Sneak Peek Extract: DISLOCATIONS by Eric Brown and Keith Brooke

DISLOCATIONS, the first volume of the Kon-tiki Quartet, tells the story of humankind’s last-gasp efforts to reach the stars, set against the backdrop of an Earth torn apart by looming environmental disaster . . .

Project Kon-tiki, the world’s first extra-solar colony expedition, is just weeks away from departure, and tension is mounting at Lakenheath Base. Psychologist Kat Manning is one of the eighteen specialist whose clone will be sent to the stars, and her job is to work with the original specialists, the ‘left behind’, to monitor and support them through their dislocation . . . But when Kat is kidnapped by the Allianz, a faction opposed to the colonisation program, more than just her safety is at stake. The entire mission is in jeopardy.

Sneak Peek Extract: DISLOCATIONS

TRAVIS DENHOLME LEFT HIS RENTED COTTAGE ON THE outskirts of Ely at three and arrived at Lakenheath Base forty-five minutes later. Dusk was falling, presaging another subzero January night. Even from a mile away, the halogen arrays illuminated the base with a glare that spread across the surrounding forest and obliterated any sign of the stars overhead.

The usual crowd of protesters was stationed on the approach road, their numbers increased due to the imminence of the launch. The local police and security guards drafted in by UNSA had done their job, and the two hundred noisy protestors were kettled behind carbonfibre fences well back from the road. Even so, the din of their voices increased as his car approached; just last week an activist had scaled the fence and flung herself in front of the little VW. The car’s systems had braked too late, and the woman had thumped into the grille and rolled over the bonnet, screaming her hatred through the windscreen. She’d dropped to the tarmac, picked herself up, and staggered off, seemingly unhurt, but Travis had been shaken by the incident.

As he neared the gate of the base, he passed the area to his right reserved for the protest leaders and their guests: B-list celebs attempting to up their failing profiles by identifying themselves with the Allianz. A dozen men and women stamped their feet around a plasma-burner, trying to ward off the Arctic blast, one or two of them turning to stare at his car as it braked before the gate. Beyond the small group, banners and placards gave voice to Allianz discontent: Project Kon-Tiki a Big Con, and Anarchists Against Colonisation.

Ute was there, as ever; tiny and looking perished in her green puffa jacket, a woolly hat pulled down over her ears. For a second, it seemed that their eyes connected, but he reassured himself that she wouldn’t be able to make him out through the side-window. He stared straight ahead at the slowly opening gate, wondering if he would have been on this side of the fence had Ute not finished with him ten years ago. The car rolled through the gate, braking before the second gate as the first closed behind him. A security guard stepped from a lighted kiosk, and Travis wound down his window and presented the biometric chip embedded in his metacarpus.

“Evening, Dr Denholme,” the guard said, scanning his hand.

“Here we go. Enjoy the party.”

Travis smiled. “I’ll do my best.”

The second gate slid open and the car drove on, Travis aware that he was moving from one world to another, from a world of deprivation and conflict to one of privilege—and, like a symbol of that privilege, a mile away across the frost-encrusted apron, the towering form of the shuttle stood beside the launch gantry. In four days the eighteen specialists would depart Lakenheath Base for the starship parked in geo-sync orbit, and a week later the Kon-Tiki would light out for the stars.

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Sneak Peek Extract: ‘The Goosle’ by Margo Lanagan

‘There,’ said Grinnan as we cleared the trees. ‘Now, you keep your counsel, Hanny-boy.’

     Why, that is the mudwife’s house, I thought. Dread thudded in me. Since two days ago among the older trees when I knew we were in my father’s forest, I’d feared this.

     The house looked just as it did in my memory: the crumbling, glittery yellow walls, the dreadful roof sealed with drippy white mud. My tongue rubbed the roof of my mouth just looking. It is crisp as wafer-biscuit on the outside, that mud. You bite through to a sweetish sand inside. You are frightened it will choke you, but you cannot stop eating.

     The mudwife might be dead, I thought hopefully. So many are dead, after all, of the black.

     But then came a convulsion in the house. A face passed the window-hole, and there she was at the door. Same squat body with a big face snarling above. Same clothing, even, after all these years, the dress trying for bluishness and the pinafore for brown through all the dirt. She looked just as strong. However much bigger I’d grown, it took all my strength to hold my bowels together.

     ‘Don’t come a step nearer.’ She held a red fire-banger in her hand, but it was so dusty—if I’d not known her I’d have laughed.

     ‘Madam, I pray you,’ said Grinnan. ‘We are clean as clean—there’s not a speck on us, not a blister. Humble travellers in need only of a pig hut or a chicken shed to shelter the night.’

     ‘Touch my stock and I’ll have you,’ she says to all his smoothness. ‘I’ll roast your head in a pot.’

     I tugged Grinnan’s sleeve. It was all too sudden—one moment walking wondering, the next on the doorstep with the witch right there, talking heads in pots.

     ‘We have pretties to trade,’ said Grinnan.

     ‘You can put your pretties up your poink-hole where they belong.’

     ‘We have all the news of long travel. Are you not at all curious about the world and its woes?’

     ‘Why would I live here, tuffet-head?’ And she went inside and slammed her door and banged the shutter across her window.

     ‘She is softening,’ said Grinnan. ‘She is curious. She can’t help herself.’

     ‘I don’t think so,’ I said.

     ‘You watch me. Get us a fire going, boy. There on that bit of bare ground.’

     ‘She will come and throw her bunger in it. She’ll blind us, and then—’

     ‘Just make and shut. I tell you, this one is as good as married to me. I have her heart in my hand like a rabbit-kitten.’

     I was sure he was mistaken, but I went to, because fire meant food and just the sight of the house had made me hungry. While I fed the fire its kindling, I dug up a little stone from the flattened ground and sucked the dirt off it.

     Grinnan had me make a smelly soup. Salt fish, it had in it, and sea-celery and the yellow spice.

     When the smell was strong, the door whumped open and there she was again. Ooh, she was so like in my dreams, with her suddenness and her ugly intentions that you can’t guess. But it was me and Grinnan this time, not me and Kirtle. Grinnan was big and smart, and he had his own purposes. And I knew there was no magic in the world, just trickery on the innocent. Grinnan would never let anyone else trick me; he wanted that privilege all for himself.

     ‘Take your smelly smells from my garden this instant!’ the mudwife shouted.

     Grinnan bowed as if she’d greeted him most civilly.     ‘Madam, if you’d join us? There is plenty of this lovely bull-a-bess for you as well.’

     ‘I’d not touch my lips to such mess. What kind of foreign muck—’

     Even I could hear the longing in her voice, that she was trying to shout down.

     There before her he ladled out a bowlful—yellow, splashy, full of delicious lumps. Very humbly—he does humbleness well when he needs to, for such a big man—he took it to her. When she recoiled he placed it on the little table by the door, the one that I ran against in my clumsiness when escaping, so hard I still sometimes feel the bruise in my rib. I remember, I knocked it skittering out the door, and I flung it back meaning to trip up the mudwife. But instead I tripped up Kirtle, and the wife came out and plucked her up and bellowed after me and kicked the table onto the path, and ran out herself with Kirtle like a tortoise swimming from her fist and kicked the table aside again—

     Bang! went the cottage door.

     Grinnan came laughing quietly back to me.

     ‘She is ours. Once they’ve et your food, Hanny, you’re free to eat theirs. Fish and onion pie tonight, I’d say.’

     ‘Eugh.’

     ‘Jealous, are we? Don’t like old Grinnan supping at other pots, hnh?’

     ‘It’s not that!’ I glared at his laughing face. ‘She’s so ugly, that’s all. So old. I don’t know how you can even think of—’

     ‘Well, I am no primrose myself, golden boy,’ he says. ‘And I’m grateful for any flower that lets me pluck her.’

     I was not old and desperate enough to laugh at that joke. I pushed his soup bowl at him.

     ‘Ah, bull-a-bess,’ he said into the steam. ‘Food of gods and seducers.’

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ODIN’S GIRL by Kim Wilkins

Sneak Peek Extract: 

ODIN’S GIRL by Kim Wilkins

At three months of age, Sara had crushed her grandmother’s index finger. Turned the bone to sawdust. By ten months she had broken six cots and her mother gave up and let her share the double bed. Nobody was allowed to give her wooden toys. Wood, for some reason, aroused more acutely the desire to break and crush. She fared better with stuffed teddies, which she loved to cuddle and stroke. As though their lack of resistance to the world made them safe from her unquenchable desire to smash everything to pulp.

By her third birthday, she was starting to learn self-control. As strong as she was, she still hadn’t worked out the buttons on the remote control. The threat of missing Playschool could make her behave. Then Disney princesses taught her meek beauty. She couldn’t plough her shoulder into the wall as fast in pink plastic high-heels.

But she was always aware of the dark thing inside her. It thrilled her and it frightened her, and she quickly learned to be ashamed of it; though the shame didn’t make it go away. Behind the long backyard was an empty block, and she spent furtive hours every afternoon breaking branches, turning over rocks, chucking broken bricks into the iron fence. School was hard: so many other children to get along with. They had to move town four times, change schools, start over. Broken monkey bars. Water bubblers wrenched off their weldings. A whiteboard eraser thrown so hard at the wall that it made a hole through the plasterboard and sailed through to the other side.

By sixth grade she was fatigued from being the new kid. She learned to be gentle. She learned to pull the rage out of her hands and arms, compress it into a white-hot ball behind her ribs. She sometimes broke a desk or a chair by accident, and gained a reputation among her teachers for being clumsy. Of course. A girl her size had to be clumsy.

That was it. She came to heel.

 *  *  *

Only that wasn’t it. There was one other incident, wasn’t there? She just didn’t like to remember it. High school, bitchy teenage girls, a Queen Bee. Sara always kept her eyes down, but she nudged six foot, with red-gold hair and generous curves. She couldn’t stay invisible. The rage bubbled over. It seemed so long ago now since she had felt that power move up through her veins and sinews…

Sara had seen Queen Bee just two weeks ago, across the road in the distance. She was still in the wheelchair. The clumsy-fingered churn of guilt had started all over again. Nobody had been around to witness that fight. The injuries weren’t consistent with a schoolyard smackdown, so nobody believed Queen Bee and of course Sara denied everything.

Sara was used to denying everything.

Now available for pre-order, here.

SOME NOTES ON A NONENTITY: THE LIFE OF H. P. LOVECRAFT

 

SOME NOTES ON A NONENTITY covers Lovecraft’s entire life from birth to his untimely and painful death and will be launched at NecronomiCon this coming weekend with a presentation from Sam and Jason on Saturday morning. I wish we could be there—break a leg, guys!

Since his death in 1937, H. P. Lovecraft and his works have become an overwhelming part of popular culture.

His creation, Cthulhu, has appeared in films, cartoons, video games, music and virtually all other parts of popular media. However, although many may know Lovecraft’s creations, few people know the details of his extraordinary life. SOME NOTES ON A NON-ENTITY: THE LIFE OF H. P. LOVECRAFT is a biography of this enigmatic and legendary writer.

SOME NOTES ON A NON-ENTITY is a 120+ page graphic novel written by SAM GAFFORD and illustrated by JASON ECKHARDT.

Based on years of research into the primary sources regarding Lovecraft’s life, this graphic novel spans Lovecraft’s youth to his later years. Episodes covered include his odd relationship with an overpowering mother; his brief sojourn in New York City and disastrous marriage; the creation of his most amazing tales; and his physically painful decline to an eventual death while considering himself a complete and utter failure.

Gafford is a weird literature scholar who has written about Lovecraft for several critical magazines and is a founding organizer of the NecronomiCon convention which celebrates Lovecraft’s life and work. Eckhardt is an award winning artist who has received great acclaim for his covers for such publishers as Necronomicon Press, Hippocampus Press and others. Recently, his work has been featured in the highly reviewed ANNOTATED H. P. LOVECRAFT by Leslie Klinger. Together, these two respected creators have developed what will surely be considered THE graphic novel biography of the man who has been hailed as second only to Edgar Allan Poe as America’s most important writer of weird literature.

Available to order, here.

SOLAR PONS

This week is a bumper crop with not one, or two, but SEVEN paperback volumes gathering together the complete Basil Copper’s Solar Pons stories. It’s also worth bearing in mind that not only will our FantasyCon launch party (29th September, 5pm) feature the debut appearance of all these titles but also editor Stephen Jones and artist Les Edwards will be on hand to sign copies. We’ll also be doing single copies at a discount and a very special deal for anyone who wants to buy all seven titles over the weekend. Click the images to pre-order copies.

So without further ado, here’s all seven paperbacks:

The Dossier of Solar Pons #1

CONTENTS

  • The Editor’s Note
  • Explanation by Dr. Lyndon Parker
  • The Adventure of the Perplexed Photographer
  • The Sealed Spiral Mystery
  • The Adventure of the Six Gold Doubloons
  • The Adventure of the Ipi Idol
  • The Adventure of Buffington Old Grange
  • The Adventure of the Hammer of Hate

The Further Adventures of Solar Pons #2

CONTENTS

  • The Editor’s Note
  • The Adventure of the Shaft of Death
  • The Adventure of the Baffled Baron
  • The Adventure of the Surrey Sadist
  • The Adventure of the Missing Student

The Secret Files of Solar Pons #3

CONTENTS

  • The Editor’s Note
  • The Adventure of the Crawling Horror
  • The Adventure of the Anguished Actor
  • The Adventure of the Ignored Idols
  • The Adventure of the Horrified Heiress

Some Uncollected Cases of Solar Pons #4

CONTENTS

  • The Editor’s Note
  • The Adventure of the Haunted Rectory
  • The Adventure of the Singular Sandwich
  • Murder at the Zoo
  • The Adventure of the Frightened Governess

The Exploits of Solar Pons #5

CONTENTS

  • The Editor’s Note
  • The Adventure of the Verger’s Thumb
  • The Adventure of the Phantom Face
  • Death at the Metropole
  • The Adventure of the Callous Colonel

The Recollections of Solar Pons #6

CONTENTS

  • The Editor’s Note
  • ​​​​​​​The Adventure of the Cursed Curator
  • The Adventure of the Hound of Hell
  • The Adventure of the Mad Millionaire
  • The Adventure of the Devil’s Claw

The Solar Pons Companion #7

CONTENTS

  • The Editor’s Note
  • Once A Pons a Time . . . Stephen Jones
  • Foreword . . . Basil Copper
  • In the Footsteps of Sherlock Holmes . . . Basil Copper
  • Plots of the Stories . . . Basil Copper
  • Characters in the Stories . . . Basil Copper
  • The Sayings of Solar Pons . . . Basil Copper
  • Solar Pons Plot and Dialogue Notes . . . Stephen Jones
  • The Adventure of the Northleach Stocks . . . Stephen Jones
  • Painting Pons: Artist Ben Stahl . . . Stephen Jones
  • The Adventure of the Defeated Doctor . . . Basil Copper
  • The Adventure of the Agonised Actor . . . Basil Copper
  • The Adventure of the Persecuted Painter . . . Basil Copper

DARKER COMPANIONS edited by Scott David Aniolowski & Joseph S. Pulver, Sr

Here’s a few paragraphs lifted from Scott’s Introduction ‘Hymns From The Church In High Street.’ Take it away, Scott . . .

Welcome to DARKER COMPANIONS, a celebration of Ramsey Campbell.

“The year 2014 marked the 50th anniversary of the publication of Ramsey Campbell’s first fiction collection, .

The Arkham House book, published in 1964 when he was just 18, was actually his second appearance at Arkham House, the first being in 1962’s August Derleth-edited anthologyDARK MIND, DARK HEART his first professional sale as an author. To commemorate the impressive event, I thought it only fitting to assemble an anthology of stories in tribute to Ramsey, written by some of his many fans and friends currently working in the field of the weird.

With that thought in mind, I contacted Peter Crowther at PS Publising.

“PS Publishing seemed the obvious choice of publisher as they have such a longstanding relationship with Ramsey Campbell and are the premier specialty publisher of all things Campbellian. Peter liked the idea and immediately committed to take on the project.

“Realizing the scope and breadth of the project, I decided a co-editor would be invaluable in helping to keep all the moving parts organized and going in the right direction. During my stint as the fiction line editor for a small press, Joe Pulver had approached me with a pair of anthologies he wanted to do. I really liked Joe and his work and had great respect for him. We had very similar tastes in literature and thought alike on numerous topics, and those first two anthologies he produced went on to receive accolades from fans and the industry, alike, so tagging him as my co-editor for the endeavor was a no-brainer.

The original germ of the idea was to pay homage to THE INHABITANT OF THE LAKE.

“However on consideration that seemed far too restrictive for such a momentous occasion, and there are already plenty of volumes of Cthulhu stories. Incidentally, my own initial venture into editing was a Ramsey Campbell Cthulhu tribute anthology back in 1995 that coincided with his guest of honor appearance at the second NecronomiCon in Danvers, Massachusetts. So been there, done that. The second incarnation of the idea was to do an anthology inspired by the early Campbell short stories as collected in , and . That seemed more wide-ranging and would include material from the pivotal point in Ramsey’s career when he shook off the bewitchment of Lovecraft and found his own true voice. Ultimately, we decided that this needed to be a proper, career-spanning retrospective. I discussed the idea with Ramsey who gave his blessings and the go-ahead to make use of any of his creations, no holds barred!

“Joe and I each compiled a wish-list of authors whom we wanted to invite to contribute. We compared notes, merged lists, and found that we had far too many names, even only taking into account those we’d had on both our lists. We debated all the names and finally had a list we both agreed would be our starting point. A great deal of thought and discussion went into the line-up for this book. There were a few key points we insisted on, and from the start, it was our goal to have a diverse, international mix of contributors. We sought out authors who were fans of Ramsey’s and had been influenced by his body of work — folks whom we knew would put their hearts into it because they wanted to be a part of this tribute and not just to make a sale. Our only edict was that this was not going to be another Cthulhu book, although as it was an important part of Ramsey’s career we couldn’t completely ignore it and did include something for the Cthulhu fans.

“With two or three notable exceptions, everyone accepted our invitation. As the stories came in we were thrilled by what we saw, and it wasn’t long before all the slots were filled and we had to stop sending out invitations. Joe and I assembled our table of contents, which we did with significant care and consideration. Like composing a piece of music, works were put in a particular sequence to achieve a certain melody, sometimes unsettling and other times full of wonder. is our opus in reverence to Ramsey Campbell and his long and esteemed career, our Hymns from the Church in High Street.”

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EXTRASOLAR Edited by Nick Gevers

Sneak peek extract:

Introduction by Nick Gevers 

Imagine you’re the captain of Earth’s first interstellar spaceship. The twist is, though, that the spaceship is the sort of vessel dreamt up by SF writers of the mid- to late twentieth century. This could be an advantage: the further back in SF’s history you go, the freer writers seem to have felt in ignoring the obstacle posed by the speed of light. So your spaceship is an FTL one, Faster Than Light, propelled by some sort of hyperdrive. You can reach the stars in a few weeks of subjective time.

Now imagine, further, that your conception of exotic solar systems—even close ones, like Alpha Centauri’s—is based entirely on guesswork. Your ship is twentieth century, your knowledge is twentieth century. You know nothing of what orbital telescopes and other technologies have in fact revealed over the last couple of decades. Like any SF writer of the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s, you have had to rely on intelligent extrapolation from the nature of our own, familiar, solar system. Rocky terrestrial planets near the sun, gas giants further out, plenty of rocky moons orbiting the gas giants, lots of comets and other ice objects in the outermost reaches. Surely this pattern must often repeat itself, especially in the case of yellow dwarf stars like our sun? And thus there must be many Earth-like worlds, home to complex forms of life, worlds with breathable atmospheres, potential New Earths?

You and your crew sally forth as outright discoverers, using direct close-up observation to confirm or disprove your suppositions. You are aware of the possibility of shocking outcomes. Perhaps other stars simply have no planets at all. Perhaps you will find peculiar configurations; after all, writers like Hal Clement, Larry Niven, Poul Anderson, Jack Vance, and others conceived of very odd, even crazy, planetary arrangements in their time. Might godlike aliens have engineered entire solar systems closer to their hearts’ desire, fashioning ringworlds, Dyson spheres, shapes more fantastic still?

So you are ready for surprises; your imagination has been primed by the cognitive shocks implicit in a thousand SF stories. Your imagination is a capacious one (after all, you’ve come up with a starship and yourself in charge of it, so you’ve a bold enough fancy.) But the universe has a tendency to overwhelm us with its cosmic ingenuity…

Thus your tour of the stars in our galactic neighbourhood astonishes you. Colossal superjovians, gas giants eight, ten, fifteen times the size of Jupiter, barrel along in grotesquely irregular orbits around their suns, creating gravitational chaos, spinning planets and moons of more ordinary size all over the place, even into interstellar space. Such displaced rogue worlds can wander for billions of years between the stars, unless captured by another stellar primary. There are plenty of smaller gas giants, some like Jupiter, some like Neptune; also no shortage of rocky Earth-like bodies; but in many cases a star’s entire family of planets orbits it extremely close in–inside the equivalent of Mercury’s orbit–enduring temperatures of many hundreds of degrees centigrade and thus qualifying as so-called hot Neptunes and hot Jupiters. They must have formed much further out, so how did they migrate inwards with such freakish consistency? Their years are equal to a few of our days. And those terrestrial-type worlds: so often these are super-Earths, a lot bigger than Earth itself, with several times our gravity and very thick atmospheres. Indeed, even a less imposing super-Earth can boast a bizarrely thick atmosphere, earning the designation ‘super-puff’. Or a rocky planet drowns beneath an ocean thousands of miles deep!

You and your starship crew are in due course both drunk on novelty and in the grip of alarm. You had hoped to locate a reasonable number of worlds physically resembling Earth and safely within the Goldilocks zone, that orbital space around a star where it is neither too hot nor too cold for life to evolve on a stably orbiting rocky planet with an atmosphere thick enough to shelter fragile organisms, yet thin enough not to stifle them. But there are discouragingly few such havens; and even if they carry liquid water, misadventures like solar flares, nearby supernovas, errant superjovians, asteroid and comet strikes, gamma ray bursts, and huge volcanic eruptions can render them no refuges at all. Where are the New Earths to be found?

A member of your crew makes a suggestion: why not direct the search to red dwarf stars? If planets so frequently orbit very close in, wouldn’t the comparatively dim output of light and heat by a red dwarf leave its terrestrial planets potentially habitable, despite their proximity? So you set course for a selection of these stars, and you begin to approach your El Dorado. Many worlds huddle around these ember-red fires; there are Earths and super-Earths in great numbers, and could that gleam over there be home to a mighty alien civilization, dreaming under a blood-red sun?

 

#

 

The answer to that last question is Probably Not, but this is an imaginative exercise, after all. All the facts about exotic stars and their planetary companions, revealed to us over the last twenty-two years by astronomers using the Kepler and other space telescopes and employing various methods for filtering information out of complex observations, can be summarized, though very inadequately, as I’ve done above. The implications of these findings are dismaying, in confirming that complex organic life is unlikely to occur often; but also encouraging, demonstrating the extraordinary talent Reality has for defying our expectations, and opening up grand new vistas for the scientific intellect to explore and the science-fictional imagination to populate with scenarios of far-ranging wonder.

For Extrasolar, I asked fourteen leading SF writers to take on the new possibilities, whether in hope or in fear or a mixture of the two. The results are gratifyingly and fascinatingly diverse; so here we go, beyond our comfortable solar system, out to others, enticing, menacing, always bracingly strange…

–Nick Gevers, Cape Town 2017

Now available for pre-order.

Exalted on Bellatrix 1 by Eric Brown

SNEAK PEEK EXTRACT:

Eric Brown

Hendrick stood before the wall-window and stared out across Paris.
The lights of the city scintillated like an incandescent galactic cluster. Firefly air-cars threaded their way along colour-coded air lanes, zipping past Hendrick’s penthouse apartment in a flash of sleek coachwork and running lights. To the south, at Orly, the Telemass station stood tall on its tripod of scimitar legs. As he watched, a brilliant white beam of light arched through the night and hit the translation pad, delivering a cargo of demolecularised passengers on their multi-light year journey from the stars.
It was five days since he and Mercury Velasquez had returned to Earth from Alpha Reticuli II. In that time Mercury had followed mind-leads all across Paris in an attempt to discover the whereabouts of Hendrick’s ex-wife and daughter. On arriving on Earth, Mercury had forecast that she would have a viable lead within two days, but she had come up with nothing so far. Hendrick was experiencing mood swings, the euphoria of his new-found love for the telepath alternating with despair that he might never again see his daughter.
His wrist-com chimed and his heart skipped. Every time he heard the distinctive double note he expected Mercury with good news.
A grey-haired man in his sixties stared up from Hendrick’s metacarpal screen.
“Thierry. How’s things?”
Every month his lawyer, Thierry Duvall, contacted Hendrick with the latest news. More often than not, there was no latest news.
“Sit down, Matt.”
Hendrick moved from the wall window and lowered himself into a foam-form, feeling a little sick. “Bad news?”
He’d hired Duvall five years ago to liaise with Europe’s top research labs and notify him if there was any breakthrough in the quest to discover a cure for his daughter’s condition. He lived in hope but always, on receiving Duvall’s monthly call, feared that the labs had declared Sam’s condition incurable.
Mercury had chided him on this point. “Brighten up. The companies won’t give up. Research is ongoing. They want to cash in on the Euros, no?”
“I was contacted by Omega-Gen a week ago,” Duvall said, “while you were off-world. I would have contacted you as soon as you returned, but I wanted to be sure.”
Hendrick leaned forward, his heart beating fast. “Be sure?”
“That what Omega-Gen told me was a one hundred per cent, nailed on certainty. So I took a flier down to Madrid and talked to the medics myself. There’s no doubt, Matt. They’ve found a cure for Sam’s condition.”
Hendrick stood up, choking. He strode to the window and stared out. He’d lived for this moment, anticipated his reaction, for  years. The lights of Paris blurred beyond his tears.
“The Piserchia team made the breakthrough a month ago,” Duvall went on. “It’s something to do with telomerase reversal and chromosome replacement. I don’t really know – they blinded me with science. But Dr Gonzalez is flying to Paris tomorrow and he’ll tell you all about it then. I’m so happy for you, Matt.”
Hendrick shook his head. “Thanks… I mean, thanks, Thierry, for everything you’ve done.”
“Things is,” the lawyer interrupted, “you any closer finding your daughter?”
“Mercury’s working on it,” Hendrick said. “She expects to find something pretty soon.”
Duvall nodded. He looked suddenly grim.
“What is it?”
“Just one thing…” Duvall hesitated. “This isn’t going to be cheap. The cure, it comes at a cost.”
“I never expected anything else. How much?”
“I think you should sit down again.”
Obediently, Hendrick returned to the foam-form. He had a couple of million stashed away, and was confident he could raise double that it need be. How much, after all, was his daughter’s life worth?
“Okay,” he said, “I’m ready.”
“We’re talking about staggered payments. Omega-Gen know you’re a private individual, not some corporation or government body. So they’re trying to make it manageable for you.”
“How much?”
“They suggested three payments over a couple of years. An initial deposit of five million Euros, then five million on completion of the treatment – which shouldn’t take more than a week – and then, a year later, a final payment of five million.”
Hendrick swallowed. He felt as if something very heavy and painful had hit him in the stomach.
“Fifteen million Euros?” he said.
“I know, I know… It’s a hell of a fee.”
Hendrick tried to compose himself. He didn’t want Duvall to see his shock and intuit that there was no way he could raise such an amount. “You’re telling me. Okay…” He let out a long breath. “Okay. I need to talk this over with Mercury. We’ll find some way…”
“I’ll be in touch about tomorrow. Gonzalez is due in at eleven. I suggest we meet over lunch.”
“Sure… that’s fine.” He thanked Duvall again and cut the connection.
He moved to the window and stared out. He raised his wrist-com and tried to get through to Mercury, but she wasn’t taking calls. He turned and strode across the lounge, back and forth, working off nervous energy. They had a cure for his dead daughter, a miracle that would bring her back to life.
He closed his eyes and felt the little girl in his arms again; she was five years old, on the colony world of Landsdowne, alive and looking forward to going to the zoo.
And a year later his daughter was dead, sealed into a coffin-like suspension pod against the day when medical science might discover a cure for her ailment.
Hendrick’s insurance didn’t cover the cost of the cure, and barely covered the monthly fee of the suspension pod. He’d saved over the years, juggled investments and lived frugally – a regime not helped by having to pay Telemass fees in order to race from world to world around the Expansion when his ex-wife absconded with the pod in a hare-brained attempt to find a cure herself.
Now a miracle had happened. His daughter could be cured. All Hendrick had to do was find Sam… and fifteen million Euros.
His wrist-com chimed. Mercury looked up from his metacarpal screen, her tricorne askew and stray strands of jet hair pasted to her sweat-soaked forehead. She looked out of breath as she grinned at him.
“Done it, Matt.”
His heart missed a beat. “You found her?”
“Well, I found out where your ex and Dr Hovarth fled to.” She peered up at him. “Hey, you okay?”
He hesitated. “Fine,” he said.
“You don’t look fine.”
She had the amazing facility, when her tele-ability was switched off, or when speaking to him over the net, of being able to discern his moods. She’d honed the skill of subliminally reading the facial tics and mannerisms of a subject so that, even when she wasn’t reading the mind in question, she was able to discern temperament and mood.
“Well done,” he said. “So where are they?”
“They led me a hell of a dance,” she said. “I thought it’d be a cinch to pick up mind-trails leading from the Orly station, but I was wrong on that score. Every one finished up in a dead-end. Thing was, Maatje and Hovarth didn’t know themselves where they were heading after Paris.”
“So how…?”
“I haunted the station every day this week, reading every worker there. No one knew anything, until I came across a wisp…”
He smiled. “A wisp?”
“That’s what I call them. Not really conscious thoughts in the head of a subject, but subconscious visual memories. Wisps, lasting a fraction of a second – fleeting images. I was reading this receptionist at the station when I caught a fragment – the visual of your ex and Hovarth in conversation with a short, stocky off-worlder. From the woman’s memories, I worked out the meeting had taken place four days ago. So I backtracked and read the heads of everyone working at the station that shift, and hit pay dirt. Someone knew the off-worlder: he was a Telemass agent working for the Berlin station, with an office in Montmartre. So off I went, staked out his office, and read him when he came in a couple of hours ago.”
“Go on.”
Mercury clicked her jaw sideways, skewing her lips. “Ah… I found out where they went, Matt, but I’ll tell you when I get back, right?”
“There’s a problem?” he said, his spirits sinking.
“I’ll tell you later.”
Hendrick closed his eyes.
“Matt,” he heard her say. “What’s wrong? You’re holding something back…”
“That’s the trouble with being in love with a  telepath,” he said. “They know damned near anything.”
“I wish…” she said. “So, spill.”
“I just had a call from Duvall. Gonzalez at Omega-Gen has found a cure.”
Mercury stared at him with her big, Spanish eyes. “But that’s… great,” she said. “But there’s a problem, hm?”
“You said it.”
She sighed. “Look, I’ll be back in thirty minutes. We’ll trade problems then, okay?”
“Sure…”
“Fix me a long, ice cold G&T, would you, Matt? See you then.”

* * *

Every time he set eyes on Mercury Velasquez after an absence – not that there had been many absences in the two weeks he’d known her – he marvelled anew at the fact of their love. He also experienced a retroactive sense of dread at the thought of how, but for the twist of chance that had taken him to a certain bar at a certain time, he might never have met the woman.
He heard the roar of turbos as the taxi-flier landed on the roof of their penthouse, and thirty seconds later the door swished open and Mercury padded across the thick-pile carpet. In a form-fitting black one-piece and tricorne, she looked like a cross between an attenuated matador and a catwalk model. She was forty-two, severely slim, and heart-stoppingly beautiful.
They embraced, and Hendrick handed her a long, ice cold gin and tonic. She frisbee’d her tricorne across the room, stretched out on the sofa, and lodged her bare feet on his lap. He massaged her insteps.
She took a sip, closed her eyes in bliss, then said, “Hokay, Matt. Your problem first.”
“You’re not reading?”
“I’m not reading, but let me guess…” She studied his face. “They have a cure… but it’s damned expensive, yes?”
He stared at her. “You’re amazing, Ms Velasquez, you know that?”
“Well, wasn’t much else it could be. So they want… what, three million Euros? Five?”
“No.”
She looked aghast. “What? Eight?”
“Try again.”
“Ridiculous! Ten…?”
He shook his head. “Fifteen.”
“Fifteen!” She was on her knees now beside him. “That’s extortionate. Hokay… We can do this, Matt. I can raise a couple of million if I sell all the artwork I’ve squirrelled away over the years, And I have half a million in savings. You?”
He sighed. “A couple of million saved, and I reckon I could raise that much again.”
“That’s six and a half…”
“There’s no way anyone would loan us more than eight million,” he said. “Anyway, I’ve arranged to meet Duvall and someone from Omega-Gen for lunch tomorrow.”
She reached out and stroked his five o’clock shadow with her knuckles. “We’ll work something out. Maybe they’ll be amenable to a deposit and spread payments.”
“Duvall said they want five million up front, same again at the time of treatment, and five million a year later.”
“The bastards.”
He laughed, without humour. “He said Omega-Gen realised I wasn’t a corporation, so they’d make it manageable for me.”
“Manageable? That’s generous!”
“It’s ironic, isn’t it? Duvall informs me of a cure, and you find out where Maatje’s fled to.” He looked at her. “So… let’s hear your problem.”
She finished her drink, uncurled herself from beside him and crossed to the bar. “You want anything?”
“A beer.”
She returned with the drinks and sat beside him, a hand on his thigh.
She said, “Maatje and Hovarth left Earth early yesterday morning, from the Telemass station at Berlin.”
“Headed to?” He sipped his beer.
“A planet called Beltran, orbiting the star Bellatrix in Orion, around two hundred and fifty light years from Earth.”
“Do you know if they had the suspension pod with them?”
“They did,” she said, and went on, “Beltran is home to the Vhey, to give the shortened version of their name. The most secretive race of ee-tees known to humanity.”
He sat up, spilling his beer. “Just a minute… I’ve read that access to the planet is limited.”
“It is. Very limited. You can’t even Telemass straight to Beltran, but to an orbital station. From there you take a shuttle down to the planet’s surface.”
“And they’re secretive, I recall reading, because they’re a civilisation perhaps ten thousand years more advanced than the human race?”
“That’s the reckoning, Matt.”
“So…” He shook his head. “Why have Maatje and Hovarth been allowed onto the planet?”
She rubbed thumb and forefinger together. “They paid, and paid a lot.”
“They wouldn’t do that just to get away from us,” he said. “Perhaps Maatje’s on another alien-race-can-cure-my-daughter kick?”
Mercury sipped her drink and considered. “I don’t know,” she said at last. “But we might find out more tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?”
“When I learned where they’d skedaddled to, I pulled in a favour with high-ups at the Hague. We’re meeting with a couple of suits tomorrow afternoon who, I hope, might be able to pull a few strings and get us to Beltran.”
“Not only are you beautiful, Mercury Isabella Velasquez, but you’re a genius.”
She stood up, reached out with both hands, and pulled him to his feet. “I’ve had a hell of a day and I’m dog tired. But not too tired, Matt…”
Later, he stared up at the stars through the diaphanous roof and wondered how he might have gone about the daunting task of locating his daughter all by himself. The thought made him shiver.

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Genre Chat with Stephen Volk

What’s in a Label?

THE-LITTLE-GIFT_coverOn the occasion of the publication of THE LITTLE GIFT, my new novella from PS Publishing, a thought comes to me unbidden, and it’s this:

Sometimes I have absolutely no idea of the genre of what I’ve just written.

It’s true.

It’s not like they come with the labels sewn on: “XL” or “Hand Wash Only”; “PG-13” or the late and much lamented “Certificate X”.

I’m not reluctant to call some of them Horror, and I’m certainly not disapproving of the word, like some people. Personally, I consider it a perfectly respectable, nay noble, appellation. It’s also where I come from, culturally speaking. My home turf, and I’m not afraid to admit it.

But the truth is, sometimes the stories I want to tell have Horror writ large—supernatural, frightening, disturbing—with monsters, often the human kind—and sometimes they don’t.

Increasingly, I must admit, I want to rein in the “H” quotient so it doesn’t splatter you with gore. Maybe it’s just a pinprick on your thumb that you have to suck. Maybe it’s not a painted skeleton dropping in front of your face on a ghost train ride, maybe it’s a line from today’s newspaper, or one of those thoughts you get before you drift asleep, or in that paranoid hinterland before waking.

To scare the pants off you and nothing more interests me less and less, because (here’s a secret not many will divulge . . . ) it’s kind of easy.

So what does interest me?

Not sure.

Never sure, until I start tapping the keyboard.

Science Fiction? Yeah—but never stuff that would turn on fans of Robert Heinlein or Greg Bear.

Fantasy? Once in a blue moon, but they’re as far from Terry Pratchett as even Terry Pratchett (were he alive) could imagine.

One or two might be Humour, I think (others might strenuously disagree): but they’re not exactly Martin Amis, let alone P. G. Wodehouse.

Then there’s Crime. A genre without boundaries, if there ever was one. And then it becomes complicated . . .

The simple fact is, like all writers, my touchstones are manifold—not just H/SF/F authors.

(And that’s, surely, as it should be.)

One person who lit up my imagination with a mega-ton bomb of illumination as to what a short story could do was Raymond Carver, who (some say with the aid of scissor-wielding editor Gordon Lish) honed a pared-down style of poetic naturalism that pretty much held in thrall every aspiring fictioneer who came after him.

Richard Ford and Suri Hustvedt are two contemporary writers who follow in that tradition, demonstrating (to me) that the deep observation of seemingly ordinary lives can reveal contradictions and dark, spiky insights, all the more effective than weary, tried-and-tested Horror tropes because they came from psychological realism and a kind of honest, un-showy reportage.

Ian McEwen’s early stories, too, had a big impact, using as they did disarmingly benign prose to convey shadowy perversions, straight-up grotesquerie and creepy menace without recourse to the safety net of the gothic. As Poe said all along, you don’t have to look further than the human mind, and its endless abnormalities, to find what to be fearful of.

(Yet what was McEwen dabbling in, if not Horror, or at least Crime? The Comfort of Strangers is about a psychopath. Enduring Love, a stalker. Saturday, a home invasion. Literary, schmittery!)

Furthermore, I’ve always had a very soft spot for Barbara Vine (Ruth Rendell, unfettered from her Inspector Wexford), whose protagonists are often shambling, unremarkable creatures shoved reluctantly centre stage. Absorbingly, if there’s a crime, you seldom know who’s going to commit it, or why, or when. And that’s riveting.

For the exact same reason I have been engrossed by certain recent television dramas of a similar bent—Bloodlines from Netflix and the excellent BBC drama Apple Tree Yard—both of which have hardly a police officer in sight.

They’re all about broken lives, not neat, Cluedo resolutions. We get a chance (as one actress recently put it in an interview), to “sit with the character’s pathology” and “see them unravel”.

That fascinates me far more than the crossword-puzzle allure of Inspector Morse, (and for that read Endeavour, Lewis, Foyle, and for that matter Rebus and his army of hard-drinking, hard-boiled clones). If I ever use a detective I always think they should be, like James Stewart in Vertigo, part of the mystery, not the solution. My characters should contribute to the mess, not merely the tidying up.

So which of the above notions, you might ask, amidst all this rambling, has directly influenced my rather uncharacteristic, I’m told, novella, THE LITTLE GIFT?

I couldn’t tell you.

Well, I could. But I don’t want to.

For a start, I think a guy who reveals to you the punch line of the joke he is about to relate is the very definition of a pub bore.

Secondly, the bottom line is, I don’t think many writers want their work to be labelled. Most want to simply see it out there amongst readers and have a life, like a paper boat you put in a stream you hope doesn’t run aground or get swallowed by a drain.

The rest in is the lap of the gods.

But if a story takes you, the reader, by surprise, even unsettles you because you were expecting something different? Great. I’ll be happy.

And if you can’t put your finger on what genre it is . . . I’ll be even happier.

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The Little Gift by Stephen Volk

SNEAK PEEK EXTRACT:

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THE NOCTURNAL SCAMPERING invariably signals death. I try to shut it out. The cat might be chasing a scrap of paper or a ball of silver foil across the bare floorboards downstairs, say a discarded chocolate wrapper courtesy of my wife, who likes providing it with impromptu playthings. I tell myself it isn’t necessarily toying with something living, but my stomach tightens.

What time is it?

I don’t want to get up. I don’t want to have to fumble to find my glasses and look at the clock. I want to go back to sleep, but dawn is cracking through the slatted blinds. I want to ignore what destruction and mutilation might be going on below, but now the cat is in the room, hopping onto the bed and I have the awful feeling, eyes still closed, it might drop a mouse, alive or dead, in the valley between us.

It settles, purring, relaxes, and so do I. For once no ghastly surprises.

Its head nuzzles against my outstretched hand. I feel its small pointed incisors against the soft skin below my little finger. This is my early morning call. I sink back to sleep. My wife is up first as she always is, kettle on before the children wake. I dimly perceive her weight leave the bed, but a minute later her cry from the ground floor cranks me off the pillow. I hurry down in boxer shorts and bare feet asking her what’s the matter, but I already know.

The room is full of feathers—never a good sign. There’s no doubt the cat has been to work, had its fun, prolonged the killing process in the way that millions of years of evolution has engineered it.

“Look!”

“What kind of bird is it?”

She sobs, tightening the belt of her dressing gown. “A beautiful one.”

They are always beautiful to her. Whatever our beloved feline brings in from the garden, whatever dire state they are in, however bloodied or punctured or lifeless, she thinks in some way they warrant saving—I swear, like they are Stuart Little or something. For the last few years we’ve been hoarding plastic soup containers, their sole purpose the catching and liberation of garden kill. My wife makes air holes in the lid with a kitchen knife and drips in water and feeds them bits of granola or Crunchy Nut Cornflakes, even if they’re at death’s door. She knows I think it’s ridiculous the way she insists on caring for the doomed creatures like some Mother Teresa of vermin. There again, I’m not always right. Once we had a field mouse with an eye missing, eviscerated down one side. I walked to the other side of town and emptied it into the river and it swam off happily. This time, though, it’s a bird and still alive, lolloping along the skirting board.

My wife grabs our cat, a haughty and self-satisfied Abyssinian, in her embrace and decants it into the utility room, shutting the 17th Century door and throwing the 17th Century bolt. I return to the living room wrapping a glove of kitchen roll round my hand to see the bird isn’t moving now, not even when I lift it up in cupped hands.

“Monster,” I say under my breath.

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