Sunday, 2 October 2016

To colonise Mars, or not...

I just read an article in the Economist about this very subject, triggered by pioneer Elon Musk's just-released plans (dreams?) for huge rockets that could take 100 people at a time to Mars. While I usually like this news mag, I took issue with the article because they use the name Stephen Hawking and the word 'claptrap' in dangerous proximity...

In my very first (and only) school debate, some years (okay, decades) ago, I tackled this subject, pointing out that humanity needed a Plan B in case we were unlucky or stupid enough to wipe ourselves out.

The Economist shoots down a couple of the basic arguments with sniper precision. Most pandemics and plagues, even of the most virulent kind, will not kill everyone. About 80% is the maximum conceivable, so there are still a lot of people left. And they point out that if aliens arrived, they could make quick work of Mars (probably before breakfast) before tackling more irksome Earth.

All true.

But they are missing something.

A massive, global pandemic would ravage the population. Let's take a worst case scenario, 80%. That's one in five who are left. Let's assume (and it's one hell of an assumption) that in the aftermath, those 20% decide to work together. Would they have the right skills? How long before infrastructure would fail at every level? We live in a world with very inter-connected and finely-tuned systems. How long would the internet keep running? Our phones? Power plants? The Grid? Aviation? Communications? Oil and gas? Many companies store their data and knowledge in the Cloud. Would it still be there? Would we even know what skill sets we required to get things back up and running?

We'd have to be fast, too. Because education would slip back quickly. Most people would end up having to run farms in order to survive (the film Interstellar is great on this) rather than learn engineering. And what of medicine, and MRI scanners and chemotherapy and and and...

Global nuclear war would be worse as infrastructure would be decimated. The social situation following such a catastrophe is simply unknowable, with science fiction writers the few who dare to tread there, and they are not painting a bright picture. Humanity would not be extinct, true, but we'd be set back at least decades, maybe centuries. But not so if people on Mars could come back and help fix things, help us re-boot our societies.

There is another reason to look to Mars, and the stars. It is to do so while we can. There is a belief that we can just keep going on getting better and smarter and tekkier. But we don't know what is around the corner. In my own SF book on this subject (the Eden Paradox), over the next few decades religious wars erupt and funding for space exploration is simply not available. Once again a valuable skill-set is lost, this time one to build a life-raft before climate change gets the better of us. So. Do it while you can. Because interplanetary travel is not something you can engineer in a year. It will take decades to get it right.

In July I visited Cape Canaveral and got to watch an Atlas V rocket launch. It was over fast, but it meant a lot to me. And that was just a spy satellite. I remember the hope and awe of the first landing on the moon, the inspiration it served for more than one generation. Imagine watching the launch of a rocket taking people to Mars. Imagine being able to point to a dim dot in the sky, and say, hey, there's people there, just like us.

Just imagine...


Saturday, 17 September 2016

From Interstellar to Underwater

An interview of Barry Kirwan by Dimitri Keramitas
Dr Barry Kirwan grew up watching the Apollo missions, goggling at Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon at a friend’s house, because his parents had color TV. He decided to become an astronaut. But he had childhood asthma, so when he tried later to get into the air force, he was rejected. Instead he became a psychologist working in aviation safety, and a writer. He also discovered the next best thing to space travel - scuba diving.

"When scuba diving, you are essentially weightless. You can drift with the current and soar over coral outcrops that look like alien cities festooned with myriad fish of all shapes, colors and sizes, more varied than any Star Wars bar. You can freefall through sheets of darkening blue in search of deep wrecks, just as ominous as finding the Prometheus on a faraway planet. And you can meet big sharks that are every inch the killing machine, scarier than Alien, because underwater, you can’t run."

He became an open water instructor with the British Sub Aqua Club (more or less equivalent to a PADI DiveMaster) and was an Advanced Training Officer at a BSAC club in the UK. Kirwan has dived all over the UK, Norway, Holland, Brest in France, Corsica, Malta, Bulgaria, the Red Sea, Kenya (Watamu - whaleshark territory), Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, Mauritius, Seychelles, Monterey, Palau (in the Pacific, Jacques Cousteau's favorite place), and Truk Lagoon (also in the Pacific, a wreck-diver's haven). But his favorite site is Sipidan, Borneo.

"As you walk in," says Kirwan, "the reef plunges 2000 feet. It is full of large turtles and reef sharks, and if you want to see bigger sharks, you just swim away from the reef. The South China seas have the most varied fish in the world."

Several years ago, Kirwan wrote a short story called Trouble in Eden, which grew into a novel, which grew into a series called The Eden Paradox. Many of the ideas, whether for aliens or cities or spaceships, came from his scuba diving. Even the modern diver's gear, with its plethora of electronic and computerized equipment, resembles that of an astronaut.

"While obviously an astronaut's equipment is far more complex, you do kind of feel like an astronaut, especially with the Darth Vader sound effects when you breathe. And you need to know your equipment well, as you can't always see what you're doing, and your life literally depends on it. Water is almost as unforgiving as a vacuum." In creating a multitudinous cast of alien creatures he relied on his encounters with undersea species, including some veritable "monsters".

"Octopus always seem fun until they start entwining themselves around your arm, sucking your mask off your face and drenching you in a cloud of ink. I don't mind sharks, but have dived with large ones, e. g. 5-metre sharks out in Borneo. Those I swim away from fast, back to the safety of the reef. Stonefish are scary because they are so well camouflaged, and to touch one can be fatal. I loosely based the Q'Roth, humanity's nemesis in the Eden novels, on the mantis shrimp, which is 4-6 inches long, and sits in crevices and waits until a fish goes by. Then it lashes out with its claws, incredibly fast, and shreds the passing fish, then eats it. If it was 10 feet long and walked on land, you'd probably run away, screaming your head off, which in this instance would be entirely forgivable.

Kirwan travels a lot for his work, and if it’s anywhere near water, he takes some extra days to go diving. In 2012 he had a back operation, and was unable to dive for 18 months. To say he missed it is an understatement. He began writing a story with a strong scuba diving context, which was a kind of therapy, as he could immerse himself in the writing of the underwater scenes.

When Kirwan showed his latest science fiction manuscript to an agent she wasn't interested, but asked him what else he was writing. He told her about the diving story, thinking she’d dismiss it. "Send it to me when it’s done," she said. What started out as a bit of fun grew more serious. He honed the adventure story into a cold-blooded thriller called 66 Metres, about the hunt for a top-secret device called the Rose, able to divert nuclear submarine codes, which has found its way into a sunken wreck.

Its heroine is Nadia, a young Russian woman forced into a heist that goes wrong, leaving five dead. She ends up with the Rose, but has to ditch it in deep water. If she doesn’t retrieve it her sister will be killed. Three other unsavory characters are after the device, more than happy to kill anyone who gets in their way. This work also made use of Kirwan's rich diving experience: "I've explored many wrecks over the years. Some of the top ten: the Thistlegorm in the Red Sea, the Talumben wreck off Bali, the SS Yongala off Townsville in Austra- lia. Also many of the wrecks in Scapa Flow in Scotland, and the San Francisco Maru in Truk Lagoon. All of them stunning!"

He's also been in dangerous situations as a diver and had to be rescued on one occasion (he also carried out five rescues of other divers). He blacked out once during a very deep dive in Norway (this is the basis of one of the chapters in 66 Metres), and got pinned down in Sipidan by a school of 4-metre hammerheads, at 76 metres. One time he even got lost inside a large wreck, and was running out of air. Concerning the Rose, Kirwan said that it was invented - but not a mere figment of his imagination. "The Rose is maybe not so fantastic, as cyber-terrorism is continually gaining new ground, and the algorithms used in Big Data are very powerful. The basic idea was developed by the best cryptologist since Alan Turing."

Even after many years Kirwan can still feel like he's in an extraterrestrial world: "The undersea world can always surprise you. Fish are never pets or friends, despite cartoon films suggesting
otherwise. When you're surrounded by sharks in strong current, you're acutely aware that if they decided to attack, you'd stand no chance. A potentially tasty tourist. But it is such a wondrous place, and you are cut off from the surface world, no phones, no email, no talk. Just you, the fish, and the sharks. So, I'll keep diving as long as I can."

66 Metres was launched by Harper Collins in August 2016, as the first in a 3-book deal, under a slight pseudonym (JF Kirwan). For details see here

Monday, 15 August 2016

Glimpsing the devil

If you glimpse the devil, look away before he sees you.

What follows is an extract from the next Scifi book, When the children come. I've already shown the first two chapters in this blog, this section occurs a bit later, when Nathan and others have detected the spaceship responsible for the catastrophe afflicting Earth (children are being eradicated, though no one yet knows why). Nathan, a vet from Afghanistan, actually detests kids, but he's the only one who can save them. In this scene he travels with his recent girlfriend and Dave, an astrophysics professor, to try to see what they are up against. Almost all infrastructure is shut down worldwide. Trescoe is Nathan's ex-sergeant, who never made it back from Afghanistan, and Raphaela is Dave's wife, who is interested in Nathan.

Fatigue dogged Nathan’s footsteps as he climbed the hill to the observatory, its dome outlined by the stars. He paused a moment to survey the surrounding terrain, seeking the warm electric glow of cities. But it was as dark as the Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan.
Dave cursed, tripping on the steps.
            “Maybe you should hold the handrail,” Lara offered, directly behind Dave. Edris and another of Akhbal’s men had stayed in the Hummer, to keep watch.
            “Holding handrails makes us less safe,” Dave retorted. “Turns us into idiots, like most safety measures.” He dug out a hip flask, popped it open, and inhaled deeply. Nathan caught a whiff of strong coffee on the air.
            “Then again,” Lara tried, but Dave cut her off.
            “Animals do fine,” he said. “We superior beings, on the other hand, mollycoddle ourselves to the point we’re clueless on how to survive when things… things like this happen.” He took three gulps.
            Lara gave up. Nathan had some sympathy with Dave’s point of view, having had to survive in the mountains for two weeks after his platoon had been ambushed. He hoped never to have to eat bugs again. A taste never acquired.
            Dave stooped down to a wooden box and fiddled with something. Floodlights ignited from the surrounding lawn and bathed the building in stark white light. The dome was turquoise, sections marked by meridians curving down from its apex, two sections raised above the rest. Nathan guessed they could open to allow the telescope inside to peer upwards. He’d always looked to the stars as a source of comfort. Now they sent a chill down his spine.
            “Dave,” he said. “I know it’s pretty, all lit up, but maybe not such a good idea.”
            “Wanted to take one last look at my baby.” Dave shut off the lights.
Nathan waited until his eyes re-adjusted, to find Dave unlocking a door. Nathan caught up with Lara, and followed them both inside, rifle at the ready.  
            Once Dave found the interior lights, it was clear the place hadn’t been touched. Whoever had been here had simply left. Nathan was relieved he wouldn’t have to deal with any corpses or ‘infected’, as the Colonel had called them. He leant the AK-47 up against a table covered in sheets of print-out, and pulled out two chairs on wheels. He and Lara sat down facing the centrepiece, the shaft of a large diameter slate-grey telescope that stretched diagonally from head height to just shy of the domed roof. It was mounted on massive brass-coloured gears. The smell of hydraulic oil was sharp in his nostrils.
Dave wandered about purposefully for a couple of minutes, flicked switches on a tall dark cabinet panel with pulsing small red diodes, then plumped himself into a well-worn black leather office chair. He folded his hands on top of his belly. Grinding noises filled the air. Dave was in his element, a motionless conductor commanding the choreographed movements around him.
            Nathan gazed upwards as a slit opened in the domed roof, revealing stars. The gash widened as it tracked anti-clockwise, even as the telescopic shaft drifted clockwise and extended, giving Nathan the illusion he was moving. Dave’s seat reclined and a boom slid towards him with a split keyboard. The lights dimmed, and Nathan half-expected a planetarium show. But things slowed down and stopped. A thin brass tube extended towards Dave’s head. He peered into the eyepiece. 
            Nathan held his breath, but as time ticked on, he returned to breathing normally, and then began getting bored. Maybe there was no alien spaceship after all. “Dave, what can you –”
            Dave jabbed a finger twice to the left of him, towards two broad computer monitors. Lara got there first. It was hard to make out anything. It looked to Nathan like a series of blocks fixed around one long cylinder which branched into two stubby cylinders at one end – the engines he assumed, though he really had no clue, just banal ideas based on comics he’d read as a kid. No lights. What had he expected? A window with a little green man staring back at him?
            “How big –” he began, then stopped as three white axes superimposed themselves around the shape.
            “Holy shit! Is that scale in miles?” Lara asked.
Dave’s non-reply affirmed it. Nathan measured the object. Ten miles long, by two to three wide, with shorter and fatter sections here and there. The size of an island. Even if the long cylinder was all engines, that still left an awful lot of living space. Words echoed back to him. When the children come. Would a single nuke missile be enough?
“What’s my next question, Dave?” Nathan asked. Something Trescoe used to say.
Lara gave him a quizzical look.
Dave took his eye from the lens. “First intelligent thing you’ve asked.” He clambered out of the chair, and gesticulated towards the vacated seat. Nathan didn’t move, so Lara climbed into it, pulling the eyepiece closer, though she still had to arch her back to reach her eye to the lens. Nathan’s gaze lingered on her.
“Electromagnetic waves, emissions, things we can’t see with the naked eye, but…” Dave operated another keyboard at a different desk, and an image formed on its wide monitor, first the object in black, and then a slow motion explosion of garish colours radiating outwards. Dave hit some more keys and the image zoomed out, showing the radiation – or whatever it was – flowing towards Earth, but always the dark side. Another monitor showed the ship’s position relative to the Earth and the sun. It remained behind the Earth, always in the darkness. What would ‘they’ see? A permanent eclipse. A sleeping vulnerable world. He wanted to reach out and crush the ship with his bare hands.
Nathan peered over Dave’s shoulder. “How far away is it? Could the orbital rail gun shoot it down?”
Dave’s brow creased as he peered at a smaller monitor to his left with rows of figures slowly climbing from bottom to top, like ultra-dense film credits.
“Yes,” Dave murmured, apparently deciding the questions were linked. “Though a ship that size…”
“Several nukes?”
“Mechanical engineering’s not my strong point. Nor materials science.”
Nathan stood up straight. “What?” Dave didn’t answer for a while. The big telescope moved, the gears grinding and whining. Lara’s left eye clamped to the brass eyepiece. She was operating a small joystick with her right hand. She seems to know what she was doing, and Nathan reminded himself he knew almost nothing about her.
“You see,” Dave said, still staring at the figures, “the ship seems to be made of one incredibly long piece of material. Its tensile strength is unlike any element or alloy on this planet. I can’t say how it would react to a nuke.”
“Does the ship have any weapons?” As soon as he’d asked, he knew it was a dumb question.
Dave turned to face him, and said, deadpan, “None that I can see.” Then, “Why did you send my wife back?”
Lara disengaged and turned to face him, and Nathan felt his cheeks redden slightly. “Division of tasks,” he said, a little loud. “She needs to get started with her equipment, we need to be here.”
“Is that all?” Dave seemed to have lost interest in the spaceship.
“That’s all.” He said no more. Lara returned to her scope, and Dave turned back to his screens.
Talking of the mission – and Raphaela – reminded Nathan they were on the clock. “What else can we do here, Professor?”
“What I’m doing. Won’t take long. I’m as anxious to see my wife as you are, Nathan.”
Nathan’s eyes flicked to Lara, but there was no reaction. “Seriously, what are –”
“I’m tagging the spaceship. It has a unique spectroscopic signature that the rail gun’s missiles – assuming they’re functional and have sufficient range – can home onto. But I’m giving them an extra hand. I’m using a micro-laser pulse to determine its precise position relative to Earth, since it stays in exactly the same place. Probably optimum for firing its neural attack on us.”
The gears ground into action again, the telescope tracking back towards its original location, as far as Nathan could tell. There was a short but loud click.
“There,” Dave said. “Gotcha!”
“Did you see that?” Lara said.
They both turned to her. “What did you see?” Dave asked.
“A flash, from the ship. It’s gone now.”
Nathan gripped Dave’s shoulder. “Can it detect us?”
Dave didn’t answer, but his brow creased and he began chopping his two forefingers onto the keyboard. The printer burst into action again, hammering ink onto hole-punched paper.
Nathan swallowed. The laser. The ship now knew where they were. “How long have we got? Did it fire at us? Some kind of ray?” It sounded stupid, but he didn’t care. Lara was out of the chair, suddenly next to him.
“No, we’d be dead already, Dave said. “A missile, most likely. A minute maybe. I don’t know.”
“Then let’s go. Lara, run back to the car. We’ll be right behind you.”
She didn’t move. They all stared at the printer. No need to ask. The signature. Dave pulled out a data key from the computer. The printer stopped. He dashed to it, read it once, tore it off, and ran for the door. Outside, Nathan and Lara were faster. Dave thrust the paper towards Nathan, the key towards Lara.
“Run! I’ll catch up!”
They ran, ignoring the curving walkway, instead running straight down towards the Hummer. Nathan yelled to Edris to start the engine. Lara slipped and fell headlong and slid down the grassy slope. Nathan braked and went back for her, and they set off again. Dave was making slow progress, shuffling along, zig-zagging down the walkway, having to use the handrail. Lara shrieked “Come on Dave!” as they reached the Hummer and jumped inside.
“Get ready to get the hell out of here!” Nathan said to Edris. They watched Dave’s bulky form, lit by the car’s headlights, loping down the slope towards them. He had an almost boyish grin, as if he was somehow enjoying this. Thirty yards. He was going to make it.
A bolt of blue lightning shattered the dome three hundred yards away. A sound like an axe cleaving a block of wood rang loud in Nathan’s ears. The observatory imploded, like a macabre conjurer’s trick, a whole building sucked in on itself. Dave kept running, his grin replaced by fear. Blue light blossomed around the hole where the observatory had been, and then rushed outwards in all directions.
“Reverse!” Nathan shouted. “Now!”
“No!” Lara screamed.
But Edris slammed the transmission into reverse. The wheels skidded at first, then found traction. The Hummer barrelled away from Dave, who slowed, and stopped. He turned to face the blue wave. He opened his arms. It swept over him.

Edris kept going, the engine shrill in Nathan’s ears. Luckily the road was dead straight. Edris only stopped when the blue light had faded. Nathan and Lara got out of the car and ran back. A crater, half a mile wide. Smooth and empty, steam rising from its vitrified surface. Lara handed him the data key without saying a word, and they both headed back to the car. On the way back, he tried to think of the right words to say to Raphaela. He came up with nothing.

Sunday, 24 July 2016

Why I wrote 66 Metres

This is on my JFK blog, you can read it here. Oh, and I'm not a robot (chance would be a fine thing!)

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

What's in a name?

Ok, so some of you know I've been writing a thriller called Sixty-Six Metres. So, here's the front cover. Sweet, right? But hang on a minute. Those aren't my initials...

Correct. When I got a contract for three books from Carina UK (Harper Collins), they asked me to find a pseudonym. I asked why, and it's because when authors write in more than one genre, they usually take on a pseudonym, because readers of different genres don't always mix.

So I wracked my brains for days coming up with all sorts of strange names, but none of them felt right. Then H-C said, how about you keep the surname but change the initials. Bingo. JF, you might be asking? A family member who is no longer around. A friend pointed out I could have gone the whole way and used JF Sebastian, as in Blade Runner, but then that would be scifi again...

Ok, big deal, does it make any difference?

Strangely, yes.

Because it's not my own name there, I find I can look at it more objectively, with less ego, because... it's not my name there. This gives me some psychological distance. I can even occasionally look at it not only as a labor of love, but as a product meant to entertain, and this comes in handy when editing or getting editorial feedback.

Marketing it feels different, too. I have a new tweet account @kirwanjf and a new Facebook page @sixtysixmetres and a new blog! It's more about marketing the book than about marketing me, as I'm keeping my 'brand' low profile in terms of who I am etc. This also seems somehow more appropriate as it is a thriller.

The overall feeling is that I'm approaching this book, and the trilogy (only three, I promise this time), more professionally than before.

So, what's in a name? Quite a lot, it seems.

Alright, what's it about? Well, here's how it opens:

The only thing worth killing for is family.
            Her father’s words to her, the day they’d come for him.
            She’d been fourteen when two men in combat fatigues and balaclavas burst into the kitchen where she and her father were enjoying breakfast. The armed commandos hadn’t seen his pistol lying beneath a folded newspaper. While her father struggled with the men, his eyes flicked between her and the weapon. She could have darted for it, threatened them, helped him. But she hesitated. The moment slipped past. They threw a black hood over his head, cuffed him, and dragged him away . . . to be interrogated, tortured, executed and buried in the woods. A single thought haunted her ever since.
            Had he known they would come?
Nadia picked up his Beretta, its metal cool in her hands. She checked and re-loaded the magazine. She walked to the window, took one last look at the wild garden where her father had taught her to shoot, and the gravel path leading through the pine forest to the banks of the Volga.  There, she’d learned first to swim, then to dive. Turning away, she stashed the pistol in her backpack and crept downstairs, hoping to escape unseen.
But her mother was waiting for her on the doorstep, arms folded. “You’ll end up a killer just like him, Nadia. Or a whore, like your sister.”
            Nadia pushed by without replying. She passed through the creaking gate that had so often announced her father’s return, and breathed easier after the turn of the road. She waited an hour for the bus, part hoping, mainly dreading that her mother would come running around the corner begging her to return.
Fifty miles from Moscow, where her sister Katya lived, everyone had to get off the bus at a security checkpoint to show papiren. Nadia left her backpack under the seat. When she reached the front of the line, a young soldier flicked noisily through her passport, then glanced up, surprise lighting his smile.
            “Happy birthday,” he said. “Eighteen. A special day.”

Nadia moved into a grotty studio flat in Old Arbat, where each night she fell asleep exhausted from working in the local bakery from 4 A.M. until 3 P.M., then at a supermarket until 9.  She liked boys well enough, but hated 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 damage it had done to her mother. So she kept her hair cropped, dressed for comfort, and was often mistaken at first sight for a young man, which was fine with her.
But then the ever-gorgeous Katya invited her dark-haired kid sister to a party at a wealthy businessman’s country dacha. Nadia had been amazed at the women with perfect skin in glittering, low-cut dresses, the handsome and not-so-handsome men, their jewellery and fancy cars and easy talk of big deals. 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 left cash for her breakfast in the mornings.
She let things coast for six months, no demands or promises on either side. 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 day Viktor was on the news, handcuffed, being forced into a police van. She leapt off the sofa and began packing a bag, but within minutes a loud rapping sounded on the door. The Beretta was on the table, fully loaded. She hid it under a loose floorboard, then opened the door.
Receiving misappropriated funds. That’s what they told her at the station, though she was never formally charged, never saw a lawyer. Once inside Lubyanka prison, Nadia was informed she’d be their guest for twelve years, ten if she behaved. On the anniversary of her father’s death, she gazed through the prison bars, studied the sad faces staring back at her from the ugly block opposite. She turned away, took in the inside of her cell. The double bunk with rancid sheets under which she shivered each night, curled up in the foetal position. The iron toilet that stank of her own piss and shit – they wouldn’t give her the bucket of water to flush it until lunchtime. The cold grey bars, faded whitewashed brick walls, not even graffiti to lighten her mood. And the lone hook in the ceiling that her former cell-mate had used to end everything while Nadia had been out in the exercise yard. The fourth suicide since her arrival.
Ten years? She wouldn’t make it.
Shouting erupted down the corridor. Wolf-whistles, tin mugs clanging against doors the bars, lascivious remarks from several lesbian inmates, one of whom already had her eye on Nadia. And then a gruff man’s voice, more like a growl. It silenced everyone. Nadia stared at the bars. It couldn’t be anyone for her. No one had visited her since her incarceration. But she listened. A man’s shoes, heavy, impatient, and high heels clacking behind, almost running to keep up. Nadia smelled her sister’s perfume, and took a step forward as the footsteps approached. But Katya wasn’t alone. Nadia took a step back.
He had a gleaming bald head, like he actually polished it every morning, and was fat without being flabby, as if his weight was there to throw around, to crush you if necessary. He wore an expensive beige suit, and gold jewellery dripped from his wrists and neck. Katya stood behind him in a skimpy red dress and high heels, tousled hair falling behind her shoulders, her large eyes hopeful and scared at the same time. There was no guard with them, and Kadinsky held a ring of keys in his hand. He selected one that looked indistinguishable from the twenty others dangling from the ring, shoved it into the slot, turned it with a resounding clank, and stepped inside.
Nadia wanted to hug her sister, but Kadinsky barred the way. He turned his head to the side, not enough to see Katya, but just enough so she’d know he was talking to her.
“One word, and I walk. Turn around. Give the other inmates a treat.”
Katya gave one last look at her sister, then dutifully turned around, and faced the bars. There was silence outside. Everyone was listening. Especially Nadia.
Kadinsky glanced at his gold Rolex, as if bored, somewhere else he’d rather be. Anywhere. He glanced at Nadia, then folded his chubby arms, stretching the fabric of his suit.
“I’ll ask you a single question, girl. You have three chances to give the right answer. If you do, you come with us. If not, you stay, and see your sister in twelve years.” He glanced at the toilet bowl, grimaced, pulled out a silk handkerchief, blew his nose noisily, then stuffed it back into his pocket. “And be quick.”
Nadia tensed, stood almost to attention, and waited for the question.
“What did you do wrong?”
Nadia’s reply was too fast, a prison reflex, what everyone here said when they first met someone new in the canteen or the yard. 
Stupid. Kadinsky was a gangster. She’d met him once. The party where she’d hooked up with Viktor had been at Kadinsky’s dacha.
“Wrong answer,” he said. “Second try.”
She stared at the keys in his hands. The door was open. Soon, one way or another, it would be locked shut. Think! Maybe just the facts.
“I met Viktor Romanovich at your dacha. We had an affair. It lasted eight weeks. One day I saw him on TV, being taken away, arrested on corruption charges. While I was packing, they came for me, threw me in here.” But what had she done wrong? She’d just enjoyed the ride, a little life, a little luxury, someone who’d looked after her. She pictured Viktor. A man twice her age. Old enough to be… She shuddered. “I should have found out what he was up to, where the money came from.”  
Kadinsky made half-fists, turned them palm upwards, and studied the fingernails of one hand, then the other. He stared at her like she was a waste of skin. “One last try. What did you do wrong?”
Nadia looked at her sister’s outline, saw that she was trembling. What had she done wrong? She didn’t know. Been born, maybe? So, she’d stay here, die here. Could she do that to Katya? If her father hadn’t got messed up in God-knew-what, if he’d still been around, things would have been different. What had he done wrong? She never knew. But then she realised what it was she’d done wrong, both times. She’d not picked up the gun for her father, that fateful day. And when they’d came for her, his Beretta – the only keepsake she had from him – had been right there.  
She looked Kadinsky in the eye. She didn’t know if it was the answer he was looking for. Whichever side of those bars she ended up on, she had a feeling it would be her epitaph.
“I let them take me.”
Kadinsky grunted. Looked at his watch again. “We’re leaving,” he said.
Katya spun around and Nadia found herself wrapped in her sister’s arms, felt her sister’s hot tears on her cheeks. Nadia’s head tilted upwards, and while she succumbed to the embrace, she stared at the lone hook in the ceiling. Fuck you. 

Kadinsky got Nadia out with bribes and promised favours. Of course, she’d have to work it off.
Once back at Kadinsky’s country dacha, she stood in the large lounge with its single bay window overlooking the dry fountain, a chipped statue of Pan in its centre. Inside, oil paintings of 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, then shook his head. He dropped into a wide leather armchair. Katya was perched on an antique wooden dining chair opposite. Nadia stood between them, and Kadinsky’s two henchmen – one grossly fat, the other slim as a snake and with pockmarked cheeks – leaned against the far wall.
“You have grey eyes,” he said, wagging a finger at her. “Like a fucking tombstone. Who’d want to make love staring into such eyes?” He glanced at Katya. “Are you sure she’s your sister?”
Katya stared at the carpet and nodded, her own eyes a deep blue, like her mother’s. Nadia had her father’s eyes.  “Killer’s eyes,” he’d once joked, when she’d been too young to realize 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 revulsion against a life of prostitution, but she thought of her father, and the words slid out of her mouth. “I can shoot. I never miss.”
            Kadinsky’s thugs laughed. He didn’t.  “I detest exaggeration,” he said. “So American.” His mouth moved as if 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 pockmarked face – Pox, she named him – who immediately lost his sense of humour.
            She took the weapon from his outstretched hand, weighed it in her palm. An old-style Smith and Wesson. God knows why the guy had it.  Most blatnye preferred semi-autos, Makarovs or the older but higher-velocity Tokarevs. She checked that it was loaded, all six bullets nestling in their chambers. She glanced at Kadinsky, thought about killing him. But the other henchman, the fat one with slicked black hair – hence, Slick – had his Glock trained on her, his lopsided leer 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 toward Katya, gauging the angles. His leer faded.

            Nadia stared at her sister and the rose. Most of it was behind her head. Only one leaf of the scarlet blossom was exposed. She swallowed, then lifted the revolver, and took up a shooting stance like her father had taught her. Right arm firm, elbow not locked, left hand under the fist, prepared for the recoil. She had to do it before anger could build and disrupt her concentration. She cocked the hammer, 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.

Sixty-Six Metres can be pre-ordered on Amazon here.

© Barry Kirwan |
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