Ian Tregillis' The Coldest War is one of my most eagerly anticipated speculative fiction titles of 2012! I started reading it during my flight to Istanbul and it's very good thus far! And thanks to the folks at Tor Books and the author, here's an exclusive excerpt for you to enjoy! For more info about this title: Canada, USA, Europe.
Here's the blurb:
In Ian Tregillis' The Coldest War, a precarious balance of power maintains the peace between Britain and the USSR. For decades, Britain's warlocks have been all that stands between the British Empire and the Soviet Union—a vast domain stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the shores of the English Channel. Now each wizard's death is another blow to Britain's national security.
Meanwhile, a brother and sister escape from a top-secret facility deep behind the Iron Curtain. Once subjects of a twisted Nazi experiment to imbue ordinary people with superhuman abilities, then prisoners of war in the immense Soviet research effort to reverse-engineer the Nazi technology, they head for England.
Because that's where former spy Raybould Marsh lives. And Gretel, the mad seer, has plans for him.
As Marsh is once again drawn into the world of Milkweed, he discovers that Britain's darkest acts didn't end with the war. And while he strives to protect queen and country, he is forced to confront his own willingness to accept victory at any cost.
1 May 1963
Arzamas-16, Nizhny Novgorod Oblast, USSR
Gretel laid a fingertip on Klaus’s arm.
“Wait,” she whispered.
Several seconds passed while she consulted some private time line that existed only in her head. He recognized the look on her face: she was remembering the future, peering a few seconds ahead.
Then she said, “Now, brother.”
Klaus pulled the merest trickle of current from his stolen battery, just enough of the Götterelektron to dematerialize his hand. It was a gamble, one Gretel had assured him would work. But he’d practiced for weeks.
His hand ghosted through ferro-concrete. He wrapped his fingers around one of the bolts that sealed the vault. Klaus concentrated, focusing his Willenskräfte like a scalpel, and pulled a finger’s width of steel through the wall. Gretel caught the slug before it clattered to the floor and gave them away.
They repeated the process twice. Klaus severed all three bolts, and the alarm circuit, in fifteen seconds. But the damage to the door was strictly internal; a passing guard would see nothing but pristine, unblemished steel.
It would have been easier for Klaus to walk straight through the wall with his sister in tow. But that would have tripped sensors and triggered their captors’ fail-safes before he was halfway through. The entire facility, this secret city the locals called Sarov, bristled with antennae and circuitry attuned to the telltale whisper of the Götterelektron. Unauthorized expression of the Willenskräfte instantly triggered the electromagnetic equivalent of a shaped charge. The British had developed a crude precursor to this technology back during the war; they’d called their devices “pixies,” and they had a range of a few hundred meters. The Soviet fail-safes could knock out a battery at six kilometers. Klaus knew the specs because he’d helped them test the system. He’d had no choice.
Gretel never worried about the fail-safes. Klaus stood on the cusp of fifty (according to his best estimate; he and his sister had been war orphans) and yet he still didn’t know how or when Gretel called upon the Götterelektron to see the future. He suspected she relied upon batteries far less than she let their captors believe, and not when they thought she was using them. It had been that way back home in Germany, too.
They eased the vault door closed after slipping inside. Klaus groped for the light switch. Sickly yellow light cascaded from the naked bulb overhead, chasing shadows past rows of cabinets and shelves. A musty smell permeated the vault; their footsteps kicked up swirls of dust. The Soviets still referred to this place, almost reverently, as ALPHA. But they came here rarely these days.
The cabinets contained papers the Soviets had obtained during their lightning-fast occupation of the old REGP, the Reichsbehörde für die Erweiterung germanischen Potenzials; the shelves held physical artifacts from Doctor von Westarp’s farm, where the Reichsbehörde had lived and died.
Gretel and Klaus sought the batteries their captors had confiscated at the end of the war. He had managed, after months of preparation, to sneak a single battery past the Soviets’ stringent inventory controls. But if his sister had foreseen things correctly (of which, of course, he had no doubt), they would need every millivolt they could muster on their long trek to the Paris Wall.
The rechargeable lithium-ion packs had been cutting-edge technology, decades ahead of their time in 1939. But they were blocky, bulky things, and hopelessly outdated compared to the sleek modules the Soviets had developed. Gretel’s prescience aside, it was difficult to believe the Reichsbehörde batteries had retained any charge after twenty-two years. Klaus wiped away the layer of dust and grime coating the gauges. The batteries were degraded but still serviceable. If the gauges could be trusted.
Although Klaus had suffered tremendous misgivings about Doctor von Westarp’s research, and had lost his unswerving faith in the Götterelektrongruppe long before the Communists’ master stroke, he now felt a frisson of relief and pride. German engineering. A reminder of those golden days when the world had been so much simpler, their shared destiny so much grander. Even degraded, these old batteries represented a wealth of power and opportunity. More than Klaus had known in decades.
They also found a few of the old double harnesses. Klaus and Gretel stripped to the waist. It was awkward, but they both managed to don two harnesses, one in front and one in back. When they had finished, they both carried four batteries beneath their clothes. It was very uncomfortable.
“Let’s go,” he said, taking her hand.
But Gretel said, “Wait. We need something else, too.” She led him down one aisle and up another, to a shelf holding a pair of jars filled with sepia-colored solution. Beside them lay an empty rucksack.
“What are those for?”
The corner of Gretel’s mouth quirked up in a private little smile. “Don’t worry. I’ve packed for you, too.”
Something in the way she said it dislodged a forgotten moment from the recesses of Klaus’s memory. It was the day of their capture, minutes before. He’d been away, and had rushed back to the farm to retrieve Gretel before the Communists overran the facility. He’d taken her hand, preparing to pull her through the wall, desperate to get back to the truck and drive ahead of the advancing Red Army:
“Wait,” she said. She pointed at the rucksack. “We’ll need that.”
The sack clattered like ceramic or glass when he lifted it. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ve packed for you, too.”
Klaus took one of the jars. A pallid, shriveled mass floated in the murk. The jar had a wide opening, and the lid had been sealed and re-sealed with wax. The yellowed label listed a set of dates and other annotations printed in Cyrillic, in a variety of hands and a variety of inks. The jar had last been studied six years ago. It was dusty.
He blew away some of the dust, then lifted the jar to the light, trying to peer inside. The contents settled against the glass like a dead fish.
Klaus frowned. “Is this . . . is this Heike’s brain?”
“Part of it.”
Heike. The invisible woman. Another of Doctor von Westarp’s children, one of that small handful to survive the procedures and learn how to embrace the Willenskräfte. They had grown up together, lived together, trained together back at the Reichsbehörde. Until poor, fragile Heike had spent a long afternoon in private conversation with Gretel, and killed herself the next day.
The doctor didn’t mourn his dead daughter. He dissected her. It was, after all, a perfect opportunity to study the physiological effects of channeling the Götterelektron. Since Heike had done that via the electrodes in her skull—like Klaus, Gretel, Reinhardt, and the others—the doctor had paid particular attention to her brain.
Gretel took the jar from his hands. She crumpled the label and tossed it aside, then picked at the wax with her fingernails. It flaked away in long clumps. Klaus caught a strong whiff of formaldehyde when she cracked the seal.
“Why . . .” Klaus trailed off. He tried again. “How will Heike’s brain help us to escape?”
“It won’t,” said Gretel, as though explaining something obvious. She dumped out the contents. Formaldehyde and brain matter splattered on the floor. And then she added: “But we need a jar.”
“What? I don’t—”
Comprehension dawned, and something icy slithered down Klaus’s spine. It became an oily nausea when it reached his gut. He put a hand over his mouth and swallowed. Oh my God.
Back during the war he had seen Gretel do strange things. Inexplicable things. Terrible things. Perhaps none more so than what she had done to Heike. Now he understood the why of it, but that only made things worse: Heike’s suicide was a tiny cog in a vast machine. Gretel had prepared their escape long before they were captured. She had caused an innocent woman to kill herself, just to ensure one perfectly normal jar would be there twenty years later, exactly when and where they needed it. The sheer callousness rivaled anything ever done at the Reichsbehörde or Arzamas. But the scope of Gretel’s machinations . . . It was a wonder Klaus’s blood didn’t crystallize in his veins.
Gretel was weaving cause and effect across decades. The farm had fallen because Gretel wanted it to happen. Why? It had gnawed at him since before their arrival at Arzamas. He’d asked, of course, but Gretel never answered his questions. Just smiled as she weaved her plans.
And here he was. A ghost along for the ride.
Klaus sighed. He feared this insight into his sister, but he hated Arzamas more. “What now?”
“Now you go to the bathroom.”
Gott. This is getting worse and worse. “In the jar?”
Gretel frowned. Her braids—long raven-black locks streaked with gray—danced past her shoulders as she shook her head. She’d always worn her hair long, except in the early days here, when the Soviets had shaved their heads.
“No. You go,” she said, pushing him toward the vault door, “to the bathroom.” Another nudge toward the door, and this time she put the glassware in his hand. It was slippery. “Clean this. Leave it on the sink.”
He started to talk, to ensure he understood what she said, but she interrupted him. “Go. And don’t linger.”
Klaus ran the water as quietly as possible, so that he could listen for footsteps in the corridor. He half suspected that part of Gretel’s escape plan involved him getting caught outside the dormitory after curfew.
The jar made his hands stink, and a layer of gunk had accumulated around the rim. He scrubbed it away as best he could with a towel. Working quickly, he managed to get the jar looking like it was mostly clean. And then, because the incriminating towel stank of formaldehyde (like his hands), he hid it behind one of the toilets. He balanced the jar on the narrow ledge of the sink, where a water-stained wall joined rust-stained ceramic.
When he returned to the vault, Gretel was slipping something into her blouse. “All done, brother? Time to go.” She led him into the corridor.
Before it became a secret city, Arzamas-16 had been known as Sarov: a dozen churches built around the Sarova monastery, home of St. Seraphim. Everything was closed by order of the state when Sarov became a research facility. It grew quickly.
But inside and out, the architecture here was unlike most Soviet towns of comparable size: most of Arzamas-16 had been built by POW labor from Axis troops captured during the Red Army’s sweep across Europe in the final months of the war. Arzamas-16 had a distinctly European, distinctly German, feel. It could have been a Thuringian village. The early days had been profoundly disorienting, when Klaus had watched the buildings going up and felt he was witnessing the destruction of the Reichsbehörde in reverse.
Arzamas-16 was a large and heavily guarded facility, ringed with walls, fences, and aggressive perimeter defenses. Including the fail-safes. This building, number three, sat near the center of town. Klaus suppressed the urge to keep looking over his shoulder while his sister led him toward the guard station.
Gretel pulled him to a stop at the base of a stairwell. They backed up a few stairs, until they perched in the shadows around the corner from the guard desk.
Klaus whispered, “The patrols—”
“There won’t be any tonight.” Gretel put a finger to her lips.
As Klaus’s breathing slowed, he started to make out sounds from around the corner. He recognized the sound of liquid sloshing inside glass. It reminded him of poor Heike, and her ignominious end. Nothing happened for several minutes.
Then footsteps echoed up the corridor. Klaus braced for a fight he hoped to avoid. At best, he’d get a few seconds of complete insubstantiality before tripping the fail-safes, barely enough time for him and Gretel to escape through the wall.
A voice said, “What the hell are you doing?”
Another answered, “Drink with me, Sacha.”
“Are you drunk?”
“I am not drunk. I am celebrating! It is, as I say this to you, not twenty minutes after midnight. Do you know what that makes today?”
The sound of glass on metal, like a bottle pulled across a desk. “Where did you get this?” That was Sacha’s voice again. Klaus didn’t know the guards by name, but he might have recognized their faces.
“It makes today,” continued the first guard, “International Workers’ Day. And so I am celebrating my hardworking brothers and sisters. To them!” A moment later, the sound of smacked lips.
“You’re disgraceful, Kostya. Have you done the rounds, or must I do your job for you?”
Gretel patted Klaus on the knee when he tensed. Trust me, she mouthed.
“Disgraceful? I am a patriot, I’ll have you know.”
“You would drink jet fuel, if you could find it. What is that?”
“I distilled it myself.” Again, the sound of a bottle being pushed across the desk. “One drink. To the workers.”
A gasp. “I’m not putting that thing to my lips. Don’t you ever brush your teeth? Your breath smells like shit.”
“Suit yourself, Sacha.”
“Not getting shot for dereliction of duty, that’s what suits me.”
“They don’t shoot people here. They give them to the troops. Comrade Lysenko’s special troops. For practice.”
“I’d rather be shot.”
“I’ll drink to that.”
A minute passed. Then: “One of us has to do the rounds. I suppose that’s me, since you’re hell-bent on getting shit-faced.”
“No, no, I’ll do the rounds. It’s my service to the great Soviet Union.”
A wooden chair squeaked across pitted concrete. “But first I must piss. Patriotism is the only drink that stays in your blood. Vodka comes back out again. Watch the boards while I’m out.”
The other guard—Sacha—sighed. “I’ll watch.”
Kostya’s unsteady footsteps sounded louder and louder until he appeared around the corner. Klaus held his breath because he and Gretel were sitting in shadow but still easily visible to anybody who looked in their direction. His sloe-eyed sister watched the guard with something akin to dark amusement playing across her face. The guard shuffled past them without a glance.
From the direction of the bathroom, Klaus heard banging, flushing, belching, and running water.
Kostya shuffled past them again a few minutes later, jar in hand. He waved it triumphantly overhead. “Good news, Sacha!” he announced, disappearing around the corner. “I found this in the bathroom. Now you can have a drink with me.”
Klaus turned to stare at his sister. She winked.
From the guard station, Sascha’s voice said, “You found a jar in the bathroom? It’s probably a sample jar. I’ll bet somebody pissed in it.”
“Nonsense. Look. Clean.”
“Did you piss in it?”
“One drink. On Workers’ Day.”
Glass clinked against glass as somebody, probably Kostya, poured into the jar.
“Not so much. I don’t want to go blind.”
All Klaus could think of was formaldehyde and poor Heike’s brain; the thought of imbibing from that jar nauseated him.
“To the Great Soviet.” More clinking of glass.
Several moments passed in silence. And then Sacha said, “This isn’t half bad.”
After that there was more pouring, more toasts, and more clinking. Time passed. Gretel nudged Klaus with her elbow at one point, jerking him back to alertness. “You were going to snore,” she whispered.
Klaus asked, “Do we rush them? They’re both drunk.”
Gretel rolled her eyes, but didn’t say anything.
Not long after that, Sacha said (sounding more relaxed than he had before), “You smell like a wet dog, but you make a fine drink.”
“Is this really your own?”
“Yes.” Kostya sounded blurry, subdued.
Klaus understood the question. This was the most sensitive facility in the entire Soviet Union: an empire that stretched from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Even the guards were subject to scrutiny here. Klaus imagined the guards’ quarters were searched almost as frequently as his own. So how did Kostya manage to distill his own vodka?
“I do it where they never look.”
“They look everywhere.”
“No.” Kostya paused, possibly for another sip. He smacked his lips. “They never search the fail-safe chamber. Nobody likes to go down there . . .”
Klaus filled in the rest: . . . because it’s full of high explosives.
The Götterelektron was the key to the superhuman feats of Doctor von Westarp’s children, and their Soviet successors. But it was also their Achilles’ heel. The circuitry was susceptible to a suitably crafted electromagnetic pulse. The British had designed their pixies after reverse engineering Gretel’s battery, and used them with middling success during an ill-fated raid on the Reichsbehörde. Later, when the tide of war turned against the Reich, the Communists had unveiled a more potent version of the same technology.
The Arzamas fail-safe devices dwarfed the original pixies, but they worked on the same principle. They used chemical explosives to crush an electromagnet, blanketing the facility with a crippling EMP.
The bottom line being that nobody in his right mind willingly spent time near the fail-safes. An unannounced drill, a malfunction, even an escape attempt might come at any time. Death would be quick, and it would be certain.
Nobody searched the fail-safe chambers.
Sacha said, “Genius. To you.”
“To me.” Clink.
“Maintenance . . . they do that, time to time. What then? Pay them in vodka?”
“Some I could. Others would take my vodka and still sell me out. Pigs.” Kostya spat. “Come. I’ll show you.”
Sascha belched before responding. “Into the chamber? Not going down there.”
“It’s safe. I’ve done it many times.”
“You’re a drunken madman.” It sounded as though Sacha was making an effort not to slur his words. “I am smarter and more responsible.”
“Then we’ll disarm the fail-safe before we go down.”
“Yes. That’s a much better idea.”
And then, after some discussion of whether they’d take the remainder of the bottle with them, they stumbled off to visit Kostya’s still.
Gretel stood, stretched. “Well,” she said. “Off we go.”
Incredible, thought Klaus.
After half an hour of sneaking, hiding, dodging, and sprinting—each move dictated by the time line in Gretel’s head—they stole a car. And, because the fail-safes had been disarmed, there was nothing to stop Klaus from dematerializing the car and everything in it when they reached the perimeter.
They escaped Arzamas-16 without incident, just two more ghosts in the gulag.