Sunday, 23 December 2012

Xmas in Eden: Deleted Scene 3

It’s almost Xmas (Happy Xmas to anyone reading this!), and first a very quick update on Eden’s Revenge. I’m going to be editing it all over Xmas and New Year, and by early January will have a better idea of when it will be going to press. Since 3am I’ve been working on a new Prologue, since that was one of the major editorial comments on the manuscript, concerning how to remind people of the story so far, or at least part of it, without doing a big ‘info-dump’. The new Prologue goes back in time around five hundred years, to when Alessia has made a pact with the Q’Roth and is at war with the Sentinels, seen from the point of view of a certain young woman named Esma…

Next – here is the third deleted scene – a short one – from The Eden Paradox. If you haven’t read the book, stop here, as it won’t make any sense anyway. It’s a precursor to the scene where Kat has just interfaced with the Hohash on Eden, and has witnessed the Q’Roth culling the spider race. She’s pretty cut up about it. If you remember this part, Blake takes out a small piece of paper and gives it to Kat, saying Zack told him to give it to her in her hour of need, and she asks him to read aloud what it says. So, this scene shows where the piece of paper came from. The last part of the scene is about Blake and Zack, and is best read after the second deleted scene (Zack's Interview) which I published a couple of weeks ago. Maybe I should publish a 'Director's Cut' version, LOL. Anyway, enjoy. 

Three Months Earlier – Cape Canaveral
Zack’s lunch was getting seriously cold, while he sat waiting for Blake in the canteen. It was their last meal Earthside, before heading to Zeus I where they would board the Ulysses. His meal of honest-to-God real steak, mashed potatoes and sprouts sat untouched – his appetite had deserted him. 
As he stared down at it, he noticed a young woman walking towards his table for two. He looked up as the girl with flawless skin calmly took the chair destined for Blake and sat down, facing him square. Zack heard the ambient conversation level decrease – more than a few people were discreetly watching. She tried to smile, but looked as if she might shatter at any moment. She pushed a small white notebook in front of him.
‘Autograph. Please.’ She had an East European accent.
He stared at her a while, then bowed his head to read the page. He shoved his plate to the side, and placed the notebook, like it was dessert, in front of him. The page wasn’t blank. He read it. I promise to bring Katrina back home in one piece. She held out an expensive black-lacquered pen towards him.
‘Sign. Please.’
He studied the young woman, while her arm holding the pen remained outstretched in front of her. It wasn’t very steady. The canteen noise level was reduced now to distant sounds of plates and cutlery being washed in the kitchen. Still, he waited. Her eyes didn’t once unlock their target. Determined, he thought. He accepted the pen. But he didn’t sign. Instead he turned over to a fresh page, and began writing. He swivelled the notebook around, and pushed it back across the table towards her.
‘You first,’ he said. He offered the pen back to her.
Nonplussed, she looked down at what he had written, her palms flat on the table-top, not yet accepting the pen. Then, without looking up, she reached out, and he placed the pen in her hand. As she signed, he watched a single tear fall and splash onto the paper, quickly absorbed, leaving only a smudge. She pushed the notebook back to him. Even the kitchen was quiet now. He carefully tore out the page she’d just signed, folded it and placed it in his jumpsuit shoulder pocket. He took the pen from her limp hand, and dutifully signed where she’d asked him to. He then wrote a sentence underneath his signature. She reached out and grasped the book, turning it round smoothly. She read it, met his eyes once, nodded, then in one fluid motion got out of the chair, clutching the notebook, and headed briskly to the canteen exit. All heads turned in her direction as she did so, reminding Zack how ears of corn twist in the wake of a wild deer running through a cornfield. After the doors swung behind her, chatter immediately flooded the canteen.  
Blake appeared in front of him. ‘What was that all about?’
Zack leant back, and clasped his hands behind his head, grinning. ‘Oh, you know, the usual – fans, autographs, all that jazz.’
Blake bent closer. ‘So, you want to tell me what you wrote, the bit she took away with her?’
Zack, let out a sigh, and looked upwards, as if reading from the ceiling. ‘I hope one day my son finds someone who loves him the way …’ – he quickly changed what he had almost said – ‘… the way you love the person you love.’
Blake cocked an eyebrow. ‘Hmm. I’m not even going to ask what you made her sign. You going to eat that steak, or is that another unrequited love affair?’
Zack laughed. ‘We two –’ he prodded the steak with his fork – ‘were having a teasing moment.’
Blake smiled, then his face turned more serious.
‘I just wanted to say, Zack, before we leave Zeus tomorrow – it means a lot to me having you with me on this mission. I know it’s not easy, with Sonja and the kids…’
Zack’s mind locked up – he didn’t hear the rest. He hadn’t realised how much he’d needed to hear Blake say the words. The last traces of his anger flushed away. He felt a tension he’d not known he was carrying slide out of his neck and down his back. He’d never been one to hold grudges and resentment for long periods anyway – quick to anger, quick to forgive, Sonja had told him once. The smell of his cooling lunch finally reached his brain.
‘It’s okay, Blake. It’s where I belong. Now, go get your meal, Skipper.’
Blake nodded and headed over to the kitchen area. Zack picked up his knife, feeling better than he had for days. Even cold, the steak tasted good.

Okay – so that you don’t have to go and find the passage in the book to remember what the note said, here’s the scene from Chapter 31 – Hohash:

As the others left the compartment to make preparations for their tasks, Blake and Kat were left alone. She was trembling.
            ‘Sir, there was something else.’
            Blake approached her, eyes sharp. ‘Tell me.’
            She took a deep breath. ‘The only way the Hohash could let me see these things was to connect with its master’s memories. Well – you see… I was there when the Q’Roth came. The spiders knew they were coming, and had decided as a group – as a people – to retain their pacifist mode of life through to the end, though it meant they would all die. They had no space-ships themselves, since they never travelled – the Hohash did it for them. They’d resigned themselves to their fate, very much in control of their emotions you see.’ Kat folded her arms tight around her. ‘But when it happened – the carnage, the pain – some of them wavered – including the one I was ‘inside’ – that’s why he disobeyed his society’s agreement and sent his Hohash out into space.’
            Her legs shook, threatening to give way. ‘I – the spider – ran. I ran for my life, when others stood tall and were slaughtered. I knew it would do no good, and I was not alone to run, but suddenly I couldn’t accept this fate, neither mine nor that of my species. So I ran in blind fear and one of them chased me. It caught me and slashed at me, cutting my hind legs from under me, then it’s mouth bore down on me, sucking my life force away.’ Her eyes brimmed with the memory of it, but she sniffed the tears back. ‘Captain – I was killed. I bloody-well died with it. I shared its terror, its grief for its kind.’
            Blake steadied her, hands on her shoulders. ‘Kat,’ he said, ‘every soldier in battle goes through what you’ve been through – maybe not as far, for sure. But you’re through it, and you’re alive. And you’ll fight when the time comes. These spiders – noble creatures for sure – while I can respect their culture and their choice not to fight, it won’t be our way, I can assure you.’
She nodded, and steadied herself.
Blake reached into a pocket in his jumpsuit with his right hand. ‘Zack told me to give you this when you really needed it.’ He pulled out a crumpled, folded piece of paper. ‘Someone gave it to him on Zeus. Said it was to be opened in your darkest moment. He wouldn’t tell me who, but he left it with me. ’
            She stared at it. ‘What is it?’
            ‘I don’t open other people’s mail, Kat.’
            Her lungs seemed too full to breathe except in shallow gasps. ‘Read it out to me. Please.’
            Blake unfolded it, and read out loud. ‘Let me see. It says – To Kat– I promise –’ He paused, shifted uneasily, and cleared his throat. ‘I promise I will wait for you, no matter what, no matter how long. All my love. And then it’s signed – Antonia.’
            She gaped at the piece of paper, and then took it gingerly, as if it might break or crumble into dust. Blake left her alone. She sat down, cradling the note in her hands. Zack had written something on the outside in his large scrawl. Happiness is knowing that someone, somewhere, really gives a shit.

Merry Xmas one and all, from me, Blake, Micah, and the rest of the Eden crew.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

A tale of two reviews

I recently commissioned two separate editorial reviews, by two independent literary consultancies, of my forthcoming third science fiction book, Eden’s Revenge, to be published by Summertime in 2013. Both reviews came in within a few days of each other, the second a couple of hours before my three-weekly writers group meeting, so I took both reviews along to show the group. Like me, they found that the two reviews covered many of the same points, but the approach of the reviewers was quite different. Since I also do reviews for non-fiction books, this made me reflect about how reviews are done, and how they are perceived by authors on ‘the receiving end’. This blog should be of interest to authors, to reviewers, and to literary agencies themselves. I’m going to address the following points:

  • Why have a professional review?
  • Who are reviewers?
  • What does it cost?
  • What do you get for your money?
  • Styles of review
  • How to ‘take’ critical feedback

1. Who needs a review?
For authors who are not yet published, I’ve recommended in earlier blogs to go down this path, because there is nothing like a truly independent review. Even your fellow writers in your writing group, assuming you belong to one, are not completely independent, as they will have invested a lot of time in your work, whether they like or hate it. They often see it grow chapter by chapter, rather than as a complete work they have never seen before. In the case of Eden’s Revenge, quite a few of the two reviewers’ comments had been made at various points by people in my group (I am lucky to belong to such a good one), but the independent reviewers are able to take more of a ‘helicopter view’ and give more cohesive feedback over the entire novel. This is what is meant by structural feedback, because it can affect the entire structure of your novel. Scary, right? But if it works…

I’m not a first-time author: four non-fiction books and two fiction books published, with contracts for a new non-fiction book and the third and fourth Eden books, but still I feel I need these reviews. My fiction publishers (I have two, Ampichellis and Summertime) are small Indie publishers not specialised in science fiction, so I have commissioned such reviews for all three books so far, and they have been invaluable, and helped me to raise the standard of my writing to achieve the 4.5* Amazon ratings, get a six week run for both books in the top 100 SF ‘space opera’ category (at the height they were #1 and #3 respectively in the US charts), and more importantly, to gain fans waiting anxiously for the next book. If you are an author with a major publishing house (congratulations!), then you will have publishing house editors doing such reviews anyway, so will not normally need such a service.

2. Who are the reviewers?
The technical term is ‘readers’, and these people are usually professionals from the publishing industry, either published authors themselves, or freelance editors who formerly worked for publishing houses. They can also be called ‘book doctors’ J There are two main styles of reviewing: anonymous and named.

For two of my reviews of Eden books 1 and 2, for example, I had SF author Gary Gibson review my work through the Literary Agency called Writers Workshop. Gary gave me some tough feedback, which I needed at the time (still do, apparently), but he also made some encouraging statements (e.g. ‘A science fiction thriller with terrific images and revelations’) which ended up as a quoted endorsement on the back of the paperback versions and on the Amazon web-page (I asked him and he agreed to it). This is an advantage of having a ‘named’ reader, especially if they publish in your genre. One of the reviewers for the forthcoming book (this one via Cornerstones) also made some similar statements (e.g. ‘interesting characters and awe-inspiring aliens in an epic narrative written in lively and vivid prose’), before getting down to the ‘However, …’ part of the review.

An anonymous reviewer can still be very good, although not ‘citable’ as blurb for advertising a book. For my second book I had an anonymous female reader via Hilary Johnson’s Literary Agency. She went through Eden’s Trial and pointed out a couple of major flaws, including comments on relationship scenes and female points of view that were invaluable to me as a male writer (apparently I have learned this trick now, based on the recent review). She also pointed out that despite many point of view characters, and not having read the first book, she found it very hard to put down the book as it reached its climax. I mention this not to promote the book(s), but to make a point I’ll come back to later, that in any review, as in any writers group meeting, it is helpful to find something kind to say about the book. The aim of a review is to improve the book and the writers’ skills and popular appeal, not to put the author off writing for good by demolishing their work. Writing a novel is hard enough already.

When commissioning a review, don’t take just anybody, do some research if there are named writers. Are they writing in your genre? Little point getting a crime specialist if you are writing a memoire about growing up in India, unless there is a crime element. Even for anonymous reviews, you should be able to request a reader in your genre, being as specific as you can – mine is science fiction thriller / space opera – and other relevant details. For example, I have a lot of characters, and every single review of all my books so far says there are too many. But the feedback from fans is that they love this, it makes the books richer, and keeps the books working as page-turners. So I always ask upfront for a reader who is reasonably happy with multiple points of view, or else it’s going to get ugly from the outset.  

3. What does it cost?
Costs are usually based on word count. My third book is a little shorter than the first two, and is currently around 95000 words, and both reviews were around £400-470. There are different ‘levels’ of review, too. Mine was high level, with a report from each reviewer of 8-10 pages. It is possible to have more in-depth reviews with line edits etc., but these cost more because they take a lot more time.

4. What do you get for your money?
An 8-10 page report, dealing with aspects of writing style, plot, characters, story-telling, etc. Usually there is a short section on the novel’s strong points, and then the majority of the report will focus on what needs to be fixed. For example, in the two recent reviews, both commented on the high standard of writing. One reviewer clearly liked the alien races and was pleased to see strong female characters and some gay ones too in a SF novel, and noted that the book made advanced technology seem ‘normal’, something we SF authors sometimes struggle to achieve. However, both reviewers had serious issues with the Prologue, suggesting it be cut, as it had a different tone from the rest of the book, and prevented the reader getting into the action and principal characters. One reader thought chapter one was strong, the other did not (reviewers will focus a lot on the opening chapters because they are so important). Both reviewers singled out one later chapter for ‘culling’, despite the good writing, because it confused the plot, and one of the reviewers gave useful ideas about re-ordering some of the earlier chapters to help readers who had not read the previous two books to ‘get into’ the characters and back-story easier. Both suggested a synopsis to help the reader new to the ‘Eden Universe’. Then both reviewers cut a little deeper…

One reviewer found the battle scenes in the final section of the book too ‘dark’, and felt the human story inside was not brought out enough. The other reviewer focused on the societal issues going on in the background between normal people and their genetically-enhanced offspring, and made excellent comments on how to develop this more and bring it closer to the surface of the novel. Both reviewers identified the main and secondary characters and suggested ways to give precedence to the former, to help the reader through the plot.

In previous reviews I’ve had comments on the technical aspects of the science fiction from Gary Gibson, which were invaluable, as they helped the ‘street-credibility’ of the books as science fiction novels. Another major comment from Gary for Eden’s Trial concerned a character who got killed off half-way through the book. He suggested I keep her alive till later. I did this, but altered her psychologically after the near-death experience, making her more conflicted, creating a great deal of tension in the story. Most readers want this character dead, but there is no doubt that her role is a central point of fascination and ‘pull’ for readers in these novels. That single comment more than any other led to a transformation of Eden’s Trial.

To a large extent it is the deeper issues that I pay reviewers for, as a writers group and a proof-reader can sort out much of the rest. The original intended first publication date for Eden's Revenge as an Ebook was Xmas 2012, then January 2013; I think now it will be March 2013 (it will be in paperback some six months later). Both reviews have given me pause for thought, and ways to improve it, and as a writer the aim is always to write the best novel you can, whether the first or third or tenth. 

5. Styles of review
I would classify the reviews I have had over the years as follows:

  • Brutal
  • Negative
  • Dispassionate
  • Kind

A couple of the early reviews when I was starting out with a virgin manuscript of book 1 (The Eden Paradox) were brutal. It doesn’t mean they are wrong. One reviewer clearly despised the protagonist, and had grave issues with some of my dialogue and point-of-view techniques. As an author, when you receive such feedback, particularly when starting out, and if there is no positive encouragement whatsoever in the review, it is hard not to give up and decide to do something else besides writing. Every writer, published or not, has self-doubts or periods wondering if they are wasting their time, e.g. ‘Will I ever get published?’ or, for published writers, ‘Have I lost my touch?’ It took about two months for me to start re-writing after those early reviews.

Sometimes a reviewer simply doesn’t like your style of writing, and it comes across clearly in the tone of their review. This can happen; reading is a subjective experience. There are well-known SF authors I simply can’t get into, no matter how much I can see how well they write. One of my recent reviews falls into this category, and my writers group noticed it too. It was quite striking. The two reviewers said many of the same things, but the tone was completely different. The other reviewer was more dispassionate and occasionally kind (and I believe liked certain aspects of the book, despite not having read the first two books). The first reviewer said that it was very well written, but…

I mentioned earlier that I do reviews for non-fiction books. Occasionally, I don’t like them. But I always find something positive to say about them, and try to make constructive criticism. I aim for dispassionate-with-a-sprinkling-of-kindness. If that fails, I use some humour to bring the message home, because that is what it is about: bringing the message home. The reviewer can try and ram it home, or else can light up the pathway. It’s a matter of reviewer choice and style, but as a writer I see so many writers struggling and working their asses off to get published, that I think we should offer each other a helping hand.

To me it’s okay, I can take brutal and negative, and see behind the tone to what the reader is getting at. I will certainly take onboard the comments – after all, why shouldn’t? I’ve paid for them, LOL. And I trust the judgement of these three Agencies I’ve used over the years.    

6. How to take critical feedback

  • Read the review 5-6 times over a week, and do not do any editing or re-writing. Let it sink in.
  • Remember that reviewers will always focus on what needs to be fixed – if you want lots of ego-stroking praise, there are places to go and pay for that. Positive feedback is nice, but doesn’t necessarily lead to improvement.
  • Remember that none of the criticism is intended to be personal – this is hard for writers to accept, since we write from the heart, but it really isn’t personal.
  • Ignore aspects of tone, etc., and see behind to the core issues which are hopefully brought out in the review summary anyway. Which ones resonate? Which ones make you think again?
  • Go through the review and highlight each point and make a plan – some points you may reject, but be sure about these. Others you will take on, but the ‘structural’ ones will be where the major work will lie. Your plan should then dictate which to tackle first. It is important to have a plan rather than just ‘having another go’, as you might end up weakening the novel rather than fixing it. Remember that manuscripts can also be edited to destruction.
  • The reviewer’s job is now done, the transaction between you as author and them as reviewer is over. Take control again of your work, ensuring it is your voice, and your own internal editor, that is guiding your hand. This is what I meant by saying that you need to bring the points ‘home’. It is not the reviewer’s novel, it is yours.
  • If there have been major re-writes, consider a second review, but go back to a different reviewer. You may groan at the prospect, because surely they will raise new issues? Yes, but hopefully fewer. You are writing for hopefully thousands of readers, not one single reviewer.

My writers group last night said that I got more than my money’s worth with both these reviews. I agree. The book will be delayed a couple of months, but it will be a better book that people will enjoy more. That’s all I want.

The Eden Paradox and Eden’s Trial are available on Amazon in paperback and Ebook. Eden’s Revenge is coming soon…

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Eden Paradox - Deleted Scene 2 - Zack's interview

A reader might ask why a scene was deleted in the first place – surely it’s because it was no good, right? Not necessarily. Often authors write scenes that are backgrounds to the characters. These scenes give the author a good feel as to who the character really is, and in particular where they came from. This means that in other (kept) scenes, the characters feel ‘real’, as if they had a life before the book started. Often, deleted scenes are flashbacks, and too many of these can slow down the feel of the book, breaking its momentum, even confusing the reader. Some inevitably have to be culled.

Most of my deleted scenes are flashbacks I took out for these reasons. However, once a reader has read (and hopefully liked) the book, such scenes can become more interesting, allowing a deeper insight into the character. It is like finding out secrets about people you know, things hidden in their pasts that make you think again about them, maybe a little differently.

Here’s one about Zack, Blake’s ‘Number Two’ in The Eden Paradox. If you’ve read the first book, and the sequel, Eden’s Trial, then you know what happens between these characters, and the following deleted scene makes it more poignant (particularly book 2). I wish I could let you know what happens in book 3, Eden’s Revenge, with respect to this relationship and how it ends, but I’m afraid you’ll have to wait. This scene originally came after the previous deleted scene in my last blog (Blake’s Interview), which would have come just after the short chapter entitled ‘Kurana Bay’.

Three Months Earlier

Zack stepped into the General’s office.
            ‘Come in, Zack, sit down.’
            Zack knew what was coming. He’d carefully prepared his refusal speech. Sonja and the kids had been through too damned much. It had been a mistake signing up for the Team B training, but he’d never dreamed Alpha would be assassinated, and even if they had, there were plenty of back-up pilots. He’d already told Sonja, without her asking, that he’d refuse. She’d just looked at him with cheerless eyes, as if she’d known the outcome.
           General Kilaney didn't waste any time. ‘Zack, I’ll come straight to the point. The psych says Blake could unravel this time, if the going gets rough – some mumbo-jumbo about a guilt-related sacrifice syndrome. He thinks that  if you – Blake’s most-trusted – go too, then Blake will hold it together. If you don’t go, Blake doesn’t go.’
            Bastards! Not fucking fair! Zack’s wiry eyebrows merged into a storm front of a frown. Sonja’s face flashed in front of him, her eyes baleful, thought he’d rarely seen her that way.
            ‘So,’ Zack said, with as much control as he could muster, ‘fire the damned psych, hire another one.’
            The General spoke quietly. ‘Sonja will understand, Zack. When she married you, she knew what she was getting into.’
            Zack felt the anger in his chest that had been pent up for two weeks since the bombing of Alpha Team’s shuttle had brought things to a head. But the General continued quickly, not letting Zack retort.
            ‘I won’t fire the psych, Zack, because he’s right. Blake’s not the same. Hell, he’s taut like piano wire these days, and I think only you know why.’
Zack’s well-rehearsed defence faltered; only he knew what had been eating Blake all these years.
‘Without you there,’ the General said, ‘He might not make it back. And …’ he paused, and Zack’s anger fogged, losing cohesion.
‘Sonja knows, as I do, that if Blake doesn’t make it back, for whatever reason, you’ll never forgive yourself.’
And there it hung. His anger had missed its window, he was trapped in his own web of loyalties. He faced the General, the offending sheet of headed paper between them. He didn’t read it. Zack picked up the ball-pen lying next to it and signed, almost tearing the paper.
‘Will that be all, Sir?’
The General nodded, looking away. Zack got up, scraping the chair across the floor, and launched himself at the door, his back to the General, determined to leave without following protocol, a small, hollow, symbolic rebellion. But he heard the General’s chair move also, and realised he was standing, and saluting him, Zack, his junior officer. Zack paused at the doorway, still not turning around.
‘Good luck, Zack.’
Zack gave a small nod, then left, not looking back.


Incidentally, Zack’s character is loosely based on that of a friend of mine. He’s one of my ‘readers’, and has read the draft of Eden’s Revenge, and thought the chapter where it ends between Zack and Blake was the best in the entire book.

I tend to agree.

The Eden Paradox and Eden's Trial are available in paperback and Ebook on Amazon as well as Barnes & Noble, and Waterstones. Eden's Revenge is coming very soon...

Friday, 30 November 2012

Eden Paradox - Deleted Scene (1) - The Interview

The following is a 'deleted scene' from the book The Eden Paradox. The scene is best read after the book, or at least after the chapter called Kurana Bay in Part One of the book, which is where this scene would have occurred. I had to delete certain scenes due to the length of the book, but this is one I always felt should have stayed. This is therefore like the 'director's cut' :-) Hope you enjoy it.

Earth – Four Months Earlier – The Final Interview

The door slid closed behind Blake. He stood a moment behind where the interviewer would sit, noting how he would be seen. He walked around the small square table, pulled back his chair and sat down, face to the door and the empty chair, a long rectangular mirror on his left, his back straight. The shrink would be late. Everything Blake did would be monitored. He slowed his breathing, counting each breath.
At inbreath 203 the door opened, revealing a man in his late twenties, wearing a white lab coat. He had dark, lank hair, already thinning at the top, cresting a furrowed brow. It gave Blake the overall impression of a young man continually worried or in conflict with his job. The man didn’t salute, though Blake suspected he was a commissioned officer. He must be good, Blake guessed, to interview him, given their age difference. Never under-estimate, he reminded himself. If I get through this, I have the mission.
The shrink walked to his chair, raked its metal legs against the floor, and sat down, poker-faced. He dropped a yellow file noisily on the desk, unfastened it and opened a sheaf of papers covered with small type-font, and even smaller handwriting. He then planted a Sensex on the desk – a small, black rectangular box with several glass-covered holes.
On seeing it Blake battened down his emotions. The Sensex – Sense Executioner as it was known, analysed all manner of psychological outputs, integrating pheromonal emissions, sweat response, pupil diameter, breathing rate, and speech tone variability; it was the most reliable lie detector ever. Blake tried not to react, knowing that it would already be processing his responses, making judgements, and relaying them live.
The shrink leaned back, holding up one of the pieces of paper, a pen held against his lips, reading intently. Blake didn’t move. The interviewer put the sheet down and smiled again at him with holographic warmth. Blake was being dared to try and read it upside-down, but he didn’t oblige.
‘Good morning, Captain Alexander, Sir,’ he said, voice smooth and studied. ‘Just a few points I need to go over with you.’ The man glanced downwards, and began reading aloud.
            ‘Let’s see. Age forty-six. Optimal age profile thirty-five; recommended limit forty-two.’ He glanced at Blake, and continued. ‘Decorated four times. Forty-eight missions in the War, including two battles on the Moon. Successfully defended Zeus I. Married. One son, killed in the War eight years ago. Stayed rank Captain, despite attempts to promote to higher position. Quoted reason – I do what I’m best at – pushing people not paper.’ He frowned. ‘Forty-six. Hmm.’
            Blake spoke up. ‘If there’s a point, son, I’m afraid you’ll have to get to it. I won’t help you since I don’t know what your point is. Concerning my age, we both know the limit is only a recommendation, and I’m medically fit. The role is executive, decision-making, and our current President is sixty-two. So, I don’t think we’re here to discuss my age.’
He watched for a reaction when he’d said ‘son’ – he knew this ingrained automatism, a remnant from his upbringing, pissed a lot of people off – but he saw none, nor did the interviewer glance toward the mirror. He’s better than he lets on.
            The man gave a curt official smile. ‘No. Quite so, Sir; absolutely right.’
            Blake pressed home. ‘So I’m guessing you’re the shrink. I’ve passed all the other evaluations, and the press conference on the decision is called for tomorrow morning, so the choice for Captain of the mission has to be made tonight. I’m also guessing you’re at odds with the rest of the evaluation team, but I might be wrong. So, why don’t you save us both time, and cut to the chase.’
            The interviewer closed the file, put down the pen, and sat back.
            ‘Actually I’m not a shrink, I’m a psychologist.’
            Blake raised an eyebrow. ‘Difference?’
            ‘We call psychoanalysts and psychiatrists ‘shrinks’ – as in old head-shrinker tribes, who used to cut off the heads of enemies and shrink them. Psychologists don’t generally try to change people’s heads through use of chemicals, manipulation, or implants – we try to understand people, and help people understand themselves better. We use less invasive procedures.’ He paused, then added. ‘No shrinkage.’
            ‘I see,’ Blake said. ‘Well, I’ve learned something today.’ He omitted the ‘son’.
The interviewer glanced down at the yellow file, then straight at Blake. ‘Kurana Bay, sir. That’s the problem.’
Blake shifted position in his chair, causing a shrill scraping noise. He’d been anticipating this for the past six months. It always came back to this.
            ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to be more specific. What aspect of Kurana Bay?’
The interviewer folded his arms, continuing to meet Blake’s gaze. ‘You and your platoon went in and rescued those boys, against all odds, brought them safely home, and took out a ghoster processing unit.’
            They continued to stare at each other, neither one blinking.
            ‘The point is, Sir, although clearly heroic, you lost eighteen of your own men to rescue twelve boys. Was that the right tactical decision?’
            Blake briefly considered giving a pat, technical answer, but decided against it. He’d been told one thing about the Forces’ psychs – they detect lies and attempts to hide the truth as naturally as a shark smells blood. Glenda had advised him the night before that if it got tricky, give him what all psychs want to see – inner emotion. Blake decided to take her advice, and he had plenty of pent-up emotion on this particular issue. In any case, he wasn’t going to pretend to be someone else to get this command. He leaned forwards.
            ‘Why don’t you ask the twelve boys? Or their mothers?’
            The interviewer leaned forward, too, with an immediate riposte.
            ‘Or the mothers of the eighteen men who died following you?’
            Their faces were centimetres apart. Blake’s breathing was measured; the interviewer’s was a little heavy, not quite under control. Blake sat back and stared toward the opposite wall, speaking as if from far away.
            ‘I made, as you say, a tactical decision. We found out about them, those boys, barely men, no older than my son had been. Knew they were being interrogated – tortured – and knew what the enemy had in store for them.’ He paused.

It surfaced again. The screaming, the shouting, the flashes of rapid pulse fire in the depth of night, lighting up the blood-soaked carcasses of his men on the floor.
‘For Christ’s sake, shoot Blake! Shoot!’ Zack was yelling at him.
He aimed. He fired. He watched it explode.

Blake pushed the memory back, deeper. Locked it away again. His right hand twitched. He moved it under the table, though he reckoned the Sensex must have just gone off-scale. He spoke in a quieter voice.
‘There was no time for back-up. They were going to be moved later that day. I talked it over with my men. We knew the odds were lousy. They wanted to go in. War ain’t all maths. Mainly it’s guts. But when you’re out there, in the Burmese jungle, thousands of miles from home, deep behind enemy lines, all you have is each other. It’ll sound clich├ęd, I know, but the headlines, the rules, the strategies, sometimes they don’t mean squat. You fight to stay alive. You fight to keep those alive that help you stay alive. And then…’ he paused. He got up, walked over to the mirror and put his back to it, facing the interviewer.
            ‘There are ugly things that happen in any war. Always have been, always will be. You know what they would have done to those boys. The enemy were certain we wouldn’t risk a rescue mission so deep behind enemy lines. We had to show them we wouldn’t desert our own.’
            Blake’s face momentarily allowed some of the pain he held in to be seen by the psych, but not the cameras behind the mirror. Let the Sensex chew on that.
The psych nodded back toward Blake’s chair. ‘Please.’
            Blake dutifully returned to his seat.
‘In any case, we rescued those boys, destroyed the facility, and took out more than a hundred of the enemy. After Kurana Bay, they stopped carrying out raids to capture our men for ghoster ops. So, you tell me. Was it the right decision?’
The interviewer raised an eyebrow, then wrote something in the file.
            ‘Something that you won’t find in the records,’ Blake continued. ‘I visited each of the families of those eighteen men personally. Not all of them were exactly pleased to see me, as you can imagine.’ He cleared his throat.
            The interviewer glanced over to the mirror. Five seconds later the door opened and a glass of water was brought in. Blake appreciated the efficiency of the operation, and stole a few cooling sips. ‘Thanks,’ he said.
            The interviewer waited a few more seconds, then resumed. ‘This won’t be a military mission, Sir. You – if selected, that is – would be Captain, but on a primarily scientific mission. You have a lot of scientific knowledge yourself, of course, but if the context is scientific, you’ll have to follow the Science Officer’s lead. I’ll be direct. Could you take orders from a scientist if it comes to it?’
            Blake gave a short laugh. ‘Hell, I’ve taken orders from so many dumb assholes I think I should be able to take them from a smart one.’ Inside, he wondered if he could.
            The interviewer nodded. He picked up his pen, and opened the file again. ‘No regrets about Kurana Bay, sir? Would you do it again?’
            Blake shifted himself back into his straight back pose. ‘I still have the nightmares mentioned in that file. But it comes down to this: who do you need as Captain on this mission? If the going gets tough – like Kurana Bay – you’ll need someone who can get out of there, who can salvage the mission, and make tough command decisions, with absolutely no back-up.’
            The interviewer took a deep breath. ‘Actually, Sir, the question is: what really happened in Kurana Bay?’
            Blake’s own breathing halted. He pursed his lips. ‘I’m not sure I …’
            ‘You lied. Your deposition after Kurana Bay. I watched the interviews over and over. We didn’t have Sensex then, but you were hiding something. You’re definitely hiding it now.’ He glared at Blake.
            Blake’s throat went dry. He suppressed a strong urge to cough, or look at anything but the psychologist. His mind raced, but he knew he couldn’t answer, not with the truth, at any rate. He was cornered. But he’d rather let this command slip through his fingers. There was only one way out.
            He stood up. ‘This interview is terminated,’ he said.
            The interviewer shot to his feet, leaning forward. ‘I’m asking you, for the last time, what really happened?’
            ‘Why don’t you ask Zack?’
            The interviewer snorted, said ‘Sure,’ and sat down, staring at the file. He pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘You realise,’ he said, ‘that if I say you’re not mentally fit, you don’t fly this mission. Not even General Kilaney can countermand a medical judgement.’
            Blake leaned on the table, close to him. ‘Like I said, the real question is this: who’s the best man for the job? Period. We all make decisions, good and bad ones, and we live with them. This one’s yours.’
            The psych didn’t look up. ‘My answer will be on the CO’s desk in an hour. Thank you for your time – Sir.’
            Blake straightened, and walked to the door.
            ‘One more thing, Captain. A warning. Whatever happened in Kurana Bay – whatever really happened – you still carry it with you. It’s like a flaw in a diamond. Too much pressure …’ He didn’t finish the sentence.
Blake glanced sideways at his own reflection in the mirror. ‘I’ll bear it in mind.’
© Barry Kirwan |
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