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Friday, 25 December 2015

Humanity's place in the galaxy


I've just come back from a scuba-diving holiday in the Indian Ocean. On land, there's no question that humanity is top dog. But underwater it's very different. On my last dive, in strong current, four of us were surrounded by a dozen sharks, each around 5-6 feet long, and they were close. On another dive I was engulfed by a school of trevally (also called Jack or Kingfish). These fish are pretty aggressive and have razor-sharp teeth, and look like piranha. I was reaching for my small three inch tungsten knife, but they decided to leave me alone.

After doing some deep dives in an area where a lone bull shark is known to be active, and has made an attack in the past six months, my buddy and I had to do twelve minutes of decompression, hanging fifteen feet underwater, constantly looking around, trying to see into the endless blue beneath and all around us. Did we feel like top dog? No, we felt like bait.

But I love diving. The menagerie of fish and coral is just breath-taking, an underwater Serengeti. The comparison is valid, because there is a hierarchy of fish, sharks at the top, but all these fish live in a pecking order. Some creatures live to a ripe old age, by which I mean thirty years, for example maybe one in a thousand turtles make it that far, and quite a few barracuda, whereas others barely make it through the first day of their lives.

What if the galaxy was like that? Not where we are, out on a lonely spiral, but closer in. That's the premise of my Eden Paradox series. Except that the social order is more strictly observed, and is based on intelligence rather than on a species' capacity to be a predator. Well, mostly.

While sunbathing (aka decompressing, if you're a diver) on the beach, I was reading Jack McDevitt, one of my favourite scifi authors. He writes two types of scifi, one in which we (humanity) are alone, the other not. I was reading one of the latter books (the Alex Benedict series), and there is almost a loneliness as humanity ventures out into the galaxy and finds no alien life to speak of. Arthur C Clarke also pondered the issue, in one of his books where humanity has searched the entire galaxy and has found no other intelligent life to speak of. But of course the alternative might be disastrous for us.

For me the Scifi TV series that comes closest to the 'alien menagerie' in which we may one day find ourselves embroiled, is Babylon 5, the very name Babylon conjuring up a multi-species space landscape rather than one composed of vast distances interspersed with barren planets.

Babylon 5 did not presume we were top dog either, with for example the wonderfully enigmatic Vorlons (and possibly the best-looking ships ever on the silver screen - which I borrowed from for my own books) way more intelligent than us.

As we begin to seriously look out into the galaxy and discover ever more planets in the Goldilocks zone, and send probes out there broadcasting our address - like looking for a friend on galactic Facebook - then if there are other intelligences out there, it's a matter of time before they come a-knocking. Maybe we'll be lucky, maybe they'll be friendly. In my first two books, unfortunately they are not, and we are pretty low down in the pecking order. But we make allies, and end up playing a pivotal role in the defense of the galaxy.

While most scifi readers and certainly writers secretly hope there are aliens out there, we all know deep down that it could also be very bad for us. So, while looking upwards, I can also recommend looking down into our oceans, where - trust me - it is very alien, and you can feel like you are in an alien environment without too much personal danger. If like me, you always wanted to be an astronaut, then diving is a pretty good substitute.

I leave you with a short extract from the final book, Eden's Endgame, in which Blake is present at a War Council meeting, and encounters the richness of alien life on a vast alien ship.

Oh, and I'm making book 4 (Eden's Endgame, kindle version) free over the 2015 Xmas period, for those who haven't yet acquired it. As I'm publishing this post, it's currently in the top 5 in both US and UK Free SF markets. But be quick, Santa doesn't hang around :-)

Merry Xmas to scifi lovers everywhere in the galaxy!


Blake found he was no longer in the lozenge, but back in the clam on the inner surface of the sphere. He sat up. The others were all still immersed. One of the sphere's central anemone’s eyes watched him, but he ignored it. On impulse he stood up, and began walking around the inner surface of the sphere. None of the other aliens paid him much attention, except the reptilian Ranger Manota, whose yellow eyes flickered once in his direction.
            He passed a pack of Ossyrians, mankind’s guardians on Esperia these past eighteen years. The collie-like aliens, in full ceremonial headdress of horizontal bars of gold, garnet and lapis lazuli, were huddled together in a single clam, snouts upright, quicksilver eyes flashing shapes at almost subliminal speed. One of them turned its head towards him. Its eyes stilled. Blake walked on.
Next he came upon a Finchikta; a birdlike upper half atop a forest of centipede-like legs. The third eye on the top of its head opened, a sad pale blue, and watched him independently while the bird’s beak emitted squawks and shrieks.
He stopped dead two metres from a Q’Roth Queen, her swollen, armoured blue-black belly resting on the floor, curling upwards to end in a square head with six blood-red slits serving as eyes, her gash of a mouth open, hissing in the direction of the anemone. A Q’Roth warrior appeared in front of him, barring the way. Blake’s hand automatically slipped to his holster only to find it empty; his pistol hadn’t whisked with him. That figured. The warrior wasn’t armed either, not that it needed to be with those mandible-like upper claws and six-inch thorns along its middle and lower pairs of legs. Blake took another path.
After passing a dozen other alien species too weird even for drug-induced nightmares, his eye snagged on something on the opposite side of the sphere, almost back where he had started. Blake didn’t know if it was one alien or many. A set of pale globes the size of soccer balls were joined together by arm-width purple blood vessels, and each globe had fronds sticking out of it, waving in the air, puffing out short jets of green gas. Blake moved closer. It reminded him of an ancient Greek fable about a woman with a head full of snakes; Medusa. The creature shied away from him, then advanced. Blake didn’t move. There was something unsettling about it…  
A flicker of movement in the corner of his eye made him turn. One of the Spiders was walking on a parallel path. Blake recognised him, the friend who had been down with him on the surface. The Spider scuttled along in his usual stop-start manner, which should have attracted attention from the other aliens, but it didn’t. They can’t see him. The Spider passed Manota, but even the Level Fifteen female Ranger seemed oblivious. The Spider’s communication band was a dull brown, when suddenly it flashed a message to Blake. It took Blake a half-second to translate, then he dived to the ground as several of the Medusa’s fronds lashed out, spear-like, to where his head had just been. Blake looked up to see the Q’Roth Queen looming over him, all six eyes blazing. The Medusa withdrew.
“Not safe here, human.” The Q’Roth Queen’s voice was like the rustling of dry leaves; Blake didn’t speak Q’Roth, and assumed the anemone was translating, which should be a two-way process. Good, he’d always wanted to address one.
Blake rose to his feet fast, fire in his veins, confronted by the leader of the race who had culled both humanity and the Spiders. He thought about punching her jaw, knowing he would break his hand in the process. The fact that she might have just saved his life didn’t stop him calling her to account.
“You destroyed my world. Seven billion dead.”
She reared back on her hind legs, her mouth opening slowly like a razor cut.

“One more, then,” she hissed.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

The man who hated children....

Children of the Damned.jpgThe new novella I'm working on - When the children come - has its roots in a film I saw many years ago, called 'The Children of the Damned', sequel to Village of the Damned. In the films, a new crop of children are more intelligent and powerful than normal kids, and are very dangerous, and the locals, and inevitably the government, realise they have to kill them. In the films, you never find out why this has happened, whether it is an alien phenomenon or some kind of natural progression. The films are somewhat disturbing, because the kids are evil, and the parents end up wanting to kill them.

In the story I'm writing, I essentially turn this idea on its head. There's a guy, Nathan, who hates kids, not that he'd ever go that far, but he just doesn't like them. But he starts to realise that something is going on, that all children are suddenly under a great threat. And although he's the last person on Earth they'd want help from, he may in fact be that last person...

I kind of miss the way science fiction used to be. Not fab CGI and special effects, but understated suspense and tension. Scifi of old was masterful in suspense, and not necessarily telling you the whole story, because, well, why would you necessarily know? I need to read Bradbury again, early Asimov, and some Larry Niven. But in the meantime, here's the opening chapter.


When the children come

Barry Kirwan

Nathan hated children, always had. Especially babies, the way they screamed as soon as they were born – wasn’t that enough warning of what was to come? Little pissing, shitting, eating and crying machines. Maybe it wasn’t just them, it was the way every woman and quite a few men on the planet went gaga every time they saw one, lost all sense of reason. Hormones kicked in, turned them all into Stepford freaks. And when the babies grew into toddlers and then young kids they weren’t much better: tantrums, more screaming, whining. How many business trips, restaurant dinners, theatre visits, you name it, got ruined by one small, precocious and, above all, loud child and its doting, utterly useless parents? No discipline anymore. Nathan had sure been disciplined when he’d been a child.

He sat up, thought he heard a noise, picked up the rifle and crept to the door, opened it slowly, then wide, so the light from his room flooded out. They were all there, in the gym hall, sound asleep, two hundred kids. One or two jerked occasionally, nightmaring. He didn’t blame them. Sally, closest to his door, had kicked off the covers. He went over and with his free hand gently pulled them back up over her shoulder, careful not to wake her. Then he went back inside, pulled the door to without closing it completely.   

He lay the rifle next to his chair. Two magazines, not nearly enough if they were discovered. The bed invited, but no way. He checked his pills again. Four left. It would have to do. He tried to relax, but not too much. He couldn’t move the kids until dawn, too risky before then. The others…

What had he been thinking before? Oh, yeah, right. How he hated kids. All his life he’d despised them, considered them a necessary evil. After the terrible twos, they learned first how to manipulate then divide and conquer their parents. Their cute phase. In a pig’s eye. And sibling camaraderie – wasn’t the story of Cain and Abel clear enough on that matter? Then there was school. He’d been bullied, but had seen a lot worse. Kids could be utterly cruel, mini Pol Pots, elf-like Hitlers. Once they reached nine or ten, they weren’t so bad. His sister’s kids, Archie and Josh, had been nine and eleven. It would have been Archie’s tenth birthday a week Tuesday. Nathan had actually bought him a present, for the first time. Both dead now. He shuddered. Good. Negative emotions would keep him awake.  

His distaste of kids meant he’d stayed alone. All the women he dated ultimately wanted children. And he was always clear on that. Well, after sex anyway. A couple of them had pointed out that for a man with an almost obsessive interest in the procreative act, it was ironic he never wanted to see its fruition. Most said he needed help. True. But need and want aren’t the same thing. Anyway, right now the kids next door needed it a lot more, and irony didn’t even begin to cover the fact that he was the one protecting them.

He reached over to the table, poured another two thumbs of whiskey and downed it in three gulps. It was a risk, might reduce the duration of the amphetamines, but hell, he needed something. He stood up, peered through the window into the forecourt below, checked it was empty, no parents snooping around. The radio set was charging. He’d wake the kids at six, and then they’d all have to move. They’d have to be quiet. For once, he was sure they would be, because they knew, they’d seen what had happened. For once, when it mattered most, they’d behave like the little adults he really needed them to be. And if not, they’d all die.

Nathan sat down, opened the flask of strong Italian coffee and poured some into the whiskey glass. Two more hours. He needed to go back over it all, get it straight in his head – it had happened so fast, barely three days ago. So, back to the beginning. New Year’s Eve. The party. He hated New Year’s Eve almost as much as he hated kids…    

 

*

 

“Nathan, you should go, you know you should.”

His little sis lectured him. Not so little, now, of course, with her own two kids. She was the only one who could get to him.

“Give me one good reason, Mags.”

She laughed. “I’ll give you three. One, you’re getting grumpy. Two, you need friends – they’ll all be there, and who’s going to look after you in your old age?”

“Maybe Archie and Josh.”

Her voice changed, plaintive. “They love you, you know, God knows why. It’s Archie’s birthday soon, you –”

“The third reason?”

A pause, a sigh with her hand over the mouthpiece. “Lara will be there.”

“Who the hell is Lara?”

“She’s your type.”

“Since when have you tried to fix me up with someone? And since when do you know my type?”

“Attractive, blonde, skinny. A little slutty, and… well, she hates children.” Mags laughed.

Nathan didn’t. But he glanced over to his wardrobe. Maybe the dark blue shirt.

 

*

 

He did like Lara. Too much, too soon. He could already see he was going to blow it, but didn’t care. Moth and flame, an old story. They chatted while the large silver disco ball kaleidoscoped lights around the ballroom full of people getting steadily drunker as they counted down the minutes to midnight. He told her she was beautiful, and she made a face, but he couldn’t stop his mouth. Luckily she went on a rant about families and kids, and he plunged in; it was hot, like foreplay. At ten to midnight, she touched his arm, their first physical contact.

               “Let’s get out of here,” she said.

               As they split, Mags caught his eye and mouthed ‘told you so,”, then ‘Happy New Year.” He could see she meant it. Maybe for once it would be.

               His apartment was a train wreck. Lara didn’t seem to care.

“I see you have the same cleaning lady I use.” She laughed, and then he kissed her, and they undressed each other without interrupting that semi-drunken, sleazy kiss. Heaven. A raunchy angel. Enjoy it while it lasts, he told himself. And he did, ditching five years that night.

 

 

Morning. Famished. Need fresh bagels. Lara agreed. “I’ll go get some,” he said, and headed out. They hadn’t slept, and he stopped at a Starbucks to pick up a double espresso. Streets were quiet, deserted. Fair enough, a public holiday, everyone up late last night.

               He found a bagel shop that was open, and headed back. Checked his watch. Ten. Still eerily quiet. A scream pierced the sky, a child’s. Not like the whining wail he loathed, not even the shocked cry of a kid who’d just burned himself. No, this scream had real fear in it. He’d served in Kabul. Knew the difference. He looked around, trying to see which apartment block it had come from. Deadly quiet again. Still no one around.

               As he turned the corner, he stopped. A young kid, maybe five, running, his face white marble, eyes agape, arms pumping hard. The kid could run. A balding man emerged from a doorway, shouted after him. “Johnny, come back here!” The wiry, bespectacled man had something in his hand which he quickly pocketed in his jacket, a blade. Stained? Nathan wasn’t sure.

               The man sauntered past Nathan. “Happy New Year,” he said, then shrugged. “Kids.” Nathan nodded back. A few metres later, the man started jogging, but as he turned the corner, he launched into a sprint.

               Nathan stood awhile, tried to process. In Afghanistan he’d developed an instinct for when something wasn’t right. His platoon came to rely on it. “Is it safe to go in there?” they’d ask. His gut would tell him. Mostly he was right. Mostly.

Where was everyone? He walked back into his apartment building, decided to take the stairs rather than the elevator, up to the fourth floor. He met Sally outside his door, a seven year old he knew from downstairs. Her hair hadn’t been brushed, and she was still in her pyjamas. He’d seen her often enough, yelled at her to stop running up and down the stairs more than once. She held a small backpack, a furry affair that resembled a beaten-up teddy bear. But her face was stone. Had she been crying? She lived on the second floor. Why was she up here? She wouldn’t meet his eyes, clutched the bear.

               As he unlocked his door, Sally’s mother shouted for her, from downstairs. Sally dashed through Nathan’s door and stood inside, her back against the wall.

               “Mr. Atkinson, is that you? Have you seen our Sally?” She had a broad Texan accent, easy on the ears.

Sally looked at him and shook her head once. Her lips trembled.

Nathan shouted down the stairwell. “I think I saw her outside, Mrs. Braithwaite, near the bagel shop.” He came inside, closed the door, slid the latch.

 Lara emerged semi-naked from the bedroom. “Took your time. Did you have to cook the bagels yourself?” She stopped dead as she saw Sally. “Oh… hello.”

               Lara approached, then took a step backwards. Nathan hadn’t noticed the smell until just now, when he put the bagels on the dresser. Sally had peed herself.

               “Bathroom, Sally,” he said, pointing. “Through there. Lara … sorry, she’s seven I think, I shouldn’t really...”

               Lara glared at him. “She’s not yours, right? Married, I can handle, but –”

               “No, no. She lives downstairs. I’ve never even had a conversation with her, except to tell her off.”

               Lara folded her arms. “So go call her parents.”

               They both heard the shower being turned on.

               “Look, this is all a bit weird –”

               “You think?”

               “Something’s not right out there, Lara. I can feel it.”

“So call the police!”

               “And say what?”

“Exactly.” Lara went back into the bedroom. “Where the hell are my shoes?”

               Nathan had that feeling in his gut, like he’d eaten something rotten. “Lara, don’t go out there.”

               She wagged a high heel in front of him. “Give me one good reason?”

               Nathan couldn’t think of one, then again he could. “Because I can’t be alone in the apartment with a naked seven year old.”

               Lara threw the shoe at him. He caught it. “Asshole!” She stomped to the bathroom, knocked on the door. “Sally, are you okay in there?”

               Nathan went to the window. Mr. Braithwaite was outside at the bottom of the steps talking to three other men. One of them was holding a piece of white cord. He twirled it occasionally. Mrs. Braithwaite was nowhere to be seen, but others – all men, he realised, were congregating in threes or fours at the foot of various blocks.

               Lara came up behind him, hooked her arms around his chest. “Sorry.”

               Nathan put his hands over hers. “It’s okay.”

               She turned him around. “That little girl is scared shitless. What is going on?”

               He drew her to the window, and they both peered down to street-level.

               “Damned if I know.”    

 

 

Nathan had been surveying the leafy street for an hour and it struck him. No kids anywhere. Three rubbish trucks arrived. Three? On a national holiday? Of course, maybe to clear away the trash after the previous night’s festivities. At least Sally had calmed down. Lara was doing a pretty good impersonation of someone who actually liked kids, or at least knew how to relate to them. He asked her about it when Sally went to take a nap.

               “My parents were… unkind,” she said.

               In Nathan’s experience, people who’d had awful parents rarely had the ability to emote about it. He couldn’t, for example.

               She nodded to the window. “Is it safe to go out there?” She was smiling, but it gave him a chill, because that’s what the platoon sergeant used to ask him. Then one day his gut hadn’t done its job, and the sergeant and six others bought it. Nathan couldn’t function after that. The shrink had ended up discharging him – survivor’s guilt – but it cut deeper. To top it all, it had been a kid, a nine year old Afghan boy in a small village, waving a battered iPhone as if to take a photo. That alone should have alerted them; where the hell would he get an iPhone? It was the trigger, of course. The last he’d seen of the boy was the waistcoat packed with explosives as he raised his arms in triumph. Nathan had had a split second chance to shoot him.

               “It’s not safe,” he replied to Lara.

               She mock-frowned. “You’re not one of those paranoid guys are you? Back from the war, can’t forget, all that stuff?” Her frown and its underlying smile vanished. “Oh shit, you are, aren’t you? I mean, you’ve been over there.”

               He nodded.

               She grew serious and cautious at the same time, as if she’d just stepped on a land mine and was trying to figure how to ease her way off without it exploding.

“Listen, Nathan, I’m going to prove it’s okay. I’m going outside. I have mace in my bag and I can always call the police. We can’t stay cooped up here. Call me later.”

               “Lara, I’m okay, but… it really is weird out there. No kids, anywhere.”

               She gave him a look, and he knew that anything else he said was going to sound nuts. Maybe it was all in his head. He’d only recently come off the pills, earlier than the doc had prescribed.

               “Tell you what,” she said, upbeat. “I’ll come back in an hour with some lunch, if I can find anything open. We can take Sally downstairs, and then you and I can finish what we started.”

               The idea of more sex did make him feel better. She was right. He was over-reacting.

               There was a knock on the door, and they both stared at each other. Nathan went over. “Who is it?”

               “It’s the police. Open up please.”

               Nathan walked back to the window. Sure enough, a police car was parked a little way up the street. Must have just arrived. He went back to the door.

Lara frowned. “There’s no way police would come looking for a kid after only an hour.“ She held up her forefinger and dashed to the spare bedroom.

               Nathan stalled. “What’s this about?”

               “Please open up, sir.”

               Nathan thought about trying to hide Sally, but it seemed ridiculous. “Just a minute, let me put some clothes on, I’ve been sleeping in late.” As soon as he said it he regretted it; Mrs. Braithwaite already knew he’d been out earlier. He waited another thirty seconds then opened the door.

               Two police officers, one male, one female, stood there, looking like normal Manhattan cops. Mr. Braithwaite was right behind them.

               “Have you seen Sally, this little girl?” They held up a photo. Nathan felt himself about to flush; he’d never been good at lying.

               Lara saved him. “She was here earlier. Said she’d wet the bed, was afraid she’d get a scolding. We sent her back downstairs an hour ago.”

               “And you are…?” The policewoman asked.

               “Lara Engels, we, uh, Nathan and I met last night at the Ball over at Ninth and Forster.” She hooked her arm in his and leaned on him. “He’s my New Year’s resolution.”

               Nathan was impressed.

               “Mind if we take a look around?” the policeman asked.

               Lara tugged Nathan out of the policeman’s way, and he followed her lead. “Of course, it’s a bit untidy, you know.” As Mr. Braithwaite went to follow the two officers, Lara moved into his pathway, blocking him.

               “Sorry,” she said. “We really thought she was going straight home. You must be worried sick.”

               Nathan didn’t understand what she was doing until he watched Braithwaite’s reaction. His face spoke of many things, but concern for his daughter wasn’t one of them. For a flash his upper lip curled. Nathan knew that look well enough. Not anger or frustration; something deeper, more sinister. Disgust.

               Lara maintained physical contact with Nathan, still blocking the entrance, while the officers did a thorough search, opening every cupboard and window. They came back to the doorway.

               “Well, thank you for your time, Mr. Atkinson. We’ll continue our search.”

               Nathan closed the door. They waited until the footfalls receded down the stairs.

               “Where is she?”

               “Gone,” Lara said. “Fire escape all the way down to the underground car park. Your car, to be precise.”

               “But how…” He glanced at the small table where his car keys had been. Gone, too.

               He surveyed Lara. “So, you’re starting to –”

               “Something’s not right. We need to take Sally somewhere safe, but where?”

               He thought about all the friends he could call, which took about twenty seconds. Useless. Then the obvious solution rose up before him. “Mags,” he said. “She’ll know what to do.”



 

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Killer's eyes

I've not posted for a while, mainly because I live just outside Paris and we've all been rocked by the events of two weeks ago when terrorists ran amok in the City of Light and killed 130 mainly young people out relaxing on a Friday night.

The Blog I'd been just about to post had the same title - Killer's eyes - but it just seemed inappropriate. But the more I think about it now, it isn't.

The phrase comes from the new book I've written called Sixty-Six Metres, a thriller set mainly in the UK and Moscow. The protagonist, Nadia, is a crack shot but doesn't want to kill anyone. But her own mother tells her she has killer's eyes, and the book puts her in increasing jeopardy.

So, here's the premise; is it easy to kill someone? I don't mean physically - anyone can pull a trigger. I mean - would you really do it? Could you?

Presumably most readers are not killers. At least I hope so. Some may be - soldiers, cops, for example, may have had to kill at some point. And yet in fiction we read about people killing all the time. Sure, killing goes on, just turn on the news. But most people get through life without ever doing it.

So I find in books and films it is all too easy for characters to kill, as if they are just having a cigarette. Do we watch too much James Bond? I remember as a kid watching one film where Sean Connery killed several 'baddies' in quick succession, not in particularly nice ways either, and I wanted to say 'Stop! Can't you just tie them up?' I watched another one recently where he strangled a baddie. The guys' legs were thrashing around, kicking, slowing. And I thought, if that was me instead of James, I'd stop. I wouldn't end a life so easily. I couldn't. What about you?

In my scifi books there is a character named Micah. He sure as hell is not a soldier, and doesn't want to kill. But near the end of the series he is faced with his own imminent death and that of many others, unless he kills. So he does. And it nearly breaks him.

In the new book, Nadia will end up facing the same choice.

Back to Paris. A friend of mine, after the attacks, said he wanted to learn to shoot, so if anything like that happened again, and there was a gun on the floor, he could pick it up, know what to do with it, and shoot, in order to save lives. I can't imagine the hell it must have been inside the Bataclan, nearly ninety people gunned down one after another. So, yesterday, I learned to shoot, for the first time in my life. Would I, if the situation ever arise? Do I have killer's eyes? Who knows.

Anyway, here's some Nadia, because sometimes fiction feels safer than reality. This is the opening of the book.


Nadia stashed her father’s Beretta inside her rucksack and crept downstairs, hoping to escape unscathed. But her red-faced mother was waiting outside in the chill dawn air, and thrust an Orthodox crucifix towards Nadia, as if to curse her.

            “You’ll end up a cheap whore, or a killer like your father!”

            Nadia’s lip trembled but she refused to cry, and didn’t look back as she departed the family home in Uspekh on the banks of the Volga, where her father had taught her to shoot, before they’d taken him away.

            “Don’t ever come back,” her mother screamed as Nadia neared the turn of the road into the forest.

            Only when she was on the bus to Moscow, to join her sister Katya who had left three years earlier, did the tears come. Nadia was eighteen. It was her birthday.

Six months later, the ever-gorgeous Katya invited her plainer, dark-haired little sister to a party in Moscow. Katya dragged Nadia away from her grotty studio flat in Old Arbat, where each night she fell asleep exhausted from working in the local bakery from 4am until 3pm, then at a supermarket until 9pm. Nadia was still a virgin. She liked boys well enough, but hated the unsubtle flirting, the vodka-fuelled race to unconsciousness, and the lies. She’d loved her father, but he’d been one of the worst with women, and she’d seen the permanent damage it had done to her mother. So Nadia kept her hair cropped short, dressed for comfort, and was often mistaken at first sight for a boy, which was fine.

But at the party, held at a wealthy businessman’s country dacha, she was amazed at the naked opulence, the women with perfect skin in low-cut dresses, the handsome and not-so-handsome men, their ease in the world. Viktor, a man twice her age who turned out to be someone in government, seduced her. He wasn’t bad-looking, took his time in bed, and was generous.

            She let things coast along for six months, no demands or promises on either side. It was better than before. She felt not so much loved, but alive. She presumed he was married; she never asked and he never said. She gave up the early morning bakery job, and thought about getting a cat.

Then, one morning at 4am the FSB broke down the door to her apartment, threw a black hood over Viktor’s face, and took him away. He didn’t struggle or cry out, just uttered one muffled word to her – spasiba – before disappearing from her life forever, and probably his, too.

Two days later she was arrested on the grounds of receiving misappropriated funds. She was never formally charged, never saw a lawyer. After three months in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison, Nadia was informed she’d be inside for twelve years, ten if she behaved. She walked around in a daze. This should be the prime of her life. Instead it would be spent behind locked doors. At night before lights-out she tried not to stare at the lone hook in the ceiling; there had been three suicides since her arrival. She couldn’t see how it could get any worse. Then Kadinsky arrived to get her out of jail.

He had a gleaming bald head, and was fat without being flabby, as if his weight was there to throw around, to crush you if necessary. You just knew straightaway not to mess with him. He wore an expensive beige suit, and gold jewellery dripped from his wrists and neck. Her sister Katya stood behind him in a skimpy dress and high heels, her large eyes hopeful and terrified at the same time. Kadinsky got Nadia out with bribes and favours. Of course, she’d have to work it off.

Once back at Kadinsky’s country dacha, she stood in the large lounge with its single bay window overlooking the non-functioning fountain with a chipped statue of Pan in its centre. Inside, oil paintings of Russian battles, including one above the fireplace featuring a victorious Napoleon, hung around the white walls. Kadinsky ordered Katya not to speak, then walked around Nadia. He looked her up and down with an appraising eye, and shook his head with distaste. He sat down in his wide leather armchair. Katya was perched on an antique wooden dining chair on the opposite side of the room. Nadia stood directly between them.

“You have grey eyes,” he said, wagging a finger at her. “Like a fucking tombstone. Who’d want to make love staring into such eyes?” He glanced at Katya. “Are you sure she’s your sister?”

Katya stared at the carpet and nodded, her own eyes a deep blue, like her mother’s. Nadia had her father’s eyes; killer’s eyes, he’d once joked when she’d been too young to realise it was a confession.  

Kadinsky swirled the ice in his whiskey tumbler with a pudgy index finger.

“What else can you do, girl?”

Nadia never knew where her answer came from, possibly utter revulsion against a life of prostitution, but she thought of her father, and the words that sealed her fate slid out of her mouth.

“I can shoot. I never miss.” 

            Kadinsky’s two henchmen laughed. He didn’t.

            “I detest exaggeration,” he said. “So American.” His mouth moved like he was going to spit.

“Let’s see if you can really shoot. Give her your pistol,” he said to one of the henchmen, the one with a pock-marked face – Pox, Nadia named him – who immediately lost his sense of humour.

            Nadia took the weapon from his outstretched hand, weighed it in her palm. An old-style Magnum, the classic six-shot. God knows why the guy had it, most Russians preferred semi-autos. She checked it was loaded, all six bullets nestling in their chambers, then looked to Kadinsky, and thought about killing him. But the other henchman, the one with slicked black hair – hence, Slick – had his Glock trained on her, a lopsided leer on his face, daring her.

            Kadinsky waved a hand towards Katya, five metres away. He tilted his head left and right, then settled back against the soft leather, took a gulp of whiskey, and smacked his lips.

            “The red rose in the bowl of flowers behind her left ear. Shoot it from where you stand.”

            Slick’s eyes flicked towards Katya, gauging the angles. His leer faded.

            Nadia stared at Katya and the rose. It was just to the side of her head. Most of it was behind her head. Nadia swallowed, then lifted the Magnum, and took up a shooting stance like her father had taught her, right arm firm, elbow not locked, left hand reinforcing the wrist, prepared for the recoil. Nadia knew she had to do it before anger could build up and dislodge her concentration. She lined up the shot, then spoke to Katya’s serene, trusting face: “Love you,” she said. Then she breathed out slowly as if through a straw, and squeezed the trigger.

            Masonry exploded behind Katya, the crack of the shot so loud that several other men burst into the room, weapons drawn. Kadinsky waved them back as Pox peeled the Magnum from Nadia’s stiff fingers. Petals fluttered to the floor amidst a plume of white powder from the impact crater in the wall. Katya still sat there, the hair on the left side of her head ruffled as if by a gust of wind. A small trickle of blood oozed from her left temple where the bullet had grazed her, and ran down her cheek.

Katya, lips trembling, beamed at Nadia. “Still alive,” she said, her voice hoarse. She touched the graze with an unsteady forefinger.

Nadia’s gun hand began to shake. She folded her arms, refusing to give Kadinsky the satisfaction.

 

Later that night, while she slept in Katya’s bed, holding close the sister she’d almost killed, Slick and Pox came into the room. Katya woke up, leapt out of bed and told them to fuck off, for which she received the butt of the Magnum across her mouth.

            “It’s okay,” Nadia heard herself say. She half-planned to try to grab one of the guys’ guns at a crucial moment, but they knew what they were doing, one held her down while the other…

            Eventually they left, and Katya, her chin smeared with blood, an ugly bruise rising on her left cheek, returned to the bed and held Nadia tight. Nadia felt nothing, her body strangely still, like it belonged to someone else. While Nadia’s eyes stayed dry, Katya cried and whispered apologies, repeating how it would all be all right, the worst was over, the important thing was that they were together. Nadia replied in conciliatory tones; the first time their relationship had inverted, Nadia becoming the bigger sister.

            At dawn Nadia awoke to find her sister gone, presumably to Kadinsky’s bed. She considered their predicament. Katya was locked into Kadinsky’s world, and now Nadia owed him too, and he wasn’t about to simply let her off. Added to that she felt bound to Katya, they’d been through too much at home. Nadia was trapped. Her mother’s prediction came back to her: a killer or a whore. Maybe both.

She dressed, crept downstairs and stole outside, timing it to get past the guard outside the main door when he went to take a piss. Snow crunched softly under her footsteps. She got a couple of miles from the dacha before she collapsed from the biting cold, and lay down in the crisp silence. “It’s okay,” she heard her mother say inside her head, with a kindness she’d not heard from her in years. “Better this way.” Nadia closed her eyes and went to sleep, hoping never to wake up, unless to join her father.

            But she did awaken, and found herself back in the dacha on a sofa, buried in blankets. She shook violently, and heard shouting in the room next door: Katya, Slick and Pox, and then a low growl that must have been Kadinsky. Katya entered, wiped away tear streaks on her bruised face, and closed the door behind her. She braved a smile and walked towards Nadia.

            “They won’t touch you again,” she said, her voice shaky. “Nobody will.” She sat next to Nadia.

Kadinsky entered, a gold-rimmed coffee cup in his hand, a sad-looking golden retriever trailing him.

“Here’s the deal, girl.” He spoke to the bay window rather than her face, and took a swig before continuing. “I need a female operative who doesn’t piss herself under pressure. You’ll work for me for five years. Your training will take three, including eighteen months in Britain. I want your English to be impeccable – not like a newsreader, like a local.” He stared at her, his eyes flat, hard. He stooped to pat the dog ineffectually, like he didn’t really know how, then stood again, downing the last of the coffee. He spoke to the window again.

“Katya stays here. You’ll do ten ops for me, Nadia, then I’ll let you both go.” He nodded to himself as if concluding the contract. “Ten ops, five years.”

He left, not waiting for an answer. The dog followed, its head bowed.

Kadinsky’s words echoed in Nadia’s mind. Five years. Half the time she would have been kept in prison. Thinking of her cell back in Lubyanka helped. Katya had got Nadia out of her own personal hell. But would Kadinsky really let them both go afterwards?

Katya hugged Nadia, and Nadia succumbed to the embrace, because the only person Nadia cared for in this brutal world was Katya.

“It’s going to be alright,” Katya said, her voice unsure.

Nadia felt something inside herself harden, as if the tears that should have come earlier had turned to glass. She promised herself she would go and retrieve her father’s Beretta the next day, strip it, clean it, and begin practicing again. Ten ops. Five years. And then, one way or the other, they were leaving.

“It will be alright, Katya,” she said. “Whatever it takes, I promise one day I’ll make it right.” 






Monday, 26 October 2015

When people argue about your characters...

Lately I've been doing a re-write of the main character from a new book, a thriller called Sixty-Six Metres. I did it because I got some professional feedback that her character wasn't complex enough to hold the reader throughout the novel. So I did a lot of thinking and then put fingers to the keyboard, re-wrote the first three chapters and took them to my writers group. I wasn't sure about it.

They all noticed the change - one was for keeping it the way it was, the other two liked the new version. But then they started arguing abut the character, Nadia, about what she would and wouldn't do. When they finished, they asked me what I'd decided, since it would affect the rest of the book. I replied I'd never seen them so passionate about Nadia before, so I was keeping the changes. Now all three of them like the newer version.

This happened to me before, during the Eden Paradox series, especially on book 1, when I was developing certain characters. When people start arguing about what a character will or won't do, it's because they have internalised the character, as if it is someone real, and that character lifts off the page.

It's also a good sign when they argue, because that shows the complexity we want from real characters - if they all agree, the character must be pretty bland and predictable.

So, now I'm going through all the Nadia chapters. I must admit, she's a more interesting companion than before.

I hope to have it all done before Xmas, then I start contacting agents... This book has taken two years of writing, as I started it before I finished Eden's Endgame, but I aim to get it out in 2016, one way or another!

Anyway, here's the current opening of the new book, Sixty-Six Metres:


Nadia recalled what her mother had said to her – screamed, to be precise – the day she’d left home in Uspekh on the banks of the Volga to join her older sister Katya in Moscow. It was Nadia’s eighteenth birthday and long-awaited chance for freedom. Her mother, red-faced and waving an Orthodox crucifix in the chill air between them, said Nadia would either end up a killer like her father, or a whore. She spat on the ground between Nadia and the front step of the dilapidated family cottage. Nadia left home that day determined to prove her mother wrong, even though her father’s prized Beretta lay hidden amongst the clothes in her rucksack. She glanced back once before the turn of the road into the forest, knowing she’d only ever return after her mother had taken to the grave her unquenchable rage against the world and her deceased husband. Nadia wept that night. But in the morning she moved on.

Six months later, the ever-gorgeous Katya invited her plainer, dark-haired little sister to a party in Moscow. Katya dragged Nadia away from her grotty studio flat in Old Arbat, where each night she fell asleep exhausted from working in the local bakery from 4am until 3pm, then at a supermarket until 9pm. Nadia was still a virgin. She liked boys well enough, but hated their games: the unsubtle flirting, the vodka-fuelled race to unconsciousness, the lies. She’d loved her father, but he’d been one of the worst with women, and she’d seen the permanent damage it had done to her mother. So Nadia kept her hair cropped short, dressed for comfort, and was often mistaken at first sight for a boy, which was fine.

But at the party, held at a wealthy businessman’s country dacha, she was amazed at the naked opulence, the women with perfect skin in low-cut dresses, the handsome and not-so-handsome men, their ease in the world. Viktor, a man twice her age, who turned out to be someone in government, seduced her. He wasn’t bad-looking, took his time in bed, and was generous.

            She let things coast along for six months, no demands or promises on either side. It was better than before, that was for sure. She felt not so much loved, but alive. She presumed he was married; she never asked and he never said. She gave up the early morning bakery job, and thought about getting a cat.

Then, one morning at 4am the FSB broke down the door to her apartment, threw a black hood over Viktor’s face, and took him away. He didn’t struggle or cry out, just uttered one muffled word to her – spasiba – before disappearing from her life forever, and probably his, too.

Two days later she was arrested, on the grounds of receiving misappropriated funds. She was never formally charged, never saw a lawyer. After three months in Moscow’s Lubyanka prison, Nadia was informed she’d be inside for twelve years, ten if she behaved. She walked around in a daze. This should be the prime of her life. Instead it would be spent behind locked doors. At night before lights-out she tried not to stare at the lone hook in the ceiling; there had been three suicides since her arrival. She couldn’t see how it could get any worse. Then one day Kadinsky arrived to get her out of jail.

He had a gleaming bald head, and was fat without being flabby, as if his weight was there to throw around, to crush you if necessary. You just knew straightaway not to mess with him. He wore an expensive beige suit, and gold jewellery dripped from his wrists and neck. Her sister Katya stood behind him in a skimpy dress and high heels, her large eyes hopeful and terrified at the same time. Kadinsky got Nadia out with bribes and favours. Of course, she’d have to work it off.

In the back seat of Kadinsky’s chauffeured limo, Nadia held Katya’s hand tight all the way out of Moscow, scared the car would turn around at any moment and take her back to prison. Katya held her, kept telling her it would be alright, but still Nadia squeezed her sister’s hand.

Once back at Kadinsky’s country dacha, she stood in the large lounge with its single bay window overlooking a non-functioning fountain, a chipped statue of Pan in its centre. Inside, oil paintings of Russian battles, including one above the fireplace featuring a victorious Napoleon, hung around the white walls. Kadinsky ordered Katya not to speak, then walked around Nadia. He looked her up and down with an appraising eye, and shook his head with distaste. He sat down in his wide leather armchair. Katya was perched on an antique wooden dining chair on the opposite side of the room. Nadia stood directly between them.

“You have grey eyes,” he said, wagging a finger at her. “Like a fucking tombstone. Who would want to make love staring into such eyes?” He glanced at Katya. “Are you sure she’s your sister?”

Katya stared at the carpet and nodded, her own eyes a deep blue, like her mother’s. Nadia had her father’s eyes; killer’s eyes, he’d once joked when she’d been too young to realise it was a confession.  

Kadinsky swirled the ice in his whiskey tumbler with a pudgy index finger.

“What else can you do, girl?”

Nadia never knew where her answer came from, possibly utter revulsion against a life of prostitution, but she thought of her father, and the words that sealed her fate slid out of her mouth.

“I can shoot. I never miss.” 

            Kadinsky’s two henchmen laughed. He didn’t.

            “I detest exaggeration,” he said. “So American.” His mouth moved like he was going to spit.

“Let’s see if you can really shoot. Give her your pistol,” he said to one of the henchmen, the one with a pock-marked face – Pox, Nadia named him – who immediately lost his sense of humour.

            Nadia took the weapon from his outstretched hand, weighed it in her palm. An old-style Magnum, the classic six-shot. God knows why the guy had it, most Russians preferred semi-autos. She checked it was loaded, all six bullets nestling in their chambers, then looked to Kadinsky, and thought about killing him. But the other henchman, the one with slicked black hair – hence, Slick – had his Glock trained on her, a lopsided leer on his face, daring her.

            Kadinsky waved a hand towards Katya, five metres away. He tilted his head left and right, then settled back against the soft leather, took a gulp of whiskey, and smacked his lips.

            “The red rose in the bowl of flowers behind her left ear. Shoot it from where you stand.”

            Slick’s eyes flicked towards Katya, gauging the angles. His leer faded.

            Nadia stared at Katya and the rose. It was just to the side of her head. Most of it was behind her head. Nadia swallowed, then lifted the Magnum, and took up a shooting stance like her father had taught her, right arm firm, elbow not locked, left hand reinforcing the wrist, prepared for the recoil. Nadia knew she had to do it before anger could build up and dislodge her concentration. She lined up the shot, then spoke to Katya’s serene, trusting face: “Love you,” she said. Then she breathed out slowly as if through a straw, and squeezed the trigger.

            Masonry exploded behind Katya, the crack of the shot so loud that several other men burst into the room, weapons drawn. Kadinsky waved them back as Pox peeled the Magnum from Nadia’s stiff fingers. Petals fluttered to the floor amidst a plume of white powder from the impact crater in the wall. Katya still sat there, the hair on the left side of her head ruffled as if by a gust of wind. A small trickle of blood oozed from her left temple where the bullet had grazed her, and ran down her cheek.

Katya, lips trembling, beamed at Nadia. “Still alive,” she said, her voice hoarse. She touched the graze with an unsteady forefinger.

Nadia’s gun hand began to shake. She folded her arms, refusing to give Kadinsky the satisfaction.

 

 

Later that night, while she slept in Katya’s bed, holding close the sister she’d almost killed, Slick and Pox came into the room. Katya woke up, leapt out of bed and told them to fuck off, for which she received the butt of the Magnum across her mouth.

            “It’s okay,” Nadia heard herself say. She half-planned to try to grab one of the guys’ guns at a crucial moment, but they knew what they were doing, one held her down while the other…

            Eventually they left, and Katya, her chin smeared with blood, an ugly bruise rising on her left cheek, returned to the bed and held Nadia tight. Nadia felt nothing, her body strangely still, like it belonged to someone else. While Nadia’s eyes stayed dry, Katya cried and whispered apologies, repeating how it would all be all right, the worst was over, the important thing was that they were together. Nadia replied in conciliatory tones; the first time their relationship had inverted, Nadia becoming the bigger sister.

            At dawn Nadia awoke to find her sister gone, presumably to Kadinsky’s bed. She considered their predicament. Katya was locked into Kadinsky’s world, and now Nadia owed him too, and he wasn’t about to simply let her off. Added to that she felt bound to Katya, they’d been through too much at home. Nadia was trapped. Her mother’s prediction came back to her: a killer or a whore. Maybe both.

She dressed, crept downstairs and stole outside, timing it to get past the guard outside the main door when he went to take a piss. Snow crunched softly under her footsteps. She got a couple of miles from the dacha before she collapsed from the biting cold, and lay down in the crisp silence. “It’s okay,” she heard her mother say inside her head, with a kindness she’d not heard from her in many years. “Better this way.” Nadia closed her eyes and went to sleep, hoping never to wake up, unless to join her father.

            But she did awaken, and found herself back in the dacha on a sofa, buried in blankets. She shook violently, and heard shouting in the room next door: Katya, Slick and Pox, and then a low growl that must have been Kadinsky. Katya entered, wiped away tear streaks on her bruised face, and closed the door behind her. She braved a smile and walked towards Nadia.

            “They won’t touch you again,” she said, her voice shaky. “Nobody will.” She sat next to Nadia.

Kadinsky entered, a gold-rimmed coffee cup in his hand, a sad-looking golden retriever trailing him.

“Here’s the deal, girl.” He spoke to the bay window rather than her face, and took a swig before continuing. “I need a female operative who doesn’t piss herself under pressure. You’ll work for me for five years. Your training will take three, including eighteen months in Britain. I want your English to be impeccable – not like a newsreader, like a local.” He stared at her, his eyes flat, hard. He stooped to pat the dog ineffectually, like he didn’t really know how, then stood again, downing the last of the coffee. He spoke to the window again.

“Katya stays here. You’ll do ten ops for me, Nadia, then I’ll let you both go.” He nodded to himself as if concluding the contract. “Ten ops, five years.”

He left not waiting for an answer. The dog followed, its head bowed.

Kadinsky’s words echoed in Nadia’s mind. Five years. Half the time she would have been kept in prison. Thinking of her cell back in Lubyanka helped. Katya had got Nadia out of her own personal hell. But would Kadinsky really let them both go afterwards?

Katya hugged Nadia, and Nadia succumbed to the embrace, because she loved Katya more than anyone else in this brutal world.

“It’s going to be alright,” Katya said, her voice unsure.

Nadia felt something inside herself harden, as if the tears that should have come earlier had turned to glass.

“It will be,” she said. “Whatever it takes, Katya, I promise, one day I’ll make it right.” 
 
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