Duplicate. Infiltrate. Exterminate.
The alien ate its way out of Antarctica, devouring and duplicating every living thing it found. Humanity turned continents to glass and oceans to poison in a desperate effort to stop it—and failed.
Nobody expected that once the alien copied everyone, once it owned the world, it would set the copies free.
Police detective Kevin Holtzmann fled with his family into the desert, and almost survived. Now a new Kevin must figure out the terrifying new world's rules before the world eats him alive—again. His life teeters between yesterday's nightmares and tomorrow's unknown horrors.
But humanity's best and worst features survived. Life means hope, and terror, and joy, and fear. New life means new dangers. New threats. New crimes…
Good thing he's a new Kevin.
Until last year, most readers knew Michael Warren Lucas because of his nonfiction work. Then a novel he had doubts about, but published anyway took off, and suddenly a lot more readers became familiar with his fiction. I've been reading Michael's work for years now, and I love it. My favorite is Butterfly Stomp Waltz, but that didn't really fit into a fear bundle. So, Immortal Clay is the next best thing. Once you walk into the twisted imagination of Michael Lucas, you really won't want to leave… – Kristine Kathryn Rusch
"This was a book full of non-stop action and strange goings on. I found myself unable to put it down and the chapters raced by quickly."– Alex Kourvo, Writing Slices blog
"From the intense opening to the final page, this book is an original. Michael Lucas is one of those rare writers who can make nail-biter action and gut-wrenching drama dance together and not have either stepping on the other's toes."– Rob Cornell, author of Darker Things and Unturned
"Immortal Clay is SF, horror, Stephen King small town America, and twisted New Weird - but most of all, it's great entertainment."– Rob Rowntree, author of Unbound Brothers
THREE DAYS after the world ended, police detective Kevin Holtzmann awoke when his wife shouted his name.
Kevin wrenched himself upright. Heat slammed into his consciousness. His mouth crackled like parchment. He rolled off the sleeping bag to his knees, pulling his eyes open through the sandy scum gumming them shut. He wondered how he'd slept, but then remembered—exhaustion eventually overpowers even the most voracious fear.
Sheila shouted again. "Kevin!" Barely restrained panic shook her voice, reigniting Kevin's dread.
The afternoon sun highlighted the station wagon on the dusty desert. Light bounced off fresh bullet holes in the russet shell. Kevin had lain pinned under the narrow strip of shadow against passenger door, and he blinked to clear his sight as desert sunlight flooded his vision. His hands rasped against the car as he steadied himself.
Shelia stood on the other side of the wagon, her back pressed against the front fender. A smoky patina stained her exposed skin. Their teenage daughter Julie stood beside her, backed hard against the driver's door. Neither moved.
"Dad!" Julie said, her voice flatter than any fourteen-year-old's should be.
"Here." Julie's dispassionate voice, so unlike his daughter, alarmed Kevin more than Sheila's edgy fear. He spun his gaze around them, looking for the threat. The sun had cracked the horizon right before he went to sleep, but now the rusty hardpacked earth shone in the brilliant light. Probably a lizard or a snake out in the scattered scrub, but as little life as they could hope for. Maybe little enough to avoid attention. The only things between them and the horizon were distant striated hills and, further off, jagged Utah mountains.
Kevin trotted around the front of the car. He'd barely cleared the hood before stopping dead.
The man standing thirty short feet away had a neatly trimmed beard and black hair cascading down to the shoulders of an off-the-rack suit half a size too large for him. The translucently pale skin around his chin and over his eyes amplified the rosacea mottling his cheeks and nose.
Kevin froze for half a second. When he'd still worked Detroit PD homicide, a jury had found Collins guilty of five out of six counts of first-degree murder, as well as rape and a dozen lesser charges. The judge had sentenced him to over a hundred years. How could Collins be here, now?
There was really only one way. The man wasn't Collins. The real Jared Collins had died sometime in the last few days.
The Collins standing beneath the soot-hazed sky was unspeakably more dangerous than the original.
Kevin stared at the pleasantly smiling killer and circled the car to stand beside his wife and daughter. Julie braced her back against the front fender and lined up Kevin's service Springfield XD in a trembling grip, ready to put the stranger down if he came any closer.
"Looks like Saturdays at the gun range paid off," Julie said.
Pride made Kevin's heart pound even harder. Most kids would have been screaming or crying right now. The gun held only two rounds, but Julie carried herself like she had a full clip.
Shelia clenched the greasy machine pistol with a steady but too low grip that would kick up and smash her face if she pulled the trigger. Keeping his eyes on Collins, Kevin put his hand on the weapon and gently tugged it from his wife. His shoulder stung as he nestled the collapsible stock into yesterday's bruises, the warm metal somehow sweaty in his grip.
Having Collins in the line of fire didn't reassure him at all. The four bullets still in the clip would put a man in the ground, but even a full clip only distracted those taken by the alien. The human race had beaten cancer and broken global warming, but the alien shrugged off anything less than incineration.
"Feel better, Kevin?" Collins' voice sounded a little more hoarse than in the courthouse, but still had its jocular lilt.
"He oozed out of the ground," Sheila whispered, standing as close to Kevin as she could get without touching him.
"What do you want, Collins?" Kevin asked.
"Nice ride." Collins nodded at the station wagon. "You modified a hybrid to take diesel? Wasn't that illegal? Official vehicles only? Oh, that's right. You're a cop. The rules don't apply to you."
Kevin focused the machine pistol on Collins' chest.
"What's the matter, Detective?" Collins spread his empty hands. "No black humor today? No quips? Not even insulting my parents?"
"What do you want, Collins?"
"It's not what I want. It's what Absolute wants."
"Who?" Cold sank into Kevin's gut. He would have happily traded both kidneys for working flamethrower, but they'd left it empty in a parking lot in North Platte.
"He's winning, you know. You nuked Australia and South America into glowing glass, so he tried Africa. You burned that, so he waited. Three years he waited while you built up defenses, and now he's come up every coastline in the world. All at the same time. He owns the ocean. He's winning. Smashed through your years of work in two days. You'll be free. Whether you like it or not."
"We'll fight you all the way," Kevin said.
Collins threw out his hands. "Every city is burning right now! You think nuclear winter was bad? Wait 'til you get ash summer on top of it."
Kevin licked his parched lips. The desert heat immediately sucked away the moisture. "Why you?"
The smile split Collins' face impossibly wide, or just humanly fiendish? "I'm motivated. That's what they talked about in Marquette, you know. How to get motivated, to make your life better, to achieve your goals. Of all the people Absolute claimed, I was the most motivated." The smile vanished. "To find you."
Kevin's hand shifted on the machine pistol. "Go. Before I put a bullet in you."
"Bullets can't stop us." The smile returned. "It's the Second Coming, Homicide Detective Holtzmann. I've dumped the old mortal clay and put on incorruptible flesh."
"You're a copy. A copy of a worthless asshole."
"I have all my memories, all my feelings." Collins' eyes narrowed. "I remember every second I spent in Marquette. Every second I spent hating you. Sixteen years, five months, twenty-two days. And they're all on you."
"You killed—no, Collins killed nine women. Even if the DA could only bring charges on six." Don't treat it like a human.
"Twenty-eight. But that's Detroit. Who keeps count?"
"It's killed millions."
"Humans killed millions. And I'm pretty sure Absolute has taken billions, now. We've had hours."
"And of those billions, you're the one who showed up here. Why? How did you find us?"
"I've kept an eye on you, Detective. Checked that pissant town you moved to, but you'd left before we got there. So I thought what would I do if I was a coward cop, and it hit me. I'd grab my women and my weapons and run like a scared kid for the most lifeless place I could find."
Kevin flinched. When the final warning went out, the Department had issued every officer a machine pistol and a flamethrower. He'd used his badge to pass the roadblocks and get through the barricades when every other Frayville police officer had stayed, fought, and died. Anger sharpened his voice. "So the alien made you just to take me?"
"Oh, that hit home, did it?" Collins chuckled. "Absolute doesn't understand us. Yet." His fingers wiggled. "He tried. He finds it easier to make us understand him."
Kevin shifted the machine pistol, broadening his stance to better absorb recoil. "For the last time. Why are you here?"
"Because I know you," Collins snarled. "I'm here to give you a choice."
"Absolute doesn't want to hurt you."
"Really. He doesn't want to hurt anyone. Being forcibly taken messes you up. Trauma. Post-traumatic stress disorder. Like the prison doc talked about. But if you come willingly, or in your sleep, it's easier. Absolute," Collins said, "doesn't want to hurt you."
The cold in Kevin's stomach turned into a frozen pit in the afternoon desert heat. "Not a chance. If you move near us, I'll see how much bullets really hurt one of you."
"By all means, I'll stay right here. But if you try to get away..." Collins' fists tightened. "If you try to get away, I get to take you. I'm really hoping you try to run. "
Sheila grabbed Kevin's elbow, looking past him with a taut face. "Honey. Look."
Kevin's hand tightened around the trigger and he followed her gaze, keeping the MAC-10 centered on Collins' torso.
The scattered scrub brush was waving, thrashing, stretching like pulled taffy.
What had been a few cactuses had become spiny branches lashing out towards one another, in the space of two breaths becoming tentacles that reached towards other plants. Where two tentacles touched, they coalesced, becoming a single strand of flexing tissue.
The shrubs had formed an irregular circle around them.
"Julie!" he said. "Watch our back!" They should have gotten in the car. They should have shot Collins. They should have done anything except be here, now.
Julie whirled. Her breath caught, then she forcibly steadied herself.
Kevin jerked back to Collins. "So you're the messenger for this thing?"
"I'm more of a disciple," Collins said. "Bringing Absolute's good word, any way I see fit. They tell you all about the good word. In prison." He spread his hands. "You know. Prison. Where you're locked in a small room. They don't let you go. No matter what. You're lucky. You can get free any time you want. All you have to do is touch a plant and wait. You won't feel anything. You won't even lose consciousness. Absolute promises. He's made this offer billions of times, and always keeps his word. You will be you, no doubt. It's proof."
Bile filled the back of Kevin's mouth.
Collins dropped his hands to his sides. The fingers had become impossibly long, reaching almost to his knees. "If you don't go quietly, if you take one step towards getting in that car…then I get to make things happen. However I see fit."
His fingers flailed around each other, still stretching.
"I hope you turn it down," Collins said. "I really do. I could spend all day with you. You and your lovely family."
Tremors ran down Kevin's spine. His mouth clenched so hard that he felt a filling crack. Once the Taken stopped hiding, once they rearranged themselves, they could move impossibly fast.
The family couldn't escape the circle on foot.
They'd never get in the car before tentacles stabbed through the missing windows.
"Do tell me to fuck off," Collins said. The crotch of his pants swelled. "Oh, please."
"Kevin," Sheila said, stepping closer to him.
Kevin's shoulders shook with impotent fury. He welcomed the fury. It drowned out the terror.
"Kevin," Sheila said, more softly.
Sheila face's was open and relaxed. Her hand rested on Kevin's bare elbow. "I love you." She took a deep breath. "It's time."
Kevin felt like a bullet had punched through his chest and blown his heart out through shattered ribs. "There's a way," he hissed. "There has to be a way."
"It's over," she whispered. "The only question is, how."
He spun his head around. The plant tentacles had grown thinner, but more numerous, spreading out. What had been a thin circle had become a ringed hedge of fine mesh. They'd have to jump ten feet high and five across to clear them. His mind whirled faster than his body.
Fear bubbled up over the anger. Maybe a gasoline fire? How could he get the fuel out, cover Collins and the shrubs, and ignite them before they got him?
"I love you," she repeated.
Trapped. Walls clanged shut inside Kevin's mind.
Sheila smiled at him. Her eyes teared up, but she smiled.
Kevin had no idea how much that cost her. His soul seemed to drain away.
"Mom?" Julie said. "Dad?" The pistol wove back and forth as his daughter, his amazing daughter, tried to cover the half-circle behind them.
"It's okay, love" Sheila said. "We've talked. We've got a plan, we know what we're doing."
"I love you," Kevin said softly. "Both of you. Remember that."
"See you on the other side," Sheila whispered. Her voice shook. "I'll always love you."
Kevin looked back to Collins, or what had been Collins. Tentacles flexed at the end of his arms, long enough to go twice around Kevin's thigh. Collins' pants bulged obscenely, as if he'd grown an extra forearm between his legs. His face remained human, despite the height he'd added as Sheila talked.
Kevin's heart felt like lead, burning lead, but he held his voice steady. "Tell me, Collins." Somewhere, he found the strength to take a step away from his family. "What was it like?"
"No, not that." He needed an extra second to save Sheila and Julie. "When the alien came for you." He shuffled his feet again, gaining a few extra inches.
Collins' face froze.
"I can see you there, in your cell. All of you hard-case convicts. Did it send tentacles in after you? Or did it just ooze between the bars like it oozed out of Antarctica?"
The once-human monster's tentacles stilled. Its face grew even redder.
"Did you scream? Or cry?" Kevin took another step away from his family. "I bet you cried. I bet you bawled your eyes out." He fought to sound cocky, but he felt a balled fist in his throat and his guts quivered like water.
"I can see you pressed up against the corner, crying."
"Yes?" snarled Collins. "Or no."
"You probably shoved your cellmate in front of you. Or did he push your soft, sweet ass in front?"
"Shut up," Collins said. "Tell me no, you asshole."
"You're kind of a pansy. I bet they threw you to the alien. Threw you and watched it rape you."
Collins' face spasmed, then split at the mouth. Rows of sharklike teeth punctured the top and bottom of his distended mouth in a torrent of blood and mucus. "You can't distract me." His voice buzzed and quavered, barely comprehensible. "I see them."
"I'm not distracting you," Kevin said. He took one more step and spun towards his wife and daughter.
He couldn't meet Sheila's eyes. They'd talked this through. They'd planned it, talking quietly while Julie slept. And he still couldn't meet her eyes.
Sheila had told him to take care of Julie first. But he couldn't. Julie's back was turned, and Sheila's eyes were fixed on him, a comforting hand on their daughter's shoulder.
He couldn't let Sheila see what had to happen.
He'd promised. But he couldn't.
The first round from the MAC-10 took Sheila at the tip of her nose, just below the eyes. Her eyes tipped back, and the second round took off the top of her skull.
Kevin's eyes were wide. His breathing had stopped.
Four bullets. Three people. But Kevin had seen enough death to know it wasn't a simple on or off state. Death was a grey scale, a spectrum. If enough of Sheila's brain survived, the alien would take her.
They'd agreed that the alien couldn't take them. No matter what.
Two bullets for Sheila. Two left.
Julie screamed, a high shriek like tearing metal. The pistol bucked in her hand as she pulled the trigger.
Collins hissed in sharp pain.
Kevin couldn't think. Horror overwhelmed his brain.
He couldn't do this.
He had to do this.
The third shot went in the side of Julie's head, just above the ear. Fresh blood spattered the windshield.
Somewhere, Collins let out an impossible alien cry.
Julie crumpled. As her knees folded, Kevin put the last bullet into the bottom of her skull. Bone dissolved into a mush of brain and blood.
Kevin's own blood hammered in his ears. He still couldn't breathe.
He didn't think he'd ever breathe again.
Kevin's service automatic flew from Julie's hand, clattering across the station wagon's hood and rattling to the ground. Kevin lunged toward it, throwing himself across the dirt, anything to stop looking at what he'd done, the devastated ruins of his life now heaped on the desert floor.
I'll always love you, Shelia had said.
If he hadn't pulled the trigger, her last words would have been screams.
He fell flat on his stomach, one hand sizzling as it bounced off the sunscorched chrome bumper, the other slapping the dirt. The Springfield XD gouged his chest, and he scrabbled backwards to try to get his hands on it.
Julie had fired one shot. It should have one more bullet.
Something seized Kevin's ankle and yanked him skyward.
His feet left the ground so hard his back popped. He clawed at the ground, dirt flying as his chest came up. His right hand caught hot metal, and he grabbed the pistol as he flew upwards, suspended by one ankle.
Collins, or the writhing mass of tentacles and limbs he'd become, stood only a few feet away, stinking of shit and blood. His teeth spun in circular rows, ready to feed flesh into his maw. Sounds probably meant to be words buzzed through the mass of distorted flesh, but Kevin didn't even try to understand.
Kevin slapped the pistol into his other hand, locking a finger around the trigger.
One bullet left. Enough. You couldn't double-tap yourself.
Tentacles flailed and thrashed, spiraling up his leg, clamping his torso.
Kevin still hadn't inhaled. He didn't see the point. He couldn't find it in him to care.
Blood rushed to his head.
Collins snapped him from side to side, like a dog with a toy.
Kevin's free leg bounced, wrenching him from side to side. He wrenched his hand to his head. Hot gun metal jammed into the bottom of his chin.
He pulled the trigger.
It didn't move.
He yanked it again, forgetting technique, desperate simply for a bullet to punch through his chin and take the top of his head off, scatter his brains across the desert floor.
The muffled choking noise from Collins was probably meant as laughter.
Kevin looked at the pistol.
A thick, woody tentacle filled the space behind the trigger.
Nausea filled his gut. Kevin's heart felt too heavy, as if it would tear its way through his throat and crash into the ground.
A fleshy tentacle wrapped around his wrist and squeezed.
Kevin gasped as his hand involuntarily opened. The automatic, with its one precious bullet, fell to the dirt.
At least he'd saved Sheila and Julie from this.
I will always love you.
Then the tentacles stabbed into his ears, twined into his nose, plunged up his throat, punctured his gut and his chest. Kevin didn't have the air to scream and suddenly he cared very much about breathing.
When I first woke up, I had a blister under my chin. From the hot gun barrel.