“One of the UK SF scene’s most interesting,
challenging and adventurous authors.”
– Saxon Bullock, SFX on The Age of Ra
James Lovegrove's Pantheon series continues to astonish. It's already made the New York Times best-seller list with Age of Odin and while this week sees the release of the e-novella Age of Satan, it's also publication week for the latest book in the series - Age of Voodoo!
And we're delighted to present to you not only the prologue from this tale of deity-inspired military SF, but also the entire first chapter - FOR FREE!
Age of Voodoo arrives next Tuesday (26th February) in North America and on Thursday (28th February) in the UK and Ireland!
“Holy. Fucking. Christ.”
The Secretary of Defence rubbed his eyes, as though he might be able to wipe them clean. On the monitor in front of him was an image, paused, blurred, a pale figure in motion like a phantom in mid-flight. He had just finished watching the harrowing footage for a fourth time.
His office in the outermost of the Pentagon’s concentric layers, the E-ring, had a view looking across the river and the greenery of West Potomac Park all the way to the Washington Monument, which lanced upward, a white dagger stabbing the heavens. It was a beautiful summer’s afternoon in DC. Out there, on the other side of the tempered blast-resistant glass, the world was sunlit, bright, normal. In here, not so much. Grimly, the Secretary of Defence reached for the phone and pressed for an internal extension.
“Let me take a wild guess what this is about.” The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had a grizzled voice, as raspy as the bristles of his razored haircut. “Anger Reef.”
“What a goddamn fiasco. Those were good men. What happened to them... Well, I’m not sure what happened to them. But I think we can safely assume the worst.”
“Agreed,” said the Secretary of Defence.
“That damn Seidelmann creep. I’ll say it now, for the record. I never did trust him. What the hell was he up to anyway?”
“You read the same briefings I did.”
“Yes, but what I meant was, how did we let it get so far? So out of control? Why wasn’t there greater oversight?”
“We gave him free rein. We trusted him.”
“And look where it’s got us. Those poor bastards killed. The whole project FUBAR. Someone’s head should roll over this.”
“Now’s not the time for the blame game. We need to consider options. Airstrike?”
“Conventional bombardment won’t work,” said the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. “Even a MOAB hasn’t got the penetrating power. Way that place was built, so far underground, all that concrete, nothing short of a tactical nuke would make a dent. I don’t suppose...?” His tone was faintly, disquietingly hopeful.
“We’ll table that one for the moment, general. In case of need. Although, given Anger Reef’s history, it may prove to be a moot point. Can I tell you what I think?”
“As a matter of fact, it’s not just me. Langley’s had its analysts going over the footage with a fine-tooth comb. Consensus is, this is a grey-ops scenario.”
“In other words, Team Thirteen territory. Yeah. Yeah, I can see that. There’s a problem, though. Those guys have just run a half-dozen missions straight, back-to-back. Right now they’re somewhere over the Bering Sea, inbound from Siberia, where, by all accounts, they did not have a fun time. They’re exhausted and they deserve a furlough. They’ve been flat-out since May. World seems to have gone nuts this summer. More nuts than usual.”
“Still, the CIA figure they’re our best bet,” said the Secretary of Defence. “This is their kind of situation. And seeing as the matter is time-sensitive and of the highest priority...”
“No rest for the wicked,” sighed the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs. “I’ll make the call to the Special Activities Division, confirming Thirteen are available.”
“The Agency has one other recommendation.”
“And that is?”
“We bring in some sort of local liaison. Someone who knows the lie of the land and might be able to provide relevant intel.”
“Do you know of anyone?”
The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs hummed in thought.
“There is one guy I can think of, off the top of my head. A Brit. One-time covert wetwork operative.”
“Retired now. Inactive. He seems to have made contacts in the region. Well embedded.”
“You know him personally?”
“He’s worked with the military on a couple of occasions.”
“So he could be persuaded to participate?”
“It’s worth a shot. He has dual US/UK nationality, so technically he’s one of us. Under the circumstances, he’s the right man for the job. Certainly the best we can hope for at such short notice.”
“All right then. Get a hold of him. Thank you, general.”
The Secretary of Defence replaced the phone handset and returned his attention to the monitor on his desk. He rewound the footage part of the way, his hand trembling ever so slightly as it manipulated the mouse. Once again he watched the final hellish three minutes, the death throes of a mission gone badly wrong.
Men running. Men screaming. Semi-naked figures lurching at them in the shimmering green phosphorescence of image intensification. Gunshots rippling near and far. One commando yelling, “What the fuck—what the Jesus fuck are they? They’re taking hits; they just won’t fucking go down!”
Another: “They’re coming from all sides. God help us, they’re everywhere!”
A third, to his commanding officer: “Sir! Sir! What are our orders? What do we do?”
Distantly, a man sobbing, crying for his mother, and another man intoning the Lord’s Prayer.
And then a figure lumbers towards the commando whose helmet camera is recording the chaos, and there is a final, shrill, hideous scream, abruptly cut short.
In the silence that ensues, a voice can be heard, elated, triumphal.
“Bondye! Bondye! Hear me, Bondye. I am coming for you.” The clip vaporised into a hissing burst of screen static and white noise, and the Secretary of Defence spun his chair away from the desk. An American Airlines 747 was coasting in to land at Ronald Reagan airport. The sky was boundless and blue. A city of half a million people—hell, a planet of seven billion people—and none of them had a clue what was going on down in the Caribbean, a thousand miles due south. Not a fucking clue.
It was up to Team Thirteen to ensure things stayed that way.
Trouble didn’t come knocking often at Wilberforce’s Rum Shack, and when it did, it was never anything Lex Dove couldn’t handle. Usually it could be dealt with using just stern words and a bit of eyeballing; sometimes, however, more was called for.
Case in point on this Friday evening: a trio of drunk posh boys. On holiday from England. Probably their first time abroad without mater and pater. Nobody to keep an eye on them and keep them in line. They were big and brawny, in that well-fed, upper-class way. Shoulders broadened by rugby and rowing. And they thought they were something special, with all that paid-for education filling their heads and that trust fund money filling their pockets.
At first they just behaved rowdily, and it was safe to ignore them and hope they’d eventually leave of their own accord. But after downing several of Wilberforce’s patented rum roundhouses—‘stronger than just any old rum punch,’ as the drinks menu put it—the three posh boys became lairy and obnoxious. They began braying crude personal insults at the tops of their voices, at one another and at the other customers.
They made disparaging remarks about the state of Wilberforce’s shack, which admittedly was in need of some upkeep but wasn’t nearly as much of a health hazard as they made out.
One of them then started hitting on an islander girl, trying to chat her up by bragging about his parents’ ski chalet in Val d’Isère and the job his father was going to get him in September with a hedge fund firm. The girl kept shying away from him, but she was too polite and well brought up to do what she needed to, which was tell him to fuck off and leave her alone. That was when Lex intervened. He looked to Wilberforce for consent first, and got a nod. Wilberforce, behind the bar, made an air-patting gesture: take it easy, man, don’t go too far. Lex moved between the posh boy and the islander girl. “Listen,” he said to the boy. “I think you’ve had enough to drink. And I know the lady here has had enough of you. How about you and your mates call it a night, eh? Go back to your
hotel, get some sleep, start over tomorrow. Okay?”
Posh Boy fixed him with a bleary, malevolent glare. “And just who the fuck are you?”
“Does it matter?” said Lex. “A bystander. Someone who wants a quiet Friday-night drink and no trouble.” He laid a light but distinct emphasis on the last two words.
“Oh, yeah?” slurred Posh Boy. “Well, Mr Bystander, stop sticking your nose into other people’s business. This has nothing to do with you. This is between me and her.” He pointed at the girl with the hand that was holding his drink; rum roundhouse slopped onto her skirt, but he didn’t notice. “She happens to be very interested in me, and later tonight she’s going to give me the best blowjob ever. You can tell by looking at her. She’s got that kind of mouth.”
The girl gasped in dismay.
“So,” Posh Boy went on, “I’d be very much obliged if you’d fuck off out of it.”
“Yah,” said one of his friends, taking up position behind him. “You tell him, Timbo.” To Lex: “Timbo does martial arts. Karate and a bit of, whatchemacall, june keet do. Is that right?”
“Jeet kune do,” said Timbo.
“Yah,” said Posh Boy #2. “So you’d better not mess with him. He can kick your scrawny arse.”
Conversation at the rum shack had trickled almost to a halt. Only the reggae on the stereo was continuing as loudly as before—Bob Marley and The Wailers, ‘Fussing And Fighting.’ Everyone was monitoring the confrontation, keen to see how it played out.
“I said I don’t want trouble,” said Lex, keeping his voice low and calm. “I’d like it if you—all three of you—would simply go elsewhere and stop bothering us. This is my favourite drinking place on the whole island, I come here most evenings. Is it too much to ask that I and all the other customers here are able to enjoy our cocktails and the beach and the night air in peace?”
Timbo balled a fist.
Posh Boy #2 encouraged him with a clap on the shoulder.
“Right behind you, Timbo. You show the little fucker what’s what.”
“Don’t do this,” Lex said. Not a plea. Just sound advice. Which Timbo didn’t take.
He swung a punch, and to his credit it wasn’t a bad punch. There was some bodyweight behind it, and he kept his forearm straight, wrist solidly locked. If it had connected with Lex’s nose, as it was intended to, the blow would have done some damage.
Lex, however, ducked under it as though Timbo was delivering it in slow motion. At the same time his hand came up, fingers rigid, and chopped like a knife into the side of Timbo’s neck, just below the jaw. The blow struck the mastoid process, the rounded projection of bone at the base of the skull. Had it been delivered at full strength, it would have killed Timbo outright, but Lex gauged it so that the boy was merely stunned. Timbo’s brain went into shock, and he reeled and sank to the sand.
Posh Boy #2 looked astonished for a moment—outraged—and then he smashed his glass against the edge of a table and stabbed the jagged remains at Lex’s face.
He was even more astonished to find himself on his knees with the broken glass crushed in his hand, shards embedded in his palm and fingers. He started howling in pain.
Posh Boy #3 now joined in, incensed that his two friends had been so easily bested by this ghastly jumped-up little prole. It was not the natural order of things. Status and breeding triumphed every time. That was what he’d been brought up to believe. That was the proper way.
He lunged at Lex, rugby-tackling him round the waist. Together they crashed into a table, a flimsy trestle-type affair; it collapsed under them and they sprawled on the ground. Lex was irritated by this. Sand got down the collar of his shirt. He hated sand getting down his shirt.
He threw Posh Boy #3 off him, almost without effort even though the lad weighed a good thirteen stone, rolled over and straddled him, and swiftly rendered him insensible with a rapid one-two-three to the temples. He stood up and shook his shirt out. Timbo was just this side of conscious. Posh Boy #2 keened and wailed over his injured hand. Posh Boy #3 was silent, out cold. Wilberforce shook his head sadly. “My table, Lex. You wrecked it. Those things cost money.”
“Not that much,” said Lex. “Besides, I didn’t wreck it. He did.”
He indicated Posh Boy #3. “So he can pay for it.”
A quick search of the boy’s pockets unearthed a wallet stuffed with currency—dollars, both US and Manzanillan. Lex fished out enough of the latter to buy a new table and also a round of drinks for everyone, which seemed only fair. The posh boys slunk off along the beach, sheepish and sobered.
Timbo had recovered enough that he and Posh Boy #2 were able to drag Posh Boy #3 between them, although he was clearly in a great deal of pain and Lex predicted he would have a dire headache for the next couple of days. Over his shoulder Posh Boy #2 muttered about calling the police and getting Daddy’s lawyers to sue, but Lex brushed aside the threats. The three of them knew they’d been lucky to get off as lightly as they had. They wouldn’t stir things up any further. It was a humiliating incident they would rather forget than have to explain to others and account for.
“One thing’s for sure,” said Wilberforce. “They won’t be coming back to Manzanilla any time soon. And good riddance, I say. We’re better off without them.”
“No argument here,” said Lex, settling himself back on his usual stool at the bar. “If you ask me, this island started going to the dogs the day they started letting tourists in.”
“Not just tourists, white folk.” Wilberforce looked pointedly at Lex.
Lex frowned, then tapped his chest. “Ohhh,” he said disingenuously. “Oh, I see. That’s a dig at me, is it?”
“Been downhill all the way since you came, Lex,” Wilberforce said with a grin. “Used to be this was a respectable country. Law-abiding. Then you turn up, and...” He sucked his teeth in disapproval.
“Respectable? Law-abiding?” Lex snorted. “Manzanilla was a shithole. It’s been a shithole as long as anyone can remember. In the olden days it was teeming with pirates, whores and runaway slaves, and you could get your throat slit in any dockside tavern just for looking the wrong way at someone’s pint of grog. Nobody wanted it for a colony. The Spanish gave it to the French—didn’t surrender it or anything, gave it like an unwanted Christmas sweater—and the French passed it on to
the British with barely a murmur, and when you finally asked for independence from us in 1968, did you have to fight for it? No. We let you have it. Couldn’t have been happier about it. The Wilson government virtually begged to be shot of the place. I think the governor at the time said something like, ‘If the Manzanillans want to run their country themselves, they’re welcome to. I certainly can’t.’”
“And now,” said Wilberforce, his grin widening, “now it’s a damn paradise.”
It wasn’t, not really. Manzanilla remained a speck in the middle of the ocean, more or less equidistant between Cuba and Haiti. It had a few beaches, but none that could compare with the sweeping white strands of Barbados or Antigua. It had mountains and rainforest, but not on the scale of Martinique or Tobago. It grew sugarcane and pineapples, but was too small and remote to compete as an agricultural exporter.
Up until five years ago, in fact, Manzanilla had been the forgotten Caribbean island, the one few people had ever heard of. Tourists seldom came, and if they did, the conditions at the island’s only hotel, the inaptly named Grand, deterred them from ever returning.
Added to that, most of the coastline was a no-go zone back then, thanks to a combination of dense mangrove swamp and, worse, thick outcrops of manchineel tree. The manchineel, with its poisonous fruit and toxic sap, formed a shaggy defensive ring around the island’s perimeter. The tree was so hazardous to human health that it was unwise even to stand under one for shelter during a storm. Drops of rainwater made caustic by contact with the bark and leaves could burn your skin. Manzanilla took its name from the Spanish for manchineel—manzanilla de la muerte, ‘little apple of death’—and seemed destined to be forever defined by this noisome arboreal guardian, until the government instituted a programme of felling and burning and cleared the entire island of manchineels in under a year.
At a stroke, Manzanilla was open for business.
Hotels and an airport were built. Tourists flocked in their droves. Jet-ski, windsurfer and scuba hire companies sprang up. The local economy boomed. From pariah destination, Manzanilla was suddenly ‘the undiscovered gem of the West Indies,’ ‘the new hot place to go,’ ‘the island everyone’s talking about,”’and tour operators were doing a roaring trade in package deals for people who liked to think they were both hip and not entirely without a sense of adventure.
Manzanilla today was not the Manzanilla that Lex had adopted as his homeland seven years ago, nor the Manzanilla on which Wilberforce had been born thirty-two years ago. And if anything, incomer Lex was less pleased about the change than native Wilberforce was.
“Yes, paradise,” Wilberforce repeated, and he wasn’t being ironic. Wilberforce was doing okay out of Manzanilla’s rise in the world. Holidaymakers liked to drink, and Wilberforce’s Rum Shack prospered.
And he had dreams. Ambitions.
The photo of a forty-two-foot Sealine F-series flybridge sports cruiser tacked up behind the bar was testament to that.
Fishing expeditions. Wealthy white westerners keen on catching marlin and tarpon out at sea.
There was big money to be made there. And one day soon, when he had saved up enough for a down payment on the boat, Wilberforce would be making it.
Wilberforce blew the picture a kiss, as was his wont, and ambled off to take an order from a newly arrived couple.
Lex, meanwhile, hunched over his rum sour, stirring the swizzle stick aimlessly round and round. At times like this, in the aftermath of violence, he tried not to think about anything. His life now. His former life. The man he had once been and the man he was striving his hardest to become. He tried not to think at all.
Then his phone went off in his pocket.
The caller’s voice was one he hadn’t heard in years.
One he had hoped never to hear again.