Heaven Can Wait
“How old were you at death, boy?”
“Fifteen, Revered Justicar,” the boy who stood before the Justicar’s bench certainly looked fifteen. His face still had a little babyish roundness; his shoulders were still narrow. There were hints, though, of an age beyond his years. His nose was bent as if it had once been badly broken. He stood without fidgeting, seeming completely comfortable in his smart, formal suit. He looked at the Justicar and the priests who flanked him without cringing.
“And you have been dead how long?”
“Fourteen years, Revered One.”
“You are aware that in this court, you may appeal for special clemency as a child? Our Lord is merciful, and willing to forgive much done in the ignorance of youth which would otherwise be held as mortal sin.”
The boy nodded, “Thank you, Revered One, but as my guilt, such as it is, is a matter of public record, I would rather defend myself as an adult. Whether my actions were evil or not depends on my reasons for them. I would rather not have the court treat me as childish.”
“Very well. State your name, please, for the record.”
The Justicar raised an eyebrow, “Your full name?”
“Revered One, I was born without a second name. If you must have a family name for the record, please put down Everay.”
One of the priests had been halfway through taking a drink, and coughed sharply. There was a rustle from the benches behind Tom.
The priest at the Justicar’s right hand said, “A morbid choice, perhaps?”
“If I was ever close to having a family, that family’s name was Everay.”
The Justicar said, “Very well. Tom Everay, you stand accused of mortal sins, including murder, blasphemy, adultery and heresy. As you say, your guilt is an established fact. This Court is convened at your request to determine whether special exceptions should be made for any or all of your crimes on the grounds of correct and Holy motives. The Court will hear all testimony you wish to make. Venerable Father Gostin will take your oath.”
Gostin stood from the right-hand end of the Justicar’s bench and walked around to stand beside Tom, carrying an ornate icon of the Sun On High, the emblem of the Church. The third-highest-ranked member of the clergy in the city, he was the lowliest priest able to touch the Justicar’s icon without burning. He carried it before his face, clasped in both hands. Tom frowned at it, and for a moment it looked like he might take a step back.
Gostin intoned, “Do you swear before Almighty Justice to speak only truth and hide no evil?”
Tom looked at the Justicar, “Forgive me, Revered One, but my experiences in recent years have led me to more than a little doubt about justice. I swear by my own honour, by my life, by my death and on pain of total damnation that I will be truthful, but were I to swear by Almighty Justice I fear it would be meaningless.”
Some of the priests went white; others bright red. Every eye in the room turned to the Justicar. His eyelids flickered for a moment, and he nodded, smiling. “The point is taken, and your oath is judged acceptable. You may begin your testimony.”
A couple of the priests jumped to their feet, but the Justicar held up a hand and, heads bowed, they sat back down.
Tom took a deep breath, “Thank you, Revered Justicar. Since the petty crimes of my life pale into insignificance compared to my deeds since dying, I ask the court’s forbearance to avoid listing them. My death is the beginning, not the end, of my story.”
Chapter 1 – Dead on Arrival
In the small hours of the morning after my death, I woke up on a sandbar out in the Cohl delta with a Man Who Wasn’t There waiting for me. It’s hard to describe Men Who Aren’t There. After all, they’re not there. He wore a smart pin-striped suit, his silver smiley-face cuff-links glowing in the moonlight. Everything about him was polished to a shine, from his shoes to his briefcase. I couldn’t tell you whether he himself was smiling, but looking at his face gave me a sense of comfort. It’s not so much that Men Who Aren’t There don’t have faces, but the light never seems to fall on them right, you never get a clear look – and so you never remember what they look like.
Of course, while I was taking all this in, another part of my mind, in a voice of rising, uncomfortable urgency, was telling me that I was face-down on a sandbar, soaking wet, cold and very confused. Still another part of my mind was wondering why the shiny shoes in front of me weren’t sinking – as my face was – into the sticky silt of the sandbar.
I spat sand and started to push myself up. The Man Who Wasn’t There leaned down and offered me a hand up. I took it, gratefully, and was surprised by the strength in the wiry fingers. Standing, I did my best to brush the mud off, which mostly ended up spreading it onto my hands.
“Well, aren’t we a live one?” said the Man Who Wasn’t There.
“Huh? What do you mean?” I asked, then remembered my priorities, “Where am I?”
“That’s an interesting question. If you’re asking about this place, we’re about half a mile down-stream from the Seaward Gate, in the delta. Where you are? Well, that’s more complicated.”
“What do you mean? Who are you?”
“Me? Oh, I’m Not Here. But you’ve got more important things to worry about. I’m sorry to be so blunt about this, but you’re dead.”
Intrigued? I'm looking for beta readers. I'd also like to get a few people to just read the book in its current form - it's had one very quick edit/proofread - and give me a response as readers to the story, characters, and ideas. I'm aiming for the part of the YA fantasy market where you find things like Jonathan Stroud's 'Amulet of Samarkand' and Garth Nix's 'Sabriel', so I'm particularly interested in your response if those books are up your street. If you're interested and have the time to either test or beta for me in the next month, please email me at rdavnall AT googlemail DOT com. A few people have already offered - I'll be in touch with you shortly to see if you're still interested.
If you're really interested, or if you like my writing but YA fantasy isn't for you, keep reading. I've got two other novels which I need test readers for. To clarify; I'm NOT looking for betas yet for either of these books as I'm not really sure where either of them fits, genre- and market-position-wise. I'm looking to get reader responses to the stories to help me place them. I've sampled my sci-fi 'The Death of John Collins' before, but not 'Bad Romance'. With 'John Collins', I'm trying to work out whether to keep the hard sci-fi and character-focussed elements or strip it down into more of an action thriller. 'Bad Romance' sits somewhere between a contemporary romance and literary fiction, and I'd be interested in the opinions of fans of both.
Brief samples of both:
Bad RomanceStranger Song
"Can't you believe I'm lying to you?"
"I believe you're lying to me now."
She stretches sexily, then runs her hand down his bare chest. There's hope in his eyes, but a momentary close-up shows only mischief in hers.
"You're wrong. I was lying all along."
"How can I believe that?"
The drumbeat starts up, and a pounding bass line with a weird bend at the end of the phrase. A synthesiser drops into place in the groove with a perfection that makes my toe tap. The tableau vanishes in special-effect smoke and she strides out of it, her gown sliding off her shoulders and down her lithe, narrow body. Underneath, she wears only underwear and a body-painting of a tragedy mask across her abdomen.
The dancing that accompanies the first verse is hypnotic. There’s something about Mielle’s perfect control that makes her much more than her choreography. Her nameless co-star and three identically-dressed others writhe around her with perfect timing, but something in the cat-like way her entire body moves with every sway holds my attention totally captive.
Behind them, the white background flickers into life. They dance in a theatre decorated entirely in Apple-Mac white. Lights flash across it with every pulse of the last line of the verse; Mielle’s face strobes with the drum-roll as the chorus bursts through.
Can’t you believe, can’t you believe I’m lying to you,
Can’t you take my word, take my word, my word I have betrayed,
This statement is a lie but I will tell it if you try,
To please believe, please believe nothing I ever say,
I catch myself with a smirk on my face. Who does she think she’s kidding? Of course she’s lying to us. There are flashes of her face in close-up, impish smile mixed with ridiculously long false eyelashes that glitter as she bats them at the camera. She pushes her dancers aside and walks to a throne; the theatre becomes an arena filled with cheering millions.
There’s no denying the production values on the video. There’s also no denying the energy of the hooks in the chorus; she smiles with perfect Hollywood glamour as she starts to explain why she lied to him in the first place. The underwear and tragedy mask are gone in favour of a black PVC cat-suit with dayglo squares dotted across it. Her hair has gone from a dark brown bob to black dreadlocks streaked with gold. She twists in the throne, one moment sitting normally, the next with a leg hooked over the back and her head dangling towards the floor while her hips pump in perfect time.
The chorus rises again, and she’s back in the theatre. He’s in the audience, nodding along – he’s everyone in the audience, row on row of him smiling while she gloats. This time at the end of the chorus, she goes up instead of down on ‘nothing I ever say’, and while she holds the note the music cuts back to just bass. The stage goes dark and she sparkles in a single spotlight. In close-up, she stares straight into the camera, winks, and whispers
Cohen, you’re a stranger but you’re still my oldest friend,
I actually look round, wondering who said my name, while she continues,
Stipe, it’s been a bad day but it’s coming to an end,
The music starts picking up intensity again. He’s alone in the front row; she’s somehow made her way down from the stage in front of him, and her whisper turns to singing as she climbs into his lap,
If you justify my actions, there’ll be nothing to defend,
I could show my face but there’s still so much to pretend.
His seat becomes the throne; she grinds in his lap. His eyes close in pleasure and his mouth opens in a silent gasp. She stands up and the throne explodes behind her as the chorus returns; a horde of red-clad dancers emerge from the flames and she joins them for the most vigorous routine yet.
The chorus peaks and repeats itself. She sings ‘believe me, I’m lying’ as a descant. In close-up, she mock-boxes the camera and covers her face with her hands before vanishing.
The video ends with her lying in bed wearing the same blue silk gown she wore at the start. He lies next to her, playing dead. She runs a finger down his nose, across his lips and down his Adam’s apple, and whispers ‘Do you believe me now?’
I sit back from the screen and push my chair up on its hind legs, my mind thoroughly blown. Mielle’s first video had been bland, the song energetic but forgettable. ‘Can’t You Believe I’m Lying To You?’ is a completely different package. I’m humming the chorus already, and I can’t get the image of her swaying across the stage out of my mind.
The Death of John Collins
“Sir, was John Collins evil?” The question came from a student in the front row of the lecture theatre’s seating. Two rows further back, Blanchett leaned forward, studying Professor Lambert’s reaction intently.
The Professor frowned for a moment, then said, “John was a loyal comrade and a war hero. Whatever you may have been told about him, I knew him, and he was not evil.” His voice was mild, but his face wore an owlish glare directed at the front row. In the dimness of the lecture theatre, the lines in his face became craggy and fierce. On the screen behind him, Collins’ face stared placidly down at them, one of the famous photos from him the early days of the Delta War.
From near the back of the room, a voice called out, “But he destroyed time, didn’t he?”
An audible rustling ran round the room as the students looked nervously at the Professor or tried to catch a glimpse of the questioner. On screen, Collins’ face was replaced by a screen-saver animation. It was a stylised drawing of the Clocktower being built, a tree of tangled black steel and ceramic against the dull grey background of the endless Causal Sea. The top widened sharply and spread into the white mushroom-cap of the City. The animation looped round to restart.
“You’re a new class,” Lambert said coldly, “so I’ll let that pass this once. In my classes, you must always be wary of careless statements like that. Precision is the essence of history. To answer the question as charitably as I can, no one person destroyed time, either by causing the collapse of the origin timeline or any of the other collapses in our history. Nor,” he held up a finger for emphasis, “did any one person cause any of the Temporal Wars. We will be covering the causes of each of these wars in due course. The assumption that John is to blame is a gross simplification.”
He paused and looked around the room, “Some of you are probably about to bring up the subject of Collins’ book, ‘A Radical Subjectivism of Time’. You may have been told that the book is banned because it is dangerous, because it describes the technologies which caused the Alpha Collapse. Well, I’ve read it, and it doesn’t. Yes, ideas it contained guided the engineers and technicians who did cause the collapse, but John wasn’t one of them and opposed their work. And if any of you are considering reporting me to the Truthers for reading a banned book, I read it during the Delta War, long before it was banned.” Lambert finished with a look that was almost a sneer. Blanchett thought she could read pride in his face. She wondered if her Council superiors could actually be right; was Lambert really Collins in disguise?
Another student asked, “So you don’t believe Collins was a Nihilist?”
Lambert barked a sharp, mocking laugh, “The Nihilists destroyed everything they touched. It’s because of them we live in this overgrown tin can,” – he gestured vaguely at the animation on-screen – “instead of on a proper world. If John had been a Nihilist, there wouldn’t even be that much. He’d have destroyed the Oracle and everyone on board after the Battle of Tibulon.”
“So you don’t agree with the Truthers?” the questioner pressed. Blanchett winced. She knew there were no Council agents other than herself assigned to monitor this class, but the other student seemed intent on making trouble.
Lambert, for his part, shot a wary glance at the doors at the back of the room. When he spoke, his voice was milder, his scowl less deep, “Well, of course, all historical perspectives must be considered. This would be a very deficient history class if I shied away from the Truther opinion out of personal sentiment, but you must surely admit – and I intend to show – that Controller Vilsteir’s evidence is unsatisfactory.”
Still staring at the Professor, Blanchett frowned. Other members of the Council militia said that Lambert’s controversial rhetoric on this point proved that he was Collins. She didn’t believe it, but she had to admit that it would make sense for Collins to talk in this way. Corrupting the youth, they called it.
Uncomfortable to let his statement stand, Blanchett spoke up, suppressing a nervous shiver, “What’s wrong with the Council’s evidence?” She tried to sound as nonaggressive as possible, affecting genuine curiosity.
In spite of her efforts, Lambert picked her out with a laser glare. Suddenly, she felt glad of the combat bodysuit she wore under her student ‘disguise’. It would provide little protection, but the knowledge that she was in some small way prepared for violence was reassuring. Lambert’s face softened a little as he said, “Well, personally, I have two problems with Vilsteir’s claims. Firstly, they go directly against my personal experience. I knew Collins. John was a close friend, and he just wasn’t like the character Vilsteir writes about. Secondly, he refuses to release his sources into the public domain. I call that bad practice.”
“But he’s still preparing his commentary!” Blanchett protested.
"As he has been doing, without aid or any apparent training in historiography, for twenty years. In the mean time, he has spearheaded a campaign to suppress alternative accounts. Banning books, for heaven’s sake! ‘A Radical Subjectivism’ is a harmless work of abstract metaphysics and deserves to be read and understood, not expunged.”
“It was the government that banned ‘A Radical Subjectivism of Time’, not the Council,” said Blanchett, feeling more confident.
“At the Controller’s very public urging. I doubt you are old enough to remember that unpleasantness, but-“ Lambert was cut off by the noise of the door opening. His eyes went to the back of the room and widened sharply.
Blanchett half-turned to follow the Professor’s gaze, and froze in her seat. Collins himself stood in the doorway.
Again, it's test readers I'm after, not really betas (though feedback is always welcome). What I need to know is what kind of books I've written and whether they need to change into something else. Thanks for reading, get in touch!