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Short Fiction Friday: Sleeping Beauty

Sleeping Beauty by Mark Lawrence, Broken Empire #2.5

This 10,000 word story covers a period between the end of the 'early thread' in Emperor of Thorns and the start of the 'now' thread in King of Thorns.

It's really a bit of fun, prompted by a challenge from a reader to warp the tale of Sleeping Beauty around that of young Jorg Ancrath. I may have thrown another fairy tale or two into the mix...

Mark Lawrence is one of my current favorite writers of fantasy, I devoured his Broken Empire series and his latest book Prince of Fools in matter of moments, they are just awesome to read. Since the next book in the Red Queens War is due somewhere next year I was looking if Mark had written any short stories in his Broken Empire series and lucky me I stumbled upon two. Sleeping Beauty which is set between King and Emperor and Select Mode which is set between Prince and King. So what better way to indulge myself once again in a Broken Empire story!

Sleeping Beauty isn't a direct continuation from King of Thorns that bridges the gap to Emperor of Thorns but it is to be seen as a standalone adventure story featuring Jorg and his brothers. In Sleeping Beaury Jorg departed from the city of Vyene in the midst of winter and plodding through endlessly through snow they have to seek shelter, having it first found in an house, which turned out quite differently then both Jorg and Hakon had expected; they encounter some other occupants. Only later to find new refuge in a cave in Hakon's reasoning "‘Nothing beats a cave for shelter.’ Hakon pushed me on." IF ONLY! The house was a bad place to be but the cave is even worse... Both Jorg and Hakon find themselves bound, trapped and no where to go, they can only submit to the Builders. (oops) 

Yes, Sleeping Beauty, has Builder tech. If you read my reviews of Prince, King and Emperor of Thorns it musn´t have escaped you attention that I can quite ramble on and on about the world that Mark Lawrence has created within the world of the Broken Empire. The influences range from the classic sword fighting and magic casting fantasy ones to near future science fiction. The Builders are an race that has "moved on" (if I may quote Stephen King and his Dark Tower series, which for me closely resembled the world of Broken Empire), but they have left their technology behind and this is something that Jorg and Harkon find out the hard way, in the original series Prince, King and Emperor Mark Lawrence already revealed some of what the Builders are and I was amazed to say the least. Now he has, in my opinion, dedicated a complete short story to how these Builder worked and still work. and it was a treat to find out, exactly what I was waiting for! 

One great thing about this short story is that Mark Lawrence kept true to Jorg's character. In each book he grew up, he was introduced as a downright bastard in the first book but gradually did come to understand that when you work everyone against the grain it just doesn't work, so in the second book he was more reserved and acted more mature but still had his "habits". In the third book it all took an emotional dive in the end which was to say very beautiful to see in the backdrop of all the violence that came before this and to see the actually motivation of Jorg, it even watered my eyes a bit. If you look at Jorg in SLeeping Beauty it is just as you would have wanted him to see in the transition from book two to three. I many parts he already grows in the emotional side of it all with Katherine and his caring for his brothers, but he still keeps this attitude of arrogance that you would wish to strangle him! just how Jorg should be, perfect.

Sleeping Beauty is a terrific addition to the Broken Empire series, I was expecting a different story, but being handed the Builders on a silver platter! YES! I couldn't have wished for more. Mark Lawrence really gave me what I wanted exploring more and more of the Builder technology and even showing a bit of what they can do, which keeps in check with the grimdark setting. Compulsory reading.  

Media Alert: Coming soon from Titan Books: Ghosts of Manhattan

 Media Alert: Coming soon from Titan Books: Ghosts of Manhattan

Ghosts of Manhattan (A Ghost Novel), the thrilling new arrival in the ever-popular George Manniverse [September 2014, Titan Books].
1926, New York. Jazz. Flappers. Prohibition. It’s the roaring twenties but not as history remembers it. Coal-powered cars line the streets of Manhattan, while zeppelins and biplanes occupy the skies. And the US is locked in a bitter cold war with a British Empire that still covers half of the globe.

This is the alternate vision of the most opulent era of New York. It’s a darker version of history. One steeped in fantastical steampunk innovations and a dark undercurrent of supernatural treachery. Organized crime rules the streets, with speakeasies on every corner. And while a run-down police force battles mobsters and their protection rackets, the “Lost Generation” is drinking away the recent nightmares of the World War. It’s a society on the brink of destruction, where any low level crook could be the tipping balance into lawlessness and disorder.

It’s a time in need of a hero.
It’s a time in need of The Ghost.

Mann's sinister take on this period of history is absolutely fascinating. With beautiful prose and a thrilling plot, this novel will appeal to a wide range of audiences as well as his fans.

Book Review: No Hero

No Hero by Jonathan Wood, Arthur Wallace #1

"What would Kurt Russell do?"

Oxford police detective Arthur Wallace asks himself that question a lot. Because Arthur is no hero. He's a good cop, but prefers that action and heroics remain on the screen, safely performed by professionals.

But then, secretive government agency MI37 comes calling, hoping to recruit Arthur in their struggle against the tentacled horrors from another dimension known as the Progeny.

But Arthur is NO HERO! Can an everyman stand against sanity-ripping cosmic horrors?

No Hero actually escaped my attention when it was first released by Titan Books, it is that I saw the release of the sequel, Yesterday's Hero, which is out later this year that I found out that it was the second book in the Arthur Wallace series. Reading the synopsis of No Hero promised a lot of fun, last year I had the pleasure to read Guy Adams' The Clown Service which also goes about a secret service agency set in England, but this book didn't have that much supernatural going on compared to No Hero. No Hero closely reminds me to something of an The X-Files mashup, it dark and gritty but with a healthy dose of humor in the mix. 

The story of No Hero picks up in a gentle sort of calm, focusing directly on the protagonist Arthur Wallace who is just your average police detective. All of a sudden strange murders are being committed across the Oxford area and Arthur is assigned to track down this serial killer, being the detective he is, he tries to find links and connections with the different victims using their backgrounds. All his effort are in vain as he and his partner cannot seem to find the right things to connect, until they encounter the deadly assassin, a sword wielding women at one of the crime scenes. Here Arthur becomes a victim of himself, he get beat up pretty badly and looses consciousness. Only to wake up and find himself at MI37 and learns that this assassin, the sword wielding women, Kayla is part of one of Britians most secret service. Being confronted with the facts that a more secret service than MI6 exists is something that Arthur finds hard to believe, until he is confronted by some horrific facts, ones that he also witnessed at one of the crime scenes. Arthur gets the full explanation that other dimensions DO exist and that these bring forth otherworldly and supernatural creatures known as the Progeny. The Progeny are alien tentacled creatures set on demise and destruction. And this all is just the start of one big non-stop adventure as Arthur now finds himself trading in his normal homicide detective job to join in up the ranks of MI37 and hunt the Progeny. Because they plan to take over planet Earth by bringing more of their kind into our world, well the Prgeny aren't yet on Earth but their agents are. Even though Arthur is a veteran police detective he is new in the other dimensional hauntings and fighting the Progeny and this does become apparent soon. He has his hands full, but luckily for Arthur he is backed up by an amazing team. 

The title of the book, No Hero, refers to the main protagonist Arthur. He is definitely not a hero and constantly talks to himself with the single question "What would Kurt Russell do?" He isn't one that would jump to the occassion and charge in head first, his personality more like one that likes to hold back and watch how other people go about the task. I most Urban Fantasy setting that I have read I have encountered those proactive protagonist so I found the change to a more passive attitude quite fun to read, especially given with the humorous undertone that Jonathan Wood introduces. Also for me it would be quite logical to first have a look around when being confronted by creatures from a different dimension, my only small remark about Arthurs character is that at one point I would have had liked to see a switch towards being more proactive in his actions, since he had seen a lot already, it's non-stop action. I hope that in the sequel, Yesterday's Hero, a more active Arthur will be show, this will only bring out an even more faster paced book. On the whole I found that Arthur was a great protagonist to read about and since it's told from his perspective makes all the personal elements come out that much stronger.

I already mentioned that Arthur is backed up by an amazing team, this is a slight understatement. Jonathan Wood created a unique set of characters in this team, very creative and utterly cool! A magician called Clyde who doesn't get his arcane gifts from being born with them but with implants, surgically implanted wire patterns in run through his whole body and batteries, yes batteries! Type AA, the kind that you put in a flashlight, CLyde puts them in his mouth and is then able to cast some highly destructive spells. Next to Clyde you have Tabitha a computer genius, but fully tattooed, gothic kind of type and Kayla whom I already mentioned, the deadly Scottish sword-wielding women who rather talks by swinging her sword that actually saying words. This whole merry bunch is being led by the no-nonsense rule of Shaw, she has to make the best possible with a lot of cuts in the budget, and that isn't easy. Next to these character, MI37 does have some additional helpers like the twins, think here of sort of oracle (minority report style) that have clairvoyant moments about when and where and what the Progeny plan, they are there to give Arthur and his new team that edge. All in all some great and original characters, that will be directly to your liking. 

Jonathan Wood introduces a breakneck pacing from when the Progeny make a first appearance and nicely keeps to this pacing. Even though the pacing is very fast, Jonathan Wood doesn't omit any details in building his world instead he cleverly uses Arthur breaking into his role as MI37 operative by feeding you information in bits and pieces as the story progresses, instead of giving an information dump sort of scene. A writing skill of Jonathan Wood is when the action takes place it is all over the floor and can be quite chaotic but as a reader you never loose sight of where what is taking place, keeping you that much more glued to the pages. Added to this is that the action scenes are just the length that you want to see, no unnecessary dragging of fighting scenes but direct and clear to the point with some electrifying bits!  

The setting of No Hero reminded me closest to the The X-Files but with a lot more humor in there. The threat that is introduced by the existance of The Progeny feels dark and nefarous and inspires an impending doom feeling. Though the book does produce enough laughs, the Progeny still come over in their dark way and not an idle threat that you discard easily, it is serious (I hope you get where I am aiming at). Writing on one hand the serious threat that the Progeny are and on the otherhand introducing humorous scenes by all that Arthur goes through took some skill, I think, to make it come out the way it did. For me this was just spot on. 

There are many Urban Fantasy - Paranormal books out there and writing an entry that places you in the top is hard but with No Hero Jonathan Wood managed this. No Hero has some great and bold ideas that are worked out in the big picture but also with a close focus on the minor details. Jonathan Wood introduces some very creative characters like Arthur Wallace who goes from an ordinary detective to fighting the extraordinary and lets not forget his team of "misfits" that accompany him in his newly assigned task, a great bunch and very interesting to say the least. The whole setting of the book is one that also isn't often found in Urban Fantasy it's not a simple case study. Jonathan Wood has kicked of his series with a great first book, the sequel: Yesterday's Hero, is out the 9th of September by Titan and it has the mentioning of a Zombie T-Rex! I am sure it's gonna be another wild adventure for Arthur!

Extract: The Abyss Beyond Dreams

Extract: The Abyss Beyond Dreams  

One of the most established voices in current Science Fiction, Peter F. Hamilton, will return to his critically acclaimed Commonwealth universe. His latest book, The Abyss Beyond Dreams, which is set to be released on the 9th of October later this year will take place between the The Commonwealth Saga and the Void Trilogy. Below you can find the synopsis of the book and yes an early EXCERPT!

When images of a lost civilization are 'dreamed' by a self-proclaimed prophet of the age, Nigel Sheldon, inventor of wormhole technology and creator of the Commonwealth society, is asked to investigate. Especially as the dreams seem to be coming from the Void - a mysterious area of living space monitored and controlled because of its hugely destructive capabilities. With it being the greatest threat to the known universe, Nigel is committed to finding out what really lies within the Void and if there's any truth to the visions they've received. Does human life really exist inside its boundary?

But when Nigel crash lands inside the Void, on a planet he didn't even know existed, he finds so much more than he expected. Bienvenido: a world populated by the ancestors of survivors from Commonwealth colony ships that disappeared centuries ago. Since then they've been fighting an increasingly desperate battle against the Fallers, a space-born predator artificially evolved to conquer worlds. Their sole purpose is to commit genocide against every species they encounter. With their powerful telepathic lure - that tempts any who stray across their path to a slow and painful death - they are by far the greatest threat to humanity's continued existence on this planet.

But Nigel soon realizes that the Fallers also hold the key to something he'd never hoped to find - the destruction of the Void itself. If only he can survive long enough to work out how to use it . . .


The Abyss Beyond Dreams, The Chronicle of the Faller #1

Twenty-Seven Hours and Forty-Two Minutes

Laura Brandt knew all about coming out of a suspension chamber. It was similar to finishing the old-style rejuvenation procedure she’d undergone back in the day before biononic inserts and Advancer genes being sequenced into human DNA and practically eradicating the ageing process. There would be that slow comfortable rise to consciousness, the body warming at a steady rate, nutrient feeds and narcotic buffering taking the edge off any lingering discomfort and disorientation. So, by the time you were properly awake and ready to open your eyes, it was like emerging from a really decent night’s sleep, ready to face the day with enthusiasm

and anticipation. A full breakfast with pancakes, some crisp bacon, maple syrup and chilled orange juice (no ice, thanks) would add that extra little touch of panache to make returning to

full awareness a welcome experience. And when it happened this time, there she would be at the end of a voyage to a star cluster outside the Milky Way, ready to begin a fresh life with others from the Brandt dynasty, founding a whole new civilization – one that was going to be so very different from the jaded old Commonwealth they’d left behind.

Then there was the emergency extraction procedure, which ship’s crew called the tank yank.

Someone slapping the red button on the outside of her suspension chamber. Potent revival drugs rammed into a body that was still chilly. Haematology umbilicals withdrawing from her neck and thighs. Shocked muscles spasming. Bladder sending out frantic pressure signals into her brain, and the emergency extraction had already automatically retracted the catheter – oh, great design, guys. But that wasn’t as bad as the skull-splitting headache and the top of her diaphragm contracting as her nauseous stomach heaved.

Laura opened her eyes to a blur of horrible coloured light at the same time as her mouth opened and she vomited. Stomach muscles clenched, bringing her torso up off the padding. Her head hit the chamber’s lid, which hadn’t finished hinging open.

‘Hell’s teeth.’ Red pain stars joined the confusing blur of shapes. She twisted over to throw up again.

‘Easy there,’ a voice told her.

Hands gripped her shoulders, supporting her as she retched.

A plastic bowl was held up, which caught most of the revolting liquid.

‘Any more?’

‘What?’ Laura groaned.

‘Are you going to puke again?’

Laura just snarled at him, too miserable even to know the answer. Every part of her body was forcefully telling her how wretched it felt.

‘Take some deep breaths,’ the voice told her.

‘Oh for . . .’

It was an effort just to breathe at all with the way her body was shuddering, never mind going for some kind of yoga-master inhalations.

Stupid voice –

‘You’re doing great. The revive drugs will kick in any minute now.’

Laura swallowed – disgusting acid taste burning her throat – but it was fractionally easier to breathe. She hadn’t felt this bad for centuries. It wasn’t a good thought, but at least it was a coherent one. Why aren’t my biononics helping? The tiny molecular machines enriching every cell should be aiding her body to stabilize. She tried to squint the lights into focus, knowing some of them would be her exovision icons. It was all just too much effort.

‘Tank yank’s a bitch, huh?’

Laura finally recognized the voice. Andy Granfore, one of the Vermillion’s medical staff – decent enough man; they’d met at a few pre-flight parties. She shuddered down a long breath. ‘What’s happened? Why have you brought me out like this?’

‘Captain wants you out and up. And we don’t have much time. Sorry.’

Laura’s eyes managed to focus on Andy’s face, seeing the familiar bulbous nose, dark bags under pale brown eyes, and greying hair that was all stick-out tufts. Such an old, worn face was unusual in the Commonwealth, where everyone used cosmetic gene-sequencing to look flawless. Laura always thought that humanity these days was like a race of youthful supermodels – which wasn’t necessarily an improvement. Anything less than perfection was either a fashion statement or a genuine individualistic screw you to conformity.

‘Is Vermillion damaged?’

‘No.’ He gave her an anxious grin. ‘Not exactly. Just lost.’

‘Lost?’ It was possibly an even more worrying answer. How could you get lost flying to a star cluster that measured twenty thousand lightyears in diameter? It wasn’t as if you could lose sight of something of that magnitude. ‘That’s ridiculous.’

‘The captain will explain. Let’s get you to the bridge.’

Laura silently asked her u-shadow for a general status review. The ubiquitous semi-sentient utility routine running in her macrocellular clusters responded immediately by unfolding a basic array of mental icons, slender lines of blue fairy light that superimposed themselves within her wobbly vision. She frowned. If she was reading their efficiency modes correctly, her bionomics had suffered some kind of serious glitch. The only reason she could imagine for that level of decay was simple ageing. Her heart gave a jump as she wondered how long she’d been in suspension. She checked the digits of her time display. Which was even more puzzling.

‘Two thousand two hundred and thirty-one days?’

‘What?’ Andy asked.

‘We’ve been underway for two thousand two hundred and thirty-one days? Where the hell are we?’ Travelling for that long at ultradrive speeds would have taken them almost three million lightyears from Earth, a long, long way outside the Milky Way.

His old face amplified how disconcerted he was. ‘It might have been that long. We’re not too sure about relativistic time compression in here.’


‘Just . . . Let’s get you to the bridge, okay? The captain will give you a proper briefing. I’m not the best person to explain this. Trust me.’


He helped her swing her legs off the padding. Dizziness hit her hard as she stood up, and she almost crumpled. Andy was ready for it and held her tight for a long moment while she steadied herself.

The suspension bay looked intact to her: a long cave of metal ribs containing a thousand large sarcophagi-like suspension chambers. Lots of reassuring green monitor lights shining on every unit, as far as she could make out. She gave a satisfied nod.

‘All right. Let me freshen up and we’ll go. Have the bathrooms been switched on?’ For some reason she was having trouble interfacing directly with the ship’s network.

‘No time,’ Andy said. ‘The transport pod is this way.’

Laura managed to coordinate her facial muscles enough to give him a piqued expression before she allowed herself to be guided along the decking to the end of the bay. A set of malmetal quad-doors peeled open. The pod on the other side was a simple circular room with a bench seat running round it.

‘Here,’ Andy said after she slumped down, almost exhausted by the short walk – well, shuffle. He handed her a packet of clothes and some spore wipes.

She gave the wipes a derisory glance. ‘Seriously?’

‘Best I can offer.’

So while he used the pod’s manual control panel to tap in their destination, she cleaned up her face and hands, then stripped off her sleeveless medical gown. Body-modesty was something most people grew out of when they were in their second century and

resequenced like Greek godlings, and she didn’t care about Andy anyway; he was medical.

She saw in dismay that her skin colour was all off. Her second major biononic re-form on her ninetieth birthday had included some sequencing to emphasize her mother’s northern

Mediterranean heritage, darkening her epidermis to an almost African black. It was a shading she’d maintained for the entire three hundred and twenty-six years since. Now, though, she just looked like a porcelain doll about to shatter from age. Suspension had tainted her skin to an awful dark grey with a multitude of tiny water-immersion wrinkles – except it was paper dry. Must remember to moisturise, she told herself. Her hair was a very dark ginger, courtesy of a rather silly admiration for Grissy Gold, the gulam blues singer who’d revelled in an amazing decade of trans-Commonwealth success – two hundred and thirty-two years ago.

That wasn’t too bad, she decided, pulling at badly tangled strands of it, but it was going to take litres of conditioner to put the gloss back in. Then she peered at the buffed metal wall of the travel pod, which was hardly the best mirror . . . Her normally thin face was horribly puffy, almost hiding her cheekbones, and her emerald green eyes were all hangover – bloodshot, with bags just as bad as Andy’s. ‘Bollocks,’ she groaned.

As she started pulling on the dreary ship’s one-piece suit she saw how flabby her flesh had become after such a long suspension, especially round the thighs. Oh, not again! She deliberately didn’t look at her bum. It was going to take months of exercise to get back in shape, and Laura no longer cheated by using biononics to sculpt bodyform like most; she believed in earning her fitness, a primitive body-pride that came from those five years hiding away from the world at a Naturalist faction ashram in the Austrian Alps after a particularly painful relationship crash.

With the drugs finally banishing the worst of the tank yank, she sealed up the suit and rotated her shoulders as if she was prepping for a big gym session. ‘This had better be good,’ she grunted as the pod slowed. It had taken barely five minutes to travel along the Vermillion’s axial spine, past the twenty other suspension bays that made up the giant starship’s mid-section. And still her u-shadow couldn’t connect to Vermillion’s network.

The pod’s quad-door opened to reveal Vermillion’s bridge – a somewhat symbolic claim for a chamber in the age of homogenized network architecture. It was more like a pleasant franchise coffee lounge, with long settees arranged in a conversation circle and giant high-res hologram panes on the walls.

About fifteen people were in there, most of them huddled in small groups on the settees, having intense exchanges. Everybody looked badly stressed. Laura saw several who had clearly just been tank yanked like her, and recognized them straight away; also like her, they were all from the starship’s science team.

That was when she became aware of a very peculiar sensation right inside her head. It was like the emotional context of a conversation within the gaiafield – except her gaiamotes were inactive. She’d never really embraced the whole gaiafield concept, which had been developed to give the Commonwealth the capability of direct mind-to-mind communication through an alien adaptation of quantum entanglement theory. Some people loved the potential for intimate thought sharing it brought, claiming it was the ultimate evolution of intellect, permitting everyone else’s viewpoint to be appreciated. That way, the argument went, conflict would be banished. Laura though that was a bunch of crap. To her it was the creepy extreme of voyeurism. Unhealthy, to put it mildly. She had gaiamotes because it was occasionally a useful communication tool, and even more sporadically helpful for acquiring large quantities of information. But for day-to-day use, forget it. She stuck with the good old-fashioned and reliable unisphere links.

‘How’s that happening?’ she grunted, frowning. Her u-shadow confirmed that her gaiamotes were inactive. Nobody could connect directly to her neural strata. And yet . . .

Torak, the Vermillion’s chief xenobiology officer, gave her a lopsided grin. ‘If you think that’s weird, how about this?’ A tall plastic mug of tea floated through the air towards him, trailing wisps of steam. Torak stared at it in concentration, holding out his hand. The mug sailed into his palm, and he closed his fingers round it with a smug grin.

Laura gave the bridge ceiling a puzzled look, her ever-practical mind immediately reviewing the parameters of ingrav field projector systems. Theoretically it would be possible to manipulate the ship’s gravity field to move objects around like that, but it would be a ridiculous amount of effort and machinery for a simple conjuring trick. ‘What kind of gravity manipulation was that?’

‘It’s not.’ Torak’s lips hadn’t moved. Yet the voice was clear in her head, along with enough emotional overspill to confirm it was him ‘speaking’.

‘How did you . . .?’

‘I can show you what we’ve learned, if you’ll let me,’ Torak said.

She gave him an apprehensive nod.

Then something like a memory was bubbling up into her mind like a cold fizzy liquid, a memory that wasn’t hers. So similar to a gaiafield emission, but at the same time definitely not. She had no control over it, no way of regulating the images and voices. That scared her. Then the knowledge was rippling out inside her brain, settling down, becoming instinct.

‘Telepathy?’ she squeaked as she knew. And at the same time, she could sense her thoughts broadcasting the astonished question across the bridge. Several of the crew flinched at the strength of it impinging on their own thoughts.

‘In the purest sense,’ Torak responded. ‘And telekinesis, too.’

He let go of the tea mug, which hung in mid-air.

Laura stared at it in a kind of numb fascination. In her head, new insights showed her how to perform the fantasy ability. She shaped her thoughts just so, reaching for the mug. Somehow feeling it; the weight impinged on her consciousness.

Torak released his hold on it, and the mug wobbled about, dropping ten centimetres. Laura reinforced her mental grip on the physical object, and it continued to hang in mid-air. She gave a twitchy laugh before carefully lowering it to the floor. ‘That is some serious bollocks,’ she murmured.

‘We have ESP, too,’ Torak said. ‘You might want to close your thoughts up. They’re kind of . . . available.’

Laura gave him a startled glance, then blushed as she hurriedly tried to apply the knowledge of how to shield her thoughts – intimate, painfully private thoughts – from the scrutiny of everyone on the bridge. ‘All right; enough. Will someone please tell me what the hell is going on? How are we doing this? What’s happened?’

Captain Cornelius Brandt stood up. He wasn’t a particularly tall man, and worry made him appear stooped. Laura could tell just how worn down and anxious he was; despite his efforts to keep his thoughts opaque and calm, alarm was leaking out of him like ethereal pheromones. ‘We believe we’re in the Void,’ he said.

‘That’s impossible,’ Laura said automatically. The Void was the core of the galaxy. Up until 2560, when the Endeavour, a ship from the Commonwealth Navy Exploration fleet, completed the first circumnavigation of the galaxy, astronomers had assumed it was the same kind of supermassive black hole that most galaxies had at their centre. It was massive. And it did have an event horizon, just like an ordinary black hole. But this one was different. It wasn’t natural.

As the Endeavour soon learned, the Raiel – an alien race more technologically advanced than the Commonwealth – had been guarding the boundary for over a million years. In fact, they’d declared war on the Void. From the moment their first crude starships

encountered it, they’d carefully observed the event horizon undergoing unnatural expansion phases. Incredibly for anything that large on a cosmological scale, it appeared to be an artefact. Purpose unknown. But, given the severity and unpredictability of its expansion phases, it would eventually inflate out to consume the entire galaxy long before any natural black hole would have done.

So the Raiel invaded. Thousands upon thousands of the greatest warships ever built tore open the Void’s boundary and streaked inside.

None returned. The entire armada had no apparent effect on the Void or its atypical, inexorable expansion. That was a million years ago. They’d been guarding the boundary ever since.

Wilson Kime, who captained the Endeavour, was politely but firmly ordered to turn back and fly outside the Wall stars which formed a thick band around the Void. After that, the Raiel invited the Commonwealth to join the multi-species science mission that kept a constant watch on the Void. It was a mission which had lasted since the Raiel armada invaded, and in those million years had added precisely nothing to the knowledge of what lurked on the other side of the event horizon boundary.

‘Improbable,’ Cornelius corrected. ‘Not impossible.’

‘Well, how did we get inside? I thought our course took us around the Wall stars.’

‘Closest approach to the Wall was three thousand lightyears,’ Cornelius said. ‘That’s when we fell inside. Or jumped. Or got snatched. We’re still not sure how. Presumably some kind of teleport connection opened up inside hyperspace. It would take a phenomenally advanced technology to create that; but then, as we’ve all suddenly been granted superhuman powers, quantum hyperfield theory is the least of our problems.’

Laura gave him an incredulous stare. ‘But why?’

‘Not sure. The only clue we have is Tiger Brandt. Just before we were brought in, she said she experienced some kind of mental contact, like a dream reaching through the gaiafield, but a lot fainter. Something sensed us or her. Then, next we know . . . we were inside.’

‘Tiger Brandt?’ Laura asked. She knew all about Tiger, who was married to Rahka Brandt, the captain of the Ventura. ‘Wait – you mean the Ventura is in here with us?’

‘All seven ships were pulled in,’ Cornelius said gloomily.

Laura looked at the tea mug again, ignoring all her tank yank discomforts. ‘And this is the inside of the Void?’ she asked incredulously.

‘Yes. As far as we understand, it’s some kind of microuniverse with a very different quantum structure to spacetime outside. Thought can interact with reality at some fundamental level, which is why we’ve suddenly acquired all these mental powers.’

‘By the action of watching, the observer affects the reality of that which is watched,’ she whispered.

Cornelius raised an eyebrow. ‘Neatly understated.’

‘So how do we get out?’

‘Good question.’ Cornelius indicated one of the large holographic images behind him. It showed her space with very few stars and a number of exotic and beautifully delicate nebulas.

‘We can’t see an end to it. The inside of the Void seems to be some kind of multidimensional Möbius strip. In here, the boundary doesn’t exist.’

‘So, where are we going?’

Cornelius’s mind emitted a sensation of desperation and despair that made Laura shiver again. ‘The Skylord is taking us to what it claims is an H-congruous planet. Sensors are confirming that status now.’

‘The what?’

Cornelius gestured. ‘Skylord.’

With a stiff back, Laura turned round. The high-res image behind her was taken from a sensor mounted on the forward section of the starship, where the ultradrive unit and force-field generators were clustered. The bottom fifth of the image showed the curving carbotanium hull with its thick layer of grubby grey thermal foam. At the top of the hologram was a small blue-white crescent, similar to any of the H-congruous worlds in the Commonwealth – though its night side lacked any city lights. And between the hull and the planet was the strangest nebula Laura could have imagined. As she stared, she saw it had some kind of solid core, a long ovoid shape. It wasn’t truly solid, she realized, but actually comprised of sheets of some crystalline substance warped into an extraordinary Calabi-Yau manifold geometry. The shimmering surfaces were alive with weird multicoloured patterns that flowed like liquid –or maybe it was the structure itself that was unstable. She couldn’t tell, for flowing around it was some kind of haze, also moving in strange confluences. ‘Serious bollocks,’ she grunted.

‘It’s a kind of spaceborne life,’ Cornelius said. ‘Three of them rendezvoused with us not long after we were pulled into the Void.

They’re sentient. You can use your telepathy to converse with them, though it’s like talking to a savant. Their thought processes aren’t quite like ours. But they can fly through his space. Or at least manipulate it somehow. They offered to lead us to worlds inside the Void where we could live. Ventura, Vanguard, Violet and Valley followed two Skylords. Vermillion is following this one, along with Viscount and Verdant. We decided that splitting the starships gives us a better chance of finding a viable H-congruous planet.’

‘With respect,’ Laura said, ‘why are we following any of them to a planet at all? Surely we should be doing everything we can to find the way out? All of us are on board for one reason: to found a new civilization outside this galaxy. Granted, the inside of the Void is utterly fascinating, and the Raiel would give their right bollock to be here, but you cannot make that decision for us.’

Cornelius’s expression was weary. ‘We’re trying to find an H-congruous planet, because the alternative is death. Have you noticed your biononic function?’

‘Yes. It’s very poor.’

‘Same for any chunk of technology on board. What passes for spacetime in here is corroding our systems a percentage point at a time. The first thing to fail was the ultradrive, presumably because it’s the most sophisticated system on board. But for the last year there have been fluctuations in the direct-mass converters, which were growing more severe. I couldn’t risk leaving them on line. We’re using fusion reactors to power the ingrav drive units now.’

‘What?’ she asked in shock. ‘You mean we’ve been travelling slower than light all this time?’

‘Point nine lightspeed since we arrived, nearly six years ago now,’ Cornelius confirmed bitterly. ‘Thankfully the suspension chambers have remained functional, or we would have had a real disaster on our hands.’

Laura’s first reaction was, Why didn’t you get me out of suspension back then? I could have helped. But that was probably what everyone on board would think. And from what she understood of their situation, the captain had done pretty well under the circumstances. Besides, her specialist field of molecular physics probably wouldn’t be that helpful in analysing a different spacetime structure.

She was drawn to the bright crescent ahead. ‘Is it H-congruous?’

‘We think so, yes.’

‘Is that why you tank yanked me? To help with a survey?’

‘No. We’re six million kilometres out and decelerating hard. We’ll reach orbit in another two days. Heaven alone knows how we’ll cope with landing, but we’ll tackle that when it happens. No, you’re here because our sensors found something at the planet’s

Lagrange One point.’ Cornelius closed his eyes, and the image shifted, focusing on the Lagrange point one and a half million kilometres above the planet’s sunlit hemisphere, where the star’s gravitational pull was perfectly countered by the planet’s gravity. The area was filled with a fuzzy blob that either the sensors or Laura’s eyes couldn’t quite focus on. It seemed to be speckled, as if it was made up from thousands of tiny motes.

‘What is that?’ she asked.

‘We’re calling it the Forest,’ Cornelius said. ‘It’s a cluster of objects that are about eleven kilometres long, with a surface distortion similar to our Skylord friend.’

‘More of them?’

‘Not quite; the shape is wrong. These things are slim with bulbous ends. And there’s something else. The whole Lagrange point is emitting a different quantum signature to the rest of the Void.’

‘Another quantum environment?’ she asked sceptically.

‘So it would seem.’

‘How is that possible?’ Laura’s shoulders slumped as she suddenly realized why she’d been tank yanked – her and the other science staff sitting in the bridge. ‘You want us to go and find out what it is, don’t you?’

Cornelius nodded. ‘I cannot justify stopping the Vermillion in a possibly hostile environment to conduct a scientific examination. My priority has to be getting us down intact on an H-congruous world. So you’ll command a small science team. Take a shuttle over to the Forest and run whatever tests you can. It might help us, or it might not. But, frankly, anything which can add to our knowledge base has to be considered useful at this stage.’

‘Yeah,’ she said in resignation. ‘I can see that.’

‘Take Shuttle Fourteen,’ he said.

Laura could sense that the shuttle had some kind of significance to him. It was the sensation of expectation running through his thoughts which signalled it, but her brain still wasn’t up to working out why. She told her u-shadow to pull the file from her storage lacuna. Data on the shuttle played through her mind, and she still didn’t get it . . . ‘Why that one?’

‘It has wings,’ Cornelius said softly. ‘If you have a major systems glitch, you can still aerobrake and glide down to the surface.’

Then she got it. ‘Oh, right; the shuttle doesn’t need its ingrav units to land.’

‘No. The shuttle doesn’t.’

Laura’s blood seemed to be chilling back down to suspension levels again. The Vermillion, over a kilometre long, and not remotely aerodynamic, was utterly dependent on regrav to slow to zero velocity relative to the planet and ingrav to drift down to a

light-as-a-feather landing. Of course there were multiple redundancies built in, and no moving parts, making failure just about inconceivable. In the normal universe.

‘Once we’ve confirmed H-congruous status, I’ll be launching all twenty-three shuttles from orbit,’ Cornelius said. ‘As will the Viscount and Verdant.

Laura told her u-shadow to recentre the bridge display on the planet. It still couldn’t interface with the starship’s net. ‘Uh, sir, how did you load your orders into the command core?’

‘Gaiafield. The confluence nest is one system that hasn’t been affected by the Void.’

And the confluence nest which generated the local gaiafield was hardwired into the ship’s network, Laura realized. Funny what worked and what didn’t in the Void.

Excerpt: Our Lady of the Streets

Excerpt: Our Lady of the Streets

Our Lady of the Streets is the third and final book of The Skyscraper Throne Trilogy. The adventures of Beth and Pen started in The City's Son and continued in the sequel The Glass Republic. Our Lady of the Streets was released on the 7th of August earlier this year by Jo Fletcher. Below you can find the synopsis and an excerpt of Our Lady of the Streets, read through it and onc again you will be amazed with what Tom Pollock devises in his story the supernatural creatures are a blast to read about. The first book was a great starter and Tom Pollock really out did himself with The Glass Republic, I have high hopes for the conclusion which I will plan to read very soon.

Synopsis of Our Lady of the Street:
Ever since Beth Bradley found her way into a hidden London, the presence of its ruthless goddess, Mater Viae, has lurked in the background. Now Mater Viae has returned with deadly consequences.

Streets are wracked by convulsions as muscles of wire and pipe go into spasm, bunching the city into a crippled new geography; pavements flare to thousand-degree fevers, incinerating pedestrians; and towers fall, their foundations decayed.

As the city sickens, so does Beth – her essence now part of this secret London. But when it is revealed that Mater Viae’s plans for dominion stretch far beyond the borders of the city, Beth must make a choice: flee, or sacrifice her city in order to save it.
Excerpt (pp 55-63):

Pen usually avoided the electronics department, but it was where many of the human refugees tended to cluster. Voices in a dozen languages blared loudly from the display TVs as trapped tourists fought to keep the news from their home countries audible. It wasn’t the jaw-clenching decibel level that made Pen steer clear of the place, though; it was the faces of the men and women as they watched the feeds coming in from Beijing and Moscow and New York and Delhi. She’d watched the disbelief, then the anger and then the hurt in their expressions as the rolling twenty-four-hour coverage of the crisis in London had given way to stories about house price rebounds and livestock health scares and a (Pen had to admit, truly terrifying) twelve-year-old boy who had a six-pack like a male stripper. London now rated only a thirty-second segment each night on most overseas stations, if that. The world had got bored of them; it no longer cared about the fates of the people stranded here. They were expendable, and Pen found it too painful to watch them realise it.

Tonight, though, all the screens were black except for the sixty-inch plasma on the back wall. Pen saw Beth fumbling with her hood as though her fi ngers were numb, and like a mother with a small child, she pulled it up for her. Without a word, the two of them slipped into the edge of the crowd clustering around the one  active television.

Above the scrolling BBC News banner was a placid suburban street: semi-detached houses, manicured gardens, branching trees and electricity pylons. The moon was bright and clear, etching every shape in silver and shadow. The picture went to split-screen, the left side staying on the street while the right cut to a doughy man in an illfitting suit, standing on the steps of some town hall and speaking into a collar of microphones.

Once again’ – some problem with the Beeb’s sound-mixing rendered the man’s voice weak and tinny – ‘I am calling on the acting Prime Minister to abort this operation now, before its too late. Too many of our brave servicemen and women have already given their lives in pointless raids.

Someone behind Pen booed at the telly. Next to her, Beth huddled closer into her hoodie.

This is just another sign of a government that is both reckless and out of ideas,’ the doughy man went on, ‘and frankly, yet more evidence that the acting Prime Ministers previous position as a junior minister cannot possibly have prepared him for his present responsibility, nor’ – there were spots the colour of raw bacon in his cheeks – ‘can the British public be reasonably expected to have ever anticipated his ascension to the leadership of the Conservative Party when they voted for it. The acting government has no legitimacy. We need a general election, and we need one now!

‘Shut it, tit-face,’ someone snapped at the TV.

‘Call your damn election,’ said another. ‘If you come and collect my vote in person, you can have it.’

Shh!’ Pen put a finger to her lips and hissed. Everyone fell quiet and Beth threw her an impressed look from inside her hoodie. ‘Just watch.’ The picture was back to full-screen again. Bright white halogen lights washed over the suburban street. With a rumble low enough to make the speakers rattle, a battle tank rolled into frame. A soldier in a camoufl aged helmet leaned out of the turret aiming a mounted machine gun directly between the genteel houses. A string of armoured vehicles followed behind, their passengers watchful behind the sights of their automatic rifl es, engines growling impatiently at their cautious progress. A hissing sound like static, just audible from the TV speakers, underlaid it all.

‘Jeez Louise,’ someone said. ‘They’re coming in heavy this time, aren’t they?’

‘Where are they?’ someone else whispered.

‘I dunno – Ealing?’

‘Nah, that’s Beckenham. My daughter . . . lived there.’

‘Have they tried there before?’

‘No, not yet.’

‘Come on,’ someone close to Pen was muttering. She could feel their breath on her ear. ‘Come on, come on, come on.’

Shadow divided the road: a place where the streetlights cut out. From that point on, only moonlight lit the street and everything was spectral and sharp. Pen drew in a breath as the tank approached that line. Radios crackled faintly in the air as the tank rumbled into the shadow . . .

. . . and carried on rumbling.

Pen exhaled. Someone at the back of the crowd whooped. The camera zoomed in on the soldier in the turret. His shoulders relaxed and he reached back and beckoned those behind him onwards. The tank purred up a  gear as they followed. Chatter broke out around Pen, voices shaky with relief.

‘How far is that from here?’ someone was saying eagerly.

‘About fifteen miles.’

‘Do you think they’ll make it all the way?’

‘What about the hot streets?’

‘They must have satellites,’ another voice said knowingly, ‘thermal imaging. They’ll know what streets to avoid. Maybe they’ve found a way through!’

‘A way through,’ someone echoed, and the crowd cheered.

‘A way out.

The crowd kept cheering, chanting, ‘A way out!’ It went through them like a wind through rushes. ‘A way out, a way out.’

Pen was still watching the soldier in the tank turret. He was tiny now, a long way from the camera: a toy figurine silhouetted by the headlight wash, but he wasn’t getting any smaller, she realised. She kept watching. Long seconds passed. The column had stopped advancing. The soldier’s silhouette was bent over, his hands braced on the edge of his hatch. He was staring at the road beside the tank.

‘Everybody shut up!’ Pen yelled over the din in the room. Heads turned irritably towards her, but the cheering cut off . In the silence that followed, soft and distant and mediated by microphone crackle, she  could hear the soldier shouting.

The camera zoomed in until he was in close up, pointing and yelling – his voice still surreally quiet; the microphone was as close as it could get. The camera panned downwards in the direction he was pointing end Pen hissed.

The tank tracks were half submerged in the road. The asphalt lapped at the steel wheels like seawater.

‘It’s a Tideway,’ she breathed in horror.

The vehicles were sinking. Liquid tarmac was pouring in through the smallest gaps. The soldiers were standing on their seats, already up to their knees in it. They held their discipline, snapping into their radios, but the camera mercilessly homed in on their wide, panicky eyes.

With a groan of metal, the tank tipped backwards. The massive gun barrel stuck up into the air like a flagpole. The soldier was hanging backwards out of the turret, the asphalt licking at his uniform as the tank slid in deeper. The camera zoomed in on his hands as they fumbled with his gun-strap, his helmet. He was getting ready to swim for it.

‘No,’ Pen whispered. ‘No. Don’t. No.’

The helmet came free and an instant later he dived into the road. There was barely a splash as the asphalt swallowed him.

Pen stared. They all stared. For silent moments there was nothing, and then . . .

There! He erupted from the surface of the road in a fit of coughing and fl ailing. He was only a few feet from his stricken vehicle, as far as his leap had taken him, but no further. He windmilled his arms raggedly, trying to drag his body into a front crawl, but he just splashed. He didn’t advance a single inch.

A weight settled in Pen’s stomach as she watched.

‘Why isn’t he swimming?’ a thickset man in a turban demanded.

‘The liquid’s not dense enough,’ Pen answered, trying to keep her voice from shaking. ‘There’s no resistance, nothing for him to push against.’

He was sinking. The road was already up to his chin and the tide was pushing it into his mouth. He spat and gasped. His mates were hollering at him to swim, holding out their rifles for him to grab hold of, but they were just out of reach. They swore and revved their vehicles, but though their wheels spun and churned up the road, they went nowhere. There was a commotion in the foreground of the picture: more armed fi gures, sprinting up the road, but as soon as they reached the line where the streetlights cut out they reeled back. They milled about, toeing the edge of the shadow: the liquid street, lapping up onto dry land.

The soldier wasn’t even splashing now. His arms were fully submerged. His head tilted back, desperate for breath.

And then, like sudden thunder came the sound of helicopter blades.

A dark shape swooped into the picture: the chopper, black and angular as an insect, a light fl ashing on its nose. Pen saw the ripples its rotors threw up in the centre of the road; she watched the soldiers raise their arms in greeting as it came to hover over them, but the whup whup whup of its blades drowned out their cheers. It drowned out another sound too, Pen was sure of it. One she’d forgotten and remembered only as it disappeared: the static hiss she’d heard earlier from the TV.

A man emerged from the chopper, his silhouette bulked out by a life jacket. He bobbed on a cable like a cat’s toy as he descended towards the sinking soldier.

‘Thank Christ for that,’ someone exhaled.

Pen stirred uneasily and looked at Beth, who shook her head. Something wasn’t right, but she couldn’t quite—

‘The hissing!’ she exclaimed suddenly. ‘Why would static from the TV set get drowned out by a sound inside the broadcast?’

It was only then she realised the windows of every house on the street were open.

With a bang like a thunderclap, fire erupted over the road. A pair of dragons, their outlines drawn in blue fl ame, beat their wings and shot towards the helicopter. Inside Beth’s hood, Oscar crooned.

The soldiers babbled in panic and struggled to bring their rifles to bear. The air filled with the rattle-roar of machine-gun fire, but the Sewermanders didn’t even fl inch. They lifted their talons and bowed their backs like hunting falcons as they crashed one after the other into the side of the helicopter.

Orange flared into blue as their claws found the fuel tank, then, shrouded in fi lthy smoke, the chopper plummeted towards the ground. The liquid street swallowed it with barely a splash, though the hiss of the extinguished fire carried clearly to the news team’s microphones.

The Sewermanders bent their necks as though calling, but they made no sound Pen could hear. They twisted in the air and began to circle the sinking men.

Two more gunshots sounded, then nothing. The soldiers stared upwards, their faces lit blue by the fire.

Pen waited. They all waited. She imagined the gas-drakes swooping down, incinerating their prey with fl aming jaws, but they didn’t. They just beat the air, riding their own thermals, waiting.

Beth forgot herself and put a street-laced hand over her mouth, but it was the man in the turban who spoke.

‘My God. They’re just leaving them.’

The soldiers splashed and struggled, fl ailing their arms like children who didn’t know how to swim. They were up to their necks now, the vehicles invisible under them. Pen could almost read their lips as they prayed and begged and fought for breath.

Their outstretched fingers less than two feet from the pavement, one by one, they slipped below the surface.

No one spoke. Pen switched oW the TV. She turned to Beth, looking for someone to share her horror, but Beth wasn’t looking at her. She was bent over, crooked, staring at the floor.

Beth’s hand was still clamped across her mouth, but cupped, as though to catch something, and from between her fingers a liquid the colour of asphalt was dripping with a plack plack plack sound onto the marble floor.