Happy Friday, friends!
I’m so excited to be participating in a blog tour for A.K. Preston’s upcoming release (like tomorrow release), The Gevaudan Project! It sounds like an extremely fascinating read and I’m pumped to be sharing a short story to give you all a great hint of this story overall.
*Lets loose a bunch of squeals*
*coughs* So with that said, let me introduce you to the book and then dive right into the short story, The Praetorian, then all the fun extra goodies (including a book trailer) at the end. 😉
About the Book
A team of naturalists find themselves facing a nightmare beyond anything they have ever known – and the product of unspeakable evil.
Philip Caster, a former Green Beret now working as a zoologist, leads an international team in Indonesia whose revolutionary new program may spell salvation for the endangered Sumatran tiger. They will release six artificially-conceived cubs into the wild, accompanied by their surrogate mothers. The effort will prove the feasibility of in vitro breeding as a new tool against extinction. But its success is overshadowed by the sudden emergence of a horror beyond reckoning. Something has been unleashed in the forests of Sumatra. A life-form never meant to walk the earth. One that claims humanity as its only prey.
As death unfolds around them, Caster and his circle of friends must uncover the truth behind an abomination: the instrument of dark and all-too-human forces pursuing a twisted ideological vision. Their creation has killed already – and their plans will consume millions more.
“We do not have to visit a madhouse to find disordered minds; our planet is the mental institution of the universe.”
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
August 12, 2007
Waziristan region, Pakistan
Yevegniy Turchin was a liar.
He had lied about his name every day for the past four years. His clients knew him as Denys Chernenko, an expatriate Ukrainian who had left a career in the Soviet GRU following certain events of December 1991. That history was also a lie, though diluted with truth. Turchin was a Russian who had spent ten years in the KGB.
He asked his clients no questions and assured them of absolute secrecy. This too was a lie. Everything he learned was immediately passed on to his superiors in Moscow. For him, 1991 had meant only a change in names and acronyms.
Denys Chernenko’s specialty was private intelligence. This was a not a lie. His services were both real and proven. Consequently, few people ever lied to him.
So here he was, unarmed, blindfolded, miles from any form of civilization, and being taken to one of the world’s most wanted terrorists.
Only the lack of binding reminded him that he had come by choice. He kept his still-free hands clasped submissively between his knees, listening to the chatter of hosts a step removed from captors. He knew some words of Pashtun but most of their speech was incomprehensible.
The jeep hit another bump. He resisted the urge to steady himself. The guard beside him smelled of goats and body odor – the national fragrance, it seemed. He’d been inhaling it for at least an hour.
They were slowing. Finally. The engine – he guessed its age in decades – wheezed a protest as the vehicle halted completely. Some more words in Pashtun. A gun barrel tapped his shoulder. He took the hint and stepped out.
Hands gripped his arms on either side and pulled him forward. He felt loose dirt and rocks crunching under his boots. The ground abruptly shifted, and he found himself climbing uphill. They must already be deep in the mountains.
Not for the first time, it occurred to Yevgeniy Turchin that he was in immense personal danger. He considered the prospect absently. A bullet most likely, but a knife was also possible. Perhaps a beheading. These fanatics were quite fond of them. That would be preferable, in a way – poetic even. Pity the only witnesses would be less than a dozen unwashed quasi-literates.
They forced him to a stop. There was a shout from somewhere overhead. It echoed around them, confirming his guess as to their surroundings. One of his escorts returned a phrase at the same volume. It was answered and they started moving again.
The air became noticeably cooler, and he saw the light darken through his blindfold. The ground was firmer now. A cave.
There were more voices, and someone released the blindfold. He blinked several times and squinted straight ahead.
An armed man – not one of the group that brought him – gestured with his rifle. Turchin spread out both arms and legs, waiting patiently as several pairs of hands invaded his person. The search ended in seconds. The leader, apparently satisfied, took a step forward and looked him in the eye.
“Deniss… Jer… nae-ko?” He butchered the name miserably. Turchin inclined his head in acknowledgement.
“With me.” He gestured with his head and turned around. Turchin followed.
Unlike the path to the cavern’s entrance, the tunnel led them downward. Walls of smooth rock were punctuated by weak lanterns placed at intervals. They cast a sickly, haze-like lighting over the passage.
The chambers they passed were alternately empty and cramped. Some were inhabited. Turchin kept a mental tally of the number as they walked. He ultimately counted fifteen, all armed, seemingly both tense and listless. He avoided eye contact with them all.
The cave system must have extended far underground, for they still went deeper. The air transitioned from cool to chill, and Turchin drew his jacket closer. His escort – the lieutenant, he’d labeled him – looked back sharply but said nothing.
They entered another chamber, this one larger and wider than the others. Stalactites reached down from a seemingly cathedral-high ceiling. The walls of the entire system carried sound like water, but this area seemed particularly acoustic. Every footfall echoed around them.
There was something else too. Turchin detected a vague, high-pitched, almost warbling noise at the edges of his hearing. Light flickered at the far end of the chamber, casting phantasmic shadows across the walls that seemingly mingled with the strange melody. The lieutenant led them towards it, and the sound became clearer. Voices. Several of them, faint, incoherent and ghostly, dancing about the air like restless spirits in a crypt.
The light came from a smaller, secondary chamber within the first. Their destination. The voices became louder. There must have been several people inside, speaking in hushed voices. They crossed the threshold.
For the first time, Turchin laid eyes upon the man who had brought him to Waziristan.
He was a German. And an atheist. Simplistic, yes, but the term accurately summarized his philosophy. Others called him a pagan.
The lieutenant’s complexion matched the local tribesmen, but his accent had been clearly Italian. The other cell members were far paler, garbed in native wrappings that they wore badly. All had willingly left behind privileged, comfortable lives in the West for this miserable existence. That, perhaps more than anything else, spoke to this man’s power over them.
Rudolf Schach had certainly adapted to his circumstances, though the reverse seemed equally true. The room he occupied was entirely devoid of electric lighting, its place filled by numberless candles illuminating painted walls of forest vistas, Germanic deities and scenes from Wagnerian opera. A virtual shrine to the man’s own personality. Turchin wondered if any of his Islamic benefactors had seen this place.
Even more prominent were the books. Hundreds of them. Walls of volumes stacked like battlements that encircled and filled the entire sanctum. Most of the candles stoop atop them. Turchin instinctively stepped back, realizing he had walked straight into a massive fire hazard.
A four-legged desk – seemingly hand-carved – sat amidst the towers. This too held books, a stacked block that obscured the entire surface. Several lay open before a human figure bent over them amidst a haze of incense. The man himself.
Rudolf Schach appeared much as he had in the few photographs Turchin had obtained. Blond, hard, yet seemingly shorter now in his hunched position. And obscenely young. He did not acknowledge their approach, his vision fixed and squinting at the text in front of him. It was a wonder he had not gone blind in the candlelight. One hand pressed against the page as if physically restraining it. The other held a pen drawing lines at seemingly random points across both pages. He turned one, then ripped it out entirely. Turchin saw that many of the other volumes were similarly vandalized.
The source of the voices was now apparent. Schach was alone in the room. His lips moved as he worked, the inflexions varying as he poured out semi-coherent phrases like memorized verse in multiple languages. At one point, he spoke in Russian, and Turchin recognized a quote from Gorky. He discretely scanned the more visible titles of the collection. Feuerbach. Schopenhauer. Fichte. Marx. Lenin. A copy of Mein Kampf. Nechayev’s Catechism and Thoreau’s Walden. Drama. Poetry. Philosophy as eclectic as it was contradictory.
And ecology. Ubiquitous texts on ecology.
He turned back to Schach, watching as he repeated his procedure on several volumes at once with ambidextrous efficiency. Absorbing, purging, memorizing, disposing of all things alien to his ideological compendium. A fascinating variety of madness among the many in the world.
The voices stopped. Schach looked up. Turchin met a sky-blue stare made of ice. The head made a single motion. The lieutenant turned and left the room.
Schach deliberately lowered his stylus. “You are Denys Chernenko?”
“Ja. Rudolf Schach, I presume?”
There was a stone-like silence that quickly became threatening. A hand reached under the table. “Tell me why you have come and why I should not kill you.”
Turchin divined the weapon’s existence several seconds before it drew. He watched as the other man methodically affixed a silencer to the barrel, staring at him the entire time. Schach lay the pistol sideways atop another book. Nietzsche.
“I have not come on my own behalf. A client of mine has a proposition for you.”
A sneer twisted the German’s face. “A mercenary. I know all about your kind.” He placed his hand on the weapon. “Choose your words carefully.”
“My client has requested I do no more than deliver their own message.” Turchin proffered the stack of papers he’d made sure to carry by hand. Schach took them slowly, his gaze lingering suspiciously on the Russian’s face before he started reading.
It was at this point Turchin noted an unusual mannerism. It was as if Schach were breathing with his eyes, the lids contracting and expanding so that he was alternately wide-eyed and squinting. A glance downward confirmed it. They were making perfect time with the motion of the lungs.
Schach remained impassive for what seemed like several minutes. Then he placed the papers carefully to one side and looked at Turchin directly. It made his tic all the more unnerving.
“Tell me, Herr Chernenko, have you yourself read this document?”
“I do so as a matter of general practice. National and private intelligence have different rules – you don’t risk your life for an unknown.”
“Indeed. And your thoughts on its contents?”
“I am, as you say, only a mercenary. It’s not my business to pass judgment.”
“Even if it determines the future of your own Mother Russia?”
The question was a test. Turchin lied smoothly. “I am a Ukrainian. At any rate, the future holds little interest for me. This world is cruel and broken. Everyone and everything will die someday. A man can only make his own way and take what he can.”
Schach was silent for a moment. “Perhaps a wise philosophy in its own way – particularly for a mere Slav like yourself. Not all men are superior enough to comprehend the ultimate truths.”
Schach’s youth made his words even more of an insult. Turchin ignored it.
“Tell me then, Herr Chernenko,” he continued. “As one man trying to make his way to another doing the same – would you accept such an offer?”
Turching discretely looked down. Schach’s hand was no longer on the pistol. “In that capacity, Herr Schach, I would advise you to take it. It’s a chance to leave this wretched hole and return to the very cause to which you’ve dedicated your life. They will provide you a new identity and complete protection from every government hunting you. The relevant details are included in the document I gave you.
“Make no mistake, Herr Schach – you think you are safe here. You are wrong. Eventually your pursuers will find you. The fact that I did so stands as testament. And when that day comes, you will die like a dog at the hands of a faceless drone pilot – just like so many others in this place.”
He had spoken too freely – this man had killed members of his own family. The German rose from his desk – retrieved the pistol. Raised it.
Turchin watched as he calmly unscrewed the silencer. Schach glanced back at him. There was something like respect in his eyes. The pistol lowered into a holster at his waist.
“I will accompany you back to your vehicle.”
It wasn’t the answer he was looking for, but Turchin was not about to press the point. He allowed Schach to lead the way out of the room.
The lieutenant stood waiting for them just a few feet beyond the threshold. He straightened at his leader’s appearance.
Schach drew the pistol, aimed it directly at the man’s foot, and fired.
The blast reverberated in several waves, carried by the chamber. Turchin staggered backwards, both ears ringing. Schach was unmoved, staring menacingly at the man he had just shot. The lieutenant flinched – his face twisting briefly in pain – but did not cry out.
“Twelve hours self-criticism. Report back to me afterwards.” Schach’s voice was low and deadly. The other man meekly turned and began limping ahead. Turchin stared after him.
Schach holstered his weapon. “You may tell your employers that I accept their offer, Herr Chernenko. But tell them to make no mistake – this bargain will be on no other terms but my own.”
Turchin saw his eyes a final time. He never looked again.
The blindfold was back, but so was daylight. Turchin submitted once more to the ministrations of his hosts as they led him to the jeep.
Disturbing as the past thirty minutes had been, he could now wash his hands of it. His report would be dutifully recorded when it arrived in Moscow. Remembered but not acted on – that would only take place (if ever) after the end of his seven-year assignment as Denys Chernenko. He did not expect the timeline to change. The Kremlin’s loremasters knew many secrets far worse and did nothing. Like them, he would watch and wait.
Yevgeniy Turchin climbed obediently into the vehicle, resigned to yet another hour with the national fragrance.
To Be Continued…
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”
William Butler Yeats
About the Author
A.K. Preston is the pen name for Preston Klopfenstein, an author (or at least someone pretending to be one) who aims to provide the world with riveting tales incorporating the real-world imminence of the modern technothriller and suspense genres as well as the grandeur of classic science fiction. His goal is to impart imaginative wonder as well as powerful stories of Good and Evil. Underpinning them all is a biblical worldview, explored and illustrated in myriad ways with an emphasis on the mysterious. The Gevaudan Project is his first novel. You can find him on his blog at Empyrean Voyager as well as his website at AKPreston.com. Sign up for his mailing list at either site to download The Gevaudan Chronicles, a free anthology of prequel stories for the novel.
Preston currently resides in Sioux Falls, SD with his wife, two children and a day job that still plans to stick around.
The Extra Goodies!
See the other awesome stops (with even more fun goodies) on the tour at A.K. Preston’s website!