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!”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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,
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.
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.”
right, Gazza. Come out without a coat, did you? Must be freezing.”
shrugged. “Thought I’d come over for a bit, play a game or something.”
Flossie stuck a rusk in the Playstation.”
all full of milk and crumbs and spit. The tray doesn’t go in properly anymore.”
said Gazza, in the same tone that somebody might have mentioned rats when the
Black Death was in full swing.
put down the bicycle pump. “’I thought you had something else on tonight,
you talking about?” Gazza snapped back. He felt his heart in his throat, but he
didn’t want Harvey to know that.
birthday, isn’t it? Your sister said your dad was coming over.”
to my sister?” Gazza glowered at him, covering his embarrassment with spiteful
humour. “Going out with her now, are you? Holding hands?”
off. Look, I’ve got to go and have my tea. See you at school, all right?”
slouched off without another word. When he heard Harvey call, “And happy
birthday, mate!” he didn’t even look back.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
you!” He raised his arm. “Come here.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
now, though. Not backed up by his two mates. Now it was a whole other look he
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?
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.
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.
it. He turned and ran.
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.
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?
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.
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
legged it,” said one of the boys.
long gone,” said another.
of the ones who’d spoken was Scarsey. Gazza knew his creaky, weed-thin tones,
like something crawling venomously over your skin.
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.
there,” said Scarsey.
his top, didn’t he?”
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.
raised his voice. “Ready or not,” he called out in a sinister sing-song, “here
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.
never find him in this fog,” he heard one of the boys complaining.
up,” snapped Scarsey. “You go round that way. And keep your eyes peeled. I
don’t want him getting away.”
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
given the odds that really wouldn’t go well.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
froze and put one finger to his lips. “Ssh.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
on, then!” he yelled into the fog. “What you waiting for?”
heard the slow scrape of footfalls, slightly muffled by the fog. Scarsey
dragging his feet, taking his time, savouring the moment.
in a hurry, are you?”
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.
I’m afraid we’ve got quite a bit to do, Greene,” said Scarsey. “Might be here a
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.
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.
a creep, Scarsey. Step up and I’ll take you on.”
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.
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.
Gazza realized that it wasn’t the other boy who was falling, it was him. He was
falling directly up into the sky.
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.
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.
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.
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.
the shadow raised an arm, Gazza saw what looked like a gun in its hand.
everything went white.