Cat's Cradle: Warhead is the sixth novel in the series of Virgin New Adventures published in the 1990s, and the second in the Cat's Cradle story arc. Written by Andrew Cartmel and set after Survival, it features the Seventh Doctor and Ace. It is the first in a trilogy of "War" titled novels. The second is Warlock (published in 1995) and the third Warchild (published in 1996). This novel is unique in that it begins a trilogy of stories whilst also being in the "Cat's Cradle" trilogy.
The place is Earth. The time is the near future — all too near.
Industrial development has accelerated out of all control, spawning dangerous new technologies and laying the planet to waste. While the inner cities collapse in guerrilla warfare, a dark age of superstition dawns.
As destruction of the environment reaches the point of no return, multinational corporations and super-rich individuals unite in a last desperate effort — not to save humankind, but to buy themselves immortality in a poisoned world.
If Earth is to survive, somebody has to stop them.
From London to New York to Turkey, Ace follows the Doctor as he prepares, finally, to strike back.
In the early-21st century, Earth's environmental concerns have grown drastically more severe. Soon, they will reach the point of no return. Already, simply breathing the air in a major city can be deadly, and the countryside is not much safer. Everyone has their part in it, but the mega-corporations are most at fault; and only they have the ability to act on a scale large enough to halt the devastation. But one group, the Butler Institute, has other, more sinister plans.
Outside a Butler-owned construction site in the mountains near New York, a young boy tries to destroy a camera on the fringe of the site so that he can play in the woods again. The Doctor makes a slingshot for him to destroy the camera—a symbolic gesture, but a sign of things to come.
Ace's childhood friend, Shreela, is dying, her body poisoned by the foul air. She has spent her life as a journalist, specializing in scientific topics. The Doctor comes to her with one last article to publish, and it is a very strange one... but she owes him her life, and she is willing to help him one last time.
In New York City, a policeman named McIlveen is shot and killed by Butler Institute operatives. His body is collected and taken to the Institute's headquarters at the King Building, leaving his partner, Mancuso, to pick up the pieces. The Doctor is also at the King Building, where he befriends a sick and dying housekeeper named Maria, and gets her to commit one last act of rebellion against the company that both employed and poisoned her: she opens the computers for him to access, allowing him to break into the mainframes and gather information.
An old predator named Bobby Prescott once fought and failed to save a library in a riot. Jaded by his experiences, he now targets and kills the child gang members whom he blames for the riots. But, months ago, something terrifying happened to him in the drugstore across the street from the ruined library. The Doctor forces him to reveal his secrets, which concern something vital in a drum in Turkey... and summons the gangs that have hunted Bobby even as he hunted them.
O'Hara, the founder of the Butler Institute, is spearheading its secret project, and looking for people he can trust to help him. He secretly pits two employees, Stephanie and Mulwray, from his Biostock division—which kidnaps people to harvest their organs for the rich and powerful—against each other; when they prove their loyalty, he promotes them to his team. His plan is to go live with a process he has developed, which transfers living minds into computers—making them functionally immortal, but killing the body in the process. He plans to submit his own son, eight-year-old Patrick, to the process while it is in the testing phase. The construction site is a massive bunker which will house the computerized minds of thousands, rendering the dying environment irrelevant. Stephanie throws herself in wholeheartedly, but Mulwray is disgusted—but he can't back out now. Seemingly unrelated, O'Hara has also noted and read the article planted by Shreela, which led him to institute a new protocol for acquisitions in the Biostock division.
Ace is in Turkey, doing something she never imagined: hiring mercenaries. With the help of an old friend of the Doctor, she succeeds, though not without embarrassing the group's leader, Massoud. The night before their operation begins, he tries and fails to kill her, and she is forced to drive him away. With the rest of the group, they attack a small outpost, which is manned by four teenage boys with weapons. They are guarding the drum to which Bobby Prescott referred; Ace has it shipped back to the England. Leaving, she is attacked again by Massoud, and is forced to kill him. She connects with the Doctor at the airport, and they return to his house in Kent, where the TARDIS is sleeping in the basement.
Inside the drum is a teenage boy, Vincent Wheaton, in suspended animation. His story—as revealed in flashback as he awakens—is dramatic. He has the frightening ability to unlock the emotions of anyone he touches; if they are negative, they are converted into a wild power that can manifest in many ways. As a child, he attacked his abusive father with a mirror without touching it; as a teenager, he was accosted by Bobby Prescott and a few others in a drugstore back lot, where he transformed a bicycle into a monstrosity that killed all the adults except Bobby, who escaped. One of the boys who had been guarding the drum, Calvin, was present and witnessed the incident; it was he and his three friends who decided Vincent was a monster, and captured him. They sealed him in the drum, relocated him to the beach in Turkey, and buried him there, then guarded him for several months.
While he recovers, the Doctor and Ace meet another new arrival: a girl of similar age to Vincent, named Justine, who breaks into the house. The Doctor arranged this as well, having planted magazine articles that led her here. She is a spiritist of sorts, believing in witchcraft, other planes, and the like. As well, she was traumatized as a child when her best friend was struck by a car and killed; the incident twisted her thinking to a radical form of eco-awareness, in which she blames vehicles and industrialization for all the world's problems. But this makes her just the kind of person the Doctor needs... In the house, she finds and touches Vincent, and unwittingly unleashes his power, causing two of the cars in the Doctor's garage to explode. Together, they constitute a weapon of considerable power—but the Doctor doesn't anticipate that she will rapidly fall in love with Vincent.
The four of them travel to New York. Justine drugs Vincent, and ensures that the Butler Institute's Biostock department will find him and collect him—but, once inside, due to O'Hara's new collection protocol, Vincent's bio-markers trip an alert, and he is sent to O'Hara's home at the construction site. The Doctor takes Ace and Justine to a drugstore which is being robbed—possibly at the Doctor's design. He has arranged for Mancuso and her new partner to respond; and Mancuso is testing a new weapon from R&D, which has been secretly fed to the police by the Institute. She finds that the thieves have a hovercraft for removing their stolen goods; she crashes it, blocking their escape, before she and Breen—her partner—finish off the criminals. She finds that the gun has a life of its own, literally, when it saves her life. While this is happening, Justine takes a capsule that appears to kill her, alarming the Doctor—not because she is dead, but because it's too soon. She had another role to play, and now Ace must do it, by letting herself be arrested.
The Institute has made a double deal with the corrupt police department. The Biostock department gets the pick of the holding cells; as well, they obtain any bodies from crime scenes. Justine is taken in the latter manner, and Ace in the former; but before Stephanie and Mulwray can remove Ace, Breen intervenes and stops them, and sends Ace to Mancuso. Mancuso is at the R&D department, getting a sympathetic researcher, Peterson, to look at her new gun. The Doctor arrives shortly before Ace, and demonstrates that the gun really is alive in a sense; its control chip contains the mind of Mancuso's dead partner, McIlveen. Convinced, she agrees to help the Doctor stop the Institute.
Justine was supposed to infiltrate the King Building and let the others in; her pill only simulates death for a time. However, because she took it too early, the team needs a new plan; and Mancuso provides it. She drives the crashed hovercraft from the crime scene through the gates and the front doors. They quickly rescue Justine, then—with the McIlveen chip as a pilot—they steal a helicopter and head to the construction site. O'Hara has just killed his wife, who could not accept what he had done to Patrick. Mancuso goes into the house to get Vincent, but is waylaid and shot three times by Stephanie, O'Hara, and—unwillingly—Mulwray, as O'Hara had anticipated the plot. They get the drop on the Doctor's group. Mulwray snaps and lashes out at O'Hara, but is killed; but this allows Vincent to make contact with Justine. However, she is overwhelmed to have him back, and all her pent-up rage evaporates, leaving him with no ammunition, as it were. O'Hara tackles the boy—and finds out the hard way that it's not only Justine who can trigger his power, as years of coldness and hatred and disgust pour out of him and through Vincent in a wave of destruction that obliterates the entire construction site. O'Hara is killed in the blast, as is Stephanie.
The mega-corporations that were previously backing the Butler Institute now find themselves scrambling to salvage something. They are forced to turn to efforts at a global cleanup, which will take years, but can ultimately prove profitable. Mancuso is still alive, and the Doctor hooks her to a life support system—and when the control unit says her injuries are too severe, he wires in McIlveen's chip, which is more determined to save her life. Justine and Vincent are free to be together, but his power is gone; but as the weapon they constituted has served his purpose, all's well that ends well.
New York Police Department
Cthulhu Cyber Club
- Stephanie mentions Buffalo.
- The Butler Institute is investigating the transference of the human consciousness into computers.
- Lewis Christian and Mulwray are in the Biostock Acquisition department of the Butler Institute.
- Stephanie is in the Social Acquisition department of the Butler Institute. Mulray also was in this department.
- McCray's drugstore carries the magazine Heavy Metal.
- The Witchkids are a group of youths that, in the recent past been, have petrol bombed various buildings such as McDonald's.
- Jack Blood is a popular fictional character.
- Vincent Wheaton has psychic powers.
- The Doctor makes a poor man's cryogenic system, with gel instead of low temperatures.
- Justine uses tetrodotoxin.
- Ace knows how to use a Vickers helmet attached to a handgun.
- This is the second novel in the Cat's Cradle Trilogy, and follows directly from Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible.
- This is the first novel in the Andrew Cartmel War Trilogy, comprising: Cat's Cradle: Warhead, Warlock and Warchild.
- While the exact date the "near future" the novel isn't explicitly stated, 1954 is said to be "half a century away" in the past. Other novels support circa 2004:
- Shreela is dying. (TV: Survival)
- The Doctor uses his house on Allen Road. (COMIC: Fellow Travellers, PROSE: Transit)
- The TARDIS is waiting in the house's basement, recovering. (PROSE: Cat's Cradle: Time's Crucible)
- The Butler Institute develops into another threat the Doctor has to deal with later. (PROSE: Deceit)
- The Discontinuity Guide to: Cat's Cradle: Warhead at The Whoniverse
- The Cloister Library: Cat's Cradle: Warhead
- Bewildering Reference Guide entry for Cat's Cradle: Warhead