‘Age of Shiva’ (Book Excerpt) by James Lovegrove

James Lovegrove

James Lovegrove is the author of nearly 40 acclaimed novels and books for children. Straight after graduating from Oxford with a degree in English Literature, James set himself the goal of getting a novel written and sold within two years. In the event, it took two months. The Hope was completed in six weeks and accepted by Macmillan a fortnight later.

Subsequent works have all been published to great acclaim. More recently James has produced the Pantheon series, a set of standalone military-SF adventures combining high-tech weaponry and ancient gods. The third of these, The Age Of Odin, made it onto the New York Times bestseller list, and it and all the others have been a huge sales success. He also reviews fiction for the Financial Times, specialising in the children’s, science fiction, fantasy, horror and graphic novel genres, and is a regular and prolific contributor to Comic Heroes, a bimonthly magazine devoted to all things comics-related, for which he writes a column judging “criminally crappy comics”, among other things. Read his interview hereBelow you can read an excerpt from his book, Age of Shiva. Courtesy: James Lovegrove.

Age of Shiva- Book Excerpt

Dozens of us were gathered in one of the rec rooms, glued to the television. It had been four hours since the Garuda left. The Dashavatara were due to be touching down on the US East Coast any moment.

There were techies present and backroom boys and all sorts. Some of the domestic staff mingled among us, chattering to one another in mellifluous Divehi.

Aanandi, however, was nowhere to be seen. She had gone off with the Trinity to help oversee the Avatars’ departure, and when she didn’t return, that was when it dawned on me that she ranked higher in the pecking order than I had thought. My assumption had been that she was a minion, more or less on my level, a fellow underling, but it seemed she was close to the inner circle, if not inside it.

I felt disappointed about this, and obscurely threatened too. The disparity in our status ought not to be a stumbling block. It wouldn’t prevent anything of a romantic nature developing between us. Would it? Then again, maybe this explained why, even though we had been getting on well together, I hadn’t been making any real headway with her. That or my smouldering sexual allure was just not compelling enough, which was inconceivable.

The TV was tuned to a 24-hour rolling news channel, Lombard’s very own US-based Epic News, which had first broken the story of the horrific assaults on commuters alighting from early-morning trains at New York’s Grand Central Station. The reporting was confused. No one had a clear idea what was going on. The police had cordoned off an area a block wide around the rail terminal, and Epic News’s on-the-spot correspondent, Melody Berkowitz, stood just outside a barricade of sawhorses and yellow tape, reiterating again and again the few facts she knew and speculating wildly about the rest. She was TV journalism at its rhinoplastied finest.

“What I can confirm,” Berkowitz said, gripping the microphone, “is that at least twenty-two commuters are dead so far. Those are the known casualties, but I should stress that it’s only a provisional figure and could easily rise. Their assailant – and we believe it’s just the one man – has been leaping out from hiding to carry out vicious onslaughts on victims chosen apparently at random. It’s suspected he’s using the below-ground tracks, of which there are around a hundred arranged across two levels, to conceal himself and move about unseen. To be honest, information is hard to come by at this present moment, but we are hearing rumours that – and I still can’t believe I’m saying this – that cannibalism may well be involved. It’s almost too horrible to think about. I have with me NYPD spokesperson Armand Dominguez. Mr Dominguez, is there anything you can tell Epic News viewers about what’s going on inside Grand Central?”

The camera operator pulled back for a two shot, revealing a portly, luxuriantly-coiffed Latino.

“Well, Melody,” said Dominguez, “the situation is still fluid right now. What I can say is that the station has been evacuated of all rail users and Metropolitan Transportation Authority personnel, we have managed to extract the casualties, and we’ve got several dozen uniformed officers in there right now combing the premises, hunting the suspect, who seems to have gone to ground since the initial wave of attacks. We’re confident we can have this wrapped up within the hour.”

“But the site covers nearly fifty acres. That’s a lot of ground to cover, a lot of places to lurk.”

“We’re confident we have the manpower for the job.”

“And the stories we’re hearing about cannibalism in the attacks – do you have any comment to make on that?”

“Not at this time,” said Dominguez.

Berkowitz’s scalpel-sharpened nostrils flared. “EMTs I’ve personally spoken to claim that the bodies of the deceased show signs of being partially eaten. Tooth marks.”

“Again, I can’t comment on that at this time. It’s a fluid situation and these are the kinds of statements that can’t be clarified or verified right now.”

“Do you think this could maybe be the handiwork of a deranged mole person – a subway dweller who has, as it were, gone off the rails?”

“I am not in a position to confirm or deny that as a possibility. Someone is committing a spree killing, that much I am at liberty to say, and we will stop him.”

The transmission cut back to the studio, where the anchorman began conducting a phone interview with an eyewitness, Lamorne Wilson, who ran a bakery concession on Graybar Passage, adjacent to the station’s main concourse.

“Yeah, I saw something all right,” said Wilson. “Only I ain’t one hundred per cent sure what I saw, you with me? I was, like, opening up the shop, same as I do five-thirty AM every morning, and suddenly there was this screaming, this woman running across the concourse, running for her life. She was this Filipina, I seen her before. Overnight cleaner would be my guess. She usually came in round ’bout then to catch the train home. And this – this thing was chasing her. Jesus, man, its skin was black, but not like my skin’s black, not African-American black, black like coal, black like oil, shiny, and its eyes glowed like flames, all red and huge. It was mean-looking, and it went kinda on all fours but it flowed as it moved, sort of like it was flying. I’m not crazy. I saw what I saw. I’m on the air, and I know millions of people are listening, and I’m telling you, and them, I ain’t crazy. This was some sorta … I gotta say it: monster. Seriously. A monster.”

“No one’s doubting your integrity, Lamorne, or your sanity,” said the anchorman, Brett Bowen, a man so smug even his hairstyle seemed pleased with itself. “But are you willing to consider that it was just someone in a suit? A Halloween costume, perhaps?”

“No, man, no. That weren’t no someone in a suit. It had these long fangs, like werewolf fangs, and a mouth way bigger than a mouth has any right being.”

“They can do amazing things with special makeup and prosthetics in movies these days.”

“It weren’t no creature-feature monster,” Wilson insisted, sounding justifiably irked. “It jumped on that woman and dug those fangs into the back of her neck, and then it kinda wrenched its head away, sideways, taking part of her neck with it. God, that was an awful noise, the flesh and stuff tearing. And she was still screaming – in agony, not in fright, now – and it had her pinned to the floor, and then it began – oh, man – began munching on her. I just ran, dude. Ran as fast as I could. Hightailed it. Got the hell outta Dodge. ’Cause no way was I gonna step up and fight that thing and help that lady. ’Cause the lady was as good as dead and I’d have been as good as dead too.”

“Yes, well, forgivable, in the light of your evident distress,” said Bowen, who then did that classic anchorman thing of frowning and cocking his head as he received an urgent instruction from the production gallery via his earpiece. “Ah. Seems we’re going to have to terminate the interview there. We have breaking news from another corner of Manhattan. One of our Epic News traffic ’copters is on the scene, sending us these images. What are we seeing here?”

What we were seeing, in a shaky aerial shot, was the Garuda, which had just alighted on the East River immediately below Roosevelt Island.

“Appears to be some kind of, uh, aircraft,” said a baffled Bowen in voiceover. “Anyone know what type? It’s new to me. On the water. Is that a crash? Has it crashed? Anyone? Do we have anyone who can identify that aircraft? Folks, I don’t categorically know what we’re looking at here, but our traffic ’copter pilot tells us this vehicle, whatever it is, entered New York airspace just moments ago and set down in the river, or came down, we’re not sure which, but we’re relaying these images to you of what appears, maybe, to be a plane crash – or maybe not, because I’m not seeing any wreckage floating. Lots happening in New York City today. We’ll keep you posted. Stay tuned, and we’ll be right back with more Epic News after these messages.”

The channel cut to a commercial for toilet bleach, and then the TV screen flickered and dissolved into static. An “ahhh” of dismay rippled around the rec room. Then a fresh image appeared on the screen, this one grainy and jittery. It showed silhouettes of people in a dimly-lit environment, their heads mostly, accompanied by muffled conversation.

One of the Garuda ground support crew twigged. “They’ve patched us into a live feed, from the Avatars. This is… Rama, most likely. Yeah. You know he’s got that headband thing? Mini camera implanted in that. Him and Parashurama and Krishna all have one. Kurma too, I think. We’re getting first-person footage of the Ten in Garuda’s loading bay, about to go out into the field. Holy shit. This is going to be awesome.”

“Rama-vision,” I said. “Rama-o-rama.” Aanandi would have found it funny, had she been there. Francesca, too, only I wasn’t thinking about her nearly so much these days.

Brightness flooded the screen as the hatch of the loading bay behind the Garuda’s main cabin opened The camera revealed an expanse of river and a stretch of Manhattan shoreline; FDR Drive, the trees of Peter Detmold Park, the high-rises beyond.

There was a lurch. The Avatars were aboard their sky sled, Krishna’s chariot, with blue-skinned Krishna himself at the front manning the controls, guiding them steadily out onto a platform on the Garuda’s starboard flank. Matsya and Vamana were visible in the foreground, the latter mugging for the camera, giving peace signs and sticking out his tongue.

VanderKamp had always annoyed me on screen, bigging himself up and boasting about his thespian triumphs. You can hardly blame a dwarf for having “little man” syndrome, a pathological need to make up in personality what he lacked in stature, and there was no denying that VanderKamp was an accomplished actor who had not allowed his size to stand in his way, even to the point of tackling the great Shakespearean tragic roles such as Lear and Macbeth, to acclaim. But did he have to be quite such an obnoxiously bumptious fucktard?

“Hey, Klaus,” the dwarf said to Matsya.

The Fish-man glared down at him through slitted eyes. “We are on duty, Vamana,” he said in sibilant tones and with a marked German accent. “We will use our Avatar codenames at all times when in public.”

“Yeah, sorry, Matsya.” Vamana smirked. “Good point. Onstage. Don’t break role. But this is great, isn’t it? Action at last.”

Matsya had nictitating membranes, under-eyelids that slid sideways across his eyes. He blinked them at Vamana. “Perhaps you are excited. But a rakshasa, if that is what we are facing, is nothing to be taken lightly. Recall our briefing with Aanandi? As with any asura, it is the sworn enemy of all devas, and it will not go down without a struggle.”

“So there you have it,” Vamana said to Rama’s camera. “The team’s pet amphibian has spoken. ‘It vill not go down vizzoutein struggle, ja?’”

His sniggering was lost in a burst of noise as the chariot abruptly shot free of the Garuda and hurtled out over the river. The microphone in Rama’s headband camera picked up nothing except the buffeting of the wind and the rumble of the chariot’s rocket engine. There was, though, a quite clearly audible sigh from Rama, and I could have sworn I heard him mutter “salaud” under his breath. Rama was a Frenchman, and if he thought Vamana was a – rough translation – wanker, then I couldn’t fault his judgement… and I wanted him to be my friend.

The chariot streaked above the City That Never Sleeps and swooped to an elegant landing on 42nd Street just inside the police cordon, beside the Park Avenue Viaduct.

Immediately, inevitably, a score of New York’s finest dropped their doughnuts and sprang into action. The Dashavatara were surrounded by a ring of cops, all with sidearms drawn and yelling out a barrage of contradictory commands: “Drop your weapons!” “Stand down!” “Hands on your heads!” “Hands where I can see them!” “Identify yourselves!” “Step out from the vehicle!” “Do not move!” “Stay where you are!”

This was Buddha’s moment to shine.

“My friends,” he said to the police officers, “my dear friends, there’s no need for such hostility. We come in peace. We’re here to help.”

Even muffled and distorted over Rama’s headband mike, that voice was remarkable. Calm, measured, persuasive. Like chocolate dipped in honey and sprinkled with sugar. As Buddha continued to speak, reassuring the cops that the Avatars were a force for good and meant them no harm, I felt soothed myself. A sensation of warmth and wellbeing flowed through me. I wanted to hug someone. I wanted someone to hug me back. I could see others in the rec room experiencing much the same thing. A couple of IT nerds slipped an arm around each other’s shoulders. A big beefy guy on the onsite security team discreetly wiped away a tear. I began thinking that harmony was such a wonderful concept, and conflict so futile. Why couldn’t we all just get along? The world would be a far better place if everyone could only appreciate that despite all our differences we were all the same, just people. War, war is stupid. I hope the Russians love their children too. Ebony and ivory. All we are saying is give peace a chance.

And if Buddha’s words were having that effect on me at a distance of nine thousand miles via a satellite linkup, what were they doing to those New York cops standing just yards away from him?

“So put away your guns, why don’t you?” he said. “Be reasonable. Show understanding. There’s no need to fear us. We are your friends. We wish this carnage to end as much as you do, and we’re to make that happen.”

The police officers holstered their pistols, with puzzled frowns, as though they couldn’t quite figure out why. They offered one another apologetic smiles and shrugs, and the most senior of them, a sergeant I think, said to Buddha, “Our people have engaged the suspect. We’ve heard firearms discharge over the shortwave, and we’re awaiting further communications. There may be nothing for you to do in there. It could all be over.”

“We’ll take a look anyway.”

“You’re welcome to. Just be careful, all right?” The sergeant tipped his cap to the Dashavatara with the stern, avuncular air of a B-movie beat cop who had just delivered a caution to a gang of rambunctious teenagers.

In return, I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-Not-Buddha just smiled benignly.

Leaving Krishna minding the chariot, the rest of the Dashavatara made their way through the station entrance below the statue of Mercury, and ventured along onto the main concourse, with the four-faced clock above the information booth and the astronomical fresco arching overhead. Parashurama was in the lead, Narasimha just behind him. Kurma dogged along at their heels. Rama took the rear, bow raised, an arrow nocked and ready to fly. The onscreen image veered left and right, up and down, as he quartered his surroundings, scanning for targets. The bow and arrow remained in shot, a fixed constant.

The concourse was deserted, eerily empty given that it was midmorning Eastern Standard Time. Visible on the Tennessee marble floor and on the double staircase were pools of blood and gobbets of torn flesh. The bodies had been carried out by the paramedics.

Narasimha knelt by one, dipped his finger in, sniffed the fingertip, and then licked it.

That brought noises of disgust from several people in the rec room.

“Gross,” said someone.

“More lion than man,” said someone else.

Narasimha straightened up. “I can taste it. It is in the blood. In the fear in the blood. Whatever did this was no human being. It was not of this world.”

“Asura,” said Kalkin. “Must be. Straight out of the pits of Yamapuri.”

“It may come from Hell,” said Rama, “but we can always send it back there.”

“Tighten up, people,” said Parashurama. “You know the drill. Stay together. Keep your wits about you.”

The Dashavatara moved deeper into the station, descending to the subterranean track levels. There, they encountered the first corpse: one of the police officers who had been sent into the station to flush out the killer. The woman was decked out in tactical vest and NYPD cap. Her gun had been drawn but lay several yards away from her – along with her hand and forearm. The rest of her was an even less pretty sight. The tac vest had protected her about as much as a silk waistcoat would have. She had been gutted like a fish.

A couple of the Maldivians left the room, murmuring imprecations to Allah. One of the IT nerds felt light-headed and had to lie down. The rest of us continued to watch in appalled fascination.

There were more corpses strewn along the platforms. It had been a cop slaughter. Tattered blue shirts were soaked purple with blood. Everywhere there was evisceration, dismemberment, decapitation, not to mention the omnipresent bite marks.

Parashurama toe-nudged the spent shell casings that littered the floor. “At least they got off some shots, for all the good it did.”

The tracks perspectived away from the brightly lit platform, narrowing into darkness. The Avatars peered along them, wary, alert. Only a couple of trains had pulled in. The rest had been stalled further up the line once the attacks started.

“Matsya?” said Parashurama. “Those big eyes of yours picking up anything?”

“My vision is superior underwater,” said Matsya, “but in air, no better than yours. Rama has the sharpest eyesight of any of us.”

“Even I cannot see in the dark,” said Rama.

“Hush!” Narasimha had a hand up. He was swivelling his head this way and that, his nostrils widened as far as they could go. “There are so many strong smells. Oil. Metal. Concrete. The blood and entrails. But I think…” He pointed, and his voice dropped to an urgent growl. “There. It knows we are here. It is coming towards us. So fast.”

“Everybody,” Parashurama barked. “Defensive positions.”

The Dashavatara formed themselves into a circle, and then there was a scuffling, a screeching, lots of yelling, chaos. In the rec room we got glimpses of a black humanoid shape, like a mannequin carved from jet, moving swiftly, a glossy blur. One moment it was on Varaha’s back and he was shaking frantically from side to side, trying to buck it off before it could sink its hideous fangs in. Next, it was grappling with Narasimha, the two of them locked in a furious embrace, both snarling and spitting. Then it was pounding on Kurma’s armour, trying to tear through the nanotube polymer plates. A large fist batted it aside – the fist of Vamana, who had grown to his full height. All the while, Rama was calling out, “Get clear! I cannot make the shot if you don’t all get clear!” And then he hissed, “Merde!” as, drawn by his shouts, the black thing had turned and made a beeline for him. It filled the entire screen, and there were panicked yelps in the rec room, as though the rakshasa was coming for us, as though it was somehow going to squeeze out from the TV and launch itself into our midst. Glowing red eyes traced lens flare spirals. Above all the ruckus there was an audible twang, and then the beast was lurching away from the camera, an arrow protruding from its black hide, somewhere in the abdominal region.

It was hurt, but it didn’t seem any less deadly for that. It rounded on Kalkin, who had a wickedly curved talwar in either hand. He slashed both sabres in an X pattern across the rakshasa’s chest, and it reeled, keening horribly. Sticky, tarry blood spattered the platform and Kalkin’s face.

The rakshasa scuttled down onto the track and limped off. It had had enough. These devas weren’t easy pickings like ordinary humans were.

Parashurama gave chase, his battleaxe held high. He swung. There was a chunk sound, like a hatchet cleaving wood, only louder and wetter. The rakshasa let out a high-pitched shriek that reminded me of the blood-curdling noise urban foxes made when fighting in my garden, and then Narasimha sprang forth, straddling the creature’s back, talons out. His coup de grâce blow severed the demon’s head clean from its neck at a single swipe.

The image steadied. I could hear Rama panting. Vamana was looking startled and dazed, his head bowed beneath the ceiling. Varaha was feeling himself all over, checking to see that he was uninjured. Kalkin was saying, “Did we get it? Tell me we got it.”

Buddha joined Parashurama and Narasimha down on the track. He approached the rakshasa and uttered what sounded like a prayer in Bengali. Switching to English, he said, “You are gone. You have acted only as your nature compelled you to. We bear you no ill will for that. You were savage but necessary, and your cycle through life will lead you to purification and oneness with the heart of creation eventually, as it does all of us.”

“Yeah,” said Vamana, shrinking down. “Or, to put it another way – you’ve just been deva’ed, you piss-ugly piece of shit.”

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