Sunday, 13 April 2014

The King's Ward - Covers

Hi

The king's Ward has been in edit for a while and is now ready to go. Covers have also taken a while, but I'm getting some nice results now from Keith Draws, who I am very happy ot have as artist for the cover art. We've been throwing ideas back and forth and I thought you might like to see a couple of versions. I think we are pretty much there.



I love this one; the central figures are exactly what I had in mind. Keith is a genius. But I thought the image in the mirror might be a bit too SF for an Urban Fantasy novel.

This is the scene the reflected image is based on, so you can see it isn't really quite there...

# Calista #

The furious scream made me jump and gasp as I lifted my hands to cover my ears.
“What?” Matholwch looked up, “Now? Dammit,” he glanced at me, appraising. “Well it has to be some time, I suppose. There's no escaping it. Go look, then,” he said, “while I deal with this challenge. I'll find you when I'm done, never fear,” he smiled and winked, then rose powerfully into the air, Gáe Bulg appearing in his hand.
I watched him only for a moment, catching a glimpse of a dark cloud bearing two figures as it rapidly descended, then I stepped through the open doorway of the Keep. I knew I had to find the King's Ward for him, and I knew I could not resist. But I knew it was not here, and commanded to find it, I could also flee from him, pass through the gate back into the outside world.
If I could find the gate.
The room within the tower lay bare before me. There was only one feature. Broad steps that lead straight down, so down them I went.
But slowly. My mind and body were bruised and battered and pained me. The steps seemed endless and steep and if I fell I would roll and bounce forever on the hard stone steps. I touched one palm to the cold, rough wall and took one step at a time, my knees threatening to give way and my legs shaky and weak.
I kept my eyes down at my feet and concentrated on each step. One at a time, each with care. Slowly the light changed but it was not until I was at the very bottom, the intricate mosaic floor of a corridor stretched out before me and the pale green light surrounding me, that I looked up. And gasped.
The Keep under the Lake, Abarta had called it, but he could have called it the Castle of Glass and would have conveyed the truth better. In fact, it was both. The walls and ceilings were glass. The clear waters of the lake surrounded me, the lake bottom just beyond the walls, sand and rock, kelp and fish, clearly visible. Not so far away, a room with tables and chairs just visible through clear glass walls. I turned this way and that in wonder. Many rooms hung above and around me at varying depths and distance. Stairs and corridors and rooms were all picked out by their opaque floors, and sometimes walls, of colored glass. Wall hangings obscured some, and many were translucent, like the nearest room, furniture seeming suspended in water.
Magic lights, like I had seen in the hall of Gwalchmi's keep, brightened every room so that even where the room was distant and particles suspended in the water would have made them invisible, I could still see the suspended room as a brightly colored gem suspended in the murk of distant water.
It was breathtaking and I stood for several seconds, alone in the corridor, simply gazing about me, picking out detail after detail, following schools of fish, watching kelp shift with unseen currents, gazing at a bright blue hall as big as Gwalchmi's hall where shields and weapons hung on the walls about a great table and a hundred chairs.
High above, at the surface, light flashed here and there and I was reminded that Matholwch was nor far away and that above me in the land intelligent horses fought for their lives against monsters from other lands. And I was not here as a tourist, but a deeply involved though unwilling participant.


This is where we are now. I have to say, I like it fine, but the harsh highlights on the face of the girl reflected just bother me. The window, of course, has to be there. It's Urban Fantasy and takes place partly in another world.
Release is literally any day soon - could be tomorrow.

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The King's Ward - in edit

# Calista #

I shift from side to side, admiring myself in the changing room mirror.

Well, admiring the good bits anyway. Straight auburn hair, small button nose, kind of cute. The freckles are minimal and I like them well enough, though I have to be careful not to get too much sun on me. Eyes, green freckled some with other colors that don't stand out too much. Body's nice, I think. Rounded and womanly but not big anywhere.

It's the expression on my face that distresses me, and always does when I look in a mirror or even think about it. If you could imagine a facial expression that was lonely, this would be it. I fell it deep through to my core and it grows by another layer every day.

No one notices me. No one talks to me unless I talk first and then it's just surprise that I'm there. If I fall silent, so do they, even if I'm sitting right opposite. A slow fade of attention and I know they don't see me any more. When I give up and go there is a start of surprise and it's just like they've seen me for the fist time.

Try getting though a whole interview for a job when as soon as you fall silent or stay still for even a couple of seconds the interviewer is looking for the next applicant, having forgotten that you exist. Try working at anything when people don't see you.

But to go with the losses there are bonuses that make life possible.

I like the white jumpsuit, I decide, finally. It's one item, and that's a plus. Less to carry.

I change back into my old clothes, looking somewhat worn because I don't change them too often. I can't carry much with me on the move all the time. I change clothes when I need to, discarding old things and keeping new. I travel light and I never stop travelling.

I'm careful winding my way back through the store to the checkout. It's not so bad when I'm moving but still people will walk into me if I pause to look at something. “I'm sorry, I didn't see you there.” Sometimes I think I'll just punch the next person who has cause to say that, or scream “Why? Why didn't you see me?!”

I've done that. It's pointless. You can't keep yelling forever and as soon as you stop...

Not today, though. Today I'm reasonably in control. Today is my birthday. I'm seventeen. I've been alone for four years. On the move. Searching for someone I may never find, someone who has answers.

My mother was useless. You're under someone's nose all day every day they can't help but know you exist, or so you would think. I guess she picked me up and fed or cleaned me when I cried. I guess she noticed me then. When I was old enough to know what that blank look meant when she first saw me after I'd been out of her sight for a while, I asked her if she even knew who I was.

“Do you even know who I am?” I screamed, actually.

“Why of course I do, dear,” she said, as bleary eyed as a forgetful drunk, which she mostly was for reasons of her own, “you're...” and I swear she hesitated, looked vaguely around until her eye caught a picture of me – and getting that picture taken had been a marathon effort. I'd had to fidget so the photographer knew I was there. “Calista.”

“Your daughter,” with the dumb name, “Calista,” angry. It was my birthday then, too. She'd forgotten again.

“Of course, dear, I know. No need to sound like that.”

She'd looked away and I'd stood still. When she looked back she didn't see me. After a while she looked puzzled, like she wondered why she was standing there doing nothing, then wonder away to some household chore or another. I forget what.

At least I only forget things that don't matter.

Like paying.

Well, I didn't have any money on me and it didn't matter. I walked behind the counter and used the machine to get rid of the security tab.

“Hey,” The shop assistant saw me, “you're not supposed to be here.”

Mentally I just sighed and stood still. Not reacting has become a habit. Someone is mad at you, just stand still for a bit. It doesn't take long.

The slow confused what-was-I-doing look steals over her face and then a customer comes up to the desk and she turns automatically with a smile and a greeting. As she checks out the items, I take hold of a bag and take a slow step back out of her peripheral field of view. The customer sees me but is incurious. I step out from behind the counter, slip the nice white jumpsuit into the bag and walk slowly away.

It's a small boutique. The small stores are best. There are cameras but no security watching, no security guard on the door. Small but not too expensive, that's the secret. No one sees me as I walk out the door and onto the street.

Milelake is a small town in New York State. It only has one thing I'm interested in, and I'll check that in a while and be disappointed again. It can wait. I've been here less than an hour and only have a few impressions of a small town, one high street, a square with a few shops, another street with more sedate businesses and offices, and as the bus drove into town, a commercial district on the long road into town.

I'd paid for the bus ticket. It's too much trouble not to. I make some money doing the statue gig, all dressed up. People don't even see me unless I move, the shock lasts a few moments, long enough to laugh and think what a great statue I make and put some money down. And then they don't see me any more, and move on, looking puzzled and wondering what they had stopped for.

It's a depressing way to make money, though. Sometimes I'll steal the money instead. Later on, I'll do just that as I'm a little short and not in the mood to dress up. It's the wrong time of day in any case. It's late afternoon, sun almost gone, people home from most places of work. Only a few shoppers on the streets. I decide to go and have a shower so I feel okay to change into my new clothes.

The motel is on the edge of town, back the way the bus drove in. It isn't a big town so it isn't far to walk.

On the way I passed the diner and fished out the photo.

Might as well be now as later, I thought. After all, I'm right here and I can always goof off until the morning and ride right out of town to the next one. There are 320 in the chain of diners in different towns all across the country. I average one a week. None is the right one.

The picture is of a man. He is tall and charismatic looking. Strong chin and high cheekbones, dark hair with a hint of color in it, just the merest hint of auburn. He stands in front of the big picture window, just like every other diner in every other state, and is just about to get into a car. There is nothing to show which diner this is. It could be any of them. Mostly sky is reflected in the window. But there is, if you look real close and careful, the corner of a sign and the bottom of two letters. An a and an l.

I hold up the picture and line it up. I have to move several times before I'm standing in the right place. I used to look around first and try and guess, but in the end I began to put off the disappointment as long as possible by trying to get what I was looking for by looking in the big picture window in just the right place...

“nial”

...it's just a glimpse but my heart thumps.

I lose it and look around. I don't see it in the street around me. It's not like I know exactly what I'm looking for. A sign of some sort ending in... and there it is. Centennial. It's a street name.

I look back at the picture and see it's right. I've found it. At last.

I don't know what to do next; not right away.

I think the man in the photograph is my father. And I need to find him because I believe he has some answers for me, answers that I desperately need.

Who am I? Why do people not see me? Why weren't you there for me?

Questions. But no one to ask. Not yet.

#

I waited in the lot close to the office until a middle-aged couple pulled up in the lot and walked in. I followed them. They were not aware of me. I took an extra few paces to the end of the desk away from the door. The desk guy saw me but they were talking already so he looked away and forgot me. As soon as the desk guy was engaged, I just sidled round the corner bit by bit. Then I waited while they went through the transaction. When the desk guy took down their key and took the two steps he needed to pass it to them, he didn't see me. I had my eye on the key I wanted, having spent a few moments looking at the map. The old couple turned away. Everyone with their backs to me. I reached out and took my key, turned and nipped down a short corridor to the little crappy restaurant this place had.

I pushed into the girl’s restroom and took a barely needed pee, then strolled out unchallenged and went to find my room.

I always pick the room that's right on the edge of things. No one has ever caught me. Mostly they don't even notice a key is missing without a tenant listed for the room.

At the far end of the lot, I find the room and unlock the door. It's small and fairly dingy. A cheap room. Not well used or often selected. It's clean enough. Just a bed and a TV in one room and bathroom with a shower in the other.

I close the door and dump my small pack on the bed.

I need the shower. I want the hot relaxing water that will strip me of stress as well as the grime of the day. Then I'll try and sleep. Maybe watch some TV first, sound low. I'll talk to the people on the TV, maybe I'll find something I know so I can say one character's lines and hear myself answered. Like they are talking to me. Like I exist.

Now clothes for the morning, I think, and the thought cheers me. The next step in my personal, possibly hopeless quest.

My mother didn't have any answers for me. I don't know, but only hope that my father does.

If I can find him.

#

“Do you recognise this guy?” Getting people's attention is work. I have to walk up bold, talk loud, keep moving like I'm some kind of fidget or they lose me.

The middle-aged waitress holds the picture but I don't let her take it. It helps keep me in her mind if I keep some pressure on the picture she's holding. If I let her have it she might just absently put it in her apron pocket and wander away.

She looks at the picture. “Why sure, honey.” Then she looks up from the picture and changes her mind. “No, I guess not. No, I don't know him. Why are you looking for him?”

She's curled her hair in a perm and dyed it, not the right color but not too far off, either. Not a fool, then. She feels cautious, yes, but more curious than anything. Looking for gossip, maybe, or a story to tell herself and elaborate on.

“He did me a favor, is all. Picked up a hitchhiker down on her luck, bought her a meal and gave her a few dollars. She said she'd pay him back but he said no need.” I smiled, I'd been moving the whole time. I pointed to the picture. “Wouldn't give a name so I took a snap and hoped when I was passing again and have the money...” I let it go, no need to elaborate. She'd either buy it or she wouldn't.

“He lives here?” She looks thoughtful, still a little confused. “You're sure?”

I pull the picture out of her hands and walk away. I don't bother saying thanks. It's not like she will think of me again, ever. If I talk to her again she might remember me, sort of, but not vivid, not unless I remind her of details to stir her memory of me to the surface.

“Why, you're welcome,” she says, starting indignant and fading through sarcastic and sliding into vague before she finishes.

Already forgotten, I leave the restaurant.

# Byron #

I've finished my free breakfast and drinking free coffee when I notice her and everything changes.

Breakfast is free because when I decide to go I'll just take the check and go to the bathroom. By the time I walk back through the diner, no one will remember I owe anything. If they see me at all, it will be like seeing me for the first time. Unless I make a point of it, no one will pay me any attention at all. You get used to it. There are benefits.

Seeing it happen to someone else is a first, though.

Auburn hair, white jumpsuit, pretty in an unusual and interesting kind of way. I don't look at her directly, or do anything to attract her attention; ground in habits. But behind the bar is a long mirror and I can see her clearly in it without even turning my head or shifting my eyes more than a fraction. I know how I look, long hair and brooding expression. I look annoyed all the time, even when I'm not. I can't pin down her expression, though. Something settled and fixed by constant use, but not easily read.

The girl shifts her balance and moves in an unnatural, deliberate sequence as she talks to the older waitress. I can see Janet reacting the way she does to me when I want to talk. Her attention fading away and snapping back and fading away until I give up and stay still and she looks around, annoyed that her mind has wandered and she's been doing nothing she remembers in a busy grill.

They are both holding a picture, both leaning over the counter to see it.

I can't hear from here. Not now. The girl had spoken loudly enough when she had pushed herself into Janet's awareness. She'd picked her moment, appeared seemingly from nowhere, though she must have been standing right there the whole time, and demanded attention.

She'd held out the picture. “Do you recognise...” and that's where I'd lost her as her voice wound down to a more normal pitch.

What I'd done next had been automatic. I'd focused my mind on her, imagined myself closing the distance in a silent rush, imagined looking at the world through her eyes and listened for what she was saying.

And I'd heard nothing at all.


# This is a YA adventure novel, corrently complete and in edit. I'll releases as soon as this process is complete and the cover image is ready. #
 

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

New Release - Cover Pending

Loser's Flight - title suggested by Jonathan (Job) Silverthorn, my one and only beta reader - is a short novel by myself and Victoria Russell.

Science Fiction, Dystopian, Teen Fiction, Leaving Home and Coming of Age story.

Here's a pre-release taster.


Loser's Flight

Victoria Russell & Chris Northern


There were things the Linesman Automatic knew about. Movement along the power lines, negotiating and examining pylons, connections, insulation, the lines themselves. It had eyes of a sort, saw more than it knew about. Over the lines a great blue and white mass replete with irrelevant movement, sometimes light and sometimes dark and neither state mattered. Below, attached to the foundations of the pylons, the solid earth that held the structure firm. On top of the earth a green shifting body that required no attention so long as it was short and did not interfere with pylons or lines.

The Linesman Automatic moved over the lines and paid attention to what was needful to its purpose. The rest, it saw but did not know or understand or care. That which has no consequence is ignored as an irrelevance.

One of these things it saw, but did not know, was a girl who walked alone. In the terms of her society, she was a Loser.

She was alone, and her name was Susa.


I'd determined to follow the lines for no other reason than Automatics maintained them and maybe, just maybe I would find at their other end another place that was also maintained by Automatics. Maybe there I would find shelter, food, people and a new place to be.

I was a Loser, self-selected for colonization, and I did not then know that colonist was just another word for outcast. Home was behind me now and I could never return, on pain of death.

I'd seen it happen twice in my sixteen years. Desperate starving exiles who returned, pleading for food and shelter and life... only to find sudden death from a rare gun in the hands of a Security Guard acting under the orders of an Administration Officer.

On this bright clear day, the sun pleasantly warming my skin, I watched an Automatic as it ran along the lines, checking all was well along every millimeter. I wondered if it knew as little about me as I knew about it. Did it know I was a human girl? Did it know I was a Loser, alone, a colonist rejected by my society, cut loose to make my own way in the world? I doubted it even noticed me, or could care if it did.

All I knew about it, to be fair, was that it was an Automatic and that it checked power lines for flaws. I knew no more than that, and only knew that much because I'd once seen a pylon repaired by an entirely different Automatic. It had been a big yellow and black vehicle, lights flashing to draw attention to its dangerous bulk. The business end had arms and tools, like most Automatics. I'd watched the noisy, hovering machine cut free a section of the pylon, pull a new length from its own body, cut it to length and weld it in place before it moved back in the air to briefly survey the job and then moved on. Maybe back to wherever it came from, maybe to fix another rusting pylon. Never to be seen again, by me at least.

That Automatic had to come from somewhere. There were many Automatics around Home, busy at their tasks, but none like that one, not that I knew of. Wherever it came from would likely have at least some people, and Automatics that supplied food, water, shelter, all the comforts of home for those who lived there.

The problem would be finding such a place. And maybe persuading the people to take me in. Maybe they would. Maybe they would test me first. I shied away from my doubts.

I should have felt a lot of things as I walked away from home the day after my sixteenth birthday. Dread. Loss. Shame. Despair. Fear. All of those and more. I was sixteen and alone and exiled now into a wilderness that I knew nothing about.

I was a Loser. I'd failed. I should feel like a failure. I hadn't won a single competition in my last year before adulthood, a year of serious competition in various events. According to everything I'd been taught since earliest childhood, I was useless. I couldn't shoot, or fire a bow, or fence, or run or jump or climb or... well, the list was endless. I couldn't do any of them well enough to win a single event. Not once in fifty-two events over the last year, the year that counted, the year that decided if I could remain a citizen of Home or not.

It had turned out to be not.

No one came with me. No one had the same birthday I did. When I ran out of time I ran out of time alone. I was popular enough, I supposed; my friends had tried to throw competitions to give me a chance to win but there were always others who did not, and even friends were reluctant. It might be their one chance to win a place themselves. Once won, secure, they no longer competed. It was a big risk to throw an event. Everyone needed to win at something. There was always the risk you would throw the event that turned out to be your one real chance. In any case, nothing had made any difference for me.

I walked away from the buildings of Home. Underfoot a broad flat path of grass that cut through ruined buildings of the Unmaintained region. Away from Home, leaving behind the safety of the place where Automatics maintained everything. Here, in the unmaintained region, constructions of all sorts decayed, crumbled, rusted and fell apart.

I had a backpack with food, a tent, some basic equipment. I carried water but had explored around Home well enough to know water wouldn't be an immediate problem.

And I had a plan.

The decayed buildings fell away behind me and the swathe of grasses broadened out to be bordered by forests. The pylons marched on, and so did I. Following them to wherever they might lead.

I walked easy, the morning warm, night a distant concern. I felt optimistic. Enthused. Excited.

And scared. But I was busy lying to myself about that.

Home had food, shelter, warmth, comfort, safety. Everything everyone needed, all supplied by Automatics, according to some unknown scheme of their own. The factories produced parts. That's what they were and that's what they were called. Parts. Bits of machinery. Function and purpose mysterious and unknown. And they were shipped out by Automatics, just as the food was shipped in.

But only enough food for so many. Home could not support more.

Hence the games. The competitions to see who would remain... and who would have to go out into the world alone and survive or die without everything they and I had become accustomed to.

Hot water. Clean sheets. A bed of blissful comfort. Furniture. Warmth. Clothes. Everything. All maintained and provided by Automatics. For two thousand six hundred people. And not one more than that. One more person meant less for everyone and eventually not enough for anyone, until everyone was hungry all the time. The competitions solved that. The Administrators enforced it ruthlessly. In the past there had been growth beyond the Automatics’ supply quotas and then rebellion followed sure as day followed night. A conflict of attrition until numbers were reduced through casualties and stability was re-established.

The competitions were better than that, at least. Only those unable to compete successfully were turned out to survive or die without Automatics to supply their needs.

So now I had to find a way to supply everything I needed for myself, at least everything I needed to survive. Alone.

I began to think about it, even as I tried not to panic about it.

Food. I carried some. Not much. Mostly dried, mostly survival rations. A week, maybe. Ten days to find a source of food or begin to go hungry. Water. I carried some and could get more from any river or stream. I had a small kit to test the water for pollutants so that would not be an immediate problem. Shelter. I carried a tent, a sleep-bag. It would do for now but I couldn't live the rest of my life in a tent. Heat. I carried a small flame maker, but I knew it used compressed gas and wouldn't last forever. I'd need something to burn. Wood. I'd need to cut it. I had a small hand axe. A knife.

I sighed when I realized I'd run out of assets.

I had clothes, I reminded myself. Good stout boots. Cold weather gear that was lightweight and both thermal and waterproof.

I wouldn't freeze.

Nothing I had would last forever. None of it would be replaced. The few sanitary items I had were the last I'd ever see, and their impending loss prayed on my mind almost as much as food.

I might be a Loser but I would find a new home. I would find a way to survive until I did. I was young, strong, and confident. So I told myself, listing these qualities among my assets.

The pylons marched on and I moved from one to another, a hundred meters between them. The woods closed in on each side but a broad corridor was clear and easy to travel. Doubtless the Automatics held the forest back to keep the pylons safe. I was glad of it. It made for easy walking through waist-high grasses.

I looked back, once.

Home already seemed far away. The sprawl of the unmaintained areas with Home almost lost to sight, tucked away in one corner by the lake that stretched beyond. If I'd been able to secure a boat I might have gone that way instead. But Administration would not release a boat to a Loser.

I looked back only once, then. There was no going back and no sense looking back with longing for all I would soon miss, all I already did miss. I had to go on.

I walked three kilometers or so. I couldn't help wondering how far I'd have to go before the pylons led me somewhere. More than three kilometers, anyway.

Bored, I fantasized about the place I would find.

And hopeful, trying to ease my fears, I made it a good place.

The last thing I expected to see was someone else ahead of me. Two hundred meters away, the figure stood and waved.

I stopped and stared.

It was too far to make out details. Two hundred meters up a gentle slope. There was nothing to obscure my view, and apart from a few high clouds it was a clear day, warm but pleasantly cooler in cloud shadow. A breeze moved the grasses in waves and the leaves of the trees moved to join in a chorus of sighs. The figure stooped to heft a pack and sling it to his back. There was something in the way he moved that gave him away.

“Jeth,” I whispered, part excited and relieved, but equally dispirited by his recklessness. “You fool.”

There was nothing for it but to go forward. Nowhere else to go, the meeting now inevitable. What else would I do? Run from him? There was no need for that. He was no threat to me. Only to himself.

Jeth waited for me but as I came close, apparently couldn't resist the urge to help me bridge the gap between us.

Fair skinned with green eyes, the folds under his eyes made him look like he was always squinting at something he wasn't quite sure of. In this case it was probably true; he couldn't be sure what reception I would offer.

He smiled easily as he came close, though. He opened his mouth, doubtless to say something cheerfully disarming, but I cut him off.

“Jeth,” I made an effort to keep the relief I felt out of my voice. “You damn fool. What are you doing here?”

I could see him visibly change tack. “Keeping you company, Susa.” He turned to display his pack. “What else could you think?

He was right. It was obvious, but it needed saying. He was putting himself at risk needlessly. Or at least prematurely. “Your birthday isn't for two months. That's eight chances to win a place thrown away. Why?!”

“I didn't like the idea of you going alone,” Jeth said, not looking at me. “And let's face it,” he gestured to himself in a sweep of one arm, and then he met my gaze squarely, “my chances of winning an event are fairly remote.”

He looked like me. Lean and fit, healthy, his muscles toned. But I knew what he meant. He was like me. A little below average height and weight. Not quite strong enough or agile enough to win a wrestling or any other hand-to-hand event. Reflexes not fast enough to fence... the list went on. We had trained in the same groups, faced each other in practice and competition. We were both well below average. Almost good enough at some things, but just not quite there, no matter how hard we focused or trained or specialized. We were both rejects of our own culture. Losers.

“You might have gotten lucky,” I said, feeling bad for him.

“I don't believe in luck,” he said, again not looking at me, his attention skidding over the terrain around us.

Neither did I. I believed in training hard, being prepared, being better than the competition so that I could win. But I hadn't won. My beliefs were ashes, burned by harsh reality.

“I'm going to miss showers,” I said, not knowing why. Maybe just to be saying something.

“Home can't be the only place with showers,” he said. “The food, medicines, all of it has to come from somewhere. Home can't be the only place in the world where Automatics keep things going. Think about it,” he grinned, “there must be loads of places.”

I didn't want to dampen his enthusiasm, but I wasn't feeling optimistic and he still had a chance to go back and win a place for himself. “So why do exiles ever come back, if there are loads of places?”

His face went stiff, grim, maybe annoyed. He certainly sounded annoyed when he spoke. “Maybe some colonists just don't go far enough.”

“So we just keep looking until we find somewhere?”

He nodded stiffly. “We do.”

He turned and pointed along the lines of pylons marching off into the distance through the woodland and over a hill in the distance. “Your idea to follow the pylons is a good one,” he said.

I'd told my friends what my plan was. There was no reason not to.

“It's part of the reason I decided to come with you,” he glanced at me with a shrug. “Maybe you will have other good ideas.”

When this one turns bad, I thought. Well, maybe it wouldn't, and if it did then maybe I would think of something else.

I just hoped I thought of the right thing before it was too late. Before, desperate and hungry and cold, I decided to head Home and beg them not to kill me, or maybe to just kill me quickly and be done. The second exile I'd seen return had done that. Defeated. Just wanting it to be over. And they'd killed her.

“We should go,” he said, gaze flitting briefly back toward Home, an anxious expression resting momentarily on his young features.

I wondered why but didn't feel like questioning it now. I was, I admitted to myself, glad he was here. I was glad not to have to do this alone.

“Plenty of daylight left,” I said with a bright smile that wasn't even close to what I felt. “We should make best use of it.”

So we secured our packs and set off together into the unknown.

#

“You could still go back,” I offered after we had walked a while.

He'd listened to my vague plans and offered little in return, save obvious talk of food security. We would soon enough have to think about that. By preference we would succeed in foraging before our meager supplies ran low.

Then we had lapsed into silence. I counted pylons as we walked along the clear lane they were the focus of. I was curious about what kind of Automatics would ply the route to do the job of pushing back the forest, but it was idle curiosity. The Automatics did what they did uninfluenced by us. What difference if I saw them or not? I counted the pylons to keep a record of how far we had come. Ten pylons to the kilometer. Forty two so far.

He shook his head and looked back the way we had come before answering. “Well, I wasn't given kit, you know.”

I shrugged. “It won't matter. I mean, the Storeman might order a beating but no one is going to kill you for petty theft.”

He pulled a face, half grimace; half frown and shot me a sideways look, judging my mood. “Well, some of the things I wanted weren't on the list of issued equipment for colonists.”

That's what they called us. Colonists. Go out into the world and found a colony.

Yeah. Alone. It was a fiction. Go away and stop eating our food. That was the truth. Your extra mouth to feed is not needed.

It was made abundantly clear in the crèche as soon as you could walk and talk. The older kids would tell you. Practice, get good at something, be ready to compete in your sixteenth year and win a place or be cast out into the wilds.

I let the comment stand for a while and turned it over in my mind. “You stole restricted items.” It was a flat statement, not in any way a question, and I sounded as angry as I was. He hadn't thought it through. He never did.

“Well, I had time to prepare once I decided I was going to go. It's not like I waited for my birthday and hoped. A colonist pack was easy, of course. Hell, Admin' give you one anytime if you want to go voluntarily. It's not like they are guarded. But the other stuff took time to locate, figure out a way to get in, pin it down so I could do it all in just a few hours before I left so they wouldn't notice and close things down until they were found.”

“But they will notice,” I was still angry but holding it tight.

He shrugged. “Handgun and ammo, field glasses, a Medikit each, a few other things. Yeah, I guess they will miss them.”

Restricted didn't just mean restricted to who could have them, the Administrators and Security Guards. Restricted also meant rare. Items the Automatics didn't deliver. Irreplaceable things.

“They are going to come after us!” I exploded.

Friday, 6 December 2013

Bad Road Trip (Part 4)

It's taken me four days to get here, but I don't know that. I just pulled up and slept in the car when I'd had enough. Didn't even get out of the seat, just kind of scrunched down with a couple of woolly jumpers as pillows. I can sleep pretty much anywhere.

Northern Spain and I kind of know the roads. Through the mountains - well, certainly big hills but probably mountains - from San Sabastian (I manage not to get back on the unnecessary road to Bolbao like I did last time - waste of fuel but then I didn't care) to Miranda is almost fun.

Somehow it's suddenly warm and as soon as I'm away from the coast road the traffic - dense there and lots of truck, one of whom was down right unfriendly in his unnecessary attempt to carve me up - anyway, the traffic fades to the usual not much. I'm feeling quietly confident, enjoying the sun, thinking a little less about route as it's fairly simple from here. Burgos comes and goes, no problem, and I'm on the right road for Madrid. Hard to miss so no concern about it. Yeah, it's going to be all fine from here.

Pretty much as soon as I think this, about half way to Madrid, maybe a little closer, sometime in the mid afternoon, there's one of those sudden horrible sounds that make you jump. Kind of loud and ongoing, it takes me a moment to realise a tyre has blown out. The handling isn't effect and I'm slowing up anyway. This particular piece of two lane motorway has a nice enough hard shoulder (you may not use this term for it but you know what I mean - spare bit tacked on the side of the road) so I pull on to it. It's fine.

I have a spare wheel.

And a jack. Two, actually.

But nothing to take the wheel off with other than my bare hands. Which isn't going to work.

I strip out the Jeep of almost every damn thing in it but see nothing that will even approximate something that will take a nut off a wheel. Or put one back on again after the wheel's changed.

I phone to see if there's a secret wrench or something hidden somewhere in the car. Apparently not.

Of course I should have checked through the Jeep before heading out. I mean, obviously. No one to blame but myself. I try not to think about it as I watch the odd car go by, vaguely thinking that I might succeed in waving down a Jeep size vehicle and borrow a wrench. Yeah, like that's gong to happen. There have been enough car-jacking stories to scare people off the idea of 'stopping to help' that no one's going to give the idea serious thought.

About that time. Frowning at the sun that's going toward the horizon, I notice that I am, in fact, exactly 500m from an off ramp that's hidden just over the brow of the hill. The peak of what looks like an abandoned Hotel is just visible. With little choice in it, I pack up the stuff back in the Jeep and nurture it gently to the turn off and up to the toll booth, where the guy wants some money before I park up and talk about solving my problem.

This is one of those places where two highways in the seeming middle of nowhere join up for no readily apparent reason. You can jump off one and onto the other just a short way away from where I am. There's pretty much an abundance of sod all but the toll booth guy points out a Gasilonaria in the distance. A little cluster of random other stuff is there also. Well, I've been in a shedload of Spanish Gasilonarias and never seen much in the way of tools but someone down there might have what I need for the borrow - or, worst case scenario, buy. Damned if I have enough money to just pay someone, which is what toll booth guy is suggesting.

Well, the walk isn't desperately unpleasant. The Gas station's small to medium and there's a shop associated. My efforts to borrow or arrange an assist for next to nothing fall pretty flat. Nope, I don;t have one, and so forth. But it turns out this is the only place I've ever seen were they do in fact sell what I need. For cars, anyway. It looks like there are two sizes, and on the principle that I might be lucky, I buy it for €15 and wonder out loud if he'll do a refund if it's no good to me. Nope.

Well, worth a try.

Turns out there are four options, not two. And one fits the nuts holding my wheel in place. Doesn't fix the inertia and semi-welding that ally on iron produces after a while, but some leverage fixes that. For some reason there is a garden fork in the back of the Jeep. Leverage. Just as well, otherwise I would have had to turn into a Donkey to do it. Not a trick I've ever had much success with.

From here it's all pretty much an anti-climax, I'm glad to say. I grab some sleep and then go for Madrid at night, when the ringroad will be quiet and my f*ck-up's unnoticed. Everything's changed since the last time I was there; it's all swish and shiny an new and the road I want seems to be completely unmarked. After a while of off an on again -including some really interesting tunnels that drop you in the middle of town - I stop and ask a Taxi driver. A simple but very useful trick. Of course, he knows how the road I want is marked and cheerfully tells me.

After this it's plain sailing. I mean, apart from the slight panic attack come dawn when it's not quire light enough to read the map I have and I'm convinced I'm on the wrong road. But it is a road going south. Says so every few hundred yards. Must be right. Turns out it is.

Granada. Malaga. All easy and familiar for me. The drive from Granada to Malaga is a joy because I know for a fact I have enough gas. Luxury. And I can open up the Jeep a bit and see that it will do a fair speed and is, in fact, a pleasure to drive the 4.0L three and a bit thousand pound chunk of metal.

I roll up where I'm going with exactly €15 to my name.

Well, hell. With that money I could have taken a detour and had some fun.

Figures.


Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Bad Road Trip (Part Three)

Daylight, raining some, back on the autopista (or whatever the french call them, you know freeways/motorways, whatever). As I had free internet I googlemapped Le Mans and confirmed that, yes, of course, I could continue by getting back on the same place I got off the day before. Obvious, really, but by now I'm feeling a little paranoid about details. I really can't afford for anything to go wrong.

There's a little fretting and concentration as I make sure I'm pushing on in the right direction. The sort of thing that goes, 'yes, it's okay to head for Orleans because Tours is also on the sign' but after a while I'm confident I'm set of Tours and after a while I'm seeing Bordeaux on the signs and a green E05 and it's the E05 and I know I'm fine right the Spanish border. Yay. And all I have to do is stay on this road. I have slight misgivings about Bordeaux as I've driven round it, in inadvertently into it, once before. But all fine for now. Tours, Poitiers, and I'm kind of tired and for some reason decide it's okay to drive in Bordeaux at night.

I still recognise some things, though, so it's okay. Big arc of bridge, check. Funny kind of looks-like-it-should-be-something-else bridge, check. Follow the E05. It's fine. It's fine. And the signs are less than ideal, but I come up to a turn off for the E05 that looks like it might be the turn or should be the turn but it looks dark and poky and uninviting and... I decide on the spur of the moment to come back onto the ringroad because surely that dingy little thing can't be the main drag south from here....

But it is, because the E05 doesn't show anywhere and, oh, nuts. Bordeaux. Did it again. Off into a gas station and park up. Buggrit. I need a map of Bordeaux. I'm done guessing. Well they have a map, and coffee because I want to buy the right to point at the map and ask where the heck am I on this map? Just after te turn I wanted? Oh. Perfect.

The people are sweet and one has some Spanish so we are fine. I'm glad because the last thing my tired brain wants to do is strain to hear and grasp any French. My brain likes Spanish fine, but won't cooperate with Spanish. For the record, it also does German fine. Odd, I know, but that's just the way it is.

Anyway, I decide I'm too tired to go on and I'm going to sleep in the car. Inside the ringroad, Bordeaux, despite the associative name, looks very seedy. I remember the centre looking pretty run down when I accidentally drove into it years ago, and the ringroad looks just as grim. Not my first choice of place to sleep but it's a gas station and there are cameras and just over a barrier there are a few trucks with the drivers doing the same as me. Head down and snooze. It's coldish and not that comfortable and I more snatch naps than sleep, but it's okay. I've slept less comfortable and colder places, though not in recent history. Dawn rolls around seemingly slowly and I know that there is a cambio de sentido ... which reminds me. A truck driver once phoned me for directions to a small town in southern Spain. He said "I'm somewhere near Cambio de Sentido, must be a big place because I'm seeing it everywhere. Anyway, I don't want to get back on the ringroad and the map says I can come of at the next exit into some backroads that will take me round the block to the road I'm on.

The map lies. Or, more accurately, it is less than entirely truthful. For an hour or so I follow the map through the suburbs of Bordeax. Through Gradingnan, through the nice suburb of Canejan, and really quite pleasant suburb of Cestus (yes, a fighting claw, which strikes me as an odd name for a town but probably it means something else in French) and there are no roads that link to the 1010 which I know from the map will take me to the E05 which is, you may remember, where I want to be. The map suggests there might be but non. Still, it's pleasant enough and I am once again struck by how little road traffic there seems to be in France - it's something I've noticed before but never investigated. Maybe it's just that the country is big and people more spread out. Whatever. I head on to Le Barp and soon find myself presented with a sign to the desired E05 and make it back on without issue and relax.

It's easy from here, I know. I'm still putting gas in the tank in dribs and drabs because available funds are tight. The sun comes out for the first time and it's warm and pleasant enough and I keep running figures in my head and I'm not going to make it. It's somewhere round Bayonne where I'm absolutely sure I just don't have enough to put in the tank to make the distance. The guides are rubbish, the mileage of the Jeep isn't close to what the book says, whatever.

Well, just after Bayonne I come off at a gas station and there's nothing else to do but phone Jane, the best person I know, my editor, my friend and one best wife imaginable. We are still close. Still friends. Friends for ever. And, as I know will, Jane drops a couple of hundred bucks into my account and I relax some. I'm back to probably going to make it and I'm close to the border, so I chill a little, invest in a bottle of water so I stop dehydrating and take the advice to actually eat something. A cheap packet of cookies.

Next day I stop for gas somewhere and the guy speak Spanish and though I overrun the meter by a couple of cents he shrugs and just takes the note with a causal 'forget the few cents, dude' - I would put that in Spanish but I forget exactly what he actually said and don't want to make something up without being obvious about it (if that makes sense to anyone I'll be surprised). I relax a good deal at this. In Spain I know how things work. In Spain I can do stuff to fix problems.

Which is just as well.

And my time is up. Back to work. And the work is going fine. I think it's going to be a very productive year.



Sunday, 24 November 2013

Bad Road Trip (Part Two)

Where did I leave us? Oh, yeah. Right there.

I'd had just enough credit on my phone to try and go through the long process of saying 'yeah, it's okay, it's me, and I'd run out during the helpful bank listing things I'd paid and cash I'd taken. Incomplete, but I had given passwords on a multiple choice basis. Incomplete, though, so I was concerned when I came off the toll road at Le Mans.

Of course, had a human been involved they might ave though something along the lines of "Oh, look, he booked the Channel Tunnel with the card so he's likely to be in France then, isn't he? No worries." But no. No human involved and the usual mess for software.

Okay, so I'm just off the toll road, just off a roundabout, in an paligano... I mean industrial estate, or whatever you habitually call this kind of area. No gas station in sight, no ATM in sight, but I'm stopped, parked, thinking. It's raining some so it's jacket on and a quick walk about to see without stress what the signs say and try and figure out my next move. Still no gas station and no ATM, both of which I want even though I suspect both will be useless to me. But one thing at a time, right?

I toy with the idea of walking further to investigate but decide, sod it, I'll drive but short exploratory moves. In short, all plans aside, I follow my nose. Back onto what I suspect is a ringroad(ish) kind of thing and then off again by instinct. A little ways through more paligano, then stop, pause think. Hmmm, nothing looks good here, so back the way I came and there's a way under the ringroad. Instinct again, yes. Then a road up to a Restaurant and again, instinct, yes. I'm sure going to have to talk to someone and get directions and this will do nicely.

The guy behind the bar has some English, which is handy as my French is so bad as to be useless. I express my desire for an ATM and gas station in the same place. "Ocean," he says, emphatically. "Shopping centre," or words to that effect. A Mall, in other words. Just the job, I think as I try and interpret his pointing figure. Roughly the way I was going before I came into the Restaurant. Yay. I hope it's not far as I've no idea what fuel is left in the Cherokee (it runs for ages on empty but it already has, so.... who knows?).

I drop back down to the road, follow the way I was going round a corner. More Paligano. A roundabout and I decide I'll go straight on, intuition again. And another one. Same same. And there it is. "Auchen" it says in big bold letters tacked on the side of a Mall. There's a gas station and a big carpark so I nod and sigh to myself and park up.

I'm not leaving here without gas.

No matter what happens. I'm no stuck with what I have available right here. ATM. Gas Station. It aint gunna get any better. Stay put. Solve the problem here.

But I'm cautiously pessimistic (not optimistic, truly) as I wonder into the Mall and look around for an ATM and find one and find... use of this card is suspended.

Ok, good. Now I need a phone. I have five bucks in my pocket in change (no idea why, I just do. I guess I must have bought something other than gas with cash but I have no idea what at this point and sure don't remember now). The phones I find are no cash card only type phones. Perfect.

Sit around and wait for someone to call me and see how things are doing? It is to laugh. That could be days. No cash, no water, no food, no shelter but the Jeep. And boredom boredom boredom ... nope. Not liking that idea.

Well, I have five bucks so maybe I can get some credit on my phone. Nope. I knew that but it was worth a try. Same company but nope, we can't charge a foreign phone here, even if we are the same company (thanks Orange, you're so cool I could drop you in a vodka and be happy). I have a Spanish chip I used a few months ago but... it has no credit on it either. So, more trogging up and down. More thinking. I need credit on my phone, contact with the outside world. What are the alternatives? Abandon the Jeep and start walking? Head for where? Paris, maybe where I can find the Consulate maybe and get repatriated to an airport probably with no cash to call anyone so it would be a long walk from the airport to somewhere useful.... and I don't like this idea. It isn't a solution as I'd have to re-jig money and come get the jeep and continue.

In any case, I'm lucky. I have my laptop and when I spot a small sign saying Free WiFi I know I'm in with a shout. I have a bad battery in the laptop but there just might be time to send one email if I can get into the system fast, into my emails fast and write and send fast. Maybe.

Fail.

Big sigh. In some parts of the world free wifi all over is taken for granted, but not here. Relief and despondency and swearing are the order of events. Close. Real close. But no cigar. Yet... this is the answer. I need somewhere to plug into power and keep the laptop juiced and send out an SOS

There's a cafe and I wonder in, waving the plug and asking if there's a socket I can use. The guy is cool about it and points one out with a 'hell yes, of course, no worries' air that I like very much. Problem solved, bar the waiting. I sit and send out some SOS's of the 'hey, can someone please put some credit on my phone so I can get this dumb thing sorted?'

I also get into my online banking page, find who to bitch to and bitch away. Phone twice, fraud prevention squad, because you don;t know what's happening on the end of the phone and this is your customer who could be in any situation and you know what the first rule of business is? Don't try and kill your customers. Don't put hem at risk. They don't much like it as a rule. Asshats.

I also think they might get the message (action required section(s) is filed in No.1 "Reactivate my card. NOW!" But what happens first is some credit kindly put on my phone by a well loved family member. Yay. I call the fraud squad. They fix it. Card works. Double yay!

The gas station only takes credit cards (not my sole debit card) and there won;t be anyone to take cash until the next morning, nine hours away. Booo.

But I have cash ... that I dare not spend because I'm doing this on a shoestring budget and I'm still in northern France and unsure I have enough funds available for gas to get there. In fact, I rather doubt it.

Turns out my doubts are justified and I don't, but that's to tell another day. I'll leave it there for now.