Sunday, 26 April 2015

Science Fiction Enigmas

The first books that got me into Science Fiction were Isaac Asimov's Foundation series. It was the mystery and its scope in all its galactic grandeur that captivated me, and of course how expertly Asimov let it unfold across the trilogy, so that finally we understood the grand plan.

Another grand-master, Arthur C Clarke went one step further with his Rama series, because we never get to fully understand what the aliens want and why their vessels are traversing our solar system. I'm waiting to see the film version (Rendezvous with Rama). This is one of the few series I plan to read again from start to (non)finish.

More recent, Stephen Baxter's Timelike Infinity is masterful at leaving a healthy dose of enigma in our minds about the aliens controlling the wormhole, perhaps inspiring films like Interstellar where, again, as lowly humans, we don't fully grasp the methods and aims of multi-dimensional beings (how could we?).

Orson Scott Card noted that one of the reasons people read science fiction is for the 'wonder factor'. This can work on two levels. First, we can be wowed by understanding and 'seeing' something new. This is what books like Larry Niven's Ringworld do (the film Elysium borrowed from it, at least the visual concept), especially since he had the astrophysics worked out to back up this fantastic concept. This type of wonder has immediate and
spectacular effect, and many scifi films now go for it given the power of computer generated graphics (remember the floating islands in Avatar?).

Second, the wonder can be enigmatic, plausible but never fully resolved, so that we are left to wonder. This possibly works best in books, though Interstellar did a reasonable job of it (in my humble opinion!), though the quintessential film for this type of wonder is Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.

So, in my Eden Paradox series, I wanted both types of wonder in there. But the second is harder to achieve. In the first book, The Eden Paradox, I created two enigmatic alien species: the Spiders, and the Hohash. The Spiders appear pacifist, but as the series went on, readers began asking me about them, because they seemed important, and yet they kept to themselves. By the fourth and final book, Eden's Endgame, pretty much all the readers I was in touch with were asking me what their role was, because they were sure they had one. And they do, a big role, which is not revealed until near the end of the series. But they remain somewhat enigmatic, and are never fully explained - this isn't down to caprice on my part, it's for a good reason, but it does mean we are left wondering. When I meet readers who have finished the series, invariably they still ask me about the Spiders, what will happen to them, and whether there will be any more books...

The Hohash are something else. They are machines, of a sort. Imagine a smartphone allowed to evolve for a billion years, and you might have a Hohash. At first they seem to be mechanical artifacts, but by the second book it is clear they have their own volition, and their own agenda. Another science fiction writer, Gary Gibson, told me the Hohash were the most interesting aspect of the series.

A recent review of Eden's Endgame prompted me to write this blog. Sometimes reviews strike an author, because they show an author his or her work from a different perspective, and sometimes it can be illuminating. I'd never before thought of the Hohash in terms of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, for example, but now I find I can't deny its influence, nor that of Kubrick's masterpiece.

But it also reminded me of the type of Scifi I like to read, books that leave me with a lingering question, that stretches my own mind. I like enigmas... If any readers out there have their favorites of this 'second type of wonder', do let me know.

Thanks to M.E. Gallagher for the review below, which I've left in its entirety.

From Spiders to Hohash...
Eden’s Endgame is a terrific read! In this fourth book of his Eden series, Kirwan takes us on a wild ride that ties together earlier story lines, yet reads well as a stand-alone. As usual, Kirwan’s descriptions place us in his universe: “(Jen) had seen fuzzy images of the Tla Beth, but had never met one before. It floated a couple of metres above a raised dais… with vertical metallic strips rotating around its core; if she tried to reach inside, her arm would be sliced off…

And later, “Kilaney watched as the first few Dropships neared the densely packed field that made him think of a ball of barbed wire… Traveling point-first and at high speed, they were difficult targets, like trying to shoot at an arrow flying towards your face.”

Kirwan populated the Eden series with unique beings, from dog-like Ossyrian physicians to gentle reptilian Rangers. My two favorites figure large in Eden’s Endgame: The giant spiders are spindly as tripods, yet cuddly as koala bears - Blake once joked that they “looked like walking charcoaled hamburgers.” We see the spiders’ tale unfold from benign, mute life-form to major player. Seldom have arachnids enjoyed such good press.

At the opposite end of the “Warm & Fuzzy” category, Kirwan gives us the Hohash. This isn’t the first time we’ve met these flat, mirror-like creatures – but in Endgame, the mysterious Hohash also turn hero. Part Lewis Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass,” part Thomas Hutchinson’s 1946 "Here is Television: Your Window to the World", and part the powerful monolith of "2001: A Space Odyssey", the Hohash embodies Stanley Kubrick’s statement in his 1968 New York Time’s interview.

“It's generally thought that after a highly-developed science gets you past the mortality stage,” Kubrick said, “you become part-animal, part-machine, then all machine. Eventually, perhaps, pure energy. We cannot imagine what a million-year jump in science will produce in life-forms. Pure spirit may be the ultimate form that intelligence would seek.”

Barry Kirwan’s Eden’s Endgame is a rip-roaring adventure that helps us imagine that jump into the future. I give it five stars.

Monday, 6 April 2015

The enemy of my enemy...

The galaxy is a really big place, as Douglas Adams once pronounced. When thinking about it, you have to think really big, too. Most of the time people deduce from this truism that there might be other habitable, and inhabited worlds out there. That's not big thinking. That's like adding instead of multiplying. If there is even one more inhabited world out there, then using 'galactic statistics', there are probably thousands of such worlds. Why haven't we seen any other species? Take a look at the first sentence again.

It implies something else as well. Other intelligent species can have a very extreme range of emotions and attitudes. We can conveniently dump them into a continuum between good and evil, or more objectively, altruistic and hostile. Why? Because our survival will depend on it. Who we meet first is likely to be critical to the survival of the human race. In my Eden Paradox series, unfortunately, we are not lucky in this respect.

In fiction terms, the principle of 'thinking big' also means that no matter how evil we think a person may be, there will be someone - or something - far worse out there. Evil here can simply mean they do not consider us as having any rights, because they are far more advanced than we are, and they would slaughter us without any concern the way we kill sheep and cattle. This chilling disregard is for me best illustrated in the film Prometheus, when we finally get to meet one of the 'Engineers'.

In the Eden Paradox series there is a character, Louise, who quite a few of my readers have told me they would like to kill with their bare hands, because of what she has done. But in Eden's Endgame there is a character from another galaxy called Qorall who makes Louise look like a saintly nun. But because Qorall is a super-being, we don't get too close to him, because nobody does. However, there is the Q'Roth High Queen, who oversaw the attack on Earth at the beginning of the series. In this final book of the series, Louise meets her. The saying goes, 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend'. Louise's hatred of humanity would never allow her to go that far, but her encounter does trigger a reaction. And if you do get time to read the excerpt below, you'll realize something very strange - and very natural - is happening to the Queen...

Louise stayed perfectly still. One of the Q’Roth High Guard stood by her side with his mid-claw lightly closed around her throat. She avoided gulping; any sign of weakness might trigger a nervous twitch and end all her plans. The High Guard were taller than normal warrior Q’Roth, reaching four metres, and rarely left the Queen’s side. Louise had learned that there were two types of Queen; those who journeyed out into the galaxy and set up hives, and the homeworld-based High Queen, supreme leader of all Q’Roth tribes. She was the one Louise had dared ask to see. But as soon as she had landed on the northern ice cap of the Q’Roth home planet, Korakkara, her ship had been impounded. Louise had been stripped and decontaminated, and made to stand naked for two hours with her neck on the line.
            She felt cold. One of her calf muscles began to tighten, as if it might cramp. She breathed deeper, willing her muscles to relax, so she could remain still – after all, the guard hadn’t moved a millimetre, and Louise was sure she was being watched for any sign of weakness, at which she might be killed; they had the tech to extract the deal offered by Qorall from her dying mind, at least they thought they did.
            At last she heard a rhythmic thumping sound, compounded by a dragging, scraping noise, like a horse dragging a sack of rocks along the floor. She’d never seen the High Queen; few had. She was brown, and there was a pungent smell like rotting fruit that caught in Louise’s nostrils. But it was the Queen’s girth that surprised Louise, the swollen ribbed belly that rippled with internal movement. Not eggs, that was for sure. Louise lifted her gaze instead to the Queen’s head, an inverted triangle tapering to a sturdy neck. At the other end was a lizard tail with mace-like clumps at its end. They looked lethal, and although the Queen’s movements seemed sluggish, Louise had no doubt this five-metre Q’Roth could react with lightning speed.
The Queen took up a standing position between two metal pillars, leaning on them with her upper claws. That was when Louise noticed something else, ultra-thin folds of skin tucked away below her armoured shoulder blades, stretching down behind her belly. So, the legend was true.
            “State your proposal,” the Queen said, each Q’Roth syllable razor-sharp.
            The claw around Louise’s throat loosened, allowing her to speak clearly.
            “Level Sixteen Nchkani tech and weaponry in exchange for tactical support in the battle to be fought at Hell’s End. After victory, the Q’Roth will be upgraded six Levels and become overlords in this galaxy.”
            The Queen’s belly stirred, something writhing inside. Louise tried not to stare, and waited for the response to her proposal.
            “Qorall’s recode strategy is failing. The tide will turn. His Orbs have all been destroyed by the Machines.” Her triangular head leaned forward, her six eyes flared. “He is losing.”
            Louise raised her voice. “Hellera alone cannot defeat Qorall. The Tla Beth are few, the Rangers inconsequential. The recoding by the Orbs was a ruse, an experiment, nothing more. When Hellera is defeated, and you have Nchkani ships, Qorall will rule this galaxy the traditional way, a strong hierarchy, with the Q’Roth keeping everyone else in their place.”
            “Why us?”
            “Despite considerable losses during the war, your Q’Roth warriors have time and time again proven their worth, often against Level Nine or even Level Ten species with far superior technology. Q’Roth resilience and tactical ingenuity are both legendary and feared.”
The Queen didn’t seem convinced. Louise remembered something else she had told Qorall about the Q’Roth. “You are also the species whose character is most like his own.” She could go further, that the Q’Roth and Qorall were both defined by malice, and an unquenchable thirst for aggression, in Qorall’s case forged through aeons of bitterness and a need for revenge, and for Q’Roth intentionally bred into them by the Tla Beth, and ultimately the Kalarash. What goes around, comes around.
            “Tell me of Qorall's galaxy-destroyer.”
            “All I can tell you is that it exists, and it is located in the galactic core. A super white hole will ignite, and will burn its way through this galaxy, devouring all star systems.”
            “At the speed of light. We are very far from the core. It will not reach here for thousands of years. Why should we care now?”
            Louise had asked the same question, though Qorall had inflicted severe pain in exchange for an answer. She’d barely grasped the math.
“Transpace carriers, subspace harmonics. Shockwaves, ripple effects. I already forwarded the simulation to your fleet Admiral in orbit. The galaxy will be gone in a year.” And the Alicians along with it. Qorall had to be stopped, but if no one was up to it, he had to be helped in order to avoid his terrible endgame, equivalent to tossing the entire chessboard into the fire. There was a third way, of course, but she dared not even reflect on it in front of the Queen.
            Something moved violently inside the Queen’s belly, a savage kick. The Queen’s head rolled back a moment as she emitted a hissing sound, then pitched forward again. There was a splitting noise emanating from the Queen’s loins. Louise tried not to watch as something dark and gelatinous began to emerge from between the Queen’s lower legs. She was giving birth.
“Why you?”
            The question took Louise aback, but she knew she had to answer immediately, even as a body slumped to the floor, twitching inside a transparent sack. She saw a mustard-coloured claw stretch the interior of the sheath and pierce it.
“I am but a messenger. I proved useful to Qorall before, and I am part-Q’Roth.” Louise left out the fact that this switching of allegiances was her idea.
The Queen paid no attention to the hatchling. Louise wondered what it was. There was something different about it. Louise felt a shiver run down her spine. Hatchlings needed to feed almost immediately. The guardian’s claw was still around her throat, and she had no weapons.
“The Nchkani fleet is destroyed,” the Queen said, a nonchalance in her tone, as if the interview was boring, irrelevant, coming to a close, and the real purpose of Louise’s presence about to be revealed. The hatchling, yellowish in colour, tried to get to its feet, and slipped in its own amniotic fluid. Its clawslooked sharper than usual.
Louise watched the hatchling. It had a longer belly than a warrior, and was taller than normal, its mid-legs also longer, more spindly. With a gasp, Louise realised it was a Queen. No one – even Q’Roth she had worked with – knew where the Queens came from, the assumption being that they hatched from eggs like all other Q’Roth. The Queen who had given birth to this one must be special, and possibly very, very old. The new Queen stood awkwardly on its six legs, and faced Louise. It staggered a step towards her. The mother leaned forward, eager to watch her offspring take its first feed.
“The Nchkani had a secret process they called Resurrection,” Louise said. “I can bring back the Nchkani ships, give you a fleet of them. Today. In your system.” She glanced at the new-born. “Or not.”
The claw tightened around her throat, almost choking her.
The Queen lurched forward from the pillars and landed right in front of Louise, pounding into the floor, making it shake. Her left mid-leg grabbed the hatchling at the neck, holding it in place. It acquiesced, and became docile.
“If you are lying, I will extract your mind before my new-born feeds on your carcass, and leave you in a torture loop for millennia. You will drown in your screams for eternity.”
            Louise had heard of this process, reserved for traitors and those who fled from battle; one reason the Q’Roth warriors were so disciplined and ready to die rather than suffer defeat.
The claw eased off a little so Louise could speak. “I never bluff. I carry the re-genesis material on my ship, but it needs my codes, cross-correlated with sixteen random memory fragments.” You won’t get all of them by post-mortem memory extraction, and you’ll have nothing. “The sixth planet in this system will serve for re-genesis purposes.”
The Queen lowered her head close to Louise’s face, her six eye-slits waxing the colour of congealed blood. Then she lifted away again, shepherding the infant Queen to Louise’s left. Louise heard the sound of feet. She tried to see, but could barely turn. Three chained, naked Alicians came into view, a male and two females. They had not been treated well. She recognised the male, Astara, the commander of the space station that had been tethered to Savange. These three must have been aboard the Q’Roth warship that escaped when Micah attacked the station. Astara’s eyes locked onto hers.
“Ustraxia,” she said. It was the name of a place from Alician history, a famous battlefield. Astara and the others stared a moment, then one by one nodded to Louise.
The Queen released her child who pounced on the trio. They did not defend themselves, nor resist, understanding Louise’s command. The young Queen fed on them one after the other, its mouth clamping onto the top of Astara’s skull first, sucking the life force out of him. The two women waited their turn. There were no screams. Louise watched till the last was taken. Her remaining human hand trembled, and Louise found she couldn’t stop it, until the last was dead. The new-born Queen tilted its head back, and Alician blood sprayed from its mouth as it roared, its bellow echoing throughout the chamber. It departed.
The Queen returned her focus to Louise. “You have twelve hours. If you attempt to jump out of system, we will track you down, as well as your Alician refugees, and feed on you all.”
“You will have your ships,” Louise said. “I will go with your fleet to Hell’s End.”
The Queen’s triangular head tilted in front of Louise. “Why is your face wet?”
Louise kept her voice steady. “Sweat. It’s hot in here.”
The Queen raised herself and strode out of the chamber, her belly dragging on the floor as before. The guardian released Louise.
She walked to the three corpses and stood over them. She had never been religious – Alicians weren’t, believing there was nothing afterwards – but she began to intone the Alician death ritual, then said it aloud, then louder, until it echoed around the chamber.

The Eden Paradox Series, available in paperback and Kindle
The Eden Paradox - where it all begins - "Best scifi of the year"
Eden's Trial - where we are judged - "Terrific action and battle scenes"
Eden's Revenge - where it gets personal - "Masterful science Fiction"
Eden\s Endgame - where it must all end - "An awesome,epic, grand finale"

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

On reading science fiction aloud...

Last night I read out two sections from my book Eden's Endgame at a Bookstore in Paris, Berkeley Books, with a mixed Anglo-French audience of around thirty people. It's only the second time I've read my work aloud like this. Three of us were reading, one a poet, one contemporary literature, and me, science fiction. Of course not everyone's into science fiction - it's a genre - so I was happy to see so many turn up. 

I'm not that at ease reading my work aloud. Although I often lecture and give presentations for my day job, sometimes to audiences in their hundreds, reading my novels aloud to even a small group  is quite nerve-wracking; I had to stop twice to take a sip of water as the inside of my mouth kept drying out. But I focused on the writing, on the words in the book that I'd worked over again and again prior to publication, and it helped to have some of my writing colleagues present.

Reading scifi to a non-scifi audience means picking something out of the novel that doesn't require a degree in astrophysics and isn't too outlandish. In the end I picked two short pieces, the first the prologue from Eden's Endgame, which describes, at least in part, how the most (in)famous character in the series, Louise, became like she is. It is set in Thailand and, at least for the first half, is almost funny, before it shifts into a slightly gruesome action sequence. There's no 'scifi' at all except one nano-sword, an oblique reference to a hover car, and 'indie sav-minds'. But it's a full-on, in your face piece, and gets pretty tense.

The second was more enigmatic (they are both below). This one was also from Endgame. I wanted the audience to 'see' some scifi ideas, and I've been told this chapter is pretty visual. I just selected the first section, where you 'see' two people in space-suits cannoning down to the surface of a dead planet.

How did it go? Well, you'll always get applause in France, no matter what you do or how bad you are, but it seemed to go okay. Comments I got concerned how visual it was, like watching a film, they could see themselves falling down the tunnel on the planet, or sipping a Lao Pane in the Thai cafe, and also how tense it was, pulling them in. But the second section I read aloud was also about character, about the relationship between the two people falling, Jen and Dimitri, and the temporary role reversal in their relationship, and I could see some of the audience 'getting it'. 

Did I sell any books? Eight, so not bad. A film-maker said we should talk, after she's read some more, she loves this kind of writing. So I'm dreaming now, lol.

I enjoyed it more than I thought I would. A number of people asked me why it was only my second reading. I shrugged, muttered something about my publisher not being interested, but afterwards, I thought, why not? More of us scifi writers should come out of scifi conferences, get out of our comfort zones and away from our laptops, and read to 'normal' audiences, to show that at the end of the day, it's still just fiction, it's about people and their struggles with whatever life throws at them. Because the funny thing is, as I realized last night, is that these normal people are willing to give it a try, willing to hear us out.

After all, as I said in my first ever (non-scifi) published piece, Writerholics Anonymous, writing is a contact sport :-)

Thanks to Jen who made it happen, and to Phyllis from Berkeley Books, to Mary Ellen, Gwyneth, Lizzie and Janet who came to support, my writing colleague Marie from our Writers Group who also read from her new book, Tita, and (especially) to everyone else who gave up their time and pitched up to listen. 

Here's what I read out from Eden's Endgame:

Bangkok, 2252, Eve of WWIII

Thirteen years before the Fall of Earth

Louise fidgeted in the long silk dress with the red dragon pattern; give her combat fatigues any day. But Nick had never seen her in a dress – naked, sure – and they were being called up tonight, so it was now or never. She shifted her weight in the bamboo chair, sipping her second Lao Pane, a kiwi whiskey shake, and mopped her brow with a paper serviette; it was forty-five in the shade, and the café aircon was bust again. Nick was already an hour late, but she’d wait. It was the fourth day in the past month they’d been put on high alert, the difference this time being that the tactical nukes had been armed, their mid-range delivery missiles prepped.
            Through the dusty window she watched people in bright colours and straw hats scurry past. Bangkok always bustled, but there were fewer smiles and animated interchanges than usual. Everyone knew a third world war was just around the corner. According to the indie sav-minds, half the population would perish. Many still didn’t accept it, but she did. Man had always waged war, on increasingly large scales. All you needed to make it go truly global was to interconnect everyone and everything. Nowhere left to hide or run to, nowhere neutral. The screen behind the counter blared out the latest last-ditch peace talks, another excuse for a barrage of rhetoric whipping up normally sane people into a frenzy. One trigger-happy finger, one inflammatory event, and the world would ignite.
Louise leant forward, caught her reflection in the glass table-top, saw the hardness behind her features. Her state of mind wasn’t the best brochure for humanity. Twenty-two years of life had been pretty shit so far, more than her fair share of uninvited adult attention as a teenager, and once she could fight back, she’d tried and failed to reinvent herself as a teacher. Instead she’d ended up a marine after one of her few real friends pointed out she had a killer instinct, having witnessed her break a guy’s jaw in a nightclub punch-up on her eighteenth birthday.
Her sex-life had been a disaster zone until a few weeks ago. Nick, a Canadian commando monitoring the US war games in Thailand. Love at first fuck. And now gung-ho politicians and insanely radicalised religious leaders were going to blow it for them, and for everyone else. She could forgive them all if she and Nick could have one last afternoon of passion. Staring over people’s heads outside, she searched for his six-six frame. Come on, Nick, don’t keep a girl waiting.
            She took another sip as she watched a woman in a burka enter the café – must be baking alive inside – and take a seat opposite a man with slick black hair, shiny business attire and mirror sunglasses, none of which suited him. He looked like one of the Green-Shirt politicians who’d been warmongering over the Thai vid channels. The two of them made an odd couple, especially as she seemed to be the one running the meeting. The woman’s eyes suddenly locked onto Louise, so she turned back to gazing out the window.
Across the busy street she spied Nick, taller than the locals, sailing towards her like a yacht cruising into harbour. She stood up to show him the dress. His shades were down but when he saw her he stopped dead and lifted them and mouthed “Wow.” He walked faster, waving his hands in the air, pretending to be exasperated by the constant flood of people and biofuel tuk-tuks in between him and the café; it made her smile. Wait till he saw what was underneath her dress.
Another man crossed her gaze as he glided towards the café entrance ahead of Nick: athletic frame, bald, no hat, no sunglasses, and grey one-piece jumpsuit despite the heat. Her instincts kicked in as he cut effortlessly through the crowded street, his features concentrated and alert; he was on a mission. She noticed a tattoo on the side of his neck, like a cross but with an oval at the top; the ankh symbol, she recalled. Then she remembered a briefing three days ago: a US politician had been killed in broad daylight right outside the Senate; there had been a photo of the assassin’s body, riddled with bullets, the same tattoo on his neck… She glanced down at the bag at her feet. No pistol, just her knife.
            The door tinkled as the man stepped inside, his eyes an intense emerald green. He took one brief look around, reached into his pocket, then sprang towards the woman in the burka, brandishing a metal rod. The woman, without even turning around, flung herself flat, as a thin blue blade whipped above her, finding instead the neck of the politician who was rising to his feet, a gun in his hand. The politician dropped his weapon and clutched at his throat, unable to speak or scream, only gurgle as blood gushed through his fingers. He crumpled to the floor.
Louise stumbled backwards as the speed of events caught up with her; she couldn’t move properly in that damned long dress. Cursing, she fell to the floor, amidst the scraping sounds of furniture being kicked aside, swishes of the assassin’s ultra-thin sword, and high-pitched screams and shouts of the clientele as they clambered for the exit. Louise glanced up while her left hand dived into her bag and unsheathed her stiletto. Nick burst through the door, almost taking the frame with him, and thank god had his pistol drawn. Louise found the knife, grasped its smooth handle, and got to her feet.
            Nick was right behind the assassin, who seemed oblivious as he hacked his way through tables and chairs towards the woman in the burka, who was far more agile than she looked. Nick shouted at the guy to stop, or he would fire. The assassin didn’t turn around, just flicked his blade backwards, its blue edge slicing first through Nick’s pistol arm before it carved a line through his chest; Nick went down. The woman in the burka had her back against the wall.
            Louise darted forward and flung the knife at the killer just as he raised his sword. The stiletto plunged into the side of his neck, severing his carotid artery, a curtain of blood spraying over the wall. The woman in the burka dived to the floor. The assassin staggered backwards a pace, glared at Louise once, then tapped the sword hilt with his other hand as if entering a code, ignoring the blood spurting from his neck, and collapsed.
Louise didn’t see him hit the ground.
            Everything turned blinding white, and she heard a deafening crack as a wave of searing heat scorched her entire body, lifted her off her feet and threw her to the other end of the café. She landed in a puddle of melting plastic furniture and burning bamboo. Her left eye still worked, the right was fused shut. She looked down her body: the dress was largely burnt off, her skin a hideous landscape of red and black, the flesh on her right arm barbecued to a crisp. Flames licked her legs, the only saving grace being that she couldn’t feel them. She was glad she couldn’t see her face. Acrid fumes made her cough and her eye water. Getting up wasn’t an option. Through the smoke and fire she tried to make out Nick’s remains.
            A tall figure walked over: the woman in the burka. Steam poured off the black material that now looked more like very fine chain mail. It flickered silver and white as if there was some kind of tech underneath. The woman was unharmed. She removed her hood and facemask, and bent forward, her eyes the blackest Louise had ever seen. Two sets of footsteps rushed in, speaking urgently in foreign accents, not Thai.
            “Your Eminence, are you alright? Thank Alessia! We must leave straightaway, the police will arrive quickly; you cannot be found here!”
            The woman did not answer them. She spoke instead to Louise.
            “You saved my life. But you have fourth-degree burns over most of your body.”
            Louise coughed, tried to speak, couldn’t, her throat and tongue dried leather, tasting of charcoal. That extent of burns meant only one thing. Louise closed her eye as the pain asserted itself with a vengeance, as if she was being boiled alive. Her body began to shudder. A single whimper of agony escaped through clenched teeth.
The woman continued, amidst shouts and wails outside, and the crashing of the burning roof caving in all around them.
            “The assassin who did this to you – and murdered your friend – is called a Sentinel. There are fifty of them roaming this doomed world. You have a choice: I can put you out of your misery here and now, or I can save you – if you agree to join me and help kill the rest of the Sentinels. The choice is yours. If you wish to die, keep your eye closed. You have ten seconds.”
            Louise thought of Nick; he deserved to be avenged. But what if this woman was evil, and the assassin had been trying to kill her for a good reason? No way to know. And right now, the world could go to hell as far as Louise was concerned. Besides, if she was dead, there was nothing after, of that she was convinced.
She opened her eye.
The woman touched Louise’s neck with something metallic that made a short hiss, and her body numbed as if she was wrapped in a cool cloud.  
“Bring her,” the woman said.
Rough hands grabbed Louise’s listless body, lifted her from the sticky floor. The sirens grew louder.
“What about the Minister, Your Eminence?”
“Leak a report that the Fundies assassinated him. It is the spark we have been waiting for. The war starts tonight.”
Louise’s head tilted back as she was bundled out of the café into a hover car. Behind her, in amongst the smoking carnage, she glimpsed Nick’s cremated corpse. In that moment, she hated the world and everyone in it, and was prepared to watch it all burn, until there was nothing left but ash. 

Here's the second, shorter piece, from the beginning of chapter three:

Jen and Dimitri shot towards the planet, helmeted heads first, like two silver bullets. The timer in the corner of Jen’s visor indicated ten minutes since they'd torpedoed out of the Ice Pick parked safely above them in orbit, another ten till touchdown. Ukrull had refused to land, and as usual declined to explain why. The planet had no atmosphere, so there was no need to worry about burning up. But the silence was eerie: no rushing wind, only her own measured breathing and Dimitri’s ragged gasps.
They were on the galactic rim. To one side there were no stars, on the other a disc-like swathe of light. It gave Jen vertigo whenever she glanced towards the inter-galactic void, so she focused instead on their destination below. The planet was dark, even though this was the side facing the system’s red dwarf. As she tried to make out details, her helmet visor sensed her eye muscles’ effort and zoomed in. But there were no distinguishing marks, only a frozen ocean of metallic dust, all that was left of the Xera, the hyper-intelligent machine race that had almost taken over the galaxy two million years earlier. The other galactic species had barely survived, but had finally conquered the Xera, leaving nothing but this tomb planet, ten kilometres deep with metal ash. It was a memento, and above all a warning. And now she and Dimitri were there to find a machine race remnant if one still existed, and bring it back to Esperia for examination, without waking it up.
The planet grew large beneath her, the terrain stretching far and flat in all directions, and she took one last look towards inter-galactic space. She and Dimitri knew pretty much nothing about the Xera; apparently such intel was only fit for Level Fifteen and above. When they’d arrived, however, she’d asked how the Machine race had started at the galactic rim; it seemed unlikely. Ukrull had replied, “Before Machines, galaxy bigger.” She guessed the Xera had somehow chewed up entire star systems for resources. Either that or the purge of the Machines at the end of the war had necessitated a clean-up operation on an unimaginable scale. She felt a chill, and adjusted a control to put a little more heat inside her suit.
            Jen glanced across to Dimitri, his bulkier space suit looking awkward, his arms waving in jagged movements as if to stabilize himself, when there was as yet no appreciable gravity, his gloved fingers splayed as if for protection against an imminent fall. Dimitri’s helmet visor, like hers, only showed half his face, from nose to eyebrows, but she could see his eyes were wide.
“Are you okay?” she asked.
            She knew him better. While she was enjoying the thrill of the ride, he was clearly terrified. This was taking too long. “Pierre, how close are we? I can’t see the entrance.” She waited, wondering if Pierre and Ukrull, sitting in the Ice Pick, were paying attention, or were involved in deep discussion about tactics in case Qorall had tracked them.
“Twenty klicks to the right, Jen.” Pierre’s voice still sounded synthetic, although he had most of his humanity back. “I’m adjusting your suits’ course direction. When we blasted the drop-shaft there was some blowback debris. It should be safe now.”
            “Should?” She knew Dimitri could hear Pierre, too.
            Ukrull’s gruff voice boomed inside her helmet. “Safe.”
            The altitude readout said one hundred twenty klicks to go. Abruptly her suit-thrusters kicked in, and her head and internal organs squeezed to the left as she and her lover tacked to the right. Within thirty seconds she saw the gaping hole in the dust sea, blacker than its surroundings.           
After several minutes she felt the top of her head press against the helmet as they began to decelerate. “Lights, Pierre,” she said.
            The drones sent down earlier activated, and the ten-kilometre chasm beneath them lit up like a glistening, bottomless shaft, its smooth lipless mouth rising slowly toward them.
“Piece of cake, Dimitri,” she said.
            Dimitri, normally loquacious, grunted something. Jen had thought the light might help, but it only emphasized how fast and deep they had to go. The decel continued as they plunged into the borehole lasered by the Ice Pick, thirty metres across, its cauterised wall a polished coal mirror reflecting two blurred shapes tearing downwards. She tried to breathe normally. Dimitri’s arms started to flail.
“Pierre, can you slow us down?”
            “We’re on a tight schedule, Jen. You know as well as I –”
            “Pierre, just do it.”
            She thought she heard Ukrull’s grunting laugh, but there was no other response. They began to brake hard. Firing her micro-thrusters, she drifted towards Dimitri, within arm’s length. The halo of small helmet lights around his face accentuated his dark bushy eyebrows and wide, eager eyes, but covered his dark moustache and goatee. He looked tense. She selected private comms so Pierre and Ukrull would not hear.
“Take my hand, please,” she said.
            He stared straight down, his eye-brows connected. “I am fine, my love, it is just –”
            “I’m not. Please. Take my hand.”
            Without facing her he reached across and clutched her hand. She didn’t flinch, though it hurt at first. She saw him blink hard.
            “I must seem a big fool to you,” he said.
            She said nothing, the best way to get him to talk.
            “I’m afraid of heights, my one weakness. That is, I’m afraid of falling.”
            She laughed, not unkindly. “But you lived on Santorini, high above the Mediterranean waves. And for the record, you have plenty of other weaknesses.”
            He let out one short staccato laugh. “I left that isle as soon as I could.” 
            “We’re nearly there,” she said.
            “It’s okay, I’m feeling better, we can go a little faster. Pierre is right, we’re on a tight schedule.”
            “Just because Pierre is never wrong, doesn’t mean he’s always right.” She flicked a comms switch at her waist. “Pierre, half-speed, please.”
            Jen gazed downwards into the blackness. She tried to suppress a gnawing intuition that this was going to be a one-way trip, and squeezed Dimitri’s hand, glad he was with her.
            Suddenly two steady blobs of light appeared on the floor below; their reflections.
            Decel was severe this time. Her head rammed into the top of her helmet. At first she flailed her arms as Dimitri had done earlier, then she punched the thruster controls on her heels, flicking herself upright. With relief she saw Dimitri execute the same manoeuvre, but they continued to drop too fast, their reflections still a blur on the sides of the shaft. Pierre should have been precision-controlling their descent from the Ice Pick to minimize drop-time, but this was cutting it too fine.
"Pierre! Slow us the fuck down!" She felt Dimitri's arm tug around her waist, pulling her against his larger frame, trying to protect her. Abruptly their suit thrusters fired a plume of blue flame, and Jen felt herself slide down inside her suit, compressing towards her heels. Dimitri let go; just as well if they were to avoid an uncontrolled tumble.
Three seconds later she hit the ground. She attempted to roll but instead sprawled, her visor whacking against the smooth metal floor, banging her forehead hard against the padded helmet interior. She ended up on her back, panting. At least the visor hadn't cracked. Her partner loomed over her, holding out his hand. You're tougher than you let on, Dimitri. Accepting his help, she got to her feet and checked herself. Nothing broken or sprained. Dimitri was smiling; now that they'd landed and he could go play the explorer.
Jen wasn't smiling.
"Fucking hell, Pierre, you almost –"
            "Jen, are you both alright? There was an energy surge down there, off the scale, blocked us for fifteen seconds."
            The concern in his normally unemotional voice stalled her anger. "So, something is still down here," she said. The weight of what they had been sent to do finally hit her. She'd thought it was most likely a dead end, it seemed so fantastical, that part of the Xera – the galactic equivalent of an urban myth – could still be alive. How could the other species have been so reckless? How could they have left the job unfinished two million years ago?
            She nodded to Dimitri. "Okay, Pierre, we're going in."
            “This way,” Dimitri said, his voice regaining some of its customary exuberance. He pointed, and she saw the circular tunnel off to the left. Ukrull’s precision impressed her: thirty thousand kilometres up, he’d sunk a hole to exactly where he’d detected an underground maze and a single, very faint, heat signature. Inside she felt a shiver again; the Machines had been supposed long dead. There should have been no tunnels, no heat signatures, and no power surges. Jen wished she'd brought along a tactical nuke.
            “Let’s go, my sweet!” Dimitri said, and bounded towards the tunnel's mouth.
            She smiled, happy with his return to form as an eager explorer, but then pursed her lips; she knew how often his enthusiasm got them into trouble. “Wait for me, Dimitri.” Jen ran after him, the low grav allowing her to take long leaps as he disappeared from view. She flicked on the finder to locate the heat signature, but it registered nothing. Not good. Staring down the tunnel’s entrance she saw that it divided in two, but couldn’t see any light; Jen didn’t know which way he’d gone.
“Hey, Dimitri, I said wait up!”
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