Face of 1000 Heroes – a Commando Comic

Cover image by Neil Roberts

In the year 2104, regular military forces are obsolete. Instead, Iron Wind Corporation has created an enhanced army of super soldiers known as N-Unit. Engineered to be faster, stronger and braver than normal fighters, N-Unit is a clone army. Together they are unstoppable — that is, until one member goes rogue…

I’ve been writing comic scripts for Commando for a couple of years now. In that time, I’ve told a lot of stories that I’m proud of, from the intense urban warfare of Rats in the Rubble to the epic story of 1066. But this month sees the story I’m most excited about – a sci-fi adventure called Face of 1000 Heroes.

How the Story Came About

This story started at a comics convention.

I love history, and I’ve got the degrees to prove it, but as a fiction writer, my abiding passion is science fiction and fantasy. So when Commando publisher DC Thomson put out a collection of their old Starblazer comics last year, I was excited to see whether there might be more in the works.

Not long after, I met Gordon from Commando‘s editorial team at the Thought Bubble comics festival. Thought Bubble is always an amazing place to be, browsing the incredible range of comics being put out by British creators. It was fantastic to see Commando flying the flag for historical action alongside the superheroes and whimsical humour that make up so much of the comics scene. Naturally, I mentioned how excited I was by the Starblazer release, and asked whether it might mean more sci-fi from DC Thomson.

Following that conversation, Kate McAuliffe, the fantastic editor I work with on Commando projects, invited me to pitch a couple of sci-fi stories to her. While there’s no more Starblazer in sight yet, she accepted one of those pitches as a Commando comic, with a few changes to better fit the Commando theme.

And so a story was born…

Why Clones?

Face of 1000 Heroes follows a group of identical cloned mercenaries. I could give a load of highbrow reasons why I wanted to write about clones, from questions of consciousness and free choice through to a fascination with what makes an individual. But if I’m honest, the real reason is two pieces of sci-fi I loved as a teenager – Star Wars and Space Above and Beyond.

I grew up before Star Wars really got into clones. The prequel movies weren’t out yet, so the clone wars were this vague concept mentioned briefly in passing. Even when clones started to appear in stories like the Dark Empire comics, they weren’t well fleshed out. But that idea of wars between clones lurked in the back of my mind, a concept tugging at my curiosity down the years.

Then there was Space Above and Beyond, the shortlived TV show about US marines fighting a war against alien invaders. When it was bad, SAaB was pretty ropey, but when it was good, it was spectacular, and there was nothing like it on TV. One of its characters had been grown in a vat, part of a group known as In Vitroes or tanks, a non-identical clone underclass. Originally grown for war, the tanks were social outcasts, used by the show to explore issues of prejudice and segregation. A rich and fascinating history was hinted at during the show’s all too short run, before some nameless TV executive killed the series I loved.

When I sat down to think of a sci-fi war story, my mind went back to those two stories. If I was going to write about the future of warfare, then I was going to write about clones.

Rebellion, the Most British of Virtues

As a student of history, I’ve often found rebellions exciting. From the Spartacus revolt in ancient Rome, through the American Revolution, to the resistance fighters against Nazi occupation, military history is rammed full of rebel heroes.

And despite our outward image of conformity, the British have a long, proud tradition of rebellion. Boudicca’s revolt of 60AD turned Roman Britain upside down. The Civil Wars saw dozens of dissident groups reshape politics and religion, from the Roundhead armies to the radical agricultural protest of the Diggers. The 19th-century Chartists and 20th-century suffragettes helped bring on a real democracy.

Even within apparently conformist war stories, the heroes are often the rebels, the people who buck against corrupt authority and don’t play by the rules. It’s why Richard Sharpe has become such a popular figure in fiction.

There is nothing more British than rebellion, so if I was going to write a British sci-fi war comic, I was going to get some rebellion in.

The Long History of Mercenaries

The fact that the clones in this story are mercenaries also has its roots in history. Though we’re now used to thinking of armies as belonging to nations, armies have often worked differently. Late medieval Italy was reshaped by the condottieri captains, while the British East India Company ruled a whole country through private armies.

The past 20 years have seen private military firms gain influence and attention again, thanks to the use of companies such as Academi (formerly Blackwater) in the Middle East. Mercenaries, who not long ago seemed like figures from the past, increasingly look like the future of military action. That made them a natural choice for my story, helping to distinguish the military culture of my clones from the modern military while giving them someone to rebel against – the ruthless company they were bred to serve.

Why The Title?

The title of this story is an inversion of one of the most famous works on storytelling, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

Campbell’s book explores fundamental patterns in myths and storytelling. Released in the 1940s, it was hugely influential over the following decades, not least on a certain young director named George Lucas.

Now its influence is on the decline. Writers from different backgrounds have shown that many of Campbell’s generalisations don’t hold true. He’d found one pattern of myth-making, but it wasn’t as universal as he claimed. Many modern storytellers work hard to drag us away from Campbell’s monolithic form.

In some ways, the clones of Face of 1000 Heroes represent the opposite of Campbell’s work – not the idea that a single pattern can repeat with a thousand different faces, but that a thousand different people could each have the same face and still each have their own unique story. It’s a rebel’s approach to the theme.

Go Buy It!

So there you go – the origins and influences of a single sci-fi comic. If you’d like to see more sci-fi from Commando, or more British sci-fi comics in general, then please go out and buy this one. Experiments like this help publishers to understand what their audience wants, and the more people buy Face of 1000 Heroes, the more likely it is that Commando will publish more sci-fi. Hell, if enough of you buy it, then one day I might get to write the other story I pitched, the one with a carnival planet, a talking cat, and a space station that folds up in your pocket. Dream big, right?

And to all of you who’ve already picked up a copy of the comic, thank you very much, and happy reading!

Like Snowflakes – a science fiction short story

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

Snow was falling as I stepped off the platform and into the retirement town. This was it for the rest of my life, contained in one spot by the company that made me. At least the place looked pretty.

A woman stood by an all terrain car in the parking lot. She pulled the scarf down from across her mouth, revealing my face but with a scar running down her left cheek. ZK-class clones were bred as specialists, scattered around the world in mountain rescue teams, and I’d only encountered two others in my career. Even knowing it was coming, the experience was uncanny.

“I’m ZK-334,” she said. “You can call me Nora. And you must be 418.”

I didn’t shake the hand she offered, instead fiddling with the strap of my bag. It was too weird seeing my own face on a stranger.

“Everyone finds it unsettling at first,” Nora said. “You’ll get used to it.”

As she drove me into town, Nora talked about the people and possibilities the settlement held. All I could do was stare through the windows of the shops and restaurants we passed, seeing hundreds of faces like my own. I pulled my jacket tight and settled my hand on my belly, trying to calm its quivering. There’s nothing wrong, I told myself. This is just what you expected. But I couldn’t help scrutinising those faces, wishing there was someone different from me.

*

Nora laughed when I opened the door, revealing my outfit of tartan trousers and a bright pink hoodie. My distress must have shown, because she stifled her grin and offered a sympathetic smile.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Everyone goes through something like this when they arrive. It’s part of adjusting.”

I should have invited her in, but my home was the only place where that face was confined to the mirror. Even dressed the way I was, I didn’t feel like my own person in the rest of the settlement: no clothes could make me unique when everyone else had my eyes. Still, I clung to those clothes like they were a safety line and I was hanging over a crevasse.

“You don’t dress like this,” I said, twisting my neon watch.

“When I first got here, I wore outrageous Hawaiian shirts for a month. It gave me something to do while I got settled.”

“It’s been a month. I don’t feel settled.”

“It was easier for me.” She ran a finger down her scar. “I’d had this for a decade, and no-one without it looks quite like me.”

I nodded. That scar was part of why I could stand to see her.

“You pick a name yet?” she asked.

I shook my head. I had always been ZK-418. I got the principle of picking a name to mark the end of my service period, but no name would have sounded like me.

“Why don’t you come out for coffee,” she said. “Meet some people. It gets easier once you find out more about them.”

“No.” Just the thought of being around them made me feel faint. “Thank you.”

I stepped back and shut the door.

*

I looked in the bathroom mirror. There it was, the same face I saw everywhere. The same face as everyone I knew. Maybe if I had spent my life surrounded by it, like the military clones did, then I could have lived in this place, but to suddenly be robbed of my individuality, to dissolve into an identical multitude, was like falling from a mountain side, feeling solid support fall away as I hurtled powerless through the void.

I couldn’t even stand to see myself any more. I slammed my fist into the mirror and it shattered, slivers of glass ringing out as they landed in the sink. My knuckles stung and blood dripped down my middle finger.

A blood spot on glass stared up at me like a single, unblinking eye. Hypnotised by its gaze, I finally saw the answer. Nora had found a way to make it all bearable, and so could I.

I picked up a shard the length of my hand and raised it to my face. A scar like Nora’s wouldn’t do: this had to make me unique. The thought of doing it made me feel cold as ice, but it had to be done.

The doorbell rang. I turned, too numb to think beyond automatic reactions, and went to answer.

Nora’s smile lasted all of a second before she saw the look on my face and the glass in my hand.

“Oh, honey!” She looked at me with such sympathy that I could have cried. “That’s not the answer.”

Gently, she took hold of my hand and pried the glass from between my fingers.

“This is why you need to meet people,” she said, laying her hands on my shoulders. “It’s not what’s on the outside that makes us unique. It’s the people inside, and once you meet them, you’ll see more than just your own face looking back. This,” she tapped her scar, “it was a lifeline while I settled in, but it’s not what’s kept me sane.”

“I can’t,” I whispered. “Can’t go out. Can’t face them. I…”

“Then let me come in. I’ll tell you how my accident changed me, all the things I’ve done since that you haven’t. And if that’s okay, tomorrow I’ll bring Judy, the lady with all the piercings, so she can tell you how she went from mountaineer to DJ. How does that sound?”

It sounded terrifying. But so did the clink of shattered mirror falling into the sink, a reminder of the bloody alternative.
I stepped back from the doorway and let Nora in.

***

I have a Commando comic out this week, Face of a Thousand Heroes. Unusually for Commando, it’s a science fiction story instead of a historical one, a tale about cloned soldiers fighting in a future conflict. I wrote this story to show another side of that comic’s world. If you’re interested in reading more, you can find Commando on Comixology or in newsagents.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

After the Fire – a science fiction short story

Image by skeeze from Pixabay

Fifty feet above my head, there’s a wildfire blazing. Towers of flame stretching into the sky, destroying everything from windweed to prefabricated houses. The nearest city is probably ash by now, but I’m down here, cool, safe, and mercifully alone.

It might have been useful to have company when I reached the shelter. The firestorm came in so fast, I rammed my car into a tree racing here, then gouged my leg on the twisted bumper. It’s not easy to bandage yourself when you’re shaking with shock, but I did it, and I’ll be fine once the painkillers kick in. Better to deal with it myself than to be stuck down here with some random stranger, listening to their snoring and clearing up their discarded trash. If I wanted company then I would have stayed on Earth.

Time to go check out the kitchen, see what I’ll be living off for the next few weeks.

#

If I ever meet that colony recruiter again, I’m going to kick his ass. He told me these bunkers were heatproof, but I’m sweating like a politician in front of the press.

#

Father was the bear, you see? But then the waves, and the falling, and it’ll all be ecstatic.

asdfggggggggg

#

Three days of fever dreams, and I wake up to find that my leg’s still infected. I replaced the bandage, but the new one already stinks like a garbage dump. This place has a tiny shower cubicle, so I washed the sweat and crud off the rest of my body, but the wound on my leg hurt too much to be cleaned. Then I had to lie down for two hours, because apparently ten minutes of standing is more than I can take.

If only I’d been more careful getting out of the car. Just a few seconds of caution would have saved me a world of pain. If I’d looked down, stepped a little wider, or stopped at that first tearing sound, instead of letting fear of the flames rush me.

Idiot.

I’m reduced to eating cold meals out of cans because I used up all my strength on that shower and there’s no-one else here to cook. Can’t even call for a takeaway. I’ve watched the same stupid movie on loop three times because it’s easier than using the remote, and now I’m dictating rather than typing. Seriously, what have I become?

#

My temperature’s back down and the leg’s healing nicely. I’m going to have an awesome scar.

Now I can make use of this place, I can really appreciate the opportunity it’s given me. There’s no work to do, no one asking if I want to go for drinks. I don’t even have a virtual connection, because any affordable coms antenna would get melted by the fire. So it’s just me, my thoughts, and a library of digital entertainment. I’m going to work out, read a few classics, and really take some time for myself.

Of course I’m not saying I’m glad of the wildfire, but this is going to be exactly the break I need.

#

Which idiot thought that this was a planet worth settling? That we should live through a firestorm once a decade just so they could mine the minerals? And now we’re here, why aren’t we all living out at sea?

Fuck you, first settlers. And fuck you, colonial recruiter.

#

Nearly four weeks. The hatch sensor light blinks orange, saying that the temperature’s falling above me, but not enough yet.

I got through two books before I had to give up. The air down here must be missing something, because I don’t normally have a problem with concentration. Now I sit limply in front of a screen, watching the same sitcoms on loop, because the moments when the couples connect make me feel warm inside and the jokes almost make me laugh.

These are the people I can live with. People on a screen.

#

I just spent an hour staring at the hatch, wondering how far through the fire I would have to run to find people.

#

A big day in two ways.

This morning, for the very first time, there was no pain at all in my leg.

This afternoon, for the first time, the hatch sensor dropped down into the green.

The advice we were given is clear. Unless you urgently need help, wait for three days in the green before you go out. That way you can be sure that the fire won’t flare up again.

I sit and stare at the sensor. In the background, canned laughter rolls out over cheap jokes. Soon, it’ll be time for the wedding episode. Until then, this little green light has me transfixed.

#

It’s not quite been three days, but it’s close enough.

I’m dictating this with one hand on the hatch. In my imagination, there are rescue workers up there, come to check for bunker entrances that have become buried or jammed shut. People in masks and overalls striding through swirling clouds of ash.

Real people.

The scar tissue feels stiff when I stretch out my leg. I need to be more careful this time, but I also need to get out into the world. Not for the people, of course. For the space and the clear fresh air.

***

They say to write what you know, so hey, here’s a story about someone living in isolation. I bet there aren’t a bazillion of those out there already.

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

Chat Up Lines From Another Dimension – a science fiction short story

Tod Fortuno opened his eyes and stared at the ceiling of the cave. The rocks were colours he didn’t have words for, impossible protrusions that folded across and through each other in defiance of geometry. Tod hadn’t even whimpered when he’d broken his leg during a cage match gone out of control, but looking at that ceiling made him want to scream.

At least it was better than the sky outside.

“Where are we?” he said, still trying to make sense of the rocks.

“Another dimension,” Captain Lesting said, grinning as she brushed dust from her dress uniform. “Pretty cool, right?”

“Why?”

“The maths of this place, mostly. It’s not often you see somewhere so spectacularly at odds with our universe.”

“I mean why did you bring me here?” Tod forced himself to sit up, despite the wild spinning of his brain. Now he knew why only a select few entered the Interdimensional Corps – it must take a twisted sort of mind to cope with this.

“I asked if you wanted to go somewhere that would blow your mind, and you said-”

Tod groaned. “I thought it was a chat up line.”

Lesting looked down at her feet.

“It kind of was. I’ve always had a thing for wrestlers, and the party was boring anyway, so I thought maybe…”

“Just take me home.” Tod closed his eyes. He’d thought that Lesting was his type – short, brunette, dressed in a uniform – but it turned out that his type didn’t include interdimensional joyriders.

“About that…” Lesting held up the device she’d been playing with before the real world vanished. It could have just been a smartphone, if not for the eerie light pulsing on one end. “Coming here drained the battery. I figured that once we were on our own it would have time to recharge, but-”

Outside the cave, something howled. The sound was closer than the last time, which had been closer than when they’d seen the creature outside, a clawed cross between a jaguar and the aftermath of a bomb blast, muscled legs covered with jagged protrusions and swirling with toxic grey dust.

“That thing is coming for us!” Tod yelled.

“Ssh!” Lesting pressed a finger to her lips. “You don’t want it to hear us – not until the opener has recharged.”

“What difference does hearing us make? It saw me. It looked into my soul and I swear I could feel its hunger, like a maggot trying to eat me from the inside.”

Lesting tipped her head on one side and looked at him.

“You should be a poet,” she whispered.

“Are you high?” Tod asked, narrowing his eyes. “Or are you just insane?”

“Little of column A, little of column B.”

Tod pressed the palms of his hands against his head, as if he could somehow press down the mounting pressure that came from his anger and the dizzying weirdness of looking around this place.

Part of the cave wall melted, turned briefly into something like a pile of silver bricks, then returned to its original form.

Lesting smiled at her device. “Halfway there.”

The howl sounded again. The creature had come a lot more than half way.

“What do we do if it gets here?” Tod asked, looking nervously towards the cave mouth.

“Usually I have guns and bombs and emergency transponders, but apparently you’re not allowed to take those to parties.” Lesting’s look of baffled frustration turned suddenly to excitement and she looked up at Tod. “You could wrestle it!”

“That thing’s seven feet tall and covered in claws!”

“You wrestled the Overtaker. He’s seven feet and he was wearing a robot suit.”

“But that wasn’t real. That was TV. That was us faking for an audience!”

“No!”

“Yes, of course, you mad b-” Tod stopped, seeing the glitter of mischief in her eye. “You’re messing with me, aren’t you?”

“Little bit.” She held up the device. “Battery’s charged.”

The howling came again, so close it shook Tod’s teeth. Fear had replaced nausea and confusion in the wrestling match for control of his mind. He grabbed hold of Lesting’s hand, squeezing far tighter than on their way out of the party.

“Get us the hell out of here.”

“I love it when you take charge.” She grinned at him, then pressed her thumb against a blinking light.

A bright flash forced Tod to close his eyes. He felt himself lifted for a moment, then settled back onto his feet and looked around.

“We haven’t moved. Why haven’t we moved?”

Lesting looked down at the device. The blinking light had turned to a dull glow.

“Sorry about that,” she said, letting go of his hand so she could tap the top of the screen. “These things don’t always work first time. We’ll just have to wait for a fresh charge.”

She looked at the cave mouth and her face went pale. The howling rang out, closer than ever, and the cave walls rippled in response.

“Oh shit,” she whispered.

The creature prowled into view, its single eye glowing like a supernova. Tod looked from it to Lesting to the light that was slowly building in brightness on her device.

He turned back to the beast and squared his shoulders.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“I’m gonna wrestle it.”

“But your wrestling’s fake!”

“You think they know that in this dimension?”

He raised his hands. The beast bared its death-black teeth. Tod’s head spun as he tried to make sense of the way the beast moved and the cave walls warped around it.

“You were right, this place really did blow my mind.”

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

The Other Plague of Locusts – a science fiction short story

Professor Kimani stood in the doorway of Green Eden Labs, watching the locusts swarm across the fields. She smiled to herself – all was well with the world.

A jeep came tearing down the track out of the mountains, bumping and jolting, dust flying behind it. It screeched to a halt and one of the passengers climbed out.

Kimani recognised him from snippets she had seen of the rebels’ social media. A tall man with a predatory grin and a Kalashnikov hanging from his shoulder, Joseph Mburu looked like a wolf prowling into a field of sheep. He was, depending upon who she listened to, the country’s last great hero or a terrorist whose hands would forever drip with blood.

“Professor Kimani,” he said. “I hear you have performed a miracle.”

“You’re too kind,” Kimani said, certain that kindness was no a feature of Mburu, whatever the merits of his cause.

“You have genetically engineered locusts that feed crops instead of devouring them, yes?”

“Correct.”

“Then I have come to buy your locusts.” Mburu signalled to his driver, who opened up a gym bag, revealing rolls of worn US dollar notes. “With them, I will be able to feed our poor freedom fighters and the abandoned communities they serve. You will be saving the soul of our country.”

“I’m sorry, but no.”

A flash of anger shone in Mburu’s eyes.

“Be careful who you say that to, professor,” he growled.

There was a shout from his driver. A BMW was rolling sedately between the fields of wheat, light glinting off its mirrored windows. It slowed as it approached the lab, decelerating quietly to a halt. Two white men in sunglasses stepped out, holsters visible beneath their jackets. They watched Kimani and his driver as a third figure emerged from the rear of the car.

Kimani recognised her from an international conference on genetic editing. A stately blond woman wearing discreet makeup and a perfectly tailored suit, Julia McKee had the utter confidence only a CEO could carry. She was, depending upon who Kimani listened to, the world’s greatest innovator in genetic technology or a parasite preying off the work of gifted minds.

“Professor Kimani,” she said, offering her hand. “A pleasure to meet you again.”

“And you,” Kimani said, wondering if McKee actually remembered her.

While Mburu eyed the businesswoman with a hungry grin, his driver and her bodyguards exchanged tense glances, their hands inches from their weapons.

“I hear that you’ve made an amazing breakthrough,” McKee said. “That your benign locusts will drive hostile swarms away.”

“Correct.”

“Then I have come to buy the rights to your locusts.” McKee drew a cheque from her pocket, revealing more zeroes than in the lab’s whole annual budget. “With them, I will transform pest control, empowering farmers and agricultural businesses around the world.”

“I’m sorry, but no.”

McKee barely blinked.

“This is just a consulting fee, professor,” she said. “Our full payment will set you up for life.”

“Hey, those are my locusts!” Mburu butted in. “They’re going to feed the downtrodden.”

“They will feed the world.”

“That’s what you capitalists always claim, just before you empty our pockets.”

A car horn blared out a tinny impression of the national anthem. They all turned to watched as a limousine roared up the road from the city, flags flying from the bonnet. It ground to a halt next to the BMW and three uniformed soldiers leapt out. While one held the door open, the others pointed their guns at Mburu and his driver, who waved their own weapons back. The air was full of angry shouts as McKee’s bodyguards dragged her into the shelter of their car.

“Please, stop this!” Kimani said, trembling as she stepped between the three bands of armed men. “If any of you want me to listen, you will stop this at once.”

Reluctantly, they all lowered their weapons, and a man stepped out of the limousine.

Kimani recognised him from a hundred news broadcasts. Short and round, dressed in an overstretched uniform with a string of medals across his chest, Charles Wambui carried himself like a man used to being obeyed. He was, depending upon who Kimani listened to, either the gifted politician who had reunited a troubled country or a corrupt bureaucrat leaching her nation of life.

“Sally,” he said, ambling over with his arms held wide. Kimani stepped back to avoid what looked worryingly like it might have turned into a hug.

“I prefer Professor Kimani,” she said. “Mister President.”

“Whatever you wish. I hear that you and your team have achieved amazing things, that your new locusts while breed with the old swarms, rendering them sterile and killing off these plagues.”

“Correct.”

“Then your country thanks you for your good work. We will be providing grants to help you continue, while we take your first creations and use them to protect the harvests.”

“I’m sorry, but no.”

Wambui frowned.

“I don’t think you understand, professor. I am the president. I am legally entitled to-”

“Your laws are grounded in lies,” Mburu yelled. “These insects should go to the people, so that-”

“You cannot keep this technology for a single nation,” McKee interjected. “The world deserves the chance to reap the dividends of an incredible moment in-”

“Enough!” Kimani yelled.

They all looked at her, stunned into silence.

She took a deep breath, surveyed the three most powerful people she had ever met, and tried to keep her voice from wavering.

“I will not be selling the locusts to any of you, because I can’t. Humanity cannot control nature, and I cannot control a swarm of insects. Look.”

She pointed across the fields. The swarms that had been there before were gone, flown away to protect and nurture some other crop.

“They are doing what they were made to do,” she said. “The people will benefit from it, not one of your causes.”

She turned on her heel and strode back into the lab, slamming the door behind her.

“Locusts,” she muttered angrily, shaking her head.

***

If you enjoyed this story and would like to read more like it then you might want to sign up to my mailing list, where you’ll get a free ebook and a flash story straight to your inbox every Friday.

***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

The Surprise of Snowpiercer

I’m a huge fan of the film Snowpiercer. It’s an exciting, action-packed story and a powerful modern fable. That’s also why I thought it would make a terrible TV show.

Snowpiercer is a parable about inequality. Following an environmental cataclysm, humanity has been reduced to the inhabitants of a single massive train, constantly rolling around the world. The inhabitants are strictly divided by class, with the wealthiest few living in spacious carriages at the front, the poorest crowded together in the rear, and a range of other ranks between. Pushed to the limit, a group of the train’s poorest inhabitants set out on a revolutionary journey to overthrow the hierarchy by fighting their way to the front of the train. As messages go, it’s not subtle.

As a film, it works because, in the short space of a couple of hours, you’re carried along by the pace of the story. You don’t pay attention to the things about life on this train that don’t make real-life sense, like how they’re managing to feed everyone. The film’s train works as a symbol, not a coherent reality, and you can brush over that for a two-hour parable. Not, I thought, for a long-form television story.

It turns out that I was wrong. The makers of the TV show have found a way to expand upon the setting of Snowpiercer, by showing us the other side of the fight for control of the train. Instead of portraying the train as a functioning self-contained system, we’re shown that it’s constantly on the brink of collapse, the people in charge struggling to hold things together. It’s like the middle third of Seveneves, where experts are desperately trying to save what’s left of humanity using the dwindling resources of a broken orbital armada. Viewers look at Snowpiercer‘s train-bound society, say “that couldn’t work”, and the characters look back at us and say “we know!”

This changes the nature of the story. The morality of the film was clear and simple – oppression bad, rebellion good. In the show, it’s more complicated. The people holding down the poorer class are doing so because they think it’s necessary to save humanity. I’m not sure that’s a good message to make relatable right now, when we’re seeing real-life authoritarians throwing around justifications for cruel and brutal behaviour. It’s certainly an argument though, and it will be interesting to see where the show takes a more nuanced and complex, but still tense and intriguing, version of its story.

Rough Justice – A Science Fiction Short Story

I stared at the broken tanker in the middle of the waste ground. Green sludge swayed and pulsed around it, creeping towards the river. I could smell its putrid fumes through the filter of my cheap prison issue hazmat suit.

My last day. All I had to do was obey the guards and I would be out tomorrow, a year knocked off my sentence for the sake of biohazard work, work that had given me skills and a purpose for three years. Sometimes you really could win.

“I won’t do it,” Cyril said. He always protested at the jobs, but always did them in the end.

“Come on,” I said. “Cut to the end and let’s get working.”

“I’m serious. I won’t touch that stuff.”

The lead guard, Haverstaff, glared at Cyril. “You get down there and do what you’re told, or it’s solitary for all of you.”

A groan went up from the whole crew. The warden believed in the motivational power of collective punishment, but to us it was one more injustice.

“No.” Cyril folded his arms, but though he played at defiance, what I really saw was fear.

“Let me,” I said, and Haverstaff stepped back. He was always happy to let someone else do the work.

I prodded Cyril in the chest.

“I need this,” I said. “My kid are waiting to see me tomorrow, and that only happens if I do my last day.”

“I know what that stuff is.” Cyril stared in horrified fascination at the green goo. “If it gets through the suit, it won’t just make you sick. It’s an engineered parasite that will take over your body.”

“You idiot,” I growled. There was only one way Cyril knew this – his company had made it, before they were shut down for reckless endangerment. “You get down there and face the sick shit you made, or I’ll drag you down and throw you in.”

If he was considering resisting, Cyril stopped when he saw the look in my eyes. He followed me down to the spillage, where the others already waited.

What we faced wasn’t just a liquid. It was a living thing, pulsing and writhing, stringy tentacles rising from its surface. We fought them off with shovels and brooms while trying to suck it up with hoses and a vacuum tank. Acrid chemicals were spread over the thin traces left behind. After two years on the crew, I knew better than to let those powders splash my suit, but twice I had to stop new guys from reaching into the jars.

Halfway through the day Dunn, one of those new kids, stopped working and stood staring at the side of the broken container.

“I know this stuff,” he said in his slow drawl. “This is the stuff what took over my aunt and her kids. Good as killed them.”

Cyril froze at those words, sweating behind his plastic visor. He didn’t realise that Dunn and the rest had missed what he said. They didn’t know he was responsible.

Haverstaff glared at Dunn. He didn’t like it when inmates stopped working. The threat of collective punishment loomed again.

“Sorry, man,” I said, laying a hand on Dunn’s shoulder. “Let’s make sure this shit doesn’t kill anyone else, eh?”

Dunn was a good guy, despite his conviction for assault, and those words were enough to set him back to work.

But Dunn’s words plagued me. It wasn’t fair that people had died from this shit, when all Cyril got was a couple of years on the inside. I could have let Dunn know, let him balance the books with his fists, but it would have ruined the day’s work.

“Out of the way,” I said to Cyril, who stood tense amid the remains of the ooze. Since Dunn spoke, he’d been even more on edge, too distracted by Dunn to focus.

I swung the jar in my hand and chemical powder hissed as it hit the green ooze. A little of the powder landed on the back of Cyril’s leg, scorching tiny holes through his suit. I thrust the jar into his hand and grabbed the hose that he hadn’t moved in two minutes.

“Fuck’s sake, Cyril, I need to get this finished.” I swung the hose around and drips of green goo flew. It hit the back of his leg, just where the holes were.

“Hey, careful with that!” he said, stumbling back.

Suddenly, he froze and his eyes went glassy.

I leaned in close enough to whisper through the thin masks of the hazmat suits.

“Keep quiet, do the work, and we all get out of here, OK?”

The parasite that had taken over Cyril nodded.

I might have felt guilty, except there was screening on the way into the prison. They would work out what was wrong and isolate the thing that was in him. Dunn would have his revenge, I’d have my day’s work finished, the other prisoners would be safe. Justice for all.

“Last day nearly done,” Haverstaff said to me. “What you gonna do on the outside?”

I pointed at the biohazard. “I’ve got good at this work, figure I’ll get a job doing it for real. Decent protective suits, proper equipment, real pay…”

“That’s not gonna happen,” Haverstaff said, his laughter not cruel but patronising. “Wit ha criminal record, you’ll never get the licence to handle chemicals.”

He frowned at Cyril, who was staring vacantly around.

“What’s the matter with him?” he asked.

I froze. One more hour, that was all I needed. One more hour and my work was done. But if we didn’t finish the day…

Haverstaff prodded the thing that had been Cyril. “I told you, do the work or you’re all off to solitary.” He frowned at the stain on the back of Cyril’s leg. “What happened there?”

The creature stared blankly back at him.

“I said, what happened?”

The creature seemed to see the jar in its hands. It tipped it up and chemical powder fell around their feet.

“Jeez!” Haverstaff leapt back as the ooze around them bubbled. “Be careful with that shit.”

I wondered for a moment if I should just let things fall apart. Here I was useful. I was making the world safer for ordinary people, ones screwed over by the likes of Cyril. Out there in the world, I’d just be one more guy signing on for government help or working in a convenience store.

But I’d be one more guy with my kids.

“It’s OK,” I said, grabbing Cyril’s jar. “I’ve got this.”

“Hurry up and finish,” Haverstaff said. “I want to get out of here.”

He wasn’t the only one.

***

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***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

Each Creature a Letter – a science fiction story

I have it at last. The final piece of the code. The last of the message hidden by God in his creation.

It took me years to understand where the code was hidden. I scoured holy books, trying to divine the secret alphabet they concealed. Years of research wasted in dusty rooms and crumbling manuscripts, scrutinising the conclusions of theologians and mystics, looking for the gaps in their work.

Then I realised that the message wasn’t in those texts, it was written into creation itself. That was why Noah had to build the ark. Each creature is a letter, and only when those letters are put together will we see God’s message for us.

I have them all now. Genetic code from every creature known to man. My computers have been analysing them, finding what is unique in each one. Those fragments of code will be the letters, and when I bring them together, joy of joys, His will be done!

I know that now is the time because now is when it has become possible. A decade ago, I couldn’t have extracted the individual letters and brought them back together, but gene editing has changed the world. This is what he preordained, calibrating our intelligence to work this out now, when the animals we know are the ones for the code. In his omniscience, he was able to see a path for us. Humanity is the tool with which he will perfect creation, and I am the sharp point of that tool.

Fingers trembling at the controls of the computer, I set the machine to put the final piece into place. What letter does the zebra represent? There is no A, B, or C here, but a holy alphabet thousands of letters long, barely comprehensible to the human mind. Still, I wonder what sound each letter represents.

Perhaps my creation – His creation – will be able to tell me.

The code is complete. Now it goes into the incubator, a vat of nutrients and electricity from which life can be born anew. Let it grow there, in this modern primordial soup. This is the darkness into which The Word will be breathed – a word beyond any we can fathom, recreated from the beings it set loose.

The weeks of gestation are long and gruelling, grinding my patience down to a nub. I snap at colleagues but cannot explain or excuse myself. If they knew what I was doing in the farthest corner of the lab, they would call me insane. They don’t understand. They never have.

At last the time comes for me to open the incubator. As I lift the lid, I imagine what might emerge. A glowing figure perhaps, like the Christ child in a renaissance painting. An angel even, wings spread and singing the glory of his name.

When I see it, I am struck not by wonder but by nausea. It is a terrible twisted thing, mismatched limbs barely able to drag its body out of the amniotic pool. It looks up at me with wide, desperate eyes and reaches out, dripping, toward my face. Then it collapses, gasping, twitching, hanging limp and feeble across the edge of the incubator.

This is no divine message. I have birthed an abomination.

I grab a syringe and fill it from a small and deadly vial. I force myself to touch the creature’s neck, to hold it steady while I slide the needle in. As skin meets skin, the creature looks up at me once more, pupils wide, and leans in towards me. I have to look away as I push the plunger.

I don’t wait for the abomination, still as stone now, to go cold. I haul it into a waste sack and drag it down to the incinerator. My terrible mistake is reduced to ash, its visage lingering only in my nightmares. No-one will know what I have done. I return to the lab and scrub every last surface clean.

I was arrogant, wrong-headed, thinking that I understood God’s message. In my hubris, I created something terrible and the experience has humbled me.

There is more to God’s message than just hidden letters. There is the ordering of those pieces, the spelling of His words and the grammar of His text. I must return to my studies. One day, I will complete His message for humanity, but today is not that day.

***

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***

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves

Lies - High Resolution

A spin doctor forced to deal with aliens who loathe lies.

A squad of soldiers torn apart by the fiction in their midst.

A hunting submarine with its dead captain strapped to the prow, the crew promising that one day they’ll revive him.

We all tell lies to get through the day, some of them to ourselves, some to other people. Now read the extraordinary lies of the future in these nine short science fiction stories.

Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is available now from all major ebook stores.

Seveneves and the Coronavirus: Reading One Disaster While Living Through Another

Context changes everything. Reading Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve found that one disaster has added to my experience of another.

The Alienation of Disaster

First published in 2015, Seveneves is a massive novel set in the near future. Within the first few pages, the Moon explodes. As people reel from this staggering change, a greater disaster looms. The pieces of the Moon crash against each other, creating a cloud of debris that will, within a few years, fall upon the Earth and wipe out all life.

In the face of annihilation, humanity must decide what can be saved, and how. Frantic effort and incredible ingenuity are poured into getting people into orbit, with the resources they will need to survive in space and to rebuild civilisation. The book explores both the scientific challenges of this disaster and the human side of the equation – how people react under terrible pressure.

If you’re reading this now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, I probably don’t need to tell you why that’s resonated so much with me. We’re facing an incredible crisis in which scientists are rushing to find solutions while society struggles with the combined strains of fear, grief, and isolation. It’s not the end of the world, but it’s not life as we know it either.

There’s a sense of alienation to current circumstances that runs like a thread of barbed wire through Seveneves, tearing at the reader. The space-based survivors of the disaster are the lucky ones, but their lives are nothing like they knew or expected. They’re cut off from family and friends, confined in space, not knowing what the future holds. Living through our current crisis has made that feel much more real.

Losing Control

Loss of control is always difficult to cope with, and it’s another way in which my reading of Seveneves has been transformed by current conditions.

There’s very little I can do about COVID-19. I’m social distancing and washing my hands a lot, but that’s it. I’m not a medical professional or involved in supporting them. I can do nothing to treat or stop the disease.

Even among people on the front lines, many will be feeling a sense of powerlessness. Supplies are short and promises of delivery unreliable. Tracking and containing the spread of the disease has proved difficult at best. There is no cure yet. Medical staff can help individual patients and they’re saving countless lives that way, but the big picture is outside their control.

There’s a similar feeling of powerlessness at play in Seveneves. For all of humanity’s efforts, the wrong lump of rock could fatally undermine the survival effort. The ill-considered actions of a few people can undo the good work of others. The characters can influence events but no-one has control over their own life, and that’s a big part of the feeling we’re all experiencing right now.

The Human Side of Natural Disaster

All of that has given me emotional reference points with which to process Seveneves, adding to my experience of the book and the immediacy of its story, but one specific point has rung true in a way that Stephenson can’t possibly have predicted. That point has spoilers for midway through the book, so if you want to avoid them, skip to the next header.

All clear? Then let’s talk about the president.

Julia Bliss Flaherty, the President of the United States of America, is one of the most important characters in Seveneves. As humanity is dying, she breaks the rules for who gets to survive, effectively stealing a space flight to save her own skin. Traumatised, powerless, and desperate, she uses her demagogic gifts to stir up some of the survivors against their scientifically informed leaders. She fosters terrible and unnecessary division to make herself important. Her actions add to the disaster.

If your political views are anything like mine, then by this point you’ve drawn the obvious comparison. Julia is a Trump-like president created before we ever dreamed he would get the job, never mind react to this crisis the way he has done. A character who would have seemed extreme if I’d read this a few years ago now seems all too plausible.

But Julia represents something wider as well. She’s a reminder that natural disasters are never just about nature. The scale of loss in any famine, flood, or plague will always depend on the structures of society and the way people react. We have ways to minimise disasters, but our social, economic, and political structures often exacerbate them. Just look at the Irish potato famine to see how that works.

While none of us can individually control the spread of COVID-19, collective human action is affecting how deadly it is. Swift responses in South Korea and New Zealand have minimised the disease’s impact in those countries. Global inequalities will almost certainly lead to a devastating death toll in sub-Saharan Africa. In every country, we can see examples of how no disaster is purely a natural event.

Recovery

This might make it sound like Seveneves is a terrible thing to read right now. Sure, it has greater emotional power, but it’s a bleak read in a time when the world already seems bleak enough.

Except that there’s more to it than that. The cover blurb itself states that this is also a story about recovery, about how humanity rebuilds thousands of years later. The final third of the book jumps forward to a very different society, in which the new humanity is resettling Earth.

This is the part that’s hard to see from the heart of the COVID-19 pandemic – recovery. Yes, this disaster is hideous, the loss of life unbearable, the emotional and social trauma immense. We’ll be recovering from this for years to come. But we will recover. We’ll rebuild. And while life will never be like it was before the crisis, it will become bright again.

For two-thirds of the book, current circumstances have shed light on Seveneves for me, adding depth to the emotional experience. But for the final third, it’s the book that’s shedding light on the current crisis, giving me a reminder of what is to come, a sense of hope in terrible times.

Context changes the way we read, but our reading can change the context too.

My Terrible Choices of Great Books

Social distancing has given me a chance to do more reading, which has turned into a mixed blessing. The books in my to-read pile have all proved excellent, but boy are they bleak choices for troubled times.

First up, as I discussed last week, there was Cage of Souls by Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s a dense, engrossing novel about a prisoner at the tail end of human civilisation, a man trying to get by as the world collapses around him. There’s even a section where he’s locked up alone. Definitely no bleak parallels with the present there…

Once I got through that, I read another of Tchaikovsky’s books, a new novella titled Firewalkers. It’s set in an environmentally ravaged future in which the rich are escaping into space, leaving the poor to die. I read that one just as stories were emerging of politicians making investment choices based on coronavirus while not acting to prevent it. Apparently people really are jerks like that.

And now I’m onto Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, which begins with the moon exploding and so dooming human life on Earth. It’s well written, crammed full of fascinating detail, and at 861 pages it should keep me entertained through a lot of time alone, but blimey, it is no way to escape the bleakness.

Is there a message to all of this? Well, I suppose there’s “be careful what you wish for” – I wanted more time to read and now I’ve got it. But once I’m done with this lot, I think it’ll be time to head back into an old, comforting favourite. Winnie the Pooh is calling me from the bookshelf, and I know he’s got nothing sad to say.