The Nemesis Program_Ben Hope, p.1Scott Mariani
The Nemesis Program
‘We’ve arranged a global civilisation in which most crucial elements profoundly depend on science and technology. We’ve also arranged things so that no one understands science or technology. This is a prescription for disaster. We might get away with it for a while, but sooner or later, this combustible mixture of ignorance and power is going to blow up in our faces.’
Carl Sagan, 1995
‘I could set the earth’s crust into such a state of vibration that it would rise and fall hundreds of feet, throwing rivers out of their beds, wrecking buildings, and practically destroying civilisation. The principle cannot fail.’
Nikola Tesla, 1898
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The Altai Mountains
The biting wind was starting to whip flurries of snow across the barren mountainside, high up in the wilderness where not even the most rugged four-wheel-drive vehicle could reach. Soon, Chuluun knew, the winter snowfalls would be here in earnest and it might be a long time before he could venture out this far again in search of food.
The argali herd that the teenager was tracking had led him almost half a mile across bare rock from where he’d tethered his pony further down the mountain. Wolves were an ever-present concern, but the curly-horned wild sheep could sense the roving packs from a great way off, and having paused on their trek to munch contentedly on a scrubby patch of heather, they seemed calm enough to reassure Chuluun that his pony was safe.
There was one predator too smart to let himself be noticed by the argali. Chuluun had been hunting over these mountains for six years, since the age of eleven, when his father had become too infirm to ride long distances any more, and he prided himself on his ability to sneak up on anything that walked or flew. His parents and seven younger brothers and sisters depended almost entirely on him for meat, and in the harsh environment of Mongolia, meat meant survival.
Staying carefully downwind of the grazing sheep and moving with stealthy ease over the rocks, Chuluun stalked up to within a hundred metres of his quarry. He settled himself down at the top of a rise in a vantage point from which his pick of the herd, a large male he estimated stood a good four feet at the shoulder, was nicely presented side-on.
Very slowly, Chuluun slid the ancient Martini-Henry into aiming position and hunkered down behind it. He opened the rifle’s breech, drew one of the big, long cartridges from his bandolier and slipped it silently inside. Closing the breech, he flipped up the tangent rearsight. At this range he knew exactly how much elevation he needed to compensate for gravity’s pull on the trajectory of the heavy bullet.
The argali remained still, munching away, oblivious. Chuluun honoured his prey, as he honoured the spirit of the mountains. He blinked a snowflake from his eyelashes. Gently, purposefully, he curled his finger around the trigger, controlled his breathing and felt his heart slow as his concentration focused on the all-important shot. If he missed, the herd would be off and he couldn’t hope to catch up with them again today, nor this week. But Chuluun wasn’t going to miss. Tonight, his family were going to eat as they hadn’t eaten in a long while.
At the perfect moment, Chuluun squeezed the trigger.
And in that same moment, everything went insane.
The view through the rifle’s sights disappeared in a massive blurred explosion. His first confused thought was that his gun had burst on firing. But it wasn’t the gun.
Chuluun barely had time to cry out as the ground seemed to lurch away from under him and then heave him with terrifying violence into the air. He was spinning, tumbling, sliding down the mountain. His head was filled with a deafening roar. Something hit him a hard blow and he blacked out.
When Chuluun awoke, the sky seemed to have darkened. He blinked and sat up, shivering with cold and beating the snow and dirt from his clothes, then staggered to his feet. His precious rifle lay half-buried in the landslide that had carried him down from the top of the rise. Still half-stunned, he clambered back up the rocky slope and peered, afraid to look, over the edge.
He gasped at the incredible sight below.
Chuluun was standing on the edge of a vast near-perfect circle of utter devastation that stretched as far as his keen young hunter’s eyes could see. Nothing remained of the patch of ground where the argali herd had been quietly grazing. The mountainside was levelled. Gigantic rocks pulverised. The pine forests completely obliterated. All gone, swept away by some unimaginable force.
His face streaked with dirt and tears and contorted into an expression of disbelief, Chuluun gazed up at the strange glow that permeated the sky, like nothing he’d ever seen before. Blades of lightning knifed through the rolling clouds. There was no thunder. Just a heavy, eerie pall of silence.
Suddenly filled with conviction that something unspeakably evil had just happened here, he scrambled away with a terrified moan and started fleeing down the slope towards where he’d left his pony.
Seven months later
The apartment was all in shadow. It wasn’t normal for Claudine Pommier to keep her curtains tightly drawn even on a bright and sunny June afternoon.
But then, it
Claudine was tense as she padded barefoot down the gloomy, narrow hallway. She prayed the boards wouldn’t creak and give her away. A moment ago she’d been certain she could hear footsteps outside the triple-locked door. Now she heard them again. Holding her breath, she reached the door and peered through the dirty glass peephole. The aged plasterwork and wrought-iron railing of the old apartment building’s upper landing looked distorted through the fish-eye lens.
Claudine felt a flood of relief as she recognised the tiny figure of her neighbour, Madame Lefort, with whom she shared the top floor. The octogenarian widow locked up her apartment and started heading for the stairs. She was carrying a shopping basket.
Claudine unlatched the security chain, slid back both bolts and the deadlock and rushed out of the door to catch her.
‘Madame Lefort? Hang on – wait!’
The old woman was fit and sprightly from decades of negotiating the five flights of winding stairs each day. She was also as deaf as a tree, and Claudine had to repeat her name three more times before she caught her attention.
‘Bonjour, Mademoiselle Pommier,’ the old woman said with a yellowed smile.
‘Madame Lefort, are you going out?’ Claudine said loudly.
‘To do my shopping. Is something wrong, dear? You don’t look well.’
Claudine hadn’t slept for two nights. ‘Migraine,’ she lied. ‘Bad one. Would you post a couple of letters for me?’
Madame Lefort looked at her tenderly. ‘Of course. You poor dear. Shall I get you some aspirin too?’
‘It’s okay, thanks. Hold on a moment.’ Claudine rushed back into the apartment. The two letters were lying on the table in the salon, sealed and ready but for the stamps. Their contents were identical; their addressees half a world apart. She snatched them up and rushed back to the door to give them to Madame Lefort. ‘This one’s for Canada,’ she explained. ‘This one for Sweden.’
‘Where?’ the old woman asked, screwing up her face.
‘Just show the person at the counter,’ Claudine said as patiently as she could. ‘They’ll know. Tell them the letters have to go registered international mail, express delivery. Have you got that?’
‘Registered international mail,’ Claudine repeated more firmly. ‘It’s terribly, terribly important.’
The old woman inspected each letter in turn an inch from her nose. ‘Canada? Sweden?’ she repeated, as though they were addressed to Jupiter and Saturn.
‘That’s right.’ Claudine held out a handful of euros. ‘This should cover the postage. Keep the change. You won’t forget, will you?’
As the old woman headed off down the stairs, Claudine hurried back to her apartment and locked herself in. All she could do now was pray that Madame Lefort wouldn’t forget, or manage to lose the letters halfway to the post office. There was no other way to get word out to the only people she could trust. Two allies she knew would come to her aid.
If it wasn’t too late already.
Claudine ventured to the window. She reached out nervously and pulled the edge of the curtain back a crack. The afternoon sunlight streamed in, making her blink. Five floors below, the traffic was filtering along the narrow street. But that wasn’t what Claudine was watching.
She swallowed. The car was still there, in the same parking space at the kerbside right beneath her windows where it had been sitting since yesterday. She was completely certain it was the same black Audi with dark-tinted glass that had followed her from Fabien’s family country home two days ago.
And, before that, the same car that had tried to run her down in the street and only narrowly missed her. It still made her tremble to think of it.
She quickly drew the curtain shut again, hoping that the men inside the car hadn’t spotted her at the window. She was pretty sure there were three of them. Her instinct told her they were sitting inside it, just waiting.
On her return from Fabien’s place, after the scare and the realisation she was being followed, she hadn’t intended to remain here in the apartment any longer than it took to pack a few things into a bag and get the hell out. But the car had appeared before she’d been able to escape – and now she was trapped.
Were these the men that Daniel had warned her about? If that was the case, they knew everything. Every detail of her research. And if so, they must know what she’d learned about their terrible plans. If they caught her, they wouldn’t let her live. Couldn’t let her live. Not after what she’d uncovered.
Under siege in her own apartment. How long could she hold out? She had enough tinned provisions to last about a week if she rationed her meals. And enough brandy left to stop her terror from driving her crazy.
Claudine spent the next half hour pacing anxiously up and down the darkened room, fretting over whether the old lady had sent her letters. ‘I can’t stand this,’ she said out loud. ‘I need a drink.’
Walking into the tiny kitchen, she grabbed a tumbler and the brandy bottle and sloshed out a stiff measure. She downed it in a couple of gulps and poured another. It wasn’t long before the alcohol had combined with her fatigue to make her head swirl. She wandered back through into the salon, lay on the couch and closed her eyes. Almost instantly, she began to drift.
When Claudine awoke with a start and opened her eyes, the room was completely dark. She must have slept for hours. Something had woken her. A sound. Her heart began to race.
That was when the bright flash from outside lit up the narrow gap between the curtains, followed a moment later by another rumble of thunder. She relaxed. It was just a storm. The howling wind was lashing the rain against the windows.
She got up from the couch and groped for the switch of the table lamp nearby. The light came on with a flicker. The ancient wiring of the apartment building threatened to black the place out every time there was a storm. The clock on the mantelpiece read 10.25. Too late to go and ask Madame Lefort if she’d posted the letters, as the old woman was always in bed by half past nine. It would have to wait until morning.
Claudine stepped back over to the window and peered out of the crack in the curtains. With a gasp she saw that the car was gone.
Gone! Just an empty pool of light, glistening with rainwater, under the streetlamp where it had been parked.
She blinked. Had she just imagined the whole thing? Was nobody following her after all? Had the near-miss in the street two days ago just been a coincidence, some careless asshole not looking where he was going?
The rush of relief she felt was soon overtaken by a feeling of self-blame. If this whole thing had been just her paranoia getting the better of her, then she should never have sent those letters. She’d made a fool of herself.
Suddenly she was hoping that the old woman hadn’t posted them after all.
The storm continued outside. Claudine knew she wouldn’t get any more sleep that night. She wandered into her little bedroom, flipped on the side light and picked up her violin. One of the upsides to sharing the top floor with a deaf old woman was that she could play whenever she liked. Madame Lefort wouldn’t even have heard the thunder.
Thankful that she had something to occupy her mind, Claudine cradled the instrument under her chin, touched the bow to the strings and went into the opening bar of the Bach sonata she’d been trying to master for the last couple of months.
Another bright flash outside and at that moment the lights went out. She cursed and went on playing by the red glow from the neon sign of the hotel across the street.
Then she paused, frowning. There’d been a noise. Before the roll of thunder. Like a thump. It seemed to have come from above. There was nothing above her apartment but the roof. Maybe the wind had knocked something down, she thought, or sent a piece of debris bouncing over the tiles. She went on playing.
But she hadn’t produced more than a few notes before her bow groaned to a dissonant halt on the strings
There was someone inside the apartment.
A cold sweat broke out over her brow. Her knees began to shake. She needed to arm herself with something. Thinking of the knife block on the kitchen worktop, she tossed her violin and bow down on the bed and hurried towards the doorway – then skidded to a halt on the bare boards as another violent lightning flash lit up the room and she saw the figure standing in the doorway, blocking her exit.
Too terrified to speak, Claudine retreated into the bedroom.
The intruder stepped into the room after her. She could see him outlined in the red glow from the hotel sign. He was tall, very tall. Shoulders like an ox. Black boots, black trousers, black jacket and gloves. His hair was silver, cropped to a stubble. He had a hard, angular face. Pale eyes narrowed to slits. Around his waist was some kind of utility belt, like builders and carpenters wore.
For one crazy, irrational moment, Claudine thought he was a workman come to carry out the much-needed repairs to the bathroom. But that idea vanished as he drew the claw hammer from his utility belt and came towards her.
She snatched the violin from the bed. Lashing wildly out with it, she caught him across the brow with such force that the instrument broke apart. The splintering wood raked his flesh, drawing blood that looked as dark as treacle in the red light. He barely seemed to have felt the blow. He swung the hammer and knocked the shattered violin from her hand. She cowered away from him. ‘Please—’
He struck out again with the hammer. Claudine’s vision exploded, white and blinding pain flashing through her head. She fell onto the bed, dazed.
The big man stood over her, clutching the hammer in his muscular fist. Strands of bloody hair dangled from the steel claw. Unhurriedly, calmly, he wiped the tool clean on the bedcover and then slipped it back into his utility belt. From another long pouch he drew out a cylindrical tube with some kind of plunger and transparent plastic nozzle attached.
He bent over her. Through the fog of pain, she saw him smile. His eyes and teeth were red in the hotel neon.
The man spoke in English. ‘Now it’s time for that pretty mouth of yours to be plugged up.’
The Nemesis Program_Ben Hope by Scott Mariani / History & Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes