The freezing fog in mid-November
Downhill all the way, downhill all the way
How I wish the roads were straighter
Let’s panic later, let’s panic later
from Let’s Panic Later
Wire (1979 –)
There is a point at which there is no point at which.
from The Book of Proliferation
Translated from the original Romanian (15th century)
Apart from the noise and the gut-wrenching fear of physical injury, the most terrifying thing about an explosion is the millisecond in which the whole world fractures. It’s as though the very fabric of time and space has been split asunder, and you’re falling through it with no idea what lies on the other side.
When Colonel Bismarck came to, he was spread-eagled on a marble floor. For a moment he was unable to move, as if his body forbade it. As if it knew better than he did.
Although there was utter silence, the Colonel didn’t question it. He felt no alarm, no urgency. He was staring up at the shattered ceiling, where snowy chunks of plaster rocked gently. He became captivated by their movement — backward and forward, forward and backward — as if they were caught in a breeze. He was even more bewitched by the spectacle as some of the pieces broke loose, falling in slow motion to the floor around him.
His hearing began to return.
He made out a sound that reminded him of woodpeckers. “Vater,” he said, recalling the hunting trips in the jungle around New Germania with his father. Sometimes they’d be gone for as much as a week, sleeping in a tent and shooting game together.
It was a comforting memory. Lying among the blast debris, the Colonel sighed as if he didn’t have a care in the world. He heard the rattling sound again, still so remote. He didn’t associate it with the rapid fire of automatic weapons.
Then the Royal Mint building was rocked by a second blast. The Colonel shut his eyes at the blinding flash of light, every bit as bright as the sun in his world at the center of the Earth.
The percussive wave swept brutally over him, sucking the air from his lungs.
“Was ist . . . ?” the Colonel gasped, still on his back as shards of glass flew across the room like driving sleet and tinkled on the polished marble around him.
He knew then that something was wrong. Not only was everything quickly becoming hazed by a choking black smoke, but his mind seemed to be full of it, too.
“Wie komme ich hierher?” he said, groping for comprehension.
How he’d come to be there he had absolutely no idea. The last memory that felt substantial enough to rely on was of being ambushed in New Germania. He remembered being captured by the Styx, but after that — and he found this strange — he could only remember purple light. No, purple lights, many of them, burning with such intensity that his memories were dim by comparison.
He vaguely recalled the long journey to the outer crust, and then not much else until he found himself in a truck with a squad of his New Germanian troops. They’d been taken to a large building — a factory. And associated with this factory, and still in the forefront of his mind, was something he’d had to do. A task so vitally important that it overrode all other considerations, even his own survival.
But, right now, he couldn’t put his finger on what this task had been. And he didn’t have time to dwell on it further as a burst of gunfire from close by galvanized him into action. He sat up, wincing from the sharp pain in his head where it had struck the floor. Coughing and choking as the acrid smoke caught in his throat, he knew his first priority was to get himself to cover.
He crawled through a doorway where the smoke was less dense and found that he was in an office with a high ceiling and a desk with a vase of flowers on it. Kicking the door shut, he lay behind it while he checked himself over. His hair was sodden from an injury at the back of his head, but he couldn’t tell how serious it was — the skin around it was numb and he knew from experience that head wounds always bled profusely. He ran his hands over the rest of his body, finding no further injuries. He wasn’t in uniform but wearing a coat and civilian clothes, none of which he recognized. But at least he had his military-issue belt around his waist, and his pistol was still in its holster. He got to his feet and took it out, its weight reassuring in his hand. Something he knew. He waited, listening for sounds on the other side of the door.
He didn’t have to wait for long. After a brief lull, he caught English voices and the sound of boots crunching on debris in the hallway where he’d been. Someone shouldered the door of the room open and stormed in. The man was dressed in black, with police emblazoned across his chest. He wore a gas mask and helmet and was armed with an automatic weapon the likes of which Colonel Bismarck had never seen before.
Catching the policeman by surprise, the Colonel wrapped an arm around his neck and rendered him unconscious. While the man’s radio buzzed, the Colonel quickly removed his uniform and dressed himself in it. As he slipped on the gas mask, he realized that even more blood had seeped from his head injury, but he couldn’t worry about that now.
He familiarized himself with the assault rifle, which he found was pretty straightforward. Then he emerged from the office and took a couple of steps into the black smoke, only to come face-to-face with another policeman dressed in identical siege gear. As their gaze met through the lenses of their masks, the other man gave a hand signal, but the Colonel didn’t know how he was meant to respond. A question formed in the other man’s eyes. Thinking that his disguise had been blown, the Colonel began to raise the HK assault rifle in his hands.
He was saved by another explosion that ripped through the hallway and swiped him off his feet. In a daze, the Colonel picked himself up and staggered through the main entrance, where the doors hung crookedly on broken hinges. Almost losing his balance as he missed the step, he found himself reeling on the pavement outside the building.
He stopped dead.
He was confronted by a cordon of armed men — too many for him to take on. They were all behind discarded vehicles or riot shields, their laser sights clustered on him.
He wasn’t prepared for what happened next. With his head still spinning and his senses dulled, he didn’t react when his rifle was snatched from his grip. At the same time, he was hoisted off his feet by two policemen and carried away in double-quick time.
“It’s all right, old mate, don’t you worry. We’ll get you some help,” the man on his left told him sympathetically. The second policeman said something, but the Colonel didn’t take it in.
His escorts removed his helmet and gas mask. “You’re not one of our guys,” the policeman said when he saw the Colonel’s bloodied face.
“Must be from E Team — a country boy,” the other said. But the Colonel wasn’t listening. Not twenty feet away, a body was stretched out in the gutter. Around it a circle of policemen laughed and joked as
“Yeah — the rest of them’ll be bagged and tagged within the hour,” the largest of the two policemen promised in a growl. “Whoever these bastards are, we’ve already slotted four of ’em.”
As the Colonel continued to try to free himself, the other policeman spoke, his words staccato as if he were about to explode with fury. “Take it easy, officer. Leave it to us to finish the job.”
The Colonel grunted a “Yes,” realizing he had to play along if he didn’t want to be identified as one of the protagonists. He allowed the two policemen to help him to the end of Threadneedle Street and then into a side road where ambulances were waiting.
“See to him, will you? He got caught up in the last explosion,” one of the policemen ordered a medic. They left him there and sped back to the Bank of England.
In the ambulance, the medic began to examine the Colonel. “That’s a very fine mustache,” he told him. From the way his hands were shaking, the young medic had clearly never seen action like this before. He cleaned the wound on the Colonel’s head and was putting the finishing touches to a field dressing when shouts came from the top of the street. Several new casualties were being carried in on stretchers. The medic went to their aid, giving the Colonel the opportunity he’d been looking for. Although he was still a little groggy, he eased himself down from the back of the ambulance and stole away.
With so many uniformed personnel flooding the area — both police and increasing numbers of military — no one took any notice of the Colonel. Sticking to the back streets, he stopped only when an entrance at the rear of one of the large office buildings caught his eye. Beyond a pair of open doors, he could see a ramp leading down to an underground parking garage. The Colonel descended into it and was trying the vehicles to find one that was unlocked when a man wearing a pinstripe suit appeared. The man went straight to a large four-by-four, and just as he was stowing two briefcases in its trunk, the Colonel knocked him out cold. Swapping the police jacket for the unconscious man’s, the Colonel then heaved his limp body in beside his briefcases and slammed the trunk shut.
Although he had only driven left-hand-drive cars before, the Colonel had no difficulty in maneuvering the vehicle up the ramp and through the streets. As he joined a line of traffic waiting to get away from the trouble in the city, he rummaged through the pockets of the man’s jacket. He came across a wallet, from which he extracted the credit cards, flipping them onto the passenger seat as he examined them. Then he found a driver’s license, with what he assumed was the man’s home address on it, and began to scan the road signs around him. Although he had no idea how he was going to find his way to the man’s home, now that he was out of immediate danger, he could take his time.
He touched a control on the console beside his seat, and the blue-and-white BMW emblem flashed on a small display in the dash. He smiled. Within a few clicks he’d navigated to the onboard GPS system. He immediately typed in the postal code from the driver’s license. As an authoritative female voice began to reel off directions, the Colonel nodded, allowing himself an even broader smile.
“Bayerische Motoren Werke,” he exhaled, running his hands appreciatively around the luxurious leather rim of the steering wheel. “Ausgezeichnet.” The Colonel knew this marque well because his father had flown aircraft manufactured by the company in the Great War.
Aspects of this outer world that the Colonel now found himself in were so familiar he could almost pretend he was still in New Germania. But other aspects would take some getting used to. For starters, the gravity was so strong here that every movement was an effort, as if his limbs were weighed down with lead.
And the sun . . .
He peered through the tinted windshield, marveling at the fiery globe hanging in the heavens, which was smaller and weaker than the ever-burning and omnipresent one he’d known all his life. Even now it wasn’t directly overhead, and it was a revelation to him that it would dip below the horizon with the onset of night, the onset of darkness.
And the people in the streets. People of all races. He watched as an elderly black man tripped and took a bad fall. A white woman instantly went to help him.
Not out of choice but because of its origins, New Germania had been monoracial, and Colonel Bismarck knew only too well what atrocities had gone on in wartime Germany. As he surveyed the mix of people making the exodus from the city, he smiled. He truly was in an enlightened civilization.
“Continue for one thousand feet to Old Street roundabout, then take the second exit,” the GPS dictated mechanically.
The Colonel might have been plucked from his motherland by the Styx and thrust into this new and alien environment, but he wasn’t about to throw in the towel. He was a resourceful man, a survivor.
And besides, he had a score to settle.
“TARNATION!” A LOW VOICE seeped through the treacly gloom inside the small crofter’s cottage on Parry’s estate. If anybody had been there to witness the speed at which the man crossed to the cobwebbed window, they would have doubted their eyes. As he hooked a ragged curtain aside, the rain-filtered light fell on his face — the face of a man in his sixties.
But it wasn’t any normal face; the skin was slightly raised in a series of concentric circles radiating out from each of his eyes. And there was a grid of lines across his forehead that extended down his temples and under his ears. It was as if worms had threaded through his flesh and left their tracks behind.
“Who in the blazes is that?” the man said, grimacing as he pressed the flaps of his cap hard against his ears, the metal-foil lining inside them crackling as he did so. Repeating the question, he backed slowly away from the window.
“Stop!” rasped Chester as Will tore toward the gate across the track in front of them.
Will pulled up and consulted his digital watch, unaware of the discomfort the innocuous electronic device was causing the man in the darkness. “Why? We’ve only been running for about thirty minutes,” he told Chester. It was only then that he caught sight of the moss-covered roof of the crofter’s cottage through the trees, but he made no comment about it to his friend.
“Half an hour?” Chester puffed, blinking as the drizzle fell into his eyes.
“Yep. Why don’t we see where this leads?” Will said, glancing along the track. “Or maybe you’ve had enough? We could call it a day and go back to the house,” he offered.
“No way. Not me,” Chester said with some indignation. He pointed at the sign on the gate. “But this says Danger — Keep Out.”
“Danger? When did that ever stop us?” Will said, immediately climbing over the gate. Chester followed him reluctantly.
“I’m just getting my second wind,” he lied.
“OK then, race you over to that wood,” Will challenged, putting on a turn of speed as the rain grew even heavier.
Chester struggled to keep up with his friend in the downpour. “I thought we were racing,” he grumbled.
Drake had been away for almost a month, and in his absence Parry had been putting the boys through their paces, sending them off on runs and teaching them to use the weights in his antiquated gym in the basement. Parry’s idea of physical training harked back to his army days and he pushed them hard, but they didn’t complain because they wouldn’t have dared refuse the old man, and because it filled the hours as they hid from the Styx.
Their feet slipping in the mud, they continued along the track until Chester gasped, “Time out. Weather stops play!”
They took refuge under an old elm tree, its branches affording them some protection from the rain.
“We look like a couple of escaped convicts in these.” Will chuckled as he examined the thick gray tracksuits that Parry h
“Too right,” Chester agreed. “And these sneakers are like something from the Stone Age.” He stamped his feet to try to remove the mud from his heavy black plimsolls, then looked around at the leaves on the trees, which were beginning to show the first signs of autumn. “Funny — all the time I was underground I didn’t have the foggiest idea where I was. But now I’m Topsoil again, I’m just as much in the dark.”
“Well . . . ,” Will began thoughtfully, “the rainfall seems to be above average here — maybe because the wind is coming in over water, or even the sea.” He wiped the moisture from his face with a sleeve. “Yes, I think we might be close to the coast. Could be Wales or Scotland.”
Chester was impressed. “Really? You can tell that?”
Will laughed. “No,” he admitted.
“You dipstick,” Chester said.
“Maybe, but I’m a faster dipstick than you,” Will replied, breaking into a run again.
“We’ll see about that!” Chester shouted at Will’s back. He was hard on Will’s heels as they thundered around a bend in the muddy path, only to come face-to-face with a man holding a shotgun.
“Good afternoon,” the man said as Will slid to an abrupt halt, Chester bumping into him. The shotgun was broken over the man’s arm — the correct way to carry the weapon when not in use — so neither of the boys felt any particular alarm. To their eyes, the man looked ancient, his wrinkled skin burned a dark brown by the sun, and his sparse hair almost as white as Will’s.
“You must be the Commander’s guests?” the man said. He was referring to Drake’s father, and Will realized right away that this had to be Old Wilkie, the groundsman employed on the estate.
Will nodded slowly, not quite sure how he should respond. “And you must be . . . er . . . Mr. Wilkie?”
“That’s the one, but please call me Old Wilkie. Everyone does,” the man said. “And this is my granddaughter, Stephanie.”
“Steph,” a girl’s voice corrected him as she stepped into view. She was around fifteen or sixteen, and had striking red hair and a pale complexion dusted with freckles. She looked both boys up and down with a somewhat disdainful glance, but said nothing more, adjusting the brace of dead pheasants hanging from her arm as if they were more interesting to her.