All rights belong to the author: Stephen Baxter.
This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.

Project Hades by Stephen Baxter


Sunday 30th October, 1960. 2210.

Clare Baines parked her motorcycle outside the Reiver’s Arms and climbed off. She took off her helmet, replacing it with her police cap. The October night was pitch black, and a wind moaned off the moor.

When she opened the pub door she was dazzled by the bright light. Sweaty, smoky air spilled out, and a jangle of overamplified guitar music: Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. She braced herself and walked in.

A punter, brimming pint in hand, lurched towards her, one arm outstretched. “Watch your family jewels, lads, it’s the lady copper!”

Clare said, “Bonny lad, that wandering hand is going to get shoved so far up your jacksie you’ll be picking your teeth from the inside.”

The drunk backed off. “All right, lass, no offence.”

Winston Stubbins approached her, tall, gangly, earnest, wearing a duffel coat and boots. “Clare. I don’t suppose you fancy a Newkie Brown.”

“I’m on—”

“Duty. Yes, we can all see that.”

“I hope you’re not going to give me any trouble, Winston. You and this lot of boozed-up non-conformists. I’m just here to keep the peace.”

“Peace? That’s a bit ironic, isn’t it? Considering that tonight the largest atomic weapon ever tested in western Europe is going to blow up not a mile from this bloody pub.”

“According to our briefings it’s all perfectly safe.”

“Safe? Clare, the geology around here—”

“ ‘—shows signs of instability.’ ”

“So you did read my letters.”

“My sergeant made me. Look, Winston, what makes you think you know better than all the boffins?”

“I’m here. They’re not. Clare, it’s an American base out there. Americans don’t tell us anything.”

A tall, slim man in an American army uniform worked through the crowd towards them. “Did somebody page me? Good evening, Clare.”

“WPC Baines to you, Buck.”

Winston goggled. “Buck? Sergeant Grady, you’re actually called Buck?”

“And you’re actually called Winston. You limeys slay me. Clare told me about you. The old boyfriend with a bug up his ass.”

Clare said, “He was never my boyfriend. I’ve been trying to tell him the test is perfectly safe.”

“So it is, Winston. Aldmoor may be an American base, but Hades is a British programme, as designed and managed. The chain of command is intertwined right to the top.”


Clare said, “Sorry, Buck. He has issues about Americans. His mother was a GI bride—”

“That’s got nothing to do with it,” Winston said hotly.

Buck said, “Look, Winston, I have a sort of public liaison role. That’s why I’m here in the pub—not for the beer, believe me. Here, take my card. Give me a call in the morning.”

“What good’s that? By the morning the bomb will have gone off, won’t it?”

Buck said, “Single-minded sort, isn’t he?”

Clare said, “No. Strong-willed. There’s a difference.”

Buck said, “Quite a crowd you’ve gathered here anyhow, Winston. Who are they—CND?”

“Some. They’re mostly locals. All with valid concerns about the test.”

“Well, there’s a couple more waiting out the door. See, Clare, the old guy in the dodgy coat and the posh young lady? They don’t look local to me. Reporters, you think?”

Clare said, “Oh, great, that’s all I need.”

Chapman Jones closed the doors of the Ministry car. Somewhere an owl hooted. The car pulled away, disappearing into the night. Jones shivered and closed his trenchcoat tighter. “So this is Aldmoor. And Halloween! Always an eerie time.”

Thelma Bennet peered through the pub window. “They all seem to be wearing black in there. Do you think it’s a funeral, Jones?”

“No, no. It’s just the fashion. No offence, Thelma, but this is your age group—a whole generation doomed to wear black polo-neck jumpers. Makes me rather glad I’ve passed fifty.”

“So they’re followers of fashion even here in Northumberland. I hope we’re not wasting our time.”

“Well, the anomaly report cluster was credible enough to have dragged us all the way up here from London—”

A military jet roared overhead, flying remarkably low, startling them; Jones glanced up to see its lights receding.

“Something to do with that, perhaps,” he said. “This is a militarised countryside—a cockpit of the Cold War, Thelma. No wonder people are a bit paranoid—”

And another noise fled through the air overhead, like a shriek, and again they flinched. Looking up, Jones saw an odd light sliding across the sky, misty, a roughly spherical cloud.

Thelma said, “Look, do you see that? A sort of glow.”

“Yes. It seems to be tracking the aircraft.”

“Something to do with the aircraft’s wake?”

“Hmm. I doubt it,” Jones said. “But what was it? Ball lightning—or some other plasma effect? It had a fairly definite shape, didn’t it?”

“Yes. And denser towards the centre. Layered, like an onion—”

“Or like an eye in the sky. How odd. Well, it’s just as the reports described. At least we know we’ve got something to get our teeth into. Come on, let’s go inside.”

A young policewoman met them at the door. Not tall, with her black hair neatly tied back, brisk, evidently competent, she smiled at them. “Good evening. Can I help you?”

“Well, that’s the first time the police have helped me into a pub as opposed to out of one.”

Thelma said, “Don’t be childish, Jones. Good evening. My name’s Thelma Bennet, and this is Doctor Chapman Jones. And you are—”

“WPC Baines, 534. Are you here for the protest?”

Jones said, “No, no. We’re here from the Ministry of Defence. Following up anomalous sightings.”

Baines grinned. “Sightings of what? Flying saucers?”

Jones sighed.

Thelma asked quickly, “What protest?

A gangly young man approached, trailed by a US army soldier. “Against the bomb test,” said the youngster. His accent, like the WPC’s, was thick and local—Geordie. He struck Jones as earnest, agitated.

“They call it Hades,” said the American. “An international programme of thermonuclear detonations planted deep underground.”

The boy said, “And the one they’re about to blow up here is in an abandoned mine shaft at a place called Lucifer’s Tomb. Appropriate name, isn’t it?”

“We haven’t been introduced,” said Thelma.

The tall soldier bowed. “Sergeant Buck Grady, US Army. And this is Winston, ah—”

“Winston Stubbins.”

Thelma introduced herself and Jones.

Buck smiled. “So, Doctor Jones, you came all the way to northern England, in October, because—?”

“Fishing to see if we’re here to cause you trouble, are you, Sergeant?”

Winston said, “What trouble? All these people have turned out because they don’t want a megabomb going off underneath their homes. The farmers’ ewes are already pregnant with next year’s lambs. And the miners are worried about safety down the pit.”

Buck’s grin widened. “Oh, Winston here thinks if we set off the bomb the planet will go pop like a party balloon. Right, Winston?”

Winston scowled. “The geology’s unstable. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

Jones said, “And you do? Are you a geologist, Winston?”

“He’s a coal miner,” Clare said. “And a geologist. Self-taught. Buck, you leave him alone.”

Jones said, “There’s nothing wrong with self-taught. I’m self-taught in most subjects myself. Tell me, Winston—how far to this Tomb of Lucifer?”

“A short walk, west of here.”

“And until the test?”

“The detonation’s scheduled for midnight,” Buck said.

Jones checked his watch. “Good, we’ve got time. Winston, why don’t you show me this instability of yours?”

“Are you serious? You’ll listen to what I have to say?”

“Never more serious in my life. We are specifically here to investigate the out-of-the-ordinary.”

Thelma said, “I think I’d rather stay in the warm, if you don’t mind, Jones.”

Buck said, “In that case I would be delighted to buy you a drink.”

“I was hoping somebody would say that.”

Buried deep beneath the huts, training fields and runways of Aldmoor base, the Project Hades command centre was, tonight, a noisy place. Overlaid on the hum of fans and pumps and the echoes from the steel walls were the bleeps of oscilloscopes, the clatter of teletypes and static-laden radio voices. Aged fifty-seven, in his worn tweeds, John Tremayne knew he looked quite out of place in this pit of humming military tension, the rows of consoles manned by very young, very intelligent soldiers. And yet all this activity was a fulfilment of his dream, his design.

Air Commodore Alfred Godwin had to lean close to the monitor to hear what was being relayed by the hidden cameras in the pub. Godwin was tall, stiff, his handsome face severe, his black hair slicked back; he was a little younger than Tremayne. He said, “The picture’s clear enough, at least. Look at that clown in the trenchcoat, coming out of the pub.”

Tremayne said, “They’re only protesters, Commodore Godwin. People have a right to be concerned, you know. And is it legal for you to be spying on a British pub?”

“This may be an American base, but I’m the senior RAF officer here, and under the NATO command structures I’m in overall control. To ensure the safety of this base I can do what I like, Tremayne.”

Joseph Crowne walked in, a clipboard under his arm. “The protesters won’t get far, Commodore Godwin.” A US army major aged around thirty, Crowne was Godwin’s key liaison to the American command.

Godwin said, “But your troops aren’t patrolling beyond the fence, are they, Major?”

“No, sir. But we have a regular British army unit manning an outer perimeter. And there’s a civil police presence too.”

“I’ve seen the ‘civil police presence.’ A slip of a girl! Well, I’ve spoken to the British detachment’s captain, Phillips he’s called, young chap but sound. He’ll handle it.”

Tremayne said, “ ‘Handle it?’ Godwin, I didn’t get into this business for anybody to get harmed. If those protesters can’t be removed without resorting to force—”

“Then what? Postponement tonight would set us back months. This is your baby, Tremayne. Project Hades will end the Cold War and deliver vast new capabilities into human hands. So you said! I’m just trying to get the job done.”

Crowne said, “I’m sure nobody will come to any harm, gentlemen.”

Godwin pointed at the monitor. “Maybe not. But Trenchcoat is heading straight for Lucifer’s Tomb—and the bomb.”

The moorland ground was rough underfoot, and Jones was glad of Winston’s torch. They were walking west, towards a glow of sodium lights that must mark the position of the Aldmoor base, but there was a cluster of floods in the foreground that Jones assumed was Lucifer’s Tomb.

Jones essayed, “PC Baines seems fond of you. She stuck up for you, back there.”

“Clare? We grew up together. She’s a bonny lass. But we’re on opposite sides now, aren’t we?”

“I wouldn’t say that. You’re both trying to stop any harm being done, as far as I can see. You’re just coming at it from different directions. Tell me about this ‘Lucifer’s Tomb.’ ”

“See the floodlights? The American implanted their bomb right inside the Tomb, in an old mineshaft. The Tomb itself is a deep-cut valley full of broken rocks. The local legend is that it’s where Lucifer fell from heaven.”

“Hmmph. Sounds more like an Ice Age relic to me.”

“Exactly. And the basement geology is a junction between Scottish basalts and Northumbrian sandstones.”

“You know your stuff. A place of great geological violence, then, where Scotland once crashed into England. But what makes you think it’s unstable?”

“Seismology. I’ve been taking traces for years.”

Jones looked at him. “Years? But you’re only—what, twenty?”

“Nineteen. Geology’s been a sort of hobby since I was first took down the mine by my uncle, at fourteen.”

“Not your father.”

“Never knew my father.”

“And where did you get a seismometer from?”

“I made it.”

“You made it?”

“It wasn’t hard. A piezoelectric crystal to pick up the vibrations, an old alarm clock mechanism to drive the drum. I use toilet roll for the recording paper. I made a few, trying to get them more sensitive, like. And I had a go at setting them up in a network.”

“All this in between shifts down the mine.”

“My mum thinks I’m tapped. I mean I haven’t even got any O-levels.” He glanced at Jones uncertainly. “Are you laughing at me, Doctor Jones?”

“On the contrary. I’m starting to think you’re a very remarkable young man indeed. But what about Lucifer’s Tomb?”

“I found patterns in the seismic traces. All centered on this spot, the Tomb. Something’s stirring. But I don’t know what.”

“But you do think it would be wise to find out before setting off a ruddy great bomb in the middle of it.”

“Spot on, Doctor Jones.”

They reached the valley and stepped into the light of the floods—and a torch, even brighter, glared in their faces. “Halt!”

Jones shielded his eyes with a raised hand. “Who are you? Could you please get that light out of my eyes? And why is that squaddie pointing a gun at me?”

“I think you could probably risk putting aside the automatic, Sergeant. Sorry about that, sir. I’m Captain Robert Phillips, Coldstream Guards. The question is, who are you?”

In the Reiver’s Arms, the protesters were getting more raucous than ever.

Buck grinned. “Looks as if everybody’s oiled enough to get moving.”

Clare said, “So now we all walk to the base and sing ‘Blaydon Races’ to an H-Bomb.”

Thelma smiled. “I’m sure you’ll cope, PC Baines. Can I walk with you?”

“Please. It’ll be a pleasure not to have beery breath in my face and a miner’s big fat grubby hand on my bum.”

Once they had left the pub and were out in the unseasonably cold autumn air, the group calmed down, pulled on coats and hats, and formed up into a loose column. Their talk became a murmur as they began their walk, their breath steaming in the cool air.

Out on the moor, Jones could hear a tannoy sounding from the base’s distant cluster of lights.

Winston stirred, anxious. “It’s nearly time for the test. We need to—”

Captain Phillips blocked his way. “Thus far and no further, I’m afraid, gentlemen…” He looked up, distracted.

There was a wail, like the wind in the telegraph wires, and a shape like a human eye sketched in pale mist hovered overhead.

Winston breathed, “Doctor Jones. Can you see that?”

“I can indeed. I saw this before, you know. And heard it too. It seems to be hovering over the valley, doesn’t it? This is why I’m here, in fact. We had a cluster of reports of such things.” From members of the public—not specialists or cranks, ordinary folk, often reluctant and feeling foolish, describing strange visions to police stations or local papers because they thought it was their duty, reports then filtered through to Jones’s desk in Whitehall, to be plotted and correlated. “Can’t you see it too, Captain Bob?”

“Marsh gas, probably.”

Jones snorted. “You’ve been well coached in the official denials!”

Winston said, “You say you saw it before, Doctor Jones. When, exactly?”

“Soon after we arrived.” He glanced at his watch; midnight was approaching. “Ninety minutes ago, give or take?”

“I knew it.”

“You did? Don’t tell me. You’ve been monitoring these things too.”

“Lots of local legends about them. People call them Grendels.”

“Ah. Beowulf’s monster.”

“But the name’s older than the poem. These things have been seen for centuries. And when they show, there’s a definite period to them.”

“Is there, by Jove? And you found it. But why ninety minutes?”

Phillips said unexpectedly, “Spaceships.”

“What was that, Captain Bob?”

Phillips was no more than thirty, tall, languid, with an unwise handlebar moustache. Now he seemed to regret speaking at all. “It’s just that I’m something of a space buff. Sputnik and so forth. We used to eat up Dan Dare and Quatermass after lights-out at Cambridge—”

“Oh, good grief.”

“Anyway it’s the first thing that popped into my head when you said ninety minutes. Isn’t that how long it takes to orbit the Earth?”

“Quite right. That could be quite an insight.”

Winston said, “But what does it mean?” ...

All rights belong to the author: Stephen Baxter.
This is a short fragment for review the book. The full version can be purchased in the store.