When you need a little boost…

It’s been a quiet few months on the blogging front, and the writing one for that matter.  Work, family and general life (always referred to in that tiredly reverential way) often intervene, another week passes and you’re lucky if you’ve written a paragraph. Of anything.

I did actually manage to write a chapter of my sequel to Worlds Away last week, but my old buddy, Self-Doubt, has been chipping away at my progress yet again. Why bother writing in such a huge and uncaring market?  Why bother when so many good pieces of work don’t get recognised anyway?

It seems good timing, therefore, that I had a little good news today.  Just a little bit of good news that might be good enough to get me moving again…A few months ago, I entered my first ever creative writing competition with Writing Magazine, and I found out today that I had been shortlisted as a potential winner. (Worth noting that I didn’t actually win – my excitement would have been off-the-scale had that been the case.) It was also lovely that I only found out this news when one of my talented Y11 students picked up the magazine in the middle of the lesson and pointed out my name.  I let her keep the magazine; she’s an aspiring writer and already loads better at it than me. After declaring this on social media, I was instantly inundated with positive messages from my lovely friends and readers.  Take that, huge and uncaring market.

Since it didn’t win and I can now do what I want with it, please enjoy my short story Silver Lining in its entirety, below. Criticism always welcome. Oh, and if you are one of those lovely supportive people I mentioned earlier, thank you.  It means the world.

‘No. Stop. Put it back.’ The curator’s words startle me. I am detected, even in the darkness.

I didn’t expect that. These halls have a nasty habit of playing tricks on you; sights and sounds bounce from one hard, grey surface to another, creating a kaleidoscope of the senses. I have been listening to the slamming of my boots on the gritty surface of these halls for only a few minutes, watching shadow and light wage their futile battle on the walls for only a few moments, but the sheer unreality of this place almost consumes me. Yet there are those words again.

‘No. Stop. Put it back.’

Am I holding it already? I look down and it appears that I am. It is surprisingly light in my weakened arms.

I am glad it was only a curator that found me. At least, that’s what Wren and I call them. With their domed heads and red eyes, they are the most distinctive and also the slowest of the ferrumbots. Surprising that I didn’t hear it approach, actually; the curators tend to trundle on some kind of primitive caterpillar track. Harmless, ugly tanks. There are others: builders and gatherers, mainly. They have been working together for decades now to colonise this place, flattening and burning anything living to become solid metal.

What you don’t want to meet on a dark corridor is a shredder. They move quickly. I never had to create that name for them – that name has been used many times.

Those words again, slightly altered for clarity. ‘Put the specimen back.’

It’s a lovely specimen. Smooth and slightly warm, yet almost brand new. It moves ever so slightly in my arms. A human child.

Wren and I have discussed, many times, why they keep some of the humans they capture, and it’s one of the many things we disagree on. She thinks it’s because they have some mysterious plan which necessitates the ownership of several human beings whom they can enslave and use as they see fit. Me? I think the reason is far simpler. I think they are frightened of humans because they have found something that jars with their arid existence.

‘Put it back.’ I have no idea how the words are inside my mind, and even less of an idea why I understand them. I can only guess that their language doesn’t really operate at word level, even though that is what my mind accepts it as. This invasive telepathy started as soon as the ferrumbots arrived on Earth; hospitals were filled with people complaining of mental torment and inner voices. It was only when the complaints became an epidemic that an outside influence was considered. By then, they’d arrived anyway – a melancholy army of silver and black – and there was no further need for questions. The fact that it is ‘speaking’ to me rather than alerting the shredders shows that my stolen sensor works – it believes me to be one of them. I thank God – whoever that might be – that ferrumbots are blind. Despite those angry, red orbs in its head, it doesn’t see. Its sensor picks up mine, and it assumes the rest. I hate to admit that it’s getting easier and easier to hide as time passes; I’m certain that the child starts to squirm and whimper in my arms because I reek of metal.

I had felt the need to come here alone. Wren’s health has been failing for a few months now, and resources are becoming harder and harder to come by since the world turned to iron. I remember watching the first wave attack happen. We had never believed that they could get into our houses, such was our naivety back then. The written word was how they did it. Email. Letters. Texts. We opened our doors because we thought they had gone. Wren thinks that they must have at least a little human understanding, because of how they convinced us with our written word. Another thing we don’t agree on: I know that the thing next to me isn’t even close to human. They’d just been watching us for a long time and knew how stupid we were.

Why this Earth, though? My gut tells me that we are not lone victims in this onslaught. I have this idea that they are sweeping their way through our entire solar system, turning the landscape of each rock planet into a giant ocean of grey. I cannot fathom why, but I think that is what they are doing. When I close my eyes and imagine their conquest, I see that they have already taken Mercury and Venus, for what is oppressive heat and a lack of water to a heartless automaton? They reached us and we were here, but we were easily defeated. Or so they thought. Because here I stand, holding a human child in my arms right next to one of them and it doesn’t even know what I am. I wonder what Earth looks like from above now. The grey planet. Yet I’m still standing on it holding a child. And they don’t know. My heart swells a little, despite the surrounding shadows.

I think the curator is getting confused now and confusion might mean the arrival of the shredders. Why wouldn’t I just put the ‘specimen’ back? I must act quickly, but my eyes are drawn to another human in the cell, hunched at the back, two hungry white eyes meeting mine. It is a man, very thin and grey but still a man, and he has watched the entire charade thus far, unmoving. His eyes move, though, and I know, of course I do, that he does not want me to put the specimen back.

I take the sheet of silver metal – the kind they use to smother our land – from my left hand and slowly unroll it to cover the child. Despite my earlier bravado when speaking to Wren, I have no idea if this will work. Unfortunately, I agree with her on this one; I have no idea about the sensitivity of their sensors. The child does not move – a life of having its every need ignored is finally serving it well. The man looks at me with a hint of alarm – or is it admiration? Perhaps I overestimate his capacity to care about his lot. Of course I cannot take him too; there would be no way to get him out undetected. I make a mental note to look for more broken ferrumbots, but it took me four years to find this one and a further two to harness the technology. My hopes for this man are not high, and we both know it.

The curator turns and moves away, believing, evidently, that I have put the child back. I grip the thin silver sheet: the child’s only protection from annihilation.

On my exit, my boots do not slam. I do not pant. I do not stare wildly at the walls. I walk at a steady pace and try my best not to breathe.

Three curators stand at the door and their flickering sensors acknowledge my approach. I pray that the child does not make a sound. These things may be blind but their hearing is perfect.

Walking through the central iron fields, I do my best to walk smoothly and calmly, echoing the monsters around me in movement as closely as I can. The child isn’t helping me now. It could be the sudden influx of cold air, smoke, noise or light, or possibly all four, but whatever the cause, it is starting to complain. I walk faster. It may be hidden under a blanket of metal, but it occurs to me that this child will have never seen the blue sky before. Patience, little one, I think.

Returning home is the same as ever, except I come bearing a beautiful gift. Wren likes to live as close to the border of the iron fields as possible, so we can see their movements, disregarding the fear that every move we make takes us closer to the ocean. I move aside another stolen metal sheet to reveal our modified doorway – too small for detection and – we hope – too small for a shredder to ever get inside.

She looks at me and raises an eyebrow, perfectly plucked despite the ruined skin around it. “I can’t believe you actually did it.” I remove the blanket and show her the child. It – she – is old enough to eat solid food, thankfully – that is all I had time to judge. Looking at her now, I feel a rush of something like victory. Her caramel-coloured skin and thick brown hair look so alive next to the silver walls. Wren is still speaking about how this will “draw attention to us” and how we have “put the child in even more danger now” but I am no longer listening. She forgets how I rescued her once upon a time.

Absently, I hear her asking me, yet again, why do it? Why take a child out into the open when the world is doomed anyway? I do not answer, but I have answered her before. The question varies but the answer is the same. Why do anything? Why not just surrender? Why keep living, when the world is turning so unbearably bleak? My answer is always the same. I did it because that is what human beings do. It is, just as importantly, not what the ferrumbots would do. And I am not alone: I find more and more messages from the Underground Movement each day.

I have an overwhelming urge to throw open a window. If I open the window at the back of the house, she will be able to see a handful of trees and even the ocean if the day is clear. I will call her Robin. A beautiful bird that can fly from this place somehow. I doubt that Wren and I ever will – the weight of the metal is already on us, but this girl could do it.

A splinter of blue pierces the clouds.



Worlds Away Featured on BBC Radio Sheffield

It was an absolute honour to be invited onto BBC Radio Sheffield to discuss my debut novel, Worlds Away.

I would like to remind anyone out there, who is considering doing something they think they can’t do, do it.  Chances are, you probably can.


Listen below! Thank you for all your support so far, readers.  You keep me going!


Worlds Away: writing the second book in a trilogy

Long before I finished Worlds Away, I knew that it was going to be part of a trilogy.  The story that lay, hazy and nebulous, in my mind, could not be told in one novel, and not in just two. That said, I like the neatness of a trilogy, and am not planning to go beyond three, for now anyway.

Perhaps it is a little like children, and one day I will say ‘one more,’ but for now, a trilogy it is.  

I’m not sure how conventional this is, but I’ve already written my ending, and am now gearing myself up for the sheer joy of moving from Point A to Point B.  Or Point B to Point C, if we are being exact.

I can’t wait. I expect I’ll be bereft when it’s over. 

Today, I spent the day with my family in one of my favourite places on Earth: the National Space Centre in Leicester, consuming everything spacey with a hungry pleasure. If it is research, I love research.

Below is a visual clue about what is set to happen in book two, and it’s all I’m offering at this point in time. If you’ve read Worlds Away closely, it might give you an idea. Think carefully:

Worlds Away

Worlds Away – V. E. Bolton

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
Still ahead
Pity Me.

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:



emma cover (2)

It’s perfect, Emma.  Thank you.

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.” 



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 – Undergroundthat 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.”