would be paying for the little girls and their dad. Satisfied, she returned to Georgia and Matt. He was smiling crookedly at her. Georgia was not smiling at all.

“What?” she asked, slipping back into her booth.

“Nothing,” said Georgia, in a tone of voice that said everything.

“I'm gonna just … go the bathroom,” said Matt.

“What are you doing?” Georgia whispered fiercely when he had excused himself.

The embarrassment Cady felt when the girl's father had caught her looking at him returned, doubled in strength. She dared not look in his direction.

“Shut up,” she said, in as low a voice as she could and still be heard. “I was just helping.”

“You're not,” said Georgia. She flicked her eyes over the back of Matt's seat. The guy was still sitting in the booth, his daughters oblivious to any disturbance in the Force.

But even Cady could tell now there was a great disturbance in the Force. The man was concentrating fiercely on his food, staring at the hand rolls—“rocket ships!”—as if defusing a time bomb. The three girls feasted merrily, but he did not eat at all.

“We'll talk about this later,” said Georgia, “but promise me you won't do anything stupid to look good for Matt again. Anything else,” she added.

Embarrassment threatened to flare into anger then, but Cady got a hold of her temper before it broke free.

“I don't know what you mean,” she said.

“Yes, you do,” Georgia shot back. “You were being selfish in that very special way you have, Cady. When you don't think about anyone else. Just yourself and what's best for you. But I said we'd talk about it later.”

“No, we'll talk about it now.”

Her anger was returning, like a wrestler who had been pinned suddenly finding a way out of the hold down.

“I wasn't being selfish. I was thinking about—”

Georgia leaned right into her personal space.

“You were thinking about how it would look when Matt wrote you up as the most generous girl in the world. But that's not how it will turn out, trust me, because that's not how it is.”

She almost left then.

Almost stormed out into the cold.

She could even see herself slamming her last sixty-three dollars down on the table of the booth next door. And it was only that image, of a crazy woman throwing money and shade at three little girls and their poor single dad which brought her up short.

Maybe she had been a jerk?

Maybe she was insufferable?

Considering the possibility was enough to drain her foul temper. It was like losing herself in the effort of solving a really complex coding problem.

She took a sip of her beer.

“Okay,” she said, quietly, being even more careful not to catch the eye of anyone in the next booth.

Not the children, and certainly not the father she'd probably embarrassed.

Humiliated, even.

“But now I gotta pay for their dinner, too,” she said quietly, knowing Georgia would understand what she meant. Georgia knew her better than she knew herself. “Can I borrow some money? Or do you think we can hit up BuzzFeed Guy for it?”

11 Responses to ‘A Girl in Time. Chapter Two’

Peter Bradley ducks in to say...

Posted December 1, 2016
Again with the strong female characters! Outstanding work!

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insomniac has opinions thus...

Posted December 1, 2016
What if I spot an error?

John Birmingham reckons...

Posted December 1, 2016
Let me know.

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insomniac mutters...

Posted December 1, 2016
Top of page 9 Matt's line... go to the bathroom

John Birmingham asserts...

Posted December 1, 2016
Ta

John Birmingham would have you know...

Posted December 2, 2016
Actually, now I look at it, I did that on purpose. Some people do speak like that. But I might change it, since it obviously brought you up short.

insomniac asserts...

Posted December 2, 2016
I thought it might have been deliberate, but yes it did stand out a bit, but then I'm the type of person who writes out texts in full. You're the master, I'm the slave I mean alpha.

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balri mumbles...

Posted December 1, 2016
So...ah...chapter 3 tomorrow? I'm hooked

John Birmingham mutters...

Posted December 1, 2016
Oh all right then.

GhostSwirv has opinions thus...

Posted December 2, 2016

No keep it as is ... Matt's a reporter, he's picked up on something and he's given Cady and Georgia a moment.

I heard it right in my head - saw it too!

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Therbs has opinions thus...

Posted December 2, 2016
I don't now what the hell to expect with this book. I'm now figuring what I need to finish on the Kindle before you get all PETA on this thing and free it from its cage.

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Respond to 'A Girl in Time. Chapter Two'

A Girl in Time. Chapter One

Posted November 30, 2016 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

In twenty-nine days, she would be rich.

Cady was almost dizzy with the thought, although it might have been sleep deprivation, too. And maybe a little hunger. That was her own fault, she knew, as she leaned forward into the glow of the iMac.

But it didn't matter.

Because in twenty-nine days, she would be rich.

She shivered in the cold. The tiny studio apartment was unheated except for the valiant efforts of a cheap, Chinese fan heater plugged into one of three power boards under her desk. It was also dark, except for the computer screen and the small constellation of status lights on various pieces of equipment.

Cable modem. Power boards. Macbook Pro. Mister Coffee. A big ass Beoplay A9 kicking out The Funkoars “What's Your Malfunction?” at half volume.

Still loud enough to shake the building.

It was a gift, the A9. Or maybe a bribe, or some sort of enticement. She wasn't quite sure. But she did know she couldn't afford that level of awesome. Some guy from Electronic Arts had sent it over when the game hit number one on the paid App Store.

And stayed there.

And stayed there.

She rubbed at the gooseflesh on her upper arms, warming herself with the friction and the satisfaction of staring at her Sales and Payments pages on iTunes Connect.

Murder City was still number one.

“Suck on that, Pikachu.” She smiled, and her mouth formed an attractive bow, but there was nobody else in the one-room apartment to see it and smile back.

Cady McCall did not much care, because in twenty-nine days, Tim Cook would back a truckload of money up to her front door, and she would be rich.

She checked her watch, her Dad's old Timex, a wind-up piece of analog history. He'd worn it to the factory every day until he retired. Almost time to get going, but she thought she had just a few minutes to check her reviews. Never read the reviews, they said, and they were right. But most of Cady's, like ninety-five percent of them, were four and five stars. Mostly five. And the gimps giving her the one-star write-ups were universally hilarious. Mouth-breathers, all.

She'd made a Tumblr out of them. It was hugely popular, and the affiliate ads linking to her app on iTunes were unexpectedly lucrative.

Suck on that, gimps.

The Funkoars closed out their rap. They gave up the A9 to Tony Bennett getting his groove on with Michael Bublé, a duet of “Don't Get Around Much Anymore”.

That was the good thing about living alone, one of the many excellent things about living alone. She could play whatever the hell music she wanted, as loud as she liked to play it. And she liked it loud. Her studio was on the top floor of a four story warehouse, an old cotton mill.

Solid brick. Bare wooden floors. Big picture windows overlooking Puget Sound.

Cool, right? But apart from a sweatshop on the ground floor, she was the only occupant. The brickwork badly needed repointing with mortar, the wooden floors were scored and dangerously splintered in places, and you couldn't see out of the windows. They'd been painted over sometime in the 90s. The building was marked for demolition, the whole block for redevelopment, which was how she could afford the space. She had no lease, no security of tenure.

Again, didn't matter.

Twenty-nine days.

Her phone chimed. A message from Georgia.

Already here. BuzzFeed guy 2. Where r u?

She quickly sent back a canned response.

On my way!

Cady stood up from the desk, closing the windows on her reviews without bothering to read the new ones, but pausing with her hand hovering over the mouse before logging out of Connect. She couldn't take her eyes off the estimated amount of her first payment.

Georgia responded to her canned reply with an emoji. A skull and a flame.

Die in a fire.

That broke the spell. Cady smiled. She could afford to smile. In twenty-nine days, four and a half million dollars would drop into her bank account. They would probably invite her to WWDC. She might even demo.

The phone rang while she was throwing on a leather jacket and scarf. It was cold outside, and probably wet.

Because Seattle.

The call came in on her landline, giving her the excuse she needed to bust out an epic eye roll. It would be her mom. Only her mom called her on the landline. She only had the landline because of her parents, who were convinced her Uncle Lenny had died of a brain tumor from his cell phone, which he was always yammering on when he was alive, God rest his soul.

Uncle Lenny also smoked two packs of unfiltered cigarettes a day and liked a shot of rum in his coffee.

He drank a lot of coffee.

Cady totally would have answered the call, but she was running late, and Georgia was half way gone to getting pissed at her. And that was why she had an answering machine anyway, because she just didn't have time, and her parents trusted voicemail about as much as they trusted cell phones not to shoot death rays directly into your head.

And the idea that they might just send a text? You know, something efficient?
Forget about it.

“Hi, Cadence, it's your mom.”

The old familiar voice, a little tinny through the cheap speakers. Cady dropped the volume on Tony and the Boob, but did not make the mistake of picking up. That could delay her by up to half an hour, and she had people waiting.

Better to call back in the morning.

“Your dad clipped another couple of stories for you today. He's sending them in the mail tomorrow.”

A pause. Probably waiting to see if Cady picked up. But if she picked up, she'd get in trouble for screening the call, because her mom knew how small the apartment was, and she had no excuse for not answering already. Best to pretend she was already gone.

An almost inaudible sigh.


“You should call your dad, Cadence. He's not been well. I think some days searching the google for stories about you is what gets him out of bed in the mornings. He's very proud of you, darling. You should call.”

She almost picked up then, but Melville started yowling for dinner, and she didn't have time for him either.

“Go catch some rats,” she said, using the toe of her Doc Martens to push the protesting tabby cat out of the front door.

There were always rats. Hence, Melville.

Her mother's voice was lost in the rumble of the heavy steel door sliding in its tracks. The cat looked up at her as if to say, “Well, where's the beef, bitch?”

“Rats,” she said. “I mean it. Earn your keep, pretty boy.”

The landing outside her apartment was dark. The bulb had blown months ago and was too difficult for her to reach. It hung on a wire over the stairwell. She could almost reach it, if she was willing to risk a broken neck. There was no point calling the building owner. They weren't coming out to change a light bulb. She wondered sometimes if they even collected the rent from the account she paid into.

Cady didn't care. She used the flashlight on her iPhone. She juggled the phone and the padlock on her front door with practiced ease.

The cat yowled again, suspecting the worst.

It was even colder in the stairwell. Maybe cold enough to freeze the water in the pipes again.
Twenty-nine days.

Four and a half million.

Her boots sounded louder than usual on the concrete steps and she wondered if something about the temperature of near freezing air amplified sound waves. It made sense, but that didn't mean it was right.

She would've made a note to ask Jeremy the next time she saw him. He was a sound engineer at Square Enix. He'd know, and not knowing was bugging her now that she'd thought about it.
She didn't make a note though.

She had the phone in her hand, but only an idiot would hurry down a darkened staircase in an empty building, thumb typing on her phone. For sure she'd trip and break her neck or something and then who’d spend all her money?

The sweatshop was closed up and quiet as she swung around the landing on the first floor. That was unusual. Russians ran that place, and they normally worked those Asian women until late at night, seven days a week. She checked the time on her phone. It was still early, although she was now more than a few minutes late for dinner.

Maybe the Russians had moved on. Maybe Immigration had caught up with the women.
Unlike the question about whether cold air amplified sound waves, the fate of the sweatshop wasn't something likely to keep her up at night. She'd be gone from this dump soon anyway.
Her phone buzzed with another message from Georgia.

BuzzFeed guy is cute! Don't hurry.

That was good then, she thought, as she hit the street and pulled the main door of the building closed behind her. The deadlock engaged with a loud click. She put the phone away and started walking toward the restaurant. It was a couple of blocks away, not long if she hurried. She was trying to kick the habit of staring at a phone while she walked. She'd seen a guy slam into a telephone pole doing that, and in this part of town you needed your wits about you anyway.

“Cady, I don't like you walking the streets at night the way you do,” her mother said pretty much every time they spoke. Another reason for not picking up that call a few minutes earlier. “You live in such a rough part of town, dear.”

And she did, but Cady McCall was not a victim in waiting. She had a can of mace in one pocket of her leather jacket, and she'd packed a small but sturdy LED flashlight in the other. It threw out a wicked bright beam, enough to blind anyone she light-sabered with it. And held in the fist, it made a great improvised weapon. The sort of thing douchebros called a “tactical” piece.

The rain she had feared was less a drizzle than a really heavy mist. She'd be damp, but not soaked, by the time she walked the few blocks to dinner. Cars drove past every minute or so, going in both directions, their headlights lancing into the darkness like searchlights in old war movies.

Some women, and a lot of men, cannot help but look vulnerable when caught on their own. Moving through an empty landscape, they seem to invite threats. Cadence McCall was not like that. She was not overly tall, but long legs and thick hair that fell halfway down her back made her seem taller. She carried herself through the night with a confident stride, her boot heels clicking on the wet sidewalk. It was real confidence, too, not just a show for anybody who might've been watching.

She was somebody who felt at ease on her own.

And anyway, she wasn't worth mugging.

Until her iTunes money dropped, she had sixty-three bucks to her name.

11 Responses to ‘A Girl in Time. Chapter One’

Dave Barnes is gonna tell you...

Posted November 30, 2016
Appetite whetted. Deal me in.

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insomniac mumbles...

Posted November 30, 2016
It looks so different once it's been set out. I wonder if it makes a difference in beta. There is an element of looking easier to read.

John Birmingham ducks in to say...

Posted November 30, 2016
I'm doing the final check on my Kindle. It makes a HUGE difference. You see things that your eyes just slid over in a word processor.

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Ceramic reckons...

Posted November 30, 2016
Cor, she seems great. I reread the bit about her walking twice. Love the confidence you've depicted.
Looking forward to the book!

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Dave W swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted November 30, 2016
Looking forward to it!

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DarrenBloomfield swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted November 30, 2016
It looks so cool all tarted up out of DB Paper!

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NBlob swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted November 30, 2016
A free taste, then jack up the price when the mark is hooked.

Nice.<Br>
C'mon man, a taste, a builder, just a smidge.

You know I'm good for it.

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she_jedi ducks in to say...

Posted December 1, 2016
WANTWANTWANTWANT!! Can't wait for this, the first hit was great, now I'm jonesing for the rest :D

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Bondiboy66 is gonna tell you...

Posted December 1, 2016
I await with bated breath

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GhostSwirv mutters...

Posted December 2, 2016

I soooooooooooooo want to know what message Mom left on the voicemail - I bet it's important!

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Scott mumbles...

Posted January 3, 2017
Hey there, are you going to bring this book to Audible? I think most of your books would be great there.

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Respond to 'A Girl in Time. Chapter One'

Prologue. Stalin's Hammer: Paris

Posted October 6, 2016 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

They came like ghosts from the future, but Gracie wasn't scared of them. She was something like a ghost herself, the way she spooked around the prison camp, running errands and messages for the women, avoiding the guards, hiding food and medicine from them, even sneaking into the hut where the Japanese kept their own supplies and stealing away with a tin of beans and a small bag of rice. She only did that once, though. When the Japanese found out somebody had stolen their food, they had been very angry and had done terrible things to the grown-ups. They had beaten the little girls and some of the boys with canes too, but what they did to the grown-ups was worse – so bad that for a long time Gracie was convinced it brought the ghosts.

She was the first to see them.

Some nights, when she could not sleep because she was too hungry or scared, she slipped out of the cot she shared with two other girls, and padded to the far end of the long hut. There was a loose floorboard near the second last bunk. She could easily lift the plank, using a knothole big enough for three of her fingers. It wasn’t even nailed down, and Gracie was so thin she could squeeze through the gap, dropping to the warm, damp soil underneath. There wasn’t enough room to get up on her hands and knees under the floorboards, but that was okay. It reminded her of the house where she’d grown up back home in Kansas, before Daddy had taken them all to Manila to help General MacArthur.

She’d crawled around under that house too, even sleeping under there in summer with her dog, Boo. It made her happy to recall those days. She liked it under the hut in the jungle prison because the Japanese didn’t know she was there. It was almost as though she had escaped them and she could go anywhere and do anything she wanted. But she could only pretend, of course. Gracie knew that if she did escape, the guards would do terrible things again to everyone she left behind. She knew because they said they would and they were bad men. If they said they’d do a bad thing, you could believe them.

The night the ghosts came she crawled right to the edge of the shadows, where the small verandah that surrounded the hut cut off the moving light from the guard tower. She would just watch the guards for a while, she thought. She would watch where they went. Perhaps she would count how long it took them to move from one place to another in the camp. That was a good game and it was useful sometimes to know those things, like when she had to carry a message or some food or medicine past the Japanese. It was always better to simply avoid them than to make up a lie explaining her presence in the wrong hut or some other place.

She lay in the soft soil, ignoring the insects that crawled over her while she watched. When she had first left Kansas, and come here to the far side of the world, the insects had frightened her, but she wasn’t frightened of them anymore. She hardly noticed them and, besides, she had so many other things to be scared about. She was always frightened of getting in trouble with the guards, of being beaten or caned. She was frightened of getting sick, because lots of times when people got sick here they didn’t get better. She was really, really frightened that she would get everyone in trouble again if the grown-ups asked her to get more food or medicine. She wasn’t sure what she would do if they asked. But so far they hadn’t. Not since last time.

These fears gnawed away like the hunger pains in her stomach. They were constant, but mostly dull. The fear that sometimes came upon her like a Kansas storm, boiling up quickly out of clear blue skies, was the fear she had for her parents. They weren’t in Camp 5 with her. Gracie had no idea where they might be and sometimes, if she let herself think about it, she could go all but crazy with worrying that she would never see them again. When she was very sad, which was often, Gracie thought it was best not to think about them at all, because when she did, her thoughts ran away from her, with a wolf on their heels. But if she didn’t think about them, sometimes she found it hard to remember all of the things that made them Mommy and Daddy and that was even worse.

It was best, she had found, to imagine her parents playing a game with her. Watch the guards. Count the steps. Guess where they will turn up next. Daddy would love that game, and Mommy would be so pleased that Gracie was good at it. Her mother always told her to be the best at everything she did.

“Charlotte-Grace,” she would say, “you must always do your best at everything. You do not need to be the best. Just your best.”

So Gracie liked to play the watching game on nights like this, and imagine her parents watching her. That was how she saw the ghost.

At first, of course, she did not actually see the ghost. She could only see what happened when he came. One of the guards was slowly marching up and down outside the wire, the moonlight glinting on the hooked bayonet of the rifle he carried at his shoulder. Gracie was counting his footsteps. Thirteen steps from the corner to the bushes with the bright red flowers. You couldn’t see the flowers in the dark, of course, but she knew they were there. Another ten steps to the big anthill. Fourteen steps beyond that to the little hand-painted sign with the pirate flag on it. The guard would turn at that point, because the skull and crossbones meant there were landmines. He would retrace his steps, while Gracie counted them.

Fourteen to the anthill.

Ten to the red flower bush.

Thirteen ...

But the guard did not return to the corner post. He seemed to disappear into the night, as though the jungle shadows had grown hungry watching him and they had ...

The shadows had snatched him away.

Fast. So very fast. And quiet too. Because shadows don’t make noise.

Gracie blinked and nearly rubbed her eyes, trying to make sense of what she had just seen, or not seen. Then she remembered how dirty her hands got under the hut and she cleaned them on her tattered shirt before blinking again and carefully rubbing just one eye with the palm of one hand. She had learned that trick here under the hut too. Do not blind yourself. If you have to rub your eyes, do it one at a time, carefully. And don’t rub dirt in there. The dirt here had lots of germs.

She expected to see the guard again when she next looked, but he was gone – disappeared as completely as her mother and father. Swallowed by the night.

And then she saw the ghost.

At first it was just a darker patch of night moving at the edge of the jungle. Then it took the shape of a man. The dark figure floated over from the edge of the jungle and kneeled in front of the tall barbed-wire fence, just before the flower bush.

Gracie nodded.

The ghost was smart.

Gracie knew that part of the fence could only be seen from the small exercise yard in front of it. The view from the guard tower was blocked by a water tank on the roof of Hut 23. The guards in the main compound could not see the fence because two other huts blocked their view. That’s why there was always a guard marching up and down that line of fence, night and day.

But now the guard was gone and the shadow kneeled at the fence, doing something to the wire. The cry of night birds, the bark of the fire lizards and the many sounds of the jungle were so loud that she could not hear what happened next, but she did not need to. Gracie knew. The ghost was cutting through the wire.

Her heart swelled like a water balloon filled too quickly, growing so big and full so fast that she thought it might burst. For one mad moment she thought it must be her daddy, come for her, but she was not silly and she put that thought away. Her daddy was not coming, no matter how much she might want him to. More ghosts emerged from the darkness of the jungle and she could see now that they were men. They carried guns. Their heads looked strangely misshapen, as though tiny machines grew from them; binoculars or telescopes, she imagined.

Gracie would have been scared, but she had seen the ghost make the Japanese guard disappear. She knew that the guard would not be coming back, just like her parents, and she wormed herself into the moist, dark soil of the jungle prison camp, letting it enfold her in a hug, clenching her fists and smiling at the ghosts with guns and telescopes for eyes. Her smile grew positively vulpine when the night exploded into fire.

###

Gracie did not emerge from her hiding place until the morning sun was high and hot enough to raise wispy tendrils of mist from the pools of rainwater that lay about the camp. It rained almost every day, always in the afternoon. In the mornings, as the terrible heat built up, most of the puddles evaporated, but they never dried out completely and Gracie always looked as though she was wearing dark socks from the mud which clung to the bottom half of her legs. The sun came up as always that morning too, but not all the pools of monsoon water evaporated in the usual way. Some were stained deep red with blood and these dried into a sticky brown sludge that even she would not like to walk through.

The ghost soldiers, as she thought of them, even though she knew now that they were not ghosts, had killed or captured all of the Japanese very quickly. They were very brave. She had watched as one of them stood perfectly still while an angry Japanese officer charged at him with a sword. Everyone was terrified of the sword. The officer, a Lieutenant Onishi, had used it to chop the heads off some Australian soldiers when Gracie was first in the camp. But the ghost was not scared, possibly because Lieutenant Onishi’s pyjama pants were falling down, somewhat ruining the fearsomeness of his banzai charge. The ghost seemed to regard Onishi with real interest for a moment, and then his strange-looking gun fired and Lieutenant Onishi’s head came right off, just like the Australians’ had.

Gracie had to smile at that. It was funny how things worked out.

The fighting was over long before the sun peeked above the tree line. Gracie had to crawl around under the hut to watch it all. After the ghost soldiers came through the wire, not much happened in that part of the camp. To see the fighting she had to belly crawl all the way to the other end of the hut where she had a much better view of the main compound. She could see the guard tower from there, or most of it anyway. She dared not get too close to the edge of her hiding place. More than once she saw bullets chewing up the earth just in front of where she lay. But she also got to see the hated tower brought down in a roaring explosion, bigger and louder, and much better, than any fireworks she had ever seen. Not too long after that she heard heavy boots on the floorboards above her, and more guns firing, and the women screaming and guards yelling. But that didn’t last very long.

More soldiers came. They arrived in the strangest airplanes, which had no wings and the biggest propellers you could ever imagine right on top of them. They sometimes hovered in the air like hummingbirds but she knew they were warplanes because every now and then they would roar away and shoot machine guns and even rocket bombs into the jungle. Gracie could feel the explosions in her chest, through the ground. The terrible force of them was just like an earthquake, or even a volcano. She had seen a volcano once, when she first flew to Manila with her parents. It had been a long way away, but even seen through the window of their plane it was very scary.

Gracie did not reveal herself when the fighting was over. Not at first. What if the Japanese came back? She knew that the guards in the camp were not the whole of the Emperor’s army. And they weren’t his best soldiers either. Not at all. There were thousands of Japanese army men on this island alone. Maybe millions! The ghost soldiers could not fight them all. And so Gracie remained hidden for many hours until she was certain the Japanese were not coming back.

Once or twice she heard the women and some of the other children calling for her and she almost went, but you did not just drop the habits of survival like an old towel. She even heard some of the ghost soldiers, revealed now to be men and women – women! – calling for her but she stayed curled up in the dirt, content to watch and wait. As amazing as their rescue was, she made other intriguing discoveries as the hours went by. She watched, disbelieving, as a black woman barked orders at two white men and they jumped to her command.

That was partly why she stayed hidden.

It was all too much to take in. There was part of her which simply could not believe it was happening.

It was only when she smelled food, real food, for the first time in months that she was tempted out of hiding. The newcomers had set up a little kitchen and a team of cooks in oddly patterned uniforms heated giant pots of soup and baked fresh loaves of bread.

Well not really fresh, she thought, as saliva squirted into her mouth. They didn’t roll the dough like her mother would.

“Charlotte-Grace, if a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing properly.”

She had observed one of the cooks taking the white, doughy, uncooked loaves from a big cardboard box before putting them into an oven. These strange people brought an oven to the jungle? Would their wonders never cease?

“Gracie!”

She flinched from her name, scuttling right back under the hut, into the safety of the shadows. But they had seen her – Mrs Ritherdown specifically – and there was no escaping once you fell under her gaze. She was a nurse and nearly as fearsome and scary as the guards.

“Gracie, you come out here right now. You’ve had us worried sick, young lady. Come on. Out you come.”

And out she came. Out of the darkness and into the day where impossible machines hovered in the sky, and bread rolls baked, and soup bubbled in a pot and Mrs Ritherdown fussed over her and told her off and brushed her down and announced to everyone that she was found and she was safe.

Now that Gracie was revealed and pulled directly into the mad rush and swirl of events, the full scale of what had happened broke over her like a big wave at the beach. The camp was a scorched and half-demolished ruin. Their former guards had been put to work digging a giant hole into which the bodies of more guards would presumably be dropped. They were piled high in an obscene mound near the charred wreckage of the guard tower.

More of the Japanese, including the camp commandant, Colonel Tanaka, stood glumly on the other side of the pit, guarded by giant soldiers in uniforms Gracie had never seen before. She was confused. The soldiers had American flags on their uniforms, but wore German helmets. There was no missing the distinctive coal bucket shape of them. They were Americans though, no doubt of it. She could tell from the voices. Plus, as best she knew, there were no black or Asian soldiers in the German army. She wasn’t sure about the Asian ones, but she knew for sure there were black soldiers who drove trucks and things for America. Apparently they did secret stuff like this, too.

Gracie waited impatiently to eat, standing with the ladies from Hut 23, including Mrs Ritherdown. They didn’t say much, the grown-ups. Now that all the excitement was over, they seemed even quieter than usual, although there wasn’t much point in talking. It was hard to hear over the noise of the strange wingless planes that came and went from Camp 5 with a terrible thudding roar. Gracie tried to ignore the rumbling in her tummy as she watched a lady soldier come stomping out of one of the aircraft. Right out of its belly! The lady soldier was dressed just like the giants guarding Colonel Tanaka and his men, but she had a red cross on her uniform. She was a nurse then and she looked even fiercer than Mrs Ritherdown.

The angry lady stormed right up to their little gathering, ignoring the Japanese at first. She looked at Gracie, noticing her among all of the grown-ups.

“Come here, darlin’,” she said, and even though she looked so fierce and scary her voice was soft. “I’m Doctor François. What’s your name?”

The doctor – a lady doctor, there really was no end to the surprises with the ghost people – kneeled down and gave her a little hug. In a quiet voice, Gracie said that her proper name was Charlotte-Grace, which was what her mommy always called her, but Doctor François may not have heard.

Dr François introduced herself to the grown-up ladies then, and she gave them a little talk about how everything was better, and they would all be going home, and how the men who had done the terrible things to them would be punished. Sanctioned, she called it. They would be sanctioned.

Gracie held on to Dr François’s leg while she spoke, as she had once held onto her mother’s leg during the loudest summer storms back in Kansas. Dr François was wearing army pants. The pockets were full of mysterious objects and she wore a pistol at one hip and a very large knife at the other. It did not look like something a doctor would use. Charlotte-Grace held on, nonetheless, because it made her feel better.

She held on extra tight when Dr François ordered some of the Marines – she called them Marines, so that’s what they were even though they didn’t look like any Marines Charlotte-Grace had ever seen – to bring over the Japanese prisoners. There were lots of prisoners, but she meant Colonel Tanaka and his officers. Charlotte-Grace could see that Colonel Tanaka was very scared. There was no color in his face and he was shaking. It made her feel good to see him like that. She had seen a lot of people look very scared since she had arrived in the Philippines. Many of them had been scared of Colonel Tanaka.

Not all of his officers were scared, however. Two of them swaggered over as though they still ran the camp. She did not know their names, but she recognized one of them from the time they had cut off the Australian soldiers' heads. He had been cheering the loudest. Mrs Ritherdown leaned forward and spat at him, which was far and away the most surprising thing Charlotte-Grace had seen since the ghost soldiers first arrived.

“What’s your name, asshole?” Dr François asked.

She was talking to Colonel Tanaka, and the casual way in which she addressed him with a swear word caused Charlotte-Grace to look up suddenly. She could see muscles bunching in Dr François’s face. It seemed she was very angry. Her whole body felt like it was made out of steel cables.

Colonel Tanaka pretended not to understand, which was a mistake, because everybody knew he could speak English. Charlotte-Grace wanted to see what would happen next, but Dr François gently pushed her face into her leg and held one hand over her ear. She took out her pistol and fired it. The noise was such a surprise that Gracie jumped. One of the ladies screamed and some even started to cry.

Charlotte-Grace recovered from her shock and uncurled herself from Dr François’s leg. She walked over to look at the body of one of the officers. Nobody stopped her. She kicked the twitching man, to make sure he wasn’t getting back up again. Nobody stopped her doing that either.

She heard Dr François saying, in a very calm voice, “I asked you what your name is, you rapist motherfucker.”

She was very rude. Not at all like Mommy. But Charlotte-Grace decided that was okay. This last year she had seen much worse things than people using swear words.

Colonel Tanaka didn’t think it was okay though. He started to babble in Japanese which must have annoyed Dr François because she shot another two of his men. A third man tried to run away, and she shot him too. In the back.

Charlotte-Grace looked at Dr François the way she had once looked at the stained-glass windows in the church at home. She did not understand her feelings, and could not sort them out from each other. Nonetheless, she knew watching Dr François kill one man after another, as calmly as Charlotte-Grace had learned to flick insects off herself, that she was seeing something very powerful. Something hinted at in those stained-glass windows.

When Dr François walked over and held out her hand, Charlotte-Grace took it. The camp commandant had fallen to his knees and he was begging the Marines to do something. Charlotte-Grace did not imagine for a second that the ghost people would lift a pinkie to help him. One of the Marines even said, “You’ll want to keep clear, ladies. Give the doc some room.”

As they moved away from Tanaka, Charlotte-Grace saw her chance. She squirmed free of Dr François’s grip and ran forward to slap the trembling Japanese officer in the face. Some of the women shouted encouragement. She slapped him again, this time for her mommy, and he did nothing about it. It was as though the world had been turned on its head. She could have stood there slapping him all day, one slap for every person he had hurt, and there was nothing he could do about it.

“Honey, stand aside.”

It was Dr François, speaking softly. Charlotte-Grace came back to herself and did as she was told. She was a good girl like that.

“You know what, I don’t really give a fuck what your goddamn name is,” Dr François said then. Charlotte-Grace had never heard a lady swear so much before. It didn’t matter.

Nor did she care when Dr François shot Colonel Tanaka three times, spinning him into the ground where he lay for a little while before she shot him a fourth time, in the head.

Dr François put her gun back in its holster and picked up Charlotte-Grace as though she weighed almost nothing. They walked past a couple of the Marines on the way towards the strange aircraft in which the even stranger doctor had arrived.

“Come on, precious,” she said. “Let’s get you a hot bath and some chocolate.”

Charlotte-Grace nodded, completely satisfied with the way the morning had turned out. “I like chocolate,” she said.

When Dr François replied, her voice was thick and she was crying as she hugged Charlotte-Grace tightly to her chest.

“Of course you do, darlin’. Everyone loves chocolate.”

33 Responses to ‘Prologue. Stalin's Hammer: Paris’

Surtac mumbles...

Posted October 6, 2016
Dammit.something in my eye again, you bastard.

Why is it that you and Sarah Pinborough can consistently do this to me?

John Birmingham ducks in to say...

Posted October 6, 2016
Because we're bad people.

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Dirk mutters...

Posted October 6, 2016
Scratch one Nobel Price then! Fine piece a work Sir!

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NBlob puts forth...

Posted October 6, 2016
Nice JB.

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Murphy_of_Missouri reckons...

Posted October 7, 2016
Good to be back in this universe.

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BostonJoe swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted October 7, 2016
Bravo! You magnificent bastard.

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Brother PorkChop asserts...

Posted October 7, 2016
Nice one Mr B.
Any update on the fanfic jobbie?

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Peter Bradley mumbles...

Posted October 7, 2016
Sir, you bring strong women to life so well.

John Birmingham puts forth...

Posted October 7, 2016
Cheers guv.

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Danny Nolan would have you know...

Posted October 7, 2016
So happy to stumble across this. I forgot how violent and sad you can write at the same time.

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Tony puts forth...

Posted October 7, 2016
Where can I buy the "Stalins Hammer" books, not e-books.
I'm old and like turning the pages.
Thanks

John Birmingham puts forth...

Posted October 7, 2016
I'm going to do a print version of all three for Christmas.

Tony Armstrong asserts...

Posted October 8, 2016
Thank you very much.

bazzaa mumbles...

Posted October 9, 2016
Excellent [/Monty Burns Mode]

My eyes and ebooks just don't play well together.

she_jedi reckons...

Posted October 9, 2016
If you're doing analogue versions will there be signings? Asking for Christmas presents :)

NBlob puts forth...

Posted October 11, 2016
Ditto. Ibid & opcit. Asking for a daughter with very limited I aginatin Vis a Vis paternal presents.

NBlob ducks in to say...

Posted October 11, 2016
*imagination* stupid dumb fondle slab

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Therbs mutters...

Posted October 7, 2016
I like the Charlotte pov backgrounding her skill set and attachment to the Marines. I'd buy that for a dollar.

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foreverwar asserts...

Posted October 7, 2016
Just rx'd your email with the £0.99 offer for SH:P.

Bought it, downloaded it, and will be reading it on the train home to Leeds tonight.

Good one, JB

John Birmingham mutters...

Posted October 8, 2016
Cheers guvnor

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MuddyRunner swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted October 8, 2016
Once again JB has me cheering out loud as I'm reading, and I don't care if people are looking at me funny. Well done!

John Birmingham is gonna tell you...

Posted October 8, 2016
Ha. You made me smile.

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Rhino asserts...

Posted October 8, 2016
I loved this when I first read it and am loving it more now.

I'm wondering if the up-timer's cynicism and sheer ruthlessness with respect to war-fighting has trickled down into the real-time armed forces? I mean, with history laid out ... war after police action after terrorist attacks, etc., ... how does that affect society's psyche? Does an ennui of sorts set in? Or, does the more pragmatic mindset of that time period allow them to make the jump to, "Fuck this, we just need to nip all this bullshit in the bud by being as brutal as possible so no one dares fuck with us?".

Oh, and dibs on the Dr. Francois soft-core porn fanfic.

Therbs reckons...

Posted October 8, 2016
Would a decade of post war analysis and soul searching evolve that psyche or would the 21C detachment still be a fault line? Id think the majority cultural style would temper that. The Uptimers developed it via 9/11, live streamed beheadings and years of dealing with brutality. And that had happened after decades of a Cold War. In this world people might prefer to live in optimism after the war. That's why I think the West would maintain a much higher level of post war military strength, led by the U.S. Governments would want to give an assurance of strength in a world where Stalin had nabbed so much turf. Oh shit, just forgot they'd have access to The Smiths. Ennui it is then.

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Rhino is gonna tell you...

Posted October 8, 2016
Even though I get it "free" ... because my slaving away doing beta chores isn't considered labor ... I went ahead and purchased on Amazon today. You can't have too many copies.

And, yes, the review was written.

John Birmingham puts forth...

Posted October 8, 2016
This is why you are my favourite.

Rhino reckons...

Posted October 8, 2016
Until I'm not. But that is implicit in the social contract.

But my tail is wagging anyway.

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Therbs asserts...

Posted October 8, 2016
Being too lazy to Beta read I had to wait for the early release. Might have to rethink the Beta thing.
One thing that strikes me is the theme of disaster and brutality being a forge, bringing forth an amplification of ninja warrior types, profiteers and high level shapers. Saw that in the Disappearance world and to some extent in The Dave.

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Turlogh Dubh O'Brien would have you know...

Posted October 9, 2016
I didn't achieve Beta status and I couldn't wait for the discount code so I went ahead and bought it on Amazon tonight. Starting to read now and hope to finish before the wedding I have to attend tomorrow. So the review will likely get posted Monday morning JB. I know it shan't disappoint :)

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she_jedi mutters...

Posted October 9, 2016
ARGH that was so good! And over far too quickly. I have left the required gushing review at Bezosland for you. Can't wait for more in this universe, I think Gracie needs her own spin off series :)

MuddyRunner is gonna tell you...

Posted October 11, 2016
Indeed. I have a feeling we may be hearing more of Ms Gracie.

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CaptObvious swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted October 10, 2016
Beautifully drawn scene.Have you ever considered writing for a living?

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McKinneyTexas asserts...

Posted October 11, 2016
Good stuff. Very good.

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