Reykjavik, Iceland - 2001
The cab interior was adequate, but stifling. Bench seats filled with fur-lined tourists ran along either side of the truck. Two tiny windows shut out the night beyond. The driver turned a dial on the dashboard, rocketing the temperature to that of a sweat lodge. Her hair stuck to her neck in wet cords beneath the hood of her ski jacket. She pulled off her mittens and stretched her fingers, luxuriating in the unconfined space.
“Keep those on when we get out, darling. It’s minus thirty degrees out there.”
She rested her head on her father’s shoulder, fighting against the urge to sleep. The over-sized wheels bit into a rut, forged in the banks of drifts by the convoy of wagons north bound. The force threw her head back, thumping it against a riveted panel behind her. She winced and sat upright. The air was heavy with body odours and circulated too many times to be of use to her lungs. A wispy green halo surrounded her grandfather’s head as he sat opposite her, framed by a window. Blinking her daze away, she smiled.
“I can see it; we are almost there!”
The three trucks of passengers, one of scientific equipment, unloaded outside a wooden construction housing little more than a cloakroom for paying guests. The last stage of the journey was a short hike up above the treeline for an unobscured view. Her borrowed boots chaffed her ankles and hammered her toes as she clambered up the final leg of the trail. She monitored her beloved grandfather as he puffed through his ascent.
Their four hours of discomfort was finally rewarded by a spectacular scene, iridescent hues of jade and pink light, wafting across the sky in shimmering curtains of falling photons.
“Shakespeare…” Her grandfather said, resting his hands on his hips and inhaling through tired muscles.
“All the world’s a stage…” She replied, keeping pace with his thoughts.
“Except the stars are the players.”
Her father, missing the magic, said; “the particles get buffeted high up in the atmosphere and the colours are the result of energy exchange. We are fortunate to catch it when it’s so vibrant. There must have been some sort of astronomical event.”
“A truly awesome sight, eh kiddo?” Her grandfather waited for an answer, something facile regarding the teenage over-use of the word awesome. He gave her the perfect set up but there was no response. He nudged her arm - nothing. Bending low, he looked into the narrow aperture of the zipped-up hood.
She stood stock still, her body rigid, and eyes glassy. Her knees buckled and she slid to the ground. Convulsing in huge tremulous shakes, her head smashed repeatedly against the compacted snow, bloodying her nose and bruising her forehead. Her grandfather rushed to her aid, cushioning her face with his hand and tilting her shoulder away from the ground. The jerking motions grew fainter in his arms, until her consciousness returned for a moment. There was just a flutter of recognition for the anxious state of her kin before the seizure took hold once more.
“Somebody call for help!” Her father wailed, dashing down the trail in search of trip organisers. Tourists fumbled with mobile phones in gloved hands, but no reception was available. Scientists attempting to help, tuned and re-tuned two-way radio sets, but received no more than crackles and a deafening whine. Their scientific instruments read off the scales with an abundance of data. He grabbed the ski jacket of a man by the trucks. “Is there a landline I can use in the hut?”
He spotted a line of wooden poles delivering a strained length of cable over the mountainside and into the shelter and ran towards the door. A mild buzzing grew louder. Then, sparks sprang from the ceramic contact points until a flash of light ignited the cable and blew out the line. “No, please no!” He rushed into the office and picked up the receiver. The line was dead. He sprinted back up the hillside to his daughter, still shuddering in his father’s arms.
“What do we do now?”
East Midlands, UK. Present Day.
“It’s all over the Internet, there’s been another one. Quick, Mary, switch the screen over to the news.”
Grabbing the remote, Mary tuned the ceiling mounted monitor to the BBC Special Broadcast. With intense solemnity, the newscaster announced;
“Kumamoto City, in the Kyushu Region of Japan, has suffered a massive aftershock registering seven on the Richter scale. This devastating blow comes to them just sixteen hours after the first earthquake, at six point two, yesterday. We take you there now, live at the scene, with our reporter. Some viewers may find the following scenes distressing.”
Aerial footage tracked along the expansive rift that gouged out the spine of the island, creating great canyons of fresh rock and cliff. Scenes of landlocked ships, dry docked on the bowing roofs of buildings long past repair; the sea having receded as fast as it had surged. Arable fields cleaved in two and shunted metres apart by ravines that engulfed lives and machines in equal measure. Broken grandmothers, weary of distress, carried to safety and a reckoning of lives lost. Occupied body bags, covered with a fresh coating of debris from the vicious aftershock.
Telegraph poles splintered as matchsticks, totems of the destructive force surrounding them. And people - tall, short, old, young, rich and the poor, all targeted by the quakes force. The reporter followed an aid worker through a makeshift hospital. Patients hugged their knees to create floor space for those who were nearing their end to lie outstretched in their final moments. Blankets, water, bandages and resilience meted out in doses along with a moment of relief that the two remaining nuclear power stations on either side of the island, remained intact.
The scene cut to a fractured street. The cameraman tightened the focus and zoomed in on the wreckage of mangled rubble. Men in coordinating jumpsuits and hardhats, dangled a colleague by his legs through a narrow gap in the shattered tarmac and hauled out a little boy by his spindly arm. Tear trails glistened against the matt grey powder coating his blackened and bruised face. His shin bone erupted in jagged spikes through his skin and twisted his foot at an awkward angle, making his extraction all the more painful.
Mary stood with her co-workers in the lab, aghast at the images unfurling before them. Tuts, gasps, then quiet murmurs of sorrow chorused from the technicians and research fellows alike. One or two of the gentler souls caught their grief in tissues pressed to their cheeks. Mary was mute. Her pain was tangible and instant – dry choking on the dust collecting in her windpipe and a sudden wrenching in her arm socket. The throbbing ache across her face and the sharp incessant stabbing, firing every pain receptor in her lower leg. Disorientated, she stumbled backwards, steadying herself against a workbench and clasping her head between her palms. The pounding in her face centralised inside her skull into a leaden ball of pressure that found release via a cathartic but garbled scream.
Every fluorescent light tube overhead arced and flickered, with an ominous high-pitched squeal. In perfect synchronisation, the News Channel turned into a hissing screen of pointillism and a heat lamp on the bench closest to Mary blew with such ferocity that scorch marks fanned in a semi-circular array surrounding the now useless device. Finally, the electronic orchestra halted when the main laboratory trip switch snapped its lever, cutting the power and reducing the workforce to a stunned silence.
Slumping to the floor shaking, Mary felt the pain dissipate. She rolled her trouser leg up to the knee and where she expected to find splintered bone and blood, there was smooth, unmarked skin. Examining her forehead and chin, she found no sore bruises nor wounds. Peering up at the crowd of shocked onlookers, she blushed a red so profound that it heated her entire torso.
Mary’s boss, Professor Cyril Plender, dispersed the congregation and addressed his senior lab technician;
“Mary. I might have known. What the hell have you done now?” He rested a fist on his hip, puffing out his chest and inclining his small frame over her head.
“I don’t know what happened, it just blew. I’ll pay for the damage, Cyril, I’m so sorry.” She embraced her knees, hoping she could shrink into the industrial linoleum and disappear.
“Have you hurt yourself? I think you should see the campus doctor to be on the safe side. I don’t want to be accused of being uncaring.” He gestured the quotation marks, mid-air and pulled a face.
“No, it’s alright, I can get my husband to check me over. I am very sorry.”
“I wouldn’t mind, Mary, but this is the third piece of electronic equipment you have broken this month. Really, it has to stop…” He paused his rant after noticing the salt water gathering in the lids of her eyes. “I’ll call your husband, he can take you home. No one can say that I don’t look after my staff.”
He dug in his pocket for his phone and thumbed the address book while offering his other hand to help Mary up from her tangled mess on the floor. She looked at his fat, sweaty fingers and levered herself up, distancing herself as she rose. “Arora? Plender here. Can you get over to Biochem, pronto? Mary has had an accident… Good man.” Cyril hung up and turned on his heels to greet a visitor who had been standing in the doorway, captivated by the spectacle. “Ah welcome. My office is just through here. If you’d like to follow me?” The man shook Cyril’s hand with vigour, but his focus remained on Mary. He had curious green eyes, almost feline. Smiling, he turned away and sauntered back through the door.
Parth Arora arrived, panting and leaning on each bench in turn as he made his way over to his wife. No longer able to contain herself, she let the tears flow, hiding her face in his chest and holding him with a vice-like grip.
“Are you hurt? Plender said there was an accident?” He dipped his chin to the top of her head, resting his mouth against her hair.
“It happened again.” The sobs were more urgent now, her shoulders heaving in time with her staccato breaths. “What is wrong with me?”
“Nothing, absolutely nothing. Come on, let’s go home. It’s a good job I brought the car today.” He slipped a guiding hand down to the small of her back and limped with her towards the lockers.
“You’ve hurt your leg, there’s blood on your trousers.”
“Just a scratch. I tripped over some students’ bikes running over here. I thought you were seriously injured.”
Taking her bag from a locker, she turned and caressed his stubble covered jawline. “What would I do without you?”
“I hope you’ll never have to find out.”
Parth tucked Mary into their king-sized divan with a side tray of tea, dry biscuits and a bag of salted crisps and sat by her side until she had taken her medication. The short drive home and the recounting of events had been enough stimulation to bring on the warning signs of a migraine. Aristotle jumped on the bed and demanded attention, raising his tail and displaying his rear end too close to Mary’s face for comfort.
“You must keep well hydrated to fend off migraine attacks.”
“There is a limit to how much I can drink, Parth. I spend half my life in the bathroom as it is.”
“And you really shouldn’t have so much tea. Caffeine is a known trigger.”
“I gave up booze for these bloody headaches. Tea is all I have left. I know you mean well, but please don’t fuss so much.”
“At least consider swapping to decaf. I’ll be downstairs catching up on some calls and emails, love. Shout if you need anything.” He drew the bedroom curtains on his way out and pulled the door to, leaving the customary gap for the cat to come and go as he pleased. She relaxed into her pillows with a long sigh and begged her mind to halt the loop of replayed images in her head. Concentrate on the inside of my forehead, she told herself. Empty the mind and visualise the soothing of nerves and the pain receding. Repeating the mantra twice through, she willed herself better, all the time the feeling of nausea swam inside her. Reaching across for her tea, she took a little sip and then rummaged in her cabinet for a sleep mask.
Downstairs, Parth had settled in his study. Mary heard the familiar jingle as his laptop booted into life and ran its systems check-up. He was talking quietly on the phone. She couldn’t make out distinct sentences but the deep, masculine undulation of his speech was unmistakable. It was one of the things that had most attracted her to him. That and the precise way he enunciated his words, as if he was taking extra care with his adopted language. Donning her mask, she burrowed back beneath the covers with another sigh. Then, small footfalls pinched the sheets across her thighs. She waited until the predictable paws landed on her abdomen and braced herself while the four points of pressure became a curled mass of fur balancing on her roiling stomach.
“Oh Totty, must you? Why can’t you sit on my feet instead? They feel like ice blocks.” To her astonishment, the cat rose, stretched and repositioned his body across her feet. “No way.” She sat up, removing the mask. “Now go and pester Parth downstairs.” Aristotle barely lifted his head, narrowed his sleepy eyes at her and then covered his face with a leg. “Thought so. Like anyone could tell you what to do even if you did understand me.”
On Parth’s bedside table, his iPad pinged a notification, displaying the message across the top of the screen. Having cursed and fiddled for some time, he had managed to sync his phone and tablet to each other, enabling both devices to send and receive messages using a Wi-Fi connection. Mary leaned over and read the communication,
Excellent news. 10am tomorrow. Still malleable? Y
She frowned, contemplating who ‘Y’ was and the meaning of the text when Parth’s response pinged back.
Docile as a kitten.
Mary pretended to be asleep when Parth finally came to bed. She heard him complete his night time ritual of switching off table lamps and locking the doors, then ascend the stairs in his socks to avoid disturbing her. He cleaned his teeth in silence before slipping under the quilt and moving with caution to find a comfortable position. Listening for the rhythmic breathing of slumber, she removed her mask and opened her eyes to the silhouetted furniture shapes and ruminated on the day. There were two options for who ‘Y’ could be; Yosef, the receptionist for the Neurosciences building or Yelena Plender, Chief Finance Officer for the university and Mary’s friend. She also happened to be bound in a miserable marriage to Mary’s boss, but that seemed insignificant in light of the text to Parth. How could a meeting about finance involve someone being malleable? The question encircled her subconscious. Something about it registered as odd.
When sleep overpowered her, she found her dreams had kept pace with the anxieties of the day, sending her crashing about science labs and offices. Tripping over equipment and breaking glassware, cowering in preparation rooms with lecturers hurling instructions and berating her for mistakes. Each time she saw a doctor or a student, she would ask; ‘What is happening to me?’ and ‘Am I the docile one?’ before reaching the top of a flight of concrete stairs and falling, falling…
Mary woke up and tried to move, but her limbs were rigid and lifeless, her spine fixed and paralysed. Her pulse quickened, sending a rush of adrenalin to her organs, fuelling the dread that there could be something wrong with her. She gasped her breaths in terror, fearing that they might be her last. Am I dying? Is this what people mean when they say ‘final death throes’? Trapped inside her petrified body, she garnered all her strength and willed herself to rise. And then she did, but the feeling of weightlessness was unsettling. She could feel nothing substantial around her. Unable to move, speak or touch, only her vision seemed functional. It was as though her eyes were plucked from her skull, shrouded in a swirling cloud of energy and transported towards the ceiling. Her sight adjusted to the new vantage point, looking down at her serene body, motionless and alone in the night. Is this it then? Am I to die all alone? Where has Parth gone? A peculiar resignation took hold of her thought processes. I shall see my parents again, that is no small consolation, but I would like to see Parth once more before I leave…
A moment’s thought became a command. The ball of energy carrying her vision squeezed through the gap in the doorway and out onto the landing. She passed the top of the staircase and noticed, with almost idle regard, that the light fittings could do with a good clean. She flew past the banister and girded herself for the plunge down the staircase. Her body released more adrenalin into her brain, sharpening her focus on the sepia tones of the hallway, bathed in streetlight from the leaded glass in the window. The shards of radiance crossed the flagstone floor and illuminated Aristotle, who scratched unabated at Parth’s closed study door. Poor Totty, I shall miss you too. Did he just look up at me? Don’t be stupid – I’m dead, how could he see me? If I am dead, I should be able to pass through the door like a ghost. Her sight blended with the grain of the oak door, weaving between the striations as though they were directing her, making her pathway clear. Her mass of energy reassembled inside Parth’s room. He was sitting in his underwear at his desk, immersed in typing on his laptop. The ridge of lines above his nose conveyed the intense concentration required for his task.
A wave of sadness rippled through her thoughts in realisation that she would never again feel those lithe mocha limbs entwined in hers, that cute little mole that looked for all the world like a third nipple and those taut stomach muscles pressed against her belly. She moved closer. He was wearing those turquoise boxer shorts with the pink pigs printed all over them that she had bought for a joke. Bless him, he’d rather come down here and work than disturb me in bed. I wonder why he didn’t tell me about the insomnia.
Aristotle was making himself heard on the opposite side of the door once more. Parth tutted, then stood up and pressed the handle, allowing the cat to bound in and wrap himself around his owner’s legs. Mary watched her husband push their pet away with a flick of an ankle and return to his frantic report writing. What could be so important that it needs documenting at four O’clock in the morning? She edged forwards again, trying to catch a glimpse of the screen when Aristotle jumped up onto the desk, padding across a leather folio of papers. An angry swipe sent the cat flying, scattering the documents across the floor. That was unnecessarily harsh of you Parth. I thought you had more patience. As he crouched down and began gathering the strewn sheets together, one partially covered phrase caught her attention. An unfamiliar crest was visible on the top right-hand corner. In bold letters it read - Less Lethal Weapons.
Immediate distress activated a chemical cocktail in her brain so potent, the sudden shock jolted her presence, sucking her consciousness through the door, up the stairs and into the bedroom. In a thrilling rush of urgency, her amorphous mass reintegrated with a sickening thud back into her physical body. With one giant gasp of breath, she opened her eyes. Mary lay on her side of the bed, suffused in the dawn light that streaked through the gap in the curtains, trembling. I am not dead and that was no dream.
MI6 called her a national threat…
Now they need her help.
A secret government experiment. A global terror plot. A pacifist ordered to kill…
Shy lab tech, Mary, wants nothing more than to be happy with her neuroscientist husband.
But when his classified contracts make her question the motives behind their blissful marriage, her stable existence crumbles.
With uncontrolled psi activity erupting from her, she’s now on everyone’s radar.
Russian terrorists want her to infiltrate powerful US technology, threatening the lives of millions.
MI6 want to make her their asset, with devious intentions of their own.
Can Mary navigate the muddy waters of international espionage and prevent an earth-shattering catastrophe?
Will they succeed in weaponising her mind?
The Aurora Mandate is the first book in a series of political spy thrillers blended with sci-fi suspense. If you like hard-hitting action with tight plots and fringe science, you’ll love this new take on female empowerment.
Grab a copy now and immerse yourself in worldwide political intrigue, with a thought-provoking twist.