A First Friday Post
I have always loved writing. I remember, as a child, scribbling nonsense into a dog-eared exercise book (that my dad had probably stolen from the school he taught at) and passing it to my mother. She nodded politely and said, “It’s very good, Vicki.” She didn’t mean it – I couldn’t even write at the time – but it felt good, and it still feels good now. I kept the series of illegible blocks and smiled to myself as I ‘read’ them.
Harbouring a secret desire to ‘be an author’ for years, I never realised that I already was one: I just didn’t write. I think I must have believed that successful authors received some sort of official invitation from some sort of official authority. I was more or less certain that I would not be their kind of person (whoever ‘they’ were) let alone their kind of writer. Everything changed in December 2015, when I had an idea.
Despite this being one of the busiest times in my life (I had given birth to my second son in the October of that year) the idea would not go away. I started penning Worlds Away in an embarrassed, almost apologetic way, fully expecting to abandon it after a week or so and resume normal existence. I didn’t want to tell anyone what I was doing, lest I came across as pretentious or, worse, misguided.
I found myself creating an alternative recent history, where overpopulation mars the landscape of contemporary Earth and the authorities, the privileged and contemptible ‘Panel,’ decree that the only way to tackle this is to test the intelligence of the populace. I created a world where people either become Betters, who fight for the noble Cause to save the Earth through Science, or Supplementaries, the lower class of humans, existing only to serve the Betters and their work. I found myself writing about the education system under the control of the Conservative government, and created a world so terrifying that people want to leave it entirely, fleeing to the beautiful stars above their heads. They either run towards the light or away from the darkness – I’m still not sure which is which. I wrote about a personal fantasy of mine – colonising the stars – and in doing so, opened doors to ideas such as nostalgia and society’s capacity to hinder personal aspirations.
It has taken a year and has been an absolute labour of love. It is my view of what science fiction should be: a magnifying mirror that we hold to ourselves. I want to share it with the world, but, again, here comes that apologetic fear. That feeling that I shouldn’t share it because I’m not really an author. I’m going to ignore that voice this time. Please find my first chapter below, and get in touch if you enjoyed it!
The stars broke the darkness, but only just. Leanne Kent could not see them, anyway. As she stalked her way, head down, eyes down, through Kolwick’s back streets, Token Day wore heavily on her mind. Today had been bad enough, but tomorrow would be terrible, and she needed to prepare herself in the fresh air. She liked to walk in the darkness of Kolwick’s Black City, despite the stench and danger. Every terraced house she passed seemed to watch her, its broken face of masonry cracked and tired. Tired like the Earth. The tiny front lawns that the Panel had deemed unworthy of claiming were overgrown and the occasional one sported a small tent. It had long been decided that one should ignore such things; if people were brave enough to camp out on someone else’s front lawn, who was Leanne Kent to stop them? They would be found soon enough, and at least they had nobody to blame but themselves.
She would sleep in the shop tonight. God knows when they would be clamouring at the door, asking her what was available, and it would be better that she was there. She remembered last month: the man with the breath that smelled of sulphur grabbing her arm, strongly enough to bruise, when she told him that there was no beef to be claimed. The animals were not big enough yet and the customers could only wait, Sir. So sorry, Sir. Can I interest you in a chicken thigh or two? You can get four in exchange for a beef steak token. He had jerked his hand away from her then, as if he had suddenly remembered what he was touching. Perhaps it was her use of the word, “Sir.” He had left soon after that, but not before shattering a window with his fleshy fist.
That afternoon, when they had all left, she collected the glass shards for recycling and reflected on how this space, in the Before Years, had been what was known as a charity shop. Apparently, people would give away their unwanted clothes and they would be sold, cut price, to others. All those things were gone now, of course, and all that was left behind was a threadbare carpet that she imagined had once been red but had now been trodden into a tired black, and a fitted table in the corner of the room where she would stand. The idea of giving anything away now was unthinkable. Leanne Kent owned one black duffel coat, three jumpers, two pairs of jeans and a modest underwear collection of which she was really rather proud. She owned the one pair of brown boots that had belonged to her sister, only one size too large, and repeatedly repaired the soles with sellotape or whatever adhesive she could find. As a Supplementary, of course, she didn’t get tokens. If she ever felt daring, she would imagine holding a set of tokens, reserved for Betters, in her dry hands. She imagined the thin paper, usually pastel-coloured with serrated edges. She would hold the tickets up to the sun, the backside facing her, and see the thick black numbers wink through at her, offering a world of luxuries she would never know.
But she knew things that the Betters didn’t. They didn’t really know what it was like to be hungry, or to have a house with no heating and water, or to be forced to share a room with three strangers. What was really annoying was that they thought they did. Just because everyone had a little bit less nowadays, they thought that they were suffering. They were idiots. She had realised that since meeting the Captain.
It was in the Black City that she had met the Captain, just over a month ago now. She had been walking in the darkness and silence and he had beckoned her over. She remembered it so clearly – her parents would have never believed her capable of remembering something so accurately – but he had beckoned her over with a smile and offered her a cigarette. He was standing with his door open, light streaming outwards, as if electricity was something to be using whenever one liked. She could feel the heat emanating from his house and shivered to think that he had central heating.
She had never seen a cigarette before, except in pictures, and its rosy glow drew her in long before the man holding it did. Its smell, thick and sweet and heady, made her feel powerful and adult. He was the first man who spoke to her like she was not stupid, like she was not a Supplementary. He was Supplementary too, of course, but the black-market luxuries he paraded for the world made him fireproof, somehow. Had she considered it in enough detail, Leanne Kent would have realised that what she liked most about this man was a cockiness in the face of adversity like she had never seen. Surely, anybody that confident must know something, some way of making the world better.
In the Before Years, she had heard her parents speaking about her in hushed voices, wondering how she would ever be seen as ‘normal’ and whether or not she would ever make friends. The Expansion had ended their concerns. Intelligence testing had been introduced and she didn’t even sit the exam – an automatic Supplementary. After that, the hushed conversations became more frantic, her parents’ faces even more drawn than before, but before anyone knew what was happening the Panel came for her.
But the Captain never mentioned any of that. He just welcomed her into his home and treated her like she was any other girl. He never even mentioned what she had heard her parents mention, years before, as her ‘syndrome.’ He didn’t make comments, like almost anyone else did, about the shape of her face, her small eyes, her square body; he just let her speak, and listened, and gave her cigarettes. He told her of his wife, who the Panel had taken when the Cause was declared, but even to her, his eyes were cold and black when he spoke of her. People may have thought that she was stupid, but she knew he didn’t much care what had happened to Mrs. Captain – she knew that at least.
The Captain’s house was a mystery; a cursory glance into the hallway revealed filth and yellowing walls, but he never allowed her in to see further, preferring instead for the two of them to sit at his open front door, regarding the sky. She only ever visited at night, when nobody at the home would notice her absence, and a reassuring coat of blackness held them both each night. It was when they were looking at the sky that the Captain mentioned the Cause, and how doomed it was. When he had first said this, Leanne had ignored it, hoping that she had misheard, but he came back to it – again and again – the Cause is doomed. About a fortnight after they first met, she replied, as best she could, “You shouldn’t say that. It’s bad.”
The Captain cackled then, loudly, rasping on his cigarette smoke. His teeth were yellowing stumps in a cavernous mouth. Leanne felt genuinely hurt. So he would laugh at her like the others did.
As quickly as the laughing started, he seemed to notice her hurt expression and stopped, “I’m sorry, darlin’, but it’s them that’s bad, not us.” He looked at her for a long time, long enough to make her shuffle in her deck chair and look at the floor, then continued, “All those messages on the telly, all those lies. They’re going to abandon us here. You know that?”
She felt like he was telling her something she already knew, something that everybody already knew, but that nobody really ever said. She wasn’t sure she wanted to hear it; she liked coming here, speaking to him. He was her friend; why complicate things? Despite her silent pleas, he continued, “There.” He pointed an arthritic finger to the sky – that great gulf of nothingness above their heads, “They are finally going there.” The drama suddenly went from his voice and he drew on his cigarette again, “Or at least that’s what they say.”
She stared at the blackness above her. Could that blackness up there be better than the blackness down here? She was terrified to think it. Just under where the Captain had pointed, glittering and white, the enormous rectangle of Dawns’ Laboratories loomed over the Black City. It wasn’t news that they had been working on ways to visit another world for a long time now – as long as she could remember – and she remembered, fleetingly, the Supplementaries she had known to walk through the doors of that majestic building to never walk out. The Americans had tried and failed, the Russians too – lots of people – Supplementaries mostly – had died in the efforts, but she had never really believed that they would do it. And so close to home.
As she thought, the Captain continued, and a listener more perceptive than Leanne Kent would have known that he wasn’t really talking to her anymore, “Of course they won’t take the likes of us. The telly says they’re taking Sups, though, hundreds of ‘em. Can you imagine that?” She turned to shrug in response but he was not looking at her; he was looking at the great dark dome above their heads, and he simply continued, “But there is another way for us: an escape. Have you heard of the Underground Movement?”
The queue on Token Day was the longest she had ever seen, and Leanne registered with a rising alarm the fact that there was not enough food. Not nearly enough. The Panel had sent less than half their usual rations. Feeding on it themselves, the pigs, she muttered. She almost laughed aloud at the blasphemy of what she had just said. Such freedom to think such things, and for nobody to know! Fumbling with the half empty cardboard boxes, she regarded the supplies before her: out of date soup sachets; tinned beans; tinned fruit (as well as a few tins with no labels) and some chocolate bars. Nothing else. No meat. No fresh food. She felt sick as she went to open the door, regarding the hateful faces of the Betters clutching their tokens. They weren’t Superior Betters, but she knew that they still expected more than the scanty offerings she had been lumbered with.
The first Better to enter was a blonde lady in her forties, shoving a double buggy in through the narrow doorway. The mewling toddlers chewed on hard plastic toys and dribbled profusely; Leanne couldn’t help her resentment of them. If only there were fewer… The woman’s eyes widened as she saw the array of supplies on the desk, “Is that all you have?” Her voice was angry but her face desperate. Leanne nodded. A deep intake of breath. She took more than her fair share and Leanne let her: they’d run out soon anyway. Besides, the woman sported a stitched red apple on her lapel; anyone who worked for Dawns’ Laboratories deserved to take more. Leanne had been told that a while ago. She took the crumpled tokens and shoved them into the black envelope they had provided her with; they would count every single one back in, she knew.
By the time the tenth person entered there was nothing left. Leanne regarded the sea of faces hating her, blaming her. She heard the mutters, “She was the first one here. Bet she ate it herself. Not too skinny for a Sup, is she? Don’t know why they let them dish out vital supplies. Asking for trouble. Total scum.” The crowd surged forwards, and she knew at that moment that they meant to hurt her. This was not new: she just hoped the damage would not last.
It was only when she moved back behind the counter that she saw the Captain, leaning on the glass window, smiling. The grey drizzle of Kolwick seemed to hardly touch him, and for that moment, she saw only his kind face. His eyes told her that it did not matter what those people said, what those people did: they were wrong and everyone knew it. At the end of the day, they would starve just as she would, because there just wasn’t enough, no matter who you were. She took a deep breath, declaring, “I haven’t eaten a thing, but I wish I had. I will next time! There are people you don’t know about, hidden under the floor, people who will beat you one day!”
Hidden under the floor. That wasn’t quite right, but she couldn’t fully remember what the Captain had said. It filled her with hope, though, all the same. Some people in the crowd looked angry. A handful started to laugh.
When the blows came, she tried not to scream. It was not long before she was on the floor, feeling a fist here, a boot there. A man she recognised from before – she thought – was it the man who had broken the window? – came at her with a stick and she brought her forearms upwards and closed her eyes in readiness.
The stick never touched her. Instead, she saw the Captain’s bony arm catch the stick instead. It would have been heroic, except she heard his fingers break.
The man continued to hit as if there had been no interruption, and the crowd did not stop. They only stopped when the screams did – man and girl both, motionless on the floor. They left then, one man holding a stick and a black envelope.
The Captain was right – they were idiots. Leanne thought this but did not move, as his limp and lifeless body concealed her living one. She would find them. She would find these people under the floor – Underground – that was it. The old man had not died in vain. He was heavy, though, and bleeding. She felt his blood leak onto her face and cried aloud, but there was nobody to listen anyway. She had seen lots of dead bodies before – everyone had – but she had never touched one, and it made her want to vomit.
Slowly, she wriggled under the Captain’s heavy corpse, looking into his grey eyes that were greyer in death. Doing so, she looked up into the faces of two new men at the door, suited and smart, and she immediately recognised them as Panel Representatives. One man carried a clipboard, the other merely clasped his clean hands in front of him, as though in prayer. They smiled at her but she knew that their smiles didn’t mean what other people’s smiles did.
“Supplementary 568944, I believe? We have heard reports of insubordination. Do you know what that means?”
Leanne shook her head. Everything, she realised, was trembling, her voice, her body, her lip, “They killed my friend. They beat us both.”
For a moment, both men looked alarmed. They surveyed the man on the floor carefully, and then smiled. The first man, the praying one, spoke, “Oh! That Supplementary. For a moment there, you had me worried! Nathan – I think sector 5 at Dawns’ needs more fuel – send him there.”
The second man wrote something on his clipboard but did not move. “Will do.” He rolled the body over, in the same way one might roll over a barrel or sack of potatoes, and paused. Slowly removing the cigarette packet from the Captain’s pocket, the man regarded her coolly. “Been having a bit of a dabble with things we shouldn’t, have we? I bet you’ve been stealing supplies too. No wonder those poor people outside are going hungry.”
She turned again to the first man, already knowing, despite her low IQ, what he was going to say, “She’s a sly one, isn’t she? Best not send her for processing yet.” His teeth glittered – how were they so clean? “She can come with us. I’d like to know more about this place under the floor that she spoke of.”