I keep updating my Twitter feed about this book, but maybe I should, y’know, offer up some actual proof that I am really writing it.

Let’s be smart about this: this is a non-spoiler preview, and not only that, you don’t have to have read the first two books for this to make sense. If you have, there’s one insert that will give you a great big ‘lighbulb’ moment if you’ve a good memory for small details, but if you’re new, this is a pretty good introduction to what I’m like as a writer. I am rather pleased with this section. I wrote it to figure out part of one major character’s story, and decided it made so much sense that it could make the final cut already.

The guy you’re gonna meet here grows up to be a villain. A huge one. We’re talking Gustavo Fring and Walter While rolled into one and it’s like they’ve both had a good taste of their own product. And yeah, enjoy my Breaking Bad lampshade in the excerpt itself.

Shadow’s main mission in life is to get this guy. Here’s what he’s up against. Perhaps when he was a little bit like Shadow himself…

 

* * *

 

The knock on the door would have to come soon, Daniel thought as he lay on his bed in the hotel. The kind of meeting he’d just had with the head of the Seekers’ Council was the kind where another one always secretly took place later. Scriafen had more to say. Right now the head of the SC was choosing who to say it to.

Daniel thought of his father, and how many meetings like that the man must have had. None of them made for much intrigue, because Daniel already knew which was the most important for keeping the family legacy going. Never mind all his Carnathian children. Rusty Penhallow had seen his biggest opportunity in the unexpected one.

‘You’ve been taking drugs, Daniel. Unproductive ones. Your report all but says it. You don’t apply yourself in your Talent lessons. You don’t apply yourself at all. Yet you get the top grades. That won’t continue forever if you don’t learn self control.’

Rusty, alone with him in his mother’s coffee shop, closed up for the evening, because Daniel had done it. Daniel had expected the line about how he’d be in a job like that for good if he didn’t pick things up at school, but he already knew it wasn’t true. He knew this man was going to change nothing.

‘When you decide you actually want to be my father,’ Daniel said, ‘then you can tell me about applying myself.’

Rusty stacked Daniel’s report papers and tapped the long edge down on the table. ‘I am not like other people’s fathers, Daniel. I don’t have “family time” like your friends would call it with any of my children. When you support a family in the way I do, your contribution is different. Seeing your friends’ families has filled you with ideas that I’m not going match up to, and there will be no apology. Life doesn’t just fulfil all your wishes. At the moment, your favourite wish is getting high. Easy enough to fulfil that, isn’t it?’

‘If you’re so disappointed why don’t you just go back to Carnathia?’

‘Do you know what I do on Carnathia?’

‘What?’

‘I manage the world’s most notorious prisoner. A Talent criminal and a Level Five. Do you think I got to do this by making wishes and have them come true? Or by having a father who was caught up in “quality time?” I had a father who realised what inspired me and set me up to do it. That’s what it took. None of this wasting hours sitting around a television and calling it quality.’

‘Yeah well, wanking yourself off about how good you are really isn’t very fucking inspiring, Dad.

Rusty took up Daniel’s report and tore it down the centre.

‘Hey!’

‘Why would you want to keep it?’ Rusty said. ‘Is there anything to be proud of on it?’

‘I got the fucking grades, you asshole!’

‘Grades are nothing without a person behind them,’ Rusty said. ‘There are people with your grades who work in places like this coffee shop from your age to retirement.’

‘Oh finally, there it is!’

Rusty stuffed the torn report into the bin behind the counter. ‘Get your coat. We’re going on a field trip.’

‘You can go to fucking hell.’

Daniel. Don’t make this difficult.

            It could still put his nerves on edge if he focused on it hard enough. Daniel did so for a moment as he stared at the ceiling, still waiting for the knock, and then brought himself back to the calm.

That memory was from more than thirty years ago. His father’s Talent had been like nothing from any teacher at his school, or any friends that had it, or even the principal on a dressing down. This was real world Talent. The kind where someone making things difficult would learn from their mistakes the real way.

One of the boys at his school had reported a parent for Talent abuse. He’d been a liar out for revenge, of course. Because he hadn’t known what abuse was, and probably hadn’t even been threatened. Not like this. For everything else he might be though, Daniel knew his father wouldn’t assault him. Not unprovoked. He would do something cleverer than that, the kind of clever that managed that prisoner Esteban he’d been hearing about.

Daniel said nothing as he stared at his father, his breath tight in his chest and his heart telling him it was already warmed up for running. But running would ‘make things difficult.’

Are you ready to be civil now?

            ‘Yes,’ Daniel said.

Answer me properly.

            Yes.

            That’s better. We’re going out. You’re going to see where I work here on Earth. You’re not going to speak unless you’re spoken to. Just watch. If this doesn’t inspire you, I’ll give up. You can have your life as you want it. At least then I can say I offered you a choice. Get your coat.

            His father took him to the BlueSky labs in London’s tech district. He kept to the rule about not speaking, instead thinking about how jealous he was going to make Cody White when he memory-shared this. He was going to teach Cody how to do it just so he could share it, whatever he saw.

What he saw was a workforce the size of his school that all looked up from what they were doing when his father walked through. Some of them didn’t even work for him, some of them didn’t acknowledge him, but they knew who he was.

So it got said, you had to jump through hoops to get work experience at BlueSky. Even Take Your Child to Work day took a whole bunch of paperwork and security checks. All his father did was sign him in as a visitor and he got his own pass badge, with a retinal and fingerprint scan. The kind nobody at school had ever shown off about after a visit.

‘Entertainment is good,’ Rusty said as he walked Daniel through games testing, graphics design and sound production. ‘I like these people. They make things we enjoy. Your friend Cody perhaps enjoys them a little too much, but an obsession can be turned useful. Your favourite thing is altering your mind. You think that can be useful?’

‘I doubt it.’

‘Don’t sulk. Tell me the truth. Is it a useful thing?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why?’

‘I dunno. Sometimes you’ve just got to escape.’

‘Nothing else?’

‘What do you want me to say, Dad?’

Rusty gestured his son into the lift the doors shut behind them. ‘Never mind. Perhaps it would be better if you just thought. Let’s give you something to think about then.’ He put a long, complicated looking key into the top floor slot and turned it.

The top floor was the one the work placement kids sometimes talked about. Nobody had ever seen a key put in that lock. Nobody had ever seen a key that looked like it would fit. Nobody had even seen the numbers on the outside of the lift light up with the top floor’s number: Fifty-two.

‘What’s up here?’

Rusty ignored him. ‘Here are the rules. No Talent. Keep your walls up and don’t be invited into a field by anyone. If someone does that, I want to know. Be polite, but refuse the connection. People will be surprised that you’re here. Don’t act like you deserve to be. Let me do the explaining, if anyone asks.’

Why his father bothered with any of that was a mystery to him. There was virtually nobody up there, apart from a couple of lab technicians and a man Daniel recognised. A doctor from a London hospital, a professor of medicine, but Daniel had never met him before, or even been to the hospital for anything. He knew this man from a picture in a museum.

‘This is professor Calloway,’ Rusty said. ‘Daniel. My son.’

‘Bentley,’ the professor said, shaking Daniel’s hand, and noticing straight away how Daniels eyes were drawn to the stethoscope around his neck.

‘This is a hospital floor?’ Daniel said.

‘No,’ Bentley said. ‘They employ me for my Talent here. I’m only a doctor here if something goes wrong. Or if anyone who works here has a health concern.’ He looked at Rusty. ‘Your son needs to see me?’

‘He could do with a health check, yes, but not for his body,’ Rusty said. ‘I’m going to show him our product.’

The professor’s eyes didn’t just widen. His whole face seemed to. Daniel’s father clearly enjoyed it. The silence that passed between them surely meant a Talent conversation, and not just the kind that started with Are you sure that’s wise? What was behind the professor’s eyes was something beyond just a simple concern for secrecy.

‘I see,’ Bentley said, although quite what he saw when he next looked at Daniel, Daniel wasn’t sure he wanted to know. The man’s Talent was already winding its way inside his head, despite his walls being up, and sensing his growing anxiety about being in this building at all. He started looking around for ways out. The only one was the lift they’d entered through.

‘Dad, he’s trying to-’

‘That’s fine,’ Rusty said. ‘Bentley’s Talent is at least as trustworthy as mine. At least as good. Let him in.’

So he can do what? Daniel thought as he dropped his walls. Bentley’s Talent was as subtle as a cool breeze on a summer evening, inducing a slight coolness on Daniel’s skin, and for a moment he had a heightened awareness of his own body, as if his brain were controlling all his vital functions consciously.

‘Guess you don’t need that thing,’ he said, pointing at the stethoscope.

‘Traditional medical apparatus are a failsafe for a Talented doctor,’ the professor said, sounding like he was about to give university students a lecture. ‘Talent listens to a person’s insides in a very different way. What yours are telling me is that the kind of product your father’s asking me to show you perhaps isn’t for you yet.’ He looked at Rusty. ‘With respect, I think you ought to ask your son some questions about his…outside interests before you think about showing him this.’

‘I’m already well aware of them.’ Rusty looked at Daniel. ‘Unless there’s anything more serious I should know.’

How had this doctor arrived at that with less than a minute’s Talent? Nobody Talented could get that conclusion from somebody sober. Not unless Talent really were mind reading, which it wasn’t. It was like this man had found a way. Startled and shaken and desperate for the professor to leave his Talent field and his body well alone, Daniel ran off a list of everything he’d ever taken, anyone he’d done it with, all the effects it had on him, and only stopped talking when he felt like he’d just become a police rat. That and felt stupid, and borderline humiliated.

‘I’m not judging you, Daniel,’ the professor said. ‘Technically you’re not even my patient.’ He looked at Rusty. ‘I understand what you’re trying to do, but there are other ways to set a boy on a better path.’

‘This is the way I’ve chosen,’ Rusty said. ‘It’s a show, Bentley. Not a tell. And besides, I think my son knows that there are certain things in this world you don’t open your mouth about. He’ll soon see why.’

Bentley Calloway didn’t seem to know what to else to say. Daniel knew his father wouldn’t be persuaded, and the professor probably knew it too, but he was still searching for a way, until he said: ‘I wish I’d had a son I could trust this much.’ He gave Daniel a searching look. ‘I hope you’ve got a good soul to match that body.’

Daniel didn’t want to know what the man might do if it turned out he hadn’t. There was an edge to the professor’s voice he suddenly didn’t like. What did a soul have to do with a product in a gaming company anyway? People always said games sucked all the life and soul out of a person, didn’t they? All those people Cody was always so pissed off with.

Bentley led them both into a lab where Daniel saw what looked like crystal meth cooking – the setup he’d always imagined in books, the kind that the guy at his school who could cook it said he dreamed of. A proper lab with gleaming equipment and all the room you’d need, where the product would be as clean and pure as everything around it. Except this wasn’t for meth. Meth wasn’t that complex that it needed all this. As his brain wandered and his Talent did as well, something surging and violent poked at the field, threatening the balance.

His father caught him in time. What did I say?

            Sorry, I’m just…what IS this?

            ‘This is the world’s most complicated substance,’ Bentley said, pulling at the Talent field so hard that it felt like something was being physically sucked out of Daniel’s body. The result was a complete cut-off from any field, leaving Daniel’s inner senses dead. He’d never experienced a complete shut off before, and for a moment thought he knew what the people who’d had their Talent extracted under torture under Coburn’s England must have felt like.

‘Yeah,’ Daniel said. ‘This is that video game without hardware thing?’

‘This is part of what creates it,’ Bentley said. ‘It’s called Liquid Talent. LT. It’s several substances combined to create one. It’s a liquid that can mimic the memory storage of the inner brain.’

Daniel stared at the glass and the tubes, and the steel containers, some of them labelled with a language he couldn’t read. It looked like Japanese, except even more intricate in its lettering. ‘What are they all? Can I see a formula?’

‘Nobody sees a formula,’ Rusty said, before Bentley could, and Daniel could tell the professor was relieved to hear his boss say it. ‘But I’ll tell you something.’ Rusty picked up a test tube containing a liquid that turned iridescent in the lab light. ‘There are plenty of people who know how to make different versions. Plenty who might be smart enough with chemistry to work most of it out. Enough who could get their hands on what’s needed. But my version of it? There’s the right way, the wrong way, and then there’s what’s in here.’ He took up a pipet. ‘Open your mouth and stick your tongue out.’

Daniel felt a surge of Talent wrap around him as the fields came back, cloaking him in someone else’s wall. The professor’s.

‘Rusty, I’m not letting you do this to a boy. There are some things you don’t….’ he stopped as Rusty started laughing. ‘You’re a jackass,’ Bentley said after a sigh of relief. ‘If you weren’t my boss I’d have banned from my lab by now.’

‘And you’re still the scatterbrain who thought for a moment that I’d have dared do it,’ Rusty said, setting the glass tube and pipet down. ‘And to my own boy.’

‘I’m not a boy,’ Daniel said. ‘I’m seventeen.’

‘I’m sorry, young man.’ Bentley said with a smile on his face. ‘This is your father’s humour all over.’

‘I might know if he was ever at home,’ Daniel said.

Rusty ignored him.

‘What he was going to put on your tongue would have given you a Talent white-out.’

‘A what?’

‘They don’t teach you about that in school because not many people know about it. Not many have ever had one. Sometimes it induces huge levels of euphoria. Embarrassingly huge, if you know what I mean. Sometimes the reverse. You said you’ve taken LSD. You said one time it was a little bit “freaky.” I can assure you, it was nothing compared to what this might have done.’ Bentley picked up the tube. ‘This is Liquid Talent one stage before it’s ready and balanced and can mimic the brain. Before your own Talent could write lines of code into it and store a memory.’

Daniel went to the bench and held out a hand. ‘Can I?’

‘No touching,’ Rusty said.

‘It’s fine,’ Bentley said. ‘Holding it won’t do anything as long as you don’t engage a field and try and find what it’s sending out.’

Rusty nodded, and Daniel took the tube, willing his heart to slow down, and it seemed to as he held the liquid and fought his curiosity to disobey his father. He looked at the two men and he knew they could tell he was thinking of it. Their Talent and bodies poised and ready should he cause chaos.

It was the most self-control he had ever felt in his life. He slowly replaced it, wishing his hand wasn’t quivering, but he got the tube back in its rack without anything smashing. Loading a dishwasher with his mother’s fine china was never going to feel risky again.

‘You ever had a bad trip on it?’ he asked them both.

‘No,’ Bentley said. ‘But I’ve witnessed people having one. When I was employed by Coburn’s government, and someone high up stole samples of it from your father’s company. At the time I never knew they were stolen.’

‘And I believed in this man’s integrity when he told his stories to the Seekers’ Council,’ Rusty said. ‘That’s why I employed him when he needed someone willing to trust him. Why I pulled the kind of strings that get a man with a complicated past his medical licence back. Because this man is a genius. He took my methods and improved them. He took what’s in that tube you just held and turned it into what I brought you here to see.’

Bentley nodded.

‘It’s your finest work, Bentley,’ Rusty said. ‘I can’t be the one to open those doors.’

Bentley led him through the lab and down a corridor, into a circular room. He keyed in a code and the doors all around it slid open, revealing tubes that lit up like a laboratory crossed with a chandelier.

Daniel’s mouth fell open at the thought of what this was: the largest capacity storage device in the entire world. With nothing computerised about it.

‘Let him engage a field,’ Bentley said.

‘Unwise,’ Rusty said.

‘You brought him this far,’ Bentley said. ‘Are you so sure your lesson’s over?’

‘You know what this is, Daniel,’ Rusty said, placing a hand on his son’s shoulder and bringing Daniel back to reality just enough to get his voice heard. ‘Do you want to engage a field with it?’

‘What will I get?’

‘A feeling like a God exists and gave you this moment so you could know it,’ Rusty said. ‘A feeling you will crave for the rest of your life if you flood your brain with too much of it, which given your age and experience you inevitably would. The greatest high of your life. It’s up to you. Do you fancy it?’

Daniel stared at the two men, and realised their conversation had been a stage play, worked out in Talent all the time he’d been standing in front of them. He almost engaged with it right then, just to show his father up. Hell with the lessons about self control, if he was going to be the disappointing family member then why not do it with all the style that came with failing this stupid, brilliant test?

Instead, he stood staring, then walked around the room’s circle, taking long blinks and wishing all this would be gone every time he opened his eyes. ‘How do you cope with this? With what it can do?’

‘You already know the answer to that,’ Rusty said. ‘Just like you know what this is. Possibly the single greatest thing mankind has ever invented. People have never gotten to put my touches on it because they never had what I do. You know what it is.’

‘Control.’

‘Of myself before anyone else.’ He nodded at Bentley. ‘This man has it too. And I know others. I know that whoever can give this to the world in the right way could control all of it. I know some people can have that kind of power and still control themselves. So, do you still want your “quality time” with me or are there better things you could do with me as your father?’

Daniel took another deep breath and shut his eyes again. ‘Can we please just go home?’    ‘Don’t you want to try a memory?’ Rusty said. ‘Just one?’

‘These are all filled with your memories? Your life?’

‘Some of them,’ Rusty said. ‘But I have some special ones. Call them a special reserve, like fine wines or whiskies. There’s one I had in mind for you. It’s a space craft pilot being his usual daredevil self with a Stormhawk around the colonies. His name was Daniel too. I named you after him.’

‘Wishmaster? That guy? You’ve got a memory of his?

‘He gave it to me,’ Rusty said, finding the right tube and detaching it from the rack. ‘When we first trialled Liquid Talent on Carnathia, he got in the queue. I bumped him to the front.’ Rusty tapped the tube. ‘Shall we go for a ride?’

 

*                                  *                                  *

 

Daniel didn’t speak during the drive back to the coffee house. He was convinced his brain was still inside the memory. Never before had he experienced something so lucid in his sleep. That Liquid Talent had put him under and he’d been himself, but himself through the pilot Wishmaster as he used the world’s space colonies as his slalom practice.

Only after he’d come around and been in a state of hyperactive elation for close to an hour did he realise what his father had just done: he was the first participant in the BlueSky tests, only not an official one. The clinical trials on Liquid Talent wouldn’t begin for another half a year. They didn’t even have a cleared list of test subjects yet. Cody was still waiting to get his hands on the application form, because even that hadn’t been released yet. Daniel had just been the first one to test it, because his father already knew it was safe.

His father already knew it was far more than that.

Anyone else’s parent, he thought, would be panicked by his daydream state, his constant re-iteration of how it was like the world wasn’t really there, but Rusty just let him ride it through until there was enough real world to let him get back to the car, buckle up and enjoy the night ride through the city, back out into the edge of London and out into the countryside, down the narrow roads to the coffee shop.

‘Let’s have another cup together, shall we?’ Rusty said.

Daniel was tired, but knew better than to refuse. Talking to his father soon snapped him out of it too, except he couldn’t get a sentence that really matched what he felt like. He didn’t know what it was. Shame about his previous life? Disbelief that he was already thinking of it as a previous life at all? The feeling that he’d been shown every possibility of a lifetime in one single night but now had to earn the right to it, because he hadn’t previously deserved it?

He tried to articulate it. He couldn’t. His father had been right: grades didn’t matter. His A’s for English seemed like such nonsense when it hadn’t taught him how to express himself. What did school matter anyway, compared to one night’s lesson from a real place that made real change?

‘It matters because everything you do in life matters somehow,’ Rusty said. ‘That’s not philosophy. It’s fact. You keep the right people happy, whether its grades or behaviour or knowledge you gain that makes you someone worth the time. Everything you do is about who you want to be. You’ve seen my company, the best part of my life’s work so far. No man who knows the real world hands that to a son just because he’s a son. Plenty of stupid men do that with legacies. So who do you want to be? Someone who could earn a legacy like that because they’re a worthy human being?’

‘Dad,’ Daniel said, staring into his coffee cup. ‘My head’s exploding.’

‘If my world is an egg then you’ve barely tapped a spoon on the shell,’ Rusty said, smiling. ‘But I understand.’

‘How am I supposed to know what I want? That’s all school’s ever about. They’re obsessed with it, what you want to be. There’s more to life than picking a career so you can pay the bills and have a family and then just die.’

‘So talk to me about your life. You must have done something else with it besides drugs after all.’

‘I thought you couldn’t be bothered with “quality time.”’

‘I can’t,’ Rusty said. ‘I couldn’t be bothered with the boy who brought home that report either. But the young man I just brought back here for the kind of talk we couldn’t have had a few hours ago? I think I can find a little time for him.’

‘I don’t want to talk about my life,’ Daniel said. ‘I want to know something.’

‘Then ask.’

‘It’s not easy to ask.’

‘Then let me see if I can guess. You want to know how a man like me, with everything I have, ends up creating a son with a woman like your mother.’

For a moment, Daniel felt as though getting his father to say the question for him was due to his own cleverness. ‘Men with what you’ve got don’t have casual sex with women who own coffee houses, Dad. What was I about?’

‘What were you about?

‘Why did you make me? Mum once told me I was an accident. I never cared. Until I got to thinking men like you don’t have accidents.’

Rusty put his arms on the table and pulled his chair in, leaning over slightly. ‘It’s a fair thought. But men like me have more accidents than you’d think.’

‘So that’s the only reason I’m here? You met a woman you liked and you got what you wanted but you weren’t quite careful enough?’

‘I met a woman who had nothing to do with anything that could link up with the complicated parts of my life,’ Rusty said. ‘A woman who’s accomplished plenty with her life that didn’t involve all the great searching questions I’ve been asking for the whole of mine. Sometimes a simple life running a shop that people like coming to seems as worthwhile as anything I ever did. The woman who mothered my children on Carnathia isn’t so different from your mother. That’s why….’ Rusty looked over his shoulder as if having caught a sense of Daniel’s mother hiding in the shadows and listening, but she didn’t step out.

‘Why what?’

‘Why a certain person influenced me,’ Rusty said. ‘In a certain way. A way that led to me fathering you. With a suitable woman who it would seem fitting for me to have found here.’

‘I don’t get it.’

Rusty took a slow breath and let it out. ‘I promise you we’ll talk about this,’ he said. ‘But it’s not for tonight.’

‘Because of everything else I’m trying to take in? I can take it. Just tell me. Why my mum? Why me?’

‘You’ve started to trust me tonight. Trust me again. We’ll have this conversation when the time’s right.’

Daniel stared at the table, and knew that for all another argument wouldn’t matter much, this man deserved his respect for what he’d let him see already. He looked up. ‘Okay.’

‘Now talk about you. I’ve already trusted you. Give me something to like about you.’

‘I passed my Level Three test two years before everyone else in my class did.’

‘I already know about your Talent. Give me something simple, ordinary. One good thing about yourself.’

Daniel sighed and turned his palms up. ‘I can cook a decent beef stew. The customers like it.’

His father looked at him blankly, then smiled. ‘There. That wasn’t so hard, was it?’

‘Yeah,’ Daniel said. ‘The world’s so much better if we just make customers happy.’

Rusty tipped his head back a little, and the laugh he gave next could have been genuine or more exasperation. ‘It’s okay to be angry at the world, Daniel. Or disappointed. Or even ashamed of our own species for being the way it is. But what do you do about it? Do you enjoy what you can while deciding you can’t change much, or do you decide that actually you can?’

‘Can I please just go to bed?’

‘Yes okay,’ Rusty said. ‘If you’ll humour me with one more question. If you woke up tomorrow and found you were undisputed lord and master of the universe, what’s the first thing you’d do?’

At least that was a genuinely amusing thought to Daniel. ‘That’s just stupid.’

‘Of course it is, but just humour me. Your first act as lord and master.’

Daniel smiled. ‘I’d make us both immortal. Happy now?’

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