By A. J. Ryan
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A man awakes on a boat at sea with no memory of who or where he is. He's not alone – there are six others, each with a unique set of skills. None of them can remember their names. All of them possess a gun.
When a message appears on the onboard computer – Proceeding to Point A – the group agrees to work together to survive whatever is coming.
But as the boat moves through the mist-shrouded waters, divisions begin to form. Who is directing them and to what purpose? Why can't they remember anything?
And what are the screams they can hear beyond the mist?
Internationally bestselling fantasy author Anthony Ryan – writing as A. J. Ryan – delivers a nerve-shredding thriller in which seven strangers must undertake a terrifying journey into the unknown.
No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.
It was the scream rather than the gunshot that woke him. It was not a human scream.
He knew that there had been a gunshot, the dissipating but familiar echo of it thrummed his ears as he raised his head, blinking eyes stinging from a mix of salt and drizzle. The scream sounded again as he shifted to press his hands against chilly, rubberised metal, pushing against a surface that heaved and swayed. He jerked towards the source of the scream, the keening, piercing quality it possessed sending a jolt of pain through his skull. More blinking brought the screamer into focus, confirming its inhuman nature.
The gull angled its head at him, a stiff, grating breeze ruffling its feathers as it bobbed on the deck as if preparing for something. He wondered if it intended to fly at him – gulls could be vicious – but it merely widened its yellow beak to scream once more before spreading an impressively broad set of wings and launching itself into the air. Following the track of its flight, he watched it skim choppy grey waters before disappearing into a bank of mist.
“Sea…” The word scraped over a dry tongue before escaping his lips. “I’m all at sea.” For no reason at all this struck him as remarkably funny, and so he laughed. The pitch of his hilarity surprised him, the loud, breathless peals of mirth causing him to descend once more to the deck as he convulsed. Deck, he realised as his laughter faded. I’m on a boat, or a ship.
His immediate impulse was to rise once more and survey his surroundings, but once again for reasons that failed to make themselves known, he didn’t. For the space of a full minute he remained huddled and unmoving on the deck, his face only inches from the rubber matting. His heart raced as he tried to parse the cause of this paralysis. I’m afraid. Why? The reason dawned with such shaming obviousness that he almost laughed again. The gunshot, fuck-head. There was a gunshot. Now get up before there’s another one.
Gritting his teeth, he pushed against the deck, forcing himself to his knees, head swivelling in search of threats, eyes tracking over more mist-shrouded waves, the white on grey wake left by the boat he was on and a small, tarpaulin-covered inflatable swaying a little in its tethers. Little boat, big boat, he thought, fighting down another wave of laughter. Hysteria, he corrected himself, drawing in a deep breath.
What he saw as he turned to his right drove out any vestige of humour.
The corpse lay slumped against a bulkhead, dark grey paint discoloured by the plume of red and black that had very recently emanated from the dead man’s skull. He wore plain military style fatigues and boots, the jacket lacking any insignia or name. His head lolled to one side, the face a stranger, although the passage of a bullet fired beneath the chin to puncture the top of the skull will do much to alter a man’s features. One arm was limp at his side, the other rested in his lap, hand clutching a pistol.
“M18, Sig Sauer.” The words were a softly spoken reflex of recognition. He knew this weapon. It was a standard issue US service pistol. Seventeen-round capacity. Effective range, fifty metres. However, more significant in that moment was the realisation that, while he could name a pistol, he couldn’t name himself.
A groan escaped him, expressing confusion so acute it was more like pain. He closed his eyes, heart pounding faster than ever. My name. My name is… My fucking name is!
Nothing came. Just a blank, silent void. Like reaching into an empty box.
Context, he told himself, as fear began to surrender to panic. You’ve had a bump on the head. An accident or something. This is a dream, or a hallucination. Think of a context. A home. A job. Then the name comes.
He grunted with the effort of summoning inner focus, eyes leaking tears as he squeezed them shut tighter and tighter.
A home. Nothing.
A job. Nothing.
Lover, wife. Nothing.
Mother, father, sister, brother. Nothing.
The darkness he saw shimmered with stars but refused to coalesce into anything he knew. No faces and certainly no names.
Places, he thought, a feverish tremble overtaking him now. Name a place. Any place… Poughkeepsie. What the hell? Why Poughkeepsie? Did he know Poughkeepsie? Was he from Poughkeepsie?
No. It was from a movie. A line spoken by Gene Hackman in a movie. That one with the great car chase under the El… The French Connection. I can remember movie lines but I can’t remember my own name?
He put his hands to his head, slapping punishing encouragement then stopping as he felt the rough stubble that covered his scalp. Shaved, he realised, fingers probing the flesh, damp from the spatter of sea air. Shaved close… His fingers halted as they alighted on an interruption in the needling texture, something puckered that traced from above his left eye around to the crown of his head. Scar.
Thoughts of accidents and injury rose once more but quelled as he detected a regularity to the scar, a straightness that made its nature plain. Surgery. Someone cut my brain box open. He could detect no stitches, meaning a healed incision. But the raised and swollen feel of the wound, however neat, forced him to conclude that whatever had been done, it wasn’t all that long ago.
Operated on then stuck on a boat with a dead man. His eyes strayed to the corpse again, lingering with automatic morbidity on the smear of red and black matter on the bulkhead before shifting to the pistol. But he wasn’t dead until just a few minutes ago. Also, he saw, as he inched closer, fighting nausea and an instinctive aversion to dead things, this suicidal stranger with his military fatigues and service issue weapon had a shaven head. Closer inspection of the unshattered portions of the skull showed a livid scar he assumed to be identical to his own.
As he drew back, he noticed something else. After shooting himself, the dead man’s wrist had fallen into his lap in such a way as to uncover the underside of his forearm, the sleeve pulled back to partially reveal a tattoo. Reaching out to take the pistol was a surprisingly swift, unhesitant action, as was the way he flicked the safety into place and slipped it into the waistband of his own fatigues.
Muscle memory, he mused, taking hold of the corpse’s wrist and pushing back the sleeve to view the tattoo in full. It consisted of a single word, a name, inked into the skin in precise clear letters lacking any ornamentation: CONRAD.
He waited for the name to ring bells, stir the pot, bring forth a glimmer, but once again all he found was the empty box. “Scar,” he muttered aloud. “Shaved head, clothing. What else do we have in common, bud?”
The buttons on the sleeves of his own fatigue jacket were fastened and he displayed considerably more clumsiness undoing them than he had in claiming the dead man’s – Conrad’s – pistol. Don’t you want to know your own name? He bit down on more laughter, forcing precision into his movements until the studs came apart and he rolled up his sleeves. The tattoo was also on his right arm, same lettering, different name: HUXLEY.
“Huxley.” He spoke it softly at first, just a whisper that barely reached his own ears, repeating it with more volume when once again the empty box was his only reward. “Huxley.” Nothing.
It emerged as more of an enraged growl than a shout, stirring no vestige of memory but it did provoke a reaction, only not from him. The noise came from within the open hatchway to the right of Conrad’s body, a shadowy orifice his overburdened mind hadn’t bothered to notice before now. The sounds were muffled and hard to identify, perhaps a brief shuffling followed by a short exhalation, but he couldn’t be sure. What was certain was the fact that he and the unfortunate Conrad weren’t alone on this boat.
Hide! The urge was instinctive, automatic. Something a criminal might think, maybe? Or just someone well attuned to the uncertainties of a survival situation, because he had little doubt that that was what this was. Really? he asked himself. Got any examples you’d like to share, Huxley? Some relevant experience definitely wouldn’t go amiss at this particular juncture.
Huxley, however, could only offer himself another empty box.
No hiding. What he could see of this vessel made it pretty obvious it wasn’t a large craft, meaning hiding places were few. Besides, whoever waited within that hatchway might know who he was. He moved a hand towards the small of his back but drew it back before it grasped the pistol. Pointing a gun at people is a bad way to make friends.
“Hey!” he called into the hatchway, a tremulous, croaking greeting that assuredly didn’t make much of an impression. Coughing, he tried again, raising both hands and stepping into the cabin. “I’m coming inside, OK? Not armed or anything. Just want to say…”
The woman rose from behind a pair of cushioned seats, a Sig Sauer pistol gripped in both hands, the barrel a black circle, which meant it was aimed directly at his face.
“… hello,” he finished, lips twisting in a weak smile.
The woman stared at him in silence, long enough for him to acquire certain salient facts. One: she had a shaved head and a scar just like him and Conrad. Two: she wore insignia-free fatigues just like him and Conrad. Three: from the way her hand shook and her nostrils flared as she drew rapid, adrenaline-fuelled breaths she was shit scared and working up the nerve to shoot him dead.
How exactly he fixed upon the right thing to say in that moment eluded him, but the words flowed easy and calm from his mouth, absent of threat or plea or anything that might have panicked her into squeezing the trigger. “You don’t know your name, do you?” he said.
A frown creased her brow. The combination of military clothing and a shaven head made it hard to properly guess her age. Thirty, maybe older? He saw mostly fear in her face but also a keen intelligence in those eyes, one that failed to stop the worrying tremble of her gun.
“What’s your name?” she asked, her accent American, east coast. Boston, perhaps. How did he know that?
“No idea,” he replied, turning his upraised arm to display the tattoo. “But I guess you can call me Huxley. What do I call you?”
Her frown deepened, increased fear putting a twitch to her features before she shuddered, forcing control into herself. “Stay there,” she said, taking a slow backward step, followed by two more. As she retreated, he allowed his eyes to wander the cabin. It was all no frills, military functionality. Encased cables tracing over the walls and into the deck. Another hatchway off to the right with a ladder leading down. Behind the woman with the pistol the deck rose a few inches, a trio of unoccupied padded seats were positioned at a dashboard of sorts, festooned with an array of monitors and buttons but no steering wheel. Tiller, he corrected himself. A boat’s steering wheel is called a tiller. Don’t you know anything? The monitors were modern flatscreens shielded by heavy duty plastic, lifeless and black despite the obvious fact that this boat was in motion and, as far as he could tell, not out of control. Beyond the dashboard three slanted windows showed a grey sky and a tilting, befogged sea.
“I heard a gunshot,” the woman said, snapping his focus back to her. She still pointed the pistol at him, arm outstretched as she undid the buttons on her sleeve.
“There’s someone else back there.” He jerked his head over his shoulder. “A dead someone. Looks like he shot himself. Name of Conrad, according to his tat, at least.”
Rolling her sleeve up to her elbow, she glanced at the revealed name then shifted the gun to her other hand, showing it to him: RHYS.
“You know this name?” she demanded, voice coloured by a forlorn accusation that told him she was pretty certain of the answer.
“No more than I know this.” He held up his own marking again. “Or Conrad. Sorry, lady. You’re a stranger to me, as I’m a stranger to you and, for that matter, me. Here we are, two amnesiacs on a boat. Maybe pointing guns at each other isn’t such a good idea if we’re going to figure this out.”
“How do I know this Conrad shot himself?” she asked, keen eyes gleaming.
“You don’t. Same way I don’t know if you shot him and made it look like suicide. Didn’t see it happen, after all.”
He watched her eyes shift to his scar, her free hand moving to explore her own.
“Surgery, right?” he said. “Looks like somebody did some poking around up there.”
Her gun hand fell slowly to her side as her fingers continued to probe her scar. “Less than a month ago,” she said, taking a half-step forward to squint at his wound. “Same for you. Judging by the rate of healing.”
“You know this stuff? You’re a doctor? A surgeon?”
Confusion marred her face as the fear returned, her reply emerging as a despairing mutter. “I don’t know.”
He began to formulate another question, something designed to unearth some medical knowledge, but the sound of a loud, angry shout from the direction of the ladder had him reaching for Conrad’s pistol instead.
“Don’t!” Rhys raised her own weapon again, two hands on the butt, finger resting on the trigger guard. A trained grip that, he noticed, mirrored his own.
“Relax, lady,” he told her.
“Don’t call me that!” Her finger twitched. “I fucking hate that!”
“How do you know you hate it?”
She paused at this, jaw bunching and teeth gritting. Reaching into an empty box of her own, he concluded, deciding it would be best not to allow her the time to ponder.
“Sounds like we got company.” He nodded to the ladder. “Maybe we should go introduce ourselves.”
She flinched as more voices sounded from below, louder than before, overlapping in a confused babble. “You go first,” she said, lowering the pistol, but not all the way this time.
The ladder was steep and plainly designed to be navigated while facing the rungs, something he wasn’t prepared to do. One hand gripping the rail, he placed his heels cautiously on each rung as he descended, noticing for the first time that he wore a pair of slightly scuffed combat boots. He felt a keen urge to draw his pistol, resisted due to the scared woman at his back. Had anyone in the cabin below felt the need to shoot him, there wouldn’t have been much he could have done about it. Fortunately, he found them all otherwise preoccupied.
“Tell me!” a tall man grunted, one muscular arm wrapped around the neck of a considerably smaller man. The tall man held a Sig Sauer to the smaller man’s temple, pressing the muzzle hard into the flesh. It came as no surprise to see that both had shaven heads and surgery scars. As did the two women who stood with their backs to a set of bunks, both rigid and indecisive. “Tell me who you are!” The taller man pressed the pistol’s barrel deeper, provoking a startled gasp from his victim.
“He doesn’t know.”
All eyes snapped towards Huxley, now perched halfway down the ladder. The two women backed away while the tall man, predictably, found a new target.
“Who the fuck are you?” British accent, harsh and clipped. A pair of hard eyes glowered above the pistol sights, voice and weapon lacking Rhys’s uncertain tremble.
Huxley laughed, his mirth persisting as he completed his descent of the ladder. A low table sat in the small aisle between the bunks and he tossed his own weapon onto it, resting his hands on the edges and gripping hard until he forced the laughter down.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, straightening and raising his hands. “Welcome to the all-new Saturday Night Extravaganza: The Who the Fuck Are You Show? With me, your host, Huxley.” He turned his forearm to display his tattoo. “Apparently. Tonight our line-up of contestants will compete for a one million dollar grand prize if they can answer just one simple question. Can you guess what it is?”
He regarded the large man in silence, watching his features bunch and twitch with the same profound, agonised confusion they all shared. Grunting, he released the smaller man, shoving him away. “Tried to take my weapon,” the large man muttered.
“It seemed a sensible precaution.” The smaller man spoke with a slight accent that told of European origins, but it was too subsumed by fluent English to be identifiable. “You being the biggest among us.” He ran a tentative hand over his scalp before undoing the buttons on his right sleeve. Rolling it back, he revealed a wiry forearm inscribed with a name: GOLDING.
“Plath,” one of the women said, displaying her own arm. To Huxley’s eyes she appeared the youngest of the group, but not by much. Late twenties at the least.
“Dickinson,” the other woman said. She was the oldest of the group but lean with it, all cross-fit muscle and angular cheekbones.
“What a literary crew we are,” the large man said, extending his own arm to reveal the name: PYNCHON.
“Writers?” Golding asked, squinting at his tattoo.
“Yeah.” Pynchon traced a finger over the letters inked into his flesh. “The Crying of Lot 49 is a great book. I know that the same way I know the sky is blue and water is wet. But I can’t tell you where or when I read it.”
“Makes you wonder what else we know,” Huxley said. He looked at the pistol on the table, recalling the ease with which he reeled off its name and specifications. He started to fumble for another example, but Rhys spoke first.
“The lung capacity of an average adult human male is six litres,” she said, moving to Huxley’s side. Any sense of comradeship the gesture might have conveyed was dispelled by the tightness with which she crossed her arms, muscles flexing and veins stark under the skin. Like Dickinson, she was gym-toned, but not so sculpted: the work of months rather than years. “Something I just… know,” she added, eyes darting around the group.
“In arctic conditions a human being requires upwards of three thousand, six hundred calories a day,” Dickinson stated. “The height of the Matterhorn is four thousand, four hundred and seventy-eight metres.”
Golding went next, irritating Huxley with the unplaceable lilt to his voice: “Benjamin Harrison was the twenty-third president of the United States.”
“Thirty-fourth?” Huxley asked.
“Dwight D. Eisenhower.”
“Forty-fifth?” Plath enquired.
Golding gave a distasteful grimace. “I don’t think I’m supposed to say in polite company.”
Pynchon snorted and looked around the cabin, eyes lingering on various details as he spoke. “This is a Mark VI, Wright Class US Navy patrol boat. It has a water jet propulsion system powered by twin fifty-two hundred horsepower diesel engines. Top speed forty-five knots. Maximum range seven hundred and fifty nautical miles.”
“Which begs the question,” Plath said, looking at the ceiling, “who’s driving?”
“No one,” Huxley told her. “There’s no… tiller. But she’s definitely following a course to somewhere.”
“So, where’s here?”
“The middle of the ocean.” Huxley shrugged. “An ocean, anyway. I saw a seagull.”
“Not far from land then,” Golding said.
“That’s kind of a myth,” Pynchon told him. “Gulls can range for hundreds, thousands of miles out to sea.”
“We know all these things,” Dickinson said, speaking with the precise deliberation of one voicing recently organised thoughts, “but not our own names. We clearly have expertise and knowledge. It is therefore reasonable to conclude that we were placed on this boat for a reason.”
“Some sicko experiment,” Huxley suggested. “Cut out our memories then stick us on a boat with loaded weapons to see what happens.”
Dickinson shook her head. “I can’t imagine the purpose in that.”
“And cutting out specific memories simply isn’t possible,” Rhys said, raising a hand to her scar then lowering it again. “Memory doesn’t reside in some nice, discrete region of the brain. Taking away the ability to recall personal history but leaving behind accrued knowledge and skills, that’s beyond anything in any neuroscience journal I’ve ever read.” She closed her eyes and sighed. “Or think I’ve read. Right now, I can’t remember a single examination or patient consult, but I know I’ve done them.”
“Conrad might’ve had an inkling,” Huxley said. “Must’ve had some reason for doing it.”
“And who exactly is Conrad?” Pynchon asked.
“Entry and exit where you’d expect them to be.” Rhys squatted to peer closely at the ragged hole torn into the underside of Conrad’s chin. “Contact burns on the dermis surrounding the wound.” She shifted back from the body, head angled fractionally in Huxley’s direction. “If it was staged, it’s a convincing job.”
“If I killed him,” Huxley replied, “why leave him here instead of just tipping him over the side?”
“Suspicion is inevitable in the circumstances,” Dickinson said, face stern as she viewed the body. “And you were the first to wake, as far as we know.”
“No, he was the first to wake.” Huxley nodded at Conrad. “But I’m pretty sure we were all placed in the bunks when this whole thing started.” He held up the second pistol now in his possession, the one found in an empty bunk below. “I think this was mine. I left it there when I woke, stumbled up here, maybe following Conrad, maybe not. I have no memory of it. All I know is, when I came to, here he was.”
“So why?” Golding asked. He had positioned himself near the inflatable boat, Huxley noting the care with which he examined it for any signs of damage. “Having no memory of who he was drove him to the point of suicide?”
“Maybe his reaction was more severe than the rest of us,” Rhys said. “Whatever procedure we underwent was obviously pretty radical, possibly even experimental. Stands to reason there’d be some unpredictable side effects.”
“Or…” Huxley settled his eyes on Conrad’s slack, blood-drained features, wondering if there might be some expression there, a small crease to the brows or angle to the lips that told of hopelessness. Or perhaps the face of any corpse was like a Rorschach test and he saw what he expected to.
“Or what?” Rhys prompted.
“Or he remembered,” Huxley finished. “The operation didn’t work and he remembered why we’re on this boat. If so, looks like he really wasn’t looking forward to the journey.”
“This is all idle speculation,” Dickinson said. “We can only make decisions based on what we know. Most importantly, where we are and where we’re headed.” She turned to Pynchon. “So far, only one of us has displayed any detailed knowledge of this craft.”
Pynchon stood in the hatchway, one meaty arm resting on the frame, expression set in careful concentration. Gesturing to the misted sky and banks of fog drifting over the waves beyond the rails, he said, “No compass, no charts. We could be anywhere.” He paused, shaking his head as his frown deepened, adding in a soft mutter, “Weird it’s still lingering like this.”
“If I could see the sun,” Dickinson said, squinting at the occluded sky, “I’m pretty sure I’d be able to gauge our heading. Based on the angle of the light I’d guess we’re currently following a westward trajectory. If the fog burns off by nightfall, the stars will provide a rough estimate of our general position on the planet.” She pointed beyond the front of the upper cabin. “What about the controls?”
“Come take a look.” They followed Pynchon to the padded seats where he reached between them to pat a hand to a grey steel panel in the centre of the dashboard. “A Wright Class patrol boat is steered with a joystick and throttle arrangement located here. As you can see, it’s gone. This boat is on autopilot.” He tapped fingers to the black screens. “Also, no displays. No GPS. No compass. Not even a clock. I took a quick look topside and there’s a lidar sensor which I guess enables the autopilot to avoid obstacles and keep a straight course, but there’s no radar or radio antenna.”
“We’re not supposed to know where we are,” Huxley concluded.
Pynchon’s brows knitted in sombre agreement. “And there’s no way to change course.”
“What about the inflatable?” Golding asked.
“No outboard motor,” Huxley replied. “I guess you failed to notice when you were looking for holes in the hull. I’d also bet if you look inside you won’t find any oars. So, unless you want to cast off and float around the ocean until you die of dehydration, it’s not much of an escape hatch. Someone is very keen to keep us on this boat.”
A prolonged silence descended as they subsided into either fear or calculation. Watching how each face was mostly given over to the latter rather than the former, Huxley concluded that, once the initial assault of terrorised uncertainty faded, these people had reverted to type, a type with an ingrained resistance to panic. Even Golding, though he cast a few disappointed glances at the useless inflatable, exhibited more concentration than stress.
- "Bestseller Ryan demonstrates that his narrative gifts extend well beyond epic fantasy in this nail-biting postapocalyptic thriller ... With thoughtful characterization and an innovative variation on a familiar theme, this impressive horror tale wows."—Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
- “A. J. Ryan’s Red River Seven bursts onto the page like a riveting ride into a monstrous heart of darkness, starting out as a locked-room mystery and steadily stomping the gas to become an edge-of-your seat apocalyptic thriller. Gripping, fast-paced, and bloody good fun.”—Craig DiLouie, author of Episode Thirteen
- “Bird Box meets World War Z in the genre-bending Red River Seven, a madly entertaining amalgam of locked-room mystery, heart-racing thriller, and terror-inducing horror show that will keep you up late into the night and darken your dreams long after you turn the last page.”—Philip Fracassi, author of Boys in the Valley
- "Full of both suspense and action, Red River Seven is Apocalypse Now meets Resident Evil."—RJ Barker, author of Gods of the Wyrdwood
- "A.J. Ryan charts a relentlessly inventive course to the dark heart of an extinction-level event. Soaked in terror and shrouded in fog, this book demands to be gulped down in one sitting. It’s Apocalypse Now ripped from its moorings, transfigured for a time when the apocalypse is, literally, now." —Andy Marino, author of It Rides a Pale Horse
- "With well-drawn characters, an engrossing story, and a spectacular finale, this one is a triumph."—Booklist
- On Sale
- Oct 10, 2023
- Page Count
- 304 pages