Extract / Preview: Way Down Dark by J P Smythe

CB - Jul - Way Down Dark

PROLOGUE

The story goes that Earth was much older than the scientists thought. We had assumed that we had billions of years left; that we would be totally prepared if the worst hap- pened. Maybe that made us complacent. We thought that we understood what we were doing to the planet. We thought we had time to fix it.
The first problem was overpopulation: too many people on the planet and not enough room for them. Then there wasn’t enough fuel, there wasn’t enough power, and we were wasting what little we had left. The planet got full around the same time as it started cracking and shaking. The weather changed, becoming warmer and colder at different times, extremes of everything and we couldn’t adapt fast enough. The scientists knew that we were doomed.

*
The people of Earth scrambled for anything to save themselves. They built these ships in a rush – as many as they could manage, that’s how the story goes – and they loaded them up with people and sent them up into the sky. I’ve imagined that so many times: all of these ships crowding in the skies. Not everybody could be saved, that’s how the story goes. The people sent up in the ships – they were the lucky ones.

The ships were launched into the deepest parts of space, trying to find new homes. They didn’t find anywhere, so we’re still here.

Even when life here is at its worst, I know being on Australia means we have a chance. We still might find a place to belong, to set up and make into home. Things might still get better. And until then, being here is better than nothing.

It has to be.

 

ONE

After I helped to kill my mother, I had to burn her body. She and Agatha had been dreaming up the plan for months, when I wasn’t looking: when I was asleep, or working. They spoke in whispers, but they had always done that, ever since I was little. I’d given up trying to understand them. And then, in her last few days, she told me everything. She said that it was to give me a chance to talk it through with them, to understand exactly what needed to be done. I think that was a lie; I think she believed that she would need to per- suade me. But when she told me what I had to do – she was lying in her bed, barely anything more than skin and bones, Agatha at her side, cradling her hand – I didn’t balk. It was what she wanted. She was in so much pain, and this was the only way that I could help her.

‘As soon as I’m gone,’ she said, ‘they’ll come for you. This is all I can do to protect you now.’ I was young, that was her thinking. I was young; and Agatha was old, and soon she would be gone as well. That was the way of the ship: it took everybody in the end. All you did was survive until it was  your  time. My mother’s survival  had been incredible, really. It was because she had a reputation. Her reputation meant that I was always left alone, because so many others on the ship were scared of her. Only when she became sick did that change. Not that anybody knew what was wrong with her for sure, but there were rumours. Rumours are nearly worse than the truth, because they get out of control. People started looking at me diSerently, pushing their luck, sizing me up. They wanted to see just how weak she now was, and how weak I was. The gangs started coming nearer to our berth, sniVng the air and staying quiet to hear if she was still alive, and they would skulk and wait and brace their bodies against walls, their knives in their hands, ready to make their move. Power is everything on Australia. Power is how they rule; it’s how they take territory, make parts of the ship their own. But, somehow, our section of the ship stayed free. Somehow – and part of me wants to lay the responsibility at my mother’s feet, though I know it can’t all have been her doing – we stayed out of it. By the time that she died, three sections – half of the ship – belonged to the gangs. But three sections had stayed free.

The night that my mother died, it was almost like everyone on Australia knew. She had spent ten days and nights in bed by that point, and she coughed so loudly that it echoed. During those ten days, people came to pay tribute: the Pale Women; the Bells; all the guilds of the free people: the tailors and the merchants and the smiths. I couldn’t be with her while they visited. I didn’t want to be. I stayed out- side, and I watched them parade in, one by one. She coughed gratitude at them, and they shook their heads as they left.

 

She had done a lot for the ship. Her friends – all free people, not associated with any of the gangs – thanked her. They all cried. I had never seen so many people cry, because sorrow is such a weakness. Crying’s when they get you.

And then they were all finished – this was on the last day, when we knew that it was her last day, because that feeling is like the air itself, a weight of it that stays over your head the entire time. Then it was just the three of us: me, my mother and Agatha.

‘Can I have some time alone with her?’ Agatha asked me, and I gave it to her, because I couldn’t deny them that. They had known each other longer than I had; they were each oth- er’s family, had been since they were young. I was nervous; I knew what was coming, what I was going to have to do. I stood outside the rugs and curtains that made up the walls of our berth, and watched the rest of the ship. From our home on the fiftieth floor I could see everything else. Five other sec- tions, all surrounding ours. The ship itself a hexagon of walkways and homes and shafts, over ninety floors high. And in the middle – suspended from the roof of the ship, attached by gantries to our floor, and by a jutting arm that linked it to the water system – was the arboretum, a walled box full of grass and trees and plants and bushes. Usually, I would be in there, working, picking fruit. (Not everybody has a job here, but those of us who want to contribute do what we can.) Vines grow up the arboretum walls, covering the sides. Maybe when we left Earth it was totally clear, but now, from pretty much anywhere on the ship – outside, looking in – it looks like a jungle.

And beneath the arboretum, fifty stories below, was the Pit: a place so dark as to suggest that there was no end to it, just emptiness below us all. We all knew what was down there – clothes, trash, broken pieces of the ship itself, even her inhabitants rotting in a stinking mulch of decompos- ition – but we rarely (never, if we could help it) visited its depths. Stories were made up about the Pit, because that’s the way of everything here (stories about ghosts who rise during the night, cloaked in the darkness, come to cause havoc), but those stories weren’t real. What was real was the smell of the Pit, pervading everything. Usually you can get used to smells. Not that one. I never looked down there if I could help it, especially not on that day. Instead I concentrated on looking at the rest of the ship, because if I had tried to do anything, I felt as if I would have broken. There would be no work today. The arboretum wouldn’t notice I wasn’t there.

It felt like hours before Agatha came out and tapped me on the shoulder, waking me from my numbness, slumped against the walls of our berth. I knew what was coming.

‘She wants you,’ she said, and that meant that it was time. Alone with my mother, I said my goodbyes. She told me things. She gave me rules: that I was to stay away from the lowest depths of the ship; avoid the gangs because they couldn’t be trusted; eat healthily, because malnutrition could get me just as brutally as the gangs would. She smiled when she said it, because these were things she’d told me before, over and over. She knew – almost expected – that I wouldn’t listen to her, but she told me anyway. And then she made me make promises to her, last-ditch attempts to influence me when she was gone. To stay out of trouble; to be selfish and think of myself first and foremost, even when it meant potentially hurting others (‘Even Agatha,’ she said, sadly); and then, finally, to not die.

‘I can’t promise that,’ I said. ‘Everybody dies.’

‘Before your time,’ she said. She coughed, and I saw fresh blood line her fingertips as she wiped her mouth. ‘Don’t die before your time.’ And I thought, who’s to say when my time is? How can anybody know how they’re meant to die? But I didn’t ask her that. That hardly seemed the point. It was easier to nod and agree to what she asked.

She coughed and clawed at her skin in her agony, and she spat the words out as though they were hurting more than her disease was, going over what I already knew; what I had been dreading. I had to be there when she died. I couldn’t allow her to die of her sickness; I had to control the situ- ation. And when she was dead, I had to burn her. The ship understands ritual, because rituals suggest control and control suggests power. The gangs choose their leaders through displays of power over life. They have rituals where they flex their muscles and their weapons, and somebody dies so that another can take their place.

My mother wanted me to have that power. If the gangs believed that I had killed her, they would respect me. They would fear me, just as they had feared her. Didn’t matter that I knew it was a lie: as long as the rest of Australia believed it, maybe it would hold.

And then there was her ghost. I had to make them believe in her ghost.

She handed me a knife. I had never seen it before: it had been made for her, by one of the forgers. She commissioned it for this, letting it be known among the free people that it was special. It didn’t matter what the knife looked like; what mattered was that people talked about it. And then she spoke to me, her voice a thin whisper that sounded almost nothing like the woman that I had known for the past sixteen years, telling me that it was time.

We both cried, but I tried to hold back as much as I could. Deep down, I knew that she was in more pain than I was. I helped her move from the bed to the floor. She lay there in the middle of our berth, arms by her side. She looked so small. She pressed the knife hilt into my palm, and she closed my fingers around it for me, and she held my hands tightly. ‘In case anybody sees us,’ she said. She would do this; I would just be there, helping her to find the strength. I don’t know if I would have been able to do it if she didn’t show me how.

I bent down to kiss her goodbye. Her lips were so dry. That’s the last thing I really remember about her; how they felt like she was almost already gone.

 

For a second, I was somewhere else. For a second, none of it was real. We weren’t on Australia, our ship, the dark and noisy home of our ancestors, ruined by time and violence; and my mother wasn’t dying from a tumour that she had no hope of fighting; and I had a childhood like people used to have, never too terrified to sleep or breathe. The stories that we were told, about the time before – before Australia, when the Earth was still whole and people could live there

– they were the truth. This was just a story. I could breathe in and smell the air. I could feel the grass between my toes, even as I felt the knife penetrate. Even as I felt warm blood, felt her chest rise and fall too quickly; and then as it slowed, until the last time, it just didn’t rise at all.

 

When I finally opened my eyes she was dead, the blade in her chest, right through where her cancer was. I don’t know how it happened. I don’t remember it.

‘It’s done,’ I said, loud enough for Agatha to hear. My voice cracked as I spoke, and I knew that I would have to fix that. I couldn’t let weakness in again. There could be no tears, no shaking. I had to be as strong as my mother had been; I had to wear the power that she had created for me; her armour, now mine.

Agatha came in, pulling back the curtains for the rest of the ship to see the body; the rest of the ritual. She lit can- dles and placed them around us, and she took the knife from me – prising it from my fingers, exactly the opposite of my mother’s last action – and laid it on top of my mother’s body. ‘We don’t have much time,’ she told me.

‘Okay,’ I said. I wanted to be weak again. I wanted to hold my mother and have what had been done be undone. But that would never happen. She asked me to do the ritual, my final act for her, and I made a promise. I wouldn’t break that promise.

Days before, I had been told to go down to the markets, to make a trade for fuel. But the free tradesmen are canny and ruthless, and I got very little for what I had to pay for it. I was sure my mother would have managed to get twice as much. I only had enough for one attempt: a jar of thick glue that we were to spread over her body. That felt like the worst part. She was already cold. I had been near to enough bodies in my life to know that I was wrong; that she would be warm for hours. But then, my fingers on her skin, she felt so cold she could almost have been dead for days.

‘This has to be down to you,’ Agatha said. She handed me a match, crudely whittled, the head a thick black crust, and she made sure that the curtains were pinned back as wide as they could be. I could see lights in the darkness twinkling from distant parts of the ship, below, above and through the glass walls and trees of the arboretum; and eyes glinting in candlelight, as people watched what I was doing. It seemed like everybody knew what was coming. I wiped my hands of the fuel, I took a breath that hurt, and I struck the match on the rough metal of the exposed grated flooring of our home. It flickered, and it took.

I said goodbye and dropped the match onto her body, and she burned like I have never seen fire burn before.

In the days that followed, the others around where we lived would talk about it: about the smell; the crackle; the noise that I made, as her body turned to ash, burning so hot and so bright that it hurt to even look at it. But I heard none of that. Agatha and I stepped back, away from the body, and we watched; and I thought about what my mother had done for me; and I thought about how I was silhouetted against the flames for the rest of Australia to see. They all knew what had happened, and what I had done.

Now it was just a matter of waiting to see how they reacted.

*         *         *

 

It didn’t take long to find out. My mother was still burning when I saw another flame spark up, three sections over – deep in Low territory. They were coming.

‘I don’t think that they’ll make a move now,’ Agatha told me. ‘They’re just sizing you up. They want to see that she’s dead with their own eyes.’ Ten, twenty, maybe more: even in the darkness I could see them swarming to the ends of their gantries, watching. But only a few approached, crossing the gangways that connected the different sections of the ship. ‘Just don’t let them see that you’re afraid,’ Agatha murmured.

‘I’m not,’ I said. And I wasn’t. Right then, I felt nothing at all. I watched them circle the ship, clambering and climbing like cockroaches, the flame that was consuming my mother’s body lighting their way. They were carrying torches, bringing their fire to meet mine. As they came closer, I saw them better. The sick runt of a man who led them was the ruler of the Lows – their king – and he was known only by his title: Rex, a word passed down from before. With him were two female Lows, both of them eyes-down, teeth gritted. All of them covered in their blood tattoos, the flames of their torches reflecting on the slickness of their skin. As they came closer, they called to me, their voices bouncing off the walls, the cruel rasp of their breathing preceding them. Their leader was watching me, his eyes glittering in the dying firelight. One of the Lows accompanying him avoided looking at me, but the other raised her head and stared directly into my eyes. Her gaze was like a challenge.

‘You need to be here by yourself,’ Agatha told me. ‘They won’t fear you if they think you’re hiding behind me.’ She turned and slunk oS into the darkness. She would be watching, I know; she had to be. But right then, that barely seemed to oSer me any comfort.

‘Riadne’s daughter!’ the Lows shouted, all three of them in some twisted harmony. ‘Riadne’s daughter!’ They didn’t know my name. They only knew me in the context of her. As they came closer, stalking along the gangway towards my home – as my mother’s body burned its last – I told them my name.

‘Riadne is dead,’ I said, as loud as I could manage. ‘My name is Chan.’ Saying my mother’s name hurt. It was the first time I’d said it since she died, and already it felt like she wasn’t real any more; like she was just a dream that I remembered, vaguely, hours after waking. The Lows stepped onto our section, and I looked along the gantry – for Agatha, for anybody willing to help me to ward them off – but there was nobody. I was alone.

‘Your part of the ship is ours now, yes?’ the leader said, coughing the last word, wheezing to draw breath back in. On his skin was a tattoo: his title, his name, scored across his chest. The letters were somehow almost delicate, at odds with the damaged, scarred rest of him. ‘And you? You are ours as well?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘none of this is yours.’ I held up my hands, covered to the elbows in my mother’s drying, browning blood. I heard my mother’s voice come through me: the voice that she used when she spoke to people who she wanted to fear her, a put-on falsehood of rage. She had power, everybody knew that. She was feared, and she was respected. She had earned that. I had to persuade them that I was just like her, that I had taken her power. And her ghost, I reminded myself. That wasn’t real, but they were superstitious. I could persuade them.

‘If you come closer, I will kill you,’ I said. I believed that I would, as well; or I would try. But my words weren’t about starting a fight. Really, I was just trying to make sure that I wouldn’t have to.

‘You’ve never killed a man.’ Rex licked his lips, his tongue stumped at the end, fixed by a crude patchwork of stitches. The scars on his body were so numerous that I couldn’t have counted them had I wanted to. Pieces of him were missing: fingers, lumps of flesh, an ear. That was how he had become their king: by clawing, scratching, fighting his way to the top and surviving all challenges. Power follows death. He was powerful, and he bore the traces of death about him.

‘I killed Riadne,’ I said. ‘I burned her, so that she’ll protect me. I have her power, and still she watches over me.’ I said it with false confidence; I didn’t believe the lie, but he had to. I had to sell it.

And then he laughed at me, this roar that came from nowhere, but I could see behind it. He was nervous. He believed in the facts: I had killed her, and I had burned her. That much couldn’t be disputed, thanks to the blood on my hands, the embered corpse on the floor. The two female Lows with him stared at me: one of them was afraid, or getting there, but the other? There was nothing in her eyes at all. No fear, not of me, not of anything. She didn’t believe in the story that I was telling. Their leader, though, he wondered. His head tilted in curiosity. He stepped toward me, moving his head from left to right, as if it was loose upon his shoulders, and he slid in close. He didn’t see my hands, because he was fixated on my face, on my mouth. He didn’t see that I had lifted the blade from my mother’s body, that I was holding it in my hand, my fingers tightly closed around the hilt, slick with still-warm blood from my mother’s body and the fire that had consumed her.

‘That is where she died,’ he said, when he was close enough that I could smell him – the dirt on his skin, the sickly metallic stink of old blood – and he looked over my shoulder at my berth. ‘Nothing less than she deserved,’ he said. ‘But now, she’s gone. Ghosts are stories for little children. You don’t really believe in them.’

That was when Agatha dropped the smoke pellet from above. It plumed as it fell, and I will admit that, in that second, it felt supernatural; as if it was magic, almost – my mother’s ghost, there to protect me. The leader panicked, rushing to me, as if that would end this faster. He was quick, but I was quicker. My mother and Agatha had trained me my whole life to protect myself, and I wasn’t about to stop now.

I jabbed upwards with my mother’s knife. I jammed it into his neck and he howled in agony, coughing, blood gurgling into his mouth, tumbling around, throwing the smoke in all directions. It happened so fast that the others didn’t have time to react. I didn’t even know that I was going to stab him there before the knife was in his throat, my hand covered in his blood. He staggered backwards, out of the smoke, away from my berth, clutching at his neck as the blood gulped out. ‘Bitch,’ he gasped, his eyes wide, his voice shaking. I don’t know if the choking smoke or the wound I had inflicted affected him more, but suddenly he was scared of me.

Actually afraid.

He stumbled away, falling to the gantry floor and then pulling himself up, clinging to one of the other Lows. He motioned to the side, telling them to go back the way that they had come. One of the women – the one who hadn’t met my eyes – stroked him, soothing him, trying to tend to him until he swatted her away as they retreated. The other, though, she didn’t stay at his side. She didn’t support him as he walked. She stared at me as she had from the beginning. She was looking me over through the now-clearing smoke, searching for weaknesses. Her body was a mesh of scars as well, but they were different from Rex’s: they weren’t all from fighting or torture. There were delicate cuts all down her shoulders, across her chest and neck, her legs. Across her belly, a puckered scar curved from one side to the other, like a grimace.

‘You’re strong, little liar,’ she said. Her voice was thick and dark, a gravelled rasp that emerged from deep within her throat. ‘Not at all what I expected.’

Then she turned and ran – a sprint, a furious dash past the other berths and onto the gangway between sections, to catch up with the other Lows – and when she reached them she leapt, launching herself into the air, landing on the leader’s back and throwing her arm around his neck. My mother’s blade: it was still there, dug in, jutting half out of his flesh. I had missed it. I didn’t notice.

 

My mother’s blade, gone. But she – the Low – didn’t care what it might have meant to me. She grabbed it by the hilt and pushed it further in. She pushed it in and then pulled it out, driving it into Rex, over and over. Her hand moved so much faster than mine. After a few blows he dropped to his knees, his hands beating at her as she clung on. She didn’t stop. The other female howled, but she didn’t pause. When the leader was on his knees, she dismounted from his back and slashed at the other female, cutting her, making her step back until she lost her footing and fell backwards oS the gangway, making no sound as she plummeted into the darkness.

The leader died there on the gangway. As he went – again, I do not know how long it took, only that it was quick – his killer took up my mother’s blade and began to carve some- thing into her chest. I watched her face as she worked the sacrificial knife. Her hand shook, through the pain, I’m sure; but she carried on, determined to get the job done. When she was finished she turned, showing herself oS to the rest of the ship, and she beat at her chest with her arm, making the wound bleed more, forcing the welts to open wider.

She revealed herself to us, and we all saw it: the letters REX, etched into her skin, hard and deep. She had killed the last leader and now was carving his name – his title – onto herself. His power was now hers. I watched her return to the Lows’ half of the ship, howling and calling her own arrival; and I watched as the other Lows crept toward her in worship, bowing their heads as she passed them.

The night that I took my mother’s power, the Lows gained a new leader.

*         *         *

 

 

When the commotion died down, something resembling a more conventional night set in. The lights dimmed, heralding the sounds of people all over the ship: the calls of the vendors and traders fifteen floors down; the prayers of the Pale Women from the top floor of the ship, carrying through the motionless air; the grunts and moans of the Bells as they fought each other for pride or food or whatever it was that they were fighting over; the Lows, laughing and drinking and preparing for more carnage in the morning; and the whirring thrum of the engines that reverberated through us all. I closed the curtains and sat by my mother’s ashes, and I finally cried, so quietly that the noise was lost amongst the chaos of night-time aboard the Australia.

 

***

You can read more on WAY DOWN DARK on our Jul-Dec 15 Hodder / Hodderscape Books page or our July New Book Recommends.

And there’s more extracts from our pick of titles – you can see in order of most recent in our EXTRACTS ARTICLES CATEGORY,  and below in order that we put them out!

DAVE VS THE MONSTERS: EMERGENCE – John Birmingham
SKY PIRATES – Liesel Schwarz
BLOOD RED CITY – Justin Richards
RADIANT STATE – Peter Higgins
THE SUMMONER – Taran Matharu
MARKED – Sue Tingey
BETE – Adam Roberts
FOUL TIDES TURNING – Stephen Hunt
STEEPLE – John Wallace
CRASHING HEAVEN – Al Robertson
BENEATH LONDON – James Blaylock
OUR LADY OF THE STREETS – Tom Pollock
CAUSAL ANGEL – Hannu Rajaniemi
YOUR SERVANTS AND YOUR PEOPLE – David Towsey
THE SEVENTH MISS HADFIELD – Anna Caltabiano
DETECTIVE STRONGOAK AND THE CASE OF THE DEAD ELF – Terry Newman
THE RELIC GUILD – Edward Cox
FOXGLOVE SUMMER – Ben Aaronovitch
THE MOON AND THE SUN – Vonda McIntyre
PATH OF GODS – Snorri Kristjansson
TIME SALVAGER – Wesley Chu
REGENERATION – Stephanie Saulter
THE SUPERNATURAL ENHANCEMENTS – Edgar Cantero
THE RETURN OF THE DISCONTINUED MAN – Mark Hodder
THE MARTIAN – Andy Weir
KOKO THE MIGHTY – Kieran Shea
THE UNNOTICEABLES – Robert Brockway
IF/THEN – Matthew de Abaitua
THE SAND MEN – Christopher Fowler
THE DRAGON ENGINE – Andy Remic
YOUR RESTING PLACE – David Towsey
THE NIGHT CLOCK – Paul Meloy
MYTHMAKER – Marianne de Pierres
THE RETURN OF THE ARINN – Frank P Ryan
WAY DOWN DARK – J P Smythe