A City Called Smoke - Sneak Peak

It is now just TWO WEEKS until the release of A City Called Smoke which is a milestone that does seem to have crept up on me out of the dark. I'm very excited about the release of this book though because I'm super proud of it and I can't wait for readers to continue the journey with Lynn and Squid.

With the book being so close to release I thought it was ample time to release a little sneak-peakery of the book! So here you go, don't say I never do anything for you ;)

CHAPTER 3

Lynn’s legs were only marginally longer than Squid’s. Squid knew this because one night, on their return journey from Dust to Alice, he had measured his own leg with a piece of string and carefully laid it out next to Lynn’s while she slept, trying to figure out why, whenever they walked anywhere, she kept up a pace he found difficult to maintain. Much like with everything else Squid was constantly trying to catch up to Lynn. Now, though, it was Squid who led the way, with Lynn straggling along behind looking at their surroundings.

“Lynn,” Squid said, trying not to breathe too much as he spoke, wanting to avoid the hot, sticky smell of the slums, “are you coming?”

Lynn looked at Squid. “This place is horrible,” she said.

Squid looked around. They were deep in the slums now. Behind them the road curved and twisted so that while they could still see the top of the Wall, they could no longer see the Great Gate they had been sent through with supplies that would last less than a week and the Administrator’s dismissive wave in the direction of the east.

Everywhere around them were ramshackle huts of wood, rusted corrugated iron and old decaying plastic. The buildings looked as though they were all collapsing in different directions but had stopped midway, resting against each other, a complex balancing act where the removal of one plank of wood or folded sheet of iron could send the entire slum billowing down like a house of cards.

Busyness surrounded them, but nothing like the frenetic activity of the Rock. There people had rushed and hurried but they’d all had a clear purpose, somewhere to be, something to be doing. Here in the slums it was far more chaotic. People were moving across the streets in every direction while children wove between them, kicking around homemade balls of wood and twine with their bare feet. Many people seemed to be doing nothing other than sitting outside huts talking, eating, smoking or just watching the world pass them by. Squid suddenly felt the crushing presence of all those people and his pace quickened again. Even worse than the number of people in the streets was the way nothing matched, everything was the wrong size or shape or color, there was no pattern to anything. He wanted to get out of here.

“We should hurry,” Squid said, waiting for Lynn to catch up.

“What’s the point of rushing?” Lynn asked. “We don’t even know where we’re going.”

“Big Smoke,” Squid said. “Like the prophecy says, we’ll find the vaccine in Big Smoke.”

“Big Smoke,” Lynn repeated. “The only thing I know about Big Smoke is that it doesn’t exist.”

“But the prophecy … It has to be there.”

“There’s nothing out there, Squid. There’s absolutely nothing past the ghoul-proof fence but endless wasteland. Everybody knows that.”

Squid stopped. Lynn took several more steps before she stopped too.

“What do we do then?” Squid said as Lynn turned to face him.

“I don’t know.” Lynn’s voice was steadily rising. “Ancestors’ sin, Squid, I don’t know. I don’t care. I just want to prove that the Administrator killed my father.”

Lynn paused, looking around as if suddenly aware of the volume of her voice.

“You really think he killed him?”

“Not himself,” Lynn said. “But whoever did was sent by him.” Lynn’s eyes glazed over and her eyelids brimmed with tears. “You saw what the Administrator was like, Squid. He just wanted to get rid of us. That’s what this is about. There’s no prophecy, no vaccine, not any place out there called Big Smoke. He just wants us gone.”

Squid knew that he and Lynn felt differently about what had happened with the Administrator on returning to Alice after the Battle of Dust. Lynn was thinking only that she had been exiled for choosing to run from the Sisters, pose as a boy and join the Diggers. She resented being sent into the east and saw it simply as a punishment. Squid, on the other hand, was choosing to believe what the Administrator had told him. He was the boy of prophecy and he was going east on a journey of the utmost importance. He would find the fabled weapon against the ghouls and he would save the Territory. Why couldn’t Lynn see that too?

Squid didn’t want to believe what Lynn was saying. He wanted to cover his ears and not listen like he would have when he was a small child and Uncle would yell at him, or when the other children in the schoolyard would wait until the Sisters weren’t watching and push him over and call him names. He didn’t cover his ears anymore, though. Uncle had hit him and told him not to act like that enough times that eventually he’d stopped. That was when he’d started grabbing his mother’s key for comfort instead. He reached for it now, wrapping his fingers around the shape of it, feeling it through his shirt.

Thinking about Uncle, even fleetingly, was enough to bring back the memories. He was in the thick of battle, ghouls all around him. He remembered being grabbed from behind, turning and finding himself face to face with his uncle – at least, the ghoul who had once been his uncle – his face dry and decayed. Squid squeezed his eyes shut. He didn’t want to see this. Not again. He tried to stop the images that kept running through his mind. He saw them in his sleep; he didn’t want to see them during the day too. Uncle, Darius, Lieutenant Walter, the stuttering movements of ghoul after ghoul after ghoul. Perhaps the worst thing was that even after everything that had happened Squid knew those creatures were still out there, still heading for Alice. Lynn couldn’t be right. She just couldn’t, because there was no other way to stop them if they didn’t find the vaccine.

“So what then?” Squid said. “What happens when the ghouls get here? They just destroy everything? Nothing else will matter then. Even if you find out the truth about your father, there’ll be no one to hear it. Everyone will be dead.”

Lynn looked at Squid but didn’t say anything.

“It’s all I’ve got left,” Squid said quietly. “The prophecy is all I’ve got.” Only as he said it did he realize the heavy truth of it. He had always had some purpose, some reason to exist, whether it was farming dirt or serving the Diggers. Now it was fulfilling the prophecy. If that wasn’t real then he had nothing, and he needed something to achieve otherwise what was the point?

Lynn looked into his eyes, really looked at him for the first time since they’d walked out the Great Gate. Squid felt his lip trembling. Too much had happened too quickly and it was overwhelming. It didn’t feel like that long ago that he’d sat up the front of the wagon riding into Dust on market day, his birthday, and now, after all that he’d lived through since then, more than anyone his age should be expected to live through, he realized it was only the beginning.

“You’ve got me,” Lynn said. “That counts for something, doesn’t it?”

Despite the weight of all they had lost and the hopelessness of the task that lay ahead of them, Squid smiled. “Yeah,” he said. “That counts.”

Lynn returned his smile and Squid felt a warmth within him. They did have each other, and in that way Squid had more now than he’d ever lost. He’d never had a friend until he’d met this girl who’d been pretending to be a boy called Max, and now he was sure he had the strongest friendship in the world. Squid had never really understood people; he found them confusing. Lynn still confused him a lot of the time, but she meant more to him than anyone ever had.

“I won’t be able to do this without you,” Squid said.

Lynn fixed him with an evaluating look. He wasn’t sure what she was thinking. Just another of those times he didn’t understand her.

“Come on then,” she said, throwing her arm around Squid and thumping him on the back. “Let’s go on this stupid quest of yours.”

Lynn kept pace with Squid as they walked deeper into the slums, but he could tell her mind was elsewhere. They both had memories nagging at them.

“People shouldn’t live like this,” Lynn said.

“Hey!”

An older man sitting nearby rose to his feet, dropping his pipe onto the makeshift wooden table beside his rickety chair. His skin was leathery, his gray beard stained yellow with old smoke. Squid and Lynn turned to look at him.

“I heard what you said, you stuck-up little Insiders. You think you’re so much better than us. You think we want to live this way? You think this is our choice?”

Squid froze as the man came toward them, keeping his eyes lowered, not wanting to look at him in case that made things worse. Lynn turned to face him. As was typical, she wasn’t going to be intimidated.

“I never said it was your choice to live here,” Lynn said. “I meant that you shouldn’t have to live like this. I feel sorry for you.”

“You Insiders,” the old man said, pointing at Lynn, his voice becoming more aggressive. “Always looking down on us on account of nothing other than the luck you had being born inside the Wall.”

“Look,” Lynn said, snapping back, “I didn’t mean any offense to you, but don’t talk to me about luck. Sure, I was born Inside, but it’s your choice not to go out to the mines or the bio-fuel plants or somewhere else. There’s a whole damn Territory out there.”

“You think it’s easy, huh? How many people do you think they actually take on at those places? There’s not enough room for everyone. You think people here haven’t tried to find work inside Alice or out in the Territory? Not everyone is born with a silver spoon shoved down their neck.”

Squid saw Lynn’s hand dart to the shortsword she wore at her waist. She pulled it quickly, had the thin blade pointed at the man’s throat before he knew what was happening.

“What do you know about that?” Lynn said, her voice fast and angry. “What do you know about my father?”

The old man’s eyes went wide, instantly changing from anger to surprise. “What are you talking about?” the old man said, raising his hands in a meek gesture of surrender. “I don’t know your father.”

“What do you know about the spoon in his neck?” Lynn had begun to shout. “What do you know?!”

Squid almost didn’t recognize Lynn’s voice. It was panicked, desperate, a little bit crazy.

“Lynn,” Squid said, “what are you doing?”

But she ignored him. Squid had only seen her like this once before, when Darius, Tank, Glenden and Rusty had attacked them in the dark corridors of the Rock. She was in that place where she could focus only on fighting, fuelled by some dark rage that was normally buried deep and out of reach.

“My father was killed with a silver spoon in his neck,” Lynn said, pushing the sword further forward until its point floated only inches from the man’s wrinkled throat. “What do you know about it?”

“It’s just a saying, you nutty girl,” the old man said. “Something we say about you Insiders.”

“Pop,” another voice called from the hut outside which the old man had been sitting. Squid turned to see another man emerge, a younger man, who was tapping a wooden club threateningly against the palm of his hand. “Everything all right?”

“Yeah, Hank,” said a voice from the other side of the street, a woman this time, thin and sinewy but holding a long-bladed knife she had been using to cut up some small animal. “All good or what?”

Lynn looked around, still holding the sword at the throat of the old man. People had begun to emerge from the slums in every direction, surrounding them in a hostile circle.

“What do you think you’re doing here anyway?” one voice said.

“Yeah, hasn’t anyone told you it’s not safe for little Insider kids to be out in the slums?” said another. “You never know what might happen to you.”

“’Specially if you threaten one of us.”

Lynn lowered her sword, but she didn’t sheath it. It stayed clenched tightly in her fist, ready if needed. Squid swallowed the lump in his throat. He could see that Lynn wasn’t going to say anything; something was still stuck inside her. He would have to be the one to act this time. He would have to say something to calm the circle gathering around them. He took a breath.

“We’re just trying to get out of the city,” Squid said. “We don’t want to get into any trouble; we just need to go east.”

“East,” said the young man with the club, the old man’s son. “Why would you go east? Don’t you know what’s coming?”

“We know what’s coming,” Squid said, stepping forward to stand beside Lynn. “We were there.”

The man with the club looked at Squid as if for the first time. Squid was still wearing the uniform of a First Apprentice. It had been cleaned overnight but still bore the impossible to remove stains of blood and dust from the battle. The man looked him up and down, evaluating what he saw.

“You were a Digger?” asked the man. “At the Battle of Dust?”

“An Apprentice,” Squid said. “We both were.”

“Is it true what they say?” asked the woman with the knife. “Are the Diggers gone?”

Squid nodded.

“Then there really isn’t anyone left to fight the ghouls,” the woman continued. “They’re going to come here, aren’t they? Just like they say.”

Squid nodded again.

The crowd seemed to converge on them, but it was different now, the people suddenly desperate for information. They seemed to have forgotten about Lynn’s confrontation with the old man and instead focused on Squid.

“How many ghouls are there?”

“How far away are they?”

“What are we supposed to do?”

Squid looked around, from dirty face to dirty face. Questions kept coming from the circle that surrounded him.

“Are they training more Diggers?”

“Ain’t there gonna be another battle?”

 “I don’t really know,” Squid said, trying to answer all the questions at once. “I don’t know.”

“We’re stuck out here,” the woman with the knife said, moving forward. “What’s going to happen to us when the ghouls come? We don’t have any walls to protect us.”

Murmurs of agreement traveled in waves around the circle. The people here were afraid, and with the Diggers gone they felt abandoned. Even Squid, usually not well attuned to people’s behavior, could tell that the fear and desperation that hung over this place could quickly turn dangerous for them. Lynn, as if seeing this new threat emerge, had shaken loose whatever had become jammed within her and lifted her sword again. She turned to cut off the woman with the knife as she approached Squid.

“Back off, lady,” she said.

Squid watched Lynn’s eyes dart quickly from the woman to others around the circle and back again. He could tell she was sizing up the situation, looking for who would be the most dangerous opponent, but it didn’t matter, there were too many of them. There was nothing Lynn could do if the crowd decided to turn violent.

“We’re going to stop them,” Squid blurted out. “That’s why we’re going east. There’s a prophecy and we’ve been sent to find out how to stop the ghouls forever.”

“What do you mean?” said the old man.

“There’s a prophecy of Steven,” Squid said, “about a vaccine.”

“A what?” asked someone else.

“Some sort of weapon. Something that can stop the ghouls.”

Further murmurs spread around the circle, sounds of consideration.

“We’re supposed to believe that you’re going to save the Territory?” said the old man’s son, still twisting the wooden club around in his hand.

Squid nodded.

“Where is this weapon?”

“Big Smoke,” Squid said.

The club-wielding man scoffed. “Big Smoke is just a story. There’s nothing outside the fence, just wasteland.”

“It has to be there,” Squid said, “because I have to find it.”

The circle of people stared at him, unmoving. He could tell that no one believed him. How was a scrawny boy who happened to be wearing the uniform of a First Apprentice going to leave the Territory, travel east through ghoul-infested lands and find a fabled weapon hidden away in a city everyone believed to be as mythical as bunyips, unicorns and whales?

“Look,” Lynn said. “I’m from the Inside. It’s true I don’t know what it’s like to live here and frankly I wouldn’t want to, but I’ve lost people close to me, so don’t think just because I grew up having baths whenever I wanted means I don’t know what it’s like to be scared and alone. I know just as much about that as any of you.

“Squid isn’t an Insider. He’s from a dirt farm near Dust. How do you think he feels? Dust is gone, probably already overrun by the ghouls. At least you’re still here, and while you’re still here you’ve got a chance. When the ghouls come I’m sure the Insiders will open the gates and let you in. Until then, we survived the Battle of Dust so guess what? We’re it. We’re all that’s left of the Diggers and we’re going to try to save the Territory, including all of you. So, are you going to let us go or what?”

Everyone, including Squid, stared at Lynn. Eventually, Hank, the old man, nodded.

“S’all right,” he said to the crowd, raising his hand as if to ward them away. “Let ’em go. If they’re willing to go outside the fence looking for some way to stop the ghouls, we ain’t nobody to get in their way.”

Slowly the crowd around them began to disperse. Eventually even the woman with the knife and Hank’s son went back to whatever they had been doing. It wasn’t until then that Lynn sheathed her sword.

“Do you really think there’s something out there that can stop them?” Hank said as Lynn turned to walk away, Squid following behind her.

Lynn turned back. “I don’t know,” she said. Then she looked at Squid. “But he believes it and I believe in him.”

Hank nodded and Lynn and Squid continued on their way, though Squid could feel the eyes of the slums watching them more intently now. Looking back toward Hank, Squid caught sight of two figures standing in the shadows beneath a rusting metal facade overhanging the front of one of the huts. They seemed out of place; not dirty like the rest of the residents. One was short and wore a white shirt, dark pants and a round bowler-type hat. The other was tall, thick limbed and dressed in brown pants and a sleeveless vest. Squid realized he’d seen them before. They were the same two men who had been watching them before they walked out the Great Gate. Now here they were again. It was unnerving. He was about to tell Lynn, but she spoke first.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to tell anyone else about the prophecy,” she said.

“Why?” Squid asked.

“I just think it’s better if we don’t draw too much attention to ourselves.”

“You’re the one who pulled out your sword.”

Lynn looked at Squid. She looked like she was about to argue, but then she smiled and shook her head, chuckling. “Yeah,” she said. “I suppose I did, but let’s just try and keep from letting everyone know what we’re doing, okay? We don’t know who might be listening.”

“Excuse me,” called a voice from behind them. Squid and Lynn both turned to see a hooded figure standing watching them. “I hear you’re looking to go to Big Smoke.”

Lynn looked at Squid. “See,” she said. “This is what happens.”

 

A City Called Smoke is released on the 9th of July and if you haven't already it's available to preorder on Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, B&N and all good ebook retailers. The print edition of A City Called Smoke will follow on August 6th.