I spent most of 2012 writing this novel and so far haven’t felt up to the task of editing its rather hefty 147,702 words of content. It’s the third instalment of the ‘Authority of Stars’ series and I feel the strongest of the three in terms of plotting, writing style and characterisation. I get so focused on my job as a bar tender (and now my Masters degree in Linguistics) that I often neglect my writing, but anyway, here’s an unedited sample of the opening to the second chapter. It introduces Dominic, one of the central characters in the story.
– – –
He looked out of the window at a cobbled street full of people. He double-checked the time and felt something akin to shock. There was an unexplained thirteen percent increase in human traffic. Possible variables began to swirl around in the depths of his mind, but without additional information his theories could never be more than just conjecture.
He commanded the blinds to close and stood quietly in the resulting darkness; thinking. He added the thirteen percent increase to a long list of things beyond his control. He felt something akin to disappointment.
He went to the bathroom and picked up a straight edge razor from where it lay beside the sink. He looked into the mirror and a pale stony face looked back at him; blue eyes, flawless skin, high cheekbones. He was bare-chested and prickled taut with goose bumps. A short fuzzing of brown hair covered his scalp. He felt something akin to loathing at the sight of it.
He slowly and methodically scraped himself bald, being exceptionally careful not to cut into the rapidly reddening skin. He carefully arranged the mousy fibres into a small pile before opening the water valve and draining it all away. He ran a slender hand across his work and winced as the sweat on his palms was dragged across such tender flesh.
Pain had always been the only feeling he shared with others.
He would run until his feet bled and lift weights until his muscles twitched in their death throes. It was a pain he could enjoy. Exercise was good for the body and even better for the soul. The routine, the numbers and the statistics, the carefully measured quantities of various different foods, he thrived on the challenge and the thought that perhaps it would make him feel more human.
He flexed his biceps in detached admiration, appreciating his form as he would appreciate a faultless network program or a state-of-the-art synthetic machine.
‘Thirsty,’ he told himself in a voice too deep and too rich to be devoid of inflection.
He pulled a heavy jacket over his head and hid his empty face beneath its hood. He enshrouded his legs in thick woollen trousers, his feet in leaden leather boots and his hands in a huge pair of fleecy gloves.
He left the apartment and sealed it behind him within an impenetrable shell of powerful defensive software. The solid fibresteel door slid firmly shut, and was immediately locked into the wall as thirty-three automated deadbolts drilled deep into the doorframe. He knew with certainty that nothing short of a controlled explosion could penetrate his sanctuary. He felt something akin to self-satisfaction.
He padded quickly and quietly down three flights of stairs, past the front door and into darker recesses at the back of the building.
‘Hey Dom,’ said the caretaker, an elderly man in a dirty brown jumpsuit.
He was covered in dust. Fat wads of spider web were smeared down his front.
‘Hello thank you Peter.’
‘Going across the road for a coffee are you?’
‘Yes I am, yes Peter.’
‘If I give you some money will you grab me one of those meat rolls?’
‘Meat rolls, yes, of course.’
The caretaker squinted through eyes terribly in need of replacing. A crabbed hand with badly swollen knuckles dug into the folds of a deep pocket and emerged with a single dirty coin.
Dominic took it gingerly, his own optimally functioning eyes fixed on the tiny effigy embossed onto both sides. It was Lelantos, the Greek titan from which their world had gotten its name. Lelantos; the titan of the unseen and the unobserved. He felt something akin to admiration.
‘You’re a good lad Dom,’ said Peter, gratefully clapping him on the back.
‘ Thank you I don’t want to be touched Peter please,’ Dominic replied flatly.
‘Of course, sorry Dom, you can forgive an old man for forgetting can’t you?’
‘Never mind. I’ll be here when you get back.’
‘Yes you will, yes,’ said Dominic.
He walked away with the coin clutched tightly in one gloved hand, passing through an old wooden door and descending down a fourth flight of stairs. The basement was as dirty as it always was, but at least everything was in its place. He paused to brush a fresh spider web from the handle of an old broom.
He spoke to the network and the floor slid open to reveal a small maintenance tunnel. The dark and narrow confines were more than familiar, they were comforting. He crawled forwards exactly thirteen point three eight metres before exiting through a second trapdoor and patting the dust from his knees and elbows. He understood that other people appreciated cleanliness.
He ascended a flight of stone steps, removing his gloves and pulling down his hood.
‘Afternoon squire!’ Henry called over the buzz of customers. ‘I’ll be with you in one tick.’
‘Hey gorgeous,’ Lana said with a flirtatious wink.
He scrutinised her face without a single flicker of emotion, using his extensive knowledge of human psychology to discern that regardless of how it appeared she was not motivated by physical attraction. It was highly likely that she would find his body sexually appealing, but she had never seen it and so that was immediately removed as a possible variable.
Every day for six hundred and eighty-seven days his routine had been the same, but Henry’s and Lana’s, they had changed over time and it was fascinating to observe.
Henry owned the cafe. He was in his mid to late fifties and was balding, ruddy faced and overweight. By all accounts he was a goodhearted and hardworking man. Lana was a waitress. She was in her early twenties and unsure of who she was. She was intelligent, far too intelligent to be working in a cafe and she liked it when he told her as much.
A creature of habit, he took his usual seat besides the window where he could observe the street beyond. He ascertained that the men sat behind him were what could be described as “thuggish types”, thickset, unintelligent, and judging by their body language itching for an excuse to display their physical dominance. He felt something akin to contempt.
‘Afternoon Dom!’ Henry said jovially. ‘The usual?’
‘Hello Henry thank you Henry a meat roll for Peter,’ said Dominic, handing him the grubby Lelantos coin without looking up. ‘And a usual for me please Henry, yes.’
He was interested to see how the normally so practised routine would change with Peter’s meat roll added as a new variable.
‘Any news on when you’re leaving us Dom?’
It was an interesting result. Henry would only mention the inevitable departure when paired with feelings of obligation. Dominic was in no doubt that Henry would offer to personally deliver Peter’s meat roll.
‘Not yet, but tomorrow everything will change.’
‘When you do go, you’ll come in and say goodbye won’t you?’
‘Would that please you, yes Henry?’
‘Of course! This place will seem empty without you.’
‘I will, yes,’ Dominic promised.
‘Good man, heh. Your coffee coming right up. I’ll have Lana shuttle Peter’s roll and change over the road for you, can’t have it getting cold now can we?’
Henry wasn’t going to go himself but Dominic did not view the prediction as a total failure.
‘Hey Gary, would you please pass me the tomato sauce thank you yes?’
‘Of course yes thank you please Andrew.’
The thuggish types had begun an assault of verbal mockery in the hope that it would escalate into violence. Dominic would win the fight, but he would no longer be permitted to visit Henry’s cafe and his routine would be broken. A conundrum. He felt something akin to excitement.
‘Hey Basement-Boy!’ the one called Gary guffawed.
Several people stopped their conversations and looked around nervously. Lana tensed, her pleasant smile slowly disappearing as she approached with Dominic’s order. Dominic pretended to ignore them though his mind was awhirl. He spoke to the network and it showed him everything he needed.
‘Here you are lovely,’ she said more tersely than usual.
She carefully arranged his mug, spoon, napkin, milk and sugar in the way that she knew he liked. He felt something akin to gratitude despite the spoon being angled too far to the left.
‘Hey, lady!’ the one called Andrew shouted. He shovelled another forkful of fatty processed meat into his mouth and swallowed without chewing. ‘Is it Basement-Boy’s coffee break or something?’
‘What’s he doing down there, huh? Chopping up roadkill for these damn awful patties?’ Gary chortled. ‘You got yourselves a pet dumbass, huh?’
‘Settle down lads or I’ll be forced to ask you to leave,’ Henry warned from where he stood by the kitchen door.
‘I’ll thank you to show a little more respect,’ Lana added evenly.
She was defending him. Why?
Gary chuckled and returned to his meal, clearly satisfied with the disarray they had caused. Andrew on the other hand matched her confident gaze with narrowed eyes and his wormy lips curled into a snarl.
‘Just toddle off like a good little girl will you?’
She regarded Dominic with what he interpreted to be a sympathetic expression before complying. They had damaged her ego, he could see that much. He felt something akin to sympathy.
He poured a precise measure of milk into the steaming coffee, adding a level teaspoon of sugar and blending the ingredients with six counter clockwise stirs. He timed how long it took for the bronze whirlpool to quieten. It took a perfect twelve seconds and he silently congratulated himself on his immaculate technique.
‘Hey, look at me you weird fuck,’ Andrew whispered as soon as Henry and Lana both had their backs turned.
Dominic could smell alcohol and old sweat. He could see their reflections in the window, and though the image was vague they were not wearing any work attire he was familiar with. He would have recognised them had they been local, that much was a given. Perhaps they were vagrants, or petty criminals from another town laying low. Perhaps they were merely passing through on business.
‘Hey, can you fucking hear me?’
Andrew shoved a hidden elbow painfully into Dominic’s side.
‘Please do not touch me thank you,’ said Dominic levelly.
‘I’ll do whatever the fuck I like you little dumbass,’ the bigger man hissed maliciously, going in for a second blow.
Dominic quickly shifted his weight and with a metallic clang Andrew’s fat arm connected with the edge of his chair. That wormy mouth exploded into a fit of screams and for a second time the cafe went deathly quiet.
‘Out, now,’ Lana said loudly.
She marched over to the door and pulled it open. Andrew ignored her, his eyes fixed on Dominic as he took a casual sip of coffee.
‘You’re coming with us,’ Gary said loud enough for everyone to hear. ‘We’re going to teach you a little lesson.’
‘No. Thank you I very much doubt there is anything I can learn from you thank you.’
‘If you don’t get out right now I’ll summon the Collective,’ Lana warned.
Henry reappeared with a heavy frying pan clutched in one hand.
‘Fuck this!’ Andrew shouted.
He jumped to his feet and swept both meals crashing onto the floor. Dominic had anticipated the subsequent attack seconds in advance and ducked to one side. The bigger man threw himself forwards in an uncontrolled flurry of punches and kicks and flecks of spittle.
Dominic reacted so smoothly and effortlessly that Andrew might as well have been attacking the air itself. Those steely blue eyes spotted every muscle tense, every ligament tighten, every telltale intake of breath. With the mug of coffee still held in one hand he sidestepped and ducked and jumped backwards and swerved forwards.
‘How is he doing that?’ somebody whispered.
He noticed an alteration in body language and facial expressions throughout the room, and within no time at all their sympathy for him had somehow switched onto Andrew. His blows were becoming slower and clumsier and easier to avoid. Gary hopped from one foot to the other looking for an opening, but Dominic made sure that his attacker was always between them.
Lana was still holding the door open, a factor that had previously seemed irrelevant. An invisible hand clenched around his throat as he was suddenly made aware of the cold behind him, swirling infinitely from an emptiness in which he could so easy to lose himself. His face fell and he felt something akin to fear.
Andrew took advantage of the momentary lapse in concentration and staggered forwards with his arms open wide. Dominic had nowhere to go. Even if he was to abandon his policy of non-retaliation, his attacker had quickly built up a momentum that he would struggle to overcome.
A heavy shoulder took him just beneath the ribs and sent them both sprawling into the street. The sky was a vivid blue, but Dominic knew that it was merely a veil of refracted light disguising the vast empty blackness of space. He was pinned to the floor by trillions of subatomic particles that modern machines could command as easily as he could command the network.
There were too many stimuli.
His greedy eyes immediately began to funnel torrents of information into his greedy brain. Every contour of every brick, every line on every concerned face, every feather on every glossy black raven. He tried to make sense of it all but he was absorbing information at a rate beyond his ability to process. A bubbling layer of panic began to build on top of it all, fogging his judgement and causing his body to react in ways usually reserved for people with emotion.
Andrew laughed triumphantly, lifting a large pallid fist and bringing it down on Dominic’s jaw with as much strength as he could muster. Dominic felt his teeth tear through the inside of his mouth but it was a relatively superficial injury. The man was exhausted after all.
He rammed his eyes shut in an effort to block out the sensory overload, focusing instead on the rapidly ballooning pain in his lower cheek. Pain was something more easily understood. He felt his muscles go into spasms and his heart hammered faster than it did during even his most intensive training sessions. An inhuman cry whinnied in the back of his throat; another thing to add to the long list of things beyond his control. He felt something akin to disappointment.
Andrew hit him again and a fresh flower of burning numbness bloomed, this time from the side of his head. The cry expanded into a scream; something truly ghastly; something he struggled to believe was coming from his own mouth.
A shadow momentarily blocked out the dark crimson he could see through his eyelids and a metallic siren buffeted his eardrums.
‘CEASE AND DESIST!’
Andrew’s weight was abruptly and forcibly removed, but the bigger man had been his only visible anchor to the world beneath. Dominic’s eyes flew open wider than he thought they had ever been and his screams seared in his throat like hot coals.
His mind exploded into an inferno of uncontrollable thoughts that blurred his vision, blocked his hearing, clouded his smell and numbed all feeling. All he was left with was taste; the taste of his own hot coppery blood.
‘Tomorrow everything changes,’ a single grounded voice cut through the maelstrom. ‘Tomorrow everything will be different.’
- The Importance of Obsessive Compulsive Editing