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Freebie Monday. The Seraphim Sequence

Posted March 25, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

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

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

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

What's not to like?

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

# # #

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

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

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

He had an idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There were footsteps ahead. Two pairs.

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

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

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

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

‘Fuck,’ Damien said.

8 Responses to ‘Freebie Monday. The Seraphim Sequence’

damian puts forth...

Posted March 25, 2013

Fuck, indeed.

John Birmingham ducks in to say...

Posted March 25, 2013

Ha. Droll.

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Bunyip puts forth...

Posted March 25, 2013

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

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Barnesm puts forth...

Posted March 26, 2013

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

Zombies.

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Matthew K reckons...

Posted March 26, 2013

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

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

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

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

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NBlob mutters...

Posted March 26, 2013

oh my word

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Rhino asserts...

Posted March 26, 2013

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

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Barnesm reckons...

Posted March 26, 2013

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

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Ferris Bueller's Day of the Undead

Posted March 18, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

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

Of course, I had to write a zombie story.

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

Remember? Jeannie! Jeannie Bueller.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What?

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

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

Jacques Stahl ducks in to say...

Posted March 18, 2013

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

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Barnesm has opinions thus...

Posted March 18, 2013

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

Greta story.

Darth Greybeard has opinions thus...

Posted March 18, 2013

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

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pitpat is gonna tell you...

Posted March 18, 2013

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

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Paul_Nicholas_Boylan has opinions thus...

Posted March 18, 2013

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

Darth Greybeard ducks in to say...

Posted March 18, 2013

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

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Barnesm mumbles...

Posted March 18, 2013

Next up The Deathstar an Inside job

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Nocturnalist has opinions thus...

Posted March 18, 2013

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

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

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Bunyip would have you know...

Posted March 18, 2013

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

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

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

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JG swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted March 18, 2013

Monday numbering.

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

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

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AgingGamer has opinions thus...

Posted March 18, 2013

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

Barnesm mumbles...

Posted March 18, 2013

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

Matthew K asserts...

Posted March 19, 2013

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

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Aaron mumbles...

Posted June 11, 2013

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

John Birmingham reckons...

Posted June 11, 2013

It's an in joke.

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Stalin's Hammer: Rome

Posted January 31, 2013 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

Prologue

April 13, 1955: central Siberia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It would not be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1953, he thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then we shall wait,” replied the Vozhd.

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

“How long?” asked Stalin.

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

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

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

“Like Tunguska?”

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

“Vozhd?”

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

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

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

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

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

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