Chapter 1 (free sample)
Seated snugly behind his desk, Joe Seabright couldn’t help but look at his Solix Chronicles clock. Every few seconds, as if on a spring, his eyes snapped away from his screen and angled up at the far wall, squinting at the laser sword hands as they inched towards nine. He urged his eyes back to the business in hand, only to find his fingers wandering from the keypad, fiddling with action figures as his ears tuned in to the ticking and tocking. He stood and gathered himself – puffing out his cheeks, devouring a quick doughnut, air-punching the nerves from his body – before re-taking his seat and reprising the inexorable cycle one more time.
This pattern had been on repeat for at least an hour, during which he’d accomplished precisely zero, when a knock at the door confirmed what the clock suggested: the moment of truth had arrived.
‘Yep.’ He cast his eyes screenwards and pretended to type.
The door opened. ‘It’s starting,’ said his visitor.
Refusing to look up, Joe shifted in his chair. ‘I know.’
‘Sure you don’t wanna watch?’
Joe reached for an hour-old cup of coffee. ‘Sure,’ he replied, struggling not to retch as he swallowed the lukewarm liquid.
‘Whatever you say, boss.’
He raised a hand to wave his producer away, only to realise it was shaking with nerves and swiftly remove it from view. Jerry gave a knowing chuckle.
‘I’ll be back in five to let you know.’
The door closed and Joe jumped up, jarring the desk with his belly and sending the actionfigures flying. Damn it all! He was a grown man, for Christ’s sake: a grown man of fifty years, yet here he was, about to spew from anxiety like some stupid kid. And all because he couldn’t help caring what others thought of him.
He yanked up his Levi’s and tucked in his Rise of the Glozbacks t-shirt, grabbing another doughnut and focusing on some positives: on those gazillions of teenagers whose experience of the world was so much richer thanks to him; on how the saga had woven itself into the fabric of popular culture as a touchstone, a point of reference, a building block of youngsters’ education; on the fact that literally everyone alive knew of the movies, and a great many, even the unfortunate few who’d never seen a frame, could recognise the characters, whistle the music, quote memorable lines.
As his guts rumbled with worry, that was all worth remembering. So what if there was one silly dream he had yet to realise? Fact was, people lived whole lives by snippets of his heroes’ wisdom. In the space of two TV series and four movies, he’d forged a fiction so potent it mingled with reality itself. Not only that, he’d revolutionised Hollywood. Just what kind of fool was he to have attained so much and still want more?
He gobbled up his doughnut, becalmed by resurgent inner peace as he sat back down at his desk. Licking his lips clean of sugar, he was about to resume work when he caught sight of the shelf in the corner: his special, empty shelf, reserved for the one thing his world was lacking; the thing he craved above all else.
Oh Lord, how clearly he saw it there, standing handsomely in its immaculate posture, an object as admiring as it was admired, blessing him with acclaim. He imagined reaching out and caressing it, relishing the unfeasible weight as he wrapped his fingers round its golden slimness, holding it to his heart and feeling, finally, like he belonged: no longer derided as a moronic blockbusting brute, but acknowledged and embraced as the thing he knew he was – a genuine genius; an authentic artist.
Joe tore his eyes off the shelf. Jerry was standing in the doorway.
‘Well?!’ He jumped up and grabbed his producer by the shoulders. ‘Are we in?’
Jerry peeled off his boss’s hands, and stepped away. A moment later, he shook his head.
Joe’s mouth fell open.
‘We’re in,’ said Jerry, ‘but only for the usual. Visual Effects, Sound Design…’ He gazed at the swimming pool that backed onto Joe’s office. ‘Music too.’ He glanced back and smiled. ‘Which is nice.’
Joe’s stumpy legs felt like a pair of leaden weights, buried deep in the S and the C of a Solix Chronicles rug that felt more like quicksand than carpet. For all that he should have known better, a part of him really had believed this would be the one. Rise of the Glozbacks was the best picture yet, and by far the most popular with the franchise’sfans who, in the six months since it premiered, had made it the highest-grossing movie of all time. As for the industry, Joe’s PR people had assured him the traditional prejudice was dying; that people were accepting Joe as a visionary, the creator of grand stories, grandly told.
He looked again at his shelf. Emptier now than ever, it taunted him with its bareness. How could they have got it so wrong again? How could hehave been so dumb to believe they might get it right?
He held his hands to his eyes as the tears worked their way out. Sure, it was silly, but the instinct was uncontrollable. Oscar glory had been his lifelong dream, and though theplanetary dominance of his space epic swelled his heart with pride, it really only strengthened his craving for the ultimate vindication. Success had bred suspicion of his movies’ true merits, making him ever more determined to show that a space opera like Chronicles was just as worthy as world-conquering masterpieces by Shakespeare or Wagner – and that its creator should be considered their imaginative and intellectual equal.
Nothing in the world could say that better than an Oscar. And though the franchise itself had already won heaps, awards for special effects, sound design and music were no consolation. Not when Joe’s concern was with the whole: with the thing itself, the work of art. For him, there was only one Oscar that counted, and it was in the shadow of that elusive Best Picture statuette that all the other accolades languished as inconsequential footnotes.
‘I can’t believe it,’ he croaked, mind and mouth drained of their accustomed vigour. ‘Why can’t they see me for what I am?’
Jerry embraced his boss. ‘Come here, buddy.’
Joe started to sob. And as he sobbed, he looked over his producer’s shoulder and caught sight of the five picture frames occupying the opposite wall. The first four were occupied by one-sheet posters for each movie to date – Birth of a Hero, Tyron’s Reign of Terror, Father and Son,and Rise of the Glozbacks – while the fifth and final frame remained tantalisingly empty.
‘Oh Lord,’ he said, lifting his head.
‘What is it?’
‘I’ve only got one more movie, Jerry. One last chance to make it happen.’
He broke free and marched, zombie-like, back to the desk. His cushioned leather chair groaned as he settled.
‘No time to waste. Gotta get working. Make this the best one yet.’ He glanced up at his producer, sweat trickling down his brow as, pulse by painful pulse, a crushing headache took hold. ‘I’ll come find you later.’
Jerry nodded as Joe retrieved a bottle of painkillers from the drawer, slugged down half a dozen, and read the words on screen:
The Solix Chronicles V:
Triumph of the Solix
by Joe Seabright
First Draft, 23rd February, 2022
He scrolled to the first page proper. Collecting himself, he closed his eyes and transported himself to that special place: the place where imagination was as infinite as the cosmos itself. He pictured the lights in the theatre darkening, the curtains opening, and the huge black screen filling with those familiar logos:
A Joe Seabright Film
Then, out of the ghostly silence and star-speckled void, a glorious brass fanfare as the words THE SOLIX CHRONICLES swept into view, followed below by a mighty sea of text, parading upwards across the expanses of space.
He opened his eyes and read:
Triumph of the Solix
Sights set firmly on intergalactic domination, Nuranghy Tyron, High Lord of the Cafillians, has brainwashed his army of suppliant Glozbacks with a distorted version of the Spirit and dispatched them on a grievous mission to hunt down the Solix and turn them either to evil or slaughter them.
Back on Solus, the spiritual leader of the Solix, Greathan Earloser, is recovering after confronting his apprentice son Mark, who has rebelled against his father’s training at every turn, ardent in his love for Regina, and blind to the importance of the arcane ways and mystical beliefs of the Solix.
Desperate to leave Solus and the Solix behind, Mark has eloped with Regina to a distant planet to live a life of peace and harmony, unaware of the horrific danger bearing down on his homeland, and threatening to destroy not only his fatally weakened father, but his entire race of people…
Joe skipped down to scene one, and swiftly sensed his headache receding. Hell yeah, he thought. The opening crawl was phenomenal; definitely his greatest achievement yet. Automatically, he rewarded himself with a giant doughnut – peanut butter, in celebration – only to spot that Jerry was still in the room: standing where Joe had left him, looking gravely concerned.
There was no answer. The big man – six foot four, resolutely handsome in late middle age with studiously side-parted black hair – looked as disheartened as his boss had felt just before. Putting the rest of his doughnut to one side, Joe rose in sympathy.
‘I’m sorry, Jerry,’ he said. ‘I know I took it bad just now, but it’s ok. We’ll do it next time. Sure, it’s our last chance, but I just read the opening crawl, and seriously, never in my whole life have I read anything that gets the juices flowing like – ’
But Jerry wasn’t willing to listen. Holding up his hand, he turned his broad shoulders and walked away.
‘I swear,’ pressed Joe, ‘the Academy have always meant to give us Best Picture. They know we deserve it. They’re just saving it up to the last!’
‘No,’ said Jerry, spinning sharply on the spot.
A frosty silence stole across the room.
‘Listen, boss,’ Jerry continued, voice faltering with something like fear. ‘Before I go on, you need to know that I do believe.’
‘Believe that Chronicles can win an Oscar. Believe in its credentials as great art: the mythic qualities, the universal relevance…’ He smiled kindly. ‘And of course I believe in you as a great artist.’
‘You know I do. Always have done.’
‘But?’ Joe pressed. ‘There’s a but, right?’
Jerry rubbed his hands together as if trying to draw confidence out of himself. ‘But there’s a problem.’
‘Words?’ echoed Joe. ‘What words?’
‘All of them. The words that come out of the actors’ mouths, the words in the opening crawls…’ Jerry shrugged. ‘They’re just no good.’ He paused. ‘In fact, they’re pretty bad.’ Another pause. ‘Actually, they’re worse than bad.’
Joe felt the sweat of shock bubbling through the pores in his skin. Overcome by instant nausea, he stepped forward, only to step back. He turned right, then turned back to his left. Trapped like a stunned insect, he dithered for several seconds until pushing past his producer and rolling towards the windows behind his desk, gazing down at his feet – or rather the blurred outer rim of his belly – as he went.
‘I’m so sorry, boss,’ sighed Jerry. ‘I wish to God I didn’t have to say it, but there’s only one movie left. If I didn’t speak now – ’
‘You don’t think I can win with Triumph?’
‘Not as things are. For the same reasons you were never going to win with any of the previous four – Glozbacks included.’
Joe let out a desperate laugh. Surely this was some kind of nightmare? The words he was hearing would have been hurtful from anyone. That they should be coming from Jerry, at such a sensitive moment, was as upsetting as it was inexplicable.
‘Why have you never said?’
‘Because I haven’t wanted to upset you. And also…’
‘Also, because I hoped your writing might improve naturally. I hoped one day you might see it yourself and make it better without, y’know, me having to tell you.’
Joe paced round a figure-of-eight, trapped in a maze of confused, paranoid thoughts. A ferocious anger was boiling up inside, tempered only by the knowledge that Jerry – or so he thought – never acted without his best interests at heart.
‘Ok,’ he said, settling on the only reasonable comeback. ‘That’s your opinion. It’s about taste, right? Mine says good, yours says bad.’
Jerry was frowning more deeply than ever. ‘It’s not just me.’
Joe stopped. ‘Who else?’
‘People I speak to.’
‘People you speak to? Where?’
‘Y’know…’ Jerry threw up his hands. ‘Around.’
‘Around?’ Yet again, Joe was disbelieving. ‘Around here?!’
‘Oh, Jesus Christ…’
‘But they only talk about it ‘cos everything else is so perfect.’ Jerry stepped forward with a hopeful smile. ‘The same with the critics. It’s their only complaint: that the dialogue is so clumsy, so awkward, so drab. Everything else, they love: pace, structure, special effects, music…’ Smiling, he shook his head. ‘They just marvel how all that can be so perfect, while the writing remains so unbelievably, so butt-clenchingly…’
‘Ok,’ cried Joe, ‘enough already!’
He sank into an armchair and stared blankly ahead. Had the bubble around him really grown to such planetary proportions? Even though he’d always made a point of not reading reviews, surely hearsay alone should have alerted him to such pointed, persistent criticism by now? But no. Apparently, those closest to him in JoeTown had worked overtime to keep him from the truth, despite actually sharing the critics’ gripes.
‘Damn it, Jerry. You should have told me. I feel like the college idiot; everyone laughing behind my back.’
‘Aw, come on boss. No-one’s laughing at you. We all love you, and we all believe in you. We know you can win Best Picture. That you will, if only you can fix the writing.’
‘But how, when I don’t see the faults? To me, it’s awesome. It kicks. It hits me right there.’ Joe thumped his chest. ‘Even then, as I sat reading the first goddamn draft of Triumph of the Solix, I felt a tingle in my spine. I saw the lights going down, the music, that hush of expectation – ’
‘Right!’ exclaimed Jerry.
‘That’s your problem, right there. Imagination overload. You’re such a visionary, you blind yourself to the dialogue: like a big kid, swept away on this tidal wave, this tsunami of enthusiasm, so even when you’re just reading, you’re imagining the whole package.’
‘Right,’ nodded Joe, preferring this new line of analysis to the last. ‘You’re saying I trick myself?’
‘Exactly. Your mind invests your words with a power they just don’t have. Again, like a kid. Which is great, except that Oscars aren’t given out by kids. They’re awarded by cynical old grown-ups: people whose minds aren’t as willing to cut loose, who get hung up on things your imagination bends to its will. Now sure, that’s depressing, but it’s also reality. And it means the only way to wow them is to see it from their perspective.’
Taking a deep breath, Joe stood and tightened his Levi’s. His patience was slowly returning now he understood his weakness as the inevitable flipside of his peerless – damn it, his dangerous – imagination.
‘So what do I do?’
‘What do you do?’ Jerry gave a cryptic, knowing grin. ‘I’ll tell you exactly what to do.’ He headed to the corner of the room, into Joe’s private movie theatre.
‘What the…?’ Joe wandered through. ‘Come on, Jerry. This is no time for games. I’ve got heaps of work to do.’
‘This is work,’ said Jerry. ‘Pretty damn hard work, too.’
Joe looked at the blank screen.
‘This afternoon, boss, you are going to watch all four Chronicles movies, back-to-back.’
‘Already seen ‘em,’ said Joe.
‘Not like this you haven’t.’ Jerry signalled to the booth to cue up the first in the series. ‘These are special edits. I’ve had it all stripped back. No sound effects, no music, no visuals. Not even SolixScreen. Just green screen and the actors’ basic performances.’
‘Unbelievable,’ said Joe. ‘You had all this planned?’
Jerry shrugged. ‘I had it on standby.’
‘Garbage. You knew we weren’t going to be nominated.’
‘Alright, so I knew.’ Jerry marched his boss to a central seat, midway back. ‘Your challenge is to understand why.’
‘I see what you’re trying to do,’ sighed Joe, sitting down. ‘But I saw rough cuts in the edits.’
‘Sure,’ said Jerry, ‘but in the edit more than ever you were thinking about the finished product, imagining it with the gaps filled in. What you’re gonna do today is force yourself to forget all that. Be a grown-up. Tether your imagination. Don’t think what’s missing, just hear the words: the plain old, same old, stale old words.’ He crouched down and looked Joe in the eye. ‘Promise me you’ll give it a shot?’
Knowing refusal was not an option – that Jerry, in this kind of mood, was not to be messed with – Joe lifted his feet onto the seat in front. With a mix of scepticism and trepidation, he signalled his cooperation to the booth.
‘Enjoy!’ chirped the producer, heading out as the opening crawl of Birth of a Hero appeared on screen. Concentrating hard, Joe dutifully leashed-up his imagination and – though he could recite them by heart – read the words as if for the first time, suppressing the stirring music in his mind, accepting the plainness of the text as it was, and forcing himself not to see the absent stars behind.
So the exhausting exercise in self-restraint began, and so it continued, with Joe not budging from his seat – except for the toilet, and to order more doughnuts, which he rationed to two per movie – until all four pictures were done. Once the final credits had disappeared from the screen on Rise of the Glozbacks, a full ten hours after starting, he heaved himself up and wandered onto the patio that backed onto his office, desperate to catch some air after his day-long solitary confinement.
A late-evening breeze was creating a ripple of disturbance in the clear blue water of his pool, atmospherically lit by the soothing floodlights, while the sky above was sprinkled with stars that clustered round the clearest of moons. On any other night, Joe would have gazed up and dreamed of thrilling new intergalactic adventures for his characters. Tonight, however, for the first time ever, it felt wrong to lift his eyes heavenwards. Instead, he cast his gaze dejectedly downwards: down to earth, or rather the bottom of his pool, where patterns of darkened tiling jumped around, contorted by the disorder on the surface.
His insides were all at sea, a stifling sickness overwhelming his body as he reflected on his day’s viewing. How the hell had he got it so wrong? It wasn’t like he’d never questioned the quality of his dialogue. Oftentimes he’d wondered if it did the job, and oftentimes he’d decided that yes, boy it did and how! But in the course of the day, having studied the bare-bones edits, fighting the temptation to flesh it all out, the certainties of the past sixteen years had shattered. His words had been exposed as not just weaker, but cataclysmically bad: clumsy, pretentious, relentlessly prosaic. It was like an optical illusion had resolved itself; the excellence he once perceived a mere mirage. Exchanges he thought fluent felt stilted. Speeches whose concision he adored rambled on. Phrases that once had him beaming with pride made his teeth itch with their terribleness.
As the day dragged on, the clouds of self-deception scattered so much that he’d have been happy to catch just the briefest glimmer of the genius he once perceived – but it was not to be. By the time Glozbacks rolled around, all hope was lost, and he knew Jerry was right. His Oscar dream was nothing more than a crazy, egomaniacal fantasy.
Captivated by the shapes in the water, mind numb with loneliness and despair, Joe’s body began to sway in the breeze. He closed his eyes, strangely comforted, and soon his balance faltered. The sound of water licking against the rim drew him forward, and in his mind he saw a whirlpool, tempting him in with the promise of sweet oblivion.
Joe glimpsed Jerry running through his office.
‘Don’t do it!’
But it was too late. Before Joe knew it, dizziness took over and he toppled in. Gallons of water were displaced in an instant and he sank, like a stone, to the base of the pool.
It doesn’t get much better than this, thought Wendy Preston, soaked gleefully to the bone after four hours of persistent London drizzle. Up on the wooden stage, inches from her face, Hamlet had just fallen, panting, to the floor, a great red blot of blood spreading across his white shirt. She felt his breath and spittle as he heaved in air. She could see the profundity in his eyes.
For a moment, everything was still. Then Laertes loomed up behind, sword at the ready, and Wendy implored the pitiful young Prince with her gaze, urging him to beware of the danger.
‘Oooh!’ she exclaimed, as Hamlet leapt to his feet and, in one perfect movement, spun round to slash his foe squarely across the ribs. The two men scuffled, exchanging rapiers, then Hamlet hit Laertes again, sending the hapless young fellow staggering back. He slumped against the marble pillar to Wendy’s left, just as Gertrude collapsed by the one to her right, prompting mass confusion – instructions, confessions, revelations, apologies on all sides – which would have been impossible to untangle had Wendy not known the entire script as keenly as if she had written it herself.
It was difficult to tell which of the many gruesome bombshells hit Hamlet the hardest, but no matter: the breaking point had well and truly been reached. Strutting to the front of the stage, he puffed out his chest, and Wendy shivered as decisiveness seized him. At long last, the Prince of Denmark knew exactly what he needed to do – and by goodness, Wendy was behind him one hundred per cent of the way. She’d seen a lot of Claudiuses in her time, but this was comfortably the vilest: a bona fide psychopath whose charismatic scheming plumbed new depths of depravity.
The old rotter staggered past, and she was half-tempted to grab his shins and take him down herself. But this new, galvanised Hamlet needed no such assistance, retrieving the poisoned rapier and swiping unrestrainedly at his uncle, whose bleeding hulk he hurled on top of his mother’s corpse – husband and wife, likewise condemned – before forcing poison down the dying brute’s gullet.
It was wonderful, heartbreaking, filthy-gory stuff, and Wendy couldn’t stop grinning, even as Hamlet tore back across the stage to try to save the dying Laertes. Never mind him, she felt like saying. Come back to the centre of the stage. Come back to me, and die right here.
Heeding her prayer, Hamlet stumbled away from Laertes and collapsed to his knees right in front of her, delivering his closing speeches so softly it felt like they were sharing a private moment, oblivious to the hundreds of others occupying the famous Wooden O. Even though Hamlet was talking to Horatio – and they were both addressing the audience – Wendy knew he was really speaking directly to her. As his face hit the ground, she reached out and held his hand, comforting him through his final words:
‘But I do prophesy th’election lights
On Fortinbras. He has my dying voice.
So tell him, with th’occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited – the rest is silence.’
The Prince died, and Wendy mouthed along with Horatio’s ineffably poignant tribute:
‘Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet Prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.’
She was crying freely now, wiping away tears and drizzle as Fortinbras arrived and Horatio brought him up to speed. The bodies were rounded up, the final words spoken, and the funereal thud of drums accompanied the departing procession.
For several moments, not a soul dared breathe. Only the soft patter of rain encroached on the dumbstruck scene, and again Wendy felt like the only one there: uniquely at one with the world of these plays, and all their extraordinary secrets.
The applause began to build. She deposited her programme on the edge of the stage, catching sight of the cover as the company reappeared:
Her eyes drifted down the page:
by William Shakespeare
Smiling to herself, she turned the programme over and cheered for all she was worth.