Want a Sneak Peek at Standalone?

I just realized, Jesus Christ, my new book comes out in ten days–on my birthday, no less. I hope you’ve pre-ordered it, and I hope all the reviewers and people who are getting a copy through their September 2020 package enjoy it.

But, what the fuck, wanna get a little taste? The first one’s free.

Enjoy, gang.

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1

Moving along the deer path towards the campfire light, Jenkins thought, not for the first time, how much he hated the summer camp gigs. 

He paused at the break in the trees, sweating through the bodysuit, breath fogging the bottom of his helmet’s faceplate.  A young woman sat with her back to him, watching the fire. Someone snored in a one-man tent by the tree.  Beyond, the main camp house was ablaze with light and the thump-thump of bass rattled the windows.  Most of the people in there, some down by the docks.  None in the actual camp lodges—the camp didn’t open for another week.

Jenkins adjusted his grip on the hatchet.  The heavy gloves numbed his sense of feeling. Sending up a prayer to a god he didn’t believe in, he stepped through the tree break and strode over to the woman, raising the hatchet high.  He stepped on a stick, deliberately, and the woman turned, just in time to see the hatchet come down.  The blade slammed into the top of her skull and blood jumped, errant droplets hitting his face-plate.  It reminded him of a movie he’d rented once.  She didn’t even have time to scream.

He yanked the hatchet out, and the woman collapsed backwards.  He dropped the hatchet with a flick of his wrist, sending the blade deep into the soft soil, and reached into the tent, grasping the bottom of the sleeping bag, holding onto a pair of ankles through the thick material. 

A man’s voice, fuzzy with sleep—”Whu…?”—before Jenkins yanked the body forward.  Bordered by the sleeping bag, a blur of a young man’s face—Christ, these kids couldn’t be older than twenty—and then Jenkins adjusted his grip, lifting with his arms and turning with his waist, winding up the torque.  In his ear, he heard the hum of the suit taking the extra weight. 

The man in the sleeping bag came up and around and Jenkins slammed it headfirst into the trunk of the elm.  He heard the crunch of bone and cartilage, saw the way physics shoved the young man’s face all out of living shape, turning the flesh juicy red.  He dropped the body and it lay still.

Panting now, feeling a burn in the small of his back, he glanced at the house, but the music stayed on, no one stood at the windows to see the first two murders. 

Turning back, he felt in a waist pouch for the metallic stickers—they were thicker than gumball machine stickers, the one his daughter Janey used to beg for at the grocery store—and slammed one onto the sleeping bag, then another onto the woman’s back. 

Two done.  Another eight to go, according to the gig’s diagnostics.  A brutal number.  The only silver-lining had been the all-caps line at the bottom: NO SURVIVORS.  Survivors made hard jobs infinitely more shitty.   

He grabbed his hatchet, then moved his way around the back of the house, where there were the fewest windows, the forest pushing up so close the space between was meant for an oil tank and nothing else.  He came around the other side and spotted their vehicles—models he didn’t recognize because this wasn’t his time and place.  He didn’t bother slashing the tires.  No survivors meant no hunting and stalking.

This camp wasn’t a gauntlet.  It was a killing floor. 

Beyond the dust-and-gravel side yard was the access lane, lodges on one side and the lake on the other, complete with a long dock and two tied row boats.  He could just see the two white Adirondack chairs at the far end. 

Another glance at the house, a flash of someone moving by a window on the first floor, but no one lingered to see the man in the spacesuit.  A light on the second floor went on. 

Jenkins stepped onto the dock.  The lap of the shoreline and the rhythmic knocking of the boats masked his footsteps.  Man on the left, woman on the right, talking quietly.  The man was smoking, but Jenkins’s helmet, as well as filtering the air, removed all smells. 

He switched the hatchet from his left to his right as he approached.  The security lights around the house didn’t reach this far, no shadow spreading out before him. 

“Toldja Benji got the best,” the man said, his voice strangled, exhaling a plume.  “You sure you don’t want any?”

“Not if we’re swimming.  That shit always fucks me up.”

A board creaked behind the two chairs.  Jenkins had time to think, Shit, as both people stiffened.  The man started to turn and Jenkins’s left hand shot forward, grabbing the man by the back of his neck, fingers on his jugular.  The suit hummed, compensating, as he squeezed and the man’s neck crunched inward like an empty soda can.;. 

Artery blood leaped from under his thumb and hit the woman square in the face, stopping the scream her mouth was building.  He swung the hatchet in a sideways arc, and the blade bit at eye-level, burying itself an inch inside the sockets. 

He let go of the man and wrenched the hatchet out from the woman’s head.  Her body dropped, hanging over the arm.  The white paint of the Adirondack chairs was speckled with blood colored black in the dim light. 

Leave two, the read-out had stated.  Jenkins glanced up at the night sky, the three-quarters moon off-center against the Navy blue expanse, the constellations he couldn’t identify.  He hoped Janey could see the stars where she was, could name them.  He’d check when he finished. 

He turned back towards the house.  Six more to go. 

Back behind the house, through the kitchen door he knew would be unlocked.  The music was louder, the bass thicker and furrier, shivering through his suit.  House music, they’d called it when he was a teenager.  Who knew what the fuck it was called now, or in this place.  It masked his heavy footsteps across the faded linoleum.  He set the hatchet, the blade tacky with blood, on the counter amidst the beer cans and liquor bottles, and pulled a butcher’s knife and a meat cleaver from the magnetized strips along the backwall of the sink.  Be creative, the diagnostics said.  It always said that.  Jenkins had stopped seeing it; the notion had become ingrained.

Two hallways, one ahead and one to his left.  He took the left one. 

The hallway ran to the front of the house, with a wide archway to the right leading to the living space and lit up like midday.  The sound of conversation between two people, barely registering beneath the heavy thump of the music. 

He stepped in.  Two young men, dressed for the beach and sitting in chairs with a sidetable between them, talked animatedly, gesturing with their beer bottles.  Empty bottles littered the table itself.  He was halfway across the room before they registered him. 

The man on his left, wearing a type of plastic visor that Jenkins hadn’t seen since the mid-1980s, reared back in his chair, mouth forming the word, “Jesus—” while his companion, a bro wearing a polo shirt with a popped collar, was slower to react, his glazed eyes widening in increments. 

Jenkins drove the butcher knife straight into Visor Boy’s throat, through it, puncturing the other side, while he brought the cleaver down on Popped Collar Bro’s.  Jenkins let go of the kitchen knives and stepped back.  He caught his reflection in the mirror—man in a spacesuit that reminded him of the old MTV commercials.  God knew what these kids saw.  It’d been in the diagnostics, but Jenkins had skimmed that part.  Again, this wasn’t a hunting ground.  He didn’t need to lean into whatever legend haunted this place. 

He slapped metallic stickers onto the knees of the young men, then looked around for his next weapon.  He grabbed a strong-looking poker from the set beside the stone fireplace, then took the stairs two at a time.  An overhead light was on.  The upstairs hallway ran parallel to the stairs, two doors immediately in front of him.  One was a linen closet.  One was a spare bathroom.  The doors lining the hallway were proper bedrooms, three of them, two to the side and one at the end.  The door of the one closest was ajar, as was the one at the end, though the one at the end allowed the glow of a nightstand lamp to escape. 

He went to the first bedroom.  Over the thrum of bass beneath his feet, he could just hear the rhythmic creaking of bedsprings.  He nudged the door further open, the glow of the hallway light just falling short of the couple in the military-style single bed at the opposite end of the room.  They paid no notice.  Missionary position.  Lucky break.

Jenkins moved, gripping the poker with both hands and raising it high.  He walked right up to the bed, just as he saw the eye of the woman on the bottom open and then widen as she saw whatever the suit made him look like. 

He drove the poker down, grunting, feeling the hum of the suit, impaling both man and woman through the center, still shoving it forward, the tip puncturing through the woman’s back, the bed, the old spring, hitting the floor with a thunk

He stepped back and watched them squirm.  The man’s mouth dribbled blood onto the brow of the woman’s head.  They flailed, weakly, then stopped. 

Jenkins toed through the dead couple’s clothes, found the holstered knife he knew the man had on him.  He fumbled it out of its sheaf—a Bowie knife, so spotless it caught the residual glow of the hallway light and turned it into a shine.  Not a bit of wear on its blade.  Probably bought especially for this trip. 

Jenkins pulled two more stickers from his pouch, slapped them onto the man’s back and the woman’s limp arm, then moved back into the hallway, keeping close to the wall.  Inside the master bedroom, a man asked, “How long are you going to take, babe?”

A woman’s answer came from further away.  “I might be camping, but goddamn am I going to smell like it every minute we’re here.”

A soft laugh from the man.  “You’re going to be a natural Wildlife Activities Director, lemme tell you.”

“I can stay in here until you’re as soft as cotton, y’know,” came the reply.  He heard water running in a sink.

Jenkins grimaced.  He didn’t want to hear these kids talking.  He didn’t want to know their pasts, what they thought their immediate futures were going to be.  He had a quota, dammit.

He stepped in and swung in a sideways motion almost blindly, knowing generally what direction the man was in.  He caught the man, sitting up in bed, blankets around his nude waist, slightly off-center of the mouth, slicing through a part of the cheek like a half-assed Chelsea smile, pushing the blade through the back of the mouth.  The man’s head thunked against the headboard. 

Jenkins switched hands, keeping the head in place against the headboard, pulling the knife out.  The man’s feet drummed on the mattress, and he gagged around a mouthful of blood. 

“Todd?” the woman asked. 

Jenkins drove the knife into the man’s throat, then pulled the blade back hard, opening the neck up into a wide grin.  The most blood yet, soaking the man’s chest, the sheets, the arms of Jenkins’s suit. 

He pulled the knife out and straightened as the bathroom door opened behind him.  He turned, and a young woman stood in the doorway, looking impossibly small in an oversized yellow tee shirt baring the caption CAMP CRYSTAL LAKE above a woodcut image of a canoe on the water.  Her wet face gleamed in the nightstand lamp’s light, her skin too pale.  Jenkins knew she had to be 19, or 20, but she didn’t look it.    She looked like a child.  She looked uncomfortably like Janey.

Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open, but she didn’t scream.  Instead, her expression just looked quizzical.  “Why…why are you wearing a spacesuit?”

Jenkins jerked at that, but the woman’s eyes slid towards Todd, and they seemed to gobble up her entire face.  “Oh god…”

Warning bells exploded in Jenkins’s head, and he was moving, flicking the knife of excess blood, and the woman looked at him again, the confusion and grief turning to fear—but not terror.  Her expression wasn’t that of the two idiots downstairs, or the woman out at the dock.  She had the look of a person who was given some unbelievably bad news, but it was so sudden and so massive and so new that her brain didn’t quite know how to comprehend it yet. 

But her body moved, backing her into the bathroom, hands trailing against the door, the sink, knocking aside a jar of face scrub, her travel toothpaste.  Her mouth worked, but she didn’t scream.

The back of her legs struck the side of the tub and Jenkins lunged, stabbing her in the chest as she fell backward, pulling the shower curtain with her.  It was a graceless fall, all limbs bumping and bending and in the way. 

She stared up at him, eyes foggy with confusion, mouth working, blood dribbling at the corners.  “Spacesuit,” she whispered.  “Why…spacesuit…”  Jenkins raised the knife again.  The woman’s eyes sharpened and, even more than before, seemed to see him.

“I’ll…find you…again,” the woman whispered, blood spilling over her lower lip.  “Spacesuit…”

Jenkins brought the knife down again.  And again.  Until the movement of his thrusts turned her face aside, her glazed eyes looking elsewhere. 

***

Two more stickers, he left the knife in the unnerving girl, and then he stumbled back downstairs.  He didn’t have to, but he paused long enough to turn the stereo off. 

Grabbing his hatchet off the kitchen counter, Jenkins made his way back to the campfire.  He listened to the crackle of the flames, then the songs of—crickets? cicadas?  He’d been a city kid, born and bred, and had never been able to tell the difference.  He listened to the sound of the woman inside his head, asking why the spacesuit, saying she’ll find him again. 

He shook his head to rattle the voice free, then reached into his pouch for the palm-sized remote.  It reminded him of car fobs, only more triangular.  Two of the three buttons were small, colored red and green.  He hit the green one; the helmet kept him from hearing the pop! of air rushing in to fill the spaces where the bodies he’d stickered had lain.  Both the woman he’d killed with the hatchet and the man he’d bashed to death with a tree-trunk were gone.  Just the fire and the overturned bench and the one-man tent.  When the authorities made it out here, they’d find the two people at the dock, a lot of blood, and nothing else.  No answers, certainly.  The story would spread—whatever story it was that tended to circulate through this time and place. 

The woman’s voice in the center of his head: I’ll find you again.

Jenkins hit the small red button.  In front of him, in the center of the fire pit, a large upright triangle, limned in electric blue, sizzled into existence.  The view of the world in the center of the triangle took on the look of a world glimpsed through a shifting curtain of heavy rain, the kind you’d need the windshield wipers working at their max to see through.  The flames looked like tissue-paper streamers, orange and yellow.

Jenkins hit the black button, larger than the other two, and the air in the center of the triangle dissolved into a view of the beige-colored sterilization chamber. 

He stepped through and the triangle closed behind him.

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Preorder Standalone, out September 14, 2020, from Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing. Except Copyright 2020 by Paul Michael Anderson

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