So, as well as the Grinn & Berrit short tales and the occasional TV and film review, I have been putting a fair amount of time into my very first novel, (woop!) and since I'm making good progress with it now, I have decided to give you a little sample of it.
While not exactly humourless, it is to be a great departure from my usual nonsensical fantasy schlock. Grinn & Berrit is very much a playground for ideas where plots are brief, unashamedly meandering and built around punch-line-esque conclusions. My reviews as well, while I try to provide at least some critical insight, are more focused towards entertainment via humour.
This however, this is different.
I don't wish you tell you more than that just yet. I feel that this story may be one of those that is more enjoyable the less you know about it. That being said, it is a tale of introversion, solitude and personal autonomy, and is by far the story I've put the most into. This chapter may look entirely different by the time the novel is finished, and I doubt you'll see the rest for a long while yet, but hopefully it'll be enough to give you a feel of what the story will be like.
Hope you enjoy...
Have you ever woken up and forgotten where you are? Often it will be that a wall on the wrong side of the bed catches you out, or that the pillows don’t feel quite right. You lay still to scan the unfamiliar surroundings. Then, in a small revelation, you recognise the wallpaper from your friend’s spare bedroom, or the lamp from the hotel room you booked the night before. Following this, one can assume the memory of the night before will return within a few moments, that your knowledge of the world would realign itself with reality all with a just small amount of absent thought. The girl in the window had been telling herself that this would happen for almost half an hour.
She was in a coffin of sorts, upright but leaning backwards and lidded with glass. Dark tree tops framed the periphery of her view, their trunks obscured by the walls of her container. With nothing else to occupy her mind she had been playing with the idea that the trees could be simply images painted on the window. They didn’t seem to move, and there was no indication of how far away they were. With her eyes, lint clogged and blurred as they were, it was easy to imagine the images to be at any distance she wanted them to be. If they were real, then surely, she would have seen a twitch of movement caused by a bird taking flight or at least the slow swaying of a breeze of wind. She paused to allow the trees to answer her query, daring them to move and reveal their charade. They replied with the same ambiguous stillness they had before. Her attention turned back to the sky where the scene she could pick out was as tangibly fluid. Either there were no clouds to speak of, or, the sky was made entirely up of cloud, sunset yellow, with streaks of pastille reds and pinks. It could motionlessly transform between the two by just a whim of the imagination.
She noticed a point in the window where the edge of a sky-streak and the tip of a tree branch were almost touching. Her focus lingered on it, and after a little while, the streak and the branch met, and then overlapped. The painting that made up the sky was on a separate plane to the painting of the trees. There was at least depth in the diorama of the world before her.
Elsewhere, a miniscule black mark was now more visible. It was hammer shaped, shrouded by the pink mist. She tilted her head to the side to find a different viewpoint only to be stopped by something tugging at her temple. Her hands lurched up instinctively, and she restrained a gasp. There was what felt like a screwdriver handle stuck to the side of head. She traced it with her fingertips, following it as it became a thin solid wire that fell loosely and coiled up by her hip before running into the wall. Softly, she tugged it. When it appeared to have some give, she continued pulling, reeling it out of the wall until it clicked to a stop. She raised the small coil of wire to her eye-level and examined it. It was transparent, a tube, not much thicker than a pencil with a mess of coloured strands running through it.
With her left hand she tentatively approached the handle on her temple with the intention to prize it off. The moment a small amount of pressure was applied, her stomach lurched. The handle hadn’t pulled on her skin, it had pulled on her skull. She scanned the surface of the object with her fingers. It was rubber coated and ribbed for grip. There was a slither of a gap between its base and the surface of her skin which she could feel with her nail. She grasped it this time, using both hands and attempted to move it perpendicular to her temple. There was a soft click and a rod shifted like out from the side of her head like a finger plucked from clay. She gagged, dropping the handle in revulsion. The wire wriggled and uncoiled, flicking her side as it zipped back into the hole in the wall.
Her palm pressed against the side of her head. There was still something imbedded in her temple. It was flat and about the size and shape of a coin. Out of a cold wet hole in the centre of it something was oozing that felt too thin to be blood. To her side the rod and handle remained sticking out of the wall, erect and laced with what may be same yellowy fluid. It had been in her skull. It had been in her brain.
For a moment the world lurched, and with a wave of cool air Kelly found herself toppling onto something rubber and padded. She choked as the impact closed her chest. She was out in the open now. The air was notably cooler and less stale than her coffin though far from what could be considered fresh. Her eyes watered from it.
Steadily she rose, fighting the empty sensation of deadness that came from her bones. The coffin she came out of appeared to be one of six, each of which were attached to one large, cone shaped object. Padded triangular plates protruded from each side of the cone like the petals of an open flower. From the gaps between the spokes of the cone it could be assumed that these used to be the object’s walls, and that if raised up, would form something more ball-like. Using the supporting poles to steady herself, Kelly followed it round. As she came to the front of the door that had just opened her eyes met with someone she recognised.
She was youthful with a smooth heart-shaped face and dark inquisitive eyes. A long fringe of electric blue sheltered her brow like a bird’s wing, obscuring a flat brow. A tail of hair hung from above where her temple was shaven, the same temple where a small coin-sized silver disc was clawed into her scalp. Below the window was a silver nameplate, etched with black bold letters.
Her name was Kelly August, and she was shocked that she had not yet realised she had forgotten it.
She turned to the next window along where her reflection was clearer. She traced the outline of her features, hoping that in some way they could determine the elements of her past and person she was missing. She learned nothing more than the design of her own appearance.
As a flat blue light within the coffin turned on another face came into being behind the reflection of hers. His was thin, male and neatly bearded with a wide brimmed nose and flat cheeks. He had long, thick braided hair that was combed backwards, with that same intrusive rod as hers burrowing into his bald temple. With closed eyes he was serenely beautiful, and Kelly chose to believe he was sleeping.
She was strangely comforted by the fact someone else was near, even if they weren’t awake.
Below his window was a little plate inscribed:
Paulis Amils Froude 130-17441
‘Hey there Paulis’ she said passing a glance to the rest of his little pod. ‘Nice to meet you.’
She noticed a little rectangular black and yellow pixelated display detailing temperature, blood flow and other stuff that Kelly hoped were good numbers.
‘Don’t suppose you’d be able to tell me what the hell is going on here?’
He slept silently in response.
Four more young individuals were housed in the other segments of the cone. Kelly rapped her knuckles against each of them in turn, but all remained asleep. Once round the full circle she came across a thick blue cable that was attached to a device between her segment and Paulis’. It led away from the white metal flower-bed and wound itself across the soil, merging with the folds of an enormous white tarp was bundled against a tree before carrying on into the forest.
She investigated the device where the cable emerged and felt her way to a button imbedded into a screen. It flashed on with a message ‘Upload complete’. Surrounding it was a dense array of switches and dials Kelly did not dare to mess with.
The sun had already begun to shrink into the horizon and though her grey jumpsuit-thing was keeping her a good temperature for now, she expected that it would not be enough when the night came in. She thought hopefully that the cable would lead to shelter somewhere. Maybe she could meet the person that woke her? She left the metal flower-bud and followed the cable into the forest.
Walking was difficult. Instinct told her to check if anything was caught on her as each step felt like a fight. It was as if her shoes were tied to the ground by elastic wires.
Even when free from her little capsule, she couldn’t help but carry on questioning the idea of this world still being a painting. Something in the lack of variation of plant life gave her surroundings an imitational quality. The trees grew in a hexagonal grid, diverging only where the ground didn’t permit them to seed, and there was no sign of any dying or dead ones anywhere. Every few meters the trunks of the trees either side of her came in and out of phase, shifting like layered barcodes, creating a dizzying, kaleidoscopic visage. This forest had been designed, it did not grow naturally, and it was designed by an engineer rather than an artist.
The trees started thinning out and the ground became rough and rocky. The sun on her left was a small pinprick of white-red, harsher than it had any right to be. Her eye watered from the intensity of it. Kelly was now going downhill, which made it increasingly difficult to fight the intangible wires that pulled her down. Her shins began to hurt from the strain, but she knew that no relief would come from stopping. There was a clearing ahead. It was hard to tell where it started. And as she came closer the ground ended quite suddenly. The cable had led her to a cliff.
The direction the force was pulling quickly increased from being a nuisance to something very dangerous. With strained alertness she slowly rested on a large flat rock that jutted from the ground, anchoring herself. Her muscles were fiery with tension and she breathed thanks for the soothing breeze that channelled through the valley behind her. The edges of stone pressed into her side harder than what she felt they should, but repositioning felt more effort than it was worth. She would get up soon, she decided, but at this point rest was priority. She found a smooth section or rock to place her head against and lay there.
This was all unfamiliar.
With uncomfortably empty realisation it came to Kelly that nothing here was triggering any sort of recollection within her. She had memories, she was sure, she just couldn’t remember them. After a little thought she rebuked this idea with a bitter smirk. Such a concept was paradoxical. However, she had existed in some form before today and she had been somewhere other than here, that she was certain.
Kelly August. She played with the name, sounding it out in a dozen voices, envisioning it with a shape as if to hold up to the to the light then forcing it into the blank spaces of her mind and twisting it like a key in hope that it would somehow unlock the door that led to the rest of her mind. Nothing stirred within her memory, but the name remained barefaced and steadfast. It was her name, she had been allowed to keep that much at least.
Unwilling to put in the effort to get even to a crawling position, Kelly rolled and shifted her shoulders to drag herself to the precipice of the rock. It was a large drop, certainly fatal, but it had enough sturdy ledges and grassy verges that one could potentially navigate a somewhat dangerous path down and arrive at the base unharmed. Not that much could be done down there. The river that carved its way through the valley was not too violent but looked wide and deep enough that swimming across was a bad idea, especially in her state. Even if she did make it to the other side she would effectively be in the same position as she was now. Across the way, were the same carbon copy trees, clinging to the same leaning verge, draped by the same large white sheets that had accompanied her pod…
A large dog-shaped shadow was now weaving itself through the trees on the opposite bank.
There was something unnervingly purposeful about its movement. Dogs, as far as she could remember, should amble aimlessly and get distracted by every smell, sound or large bug that should come to its notice. This creature navigated through the hillside as if it had somewhere in particular it had in mind to go. It moved more like a wolf than a dog, however the shape of its head was wrong. It stopped still and Kelly felt as if they had locked eyes.
It was time to move. She rocked up to a squat and used a slice of rock to lever herself to stand. She scanned the cliffside for the blue cable that had led her to the cliffside and found it emerging again up a rockface further along the forest edge. Beyond it was a grey and blue building, unmarked, and rectangular. Kelly cursed herself for not noticing it earlier. She snapped a branch off a nearby tree and fashioned it into a walking stick. She cast a quick glance back to where the wolf-thing had been, but it was no longer within her sight. She hobbled quickly along towards the building.
The door was open when she came to it. There was a foyer of some sort inside. The light was on but there were no people. Kelly felt strangely like an intruder, but she knew the sensation was groundless. She needed help, and people in need of help can walk wherever they should like. A picturesque mural of the valley outside decorated the entirety of the wall behind her. From left to right it transitioned eloquently from pencil sketch to shaded inking to rich painted colours and embossed above it all were the words:
The New World is Ours to Design: Welcome to Canvas
The rest of the room was set out like a reception, with a neatly curved desk complete with plastic potted plants and a pair of computers in unopened boxes. Of the two doors visible, only one was open. Through it, the shape of the room could only be made out by the red and white pinprick lights that dotted the walls within it.
Distant, and quiet, Kelly picked up on a guttural murmur of noise.
It came from somewhere within the dark of the room ahead of her. Kelly hunted both the corridor and the emptiness that remained of her memory for any indication of what the sound may be. Nothing came.
She pushed the door she came in from so that it clicked shut. She didn’t want to be cornered by the wolf-thing she saw across the valley if it happened to find its way to the building she was in. There didn’t seem to be a light switch for the room or if there was, she needed a key for it. There were several plastic blocks running up the inside of the doorway that could have been fuse boxes or fire alarms or sockets but nothing recognisable to her touch.
She considered calling out to the noise. Though it did sound quite human, it did not sound human enough to instil any sort of assurance of safety. She edged forwards, feeling against the walls for guidance. Except they were not walls, they were shelves, and the pinprick lights were the flickering displays of the towers they supported. Their purpose was lost to her.
After several steady paces her hand fell into nothingness. The shelves paused here, continuing about a meter ahead of her. To her right were several more rows of shelves repeating onwards until they met a dimly lit doorway. It was there that the noise appeared to be coming from. It was like a chorus of tongues; a wet, loose, wriggling sound. The sound of swallowing oil, of unfolding raw meat. It made Kelly’s neck tense up.
Step by step the room came closer. In the periphery of her view, Kelly knew that there were more unlit rooms and doorways. However, none of those had noises coming from them. Her knees were bent, and her gait was almost sideward. Should anything untoward take notice of her, she would be ready to run. Her hand reached the doorway well before her feet did. With a movement almost stationary, she edged her head through to see around the corner.
There was a beastly thin, blank eyed head lowered over a shredded mass of crimson. Beneath ill-fitting patchwork black skin, from where a mouth should have been came several rippling tendrils, thick as fingers, which felt and prodded the bleeding lacerations and punctures of the shape beneath it.
Kelly retreated behind the frame of the door. The rest of the creature had been obscured by scattered chairs and tables, but she was sure it was the same beast she had seen in the woods. The noise of its feeling of the corpse carried on regardless. It hadn’t seen her.
With her eye-line locked on the doorway she crept backwards, feeling past the shelves as she edged towards the door she came from. It looked as if there may have been a fight there from the spread of damage and scattered furniture. Kelly didn’t expect herself to be able to put up much a fight in her state, she wondered how well the man or woman that now lay in pieces in the other room fought before they were torn to shreds.
Had it been them that had woken her, or was there some other game going on? Was the only reason she was awake was that the beasts needed food? She felt like a mouse dropped into a snake enclosure. She could either hide in the darkness and wait for help to come, or, she could choose a direction and run until she thought she was safe. There was still the other she had seen across the valley to consider; she could not leave the way she came in.
She sank into the darkness between the rows of shelves and listened. There was a low hum from the room in general, and a distant trickle of running water somewhere else, but nothing that would be enough to hide her steps should she trip.
Under the occasional pulses of the pin-prick lights, she could make out the markers that signified the locations of doors. There appeared to be one near to her left, a few careful steps away, but it would mean crossing the line of sight from the open door she had seen the beast. She edged sideways, keeping her eye on the space beyond the doorway. For a second, she could see one of its shaggy rear legs and then the opposing shelves hid it from view.
She tried the door, both a push and a pull, but it was locked shut. There wasn’t a handle to turn. Through the thin window she could see further rows of shelves on the other side. She listened out for the creature, then took a step back from the door. Under another wave of lights, she spotted a white panel with an outline of a hand to the side of it.
She put her hand against it and held her nerve as the panel came to life, emanating a soft blue glow. A hair of light traced her hand from bottom to top and blinked.
‘Hand signature not recognised’ barked a flat dead voice.
For a moment, everything was silent. Kelly held her breath, and with an overwhelming wave of horror, realised that even the sound from the beast’s feelers had gone quiet. She turned her head. The pillar of light that came from the open door was dented with a slowly moving shadow.
She sprinted to the opposite doorway. It was already unlocked, and she shouldered through mid-run. The light above sparked and flashed feebly giving her a quick glimpse of another door to head towards. Behind her, the crash of a fallen shelves. The overhead lights humming noise reached its climax and burst the room into darkness. She found the door by memory, flinging the door back against the frame as she came through it.
Tiled walls were layered with thick pipes and a great fissure in the floor made the ground tilt. White sheets hung loosely from broken rails suspended from the ceiling. Her mind became a buzz as she forced herself through loose curtains and stumbled over small invisible steps. She was soaked now. Water was spraying from somewhere, from everywhere. Curtains became walls, she had to turn. The light dimmed. There was a crash close behind her. She almost lost her footing, slipping on the river made by the tilt of the floor. There was a flash of white light, daylight, turning her vision red, forcing her to guess her way. Soaked plastic sheets. Hot metal pipes. Ridged tubes tangling with her arms. The floor came higher than expected, her leg flung sideways, and the floor lurched up to crack against her hip.
A moment became an hour. The pain of her hip became distant and cold. Her breath stilled, the air forced out. She anticipated the press of heavy feet to dig into her back, for long, moistened tendrils to slide around her neck. It was upon her, it should be right on top of her. It should be right there. But nothing came, and before the thought was over, she was on her feet again.
Too much of the room was shaded by drapes to make out the layout, nor where she had come from. The floor was flooded though, so she should be able to hear it moving. She swallowed. The same likely went the other way as well.
The curtains here were sun-stained yellow. Somewhere near there was a way outside. She chose a direction and pushed on through. The light became stronger, emanating around the yellowed sheets and bursting through the gaps. She flung the last curtain to the side emerged into a blinding landscape. It wasn’t a door, it was a gaping hole torn out of the side of the wall, framed by jagged metal and jutting bars. It was her way out.
She could hear the splash of approaching steps to her side, a few meters away. She made to jump, but her arm was grabbed throwing her violently to the ground.
She rolled to her side instinctively and turned to the gap in the wall, choking on the water she had swallowed from the floor. The beast was silhouetted in the light, between herself and her escape. It reared its shoulders, further blocking the sun with thick matted fur. A hand rested momentarily on her shoulder, a human hand. It was then that Kelly realised that it was not the beast that had thrown her aside.
A shard of a shadow sprang from behind her and sunk itself into the creatures side. It unleashed a pain-warbled screech and shrivelled backwards. The sound was not an animalistic howl but a spasmed reverberation of a high-pitched drone, shrill and hollow. A long time ago, small trembling hands clutched the tear drenched collar of a soft haired woman. A primal fear rushed over Kelly disguised as a horrible parody of nostalgia. She’d heard that sound before.
With the shaft of the spear crippling its stance the beasts poise had disfigured but was no less threatening. It paced and padded slowly as it set its yellowed-white marble eyes at the something behind her that had attacked it.
The figure of a man stepped forward. The sun-petalled outline of him filled Kelly’s vision, overwhelming the space that the creature took. He held a long pipe like a staff as he waited for the creature to make its move.
The beast leaped forward and was struck down immediately. With focused intent the man unleashed flurry of pounds on the animal, each strike releasing muffled squelch of blood and fur. It tried to swipe at his legs, but he hopped back a space and turned the dodge into another hit directed at its face. The attack missed, glancing its shoulder as it twisted its neck to avoid it. Tendrils wrapped around the weapon and attempted to wrench it away like a dog with a large stick. Steadily, the figure changed his grip to hold the staff like a standard and forced it deep into the crook of the creature’s neck. He pushed hard, pinning the thing’s head to its shoulder with its own tendrils. It shrieked as it lost its footing, slipping in the blinding torrent of water bursting from the surrounding pipes. The man edged forwards forcing it further and further back towards the fissure in the wall. Its legs kicked feebly attempting to find purchase. The warble sound was choked now, subdued like a hand pressed over a speaker. Just then, it sank suddenly, and a moment later, fell completely out of view.
Sounds of water started to arise and the image of the outside slowly came into comprehension. It had fallen out of the hole and down the cliff. Moments before she had almost leaped out of the hole herself.
‘Are you okay?’ the figure said softly. His hand was held before her offering to help her up.
With the threat gone, the man was no longer a warrior, not in appearance anyway. He was not broad or muscular and mustn’t have been that much taller than she was. He was visibly scarred with unkept matted hair, but his eyes betrayed his youth. He was barely an adult, perhaps the same age as herself.
‘I’m Andrew’ he said as she came to her feet.
She turned her attention back to the hole. She expected the monster to crawl back at any second.
‘Don’t worry, it won’t have survived that fall.’ He said as if in response to her thoughts. ‘I imagine you have a lot of questions.’
Kelly hadn’t got around to getting her breath back. Her thoughts were in disarray.
‘Okay… you don’t seem to be in the state to ask them, so I’ll just assume what questions you want me to answer.’
The scarred youth paused and stared at her expectantly. Kelly may have made as if to speak, she wasn’t quite sure.
‘The creature that just attacked you is an Englut’ he said after a little hesitation. ‘No idea what they are or how they’re here, but they are dangerous. And we don’t know what went wrong with the ship, we just know that only some of us have been sent down and some of haven’t and that nobody is waking up as they are supposed to. Something must have gone wrong with the crew we suppose. We’ve heard nothing from the Progeny.’
Kelly didn’t know much of this she was expected to understand.
‘I, um, don’t know how much has come back to you yet so this is guesswork. If you can’t remember anything you will, I promise, it may just take a bit of time for everything to fit back into place.’ He paused again as if assessing her. ‘In case you really don’t remember anything at all yet, your name is Kelly August, you’re twenty-three years old and this isn’t Earth we’re on, this is Canvas, another planet about fourteen lightyears away.’
Kelly wondered at which point she was going to wake up in her bed. The words he was saying didn’t make sense. She was trembling, and dizzy.
The concept of counting the seconds of every breath came back to Kelly from a distant corner of her mind, spoken by a comfortingly familiar voice. She thought in breaths and breathed in numbers and slowly, her awareness of the world condensed. Revealed to her now were the bruises and scuffs her body had endured. Her shoulder was throbbing, her leg was scratched deeply and the river of water had soaked her jumpsuit through her legs, up all her side.
‘Would you like a hug?’
The answer came easier than anything else so far.
An excerpt from Canvas by Calvin Lowe