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Friday, 30 October 2015

Dark matter

I've told you the story about how Dirk Lloyd came to be. Jamie Thomson and I sat in my back garden with some beers, contemplating the need to come up with a new project seeing as how the two game development companies where we worked (Black Cactus and Elixir) had shut down within a few months of each other. We roughed out a plot, Jamie wrote the book, and a mere four years later we finally sold it to a publisher. Overnight success takes time, you see.

So then, as we were gearing up for the release of the first Dirk book, we decided it might be a good idea to get another series on the creative conveyor belt. So it was back to the garden, Becks bottles in hand, and this time we went for something with a science fictional element. Proper, classic SF where you get to travel to strange new worlds and meet a bunch of exotic alien species. So that was the series we originally called Gazza Greene, Starship Captain and which was eventually published as The Wrong Side of the Galaxy.

Concepts change a lot in development. I began work on the first Starship Captain book while Jamie was writing Dark Lord: A Fiend in Need. We'd kicked off with the notion that Gazza would be a troublemaker, a problem kid who was almost a bully in the making, so that in becoming an unwilling starship commander and having to forge a crew out of a bunch of misfits, criminals and renegades he'd be following an arc of redemption.

That plan soon got photon torpedoed. The first Dark Lord book was selling well, mainly to 8-11 year olds, and the Fabled Lands literary agent made a strong case for middle-grade action-humour now being the demographic for the Jamie Thomson "brand". On top of that, the publishers decided that every one of Jamie's books should begin, as Dark Lord: The Early Years did, with the word "AAARGHHHH!" Seriously. Every book.

So out went my opening chapters, which were deemed (probably correctly) as too dark and not action-packed enough for the target readership. What can I say? Books that jump straight into the action bore me, but then I'm not 9 years old. The Starship Captain series I was envisaging would have been for young adults, and we had no market there. We ended up with a great series, largely thanks to Jamie, and about 20% of my work made it into the finished book, but I still feel a pang about the parallel universe where The Wrong Side of the Galaxy appeared as a very different novel - one with action, strangeness and humour, but with the core of characer-based grittiness from which I like to see my heroes grow.

So, here below are those two opening chapters that didn't make the cut. In case you find this version too heavy, let me assure you that the finished book is much lighter, with lots of humour, fast-paced plot twists and astounding alien cultures - as you can find out for yourself:

(The artwork here on the blog is by the mega-talented Iasmin Gloom; follow her on Twitter.)


“I wish I was a million miles away from this dump!”
Gazza slammed the front door so hard he could hear the impact twanging the wires in the piano that sat under a mound of muddy boots and old magazines in the hall. Mimbles, who had been lying like a dishrag on the path, gave him a startled look and darted under the hedge.
Gazza instantly thought about turning round. Not because he regretted losing his temper or shouting at his mum. She asked for that, letting everyone walk all over her. It was enough to drive anybody into a fury. But there was a bit of a chill in the air already, sure to get colder now the sun had gone down, and he hadn’t stopped to grab a sweater.
Oh well, there was nothing for it but to keep on going now. He stomped off down the street. Old Mrs Forbush was carrying something wrapped in a paper tissue to the skip in her driveway. She could always find an excuse to nose around when there was any sort of a row going on. She gave Gazza a look like she thought he needed throwing in a skip too.
Stupid old bat. A year ago – no, it was longer, he wasn’t even ten at the time – Gazza had been chasing Colin Barley. Never would stand still and fight, that one. In frustration, Gazza chucked a big lump of earth at him, but Colin had ducked and it sailed through the open window of Mrs Forbush’s car as she was pulling out of her gate. Oh, the look on her face. His sister said some women used mud packs for beauty treatment. Mrs Forbush could do with a couple of tons, in that case.
She saw him laughing at her, pursed her lips like a cat’s behind, flung the rubbish into the skip and stalked off. All because of one honest mistake a couple of years ago. A lot of the neighbours looked at him that way. You’d think he was a firework that had fallen over lit, and everybody was scared to run over and set it up. Bunch of cattle, the lot of them.
“Hmm, fireworks,” said Gazza to himself after he’d gone a few more paces. He stopped and looked back at the skip in Mrs Forbush’s driveway. Imagine a box of bangers going off in there. It’d sound like world war three starting right outside her window. That’d really give her something to scowl about! Gazza chuckled. He’d have to remember that plan.
A shiver wiped the grin off his face. What business had it got getting this cold in September? It was like the weather was doing it just to spite him. He stormed off up to the main road, still fired up on the adrenaline from yelling at his mum. As he got to the top, there was a line of cars all stuck at the lights, horns blaring. “Shut up, you’ll get there just as quick,” he muttered at the nearest vehicle, a Mini with a bloke as wide as a water barrel squeezed behind the wheel. The man’s face was as red as the lights but he kept on leaning on the horn. Gazza’s eye fell on a half brick lying at the side of the pavement and for a split second he pictured himself lobbing it through the windscreen of the Mini, the glass turning to a web of cracks and the fat man’s gormless face staring back at him.
He shook his head. Don’t be daft. He felt his heart thudding with the very idea of it. That was crazy thinking. How had he got himself into that kind of a state?
All along the road he fought the urge to turn and look back down the row of cars. Just in case his dad actually had made the effort for once. Just this once. Well, if he turned up now he’d have missed Gazza and then he’d be sorry, wouldn’t he?
Except he wasn’t going to turn up. Gazza knew that. In a few days he’d phone and have some excuse ready, some old line he’d come out with. Well, it’d be too late. Never again. He’d given him enough chances.
Harvey was on his front step fixing a puncture on his bike. Gazza leaned over the gate. “Chuck it in the canal, mate, that’s all it’s good for.”
“All right, Gazza. Come out without a coat, did you? Must be freezing.”
Gazza shrugged. “Thought I’d come over for a bit, play a game or something.”
“Can’t. Flossie stuck a rusk in the Playstation.”
“You what?”
“It’s all full of milk and crumbs and spit. The tray doesn’t go in properly anymore.”
“Babies…” said Gazza, in the same tone that somebody might have mentioned rats when the Black Death was in full swing.
Harvey put down the bicycle pump. “’I thought you had something else on tonight, anyway.”
“What you talking about?” Gazza snapped back. He felt his heart in his throat, but he didn’t want Harvey to know that.
“Your birthday, isn’t it? Your sister said your dad was coming over.”
“Talking to my sister?” Gazza glowered at him, covering his embarrassment with spiteful humour. “Going out with her now, are you? Holding hands?”
“Leave off. Look, I’ve got to go and have my tea. See you at school, all right?”
Gazza slouched off without another word. When he heard Harvey call, “And happy birthday, mate!” he didn’t even look back.
He just let his legs carry him, on past the row of shops with the shutters down. The shutters were covered with same old graffiti he’d seen on them for the last few years, now scuffed and fading. Such a dump, this place – even the spray can brigade couldn’t bother keeping their work fresh. He picked up a handful of gravel from the gutter and rattled it off the metal shutters.
There were flats above the shops and he felt a little stab of malice as he saw the curtains twitch. A girl’s face, a student probably, pale and dumb as a sheep. He mimed throwing a stone at the window and laughed out loud when she actually ducked back.
But his smile faded as fast as it had come. The joke was on him, sloping around aimlessly on an evening when anybody else would be hanging out with their friends and family.
Well, anybody else would have a proper family. Not a father who showed up when he had nothing else to do and thought that it was enough to bring an armful of videogames instead of spending time with his kids. And as for his mother… Right now she’d be chugging back a big glass of wine in front of some mindless TV show, and she’d be all sentimental and teary the moment he walked back in the door. Gazza felt bile slosh around hotly in his guts at the thought.
Beyond the shops, the houses thinned out. The lights were on in the sports ground even though there wasn’t a game on this evening. The flat grey light shining onto the stands looked fuzzy in the gathering dusk and Gazza realized there was a mist seeping up from the canal that ran along the back.
He shivered in his thin T-shirt, but he wasn’t going back home yet. Let her stew. Let them all just carry on with their boring, pointless lives – the reality TV shows and the microwaved baked beans and the bottle of red wine that wouldn’t last the night once his mum got into it. His sister texting her stupid friends and screaming at any old inane bits of gossip. He didn’t want anything to do with anyone.
He passed a patch of overgrown scrub and trees, not big enough to be called a common. It reeked of fungus and dog turds where owners had let them go and do their business under the damp bushes. Somebody on the school bus had said the patch of land was called the Optic because some guy had put a telescope on it years ago for looking at stars. Ridiculous. The only time any kid around here got to see stars was if he was in a punch up. Certainly the sky, which streetlamps painted the colour of mustard even in midwinter, wouldn’t give an astronomer much to study. Sometimes you’d see a dodgy looking bloke in a raincoat slinking out of the bushes, but Gazza didn’t figure they went in there to look at Uranus.
Mind you, wasn’t that a star? He squinted. A falling star, maybe. He couldn’t hear any aircraft engines. In fact, other than the usual low hum of traffic, the evening was startlingly quiet. There weren’t even any birds singing in the stubby trees.
The light crawled across the misty sky. It must be a falling star. Old Moleface at school had said something about the season for meteorites. He could make a wish.
“I wish it was a plane and I was on it going somewhere inter- ” And he stopped then because the light went out. Just like that. Typical. His birthday, and all he got was half a wish on a rubbish falling star.
Further on there was a sort of little estate of about a dozen derelict buildings. The chain-link fence had loads of gaps but nobody went in there because all the houses had bricked-up windows. Sometimes, walking past, you’d catch a faint sour reek like in an old bus shelter – the smell of wet concrete, mould, and tramps dossing down. Gazza often wondered if it had been used in the War or something. Maybe a place where they cracked codes or built atom bombs. Back when there were more exciting things to do than hang around the kebab shop on a Friday evening. Back when things actually happened around here.
They could brick up all the houses in his road. They could come in the night and do it, and most of the neighbours wouldn’t even notice.
A car went past and as Gazza looked up he saw a sight that quickened his pulse. There was a solitary figure walking along the pavement about thirty yards ahead. His feet, scraping along in big clunky brown shoes, along with the big duffel bag on his back, made him look even smaller and scrawnier than he was.
As the boy glanced back, Gazza recognized him – a kid a couple of years below him at school. He didn’t know the boy’s name, but he’d noticed how he would blink nervously and turn round if he came across Gazza in the corridor.
He grinned at the thought, but suddenly he was angry again. That was typical. People were always assuming he was out to key their cars or steal their lunch money or beat them up. Well, to be fair, sometimes he did demand a share of lunch money. But that didn’t make him a monster, did it.
“Oy, you!” He raised his arm. “Come here.”
The boy looked all around, trying to pretend that he hadn’t noticed Gazza. What a lousy actor he’d make. It was pathetic. Gazza speeded up – not breaking into a run, just lengthening his pace. The boy started to hurry off down the road, the overstuffed bag jogging on his back.
Gazza gave a gasp of irritation. He was only going to give the little worm a bit of a fright. But now he’d ignored him. Disobeyed him. He couldn’t have that. He started striding along a bit faster. Every so often the smaller boy looked back, each time breaking into a little half-run for a few paces to put a bit more distance between him and Gazza.
Oh well, at least the exercise was warming him up. Gazza decided he’d chase the kid to the next set of lights, then he’d probably have to head back. Maybe he could sneak in without anyone hearing. Anything to avoid the usual drunken theatrics from his mum. He didn’t want to hear her saying, “Oh my poor little darling, your father didn’t even phone.” No, course he didn’t, he’d want to say. I don’t blame him. He didn’t want to talk to a whining alky, that’s why he left.
Three bigger kids – teenagers – walked out of a side road. The boy with the backpack was caught between them, but then to Gazza’s amazement he went right up to one of them. The teenager listened, then stared along the pavement. Right at Gazza.
It was Scarsey. He was in the year above. Gazza had had a couple of near run-ins with Scarsey – not a scrap or anything. They recognized something in each other, a toughness. Scarsey usually gave him a look of wary respect, even if he was a year older.
Not now, though. Not backed up by his two mates. Now it was a whole other look he was giving.
Gazza swore under his breath. He’d been about to turn back anyway. How could he do that now, without looking like he’d bottled it?
And who’d ever have guessed that Scarsey had a little brother? Probably only noticed him to give him clips around the ear. But now it was an excuse. A pretext, that was the word. Scarsey with his two mates. And here’s me, way off my own turf.
Gazza bent down and pretended to tie his shoelace, just to buy some time. The three teenagers started towards him. The kid with the backpack stood there watching, expressionless behind his bottle-thick glasses as if he was watching a wildlife documentary. One of those programmes where a pack of hyenas gang up on a lion. Only, Gazza thought, this was more like a pack of lions on one hyena.
Stuff it. He turned and ran.
They were after him. He didn’t waste time looking back. Didn’t need to, he could hear their boots clumping on the pavement. Heavy great boots that would leave multicoloured bruises that would ripen and rust for weeks. They couldn’t have just come out wearing trainers, of course. Oh no. Today of all days, and he couldn’t get a stroke of luck.
What did surprise him was how thick the mist was getting. The streetlamps were just bright smears in the twilight. And the lamps of the sports ground. No wait, that was on the other side of the road. So what was that damned great rack of lights shining off to his right?
He saw a gap in the chain link fence. No time to think. Instinct had him squeezing through before he knew it. A good move if the three bigger boys hadn’t seen him. But if they did, that meant he was cornered now. A roll of the dice, that’s all it was. Too late for second thoughts now, anyway.
He darted across to the nearest of the bricked-up buildings and flung himself out of sight just as his pursuers drew level. Bracing himself against a pile of old rubble, every muscle locked frozen, he gritted his teeth so as to force himself to breathe as quietly as possible. He could hear those three gasping away. Scarsey smoked like a wet bonfire, that was why. Not that you needed a lot of puff to go three-to-one on a younger kid and pound the living daylights out of him.
“He’s legged it,” said one of the boys.
“Yeah, long gone,” said another.
Neither of the ones who’d spoken was Scarsey. Gazza knew his creaky, weed-thin tones, like something crawling venomously over your skin.
“Hold up…”
Yes, that was him. Gazza could hear the relish in Scarsey’s voice. Excitement and the promise of action, the thrill of violence – those things tasted good to Scarsey. Gazza knew because they tasted good to him too.
“Look there,” said Scarsey.
“What is it?”
“Tore his top, didn’t he?”
Gazza frantically tugged his T-shirt around. There was a rip in the back. He hadn’t noticed snagging it when he squeezed through the fence.
Scarsey raised his voice. “Ready or not,” he called out in a sinister sing-song, “here we come!”
And Gazza heard the soft clash of metal cables as the three pushed through the gap in the fence after him.


Gazza couldn’t stay where he was. They’d be sure to stumble across him in seconds. He edged along the wall, hoping that he might find a way into the derelict building, but every door and window was sealed with masonry blocks.
“We’ll never find him in this fog,” he heard one of the boys complaining.
“Shut up,” snapped Scarsey. “You go round that way. And keep your eyes peeled. I don’t want him getting away.”
They were splitting up. Gazza kept going along the side of the building. At least he could hear their boots on the rough pebble-strewn ground, while his trainers meant he could move silently.
Trouble was, they were between him and the hole in the fence, so sneaky like a ninja wasn’t going to cut it. He tried to remember what ran across the back of the abandoned research park. A two-storey brick wall. There were wooden gates, but fifteen feet high with a padlock and broken glass along the top. There’d be no getting over that.
He darted out across open ground to the next building, diving out of sight around the corner just as Scarsey loomed out of the mist right next to where he had been crouching.
Gazza peeked out. He hated having to hide like this. He hated running. If it was just Scarsey on his own, he’d take him on even though he was a year older and eight kilos heavier. With three of them, though, and Gazza way off his turf, scarpering was just common sense.
He knew how Scarsey would spin it at school tomorrow. Make Gazza sound yellow. He wouldn’t mention being backed up by his mates, he’d paint a picture of Gazza running away with his tail between his legs. Gazza’s blood boiled and it took all his willpower not to jump out and lay into them right then.
But given the odds that really wouldn’t go well.
He had one other chance. There were other places you could get through the fence from the road. He ought to know, he’d walked past it often enough. Where were the gaps, though? He wished he’d paid more attention in the past. Then he remembered. There was a tree whose roots had pushed the chain links apart, leaving a big enough space for cats and tatty old foxes to come poking through. If the ground was soft enough there, he could dig a wider hole and get through.
That tree was on the other side of the road from the sports ground, right opposite the sign where they advertised the next fixtures. He swung like a compass needle, getting a bearing on the lights that still blazed fuzzily in the dusk.
Funny, the other light he thought he’d seen – the one in here among the abandoned buildings – that seemed to have gone out. It must have just been a reflection in a window. Just as well. He could do with all the cover he could get right now, and having a damned great arc light overhead wouldn’t help.
With everything else that was going on, he had forgotten that it couldn’t be a reflection. There was no glass in the windows, only cement and bricks.
High above the abandoned buildings, a ripple stirred the fog as something huge and unseen pushed through the air.
Gazza didn’t see it. His attention was all focused on staying out of sight. He risked a look around the corner of the building. The three had joined up again, and one of them had his phone out so as to use the light. Good. Let them mess up their night vision. The beam wouldn’t reach more than ten yards in this mist now. Five yards, even. It was getting thicker by the minute.
“Thank you,” mouthed Gazza at the sky. Maybe he was due a spot of luck after all. He sneaked out across the wide concrete space between the buildings. It immediately felt as if he had eyes boring into his back, but he forced himself to ignore that. It was just being out in the open. They couldn’t have seen him.
He ran swiftly on tiptoe across towards the far corner of the grounds, where he remembered the tree being. Get there and he’d be home free. In fact, he could be home and having a hot mug of tea while those three idiots were still stumbling around here in the dark.
He still had the big smile on his face when he glanced out into the street and saw him standing on the other side of the big metal gates. The little kid with the rucksack. Scarsey’s little brother. The little perisher who was the cause of all this trouble.
Gazza froze and put one finger to his lips. “Ssh.”
The kid’s glasses were little round circles of yellow ice in the streetlight. “Here’s over here, Billy!” he shouted at the top of his lungs.
So Scarsey’s name is Billy. Who’d have guessed it, Gazza found himself thinking stupidly as he ran back deeper into the grounds. No point making for the gap in the fence now. Little Scarsey would follow him on the outside and lead them right to him before he was halfway through. Stuck in a gap in a chain fence – not a good position for facing three pairs of big toecaps.
He knew they’d catch him now. That felt like a relief, actually. Hiding and running weren’t his thing. They’d give him a pasting, but he’d leave some marks on them too. Even though they all had a year on him, not to mention those heavy boots, whatever they did to him he’d see to it that they’d be carrying away a few bruises of their own.
At what he judged to be the middle of the grounds, he stopped and turned. All he could see now was a misty outline of trees and buildings in the twilight.
“Come on, then!” he yelled into the fog. “What you waiting for?”
Gazza heard the slow scrape of footfalls, slightly muffled by the fog. Scarsey dragging his feet, taking his time, savouring the moment.
“You in a hurry, are you?”
He saw them then. Just shadows in the fog. They were closing in. He saw a flash of a smile, like a rattlesnake turning its scales.
“Only I’m afraid we’ve got quite a bit to do, Greene,” said Scarsey. “Might be here a while.”
They started to circle him. He wasn’t going to get a chance to go down fighting. One of them would jump him from behind. He couldn’t watch them all. Then they’d pin him down and he’d be helpless. He felt the rage pounding in his throat, roaring like acid in his veins.
A snigger came from Scarsey’s throat. A nasty, cowardly sound. Gazza realized he’d been wrong. He sometimes thought he’d be Scarsey in a year’s time. How could he have ever thought that? He and Scarsey, they weren’t anything alike. He liked a fight, but a fair fight. A proper scrap. He wouldn’t lead a pack and titter to himself about it.
“You’re a creep, Scarsey. Step up and I’ll take you on.”
The answer: running feet behind him. Gazza started to turn, braced to push his shoulder into the boy’s face and follow up with a fist. But he didn’t because at that moment it was as if the sun turned back on and he was surrounded in a blaze of dazzling white light.
He clearly saw the boy who’d been running at him. Not Scarsey, one of the other two. But the weird thing is that he now seemed to be falling away, shrinking back into the haze of blinding light.
Then Gazza realized that it wasn’t the other boy who was falling, it was him. He was falling directly up into the sky.
He twisted around – which wasn’t easy. His arms and legs felt as if somebody had rolled him up in half a mile of clingfilm. Finally he managed to turn his neck so he could look up. The lights were right on top of him. They were arranged in a circle and they were so incredibly bright that he couldn’t look at them for more than a few seconds without feeling like chisels were being stuffed down his tear ducts into his brain.
Yet he didn’t feel hot, as you might expect if somebody hoisted you up within arms length of a huge array of stadium lights. If anything, the light actually made the air around him feel colder.
He could hear Scarsey and the others running away. Their big boots sounded a long way off, and as tiny as beetles scuttling over a windowpane.
There was a hiss and a hatch opened in the middle of the circle of lights. A shadow appeared in the haze. That’s when Gazza finally realized. Those weren’t stadium lights. They weren’t construction lights. They weren’t on top of any stand or tower. There was nothing supporting them. They were floating in mid-air.
Then the shadow raised an arm, Gazza saw what looked like a gun in its hand.
And everything went white.


  1. There is a base, groundless and right in your face lie in this piece. A total outright lie. Dave said: "So it was back to the garden, Becks bottles in hand....," I hate Becks. I never drink Becks. It was Singha beer.


  2. Slightly more seriously, to be fair, the Wrong side does start with action right from the get go in a brilliant example of exciting action in the first chapter which was written by Dav., as are the next few chaps. Well, other than me adding the 'Aaaarrrgh'! at the beginning :-).

  3. Actually it was Becks, but I can't think why because obviously I only ever buy Singha and Sol. And sometimes Tsingtao. Hmm... a mystery!

    1. For Starship Captain? Are you sure? Or are you... you know. Deluded.

    2. Sure or deluded? I can't be both? I expect if they were Becks then they were left over after a game - and we were naturally too lazy to walk up to the offie for some Sols. I'm now thinking that Becks might be the magic creative formula, though.

  4. I love Iasmin's depictions of the characters btw, especially that one of Alph... or Bet. Those would be absolutely perfect in the parallel universe YA version.

  5. A digression, but is there any chance of a yuletide Dragon Warriors scenario this year? I would look forward to it quite as much as I do the economist Christmas special.

    1. That's high praise. Last year's special in our group was run by Tim Harford, who will however probably be far too busy working on that Economist supplement to write up the scenario for the FL blog. A pity, because it was a quite brilliant juxtaposition of various folktales, the Flying Dutchman myth, the most famous novel of Mr Bram Stoker, and all that with the traditional Legend trimmings.