Oktember, a slightly unconventional 7th Doctor story, is my first contribution to the Doctor Who Information Network's Myth Makers fiction magazine.
Myth Makers #13: From Gallifrey With Love
Edited by Richard Salter & Scott Clarke
Published by DWIN (2003)
Myth Makers #13 contains the following short stories:
- Commune - Mark Michalowski
- Oktember - Mark Stevens
- Extract from Blue Box - Kate Orman
- Mr Saldaamir - Lance Parkin
- Falling in the Forest - Cameron Dixon
- Tomorrow World - John Anderson
- Prelude: Wonderland - Mark Chadbourn
- She Doesn't Exist - Jonathan W. Dennis
- The Gateway - Richard Salter
- Schicksal - Geoffrey D Wessel
- Costume Drama - Graeme Burk
"Oktember is an odd, incomplete, but absorbing tale that puts the likes of Reckless Engineering and The Domino Effect to shame in its handling of a complex time plot."
"Hmmm... something of a borderline Who story, unless the characters are from something properly Who-y that I've not read yet. Very nice prose and characterisation, but at the end I was left wondering what it was all about, and why it was in this collection: Miss out the last few paragraphs and it could, quite comfortably, have been published in any SF anthology. 6/10 (would have been 8/10 if it had felt like a DW story!)."
Oktember was a fun story to write. It varied wildly from the original idea I had in mind, which probably gave Richard a few palpatations, but I quite like the way things turned out.
This was essentially me getting my New Adventures sensibilities out of my system. While the NAs encompassed a wide range of writing styles, collectively they had a unique ambience -- one that I felt was compatible with my own style of writing. I never did get an opportunity to write an NA, but the desire to write something of a similar ilk has never really gone away.
The general idea was to write something in such a way that it felt like the reader had been dropped in the middle of a New Adventures novel, then to yank them back out again just as things were getting intriguing. At the same time, the story also needed to be reasonably self-contained, which I think I just about succeeded in doing.
I'm very proud of the prose -- some of my strongest stuff's in there (although I'm quite pleased with how Northern Heights turned out too). The story more or less wrote itself once I'd found the narrator's narrative voice. Despite the fact that it's my longest short story to date, clocking in at around 11,140 words (which, technically, makes it a novelette), it was also the quickest to write. The only thing I'd probably change now is the Majdanek concentration camp sequence, some elements of which confused a few readers (entirely my fault), but overall I think it remains one of my better stories.
One year ago today, all hell broke loose.
I have memories of things that have happened since then, but they hide behind the smoke glass window inside my head; their indistinct shadows shift and flicker, evading my efforts to pin them down.
The precise moment of catastrophe remains forever lost, beyond the grasp of not only myself but of everyone lucky enough to survive the months that followed. Whatever they did to us, they did so without pity, without guilt or remorse. They struck without fanfare or warning, crawling into the deepest recesses of our minds to deliver their devastating payload.
If you were one of the lucky ones, you woke up a few days later with a throbbing migraine, struggling to separate the elements of your dreams from your lifetime's memories, trying to ignore the itch that wanted to be scratched, the little voice that's trying to tell you what you should be thinking and doing. If you were one of the unlucky ones, you simply staggered around blind for a few hours before something in your brain flicked the off-switch and popped your head clean open.
We were eventually able to devise some sort of trick to keep our minds in order. You had to search long and hard for fragments of memories from before the catastrophe — any scrap, no matter how small or insignificant, would do. Just as long as you had something to focus on, something you could use to build a suitable defence against whatever it was they put inside us.
I can't recall how long it took me to get myself together — but I eventually found what I was looking for, lying discarded amidst the debris of my short-term memory.
Lauren's three blue hearts became my fortress.
It was difficult at first, but now I see them clearly in my mind's eye, winking into being one by one, as vivid as they were the moment Lauren first put brush to card, painting them into existence.
We were all there that evening — those of us that Lauren genuinely cared about, at least. Some of us took photos of the sunset from the vantage point at the foot of her garden, simultaneously chilling out to the soothing wash of ambient music that drifted across the lawn from her patio. Others sat around discussing their carefree, radical ideas for moulding their future, blissfully unaware that it would turn up next week to kick the living shit out of them. I contented myself to simply sit there, with a puterdeck on my lap, half-heartedly searching the net for ways to give up smoking, occasionally glancing up at Lauren whenever she hummed along to the music.
Lauren was the sort of person possessed with an intense inner light, an inner beauty so potent you had to wonder where it came from, where she found the strength to be everything to everyone at all times, in spite of what was going on behind the scenes. She radiated a perfect aura of calm and tranquillity that you couldn't help but fall into — ten minutes spent in her company was the perfect tonic for those wanting to escape from their daily grind, an oasis of calm and respite.
I didn't find out about the counselling sessions until we'd left university. This frustrated me a little, knowing I wouldn't always be there if she needed me, but I guess that's the way she wanted it. For a long time she said very little about the nature of her weekly visit to the private clinic, save a brief assurance that she didn't have some terminal illness or the other. ("...yet!" she would add, with a wry grin, as if that would be the solution to all her problems.) I took her on her word, assuming this was merely some short-term problem with an easy fix, but as the months rolled by and her weekly visits appeared to be draining her of her boundless energy and inherent enthusiasm, I knew that something wasn't quite right.
I turned my puterdeck off and gave Lauren my full attention.
She knelt on the hardwood, paintbrush in hand, determined to finish her kid sister's school project. Every few minutes she'd pause, stretch her arms high above her head and yawn before relaxing to swish the dirty brush around inside an old Coke bottle. She'd watch the miniature maelstrom of swirling blue colours for a few moments, lick her lips determinedly and then proceed to paint another heart.
I couldn't resist having a little fun. "Aren't they supposed to be red?" I asked, once she'd started work on the third heart.
An ill-concealed smile played upon her face. She knew I was only feigning an ignorance of the aesthetics, but recognized a playful challenge when she heard one.
"Red's all about power, lust and domination," she said, eyes still focussed on the heart at hand. "Blue... now that's all about something else. It's about peace, healing, and friendship, you know?" She turned to look at me and winked. "Blue's a colour you can trust."
Our conversation continued way past sunset, wherein I learnt more about colorimetry than I would ever need to know. I briefly considered the possibility that a recent counselling session had inspired this newfound enthusiasm for the visible spectrum, but resisted the temptation to broach the subject. Besides, over the past few days Lauren had begun to volunteer certain details of the nature of these sessions, tantalising snippets of information that could finally enable us to understand exactly what was happening to her. (The truth of the matter, as I would eventually learn, was more startling than I'd anticipated.)
As conversations go, it was hardly deep and meaningful. But something about what she said must have resonated deep within my subconscious, because when I think of her now, I still see her kneeling in the shade, cutting out the blue hearts for her sister. Now that she's gone, all my memories of her are underpinned by a sense of sadness I can't quite shake off. We all knew she wasn't coming back, but that didn't really trouble me so much, because we knew she'd be out there somewhere, fighting the good fight, ensuring that mankind at least has a fighting chance, even if those of us left on Earth have none.
Her disappearance came quickly and suddenly, without any advance warning or opportunity to say goodbye. I can understand why she did this, to some extent, but at the same time I found it hard to accept, that she was so keen to disconnect herself from everything and everyone she'd come to care about.
My decision to follow her was far from the most logical decision I've ever made, but it was something I needed to do, even if she felt it unnecessary. I had to find Lauren so that I could finally bring some closure to this whole ordeal.
I needed to say goodbye.