Welcome to my World

Vessel is now available on Amazon here

Hello, and welcome to Work in Progress, my blog about the books I write. If you’re looking for Noah’s Ark, you can get that for free here, and if you want to read Vessel, you can download it from Amazon here. If you want to read chapters of my next book, New Dawn, you can do so below or you can pick a chapter from the contents on the right.

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Thanks for stopping by!

Andrew

Chapter 2

I’m not scared of flying, or heights. What I am scared of is situations that have an inherent whiff of imminent death about them. A tin-pot shuttle rattling like a paint mixer as it hurtles through the thick soup of our planet’s atmosphere is one of those situations. I swallowed down the clammy sweat on the back of my throat, gripping onto the armrests of my seat hard enough to keep me from wailing, but not so hard that Sadie—who seemed fine—would notice. It was too loud to talk, so I kept my eyes front and centre, and my mouth shut. Brendan, the driller who’d been asleep in the waiting room, was sleeping again. I had no idea how he did it, but right then he was, I believed, the most envied person on board.

The shaking soothed as the sky faded to black, and the unlit interior of the craft fell into shadow. This made the starshine of the many brilliant pinpricks I could see through the porthole even brighter. There was something mystical about seeing space that never got old, almost as though my brain was never built to venture this far from the safety of terra firma. Sadie was looking too, her face bathed in soft starlight. I could tell, even seeing her side on, that she was thinking the same thing I was. She shook her head ever so slightly, as if in disbelief at the view. I was about to say something when the view took a turn for the better: as we rounded the curve of the Earth, the magnificence of our own star crept up from behind the thin blue horizon. Silhouetted in front of it was a nest of beams and pylons, with small dots of light winking from its extremities. It was the dock, or to be more precise, Orbital Shipyard 6. It was the floating partner to the groundside shipyards, the final assembly and maintenance place for many a spacefaring craft. Ours, the Athena, was hunkered down inside the nest, being lovingly prepared for its next voyage.

Deep space ships always struck me as beautiful in an odd sort of way. They weren’t sleek, graceful or anything like that, but they weren’t industrial hunks of budget engineering like our shuttle was, either. Everything was there for a reason, every dip, crevice, protrusion and bump designed for a purpose. The Athena looked so incredibly fragile, and not for the first time I wished I’d brought a camera to keep this scene fresh in my mind for the rest of my life. As bizarre as it sounds, the only time I’d get to see the outside of the Athena was during our trips to and from Earth: the Athena was flown by instruments and was as such windowless.

Our shuttled tipped down and swept underneath the dock, pulling it from view. We made a jerky right, slowing quickly, than raised up into the bird’s nest. Our connection with the mating adaptor was rough, but no rougher than I remembered.

‘We’re here,’ I said for some reason. It seemed the right thing to say.

‘I hope we’re not overnighting,’ Sadie said, looking out the porthole at the underside of the Athena. ‘The cabins here are awful.’

She wasn’t wrong; the dock was like a bus stop: it was dirty and smelled funny. Tight space we could cope with, but grimy sheets—not so much.

‘Please stay fastened in while we get the AG online. We’ll let you know when it’s safe to disembark,’ the intercom hissed.

I waited for the odd humpback bridge feeling that happened when the artificial gravity kicked in, but it didn’t come. Sadie looked at me, eyebrows raised. I shrugged.

I’m sorry folks,’ the intercom said. ‘We seem to be having trouble with the AG. We’re going to have to disembark without it.’

Piece of junk shuttle.

Sadie tutted. ‘Every—single—time . . .’

Under the direction of the docking staff, we filed out row-by-row, personal bags slung over our shoulders, clumsily hooking our hands and feet into the rails on the floor and ceiling. As I approached the dock, I could feel the AG pulling me in, drawing my legs out in front of me until—clump—my feet met floor and I was able to step off. Sadie was right behind me, and I couldn’t help but laugh as she swung about like a drunken monkey, too short to comfortably reach each proceeding handhold.

‘Laugh it, chump,’ she said, glaring at me between stretched-out swings.

‘Believe me, I am.’ And I was still bubbling as she also found solid ground and proceeded to jab me in the ribs. ‘Ow!’

‘You deserve that. Come on, I’m hungry.’ She stomped off towards the cafeteria, and I followed. Soon she was back to her chatty self once again, and we shared a bench as we talked, I with a coffee that tasted like dishwater, Sadie picking at a ham and egg sandwich that—well, I wouldn’t really like to say what it looked like. I hadn’t eaten yet that day, but any appetite I had put up little protest.

‘Trust me to get assigned a rookie last minute,’ Sadie said as she took a bite of her sandwich. I wasn’t sure if it was the sentiment or the sandwich making her pull a face, but either way she wasn’t pleased.

‘I’m sure he’ll be fine. Besides, the payload’s quite small on this one, so we might not even need him.’

‘I suppose.’ Sadie slopped the sandwich back on the plate, giving it a rueful look. She pushed the plate towards me. ‘You want this?’

‘No thanks.’

A distorted (and very loud) BING BONG made both Sadie and I wince, and we waited for the inevitable message.

Would the crew of the Athena please report to briefing room three in five minutes.’

‘That’s us,’ I said, and we both headed for briefing room three, leaving the sorry-looking sandwich behind. We were joined by most of the others as we wandered past the rec room, and had became a full compliment by the time we took our seats in briefing room three. It was small, and I shuffled up next to one of the flight crew—Grant Jameson, I think—who gave me a cursory frown before returning to his conversation. Sadie and I had somehow been separated in the kerfuffle, so she was sat a few rows ahead of me. She turned and smiled, then faced forwards again. I picked at a piece of foam poking out of a hole in my seat until the door opened and a portly man in his fifties walked in. His size betrayed the duration of his stay up here and his disgruntled expression did nothing to hide his feelings about it. The room’s attention turned to him.

‘Good afternoon,’ he said in a matter-of-fact way that suggested he’d done this bit a thousand times over and more. ‘I’m Jonah Stone, the station manager. Your flight has been scheduled for tomorrow morning’—this was met by a chorus of groans—’so feel free to use the facilities, but do try to keep them tidy. There is no alcohol allowed on the station’—another round of groaning—’and that includes the stuff I know you’ve all stashed in your personal bags.’

I drew my bag closer, even though I knew I didn’t have any.

‘Please report to the main docking bay tomorrow morning at oh-eight-hundred for final checks and launch brief. Until then, keep yourselves out of trouble. Oh, and one more thing that’s probably most pertinent to the geologist team: Simeon Jones is unable to join you on this mission. I suggest you make yourself acquainted with his replacement.’

Stone left the room to a murmuring of dissatisfaction, and Sadie turned to me to roll her eyes. I tipped my head towards the new geo. She looked at him, then back at me, and nodded. As the room emptied—hearty laughter echoing down the corridor—Sadie and I rounded on the new boy. He didn’t notice us approach as he was too busy looking in his personal bag.

‘Hi, I’m Sadie,’ Sadie said, holding out her hand. This made the kid jump, and he pulled the drawstrings of his bag tight shut. He smiled weakly and shook with Sadie, then with me. His timid grin made him look incredibly young—no more than twenty-one, twenty-two—and his pale skin glimmered with nervous perspiration under his shock of pale blonde hair.

‘I’m Byron,’ he said. ‘Byron Ash.’

‘I’m Jake,’ I said.

Sadie took a seat on one side of him and I took the other. When Sadie began her interrogation I had to turn away, the intense look on her face making me want to laugh. I struggled to keep it in, but I managed it.

‘Where are you from?’ Sadie asked him. I looked back briefly to see what she must have thought were cold, challenging eyes, locking on to Byron’s own. I almost lost it, so I turned away again.

‘I—I’m from Newport, the South-West quarter,’ Byron responded, his voice thin.

‘No, I mean what ship? What ship were you on last?’

‘Oh, sorry. I was on the Bounty.’

I’d regained control of myself enough for this information to register as a concern. ‘The Bounty?’ I said. ‘Isn’t that a fleet vessel?’

Byron looked from Sadie to me. ‘Yessir—inter-dock ferry.’

Sadie clapped a hand over her eyes and slumped back in her seat. I felt like doing the same, but I had more questions to ask. ‘How long have you served on the Bounty?’

‘Almost three years.’

Three years?’

‘Yessir.’

‘So you’ve never left the system?’

‘Nossir.’

Sadie returned from her slump, and we shared an exasperated look. ‘How did you end up here?’ she asked him.

‘I requested a transfer to deep space about a month ago, but no one would have me.’ He was right—getting himself into dockyard fleet was a guaranteed dead end before it had even started. ‘Anyway, I got a message out of the blue yesterday telling me I was transferring to the Athena.’

‘Have you had any geology training whatsoever?’

‘No.’

Now it was my turn to clap my hand over my eyes and slump back into the chair. ‘Jesus Christ . . .’ I murmured. ‘Do you have even have a deep space license? Tell me you have a deep space license at least.’

Byron shook his head. He looked sad, maybe a bit nervous, as if he knew he’d done something wrong. ‘I’m sorry. I don’t want to be nuisance.’

There must have been something about Byron’s pathetic expression that finally won Sadie over, because I could see her faux-hardened shell melting into her usual warmth. ‘I’m sure we can work around it,’ she said. ‘It’s an easy job this one, so don’t worry.’ That didn’t seem to lift Byron’s mood at all, so she chirped, ‘why don’t the three of us go back to the cafeteria and have a drink and a chat? What do you think?’ She grinned expectantly at Byron, who returned it with his own weak smile.

‘If it’s ok, I was just going to go to my bunk. I was on GMT until the transfer, so I’m a bit lagged. I hope you don’t mind.’

‘No, of course not.’

Byron got up, shouldered his personal bag and left the room.

‘Well that was weird,’ I said, and Sadie nodded.

The rest of the afternoon was spent killing time. The rec room had a TV and a games console, but the flight crew were hogging that (and were enjoying it at quite the volume thanks to the unlabelled bottle being passed around) so there was no chance at getting a go. I had my own portable console in my personal bag, but thought it rude to play it and leave Sadie bored, so we wandered the corridors, following the C-shape of the dock to one end, turning around and coming back again, chatting. Occasionally we would stop at the viewing gallery, the only window on the station. It was a pretty big window, and was a great vantage point to watch the Athena being prepared. Long hoses trailed out to it like umbilical chords, while small, remotely piloted vehicles performed last-minute checks of the external shell. Most of the work was being done inside the Athena via the main docking bay. This close it looked like quite a big ship but, as we would all become acutely aware as the mission progressed, it was pretty tiny inside.

‘Do you think he’ll be ok?’ Sadie said as she watched through the window.

‘Who? Byron?’

‘Yeah.’

‘I don’t know. I hope so.’

‘He seems a bit—weak.’

No kidding. ‘Yeah, he does.’

‘I hope he can cope with the journey.’

Double no kidding. ‘Me too.’

‘Do you think we should report it?’

I didn’t have to think about it for long.

We headed to the station manager’s office, where Jonah Stone was working at his computer, looking flustered. ‘Mr Stone?’ I said, tapping the open door with my knuckles.

He shut his eyes for a second as if he was regrouping his thoughts, and when he opened them again they fell into a frown. ‘Whaddya want?’

‘Sorry, I don’t mean to disturb you. We just wanted to ask you a few questions about the new geo.’

‘Look, I know what you know. He’s here filling in for whosisface. I’m sorry if that’s an inconvenience for you, but it’s nothing to do with me. Now if you don’t min—’

‘He doesn’t have a deep space license,’ Sadie butted in.

Stone’s frown escalated to a snarl, but that didn’t seem to deter Sadie, who held him in a staring deadlock.

‘Fine,’ Stone said, raising his hands up. ‘I’ll check his file.’ He bashed his keyboard in an exaggerated fashion, then turned the monitor to us. ‘There, see? He has papers.’

‘But he told us—’

‘I don’t care. The paperwork is there, and that’s all that matters. Now please excuse me, I have a lot of work to do to make sure your ship leaves on time tomorrow.’ He stood up and waved us to the door.

I took the hint and, begrudgingly, Sadie followed. Once we were clear of earshot, she pulled me in by my sleeve and hissed, ‘what the hell was that about?’

I only shrugged. I couldn’t figure it out.

‘This must be some mistake, surely. Something’s not right, and it seems like poor Byron has got caught up in the middle of it all.’

I stopped and turned to her. ‘Look, it’s like Stone said. The paperwork is there. He got the transfer. This is out of our hands. So either we carry on and do the mission, or we quit. Which do you want to do?’

Sadie’s already small form shrunk slightly as the question deflated her anger. ‘I suppose you’re right,’ she said.

There wasn’t really much else to say about it, so the conversation turned back to the more casual topic of what we were going to have for dinner. There was a choice between the cafeteria or a bar quaintly named Dock of the Bay. All we could do was cross our fingers and wait for tomorrow.

I awoke the next day to the sound of laughing, and the realisation of where I was and what I was doing hit me in the most nauseating way it could at six-thirty in the morning. That horrible early morning taste gummed my mouth together, and I slid out of my sticky bunk and found myself drifting towards the communal showers. Sadie was already in there, rinsing her hair through. Now I was awake. It was something that caught me off guard on every mission: everything was communal. Given how tight for space it was on board, protocol did away with gender divides, and everyone mucked in together. I suppose it was good for moral, and everyone was so close together that only the very stupid would attempt a romantic relationship during the mission, but still, at six-thirty in the morning, after a long sexual drought back on Earth, it was a bit of surprise to see Sadie’s flesh bare and shining. I turned a shower on quickly, making sure it blasted me with ice-cold water. The water really was ice-cold, and I yelped.

Sadie laughed. ‘Cold enough for you, Jake?’

How embarrassing.

‘I’ll leave you in peace.’ She wandered out, winking at me over her shoulder as she plucked a towel from the rack and wrapped it around her wet, naked body.

‘Thanks,’ I somehow managed to say, and then she was gone.

Back in my flight suit, I was able to look Sadie in the eye a little easier. Fortunately, she broke the tension before I had to.

‘It’ll become normal soon enough,’ she said, although not without a hint of humour. ‘You’ll get over it.’

I didn’t really say anything. I just grunted.

Chapter 1

I guess you could say I have an interesting job. At least, when people ask me what I do they say ‘Wow! That sounds really interesting, Jake.’ And parts of it are indeed very interesting, but a lot of it is sheer monotony like you wouldn’t believe (‘No way!’ people say. ‘I bet it is interesting really’). What do I do? I’m a planetary geologist. I go to faraway systems to investigate barren balls of rock to see if there’s anything worth taking. I have two degrees (a masters and a doctorate), I can speak three languages—but the thing I spend most of my time doing is playing computer games. You may think that I am an idle fool, but I can assure you, I’m not. There’s just nothing else to do on board during the many months it takes to reach our terminus.

I studied geology through school, and took an interest in interplanetary geology, because, well, that’s what we all do. The money’s good (hell, it’s fantastic), the work is easy, and I have nothing else to do at home except spend the money I make, which I’m no good at anyway. My mother always worries when I go on these missions, but she’s of an older generation, bless her. I try to tell her that statistically speaking I’m more likely to get injured driving to the shops than I am travelling through space, but she won’t listen. Oh well. I suppose that’s what mothers do.

I’ve been off planet three times now, once for a two-month slot and twice for a six-monther. You have to do a two-month trip first just in case you have what some astronauts like to call the ‘space crazies’. Not a pleasant thing to get when you’re trapped in a small space, lightyears away from home. Do you know, I’ve just realised—the space in space crazies is kind of a play on words: space as in outer space, and space as in stuck in this tight space and I want to scream my lungs raw. Ha.

After two successful six-monthers, an accreditation is added to your licence and you’re then certified to travel for any length of time. The longest trip ever made was—I think—two years and three months there and back again, but my next trip isn’t going to be anywhere near that long. We’re going to HD 85512 B, a rocky planet orbiting Gliese 370, which is a K-type star if you’re interested. It’s about thirty-seven lightyears away, and will take eight months, two weeks and a day to get there by fusion drive (don’t ask me how—I study rocks, not rockets) and from there we’ll set up base camp, drill, take samples, move camp, drill, take samples, etcetera, etcetera. This is usually the part where people say, ‘Oh . . . your job did sound interesting, but it actually seems pretty boring.’ I tried to tell you.

So it’s a new assignment for me and a new crew for the mission. From what I’ve heard, the captain and her five crew have transferred over from the Amadeus, and I will be joining a couple of other geologists and two drill operators. A few of them I already know: I’d met the drill operators during a training event at the shipyards a few—no, maybe five or six—years ago, and I’d served with Sadie Bryston not my last trip but the one before. She’s the only person on the crew I’ve flown with previously, and she’s nice enough, so I’m sure it’ll be fine.

On the morning of mission briefing, I parked up outside Planexus headquarters and made my way inside, squinting at the glare radiating off the vicious glass-and-steel architecture. I don’t know when they built this place, but it looks patently old-fashioned lined up between the more modern Stratos towers, and a lot less inconspicuous, too. A hangover from the oil days I suppose. Thank goodness all that died out long before I was born—the last few decades sounded like hell.

A smiling receptionist with teeth and eyes as bright as the building pointed me to the fifth floor (‘Twelfth on your left, you can’t miss it’) to the briefing room assigned for our mission. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no pioneering hero: I’m simply one of many geologists in many crews flying many missions, and every trip to Planexus headquarters reminds me just how big a business this is. I wasn’t the first in the room, but I most certainly wasn’t the last. Sadie had already arrived, and she gave me a wave. I went over to say hello.

‘You’re looking good,’ I said. ‘How have you been?’

‘Fine, just fine.’ She grinned, stretching her gums thin over her teeth, like she was containing the urge to squeal excitedly. ‘I was really happy to hear you were joining me on the Athena crew.’

‘Yeah, me too. Always good to have a familiar face on board.’

She nodded agreement. ‘Have you ever met the other geo before? I heard he’d done the big one before this.’

The big one was the trip to CFBDSIR2149, a rogue planet with an abundant amount of noble gasses in its cloudy atmosphere. ‘I haven’t met him, and I didn’t know that. Wow. So I guess he’ll be Head Geo then?’

‘They asked me to do it.’

‘Really? How come?’

Sadie frowned.

‘Sorry, I don’t mean it like that. I mean, how come they didn’t ask him if he has more experience?’

‘I don’t know. Perhaps he didn’t want it, so they asked me to do it instead.’

‘And you’ll do a wonderful job, no doubt.’

‘Yeah, thanks,’ she said, drawing out the sarcasm.

I was about to rebuke her prod at my misunderstood sentiment when the door opened and five crew filed in. They were obviously the flight crew because they jabbered loudly all at once, occasionally splitting the air with a squawk of laughter in the way only flight crews could. They were the jocks of the cosmos, boldly going where no man has ever made fart jokes before. The volume of the room got exponentially louder as the last of them took a seat, and I leaned in closer to Sadie to whisper to her.

‘What a ragtag bunch of arrogant so-and-sos.’

‘Stop being such a sourpuss. It’s just a bit of camaraderie. You make it sound like they’re a gang of adolescent chimps.’

‘Might as well be.’

‘They’ve had just as much education as we have.’

‘Yeah, in eating bananas and throwing faeces . . .’

Sadie laughed. It was a trill of a laugh, golden and sweet. ‘You’re a bad man. I’m glad we’re on this one together.’

‘Me too, Sadie, me too.’

The drill operators slid in quietly and took their seats. The flight crew didn’t seem to notice, but when the suits entered the room it was like someone hit the mute button. They all faced forward in their seats (Sadie and I took ours toward the back) and sat upright in an orderly, militaristic fashion. Suit A set about trying to work the big screen while Suit B wrinkled his nut brown tanned skin into a welcoming smile.

‘It’s good to have you all here,’ he said, opening up his arms like a vicar would to his flock. ‘This is going to be a special one.’

‘Special, my butt,’ I whispered to Sadie. She giggled.

Suit A managed to turn on the big screen, and a ball leapt out of it, slowly turning in mid air. A few streaks of cloud wandered around the southern hemisphere, but other than that it looked barren.

‘HD 85512 B,’ Suit B said, ‘or as we’ve designated it, New Dawn. It’s one of two planets we believe fulfil the requirements for extended human habitation, and you’re all going to go see if we’re right.’ He paused, perhaps for dramatic effect, but it was received with a cynical hush. As if he’d expected such a response, he chuckled in a knowing way. One of the flight crew shifted their weight in their seat as we all waited for Suit B to continue. ‘This isn’t any old chicken-shit ghost hunt,’ he said, lowering his voice to a more serious tone. ‘This is the real deal.’

As far as I was concerned, the rest of the brief rolled on more or less as I’d expected. Planexus may be sending us out with big dreams and high hopes, but my job was the same: dig, analyse, repeat. I expressed the same to Sadie, and she agreed.

‘Did you notice that Simeon wasn’t there?’ she added.

‘Simeon? Who’s Simeon?’

‘Simeon Jones. The other geo.’

‘Oh. No, I didn’t.’

Simeon’s absence didn’t really bother me at the time. Perhaps it should have. I walked Sadie to her car, we said our goodbyes (‘For now!’ she said with her usual contagious glee), and I took myself home. As I drove, I recited he crew list back to myself. It was a good idea to remember the names of the people I was about to spend such a long time with; getting a name wrong was a sure-fire way to alienate myself all too soon. There was Sophia Mendes, the captain; Jason Pritchard, her first officer; pilot Donald Mercer (who I’d noticed the other flight crew calling ‘Clip’); navigator Grant Jameson and communications officer Emily Porter, who also doubled up as the ship’s physician. That was the flight crew. Then of course there was Sadie, the head geologist; Simeon Jones, our workmate; and myself, Jake Brooks. The drill operators for the mission were James Gray and Brendan Hughes, the two guys I’d met before at training. They’re good people from what I remember, and they have to be: drilling is a dangerous job that requires a lot of trust. Drilling teams usually get partnered for life, and in Planexus’ world, the partnership between drillers is more sacrosanct than marriage.

I whiled away the last few weeks before the mission with a little research about the planet (I refused to call it ‘New Dawn’) and a lot of exercise. After the briefing we’d had a medical examination where the physician told me I’d gained too much—in his words—’comfort padding’. If I were to meet the weight criteria for my role, I needed to be in a fitter state than I was. In all honesty it was something I already knew, but I’d had my fingers crossed that the physician wouldn’t notice. But he did, and so I worked my hardest to get trim over the last few weeks before the launch. I even skipped breakfast the morning we departed, but nevertheless I could feel the nerves building as I queued up with the rest of the crew for our final pre-flight medical. I was convinced I wouldn’t make the cut, but I did. Just.

‘Jake, you look like you’ve seen a ghost,’ Sadie said as she bundled over to me, personal bag swung over her shoulder. It was weird seeing her in a launch suit again after so long, and I got an unsettling sense of déjà vu.

‘I almost did. I made the weight by mere ounces.’

She laughed, but not offensively. It was her way of glossing over an awkward situation, and it worked, because the nauseous heat that had built up in my stomach as I stood on the weighing scales (which made me feel twice as heavy as I was), melted away.

‘I’m sure they wouldn’t have stopped you coming on board for just a few ounces,’ she said.

I wasn’t so sure, but it didn’t really matter anymore. With the pre-flight medical done, we filed out of the building and onto the waiting coach, all wearing our flight suits and carrying our personal bags as instructed. A short drive later, and we were at the port. It was a small but busy place, an industrial contrast to the Planexus building we’d just come from. And there was a lot more security. Chain-link fences three storeys high topped with vicious snarls of razor wire stood between us and orbit, and we navigated the checkpoints in cautious silence. It wasn’t a place for joking around, and even the usually rowdy flight crew were stony-faced and thin-lipped. I presented my passport to a sour-looking man in a grey camo uniform through inch thick glass, and after an intimidating stare-off, he waved me through. It was only after stepping onto the breezy pan that I realised how fast my heart was beating. Sadie followed soon after, wearing mock shock on her face.

‘Well he was a cheerful one, wasn’t he?’ she whispered. She looked back at the camo man’s next stare-off victim. ‘I thought he was going to pull me to one side for sure. He was looking at my passport for ages.’

‘It’s just what they do, I suppose, waiting to see if you crack.’

‘I can’t imagine how hard-minded you’d have to be to look him in the eye knowing you’re not supposed to be here. I’m sure he could see into my soul.’

I laughed, and we walked, following the dotted trail of people making their way over to the waiting room. Like they did, we walked slowly, dragging and kicking our feet on the concrete. It was a few hours before the launch, so we had plenty of time to kill.

‘Simeon still hasn’t shown up,’ Sadie said. She wasn’t smiling anymore.

‘Are you sure? I was so nervous I don’t know if I could tell who was here and who wasn’t.’

Sadie looked over her shoulder at the trail that followed on behind. ‘He’s definitely not here. God damn it, how am I supposed to do my job a man light?’

I don’t know why, but as much as Sadie made me laugh when she was being silly, she made me laugh even more when she was being serious. ‘We’ll be fine,’ I said, supressing giggles. ‘We’re the dream team!’ I held up my hand for a high five, but she ignored it. I lowered it again, adjusting the waist of my flight suit to make some kind of recovery of my hanging gesture.

‘I just wish they’d told me about this earlier. In fact, I wish they’d told me at all.’

‘I’m sure it’ll be fine.’

The next two hours wore slowly by, punctuated by the occasional smattering of conversation between Sadie and I. The flight crew were back to their jovial old selves, but as soon as the half-hour warning siren sounded, they put their game faces on. The drillers had pretty much sat in silence the whole time; James was reading a home improvement magazine and Brendan was sleeping. Cool as cucumbers are drillers. They may not be social magnets, but they sure know how to keep it together.

The ten minute siren hooted across the pan, and a camo-uniformed man popped his head in the door to ask us to make our over to bay four. We duly did as we were told, following along behind him to our launch craft. Bays one and two were empty; three was a shower of sparks as overall-wearing mechanics put a craft back into service. Bay four hummed with energy, both from the ground crew preparing our vehicle and from the vehicle itself, which droned in an idle state. Like the place it was launching from, the craft wasn’t particularly elegant: after all, its only job is to shuttle people up to the dock and back again. We climbed steel steps butted up against it—which wobbled under our collective weight—fed into the small door and each picked a seat. Inside, it didn’t really feel much bigger than the average coach, and the cylindrical fuselage made it feel even smaller. Me being quite tall, Sadie let me sit in the aisle so I could stretch my legs out.

‘Please fasten your harnesses as tight as you can,’ a voice said over the intercom. A well used intercom at that, because it rattled and growled the pilot’s words instead of broadcasting them clearly. ‘We’ll be departing in just over half an hour.’

A flurry of groans came from the flight crew, and I shut my eyes and tipped my head back against the headrest. The seat was hot and cramped and uncomfortable, and an itch had already begun to form at the small of my back.

‘What’s the holdup?’ Sadie asked, looking through the tiny porthole out into the bay. I looked past her shoulder; there didn’t seem to be anyone in sight.

‘God knows,’ I said, shutting my eyes and leaning back again. ‘Probably something stupid.’

The itch on my back eventually faded, much to my relief. It felt like an hour had passed already, but I had no way of knowing. I could feel sweat beading under my hair, tickling my scalp, but I didn’t scratch it. It felt kind of nice, refreshing in a way.

‘Jake, look!’ Sadie whispered urgently. I looked. There was a man in a flight suit being escorted by someone in uniform, and they were heading our way. They disappeared from view, and soon after I heard the clank clank of footsteps up the stairs. A young, flustered looking man with pale blonde hair appeared in the doorway. ‘Sorry to keep you all waiting,’ he said, his smile rising and falling almost in the same instant. He sat down at the first empty chair and buckled in.

‘Ladies and gents,‘ the intercom rattled, ‘we will begin our departure shortly.’

‘Was that Simeon?’ I asked.

‘No. I don’t know who that was.’

We would find out soon enough.

New Dawn—My Next Novel

Hello all! First of all I’d like to thank you for your overwhelming support of Vessel—it’s doing well thanks to your early purchases and reviews, so thank you very much.

Further to that, I’d like to show you my thanks by inviting you to read the first chapter of my next novel, New Dawn. The premise (as it stands) revolves around a planetary geologist called Jake Brooks who sets off on a long voyage to New Dawn, a planet with possible suitability for terraforming. Everything is by the book, and should go according to plan, except for a last-minute change in crew who’s not who he seems to be.

The first chapter will go live in a moment. As with Vessel, it’s a first draft with a quick proofread, so any comments, suggestions, criticisms or whatever are all welcome. Thank you, and I hope you enjoy New Dawn.

Vessel now available on Amazon

It feels like only yesterday that I wrote the prologue for Vessel, and publication has come around already. That’s right–Vessel is now available to purchase for a limited-time offer of 99c/99p. You can purchase it from Amazon here.

I want to thank everyone for their input and support throughout the journey of bringing Vessel to publication, and I hope you all enjoy the final version. If you’d like to leave a review, I’d be very grateful. Please could I ask that you post it on both Amazon.com and .co.uk.

Thank you again, and I hope you all enjoy Vessel.

One Week Remains…

Argh! Vessel is out in a week and I don’t know what to think. On the one hand, I’m a marching band of jitterbugs on a trampoline in an earthquake, buzzing with more excitement than the queue at Peppa Pig World, and on the other hand I’d rather scrap the whole thing and pretend it never happened. P-day is incoming and, to be frank, I’m bricking it.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to publish work of your own, I’ll try and lay down how I feel right now about it all. This isn’t a ‘woe is me’ type of story; I don’t expect you to feel sorry for me. I’m simply trying to pass each agonising second between now and August the 1st. Writing a book is a journey and a half. There are highs and lows, distant horizons and lights at the end of tunnels that turn out to be high-speed locomotives. You lay your soul out on the floor and pick it apart bit by tedious bit. The resulting composition is more than a collection of words for its creator: it’s a piece of them, a chapter of their own lives laid out in paper and ink (or pixels). Each line carries a memory with it, be it pleasure at its inventiveness or shame at the multitude of times it took to get right. Some chapters sat side by side with the death of a loved one, others with the union of two of the living; it’s as much historical non-fiction as it is fiction—you just have to read between the lines to see it.

And now I’m going to take that portion of my life, my personality, my growth and my shame, and lay it out for all to see. Some will smile and clap, others will spit and jeer. Each word is sent on a direct expressway to my heart, fresh and raw and ready to tear me in two. Every review, every rating—or indeed the lack of those things—is a slight against me, against who I am, and I accept that. That doesn’t mean I like it. And to make matters worse, for every negative review I take to heart, there’s a positive one that I simply can’t believe. You know, I’d go so far as to say it’s a traumatic experience.

Well, that’s enough bleeding heart nonsense from me. Vessel is out very, very soon, and I couldn’t be more excited. I hope it lives up to the expectations of all you people who have followed my journey (and thank you for joining me along the way) and those who have yet to become a part of it. The next blog post I write will be on the other side—see you there.

If not plot, then what?

Following on from a previous blog post where I jotted down my thoughts on plot versus characterisation, I noted that characterisation has to work far harder in the literary medium than it does in the film. That said, I didn’t explore the hows, wheres, whats, whens and, in particular, the whos of characterisation. Why? Truth be told, it’s because I don’t know the answer. It’s a journey I’m taking, a skill I’m learning, and it remains to be seen whether or not I’m getting any closer to the writer’s holy grail of crafting a believable and relatable protagonist.

What I can do in the meantime is suggest what I think makes a good protagonist. Here lies the disclaimer: what I’m about to say isn’t gospel—in fact it’s as far from it as it can possibly be. It’s amateurish guesswork at best. But that’s not say it’s definitely wrong, because I could guess and guess well. We’ll see.

A good protagonist doesn’t have to be good. By that I mean they don’t have to be fighting for the ‘goodies’. It makes life a whole lot easier if they are, but having readers care for a ‘bad guy’ is so much more of an achievement. That’s because the number one rule, in my amateurish opinion, is that the reader has to identify with them. Doesn’t matter how good the plot is, how badass the protagonist is—if you think they’re a dick, you won’t read on. So if the protagonist is a baddie, the writer needs to be clever in how they take the imagination of a normal law-abiding citizen and turn it to empathise with the actions of someone who’s done wrong.

Bad guys—particularly when they’re secondary characters—have a nasty habit of becoming two-dimensional cut-outs with no structure to them beyond an evil laugh and an inexplicable desire to live in a volcano. But bad guys are people too; they have thoughts and feelings, they wonder what the weather’s going to be like and they take their dogs for walks. As a writer, if you treat them like a person, build them up as someone who lives life as a day-to-day struggle, your readers will connect. The recent TV show Breaking Bad does a wonderful job of cajoling you as a viewer into empathising with protagonist Walter White, who, when given the news that he has cancer and only a few short months to live, uses his chemistry skills to cook meth and build a fund for his family when he’s gone. You see him, a normal guy, get swept into an unknown world, and you’re right there with him, and you care because he cares. It’s emotional blackmail when you think about it: the writers are saying, ‘here’s this nice guy, but things aren’t going too well for him right now. Maybe you should stick around to make sure he’s ok, cos, y’know, you’re a decent human being and that’s what decent human beings do.’

So we, as readers, do. The protagonist becomes our responsibility, and we’ve got to make sure they make it through to the end of the book. You know it’s done well when you finish the story and feel empty, like you’ve just lost a friend. Those manipulative writers forced you care . . .

But I don’t think it’s a simple as making the protagonist the kind of person you’d sit down with for a beer. Oftentimes, the ones you care most about are the ones you wouldn’t want to spend any time with at all, yet you seem obliged to feel bad for them from a distance. The disgruntled alcoholic cop who only ever works alone is a tried-and-tested example that works almost every time. It’s hackneyed, yes, but it works, and people enjoy it. If crime books were about cops with nice families and big houses and perfect lives, readers wouldn’t care less. Social pariahs need care, so they end up as our protagonists. The affliction doesn’t have to be as bare-faced as being a drug-addicted school drop-out that’s only two more hits away from heaven: sometimes the subtleties are all that’s needed. A normal guy with a normal job that gets put in a difficult situation can engender just as much sympathy if it’s done right.

Meet John, for example. He works in an office, nine to five, as a structural engineer. He’s nearly sixty, he has a nice house, a comfortable lifestyle, and his three kids have all grown up and left the nest. But recently he feels he’s been growing apart from his Sheila, his wife. Nothing bad’s been said, nothing’s really happened at all, but . . . he doesn’t know why, but the silence left behind when his youngest set off for university just keeps on getting louder. He stays late at work to avoid the twisting awkwardness of the gulf between him and Sheila, working himself into a knot of stress and anxiety. He wants to speak out but his voice won’t let him. There’s nothing he can do—no—nothing he can bear to do. So he sits in the office, watching the minutes tick by one by one, wishing each one was his last.

Now, with any luck you’ll feel a little sympathy towards old John here, even though nothing particularly bad has happened to him. Because the situation is one we all so inherently dread, it should be easy to relate to John’s feelings of confusion and despair. Perhaps you have some suggestions for John, and that’s good because it means you care enough to want to help. As the writer, it is then my job to carry the story forward without then frustrating the reader by making John take the dumb choice at every turn. I see that a lot, and it’s a cheap way to progress a plot that leaves a reader exasperated. Why, John, why didn’t you just step to the side when that boulder rolled down the hill after you? Are you stupid?

My last musing on the topic is the quality of believability. Readers have to believe in what our protagonists are doing, believe the decisions they make are sensible and rational, believe the reactions to their surroundings are genuine. Like a magic eye picture, a reader sinks into a book in a strange zen-state of semi-awareness, and unbelievable behaviour is a poke right in the eye for them, throwing them completely and leaving them with a distorted view of things. And as a subset of believability, its important to have consistency, too: changing behaviour and personality will leave a reader just as sore-eyed.

Well, I suppose that concludes this week’s unstructured ramble. I hope some of it makes sense, and I hope some of it is true. I strongly feel that what I’ve said isn’t far from reality, and with a little bit of luck I can heed my own advice and make something of it.

PS Two weeks today until the launch of Vessel! Exciting times!