The Dead are Different: Opening Chapter

This extract is old. It’s one of the first things I wrote when I started writing again back in 2010. Yes, it really is that old. And it’s never seen the light of day until now. I like the idea behind this opening a lot, but still can’t make my mind up where to go with it. Specifically, whether this is a stand-alone that spans 50 years, or a series that slips into the overall concept more slowly. I’m coming around to the conclusion it’s the latter. Whether I ever get to finish it is another matter. Seven more Thomas Berrington books plotted out. After that, ideas for another two historical fictions series. Then there’s a police procedural set in Worcester. So many ideas and so little time…

the-dead-are-different“Left a touch, Guy.”

Will Auger’s voice came soft in Guy Jorden’s headset, but however soft the voice it always remained clear as a bell. It was strange, Guy thought, because he was never able to hear anyone else in quite the same way above the growl of the engines and the roar of the wind around the cockpit. Not to mention the crump of anti-aircraft fire that exploded around the Lancaster as it crawled across the sky above Germany. Every time Will spoke it was as if he was sitting right next to Guy in the hushed drawing room of a gentleman’s club.

Guy eased the controls over a touch and the heavy bomber responded, reluctant to obey his command, shaking and pitching as wind crabbed around the airframe.

A burst of fire bloomed off the port wing, almost exactly where they would have been if he hadn’t altered course. Guy was pleased it was Will down there as his bomber. They all liked it when Will was with them. Everyone felt safer.

“How far now?” Guy half turned to George Hastings, his navigator, sitting to the right and below his elevated position.

George looked at his charts, said, “Why don’t you ask Will? He’s probably got more idea than me.”

Not everyone liked it when Will was onboard.

Guy sighed to himself and said, “Its your job, George. How far to drop?”

“Give me a minute.”

Guy listened to the engines, trying to judge if they were sweet or not. There was some leeway with the four Rolls Royce Merlins, but it was never good to have to limp home. The Lancaster was a tough old bird, which was good, because it had a hard life. Never mind the phhtt of of shrapnel cutting through the linen covering the hull. The bombers were often turned around on the ground in only a few hours. The mechanics were good, but they were human—and just like everyone else sleep was at a premium.

So far everything sounded on-song.

“About ten minutes, I reckon,” George said.

Guy nodded, then realised George probably couldn’t see him and said, “Thanks, George. Have you plotted our course away from the drop site?”

“All ready once Will lets his babies fly.”

Guy understood George’s truculence. He didn’t condone it, but understood. There was something odd about Will, they all knew it but so far no-one had come out and said anything. They all maintained the secret of Will because he was their talisman.

The plane shook as another shell burst to their left. The smoke bloomed, dark fire at its centre, then whipped back as the plane flew on. Beyond, Guy saw two other bombers. He leaned forward in his seat and peered the other way. Mike Jones hung in the air ahead of him. He leaned further over, looking for the fifth bomber but couldn’t see it. He pulled his mask to his face and toggled the switch on its side.

“Bob, can you take a look out for Farrington?”

Guy waited, listening to the static in his headphones, hearing the ghost voices that always seemed to be present even when no-one was speaking.

“Cant see him anywhere,” Bob Sutherland replied.

“Maybe he’s dropped below us. Take a look and see if he’s underneath.” Guy fought the controls as another shell burst below the plane. He heard a faint patter of shrapnel and held his breath, but the plane lumbered on, apparently unharmed. He wondered how long they could get away with this run of luck.

“Not below us either,” Bob said.

“Thanks. Anything else?”

“Quiet as the grave.”

“You could have chosen a better turn of phrase, Bob.”

“Sorry, Guy. But nothing happening.”

“Lets hope it stays that way.”

Guy wasn’t expecting fighters. A year ago, yes, but now in the early months of 1945 the Luftwaffe seemed to have given up the fight. It was another conversation everyone avoided but they all thought about—the war was almost won. Bombing raids had become easier. They had seen photographs of their raids, seen the damage done. On the ground, British and American troops were advancing into Germany—the old Germany, the heartland. It was difficult to get unbiased news, only what the war department allowed out, but it felt like progress was being made. Maybe this time it really would all be over by Christmas. If not before.

That wasn’t the conversation they weren’t having though. The one nobody wanted to speak of was whether they were going to make it to the end or not. And, the reverse of that, each new mission eating into their odds they wouldn’t make it. The average crew managed forty raids before they caught it. This late in the war, four out of the five bombers in Guy’s wing were well beyond those odds. He and Will had flown over a hundred missions to date. How many more they would be sent on neither could say. Someone in ops would have the figures, but Guy didn’t want to know. They all had their little superstitions to keep them going. Will the biggest superstition of all.


Stuffed into the cramped space at the front of the bomber Will wasn’t thinking at all. He had entered the zone which allowed him to see as far into the future as he could reach—about a minute. Not so much, but enough.

None of the others knew exactly what this odd ability of his was, but he was aware they liked to fly with him because of it. Most of the time, ten or fifteen seconds was all he needed on the way out and back.

It was as though he was looking at two images laid over each other. The now, the present, was the strongest, but if he concentrated in a particular way he could conjure up another, the one that had not yet happened. This strange gift had come on him slowly from the age of twelve. Once, he had asked his father if he shared the ability and was rewarded with a thrashing. He never asked again, but he wondered if the violence of his father’s response wasn’t answer enough.

To begin with he thought there was something wrong with his sight. The world became confusing, one image laid over another, and it took him a long time to come to an accommodation. He started reading fantastic fiction, the books of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, but nothing there matched his own experience. Eventually he accepted. He saw things that hadn’t yet happened. He saw the future and present together, one over the other. As acceptance of his ability grew, he found that the image wasn’t always stable. He discovered there were multiple futures. The there and the now, splitting off from each other in many directions. Most of the time the future was simple, a single thread running ahead of him. Other times it resembled a kaleidoscope of confusing images and he had to pick his way through them, bullying his way to the future he wanted. It was a stupid, silly ability and he saw little benefit to it, other than an unerring ability to avoid conflict. And then a greater conflict had engulfed them all and Will joined the RAF. Bomber command. He’d wanted to be a pilot but hadn’t been considered. Instead they trained him to drop bombs.

Many things change in war. Inventions flourish, some men discover they have no courage, while others find a mysterious inner courage from nowhere. Will’s ability had grown, and he found he could push his vision further  and further into the future. At the start of the war he could see 10 seconds ahead. As the fighters fell on them, as anti-aircraft shells exploded to left and right and below, survival demanded he do more. Now, if he pressed, he could see forward a minute. A few times beyond that. But he knew he needed to pace himself. Forcing himself so far ahead had consequences. Blinding headaches, nosebleeds, a sense he might lose himself in a thousand shards of possibility.

The other side was the one that told him a shell burst was going to hit the starboard engine. The one that showed him the wing shearing off and the plane lurching into a long downward spiral.

Sometimes Will wondered if he was really changing the future, or was he splitting the timeline. Somewhere else, in another reality, did the shell hit the wing, did they all die? Or was that reality snuffed out the moment he changed it?

Will shook his head and brought his attention back to the task in hand. Ahead and below he could see dark outlines of shipyards and factories. There was no light other than the moon, but tonight it was almost full and the sky cloudless, cold reflections glittering on the sea, outlining the darker land.

Will pushed hard, extending the envelope as far as he could. A headache started up at once, pulsing bright on the edge of his vision. Now he saw the bombs he had not yet released tumble to blossom far below. He saw the first one miss, saw in the blaze of the explosion it was a hundred yards right of a tanker.

“Guy, a nudge to port… Gently… Hold it… a little more… yes, that’ll do.”

The future opened ahead of him, playing like a jerky black and white film, one of the old keystone cops comedies they showed between features. Will saw his second bomb fall a little short and adjusted for it.

“Hold us steady now Guy…” He whispered, knowing Guy would hear whether he shouted or not. He didn’t know if the others heard, but Guy always did. Will pressed his thumb over the release trigger and waited. Anti-aircraft shells blossomed all around but he ignored them.

All the futures coalesced into one reality as he pressed down and felt the upward lurch as the first 500 pound bomb dropped away. Guy brought the nose down, fighting the urge of the plane to lift. Will counted to himself until he reached the point where he would have released the second bomb, then waited another second before released it to fall.

This time when the plane lifted Guy allowed it, turning hard away and above the other wing of bombers coming in behind. Will twisted, looking back and down as light blossomed. Two hits. He heard chatter in his headphones. George Hastings giving Guy a new course. Bob Sutherland updating everyone on the damage the other bombers had inflicted.

Will closed his eyes and relaxed, trying to ignore the headache but knowing it was going to stay now because he had pushed too hard. It would still be there when he went to bed, probably still there when he woke to prepare for another mission. He suspected he was doing himself damage, but what else he could do? Without this quirk he possessed they would all be dead by now. Every single one of the crew knew it, but no one mentioned it. Their secret.

When he opened his eyes again there was only darkness ahead. They were on their home run, out over the North Sea. All around him the plane shook. Out here, perched at the front of the plane it was relatively quiet, the four big engines well behind his position, the roar whipped back and away by the speed of their passage through the air.

Four a.m. came and went before Guy eased the engines back and started the long approach into Newmarket Heath. In a few hours the USAF bombers would be crawling into the sky for their daytime raids. By then Will’s crew would all be asleep, some uneasy, some, like Will, dead to the world.

As they dropped below six thousand feet the big plane rocked as crosswinds caught it. Above and behind Will, Guy adjusted the controls, bringing them level. Will smiled, enjoying the bouncing ride down, because the strong winds meant a front was moving in. With luck it would rain and there would be no raid that night. A chance to relax, get drunk, and maybe get laid.

After they landed and taxied and the engines had died the silence and stillness was strange. Will pushed himself out of his claustrophobic position in the nose and clambered through the tangle of spars and struts blocking his path to the exit hatch. He saw Rob Sutherland drop out of sight, then George Hastings came down from above. He saw George glance back at him, but Will gave no acknowledgement. He know George was frightened of him, of what he could do, the thing they never talked about.

Finally Guy stepped down. He nodded at Will and waited, letting him onto the ground first.

“Thanks for the heads up,” he said as he joined him on the grass and they started back for the debrief.

“Self preservation, Guy, thats all.”

“Maybe so. But I’m still grateful… however you do it.”

It was the first time Guy had mentioned Will’s ability, and he looked away as he lit a cigarette, as though embarrassed to have raised it.

The first spots of rain came just as dawn started to lighten the eastern sky.

“Think well be flying again tonight?” Will asked.

Guy drew on his cigarette, pulling smoke deep into his lungs. He looked at the sky, letting smoke drift through his nostrils. “Doesn’t look that way. But let’s see what the weather bods say. This might blow over in a couple of hours.”

“I could do with getting dead drunk tonight,” Will said.

“So it does get to you, does it? I always wondered.”

Will glanced at him. They were almost back to the cluster of wooden huts. “It gets to all of us, doesn’t it?” he said.

Guy slapped him on the shoulder. “Getting blind drunk sounds like a capital plan to me. Who was that WAAF I saw you with on Saturday?”

“Don’t know,” Will said.

“But you were… very friendly.”

“We did get friendly,” Will said. “But I made a decision when I got into this not to remember names.”

“Why ever would you do that?”

Will’s steps slowed for a moment and he shook his head. “I don’t know. Superstition, I suppose. I worry if I get too close to someone I’ll be tempting fate. So I make an effort not to remember their names.”

“Don’t you catch hell for that?” Guy asked. He took a last long draw on his cigarette and flicked it into the distance.

“Sometimes. But there’s always another girl.”

Guy shook his head. “You’re a strange bastard, Will. But you already know that.”

Will smiled. Yes, he did. But it was true, there were always other girls. Being in uniform helped, that and the war. But mostly it was knowing how the girls would react before they knew themselves that gave Will an edge nobody else had.

They dropped their parachutes off for checking, stripped out of their thick flight suits, then made their way across to the debriefing room. They were about to enter when a uniformed stranger fell into step beside them.

“Are either of you gents Flight Lieutenant Auger?”

“This is your man,” Guy said, nodding at Will. “Who’s asking?”

“Major Simpson. Can I ask you to come with me, Auger?”

“What’s this about?” Guy said, “We have to debrief, Will more than anyone.”

“It’s nothing to worry about. All above board and cleared with your superiors. Flight Lieutenant Auger can debrief later.” The Major stopped, waiting patiently. “If you would like to come this way.”

Will glanced at Guy, nodded. “Ill catch up with you later.”

“The Bell at six if I don’t see you before,” Guy said, and went inside.

The rain grew heavier as they crossed to another hut and ducked inside.

“What’s this about?” Will repeated Guy’s question.

“Like I said, it’s nothing to worry about.”

“You’re not RAF,” Will said.

“Army. Well, sort of Army.”

“Sort of?”

“Kind of hush hush, I suppose. I might be able to tell you more later on.”

An uneasy feeling crawled in Will’s belly. This didn’t feel right. He stopped in the corridor.

“I want to know what you want with me.”

The Major looked at him, his eyes hard now. “You’re to come with me, Flight Lieutenant. And you will come now.” His voice was firm and it was clear he was used to being obeyed.

Will stared back, stubborn too. For a moment they were locked in a minor battle of wills, but it was always going to be one Will couldn’t win. He had already seen that. He shrugged as though it didn’t matter to him one way or another and started walking again, making the Major catch him up.

The door at the end of the corridor was open and they entered. The Major closed it behind them. A small table had been set up, borrowed from the NAFFI by the look of it. A pot of tea and three cups were set on one end. An older man, not in uniform, sat on the far side.

“Ah, Mr. Auger, what a pleasure to meet you at last. I have heard so much about you and your, ah, special abilities. Please do take a seat. Major, would you be mother, please?”

Author: David Penny