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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.” 

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Getting inside the villain's head


I'm a firm believer in writing rational villains. It doesn't mean I subscribe to their version of rationality, but they must have one. Even - no - especially those who want to destroy the human race. In the four books of the Eden series, I go so much into various villains' heads - Sister Esma and Louise in particular - that some of my fans have commented that they start to sound pretty reasonable, making a pretty good case, right up until their actions reveal just how wrong they are.

I wasn't always like this. I grew up on Flash Gordon and his nemesis Ming the Merciless, then Star Trek, where baddies were just inherently evil. But nowadays pure evil is saved mainly for Fantasy rather than Science Fiction. In the latter we want to understand, to have a logical basis for everything; something plausible, something rational. Including villains. There's a saying: everyone is a hero in his own story. So, that applies to villains, right?

One of the rationales for getting rid of humanity is that it has been superseded, e.g. via a genetically engineered race of humans - an upgrade. This has been a common theme throughout a number of books, films and TV series (including Star Trek), but the superhumans are always defeated by their inferior cousins. Now, I ask you, does that sound plausible? I'm sure Darwin would have something to say about it. In the Eden books, I take this theme to its limit, and the final victor isn't revealed until the very end of the fourth book (Eden's Endgame).

Here's an example of going into an assassin's head, from the beginning of the second book, Eden's Trial. Luke doesn't like humans much. He used to be human. Then he got upgraded... 
 
 
Luke touched the sonic syringe to his neck. He hesitated, knowing there would be no turning back – one way or the other he’d be dead in twelve hours. He took a breath and drove his thumb down, feeling the click followed by a small hiss as the neurotransmitters surged into his carotid. A flush crawled across his face, followed by tingling, then scalding. He doubled over and gasped. Within seconds his respiration and heart rate slowed. His senses sharpened. He could easily read the writing on his desk on the other side of the room. Muted conversations in adjacent quarters amplified, allowing him to hear their dreary banter. For the first time he detected the deep, leopard-like purr of the engines in the bowels of the gargantuan Q’Roth vessel, as the hijackers mustered power for the final transit through deep space to their new home. He knew his role well enough, and accepted it:  to see that humanity never made it to their precious new world.

He marvelled at the Q’Roth technology, then grimaced at the thought of the two thousand undeserving passengers who had stolen aboard this ship instead of accepting their fate back on obliterated Earth. Most humans talked of the Q’Roth invasion – but to him and other Alicians it had meant liberation after centuries of living in the shadows, hiding genetic advances from their inferior human cousins. Mankind had squandered its chances, passed its sell-by date.

He zeroed in on a man walking beyond the curtained doorway. Luke inhaled the pungent odour of this passer-by who hadn’t showered. He cracked his knuckles. Two weeks pretending to be one of them, letting them think they’d escaped.

He picked up the blue stiletto, a Q’Roth ceremonial dagger, a gift from Sister Esma herself. Surprisingly light. Yet nothing on Earth had been able to bend, break or melt Q’Roth metal, except a nuke. A thousand years old, and still micron-sharp. He cocked an ear at a measured gait nearing his doorway. As it slowed, his fingers coiled around the hilt. The curtain rustled open and he launched the blade. A hand, moving so fast that only Luke in his new found heightened state could have seen it, caught the knife in mid-air.

            ‘I see you’ve taken your accelerator dose, too,’ Luke said, smiling.

            Saul raked the curtain closed and tossed the stiletto back to him, glaring at the thin red line drawn across his hand. Blood threatened, then retreated, leaving no trace. ‘And if I hadn’t?’

            Luke’s smile faded. ‘I got carried away. It won’t happen again.’

‘Don’t ever stoop to their level.’

            Luke bowed his head. He needed to redeem himself, especially with Saul, one of the Inner Circle. Despite looking just a few years older, Saul had seen and survived the Purge, between the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the Alician Order had been hunted and executed like dogs – under the pretence of the great witch hunt – in their Silent War against the now-defunct Sentinels. Just thinking about it made Saul want to tear the head off the first human he encountered. But such emotional recklessness was unbecoming. Strategy and patience, he reminded himself, citing two of the most vaunted Alician maxims. He swallowed his anger, alchemising it into cold-blooded purpose: why kill a few when we can kill them all?

He cleared his throat. ‘What about the other three ships?’

            Saul drew his pulse pistol, checking the charge. ‘Decapitation strategy – we take out Blake, their leader, and all aboard this ship. Louise will take care of the others.’ 

Luke nodded. ‘Good enough for me.’ He’d only met Louise once, and had decided there and then that it was true what they said – the female of the species was deadliest, especially after her recent Q’Roth DNA transfusion, which had apparently honed her aggressive instincts.

He shifted on his feet. ‘I want to be the one to kill Micah.’ He sheathed the stiletto. His eyes blazed. ‘Of all the parasites on this ship, his death deserves personal attention. If it weren’t for him, none would have escaped.’

Saul holstered his pistol. ‘The kill is yours. I’ve seen the roster. He should be outside with us later today. Just don’t underestimate him. Remember, Louise herself failed last time. Let’s go, it’s time to keep up our side of the bargain.’

            Luke felt powerful, like a jaguar on the hunt, every muscle, every cell of DNA united in single purpose. They slipped out of the room, disappearing into the hordes of human prey infesting the corridors.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

Winning a war always comes down to infantry.

I read this somewhere when studying war tactics, and it struck me as an odd idea for science fiction. After all, worlds could be destroyed from space, so where was the need for infantry? Of course it depends what the objective is - destroying worlds is a huge waste of resources. Perhaps from space you could wipe out all the sentient life and keep the rest of the planet. But what if you wanted the sentient life, if that was the resource you were after?

The Eden Paradox series climaxes with Eden's Endgame, where humanity is holed up on the planet Esperia; it's not great, but we've made a life for ourselves there. Trouble is, aliens won't leave us alone. In fact, a virus is infecting various species, re-writing their neural software, and the Manekhi, pretty much the only race that looks like us, have been overwhelmed, and are now set to invade Esperia.

In this scene, the real commander, Blake, has been 'turned' by the virus, leaving the civilian president, Petra, in charge, and she feels way out of her depth. Luckily Vasquez is there to help, and the city has a shield, but still...



It rained on Esperia. Petra stared up through the transparent barrier erected by the Spiders, the protective dome made visible by rivulets chasing down its outer surface. It hardly ever rained on Esperia, but when it did, it was relentless. Several drops collected on her upper lip despite the peaked cap Vasquez had given her. She blew them off, and continued to search the sky. She wasn’t alone. It seemed the whole town of Esperantia was gazing upwards, watching and waiting. But they often glanced in her direction. She recalled what Vasquez had said to her.
            “You’re the CIC, Petra, our Commander-in-Chief. This is a Military Op, the population is under imminent threat, and need to see their President out there. But you must stay out of the fray. If you enter it, then no one is in charge, and we’re lost. I need to be here to manage the aerial situation and organise our ground troops, but you are the eyes and ears on the scene. Stay close to the battle, but don’t be drawn into it. If things go bad, I’ll be there before the end.”
            A raindrop entered her eye, making her blink. The barrier didn’t stop all of the rain; she had no way of asking the Spiders how it worked, but guessed it had some basic intelligence. It made sense; such a shield could be used for an extended period – a siege – in which case it would be useful to allow rain to pass through while keeping out enemies and biological agents.
She glanced at the four Spiders standing behind her. They looked soggy, but otherwise unperturbed. In their midst was Blake, locked inside a grey metal body glove that came all the way up to his eyes. He could stand, but was otherwise immobilised. He was still golden; they had no idea if the medical procedure had truly worked, and until now had no way of testing it. Blake was potentially an antigen, a catalyst to trigger a reversal of the Orb virus that had already turned trillions of aliens into Qorall’s minions. The Ngank surgeon had said that if it did work – and there were no guarantees it would – then it would activate on physical contact with a recoded individual, and would work faster than the original recoding, because the individual – like Blake – would be fighting it from the inside. But Blake was still golden, and was still infectious. She felt the device in her pocket that would release him from his bonds, noting that the nearest people – a trio of Youngbloods – were a good ten metres away, and returned to observing the sky.
            Vasquez called on her wristcom. “Thirty seconds.”
            Loud cracks made her flinch: sonic booms, but she couldn’t see the Mannekhi Javelin ships. Xenic called them Dropships; released from their Mother-ship just before entering Transpace. They’d fallen like needles navigating their way through the Shrell-field, and would barely slow as they entered the atmosphere, and would pound into the ground. More difficult to shoot down that way. The recoded Mannekhi inside would be in deep stasis, encased in inertia-dampening gel, but would emerge very shortly after landing, to invade the town.

More cracks stretched into scraping noises that grated in her ears, and then she heard shouts from behind. “There!” At first she couldn’t see them, but then narrow glints of silver caught her eye. She counted: four, five… then all seven. The shield darkened, as if polarised, dampening light and sound. Yellow blotches erupted on its surface, accompanied by dull booms as the Javelins fired on the town. She heard children’s’ screams in the background, quickly hushed. The Spiders didn’t move. The shield continued to darken, until Esperantia was plunged into night, fireworks billowing all around them. The ground shook, and Petra wondered how deep the shield penetrated Esperia’s surface.
She could barely make out the Javelins amidst the bombardment. But then a bright object, like a comet, grew in size. She braced herself. One of them was going to try and break through the shield. 

The impact was like a sonic boom, and made her clamp her hands over her ears. The shield lightened, revealing the awful carnage of a ship flattened into an amorphous slime of blood and metal. A second later there was an earthquake as the six other ships slammed into the area outside the shield, knocking Petra off her feet. The shield became transparent again as rock and soil spurted high into the air, then rained back down. As Vasquez had predicted, the ships had landed in the valley just south of Esperantia, the closest one a few hundred metres from her position. The open landscape favoured a large ground force. She recalled that Blake had once told her that decisive battles in wars often came down to infantry. Break the infantry, win the war. But how could you defeat an invading force you could not afford to touch?

She got to her feet and noticed that the shield had stopped letting the rain through. Blake remained standing, his eyes looking toward where two of the ships had struck home.
Vasquez called her. “Now, Petra.”

She used the translation flashlight device to ask the Spiders to open a hole in the shield for thirty seconds, long enough for four tactical groups to sprint outside and engage the enemy before they emerged from their ships. Two skimmers powered up behind her. She raised her hand until one of the Spiders flashed back in the affirmative, then she dropped it. The skimmers zipped past, one carrying three Youngbloods, the other a trio of Vasquez’ militia, both teams loaded with heavy ordnance. The rush of wind from their wake blew her hat off. She let it go. Twenty seconds later another two skimmers dashed past – they had been stationed in the middle of town, just in case. She was relieved that Brandt wasn’t among the Youngbloods, reminding herself that his size would have worked against him for this type of hit-and-run mission, as the skimmers were mainly designed to carry two people, not three.

The buzz of the engines powering the four teams towards the ships keened and then diminished. She turned back to the Spiders, and they raised the shield. Along with others, she approached the inner edge of the barrier. She stared through the rain coursing down its protective skin. Brandt arrived next to her, panting from having sprinted across town. She resisted the urge to embrace him, or even reach for his hand.

Craters smoked from where the two closest Dropships had landed, and through a viewer she saw the skimmers race towards them. Go faster. The Youngbloods arrived first, two of them crash-rolling off the skimmer, deadly packages clutched to their chests, while the driver slewed the skimmer to a halt. The first two ran to the crater and leapt over the edge. Seconds later they re-emerged and dashed back to the skimmer.

Nothing happened, and the Youngbloods waited. She zoomed in on the second skimmer, crewed by Vasquez’ militia, as it headed to the next crater. Before they arrived, Mannekhi burst out of the pit like angered ants from an anthill, armed and firing. The militia returned fire but were cut down.
She swung to the left and then to the right to see the third and fourth skimmer meet similar circumstances, in the latter case the skimmer was able to turn around in time. The Youngbloods still waited, despite a growing number of Mannekhi emerging from the other Dropships.
As she realised what they intended, she spoke to Brandt, trying to keep her voice steady.

“Tell them to come back.”

“It was their choice, Petra.”

She knew there was no point in further discussion, and put the viewer to her eyes again. The Youngbloods had booby-trapped the Dropship to explode as soon as its hatches opened. The Mannekhi inside knew that, but could afford to wait for reinforcements. She switched to the last remaining skimmer, racing back towards sanctuary. She judged the distance. They would make it. Then she noticed some kind of weapon emerging from one of the far craters, shaped like a cannon.
Vasquez came on line. 

“Petra, don’t drop the shield. We don’t know what that cannon does.”

“They’re your men, they can get back here in time.” She could just make out their faces.

“They understood the risks. You put me in charge of tactical ops for a reason.”

She watched them. The militia men might understand the risks and sacrifice with their heads, but they looked terrified. She turned to the Spiders, and used the flashcoder.

“Petra, what are you doing?” Brandt asked.

She didn’t answer. She turned back to the last skimmer, raising her hand. But the skimmer changed course. She could see one of them touch an earpiece, and shout something to the other two. Dammit, Vasquez! The skimmer raced back towards the advancing horde, firing as they went. She saw one picked off, then another, rolling to a stop on the sandy ground. The driver, hunched behind his protective windshield, accelerated toward the advancing Mannekhi.

The front line of Mannekhi soldiers suddenly split, like a golden sea opening, leaving a passage in front of the skimmer. She didn’t understand why until she caught sight of the cannon, which now had a direct line of fire at the skimmer. A long corridor of shimmering air lanced forth from the cannon, and enveloped both skimmer and the driver. The driver must have detonated the ordnance, because the corridor became a conduit of fire, stretching all the way to the shield. Flames bounced off a point just in front of where Petra stood, though there was no sensation of heat. The corridor vanished, leaving no trace of the skimmer or its driver.

Not a single Mannekhi had been killed.

“They were brave men, as brave as our Youngbloods,” Brandt said.
She touched his hand, and zoomed in on the three remaining Youngbloods who had moved away from the crater into the horde’s path. Each Genner warrior stood with arms outstretched, holding two daggers.

“What the hell are they doing?” she asked. “They’ll be shot to pieces.”

But they weren’t.

“It’s a Mannekhi fighting ritual,” Brandt said.


“But they’re Qorall’s minions now.”

“We’ll see. We need to know.”

The leading edge of Mannekhi slowed to a walking pace, then stopped in front of the three warriors. Three Mannekhi attacked them, and were quickly dispatched by the Youngbloods. Petra could feel the tension all around her, as everyone drew closer to the barrier for a better view. As another three Mannekhi fell to the floor, a hissing sound arose on her side of the barrier, in Hremsta, an encouragement Genners used in sparring matches to cheer their fellows on. Petra took a breath and made the same noise between tongue and teeth.
            Three more Mannekhi died, but the blood of one of them spattered onto a Youngblood’s face. He wiped it away, then buckled as if punched in the stomach, his face lined in pain. Petra zoomed in, and saw the first cracks of gold etch down his cheeks. She screamed a single word in Hremsta, cutting off the hissing, hoping her voice would carry on the breeze and be picked up by the Youngbloods’ superior hearing. Brandt glanced at her with a look of surprise, then echoed her command in his far louder voice.
        
    A fellow Youngblood moved to the infected warrior and slit his throat. A roar erupted from the Genners, chanting the same word Petra had used. Many of the Steaders tried to imitate the word, neither knowing nor caring what it meant. But the two remaining warriors were set upon by the Mannekhi until Petra could no longer see them. The chanting ceased, the crowd craning their necks to see. After a minute, the two Youngblood warriors emerged from the Mannekhi horde, their skin golden. They walked towards the lip of the crater, as the Mannekhi drew back. Petra grasped Brandt’s hand, and squeezed hard. The turned warriors calmly disappeared into the crater. Five seconds later flame and dirt mushroomed from the crater up into the air.
            Even before the dirt had come back to the ground, the Mannekhi from the last ship emerged. As one, the golden infantry advanced. Petra noticed armoured vehicles, several with serious-looking hardware and cannons of varying sizes.
            She stood her ground. Everyone else did, too.
            At last the invading army stood some ten metres from the shield. One golden man walked forward, only recognisable as Mannekhi by his eyes of pure black. He stopped at the other side of the barrier from Petra. At first she thought he was staring at her, that this was some other kind of pre-battle ritual. But it was always hard to know what a Mannekhi was looking at, and it dawned on her that he was studying Blake. The man returned to the front line, a mixture of male and female soldiers, all golden, and various vehicles and artillery.
            “Now what?” Brandt asked.

            “We see who blinks first.”

Within the hour, Kilaney and Xenic had landed on the opposite side of town, but there was no way to let them in. Petra still faced the unmoving wall of Mannekhi, who were by now thoroughly drenched from the rain. It didn’t bother them. Funny thing was, the rain seemed to be only on them, not on the shield directly in front of her.

Vasquez had informed her there were twelve hundred turned Mannekhi outside the barrier. Only a few needed to get through, and then the chain reaction of contamination would begin. She had to admit, this conversion ploy of Qorall’s was brilliant, since in most wars even the winning side usually suffered devastating losses to its numbers, but this way, battles actually swelled Qorall’s armies. Three ranks of heavily armed Genners and militia had taken up position in front of the horde, and the crowd of Esperian onlookers were ordered back to the town. One of the Spiders nudged her hip, startling her. She tried to read its flickering comms band.
            “What’s it saying?” Brandt asked.
            She stared at it. “I’m not sure.” She whirled back to the cannons. They were silent. “Oh crap!” she said.
            Brandt touched her shoulder, holding her in place. “Petra, speak to me. What did it say?”
            She held his gaze while lifting her wristcom to her mouth. “Colonel, can you tell me the integrity of the shield? No? Can you detect if there is any energy signature from the cannons. Check all frequencies.”
            She sighed. “It said three minutes until barrier failure.” She cursed herself. The Spiders assumed the humans knew; the cannons had probably been firing steadily since they’d taken up position.
            Vasquez came online. “Sorry Petra, you’re right. It’s on a frequency we weren’t monitoring and can’t see or hear. Convergent beams from all six main cannons are focused on a spot right in front of you. You’d better move out of the way. I don’t know if the whole barrier will come down, or if it will only create a small opening for the soldiers to come through.”
            She stared at the cannons, the Mannekhi soldiers standing in the rain, and the clear – and completely dry – barrier.
“The rain,” she said. “That’s why we can’t see rain on the shield in front of us!” Stupid! I should have seen that.
            She and Brandt moved back, but she noticed the Spiders remained where they were. A thought struck her. “Vasquez, tell me the moment the cannons stop firing.” She switched channels. “Kilaney, Xenic, get ready to come through.”
            There was a sound like glass cracking, then fissures appeared in the shield. They spread outwards like ferns, then cracks opened up, stretching until a crude arch formed.
            “They’ve stopped firing, Petra.”
            She whirled to the Spiders, gave them the command. “Kilaney, Xenic, you have five seconds.” The Mannekhi soldiers began filing toward the arch. She signalled to the Spiders to raise the shield, just as militia took up position in front of her, armed with pulse rifles. Vasquez must have ordered them to open fire, because suddenly the noise of constant pulse fire deafened her. Backlash heat seared her face as Brandt dragged her backwards, away from the fray, though she watched, horrified as a mound of charred corpses built up in the arch. But more soldiers continued to pour through, despite appalling losses.
            Eventually one made it through and flung himself towards the militia. They caught him in crossbeams, igniting him like a flaming torch, but that allowed two more to try the same tactic. The front rank of militia fell back, as the second rank opened fire.
            “It’s not working,” she said. Brandt held her tight while she gripped the handle of her pulse pistol. The ten metre distance between the arch and the militia was strewn with burning bodies. There was a surge though the arch, and even though the militia caught the front wave, the ones behind continued the charge, carrying their dying comrades, and fell upon the front militia row. The second row paused a fraction of a second then opened fire on their fallen colleagues, trying to stem the flow.
            Kilaney arrived, out of breath. He surveyed the scene. “Petra, what are the Spiders saying?”
            She looked at him, not understanding, then followed his gaze to the Spiders, who had remained exactly where they had always been, Blake still in their midst. She read their comms bands, then reached into her left pocket, and clicked the release. 

The Spiders parted, and Blake stepped free of his restraints...




Eden's Endgame 

The heroes that fall burn the brightest

 
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