Publication date: May 21st 2013
Genre: YA Dystopia
Wren Harper lives on an overcrowded Earth on the brink of apocalypse. There are just too many people. The answer lies 600 light-years away on Kepler; a planet more than double the size of Earth. For decades humans have been fighting another race for its control. Earth’s armies are depleted. So now 15-year-old cadets are sent to fight, trained along the way in vast combat ships. But why has Wren been chosen? She’s small and geeky and not a fighter. Will she survive Kepler? Or will the training kill her first? This is a debut novella-length episode in a series full of cliffhanger endings.
The future ain’t what it used to be.
Phew, it’s hard work writing about the future. Much harder than writing about the past or the present. Writing’s difficult enough at the best of times but when you have to invent a believable futuristic world, that’s quite a big ask. I’m jealous of historical and contemporary novelists. Okay, I’m sure they have to do a ton of research, but I bet they don’t spend days thinking up futuristic gizmos. And it’s getting harder.You can’t just stick in flying cars and jetpacks. People want to see something new.
Today, some cybernetics are already starting to creep into society. So for the Spiral Arm it wasn’t a massive leap to think that in the future, the internet would be implanted in our hands in the form of a ‘com chip’. The chip would also project a holographic screen above our wrists so we could browse the net and message people – the ultimate in computer portability. I wish we had them now, it’d be a lot easier than fiddling around with a smart phone or carrying a laptop.
Language, like technology,also evolves. So you need to come up with new futuristic phrases. You can’t really use ones we use today, otherwise it destroys the illusion of being in the future. On the other hand, inventing new language can be difficult to pull off, as it can sound unfamiliar and just plain odd. For the Spiral Arm I compromised. Awesome is something everyone says these days, so what would they say in years to come? Beyond awesome of course!
In front of me are temporary metal barricades arranged to herd multiple columns of people. Beyond these stretch rows of long trestle tables, behind which are wide utilitarian metal shelves that reach up into the ceiling and nearly across the entire width of the space. The place is deserted. I quickly figure out that everyone has already gone through processing. I must be the last one.
I can’t stand here any longer so I shuffle forward, between the barriers, still unsure if I’m doing the right thing. Any moment now I think a loud metallic voice will tell me to halt and drop to the floor. I keep moving and pass through the queuing arrangement. When I’m out the other side I hear somebody clear their throat, but I can’t see anyone.
I’m at the rows of tables. I look one way and then the other. Off in the distance to the right I see a seated figure. He’s typing into his com screen. As I get closer I see he’s playing some sort of game. He looks up startled and shuts the game off. I sort of bow my head in submission, thinking he’s going to start shouting at me like General Stone did.
“Name?” he says. It’s not friendly but it’s not aggressive either.
“Wren,” I say. The croakiness of my voice surprises me. “Wren Harper.”
His fingers flick over his com screen and I see my name come up in reverse through the back of his screen. His eyebrows raise. “Mmm, Alpha One. Well done.”
“Excuse me?” I ask timidly, thinking he’s going to bite my head off. “What’s Alpha One?”
“You don’t know?”
“No. I, er, didn’t realize I’d be selected to be a cadet.”
“Okay, well, all cadets on board ship are divided into groups or pods, there are hundreds of pods on board. Your designated pod is Alpha One. Wait here a second.”
I still don’t understand as he turns and starts searching through metal shelves stacked with clothing. He busily moves along the shelves until he finds what he’s looking for and then returns with a pile of five crisp white t-shirts. Printed across the front in a no-nonsense military style typeface are the words: Alpha One. He hands them to me.
“I’m afraid this is the smallest size we do; might be a bit baggy on you. Let me get you the rest of your kit. What size shoe are you?”
“Four? I think the smallest we do is a five, let me check.”
A few seconds later he places five pairs of green combat pants in front of me, some thick blue underwear, several pairs of woolen socks and two pairs of boots. “These are size five but I’ve given you double the number of socks. If you wear two pairs at a time it should take up the slack. Go behind the shelves and change.”
I clutch my new uniform with both hands and follow his directions. It takes me an age to get around the giant metal shelves. On the other side is the strangest sight I’ve ever seen. Gargantuan stacks of discarded civilian clothes, piled up so high they form conical heaps. One is made entirely of shoes and sneakers. Another is just pants and others are full of t-shirts and tops. These must have been left by other cadets who came through here earlier today. Thousands of them must have passed through here because the piles are mountainous. It’s a surreal sight, seeing all this abandoned clothing. Reminds me of 20th century concentration camps just before the prisoners were gassed. They were told they were having showers and were made to dump their clothing before they went in. The thought sends a shiver through me.
There are no cubicles to change in so I just strip off where I stand and toss my old clothes onto the piles. My new T-shirt is huge and so are my pants, it’s like I’m wearing hand-me-down clothes. I decide to knot the back of my shirt to make it look less ridiculous and move on to the next station. Even with two pairs of socks the new boots slop up and down – I might have to add a third pair. They’re as stiff as hell and creak when I walk.
Past the piles of clothes are more barricades arranged to funnel people into hundreds of different queues. I naturally follow the arrangement until I’m faced with a row of medical screens stretching across the width of the vast space. The screens form little cubicles and I peer into one of them. It has a bed and some hi-tech medical equipment I don’t recognize. It’s military stuff so you can’t get the details on a com chip. I know I should try and find someone to help me, but curiosity gets the better of me. I step inside and begin poking around. There’s a stack of computer panels and readouts, and hooked up to this are two long snaking tubes, each with a gun on the end. These are not firearms, as the General would say, and are made from sleek stainless steel. As I pick one up it hisses with compressed air.
“Put that down,” a firm voice says behind me.
I drop the gun immediately and swing around to see a stern-faced doctor who wears a white coat over his uniform. He’s flicking through his com screen.
“Harper, Wren. Park yourself on the bed,” he says. I sit down and place my uniform next to me and opt to sit on my hands to stop them shaking.
“Don’t do that,” he says, “I’m going to need them.”
“Sorry?” I say, uncomprehending.
“Your hands. Hold them out. I’m going to be removing your domestic com chip and replacing it with a military one. An upgrade, if you like.”
He takes my left hand and feels around near my wrist until he’s located the chip underneath my skin.
“Ah, there it is.” Then he takes one of the guns, the larger of the two and places the nozzle over it. “You might feel a little scratch.” He pulls the trigger and I hear the air pressure building in the gun, until suddenly there’s deep thud. I feel the chip being ripped from my skin. Pain spreads across the top of my hand like a giant bee sting. I bite my lip to stop from screaming. He takes the gun away and I can see a small tear in my flesh. Almost immediately he picks up the other gun and places it over the same spot. There’s a build up of air again and then a higher pitched thud. I feel the cold metal chip as it’s rammed into my hand. The pain has just increased ten times. I will not scream. I will not scream. I try controlling my breathing, taking slow breaths in and out. This helps a little. My hand feels like it’s been knifed all the way through. But it’s okay, I think I can keep a lid on it. Just.
He takes another gun-like object and waves it back and forward over the hole in my hand.
“This is a cellular accelerator to plug up the hole I’ve just made,” he says, as if he’s a plumber fixing some pipework. There’s a pins-and-needles sensation across the back of my hand. I watch in wonder as thin layers of skin build up, closing the wound. First pink and fleshy, then white and smooth, until there’s just a pale patch where the hole was. My head starts to swim so I concentrate on a spot on the floor, focusing to stop myself fainting.
“Right, now the other one.”
“You need a chip in both hands.” He tells me casually.
“In case one hand gets blown off during battle.”
My day keeps getting better and better.
Where did the idea for The Spiral Arm come from?
It started off as a TV script about seven teenagers floating across the universe in an escape pod, a kind of Big Brother in space. Getting TV made is notoriously difficult, so I tried adapting it into a book. It didn’t work. So I rewound the story. Where did this escape pod come from? Why were they all teenagers? The idea of a vast training ship full of teenagers popped into my head, a kind of Hogwarts in space. That’s when the Spiral Arm took shape.
Wren Harper is an intriguing character
Yes, she’s shy and a bit of a loner. She thinks she’s weak but there’s a thread of steel running through her. She’s a fish out of water, surrounded by elite super fit, aggressive teenagers who are all ultra-competitive. But Wren’s smart and uses her brain to get her out of some pretty nasty situations.
What made you decide to write in episodes?
It suits my writing style. I like the plot to move along quite quickly rather than stretching it out.
How many seasons of The Spiral Arm will there be?
Well, it takes four years for the training ship to get to its destination, the planet Kepler. The cadets will be trained along the way. When they finally get to Kepler, the cadets on board will be young adults and expected to fight, so there’ll be at least four seasons, maybe five.
When do you write?
Mostly in the evenings after work. I’m a writer for my day job as well, so sometimes I can spend up to 10 hours a day writing. Sadly only a small part of that is novel-writing.
You say your day job is writing.
Yes, I’m a copywriter by trade, which means I come up with ideas for ads and write the words for brochures and websites.
Does that help?
It’s the complete opposite of novel-writing. In a book you could spend ten pages describing a scene. Whereas, in advertising if you can’t say something in three or four words, no-one will read it.
Describe your writing process.
Initially I don’t write anything. I walk around with an idea in my head for weeks, mulling and chewing it over. I found this is the best way to slot everything into place. Then I jot ideas down in a notebook. When I’m happy I’ve got enough raw material, I write down key moments on post-it notes. I stick these to a wall and take a step back and rearrange them until the plot makes sense. Once I start writing properly I’ll still give myself enough room to modify things.
What advice would you give to first-time writers?
Get a good idea, one that can be summed up in a few words. Strong ideas are usually the shortest. Once you start writing don’t stop. Even if you don’t feel like writing. Your initial enthusiasm will wane after a week or two, that’s when you’ve got to get your head down and carry on.
What’s your favourite book?
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet. It’s an awesome read. It’s like Game of Thrones but without the supernatural element. Game of Thrones is my favourite TV series by the way.
What do you do when you’re not writing?
We live by the beach so I surf and mountain bike. I’m also a green tag in Taekwondo which is great for blowing off steam. In between I usually build outrageous things out of Lego with my two boys.