The Solaris team feel your pain. Literally. Mike is convinced that it's actually 1983 and David is hiding under his desk clutching a mince pie and a shotgun, and refusing to come out...
But we nonetheless come with glad tidings, for today marks the day that Gareth L. Powell's HIVE MONKEY hits shelves across the UK. The sequel to his barn-storming critically-acclaimed hit ACK-ACK MACAQUE, HIVE MONKEY sees the return of the gun-toting, cigar-smoking Simia inuus with a penchant for blowing things up.
So we are very pleased to present to you, the primate-passionate public, the first chapter of HIVE MONKEY for your reading pleasure!
BOMBS AND BULLETS
We have met the enemy and he is us.
(Walt Kelly, Pogo)
It started with a gunshot.
Wrapped in a woollen coat and scarf, his greying hair blown unkempt and wild, William Cole leant against the painted railings at the end of the harbour wall. He looked out over the Severn Estuary. High above the water, against a pale November sky, an airship forged upriver. From where he stood, he could hear the bass thrum of the fifteen nuclear-electric engines that powered its vast, five-hulled bulk, and see the low afternoon sunlight flash against the spinning blades of its impellers, turning them to coin-like discs of bronze.
Unusually, the skyliner’s owners had chosen to paint the cigar-shaped hulls with jagged black and white lines. The lines looked unsightly, but William knew the patterns were designed to disguise the airship’s exact shape and heading, hindering attacks from ground-based weapons. Allied warships used the same trick, known as ‘dazzle camouflage’, in World War Two, to confuse German U-boats. The crazy stripes hurt his tired eyes, but he could still read the airship’s name, stencilled on its prow in blocky red letters: Tereshkova. Named after the cosmonaut, he supposed. Valentina Tereshkova had been the first woman in space, launched into the void two years after Gagarin’s pioneering flight. Now though, almost a century later, and long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, how many people remembered her? Humans were still footling around in low Earth orbit, in tin can space stations. The glittering future she represented hadn’t come to pass. Some promising early steps had been made, but now no one had been to the Moon in over eighty years. The dreams of the twentieth century were long dead, and space had become little more than a curiosity: a relic of the Cold War, an industrial park on the outskirts of global politics.
He ground his clenched hands into his coat pockets, shivering against the cold.
“Where are you going today, Valentina? And where have you been?” Skyliners like her hardly ever stopped moving, and they never touched down. They spent their lives aloft, being serviced by smaller, more agile craft. This one had probably just crossed the Atlantic from America, en route to London and Europe. Each of its five cigar-shaped hulls had one large gondola slung beneath it, and two or three smaller ones dotted along its length. Yellow lights burned in their windows and portholes. “And why the crazy paint job?”
William closed his eyes. Five years ago, at the age of thirty-nine, he’d crossed the Atlantic himself, on a similar vessel. He’d packed his laptop and manuscripts, and bought a one-way ticket to the European Commonwealth. He’d come to make his fortune as a writer, and marry the love of his life. Her name had been Marie, and she’d been a reviewer for The Guardian. They first met at a book launch in Greenwich Village and dated for a while. It hadn’t worked out, but a decade after they split up she came to New York for a conference. They had dinner together and got talking about old times. By that point, they were both divorced and single. She hadn’t read any of his books, and he hadn’t seen any of her columns; but somehow, buzzed on wine and, in her case, jetlag, they hit it off again. When she went back to England, he followed and, six months later, they were married, at a small registry office in Kensington, with a reception paid for by his publisher.
Marie with the auburn hair and easy smile, snatched away so soon. Had she really been dead two years now? Had a whole twenty-four months really passed? He’d crossed an ocean for her, given up his life in America, his friends and family, his ex-wife, only to let her slip away from him, across another ocean, into that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns.
With his hands gripping the railings, he looked down to the tidal mud at the foot of the harbour wall. He hadn’t slept in four days. Below him, the low tide had fallen back to reveal the rounded teeth of a collapsed jetty, its splintered planks protruding from the rippled mudflats like the fossilised remnants of some prehistoric lake village. Gulls bobbed on the sluggish swell; scraps of black seaweed lay strewn and tangled at the high water mark; and a late afternoon breeze ran a comb through the wiry grass. The pain of Marie’s loss, so abrupt and unfair, had terrified him. He couldn’t face up to it. Not knowing what else to do, and fearing he wasn’t strong enough to bear the grief, he’d taken all his hurt and packed it down inside, where he thought it couldn’t harm him. He couldn’t cope with it, so he buried it. He put it off. Over the following months, he wrapped his grief in protective layers of drug and alcohol abuse. Now, when he tried to remember her, he had difficulty picturing her face with any clarity, or remembering her smell, or the sound of her voice. He’d tried so hard to block out the pain that now he could hardly recall anything about her, and his attempts to spare himself the weight of her loss had only brought him closer to losing her.
The wind blew through him, leaving him empty. For a long time, he simply stood and stared at the water.
Then his SincPhone rang. On the fourth ring, he answered it.
“Will, it’s Max. How are you doing? I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”
William looked back to the black and white airship, and the rippling reflection it cast over the muddy waters of the Severn. He felt set adrift, alone, and left behind. Now Marie was dead, there was nothing permanent in his life. Perhaps, if she’d lived, they might have had a family, maybe put down roots somewhere; but no. Home for him had been a succession of rented rooms, usually above shops of one sort or another; the walls an endless parade of peeling, painted magnolia; the utilitarian furniture pocked with the dents of a thousand small impacts, and pitted with the tiny smallpox circles of ancient cigarette burns.
“Great. Because we need to talk.”
William moved the phone from one ear to the other. Max was just about the last person he wanted to hear from.
“This is about the Mendelblatt book, isn’t it?” Lincoln Mendelblatt, the Jewish private eye, had been the hero of three of his previous novels.
“I’ve had Stella on the phone again this afternoon,” Max said. “She’s very unhappy. You’re almost a month overdue.”
William groaned inwardly. “Tell her it’s coming.”
“I did, and I think she bought it, for now. But listen, Will, I need those pages. And I need them, like, yesterday.”
A pair of gulls scuffled on the mud, their cries sharp and desolate.
“It’s nearly finished,” William lied. “I’m on the last chapter.”
“Really? You’re that close?”
“Sure. Look, it’s Friday afternoon. Give me the weekend, and I’ll get something over to you by the beginning of next week. Maybe Wednesday.”
There was a silence on the other end. Then, “You sound terrible, Will. Are you using again?”
The sun went behind a cloud.
“No.” William sniffed and wiped his nose on the back of his hand. It was a nervous reflex. “Not at all. Not for ages. I’m just a bit groggy today. A cold, that’s all.”
He heard Max sigh. “Just make sure that first draft hits my inbox by Wednesday morning, or we’re going to have words, you understand? Harsh words. You’re in the last chance saloon, buddy, and it’s high time to shit, or get off the—”
William opened his hand, and let the phone fall. It tumbled end-over-end and hit the water. A small splash, some ripples, and it was gone.
“Goodbye, Max.” Whisper your clichés to the drowned sailors and scuttling crabs at the bottom of the sea.
William turned up the collar of his coat. The wool felt scratchy against his beard. Hands in pockets, he walked back, past the lock gates, and along the apartment-lined edge of the marina, heading home to where his laptop waited, the cursor blinking hopelessly on the first blank white page of his unwritten book.
Portishead was a coastal dormitory town in South West England, twenty minutes drive from the city of Bristol. It had a high street, shops, and a drive-through McDonald’s. The town’s marina had once been an industrial dockyard serving a coal-fired power station. Now, only the stone quay remained. The rest had been transformed in the early decades of the century. The bustling railway sidings had given way to cafés and a leisure centre, the cranes to waterfront apartments and a primary school. The dock itself had been retrofitted as a marina and, instead of the rusty cargo ships of old, now housed a flotilla of private yachts and pleasure boats. The rigging on their masts rattled in the wind; little turbine blades spun on their cabin roofs; and Union Jacks and French Tricolours flapped from their sterns.
William walked to the end of the quayside and out onto the road. Yellow leaves swirled from the trees and skittered around his feet. His latest apartment, which felt dank, lifeless and suffocating even on the sunniest of days, lay on the other side of the road, in a block overlooking a supermarket car park. In the summer, with the windows open, all he could hear was the rattle and crash of shopping trolleys and the slam of car doors.
Standing at the kerb, trying to summon the energy to cross the road and climb the stairs, he saw one of his neighbours emerge from the building. She was on her way to work, car keys in one hand and briefcase in the other, a triangle of toast clamped between her teeth. He didn’t know her name, but gathered she was a nurse, working shifts at one of the local hospitals. They’d passed in the corridor a couple of times, but only ever exchanged superficial pleasantries.
Maybe I should go into town, he thought. I could call in on Sparky, and pick up a couple of wraps to see me through the weekend. Sparky was his dealer, and William had been buying cheap amphetamines, or ‘cooking speed’, from him for over a year now. For a moment he wondered if a few hits of the powder would get him going, fire up the old synapses and get the words crackling out onto the page.
He slipped a hand into his trouser pocket and pulled out his door key.
No, he told himself. Sparky’s the last person you need to be around. You’ve spent the last four days wired out of your damn mind, and you’ve produced nothing, not one word. The sooner you straighten up and start writing, the sooner you’ll have something to give to Max. And if you don’t get started soon, you’ll have to pay back the advance. And you can’t, because you’ve spent it already. You’ve frittered it away on takeaways and whiskey, and drugs and cigarettes.
His neighbour crossed the street, and smiled around the toast as she passed him. The sun emerged again, and he blinked up at it, shading his sleep-deprived eyes from its golden light.
And that’s when the first shot rang out.
He heard a noise like a car backfiring, and something smacked into the wall of the leisure centre. At first, he didn’t know what had happened—a spark of metal on brick, a puff of dust. Stupidly, he thought somebody had thrown a stone. Then he saw the car parked against the opposite kerb. The driver’s window was down, and an inhuman face snarled at him from beneath a white fedora. He saw an ape-like creature with a wide mouth and a bulbous nose, and a gun held in its fist. Half man and half beast, it looked like some sort of caveman, and he frowned at it, sure his eyes deceived him. Then the gun barrel puffed, and a bullet whined past his face. Instinctively, he cowered back, covering his chest and stomach with his hands. His body felt huge, exposed and vulnerable. He turned his shoulder away from the car. Every muscle cringed in anticipation, braced for the impact of the next shot.
But the next shot never came. Instead, the car exploded.
For an instant, William’s world turned to light and noise. He felt the heat of the blast on his hands and face. His ears popped as he was thrown off his feet.
He hit the ground hard enough to drive all the breath from his body, and lay gasping, looking up at the trees. Leaves whirled down around him like snow. Car alarms shrilled. The air stank of the napalm tang of burning petrol. Across the street, the force of the explosion had shattered all the windows on the front of the apartment block. Pedestrians shouted and screamed. The girl with the briefcase crouched next to him. Her hair was a mess, and her jacket was ripped. She had a gash across one cheek like a ragged fingernail scratch. She asked him something, but he couldn’t hear what she said. His ears were still recovering.
“Are you okay?” she repeated.
He swallowed. His throat and mouth were dry. “I don’t know.” His hands and face stung where shrapnel had nicked and scratched them. He eased an inch-long splinter of glass from the back of his hand, and let it fall onto the pavement.
“That man in the car.” She spoke fast, gabbling with shock. “He had a gun. He was shooting at you.”
William closed his eyes.
“But why? Why was he doing that?”
He tried to move, and winced at the pain in his back. He’d played football in high school, back in Ohio, and knew what it felt like to be flattened by a quarterback twice his size.
“I don’t know. Is he—?”
She glanced at the tangled wreck.
“How did you do that?”
“How did you make his car blow up like that?”
“Me?” William felt the world roll giddily around his head. His brain hadn’t caught up yet, hadn’t fully processed what had happened. He elbowed himself up into a sitting position. “I didn’t do anything. How could I?”
The girl turned wide eyes to the black, greasy smoke belching up from the car’s gutted shell.
“Well, somebody certainly did.”
“It wasn’t me.”
Something popped in the wreckage, and they both flinched.
“Come on,” his neighbour said. “I think we’d better move.”