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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.”



 

 
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