Cheeseburger Gothic

"The Art of Reading" by Damon Young

Posted June 16, 2016 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

Damon is the most interesting philosopher working in Australia right now because he makes the effort to talk to people who aren't philosophers. I've enjoyed all his books, but this latest, The Art of Reading, is perhaps his best yet. It's difficult to write about an unseen phenomenon, and yet he does so engagingly, compulsively, from the first page; indeed from the epigraph, a Jean-Paul Sartre quote:

"One does not write for slaves."

No, Jean-Paul, one does not.

He's very kindly given me an extract from the intro, for your enjoyment and embiggening. Read it, then go buy the book. I got the paperback because I consider it to be shelfworthy. I will drop an Amazon link in at the bottom, but for those who are not slaves to the Beast of Bezos, I've temporarily listsed The Art of Reading at jbsbookshelf.com with links out to the major stores. Grab it there. For a paperback copy, I would totally go with Booktopia.

TO MY RIGHT is a small stained pine bookcase. It contains, among other things, my childhood.

Stacked in muted burgundy and khaki buckram are classics like Aesop’s Fables, full of blunt aphorisms for 4-year-olds: ‘To be well prepared for war is the best guarantee of peace’. Not far away is Richard Burton’s translation of The Book of the Thousand and One Nights, with its formally phrased smut (‘he laid his hand under her left armpit, whereupon his vitals and her vitals yearned for coition’). Still read after seven decades, my mother’s octavo The Magic Faraway Tree—mystery, adventure and casual corporal punishment. I also have her Winnie the Pooh, printed the year she was born. Seventy years on, her grandson now has Eeyore days. (‘Good morning, Pooh Bear ... If it is a good morning ... Which I doubt.’) But most important for me, standing face out in black plastic leather and fake gold leaf, is The Celebrated Cases of Sherlock Holmes.

Holmes was my first literary world. Proudly bigger than anything read by my primary school peers, Conan Doyle’s 800-page tome was a prop in my performance of superiority. This archaic lump of text helped me feel special. I was more clever, said the serious serif font, than the other 11-year-olds; more intellectually brave, said the ornamental binding, than my teachers.

Sherlock Holmes was a kind of existential dress-up—an adult I tried on for size. I made our common traits a uniform: social abruptness, emotional flight, pathological curiosity. In Conan Doyle’s prose, this make-believe was more stylish than my clumsy boyhood persona. Take the first lines from The Sign of the Four: ‘Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantel-piece and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case.’ My detective was an addict: but with panache. (I kept a dictionary for words like ‘morocco’. And ‘panache’.)

Yet there was more to The Celebrated Cases of Sherlock Holmes than my pretence. What I finally took from Conan Doyle’s mysteries was not savoir faire but freedom: the charisma of an independent mind. This Victorian London, with its shadows and blood, was mine. I winced as Holmes ‘thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston’, but the needle and its rush were my own to invent. Watson’s gentlemanly heroism, and Inspector Lestrade’s mediocrity: all belonging to the little boy lying quietly on the flokati rug. So my Holmesian education was only partly about general knowledge—the symbolic pips of the Ku Klux Klan, the atmosphere of moors, the principles of deduction. It was also, more crucially, schooling in the exertion of my own psyche. I willed this strange world into being, with help from Conan Doyle. The author was less like an entertaining uncle, and more like a conspirator. We met in private to secure my liberation from school’s banality and home’s atmosphere of violence.

Holmes was not my first book. I was already in that ‘promised land’, as Vladimir Nabokov put it in Speak, Memory, ‘where ... words are meant to mean what they mean’. I learned to read with the ‘Asterix’ adventures, when my parents refused to voice the speech boxes. If I wanted the puns and fisticuffs, I had to parse the text myself. Beside my bed there was also a lion who swallowed vegetable soup instead of rabbits; dinosaurs against industrial pollution; and Ferdinand the pacifist bull. These were training and, later, distraction. Like Germaine Greer, who ‘read for greed’, I kept myself busy with words on paper—an urge closer to rapacity than curiosity. These desires combined in ‘Garfield’, as I devoured cartoons and lasagne with equal urgency.

But with The Celebrated Cases of Sherlock Holmes, I had a new sense of greater mastery, and pleasure in this discovery. Part of me saw Holmes as a legendary historical hero, and I enjoyed what novelist Michael Chabon called the ‘happy confusion’ of fact and fiction. Another part of me, burgeoning and a little buzzed, was doing away with deference. I realised that these dark marks on paper were mine to ignore or investigate, enrich or evade. It was with the junky detective that I first became aware of myself as something powerful: a reader.

Three decades later, my bookshelves are punctuated by discoveries of this imaginative independence. For these authors, the written word encouraged a new liberty: to think, perceive or feel with greater awareness.

Novelist William Gibson, whom I read as a teenager, is currently shelved in the garage between Ian Fleming’s pubescent thrillers and Harry Harrison’s galactic satire. Also roused by Sherlock Holmes as a boy, Gibson transformed his drab suburban neighbourhood into Victorian England, one brick wall at a time. ‘I could imagine that there was an infinite number of similar buildings in every direction,’ Gibson told The Paris Review, ‘and I was in Sherlock Holmes’s London.’ Conan Doyle’s stories were more than escapism or amusement for Gibson. They beckoned him to invent.

Two shelves under Gibson, Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk recalled reading as relief from tears of boredom, and as a flight from confronting fact. In Other Colours, the novelist congratulated himself, as I did, on ‘possessing greater depth than those who do not read’. This was partly juvenile boastfulness. But it was also an acknowledgement of the work involved: turning black text into an illuminated theatre. Pamuk wrote of the ‘creator’s bliss’ he enjoyed as a child reader, putting his mind to work with words.

Two rooms behind and one century before Pamuk is American novelist Edith Wharton. Invited into her father’s library as a child, she found a private sanctuary: a ‘kingdom’, as she put it. ‘There was in me a secret retreat,’ she wrote in A Backward Glance, ‘where I wished no one to intrude.’ This was more than withdrawal. With the poetry of Alfred Tennyson, Alexander Pope and Algernon Charles Swinburne, the criticism of John Ruskin, the novels of Walter Scott, Wharton played with exciting new themes and rhythms. She wrote about reading as a cultivation and celebration of her growing personality—what she called ‘the complex music of my strange inner world’. The novelist believed that she became more fully herself in those yellowing pages.

Eighteenth century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, stacked two feet to the left of Wharton, read romantic novels late into the night with his widower father. The stories made him aware, for the first time, of his own mind. ‘It is from my earliest reading,’ he wrote in his Confessions, ‘that I date the unbroken consciousness of my own existence.’ The point is not only that Rousseau’s emotions were encouraged by the novels, but also that he recognised them as his. And while the philosopher (characteristically) blamed fiction for his own histrionic bent, the melodrama arose chiefly out of little Jean-Jacques.

The shelf under Rousseau holds the modern philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre. He discovered his literary authority in a sixth-floor apartment, looking down on Paris, his grandfather’s books in his hands. Words gave the boy a certain mastery over himself: he was a demiurge, bestowing the world with life, in language. ‘The Universe lay spread at my feet and each thing was humbly begging for a name,’ he wrote, ‘and giving it one was like both creating it and taking it.’ Sartre also collected American westerns and detective comics, and their heroic caricature—lone brave man against the world—remained in his philosophy, decades later.

Simone de Beauvoir, close to Sartre in my library as in life, remembered the security of books. Not only because of their docile bourgeois morality, but also because they obeyed her. ‘They said what they had to say, and didn’t pretend to say anything else,’ de Beauvoir wrote in Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, ‘when I was not there, they were silent.’ She recognised that they asked for conviction and artistry—from Simone, rather than simply from the authors. De Beauvoir called this ‘the sorcery that transmutes printed symbols into stories’: without a reader, the magic stops.

There is no one-size-fits-all discovery of literary power. Reading is thick with the quirks of era, family and psychology. Some, like Rousseau, find romantic urges. Others, like Sartre, find enlightenment domination. There can be pretence, narcissism and cowardice. (But enough about me.) In many cases, there is a longing for what philosopher Herbert Marcuse labelled ‘holiday reality’: an asylum from ordinariness. Charles Dickens wrote about this as his boyhood ‘hope of something beyond that place and time’. But as Dickens’ later popularity suggests, these moments of youthful bibliophilia also coincide with the discovery of clout. The child is becoming aware, not only of worlds populated with detectives, Gauls or bulls, but also of an ‘I’: the reader, whose consent and creativity brings these worlds into being. Reading is an introduction to a more ambitious mind.

Jean-Paul Sartre, in What is Literature?, wrote: ‘There is no art except for and by others’. The philosopher’s argument was not that authors cannot enjoy writing for themselves; that every word is dashed off, hand aching, for tyrannical editors and audiences—what Henry James described in one letter as ‘the devouring maw into which I ... pour belated copy’. Instead, Sartre’s point was that the text is only ever half finished by the writer. Without a reader, the text is a stream of sensations: dark and light shapes.

This does not mean ordinary life is a play of dumb necessity. Sensation always has some significance for humans— we are creatures of meaning, and the universe is never spied as a naked fact. But the world writ large does not refer to things fluently; the suggestions are often vague. ‘The dim little meaning which dwells within it,’ wrote Sartre of everyday sensation, ‘a light joy, a timid sadness, remains imminent or trembles about it like a heat mist.’ Ordinary life has a hazy atmosphere to it, whereas language illuminates brightly and sharply.

The letters achieve this by pointing beyond themselves— we read through the text, not off it. ‘There is prose when the word passes across our gaze,’ said Sartre, quoting the poet Paul Valéry, ‘as the glass across the sun.’ Words are portals of sorts: they frame reality, and become invisible as we peer.

Not all texts are as transparent as Sartre’s ideal prose. Poetry can be more opaque. Take Seamus Heaney’s ‘The Bookcase’. It refers literally to the poet’s library, but it also makes a spectacle of the English tongue. ‘Ashwood or oak-wood? Planed to silkiness / Mitred, much eyed-along, each vellum-pale / Board in the bookcase held and never sagged.’ Alliteration, rhythm, metaphor: this is about a thing and its resonances, but it is also about language. Poetry puts on a show of words, just as painting displays colour, and music sound. Poetic phrases, wrote German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, ‘haul back and bring to a standstill the fleeting word that points beyond itself ’.

Language can be translucent like amber or clear like Valéry’s glass, but staring through it always asks for effort. Inscriptions or projections become words, which have meanings alongside their tone and cadence. This is what I first recognised in Sherlock Holmes: reading is always a transformation of sensation into sense. ‘You have to make them all out of squiggles,’ poet D Nurkse wrote, ‘like the feelers of dead ants.’

For the reader, this means rendering a world: the intricate ensemble beyond the page. When Conan Doyle writes that the sun is visible ‘through the dim veil which hangs over the great city’, I recreate London. Not only the sky’s spray of yellow and grey, but also the coal and commerce that make the metropolis ‘great’. The newspaper reporting the death of Sherlock’s client also evokes a community of middle-class readers from Cornwall to Northumberland, all participating in the imagined community of print. Waterloo Station, to which the victim was hurrying, suggests steam trains across England: taking passengers and parcels of The Times for men like Watson to read. All this I project behind the foreground prose. ‘The objects represented by art,’ as Sartre put it, ‘appear against the background of the universe.’ I piece together a cosmos from the author’s fragments.

What this all reinforces is that writing cannot make anything happen. As an infant, earlier editions of The Celebrated Cases of Sherlock Holmes were wholly opaque to me: blocks of chewable stuff. And as an 11-year-old I was not forced to imagine Holmes in his ‘velvet-lined arm-chair’, pushing blow into his blood. I had to commit myself to the text; to consent to a kind of active passivity, in which I accepted Conan Doyle’s words, then took responsibility for giving them some totality.

Reading requires some quantum of autonomy: no-one compels me to envisage their words. They are, at best, an invitation. Sartre phrases this as an ‘appeal’, and the idea makes sense of how little necessity is at play. Reading is always a meeting of two liberties: the artist’s and the audience’s.

Available at Amazon. (If you really must)

10 Responses to ‘"The Art of Reading" by Damon Young’

Surtac is gonna tell you...

Posted June 16, 2016
Yes. I recognise myself in there somewhere too, hiding in the school library whenever I could.

Will definitely buy this one in paper form.

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DarrenBloomfield mutters...

Posted June 16, 2016
Yeah, me to. Like looking into a (smudged) mirror. I wish i could write like this bloke though. Thanks for the pointer JB, I'll read him.

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Barnesm has opinions thus...

Posted June 16, 2016
sounds very big L literature to me. Will there be explosions?

John Birmingham ducks in to say...

Posted June 16, 2016
Brainsplosions.

Nocturnalist asserts...

Posted June 16, 2016
The best kind of 'splosions!

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Sambit swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted June 16, 2016
I can relate to the reference to Sherlock Holmes. The first book and the character I fell in love with during my school days.

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Bondiboy66 mumbles...

Posted June 17, 2016
I too read the same early books...not Sherlock Holmes though.

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GhostSwirv would have you know...

Posted June 17, 2016
Thanks JB for selflessly pointing us all to another author's tome - your love of literature and writing and the simple joy of reading, immersing oneself in the electric frisson of another's ideas is something I have no doubt that we all share.

Therbs mutters...

Posted June 17, 2016
Share? What, are you crazy?

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GhostSwirv is gonna tell you...

Posted June 17, 2016
You try and be nice but there's always a Therbs to run a diagnosis - Always there with them negative waves!

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Respond to '"The Art of Reading" by Damon Young'

Error Australis, by Ben Pobjie

Posted June 8, 2016 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

I love a good Pobjie, be it a recap, a column or a rant. Now I can enjoy them at length and with appropriate historical context, because Ben has penned a rather spiffing history of Australia which is much much better than all those boring histories I had to read at school.

On 20 January 1788, the Fleet arrived at Botany Bay, where the British immediately came into contact with the Indigenous inhabitants of New South Wales. Many of the Aboriginal community saw their arrival as evidence of their governmentís lax border protection policies. "If had the ticker to introduce off-shore processing, these boats would have stopped coming," they declared, to which their opponents pointed out that the boats had only just started coming, making it difficult to foresee. "Besides," they added, "these poor white idiots need our help, so let us extend the hand of friendship."

But a sentiment grew strongly in the community that the First Fleet had behaved appallingly by attempting to sneak in through the back door rather than going through the proper channels. By coming on unauthorised boats, it was pointed out, the Englishmen had taken places away from those in genuine need. What's more, the journey from England to Australia was long and dangerous, and many Aboriginal people stressed the need to discourage desperate Englishmen from getting on boats and risking their lives. Also, there was a fear that the new arrivals would introduce a criminal element to the continent, which, to be fair, was pretty accurate.

Of the meeting between Europeans and Aboriginal people at Botany Bay, Tench poignantly wrote, "I had at this time a little boy, of not more than seven years of age, in my hand", which is pretty unsettling. He showed the little boy to the natives so they could see his white skin. "Yes, we get it. You're all white," the natives replied. "Leave the little boy alone." But Tench wouldn't listen. "I advanced with him towards them, at the same time baring his bosom and, shewing the whiteness of the skin," he wrote. "It's spelt 'showing', you idiot," the natives replied, and the misunderstandings only got more problematic from there.

The First Fleeters did not have time to ponder the intricacies of modern race relations just at that moment, however: they were too busy noticing that Botany Bay sucked. Captain Cook had reported that the bay was a rich and fertile spot, but when the settlers arrived, they discovered it was actually a scruffy patch of sand and grass with poor soil, little fresh water and a smell that contemporary accounts report as being "like your grandma's wardrobe". Captain Cook had lied to them, and Captain Phillip wondered whether he could ever trust a sailor again. Looking forlornly at the ugly shore, he famously announced, "This is crap", and gave orders to explore other locations to determine their suitability for his hoodlum-zoo.

The answer lay in Port Jackson, to the north of Botany Bay. Cook had discovered this pleasant harbour in 1770 and named it after all the Port Jackson sharks he saw there. In contrast to Botany, Port Jackson had plentiful fresh water in the form of Tank Stream – so named for its ability to manoeuvre over rugged terrain on tracks of fertile soil, and a pleasant lemony fragrance. Phillip, overjoyed with the new site, called it Sydney Cove, in honour of Lord Sydney, with whom Phillip had spent many happy days in England planning voyages and Spaniard-massacres. On 26 January, the First Fleet sailed to Sydney Cove, and Phillip declared that from that day on, this date would be celebrated every year by angry and bitter arguments over whether it should be celebrated or not.

Phillip, now governor of the new colony, set to work with all possible speed, issuing directives to all convicts, marines and officials to immediately begin failing to adapt to the new country, then move on to starving to death as soon as they could. Food was a constant issue in the early days, and many of the colonists suffered from eating disorders, inasmuch as they had nothing to eat, which in the 18th century was often fatal. With The Biggest Loser still more than two centuries away, the colonists had no way of knowing how to make malnutrition work for them, and many of them found their own slow deaths were lowering their morale.

The first problem was that the British had no idea how to farm in Australian conditions. The second problem was that most of them had no idea how to farm in any conditions, a result of their government's farsighted "populate the settlement exclusively with those who have no useful life skills" policy. And so, much of the early activity in the colony consisted of hungry men standing around staring at the corncobs they'd stuck in the ground, waiting for them to flower. Governor Phillip's correspondence during this time indicates the scale of the problem:

From the desk of Governor Arthur Phillip,
Sydney Cove, New South Wales 0001
Dear Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger,
How are you, sir? I am fine. I do not wish to trouble you, as I am sure you are extremely busy being Great Britain's youngest ever prime minister and forming the Triple Alliance with Prussia and Holland in order to restrict French influence in Europe, but right now we're having a bit of trouble 'Down Under', to use a term that I just made up. Basically we're all a tad peckish, and we'd love it if you could send us some food and also, if possible, some sunscreen.
Yours,
Arthur Phillip (Governor)

Dear Governor Phillip,
The Prime Minister received your letter of August 5th and has authorised me to tell you that he cannot at this moment send you any of the supplies you have requested as he is extremely preoccupied with the preparations for the French Revolution which will break out next year and be very troublesome for us all. He suggests you try going fishing or something.
Regards,
Elderfield Humberry-Deccleston the Fourth
Private Secretary to the Prime Minister

Dear King George III,
I hope this missive finds you in good health and that you have not yet gone insane. I write to request some assistance with my little colony here in New South Wales, which is a lovely spot ideal for weekends away and longer summer stays, but suffers the drawback of being hell on earth. I was wondering if you could send us some food rather urgently, as we're having a bit of trouble growing our own. So far the best idea any of us have had is burying a cow and hoping it grows into a cow tree, which may give you some idea of our predicament.
Thank you for your time, sir. Give my regards to your son George IV, and my condolences on the extravagant profligacy and dissolute lifestyle which he will demonstrate in a couple of decades' time. I imagine that will be a real nuisance.
Yours,
Arthur Phillip (Governor)

Dear Mr Phillip,
Thank you for your letter, which was passed on to me by my chief of staff, a small she-oak. I am afraid I must confess that I have never heard of this 'New South Wales' of which you speak, but I take it that it is some kind of marvellous kingdom in the sky, and so I have taken immediate action, ordering my courtiers to stand in the gardens hurling beef and toast skywards until you are fully provisioned.
Yours,
King George III of Great Britain and Ireland (Mrs)

Dear Lord Sydney,
WTF have you got me into, you bastard?
Yours,
Arthur Phillip (Depressed)

Or you can get it at iTunes via this text link.

8 Responses to ‘Error Australis, by Ben Pobjie’

WarDog is gonna tell you...

Posted June 8, 2016
iTunes?? Hook me like that and leave me wanting - you bastard!

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pedrogb mutters...

Posted June 8, 2016
I've always enjoyed his recaps of one of those cooking shows, very amusing, so it's in the kindle now.
Thanks for the tip

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Gutz mutters...

Posted June 8, 2016
Hey JB? a bit of warning for us unsuspecting morning types that laughs and etc, shall be contained within. Both nostrils now have caffeine osmosis due to me snorting my coffee out not least more than once!
Far King Fu Nee.

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she_jedi would have you know...

Posted June 8, 2016
"Cow trees" Bwahahaha! It's early and I'm uncaffeinated and for some reason that really tickled my funny bone. I must read the rest!

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insomniac has opinions thus...

Posted June 8, 2016
Ben's writing almost always generates a genuine LOL moment. I can handle a column or two but a whole book might just do me in.

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Lulu has opinions thus...

Posted June 8, 2016
Heh, I am reading Leviathan (recently bought) at the moment. This will make an interesting parallel read.

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Don Bagert is gonna tell you...

Posted June 9, 2016
You sure that a character from "Here Be Monsters" didn't wander in to give Governor Phillip some content for his far-seeing letters? lol

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Nancy Lovato ducks in to say...

Posted June 9, 2016
Many Lols!!
Clever man this Pobje.
His light may not hide under a bushel much longer, methinks!????

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Respond to 'Error Australis, by Ben Pobjie'

Extract. "Nations Divided" by Steven P Vincent

Posted December 16, 2015 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

PROLOGUE


Rashid Sirhan opened his eyes at the sound of her voice, blinking quickly as he tried to adjust to the harsh overhead lighting. “Sorry, just napping.”

The nurse smiled kindly, the usual twinkle in her eyes. “I’ve got your pills, Mr. Sirhan. I’m glad you finally got some sleep.”

The young nurse filled his palm with a rainbow assortment of drugs, like his father used to with candy when he was a child. He shook his head at the thought, stuffed the pills into his mouth and washed them down with some water. The pills certainly didn’t taste like his childhood, but instead felt like one more insult heaped upon many others as he’d grown old.

“All done?” Her voice had an edge of menace. She’d probably had problems with other patients today.

“Mission accomplished.” Rashid opened his mouth to show her, then closed it. “I’ll look forward to my lollipop.”

She ignored the jibe and he closed his eyes again. As he relaxed and tried to ease back into sleep, Rashid heard the nurse push the drug cart to the next bed. Before he had the chance to drift off, he was gripped by a coughing fit, a dry and raspy reminder that he was down to one lung. The cancer that had plagued his body also destroyed his rest.

Just as his coughing subsided, Rashid heard a loud chattering sound from a few rooms away. The sound was unmistakable, akin to a half-dozen small firecrackers exploding in quick succession. Even before the squeals and shouts had started, he’d figured out what was happening: a standard-issue Israeli assault rifle was firing on full automatic. The IDF was here.

Rashid kicked off the covers and rolled out of bed, bracing as he landed hard on the ground. He’d be damned if he’d make himself an easy target or let the shrapnel from a frag grenade catch him in bed. Coughing again, he ducked low and listened. The gunfire relented for a moment, ripped off again, then stopped once more. The pattern – shoot and pause – hinted at one gunman.

Glancing around for a weapon, any kind, he ignored the noise and chaos around him as others fled the gunfire. He settled on a metal kidney dish and struggled to his feet, knowing this would be his last stand. Refusing to die on his knees, Rashid stood tall as the sound of the gunfire moved closer.

The door to the ward swung open. Rashid squeezed the kidney dish tighter as a male patient and a nurse ran through the door and towards him. The woman fell as gunfire found her, leaving a spray of blood in her wake. A second later, the man dropped as well.

The gunman walked through the door, dressed from head to toe in the uniform of the Israeli army and the triple chevron that revealed him to be a samal – a sergeant. Rashid stood as proud as he could, unwilling to let the Israeli see him take a backward step.

While Rashid had launched rockets into Israel before, likely killing civilians, he figured you had to be a special kind of killer to shoot up a hospital. Or the closest thing Gaza had to a hospital, anyway. He wasn’t sure how many had died, but as he lifted the kidney dish Rashid felt anger course through him.

The Israeli sergeant’s features betrayed no emotion as he brought the assault rifle up. Rashid swallowed hard and threw the kidney dish at the Israeli. The projectile hit the other man on the chest and then clattered to the tiles, the lamest possible resistance. Rashid didn’t care. He hadn’t run away.

It wasn’t

CHAPTER 1
As dignitaries descend on New York City for the signing of the historic peace agreement between Israel and Palestine, many remain skeptical that a deal will be finalized. Though both camps say that all issues are close to being fully resolved and that the massacre at Gaza’s Al Amal Hospital has brought the parties closer to a deal, the world has seen too many false starts on this issue to be certain of an agreement. Until pen touches paper, the stakes will remain high and nobody has more to gain, or lose, from the agreement than President Bill McGhinnist, who has worked tirelessly to resolve this issue before the end of his first term.
--New York Standard

Jack Emery’s eyes darted back and forth across the page, consuming the news for the day. He licked his finger and turned a page with one hand while he fumbled for his coffee with the other. The shock from the story on page five caused him to knock over his coffee cup, drowning the Post’s scoop about a Supreme Court justice being photographed at a titty bar.

“Damn it.” Jack reached for a napkin and mopped at the spill, trying his best to save the rest of the newspaper.

“Nice work.” Celeste Adams’ voice was heavy with sleep. “Good thing you never listen to me about the advantages of reading the news on your iPad.”

Jack looked up. Despite the mess, he couldn’t resist a smile as she leaned against the doorframe, wearing panties and a tank top. “Hey.”

“Hey.” She pushed herself off, walked toward him and reached for his plate. “Why’d you let me sleep so late?”

He swatted at her hand and his smile turned into a frown when she stole the remains of his bagel, biting into the last morsel. A smear of cream cheese remained on her lip. He stood, took her hands in his and kissed her deeply, using his tongue to lick at the cheese. She laughed and pulled away. They looked at each other for a second and then shared another kiss.

“Too cute to wake.” Jack gave her hands a squeeze, pulled away and made a show of eyeing her up and down.

She gave him a gentle slap on the rear, then rounded the table and took a seat. “Any of the papers survive your drenching?”

He considered the mess. “Not sure. They all look a bit moist.”

“Gross. That word should only be used to describe cake.”

Jack laughed as she grabbed the New York Standard and started to flick through it with the practiced eye of someone who’d edited the paper the previous afternoon. She never knew how to disconnect from her work, though it wasn’t like he could talk. He left her with the paper, walked to the kitchen and put a bagel into the toaster for her.

He thought about the strange situation that existed between them. Though Jack felt their relationship was equal to the one he’d had with his ex-wife – loving and supportive and exciting – sometimes it felt neither of them ever switched off from work enough to enjoy it. Celeste was living in a townhouse in New York and working as managing editor at the Standard, while he was living in Washington and working for President Bill McGhinnist. It had been that way for three years. He traveled to New York every second weekend, where they spent their time together feigning normalcy until he caught a late flight out of JFK on Sunday night. It was hard, but worth it.

The bagel popped. He gave it a liberal spread of cream cheese then picked up the plate and walked back into the dining room, stealing a glance over her shoulder at the story she was reading as he placed the plate down. It was yet another story about Israel and Palestine. The papers had been full of them for weeks.

“It’ll work.” Jack placed a hand on her shoulder.

“I’m not sure.” She grabbed his hand and held it to her body as she finished reading the story. Then she reached for the bagel, took a bite and started to talk with her mouth full. “There have been so many letdowns it’s hard to get too excited. Bringing them all into town was a ballsy move.”
He nodded and sat beside her. They’d discussed the Israeli–Palestinian peace agreement deep into the night. Both of them were hopeful – but neither convinced – that the two sides would agree on the final few sticking points and get it done. Things had moved a long way since the massacre at the hospital in Gaza a few months prior, but the deal was a complicated one to negotiate.

“It’d be huge for McGhinnist. It’s been a slog these past few years. He needs a big win leading up to the election.”

“Plenty of presidents have tried, and failed, to crack the Israel–Palestine nut in their time, Jack.” Celeste squeezed his hand gently. “If he’s relying on this to get him over the line then it might be best to start preparing for life after the White House.”

“He’ll win.” Jack’s tone made it clear he didn’t want to discuss the possibility of Bill McGhinnist losing the presidency.

“Just don’t get too invested, okay?”

Jack nodded. It wasn’t the first time she’d told him to be careful since he’d taken the job as special advisor to the President. While McGhinnist had no shortage of big ideas and a decent record of steering them through Congress, his popularity had taken a hit in recent months. Given America was still healing from the near takeover of the country by the Foundation for a New America and the full takeover by FEMA, Jack couldn’t blame the public for some political fatigue. Yet he still felt the situation was unfair. McGhinnist had halted the blanket monitoring of US citizens and limited other impositions in place since 9/11, but those successes were yesterday’s news – McGhinnist needed a new win.

The peace would be that.

Jack had spent nearly a year working with McGhinnist and US negotiator Karl Long to help shepherd the peace agreement between Israel and Palestine through complex negotiations and, at times, fraught decisions. Over countless meetings and phone calls, the sides had worked out problems large and small until, finally, they’d reached agreement on all issues but one: Israeli settlements. Despite this, McGhinnist had made the gutsy decision to schedule a date for the signing, hoping it would help to force a resolution on the last issue. McGhinnist had even authorized Long to throw out a few carrots if it meant getting a deal.

He’d be lying if he pretended not to care about the politics of it, given part of his job was to leverage wins like this into political gain for the President. But Jack’s primary responsibility, and the sole reason he’d agreed to work for McGhinnist in the first place, was achieving good policy outcomes. The peace agreement was one of those. Any political benefits were a bonus.

“McGhinnist needs this to show he can build something positive. He needs to prove he can do more than just remove the excesses of others. This feels different. It feels good. He’s going to get it done.”

“Well, I hope you’re right. He’s proven before that he can take on big policy issues and win.” Celeste pushed her plate aside. “Do you have much work to do today?”

“Not particularly. The President flies in later tonight, but he’s straight into meetings with Karl.” Jack thought hard, to make sure he hadn’t forgotten any appointments. “All clear.”

“Glad to hear it. I get the feeling this might be the last break you get for a while, so I want you to make the most of it.” She stood. “Now, are you coming or not?”

Jack’s eyes widened as she walked slowly out of the kitchen. With each step, she exaggerated the movement of her hips slightly. She raised her tank top over her head and tossed it on the floor, then paused and dropped her panties. As he watched her walk to the bedroom, Jack grabbed the last bite of the bagel left on her plate, stood and followed her.

It was good to be home.

***

Samih Khaladi waited at the crossing as dozens of cars blitzed through the intersection. He loved New York City, though not for the reasons most people did. It wasn’t about the skyscrapers, the bustle or the attractions. What moved him was that so many people – all kinds of people – could live so closely together in relative harmony and safety. It was chaotic, but it worked.

The lights changed and he crossed the street with his pair of security guards in tow, doing his best to stay a step or two ahead. If he had the choice, he’d go without the security entirely, but President McGhinnist had insisted the negotiators be escorted at all times when they were outside. Given Samih was representing Palestine in the peace negotiations, he had little choice.
He slowed as he caught sight of a Starbucks, then smiled and turned to his security. “I’m just going to get a—”

“Mr. Khaladi?” One of the guards interrupted, as the other looked at his watch. “We need to return to the UN building, sir. The lunch hour ends soon.”

Samih sighed. He hated being on a schedule. It wasn’t the guard’s fault, but it was annoying. “Okay, but first let me grab a coffee.”

“There’s coffee back at the meeting, sir.” The guard was insistent. “I really must insist that we turn back.”

Samih felt his face flush. “The entire world will wait for me today if they have to. I’m one of the people trying to end the most intractable political conflict on the planet. I want a coffee, from here, so please wait outside for me while I go inside to get one.”

Samih exhaled loudly and the door to the Starbucks felt his displeasure, as he pushed it open with some force. His security didn’t seem happy and Samih didn’t like throwing his weight around, but he wanted a few more minutes before returning to the pressure cooker. He waited in line for just a moment and then he reached the front.

“How’re you today, sir?” An attendant struggled to feign interest. “What can I get for you?”
Samih swallowed his irritation and did his best to smile. “I would like a coffee please.”

The man stared at him blankly. “Which kind, sir? You’re supposed to know your order by the time you reach the front.”

Samih’s eyes narrowed as he considered the menu. “An Americano. A large one.”

Samih paid and moved to the end of the counter, struggling not to laugh at the inanity of the exchange. After being involved in negotiations over land borders, migration of peoples and security issues – all incredibly high stakes – he’d had to be stepped through ordering a coffee by a college kid. Thinking about it cheered him up.

As he closed his wallet, he glanced at the photo he kept inside and felt a pang of regret. All he wanted for his people was peace, for them to be able to enjoy fast food, entertainment, shopping malls and sporting games without the threat of extremist violence or Israeli gunships. He wanted a nation for them. All that remained was closing the deal and hoping it was accepted. Only a few short years ago, Samih would have been at the front of the line of Palestinians decrying this agreement. Worse, he’d have advocated and committed violence to stop it from being signed. He’d been caught in a cycle of hate that served nobody and only left people dead. It was why he kept the photo of his brother close.

After his brother had been killed by an Israeli airstrike in retaliation for an attack Samih had ordered, Samih had faced a choice. In his anger, he’d considered further attacks, but he’d mourned and seen another way. Forming a breakaway group of Hamas, he’d banded with the Palestinian Liberation Organization to take the battle to the unreformed extremists. The conflict had been bloody – moderates and hardliners engaged in open warfare on the streets, with Israeli gunships occasionally adding their own fire and noise to the mess. The moderates had won, at huge cost. Samih had been offered leadership of the new, unified Palestinian authority but had declined in order to focus on peace.

“Sir?” A Starbucks staff member touched Samih on the arm. “Sir? Your coffee is ready.”
Samih shook his head. He was always prone to deep reflection on the past, but it seemed to be happening more lately. He took the coffee. “Thank you.”

He walked outside and didn’t wait for his security to fall into line. The walk back to the UN building was uneventful. As he walked, he thought about the draft agreement. Though it didn’t give his people everything they wanted, or deserved, it was by far the best deal that could be achieved. A good deal, peace and a state were better than waiting forever for the perfect deal.
The agreement had to succeed.

Back inside the building, Samih juggled his coffee as he returned to his seat with the other delegates. Everyone had the same goal: resolving the last issue. Samih represented the Palestinians and Ben Ebron represented the Israelis, as they’d done for years, aided in the negotiations by the US Special Envoy for Israeli–Palestinian Relations, Karl Long.
The last person to enter the room was in some ways the most important – Liliana Garza, Secretary-General of the United Nations. She’d obliged US President Bill McGhinnist’s demands for the signing ceremony to be scheduled and for the talks to be finalized. Samih watched Garza as she walked to the head of the table.

“Gentlemen, I trust you enjoyed lunch?” She held her arms wide, a typically welcoming gesture from her during the tough negotiations. “If we’re to sign an agreement tomorrow, we have this session to resolve the final issue. We left off at—”

“Compensation for displaced Israeli settlers.” Ebron cut the pleasantries short, his voice sharp. “Israel is committed to finding a way through this issue and finalizing the agreement, but it mustn’t be at the expense of our own people. There needs to be a strong package that I can take to my government.”

Samih’s lips pressed together but he kept quiet. Though he found it hard to comprehend that the final sticking point after three years of negotiations could be payments to Israelis who’d annexed the lands of his people, he knew that without compensation there would be no peace. He’d learned the hard way that one wrong word could destroy much painstaking work.

Garza took the interruption in her stride. “I’ve had my staff working the phones during the lunch hour. United Nations member states have agreed to contribute forty percent of the compensation amount. The rest of the world has done its part, now it’s the turn of the others in this room.”
Samih was surprised by the news, but smiled sadly. “This is an area where the Palestinian people can make little contribution. We are not a rich people.”

Ebron flared. “Unacceptable. The Palestinians must contribute—”

Samih held up his hand. “However, upon achieving statehood, Palestine will set aside one percent of government revenue until one-tenth of the total is paid.”

Ebron’s mouth fell open slightly, before he seemed to catch himself and right his composure. “That’s a welcome gesture, Mr. Khaladi, and one I didn’t expect.”

Samih smiled. He’d planned on just that and the effect had been powerful. For the diminutive state of Palestine to make a financial contribution to resettling Israelis was a game changer. Samih had long argued the presence of the settlers was illegal, but in the interests of peace this concession had to be made. He hoped it would be enough.

Long tapped his signet ring on the table. It had stopped bothering Samih, because it appeared be a habit. “The President has authorized me to increase the contribution of the United States to twenty-five percent, but that’s as high as we’re going to go.”

“A very generous offer.” Samih nodded.

“Twenty-five percent remains.” Ebron sighed as he looked at each of them, as if the pressure of expectation was too much.

“Mr. Ebron?” Garza’s voice was gentle. “Do you need a recess to consult with your colleagues and consider Israel’s position?”

“No, that won’t be necessary.” Ebron sighed. “It burns me to my core that Israel must contribute financially to the displacement of its own citizens, but the pressure of tomorrow’s deadline and the aftermath of the Al Amal massacre leave me little choice. I agree.”

“Wonderful.” Garza beamed. “Any costs borne out of this agreement will be more than paid for by the peace and prosperity that also flows from it.”

“It’s agreed then?” Long’s eyes widened as they flicked between Samih and Ebron. “We have something to sign?”

“The agreement is suitable for Israel, if a little expensive.” Ebron placed his palms flat on the table. “I hope this can be the end of it.”

Now Samih felt the weight of expectation. He looked down at his notes, trying to think of any negatives for his people that he might have missed. He’d already gained the agreement of his leadership on the draft text, with the exception of the issues worked out during this final day. There was nothing in the last few resolutions that would prevent the deal being agreed. It was good enough.

“Well?” Long’s voice had an edge.

Samih looked up. He rested his elbows on the table with a smile. “My friends, this is an important day. We’ve achieved peace.”

The ever-serious Ebron leaned back and spun around on his chair, while Long slapped the table and sported a wide grin. Samih closed his eyes and allowed himself a moment of reflection. This occasion had been so long in coming, he never thought he’d see it. Thousands dead, generations ruined, years wasted. He hoped his people would welcome the peace on offer.

“Excuse me, Mr. Khaladi?”

Samih opened his eyes. Ebron was standing in front of him. “Yes?”

“I’d like to shake your hand.”

Samih stood, feeling all the weight of his sixty years, then shook the proffered hand. “This is a momentous day, my friend.”

“It is.” Ebron nodded and pulled his hand away, clearly not used to being so personable.

“We will sign the agreement tomorrow.” Garza joined them, the relief in her voice clear. “Twenty-eight days after that, there will be peace.”

***

“Zed Eshkol is professor of history at Yeshiva University, a position he’s held for nearly forty years. He lectures in Jewish history and his specialty is the politics surrounding the creation of Israel following the Second World War. He’s considered one of the world’s leading thinkers on the causes and consequences of conflict between Israel and its neighbors, including the Palestinian people.”

When the crowd started its applause, Zed planted his cane on the ground, pushed on it heavily and climbed to his feet. Letting the cane support him, he shuffled slowly to the stage. At the bottom of the stairs he paused, making a mental note to talk to the staffer who’d selected the venue. Zed wasn’t as spry as he used to be.

“Thank you, Ariel.” Zed spoke softly, short of breath, once he’d reached the top of the stairs. He patted the man on the shoulder.

Ariel beamed. “No problem, professor. Good luck with your lecture.”

As Zed moved to the lectern, he reflected that, while Ariel had promise, he needed to be molded. He adjusted the microphone, handed his cane to another staffer and gripped the sides of the lectern as if his life depended on it. After checking his notes were in place, he looked up to the packed theatre. That audiences still came to see him speak was a thrill to him.

“Thank you all for coming. My thanks also to Ariel, who’s organized a great program for us.” Zed smiled. “I do wish I wasn’t here tonight, though, or that we at least had a better reason to come together, but here we are. I’ll speak for just a few moments, then we’ll enjoy supper and reconvene for questions and discussion.”

Zed looked down at his notes and used the pause to catch his breath before speaking again. “Quite simply, my friends, the peace agreement that will be signed tomorrow is a betrayal of Israel and the Jewish people, who gained their freedom and a state of their own after one of the darkest episodes in human history.”

Zed looked up at the crowd. He usually didn’t like mentioning the Holocaust, but there was no way to avoid it this evening. “I’ll not speak of the Holocaust again, though many of you know that I survived it, but please be clear that the situation facing us tomorrow is the most desperate since that terrible chapter in our history.

“Israel has existed and grown despite being under the dark cloud of conflict. Every citizen has military training, its armed forces are potent, Mossad is rightly feared and a nuclear stockpile is the ultimate deterrent. Indeed, Israel has defended itself against aggression many times, often in desperate circumstances. It has never been belligerent, but always vigilant.”

Zed paused and looked around the theatre. For a hastily convened event, the turnout was excellent. It gave him hope that, while the vast majority of the world and the American public wanted a deal between Israel and Palestine, there was still a cohort of the faithful. Over nine decades, he’d learned that where there was a glimmer of hope, there was the possibility of deliverance.

He continued. “Through it all, Israel has showed remarkable restraint in dealing with this aggression. Sometimes against better judgment, it has tolerated and negotiated when others would have struck, resorting to retaliation only when it’s absolutely necessary. Israel invested in the Iron Dome, to stop rocket attacks, rather than spending more on jets and rockets to flatten the attackers.”

Zed started to cough. Turning away from the lectern, he raised one hand to cover his mouth, but made sure to keep the other in place. He felt as if knives were stabbing him in the chest as his body clenched with each cough, though he did his best to calm himself and bring it under control. A few members of the crowd shouted out for someone to help him.

Someone gripped his arm and he heard Ariel’s voice. “Professor, are you okay? I’ll ask for an early recess.”

“No!” Zed coughed again and then looked up to Ariel, his voice sharp. “Just give me a moment.”
“Okay, professor. Take your time, at least.”

Zed kept his back to the audience as he brought the coughing under control. Finally, the worst of it subsided and he returned to the lectern. “My apologies for the interruption, ladies and gentlemen. I frequently find that my body is my toughest critic these days.”

The crowd offered sympathetic smiles and small laughs. He continued. “Israel’s restraint hasn’t been enough. For decades the world has judged and threatened Israel, twisting the arm of its leaders to show further restraint, make deals and repudiate its right to exist, peacefully, within its own borders.

“Yet while Israel has attempted to co-exist with its neighbors and the Palestinians in the hope of peace, it’s never enough. Israel’s enemies aim for total annihilation while the world expects capitulation to the demands of cutthroats and criminals.

“Thankfully, strong Israeli leaders long resisted those demands. But now, weak leaders are happily slitting their own throats. A massacre perpetrated by a madman, sad though it was, has pressured Israel’s leaders into signing an agreement that is evil. It will split an Israeli state that should always be strong.”

Zed paused. He’d thought long and hard about the next part of his speech. “The United Nations and the USA are revisionists who helped to grant Israel its freedom only to convince the country’s leaders, now, to abandon much of that freedom – to act, to defend itself, to exist within its own borders.

“This agreement mustn’t be signed. It represents the eradication of an Israeli state at the height of its power, the betrayal of our people and a disgrace before God. Every free-thinking Jew the world over needs to stand against this travesty, or history will judge this generation as the one that killed the dream of Israel!”

Zed felt an enormous wave of pleasure and relief wash over him as applause roared. He smiled slightly and gripped the lectern until the noise receded, then waved a hand lazily in the air and signaled for a staffer to bring his cane. It would take him an eternity to get down the stairs again.
By the time he’d managed the journey and taken a seat, most of the rest of the crowd was busy getting supper in the foyer. Zed wasn’t interested in making small talk. Instead, he wanted time to himself before the questions started and other eminent speakers joined him on stage.

But he never got the chance. A man approached and leaned down to speak to him. “Professor Eshkol? I’m David Kahlon. May I have a moment?”

Zed smiled softly, unable to help himself but careful to hide it. Men like these were as regular as clockwork. “Of course.”

Kahlon nodded and sat. “Professor, I wanted to pay my respects on behalf of the Jewish Home. Many of my colleagues share your views.”

Zed laughed. He’d closely followed the statements of Jewish Home – one of Israel’s major conservative political parties – about the peace agreement. “It’s a shame the government does not. I think it’s important that those with a public voice continue to advocate sanity.”
“Couldn’t agree more, professor. I’ve been asked to sound you out, again, for your interest in becoming a citizen of Israel and running to join the Knesset.”

Zed shook his head softly. This felt like the thousandth time he’d been asked to join the Israeli parliament. But he was old, tired and comfortable. He’d had his chance at the spotlight after surviving the Holocaust and helping to establish Israel, but had chosen instead to make his contribution in academia.

“Professor?” Kahlon pressed.

“Your request just takes me back some years.” Zed smiled. “I think you know my answer. I’m an old man.”

“But—”

Zed held up his hand. “No. Please respect my decision. I’ll continue doing all I can to speak against this peace process, and to support the right conservatives with my voice during Israeli elections, but that’s the sum of my contribution. I’m not a man for the limelight, Mr. Kahlon. Now, please excuse me.”

There was a tinge of regret in Kahlon’s smile, but they shook hands and he left. Zed forgot about him quickly. He had a lecture to finish.

3 Responses to ‘Extract. "Nations Divided" by Steven P Vincent’

Dave W is gonna tell you...

Posted December 16, 2015
Aaaaand....bought.

Halwes would have you know...

Posted December 17, 2015
Try going to a barbie and putting a the Palestinian point of view. People look at you like you've stuck a turd under their noses.

Respond to this thread

Dave W mumbles...

Posted December 21, 2015
Aaaaand...enjoyed. The three books are excellent, cracking reads. Thanks Mr Vincent for the writing and JB for the tip.

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Respond to 'Extract. "Nations Divided" by Steven P Vincent'

Extract - State of Emergency, by Steve Vincent

Posted June 10, 2015 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

Out this week from Momentum. I enjoyed Steve's first one. The Foundation.

PROLOGUE
“Twenty seconds.” One pulled a balaclava over her head. “Gun it.”
The driver nodded and put his foot to the floor, the engine roaring as the vehicle sped across the Harvard Bridge and onto Massachusetts Avenue. The windows were tinted, so the pedestrians who glanced at the vehicle as it sped past couldn’t see the deadly cargo inside.
“Ten seconds. Everyone check in.”


As the van took a hard right onto Vasser Street, the rest of One’s team checked in. The team – four in the van with her and one located strategically on a rooftop near the campus – were as slick as ever. One smiled under her mask. She didn’t need to do the check and knew they’d be ready, but fifteen years of habit was hard to break.


One was jolted in her seat as the van mounted the curb and then pulled to a stop. Two slid the door open, climbed out and broke into a run. She too was running as soon as her feet hit the ground. Three and Four would follow, while Five would stay at the wheel. As she moved, there were squeals of panic from nearby students. She ignored them. They were irrelevant unless they got in the way.


The team crossed the sidewalk and reached the entrance of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department in seconds. She pointed at Four and he moved into the building with his submachine gun raised. The others followed him in and they split into pairs.


“Remember, we’re looking for Daryush Daneshgahi.” She paused. “We need him alive.”
From the foyer she went left with Two, while Three and Four went right. They had intelligence that Daneshgahi was a creature of habit and would either be in his office or his lab. She had her weapon raised and was moving briskly when an alarm started to wail. It was a surprise it had taken this long.


Her headset crackled. “One, this is Six. Campus police are starting to arrive.”
One spoke into her voice-activated microphone. “Copy.”


They reached Daneshgahi’s office and took up positions on either side of the door. One waited as Two turned the handle and pushed the door open quickly. She entered the room and swept from side to side with her submachine gun, then quickly lowered the weapon. The office was well lit and empty. There was nowhere he could be hiding.


She cursed under her breath and the distant boom of a high-caliber rifle seemed to punctuate her profanity. Six was on the rooftop, tasked with keeping any police away from them, and he’d started the boom boom. While a few officers weren’t a problem, with each passing second more would arrive.


She left the office with Two in tow as she spoke into her headset. “He’s not in the office. Moving to check the cafeteria.”


As she rounded a corner, a shot boomed. She flinched but kept moving toward an MIT police officer, who stood with his pistol drawn. He looked about fifty and very scared. Her silenced weapon barely made a sound as it delivered two rounds into the officer’s chest. His eyes widened as crimson blossomed on his blue shirt. His pistol fell to the floor with a clattering sound as his body followed. One fired once into his face and didn’t break stride as she stepped over him, with Two behind her.


Her headset crackled. “This is Three. We’ve got him. We have the target. He was in the lab.”
“Good job.” She felt a mix of relief and satisfaction. “Begin exfiltration.”
She pictured the entirety of the exfiltration in her head as she moved. The snatch teams would move through the buildings and then onto the lawn, southeast across the campus. Five would drive to pick them up, while Six would shift position to cover Killian Court and their escape route before withdrawing. The whole team would be in and out with Daneshgahi in less than seven minutes, as planned.


She waved at Two and they moved south through the building and out into the courtyard. Once outside, they kept moving, scanning their surroundings and the top of buildings for shooters. The few students that remained ran when they spotted the armed commandos. Maybe MIT grads were intelligent after all. Smarter than their campus police, anyway.


She looked at her watch. By now Six would have taken his final shots. He’d be abseiling down the Maclaurin Building and moving to meet them at the extraction point. Radio silence meant no hitches. It had gone reasonably well so far and they were in the last minute of the operation. Nobody challenged One and Two as they reached the edge of the campus and crossed Memorial Drive.


She glanced at Three and Four, who were already crouched with weapons raised and facing outward. Two joined them in a covering position while she looked at Daneshgahi, face down on the lawn with his hands cuffed behind his back. She lifted him up. His face was the illustration of terror, but he kept quiet. Looked like he was pretty smart too.


A shot drew her attention and she turned towards it. She needn’t have bothered, because her team put down the police officer quickly. A few seconds later, Five pulled the van to a stop in front of them. She slid the door open, bundled Daneshgahi inside and climbed in. Their prisoner gave a small whimper of protest as the rest of the team joined them.


Six arrived at the van just as One was closing the door. The sniper’s breathing was heavy and something had obviously taken longer than it should have, but he’d made it. She didn’t need to ask and he didn’t need to answer – if he hadn’t made it, he’d have been cut loose. That was the business they were in.


As the door slammed shut and the engine roared, One looked over to Daneshgahi. The Iranian computer scientist was watching the floor and she could feel the fear radiating off him. She took the hood that Two was holding out to her and placed it over Daneshgahi’s head. He started to cry.

CHAPTER 1


FEMA would like to assure the public that, despite the recent terrorist attacks, its ability to provide disaster assistance remains intact. Staff are working hard to provide coordinated relief to all locations affected by these attacks. Citizens in need of support or those with something suspicious to report are encouraged to contact the new National Security Hotline.


Federal Emergency Management Agency
News Release

Jack Emery stared at the news bulletin as the massive Reuben sandwich in his hand continued to sag. Though he was meant to be on vacation, you couldn’t take the news out of the newsman. He took a bite without taking his eyes off the screen, his brain working overtime to process the ramifications of what he was seeing. A half-dozen attackers – good ones – had gone to a lot of trouble to snatch one MIT student.


A chunk of corned beef and a dollop of sauerkraut breached the edges of his sandwich and fell onto his lap. He cursed, placed his lunch back on the plate and mopped at the mess with his napkin. It didn’t help. He looked like a freshman who’d been touched in the nice place by a cheerleader. Jack shook his head and looked back at the screen as he picked up his Coke.
A hand on his shoulder made Jack jump and spill the drink. He looked around, angry, until he saw Josefa Tokaloka’s smile beaming down at him. Though it had been only a year since they’d seen each other, the large Islander looked like he’d aged a decade. Jack grinned widely and stood to wrap his arms around Jo’s enormous shoulders. It felt like hugging a bronze statue.


Jo crushed him in a bear hug. “Making a mess as usual.”


Jack laughed and pulled away. “It’s good to see you, Jo. Meeting up was a great idea.”


“No problem, it’s been a while.” Jo’s smile slackened slightly. “Plus, I figured you could do with some human contact that didn’t involve people shooting at you.”


Jack nodded and jerked a thumb at the screen. “Can you believe it?”


“Given recent events?” Jo frowned. “Yeah, Jack, I can.”


Jo had a point. Jack had only been back in the US for a few weeks, but in that time there had been a dozen attacks across the country, all professional and brutally successful, targeting critical infrastructure and public gatherings. No group had claimed responsibility and no suspects had been identified. Casualties were mounting, panic was spreading and the authorities seemed impotent to stop the attacks.


“They’re all connected, Jo. I’m sure of it. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think it was the Foundation reborn.” Jack hated thinking it, but even though over a year had passed it felt like just yesterday he’d been fighting to stop Michelle Dominique and her corrupt think tank. He’d gone to hell and back to stop her, but not before Dominique had sparked a war, taken control of the largest media empire in the world and almost gained control of Congress.


Jo shook his head. “Doesn’t fit. The FBI tore them to shreds and their entire leadership is dead or before the courts.”


“Yeah, you’re right. But these are professional hits.” Jack sat back down and gestured for Jo to sit on the lounge chair opposite. “Makes Syria seem almost civil.”


Jo laughed softly as he sat. “How was it over there? You did some good work.”


“Tough. There’s not a lot of hope.” Jack had spent the last three months in Syria covering the siege of Homs. It had been hard, but had also provided a rich vein of stories for his new site, which focused on long-form investigative journalism that the rest of the news media could bid on to broadcast. It was the perfect deal for everyone: he had the skill and not very much money, while they had the chequebooks but had cleared out most of the journalists with the skill.


“So why Vegas?” Jo looked around at the table games and the slot machines. “Given your particular vice, I figured this would be one of the last places you’d want to spend time.”
Jack followed Jo’s gaze. While the attacks – and the fear of more – had subdued Vegas a bit, you could never fully clear out the stags and hens, the corporate getaways, the tourists and the addicted. They were like moths to flame. While there was gambling everywhere, it didn’t interest him. The booze did, though he was more in control of it these days. But what really drew him to this particular desert in Nevada was the fact that it was probably the least news-conscious place in America. Day and night passed without notice here and if it didn’t involve gambling, sport or entertainment then it didn’t rate a mention.


He thought he’d needed that time away from the news. After he’d won his second Pulitzer for the stories about the Foundation, he’d spent months working to get his estranged wife’s body repatriated from Shanghai and organizing her funeral. He’d thought that watching her casket being lowered into the earth would be a release, an ending. He’d been wrong – more pain had come up inside him. After that, he’d tried burying himself in his work. He’d thrown all of his effort into the new site. Then, needing stories to tell and an escape, he’d traveled to Syria. Upon his return, he’d wanted some time away from the news. In theory.


“I like it here.” He exhaled slowly. “Hell, I’m just glad to be back in the States, to tell you the truth. The site is going well and I’ve hired some other contributors. It was time for a break.”
“Glad to hear it.” Jo smiled slightly. His face looked gaunt and tired. “EMCorp wasn’t the same when you left, you know that?”


Jack raised an eyebrow. “Wasn’t?”


Jo’s smile widened. “I retired a few weeks after you left, Jack. I’d love to say it was because you weren’t there, but it was actually the love of my life who forced me to quit.”


“Your wife?”


“My heart surgeon.” Jo laughed and tapped his chest. “This fucking thing should have killed me, but the good people at New York Presbyterian kept me ticking a bit longer.”


Jack couldn’t believe it. Jo was the toughest hunk of meat he’d ever known. “Sorry I wasn’t there, mate. Why didn’t anyone let me know?”


“Well, I was too busy being cut open. I think Celeste wanted to tell you but Peter stopped her. He said you had to be left alone to heal. I don’t think she was very happy about it.”


Jack winced at the mention of her name, but before he could reply a drinks waitress approached. Given the length of her skirt, it was a good thing she had a beaming white smile and cute eyes, or else Jack might have struggled to look elsewhere. They made small talk for a moment before Jack ordered a beer. Jo went with ginger beer. As she shuffled off to get their orders, Jack’s eyes were locked onto her legs.


Jo gave a long, booming laugh. “Fall off the horse, Jack?”


Jack turned back to Jo, feeling himself flush red. “I never stopped liking women, Jo.”
“The booze, I mean.”


“I limit it to a couple these days.” He shrugged. “Hard to be a saint all the time.”

1 Responses to ‘Extract - State of Emergency, by Steve Vincent’

Barnesm mutters...

Posted June 10, 2015
Needs more zombies.

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Respond to 'Extract - State of Emergency, by Steve Vincent'

Sample chapter: A Protocol for Monsters

Posted May 21, 2015 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

Prologue. The Autopsy.

“Bit of a thickhead,” muttered Emmeline as she leaned into the job of taking off the top of the xenomorph’s skull. A few of the others laughed nervously. It wasn’t a particularly funny joke, but they needed the release. She had already burned through one large blade on the heavy duty autopsy saw. This thing really did have a remarkably thick skull. Thick enough that she wondered how much room could be left inside for the brainpan, especially given how much of it’s cranium was taken up by an outsized mouth and hundreds of needle-like teeth. All of them clotted with human flesh.

The noise of the cutting implement came through the radio interface of her biohazard suit as an unpleasant whine, almost a hot scream.

Professor Emmeline Ashbury set her features in stone as the last of the resistance gave way and the heavy bowl of bone came loose. She grunted in relief. Her arms were growing tired and shaky. She was going to have to get one of the others to break open the chest cavity.

“Compton should be here,” said Metcalf.

“Professor Compton is not here because Professor Compton gets a little wobbly spooning dog food out of a can,” said Emmeline as she pried off the top of the creature’s skull. “Face planting into my post mortem examination is not the best use of his time.”

The heavy skull cap came away with a sticky pulling sound and revealed a bizarre cranial cluster that looked like it was all brain stem and cerebellum. Or perhaps cerebella, given the multiple nodules she could already see.

“Jesus, that looks like spaghetti and meatballs,” said Wally Hicks.

“No. You’re wrong, Wally,” Emmeline said. “More like tagliatelle con spinaci and meatballs. Or maybe cervelli agnelli.”

There was a pause while the junior staff waited for her to translate the obscure reference. Probably wetting themselves in fear of being called on to explain.

“Lambs brains,” Emmeline said. “See?” She snipped one of the structures free of the tubing that connected it to the other cerebella and popped the tiny lump of grey matter into a stainless steel tray.

“It’s not really grey matter,” she added, for the benefit of the video recorder. “More greenish and purple I’d say. At any rate, first biopsy, Master Hicks.”

The helmet of Wally’s biohazard suit dipped forward in acknowledgement and he carried the tray away to cold storage. They would take a small cut of the tissue to examine here on the Longreach with the equipment the military had flown out for them, but the real work would begin back on the mainland when the bodies of the xenomorphs arrived at Area 7.

The rest of the team leaned in over the corpse to get a better look at the cerebral mass as Emmeline extracted it from the skull. The eyes of the thing stared sightless and milky at the theatre lights. There were two large black orbs, but at least another eight smaller eyeballs between and around them, not unlike that of a spider. With so much visual data to process Emmeline had expected to see enlarged occipital lobes, but there no lobes of any kind. No single cerebrum at all.

“Jesus that’s grotesque,” said Metcalf. “It’s nothing like the Greys.”

“No reason why it should be,” Emmeline said patiently. “We have no idea yet where these creatures originated or how they got here. But their technologies aren’t Grey.”

“More like fucking Dark Ages,” came Metcalf’s reply inside her helmet. His breathing sounded harsh in the helmet speakers and she could see his features were shiny with sweat behind the faceplate. The DoD man was not new to this sort of operation. He was familiar with extremophile possibilities. But like all of them, he’d been shocked at what they’d found on the oil rig. And, like all of them, he knew there’d be no sweeping this one under the rug. This wasn’t a lone spaceship, it’s crew cold and dead for thousands of years, crashing into the desert hundreds of miles from the nearest speck of civilisation.

There were witnesses, over a hundred of whom had not been eaten by… by whatever this thing was. They would already be out there telling their stories. Selling their phone cam images and videos.

The Office would have to move quickly. Not to contain this, or even to control it, but rather to control the fear and confusion that would spread from it as a contagion. Emmeline knew all about containing fear and confusion.

“Abdomen next,” she announced.

“Scalpel?”

That was Cadence Ramsay, the molecular biologist who’d joined the Office from the European Space Agency just three months ago.

“I don’t think so, Cady,” said Emmeline. “Not if its scalp is any guide. I think we might need a bayonet from one of those marines out by the door. A sharp one.”

“Way ahead of you, Professor,” Jack Metcalf said, turning around to the second stainless steel trolley and producing a long, evil looking knife. It was not a medical instrument.

“I see you were a boy scout before you became a licensed killer, Mr Metcalf. Think you’re up to doing the Y-incision?” she asked. “I’m afraid I need a few minutes to get my strength back after sawing through it’s thick skull.”

“Not a problem.”

Metcalf set to the task of cutting a deep Y into the upper torso, so that they might peel away the skin, but like Emmeline he found the going tough.

“It’s like leather,” he said, and the sound of his voice in her helmet speakers told Emmeline he was gritting his teeth. “Really. Shitty. Leather.”

The creature’s hide seemed to be inked with some form of display. Tattoos, she thought. It was also covered in weeping sores and pustules, which gave way easily before the blade erupting with a greenish yellow discharge. Other blemishes, which looked like giant warts, proved so tough that Metcalf was eventually forced to cut around them. It took him a few minutes to make the whole incision and when they peeled back the skin she could see why. The dermis was up to an inch thick in places and as tough as old boot leather, save for those areas weakened by lesions and suppurating ulcers. There were enough of these that the creature’s hide presented more as a patchwork than a whole intact derma.

Metcalf and Hicks pulled back the skin to reveal a bone cage.

It was not like a human rib cage, with individual ribs held together by muscle and fibre. Instead, the creature’s torso, and presumably its vital innards were protected by a solid fibrous mass of something like cartilage.

“I think we’re going to need a very large pair of bolt cutters,” Emmeline mused.

“Or a chainsaw,” said Metcalf. His voice was flat. She did not think he was joking, but she could never really trust her own judgement in such things.

Emmeline checked the large clock on the opposite wall. 19:43 hours.

“Lets just try the bolt cutters first. We do have them?”

“Yep.”

They had two more corpses of this type to examine. And the enormous one on the gurney in the hallway outside. It was obviously a different species. Possibly even from another genus or family. She would come at it last, learning what she could from the smaller creatures first. This was going to be very long day. It had not turned out at all as she had expected.

29 Responses to ‘Sample chapter: A Protocol for Monsters’

Surtac puts forth...

Posted May 21, 2015

Nice. Looking forward to the rest of it.

When can we expect to see it, please?

John Birmingham mumbles...

Posted May 21, 2015
Probably Octoberish

Brother PorkChop would have you know...

Posted May 21, 2015
What year?

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan would have you know...

Posted May 21, 2015
Don't push it. He said October. Let it be.

Murphy swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 21, 2015
If you rush him, he'll kill a Stark.

Brother PorkChop is gonna tell you...

Posted May 21, 2015
He can kill all the Starks he likes, just don't touch the fluffy, cuddly little Boltons.

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ShaneAlpha mutters...

Posted May 21, 2015
Time to get your own back JB. There's sure to be a monster that develops a taste for possum.

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insomniac swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 21, 2015
It appears that writing from Dave's POV in the primary trilogy of trilogies (I'm calling it) opens up many more opportunities for secondary stories than your other trilogies might have.

Also, can't wait for more.

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GhostSwirv reckons...

Posted May 21, 2015

JB as I immersed myself in Emmerline's investigation of the origin of the species, with the able-bodied assistance of Jack & Cady, I couldn't help but wonder if at some time in the post-October future all of the interweaving chapters and e-books etc., detailing the non-Dave characters and events of Emergence, Resistance & Ascendance would be accessible in a some chronological digital form.

So that one could read the whole grand adventure not just through the eyes of TheDave but through every other character significant to the overarching story as it happened to them - regardless of what Hooper was up to.

Whatever was sacrificed in speed would be supplemented in the depth of knowledge and suspense about what was happening to everyone else ... besides TheDave worrying about where his next meal and booty call was coming from.

John Birmingham reckons...

Posted May 21, 2015
I have plans.

GhostSwirv is gonna tell you...

Posted May 21, 2015

Blofeld has plans.

Sudragon would have you know...

Posted May 21, 2015
And a cat.

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan ducks in to say...

Posted May 22, 2015
And custom made threads. Imagine Blofeld's interactions with his tailor.

Lulu ducks in to say...

Posted May 22, 2015
"Do you have a fabric which won't show cat hair easily? It's a white cat, so nothing dark, thanks."

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HAVOCK21 would have you know...

Posted May 21, 2015
OCTOBER..that would be both the FIRST of October and October this fkn year ...BOYLAN!!!!

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Ceramic reckons...

Posted May 21, 2015
Ooh, nice little taster.
I like the line 'she knew all about containing fear and confusion'. How she tried to describe the grey matter exactly was funny, and totally something i'd do. Interesting stuff John.

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Rob mutters...

Posted May 21, 2015

I want to buy more JB books ( right after I buy a hoodie)

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Peter Bradley puts forth...

Posted May 21, 2015
Very nice description of an autopsy. I am interested in what the application of molecular biology will elucidate. I suppose the first question is are they DNA based?

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Peter Bradley mutters...

Posted May 21, 2015
Very nice description of an autopsy. I am interested in what the application of molecular biology will elucidate. I suppose the first question is are they DNA based?

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she_jedi swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 21, 2015
I can feel a 'squeeeeeeee' coming on. Shut up and take my money :)

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Sparty2 ducks in to say...

Posted May 21, 2015
"Area 7" -Matt Reilly shout out? I expected it to go all "the thing"!

John Birmingham reckons...

Posted May 21, 2015
Yep. Totes.

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@DrWom would have you know...

Posted May 22, 2015
I'll have weeping sores and pustules, which give way easily before the blade erupting with a greenish yellow dischargeWith my scrambled eggs thanks
Love the Awesome JB

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Grand Admiral Thrawn mutters...

Posted May 22, 2015
that seems to be alot of spacific information about some aliens there alittle curious about that and if that may be some sort of skylord hint?

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GhostSwirv has opinions thus...

Posted May 22, 2015

All these references to Greys, Area 7 and alien crash landings has me of a mind of the short-lived television series ... "Dark Skies" - from the mid-90s.

An alternate historical perspective on the events of the 20th century, framed through the lens of a covert war between opposing alien forces hoping to colonise the Earth.

... of course you know all this JB, because you have plans.

And a cat

Maybe a favourite tailor or two

And a penchant for White Ruler-Of-The-World-Safari-Suits

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Anthony mumbles...

Posted May 22, 2015

And a hovercraft...


Grays and spaceships...


The expanding Birmoverse gets curiouser and curiouser said Alice!


Roll on October.

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sibeen swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 23, 2015
I read this two days ago and haven't been able to get the Hot Chocolate song "Emma" out of my head ever since.
You Bastard!

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Adrien Hopkins mumbles...

Posted November 4, 2015
The suspense is killing me, I want more, and I expect it will be better then gruel

John Birmingham asserts...

Posted November 4, 2015
It went off to the editor today.

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Respond to 'Sample chapter: A Protocol for Monsters'

Sampler: A Soul Full of Guns. A Karin Varatchevksy ebook

Posted May 5, 2015 into Book Extract by John Birmingham

“I really like your weapons,” said Martin Gnoji.

Karen smiled and leaned towards him as though to share a secret.

“They’re not really mine,” she stage-whispered.

Gnoji let his eyes drop to her artfully arranged cleavage.

“They look real to me,” he said, and tipped his head back and laughed. It was an ugly laugh. Louder than necessary, even in a noisy room, full of chattering idiots and a jazz band. Colonel Varatchevsky knew what he was doing. She had seen men behave this way many times. Beautiful women did. All women did.

It did not bother her. She was in control, although she was not trying to sell him anything. He might well leave her gallery tonight having purchased some artefact, or painting or even one of the exquisite and ancient weapons which were the object of the evening’s exhibit. Many of her guests would. But Martin Gnoji was not merely Karen Warat’s guest or customer.
He was Colonel Ekaterina Varatchevsky’s target.

A waiter appeared bearing a sliver tray crowded with champagne flutes, chilled coconut water, and a couple of designer beers of impressive obscurity. Karen took a champagne for herself and one for the owner of the fourteenth largest biotech firm in the United States. The glasses appeared to be identical but were not. The drink she carefully lifted from the tray for herself was in fact apple juice and the crystal flute in which it sparkled had been delicately etched with a small identifying mark. A two-headed eagle from the old imperial Russian coat of arms.

Colonel Varatchevsky’s idea of a useful joke.

A hundred and fifty people crammed the small two-storey gallery now, and most had thrown themselves at the complimentary drinks as soon as they’d cleared the velvet rope. An unusually warm day and an open bar made for a lively evening and a quantifiably greater number of commissions. For every crate of Bollinger she laid on, the gallery would make 1.4 additional sales. The math had long been proven. A crate of Bollinger was expensive, of course. But the fine wares of the Warat Gallery were even more immoderately priced.

The largesse was already working. The early buzz of conversation had climbed up into something just short of a roar, as the increasingly tipsy guests spoke in louder voices to be heard over each. The band, a kicking little four-piece from Brooklyn, specialised in riffing on iconic TV show tunes of the 1960s and 70s. They picked up the tempo as the room start to take off. Gilligan’s Island segued to Mission Impossible and a few red dots, denoting a confirmed sale, appeared next to a number of paintings, an Etruscan shield and a sixteenth-century Kris dagger from Surabaya. Most of the serious offers, she knew, would come over the next hour as she worked the room. The largest sales would be made in private the following week.

Karen Warat, as she was known, admired and even loved just a little by the gallery full of glitterati, would do well out of this evening. She would look after the small and very select stable of artists she had gathered to herself over recent years. The critics and media mavens, who had enjoyed a private showing earlier in the day, would not to be so gauche as to openly fawn, but their carefully restrained praise would add another layer of significance to the reputation of The Warat Gallery, enabling the well regarded owner to further her reach, her consequence and her power within the city’s art world; all of this done with the intent of drawing men like the braying, breast-ogling Martin Gnoji into her circle, and into the targeting reticule of the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian Federation, whom the woman known as Karen Warat, served with great distinction at the rank of full colonel.

Karen linked her arm through Gnoji’s, drawing him away from the small circle of vulture capitalists and merchant wankers with whom he’d been talking. One of them tried to complain about the wifi reception, but another glass of champagne put paid to that. Ekaterina, or Karin, as she was in her secret heart, where she imagined she could still hear her mother and father calling her by the name, said, “Come with me, Martin, there’s a young lady you simply must meet, one of my artists. I think you’ll like her very much.”

And because Martin Gnoji was a little a drunk, and Karen Warat was both very beautiful and possessed of a strangely irresistible force of will, he did as he was told. The man whose private company had just developed a working prototype for an implant which could accurately measure an individual’s calorie intake, and who had set all of America’s tech giants against each other in a frenzied bidding war for an exclusive license to the technology, allowed himself to be led into Colonel ‘Karin’ Varatchevksy’s honey trap like a gormless teenager.

Karin did not know why Moscow had deemed Gnoji and his invention a suitable target. The implant was a consumer technology with few military or security applications that she could imagine. Perhaps the targeting order had come from the GRU’s Economic Security Department, perhaps from the Science and Engineering Service. The precise origin of her tasking was irrelevant. Moscow did not often directly reach out to her, one of their prime assets in the US, not after the disastrous exposure of the SVR’s deep cover operations in the Anna Chapman case. When they did, however, she knew her orders to be matters of the highest import to state security.

###

They negotiated the shoals and eddies of the slowly moving crowd, the small conversational knots of privileged guests, and the ever-changing groups of admirers which gathered around this or that objet d’art. Karin-as-Karen kept up a smooth line of small talk, leaning in close to Gnoji to impart some diabolical titbit of gossip or scandal as the object of her gentle slanders came into view.
“That’s His Honour, Judge Herbert, who sat on that Apple and Xaomi thing,” she whispered. “You know, don’t you, that the auditor he put into Apple was the boy he used to share reciprocal hand jobs with under the desk in the law library when they were both at Northwestern?”

Gnoji loved it of course, not least because of the perceptible lensing effect which chased them through the gallery. Everywhere they went, heads turned to follow. All except one, Karin noticed. A striking young woman, with an even more striking facial tattoo. She looked an exotic mix of races in her black leather pant suit, a child of some imperial misadventure perhaps. Indochinese and African-American, thought Karin Varatchevsky, whose own lineage was nearly pure White Russian with a leavening of Nordic genes to account for her naturally blonde hair colour. The woman seemed engrossed in her screen, which was odd, given it was a merely a static image. The champagne she was most definitely not drinking had gone flat. And unlike most of the other guests, she seemed so deeply invested in not noticing her host that Karin’s own attention was inevitably drawn to her.

“Oh Martin, you absolutely have to meet Jon Maberry,” Karen trilled by way of delaying their passage across the room. “Jon runs a charming little money mine up in Vermont, don’t you darling. I remember him telling me all about you and your diet gadget before it was on HuffPo.”
Jon Maberry had done nothing of the sort, but he was not about to pass up an introduction to the man sitting between converging tsunamis of Apple and Google money. He had been fiddling with his iPhone, looking as though he was having trouble with it, but he put the device away as soon as Karen introduced Gnoji.

“Look at this guy!” smiled Maberry, showing off at least twenty grand worth of dental work. “Hottest woman in the city on his arm, hottest tech in the world in his back pocket.”

Gnoji beamed happily, hamming it up by patting his pants and crying out with mock panic, “Oh noes! It must have fallen out on the way here.”

Karin let the rich white men enjoy their mutual self regard while she discreetly observed the woman who was discreetly trying to remain unobserved in turn. Unlike the tattooed girl, Colonel Varatchevksy’s trade craft was extremely well-honed. She only needed to keep the American agent within her peripheral vision for a few moments to be certain she was no art student or goss-blogger playing out of her league. There was the issue of her fascination with the lock screen. But more telling was the Hello Kitty purse she had tucked under one arm. It seemed rather heavy for such a childish affectation; undoubtedly because of the handgun she’d tucked away inside. Karin caught only the merest glimpse of the pistol grip poking up out of the purse, but that was enough.
“Oh, you boys,” she scoffed at some slightly off colour joke Gnoji and Maberry had just traded between each other like a note passed in class. “Jon, I’m sure you and Martin will get up to all sorts of capers and hijinks, but I simply must introduce him to Cally.”

“Is she hot? Why not introduce me to Cally? I thought I was your favourite?” grinned Maberry.

“You are my favourite, Jon,” Karen said. “But Martin adores her Nantucket series, don’t you Martin?”

“Those cool fucking paintings of the old flintlocks? Hells yeah. I’d buy them all! I like art when I can tell what it is.”

“I’ll bet you do,” smiled Karen, her eyes twinkling with good cheer. “Come along.”

She linked arms with him again, letting her hip brush against his as they threaded through the crowd. Gnoji pushed his own hip back into hers so strongly that she had to adjust her step or be shunted into a table full of finger food. She rubbed a hand up his arm, certain that if she looked down she would see the effect she was having on him.

She did not look down.

“Cally!” she called out over the crowd, waving and drawing the attention of a tall woman in her mid twenties, with a spectacular mane of black hair. Her eyes were large and they widened in obvious delight when they found the gallery owner who had done so much to advance her career.
“Hi Karen! Hello… you,” she grinned goofily and innocently at Gnoji, refusing to stare at the bulge in his pants as plainly as the girl with the facial tattoo had refused to look at Varatchevsky.
Karen felt the pressure on her hip fall away as Gnoji was drawn into the orbit of this new and exotically beautiful creature. She would normally have been pleased. The fly had landed in the middle of her web, but her internal alarms were singing loudly. She did not know where the Asian girl had come from. She had no idea which agency had sent her. But she was certain one of them had placed the woman inside the gallery, probably at short notice. She wasn’t very good at her job, indicating a rushed and poorly resourced effort on behalf of American counter-intelligence.
Unless she was private security for one of the one-percenters gadding about, drinking too much champagne and contemplating a vanity purchase. Unlikely, thought Karin. There was private security here tonight, but all of them had checked in with her own people. They had to, to get their weapons past the front door.

No, this girl was doing government work and doing it poorly.

She sensed Cally straining to keep a smile fixed on her face. Martin Gnoji had quickly moved the conversation from her exquisitely detailed pen and ink drawings of flintlock muskets onto a topic where he felt more confident; the fascinating fellow who was Martin Gnoji.

A fool's tongue runs before his feet, she thought in her native language.

“Martin was just telling me earlier how your work had caught his eye, Cally,” Karen Warat said, taking Gnoji’s empty drink and deftly replacing it with a fresh glass of Bollinger.

“Fuck yeah,” said Gnoji. “They’re sexy fucking drawings, Cal.”

Cally’s smile was still strained, but at its edges there was the genuine pleasure of every artist who has just been paid a compliment for their work. Karen had taught her well, and she didn’t immediately implore him to buy one. That tawdry exchange would fall to the gallery owner.

###

“Now you two stay right here,” Karen said. “I’m not running away. But I do have to love you and leave you for just a moment.”

The sudden fright in Cally’s wide brown eyes was matched only by the expression of rat cunning that crossed Gnoji’s face. He would be thinking, Karin knew, that a poor young artist was no match for a master of the universe like him. He would be thinking that the twelve billion dollars Business Insider had just valued him at made him the most interesting and irresistible plate of man meat in New York. It was exactly as Karin had planned. And when he reached peak-tumescence she would whip away the delicious and unobtainable young artist, switching her out for an even more apparently unobtainable prize.

No. Not herself.

Another trained artist. An entrapment savant.

But the presence of the tattooed counter-intel officer had queered that move, at least momentarily. Karin slipped away from Gnoji and Cally with practised grace. She smiled and exchanged brief pleasantries with nearly everyone she passed, but did not allow herself to be drawn into conversation. She gave the impression of a woman diligently about the business of ensuring all her guests were properly looked after. As she crossed the room, her phone buzzed. A BlackBerry, the latest model. She opened the image file attached to the message she had just received, a picture of an Egyptian dagger with a price and consignment number.

It was a prearranged signal that her cover had been blown and she was ordered to exfiltrate the city as quickly as possible. The unusually high price of the artefact told her that American security officials were already en route. The consignment number was an encoded address; a safe house.
Colonel Ekaterina Varatchevsky maintained her poise and stayed in character as she parsed the crowd, seeking out those facial tattoos, and scanning for any support the spy catcher might have. It was possible, even likely, that her pursuers had put the woman into the scene because she was so conspicuous. She would draw the eye away from other, better camouflaged operators. Karen smiled a passing hello at the Judge she had defamed to Gnoji a few minutes earlier. If the tattooed and slightly inept agent was a decoy, that spoke to an adversary with more finesse than the FBI. It might mean she had come to attention of Clearance or even Echelon.

She veered off the path she had been taking, headed for her office in which a small go-bag waited inside the safe. If the Office of Special Clearances and Records had her in the scope she would not have time to collect even a basic escape kit. She would simply have to move quickly and pray to evade the initial sweep. At least she could be thankful she had almost certainly not come to the attention of Echelon. She knew of a whole FSB network liquidated by just one of their operators, a woman who had disappeared nine cell members without ever appearing on the threat detectors herself.

Karin was sweating now – but only lightly, the thinnest sheen making her forehead shine under the gallery’s LEDs, and most of her guests were red faced and mopping at their brows already. It was a warm night and the old building’s A/C struggled with the body heat of the crowd. She weaved around a stand displaying a nearly complete set of armour from an officer of the Eastern Han Dynasty, but found her way blocked by a knot of revellers who were so deeply engrossed in discussing that week’s House of Cards episode that they did not even notice her.

They did notice the first scream, however. Everyone did.

25 Responses to ‘Sampler: A Soul Full of Guns. A Karin Varatchevksy ebook’

Dave W mutters...

Posted May 5, 2015
Hooked. Totally hooked.

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WarDog has opinions thus...

Posted May 5, 2015
You blood tease Birmingham!

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Surtac mumbles...

Posted May 5, 2015

Very nice - I want the rest of it now. So when is it actually due?

Btw JB, are you looking for typos yet? Its got 'sliver' rather than 'silver' on the first page.

insomniac would have you know...

Posted May 5, 2015
Regarding the typos, what happens to any we spot with the paper books? Do you personally correct each copy purchased or just stick to those still in bookshops or do you just let them go?

John Birmingham is gonna tell you...

Posted May 5, 2015
Yes, I will take in typos.

John Birmingham swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 5, 2015
It's written. Entirely. What's not sorted out is who gets to publish it. It needs to be global release and there are three potential publishers. To quote The Highlander, "There can be only one."
I predict tears before bedtime

Murphy_of_Missouri has opinions thus...

Posted May 6, 2015
Well, and his slacker of a research consultant needs to finish the read through. The other three jobs I have do have a habit of slowing me down sometimes.
There will be a few weapons recommendations thus far.
M

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Paul_Nicholas_Boylan asserts...

Posted May 5, 2015
Love it. But cannot help comparing Karen to Caitlin.

John Birmingham is gonna tell you...

Posted May 5, 2015
Karin knows Caitlin and vice versa. Little multiverse easter egg for you.

damian reckons...

Posted May 5, 2015
Yes, the signal to that effect in this extract was pretty clear. Good stuff. When they call it intertextuality people make fun of it and some people get confused and call it plagiarism, after which things can get a bit unfunny, even the hilarious things (that's the only reason bizarre phrases like "self plagiraism" exist). Of course everyone else just thinks in terms of references, nods, winks and building an oeuvre and all that. You'd be crossing the line if you claimed you had Karin in mind when you were writing Caitlin, but I'm pretty sure everyone would forgive you.
Peter Temple has Jack Irish turn up for a cameo in Truth. This sort of thing is catching.

John Birmingham swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 5, 2015
I've always liked the idea of burying crossover treats in the text. After all, it's one of the main advantages of writing multiverse fiction.

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan mutters...

Posted May 6, 2015
I didn't realize. But now that I do, I'm going to pay closer attention. This most certainly kicks up the cool factor up to 11.

Murphy_of_Missouri mutters...

Posted May 6, 2015
I've got Ascendance but have not read the finished copy. Did the Easter egg we discussed for that novel make it in?

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she_jedi has opinions thus...

Posted May 5, 2015
EHRMERGERD!! SO good! More please :)

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Yank Across The Sea asserts...

Posted May 6, 2015
Excellent as always! How long before we get more e-books from your other series like Axis of Time and The Wave? I remember reading somewhere that you were planning on revisiting them.

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Therbs asserts...

Posted May 6, 2015
Noted the Echelon reference, one of their agents eliminating an FSB network, "a woman who had disappeared nine cell members without ever appearing on the threat detectors herself."

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Rhino is gonna tell you...

Posted May 6, 2015
Good stuff!
Like the character very much.

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Stevo swirls their brandy and claims...

Posted May 8, 2015
Love the books, great airplane reading as I commute back and forth between Sydney and Moscow where I work most of the time.
So, please excuse the pedantry, but in Russian patronymic naming practice why does Karin have a male surname? Her father or husband would be Varatchevsky. Normally (not 100% rule but quite exceptional for a slavic name) her name would be Varatchevskaya. To succeed in the FSB/GRU you would need to hold to traditional Russian values.
Anyway, I thought perhaps there is an interesting background story here...

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Mike is gonna tell you...

Posted May 9, 2015
Awesome, global simultaneous release pwns!
In todays day and age, it's just silly to have staggered releases - it annoys customers and leads to piracy.

I'm happy your muse seems to have taken up permanent residence in your noggin. Several books a year is... awesome!

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Adrien Hopkins would have you know...

Posted November 4, 2015
Has this been published yet, I've looked to no avail

John Birmingham is gonna tell you...

Posted November 4, 2015
No, but it went to edit today. Very soon. Get on the mailing list if you want to be sure and get an early low price.

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Alex Lavery is gonna tell you...

Posted December 24, 2015
Hi John,
I just finished Dave's trilogy and have the first book of Without Warning under my belt. I loved the concept of Dave, it was original and refreshing, gotta have some more of that. Maybe something like all 12 champions take it to the Horde, chewing monster brains like energy bars. Now I'm hungry.
Thanks again,
Alex,

John Birmingham mutters...

Posted December 24, 2015
Coming right up, Alex. If you want an early warning, sign up here. http://eepurl.com/bxdqjP

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NBlob mutters...

Posted December 24, 2015
SWMBO is pissed with you & Annabelle JB. For the first time in N years my gift hasn't been obvious. If I get jocks & socks I'll be pissed off to. My bottle of Ciroc we'll help me get over it.
Happy Christmas, Kwanza, Tet, Mid Summer, Mid Winter, non faith based celebrations or day off to all the Burgers.

Paul_Nicholas_Boylan mumbles...

Posted December 25, 2015
I don't celebrate the Tet Offensive until January 30th, but thank you for the mention. Most people ridicule my reverence.

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