For nearly two decades, Jim Killen has served as the science fiction and fantasy book buyer for Barnes & Noble. Every month on Tor.com and the B&N Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, Jim shares his curated list of the month’s can’t-miss new SFF releases.
The bobcat Culdesac is among the fiercest warriors fighting for the Colony. Driven by revenge and notorious for his ability to hunt humans in the wild, Culdesac is the perfect leader of the Red Sphinx, an elite unit of feline assassins. With the humans in retreat, the Red Sphinx seizes control of the remote village of Milton. But holding the town soon becomes a bitter struggle of wills. As the humans threaten a massive counterattack, the townsfolk protect a dark secret that could tip the balance of the war. For the brutal Culdesac, violence is the answer to everything. But this time, he’ll need more than his claws and his guns, for what he discovers in Milton will upend everything he believes, everything he fought for, and everything he left behind.
Relentless, bloody, and unforgiving, Culdesac is the story of an antihero with no soul to lose, carving a path of destruction that consumes the innocent and the guilty alike.
About the Author
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The humans never saw it coming. For thousands of years, the Colony studied their weaknesses, bred an army of soldiers, and planned the exact moment to strike. From her underground lair, the Queen of the ants learned what made the humans afraid. She knew how to break them. And in doing so, she would bring about a new order, a world cleansed of humanity, peaceful and free.
The war began quietly, with a series of distractions. Then the second wave hit: Alpha soldiers, giant ants rising from the earth to devour any human that crossed their path. Governments collapsed in weeks. Entire continents were overrun.
And then, the third wave. Using a mysterious technology, the Queen transformed the surface animals into intelligent beings. A gift that no god could ever bestow upon them. Suddenly, farm animals, ferals, and pets could think, and speak. Their bodies changed, allowing them to walk on their hind legs, and use their hands like a human. And so a new front in the war opened, pitting slave against master—a final reckoning for the sins of humanity. Fighting for the Queen, the animals would avenge the cruelties inflicted on them, and build a new future.
But the humans were stubborn. Unwilling to surrender, they developed a weapon of last resort: the EMSAH Syndrome, a virus with the potential to destroy all life on earth. If the humans could not rule, then no one would.
The bobcat Culdesac has sworn his life to the new order. Favored by the Queen for his bravery and ruthlessness, he leads the Red Sphinx, an elite unit fighting a guerilla war deep in human territory. At his side is Mort(e), his second in command, chosen by the Queen herself to one day defeat the EMSAH scourge. But time is running out. For every day the humans live, the revolution hangs in the balance, and only the cruel, the mad, and the savage will see the war through to final victory.
Because the Rabbit
The man fled into the forest with a deep wound torn into his hip that left red droplets in the dirt. Though he ran at first—ran for his life with no regard to where he was going—his gait slowed to a limp after a few miles. His right foot pressed boot prints in the soft mud, revealing him to wear a size nine, or even an eight. A small man, probably driven and stubborn, eager to fight over nothing, like so many other humans his height. His left footprint revealed his dire situation. With the shoe missing, the prints left the formless shape of a damp sock. After four miles of slogging through the hills, a stick or a sharp stone must have punctured the skin, for each print included a diamond-shaped red mark on the ball of the foot, the size of a quarter. The first time Culdesac saw it, he dropped his stomach and sniffed the patch of glistening crimson. He stuck out his tongue and licked it, enough to pull in the taste of the earth along with the distinct iron of the blood. He let it sit in his mouth until the fragrance wafted out of his nose with each exhale.
Oh, Culdesac missed the hunt.
Like a good bobcat, he grew up stalking prey in the wilderness. In those days—when he was a mere animal, doomed to die of starvation once he grew too old—Culdesac learned that no prey could cover its tracks forever. Even the cleverest among them—the rabbits, the squirrels—would make a mistake, for no one could tread through the forest without altering it. The forest could hide a person as well as give them away.
This human was definitely clever. After some time, he must have tied a bandage to his injured foot, for the precious red diamonds vanished. Soon after, Culdesac noticed circular indentations, most likely from a cane the human fashioned from a tree branch. The man used the cane to climb the hill, to get to rockier terrain where tracking would rely more on instinct rather than smell. Then again, the mountains provided less cover, and the human moved more slowly by the hour. This path he chose may have provided the best possibility of escape, but it was a gamble, the kind expected of a man bleeding to death.
After a mile, the trail forked in two directions. One path led higher into the rocky area of the hills, the other dropped into the forest. Culdesac imagined the choice before the weary human. Climb to the rockier area and risk further exhaustion, or take the easier route, where he would continue to leave marks in the dirt, broken twigs, disturbed patches of grass. The forest trail eventually led to farmlands, overgrown and abandoned, the crops choking each other out and congealing into brown mush. According to the latest reports from the Colony, a human army waited nearby, most likely under the command of General Fitzpatrick. Perhaps the human expected to make it all that way—a pure fantasy, judging from his condition.
A scent wafted along, tickling Culdesac’s nose. He crouched and sniffed again. The odor came from the forest. The bobcat smiled before bounding down the trail. The smell grew stronger. Definitely urine, very strong, sticking to the insides of his nostrils. The human finally slipped up and relieved himself out in the open, marking his territory. Perhaps he knew that this would be the last time he would feel the simple pleasure of an empty bladder. When the smell grew even more pungent, Culdesac wondered if the man pissed himself, either out of fear or because he lost control of his functions in his weakened state. Maybe Culdesac would discover his prey slumped against a tree, dead, one last cigarette still smoking in his petrified lips.
At an elbow in the trail, the stink became unbearable. Culdesac spun around, checking behind trees, searching for indentations in the mud. Nothing. He dropped to all fours and sniffed every inch until he came across a canteen wedged between two large rocks. He lifted it from its hiding place and recoiled from the smell inside. Culdesac turned to the hilltop behind him, where the sun prepared to sink behind the ridge.
Very clever, he thought.
The man must have pissed in the canteen, screwed the on cap loosely, and then tossed it from the hilltop. It hit the ground and burst open, releasing its contents. The molecules found their way to Culdesac’s sensitive nose, leading him in the wrong direction. The humans learned to exploit the animals’ sense of smell far too late to win the war, a fact that failed to make Culdesac feel any better.
The bobcat slammed the canteen on the dirt and ran back the way he came, not caring how much noise he made. Only when he returned to the fork in the trail did he try to calculate the time lost. If he wanted to kill this man, it would take him at least another day, maybe more. Culdesac’s troops waited for him at the town he left behind, with orders to secure the area. The envoy from the Colony would arrive in a couple of days to deliver another report on the human army. Culdesac had time. And besides, after all the trouble this man caused, Culdesac needed to bring back his head.
On the ridge, the trees gave way to smaller shrubs, and the stony scalp of the mountain broke through the dirt. The scent trail went completely blank, forcing him to crawl with his nose to the ground. He was losing time, but the human left him little choice. He needed only a small hint of where the man went in order to break into a run. If his claws scraping on the rock gave away his position, so be it. Let the human spend his last moments knowing that death could find him even in this peaceful place.
The stink of human sweat popped up again near a thatch of bushes growing stubbornly among the stones. The wind bent them over, forcing them to grow at an angle. Stashed beneath the leaves was a white box, a first aid kit. Both sides in the war hid supplies in the woods for retrieval in situations like this, and the human surely did not come across it by accident. Culdesac noticed gauze, tweezers, thread for stitches, a wrapper for a protein bar, an empty bottle of antibiotics. This tiny supply depot may have even included a fresh pair of boots. The human patched himself together and left these supplies, maybe to show Culdesac that the game had changed, and that he was now hunting a human who found a way to survive even on the run from death. The man may have enjoyed a brief spell of euphoria as he sealed the wound, filled his belly, gazed out to the countryside dreaming of some nebulous future when this madness would fall behind him. It must have been nice.
Ah, but this human did not know the bobcat who chased him. Culdesac was no mere conscript in this war with the humans. He fought it his entire life, long before the Queen uplifted him, changing him from an animal into something more. He knew this forest, having explored it as a cub many summers before. It was ironic that he learned these trails precisely because of what the humans did to his people before the uprising. In those days, the habitats shrank every year, hemmed in by new roads, construction projects, hunters prowling in their obscene orange vests. Culdesac stalked his territory with his mother and brother, always fearful of the unnatural noises that grew louder in the distance, the sound of humans uprooting the forest, severing trees at the root, carving out new paths with their war machines. At first, the arrival of the humans provided a boon to the predators, as it forced the deer to cross through bobcat territory. But this lasted only a season, and soon the bobcats took to fighting one another over the last scraps of wilderness left.
He and his brother did not have names. Culdesac knew his brother by scent, and by the growling noise his mother made when she called him. When something dangerous approached, his mother let out two quick grunts: mer-mer. At night, when they ate from a carcass, Culdesac’s brother would sometimes lick the blood from his mother’s face and paws. In those moments, she would say his name more gently, both a salutation and a thank-you. Years later, after the Change gave Culdesac the ability to speak, he thought of his brother as Murmur. A fitting name for a powerful bobcat who rarely needed to speak.
One morning, Culdesac woke in his hovel to the sound of his brother baying in the early morning light. When he crawled out, he sensed an absence, an emptiness, and knew then why his brother cried. Their mother had gone missing in the night. Perhaps she abandoned them, having gone so many days without eating in order to make sure they were fed. Or maybe someone killed her, or some other male chose her for his own clan. Culdesac would never know, and the forest would never tell.
A few weeks later, while slinking along a well-worn path, a loud clap from somewhere far off made Culdesac jump. Murmur fell to his side with a red wound bubbling on his ribs. Culdesac pawed at him, begging him to get up. But footsteps, and the stink of some unknown animal, sent him running. He took cover in the bushes while a pack of humans surrounded his brother. Each of the men wore clothes that mimicked the surrounding foliage. For the next two hours, Culdesac watched as the humans cut the young bobcat apart. They severed the tail and passed it among themselves. They lopped off the paws before starting on the coat. It took two of the humans to tear the skin from the muscle. Doing so released a horrible scent, a combination of blood and the cloying pheromone of the females with whom Culdesac had mated. He swore that his brother was still breathing. The head came off last, a tedious process that required hacking and sawing. When he became sentient, Culdesac discovered similar animal trophies in the homes that the humans abandoned in the war. He imagined one day coming across a house where his brother’s head would be mounted above the fireplace, the eyes replaced with glass marbles, the mouth propped open, the fangs polished white. He would remove Murmur’s head and replace it with the human’s—after repeating the same process he witnessed here.
When the humans left, Culdesac visited what remained of his brother, a mere pile of flesh with the head and tail removed, the bones exposed, the entrails cast aside and swarmed by flies. From then on, Culdesac was on his own.