Sent to Inish Carraig, a bleak prison, managed by the alien Barath’na, he uncovers a secret which threatens Earth. He has to reveal it. First, he has to get out.
Targeted Age Group:: 16-40
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I really wanted to write a book about Belfast that wasn’t about its history, or the Troubles, but about the city and its people today. The ‘what if…?’ that came to me was ‘What if the aliens invaded Belfast…’
From there, the world expanded, and the story, and I found it taking on the feel of the land – hard-edged and fast-paced. I think I captured what I hoped, and packaged Belfast and Northern Ireland into a fun science fiction thriller.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I have no trouble with this – they come to me very easily.
John, the main protagonist, is the sort of teenager anyone could meet, cast into a horrendous situation. It was easy to see how angry he must be and how hard it must be for him to trust anyone. His sister, Josey, is a different sort – gentler but, arguably, with more steel in her. To capture her took a little more work, as I didn’t want her to appear weak but also not to need an agressiveness about her.
The final character, Henry Carter, was both the hardest and the easiest. He is the adult taking some sort of charge of the situation, but he has a lot of guilt in his background. That guilt, merged with a duty that he finds himself having to challenge, was hard to capture.
John got up from the bed as quietly as he could, making Stuart stir before settling again with his thumb stuck in his mouth. John paused – he should probably take it out. Their mother had said, to the day she died, that only babies sucked their thumbs. He didn’t, not wanting to disturb the boy, but gently wrapped their Da’s winter coat closer around his brother, tugging at a loose piece of the furred lining until it came away. He straightened, shivering. Rain fell steadily through the hole in the ceiling, but at least the room was safe. Well, as safe as anywhere in Belfast.
“ ’Night, Stuart.” John tiptoed to the door and pulled it closed behind him. It was no warmer in the hall, but the roof was intact and the floor dry. He crossed to the window and looked out over the city. All was quiet under the curfew. The only thing moving was a cat crossing the yard below. It padded carefully, keeping its distance, and no wonder: there were a few recipes for cat stew doing the rounds. Further away, on the lough, the sewage farms’ floodlights lit up the night skyline. A low anger started, and he found his fists clenching. He bet the aliens’ kids didn’t wake up freezing and hungry, like his wee brother and sister did. A door closed and he turned to see Josey coming out of the girls’ room.
“Is Sophie asleep?” he asked.
She nodded, and she looked tired and older than her thirteen years, her face wan, her blonde hair lank and dirty. “Yeah.”
“Stuart’s settled, but he was asking for his night-light again. You’re sure there’s nothing we could take batteries out of?”
“No, I checked everything I could think of.”
“I told him he had the moon instead.” He half-smiled at the silver lining of a hole in the roof. “I’ll keep an eye out for batteries. I have to go out and see what I can scrounge, anyway.”
“If you could get some sort of heater, it’d be good,” said Josey. Her voice didn’t hold out much hope.
“I’ll see what I can find.” He brightened. “I could nick a barbecue.”
“We could get some furniture from downstairs. The kitchen table is wood.”
“Maybe. I’ll see if I can get a barbie first.”
“Okay.” Her voice was small and he put his arm around her, feeling how thin she was through her fleece. She’d lost so much weight it worried him. He pushed the thought away; it was no more than he’d lost, and there was nothing more sinister behind it than hunger. He let go and climbed onto the window ledge. “You know the drill: if anyone comes near the house, the three of you get under cover, right? Don’t come out until I’m back.”
She nodded, her eyes resigned to his nightly instruction. He put his hands onto the wall at each side, bracing himself for the jump down.
Her quiet voice stopped him. “Yeah?”
“Be careful. And stay away from McDowell – he’s dangerous.”
John didn’t reply. McDowell was dangerous. He was also the person with the best access to food, medicine and water in North Belfast. All of which they needed. He took a deep breath and jumped onto the flat roof below. He stepped onto the wall of the yard and ran along, his arms out for balance. At the end, he climbed down the iron supports Da had put in. Christ, he wished his da was here and in charge.
The sound of flapping made him jump and press against the wall, heart somewhere in his throat. A ripped poster opposite caught in the wind, and he relaxed. Nothing but the usual promises of food-drops, hospitals, reopened schools….
A lot of shite. His old school was a dent in the ground, the only upside of the invasion. The hospital, shut down in the war, hadn’t reopened. There were rumours – good rumours, too, from different sources – that the cops and army were working with the aliens now, and things were about to get better. His mouth pulled into a sneer. He’d believe it when he saw it. The Earth-Committee leaders, pulled from the governments that had made it through the invasion, might have time to drag their feet: they weren’t starving their arses off in the ruins of Belfast. It didn’t matter a damn to him that working with the Galactic Council meant liaising with the Zelo, or the never-seen Barath’na, it just mattered that someone, somewhere, turned up with some food. And a roof, that’d be good.
“ ‘Supporting Earth to a better future’,” he muttered, straightening. “There was nothing wrong with it before the bastards invaded.”
He hugged the wall until he reached the end of the back lane, and darted across to a wider alley, the first of a series. The authorities could say what they liked about the war being over. He was taking no chances until someone proved it.
A hand slapped down on his shoulder. “Got you!”
John reached for his knife, but stopped at a laugh. He croaked, “Taz, you bastard.”
“McDowell wants us,” said Taz, his voice hushed. His jacket was denim, not nearly thick enough. He hunched into it, so the only parts visible were his nose and dark eyes. His clothes were clean and well patched, though, proof of having a mum who took care of such things. John swallowed a sharp wrench of jealousy. He was nearly sixteen, he shouldn’t be yearning after his mum. He put his hands in his pockets and slouched. “Why?”
“He says he has a job, and we’ll get food if we do it.”
“Christ, for that I’d take on a Zelotyr patrol single-handed.”
They stopped where the alley opened onto a courtyard, once part of the council’s sports-ground where he’d tried out for the first team. Da had stood on the touchline, screaming for John to get the ball over the line. His celebrations when the try had been allowed had almost got him thrown out for incitement. Now, the courtyard was weed-strewn and garbage-clad, and his da six months dead.
“Get back.” Taz grabbed him, and they pressed against the wall as a platoon of soldiers crossed. Human, not Zelo – the lack of stench told him that. Not that it made any difference. They’d still lift him and Taz for curfew violation.
The platoon left the courtyard, and John ran across, through a hole in the fencing, and down the final alley skirting the playing field. Taz, quick and wiry, soon passed him. They reached the rubbled remains of the peace wall. John smiled as he stepped through the gap; it was easier getting across the city now the Zelo had trashed it. He relaxed as they entered his old estate and passed the gable end mural. Its slogan, We’ll fight for Ulster, had been replaced with the promise to do the same for Earth since he’d last been here.
“Let’s hope it’s only McDowell,” said Taz as they reached McDowell’s familiar terraced house.
“Oh, Junior will be here. His da isn’t taking a piss these days without him in attendance.”
“Just keep your distance if he is,” said Taz. “Don’t rise to him – that’s what he wants.”
“Okay.” Taz was right, but John hated Gary McDowell knowing his business. The latch turned, and he put his shoulders back. If the cost of a meal was toadying up to Gary, so be it. He’d kick a few walls on the way home to feel better.
“All right, lads. You took your time.” It wasn’t Gary, but Demos, one of his cronies.
“Patrol,” muttered John, eyeing Demos’ fat belly hanging over his trousers. He’d no problem getting food, evidently. His own stomach clenched, but he stood straight and waited while Demos made a show of checking were they to come in, all the time holding a pistol by his side. After a few moments, they were led into a room off the hall, where a group of men were gathered close to a fire. The men turned, their eyes more dangerous than any soldier’s.
“You wanted us,” said John, keeping his voice steady.
“Aye.” McDowell stood, his tall, rangy frame dwarfing John. A scar, running from his left eye to his ear, stood out against his skin. His badge of honour, he called it, given to him by a Zelotyr he’d fought with an iron bar and balls of solid rock. The sort of balls that earned so much street respect John’s hands shook, and he had to stick them in his pockets to hide it.
“John Dray and Taz Delaney, I’ll make a deal with you,” said McDowell.
John swallowed and hoped his voice held. “Go on, then.”
McDowell didn’t answer, and John made sure to stand straight. He focused on McDowell’s leather jacket – it may be battered, but it was thick and warm. On his wrist, a designer watch could be seen.
The silence stretched until Taz drew in a loud breath, making John want to thump him and tell him how to face someone like McDowell: by embracing whatever he issued and coming back for more, knowing you’d either grow or die from it, until you were strong enough to protect your own. He glanced at Taz, decided his friend was in danger of passing out, and said, “All right, what can we do for you?”
“Good lad, right to the heart of it. When you’ve got a bit of flesh around your scrawn, you’ll go far.”
John fought the urge to smile. It wasn’t the first time McDowell had hinted he might take him on. He looked at McDowell’s boots – new, thick soles, real leather – and down at his own trainers, their uppers parting from the sole. His mouth went wet and spiky with desire, but he didn’t say anything. Stay cool, like it’s just another job…
McDowell reached into his jacket, and John held his breath. Weapons? He’d done his first delivery across town about three weeks ago, and had been terrified: not just for himself, but for Josey and the kids if he got lifted. The payment for it had been a coat for Sophie, though.
McDowell brought out a tin box, just small enough to fit into his inside pocket. He held it up, displaying it. “You can take yourselves to the top of the Cave Hill and open this,” he said. “Give it a shake, make sure you empty out what’s in it. If you do, and come back to me, I’ll see you get some food.” His eyes narrowed, and he nodded at John. “Maybe some fresh fruit for wee Sophie and Stuart?”
The boys exchanged glances. That was it? John took the box and stuck it in his pocket.
McDowell went back to where he had been sitting, popped a beer and nodded to the door. “Best get going, boys.”
They backed out and headed up the street, onto the bottom of the Cave Hill. They followed the path up the hill, and the stench from the sewage farms hit John, even worse this high up. He pulled his scarf off and tied it so it covered his nose.
Taz gave a short laugh. “You look like a twat.”
John felt himself go red, and pushed the scarf back round his neck. They kept going, the hill getting steeper now they were away from the streets. They climbed in near silence, taking their time to pick their way over the rocks in the dark, until they reached McArt’s fort and sat for a minute, getting their breath back. From here the city looked tiny.
“What d’you reckon is in it?” asked Taz.
John shrugged and shook the tin. It made no sound. “The ashes of the last poor fucker to piss him off?”
Taz shook his head. “His finger.”
“No, an eyeball. We’ll open it and it’ll be looking at us –”
“Both of ’em – he wouldn’t take one and leave the other.”
John shook it again, and it didn’t feel like eyeballs. He glanced over at Taz.
“We don’t need to,” said Taz. “We could just say we did.”
For a moment John was tempted, but the thought of going home with no food strengthened his resolve, and he shook his head. “You must be joking.”
He edged to the cliff face. From here, it was like being king of Belfast. He cast his eyes over the lough. What was left? He knew Glasgow had been wiped out – it had gone early – and it would be years before London would be rebuilt. New York, too – everywhere. He shivered, and bile rose up in him. It wasn’t their planet; what right had the shit-eaters to destroy it?
He opened the box – it took a bit of work, the lid was on tight – half-closing his eyes, sure it would be gruesome. Instead, all it contained was dust, fine like ash, sparkling very slightly in the moonlight. He touched it with his finger, tracing a pattern in it, and it felt like fine sand.
“It’s drugs,” he said, a little disappointed. “It must be a bad shipment.”
Taz leaned over and put his finger in the sand. “Weird – why not tip it down a drain and have done with it? Why here?”
“Who cares? It’ll get us food, and I’m starving. You’re so skinny, you’ll slip through a crack in the road soon.” John reached the tin out. “Want some?”
Taz shook his head. “Go fuck yourself.”
“Bollocks I am.” Taz traced a line in the dust and put his finger to his mouth. He licked it. “That’s not drugs; it tastes like sand or something.”
“You could be eating someone’s body,” said John.
Taz rubbed his hand over his mouth, and paled a little. “It’s not a body, you arse.”
John reached out his hand, holding the tin tightly. If McDowell wanted it sprinkled over Belfast, that’s what he’d do. Hell, if the big man wanted him to piss off the side of the cliff, he’d do it. He shook the box into the wind, watching the dust lift into the breeze. He put the tin in his pocket and clapped his hands to get rid of the sand. “Let’s go.”
They hurried down, skidding on the scree, half on their feet, half on their arses. They’d got partway down when Taz doubled over with a grunt. His face curled into a grimace. Sweat beaded his forehead.
“Jesus,” said John, reaching for him. “What –?”
“What is it?” John shook Taz.
“It hurts!” yelled Taz. He slumped to the ground. “It fucking hurts everywhere!”
Waves of panic thudded across John’s head. Taz rolled onto his side, shaking. John knelt and put his hand on him, not knowing what to do. There was no one to get help from, not this deep into the curfew. He stood and pulled Taz up, fumbling in the dark, almost dropping him, until Taz was draped over his shoulders. He had to get the pair of them back to Taz’s house and let his ma see to him. He took a first step, grimacing at the dead weight on his shoulders, but forced another step, and then another. There was nothing else for it. Taz needed help, and Josey and the kids were waiting for him.
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