Buzzword Books

Exit Alpha

Exit Alpha. Ingenious spy thriller set in the Antarctic.

When the world's most secret intelligence agency starts to implode, anything can happen. And does.

Ray Cain works for a covert organization called EXIT. Its brief is to guide world events by killing or replacing dangerous political figures with duplicates. Cain has replaced President Zia of Pakistan and is due to be retrenched because, like all such specialist agents, he is useless for anything else. Then, curiously, he is recalled for one more job.
Meanwhile, a mole in EXIT blows the organization's cover and Cain is sent with other EXIT staff to the ALPHA base in Antarctica. There he discovers they are to be killed to destroy evidence of the organization. And gets a chance to save a friend the world believes dead - Pope John Paul the First.

A Pope in Antarctica?
This brilliantly written adventure thriller not only extends the life of a Pope but has the biographical and historical depth to do it supremely well. A clever and absorbing read. (100,000 words)

Available as Paperback from: HarperCollins Publishers, Australia


Read a chapter below:

ANTARCTIC PLATEAU 1973 - CREVASSE
The thermometer on his parka read minus 40 degrees centigrade. Whiteout and wind chill made the glacier a featureless hell. Since the split had appeared in his boot-top, he'd tried everything to patch it. If they kept on like this, he'd lose his toes.
     One thing was certain in Antarctica. Everything was ten times harder and more dangerous. The 'A' factor, they called it. The smallest mistake could kill.
 Chafed by his harness, anxious about his foot, cursing the man ahead of him, Cain struggled on. They were on powder snow now, had cleared the sastrugi, thank God. But there could be crevasses here.
     Zuiden, far ahead all morning, was now a speck at the end of his sledge tracks, his more powerful body better at hauling 200 pounds. He'd stopped at the top of a rise to probe with the spike of his ice axe.
     Cain plodded toward him, straining to see through his goggles. In this undefined, unrelieved whiteness it was hard to spot slumps. The danger wasn't the centre of a snow bridge. You had to watch for the fault line at the edge. Plumes blew from ridges. The wind was rising fast.
     Last night in the snapping tent he'd hunched beside the Primus, shaken frost from between his double layer of socks, checked his foot. Two toes - spongy, painful.
     'Amputation time,' Zuiden said through salami and peas.
      'You'd like that, wouldn't you?'
     'Another Paki cripple. So what? You black bastards are a dime a dozen.'
 Why the fixation on skin colour? He wasn't even that dark. He'd been told his mother had been Caucasian, his father Pakistani. Zuiden's parents were Dutch students. So bloody what? They'd never known their parents. Why did deadshits like Zuiden make such comments?
     They were manhauling far south of Alpha with a rendezvous point but no backup. EXIT cadets sank or swam. They were both twenty-four years old. Training continued seventeen hours a day and seven days a week for twenty years - special forces techniques and streaming for specific operations. For Cain, that included a liberal education that Zuiden ridiculed, probably from envy.  He slogged on through squeaking snow, beard frozen, eyelids encrusted. They were nearing the crest where the ice flow would change direction. The second hour was up. His turn to lead.
     He drew level with the Dutchman. 'Time to rope up.'  'Got to crap.' Zuiden's overmitts hung from their harness. He struggled with zips.
     Cain unhitched himself from the sledge and pulled the coiled safety-rope from under the strapping. It was secured to the eyelet at the rear and he'd tied the prusiks last night when they'd pitched camp. He tossed the coil on the snow, removed his mitts, tied a figure eight in the shorter end and snapped it into his harness karabiner.
     He glanced at Zuiden - freezing his arse off, squatting behind the windbreak of his sledge. Turds, in this place, remained preserved forever. You were supposed to shit in the tent just before you took it down but the bastard hadn't managed it this morning. 
     'Wind's getting up.' Cain's fingers were already numb and he wanted to keep moving to stop heat draining from his limbs. He hitched up to the sledge again, replaced his hands in the clumsy gauntlets and walked an idle step forward to probe the drift with the spike of his axe.
     The bridge must have been a mere crust.
     Like an unlocked trapdoor, it dropped.
     He fell in a cloud of snow, arms out, feet kicking air, expecting the sledge to smash down on top of him, expecting a 100-foot fall.
     Then he jerked, stopped, dangled against a glacial-blue ice wall. Below him, the fissure widened to a bottomless blue-black void.
     The cascading snow stopped. He hung in tomb-like silence, blood pounding in his ears. What had snagged him? He pushed back his frosted hood, peered up.
     The lip was 15 feet above. The fibreglass sledge was jammed 8 feet down the slot on an irregular projection of ice. He was hanging from the sledge poles. If the sledge slipped, he died.
     He yelled up.
     No answer.
     Jesus.
     He yelled again, disoriented, shocked.
     In this limbo-land, half the effort was psychological. He had to pull himself together, think.
     The safety-rope hung slack beside him. If the main coil was still above the lip, Zuiden could belay it. Perhaps he was doing it now. But the crap would have cost him - like everything on this continent cost you. His hands wouldn't be warm for half an hour.
     He yelled, 'Zuiden.'
     He'd lost his ice axe. The strap had come off his wrist. He checked for damage. Nothing seemed broken. The harness cut into his thighs but he wore no crampons so had no forward spikes to kick into the undercut wall. 
     One prusik hung near his side - a small diameter loop of rope tied to the main one with a sliding hitch that jammed under load. The other was attached to his harness. In theory, you used the loops to inch your way up the rope. In practice it was hard. Although he was strong, Antarctic gear was heavy. You really needed other men above, using an improvised pulley system.
      And if he yanked the safety-rope, he'd jerk the coil into the crevasse.
      Sweet Jesus, Brahma and Allah. Zuiden had to belay him or he was dead.
     'Zuiden!' He shrieked it.
     Nothing.
     He hung, helpless, chilled by the smooth walls. It was hard to look up. Ice on his facemask had stuck to his hood halfway around. Zuiden would need to anchor himself off, then take up the slack and belay.
     At last, a masked, goggled and hood-shrouded head appeared above the lip.
 Cain yelled. 'Belay the rope.'
     The shape went. Cain waited, losing sensation in his limbs, inertia pooling warmth in his core. Soon he'd shake with cold and his hands would be senseless meat.
     A jerk.
     Ice particles pattered on his hood.
     The sledge had slipped and he'd dropped three inches down the face.
     He dangled from the poles, scared to breathe.
     Zuiden's hood again, a dark triangle, snow building on one side. 'Okay. You're anchored off.'
     Cain pulled on the rope. 'You could have taken up the slack.'
     'You do it.'
     'Bastard. You're supposed to winch me up.'
     'Suck arse.' The hood disappeared.
     Cain cursed and raved. The deadshit didn't care if he fell.
     He pulled on the live rope. Still slack. Each time he pulled, he had to slide the prusiks higher - the one attached to his harness, and the other longer loop for his foot. 
     Was it anchored off at all? Or had Zuiden just decided to leave him? He  wouldn't put it past the bastard. Although his jammed sledge held much of the food, Zuiden had the vital tent and stove.
     Yes, the black-hearted swine would enjoy arriving at the rendezvous alone. They'd question him but have nothing to go on. All evidence would be in the glacier. Entombed.
     He kept pulling until the rope hung like a lift cable loop far below. Perhaps the shit hadn't anchored off at all. He mightn't even be up there - could have left.
     Cursing, heart pounding, he dragged on the rope.
     A jerk as it took up.
     He gasped with relief.
     He worked a foot into the long loop and slowly added weight, saw the knot jam and kink the rope. As he stood in the stirrup-like loop the cutting pressure of the harness eased. Next problem - the sledge poles. They held him down. But if he unbuckled from the sledge, he'd rely entirely on the rope.
     He slipped off his gauntlets and fumbled around his hips. He could barely feel his fingers and needed his hands or he was dead. There was no sensation through the gloves he still wore, the silk inner and thick, thermal outer. After a long fiddle, the poles and flexible links hung free.
      Shaking with effort, he slid the harness loop high, bent his leg so it took his weight and slid the knot of the foot loop higher. The tension had to be off the knots to move them along the rope. Even then they were hard to dislodge. He had to push the loop against the knot each time to free them.
     He rested a moment, exhausted. In this frigid hell, each movement hurt.
     He stood in the stirrup loop again. His body weight twisted the rope until the loops twined around it like vines. After he worked the slack knot loose he had to turn it to untangle the loop and the gloves made it as easy as playing a piano with his feet. He hung in the chasm, revolving on the rope, fighting to make the loops work.
      'Zuiden,' he bellowed. The sound was absorbed by the ice.
     Above him, the loop knots were fraying but the lip was closer at least. Working the loops, he drew level with the sledge then dragged himself up until stopped by the loop secured to its end.
     Without help there was no alternative. He'd have to cut the tie to the sledge.
     'Zuiden,' he yelled again.
     Nothing.
     He waited to gain strength, worked the knife from its sheath on his harness strap and sawed at the loop. As the strands gave, the live rope straightened in a spray of ice. Wind moaned above. The weather was getting bad.
     The fibreglass sledge hadn't budged and seemed jammed enough to stand on. Now he was half on the rear of the sledge, his head two feet below the crevasse lip.
     He slid the loop knots as high as he could to guard against falling back. Thank God for the foothold of the sledge.  He rested, panting in the thin air, staring up.
     The two feet might as well have been ten. The lifeline had cut into the lip. Zuiden should have put an ice axe handle crossways under the rope but hadn't bothered.
     A rising gale swirled snow down the slot. How to climb out without help?
 Gasping, yelling curses, his beard iced to his face mask, shivering like a wet dog, he pushed the harness loop as high as he could.
     He dangled, looking up.
     No Zuiden. Just snow blowing across the gap.
     The only way to move up was to shorten the foot loop. He'd have to tie a knot in the bight.
     With fingers that barely worked, he finally got it done, put his foot in the loop and clutched the rope. When he straightened his leg, his head moved higher than the lip. Snow pelted his face, turning his eyelashes to ice.
     'Zuiden, you arsehole.'
     His bellow was stolen by the wind.
     All his rage at his companion was suddenly in his arms. He clawed at the drift until he could see the rope taut against the ice then chipped a hole with the knife so that he could work a hand around the rope. With one grip secure, he reached far forward, used the blade as an ice spike and dragged himself out of the slot.
     He lay prone, close to hypothermia, wind moaning around him, driven snow pounding his hood.
     He'd survived the crevasse. Now the blizzard - they called it a blizz - was the threat. The rope was all he could see. Visibility was almost zero.
     'Zuiden, I'll bloody kill you.'
     He crawled along the rope, reached the anchor, a single snow stake. Zuiden should have anchored twice but obviously didn't give a damn.
     He couldn't think properly, didn't know what to do. He had no equipment, just the rope. Should he use it to search in widening circles around the spot? No. He'd slot himself again.
      He needed shelter desperately. The wind was strong enough to blow him off his feet. If he'd had a bivvy bag or extra insulation, he could have dug himself into the snow. He realized with terror that he could no longer feel his left foot. 
     'Jesus,' he whimpered. So this was how you died.
     Then, through blasting drift, he glimpsed a yellow smear. An illusion? He crawled ahead.
     Yes a yellow tinge.
     The tent!
     Relief flooding him, he crawled forward yelling, lurched into a guy-line and turned for the cross-wind face. The entrance was meant to be there and Zuiden had done the job by the book - dug in the floor and heaped snow on the valance to stop wind getting underneath. A polar pyramid tent, properly pitched and secured, could withstand the highest winds.
     At the end of his strength, Cain got himself inside.
     Zuiden sat, legs in his sleeping bag, melting snow on the stove.  He didn't bother to look up.
     Cain pulled the entrance drawstring tight, dislodging frosted condensation, lay on the cell-bed matting, too weak to move.
     Above the snapping of the fabric, the thrumming of the guy-lines and the storm, Zuiden's laconic voice. 'What took you so long?'
     'You arsehole. You left me to die there.'
     'No point in two croaking. And you'd be stuffed now without the tent.'
     'If you'd bloody winched me out, you would've got the tent up faster.'
     'This is survival training. Why should I give a stuff?'
     'You don't just look after number one, you incredible arsehole shitface...'
     'Edict fourteen. DEATH IS AN ASPECT OF LIFE.'
     'Don't quote me the edicts,' Cain roared. 'I've probably lost my bloody foot.'
     'Edict six. LOYALTY TO PEOPLE IS WEAKNESS. Down here, your poncy degrees don't cut any ice.'
      Cain wanted to sob. With relief? For his foot? He didn't know. But he was damned if he'd do it in front of this callous shit. He was alive at least and able to get warm. And, for once, kerosene fumes were the sweetest smell in the world.
     He looked at his damaged left boot, frightened to take it off.
     He said, 'An eye for an eye. And a foot for a foot. You heard it here.'
     Zuiden sneered and raised a middle finger.

color=#000080>LAHORE, PAKISTAN MARCH 1978 - SCREAMS AT MIDNIGHT

 Kot Lakhpat Jail. Iron gates sweating and rusted with heat. Filthy cells the sun never found. Iron beds chained to the floor. Cockroaches crawling from the toilet hole. Flies. Stench. Endless merciless mosquitoes.
     The man sat on the lice-infested mattress, his body covered with sores. He had lately vomited blood but hadn't told his daughter. They'd let her see him yesterday. He'd trained her well. She hadn't cried.
     To guard against a coup, he'd chosen an obsequious buffoon. But the man was sly. Strange how you attracted what you feared.
     It was starting again in the courtyard. They began it at midnight so that screams kept the prisoners awake. Each man was spreadeagled on the slanting rack - belly on a bolster, feet in stocks, hands tied above his head. Then they'd flog him with a lathe, running at him and striking sideways with full force. He could hear the long cane whistle as it slashed the victim's bare arse, hear the scream, hear the army officer count off the stroke.
       He slapped mosquitoes, remembering the meeting with Kissinger last year. The agreement with France on the nuclear reprocessing plant was meant to offset soaring oil prices. But the 'free world', the rumbling voice had explained, wouldn't tolerate an Islamic bomb. Henry had actually threatened him, said he could become 'a horrible example'.
     The screams outside had stopped. The prisoner would have fainted. They'd wait for the doctor to check his pulse and revive him with smelling salts. 
 Kissinger, of course, had also attracted what he feared. America feared fundamentalists and now had one. Zia would play the Islamic card - bruise his head on his prayer mat and enforce the old barbaric laws.
     They began flogging the clod again but he was pointlessly, desperately brave - still screamed 'Jiye Bhutto' with each stroke.
     The man sweated in the cloud of insects, listening to the wretch repeat his name.
     Long live Bhutto. Ironic. He was born to lead the rabble of course, but his life had hardly been guiltless.
     Now only roaches and pain remained.
     Zia would hang him within the month.


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