Extract / Preview: Radiant State by Peter Higgins

CBP - Radiant State

Chapter One

We will leave our planet by a radiant new path. We will lay out the stars in rows
and ride the moon like a horse.
Vladimir Kirillov (1889–1943)
On the canals of Mars we will build the palace of world freedom.
Mikhail Gerasimov (1889–1939)

1

She sees with eyes too wide, her ears are deafened with too much hearing, she feels with her skin. She is the first bold pioneer of a new generation: Engineer-Technician 2nd Class Mikkala Avril.

*

Age twenty-three?  Age zero! Fresh-born raw today, in the zero day of the unencompassable zero season of the world, she descends the gangway of the small plane sent personally for her, the only passenger, under conditions of supreme urgency. Priority Override. (The plane is still in its shabby olive livery of war: no time is wasted on primp- ing and beautifying in the New Vlast of Papa Rizhin.) Reaching the foot of the wobbling steel stair, she steps out onto the tarmac of the Chaiganur cosmodrome, Semei-Pavlodar Province, and into the heat of the epochal threshold hour.

To be part of it. To do her task.

The almost-bursting heart in her ribs is the heart of her generation, the heart of the New Vlast, a clever strong young heart pounding at the farthest limit of endurability, equal parts dizzying excitement and appalling terrible fear.

Today will be a day like no other.

It is not yet quite six years since the armies of the enemy surround- ing Mirgorod were swept from the face of the planet in a cleansing, burning wind by Rizhin’s new weapon, a barrage of atomic artillery shells. Not quite six years – the vertebrae of six long winters articu- lated by the connective tissue of five roaring summers – but for the New Vlast the time elapsed has delivered far more and felt far longer. General Osip Rizhin, President-Commander of the New Vlast and Hero of the Peace of a Thousand Years, has taken time by the scruff of the neck. He has stretched the weeks tight like wire and made each day work – work! – like days never worked before.

Some may express doubt that all this can been achieved  so quickly, Rizhin said on First Peace Day, outlining his Five Year Plan, his Great Step into the Future. But the doubters have not grasped the true nature of time. Time is not a dimension, it is a means of production. Time is too important to be trusted to calendars and clocks. Time is at our disposal and will march at our speed, if we are determined.  It is a matter of the imposition of human will.

Rizhin had seen the Goal and envisaged the completion of Task Number One. It would be delivered at the speed that he set.

And so it was. In two thousand hammer-blow days, each day a detonation like an atomic bomb, he made the whole planet beat with a crashing unstoppable rhythm perceptible from a hundred million miles away. The New Vlast was a pounding anvil the sun itself could feel: it shook the drum-taut solar photosphere, the 6,000-degree plasma skin.

But no day will ever beat more strongly or echo more enduringly down the corridors of the coming millennia than this one day, and Engineer-Technician  Mikkala Avril will play her vital part.

She pauses on the airfield apron, savouring the moment, fixing it in memory. The furnace weight of the sun’s heat beats on her face and shoulders and back. Hydrogen fusing into helium at a steady burn. She feels the remnants of the solar wind scouring her cheeks and screws her eyes against the bleach and glare. The air tastes of bitter herb and dusty cinder, of hot steel and of the sticky dust-streaked asphalt that peels noisily away from the soles of her shoes at every step. Breathing is hard labour.

Chaiganur is a scrub of desert steppe, baked dry under the rainless shimmering sky, parched to the far horizon. Flatness is its only feature. The dome of the sky is of no colour, the sun swollen and smeared across it, and the steppe is a whitened consuming lake bed of silent fierce unwatchable brightness. Nothing rises more than a few inches above the crumbling orange-yellow earth and the low clumps of coarse grey grass, nothing except pylons and gantries and hangars and scattered blockhouses: only they cast hot blue shadows. Miles to the south lies the shore of an ancient sea, and when the hot breeze blows it brings to Chaiganur a new covering of salty corrosive grit: ochre dust, clogging nozzles and caking surfaces.

The workers at Chaiganur put scorpions in bottles and watch them fight.

Throughout the two-hour flight from the Kurchatovgrad Barracks, Mikkala Avril had studied the technical manual, memorising layouts and procedures she already knows by heart. The night-duty clerk woke her in the early hours of the morning, agog with news, his part in her drama. A telephone call had come: instructions to go instantly to  Chaiganur, transport  already waiting. Her principal, Leading Engineer-Technician  Filipov, had been taken suddenly and seriously ill and she – she, Mikkala Avril, there was no mistake, there was no one else, none qualified – was required immediately to take Filipov’s place. Not an exercise. The thing itself.

As she put on her uniform she spared a thought for Filipov. He and his family would not be heard from again. Their names would no longer be spoken. It was a pity. Filipov had trained her well. Her suc- cess this day would be his final and most lasting contribution.

The plane bringing her to Chaiganur flew low. She watched through the window as they crossed the testing grounds and saw scars: the wide grey splash-craters of five years’ worth of atomic detonations, the fallen pieces of failed and exploded engineering, the twisted wreckage of spent platforms cannibalised from war-surplus bridges and pontoons. Half-buried chunks of stained concrete resembled the dry bones and broken tusks of dead giants.

Didn’t mammoths once walk this land? She might have heard that somewhere. Hadn’t someone – but who? – taken her once, a girl, to rock outcrops polished smooth by long-dead beasts (by the scraping of scurf and ticks from their rufous hairy sides). That might have happened to her, she wasn’t sure. Whatever. Nothing thrives now in all that flatness of stony rubbish but scorpions and rats and foxes and the sparse nomadic tribes with their ripe-smelling beards and scrawny horses.

The plane that brought her leaves again immediately, engines dwindling into sun-bleached silence. She heads for the control block, picking her way across pipes and thick cables that snake along the ground. She might be only one small component in the machine, one switch in the circuit, but she will execute her task smoothly, and that will matter. That will make a binary difference; that will allow the perfection of the most profound accomplishment of humankind. She will make no mistake. She will do it right.

 

2

 

Exactly one hour after the arrival of Mikkala Avril, a convoy sweeps at speed past the security perimeter of the Chaiganur cosmodrome trailing a half-mile cloud of dust. Three-and-a-half-ton armoured sedans – chrome fenders, white-walled tyres – doing a steady sixty. Motorcycle outriders and chase cars. They are heading straight for Test Site 61.

The sun-baked sedans carry the entire membership of the Central Committee of the New Vlast Presidium, and in one of the cars – no one is sure which, the bullet-proof windows are tinted – rides the President-Commander himself, General Osip Rizhin. Papa Rizhin, the great dictator, first servant of the New Vlast, coming to witness this greatest of triumphs and certify its momentousness with his presence.

Two jolting trucks bring up the rear. A sweating corps of journalists is tucked in among their movie cameras and their tape recorders. The men in the open backs of the trucks crook their arms in permanent angular shirt-sleeved salute, cramming homburgs, pork-pies, fedoras down tight on their heads against the hot wind of their passage. None but Rizhin knows what they are coming to see.

The party might have flown in to the cosmodrome in comfort but Rizhin refused to allow it, citing the presence among them of ambassa- dors from the new buffer states. We must never permit a foreigner to fly across the Vlast, he said. All foreigners are spies. That was the reason he gave, but his purpose was showmanship. He didn’t want his audience seeing the testing zones or getting any other clues. None among them, not even the most senior Presidium member, had any idea how far and how fast the project had progressed. And so they all rode for three days in a sweltering sealed train with perforated zinc shutters on the outside of the windows, and then in cars from the railhead, five hours across baking scrubland, to arrive red-faced and dishevelled at Test Site 61, where a cluster of temporary tin huts has been erected for the purpose of receiving them.

The temporary huts crouch in the shade of a two-hundred-foot tall, eighty-foot diameter, snub-nosed upright bullet of thick steel. The bullet is painted crimson with small fins near the base. The fins serve no functional purpose but Rizhin demands them for the look of the thing, to make it more like a rocket, which it is not.

The Vlast Universal Vessel Proof of Concept stands against its gantry, an ugly truncated stub, a blood-coloured thumb cocked at the sky, a splash of hot red glimmering in the glare of the sun.

 

3

 

Three time zones west of Chaiganur and eight hundred miles to the north, in the eastern outskirts of Mirgorod, a short train ride from the shore of Lake Dorogha, a woman in a shabby grey dress picks her way across a war-damaged wasteland.

Five years of reconstruction across the city have passed this place by, and the expanse of bomb craters and ruined buildings is much as she last saw it: tumbled brick-heaps, charred beams, twisted girders, tattered strips of wallpaper exposed to the sun. There are brambles now, nettles and fireweed and glossy grass clumps on slopes of mud, but otherwise nothing has changed. It is still recognisable.

The place she is looking for isn’t hard to find. She chose it well back then. It is a warehouse of solid blue brick, a bullet-scarred construction of blind walled arches and small glassless windows:  roofless, but so it had been back then. During the siege this place had been contested territory: again and again the tanks of the Archipelago passed through and were driven back, and each time the warehouse survived. An artil- lery shell had taken a gouge from one corner, but the walls had stood. She’d used the upper windows herself for a week. It made a good place to shoot from when she was waging her private war, alongside the defenders of Mirgorod but not of them.

She crosses the open ground to the warehouse carefully, taking her time, moving expertly from cover to cover, using the protection of shell holes and bits of broken wall. There are no shooters to worry about now, only wasps and rats, nettles and thorns. Almost certainly there is no one here to see her at all, no faces in the overlooking windows, but it’s as well to take precautions. She mustn’t be noticed. Mustn’t be seen. The sound of the city is a distant hum. She is getting her dress dusty and mud-stained, but she has anticipated that. She carries a change of clothes in the canvas bag slung on her back. She is nearly forty years old, but she remembers how to do this. She was good at it then and she is good at it still.

 

Inside the warehouse the stairs to the cellars are as she remembers them. She has brought matches and a taper, but she doesn’t need them. She finds her way through the darkness, familiar as yesterday, by feel. Nothing has changed. It is possible that no one has been here at all since she left it for the last time on the day the war’s tide turned and the enemy withdrew.

She crouches at the far wall and runs clenched, ruined fingers along the low niche, touching brick dust and stone fragments and what feels like a couple of iron nails. For a moment she cannot find what she is looking for and her heart sinks. Then she touches it, further back than she remembered but still there. Her fingertips brush against an edge of dusty oilcloth.

Carefully she hooks the bundle out from the niche. It’s narrow and four feet long, bound with three buckled straps cut from an Archipelago officer’s backpack.  The touch and heft of it – about twelve pounds weight in total, she estimates without thinking – brings memories. Erases the years between. She notices that her hands are trembling, and she pauses, takes a breath, centres herself and clears her mind. The trembling stops. She hasn’t forgotten the trick of that, then. Good.

In the blackness of the warehouse cellar, working by feel, she brushes the grit and dust from the oilcloth bundle and wraps it in the towel she stole before dawn that morning from a communal washroom. (The towel is a child’s, faded pink with a pattern of lemon-yellow tractors, the most innocuous and suspicion-disarming thing she could find. If she’s stopped and searched on the way back, it might just work. Camouflage and misdirection. Though she doesn’t expect to be searched: she’ll be just one more thin drab widow lugging a heavy bag. Such women are almost invisible in Mirgorod.)

She stows the towel-wrapped bundle in the canvas bag, hooks the bag on her shoulder and climbs back up towards the narrow slant of dust-filled sunlight and the morning city.

 

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CBP - Radiant State
RADIANT STATE
Peter Higgins
9780575130647
TPB
£16.99
Gollancz
Wolfhound Century
3
Something different…
The concluding part of the most original science fantasy of recent years. Works perfect for fans of China Mieville and Gene Wolfe.
With his loving evocation of a dark and fantastical realm that owes much to the myth and history of twentieth century Russia, and his rare ability to combine poetic writing and kinetic plotting, Peter Higgins has created one of the most original and critically lauded works of recent years.
Adored by critics and authors such as Hannu Rajaniemi, Ian McDonald and Richard Morgan the Wolfhound Century novels now reach their extraordinary conclusion.

 

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