AGE OF SHIVA
This is a confession.
This is an apology.
This is an origin story.
This is the tale of ordinary people who became extraordinary, became heroes, and the price we all paid.
It’s completely true.
I was there.
KIDNAP IN CROUCH END
I stepped out of my flat to get my lunchtime sandwich and cappuccino, and never went back.
There was a coffee place round the corner from my house. It styled itself like one of the big chains, calling itself Caffè Buono and boasting baristas and leather armchairs and a Gaggia machine, but it was the only one of its kind in existence and it never to my knowledge opened any other branches. The sandwiches were all right, though. The coffee too.
I didn’t notice the jet black Range Rover with tinted windows prowling after me as I sauntered along the street. It was spring. The sun was out, for a change. I’d been slaving away at my drawing board since breakfast. Daylight on my face felt sweet. To be among people – the usual milling midday Crouch End crowds – was pleasant. My work was a kind of solitary confinement. It was always good to get out.
I was thinking of a plump, tasty BLT and also of the plump, tasty new barista at Caffè Buono. Krystyna, her name badge said. From Poland, to judge by the spelling and her accent. Farm-girl pretty and very friendly. Flirtatious, even. It was never likely that I would ask her out, she being at least fifteen years younger than me, but seeing her brightened my day and I chose to think that seeing me brightened hers. If it didn’t, she did a very creditable job of pretending it did.
I moseyed along, a million miles from where I was, and all the while the jet black Range Rover was stealing ever closer to me, homing in from behind, a shark shadowing its prey.
I was coming to the end of my latest commission – another reason I was so preoccupied. I was on the final straight of eight months’ solid work. Five pages left to go on a four-issue miniseries. Full pencils and inks, from a script by Mark Millar. I liked collaborating with Millar; he gave the bare minimum of art direction. Usually he offered a thumbnail description of the content of each panel, with a caption or two to fit in somewhere, along with an invitation to “knock yourself out” or “make this the best fucking picture you’ve ever drawn.” So few restrictions. Happy to let the artist be the artist and do what an artist was paid to do. I was fine with that.
But it had been a long haul. I was slow. Had a reputation for it. A stickler; meticulous. Notoriously so. Every page, every panel, every single line had to be exactly right. That was Zak Zap’s unique selling point. You only got top-quality, ultra-refined product, and if you had to wait for it, tough titties. I’d been known to tear up a completed page rather than submit it, simply because a couple of brushstrokes weren’t precisely as I’d envisaged they’d be, or the overall composition was a fraction off. Just rip that sheet of Bristol board in half and bin it. Three days’ effort, wasted. And I’d rage and fume and yell at the cat, and then maybe neck down a few beers, and then next morning I’d plonk my backside down in front of my drawing desk and start all over again.
Stupid, but that’s how I was.
It was why Francesca left me.
Not the tantrums or the fits of creative pique. She could handle those. Laugh them off.
It was the pressure I put on myself. The sense of never being good enough which constantly dogged me. The striving for unrealisable goals. The quest to be better than my best.
“It’s not noble to be a perfectionist, Zak,” Francesca told me as she packed her bag. “It’s a kind of self-loathing.”
I was within spitting distance of the coffee place, just passing the Louisiana Chicken Shack, when the Range Rover drew alongside and braked.
The doors were already open before the car came to a complete stop.
Men in suits bundled out.
I glimpsed them out of the corner of my eye. They were Hugo-Boss-clad barrels in motion. My first thought was that they must be bodyguards for some movie star. Someone famous, over in the UK from Hollywood to promote the release of his latest action-fest, had had a sudden hankering for southern fried chicken, and his security detail were forming a cordon so that he could go in and buy a bucketful. Will Smith, maybe. Bruce Willis. The Rock. One of those guys.
And then I thought, In Crouch End? This wasn’t even the fashionable end of Crouch End. This was the crouchy end of Crouch End. And no movie star in his right mind, however hungry, would want to sample the battered scrag ends of battery hen they served at the Louisiana Chicken Shack.
And then the nearest of the men in suits grabbed hold of me. And then another of them did too, clamping a hand around my elbow and whispering in my ear, “Don’t shout. Don’t struggle. Act natural, like this is nothing out of the ordinary. Otherwise you’ll regret it.”
Then, loudly so that passersby would hear, he said, “All right, sweetheart. That’s enough now. You’ve had your fun, but it’s time to go back to the Priory. Your management is paying all that money for your rehab. They don’t want it wasted.”
With that, they dragged me towards the Range Rover – literally dragged, my heels scraping the kerbstones. I was helpless, inert, a flummoxed idiot, no idea what was going on. Even if I hadn’t been warned to act natural, I’d have been too dumbfounded to resist or protest.
It happened so fast. Just a handful of seconds, and suddenly I was in the back seat of the Range Rover, squashed between two of the suited goons, and the car was pulling out into the traffic, and I wasn’t going to have that BLT or that cappuccino today and I wasn’t going to cheer up Krystyna with a smile and she wasn’t going to cheer me up either.
KNUCKLEDUSTER RING, HILLBILLY MOUSTACHE AND FRIENDS
There are moments in your life when you do what you have to, simply because you’re too scared to do anything else.
I was no Jedi knight, no master of kung fu. I hadn’t been in a fight since secondary school, and that was more of a pathetic bitch-slap contest than anything, and besides, I lost. Now I was in a car with four blokes, each of whom weighed twice as much as me, each of whom had a shaven head and no-bullshit mirrored sunglasses and seam-straining muscles and looked as though he could snap my neck just by breathing hard on me.
Compliance was the only logical course of action. I wasn’t going to karate chop my way out of this predicament. I didn’t have super powers like the characters in the comics I drew for a living. No eye beam to blast a hole through the car roof. No webbing to truss up my kidnappers. No frigging Batarang. I was stuck, a victim, panic-stricken, hyperventilating, only human.
They could kill me, these men. Were they going to kill me? Who were they? What did they want with me?
We had driven perhaps half a mile before I finally found some gumption and piped up. “Piped” was the word; my voice sounded like a piccolo.
“You must have the wrong man,” I said. “I haven’t done anything. I’m nobody.”
“You Zachary Bramwell?” said the goon on my immediate left, who wore a gold sovereign ring so large it could easily double as a knuckleduster.
It didn’t really seem to be a question, which was why I said, “Yes.”
“Then we’ve got the right man. By the way, you got a phone on you?”
“I’m going to check anyway.” Knuckleduster Ring ransacked my pockets, finding nothing but lint and loose change. “Left it at home, eh?”
I had. I nodded.
“Good. No need to confiscate it, then. Now shut your trap.”
I shut my trap, but after another mile I couldn’t keep it shut any longer. My anxiety wouldn’t let me.
“What was all that stuff about ‘the Priory’ and my ‘management’?”
“What do you think? To make it look like we were staging an intervention.”
“Oh. But you are sure you’ve got the right Zachary Bramwell, not a different one? Same name but, you know, minus the substance addiction issues?”
“Hundred per cent.”
“So where are you taking me? Who do you work for? Are you cops? The government?”
Knuckleduster Ring smiled. The goon on my right, who had the type of drooping moustache favoured by bikers and hillbillies, smirked. The guy driving the car actually laughed, like I’d cracked a joke.
“Nah,” said Knuckleduster Ring. “They pay shit.”
“Private contractors, you could call us,” said Hillbilly Moustache. “Available to the highest bidder.”
“Well, who is that, then?” I said. “Who in God’s name has it in for me so badly that they’ve hired you to snatch me off a London street in broad daylight?”
“Christ, this fucker talks a lot,” said the fourth goon, who was the spitting image of Knuckleduster Ring and could only have been his identical twin brother. “Can’t I give him a crack upside the head? I don’t want to listen to him jabber all the way.”
“Unharmed, intact,” said the driver, who I reckoned was the boss of the outfit. He had a diamond inset into one of his upper incisors. “That’s the brief. But,” he added, “maybe you should think about quietening down, Mr Bramwell. My boys have a pretty low threshold of tolerance for nonsense, if you know what I’m saying. Here, I’ve got an idea. How about some nice soothing music? Help us all chillax.”
Diamond Tooth switched on the radio, tuned it to Classic FM, and there we were, tootling along the North Circular, me and this quartet of brick-shithouse abductors, listening to a sequence of plinky-plonk sonatas[*], with comments from the nerdy posh announcer spliced in between. At one point Knuckleduster Ring’s twin brother raised his hand off his knee and started stroking patterns in the air as though conducting an orchestra. It was ridiculous, and I might have thought it funny if I hadn’t been trying so hard not to soil my pants.
We drove for an hour, leaving London behind. We headed northbound up the M1, turning off somewhere before Milton Keynes and then wiggling around in the Buckinghamshire countryside on A-roads and B-roads until I was thoroughly disorientated and couldn’t have found my way back to civilisation even with a map.
In my head Diamond Tooth’s words – “Unharmed, intact” – rang like a church bell, offering solace and hope. Whoever my kidnappers’ employer was, he didn’t want me hurt. There was at least that.
Or could it be that he didn’t want me hurt until he himself got his hands on me? I was the pair of box-fresh sneakers that no one else could touch and that only his feet could sully.
I racked my brains, thinking of people I’d pissed off during the nearly forty years of my life so far. It wasn’t exactly a short list. I’d aggrieved more than a few editors in the comics biz with my propensity for handing in work at the very last minute, or else blowing the deadline completely. I’d hacked off my previous landlord but one with my complaints about mice droppings in the kitchen and mould on the bathroom walls, but those were legitimate gripes and he had no right to be upset with me for pestering him about things he was duty-bound to fix. I’d left behind a trail of women who to a greater or lesser degree found me lacking in the attentive boyfriend department, up to and including Francesca, who had stuck it out with me the longest but had ultimately come to the same conclusion as the rest: that I wasn’t worth the time, trouble and effort. And then there was that financial advisor at the bank who I’d lost my rag with, just because he told me I wasn’t in a “reliable occupation with regular income” and therefore didn’t deserve to be offered a more preferential mortgage rate. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have swept his pot of ballpoint pens onto the floor of his cubicle and told him to stick his flexible variable rates up his backside. It was petty and childish of me. I should have done the mature, manly thing and thumped the tosser.
All these people and others had cause to dislike Zak Bramwell. They might well wish to curse me under their breath and think ill of me during the long watches of a sleepless night.
But hate me so much as to have me brought to them so that they could inflict prolonged and nefarious revenge upon my person at their leisure? And at great expense, too?
I didn’t think so.
Who, then? Who the hell was I being taken to meet?
I couldn’t for the life of me rustle up an answer.
Finally the Range Rover arrived somewhere. And by “somewhere” I mean the middle of nowhere.
To be precise: a disused, dilapidated aerodrome that had once served as a US airbase during World War 2 and subsequently the Cold War, and was now a collection of grass-covered hangars, mouldering Quonset huts, and sad, sagging outbuildings.
An air traffic control tower with smashed-out windows overlooked a shattered concrete runway criss-crossed by strips of weed.
And on the runway stood the most extraordinary vehicle I had ever seen.
Most of you reading this will be familiar with the Garuda. How can you not be? You’d have seen it on TV or the internet, maybe been fortunate enough to watch it in flight, zipping overhead with scarcely a sound. You’d no doubt have been startled the first time you clapped eyes on it, perhaps a little in awe, certainly impressed.
Back then, virtually nobody knew about the Garuda. Maybe no more than a couple of hundred people in total were aware that it existed.
So imagine my feelings as the Range Rover bumped out onto that runway and pulled up in front of this sleek metal angel with its folded-back wings, its downturned nosecone, its jet vents, its high-arched undercarriage, its rugged spherical wheels, its all-round air of lofty magnificence. It didn’t seem to be standing on the ground so much as perching, a forty-ton bird of prey that had briefly alighted to survey the lie of the land.
I was gobsmacked, all the more so in those shabby surroundings. The incongruity was striking. It didn’t belong here in a disused Midlands aerodrome. It belonged somewhere in the future, perhaps docking with a space station in near Earth orbit.
I think I fell a little bit in love with it, there on the spot. And bear in mind, this was before I had any idea what the Garuda was capable of, all the things it could do.
The goons hauled me out of the car and lugged me over to the aircraft, from which steps unfolded like a carpet unrolling. A door opened, so smoothly it seemed to melt inwards, and a woman emerged, extending a hand to me in welcome.
I can’t deny that things were suddenly looking up. She was quite beautiful. She was Asian – Indian, if I didn’t miss my guess – with almond-shaped eyes and soft features. Her hair was pure black gloss and her figure was full, just the way I liked. I wasn’t into the skinny, self-denying type of woman. I preferred someone who ate and drank with an appetite and wasn’t guilt-ridden or ashamed.
Her dress was smart and immaculate, from pale blue silk blouse to hip-hugging skirt. Her makeup was subtle but effective. Her nails were varnished chocolate brown.
I think I fell a little bit in love with her, too. Maybe I was just glad to see a face that was utterly unlike the hard, expressionless faces of the four goons. Maybe it was a relief to meet someone who looked friendly and wasn’t acting as though I needed to have my head stove in.
“Aanandi Sengupta,” she said, introducing herself. “I hope you’ve had a pleasant journey, Zak. Sorry if it’s been a bit... abrupt. Our employers are not patient men. When they want something, they tend to reach out and grab it. Often without asking permission until afterwards.”
“Ahem. Yes, well...” I felt scruffy and uncomfortable in front of the crisply turned-out Aanandi Sengupta. I hadn’t shaved that morning, I was in my oldest, baggiest sweatshirt and jeans, and there were ink blotches on my fingers as I shook her hand. I was a mess, and she was as far from a mess as one could be. “Can’t say they were the finest conversationalists I’ve ever met.”
I glanced over my shoulder as I said this. The goons were keeping their distance from the aircraft, standing at ease, soldiers relieved of a duty. I was passing from their care to Aanandi’s. And don’t think I was unhappy about that, but I also figured I had no choice about getting on the plane. If I turned and made a run for it, Diamond Tooth, Hillbilly Moustache and the twins would be on me in a flash. I could walk aboard willingly or I could be frogmarched aboard with my arm twisted up between my shoulderblades. Either way, I was making the flight.
“Come on in,” Aanandi said. “I promise I’ll answer every query you have, once we’re wheels up and in the air.”
“Every query? Because I have loads.”
“Almost every. Some stuff is off-limits for now. All right?”
The main cabin was spacious and fitted with large, plush seats; about a dozen, all told. Shagpile carpet whispered underfoot. I caught a whiff of a fragrant scent – incense?
“Make yourself at home, Zak. I can call you Zak?”
A woman like her, she could have called me anything she liked.
“How about a drink? Coffee? Tea? Something stronger?”
My body was crying out for alcohol. Something to de-jangle the nerves. But I settled for mineral water. I had a feeling I ought to remain compos mentis for the time being. Whatever wits I had, I needed to keep them about me.
The water came in a cup with a plastic sippy lid, like a takeaway coffee. This should have struck me as odd, but didn’t. So much else here was off-kilter, what was one more thing?
Aanandi hit an intercom button. “Captain? We’re ready for takeoff.”
She sat beside me. She buckled her lap belt and I followed suit and buckled mine. Through the window I saw the Range Rover depart with its full complement of goon, veering out through the broken gateway it had come in by. I gave it a little farewell wave.
The aircraft began to move, those ball-shaped wheels rolling along within armatures that clutched them like talons, and then, before I even realised, we were airborne. The abandoned aerodrome shrank below. England disappeared. Within moments we were soaring among the clouds, our climb so steep it was all but vertical. Other than a plummeting sensation in the pit of my stomach, there was little to tell me we were actually in ascent; our rise was smooth, turbulence-free and eerily quiet.
“What is this thing?” I asked Aanandi. “It’s like something out of a Gerry Anderson show.”
“It’s the Garuda. It’s the only one of its kind; a multi-platform adaptable personnel transporter, equally at home in five different travel environments.”
“It’s ruddy quiet, is what it is. My bicycle’s louder.”
“I don’t know the technicalities, but the engine design incorporates sound reduction technology way in advance of anything else currently on the market. The turbofans have the highest conceivable bypass ratio and feature multilobe hush kit modification baffles. And of course the cabin is comprehensively soundproofed with layers of porous absorbers and Helmholtz resonators.”
“That’s an awful lot of jargon for someone who says she doesn’t know the technicalities.”
Aanandi gave a brief, self-effacing smile. “I listen well. I pay attention. I have a good memory.”
“Your accent,” I said. “American?”
“Born and bred. Second-generation Indian from Boston.”
“And who are these ‘employers’ you mentioned?”
“That I can’t tell you, Zak. Not yet. You’ll find out in due course. What I can tell you is that you’re under no obligation to co-operate with them. You’re under no obligation to do anything. I’m pretty sure you’ll want to be a part of what’s happening, once you learn what it is, but there’s no coercion involved. We’re after willing recruits, not slaves.”
“It did seem like I was being pressganged,” I said.
“Not so. Those four were perhaps a little insensitive and overenthusiastic, I imagine, but they had to get the job done quickly and with minimum fuss. Like I said, we work for people who are not patient and have no time for messing around.”
“Well, where are we going? Is that one of the queries you can answer?”
“Certainly. The Indian Ocean. The Maldives.”
“Is that a problem?”
I looked at her. “Normally I’d say no. Who wouldn’t want to visit a tropical paradise? Especially when someone else is paying for the ticket. But... You can see it from my point of view, can’t you? I’m in a super-duper fancypants James Bond aircraft, with someone I’ve never met before, being flown halfway across the world. How long does it even take to get to the Maldives? Twelve hours?”
“Ten by conventional means. In the Garuda, a third of that.”
I shot past that little nugget of information. I was in full spate, mid-rant. All the outrage and disquiet of the past hour was pouring out, and not much was going to stem the flow. “And there I was, not so long ago, just walking down the street, minding my own business. I still can’t help thinking this is a case of mistaken identity. You’ve picked up the wrong Zak Bramwell. What the hell would anyone who can afford a plane like this want with someone like me? I draw comic books for a living, for heaven’s sake. I don’t have any practical skills besides that – and it’s not even that practical.”
“You are Zak Zap, though,” Aanandi said.
I winced a little. The name sounded dumb, coming from her. Even dumber than usual. “That’s me. I know, I know. Pretty lame. I was young when I chose it. Teenager. Seemed cool then. Now I’m stuck with it and there’s not much I can do. Too late to change it.”
“The same Zak Zap who drew the Deathquake strip for 2000 AD, and did brief but well-respected runs on Fantastic Four and Aquaman, and recently illustrated Robert Kirkman’s Sitting Ducks miniseries for Image.”
“Yeah. Don’t tell me you’re a fan.”
“I’m not. But the people I work for are.”
“Oh.” I digested this fact. It sat pleasantly in my belly. “Right. And, er... Am I going to some sort of convention? Is that what this is? Maybe a private one?”
“Not as such.”
“I just thought... I mean, I’ve done Comic Con. Plenty of others, too. Crap hotels, mostly. Teeming hordes of cosplayers and fanboys. Pros all hunkered down at the bar trying to avoid them. I thought this might be the same deal only, you know, classier.”
“Shame.” The professional freelancer instinct kicked in. “But you say there’s work involved? Actual paid work?”
“There could be,” said Aanandi, “if you want it. Very well paid.”
I was beginning to like the sound of this. I was still unnerved and discombobulated. It had not been an ordinary day so far, and the dread evoked by my “kidnap” had yet to subside. But work was work, and I was never one to turn a job offer down. I could hardly afford to: plenty of comics artists made a pretty decent wage, but they were the fast ones, the guys who could churn out a book a month, twenty-odd pages bang on schedule, no sweat. As I’ve already established, that wasn’t me. My financial situation was definitely more hand-to-mouth. I’d never been asked to draw any of the mega-sellers; Fantastic Four had been in the doldrums when I was assigned to it – and then fired six issues later. And as for Aquaman... Who the hell buys Aquaman? I only took the gig because I was short on cash at the time and I liked drawing underwater stuff. [†]
So I didn’t have a steady stream of backlist royalty revenue to rely on, and no editor with any sense was going to hire me to do Superman or Amazing Spider-Man or any of the other DC and Marvel flagship titles. Readers wouldn’t stomach the indefinite delays between issues or the inevitable rushed fill-ins by other artists. They’d desert in droves.
So somebody was interested in employing me? And was flying me to the Maldives for the job interview?
I can handle that, I thought.
I felt a flush of smugness, the kind you get when your talent is recognised, when you’re acknowledged as being skilled at what you do. The pardonable kind. A sort of giddiness overcame me. I undid my lap belt, thinking that a victory stroll up and down the cabin aisle was in order, a moment by myself to clench my fist and go “Yes!” under my breath.
“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” Aanandi advised.
Too late. I was already on my feet. And then I was off my feet. I was somehow standing without standing. My toes were in contact with the carpet, but only just. The giddiness wasn’t an emotion, it was a genuine physical sensation. I was bobbing in the air, a human balloon.
“What the hot holy...?”
Aanandi took my wrist and pulled me back down into my seat. I refastened the belt, tethering myself.
“I would have warned you,” she said, “but you had so much to say.”
The empty cup floated free from the armrest tray. Tiny sparkling droplets of mineral water poured from its lid aperture like reverse rain.
I glanced out of the window.
We were high up.
Oh, God, so fucking high up. I could see the curvature of the Earth, the horizon line of pale blue sky giving way to the blue-blackness of the void. Continents were small enough that I could blot them out with my hand. Cloud forms were rugged Arctic snowscapes.
“Space,” I breathed. “We’re in fucking space.”
[*] Vivaldi? Haydn? One of those guys.
[†] There’d never been any great fan-love for the King of the Seas with his daft orange and green swimsuit and his power to exert mental control over, er, fish. After my brief tenure on the title, no one liked him much more than they had before.
AGE OF SHIVA is published by Solaris Books on April 10th 2014. The rest of the Pantheon series is out now: Age of Ra, Age of Zeus, Age of Odin, Age of Aztec, Age of Voodoo, Age of Godpunk (Anansi, Satan, Gaia)