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Without Warning

Without Warning by John Birmingham
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BONUS: This edition contains an excerpt from John Birmingham's After America.

In Kuwait, American forces are locked and loaded for the invasion of Iraq. In Paris, a covert agent is close to cracking a terrorist cell. And just north of the equator, a sailboat manned by a drug runner and a pirate is witness to the unspeakable. In one instant, all around the world, everything will change. A wave of inexplicable energy slams into the continental United States. America as we know it vanishes. From a Texas lawyer who happens to be in the right place at the right time to an engineer in Seattle who becomes his city’s only hope, from a combat journalist trapped in the Middle East to a drug runner off the Mexican coast, Without Warning tells a fast, furious story of survival, violence, and a new, soul-shattering reality.
Random House Publishing Group; February 2009
ISBN 9780345512758
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Title: Without Warning
Author: John Birmingham
Chapter 1

Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, Paris

The killer awoke, surrounded by strangers. An IV line dripped clear fluid through a long, thick needle punched into the back of her right hand. Surgical tape held the silver spike in place and tugged at the fine blond hairs growing there. The strangers—all women—leaned in, their faces knotted with anxiety, apparently for her. But she stared instead at her hands, which lay in her lap on a thin brown blanket. They looked strong, even masculine. She turned them over, examining them. The nails were cut short. Calluses disfigured her knuckles, the heels of both palms, and the sides of her hands, from the base of both little fingers down to her wrists. The more she stared, the more unsettled she became. Like the women gathered around her bed, those hands were completely alien to her. She had no idea who she was.

“Cathy? Are you all right?”

“Nurse!” somebody called out.

The strangers, three of them, seemed to launch themselves at her bed, and she felt herself tense up, but they simply wanted to comfort her.

“Doctor. She’s awake,” one of them said in French.

She felt soft hands patting her down, stroking her the way you might comfort a child who’s suffered a bad fright. Cathy—that wasn’t her name, was it?—Cathy tried not to panic or to show how much she didn’t want any of these women touching her. They looked like freaks, not the sort of people she’d want as friends. And then she remembered. They weren’t her friends.

They were her mission. And her name wasn’t Cathy. It was Caitlin.

The women were dressed in cheap clothing, layered for warmth. Falling back into the pillows, recovering from an uncontrolled moment of vertigo into which she had fallen, Caitlin Monroe composed herself. She was in a hospital bed, and in spite of the apparent poverty of her “friends,” the private room was expensively fitted out. The youngest of the women wore a brown suede jacket, frayed at the cuffs and elbows and festooned with colorful protest buttons. A stylized white bird. A rainbow. A collection of slogans: Halliburton Watch. Who Would Jesus Bomb? And Resistance Is Fertile.

Caitlin took a sip of water from a squeeze bottle by the bed.

“I’m sorry,” she croaked. “What happened to me?”

She received a pat on the leg from an older, red-haired woman wearing a white T-shirt over some sort of lumpy handmade sweater. Celia. “Auntie” Celia, although she wasn’t related to anyone in the room. Auntie Celia had very obviously chosen the strange ensemble to show off the writing on her shirt, which read If you are not outraged you are not paying attention.

“Doctor!” cried the other older woman, who had just moved to the doorway.

Maggie. An American, like Caitlin. And there the similarity ended. Maggie the American was short and barrel-chested and pushing fifty, where Caitlin was tall, athletic, and young.

She felt around under her blanket and came up with a plastic control stick for the bed.

“Try this,” she offered, passing the controller to the young girl she knew as Monique, a pretty, raven-haired Frenchwoman. “See, the red call button. That’ll bring ’em.” Then, gently touching the bandages that swaddled her head, she asked, “Where am I?”

“You’re in a private room, at the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris,” explained Monique. “Paris, France,” she added self-consciously.

Caitlin smiled weakly. “’Okay. I remember that Paris is in France.” She paused. “And now I am, too, I guess. How did I get here? I don’t remember much after coming out of the Chunnel on the bus.”

The large American woman standing over by the door to her room— Maggie, try to remember her fucking name!—turned away from her post.

“Fascist asswipes, that’s how. Attacked us outside of Calais.”

“Skinheads,” explained Monique. “And you were magnifique!”

“I was?”

“Oh yes,” the French girl enthused. She looked no more than seventeen years old, but Caitlin knew her to be twenty-two. She knew a lot about Monique. The others chorused their agreement. “These National Front fascists, Le Pen’s bullyboys, they stopped the bus and began pulling us out, hitting and kicking us. You stood up to them, Cathy. You fought with them. Slowed them down long enough for the union men to reach us and drive them away.”

“Union men?”

“Workers,” Maggie informed her. “Comrades from the docks at Calais. We’ll meet up with them and the others in Berlin. For the next rally, if you’re up for it. We really gotta keep Bush on the back foot. Mobilize the fucking streets against him.”

Caitlin tried to reach for any memories of the incident, but it was like grabbing at blocks of smoke. She must have taken a real pounding in the fight.

“I see,” she said, but really she didn’t. “So I beat on these losers?”

Monique smiled brightly for the first time.

“You are one of our tough guys, no? It was your surfing. You told us you always had to fight for your place on the waves. Really fight. You once punched a man off his board for . . . what was it . . . dropping in?”

Caitlin felt as though a great iron flywheel in her mind had suddenly clunked into place. Her cover story. To these women she was Cathy Mercure. Semipro wave rider. Ranked forty-sixth in the world. Part- time organizer for the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a deep green militant environmental group famous for direct and occasionally violent confrontations with any number of easily demonized ecovillains. Ocean dumpers, long-line tuna boats, Japanese whale killers. They were all good for a TV-friendly touch-up by the Sea Shepherds. But that was her cover. Her jacket.

She took another sip of cool water and closed her eyes for a moment.

Her real name was Caitlin Monroe. She was a senior field agent with Echelon, a magic box hidden within the budgets of a dozen or more intelligence agencies, only half of them American. She was a killer, and these women were—for a half second, she had no idea. And then the memory came back. Clear and hard. These women were not her targets, but they would lead her to the target.


Caitlin cursed softly under her breath. She had no idea what day it was. No idea how long she’d been out, or what had transpired in that time.

“Are you all right?”

It was the French girl, Monique. The reason she was here, with these flakes.

“I’m cool,” said Caitlin. “Do you mind?” she asked, pointing at the television that hung from the ceiling. “I feel like I’m lost or something. How’d the peace march go?”

“Brilliant!” said the redheaded woman. Auntie Celia.

She was a Londoner with a whining accent like an ice pick in the eardrums. “There was ’undreds of thousands of people,” she said. “Chirac sent a message and all. Berlin’s gonna be huge.”

“Really?” said Caitlin, feigning enthusiasm. “That’s great. Was there anything on the news about it? Or the war?” she continued, pointedly looking at the television.

“Oh sorry,” muttered Monique as she dug another controller out of the blankets on Caitlin’s bed. Or Cathy’s bed, as she would have thought of it.

A flick of the remote and the screen lit up.

“CNN?” asked Caitlin.

Monique flicked through the channels, but couldn’t find the news network. White noise and static hissed out of the television from channel 13, where it should have been. She shrugged. There was nothing on MSNBC either, just an empty studio, but all of the French- language channels were available, as was BBC World.

“Can we watch the Beeb then?” asked Celia. “Me French, you know, it’s not the best.”

Caitlin really just wanted to carve out a couple of minutes to herself, where she could get her head back in the game. Her injuries must be serious, having put her under for three days, and although her cover was still intact, she didn’t want to take any chances. She needed to reestablish contact with Echelon. They’d have maintained overwatch while she was out. They could bring her back up to . . .

“Eh up? What’s this then?” blurted Celia.

Everyone’s eyes fixed on the screen, where an impeccably groomed Eurasian woman with a perfectly modulated BBC voice was struggling to maintain her composure. “ . . . vanished. Communications links are apparently intact and fully functional, but remain unresponsive. Inbound commercial flights are either returning to their points of origin or diverting to Halifax and Quebec in Canada, or to airports throughout the West Indies, which remain unaffected so far.”

The women all began to chatter at once, much to Caitlin’s annoyance. On-screen the BBC’s flustered anchorwoman explained that the “event horizon” seemed to extend down past Mexico City, out into the Gulf, swallowing most of Cuba, encompassing all of the continental U.S. and a big chunk of southeastern Canada, including Montreal. Caitlin had no idea yet what she meant by the term “event horizon,” but it didn’t sound friendly. A hammer started pounding on the inside of her head as she watched the reporter stumble through the rest of her read.

“ . . . from a Canadian airbase have not returned. U.S. naval flights out of Guantánamo Bay at the southern tip of Cuba have likewise dropped out of contact at the same point, seventy kilometers north of the base. Reuters is reporting that attempts by U.S. military commanders at Guantánamo to contact the Castro government in Havana have also failed.”

Caitlin realized that the background buzz of the hospital had died away in the last few minutes. She heard a metallic clatter as a tray fell to the floor somewhere nearby. Caitlin had a passing acquaintance with the Pitié-Salpêtrière. There had to be nearly three thousand people in this hospital, and at that moment they were all silent. The only human sounds came from the television sets that hung in every room and ward, a discordant clashing of French and English voices, all of them speaking in the same clipped, urgent tone.

“The prime minister, Mr. Blair, has released a statement calling for calm and promising to devote the full resources of the British government to resolving the crisis. A Ministry of Defence spokesman confirmed that British forces have gone onto full alert, but that NATO headquarters in Brussels has not yet issued any such orders. The prime minister rejected calls by the Social Democrats to immediately recall British forces deployed in the Middle East for expected operations against the regime of Saddam Hussein.”

“That’d be fuckin’ right,” Auntie Celia said quietly to herself.

The reporter was about to speak again when she stopped, placing a hand to one ear, obviously taking instructions from her producer.

“Right, thank you,” she said before continuing.

“We have just received these pictures from a commercial satellite that passed over the eastern seaboard of America a short time ago.”

The screen filled with black-and-white still shots of New York. The imagery was not as sharp as some of the mil-grade stuff Caitlin had seen over the years, but it was good enough to pick out individual vehicles and quite small buildings.

“This picture shows the center of New York, as of twenty-three minutes ago,” said the reporter. “Our technical department has cleaned up the image, allowing us to pull into a much tighter focus.”

Caitlin recognized Times Square from above. She quickly estimated the virtual height as being about two thousand meters, before the view reformatted down to something much closer, probably about five or six hundred feet. The Beeb’s IT guys were good. It was a remarkably clear image, but profoundly disturbing. Her brief curse was lost in the gasps and swearing of the other women. Fires, frozen in one frame of satellite imagery, burned throughout the square, where hundreds of cars had smashed into each other. Smoke and flames also poured from a few buildings. Buses and yellow cabs had run up onto the sidewalks and in some cases right into shop fronts and building façades. But nothing else moved. The photograph seemed to have captured an unnatural, ghostly moment. Not because they were looking at a still shot of a great metropolis in the grip of some weird, inexplicable disaster, but because nowhere in that eerie black-and-white image of one of the busiest cities in the world was there a single human being to be seen.


Washington State

The lower reaches of the Cascades never failed to impress James Kipper. Dropping his backpack for a five-minute rest and a drink of water, he rewarded himself for the morning’s trek with a moment staring down the long, deeply wooded valley up which he had climbed. Snow lay in patches along the well-beaten trail, and dropped in wet clumps from the sagging branches of fir and pine that covered the gentle slopes below him in a dense green carpet. He loved it out here. Nature was so powerful, the hand of man so light, you could have been hundreds of years removed from the twenty-first century. The brisk but unseasonably sunny morning had made hiking up the remote valley a rare pleasure for the senses. The air was fragrant with sap and the rich brown mulch of earth warmed by sun for the first time in months. A breeze, just strong enough to set the treetops swaying, carried the natural white noise of a nearby stream, running heavy with an early melt. As he stood at the edge of a small plateau he could imagine the landscape below dotted with castles and mounted knights. He was the father of a little girl just lately in school; knights and castles and fairy tales were seldom far from his mind these days.

Kipper sucked in a draft of air so clean and cold it hurt all the way down into his chest. But it hurt good. The temperature hadn’t snuck much past the mid-fifties, but he was well dressed for the hike, and could even feel sweat trickling down the inside of his arms. Another mouthful of icy spring water added pleasantly to the discordant sensations of feeling both hot and cold. His breath plumed out in front of him, and his stomach rumbled, reminding the engineer that it had been four hours since his last substantial meal, a bowl of pork sausages and beans cooked over the coals at his campsite a few miles farther downrange. Kipper unzipped his Gore-Tex jacket and fished around inside for the protein bar he’d stored in one of the many pockets before setting out that morning. It would be satisfyingly warm and chewy by now.

He frowned at the buzzing in one of the pockets. A second later the trilling of his satellite phone punched him back into the real world. The phone was a concession to his wife, Barb. Three days a year he was allowed to run around in the woods by himself, but as a former New Yorker, Barb had “issues” with his “nature-boy shtick” and insisted that if he was going to go commune with the elves he should at least take a sat phone and GPS locator beacon with him. “So we can find your body before the coyotes and buzzards are finished with it,” she said.

From the Hardcover edition.
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