Out the door

Been too busy being ill (a cold of doom), meeting deadlines and then travelling to see family to do anything actually worth blogging about this week. So, instead, here’s a little extract from my current work-in-progress to tide you over.

This is taken from Chapter 10 of New Gods, the third and possibly final book in my Antarctic series that began with Night Shift (out now) and continued with Human Resources (out in but a few short weeks!). I am optimistic that NG will emerge onto the world to have exactly the same impact as the first two had/will have.

Anyway, this scene needs, I think, little introduction. Anders Nordvelt, recently-demoted security officer, has just been to a reception where an incoming troubleshooter has been insinuating that he might have his old job back should he just report on Anders’ new superior.

Sadly, nothing is ever straightforward.

    I could hear the sharpening of the axes.

    They must have known what they were doing – what they were asking me to do. Let us know if Francis is up to the job. An open invitation to carve that axe into his back.

    It couldn’t just be me. Were they asking the entire population to exhume their old vendettas?

    Not for the first time I felt terribly uncomfortable. I looked round for Unity but she was nowhere to be seen. Everyone else I knew looked to be having far too much fun for me to intrude. So I slipped away; quietly, unseen. I left not by the main entrance but by the service exit.

    As the door shut I felt a tremendous sense of relief, of clean air, the background of chatter and Bartelli’s quartet instantly extinguished.

    There were a few broad-shouldered waiters in the corridor, talking quietly, joking. They gave me curious looks as I leaned back and breathed, but they said nothing.

    I straightened, opened up my chest, and figured out the best way back to my quarters from here. Going back through the reception was not an option I wished to consider.

    Another waiter came through a door at the far end of the corridor, carrying a fresh tray of wine glasses on a silver tray.

    I looked at him. He looked at me. His eyes grew wide.

    Private Leon Lewinskiy.

    It seemed to happen in slow motion. I saw the sudden tensing of his muscles, the momentary catch of his breath as he recognised me; the tray falling from his fingers, falling as if with some strange delay.

    The glasses crashed to the floor, shockingly loud as they shattered, sound echoing over me as he turned and ran.

    And I was running after him.

    Glass crunched beneath my feet; I saw the shocked faces of the other waiters as I sprinted past them. I reached the door just moments after Lewinskiy, barged through it. “Hey, you can’t –” someone yelled. But I was already past them, past bottles of wine, a table of canapés, boxes of supplies, cutlery, napkins. And through the far door, still rattling on its hinges from Lewinskiy’s passing; into a darkened room where footsteps echoed all around.

    “Stop him,” Lewinskiy yelled from another doorway.

    “Security! Stop!” I cried almost at the same moment. Still I was running – into a stairwell this time. I caught a glimpse of Lewinskiy’s back as he rushed upstairs. I followed, taking the steps three at a time. My breath came heavy and hard, but it seemed as if my muscles had been aching for the chase. My doubts fled. I was a policeman chasing a suspect (suspect of what? Involvement in a bar-fight and attending a protest. What was I doing?). That was all I needed.

    Upwards Lewinskiy ran, past doorways onto new levels – upwards, always upwards. The stairwell was clearly little used; lights came on automatically as we ascended then extinguished after our passing. But then they didn’t, and I realised that, over the syncopated reverberations of our footsteps, that someone – some others – were rushing upwards behind me.

    Friend or foe?

    I very much doubted they would be allies. I was chaser and chased.

    But it didn’t matter. I was running because my quarry was fleeing. That’s all I needed. Up, up, up; right up to ground level. No more stairs.

    I felt a blast of frozen air envelop me as Lewinskiy burst into the vestibule. I grabbed the door before it could shut, threw myself inside.

    Lewinskiy stood at bay by the exit. He glanced to the sides, at the racks of warmsuits just waiting to be taken. I advanced on him steadily. “Private Leon Lewinskiy,” I gasped, “I’m arresting you for breach of contract, for going absent without leave.” A nonsense charge? Maybe, but it was the first thing that came to me. I’d been too busy to think, too busy sucking oxygen into my lungs to say anything further.

    Lewinskiy’s eyes were wild, heavy black beard trembling as he cast from side to side.

    He grabbed a mask from the nearest rack and turned for the exit.

    I leapt forwards. I grabbed him by the shoulder, felt the fabric of his uniform (such a soft sensation; and I was struck by the ridiculousness of putting such a rough man into a suit as fine as that the waiters wore)…

    And then I was tackled from behind.

    I fell hard, banging my knees painfully on the cold floor. I felt hands dragging my away, but I saw only Lewinskiy, lips drawn back in a triumphant snarl. He kicked away my hands then turned and hauled open the exterior door.

    A blast of arctic wind howled into the vestibule. Someone swore behind me. The hands on me withdrew.

    Lewinskiy dragged on his mask and disappeared into the darkness.

    I struggled to my feet and went to hurl myself after him, to do battle with what felt like a tornado. But I was spun round by more hands on my back.

    Two men. And though they were dressed, like Lewinskiy, in waiters’ uniforms, it was clear to me that these were fighters. Something in the eyes, perhaps. Or the nose, broken and reset, of the man on the left. Or the twist of the lips, the balanced stances they were adopting…

    I had my back to the exit. Wind-borne shards of ice shattered against me, the warm air of the vestibule inevitably losing the fight. But I had it better than my assailants; they had the wind in their faces, had to shield their eyes to see at all.

    One swung a heavy fist at me. I ducked back hastily. They advanced, pushing me to the very edge of the storm.

    Two men, both of whom were used to fighting, in close conditions.

    “Security! Stop!” I yelled for a second time, this time over the roar of the wind.

    “We know who you are,” one grunted as he threw another punch at me. This one thumped into my shoulder as I twisted my head away. I staggered backwards – outside.

    Immediately I lost my sense of hearing. All I was aware of was the roar of the wind that threatened to bowl me off my feet…

    In winter, winds across Antarctica regularly reach hurricane strength

    And then, through barely-open slits of eyes, I saw the worst thing I’d ever seen in my life.

    I saw the door I’d been knocked through start to close.

    I saw the light that represented survival diminish, narrow, fade.

    I threw myself forwards, tried to barge my way back inside. A hand smashed me in the face and I fell back.

    The door closed.

Novel extract – the rats

scary-rat

In the absence of anything interesting happening in my life at the moment – Lockdown Rules and all that – here’s an extract from my latest WIP for your delectation. It marks the start of the climax and is – and I can’t stress this enough – a first draft. I already know things that are wrong with it (too much detail in the descriptions, slowing down the narrative; a too-long break in the action to describe the gunfighters; too much (and too bad) French) and it might change dramatically before it’s finally ready for publication, should it ever be so.

The WIP in question is still unnamed, though Our Kind of Bastard is getting a good examination, as is the simple Claws. Suggestions always appreciated. It’ll be a long time before it sees the light of day – the first draft isn’t finished yet, and I’ve two novels before it in the work queue.

This piece is set in Brittany and is a rurban fantasy (an urban fantasy set in rural areas). As the extract title suggests, this section features rats. Consider this a content warning if you have particularly strong feelings about the wee beasties.

Relentless Rats

‘Relentless Rats’; Johann Bordin

Saira came back to the centre of the Devil’s Mouth after having a pee in the nearest ditch. There by the portal dolmen she found Cartwright standing with Eloise, barely talking. Indeed, through all the long watch, all that long day, Cartwright had said barely a word. A damaged man, Saira reflected. But then, weren’t they all damaged in one way or another? She thought of Alex, that aching hole in her heart where she still resided.

“Hi, Eloise,” she said. “Not performing?”

“I’ve finished for the night. We’re past the point where alcohol is under control – the crowds get a bit too rowdy for my liking past eight o’clock at an event like this. Mark’s back asleep in the caravan so I thought I’d come and join you here.”

“Well, thank you. Though I’m really not sure what we’re waiting for.”

Eloise frowned, the newly-risen moon casting shadows almost as deep as midday. “I thought the bombers–”

“Oh yes, I know that. I just mean… Well, we don’t know when they’re coming, or from what direction, or whether they’ll be armed–”

“That’s why we’re keeping watch,” Cartwright said. “If we knew all that we wouldn’t have to wait, would we? As for them being armed, I think we have to assume the worst.”

“Then what are we doing here?” Eloise asked. “How can we hope to stop them?”

“We have to do something,” he said simply. “It shouldn’t have been like this. We should have had Jazz, and Mark, and – and Dashwood. A proper team. Now thrre’s just us – but still, we have to try.”

“Besides,” Saira said with a confidence that she didn’t feel, “we’ve got me.”

“What do you mean?”

Saira opened a hand and let a little ball of amber particles coalesce into something akin to a crystal ball. Then she blew on it and let the thing dissolve. It was so easy here, as if the Devil’s Mouth was a sort of sink for dark matter – or if it produced the stuff itself. She wished Twitch was here. There was so much Saira didn’t understand.

“To absent friends,” she muttered.

Pardon?”

“Nothing. Ne rien.”

“Hey, who’s that?”

Saira turned to see two figures bending under the police crime-scene cordon that had been extended in the aftermath of George’s death. The whole monument had been taped around – pointlessly, as no officers had been assigned to patrol it so anyone could simple shimmy under it, as they had.

“That’s Caron,” Cartwright said.

“Who?”

“The sergeant in the Gendarmes I’ve been dealing with. I don’t know the man with her, though.”

Saira felt Eloise stiffen beside her; the carny’s wariness of the police, she assumed. Then the two gendarmes were marching over to them, the man leading the way, bearing an aura of impatience with him.

Tu ne devrais pas être ici,” he snapped.

Monsieur, c’est M Cartwright, la personne dont je tu ai parlé. He says you shouldn’t be here.”

“Evening, Caron. Who is he? What are you doing here?”

“This is Commander Felix, my boss. I – I told him about the murders and the possibilities of the bombing–”

Qu’est-ce que tu dis? Tu as mentionné la bombe? Où est-il alors? Je ne vois rien de dérangé, juste ces gens qui se cachent ici.”

Monsieur, je viens de vous présenter et d’expliquer pourquoi nous sommes ici.” Caron spoke with deference but, Saira thought, there was a little exasperation in her tone, or perhaps a tiredness.

Nous n’avons pas besoin de nous expliquer, Caron. Pourquoi ces gens ici?”

“He wants to know why you’re here,” she said.

“We’re waiting for the bombers,” Cartwright said.

“To stop them?” Caron asked.

“Of course.”

Ils disent qu’ils sont là pour arrêter les bombardiers, monsieur.”

C’est juste une perte de temps–”

“What’s that?” Cartwright asked suddenly.

“What?” Caron asked.

“That – over there.”

Saira followed his outstretched arm but she couldn’t see anything – just the deep greens of the twilit grass lined against the deep blues of the sky; pools of black shadow in the lee of the bank and movement – what was that?

Something was moving through down the bank, something low to the ground, flowing like a whispering river through the dusty grass. Its leading edge disappeared into shadow and then re-emerged only thirty paces from where that were standing.

“What–” Cartwright began.

“Rats,” Eloise said.

And they were. Rats – hundreds, thousands of them, charging through the grass.

Each one had a tiny rider upon its back.

“C‘est quoi ce bordel?” Felix said.

It was hard to make out details in the shifting twilight, in the ever-moving flow. But the riders seemed to be armed with miniature lances and were topless but for leather straps and harnesses and for expressions of mad war-lust.

Saira just had time to gape for a moment before the tide was upon her. She heard Cartwright yell in pain and then felt a prick, a dozen pricks in her feet – pricks that became stabbing pains and she too was gasping as the lances bit into her shoes, dug through the light fabric of her summer wear and pierced the flesh beneath.

Instinctively she hopped, then jumped. She felt blood running from her feet – and then she landed and the ground had become a floor of vermin. She felt bones breaking and lances snapping beneath her; she was vaguely aware of an amber haze as dead rats and riders dissolved under her feet but there were more, more more – her feet were being cut to ribbons and she could tell from the sounds that her comrades that they were in no position to help.

Saira desperately tried to think of something she could conjure to rid the Devil’s Mouth of this vermintide but her mind was trapped in glue. She could only imagine a sword – but what use would that be? She just kept hopping, jumping, kicking – and desperately trying to keep her feet because falling into that mat of rats was unthinkable.

Somewhere, close at hand, a wolf howled.

And then she became aware of the prick and scratch and dig of tiny feet running up her ankles, of teeth and sword-blades cutting up her shins and calves and crawling up over her knee onto her thigh and the blood ran down her flesh as the vermin crawled over itself, a great mass eating her alive, threatening to strip the flesh from her bones.

She screamed.

Carl Frank

A desperate act, she conjured up a sickle and held it tight in her right hand, as the rats and their riders ran up over her waist, teeth, claws and blades digging into her pubis and her bum as they went, her whole lower half a mess of blood and dirty, dirty wounds; she slashed down and cut away a handful of the vicious creatures, saw them turn to their component molecules as they fell away.

But by swiping down she’d allowed the survivors to make the leap onto her hand; now the tiny claws were scratching at her fingers, the lances burning into her wrist, sword-blades slashing at tendons. She shook her hand desperately, felt some riders fall away, before her muscles gave way and she dropped her weapon into the carpet of monsters.

Skipping, dancing, shaking like a victim of St Vitus’ Dance, she saw Eloise and Cartwright and the gendarmes were doing the same, and they were all screaming in pain and fear, and they were all going to be dragged into the mire and consumed. It was just a matter of time – of moments… and there were people there who hadn’t been there before – two of them, a man and a woman, on the edge of the pool of vermin. But no time for them.

Glue. It was all Saira could think of. Glue. Gum. Ooze. She concentrated, tried to push the bites, the injuries from her mind, kept her body moving as the rats scratched their way up past her navel, up to her breasts – she concentrated; forget all that. Conjure. Call a haze of amber particles around her, absorb the energy of this place, of all the dead rats and riders. Thicken the cloud until it’s almost solid, an accretion disc around her head like she was a star. Try for liquid, though that doesn’t come naturally. Glue. And drop the mass down her body, let it cling to her and trap the rats, suffocate the riders (and don’t imagine that they’re human-shaped and may have thoughts, feelings and desires of their own; this is pure survival).

Take the energy of the dead and increase the mass. Feel it hardening on her skin; use it, wear it like a suit, sealing her wounds and pushing away the vermin; a suit made of dead rats – better, easier to form than the fluid.

Saira breathed. She was calm, now. The suit she wore kept the vermin at bay. She stopped her desperate dance, let the rats crawl up her legs; they could do no harm.

There was a crack and a whistle and something flew past her head – she felt the wind of it. She spun round, turning away from her friends who were still desperately fighting not to be dragged down by the vermintide.

There she saw the man and the woman – Paul Girin and Erica Henry, Saira guessed. The woman was holding a shoebox-sized wooden object with a glistening golden lozenge set in its front. They both wore heavy-looking backpacks, but only hers looked big enough to contain a bomb.

In front of them stood a posse of four gunfighters; they looked as if they’d come straight from the set of a Western, complete with black bowler hats and six-shooters; two held rifles and all wore ruffled-up suits, jackets open to reveal pocket-watches and waistcoats.

Time to worry about them later; first she had to save her friends from the rats. She lurched into the closest figure – Eloise, it was, and fell on her in some kind of excuse for a hug. As she touched the rats that were struggling to get into the Frenchwoman’s mouth they became stuck in the glue of Saira’s verminsuit, their struggles soon subsiding as they became part of the energy shield she wore. Soon Eloise was free of rats, gasping and bleeding, and Saira had enough death-energy to start seeping her glue-trap across the floor–

There was another crack and a man’s yell – Felix. Saira turned to see him fall to one knee – she thought it was him, the others were so covered in rats that it was hard to see who was who. Another crack and Felix fell to the ground. With the rats crawling over him it was impossible to see if he was still moving or not.

Saira looked up to see the gunfighters had raised their rifles, their pistols, and were aiming right at her.

 

How to crash a car

car.jpg

You know you’re in trouble as soon as you hit the accelerator. The front wheels don’t grip, you oversteer; you have a fraction of a second to try and hold it together before you hit the verge. You’re not quite sure how it happens but you’re thrown back across the road.

You have another second to try and gain control but it’s useless. Your first thought is ‘I hope no-one’s watching this.’ Your second is that the crash is inevitable.

You hit the off-side verge almost straight on; you’re not sure how fast you’re going but it’s fast enough to leap the ditch completely and smash into the bank beyond.

Time for one more thought: ‘This is going to hurt.’

The impact is a barrage. The windscreen shatters. The seatbelt grips. The airbags blow. Then you’re rolling and you lose all sense of direction.

Stillness.

Now the thoughts come hard upon each other: you’re alive; you’re in pain (chest, shoulder, knee, hip); the air is thick with smoke; the baby’s screaming.

This last thought pushes all the others into nothing.

You hit the seatbelt release – no fumbling, just one and done – and let yourself to the ground. You’re lost; don’t know how the car has landed. You consider searching for your phone and glasses but they’re not important, not crucial. You crawl into the back, grateful that however you settled the way seems clear. A moment to realise that the smoke is probably the explosive from the airbags.

Your baby is still in her car-seat, upside down, wailing. You say something to her, or at least you think you do, and support her as you release her. Again, no fumbling; she drops into your arms and now she’s right-side up and still screaming but you cradle her and coo to her and wonder how to get out.

The door is above you. You find the release and push but you’ve only got one hand. It doesn’t give at first. You try again and this time you get something behind it.

Then the door is pulled up. The onlookers have arrived, the assistance. You pass out the baby. You haul yourself up and let arms take you, undignified, to the ground. No, you say, there’s no-one else inside. Just me. Just the baby. You take her back and let yourself be led to a waiting car. Has anyone called emergency services? Not you.

You sit and cuddle your girl. You want to cry; you are crying. The pain’s not too bad. The shame, the shame, the humiliation. What happened? The truth is that you were going too fast for the conditions. There’s no other truth, though you dearly wish there was. It’s your fault. You lost it.

People are kind. You phone her mother on a borrowed phone. You speak to emergency services on another. The ambulance comes; you try to thank people but words are tricky. You hold on to the girl and never want to let go.

The ambulance arrives. Then the police. The breathalyser. People are telling you to be strong, be a father; guilt can come later. It’s already here, you want to say. A spectre of failure. you’ve let everyone down, wasted everybody’s time. You’re the statistic you swore you’d never become.

You’re fine, but for a minor fracture and a lot of bruising. The car is written off.  The baby… prognosis uncertain.

You go to hospital. You’re still not sure if you’re allowed to cry.

What you don’t know

black-hole-cygnus-crop.jpg

Still from Disney’s 1979 film The Black Hole, which I’d never heard of until I went a-hunting for an image for this post

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while you’ll know I have my strong beliefs. Not many of them, to be sure, but some I return to like a dog to its vomit. One of them is this: you must write what you know.

This is one of those pieces of writing wisdom that has entered popular parlance (can you remember where you first heard it? I can’t; a quick search suggests that Mark Twain might be its originator but this I take with a generous pinch of salt), and I have written about it before. But can we try a little thought experiment? Can we try and examine what happens when you write what you don’t know?

Let’s imagine a house. Think of somewhere you’ve lived. Now it’s not unreasonable to think that if you’re reading this you’re neither madly wealthy nor living in abject poverty so your experiences are probably fairly average.

Now: what if the walls were thinner? What if they were made of plastic panels instead of brick? What if the superstructure had been replaced so many times that none of the original remained? The windows are made from cut-down bottles that shine a kaleidoscope on the battered furniture (nothing matching; salvaged; repaired; cast-offs traded for favours or rescued from the rubbish of the wealthy).

There is no sound-proofing. You can hear everything that happens outside; not only the jet-planes that are constantly circling but the arguments in the shack next door and the fights outside – the ones that make the walls shiver and shake and make you keep a knife by your nest of old newspapers and blankets.

And yet it is still your space. You still sigh in relief when you get inside and shut the ill-fitting door behind you. It is still the place – perhaps the only one – where you can truly let your guard down and be yourself.

With me? Good. Now let’s try and take it in another direction:

You’re in your spaceship. It’s your single most important possession, your lifeblood: the thing you rely on to keep the (space) wolves from the door. It’s second-hand because a two-bit trader like you can’t afford to buy new. Every piece of kit, every wire, every relay has been replaced at least twice. Half the instruments don’t work, their components cannibalised to run more important systems. You had to take out an exorbitant loan to replace the oxygen-scrubber last time it went down on you.

Each trip earns you just enough to buy fuel for the next – maybe, if you’re lucky, with enough on top to keep up with the interest repayments. You still dream of earning enough to retire on a nice little place on Mars but each day you’re getting older and the dream’s not getting any nearer. Guess you should have listened to your Mama and taken that office job on Phobos, huh?

I suppose, in the interests of accuracy, I should make it clear that I have never lived in a shanty nor owned a spaceship working the Mars-Jupiter trading run. I know, I know – what a fraud I am. But I have lived in a house and been in a car. I can imagine what life would be like if you strip away the things you take for granted

I can also go the other way and imagine I was protected by perfection; that everything around me is new, pristine and inviolate (although if you do that it’s almost as good as saying ‘watch all this go wrong’ because them’s the rules).

Take what you know and strip it back. Or build on it. Write what you don’t know.

And, if you’re still in doubt, see what all these famous authors have to say on the subject.

Bitter poetry

Anita Nowinska Turmoil II

Anita Nowinska; Turmoil II

You can’t talk. You open your mouth and nothing comes out. You want to scream but that’s what the morons do; share every little thought heedless of the consequences. You have a reputation. You care for it. You work hard and nurture it. If you let go now then you’ll have nothing, nothing.

Besides, if you start talking you might never stop.

You have so much to do. You have the time, for once. A lacuna, an eternity; the sort of space that’s bought with death. But the words won’t rest on the page. The eye flits from perch to perch, never quite getting a sense, never quite knowing what’s solid and what’s the Grimpen Mire.

And you can’t start anything new. It’s there; it comes into focus; it’s swept away by the very attempt to gather.

So time flows in gossamer drifts, swirling and swimming through the great cavity in the skull. It’s lost as soon as it’s seen; lost forever, that perfect moment always just out of reach and you can never stop moving: forwards, forwards, ever forwards. To cease is to die. Virtue measured in achievement, purity in production.

The furnaces are cold today. Rats scurry on the foundry floor. They chew on your leftovers, on the parts you discarded, all the skins you’ve set aside. You always kept them – just in case, just in case. But you’ll never wear them again. You can’t look back; too late to heal the wounds.

The bullet’s the wrong calibre. You were sold a pup. You’ve been lied to – mostly you lied to yourself. But that’s okay; you can just rip this face and start again. Maybe this time the dice will land sixes. About time the luck ran your way, huh?

This is bitter poetry. This is a silent scream. This is weakness masquerading as determination. Quitter, quitter, quitter. You’ve turned your back so many times you don’t know which way’s forwards. You’ve convinced yourself you were strong because you kept it all inside, a sin-eater, a martyr.

You put a hand to your forehead and find the seam. You pull and great necrotic scabs scatter the vermin. They return twofold for a feast. The flesh falls and it falls and it falls.

Your shadow steps away. All that’s left. All that remains.

Step into the shadows. Disappear.

Disappear again.

Poem #3

Asylum 2

Waiting

So here I wait for you to come and forget
What you did, where you left me
Darling. While I give you what you needed
My white jacket blisters under interrogation

Each day they come, they come again
I give myself but I can’t give you
And they don’t know I dream: I dream of the day
You return

With fire riding at your back
We’ll see who burns best
Me? I just wait
For you, or for my love to bring that sweet chemical blend

That tastes too much like cheap tea; and for the appropriate adult
To handle the cutting
And the sticking
And the rolls of double-sided tape

For this art is close-mouthed
And still: and still I am nothing
Apart or by your side, your prop or your propeller
Don’t you miss me yet?

Or am I out of mind?
Well then
I will wait. I have time

This will be my final gift to you
When once again that smile is forced upon my face
(Don’t need make-up anymore)
And say, my darling, always say
Welcome home

A new beginning

A few months ago I put the opening scene of Oneiromancer right here on this very blog. It was a first draft. It wasn’t very good. And that’s fine: part of the reason I posted it was because it wasn’t great. It’s part of the process – a fair reflection of the sort of shit I churn out as I find my way, as I walk that road towards – hopefully – publishability.

But that’s my rational brain talking. I’ve always felt a bit uncomfortable about it; vulnerable, embarrassed. It wasn’t very good. Letting the great wide world see something so raw and incomplete is terrifying. Plus it’s counter-productive: I’m trying to build a following. Anyone who read that will think I’m an amateur. It will not get me a publishing deal. It will not awe people with my hard-earned skills. It will not make anyone eager to read the rest of the work.

Now I’ve completed the first draft and I’m on the rewrite. So I’ve decided to put the second draft here on my blog and to expose myself again. This is partly to do all the things I’ve just said: I want to impress. But I also thought it’d be interesting – for anyone interested in the process – for people to be able to compare and contrast the two versions. To see what I’ve kept, what I’ve cut, the ways in which the scene has developed or changed emphasis. If that’s you, the link above will hyperspeed you to the original post.

Or you could just want to read an opening salvo. In which case, read this version. It’s better. If you disagree then something’s gone badly wrong somewhere.

And please, please, please let me emphasise: this isn’t finished either. It’s closer, but two drafts are nothing. Many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip etc etc. Let me show the whole thing to my beta-readers first. Let me get serious, deep feedback. Only in context will we know if it works or not.

Comments, as always, are welcome.

 

*          *          *

 

“You’re ready?” Rosenkrantz asked. He held his sword by his side, handsome in his doublet and hose.

Guildenstern shivered, though the night was warm. The estate wasn’t silent – never was, not in the middle of London – but it was the quietest it would get, mid-way between the pubs closing and the rush-hour starting back up again. “Are you –”
“We’ve been through it how many times?” Rosie cut her off. “We want to make a difference, right?”

Gilly sighed and turned away. She looked over the concrete balcony at the half-lit plaza – more concrete, the occasional stunted tree failing to bring life to the yard. In the distance there was a scream and a thump, as of someone running into a wheelie-bin. She twitched back her long dress, unsure, now they were actually out here, just how to go about being a vigilante.

Rosenkrantz touched her arm. “There,” he said.

She focused on a ground-floor gap in the buildings. A woman, colour swamped by the amber of security lights and streetlamps, burst into the square created by the arms of squat tower-blocks in which they stood. She looked terrified; even from their vantage point – twenty metres away and another fifteen up – they could see her eyes were wide, her breathing laboured. She glanced behind her – and into the amphitheatre came a man. Broad-shouldered, well built with a black beanie pulled tight over his ears, he sighted the girl and made for her.

Gilly felt Rosenkrantz tense as he raised the sword again and turned for the stairs –

“Wait,” Gilly said.

“What? This is what we’re here for. Vigilantes, remember?” Below the girl was sprinting for the far exit, the narrow gap between towers on the east side. The man was catching her, though; easy loping steps that covered the ground deceptively quickly. “She needs –”

“Something’s not right here,” Gilly said.

Rosenkrantz shifted uncomfortably. The sword remained unsheathed.

Below them the girl finally realised she wasn’t going to make the exit. She turned at bay; seeing this, the man too slowed, adopted a stance more ready for combat. Gilly watched his empty hands flex. He said something – a question, maybe. By way of an answer the girl reached into her demin jacket and pulled out a flick-knife. Street-lights reflected off the blade.

Still the girl backed off, the man cautious, now, but still coming at her. She slashed the air between them.

Rosenkrantz was fiddling with his scabbard, rocking it back and forth. “Gil –”

“No,” Gilly said. “Just… just watch.”

The girl below them slashed again, skipped forwards as she thrust towards her opponent’s chest. But this time, almost faster than the watchers could perceive, the man’s hand shot out and crashed against the girl’s wrist. The knife skittered across the paving stones.

The girl had backed up against one of the bare trees that seemed so out of place in this land of concrete. She shook her head mutely – and then, and then –

She changed.

Slowly she stood up straighter until she was taller than the man before her. The fear went from her expression, her mouth drawing tight and contemptuous. The man took a half-pace back and she laughed, hard and cruel, and there was something unhuman in it, some harmonic that rattled the fillings in the teeth. For a moment the background noise, the ever-present traffic, the nightbirds and night-dwellers were silenced.

Then the dogs started barking.

The woman held up her arm. Gilly watched as her fingers, her nails – they grew, sharpened, became talons. Her face darkened but there was no shadow on her now; as if a tattoo was only now coming to the surface.

The man stepped forwards and rammed the heel of his hand into the bridge of her nose. The snap echoed around the courtyard. She staggered back against the tree. And all the time she was changing, chin becoming pointed –

The man was on her before she could recover, grabbing a wrist in each hand and holding those horrible bladed fingers up and away –

“She’s not bleeding,” Rosenkrantz muttered. He was right. The nose seemed distorted but there was no splatter, no trail – and no sign of pain on the woman-thing’s face.

She tried to kick out but the man was ready for her, twisting his knees to deflect her legs away. She tried to angle her blades to scalp him but his grip was too strong, too rigid.

With a flexibility that Gilly knew she’d never have, the man calmly extended a foot and planted it in the woman’s neck. He pulled on her arms, stretching her, throttling with the dark sole of his boot. She let out a little gurgling sound, drool spilling down her sharp chin, head forced back against the tree-trunk at her back. She spasmed and shook, the gurgling turning into a keening wail. Still the man kept the pressure on.

“We should go down,” Gilly said. But before she could move there was a crunch of cartilage and the girl-thing went limp.

The watchers made their way towards the staircase as the man kept his boot on the throat. It was only as they reached the harsh grey steps that he stepped back, let go of the girl-thing’s arms and let her slip motionless to the ground.

“Follow him,” Gilly said. “We need to know who he is.”

The man was looking round now, face calm and controlled. As if he did this sort of thing every night. Rosenkrantz drew Gilly deeper into shadows. She didn’t think they’d been seen.

“Follow him,” she said again and he turned and started to stride back the way he’d come.

“So this is vigilanteism, is it?” Rosenkrantz muttered. “Not exactly as I’d imagined. What about you?”

“I’m going to dispose of that… thing.”

“What? Why?” he asked as they hurried, as quiet as they could, down to the courtyard.

“It’s not dead yet. Not dead enough.”