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Authors: Conrad Williams

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Table of Contents
Critical acclaim for The Unblemished
Title
About the Author
Title Page
Copyright Page
Dedication
Acknowledgements
Epigraph
Part One BIRTHS, DEATHS AND MARRIAGES
Chapter 1 RAPTURE OF THE DEEP
Chapter 2 PRESSURE
Chapter 3 DEAD CLADE WALKING
Chapter 4 THE GREAT NORTH ROAD
Chapter 5 THE SEA EAGLE
Chapter 6 TRESPASS
Chapter 7 2500°C
Chapter 8 ZOMBIES
Chapter 9 THE PLUCKING POSTS
Chapter 10 PICA
Chapter 11 HIBAKUSHI
Chapter 12 BREAKING AND ENTERING
Chapter 13 TRACHEOTOMY
Chapter 14 DESCENT
Part Two LAZARUS TAXON
Chapter 15 CITY OF CODE
Chapter 16 SKINNERS
Chapter 17 STALL WARNING
Chapter 18 RAGCHEW
Chapter 19 FOETAL ECHO
Chapter 20 THE HINDMOST
Chapter 21 SOMA
Chapter 22 FEARFUL SYMMETRY
Chapter 23 EXODUS
Chapter 24 CAST-IRON SHORE
Chapter 25 THE FARM
Chapter 26 THE RAFT
The Unblemished
Primal
My Work Is Not Yet Done
Teatro Grottesco
Thieving Fear
The Grin of the Dark
Banquet for the Damned
The Perils and Dangers of this Night
Critical acclaim for
The Unblemished
'His carefully crafted descriptions of horrific images, along with the ability to suggest they are even worse than words can tell, is reminiscent of Poe and the early stories of Clive Barker. Not for the squeamish, but no fan of literary horror should miss it.'
The Times
'
The Unblemished
, winner of the International Horror Guild's Best Novel award, is cleverly constructed, building relentlessly from intense, intimate terror to something on another scale altogether . . . the ruined London in the closing chapters of this stark gripping novel will stay with you a long time.'
Guardian
'Top-notch writing skills, poetic vision and beautiful prose raise this way above your Hammer House of Horror . . . unusual as well as highly accomplished terror.'
Sunday Express
'Williams is so good at what he does that he probably shouldn't be allowed to do it any more, for the sake of everyone's sanity.'
Publishers
Weekly
(starred review)
'Williams has built a whole mythology, one that makes the book feel like a cobwebbed relic from another time. Dust it off, if you like. Just do it at, say, ten in the morning. In a crowded room. In a military compound.'
Time Out
'
The Unblemished
scooped last year's highly coveted International Horror Guild Award, beating off some pretty stiff competition (which included some bloke called Stephen King).
The Unblemished
is a stomach-churning vision by an accomplished and courageous author and definitely not for the faint of heart.' John Berlyne, SFREVU
'
The Unblemished
is a strong book that gets in your face and doesn't back down. Its unsettling nature is one of its biggest assets. This is one of the best books that I've read this year.'
Bookspotcentral
'Williams' threat emerges from the world like an optical illusion being revealed, then you find that society fell apart while you were looking somewhere else.'
SF Site
'A terrifying tale of violence and determination to survive. Highly recommended.'
Monster Librarian
'This book scared the crap out of me . . . In my estimation, Williams does so many things so well that there's really not much he can't do. He is one of the few writers working in the area of horror and dark fantasy who has my full attention all of the time.
The Unblemished
is further evidence of his superlative talent.' Jeff VanderMeer
'[A] rich, emotionally engaging and extremely fast-paced novel . . .
The
Unblemished
achieves the admirable, tricky task of interweaving physical horror with spiritual terror . . . an unapologetic white-knuckle thriller.' William P Simmons,
Infinity Plus
'Conrad Williams takes us on a roller-coaster ride through ancient buried secrets and body-horror invasion into the pulsing gut of apocalyptic British horror.' Christopher Fowler
'
The Unblemished
combines a carefully orchestrated accumulation of paranoid detail reminiscent of Ramsey Campbell with passages of vividly described transformations evocative of early Clive Barker.' Steve Rasnic Tem
'An apocalyptic nightmare narrated with great vigour, clarity and stylishness. Steel yourself for some hideous sadism – there's awe along the way.' Ramsey Campbell
'A tour de force. Awe-inspiring in its sheer unsparing, unflinching, grimly horrifying view. One nasty piece of work.' Ed Bryant,
Locus
ONE
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Conrad Williams is the author of the novels
Head Injuries, London Revenant
and
The Unblemished
as well as a collection,
Use Once Then Destroy
, and the novellas
Nearly People
,
Game, The Scalding Rooms
and
Rain
. Born in 1969, he sold his first short story at the age of eighteen and has gone on to sell over 80 more. He is a past recipient of the British Fantasy Award and the International Horror Guild Award. He lives in Manchester with his wife, three sons and a monster Maine Coon cat.
ONE
Conrad Williams
This eBook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.
ISBN 9780753520529
Version 1.0
www.randomhouse.co.uk
Published by Virgin Books 2009
2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1
Copyright©Conrad Williams 2009
Conrad Williams has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work
This electronic book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's prior consent in any form other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
First published in Great Britain in 2009 by
Virgin Books
Random House, 20 Vauxhall Bridge Road,
London SW1V 2SA
www.virginbooks.com
www.rbooks.co.uk
Addresses for companies within The Random House Group Limited can be found at:
www.randomhouse.co.uk/offices.htm
The Random House Group Limited Reg. No. 954009
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library
ISBN: 9780753520529
Version 1.0
For Zachary
All these miles, and more.
ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
I'm extremely grateful to Dr Christoph Winkler, Project Scientist for the International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory (Integral) at the European Space Agency, for his input regarding gamma ray bursts. Paul McAuley also helped with the science (and encouraged me when the idea for this novel was in its infancy). If there are any factual howlers, point the finger at me, not them.
Thanks too to Rob Wilcock for details regarding oil platforms and for checking a couple of early chapters. Alan McGrath also chipped in with anecdotes regarding life on the rigs.
Other people who helped during the writing of this book were Nicholas Royle, Shaun Hamilton, Simon Strantzas, Ethan, Ripley, Zac, Mum and Dad. My superb editors at Virgin Books, Adam Nevill and Simon Lee-Price, made sure I didn't take my eye off the ball. Thanks also to Robert Kirby at United Agents.
As always, Rhonda Carrier read drafts, rolled her eyes, shook her head, but generally infused me with confidence and hope. I love that woman.
'We live as we dream – alone.'
Joseph Conrad
Part One
BIRTHS, DEATHS AND MARRIAGES
1. RAPTURE OF THE DEEP
. . . and in the morningtime we can drive in the jeep to the zoo and bort tikits and see the munkiz. Our jeep is cool acoz it goz reely fast and plays som grat muzik and its a green car . . .
Richard Jane glanced to his left and saw the other divers ranged away from him at ten-foot intervals, ghosts fading into the distance. Visibility was poorer than usual but he could just make out the yellow flashes of Henrikson Subsea's company logo on the dive suits. His breath came in shallow stitches. He could feel his heartbeat where it played in the thin skin of his wrist whenever it pressed against his suit as he applied pressure to the wrench. Another few turns and this section of the clamp would be sound. The fatigue crack, fully three feet long, was a black frown in the scarred weld between the node and its supportive brace. The great leg of the oil platform rose into the murk and was lost. You had to move against the current to get the job done. You had to anticipate where it might try to drag you and plant your stance accordingly.
This deep, the pressure was so great that it could be felt like a vice around the chest. The first time Richard Jane experienced it, all those years ago during his training – hard, filthy work burning three-inch monel bolts out of the flanges of a rig in the Gulf of Mexico – he thought he was having a heart attack. Breathing was labour. But the complexity and physical demands of his work took him out of his environment, helped him to forget about the risk, or at least keep it at a manageable distance. The ocean was unforgiving at these alien fathoms. Death was in the deep. It cruised around like the shadows of sharks. And like a shark it could smell a drop of blood from miles away. It preyed on the mind after a while, if you let the thoughts settle. No amount of reading or cards or letters home would steer you away after that.
Jane had known two men, in his four years as a saturation diver, who had taken their own lives because of the pressures of the job. He was a veteran already. Few lasted longer than two years in this line. Despite the advances in technology and safety, it still put a drain on your health. Holes in the lungs. Neurological threat. Aseptic bone necrosis. A sense of never being able to escape the cold: helium's thermal conductivity sapped the body of heat. The hot water pumped through the wetsuit was just never hot enough. Sometimes the grand a day he made on these two-week stints seemed insufficient. You spent so long down here you forgot what trees looked like; you'd be forgiven for believing the entire planet looked like this.
The helium mix turned everyone's voice cartoonishly high, but it could only have been Stopper who said, 'Down tools in fifteen. Three days from now I'm going to be suffering from a bad case of boozer's elbow.'
'Better than tosser's forearm, you skirt-frightener.' That was Carver.
Tyldesley's voice, coffeewarm in the control room, nearly a thousand feet north of here, said, 'Cut the banter, you prozzers. Job's not over till you hear the school bell go. Till then, your freezing cold arse flesh is mine, d'you hear me? All mine.'
'Charming fucker,' said Rae, immediately to Jane's left. He was making wanking gestures. There was something about seeing that, 600 feet beneath the surface of the North Sea, 150 miles from Aberdeen – that and Rae's falsetto profanity – that Jane found hilariously funny. He started laughing and could not stop. He felt something pop in his head and thought he might have pulled a muscle. Tears in his eyes threaded his vision with colour. There was a strange sensation of increased pressure, as if a gust of wind had suddenly barrelled into them, and then the soft hiss of the headset died, the heat from the circulating water began to rapidly dissipate.
He saw Rae turn to him, arms outstretched:
What the fuck?
'Tyldesley? Tyldesley? Are you reading me?' There might have been a trace of panic in Jane's voice but the helium disguised it. He gave three quick tugs on the security rope binding them all together and made a start for the pair of two-man diving bells, twenty feet east. There had been some failure, some catastrophic failure. Fear swelled inside him, like decompression sickness. He had seen a man with the bends once. You don't forget that. All of the limbs withdrawn into a core of impossible pain. The welter of blood at every orifice, fizzing bright red. Bubbles opening in the jelly of the eyes.
He checked back a couple of times on that shambling race for the bells. He could only see Stopper, but the silver streams of bubbles rising behind him suggested that Rae and Carver were at his heels.
Jane reached the second bell and swung himself under. He rose through the open hatch, pulling himself in with arms that felt too weak to support him, or anything else. He was shivering, trying to shoulder off his bale-out bottle when Stopper's head emerged into the wet porch.
'Electrics?' Stopper asked, when he'd levered off his helmet.
'Must be,' Jane said. 'Thank fuck the back-up kicked in or we'd have been sucking in nothing but the taste of rubber.'
'What do we do?'
'I'm calling this an emergency,' Jane said. 'How about you?'
'I second that.'
'We get back to the habitat,' Jane said. 'Decompress. Then kick the cock off whichever twunt sat on the off button. Are the others in?'
'Already ascending,' Stopper said.
Jane sealed the inner hatch and turned his attention to the depth gauge, so it was Stopper who saw the first of the dead fish drifting past the portholes. 'Look,' he said. His large goalkeeping hands kept wiping and rewiping the Zappa moustache that bracketed his tight nervous mouth. Shoals of dead fish – cod, coley, pollack – were raining down around them.
'What's it look like to you?' Stopper asked Jane.
Jane shook his head. Visibility was improving as they rose out of the black of deep sea into the blue surface waters above 200 feet. Blood billowed out of the fish from the gills and the eyes, swinging in the pulses of current. 'Explosion, maybe?' he said. 'Poison in the water?'
'Poison wouldn't put our comms out,' noted Stopper. 'But maybe they're unconnected. Shall I try the radio in here?'
'Already did,' Jane said. 'It's dead.'
'We need to get back to the Ceto,' Stopper said. 'We need to get inside.'
'It's OK,' Jane said, and the words died between them.
'What if there's nobody up there to disconnect us from the stage?'
'Seriously, Stopper, give it a rest,' Jane said. 'What do you think happened? Everyone fucked off and left us on our own? Check the pressure. I don't want us going fizzy.'
'Pressure's stable,' Stopper said. And then: 'Oh my God.'
A human body. And then two, three more. Drifting down through the water, arms outstretched as if they were skydiving.
'Oh, Christ,' Stopper said. 'Who's that? Is that Terry Mead? What's going on?'
Jane joined him at the tiny porthole. Together they watched as what looked like black cobwebs funnelled from the sockets of Terry Mead's face – his mouth hanging vastly open as if it had been dislocated, clouds of blood pumping from it like a belching factory chimney – before he twisted and tumbled away from their field of vision. More bodies sank around him. Jane counted a dozen before Stopper, weeping, dropped to his knees.
'We're dead,' Stopper said, hysteria threatening to take his voice to a point where it could not be heard. 'That poor man. All those poor fucking men. We're dead.'
'It must be an explosion,' Jane said. His own voice was rendered toneless by the panic. 'But then, I don't think so. Look at their clothes. Nothing got torn off.'
'They jumped? A fire?'
'Maybe. Maybe a fire. In the comms room? Spreading to the generators? It would explain the blackout. It would have to be a nasty bastard to make men jump.'
'Jesus,' Stopper said. 'Who's going to plug us in?'
They ascended the rest of the way without speaking. The bell filled with hard hot breath. As they neared the surface they braced themselves. The bell began to rock violently on its hoist wire, more so than was usual when they lifted out of the wet and into the air. The great legs of the platform seemed to be swaying in the current, as if about to pull themselves free of the bed and start walking.
'This is not good,' Jane said.
The bell broke the surface and he had time enough to see the service chopper hanging from the helipad with its rotors torn off. The portholes became caked with a sudden thick black residue. He hadn't seen anybody else on deck and had no idea what had happened to the bell containing Carver and Rae. Their own bell swung about on the end of its cable like a wrecking ball in search of something to hit. The abandon-platform siren was coming to him, shredded by the wind to an ineffective stutter.
Even as he tried to grab hold of something to stop him being clattered around the unforgiving innards of the bell, Jane was thinking of reasons. Electrical storms. Terrorist attacks. Dirty bombs. Chemical agents.
Stopper cracked his head hard against the CO2 scrubber and fell back against the top hatch, his foot folding under him as if it were without bone. Jane heard something crack dully, like the sound of splitting sapling branches. Stopper made no protest; blood pulsed steadily from a wound behind his left ear. Jane ducked down and propped him against the rack of heliox cylinders, strapped a belt around his chest and trapped it behind the heater. The diving bell jerked back on itself and Jane crashed into the control panel, tearing what felt like a foot-long strip of skin from his back.
But then there was a jolt that seemed unnatural, a punch that had not been dealt by the wind's fist. Water cleared a viewing space in one of the portholes; Jane swung over to it and peered out. He could see the other bell swinging around on its hoist wire and little else through a blizzard of spume. They were level with the decks but waves were crashing over the sides. He hadn't seen that in ten years of working around rigs. He'd much rather not be seeing that while being inside a pressurised diving bell. Again, that feeling of something controlling the bell came back; he heard the cable grind as it was shifted against the direction in which the wind wanted to take it. He felt a tightening, a drawing-in; he realised it must be the motion-compensation system, which meant that someone was supervising their return. He saw the other bell impact against a landing stage, almost crumpling it as if it were fashioned from aluminium foil.
Their own diving bell was stilled for a moment; it was under control. He heard the usual thumps and dings that meant the stage was being disconnected, and another thunk as the bell was mated to the entrance lock of the Ceto, the Diving Support Vessel. He tried to see through the porthole who was rescuing them – at least two men must have survived to be able to coax the bell into its docking position – but he could not make out anything beyond the ceaseless spray and the strange persistent fibrous rain.
He ran a palm over his forehead, pushing his sweaty hair back from his face, and looked through the hatch at the trunking space and the tunnel to safety that it offered. 'How are we for pressure in there?' he asked, but nobody was replying. The readings on the diving-bell gauge were normal but everything else was frazzled; it might simply have frozen. He had to hope that the pressure inside the DSV was equal to that in the bell. Jane thought of his son. He whispered, 'Stanley.'
He spun the hatch wheel and felt his body tense as the door hissed open. Seawater rained on him from the seal as he ducked under the frame and into the Ceto. Blood was smeared across the outside of one of its tiny windows. There was nothing to be seen through that. He ducked back into the bell, grasped Stopper under the arms and dragged him through to their living quarters. He tried hoisting him onto one of the bunks, but all his strength had left him; his muscles felt flabby, saturated by fear. The wound on the back of Stopper's head had stopped bleeding. His breathing and pulse were weak but regular. That was something. Jane wondered how long they would have to wait for help to arrive. Nothing was landing on the helipad while the sea was being whipped up like this. Decompression time for the team would be something in the region of thirty-six hours.
He made sure that Stopper was comfortable, then made his way to the end of the chamber where a window allowed him a view of the second chamber. He could not yet see Rae or Carver, but he could hear the clamour of their diving bell as the winchmen struggled to align it with the entrance lock. Shadows flashed across the porthole and then he could see the other bell as it was hauled into view alongside theirs. As the hatches drew level the tartan headband that Rae always wore became visible.
Rae was crying. Hismouth was open; light glittered in the bars of saliva between his lips. Maybe Carver had died. But that wasn't so; Rae's buddy was standing behind him. He was trying to calm Rae down.
What is it?
Jane mouthed, but he wasn't sure Rae could see him. The cramped living quarters had never seemed so stifling to Jane.
A letter from Stanley lay on his bunk. Before they had descended that morning – the sky a beautiful unbroken span of coral pink; the sea flat cobalt, not a scuff of white upon it – he had read it half a dozen times. He wrote well for a five-year old. It was in a mix of upper- and lower-case letters, and the spelling relied on phonetics in the main, but it was neat, with little slope. Stream of consciousness, almost. A blurt of detail, as if he couldn't get it out of himself quick enough.
Me and mum went for a peetsa after the fer and I wasunt sic I was big enuf for the dojims this time remember wen you tuck me and I was to smorl.
It had been three months since he'd last seen his boy. He'd moved out of the flat in Maida Vale that he shared with Cherry and Stanley. She didn't like Jane being away for six weeks at a time. She felt she'd been dealt a short straw.
I have to look after the boy 24/7 while you fanny around swimming with fishes?
She wanted to know why he couldn't get a proper job. Something that started at nine a.m. and finished at five p.m. and meant he could put the boy to bed every other night and then eat dinner with his wife. She didn't seem to understand, or refused to. Four months of hard graft on the mid-Norwegian shelf meant they could take leisurely breakfasts for the rest of the year and he could have Stanley out of her hair as much as she liked. But no. She wanted the cliché. She wanted him in a suit and tie. At the bus stop with the other husbands, reading the newspaper, comparing packed lunches, complaining about the boss. She didn't understand the struggle it had been for him to reach the standard he was at. The years of training. The sacrifices. All of that had been before they'd met. She didn't appreciate that the diving was just a way for him to get from A to B. He was a skilled welder; one of the best. He had worked his nuts off to get to this point in his career. Companies requested him by name.
'What happens when all the oil dries up?' she asked him once. 'Where will the work take you then? Halfway around the world?'
'I'll be long finished before then, Cherry,' he said.
'We will be, you mean.'
And she was right about that. She'd missed out on one cliché but nailed another: the failed marriage to the man who was never around.
Bye Dad. I love you. With orl my hart. See you soon. Bring me sum Ben 10 stickers. And we can have a fight, just playing fight. And the chum-chiggle-iggle-umching-cha.
No. No. No.
'No.' The word flipped out of him, like a belch, involuntary. 'No,' he said again, louder. He yelled it so hard that spittle flew across the toughened glass of the window. Now he could see what it was that Rae was crying about. The hatch of the bell had been warped by one of the collisions with the platform. The flanges were rippled like the mantle of an oyster; they would not meet flush with their counterparts on the docking hatch. The bell was repositioned and the locking mechanism secured, but fingers of light poked in around the seal.
Jane shouted out again, shook his head, but either Rae couldn't see him or chose not to. He heard the hiss as bell pressure was increased to ensure a seal that could not be made. He saw the wheel on the hatch begin to turn. Jane spun away, flinching at the sound of their bodies as they unravelled into the hyperbaric chamber. When he was able to look back through the porthole he could see how the hatch in Rae's diving bell had been unable to open beyond three inches. Explosive decompression. Rae and Carver had been turned inside out. Tiny scraps of his friends slid through the red gruel on the window.
Jane staggered back to where he had left Stopper. He positioned a blanket over him, then sat on the bunk. He took up Stanley's letter, folded it carefully and put it in his pocket. He realised he was wiping his hands, though it would have been impossible for any of Rae or Carver's blood to have splashed him.
There was tapping at the hatch. Someone was scooping away the muck from the glass. He staggered over to look through the porthole and saw Gordon McLeish, one of the derrickmen. His face was as red as the coat he was wearing; blood was the filling in a sandwich formed by his lips. Where the bones made angles in his flesh, Jane could not see anything but tight shining skin. He might have been inflated. What looked like spoiling cottage cheese was foaming from his ears and nostrils. There were two bodies behind him, face down. One of them had fallen on his hands, as if he had dropped in the act of fastening his coat buttons. Or if that was what Jane thought it was, piled up bloodily next to him, then maybe he was trying to keep as much as he could from slithering out of whatever rents had appeared in his abdomen.
What was it?
Jane mouthed at McLeish, but the other man was too intent on other tasks to be able to answer. He punched buttons on a back-up console that had been plugged into the mains; the central computer must have failed. He was beginning the decompression process. Jane stopped rapping on the glass and let him do his job; it didn't look as though McLeish was likely to be around much longer. Blood was drizzling from the end of his coat sleeves, welling out of the eyelets of his boots.
Jane heard a wail, a gasp, and turned to check on Stopper, but he was still unconscious. It had been the wind chicaning through the struts of the oil platform, howling like something animal, something crazed. It had to be savage as hell for him to be able to hear it through two inches of steel.
McLeish was taking too long. Jane could see him slowing down. At one point he dropped the console and swayed as if he was about to faint, but he put out a hand to stop himself. The oil platform was shifting alarmingly. Jane could imagine the black grin in the leg of the platform that they had been trying to prevent from widening. What would happen if that leg buckled completely? It didn't bear thinking about. He had to turn away. He went back to Stopper and tried to rouse him. He wiped his forehead, checked his vital signs again. Stopper was stable, but he'd wake up with a swine of a headache. Jane patted his pocket and felt the flat comfort of his son's letter. He must not lose that, no matter what.
Yor not her to kiss at nighttim but I send you one out the window and I love you Daddy. I have nise drems abowt you, Dad.
A green light on the hatch door. Decompression was under way. Through the porthole – rapidly filling again with that gritty dense grain – he could see McLeish on his knees, vomiting blood and tissue onto the deck. McLeish who was comically cinematic whenever he played poker, wearing sunglasses to hide the signs his eyes might be giving, turning over his cards after a studied pause. McLeish who would fart in the middle of a tense scene during a film in the theatre and ask everyone if they wanted seconds. There was nothing Jane could do, but he whispered a thankyou anyway.
It was doubtful he'd see this thirty-six hours through. There was only one thing worth doing in this situation. Bolted to the wall between the bunks was a khaki-green metal box, fastened shut with eight screws. The words IN CASE OF EMERGENCY were stencilled in white on the face. Jane worked the screws free with a knife. The lid popped open, revealing a litre bottle of economy whisky bought from a corner shop for under ten pounds.
It would have to be some emergency for you to get me to sup that shite
, Stopper had once said.
It would have to be a real soupy bowel moment.
Jane cracked the seal and started drinking.
2. PRESSURE
He lay on the floor with Stopper. The ceaseless swaying of the chamber was bearable in that position. He could close his eyes and the freak weather's battering of the oil platform became manageable squalls of sound, like remembered arguments or old plumbing, and he didn't have to look at Stopper's pale skin or congealing wounds. It was just him, his whisky and the incremental dispersal of nitrogen from his blood and tissue.
Jane wondered for a moment what effect alcohol had on the decompression process but as soon as the thought was in him it was gone, replaced by others, seeping through him like gas in the blood. Stanley remained a constant throughout. He was a watermark on pages, indelible; not that Jane wanted him out of his thoughts, but some of the others were inappropriate. He didn't want his boy to share headspace when Saskia Sharkey from his sixth-form days – with her large breasts and talented tongue – flitted through his mind. Stanley oughtn't to be there when Gormley, his first boss, was tearing into him about timekeeping and Jane told him to ram his job. And all those girls he had brought tears to over the years. All those regrets, all that sorry. Maybe this shitstorm of blood and wind was down to him: payback time for being a career bastard.
Trimming the fat from his thoughts, bringing them back to the here and now, served only to alert Jane to the headache thickening behind his eyes. Alcohol for a man under as many kinds of pressure as you cared to mention couldn't be doing him any good. But what it did do, while he was decompressing, was compress his perception of time. That was one of the rare beauties of booze. It provided you with a beer Tardis to flip you forward to a point where you could have a coherent say in matters again.
He was slithering around in a puddle of vomit and couldn't work out who it had come from. It reminded him of Stanley, when he'd been three, just before the end of things. He had been violently sick in his sleep, had woken himself up with it, and had cried out, distressed, panicky. Jane and Cherry had bulldozed into the room to find him sitting up in bed staring in dismay at Walter, his toy lion.
'Walter sicked all over me,' he said. 'Walter sicked all over me.'
It must have been Jane, not Stopper, that had vomited. Both of them were wearing it; it didn't matter. Jane pulled himself upright. The stubble on his chin told him what the clock could not. Was he still drunk, or was the platform still lurching? Had the storm not blown itself out by now? The windows were packed with filth. He tried the radio again out of habit, but already he was ignoring its silence, thinking ahead, wondering when, wondering if. Already he was thinking what might happen if there was nobody left to come and let them out. There was water in a five-pint container. There was no food; the food was always served to them through the airlock at mealtimes. He felt a bite of claustrophobia, a fear he had never, until now, experienced or understood. If the weather should persist, if the platform should fail, back to the seabed he and Stopper would go, with little hope of rescue before they suffocated. Maybe it would be for the best if Stopper did not regain consciousness. He was taking up air that Jane could use. Jane could . . . Jane could . . .
Could what?
He rubbed his lips and called out.
Hello?
His voice, no longer etiolated by heliox, was scratchy and tired. Scared. Keep your mind away from that. Do not touch. Turn away. The clock wasn't working, so why should the mechanism release? Did fail-safe mean that, if
everything
broke down?
'Stopper?' he said. The bristles on Stopper's face seemed too dark for his alabaster skin; he wished his buddy were blond. 'Stopper?'
Let him sleep. Let him just fade away.
No. Not a great option. '
Stopper!
' Jane knelt beside him and lifted an eyelid. The pupil contracted. OK. Good. He pinched the skin on Stopper's clavicle; Stopper flinched. Better. Jane leaned close. 'Wake up. You lazy fucker.'
Movement. A grey edge of tongue. Jane poured water onto a discarded shirt, pressed it against his friend's forehead. He pressed it against his lips and his mouth worked at it.
'Come on,' Jane said. 'Sit up. Have a drink.'
He managed to get Stopper to lift himself up from the floor. He wore an expression of someone angry without understanding why. Confusion, hunger, muddied things. He was trying to speak but only a fudge of sound fell from his lips.
'Something in the water,' Jane heard eventually. 'My God. Something in the water.'
Over the next few hours Jane coaxed his friend back. Stopper was shaking quite badly – they both were – but Stopper's mouth was shuddering like that of a baby plucked too swiftly into the air. 'I need a drink,' Stopper said, but waved away the water that Jane offered him. 'I need a fucking drink,' he growled. There were a couple of fingers of the economy gut-rot left and, even though Stopper eyed it suspiciously, he necked the lot.
'Can you stand up?' Jane asked. 'We have to try to get out.'
'What about Carver? Rae?' Stopper was smacking his lips as though he'd just been quaffing Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
Jane shook his head. 'Let's concentrate on us for a while. Give or take, we should be clean. If we go fizzy after this long, it'll only be like taking a swig from a bottle of piss-warm Coke. But take it from me, there's nobody left. Nobody came to check on us.'
He could see Stopper beginning to get twitchy, as he had done in the bell before his fall, and he laid a hand on the bigger man's shoulder. 'We have to get out of here. I'm not sure how long the platform is going to remain upright. There's a wind been blowing for the last day and a half that'd tear your face off if you looked at it the wrong way. It doesn't sound as though it's going to let up.'
'You don't just slip the lock in these bastards, Rich,' Stopper said. 'You don't just kick the fucking door off its hinges.'
'The windows, then,' Jane said. 'There's got to be something we can do.'
Stopper was shaking his head, but he stood up and tested the bunk bolted to the wall. 'Fetch me one of them spanners,' he said.
Between them they managed to unscrew the bolts and wrench the bunk clear. Jane tossed the bedding to one side.
'Here,' Stopper said, 'turn that round so we can use that nasty-looking corner. See if we can't ram that into the glass.'
They spent ten minutes trying to crack the porthole, but the glass wasn't even scratching. There was no swearing; they had both known what the result would be. Stopper tossed the bed into the corner of the chamber; the echo of its collision rang dully. Panic unstitched itself once more in Jane's gut. He wanted to breathe fresh air. He didn't want the stink of cheap whisky fumes and stomach acid to be the last odours to sit in his lungs. And though Stopper was suddenly the only thing between him and being alone, he wished him a thousand miles away. He didn't know what was going to happen once the goodwill and the fire from the whisky were all gone and it became just the two of them and the panic stripping them away, layer by layer, to a point where violence was waiting.
They were painstakingly checking the seals at the hatch on the far side of the chamber, in the hope that the explosive decompression Carver and Rae had suffered might have somehow weakened it, when there was a deep sound they both recognised: the chunk of the hatch tumblers sliding free. They stumbled over each other in their desire to be first out of the door, and Stopper's fist was balled, ready to fight Jane for it, when Jane put out a hand to hold him back.
'Wait,' he said, and held up his other hand in a placatory gesture. 'Stopper, let's just take it slow. We don't know what it was did for the guys out there. If it was a gas leak, maybe.'
'There's nothing on the platform that could take out a whole shift.'
'But something did, right? Something did.'
Stopper sighed and let the tension fall out of him; he seemed to dwindle. 'OK. I just . . . if that's the fail-safe, I just don't want it to unfail-safe itself. You hear me?'
'I hear you. But let's at least get some masks on. The suits too. You didn't see . . . their skin, Stop, their skin was sliding off them.'
They shrugged on their wetsuits and masks, gloves and boots. They checked each other's oxygen tanks and gave each other the OK signal. At the hatch, Jane pulled out his regulator and said, 'Stop, try not to look at what's out there too much. Let's head for the OIM's office and see what's what. Quick as we can.'
He didn't hang around to see if Stopper was following, but took off quickly and almost paid the price for his impatience. The wind on deck was gusting so violently that it swept his feet from under him and took him fully twenty feet towards the guard rails. Part of them had been sheared off either directly by the wind or some piece of hardware driven by it. The rubber suit bit at the deck and brought him to a stop six feet away from his death. He was almost too busy looking at the sky, at the chicanery of violet and green and orange, to notice.
Northern Lights
, he supposed.
This far south?
He thought it more likely that it was the breakdown of cells in his own brain as he lay dying. But he wasn't dying. Not yet.