"Clines's high-concept mashup of superheroes and the undead, now on book three (after Ex-Patriots), continues to be one of the few interesting updates of the tired postapocalyptic zombie subgenre. In a ravaged Los Angeles, heroes like the gunslinging, analytical Stealth and her partner, powerhouse St. George, fight alongside enhanced soldiers. The threat of the mindless 'ex-human' hordes, or 'exes,' makes life complicated enough, but things get stranger when Stealth and company meet Madelyn Sorensen, an unusually well preserved and shockingly sentient ex. Further casting doubt on their already-limited understanding of life and death is the revelation that Max Trent, a hero who supposedly died, is haunting the city as a ghost; the demon Cairex, whose body Max had previously hijacked, is not pleased. Fans of zombie gore might be a tad disappointed to realize this is a superhero tale at heart. Clines throws in a whole lot of plot, but the distinct voices of the characters and the solid pacing keep the story entertaining and the action fresh. Agent: David Fugate, David S. Fugate Agency. (July)" Publishers Weekly Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.
Location, Location, Location
The arrow on my GPS was starting to turn, but the road looked like it was turning with it. We’d been driving for about an hour at that point. Neither of us said much. We didn’t speak the same language, so it wasn’t that surprising.
My driver, Nikita (named after Khrushchev, his manager had told me) was an inch taller than me, maybe twice as wide, and with a permanent scowl cutting across his stubble. Picture every stereotypical Russian you’ve ever seen. The reason it’s the stereotype is because so many of them look like that. Nikita’s one of them. The scent of cloves hung on him like cologne, but he had the good manners not to light one up while we were in the car together.
To be honest, we tried to talk a couple times. I think that’s just human nature. We’ve got another person next to us, so we feel obligated to say something. Every now and then I’d ask about our progress or part of the landscape or offer to show him the GPS so he could get his bearings. Once I tried asking about the weather. “It’s a lot warmer than I expected,” I said. “Is it always this warm here in the summer or is this a global warming thing?”
Half the time he’d ignore me. The other half he’d turn and reply with a few sentences. Or maybe one sentence with some really long words. I can’t even speak a few words of Russian on my own, so it was hard to tell. Once, he delivered a long, impassioned speech about... something. Maybe a tree we passed that he grew up with or something. I have no idea.
It wouldn’t’ve taken much to speak Russian, granted. There’s a tattoo on my Adam’s apple for just that sort of thing, and one behind each earlobe. But a lot of the stuff we were carrying was very sensitive and I couldn’t risk it getting tainted by other energies.
So, anyway, when I’d tried to hire a guide, I hadn’t thought to ask for someone who spoke English. It’d been hard enough explaining the location I wanted to the guy at the agency.
“Here,” I told him, pointing at the map. “That’s where I want to go.”
The tour guide manager was a skinny man who reeked of cigarettes. His fingers were yellow. I got the sense they’d been a regular part of his diet for years. He looked at the map spread across the counter. “Cherepanovo?”
I shook my head and tapped the map again.
“Iskitim?” He shook his head. “Bad place for tourists.”
“No,” I said shaking my head again. I double-checked my notes—as if I didn’t have the exact location memorized—grabbed a pencil, and made a small X on the map. “There,” I told him. “I want to go right there.”
He frowned at the mark on his map, then peered at it. “Sixty kilometers away,” he said. “Nothing out there but a few poselok—little villages.”
“I just need to be there in two and a half hours,” I told him. “Me and my equipment.” I gestured at the bags and pulled a few bills from my wallet. This trip was costing me three month’s pay, but if I pulled this off, it’d be worth it.
Granted, if I messed it up, there was a solid chance I was going to be very dead. Along with everyone in a forty mile radius or so. Give or take a mile.
He shrugged, took the money, and picked up the phone. After a quick conversation in Russian he told me my driver would be here in twenty minutes. He explained Nikita’s name as we killed time.
I expected to get two or three people and a truck. Instead I got Nikita. The man was an ox. He threw one bag onto his back and picked up one under each arm. He and the manager tossed a few quick words back and forth and then he marched over to a battered BMW sedan. He fit all three bags in the big trunk—you can’t help but think of the Russian Mafia when you see a trunk that big—and waved me to the passenger side of the car.
For almost an hour now we’d been driving along a paved road that could’ve been in Kansas or Oklahoma or some flyover, grain-belt state. You hear Siberia and you picture some nightmare arctic wasteland, but it’s kind of beautiful. If you’re into that sort of thing.
The arrow on the GPS began to swing again, but this time the road didn’t swing with it. I looked ahead but didn’t see any turnoffs. Nikita drove along at a steady fifty miles an hour or so. The arrow was pointing at the steering wheel, then him, and then it was aimed at the back seat.
“Stop,” I told him. “We missed it.”
He grunted, shook his head, and gestured at the road ahead of us.
“No,” I said, shaking my own head. “Back there.” I held up the GPS.
Nikita slowed the car to look at the little digital arrow, then glanced back over his shoulder. He sighed and turned the car around in a wide three-point turn.
We backtracked three-quarters of a mile until the arrow was perpendicular to the road. He watched it with me and brought the car to a smooth stop. I hopped out.
It looked like we were on the edge of someone’s field, one that’d grown wild for a season or two. Just flat land for miles, broken by a couple small clumps of trees. For some reason I’d imagined this spot would be in some remote forest or something. Maybe a mountain plateau.
We were still half a mile away. I looked back at Nikita. He’d opened his door and looked over the car at me. “Come on,” I told him. I pointed at the trunk. “Bring the bags.”
He threw his hands up and looked around with a bewildered expression. He threw a few words at me and gestured at the road again.
I pointed out at the field with the GPS and tapped my watch. “The bags,” I said again.
He sighed, slammed his door shut, and stomped over to the trunk.
I stumbled out into the field. The grass was just high and thick enough that I couldn’t see the ground, so it was awkward. I made myself go slow. It would suck to get this close, after all this time, and break my ankle a few hundred yards from the site.
Nikita cleared his throat behind me. “We drive out here to see field?”
I stopped and looked back at him. “You can speak English?”
He snorted. “Of course I speak English. You think this is United States where people speak only one language? Russians much smarter.”
“We were in the car for an hour.”
“You very boring,” he told me. “Talk of trees and weather. Is women-talk.” He shook his head.
The GPS led us past the first cluster of trees, across a muddy line that might be a stream at a different part of the year, and over a small stretch of rock. Eleven minutes after we left the car, it beeped three times. A small target flashed on its screen. I walked in a circle, checking every direction. The GPS beeped again. The target kept flashing.
This was it.
I gestured for Nikita to set the bags down and kept circling, stomping the grass down. I needed room to work. Forty-six minutes ‘till showtime. A little tighter than I’d hoped, but still more than I needed.
I pulled open the first bag. It had the three bracket sections, each one wrapped in a padded blanket to keep them safe. I double-checked the GPS one last time and started setting them up.
The first bracket popped open and I spread the legs. They were made out of iron. Weaker and heavier than steel, but they weren’t conductive. At least, not conductive for what I was dealing with. I set the GPS down on the ground, shuffled it a few inches to the left, and then centered the bracket’s arms over it. Once I felt comfortable with it I unwrapped the second blanket and started to unfold its legs.
Nikolai stood by the bags and cleared his throat again. “This is... how you say...” He dug around in his head for words. “This is science equipments?”
I locked the last leg into place. “Well,” I told him, “it’s a kind of science.”
“You could not do this in Novosibirsk?”
“Not really,” I said. “It’s not just about the path of the Moon. It’s also about what that path crosses. Have you ever heard of ley lines?”
“Lay lines?” Nikita echoed. “Is like... sex lines, yes? Pick-up lines.” He nodded.
I laughed and shook my head. “Different type of ley,” I said. “The popular interpretations are all bullshit, of course. They’re just an excuse for ‘witches’ and ‘druids’ to dance around in a field with their tits hanging out. But the general idea has some truth behind it.”
I adjusted the legs and set the bracket in place across from the first one. “The Earth’s just a big magnet, and there are lines of electromagnetic force circling the whole planet like a spiderweb. It’s easier to work with the lines than against them. Spots where two lines intersect are very potent if you want to harness some of that energy.”
Nikita nodded and tapped a clove cigarette out of his pack. I could tell I’d lost him and he was just feigning interest. He fumbled in his pocket for his lighter. I kept talking. It’s not like he’d believe me, even if he understood everything I was saying.
“Now if you can find one of those intersections,” I told him, “and if it happens to be the site of another big cosmological event, you can work some serious mojo. Especially if you’re knowledgeable about such things. Which I happen to be.”
He nodded again and blew out a cloud of smoke. “Right,” he said. “Cosmic event.” He glanced at his watch.
I reached for the third bracket. “To be honest, I half-expected to find another dozen or so folks out here, all fighting for the spot. This really is a once in a lifetime thing. Although some of those guys are on their second or third lifetime at this point.”
Nikita took another drag on his cigarette. He wasn’t even feigning interest anymore.
Bag two was some tools and the century stands. Big steel things they use on movie sets. Each one’s like a tripod on steroids, with adjustable feet and height and an arm with a pivoting holder—a knuckle—at the end. They call them century stands—c-stands—because they’ve got a hundred positions. I set them three and a half feet apart next to the assembled brackets.
Bag three was the convex lens. Thirty-nine inches across. Damn thing weighed over a hundred pounds. It was wrapped in foam and a padded blanket and two canvas tarps. Two pins on either end of its brass frame locked into the knuckles on the c-stands. Nikita had to help me get it into place. We locked it into position and then shuffled the stands until the big lens was over the brackets. I had a laser-level that did measurements. It took me another fifteen minutes to make sure the lens was level and centered over the locked arms of the brackets.
Eighteen minutes to go. I grabbed a prybar from bag two and tossed it to Nikita. “I need you to make a line in the dirt around this,” I told him. “One and a half meters out. Make it about two inches—six centimeters deep.”
He looked at the bar. “What for?”
“Insulation. It’ll help keep things stable.”
He let out a mouthful of smoke. “I am just supposed to be driver.”
“Fifty bucks,” I told him. “Just get it done in the next ten minutes.”
He grinned and bent down to start chopping at the ground with the hooked end of the prybar.
I pulled a pair of latex gloves from my pocket and my travel wallet out from under my coat. It rode on a sling around my neck and shoulder. It had two small bundles in it. I opened the smaller one—the one triple-wrapped in soft leather—first.
It was a two-inch lens I’d spent months carving. Obsidian is brittle, and there’s a trick to working it with bone tools. It took me three blatant practices and six attempts to make the damned thing. I blew some dust off it. Any imperfection—even some oil or sweat from my fingertips—would ruin all this work. I set it in the top ring of the brackets. Another few minutes of fudging with the level made sure it was straight.
Then I pulled out the second bundle. The medallion. It went in the lower ring and I spent another five minutes checking and double-checking that it was level. I had to resist the urge to fidget with the equipment. In and of itself, it was pretty simple. Big lens on the c-stands focuses on small lens in the brackets. Small lens focuses on the center point of the medallion.
Nikita grunted. He’d finished his circle and was tapping out another cigarette. I pulled two packages of salt from bag one. “Fill the circle with this,” I told him. “The whole thing. There can’t be any breaks. When it’s done you can step over it but not on it.”
He sighed and pushed the cigarette back into the pack. He tore open the first package, folded it into a rough spout, and started to pour the salt. “So what is?” he asked as he shuffled along the miniature trench. His eyes darted to the medallion. “Is more equipment?”
“That’s what all this is about, yeah,” I told him. I saw a glint in his eyes and shook my head. “It’s not worth as much as it looks like, believe me. But if I’ve got all this right, in ten minutes it’s going to be priceless.”
He smirked. He was halfway around the circle now. I followed the line of salt with my eyes. He was doing a good job. Not a single break anywhere. He tore open the next bag of salt.
“Of course, I’m not going to let everything ride on one medallion,” I told him. “Even if it comes out perfect, I still need to set up a couple of fail-safes before I can use it.”
He finished the circle. Six minutes to go. Up above us, the glare of the sun started to vanish behind the moon.
“You might want to go back to the car,” I told him. “This is probably going to be a little disturbing if you’re not ready for it. To be honest, I’ve been working toward this for almost three years and I’m not sure I’m ready for it.”
He glanced up at the forming eclipse and shook his head. “No big deal,” he said. He knocked his sunglasses down over his eyes, slid out another cigarette, and fumbled with his lighter again. “I big boy. Not scared of the dark.”
“Yeah,” I said with a nod. “That’s what everyone says their first time.”