In an alternate roaring ’20s, a shell-shocked soldier must uncover latent telepathic abilities to save himself and the people around him…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Absynthe, the science fiction debut from Brendan P. Bellecourt—publishing December 7th with DAW.
Liam Mulcahey, a reclusive, shell-shocked veteran, remembers little of the Great War. Ten years later, when he is caught in a brutal attack on a Chicago speakeasy, Liam is saved by Grace, an alluring heiress who’s able to cast illusions. Though the attack appears to have been committed by the hated Uprising, Grace believes it was orchestrated by Leland De Pere—Liam’s former commander and the current President of the United States.
Meeting Grace unearths long-buried memories. Liam’s former squad, the Devil’s Henchmen, was given a serum to allow telepathic communication, transforming them into a unified killing machine. With Grace’s help, Liam begins to regain his abilities, but when De Pere learns of it, he orders his militia to eliminate Liam at any cost.
But Liam’s abilities are expanding quickly. When Liam turns the tables and digs deeper into De Pere’s plans, he discovers a terrible secret. The same experiment that granted Liam’s abilities was bent toward darker purposes. Liam must navigate both his enemies and supposed allies to stop the President’s nefarious plans before they’re unleashed on the world. And Grace is hiding secrets of her own, secrets that could prove every bit as dangerous as the President’s.
Liam approached the rail car with wary steps, worried the porter was going to burst from it like Athena from the head of Zeus. When he was close enough, he held his hand over the steel but stopped just short of touching it. He wasn’t sure what he was afraid of, but the fear was building by the moment.
“You’re acting like a fool,” he said under his breath, then pressed his fingers to the gleaming steel.
It was cool to the touch, and solid as could be. He moved his hand, pressing several places, while the wild memory of the porter slipping through the side flashed like images in a spinning zoetrope. In the years since the war, he’d had visions, like the broken battlefield, of things that wouldn’t have happened to a simple mechanic. He’d often wondered if they were dreams, events his wounded mind had somehow made up. He was beginning to worry this was more of the same, that his affliction had progressed to the point he was seeing things.
Maybe the porter hadn’t walked into the car. Maybe he’d walked away. Maybe he was in the crowd, maintaining order in the mild, celebratory chaos.
Liam turned and scanned the crowd, but the porter was nowhere to be seen. In that moment, he felt a buzzing sensation along his fingertips, which were still pressed against the steel. It felt like the Van de Graaff generator exhibit he’d touched at the World Expo last year.
He turned his attention to it, and the feeling grew stronger. Suddenly, his hand was slipping through the steel, just as the porter had, with the sort of tickling sensation that came with lowering one’s fingers into water.
Startled, Liam snatched his hand back and turned to find Max Kohler, the man in the iron mask, headed his way.
“What are you doing there, friend?” Kohler asked. This close, his lips could be seen through the narrow breathing slits.
Fortunately, the sandwich board had blocked Kohler’s view. He wouldn’t have seen… whatever it was that had just happened.
“Nothing.” Liam cringed inwardly at how pathetic that lone word had sounded—he’d never been very good at lying.
Kohler’s visible eye continued to tickle a memory at the back of Liam’s mind as it took in the rail car, then looked Liam up and down. “Then why were you touching the President’s car?”
Liam fumbled for the right words. He thought about lying but the thought of crossing this man made him go cold.
Kohler’s blue eye narrowed. With slow, deliberate care, he pulled his jacket aside and placed his hand on the butt of his Webley revolver. “I asked you a question.”
“There was a man,” Liam said quickly. “The porter.”
Liam had no idea how to say it. “This is going to sound mad.”
“I saw him step into the car, through the side.”
Liam thought Kohler would laugh, or demand that Liam explain himself. Instead, he drew the revolver in a motion that was almost too fast to follow. With a glance back, he whistled sharply. Immediately, three of the black-clad men in CIC uniforms began closing in.
“Get back,” Kohler ordered Liam.
As Liam complied, Kohler faced the car and gripped the pistol with both hands. “Could it be? My old friend, Clay? I thought I recognized you.”
Many in the crowd were inching closer, to see what was happening, until more CICs in black uniforms corralled them away.
Kohler, meanwhile, stared at the gleaming steel before him. “Come on out, Clay.” His tone was light, almost playful. “There’s no need to be shy.”
From inside the car, the porter scoffed. “You know me better than that, Max. The last thing I am is shy.”
A muzzle flashed through the suddenly semi-transparent steel as the report of a firearm pierced the noise of the crowd. The round caught Kohler dead in the chest. He flew backward, arms flailing.
As Kohler fell onto the platform, grasping at his chest, the porter named Clay emerged from inside the car, through the steel, and a collective gasp rose up from the crowd. Clay held a tommy gun in one hand. His other arm was wrapped around a wooden box marked with a red cross. Liam hadn’t noticed it earlier, but a soft hiss accompanied Clay’s movements, like a leaking air pump. Pointing the gun at the platform’s frosted glass roof, Clay squeezed the trigger. The gun kicked as it fired round after round, shattering panel after panel.
As glass rained down, the crowd screamed and tried to push to the edge of the platform, out from under the shards. They rushed to the exit ramps while three agents in black whisked the President to the safety of the first train car.
Clay, meanwhile, spun and pounded over the platform toward the end of the train.
The three nearest CICs lifted their sidearms and fired. One round pierced the box Clay was carrying, causing wood and blue liquid to spray from the point of impact. Several more bullets punched through the tail of his long black coat. Another hit him in the center of his back, accompanied by a spark and a sound like a bullet ricocheting off metal, as if he were wearing armor.
At the end of the car, Clay leapt to the tracks and began tearing along them. Liam was confused until he spotted, fifty yards ahead, four men in gray clothes crouched along the tracks. Like Clay, they gripped tommy guns with round ammunition drums beneath. No doubt they were members of the Uprising, a group whose stated goal was “to expose the evils the government had committed, both during and after the war.” Near the four men, a pair of ropes snaked down from the elevated track—their planned escape route, apparently.
The CICs emptied their pistols from the chaos of the platform. They fired at Clay and his Uprising allies, but the men on the tracks shot back. A hail of bullets—buzzing, whining, pinging—streaked over the crowd. Their aim was conspicuously high, however, as if they were purposefully avoiding hitting anyone.
Suddenly Morgan was at Liam’s side. He had a Browning pistol in his hand, which he proceeded to unload in wild fashion, firing over and over at the men crouched on the tracks.
In response, one of the men adjusted his tommy gun’s aim until it was pointed straight at Morgan.
“Morgan, get down!” Liam grabbed him by the back of his coat and yanked hard.
Morgan tipped over and fell in an awkward heap.
The man on the tracks let off round after round. Liam could almost feel the bullets ready to punch into his flesh, or Morgan’s, but they never struck. Something had blurred past them. It was Alastair, now kneeling in front of Morgan. Bullets tore into his chest. Sparks flew as they careened off his steel skull. One punched through his left arm, causing red hydraulic fluid to leak, a mechanikal analog for blood. The arm went slack.
By then, Clay had reached his allies. All four of them began an ordered retreat down along the ropes. Gunfire continued for a few more moments, but it became more sporadic, then stopped altogether, both sides abandoning their efforts when they realized the conflict was over.
“Were you hit?” Liam asked Morgan.
Morgan looked himself over, as if he wasn’t quite sure. “No.”
“What on earth made you do that?” Liam asked. “And why the hell are you carrying a gun?”
“For protection, Liam!”
“Well, your protection nearly got you killed.”
Morgan looked angry, but then his eyes shifted to the place where the Uprising agents had been crouched. He took in the shattered glass spread all across the platform with a look of shock, as if the sheer recklessness of his actions was just beginning to dawn on him. He spotted his mother and father approaching a moment later. After shoving the Browning pistol into its shoulder holster under his jacket, he stood and met them halfway.
Liam thought surely the President’s man, Kohler, was dead, but he wasn’t. He was conscious and probing the hole in his vest where the bullet had struck. Beneath the fabric, Liam caught sight of some darker material— bulletproof armor of some sort. A moment later, he was helped to his feet by the nearby CICs.
“I’m fine!” he roared, and shoved them away.
Favoring his left side, Kohler made his way into the first train car and order slowly returned. The people who’d begun flooding the ramps in hopes of escape had been stopped. The security personnel assigned to the President had prevented them from leaving. Liam reckoned they were planning on questioning everyone about the attack.
One of the CICs, a red-cheeked Scotsman, motioned Liam toward the train. “This way.”
Morgan and his parents were nearby. The couple appeared shaken. Sunny nodded and smiled her crinkly smile, her way of offering Liam solace and encouragement. Liam nodded back, then scanned the crowd for the pretty black woman, the one who’d fainted, but she was nowhere to be seen.
Liam was led to a compartment within the first car. It was open and spacious, with only a few leather seats spaced about. The compartment’s lone occupant was President De Pere.
Liam, feeling intensely nervous, took off his cap. “Mr. President.”
De Pere had one leg crossed over the other in a casual pose. “I hear you witnessed our enemy break into the last car.”
“That’s correct, sir.”
De Pere motioned to the empty chair across from him. “Please.”
Liam took the chair and rolled his flat cap up, feeling more than a little inadequate. “They were part of the Uprising, then?”
“Oh, most assuredly.” De Pere smoothed down his pant leg. “Tell me what you saw.”
Liam did so, going into detail as De Pere asked very specific questions. By the time he was done, he felt like he’d explained every single facet of it. “You seem to know a lot about firearms,” De Pere said casually. “You serve?”
“A corporal in the 128th Infantry. Yes, sir.”
De Pere smiled. “My very own. You see time in the trenches?”
“No, I was a grease monkey. Serviced clankers, mostly. A few hoppers. The odd wallbuster.”
De Pere smiled the sort of smile serviceman shared only with one another. “You were assigned to Fort Sheridan, then?”
“Yes.” Liam shrugged. “Maybe elsewhere.”
De Pere looked confused. “Maybe elsewhere?”
“I took a wound to the head, sir, near the end of the war. Most of it’s a blur now.”
De Pere stared at him hard, and Liam suddenly felt as if he’d been placed under a microscope. “Well,” De Pere said, and the feeling vanished, “your country thanks you for your service. Tell me again how the man, Clay, broke in through the door of the last car.”
Liam paused. “As I said, sir, he didn’t break in through the door. There was no door.”
“Mmmhmm.” De Pere nodded as if he weren’t at all perturbed by the contradiction. “Tell me about it, the door.”
Something strange happened in the moments that followed. Liam found himself questioning his own memories. He thought back to the train car, to Clay standing beside it, his body blocking whatever sort of torch he’d been using to cut through what Liam assumed was a lock. He thought of how Clay had stepped into the car, and realized it wasn’t through the wall, but a proper, sliding door, just like the other cars had.
Liam thought he should be surprised at this strange turn of events, but found that he wasn’t. Not in the least. How could someone have gone through solid steel anyway? He’d clearly seen it wrong.
“The doors were the same as the other cars,” Liam found himself saying, “except they were padlocked.”
De Pere nodded. “Go on.”
“The porter used some sort of miniaturized acetylene torch to cut through the lock, then he went inside.”
“And when he re-emerged?”
“He caught your man, Kohler, unawares, standing in the shadows as he was.”
They continued like this, De Pere asking clarifying questions, Liam becoming more and more certain that Clay had entered the car through a sliding door—indeed, that the door had been there the entire time.
He was dismissed a short while later. He returned and spoke with Morgan and his parents. He spoke to others nearby as well about the strange assault. Some, as Liam had been, were certain Clay had emerged through solid steel, but the President was speaking to more witnesses. As others emerged from those interviews, they corroborated Liam’s story. More and more, the crowd came to understand what Liam already did: that this was a tragic attack perpetrated by the Uprising, and that nothing untoward, nothing bizarre, had happened beyond that.
As Liam got into the Phaeton with the entire Aysana family, and Alastair, wounded arm and all, drove them toward the Aysana estate for the planned celebration, it was with a feeling that justice would be done. The government would catch the perpetrators of this terrible crime, Liam was certain, and all would be well in America.
Excerpted from Absynthe, copyright © 2021 by Brendan P. Bellecourt.