Are you ready for the apocalypse?
This is one of my most epic novels to date, and that’s saying a lot. I’ve destroyed civilization before. I’ve doomed the planet. But this time, I’m taking the Kaiju Thriller genre and blowing up the scale to tell a kind of monster story that has never been told before. Where Nemesis takes us on a classic giant monster journey, Apocalypse Machine treads new ground. How? There are two answers to that question.
First, did you think Godzilla (2014) would have been even better if it remained character driven by Bryan Cranston? Of course you did. Everyone did! That’s why I made sure that it was the human characters driving the story forward. The plot might revolve around a giant monster, but it’s the complicated and very real characters who will keep you turning pages. Second, Apocalypse Machine will be the first kaiju novel to be released as a hardcover novel (in the U.S. anyway–not sure about overseas). When it came time to package the book, anything less than a hardcover didn’t do its epic scale justice (though it will also be available in e-book). Your next question is no doubt, “Aren’t you a cocky bastid?” which is then hopefully followed by, “When is it coming out?”
In answer to the first question, “A little.” But I only talk like this when I’m confident I’ve written something special. And to the second question, I say:
Apocalypse Machine drops on March 1, 2016!
It will be available in hardcover everywhere books are sold (your best bet is to order online when it’s released–no pre-order) and in e-book, exclusively on Amazon for the first few months. Sorry to non-Amazon users.
Now then, on with the sample chapters!
T.S. Elliot got it wrong. The end of the world doesn’t begin with a bang, or a whimper. It begins with a toe prick.
“God damn, son of bitch!” Kiljan Árnason falls to his side, the blow cushioned by layers of clothing and a thick down jacket. He clutches his boot, hisses through his teeth and swears again, “Mother fuck! What was that?”
The four people with him—three scientists and myself—have a good laugh at his expense, not because we’re sadistic and enjoy seeing people in pain, but because our long-bearded Icelandic guide has done us the courtesy of cursing in English. His thick accent somehow transforms his broad, 6’4” tall, hair-covered frame into something adorable, rather than fearsome. His Viking ancestors might have split us in half with an ax for laughing at him, but as he rolls on his back, still clutching the boot, Kiljan chuckles along with us.
When the surprise wears off, and he tears away his gloves and unties the laces of his right boot, the laughter fades. He’s genuinely injured. Not mortally, but when you’re hiking across a glacier that rests atop the caldera of a subglacial stratovolcano more than fifty years past due for an eruption, a guide that can walk is preferable.
The glacier, Vatnajökull, is the largest in all of Europe, covering eight percent of Iceland’s landmass. Its average depth is 1300 feet, but over volcanic calderas such as the one under our toes, it reaches down 3000 feet. The volcano beneath us, Bárðarbunga—Bardarbunga to non-locals—is one of the largest in Iceland, and like the other thirty volcanoes in the region, it still roils with activity. In 2015, an offshoot of the volcano burped lava and toxic steam over a swath of land the size of Manhattan. But that six month eruption was little more than a pressure release. A true eruption, the kind that transforms landscapes and alters weather around the world, could still be building. That’s why our little band of volcanologists and geologists is hiking across an ice cap in search of the perfect location to set up camp and start running tests like ice core samples, as well as air quality and seismographic readings.
A lot of what we’re doing out here is theater, designed to garner public attention to a potentially serious threat. As a journalist for Modern Scientist, I’m here to chronicle the expedition and ruminate on any discoveries made. If the study’s findings are mundane, I’ll write a character piece, focused on the lives of scientists in extreme environments. I’ll pepper it with facts about what an eruption would look like. And I’ll remind people about the chaos caused across Europe in 2010 when Eyjafjallajökull, Bardarbunga’s sister volcano, blew her top, closing airspace over twenty countries and keeping ten million travelers on the ground.
But if the study finds evidence of the opposite, that Bardarbunga is building toward an eruption, the story will take on a tone of Biblical end-times prophecy. I’m hoping for something in the middle, portending doom, but for some future generation—preferably after my sons have lived long lives. If Bardarbunga erupts in a significant way, all of Europe will feel the effects. Between earthquakes, tsunamis, poison gas clouds, hot ash and glacial flooding, several hundred thousand, perhaps even millions of lives will be threatened.
“What happened?” Holly Interlandi, one of our two volcanologists, asks, crouching beside the fallen giant. Dressed in snow pants and a parka, she has trouble bending down. She nearly gets us laughing again, but we’re sobered by the pained look on Kiljan’s face.
“Felt like a bee sting,” the big man says. “On my toe.”
“You do realize that there are no bees to—” Phillip Kim clamps his mouth shut when Kiljan pauses unlacing his boot—long enough to give the man a look that suggests some of his Norse instincts remain intact. Phillip is a know-it-all kind of guy, and he takes it upon himself to educate the expedition, at all times, and on all subjects. To make things worse, his proper British accent makes him sound hoity-toity, even when he’s being down to earth.
“I do not need a volcanologist to teach me about my own country’s wildlife,” Kiljan says. His boot comes away with a sucking sound, unleashing a cloud of steam from the sweat-dampened, wool sock.
Phil opens his mouth to speak again, no doubt to recommend moisture wicking socks or to warn of frostbite, but he’s silenced once more, this time by the sight of blood.
“Dios mío,” Diego Rodriguez says, crouching down next to Holly. The man is a geologist, but he’s also the closest thing we have to a medic, with basic first aid and CPR training. He removes his sunglasses, takes a close look at the blood stained toe and then slides out of his backpack. “I’ll disinfect and bandage the wound, but we need to get your foot in a sock—a fresh one preferably—and back in your boot before…”
“It is not as bad as it looks,” Kiljan assures him. He pulls his foot up close to his hairy face and spits on his injured toe. While Diego gasps and the rest of us wince, the Nordic man wipes his toe clean with the end of his black scarf.
For a moment, I can see the small puncture wound, already surrounded by a ring of purple, but then a bead of blood emerges and trickles away.
Diego removes a small first aid kit from his pack, opens it and removes a package of sterile gauze. He tears it open and offers it to Kiljan. “Hold it on. Tight.”
The big man presses the gauze to his toe, wincing in pain.
“Turn it over,” Diego says, waggling his hand at the injured foot. “Show me the other side.”
Kiljan twists his foot around, and the scientists all gasp again. I do, too. I might not be an official scientist with a PhD in one ‘ology’ or another, but I’ve got the mind and constitution of one. I just couldn’t decide on a single field on which to focus, so I write about them all. My stomach twists as purple spreads beneath the thick toenail.
Diego clears his throat, more to control his gag reflex than to get anyone’s attention. He points to a small rise at the center of the nail. “It went nearly all the way through.” He clears his throat again, this time covering his mouth with his hand, trying not to be obvious about it. If he looked up, he’d see the rest of us doing the same thing.
Kiljan lifts his foot toward Diego. “Bandage it, and let us be on our way.”
Diego, leaning away from the foot, shakes his head. “A simple bandage isn’t enough. Not for long. It seems likely the bone is split. If it gets infected…”
My mind’s eye paints the picture for me; Kiljan’s phalange cleaved like a log, fractured bits of bone shifting around in his flesh. I turn and step away, nausea sweeping through me. Several deep breaths later, convinced the expedition is over before it truly began, I ponder the new story angle: Scientists Rescue Icelandic Guide from Glacial Demise—Oh yeah, and Volcano Doom.
But should I take part, or simply observe? I’m supposed to write the story, not be part of it. But this…
If Kiljan can’t walk, we’ll all have to pitch in to get him back to the superjeep—a rugged, oversized jeep with massive tires, used to traverse the lunar landscape surrounding the glacier. The airspace in this region is closed, but maybe they’ll make an exception for an injured local? Kiljan has the sat phone, so it’s his call, literally.
“Right,” Phillip says. “That’s about all I can take of that. You lot are on your own.” He steps up next to me, arms crossed, lips pursed, eyes aimed at the horizon, where the most brilliant, sunlit white glacier meets the deepest blue sky.
Guilt creeps up on me. I wasn’t abandoning Kiljan the way Phillip did, I was simply trying to not vomit on him. Shame tugs my eyes to the ice. Go back and help, I tell myself, but then I quickly argue. It’s a wounded toe. What can I do?
Salvation comes in the form of a toothpick sized spire of deep black, streaked with dark red, protruding from the ice in front of me. Another step and it might have punched a hole in my foot, as well. I crouch down, raising my sunglasses to look at the slender spear, now hidden in the shade of my bulky, arctic-garbed torso. “I found it. What he stepped on. I think.”
Phillip stands beside me, but doesn’t bother crouching. “You can’t be sure of that.”
It’s a statement. Not a question. And it crawls under my skin. I motion to the vast white glacier surrounding us. “Do you see any other spikes sticking out of the ice?”
His silence says he doesn’t.
“Let me see.” Holly crouches down beside me. The discovery either trumped the maternal nature that led her to Kiljan’s aid, or like us, she’s seen more blood than she’s accustomed to. Rocks don’t bleed. Though it could be argued that volcanoes spew the Earth’s blood.
After a quick glance back to confirm that Diego hasn’t also abandoned his patient, I shuffle to the side and take my shadow along with me. Bright sunlight gleams off the revealed ice, forcing my eyes shut. I pull my sunglasses down and blink until the green afterimage fades. When I can see clearly again, Holly is leaning down close to the ice, looking at the spike.
“I don’t think the red is blood,” she says, sliding a gloved finger over the barb. She holds the finger up, first to Phillip and then to me. The digit is clean. “It’s just red coloration.”
“Closer to a maroon, don’t you think?” Phillip says.
Holly smiles at me without looking back at him, and I try not to laugh. But fail.
Phillip’s eyebrows billow like mushroom clouds, rising steadily higher onto his forehead. “What about this amuses you, Mr. Wright?”
“Abraham or Abe, please,” I say. “People might get the wrong idea if you keep calling me Mr. Right.”
It’s an old family joke started by my father, but I haven’t used it in a while. At least not with this group. My full name is Abraham Lincoln Wright. I had patriotic parents with high hopes for their son. They both died when I was nineteen. Car accident. I miss them terribly, but part of me is glad they were spared the disappointment of having a son with such a promising name become a science writer for a magazine/soon-to-be webzine.
Phillip scoffs and rolls his eyes.
“Abe,” Holly says, probing the prong with her gloved fingertip. “Focus.”
She’s the only one of our crew that I’d met before, and she has seen my sarcastic side. She also knows—we both do—that Phillip doesn’t understand sarcasm. Or humor in general.
I lay down on the ice and look at the small spike from the side. The new angle provides no new insights. It’s slender and sharp, broadening slightly where it emerges from the ice.
Holly pushes on the barb again. “Is it bending or moving? At all?”
“Not even a little. It’s wedged in there tight.”
“Right, then,” Phillip says. “Let’s dig it out, so the next unsuspecting sod that comes along doesn’t step on it.”
I lock eyes with Holly. Both of us want to point out that the odds of someone walking along this very same path, ever, is highly unlikely. I can see it in her eyes, the jab on the tip of her tongue. But she has more self-control than me.
“It’s hardly scientific,” she says, changing the subject with a tone that also scolds me for even thinking about mocking Phillip again.
“An archeologist might study it in situ for a time,” I say, having spent enough time on dig sites to know the protocols. “But, we’re not archeologists. We’re not here to study spikes rising from the ice, and he does make a good point.” I glance up at Phillip. “Bravo, good sir.”
Holly takes my chin in her gloved hand and pulls my face away from Phillip’s glower. “Unless this is a rock. Something welling up from below. Then it is what we’re here to study.”
“This ice cap is stationary,” Phillip says. “Not to mention nearly a thousand meters deep. For objects from the bottom to find their way to the surface—”
“Lava tubes,” I offer. “Rising up through the ice. Upside down geological roots.”
“We know what they are.” Phillip shakes his head. “There would have been thermal venting. Someone would have noticed.”
“Vatnajökull is thousands of years old,” Holly argues. “For most of that time, it hasn’t changed, but 168 square miles of ice have deglaciated since 1958. The ice is melting. The human race has seen to that. New layers are uncovered every year. This might be the first time this…whatever it is, has been exposed since the beginning of the iron age.”
“Humph,” Phillip says.
“I’m agreeing with you, Phillip,” Holly says, reaching up and flexing her fingers, open and closed. “Give me your ice ax.”
“You are?” Phillip sounds both genuinely surprised and delighted. He pulls his ice ax from the side of his pack and hands it to her.
While Holly goes to work on the ice, digging and scraping, I stand and check on the others. The big man’s toe has doubled in size, thanks to the copious amount of gauze and tape wrapped around it. Despite all the extra padding, Kiljan winces as Diego slides a sock over the injured foot. It’s going to be hell getting his boot on again. Diego is right. Kiljan can’t continue, which means we all need to head back. Three scientists and a writer alone on the barren ice pack might make for a good story, but I doubt it would have a happy ending. The story would probably have someone else’s byline, since I’d be frozen solid along with the rest of them.
It also means that the mysterious spike jutting out of the ice is the closest thing to a scientific discovery we’re going to make. “How long until we can move?”
“Ten minutes,” Diego says, though he sounds unsure.
“We will go nowhere,” Kiljan says through grinding teeth. His toe hurts more than he wants to admit.
“Are you trying to be ominous?” I ask.
He grins through the pain. “We cannot walk through the night. We will camp here. Leave in the morning.”
Diego nods and looks pleased by the decision. None of us are athletes. The trek has already taken a toll.
“Abe,” Holly calls. “Come see this.”
As I stand, Diego looks back at Holly with eager eyes. He has yet to see the object of our fascination.
Kiljan shoos Diego away with one hand and picks up his boot with the other. “I do not need a wet nurse. I can put on my own shoe.” He sounds gruff, but it’s an act of kindness. Scientists with new discoveries are like children on Christmas morning. Anything short of opening the box and making a mess right then and there is a disappointment.
Holly moves to the side at our arrival. She’s dug out a foot deep crater around the object, which looks like a black, ten inch tall, upside down carrot with a severe case of freezer burn, not to mention weird red veins running through it.
“What is it?” Diego asks.
Holly scrapes away ice crystals until there’s just a sheen of frozen water remaining. Breathing heavily, she leans back, places the ice ax down and shrugs.
I lay down on the ice, viewing the strange spire from the side again, seeing subtle streaks of pink, like veins, crisscrossing the surface. Or is it just distortions from the ice? As though drawn to the thing, I remove my glove, reach out and wrap my hand around the inch-thick stem. Numbing cold burns through my hand.
Water drips between my fingers, melted by my body heat. I close my eyes, resisting the urge to pull my hand away.
“What are you doing?” Holly asks.
Melting the ice, I think, but don’t answer.
I can’t answer.
The scent and taste of salt tickles my nose and mouth.
Ocean waves crash against a rocky shore, the sound like thunder in my ears.
Tall grass tickles my outstretched hands, blown by a warm breeze.
The voice is faint. And not Holly’s.
I open my eyes.
Iceland is gone.
A gull squawks, hovering like a kite in an ocean breeze. The way it hangs there feels unnatural, like a moment frozen in time. But it’s still calling out, its orange tipped, yellow beak opening and closing, its unblinking eyes focused downward. I follow its gaze, past the endless ocean, blue splashed with whitecaps tossed by the same wind that holds the bird aloft. Then past the rocks, craggy and blemished by patches of white barnacles. And then to the beach. Sand stretches down to the water, where a layer of smooth, round stones mark the high tide line.
I slip out of the tall grass surrounding me. The thick blades slide through my hands, sharp enough to cut. The sting of a bloodless wound draws my eyes to my hand, and then lower. I’m naked, my far from toned ‘dad bod’ revealed for all to see, but I feel no shame at it. When I look up again, I’m standing on the rocks, overlooking the beach. The grass is behind me now, bending in the breeze atop a short, sand-covered hill that divides the beach from the rest of the world.
How is this possible? I think, boggled by the moment’s surreal vibe. How did I get here? Memories slide back into place as my mind comes to grip with the new surroundings. I was in Iceland. Kiljan was hurt. We found something in the ice.
I touched it.
And then…I woke up here.
I didn’t wake up. I was never asleep. I was laying down when I closed my eyes, dressed in winter gear, and when I opened them again, I was here, standing and nude.
Fear nudges its way into my chest, wrapping its hand around my heart and squeezing.
“Don’t be afraid.”
I flinch away from the voice, wondering how someone was able to get so close to me. After stumbling over the jagged rock and nearly slipping in a patch of seaweed, I steady myself and turn toward my company, staggered by who I find.
He lifts his hands away from his hips and grins, saying ‘Here I am,’ without saying a word.
Except it isn’t Ike. Not really. The face is the same—close enough to recognize—but Ike, my son, is still eight years old. The person standing before me is a man. And there’s a long scar on his cheek that isn’t there now. My mind spins with possible explanations, dipping into science, both real and fringe, from stories I’ve written over the years. Teleportation. Time travel. Out of body experiences. Lucid dreaming.
I lock on that last possibility. I’m unconscious, I decide. Dreaming.
I wrote about lucid dreaming three years ago, about how dreams can be controlled. The trick is that when most people realize they’re in a dream, they get excited and wake up. But there are ways to stay in the dream, like jumping up and down, or waving your arms in circles. Then, you can fashion the dreamscape into your very own fantasy world. But it takes practice. And a lot of it. I performed the techniques for three months, keeping a dream journal and failing every night, until I found myself standing at the edge of a lake, beneath the most magnificent nighttime sky, and thought, ‘This is a dream.’ When a duck swam at me, I willed it to become a dog, and it did. Then I turned the dog into my wife. And then, with a thought, my wife stood before me, naked, at which point I woke up, disappointed and alone in a motel room. I left that last part out of the article. The point is, I recognize this place. It’s a dream, and now that I’ve acknowledged it, I can take control.
“Wake up,” I tell myself. When nothing happens, I close my eyes and shout, “Wake up!”
The dream remains. While I’ve never had to wake up from a lucid dream before, I was told that this was a simple and surefire way to do so. “Wake. Up!”
“You are awake,” my aged son says.
“This is a dream,” I tell him.
He shrugs. “Yet, you are awake.” He clasps his hands behind his back and turns to look out over the beach, smiling like some kind of Buddhist monk, content with the world. “A vision, perhaps?”
“Great,” I say, dragging my fingertips over my cheeks. “Now even my dreams are sarcastic.”
“They’re like grains of sand, don’t you think?”
Dream Ike has definitely been smoking a little too much of something. What part of my subconscious could he possibly represent? “It’s a beach,” I say, turning toward the sand. “Of course it’s…”
The sand looks strange. It’s moving. The separate granules shift into strings that merge and bend in varying colors and forms, becoming individual shapes. The beach stretches to the horizon, filled with lumps of…of hair. Faces turn up, looking at me with something close to reverence. Some are white. Some are black. Most are something in-between. But in all of them, I see familiar features. Sometimes in the nose. The cheek bones. The chin. The hair. The further back I look, the more muted it becomes, but there’s no denying that I am a part of all these people.
“Who are they?” I ask.
“Your children,” a new voice says.
My second son, Ishah, stands to my left, as aged as his half-brother. The pair were born from two different mothers, two months apart, and they look nothing alike. While Ike is a blend of his second-generation Korean American mother and me—a black man of South African descent—Ishah’s mother is as pale as I am dark, leaving him a shade of brown that makes his blue eyes pop. I look from one boy…man…to the other. They don’t look much like their child selves, but I see them beneath the stubble and age lines, and I see myself in them the same way I do all those faces in the beach.
“This isn’t possible,” I tell them.
“All things are possible,” Ike says.
Ishah takes my hand. “Out of the ashes, a nation will be born.”
“The world will burn,” Ike says.
“It has been evaluated,” Ishah adds.
Ike takes my other hand. “And has been found wanting.”
“Evaluated by who?”
A new voice rises up behind me, carrying the thunder of crashing waves with its every syllable. “The machine.”
Ike’s grip tightens. “The Ancient.”
“Death.” Ishah holds me back, as I try to turn around and see who’s there. “And rebirth.”
The ocean recedes as though it was a tablecloth yanked away by a magician. Millions more bodies are revealed, all looking toward me. The water rises up at the horizon and rushes back in. The earth quakes. Fissures open up. Beyond the beach, lava bursts into the sky, smoke billowing black as the world shakes around us.
I look out at all those faces, water and lava closing in from both sides, and I see devotion. “No,” I say. “Stop!”
I close my eyes. “Wake up!”
When I open them again, the ocean is calm. The lava is gone. The beach is sand. And my sons are missing. Overcome with emotion, I fall to my knees and feel a stab of pain, as the jagged rocks dig into my flesh.
“Abraham,” the roaring voice behind me says.
I turn around slowly, and I see a writhing black shape. It rises up above me, reaching out two flowing black arms, holding a blazing hot staff between them. I cower beneath the figure, which is as impossible to ignore as it is to look at directly.
“What do you want!” I scream, raising a hand in fear.
The form rushes down at me, thrusting the rod into my open hand. The air fills with the hiss of burning flesh, and I scream. Steam sprays out from between my fingers. My flesh boils and pops. I scream again, but am quickly silenced by the emergence of a face, concealed by roiling smoke, but filling me with a sense of relief.
“Abraham,” the voice says again, a waterfall of sound cascading around me. “I am with you.”
The pain returns with a sharp vengeance. I scream again, snap my hand away and leap back, staring into the surprised eyes of Holly, Phillip, Diego and Kiljan. I’m in Iceland again, though I’m pretty sure I never really left.
Holly reaches out for me. “Abe…” Her eyes travel down to my hands, one clutching the other. “Let me see your hand.”
Suddenly aware that the pain has not yet faded, I look down at my right palm and find a band of burned, blackened skin stretched across the middle of my hand.
“Where I held the staff,” I say.
“I would hardly call it a staff,” Phillip says. I look from him to the spike jutting out of the ground. Memories collide with the dream. I reached out and took hold of it. I wasn’t burned by heat, I was burned by extreme cold. A dream after all. “How long was I out?”
“Out?” Diego asks.
Holly lifts my hand, inspecting the wound. “Abe, you grabbed it, held on for a few seconds, said something and then screamed. You never lost consciousness.”
I stagger back and plop down onto my butt, sitting on the ice. “What did I say?”
“Veneno mundi,” Kiljan says, his baritone voice reminding me of the dark force’s watery growl.
“What the hell does that mean?” I ask.
“Poisoned world,” Phillip says. His translation is followed by a wet gurgle. All eyes turn to the sound’s origin at Phillip’s feet. The small hole that Holly dug is now partly filled with water. Phillip leaps back. “What the bloody hell?”
We stare in silence, waiting for it to happen again. And then, just as I notice that the water is steaming, a thin stream of bubbles roils to the surface.
Diego kneels down beside the slowly growing puddle. He holds his hand over the water as more bubbles churn the surface. “These bubbles aren’t gas,” he says. “The water is boiling.”