So I'm still working on The Muffler's Ministry again while waiting for feedback on whether any agents might be interested in My Family and Other Ghosts, ahead of its expected self-publication in August 2020.
I've previously provided early drafts of chapters 1 (Promotion) and 2 (Confrontation) for your delectation, and now chapter 3 is ready below. This is where you get to find out what's in the castle ruins, and also what is the eponymous Muffler's Ministry.
This is the last teaser you'll be getting. I've been using these trial runs to get a feel for the world, my characters and the way I intendto tell the story. There's a couple of things that aren't quite working yet, especially on the characterisation front, but I know what's needed to fix it.
The characters have, as usual, told me things about the story that I wasn't expecting. It's now time to take a step back and have a rethink of how the rest of the story fits together. I have made one decision: I'm not going to promote this, at least initially, as part of a series, So Webb's Wide World has gone, at least for now.
Don't get me wrong – there's plenty of scope to write other novels within this world, but I want to concentrate on writing the best possible standalone novel that I can. There were things that I was thinking of holding back for the next couple of novels that need to happen in this one in order to make it really sing. It will make this a longer novel than I was initially anticipating, but it will be better for it.
Next step: replanning. My gut feel is that the first draft will come in around 90,000 words, but there's little science behind that. I'll come back with more details once I've completed my replanning to set my baseline expectations for the novel, to let you hold me to account when I diverge. Scrutiny is important, as long as you watch your tone.
Anyway, here's chapter 3, introducing a couple more major characters.
Chapter 3: Interrogation
I was sweating profusely by the time I'd followed the stone path alongside the castle walls and climbed to the top of the hill. As I approached the entrance, I could hear voices from inside, occasionally shouted in anger. What was I going to face? Just before the path ran out, I heard a sound of impact – wood on stone, perhaps – followed by a cry of pain.
I stood outside the door set into the wall just before it met the granite cliff blocking the path. The massive wooden portal, at least five metres tall, seemed to have a smaller opening set within it. A heavy metal knocker hung from its centre, crusted in rust.
Before I lost my nerve, I took a deep breath and rapped it hard against the door twice. A satisfyingly deep thud resonated as a few flakes of rust fell to the ground. I rubbed my hands together to remove the residue.
After thirty seconds, nothing had happened. Just as I reached up to try again, a small flap above the knocker opened, and a young man's face peered out.
'Yes?' he said, grimacing as if in pain.
'I received a summons to report here,' I said, trying to sound as matter-of-fact as I could, even though I was close to panic. This sort of thing never happened, not to anyone I knew anyway.
'Let me see,' he said.
I scrabbled the letter out of my pocket and held it up in front of his eyes. Unexpectedly, he broke into a broad grin, then turned and looked back behind himself.
'Ashley!' he shouted. 'This one's yours. Another victim for you to play with.'
He grinned at me, shut the flap and pulled open the inner door.
'Come in,' he said. He was around my age, tall, with short black hair, and was still grinning disconcertingly at me. 'I'll leave you in Ashley's capable hands.'
He gestured for me to enter, which I did.
'Wait here,' he said and turned to walk, limping slightly, towards the lower keep area that I could see clearly for the first time. He was carrying what appeared to be a long wooden mallet used as a makeshift walking stick.
The open area contained by the lower wall was covered in an immaculately maintained lawn; I'd never seen grass so verdant, so level, nor cut so short. It must be someone's full-time job keeping it in such a perfect condition.
Covering the lawn was a patchwork of rectangles outlined in white, most of which had some sort of netting dividing their area. In the distance, I could see a couple of people hitting a light feathered object between them with oddly shaped bats. The area closest to me had no net but had hoops and sticks set into the grass. I was only half aware of all of that at the time. My attention had been grasped by the woman approaching from the direction of the hoops.
She was wearing matching bright green shirt and shorts made of a tightly knit fabric I'd never seen before, and which served almost as camouflage against the lawn spread out behind her. She too was carrying a mallet, with a small ball in her other hand. I couldn't take my eyes from her face, as beautiful a sight as I'd ever seen, with skin so white, dappled with tiny freckles and topped by glorious curly cascades of red hair tumbling down her back. She was a cliché honed to perfection to captivate me.
I assumed this was Ashley. For the first time, I felt glad to be here.
As the man passed her, he bent down and rubbed his right ankle. I could just hear their exchange.
'Sorry about that,' said Ashley, flashing him a gleaming white smile.
'No you're not,' he said. 'You aimed for me.'
'You should pay attention then. You'd have had plenty of time to get out of the way if you had.'
'So you admit it?'
She smirked at him without replying and held out her mallet and ball. He took them, and she kissed him lightly on the cheek, whispering something I couldn't hear. For the first time, she turned her attention to me and gave me a brief nod of acknowledgement. I smiled back at her, hoping to dazzle her with my warmth but knowing I was probably looking inanely goofy.
'Good morning,' she said. 'My name is Ashley Carter. May I see your letter?'
I handed it to her. She read it, nodded, and screwed it into a ball.
'I wish he'd remember to tell me,' she said.
'Who?' I said.
'My boss. You'll meet him soon. Follow me, Rowan.'
She turned and headed briskly towards the back of the keep where I could see an entrance leading into the cliff below the main ruins. I had to jog a few steps to catch up with her, and then matched her pace.
I felt the need to make an impression. Anyway I needed to know what was going on. I'd briefly stopped worrying about my fate when I saw Ashley, but it suddenly all came back to me.
'Which Ministry is this?' I said.
'Sorry, can't tell you anything until you're… under oath,' she said.
'I… I see,' I said. I thought she was a bit standoffish, but I guessed that explained why. I decided to test the limits of what she could say. 'Were you playing a game just now?'
She brightened a little at that.
'Yeah, it's fun,' she said. 'You have to get the balls between the hoops and hit the peg, although I prefer aiming at Colin.'
'I've never heard of it,' I said.
'Not surprised, it dates back to the old world,' she said.
That got my attention. There's so little that remains of those days.
'What's it called?'
'We came across the rules digging through some ancient files recently. We think it's called cricket.'
Well that sounded interesting. Not the game itself, but the old files bit. There was so little known about the former world, but they seemed to know more here. Were they some form of secret Ministry of History, or something like that? Given the way our ancestors died, it might make sense to keep the details under wraps, other than as a fire fairy to scare children away from the same path.
We reached the entrance set into the cliff face. I was expecting it to lead upwards towards the ruins above, but instead stairs led down into the darkness. Ashley muttered something under her breath, held up her hand, and an eerie yellow-green glow flowed from her palm and down the stairs.
I'd heard of people being able to conjure light, but I'd never seen it before, nor imagined anything quite this bright. I glanced at Ashley's face, even more radiant in the reflected luminance, but she didn't seem to be aware how impressive it was. Somewhat awed, I followed her down the stairs.
After about thirty steps, we emerged into a long straight corridor that wouldn't have looked out of place in the XD4 Ministry block. It was long and thin, with the same beige colour scheme, but here the paintwork was pristine and clean as if freshly painted. Ashley quenched her hand as the ceiling here seemed to glow with a warm white light of its own accord.
She stopped a short way down the corridor and knocked on a door. As the acknowledgement came from within, I read the nameplate: Mr Bristow XX7. I really should have guessed.
XX though? What sort of designation was that? What happened to all the other ministries in between after XG?
Ashley stood back and let me enter the room first. It was a small office with no windows, which wasn't surprising as we seemed to be underground. The walls were lined by grey metallic filing cabinets with a single desk in the centre of the room, behind which sat the bald, chinless figure of Mr Bristow that I recognised all too well from my failed promotion interview.
'Come in,' he said in his oddly deep voice. 'Welcome. Please take a seat.'
I complied, taking one of the two chairs in front of his desk. Ashley walked behind me, and I heard her opening a cabinet drawer. Bristow continued his introduction.
'I'm sorry for the officious nature of your summons, I assure you there's nothing for you to be worried about. We've found over the years that this approach gives our candidates every excuse they need to get away from work, no questions answered.'
That sounded as if I wasn't in trouble. That was good, except…
'Candidates?' I said.
'Indeed. We're always on the lookout for people with the skills we need. You'd already come to our attention with the work you'd performed out in the community, and when we found out your promotion was being… discouraged, it seemed the perfect time to strike.'
'How did you know about my promotion?'
'Your father discussed his new policy in the Council of Ministers, so it didn't take much for our Minister to read between the lines. I decided to sit in on your board to take a look for myself.'
So this was to be another job interview, one I'd never asked to attend. There was still the small matter that I had no clue what was going on.
'What Ministry is this?' I said. 'What's XX?'
'First thing first,' said Bristow. 'If you would please, Ashley.'
Ashely took the seat next to me and placed something on the desk in front of me. It was a cylindrical glass beaker with a lid that had… something… curled up inside. It looked slimy, a long thin grey tube with whiter protuberances along its length as if there were balls inside stretching the skin to breaking point. Occasionally it seemed to throb with a lilac luminescence before reverting to a dull grey. There was something innately unnerving about it, a primordial sense of unease. Suddenly it moved, curling around inside the containing like a snake. I jumped.
'What… what is it?'
'Put it on, and we'll tell you,' said Ashley.
'Show him,' said Bristow.
'Fine,' she said, then held up her chin.
There, wrapped around her neck, was an identical grey snake. It didn't appear, it felt as if it had always been there, but somehow I just hadn't seen it. No, I realised that wasn't quite right – it wasn't wrapped around her, it looked embedded in her, sunken a few millimetres into her flesh. It pulsed slightly and exuded that same pale lilac luminescence. I stared at it for a few seconds, and then looked to Bristow in astonishment. He was sat there too, with his chin up, showing me an identical snake.
Suddenly both snakes were gone, hidden as if they'd never been there.
'What…' I said, unsure how to finish the question.
'Don't worry,' he said. 'Everyone in the Ministry has one. It's perfectly safe. I can promise you this will all be to your advantage, but we cannot proceed until you put it on.'
I took a deep breath. I had no idea what was happening, but despite all the strangeness, everyone seemed friendly here. There was no hint of a threat, no malice, just an air of mystery that needed solving, and they'd dangled the carrot of a new role for me. I needed that.
I leant forward for a closer look. I couldn't see any head or tail, just curls of beads in a slimy tube. I reached my hand out and cupped the glass. The snake seems to squish up towards the side where my hand rested as if it was trying to seep through to touch me. Much to my surprise, I felt calm. There was something weirdly relaxing about it, a bizarre feeling of rightness emanating from a creature that looked so wrong.
I looked up at Bristow. He was looking quizzically back at Ashley.
'Interesting,' he said. 'Once you feel ready, take off the lid.'
It felt the right thing to do. The glass top was only loosely resting on the beaker, so I lifted it and placed it on the desk. Exposed to the air, the snake domed up above the opening but made no further motion. Slowly, I moved one finger towards it, pausing a centimetre away. I glanced at Bristow who gave me a nod of encouragement. Millimetre by millimetre, I inched towards it.
It felt smooth and warm, not the cold, slimy sensation I was expecting. Entranced, I gently stroked it with one finger, and then two. A loop of its curls raised up and wrapped around my fingers, caressing my knuckles. I turned my palm upwards, and it slithered further up to wrap around my hand, and then my wrist. There was nothing scary about it, it felt as if I was meeting a long-lost friend, or stroking a pet cat. I felt at peace.
Before long, the whole of the snake was wrapped around my hand. There was no head or tail, not really, just a tapering away to a pair of identically rounded ends. Then it slowly began to slide up my arm, going under my shirt sleeve and out the collar. Finally it came to rest, nestled gently in a couple of loops around my neck. It was warm, but not unbearably so, as comforting as wearing my favourite scarf in the winter.
I noticed the look of amazement passing between Ashley and Bristow.
'Nothing,' he said, contradicting his expression. 'It's unusual for a familiar to react so fast.'
'I've never seen it before,' said Ashley. 'I usually have to wrap it around the candidate's neck to get started.'
'What's a familiar?' I said, not caring that something that felt so right was unusual.
'I'll come to that,' he said. 'First I need to ensure it's working OK. We need to be certain before we can tell you anything.'
'Because if either party decides that this job isn't right for you, it will erase your memory of this meeting.'
'I… I see,' I said, the words not really sinking in.
'Don't worry. I'm confident that you'll want to stay with us, seeing the level of compatibility with your familiar,' he said, then nodded to Ashley. 'Ashley, please.'
Ashley turned and stroked the familiar behind my neck. I felt it stiffen slightly.
'Now, a quick calibration test,' said Bristow, 'Please, will you tell us your name.'
I felt a warming sensation around my neck, and I could see a green glow reflected on Bristow's face.
'Excellent,' he said. 'That was a strong response. Now, answer incorrectly to this one please. What's your father's name?'
'Arrogant Bastard,' I said without thinking. There was a slight green glow reflected back, and I heard a chuckle from Ashley.
'Could you try again,' said Bristow, failing to hide a smirk. 'A name that's definitely wrong, rather than a description that you feel to be true. It confuses the familiar.'
That time the familiar went a clammy cold, and I saw a baleful red glow reflected back.
'Good,' he said. 'Excellent.'
'So it's a lie detector?' I said.
'In its current configuration, yes,' he said. 'It's the easiest way to check it's attuned well enough to you. Ashley, you can dim it now.'
'Let me try first,' said Ashley. 'I've never seen one so bright.'
I turned to look at her face, smiling so wistfully angelic at me. She was achingly beautiful.
'Do you fancy me?' she said.
My mouth went dry. What was I supposed to say? I heard Bristow clear his throat, but I couldn't let it distract me from focusing my thoughts. She knew she was gorgeous, I knew she knew I fancied her. This was a test.
'I… I've only just met you,' I said. 'I can't honestly judge how I feel about anyone until I get to know them better.'
There was a dim amber glow, which flickered out.
'Impressive,' said Bristow.
'How about now?' said Ashley, blinking a couple of times.
Her hair turned a greasy black with grey streaks, straightened and hung lankly over her shoulders. Her skin dried and wrinkled, ageing her by about fifty years. Her nose elongated to form a hook, and her teeth became crooked. I stared for a few seconds.
'You're still the same person, aren't you?' I said. 'So my previous answer stands.'
There was no response from the familiar. Bristow laughed, and Ashley reverted to her normal form.
'He's beaten you, Ashley.'
She smiled noncommittally and reached around my neck to rub the familiar again. I felt it loosen slightly.
'How did you do that?' I said.
'I didn't change,' she said. 'My familiar can reach out and alter your perception of me. It's a useful trick when you're working undercover.'
'Don't worry,' said Bristow. 'Once you're fully acclimatised to your familiar, you'll be able to see through any glamour.'
'So which is the real you?' I said to Ashley.
'Cheeky,' she said. 'You'll have to wait and see, won't you?'
I couldn't wait.
'Time to get down to business,' said Bristow. 'You wanted to know who we are. Let me set the scene. Tell me, what do you know of the old world?'
'Not much,' I said. Its ruins were all around us, yet so little was known. 'They were so much more advanced than us, there were so many more of them. And then they were gone.'
'What caused their fall?'
'Hubris,' I said. That much I could remember from school.
'Well, obviously,' he said, 'but I was looking for specifics. What aspect of their society caused the fall, caused the deaths of most of the human race?'
I could remember being taught that there had been about ten billion people alive, but only one in every ten thousand survived the cataclysm. The Earth only sustained that level of population thanks to their advanced technologies, and even then the planet's climate was failing. They'd grown too far, too fast, and then some major catastrophe caused it all to fall apart.
'Their use of technology?' I guessed. It seemed a logical conclusion.
'Exactly,' said Bristow. 'That's why our societies are now largely agrarian, with no need for technology beyond basic mechanical devices to support a stable population. We cannot risk the same happening again.'
'I see,' I said. It was in line with what I'd learnt but stated much more bluntly. I wasn't sure where this was going. 'We do seem to be living in a much happier world.'
'And that doesn't happen by accident. Each region is self-sustaining. We organise ourselves locally, but all regions abide by the same universal tenets; the primary of these is to never develop advanced technology. It's our job to ensure that tenet is upheld at all times.'
'You… suppress technological developments?' I said.
'Precisely,' said Bristow. 'The human mind is an enquiring thing, it likes to seek out solutions without thinking through the consequences. It's our job to nip things in the bud before they get out of hand. We don't blame the perpetrators, it's part of human nature after all, but we help them deploy safer ideas, help them… forget what they discovered. It's better for all that way.'
'So XX is the Ministry for Technological Suppression?'
'The official title is much simpler: the Ministry of Technology.'
'That's not what we call it though,' said Ashley. 'We call ourselves the Mufflers. Our job is to suppress technology, as you say, to muffle the danger to the world. This is the Muffler's Ministry.'
I gave myself a few moments to take that all in. It was a subject I'd never considered before. Technology was a thing of the past, a dirty topic from the depths of history. Now I knew why.
'What would I be doing?' I said. I was here for a reason after all.
'I run XX7, the Operations division,' said Bristow. 'Although we don't tend to use the XX identifiers much internally, Ashley here is XX7.1, one of my section heads. I have a section head vacancy for XX7.7. I'd like you to fill it.'
'What does Operations do?'
'We're field operatives,' said Ashley. 'We work out in the community, sniffing out trouble, talking to people, sometimes living undercover. It's great fun and very rewarding to help people avoid making mistakes.'
'How many people would be in my section?' I said.
'Just you,' said Ashley. 'We all work alone out in the field, although we do collaborate on jobs when necessary. You met one of the other section heads at the gate: Colin Head, XX7.2.'
'Is–' I started before being interrupted by a knock on the door.
'Come in,' said Bristow.
The door opened, and a homely middle-aged woman entered pulling a trolley behind her. The lower shelf seemed to contain mail, but the upper was covered by rows of delicious looking sandwiches. She bent down and picked out a few brown envelopes.
'Any lunch?' she said, handing over the mail to Bristow before looking at me. 'Ah, I see you have a guest. Please, help yourself. I'm told my beef and horseradish sandwiches are the best in Portsea.'
'Indeed they are,' said Bristow. 'Rowan, may I introduce you to Brenda. She's in XX0, the Support division, suppliers of all our daily needs.'
'Pleased to meet you,' I said, selecting one of the sandwiches. No point turning down free food. 'I bet this place would grind to a halt without you.'
'You seem a very intelligent young man,' said Brenda. 'OK, Mr Bristow, you can keep this one.'
'That sounds like a job offer,' said Bristow, laughing. 'You in?'
'They a good bunch to work with?' I said to Brenda. The mail staff always knew the ins and outs of a place better than anyone.
'The best,' she said.
'OK,' I said. 'I'm in.'
Working out in the community sounded right up my street and I had a good feeling about them. I liked the relaxed atmosphere after the stuffy corridors of XD. Bristow stood up and held out his hand. I shook it.
'I'll leave you to it,' said Brenda, leaving the room.
I sat down again, somewhat in a daze. My life had been trend upside down so quickly.
'When can you start?' said Bristow.
'I'm not sure. There must be a notice period at XD, but I don't know what it is. I never expected to leave.'
'Don't worry about that,' he said. 'I'll get XX to smooth it over with your father.'
'Then I just need to sort out somewhere to live,' I said. 'I've had… words with my father.'
'That's easy,' said Ashley. 'Most of us live here. There's a spare room just down my corridor.'
That sounded… perfect.
'Thanks, that sounds great,' I said. 'Can I move in straight away?'
'Of course,' said Bristow.
'I'll go back and get some stuff, and let Dave Elkington know I'm leaving,' I said. 'It's only fair.'
'Indeed,' said Bristow. 'OK, Ashley, do your stuff.'
Ashley reached around behind my neck again and rubbed the familiar. I felt it loosen even further and settle down. Out of nowhere, I felt a blissful sensation of peace run through me.
'What… what did you do?' I said.
'I just activated your familiar,' she said.
'I should explain,' said Bristow. 'You've seen we've got magic powers that are above and beyond the norm you see in daily lives. It's our familiars that amplify them. Without their help, we'd be the same as everyone else.'
'How… how do I use it?'
'Give it time, ' he said. 'It takes at least a week, sometimes up to a month, for your systems to become fully acclimatised. When it's ready, it will speak to you. Your familiar is more than just something to give you powers. It is your constant companion, an advisor with access to the wisdom of the Oracle. It will guide you.'
'I… I see.'
I didn't. The Oracle? I really didn't know what to think of it all. I'd never experienced anything like it. Yet, as before, it felt as if it belonged around my neck. It was part of me. I felt I should be frightened, but I wasn't.
'Don't worry,' said Ashley. 'You'll soon wonder how you ever lived without it. Mine calls itself Delphi.'
'They have names?'
'They are sentient creatures,' said Bristow. 'A piece of magic our ancestors could only have dreamed of.'
I was about to speak when a whispering noise rushed about the room. I glanced around but could see nothing.
'Look,' said Ashley, pointing at my neck.
'That's… fast,' said Bristow.
'It's impossible,' said Ashley, wide-eyed.
The whispering noises suddenly became coherent. The sounds were within me, the warmly reassuring voice of the best friend I'd never met before.
Hello Rowan. I am pleased to be part of you. My name is Pythia.