Today, we have an excerpt from Gareth L. Powell‘s new novel, Stars and Bones. The author’s latest highly-anticipated science fiction epic, it was published by Titan Books yesterday. Here’s the synopsis:
Seventy-five years from today, the human race has been cast from a dying Earth to wander the stars in a vast fleet of arks — each shaped by its inhabitants into a diverse and fascinating new environment, with its own rules and eccentricities.
When her sister disappears while responding to a mysterious alien distress call, Eryn insists on being part of the crew sent to look for her. What she discovers on Candidate-623 is both terrifying and deadly. When the threat follows her back to the fleet and people start dying, she is tasked with seeking out a legendary recluse who may just hold the key to humanity’s survival.
Now: on with the excerpt!
Seventy-five years ago, the world came to an end. I was in my greenhouse at the time, talking to my personal assistant.
“They’ve launched nukes.” We had been discussing the worsening political and global climates, but now Juliet’s crisp and professional demeanour faltered.
Trowel in hand, I rose from the line of tomato plants I had been tending. “How many warheads?”
“At least two thousand.” She was standing on the wooden duckboards between the vegetable beds, tablet computer in hand, and her face was pale. “Some aimed at military and infrastructure targets, but the majority targeting civilian population centres.”
The air in the greenhouse was humid, and rich with the comforting scent of warm tomato plants. I shook my head and looked up at the rock ceiling overhead. I felt like crying. After years of escalating tension, the idiots had finally gone and done it. This wasn’t going to be limited to a tactical exchange—they were going for full-throttle Armageddon. “What triggered it?”
“The British Prime Minister made a joke about pressing the button. He didn’t realise his mike was hot.”
I suppressed a groan. That clown. I should have expected it. “So, who launched first?”
“Does it matter?”
“Globally, less than thirty per cent in the short term, dropping considerably over the next few weeks.”
Beneath the ceiling-mounted sunlamps, bumblebees drowsed along the orderly rows of flowering plants. In contrast to Juliet’s exquisitely tailored grey business suit, I
wore a simple white t-shirt and a pair of blue designer jeans. It was as close as I ever came to being dressed casually. I put down the trowel and peeled off a pair of five-hundred-dollar gardening gloves. “Well, I guess that settles it,” I said. “It’s time to see if this place is as safe as it’s supposed to be.”
Some of the other gardeners had paused in their work to listen. I rubbed the bridge of my nose. My knees and back ached from hunching over the soil. “It’s our only option.”
For months, my team had been preparing this bunker in the Canadian Rockies, financed by my personal fortune. When it was complete, I’d intended to gather my friends and key employees in order to sit out Doomsday—whether that came from climate change, pandemic, or asteroid impact—in relative comfort. But now the birds were in the air, none of that mattered anymore. There wasn’t time to get everyone here. My aged, leathery parents were in New York; my trophy popstar girlfriend at a charity gig in Boston; my management team still on their way from Los Angeles and not expected to touch down for another forty-five minutes, by which time it would probably all be over, one way or another. I’d have to cope with the skeleton staff already on site. Everything was screwed. All I could do now was make the best of what I had.
Thank god Juliet was here. She was my rock. What she didn’t know about the running of this bunker wasn’t worth knowing. I was especially disappointed Frank Tucker wasn’t here.
The young physicist showed real promise, and I had been sponsoring him for some time. Now, just as the kid’s research into wormholes reached an exciting point, everything was going to hell. I had hoped that in another five or ten years, I’d have been able to use Frank’s research to create a network of portals that would allow instantaneous travel between the major cities of the world. Maybe between Earth and the moon. But right now, Frank was stuck in his lab in Oxford and there was nothing I could do to change that. And even if I could magically conjure a wormhole to escape the coming holocaust, where would it lead? Earth was fucked and there simply wasn’t anywhere else to go.
I pulled out my own tablet and linked to Juliet’s. “Show me missile tracking.”
“This is what we have so far.” She fed through a Mercator projection of the Earth based on data assembled from hacked military feeds and instruments concealed aboard my own fleet of digital communication satellites. High above the scrappy remnants of the North Polar ice cap, Chinese and Russian missiles were nearing the zenith of their trajectories. Only minutes remained. On the ground, the population would be panicking. Some would be engaged in a futile scramble for shelter, while others raged at their leaders. Newsreaders would be clutching their earpieces and turning pale, unable to believe what they were about to report. Panicked crowds would be fighting to get into subway stations and underground car parks. Families would be huddling together, helplessly trying to protect each other in the face of the impending holocaust.
I had lived through stock market crashes and flu pandemics. I’d grown up with the ever-present threat of a steadily deteriorating climate and had devoted much of my personal fortune to discovering ways to fight back and ensure I could keep my loved ones safe during the next emergency. My whole life, I’d been preparing for the end of the world, and now here it was. I cleared my throat. “Okay, sound the alarm and get everyone inside.”
Could this really be it? My shoulders felt like weights. All that struggle, all that work. The modern world had instant access to all the great achievements in science, art, music and philosophy, but now the barbarians were torching the library. After today, most of it would be forever lost. In the bunker’s archive, I had digital files of almost every book ever written and every song ever recorded—but they would only be of use to me, here, with my own private generator and electronics hardened against the effects of EMPs. I couldn’t use them to rebuild civilisation.
“We should have done more,” I said. If we’d had another couple of months, maybe we could have started to turn the tide of public opinion. Rigged an election or two. Deposed a few leaders or funded a few grassroots campaigns for peace. What was the point in being the richest man in the world if I couldn’t save it? I’d spent years preparing this underground refuge for myself. What billionaire hadn’t taken similar precautions? But now the hour was at hand, all I felt was a crushing sense of failure.
I should have done more.
“They pressed the button,” Juliet said, seemingly reading my thoughts. “Not us.”
“They caught us unprepared. I didn’t expect things to escalate this quickly.”
“I know.” Juliet’s voice was starting to lose its professional calm. “I’ve been hearing rumours. Something’s been going on behind the scenes. Something nobody’s been talking about.” “Any idea what it might be?”
“I don’t know. Something to do with the outer solar system.”
“How could anything out there possibly be relevant to this?”
“There’s been some buzz about it over the past day or so.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I. Not that it matters now.” She broke off to check something. “Okay, outer doors sealed. Air filters operative. We’re all zipped-up and as ready as we’ll ever be.” Her voice cracked into a nervous smile. “We did it, Haruki. We’re going to live through this.”
I pushed a hand back through my thinning grey hair. I knew she was right, but I still found it hard to reconcile the deaths of billions of people with any metric of objective success. Especially when I still had fresh dirt on the knees of my five-thousand-dollar jeans. I had intended today to be all about cultivating new life. About relaxing and taking a break from the infernal complexities of the planet’s politics. A few hours with my fingertips submerged in the loamy mulch of the gardens, my awareness pared down from the wider global perspective to the basic needs of the plant before me. I hadn’t been ready for this.
One of the missiles on the screen flashed red and my heart seemed to convulse in my chest. “Are we being targeted?”
“Fuck!” Juliet tapped her screen. “Yes, it’s a Russian Topol-M with six one-kiloton warheads.”
Indignation washed through me. “Why are they firing it at us?”
“Who knows? Maybe they think we’re a military installation.”
“Shit.” I glanced around at the garden I’d created and knew with terrifying certainty that we were about to die. This bunker hadn’t been designed to withstand a direct hit from a nuclear warhead. The idea anyone would waste a missile on this remote section of the Canadian Rockies had seemed laughable. But now, even if the lower levels survived the heat of the explosion, the upper levels would collapse like a concertina under the pressure wave, crushing everything within.
“Just under a minute.”
I fell to my knees in the soft dirt. This far below the surface, I didn’t think there was much chance of being instantly vapourised; but when the floor above gave way, we were likely to be flattened by megatons of semi-molten rock.
Oh gods, I thought, I hope it’s quick. I couldn’t bear the thought of being trapped in the rubble, injured and slowly dying of thirst and radiation poisoning.
“Thirty seconds,” Juliet said.
All this work, all the money I’d spent. I’d wanted to preserve something for the future and protect my family, but now I was going to die along with everyone else. Somehow, it seemed unfair.
If I’d have known it was hopeless, I would have stopped worrying and spent more time surfing.
“Fifteen.” Juliet’s cheeks were wet with tears, but she seemed determined to stay at her post until the end.
I thought of my parents in New York.
I thought of my ex-wife.
I closed my eyes.