Interview 2 with Steve McHugh

20 Jun

Steve McHugh recently launched his new novel, Crimes Against Magic, available on Amazon. Between publishing a paper version, writing the sequel – and well , everything else on his plate – he managed to squeeze in some precious time to stop by for an interview.

D:  It has to be a unique feeling to get your novel published. What was going through your mind as you were preparing to launch your story? How did crossing the finish line feel?

S:  Honestly, I was terrified that people would hate it, that it would never sell and that my entire idea of being a capable writer was some sort of crazed fantasy.  It was a pretty scary thing to do, to allow myself to be put out there. Turns out, I was wrong to feel that way, but at the time I was stepping into the unknown.

It felt great to finally be at the point where publishing was happening, but that first day was so nerve wracking I probably didn’t allow myself to feel any sort of euphoria at having completed it.

D:  Are you allowing yourself to feel some euphoria now?  Or have you jumped right into wrapping up your next project? Is there going to be a book three in the future?

S:  I guess euphoria could be a good way of describing it. I’d set a goal what I wanted to sell on my opening day. Something I thought was realistic. 12 books sold, that was it. I managed about 35, so that was incredible. It settled down pretty quickly after that, but the fact that people are buying and (according to the reviews) liking my book is just far more than I could have hoped.

Book 2, Born of Hatred should be out in September. That’s the plan anyway. It takes place a few months after Crimes Against Magic and hopefully people will enjoy it. Book 3, With Silent Screams, should be out by next June and then there’s Book 4, Prison of Hope. No idea when that one will be out.

I have notes for about 20 books with Nate as the main character, and detailed notes for about 12 of those. So, I’ve got a while to go yet. I also have a Steampunk novel I’m working on. But it’s not going to get too much attention until Born of Hatred is finished.

D:  This novel-writing business is, in essence, a marathon. How long did each step take – the concept, writing the first draft, bringing it up to an edited version you were happy with, and then preparing for publishing?

S:  The concept took years. I wrote a book about 5 years ago called, For Past Sins. That got binned after it became apparent that it wasn’t good enough to publish and from its ashes, rose Crimes Against Magic.

The first draft took about 3 months, as the story was pretty well formed in my head and I just needed to write it down. After that, I spent a long time waiting for people to send back their crit versions and then I spent even longer editing over and over again. Probably from first word to finished, it took just over a year.

Then I spent a year looking for an agent, taking part in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel (which I got to the quarter finals) and generally feeling crap over the number of “it’s great…but” I managed to accrue.

I spent a while changing a few things on the story that I’d become unhappy with over the years as I prepared for publishing myself. That took about six months as I was pretty heavily into wanting to get book 2 nearly finished before I launched.

So, from beginning to end, it probably took me about three years, give or take a few months.

D:  I think we writers all have a first project that nobody will ever see… (shoves storage box deeper into closet…) but what did For Past Sins teach you about writing a novel? What to do, what not to do.

S:  For Past Sins taught me to not over complicate everything. There were far too many characters in it and it could have done with a cull of some of them. I learnt a lot about pacing from it too. I think CAM is much better paced and breaks up the action and exposition better than FPS did. I think mostly, it made me a better writer. It made me aware of where my strengths are and how to improve my weaknesses.

D:  Looking for an agent has to be the most frustrating part of the process. How do you think e-publishing will change the future of publishing? Do you think we’ll get to the stage where the querying process becomes redundant?

S:  Querying is always going to be important, but it seems like some agents/publishers use self published authors as a gauge to see how successful they are and then offer contracts based on that success. To be able to prove that your book is well received, both commercially and critically is something that I think agents and publishers are looking at more and more.

Trying to get an agent is very frustrating. And demoralising. And basically it sucks. But, and this is the key, it’s also very important. Every writer, whether you’re going to go it alone or otherwise, should write a query and synopsis for their book. It’s useful to have and, more importantly, you’ll learn a lot about your book from doing it. And I think having that rejection from agents and publishers prepares you for your writing career. It certainly thickened my skin.

D:  What three pieces of advice would you give to someone just starting out?

S:  Join a crit group. It’s the best advice any writer can be given. Not only will your writing improve in leaps and bounds if you find a good one, but you’ll meet like-minded writers who are willing to help you when you need it. Seriously, everyone who writes with a mind for publishing needs a crit group.

Also, I’d say that even if you’re set on publishing as an indie writer, you need to go through the process as if you were being traditionally published. Make sure the story makes sense, that you don’t have too many stupid mistakes (everyone, even published authors make mistakes. Most books have a few somewhere.) Write a synopsis and query letter. They are both excellent tools in your arsenal as a writer, and will come in handy on more than one occasion.

Enjoy yourself. If you’re not enjoying it, write something else. If you don’t like what you’re writing, it’s likely that everyone who reads it will notice it.

Thanks for the interview, Steve. Always a pleasure chatting with you.


Interview with Steve McHugh

30 Apr

Steve McHugh launches his first novel, Crimes Against Magic, on April 30, 2012 from Amazon. (Go to for the links). I met Steve through the Kelley Armstrong on-line writers’ group, where I quickly came to appreciate his sharp critiquing comments and smooth, fast-paced writing style. He’s definitely someone new to check out, and I wish him great success with his writing career.

Tell me about how you found Kelley Armstrong’s Writers Group, and your first posting experiences there.

I was a member of Kelley’s forum for a few months before deciding that joining the writing group was a good idea. I’d originally joined the forum on a whim—I was a fan of her books and wanted to know when the next one was out. From there I joined up and haven’t really looked back.

As for my first post. I remember being terrified. I’d never even let anyone read my work before, let alone carry out a critique of my work. I remember getting a lot of responses for that first piece, and I carried on from there. It’s helped my writing an immeasurable amount.

You’re mentioned in D B Reynold’s credits in Rajmund. How did that unfold? How did beta-reading help you with your own work?

I’m in the credits for all of Donna’s books apart from the first one (Raphael), which I consider an honour as she’s an incredible writer and always willing to help when I have some probably blindingly obvious question. She also put up with my terrible grammar, making her a bit of a saint in my eyes.

It came about through e-mail. Michelle Muto (another superb writer and someone else who puts up with my questions) asked if I’d be interested in joining her and Donna as crit partners. I said yes, I mean how could I not? And after that I ended up beta-reading both Donna’s and Michelle’s work.

Beta-reading in general is something that all writers should do if they get the chance. You discover so much about your abilities as a writer, and you also learn how to improve. That’s especially true when you’re reading people of the calibre of Donna and Michelle.

Some writers say that a single image inspired them to create a story. I’ve heard that James Cameron imagined The Terminator movie from an image of a metal android walking out of flames. Was there an image that inspired CAM?

I remember seeing a photo of a guy who set whips on fire and flung them around himself with insane abandon. That’s certainly where the scene with Nate walking out of the house with a whip of flame trailing down from each hand, came from.

What made you decide to write a follow-up story to Nate’s adventure? What’s your favourite quality of his personality?

Nate’s a character I’ve had in my head for years, so once I’d finished I already had notes for a dozen more books. So continuing his adventures was an easy decision to make.

My favourite part of his personality is probably how quickly he can go from calm and collect to dangerous and vicious. It makes for some interesting scenes.

Why did you decide to go the e-publishing route?

It was a combination of things really. I’d originally tried the traditional route and sent Crimes Against Magic to agents and publishers. A got a lot of form rejections, and a few ‘we really like it but it’s not for us at this time’ responses. At some point in the process, I just got very tired of hearing the same thing, no matter how complimentary it was to be told they liked it.

I also started to hear a lot of stories from people who kept being told different things by different agents about what the industry wanted. For example: some wouldn’t take male POV, some would only take male POV, some wouldn’t read a query if the word werewolf or vampire was in it, all sorts of things (some of which I’m sure were exaggerations). The economic problems in the world had forced the market to take fewer chances. And it felt (rightly or wrongly) like they didn’t know where the e-book fit into their world.

So, I did some research into e-books and decided that having the control suited me. Also, I write faster that 1 book a year, so being able to put them out when I’d finished was a big deal to me. Maybe one day that will change, but at the moment it suits me.

What’s next on your list of things to write?

The sequel to CAM: Born of Hatred. And then the third book: With Silent Screams.

Is the third book part of the CAM series, or did you branch off into something else? Is there another genre you would like to tackle some day?

It’s part of the same series. They’re all going to be under the series: Hellequin Chronicles.

I have a story in my head for something that takes place in ancient Greece, and one for a YA. But they’re still in the same universe as Nate. One day I’d like to do a Sci-fi or full on Fantasy book, but that won’t be for a while, I think.

Has being a parent influenced what you choose to write about?

It made me get serious about my writing, but it doesn’t influence what I write to any great degree. I certainly won’t be letting my daughters read the book until they’re A LOT older.

The Young Adult market has seen a huge explosion in the industry. Would you ever consider writing something that your kids would read?

The YA in my head is probably a bit advanced for my kids. I’ve written little things for them, a letter from the tooth fairy and a few bits and pieces like that. I think my problem is that I need to find a way of writing the story without loosing the dark tone of the story I have in my head. That’s gonna be tricky. But when I figure it out, I’ll write that YA.

Thanks for taking the time to answer some questions, Steve. It was a pleasure interviewing you. You’ve got a great story on your hands, and I’m glad I was able to be part of the journey seeing it through to its début.

Are you a Genre Snob?

11 Apr

Are you a genre snob?

Do you stick to your favourite section of the bookstore, never straying into the other aisles? Do you dutifully purchase volume after volume of your favourite author, regardless of the reviews? Do you hunt down the latest craze, the hottest best seller that everyone is raving about?

Or do you exist somewhere between these extremes?

Have you ever walked into a bookstore and wondered who was responsible for placing horror in the general fiction section, or who placed your favourite sci-fi writer on the fantasy shelf? How does a chilling true-life thriller end up in the sports section? And what happens when there are so many new sub-categories that you just can’t find anything, anymore?

I’ve heard over and over:  I don’t read science fiction, I don’t read horror, I don’t read romance, I don’t read… fill in the blank.

I don’t “read” biographies, but I discovered I’m a Jon Krakauer fan when I was given a copy of Into Thin Air. I don’t “read” young adult dystopia, but I gobbled up Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games.  I never heard of John Scalzi until a friend hooked me with The Android’s Dream. When my to-be-read pile got dangerously low, a copy of Joseph Delaney’s The Last Apprentice was lying around the house, so I read it. Now I’m six books into the series, and loving every minute of it.

None of this magic would have happened, if I’d stuck to my tried-and true.

It’s natural to want to categorize things, to fit them into neat compartments. That’s how our brains work, to make sense of the bombardment of information tossed at us every day. But can we take a step back from this habit, and stop forcing everything into a spot on the shelf?

I love facing the challenges of working in different genres. Maybe I haven’t found my niche, that sweet spot where everything flows. Maybe I’m a bohemian spirit, and will never settle down to one genre. But I’m sure having fun in my wanderings.

So I challenge you to break out of your mold, try something new, break away from your comfort zone and read something different. Or if you’re a writer, try writing something in a new genre. Let me know where the adventure takes you.

Short Story for April – Episode Four: Impasse

3 Apr


This is episode four of the Garden of Hell series of sci-fi short stories, following after Tiger Lilies, Two Moons, and Crow’s Flight – posted in September and October 2011 fiction.

Copyright J. Dianne Waye March 2012

Contains mature subject matter and violence.

“Perez. Help me. You gotta help me, for the love of God.”

“God doesn’t have anything to do with this,” I said. God wasn’t listening, or He didn’t care, or He shared my sentiments over Crow. Or there was no God, and this place was proof.

Any way I looked at it, Crow deserved to die.

“There’s no point,” I said. “You can die now or die later. It doesn’t matter.”

“It matters to me,” Crow said.

The flower was beautiful, petals wrapped tight like a pitcher plant on a much larger scale, delicate shades of pale purple softening to almost white along the tips. Veins of dark indigo threaded through the fleshly leaves. Inside, barbs pointed downwards, deceptively delicate but needle sharp, trapping what sought that tempting pool of water gathered up from deep roots.

Judging from Crow’s disjointed groans, some slow digestive acid was now at work dissolving him.

“Heartless bitch.”

The moons shifted along their heavenly arcs, casting double-edged shadows over the valley, and still his screams and sobs bounced off the canyon walls – pleas to God, to me, to end it. I covered my ears, rocking back and forth, driven mad by the sound but unable to leave.

Red gritty soil drifted over the barren landscape, reminiscent of those ancient Mars probe movies we used to watch in training camp, laughing over the clumsy tin-can designs until the instructor silenced us with a slap of a hand on his desk. Remember your roots, he would bark. Remember what those brave souls endured to advance us to this new era of space travel.

What had our arrogance shaped us into? We never learned our lesson, never fell to our knees humbled by the miracle right under our feet: the grass, the trees, the flowers – divine in their soulless simplicity. No conscious, no ethics, just a programmed response to live, to reproduce, without guilt.

What had I become? Was I evolving in the wrong direction?

The flower trembled. Through the clouds the sky lightened, painting the streaked cliffs a dull topaz. Dawn was on the way, my time here drawing to a close.

“Help me, Perez,” he croaked, voice broken from screaming. “Have mercy. End my suffering. You must be a good person, for Andy to love you.”

“Don’t you dare speak his name.”

I pulled out my machete and hacked away at the plant stem, savage anger surging through my limbs. Thick sticky fluid seeped from the wounds, dripping yellow blood on the red sand. Petal by petal, I pried Crow free. He plopped to the ground, writhing in pain, cowering in the wake of my wrath.

The monster lay helpless at my feet, barely recognizable as human, his flesh prickled and sliced from the barbs, red welts swelling, skin scalded pink. His clothing was a tattered mess of gelatinous threads smearing his skin with unnatural colour. The shoelaces had dissolved in his tanned leather boots, metal safety toes exposed but intact.

He lay there panting, dazed, as cool misty rain started to fall, washing away the clinging dust, bringing calming relief to his flesh. He twisted his arms up, as if blessing the sky.

The rain stopped. It must hate him, too.

“Daylight’s coming,” he said.

I let him crawl on his hands and knees as we picked our way across the gully towards the shuttlecraft. His feet were too burned to support him, the exposed partially-digested skin blackening as the air crisped it dry. He hurried, because he knew I would leave him behind if he didn’t make it in time.

The first rays of daylight bathed the sky in brilliant shades of green. Out in the jungle the trees shifted and swayed, undergrowth rustling, as those things started to stir.

Crow dragged himself across the threshold. I closed the cargo bay door and bolted it shut, the lock enough protection against them for now. Until they evolved, and figured it out.

I hadn’t slept much in the heat of the day, tossing and sweating on my bunk, mind racing. Night brought cool moist winds gusting through the valley, carrying rain destined to fall somewhere else, not here. Still, the fresh air was a welcome relief to the stuffy shuttlecraft interior.

Crow gathered up dead branches and twigs, and lit a fire.

“You shouldn’t burn wood,” I said, but he did it anyways, his impotent act of defiance.

“Here, I made chilli.”

He handed me a tin cup filled with revolting brown sludge: prisoner rations. His eyes flickered in the firelight, haunted and sad. For a moment I forgot that he was an animal, a man with no soul.

Appetite vanishing, I placed the cup on the ground.

“It makes me sad, too,” Crow said. “I didn’t want him to die.”

“Don’t talk about him.”

“I have the right. He was my son.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“He was a lot like me,” he said, the accusation taunting me to look closer. “All the best parts.”

I could see the truth – the way his eyes crinkled when he smiled, the set of the jaw, the familiar slope of his skull as it curved down to his shoulders – things that marked them as kin, even when the spirit didn’t shine through.

“I was arrested the day he was born. A whole week passed before they would tell me if he was alive, if Marcia survived. They jailed the lot of us, and for what? Protesting for social reform. They were spending precious money on space travel while children starved on Earth. They claimed it would help us find new food resources, but they lied.”

“So you say.”

“Do you know what it’s like to watch your child grow up hating you? To spend twenty-two years behind bars for a false crime? They made me into a criminal.”

“I don’t want to know any of this. You’re going to die here anyways, when the tiger lilies bloom.”

“You didn’t die. Andy didn’t die.”

“Everyone else did.”

He pulled up his sleeve to expose his arm, pock-marked high up on the bicep. “You’ve got one of these, too.”

I didn’t roll up my sleeve to prove his point but it was there, under the fabric of my uniform, a matching vaccination tattoo.

“I won’t die, either,” he said. Uncannily agile, he jumped up and grabbed me, kissing me full on the mouth, his disgusting tongue duelling with my own.

I shoved him away, wiping a sleeve across my lips, breath catching in my throat as I waited for him to dissolve, for my toxic saliva to melt him into a puddle of green goo.

“See? I’m immune to your charms.” A sinister smile spread across his face, a devil’s grin of satisfaction. He leaned closer, skin glistening with sweat from the pain. “Does Mothership know you’re alive? Do you think it’s a co-incidence that we all ended up here?”

The answer hung between us, unspoken.

“You’ve been raised on propaganda. It’s not your fault,” he said, turning away to scoop up the last spoonful of chilli, as if he hadn’t just risked his life to prove a point.

“Daylight’s coming,” I said.

He kicked sand over the campfire, to extinguish the thin flames. We gathered up our meagre supplies and withdrew into the safety of the shuttlecraft. I bolted the door; Crow placed a hand on the lock afterwards, to double-check. Right away the cabin air felt stale, claustrophobic, bitter with the scent of fear.

He shuffled over to the portside window, watching the horizon, the view tilted from the broken landing gear feet. Every morning, it started the same way – a creeping advancing tangle of leaves, as the jungle border moved closer.

“How many more days before it reaches us?” he said. “Don’t you care? Don’t you care about anything?”

I shrugged and turned away from the viewport.

“Why did you walk into the gully last night?” he asked.

“To watch you die.”

“You’re lying. You came to help me. You couldn’t take it, here alone.”

“You’re a monster.”

“So are you. You are cruel, to let me live.” He rolled his socks over his burnt feet, careful not to damage the fragile crust of new skin. They looked painful, but he never complained.

Outside, the scratching noises started, like branches rustling in a wind.

“We can get out of this hell hole,” he said. “We can fix the ship. All it needs is a repair job to the landing gear. It’s bent, and it won’t seal. That’s all we need to do, Perez, to get out of here.”

His voice had the edge of command, convincing and bold, trained to inspire rallying troops to their deaths. Just like Andrew.

“They’re coming,” he said. “There’s nowhere here we’ll be safe from them. No matter where we go, they will follow.”

He was right. Where he’d failed to manipulate me with emotion, he twisted my mind with cold logic. I couldn’t survive here alone, or with him.

“I’ll help fix the ship,” I said.

“We’ll need supplies from the village. Food and water. There isn’t enough fuel for a regular flight but we can coast part of the way, use gravity to pull us along. It’ll take longer, but we’ll be almost undetectable that way. We won’t leave a traceable contrail.”

Shapes emerged from the jungle depths, malformed mouths gaping, too-long limbs flailing, advancing with the unbalanced gait of something unfamiliar with walking upright. Horrid parodies of humanity, they surrounded the shuttlecraft like a field full of sunflowers – an army of zombies standing tall on the bleak field, faces pointing in a unified direction, towards us.

I blinked, and they moved a little closer, hands outstretched.

Face pressed against the window, I strained to see outside where the replicated forms of Bandana Man Faust gathered, fearsome in repetition. In amongst the Chain Gang members, the faces of Rosevelt and Rogers emerged, the false images of my dead friends.

The shuttlecraft shifted, horizon lurching, as the ship vibrated and rocked. The angle increased, and I struggled to hold on to my bunk. Damn that Crow, for burning the wood.

Crow screamed, tumbling down the open aisle to slam into the bottom end of the cabin wall. The creatures shuffled, gathering at that end of the ship.

“Move to the top,” I whispered, as I held out a hand to help him climb.

Row by row we struggled up the aisle to the top end, towards the cockpit. We climbed into the pilot seats and peered out the window. Sure enough, the creatures followed us to that end of the ship, surrounding the glass until we couldn’t see outside.

I checked the gauges to see if he spoke the truth. There was plenty of fuel, enough to get me home. I could fly this ship by myself. So could Crow. He wouldn’t need me anymore, after I helped him fix the landing gear. He wouldn’t hesitate to leave me behind.

“My son! Look what they’ve done to my son!”

Andrew’s face was in the crowd, pressing against the glass. Only one of him today, but tomorrow there would be more. The spectre peered in the window, breath frosting over the glass, hollow eyes watching me.

I dragged Crow from the cockpit to the cabin, and looked out the window. Outside, the creatures moved, responding to our change in position. They shuffled to the starboard side where Crow lay on his bunk, sobbing. I shifted away over to the port side and waited, but nothing outside reflected my actions.

It was him they sensed; he was the one they were after.

I closed the blinds against the horror and lay down on my bunk, pretending to be asleep. My mind went to work, plotting a way to beat him to the finish line. Surely he would be doing the same, once he stopped crying.

Answers to The Monster Match

3 Nov

And here are the answers to the Monster Match!  How many did you get right?


D B Reynold – Rajmund     “It was totally dark.”

Charlaine Harris  – Dead Until Dark     “I’d been waiting for the vampire for years when he walked into the bar.”

Kelley Armstrong – Men of the Otherworld     “Antonio.”

Victor Hugo – The Hunchback of Notre Dame     “On January 6, 1482, the people of Paris were awakened by the tumultuous clanging of all the bells in the city.”

Bram Stoker – Dracula     “Left Munich at 8:35 PM on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but the train was an hour late.”

Robert Louis Stevenson – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde     “Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable.

William Shakespeare – Hamlet     “Who’s there?”

Charlotte Bronte – Jane Eyre     “There was no possibility of a walk that day.”

Mary Shelley – Frankenstein     “You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”

Anne Rice – Interview with the Vampire     “I see, said the vampire thoughtfully, and slowly he walked across the room towards the window.”

John Wyndham – The Chrysalids     “When I was quite small I would sometimes dream of a city – which was strange because it began before I even knew what a city was.”

Steven King – The Stand     “Hapscomb’s Texaco sat on Number 93 just north of Arnette, a pissant four-street burg about 110 miles from Houston.”

Gaston Leroux – The Phantom of the Opera     “It was the evening on which MM. Debienne and Poligny, the managers of the Opera, were giving a last gala performance to mark their retirement.

Do The Monster Match

31 Oct

Classic or modern, these stories all contain monsters of one form or another.  Can you match up the opening line to the author and story?  First line of chapter one – thirteen matches.  Stay tuned for the answers!

Authors:  Anne Rice, Bram Stoker, Charlaine Harris, Charlotte Bronte, D B Reynolds, Gaston Leroux, John Wyndham. Kelley Armstrong. Mary Shelley, Robert Louis Stevenson, Steven King, Victor Hugo, William Shakespeare.

Book Titles:  Rajmund, Jane Eyre, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein, Dracula, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Men of the Otherworld, Dead Until Dark, Hamlet, Interview with the Vampire, The Chrysalids, The Stand.

 First Lines:

“Who’s there?”

“Hapscomb’s Texaco sat on Number 93 just north of Arnette, a pissant four-street burg about 110 miles from Houston.”

“On January 6, 1482, the people of Paris were awakened by the tumultuous clanging of all the bells in the city.”


“You will rejoice to hear that no disaster has accompanied the commencement of an enterprise which you have regarded with such evil forebodings.”

“I’d been waiting for the vampire for years when he walked into the bar.”

“When I was quite small I would sometimes dream of a city – which was strange because it began before I even knew what a city was.”

“It was totally dark.”

“Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary and yet somehow lovable.”

“There was no possibility of a walk that day.”

“I see, said the vampire thoughtfully, and slowly he walked across the room towards the window.”

“It was the evening on which MM. Debienne and Poligny, the managers of the Opera, were giving a last gala performance to mark their retirement.”

“Left Munich at 8:35 PM on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but the train was an hour late.”

Short Story for October – Episode Three

24 Oct


This is episode three of the Garden of Hell series of sci-fi short stories, following after Tiger Lilies and Two Moons – both posted in September’s fiction.

 Copyright J. Dianne Waye October 2011

Contains mature subject matter and violence.


How do you fight something when you don’t know the rules?  Everything we’d been taught, all our survival skills, camouflage techniques, combat strategies, didn’t work on this planet.  Deadly spores, deadly vines; ripe fruit denied to our empty stomachs. No meat to hunt; not a single animal roamed this Garden of Hell.  Even the grass betrayed us, lying flat and exposing us, as we crawled towards the crest of the ridge.

The last two humans left behind until that shuttlecraft streaked across the sky – and they were avoiding us.

“Why haven’t they tried to contact us?  They must have seen the smoke.”  I forced my way through a thicket of undergrowth, trying not to damage any of the bamboo-like bushes.  It would be easier to scythe it down, but who knew the repercussions involved in that action.

“They would have turned around and landed in the village, if contacting us were their intentions.”  Miller kept his voice low, the bushes and trees seeming to lean in and eavesdrop on our conversation. 

We cleared the ridge and kept our heads down, both of us scoping the scene with our binoculars.  The shuttlecraft lurched to one side, landing gear damaged in an amateur attempt to touch down.  Coveralled men milled about, tending a fire, rolling out barrels of supplies.  The flight crew lay prostrate on the field, grey uniforms tattered and bloodied; one squirming, the other three motionless.

Blue bandana around his head, Citizen Faust 96239 – the identity stitched on his clothing – kicked the surviving crewmember, grabbed him by the collar, screamed into his face.

Faust’s pantomimed questions went unanswered.  The last crewmember, pistol-whipped to a bloody pulp, collapsed to the ground.  The gun’s barrel about-faced and dug into his forehead.  Skull bones shattered, brains exploded; a fraction of a second later, gunshot echoed off the rocky ridge face.

I dropped my binoculars and reached for my rifle.  Miller placed his hand over mine, the briefest headshake stopping me.  Two fingers flicked; time to withdraw.  I followed him back down the slope, away from the ship.

“We need to burn those corpses.  Those men – they’re all going to die.”

“Good.”  He turned away, long strides increasing the distance between us and them.

“Why are we leaving?  What do you know, that you’re not telling me?”

Miller paused, the habit of rank secrecy so ingrained it still battled within him.  Just like how he had to struggle each time he touched me, knowing it was forbidden in our old life.

“It’s a Chain Gang Shuttle.  Criminals condemned to hard labour, come to clear the land.”

“Why didn’t Mothership warn them, stop them?  Make them turn around?”

“She would have.  They hijacked the ship.”

I grabbed Miller’s arm.  “We need to do something.”

“It’s not my job anymore.”

“Then what is your job?”

“To keep you alive.  Let’s go.”

Something ate away at him, chewed him up inside.  Miller was no coward.  He looked Death straight in the face when we got left behind by Mothership, pulled me out of a nest of killer vines.  He’d earned my trust.  But now his muscles tensed, his eyes clouding with emotions I didn’t understand.

I swallowed my questions and followed him into the jungle.  Whatever ghost nipped at his heels kept him moving.  We hiked until my legs trembled with fatigue.  Hours after sunset, we came across an abandoned barn, a crudely thrown-together wood-slat construction.  I stopped, looked into his eyes.  Exhaustion devoured me whole – that, and disappointment over the loss of human contact.

He held the barn door open for me, swept away our footprints from the path, and covered me over with our scavenged blanket.  The whites of his eyes darted, watchful; sentinels to the demons that plagued him.  Too keyed up to sleep, he took first watch.


Snake-like coils softly embraced my skin, wrapping around my limbs.  A tendril strayed, wavered and withdrew, then stroked across the hollow of my throat.

I gasped as it squeezed, choking off my breath.  Not even enough air left to scream.

“Eva.  Wake up.  You’re having another nightmare.”

Miller shook me urgently, until I blinked and surfaced.  No – no killer vines – not here.  We were safe for now, inside the barn.  The scent of hay lingered along with the smell of livestock, all perished from the spores, but the imprint of life had not yet been erased.

I smiled as he kissed me on the cheek.  Brown eyes flecked with gold crinkled at the corners, warm and inviting, the part of him I liked best.  His lips strayed across my throat, pausing, waiting for an invitation.  Dawn’s beams scattered through the cracks in the walls, shattering stripes of light across the hay bales.  He sat back on his heels, dark hair crowned by a halo as it crossed the beams.  Out of the shadows now, his skin picked up an odd purple hue, the aubergine of eggplants.

I screamed.

“Eva.  Wake up.”

A dream within a dream.  Still trapped on the nightmare planet, though.

The real Miller had green eyes now.  Something had changed them, something in the air, the food, the water, saturating his pupils first with a hazel hue; now a deeper green.  And the real Miller had a bloody nose, from where I’d accidentally punched him in my sleep.

He wiped a sleeve across his upper lip, smearing blood across the morning stubble.  He kissed me tentatively, not surprised when I turned away, still too close to that dark dream world.

I shoved some canned food into my pack, somebody’s abandoned emergency stash; he filled the water bags by hand-pumping the well.  At least the colonists had thought of how to survive if the power failed.  They’d never considered how to survive if Mother Nature fought back against their efforts to farm the land.

Miller hesitated before he slipped into the bright morning, letting his eyes adjust, his senses sharpen.  Overnight the moss had grown, climbing up the sides of the barn, bursting with new clusters of green at an accelerated rate, thickest on the outside wall where we had been sleeping.

He drew in a big breath and puffed it out slowly onto the moss, like blowing out birthday candles on a cake.  Everywhere his breath touched, the moss reacted, greening and blooming.

“It’s feeding off the carbon dioxide in our breath.  It’s ironic, isn’t it, that the plants doomed themselves to extinction with those defensive spores.  It’s just a matter of time before the environment collapses.”

“One more thing to worry about.”

“It won’t happen in our lifetime.”  His hand rubbed my shoulder.  I moved in closer, into the crook of his arm, inhaling that male scent of his, devoid now of civilization, of shaving cream and soap.  “Have you reloaded your pistol?  Here – take Reese’s ammo.”

I winced when he mentioned Reese, never considered plundering my dead friend’s pack.

Miller froze, put a finger to his lips, and pointed at the trees.  Something moved there, shifting through the undergrowth.  Branches swayed, leaves curling inwards.  Wild field flowers closed their heads.  Everything around us suddenly stopped moving.  We crouched down, trying to conceal ourselves in the long grass, but it flattened.

Something hunted us.

We fled into the jungle in the opposite direction.  I tensed as that rattlesnake vibration started up.  We dropped and crawled away from the source of pursuit, but every leaf, every branch, betrayed our efforts.

No matter where we ran, an armed prisoner awaited.  Herded like cattle, we were forced towards the shuttle, twisting and turning, running, running; flushed out, with nowhere to hide in the fields of wheat.

Six figures stepped out, guns pointing.  “Drop your weapons.”

Miller froze, cool gaze appraising the odds.  Not in our favour.  Three more of them perched in the trees.  I counted Miller’s blinks, then he clenched his jaw twice: the signal to surrender.

I threw my gun to the ground and raised my hands to the back of my head.  Faust patted me down, ran his filthy hands over me, finding everything – my pocket knife, my hunting knife, even the coil of garrotte wire in my hair.

Lean and bald, a man stepped forward, eyes dancing over Miller like he’d just won the grand prize at the fair.  “Well, well.  Look who it is.  Captain Andy.” 

Miller swallowed, every muscle straining, tightening.  “Hello, Crow.”

“Bet you regret surrendering now.  Would have gone out in a blaze of glory, wouldn’t you, son?”  He strutted over to Miller, poking him in the chest with our machete.  “Too late.”

Laughter bounced through the clearing.  The trees shivered and hummed, but the Chain Gang didn’t understand the warning sound.  They marched us to their campsite, leaving us bound and gagged until dusk.

Flickering firelight, greasy faces in the glow; the dank odours of fear, canned beans, and decay.

Faust ripped the tape from my mouth.  “How many colonists?  Where are they hiding?”

I stared at him, silent and defiant.

“Tell me.”  He grabbed my hair, pulling back my head to expose my throat.  “Talk.”

“I am Private Perez 4930.  I am a hostage.  I cannot be broken -”

Crow threw his head back and laughed.  “Miller’s been feeding you that crap.  I’ll break you Perez.  You’ll see.”

“You are my enemy, but you shall not defeat my will.”

Crow signalled; two men dragged Miller upright, held his head. 

“You want me to fix her good, boss?”  Faust leered out of focus; spotted four eyes, then two.  He came closer, foul breath reeking, broken teeth grinning.  “Make him watch.”

Miller struggled against the men holding him.  “I’ll kill you, Faust.”

“She’s mine now.”  The edge of Crow’s blade danced inches from my eye, ready to flick out my eyeball if I moved.  Instead it caressed the skin of my cheek, carving a half-circle into the flesh.  Blood swelled and dripped.  “I’ve branded you.  C for Crow.”

“You bastard.”  Miller wrestled free in a twisting jerk, head-butting the two men restraining him.  He charged Crow, heedless of the blade.  Faust reached him first.  They collided, toppling into the yellow grass.  The knife slid into Miller’s chest, puncturing a lung.  Blood erupted, bursting from his lips, his nose. My Miller, the reason I was still alive, tried to stand, dropped to his knees.  An involuntary scream erupted from me.

Black eyes, red rage.  Crow knocked Faust down, next to Miller.  “No.  You idiot.  I told you not to kill him.”

Miller sucked in a gurgling breath and spit out a mouthful of blood, right into Faust’s eyes.

Faust blinked, wiped his hands across his eyes, and threw his arm over his face.  “It burns.”  He rose to his feet, stumbling, staggering, as the rash bloomed across his throat, down his neck, like wild fire over his skin.  Blisters rose, broke, oozing green goo.  He melted head first, arms and legs flailing, torso dissolving into a puddle of slime.

The Chain Gang stepped back, away from me.

Out of the jungle came that rattlesnake chorus, rising and humming, shaking with a storm wind that didn’t blow from the sky.  Dragging footsteps; low guttural groans.  An army of misshapen warriors emerged, a parody of the dead flight crew: aubergine skin, eyes without whites, mouths without teeth, mutant freaks with a zombie gait stroll.  Relentless.

Chaos erupted.  The Chain Gang screamed, ran; fired rounds into exploding targets, like smashing pumpkins.  But the mutants kept coming.  They gored and strangled the humans, dragging them away to God knows where, for uncertain purpose.

I threw myself over Miller; his blood pooled into the tall grass.  One of the broken freaks crawled towards me, sniffing my legs, sniffing Miller.  Motionless and quiet, I felt no fear; there wasn’t anything it could take away from me now.  It ignored us, turning away, attention caught by the last living prisoner squirming near the campfire.  I closed my eyes until the screaming stopped.

Miller squeezed my hand, staring unblinking at the two moons.  Not quite dead – not yet. 

“Don’t leave me,” I whispered.

Moss crawled and thickened where his last breath kissed the ground, resisting my attempts to tear it away from his limbs, until I finally stopped fighting it, accepted it; let it shroud him with soft tender leaves.

Tiny yellow flowers opened where my tears damped the growth, raising petal faces to the brightening emerald sky.  Dawn always rises, whether you’re ready for it or not.  Whether grief and loneliness overwhelms you, or doesn’t.

To give up now would dishonour Miller – everything he stood for.