Out now in hardback, Gary Gibson's Survival Game takes apocalyptic fiction to new heights, exploring the delicate relationship between two superpowers. A Russian scientist and an American adventurer are forced into an uneasy alliance to stop a world-destroying device from doing what it was built to do...
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Takhterum Old Quarter, Alternate Two-Seven-Six
A Long Time Ago
Exhaustion nearly overwhelms Lars Ulven before he can ascend to the top of the university’s tower. He stumbles, hands clutching at the topmost steps, so that he almost has to crawl the final distance to the stone balustrade. He leans on it heavily, breathing hard, almost shaking from the effort, but filled with a need to look at the streets below and see if there is anyone, anywhere, still alive.
The skies of this alternate, at least, are empty of the invaders: no dark forbidding shapes falling out of the sky and destroying whatever they touch. Lars looks out across the still green waters of the Bosphorus towards the city’s Public Transfer Facility, a vast pyramid rising from its artificial island at the mouth of the river. Closer to hand lies the city’s Old Quarter, dominated by ancient domes and minarets that glisten beneath the afternoon sun. But instead of the bustle of street markets and music, and the dance of holographic displays, there are only deserted avenues, abandoned vehicles and a terrible, unending silence.
Lars makes his way back down to the university’s transfer facility and crosses to Alternate One-Nine-Four. Takhterum becomes Kushta: once again, Lars seeks out the version of the tower that exists in this universe, and counts the steps as he climbs to the top. There are two hundred and fifty-six. There are always two hundred and fifty-six.
Once again, he sees only empty streets and hears only the thin wail of the wind.
The Syllogikos is a single culture spread across hundreds of parallel Earths, linked one to the other by transfer gates. Within the Syllogikos are two hundred and seventy-three iterations of this city on the Bosphorus, nearly all of which contain, in turn, some version of this university. In some alternates the streets are spread wide, while in others they are squeezed close together. In some, the tallest buildings rise no more than five or six storeys, while in others vaulting towers of steel and glass reach all the way to the clouds.
Since the invasion from the Deeps began, Lars has visited barely more than a dozen of the alternate universes that make up the Syllogikos. And yet everywhere he goes, he finds only the silence and stillness of death.
He comes very close to climbing onto the balustrade and throwing himself to his death. Then he thinks of his daughter, and somehow he finds the willpower to make his way back down into the bowels of Kushta’s university.
Lars sleeps that night in an office picked at random. He dreams of his wife, her hand slipping from his grasp, of the surging, panicked crowd around the transfer stage, of the great dark shapes of the invaders floating down to swallow terrified refugees in their thousands. He sits up, gasping like a drowning man, and searches through his rucksack for the tiny carved box he has carried through universe after universe. He opens it and picks out the string of memory beads, shuffling them through his fingers one after the other and sinking briefly into the memories with which each one is encoded. His favourite is of his daughter when she was still a little girl, running in the field by the house when he was only just starting his career in the sciences.
If there is even the slimmest chance his daughter Erika is still alive, he cannot allow himself to give up.
His hunt goes on. Kushta becomes Fu-Lin; Fu-Lin becomes Istambol, then Constantinople, then Chalcedon, and on and on, the name of the city morphing and shifting in line with the buildings and streets as he travels from alternate to alternate.
Often, on arriving at an alternate, he finds the control console for the transfer stage has been wrecked, in the misguided belief that this could halt the spread of the destruction. On such occasions, he is forced to hunt through supply cupboards and break into equipment bays in order to locate the portable stage he needs to continue on to the next universe.
It is not long before he comes to the conclusion that his search is hopeless, that there cannot be a single unaffected alternate the length and breadth of the Syllogikos. If there is anyone left alive, they must be located in those alternate universes that are notpart of the Syllogikos – those of interest solely to the scientific and research community.
And that, at least, is a community Lars knows better than any other.
Lars travels back home to Alternate Seventeen. From here, as head of research, he has led numerous expeditions to dozens of unexplored parallel Earths – some populated, some not, and some with such wildly divergent histories that they might as well have been alien worlds.
Once there, he quickly locates a list of all the alternates currently under investigation by the Eschatologists, the group of which his daughter is a member. Unsurprisingly, every last one of the alternate universes on the list is a post-extinction reality. In Lars’ eyes, the Eschatologists are little more than a death cult, religious fanatics obsessed with the apocalyptic end of worlds.
He visits nearly a dozen of these in quick succession, searching the forward bases established on each by the Eschatologists. Despite his efforts, he finds no clue as to where Erika and her husband might have gone.
On one, in an abandoned laboratory, he stumbles across an uncalibrated Hypersphere – one of the devices responsible for the destruction of the Syllogikos. He uses a chunk of rebar to smash it over and over until it crumples on one side and turns forever dark.
Then, at last, the miracle.
This time, when he steps off a transfer stage and out through the wide doors of a hangar, he finds himself on a semi-tropical island with a deserted town nearby. The Eschatologists have, as elsewhere, vandalized all of their equipment, although the transfer stages remain functional. He remembers visiting this alternate years before, when Erika had only just joined the Eschatologists and they were still – just – on speaking terms.
He discovers amidst a pile of discarded luggage a purse containing more memory beads, much like the ones he carries in a carved wooden box. He shuffles these new beads through his fingers, and they throw up a plethora of images and memories that clearly belong to his daughter. He catches glimpses of her husband, as well as some of their fellow Eschatologists. One bead records her memories of a statue that gazes out across a desolate cavern, its bearded face full of anguished sorrow.
Once, Erika told him of this statue, and the post-apocalyptic alternate of which it is part, and of how she and her husband hoped to set up a religious retreat there one day.
A getaway for fanatics, he had said dismissively. Even so, it is the first real clue he has found to her whereabouts, and he still has the coordinates for that alternate. She is all that is left of his former life, and he knows he cannot rest until he knows she is safe.
He quickly gathers what he needs, then climbs onto one of the island’s two stages, his heart full of desperate hope as the light transports him to yet another universe.
When he materializes at his destination, Lars finds himself immersed in a darkness so profound it is almost physically tangible. He drops to his knees, fumbling through the heavy canvas bag he has brought with him, until he finds a torch. He shines it around, seeing he is at the centre of a portable transfer stage set amidst ruins. Perhaps he was wrong and his daughter is not here. Worse, perhaps she has been taken by the invaders, as uncountable millions already have, and his search is in vain. Even so he shouts her name into still air that smells of mould and damp earth, unpleasantly reminiscent of a graveyard.
It is only when he is on the verge of giving up that he finally hears voices, coming closer.
There are six survivors, all bedraggled, dirty and tired-looking by the light of their own torches. His daughter Erika is amongst them, her husband Brent by her side. Suddenly she is in Lars’ arms, crying so hard she can hardly speak. When Lars looks past her, however, he sees only disapproval on Brent’s face.
‘Lars,’ says Brent, fixing a smile on his face as he shakes his father-in-law’s hand, ‘how did you find us?’
‘With difficulty,’ Lars replies and looks around the others. ‘How many more of you are there?’
‘This is all of us that’s left,’ says Brent, his voice clipped. Lars senses he is far from welcome, even amidst disaster. ‘You shouldn’t have come here, Lars.’
‘Is there anyone else left out there?’ a brown-skinned girl with large, frightened eyes asks him.
Lars shakes his head. ‘You’re the first living people I’ve seen in nearly two weeks.’ He starts to elaborate, but the words choke in his throat. ‘There’s something all of you need to see,’ he says finally.
Brent’s face settles into an unreadable mask. ‘We have a camp,’ he says, nodding back the way they came. ‘Come and eat first, then we can talk.’
‘Here,’ says Lars, once he has shared some of their meagre rations, taking out the carved wooden box and passing it to Erika.
They are huddled around a campfire amidst the ancient ruins. Light glows softly from within tents. She opens the box, seeing the string of beads within. She lifts them out carefully, laying the beads across the back of her hand so they do not come into prolonged contact with her fingertips or palms.
‘Memory beads?’ she asks.
He nods. ‘Everything you need to know is in them.’ He looks around the rest of the survivors. ‘They prove the Hyperspheres are the cause of the invasion.’
Erika frowns. ‘But . . . how is that even possible? They’re just transportation devices.’
‘No, our transfer stages are “just” transportation devices. The Hyperspheres are much, much more than that.’
‘But how could they . . . ?’
‘I don’t know the exact mechanism,’ Lars explains. ‘Given time, I could work it out.’ He gestures towards the beads. ‘Please. I spent a long time gathering the evidence. It’s all there.’
The beads glint dully in the firelight as Erika shuffles them through her fingers, one after the other. Her pupils dilate, and almost a full minute passes before she takes a sudden, sharp inward breath and drops the beads back into the box.
‘Oh God,’ she says faintly. ‘It was like reliving it all over again, seeing them falling out of the sky . . .’
‘You see that the invaders originate from the Deeps – from universes with different physics from ours, universes that cannot support life as we know or understand it.’ But life of a kind is there, nonetheless: he knows this now.
She nods uncertainly and Lars frowns. How could she doubt the evidence, presented so clearly? But then he looks at Brent, his mouth set in a thin, angry line, his shoulders and neck rigid with tension.
The box is passed around the fire until all have taken their turn with the beads – all except Brent. He darts an angry look at Lars, then finally shuffles them through his own fingers.
‘Now you see?’ says Lars, when his son-in-law drops them back into the wooden box. ‘If I’d known then what I know now, we might have been able to prevent this disaster from ever happening.’
Brent stands, then, every muscle in his body trembling, his face a mask of furious rage. The rest watch him with terrified, silent eyes. Lars is appalled by their submissiveness, and he understands for the first time that they look to Brent as their leader.
‘There may be other survivors out there, on other, equally remote alternates,’ Lars continues, hoping to calm the man down. ‘We have to try and find them, but we need to work together if we’re going to survive.’ He gestures to the shadows all around. ‘Skulking in some hellish tomb isn’t going to help us survive and rebuild, Brent.’
Erika stands and tries to take her husband’s hand, but he shakes her off, storming away into the darkness.
Lars sleeps fitfully that night, the box of memories close by his side. He dreams of feet shuffling around him, of whispers in the darkness. When finally he wakes and reaches out to the box, he finds it is no longer there.
He sits up quickly, searching frantically all around. His bag is gone as well – along with the portable stage he had packed inside it.
For a terrible heart-rending moment, he fears the memory beads have been thrown into the campfire. But then Brent steps into view, the box held tightly in one hand. Erika is by his side, but she does not meet his eyes.
Lars turns, seeing that the rest of the group are awake as well, standing in a half-circle on the far side of the campfire, watching him with fearful expressions.
‘These,’ says Brent, raising the box in his hand, ‘are lies.’ He throws the box far into the shadows, spilling its contents amidst the ruins. ‘God chose us to inherit the coming world, not you.’
Lars sits frozen. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘I’ve dedicated my life to sifting through the ruins of endless extinct alternates, looking for the evidence of holy judgement,’ says Brent. He pounds his chest with a fist, eyes bright with madness. ‘Then I realized my hubris. By looking for God, I had doubted Him. He requires faith, not evidence. It took the invasion for me to understand that it was our turn to await judgement.’
Erika finally meets her father’s gaze. She looks pale, but determined, and he realizes that the little girl he remembers running through a field is long gone. Brent is right: he should never have come here.
For the first time, he notices the sledgehammer gripped in one of his son-in-law’s hands. Brent’s chest is heaving, as if he has just exerted a great deal of effort.
Lars stands, filled with a terrible chill. ‘What have you done?’ he demands, his voice hoarse.
‘God guided us here,’ says Brent. ‘And here we stay.’
Lars snatches up his torch and flees into the darkness, soon finding his way back to the transfer stage that first brought him to this dreadful place. When he sees the kicked-over field-pillars and smashed control unit, his throat constricts with horror, the high ceiling of the cavern seeming to press down on him until the air is choked from his lungs. Next to it lies his canvas bag, and the smashed remains of the portable stage.
Lars falls to his knees in the dust and the blackness. Without being entirely aware of it, his hand reaches down to grasp a chunk of loose masonry. He stares off into the dark until he hears footsteps approach.
He turns to see Erika looking down at him, Brent by her side. The others are there, too, hanging back in the darkness.
‘You’ve murdered us all,’ says Lars, choking the words out as he stands. ‘And murdered my daughter, damn you!’
Brent looks back at him. ‘You don’t understand now, but you will. Give yourself to God, Lars. Pray with us, and you’ll find peace.’
And with that, Lars lets out a roar, swinging the heavy lump of stone against Brent’s skull with every ounce of strength he can muster. Brent staggers and falls, the blood pouring down the side of his face.
Erika’s screams echo far through the empty air for a long time. But eventually there is only darkness, and silence.