Worlds Away now available in paperback!
The novel has had a lot of positive reviews so far. See what all the fuss is about by looking here.
The novel has had a lot of positive reviews so far. See what all the fuss is about by looking here.
My debut novel is now available in paperback and as an ebook!
Overpopulation has pushed planet Earth to breaking point: the Expansion is taking up every available resource, or at least according to the Panel. Luckily, they have the perfect solution. Their rigorous intelligence test will sort people into Supplementary Humans, who exist only to serve, and Betters, who lead the Cause.
Many believe the Cause to be lost, but Charlotte Dobson alone has the answer, and it lies at the heart of the fabled planet, Oscar 70. Little does Charlotte know that this discovery will challenge everything she knows about the universe, including the outdated notion of ‘love,’ and the fabric of time itself.
OK, so this is where I don’t have much expertise. I’m planning to publish in a week or so, and have been focused on checking the quality of the manuscript (as well as marking hundreds of exam papers, but that’s a far more boring story) and very little else. I know next to zero about marketing a book. How to present the book when it goes on the digital market? What cover will it have? How will the blurb read? How can I sum up such an enormous story in an image and just a few words? Inevitably, I then started to ponder what I will grandly call my novel’s “themes…”
First and foremost, I think that Worlds Away is a novel that is all about barriers. Wherever you turn, there is some kind of physical barrier, be it a window, a photo frame or light years of space. Now, I need to be a little anally retentive about this: this symbolism did not begin deliberately. Steven King (who, let’s be honest, knows more about anything than we mere sapients) said that our job as writers is not to find themes or ideas, but to “recognise them when they show up.” And, honestly, that is what happened. I started writing a dystopia about social injustice – which is perhaps linked to our current education system – the least said about that the better – and it became a book about barriers.
So, how to market that? An image of a hand on a window, I thought. That crops up a lot in the book. The idea of trying to reach somebody who is so close and yet so far. Trying to attain something that is impossible because of barriers created by others. I should also perhaps mention here that a real inspiration for this novel was the Queen Song “39,” which is essentially about time dilation (whatever any other Queen fans tell you – it is – look it up – Brian May is a Doctor of Astrophysics, for Heaven’s sake). I am determined to avoid spoilers here, but the song is heartbreakingly beautiful. Look it up, please, if you don’t know it. It was my muse. Several lines resonate with me, but these ones the most:
Don’t you hear my call though you’re many years away?
Don’t you hear me calling you?
All your letters in the sand cannot heal me like your hand
For my life
Perhaps it is important that I was spending our annual Boxing Day party at my parents’ house the night I first heard this song, and it is often a time for nostalgia, clawing back to a time you can never reach again.
How many barriers have I mentioned now?
I heard that song for the first time in Christmas 2015 and started writing the book a fortnight later. As soon as it is published, I plan to contact Brian May, thanking him for being such an inspiration.
Sorry, another digression…
So, the image of a hand on a window, with blackness on the other side. The issue was, this spoke too much of isolation and despair, and I hope that this is also a novel about hope, albeit in a dark world. What I wanted to convey was the idea that life often throws the proverbial at us, but we can always look upwards, outwards, and see hope. There is a lot of false hope in the novel: the red apple that the workers at Dawns’ Laboratories wear; the way Oscar 70 is presented to everyone on Earth; the name “Dawns” itself…But there is also a lot of real hope. Hope that the world will be better one day, and not just because it would make it better for me.
Then I met the amazing photographer, Emma Marshall, and she shot me this:
If you wonder where I am for the next fortnight, I’ll be proof-reading and writing my blurb!
I’ll see you on the other side…
I have a confession to make, and I apologise in advance. You see, despite reaching the ripe old age of 33, I still think, and sometimes act, like a moody teenager. I don’t mean that I hate my parents and refuse to clean my room. Rather, I mean that I enjoy a good sulk and brood as much as the next person.
I was talking to a friend of mine over drinks recently and we got onto the topic of Tragedy, as English teachers often do (if they are speaking to me over chenin blanc anyway). My friend mentioned the idea that, as humans, we like to feel strong emotions, even the bad ones. That old adage: it reminds us that we are alive, etcetera. Fair point, but any emotion? Really, any? Overwhelming personal grief? Daily, grinding anxiety? Surely not, I said. Sadly, many of us can cite personal horrors, but revisiting them as a reminder of our fragile humanity is hardly fun.
No, he conceded. This is where fiction comes in.
Most people know about catharsis – ridding oneself of negative emotions – and to do this with a world that is, when all is said and done, not real, perhaps has some credibility.
Is that why I am so cruel to some of my characters? There is an element of that. After all, a book that makes a person cry is often, in my view, a very, very good book. I’d like to think that I’m making a larger point through the suffering of my characters, but perhaps my friend is right: maybe it is all about how a story makes us feel. At the very least, strength of emotion is a good starting point.
Unfortunately, a cursory glance at any society at any point in time will show you suffering and injustice, so perhaps this is why so many literary works lean on such a theme. I still believe though, that to rise out of suffering and injustice is a nobler act than wallowing. Easier said than done, of course, but I force some of my characters to do it regardless.
Let’s find out a little more about Martin.
The aged beams of Kolwick Library yawned with each gust of wind outside as Martin, its sole visitor, pored over volumes of useless and irrelevant fiction. Anything deemed helpful to the Cause was apprehended years ago, and Martin’s heart ached a little to see volumes of Shakespeare, Milton and Harper Lee gathering dust on the shelves, rejected and left to wither, until the time would come to use them for fuel.
The other Supplementaries in his Unit had mocked his love of reading. Most Sups, on failing the test, gave up such pointless enterprises, but Martin had been determined to redeem himself in the eyes of his mother and stepfather. Both successful teachers, they had been shocked when he had achieved a painfully close to the pass-rate score of 58. He felt cold as he remembered their faces when he told them in the waiting room. He had expected a hug, a smile, some form of reassurance, but instead they looked at him as though he was a puzzle to solve – a jigsaw that they had been working on for years only to find, just before completion, that a piece was missing.
Because of course he had presented them with a real problem. Anyone over the age of forty had been excused from testing just after the Expansion (an older Martin thought wryly that this was of course nothing to do with the fact that the youngest member of the Panel was forty-one) so his parents had been exempt. For this he was glad. Despite their clear love of learning and knowledge, they had no Scientific understanding whatsoever, and their particular field of expertise was moribund in a world hell-bent on progress. His elder brother and sister had passed, and had achieved the status of Betters. For failing to tick the final box at the age of eleven, he was eternally sorry. His main memory of that day was not knowing what to do with his hands as he stood before them all, delivering the news that he had failed them and he really wasn’t sure why, or what it meant. His mother had wept, his stepfather couldn’t look him in the eye, and Dinah and Joseph had been sent to stay with their grandparents. Martin’s sole comfort was that his father was safely locked away and never to be heard from again, so at least he wouldn’t be beaten for this.
The year had been 1997 and Martin had been a part of the first wave of children to be declared Supplementary. The guidance from the Panel was very clear: anyone scoring below 60 was no use to the Cause and was therefore living on borrowed time on this planet. All Sup children must report to their nearest Supplementary Unit for further assessments and reassignment.
Martin paused on his page of Genesis 22: And they came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an altar there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the altar upon the wood. And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.
Surely the Panel had never thought that it would be so easy. To tell thousands of parents that their children were worthless because of a seemingly arbitrary test was incredulous. Except it had worked, largely. There had been tears, protestations, demands for retests (which were always, without exception, refused, of course) but in the end, parents had largely seen the bigger picture that the Cause presented and waved their children off, telling themselves that these Units would care for them well, until the time came to release them again. Yes, they would never bring them grandchildren, but that was the price they had to pay as good citizens. And with the world so overcrowded, and with resources so scarce, they could see the point the Panel had made. So children had been waved off in their thousands, sent to Supplementary Units for a life of hard labour and abuse. But Martin’s parents had been different. Both of them were academics with lofty ideals, and they had, after a painful day or two debating the issue, refused to give up their son. They had refused because they loved him, and it was the worst crime they could have committed.
…And the angel of the Lord called unto Abraham out of heaven the second time, And said, By myself have I sworn, saith the Lord, for because thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son: That in blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven …
His memories of the following months were hazy. He remembered a lot of hiding, and being terribly hungry, the latter of these things being something he was now unfortunately used to. He also remembered the elation of being rescued from his fate, the feeling of being loved so much that his mother and father would risk everything without a second thought. They travelled from hotel to hotel, and later on from one abandoned house to another, using up every penny they owned in ill-advised bribes, yet some of Martin’s loveliest experiences were sitting on his mother’s lap in a decrepit twin hotel room, reading her much loved and tattered Bible, searching for meaning in a world rapidly becoming devoid of it. He remembered her long red hair flowing like a mermaid’s down her shoulders as he nuzzled close to her. He remembered the sweet scent of her mid-price perfume. He remembered feeling safe, and loved, and warm in her arms. His stepfather, who had previously been happy to settle with a volume of Chekhov, had more recently taken to scouring the newspapers for updates regarding current policies outlining the advised treatments of Sups.
Martin had never been a particularly happy child, and a constant source of guilt to him as an adult was the fact that his runaway months had actually been the happiest of his life. His parents had told him everything would be fine, so they would be. More importantly than that, Martin was now the centre of their universe. Dinah and Joseph were enjoying a life as Betters, back at his grandparents’ home, so he savoured the experience of his parents’ undivided love. They could not do what Abraham had done because they loved him so much, despite their unbending Christian faith, and that had made his heart swell. The Cause was not, after all, God, they had said to him, with a smile. Their love had made him feel safe. He was almost invincible under their reassurance and protection.
Martin was far too young when he learnt that your parents can’t protect you from everything. The Panel Representatives had found them early in the morning, in a quiet seaside hotel. Holidaying had been a redundant pastime for many months at this stage, and the couple who owned the hotel had seemed very happy to gain custom from a lovely family “passing through.” It was too late to learn that they had turned in many families during that first year, and had actually received recognition from the Panel for their services to the Cause.
The most dominant memory from that dark morning was his mother’s screams in the next room. He never actually saw what happened, as he was bundled into the back of a battered blue minibus. His mind raced with hideous possibilities and it raced still, as he sat in this cold and abandoned house of knowledge. He did see his stepfather run out in pursuit of the vehicle, though, and he saw the explosion of blood as the guns stopped him going any further.
Martin closed the book with a snap. The silky thin pages slid together, to remain in this position for many weeks before his return. Enough indulgence in past thoughts.
Worlds Away is all about perspectives: what may appear like a wonderful situation to one person is often the living nightmare of another. The novel is written in the third person, but the chapters alternate between different characters in terms of viewpoint. I’ve always found it important that an author does not spoon-feed their reader thoughts. I show you the characters as they are, and you, with your unique world view, make your own decisions about them.
Last week’s chapter was Charlotte, and her perspective is immediately followed by Martin’s, a Supplementary Human whose “world” differs to hers enormously. Branded a Supplementary at eleven, Martin’s view of the Cause is cynical at best. In this extract, he meets Dr. Richard Dawns, a Panel representative and head of Dawns’ Laboratories.
Make of both men what you will.
“Come in.” Doctor Richard Dawns barely looked up from his work as Sup Martin entered the room. Martin took in the vast opulence of the office and felt a shudder of revulsion that he no longer had to think to suppress. Doctor Dawns rested on a vast leather armchair, surrounded by expensive bronze statues and potted plants – almost certainly stolen. Martin glanced at the pile of pre-packed dried food in the corner – out of date but valuable nevertheless, and felt a familiar pang of hunger. He was sure that Doctor Dawns kept that food there to torment the Supplementaries that he called into his lair, to remind them of his power and his full stomach.
“Ah, so it’s you they have sent me.” The word “you” was accompanied with a little spit, barely noticeable but certainly there. “Martin…Huthwater is it?”
“Martin Huthwaite, Sir, Supplementary Species 81873, at your service.”
“Oh, of course. You’re the one whose family…” Richard Dawns offered a cursory wave of his hand as he organised several stacks of paper in front of him.
“All gone. Yes, Sir.”
“Very good. Well, we thought you an ideal choice for our next endeavour, Sup Martin.” Doctor Dawns finally placed his papers on the desk and looked at the man across from him. The doctor’s thick black-rimmed glasses seemed wedged to his thin head, and matched the colour of his jet-black hair. Martin noted that his hair had been styled with gel, and wondered where on earth he could have gotten that. He noted also that, in classic terms, Richard Dawns might be described as handsome, sporting high cheek bones and dark mahogany eyes, which he wore quite well on his sixty-five-year-old face. His black suit was classic and tailored, and, Martin noticed with a start, seemed new. That said, he seemed so artificial, and Martin imagined how, under the hair gel and the streamlined clothes, he would be flabby and wrinkled. The thought gave him a rush akin to a blasphemous thought in church.
“You see, Sup Martin, we are finally in a position to travel somewhere else. Not a great deal is known about it yet, and I shan’t bore you with the details, as you wouldn’t understand anyway, of course.” A snort of derision to which Martin didn’t react. “But the fact of the matter is, you’re going. Congratulations. The sterilisation procedure will be reversed and you will help settle on a new planet.”
Despite the lurching in his stomach, Martin’s well-rehearsed composure remained. “Thank you, Sir.”
“Damn and blast, man! Is that all you can say? I’d have thought you’d be a little more grateful.”
Martin did his best to ignore the large painted copy of Oscar 70, proudly displayed behind Richard Dawns’ desk. Whoever had painted it had added a glowing red star in the corner, which served to illuminate the planet in what Martin thought was an overly flattering way. The efforts did not serve to improve an impression of what he felt was really quite a barren and dull landscape, overwhelmed with brown and grey. He had very little desire to go there – he assumed that this was the “somewhere else” the doctor had referred to – but he didn’t really care to stay here either. “I’m sorry, Sir. I truly am grateful, of course.”
I’d like to introduce you to Charlotte Dobson: the Associate Scientist working on Interplanetary Travel at Dawns’ Laboratories. In a world that functions entirely on the notion of achievement, she does very well indeed. Passing the intelligence test to genius standard, Charlotte achieves the status of a Superior Better at the age of 11, becoming an automatic champion of the Cause.
What is the Cause, you ask? Well, the Cause is a government policy – a brainchild of the Panel. It alludes to the idea of fighting a noble ’cause’ through Science, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Art, literature and even the distraction of love are set aside to ‘save the Earth’ from the monstrous ‘Expansion,’ through science. The focus is narrower than that, even, because the only science worthy of note is that which focuses on colonizing an alien planet, light years away. Is there a hidden meaning that this policy is the ’cause’ of countless miseries in the book? Probably.
The desired planet is Oscar 70 (thus named through a system involving the phonetic alphabet and a tally of the planet’s Earth-like features) and reaching it is Charlotte’s lifeblood. Operating as a metaphor on several levels, Oscar 70 is Charlotte’s idea of paradise. It is important for me to point out here that the universe of Worlds Away is an alternative one, and the red dwarf star which Oscar 70 orbits is entirely fictional. For those sci-fi buffs amongst you (I know you are out there – please be out there) I have based Oscar 70 on a wide range of exoplanets, and the unique features of this tidally locked exoplanet make it as much of a character to me as Charlotte herself.
But I digress, as I often do when the word ‘exoplanet’ is uttered.
You might have noticed that the opening sentence of chapter one is, ‘The stars broke the darkness, but only just.’ Charlotte’s Earth, for all her privilege and status, is a dark one. Her desire to reach the stars could be seen as a symbol of hope and the enterprising nature of the human race, but it could also be viewed as a desperate and lazy attempt to escape what she finds unsatisfactory about her current existence.
Love her or hate her, I am sure we all know a Charlotte Dobson. Someone who is generally polite and kind, but who has a lot and still wants more. Someone willing to ignore darkness around them and focus on a new light. Someone who is blind to how overwhelmingly lucky they have been. I am reluctant to say more, except the fact that one of the novel’s conflicts arises when Charlotte’s blind enthusiasm and hope is called into question.
Below is an excerpt from the second chapter, where Charlotte, now 22, is working in her lab:
Steam consumed the windows of Dawns’ Laboratories so badly that they resembled a waterfall. The workers there, accustomed to the icy conditions, laboured on regardless. A careful observer would notice the relics from the building’s past: long tables that once served as packing lines; a wall of superfluous plug sockets; pale rectangles on the floor where plastic moulding machines once stood; out of date yellow markings where neat little mechanisms once trundled, collecting the plastic frivolities that Mankind used to make and put into boxes. Now, each person wore the regulation factory black, lifted only by the single red apple on their chests. They worked in groups, generally, huddled around whiteboards or microscopes, muttering complex equations and bold hypotheses to one another in hushed tones.
Charlotte Dobson, several floors above this, downed coffee number seven, suppressing the shaking of her fingers as she manipulated the Speedlight capsule for the sixth hour on end. Not for the first time, she felt like her fingers would lose their grip on the cold handles of the titanium box before her. The set-up was simple: Charlotte worked on one box and an identical box, containing a small weight, lay dormant at the other side of the room. The two were connected by a thin tube, which arched over her head. Every so often, a pimple of green or amber would flicker on the corner of the box and she would start, freezing for a moment before continuing. Fleetingly, she wondered what the excess caffeine and potential radiation would do to her growing foetus, before remembering that she would never allow the pregnancy to reach term, anyway. Cursing this job’s capacity to give her thinking time, she noted that she had not yet booked the procedure. She did not note how she continued to trivialise what she planned to do. Nor how she was letting time slip through her fingers.
“Ms. Dobson, your work space does not meet our regulations. Kindly follow the cleansing procedure correctly before you continue your work.”
Perhaps it was his sanctimonious air, the way he emphasized “correctly,” or just the fact that he could not refrain from staring at her body rather than her face, despite her manifold qualifications, but Charlotte flinched at Thomas’s presence yet again. She was accustomed to working with Supplementary Humans; despite their proven lack of scientific ability, many of them had been chosen by the great Richard Dawns to help further the Cause by assisting at the laboratories – the hub of the action. Even so, being a daily presence made them no less disquieting, no less of an awkward addition to the work environment. And for one of them to actually tell her how to act – the Associate Scientist working next to Daniel Dawns on the development of Speedlight and antimatter technologies – outrageous was not the word. Staring at her work more intently was the best response she could muster.
Charlotte made an effort to steady her breathing. Of course she shouldn’t allow a mere Sup to rile her, but Thomas was one of the worst. She hated herself for thinking it, but how dare he speak to her like that? His job was to maintain a healthy work environment and support when requested, and requests from Charlotte were rare. Casting a cursory glance around the room, Charlotte noted derisively how he wasn’t much good at his first job, either. Ever since the Expansion, to say that resources were scarce was a horrendous understatement, but even so, she believed that they could do better. Old books, no longer relevant to their mission, operated as makeshift tables and paperweights, the windows, drowning in condensation, were grimy and rotten and her beloved kettle, her only contraband item, was plundered by limescale. Even in the regulation dark light, she felt the filth crawl on her skin.
Perhaps the poor working environment was a deliberate ploy to enthuse the workers. Feel too cosy on a planet and why would you be so keen to find a manner of leaving it? Doctor Richard Dawns wasn’t known for his carrot tactics: stick was far more his style. But there, on the filthy magnolia walls, it was plastered: Oscar 70 – or the paid artist’s impression of it, at least- the poster that all workers at Dawns’ Laboratories were encouraged to display. The carrot.
Charlotte did not need encouragement. To her, Oscar 70 was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. Like her, like everyone, it floated alone, isolated and vulnerable in the darkness. A perfect sphere, 30% larger than Earth, Oscar 70’s perfect curves beckoned like a lover. The interstellar probes indicated that this planet had less water than Earth, but more land, something that everyone, certainly Charlotte, craved. Earth that beautiful things can live on. Earth that bears fruit and food. Earth that would feel warmer under an alien and youthful red dwarf sun. She saw mountains and valleys the colour of her beloved coffee, milky and rich, spill forth from the virgin landscape, whilst the surrounding seas remained supine and silver, calm despite the tumultuous life above. If she wasn’t careful, Charlotte could stare at this image for hours on end, feeling her feet touch that strange ground, feeling the heat of the sun on her face. It was everything to her.
So, to return to work. A small reminder of why she surrounded herself with Thomases and grime and freezing cold conditions was all it took to get her back to her desk. Antimatter’s relationship with Speedlight was relatively new, and every time she returned to the box, Charlotte cared less about its massive potential to kill if placed in the wrong hands, but more the potential it held to reach her beloved other world. For that, she would die ten times over.
Her breath caught in her mouth.
She had done it: the weights had moved from the box in the corner to this one seamlessly before her unblinking eyes. She checked the numbers. The particles had moved a fraction more slowly than light. They had moved so quickly, in fact, that return travel to Oscar 70 would be possible. Easy, in fact. If her calculations were correct, the Speedlight they had would facilitate interstellar travel on an enormous scale.
For a second, Charlotte felt that anything – breathing, responding, thinking – would be forever impossible for her. She just wanted to live in this moment of possibility and hope. If she was wrong, it was back to the grime, the cold and the loneliness. If she was right, her perfect Oscar 70 would belong to other people. She’d be forced to share it with Sups and Betters alike, and the thought made her shudder. But, time was of the essence; Earth was suffocating under the weight of people. She must report her findings to Doctor Dawns.
She clutched her growing tummy. For the first time in her life, she feared progress.
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.”