Jack Thorn: A story of the Future: Chapter 2, Part 2

Jeremey Jones struggled to elevate his tall wide frame out of the control room chair and practically wrestled the tablet from Axel Hendricks.

“Wait Jones, wait. Something isn’t right. Look,” Axel demanded just when Jones took full hold of the tablet.

“What are they doing. Command, main view zoom in,” Jones ordered.

The large display screens locked on to Jack Thorn helping up Cade Biggs.

“Do something, those candidates  in there are real robots. They are real Jones,” Axel said.

“What can I do? We’re not in control, I guess that’s humanity’s problem. Always has been,” Jones said and looked to Axel with intrigue.

“Yeah sure, choose a time like now to get all philosophical. Say something to them,” Axel ordered, and Jones cleared his throat.

“Command, enable for announcement please,” Jones said and cleared his throat yet again.

Back in the white room Jack helped Cade to his feet.

“Look I don’t know if I triggered this. But we are surrounded by robot’s in this room,” Jack said.

Cade slowly broke away from his helping grip.

“No Thorn they’ve always been robots,” he said giving Jack a somewhat edgy look.

“Don’t say you’re…”

“No, keep your hands and feet to yourself son. I guarantee I am human, all the way to the bone,” Cade said and stood off from Thorn.

“That’s good then…”

“Attention candidates. There is an issue with the simulation software. Can I ask you return to your designated areas?” The loud voice of Jones announced.

In a circle surrounding Jack and Cade these ‘candidates’ continued to close in.

Jack looked up and all around,

“Uh, that didn’t work Sarge,” he said.

The first woman came closer. She wore a navy type uniform and headed straight to him. He lowered instinctively when she swung a wild club fist. Another uniform moved for Cade and he forcefully wrestled the robot away. They backed up until they were within touching distance of each other.

There was a loud screech of static and another voice barked to them,

“Thorn, Biggs, run! I am going to activate all the simulations. Hide until I can get you out…”

The sound of Hendricks voice clicked off and the simulation buildings all around rose up. The car which Cade had hit his head appeared. Jack jumped up on to it and then offered a him a hand.

“Come on man,” he shouted.

Soon enough the car became fully surrounded. Somehow Cade missed every wild swiping hand.

“Ok so I get being put in this thing with a bunch of robots. Was the malfunctioning thing resulting in them really trying to kill us supposed to happen?” Jack asked.

“As far as I’m aware the answer’s no mate.”

“Guess we better do what the man say’s then…” Jack took a short run up and flipped over the barrage of uniforms, all of them with that cagy unhinged way of hanging their head.

He landed on his feet and watched Cade do the complete opposite. With two legs, he stepped down firstly onto the bumper and then forcefully waded through any robot resistance with powerful kicks. Just as more robots came to him a bright spark flew past his vision making him cower away and duck.

Jack stood with the simulation gun stretched forward. The electrical discharge hit the nearest robot to Cade and brought a vital few seconds.

“I don’t think it does much,” Jack said, and the heavier Cade ran to him.

“Apart from probably piss them off more. Back to times square?” Cade added. They both headed away.

“I’m calling for a mercenary team,” Axel said from his seated control room position.

His hand waved over a desk mounted screen and he pushed at various displays.

“Wait Hendricks, they are getting away. Why don’t we re issue the holographic hostiles and make them tougher. That might give Thorn and Biggs a chance to get away,” Jones said.

“That’s suicide Jones. They have no armour and there are already twelve real life robots after them. No, I’m calling for the Mercenaries, they can clean this up. End the simulations Jones,” Axel ordered but Jones just watched the display. He cradled the glass tablet to his large chest.

“Jones, end it…”

“You call for the Mercenary team and your fired,” Jones said coldly.

“I’m f… You can’t fire me this is the S.E.S. Under what jurisdiction are you going to ‘fire’ me?”

“I’m the one who owns the rights to robot crime fighting, this is my ship. You call for back up and you’re fired,” Jones added firmly then he began to grin.

“Those robots in there wherever you got them from are malfunctioning on the highest level. Hold on a minute, this was your plan all along wasn’t it? You deliberately set up Davidson to antagonise Thorn. This is a damn simulation Jones with real people’s lives at stake. You put real lives inside the shark cage with not one shark, several malfunctioning sharks. What are the odds he even takes down a couple of those robots?” Axel protested.

“If what Lucius said is right then he is the Maverick. We have nothing to worry about.”

Axel dropped both his hands and flopped down into his seat,

“This is damn suicide. You’re sounding like Clark and do you remember how he ended up?”

“He had a minor breakdown Axel and as far as I know he’s fine now,” Jones said.

“You honestly believe that prophecy of one man against the robots saving us all?” Axel asked.

“Let’s find out.”

And so they did. Jack and Cade broke away from the group of candidates and they faced the holographic robots from their simulation.

“Soft-core closing in at your twelve,” Cade shouted.

Jack faced his first target.

“I’ll let you have the first hit,” Jack said.

The wild simulated holographic robot swiped and made full contact with Jack’s face.

“Oh shit,” he said reeling back into a car.

“Thorn?”

“That actually hurt,” Jack said throwing in a jab to the gut, he followed in with a sweeping roundhouse kick tripping the robot to the ground. The wild image of a grimaced robot faded to white.

From above came the voice of Jones,

“We have adjusted the difficulty of simulated robots just so they can push back the other candidates.”

“That sounds like a disaster waiting to happen,” Cade said. He followed Jack through several flickering cars.

“Is there any type of plan or are we just running?” he asked.

They crossed into another simulation.

“I was hoping for a troop of holograms to face off with the others,” Jack said and looked up to a high tower type structure.

“I know this, we are on the Brooklyn bridge,”

The could both see the various metal struts and cabling that made up the bridge. He continued his run forward with Cade in tow.

A flickering came from the distance. It slowly morphed into what looked like a line of robots. They were charging their way.

“I don’t think we are gonna stand much of a chance against that lot,” Cade said. They both spun around to see the twelve robot candidates trudging their way in formation, and then the ground began to shake.

“Run!” Jack shouted.

The calamity of holographic robots grew louder and closer. The candidates behind them closed in while Thorn and Cade sprinted.

With a violent rumble the flickering road surface gave way into a white abyss. Pixelated road rubble dropped several hundred feet just when Jack jumped and landed inches from the cascade.

“I remember hearing about this. The First, he did this, he blew up the damn bridge…”

“Thorn!” Cade shouted. He grasped crumbling bridge. His feet dangled over the white hole into the unknown.

Jack threw himself down and gripped the hand of Cade.

“Can you really fall down this in a simulation?” Jack asked out loud.

“I don’t know, just get me, out of here.”

Jack heaved and half watched holographic robots launch themselves across the gaping hole in the bridge. He pulled Cade up and they stood surrounded on both sides by simulated robots and real. The two groups stared at each other for a few tense moments.

Cade slowly backed away and led Jack. His hopes were quickly shattered.

“Kill the humans,” a purely robotic voice said. From the hologram group one robot pointed to them.

“Yeah kill the humans,” a candidate said and both groups charged.

“Guess we are jumping then,” Cade said, and he jumped a barrier. Jack gripped it and acrobatically followed leading to a ledge.

The two groups of robots collided and flocked their way.

“Do we just jump?” Jack asked.

Cade stepped off the side. With his eyes firmly shut he landed only three feet down.

“Ha-ha, son of a bitch, it’s not high man come on,” he shouted and looked up to Jack who became mobbed in robots.

“Thorn! No” Cade did his best to clamber back up onto the bridge framework with this mob charging into the centre of the bridge. He pulled himself up to see the first robot bounce away.

From the epicentre of this hologram and physical robot storm came an angry Jack Thorn. With his fist locked he launched an uppercut to a target that impressively launched back. He continued like a machine with high swinging kicks and powerful punches. His glare, firm and concentrated. The brain of such a man mapped every moving target with a primitive precision. Each robot smashed back with some taking others out. He made quick work of holograms where many faded to white before flopping to the ground.

Just as the numbers thinned and before Cade could get near, the simulation began to fold downwards and disappear. Still the remaining robots came, every one of them meeting a creatively impressive doom, all of them colliding into a fist or boot, all of them sparking out of life. The prophecy was true and this man that stood before them was capable of fulfilling his calling.

*                      *                      *

Beneath a bed of murky clouds robot leader the First stood upon the roof of his commandeered base of operations. The large flat building spanned wide and long, much of its slate coloured exterior hidden under the various brown horizons of the planet X43 that surrounded. His vision focused through a pair of binoculars.

“Well the low cloud base doesn’t give much indication of visibility,” he said looking up to the thick grey sky.

“Perhaps this will make artillery interference difficult,” the rough concealed voice of Robot-K said making his presence known.

“Ga… You certainly have a way of creeping up don’t you Robot-K?” The First asked and he turned to the vast all black wearing figure. His eyes focused on the shadow shrouded inside the dark red hood. If he looked close enough the outline of two hollow eyeholes could be seen.

“In case you were wondering I was talking to myself. But you are right. When those shiftmasters land, the pathetic Army of Earth won’t be any the wiser, hopefully,” the First added in his British accent.

“I never base any belief on hope,” Robot-K said.

“Indeed. That’s the humanity in me rearing its disgusting head.”

The First lowered his binoculars and turned again to the large dark shape of Robot-K. He watched the cloak and hood abruptly turn. Another robot sheepishly stood concealed by his mass.

“I was told, I would find you here First,” she said, her uniform in partial tatters and a face showing the signs of burning.

“Yes indeed they sent you to the right place,” the First said. He watched the robot nervously look up to Robot-K.

“You survived the recent joke of our lost artillery placement and you have some information for me yes?” The First asked.

“Yes First. I managed to escape the blast and then the Mercenary attack after. The remaining few of my squad took shelter nearby and viewed the incoming attack from afar.”

“And?” The First asked growing impatient with this beggar.

“I saw the soldiers who were responsible for the destruction of our artillery. They were just that, grunts with no rank. They were awarded with stars of honour by the mercenaries and I saw a name. A name you are perhaps familiar with,” the soldier said.

“A name. Well we are waiting.”

“It was, it was Thorn.”

The First momentarily stared vacantly at the woman’s message. His face grew into anger which boiled inside, and he snatched at the robot. Before he could talk the mass of Robot-K stepped in and a large gloved hand took her out of the First’s grasp.

“Speak?” He roughly barked.

“The soldier’s name was Thorn. He planted the explosives which took down the artillery, please I am just the messenger…”

“And you are the only scapegoat we have for that debacle. Indeed, that name I haven’t heard since, well, since Earth. Is my old acquaintance Clark Thorn of age young enough to enlist in the Army of Earth?” The First pondered almost to himself as he limped a small distance away.

“This was a young man, he could move and really fight…”

Robot-K shook the woman violently.

“The son,” he said, and his hood turned to the First.

“Maybe. Stand down Robot-K. Let the adults speak.”

“There’s a lot of talk going around,” the woman said upon being released.

“Yes well our speech software will allow that,” the First said and moved closer to her.

“That he is what the old Warrior’s before us said about being a Maverick,” she said.

“The prophecy,” Robot-K said.

“Fabricated to groom the solitary bug that humanity could do with fixing. Emotion. I’ve never heard any factual account of this so-called prophecy. There is a reason all those Warriors saw an end, so we could rise. If this Thorn…”

“Jack Thorn,” Robot-K said interrupting.

“If this ‘Jack Thorn’ finds his way to me then he shall perish much like everything else that tried to stop me in the past. Your message has been received and in return and for my inconvenience you will not live. Robot-K make the necessary arrangements,” The First coldly said and spun away from view. He looked into his binoculars again as the woman screamed for her life.

“Please First, spare me…” There came the sound of a long blade scraping its way out from a sheath.

Then came a fatal flame filled slice followed by silence.

*                      *                      *

“Spare me!” Anne-Marie shouted dreamily and then she jolted awake.

“I beg pardon?” A robot called the Freak asked. He sat in the back of the old pick-up truck watching Anne-Marie attempt to groggily sit up.

“Uh, where are we?” She asked and parted her now messy blood red hair. Bright sunlight was nearby but they were sat in the shadows.

“Underpass of a mass transit highway,” the Freak said.

“How many years was I out? That’s how it felt anyway?” She asked looking out into the rocky desert. Things chirped and a warm breeze blew.

“Just the one night. I was under strict instruction not to wake you unless you woke yourself. Well Anne-Marie, do you wish to share with me what visions that caused you to awaken so abruptly?”

“Call me Rouge. It was just a dream, with a mind like mine they mean nothing. Where is he?”

“Very well Rouge. Your tall and dark friend isn’t far, and neither is my large friend F.G. I believe they are looking for a base of operations or a safe haven for you to stay…” The Freak continued to explain as Rouge phased out.

They’ll find me no matter what, they always do. It doesn’t matter how many times my Warrior guardian takes me away, they always win. Them and their creep of a Doctor, Leecher.

“Now this mind of yours, what do you mean about such visions meaning nothing?” The Freak questioned, and she tuned in on the conversation.

“My mind is a damn curse, it always has been. They all say the same thing, ‘you’re gifted’ and ‘you’re special’. Right now if it would stop those bastards from chasing me, I would cut my own brain right out…”

“But you are special,” the commanding voice of the Warrior said.  He appeared beside the truck. F.G trailed behind with a large greasy take out bag.

“Warrior,” Rouge said and reached out a pale hand. He gently took it.

“You slept well?”

“Comatose since last night. We were just talking about finding somewhere safe to stay. I take it these guys’ place is compromised?” Rouge asked looking to the Freak.

“Right now you are sitting in our place young lady,” the Freak added.

“We found a place, looks promising but we got to approach it right,” F.G said and quickly noticed Rouge looking at his take-out bag.

“Oh and I hope you like burgers, I got you three, might be a lot for a small lady and it’s not like us three can eat so I didn’t want to raise suspicions.” He threw it her way and she dived straight into the bag. Without any words she had bitten into the first burger.

The three looked at her for a response.

“Oh, thanks. I, didn’t get your names,” she said quickly chewing and nearly completing the first burger.

“This is the Freak, and this is F.G. We can trust these two robots. They have seen a lot in their past, they have experience,” the Warrior explained.

“You guys are welcome to stick around as long as the burgers keep coming. Wasn’t there a robot rebellion a while back? Us ‘patients’ don’t get much news,” Rouge asked. The two robots looked to her already moving on to the second burger.

“We managed to avoid the rebellion. In fact, we went the complete opposite way, Cliffeville still offers opportunities for robots so this is where we came,” he said.

“So you guys broke me out and we got away. What’s next?” Rouge asked and looked directly to her guardian.

“We have found somewhere suitable to stay for now,” he said.

“It’s a diner not far from here. Hence the burgers. They are offering work for accommodation, well, a trailer out back. There’s a bunch of them,” F.G explained.

“Work?” Rouge asked as her eyes lit up. Never had she experienced anything other than confinement, maybe this would lead to a normal life.

“You mean I could get a job? Maybe have my own place, our own place? This is wonderful. Take that Doctor creepazoid Leecher,” she said and stood with half a burger in one hand. She looked up to the grey of underpass but to her it was blue skies.

“I believe creepazoid’ to be an absurdly inappropriate forename for a member of the medical profession,” the Freak said as Rouge smiled down to him.

She could see for the first time in her life possibilities of normality.

“This is all I have ever wanted, just to be a part of the world. I’m gonna get me a job and be good at jobbing or whatever it is,” she said.

“Waitressing in a diner,” F.G said.

“I’m going to waitress in a diner, serve customers pie and have a normal life. I could even go out on a date with a boy, go out on lots of dates with a boy. Maybe with someone who I am probably better than. This is great,” Rouge added.

“Now Rouge, we must remain focused on staying away from the people who want to take you away,” the Warrior said.

She held out a hand to the Freak and gently pulled him up.

“Will you be joining me Mr Freak?”

“Well if it is required. F.G is there a job for me? It’s barely robot crime fighting but it’s a start,” the Freak said.

“Pot wash or flipping burgers,” F.G said.

“And I will be nearby watching over you,” the Warrior added.

Both F.G and the Freak had seen more action than a roadside diner but they knew this girl called Rouge was more than just a potential waitress. The Warrior knew this also. For now they would let her realize what her real calling in life was because for the first time ever she felt something inside, human happiness. The days of medical research torture seemed far behind in the rear-view mirror.

End of Part 5

READ PART 6 HERE

Tune in Next week for another edition of Jack Thorn. Same Jack time, same Jack place… Remember if you enjoyed reading, tell a friend, leave a comment and share it around on social media…

Copyright 2004 – 2019 ‘Jack Thorn’ and ‘The Thorn Legacy’ Written By Lee Hall 2019 All rights reserved.  

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A guide to Book Promotion in 2019

Finding the right advice for Authors to promote their work takes more than consulting ‘the Google’ these days. I also know by putting the year in the title of this post will make it pretty much instantly out dated, but for the same reasons scholars recorded stuff back in the day, I aim to do the same, pass on my knowledge and findings to simply learn for the future (where there will be robots…) and I’m not a scholar but a proud Indie Author…

So here is my guide to Book Promotion in 2019.

First of all, much of the stuff in this post is taken from a very recent book promotion I did for my 3rd novel ‘The Teleporter’ which I made free to download via Kindle Direct Publishing. Many author folks will know that having a book for free does help, but there are so many factors as to why I got the results I did.

These results were as follows: 

tp promo results

Over the 4 days I set ‘The Teleporter’ free to download 817 people grabbed a copy! It even went to #1 in one of it’s amazon charts! 

Now let’s explore ‘the factors’ which drove this book to so many downloads…

Factor 1: Book Promotion Sites. 

Book Promotion sites are essential for spreading the word about your words existing; in fact, I would argue that telling people your stuff actually is out there may indeed be the biggest challenge any smaller time author faces and product awareness/distribution is what we are trying to achieve here! 

So as well as setting my book to be free on the dates I decided (about a month previous) I then set out to find some book promo sites who will list my book and send the info about it out to mailing lists. Many of them have certain criteria and some even charge but most don’t ask for a lot in terms of what the results could potentially be.

Here is the list of promo sites, I used this time around. Some I paid for promotions, and some I didn’t. I also staggered the promos to run on most of the days my book was free.

tp 1 year

A few years ago I compiled this list from a Goodreads group called ‘Support for Indie Authors’ a 14,000 strong collective of Indie minds who band together and share results from all sorts of indie related book stuff. I don’t contribute much to the group, I kind of just lurk… but there is a great amount of info on promo sites.

As you can see I only spent $10 this time around, and it also included an interview with Itswritenow which you can read here and yes on my spreadsheet document the heading of anniversary is in french (I can be pretentious like that, being published gives someone such licence to be…)

Factor 2: Established Reviews on Amazon and Goodreads

tp reviews

This is relatively simple, and there is no real sure fire way to get reviews unless the reader wants to leave one. But the 5 reviews ‘The Teleporter’ had at the time of it being free is a huge factor that drove downloads. People seem to trust something that’s been out a while and has a few reviews. Upon release I put this book up for free and only 35 or so people downloaded it. Sometimes a book just needs to be out there for a while. So if you were one of the people who read and reviewed it before last week, you helped sell it!

Factor 3: An established following

At this current time my following has never been bigger, and that should always be the case for anyone who is an active blogger and writer on social media (and sort of obvious). I have also picked up a bunch of new followers whom are yet to read any of my novels. So with that and combined with the book being free, many of the followers I have had recent interaction with came out in force.

How I got that following is complex and simple all at once. Firstly it takes some time to gather a good following of genuine people. Secondly you have to invest by interacting, leaving constructive comments by being genuine and supportive to others in the writing and blogging community. Be there for others in the same boat on the same voyage as you. I have met some incredible writers and bloggers by just being present on the writing community scene.

My following continues to rise as I review indie books, all books I have read this year have been indie books. Many authors will feel inclined to return the favor but that is something I never aimed for, I’m reviewing books from indies because I am one and I have to support them, plus it’s reading and I love reading.

Factor 4: Chancer’s luck #indieapril

For those who are advocates of my stuff, they will know many of my characters are kind of chancer’s and tend to luck out. They look like they are better than they actually are; why do I say that? Because I am a chancer myself and I always have been.

I thought it would be nice to put ‘The Teleporter’ up for free because its a year since publication and the last promo I did was way back in September for Open Evening. This just so happened to coincide with April and then a trending hashtag started spreading around called #indieapril

#indieapril was some genius idea by some literal genius because people started tweeting about it and their support for indies. Then they started asking for indie book links whilst my book was free! Now I normally have the luck of the three blind basta**’s but holy sh** this was an open goal. For a very long while my tactics to sharing my own book link had changed to not talking sharing it at all. So I had a field day! And ‘The Teleporter’ kicked nearly every other book’s ass, and it went up against some pretty big competition…

This is an example of what I dropped in many folks comments of the Tweet machine…

tweet example

When you are really selling something, people just need to know the important details. As you can see it’s snappy and to the point and also the truth. ‘The Teleporter’ is all of those things, apart from being free right now. Boozy undertones; it’s not all serious folks.

Factor 5: Other smaller things I did…

As well as doing all the promo things above I also put up a big ‘ol Teleporter themed blog post, saying it was free and other stuff. It drove some traffic to the blog and many of the followers of the blogging persuasion are relatively new, plus it was free so people take notice.

I don’t like to mention Facebook because I personally think they are assholes mostly, they are one of those Robocop level corporations who are probably reading this while sharpening Zuckerbergs terminator liquid metal style axe for a hand, hey Mark (waves slowly). I did put up a less than £10 boosted post. It may have helped sell a few copies and definitely a paperback which was someone I personally know so the results are inconclusive. My following is pretty good on my page, you are more than welcome to like it, link to the side somewhere over there >>>>>

Bonus factor: A back Catalogue

I currently have 4 books available which I got published in 2 years, that’s some high revolutions, foot down on the gas type of sh**. I’ve worked my ass off to get those out there and now I have, people take it seriously. It’s true when they say the more books you release the better chance you have, trust me, you got to churn out them stories!

cropped-4.jpg

Results:

The main result is the amount of times the book got downloaded, but there are also longer term results which are still coming in. Kindle Direct Publishing also track page reads (a bit creepy I know) and these are the most recent figures of people reading:

PAGES READ

You can also see somebody has taken on ‘Darke Blood’ also, good on ya, I’m liking that book more and more these days…

There has also been a new review of ‘The Teleporter’ via Goodreads!

tp goodreads rev

Conclusion:

If you’re an indie looking to get more reads, I recommend going free to download for a little while, the first thing I will say is that you are not whoring your stuff out, you are giving it to the world to enjoy and discover. I don’t do this for a living, maybe some day I will, but until then people can read my stuff for free.

Prepare and take your time, spend a few pennies and do the research in finding promo sites and creative ways to get the word out. Take a leap and you’ll never know unless you try.

Thanks for reading and thanks to everyone who downloaded ‘The Teleporter’. Rock and roll man!

 

Reviewing Darke Blood

Feed The Crime

So, today i’m reviewing Darke Blood by Lee Hall, now I know what you’re thinking, this is a crime fiction blog Blair, why are you reviewing a supernatural book? Well this is actually my first vampire novel, and boy am I glad I read this!

Let’s get started…

“There are more than shadows lurking in the darkness of those trees.”
Blake Malone is in search of a new start and arrives in the remote forest town of Darke Heath. The memory of his past mysteriously becomes a blur as he discovers this place isn’t what it seems.
Malone shares a romantic encounter with a woman named Caitlyn and she reveals herself to be a ‘creature of the night’.

He learns of her story which intertwines with the history of the ‘Heath’. Together they must face the evil forces of vampirism and witchcraft that await them in the Darke forest.
But…

View original post 292 more words

Daughter of Kali: Awakening by Shiulie Ghosh – review

Original page turning action with a powerful voice that speaks of prophecy, coming of age and warriors…

kali.PNG

On the surface ‘Daughter of Kali’ would appear to be just another teen/young adult story but in reality it is so much more and carries a level of sophistication that gives it a much wider appeal.

We are introduced to ‘Kaz’ who is a feisty and likeable main character, she carries the story as a girl who stands out from the very beginning. She’s the only Indian girl in an English school and is toughened by the fact. The opening chapters serve as an introduction to what is an ordinary seeming world of school for ‘Kaz’ and her best friend/computer whizz ‘Em’ only for them to realize there is a whole other world below the surface. That world being one of demons and a warriors guild who fight said demons. ‘Kaz’ discovers that her own mother is in fact a warrior and so her journey of discovery begins, which involves finding out about her past, eventually becoming a realization of power story. 

This warriors guild has been historically fighting demons for generations and is cleverly linked to the Hindu faith; a concept I found intriguing and original. There’s plenty of action and suspense throughout along with many other original concepts and characters that delve into the world of magic and mythology.

Overall I enjoyed reading what is a well written and clever tale that I found to be un-put-down-able in the latter chapters.

5 Stars – Looking forward to the sequel

Jack Thorn: A story of the Future: Chapter 2, Part 1

Chapter 2: The Secret Earth Services

Jack awoke instantly. He had been plucked from a deep state of sleep. Both of his eyes threw themselves open and they ached when artificial light hit them. After a panicked gasp emerged from his dry mouth he lurched up. Where the hell was he? All around came a dull humming of electricity. Plain and almost opaque walls surrounded him on four sides, three of them had high level windows. His eyes followed them around the room until his vision met another figure staring straight back at him.

“Oh, hi…” Jack croaked, his voice still dishevelled from the sleep.

The man wore a blue tracksuit with lettering on the chest. Jack didn’t bother or care to read it right then. Where he was interested him more although this guy stared at him with a raised eyebrow.

“Would it be cliché to ask where we are?” Jack asked. The man turned away with a smile.

“Secret Earth Services,” he said in a thick distinct accent. Now was it Australian or South-African? Jack couldn’t be sure and would let him talk some more to scope it out.

“It’s how they have always done things.” The man seemed awkward or at least very short with words. Jack looked at him closely, there was a familiarity about him. His skin, well-tanned or was that his natural dark colour? Hair long and rough, chest wide and muscular, his age, probably at least ten years older than him.

Reasons began to quickly flash through Thorn’s mind.

What in the crap have I done to get myself into the S.E.S?

“I take it the Sarge met you personally?”

“The Sarge, uh, yeah. He came to X43,” Jack said with the realisation this partially made sense now.

“You’re supposed to be here then soldier,” the man said continuing with his shortness.

“I’m getting South-African feels from that accent.”

“Yep.”

“You army also?” Jack asked.

“Nope.”

“Not a talker either?” Jack added. He swung both legs over the shelf type bed and to the floor. Next his hands patted down the Army of Earth tracksuit until he looked down to see only socks on his feet. They touched a cold floor and again he looked to the man perched on the shelf bed opposite.

“Although, they did want me to play war with them on that planet. They never replied after I sent them the invoice,” the man said, and the small crease of a smile emerged from one side of his mouth.

“Name’s Cade, I’m with Sky Force.”

“Jack. Army of earth. Wait, you said Sky Force?”

“Yep, I own a private air force that runs air support services to those in need of it or who can afford it. We just got back from a patrol job on V54,” this Cade explained and shot a glance at Jack.

“Sky Force, yeah I’ve heard of that. So that’s where I recognised you.” Jack then placed a hand on his aching forehead.

From behind him came a vibrating hum. Out of the wall folded a shelf, on it sat a solitary beaker of clear liquid.

“Well you’re up Jack, that special potion is for you.”

He grasped the beaker and sized it up.

“Smell’s kind of electric.”

“You’ve been out a while. That’ll make you feel a billion bucks,” Cade said as Jack tipped his head back and swallowed the drink.

“Uh, that’s as bad as tequila,” he said wiping his chin. Upon placing the beaker down a loud piecing alarm buzzed.

“Attention. Please stand away from the plain wall,” a computerized female voice sharply announced.

Jack looked forward and presumed the wall directly in front without any glass must of been the plain one.

“What’s going on?” he asked over the repetition and buzzing.

“It’s try-out time. This is why you are here right?” Cade asked.

“Right. But why does a guy who owns his own air force want in on this?” Jack asked loudly.

“I’ve known the Sarge for some years…” The buzzing stopped along with the announcement, next came a pneumatic type hissing.

“You know him? well how did you meet?” Jack asked.

Great this guy knows Sarge personally, that’s already an advantage I don’t have.

“He approached me with an offer much like this one,” Cade said.

The plain wall moved an inch forward and then with more sounds of machinery and hydraulics the whole surface moved up. It opened while folding above them like a garage door.

“That’s kinda neat,” Jack said.

They looked out past their confining cell. There was nothing but white.

“Least we get our shoes back,” Cade said and jumped off the bed. He grabbed a pair of sneakers just outside the line of where this confining wall had raised.

“Yeah what is with that?” Jack asked, and grabbed his. They both stepped out of the cell into what seemed to be a huge space.

“It’s the famous calling card of the S.E.S. Leave nothing behind but your damn shoes, that’s what I make of it anyway,” Cade said sounding more like ‘mek of it anyway’ but Jack was more focused on the expansive place they stood. This seemingly endless place felt disorientating especially with the only colour around being a bland off white which provided no horizon or reference point.

“Sort of makes you dizzy,” Jack said while Cade whistled loudly.

“No echo, either.”

Another loud hiss forced them to both turn. From the unlimited space, the cut out of a doorway emerged nearby and folded inwards. Out stepped two figures.

“You have the Secret Earth Services to thank for their always elaborate style,” Jeremey ‘Sarge’ Jones said. Concealed behind his tall and large frame walked the African American Axel Hendricks and behind them were a line of men and women. All of them were dressed in a range uniforms, from navy, army, air force to even police.

“Guess I underdressed,” Jack said looking at Cade whilst Jones approached.

“I see our final candidates have arrived. Many of you will recognise Commander Cade Biggs, owner and proprietor of the renowned Sky Force,” he said.

Some of the group nodded in approval.

“And this is Jack Thorn, soldier for the Army of Earth and currently assigned to the war on X43.”

Thorn scanned the group who mostly seemed to turn their noses the other way.

“I’m Axel Hendricks, pleased to meet you Thorn. I worked with your parents many years ago and…”

Jones coughed loudly to interrupt Axel.

“I think we should proceed Hendricks,” he said in a semi-commanding tone.

“Nice, to, uh, meet you,” Thorn said but he was still in awe of this place.

“Now welcome all of you to the white room,” Jones announced.

“Why is it called that?” Jack asked.

“Because it’s white kid, try to keep up,” a senior looking uniformed man said in an attempt to brush off Thorn.

“Thanks for the input General obvious. Remind me to come to you for any more obvious quips,” Jack immediately said back. As the senior man began to angrily reply Jones loudly coughed again.

“Let’s try to remain focused on why we are here. Now all of you have been hand selected for an opportunity to be a part of the new World Force, our planet’s answer to the ever-worsening rate of robot crime. Either Hendricks or I reached out to you in some capacity to be here today and I see a range of men and women here who represent the very best in what they do. Some, may not even know it yet,” Jones paused at Thorn before slowly walking along the line of people.

“And some may never know,” the senior looking ‘General obvious’ said with a direct glare to Thorn, this time only some of the group laughed.

“Now we are all equals in this room,” Jones said. His commanding voice called out while he continued along the line. Again Thorn spoke out,

“That is until some of us get our teeth kicked down our throat.” Cade gently gripped his shoulder.

“Wind it in mate. You’ll get your chance,” he said. Jack and this senior man continued to stare at each other.

“You have all been especially invited to take part in a series of simulated exercise activities. At the close of today we will have a better idea as to who we think will best suit our needs for the next generation of World Forcers.”

Axel Hendricks stepped forward, in his one gloved hand he held a transparent glass tablet.

“All of the exercises will happen in the white room. Many are adapted scenarios from previous World Force reports and have happened in real life. Of course, this is a simulation room, but you will still be able to make full body contact with any A.I. involved and the geography is also as real. You will take part in teams of two, the person whom you arrived with will be your partner for the day.”

Jack nodded at Cade and Axel continued,

“Everyone’s performance will be analysed on a constant basis while you work thorough the various simulations. Consider this a real life on the job interview for an opportunity to fight robot crime. If there are no questions, I suggest we move proceedings forward.”

Jones broke the momentary silence,

“I am looking for a leader. Someone to be the vessel for this new generation of robot crime fighters. The world needs leaders more than ever right now and this is your shot. The simulations will now begin. Good luck.” He turned with Axel and they headed for the door way.

“I guess it’s us versus everyone else kid,” Cade said, and Jack began to follow.

“It would seem that way…”

“Before we get this little party started…” ‘General obvious reached out and gripped Jack’s shoulder from behind.

“You better appreciate, Thorn, is it? Most of us have had a life of earning medals and respect. A low life soldier like you…”

Jack spun forcing the man’s grip away,

“A low life solider like me has every right to be here. You touch me, no, you lay one damn finger on me again. You’ll regret it,” he said through gritted teeth. A uniformed woman stepped in to pull the man away.

“Come on Davidson, we’re partners in this shindig so let’s move out.” She led him away, but he and Jack continued to stare each other out.

“We’re up Thorn,” Cade said. He led them to a nearby holographic display of their names.

“There’s something about that guy I really don’t like. I’m only getting bad vibes,” Jack said.

“We can profile the entitled uniformed assholes later,” Cade added. He and Jack watched a wire type frame fold out of the white flooring, hung on it were two handguns.

“Guess we’re gonna need these.” Jack grasped the gun along with his partner. In front of their eyes the area turned into a building city scape. Structures rose from the white and began to form into a full street. Every surface seemed a little blurred including vehicles which rose out of road surface.

“I recognise this layout. This is Times Square,” Jack said looking around at the slightly blurred displays and advertising.

“I’ll take your word for it mate.”

“Location; New York,” a computerized voice announced with bright text flashing past. It continued with the brief,

“Simulated robot hostiles have blocked all traffic and are holding a violent demonstration. Simulated civilians are caught up in the demo. Shoot to kill at your own discretion. Direct as many simulated civilians out of the area. Behind you is the medical team waiting for the area to be made safe so they can reach the casualties. Simulation activated.”

A loud buzzer sounded, and Jack pointed his gun forward taking the lead.

Cade stood a few steps behind and they approached the first blurry car. If it wasn’t for the lack of detailed graphics both of them could believe they were stood in New York.

“You know this place Thorn. What’s the plan?” Cade asked. He scanned between the blurry cars.

“Head into the centre of the triangle. Take out anything that…” He fired the gun and an electronic spark surged towards the first approaching robot. The simulated figure reacted to the shot and flickered before falling back into a car. It morphed into a plain white manikin and dropped.

“Even the damn perps are just holograms,” Jack said. Two screaming civilians ran across their view, the image flickering momentarily.

“Disperse, now!” Cade shouted. He and Jack continued through a mass of parked vehicles.

“This could actually be fun,” Jack added.

He lowered the gun and tucked it into his tracksuit.

“Let’s see what they can do.” He pulled in a fist and stood with a defensive stance.

“If that’s how you want to do it, then that’s how we’ll do it,” Cade said doing the same with his weapon.

Jack stepped up onto a car to see a group of robots closing in. The nearest target jumped up and faced him. With a lightning jab Thorn moved in and startled the target before tripping him down onto the car bonnet. Landing with a thud, the robot’s display flickered to blank before Jack was about to drive his palm down.

“These guys are paper thin,” Cade said and roughly wrapped two hands around the nearest target. With a grunt he pulled and slammed it into a nearby vehicle, again the robot flickered to white.

“Yeah, this is too easy.” Jack swung a leg high with not even half strength, the robot smacked back.

The number of robots incoming began to grow in numbers.

“I think,” Cade said as he pulled his gun out and fired.

“These things are designed to be cannon fodder,” he added and fired several times.

“I think you’re right,” Jack said joining Cade with the firing. They took down the various targets most of which didn’t even seem engaged.

“This is kind of crappy. I’m more of a hands-on type of guy.” Jack turned his attention to the left. Just when Cade surged forward with multiple shots, he looked through a side street and into another simulation.

He could see Davidson and his partner struggling with a mass of robots surrounding them.

“Pull back! Screw the civilians they are on their own,” Davidson shouted and got up from behind a car. The guy began to retreat.

“Hey!” Jack shouted. He moved away from his simulation.

“Thorn! Where you going?” Cade shouted. Alarms and text began to flash.

“Return to scenario, return to scenario…”

Davidson watched Jack heading into his zone with fists and feet at the ready . He swung around and launched a heel into the first robot. Moving further along he thrust both fists back and forth going through the mass of robots, all of them diminishing before him.

“Hey, get out of here soldier scum!” Davidson roared before running back into action. By the time he arrived Jack had dealt with the final target. A simulated family stood cowered down between two vehicles. Their terrified looking back and forth animation played on a loop. That was until somebody engaged them,

“It’s safe, get out of here,” Jack shouted. Immediately the simulated faces changed their animation by looking at him and then to Davidson.

“Just what do you think you’re doing?”

“Your job. ‘Screw the civilians’ is not in our remit,” Jack barked.

The taller Davidson clamped his hand down on Thorn’s shoulder.

“That’s what this is about, protecting people?” Jack added while feeling the gradually increasing pressure from Davidson’s grip.

At that precise moment, something clicked inside his senses. Everything aligned while he felt the strength of this man which seemed more than human.

He’s a damn robot.

Jack winced in pain just when Cade burst onto the scene. He barged Davidson away forcing his grip.

“Break it up.”

“He’s a damn robot Cade,” Jack said.

Before Cade could speak Davidson had crashed forward into him. Cade fell forward and went down head first onto a car bonnet.

“Dammit Davidson,” his female partner whined.

Davidson faced Thorn with a sinister grimace.

That was the moment both Jeremey Jones and Axel Hendricks realised they had a situation on their hands.

“I’m ending all simulations and disarming the soft hostiles,” Axel said. His finger began to tap on the clear glass tablet he held. Sitting beside him Jones reached out to intervene but kept both eyes on the display screens of their dark control room.

“Wait. Let’s see how this pans out Hendricks.”

Buildings from the various simulations began to lower and flicker back to white.

“It’s not safe Jones. Biggs is already down and if we don’t end this now then all of those candidates are going to turn on Thorn…”

“The situation is in control. Thorn isn’t the only human in there,” Jones argued and tried to snatch the hand-held tablet from Axel.

“The only other human in there is a plant we put in and he’s just hit his head on a damn holographic car. Badly might I add.”

As they bickered and argued the situation inside the white room fell entirely into Jack Thorn’s very capable fighting hands.

Before anyone around him offered a reaction, Thorn engaged and rushed in. He saw red for his now downed partner Cade Biggs and for what this smirk faced Davidson stood for; even if he was most probably a planted robot by Sarge. With two hands, he snatched at Davidsons hair and pulled down driving his face into a knee. That was the move he used when he was after blood and there was, but it came in robot black. At that moment all the surrounding simulation scenarios disappeared into the white.

Davidson reeled back from the knee impact and with no time to react any further Jack had driven the sole of his foot into the robot’s chin. He hit the white floor with a spark.

Thorn then realised the majority of uniformed men and women in the room were all staring at him, but not with that intrigued type of stare. Their eyes showed no emotion but just the glassy emptiness of the what revealed them all to be robots.

End of Part 4

Tune in Next week for another edition of Jack Thorn. Same Jack time, same Jack place… Remember if you enjoyed reading, tell a friend, leave a comment and share it around on social media…

Copyright 2004 – 2019 ‘Jack Thorn’ and ‘The Thorn Legacy’ Written By Lee Hall 2019 All rights reserved.  

 

Weekly Ramble #29

This week more than any I stand by my decision to write and tell a story about a drunk super hero.

Like all of my books they are about so much more than what’s on the surface. Blurbs and covers sometimes do a book zero justice and even now I have a feeling people judged the Teleporter harshly to begin with and most probably still do (I guess I cant win them all). How dare I write a story with a genre that’s ‘in’ at the moment because even now I can see my own logic in doing it. Super heroes are more popular than ever, and did people just see through that? Did everyone just see me trying to ride a trend and attempt to cash in on it?  Was it just an empty grab a fashionable genre?

To begin with that’s what I set out to do, but in the end, this book became something so much more.

The sheer will of my main characters journey is what makes The Teleporter worth reading.

13 people purchased a copy of the Teleporter on release. That was my lowest ever book launch sales figure until Cemetery House but we won’t count that or talk about that (sequels are strange) and even though it’s low, I have zero complaints. That number grew by a handful until this year and back then (even January this year) my following was a lot less than what it is compared to today. This whole deal; reviewing books, interacting, giving back to the writing community has opened a huge door for me. And I haven’t just reached out past my own shores of Hall island to sell books, I’ve done it above all to become a better writer and to be taken seriously, and people are taking this seriously now.

There are two ways a writer learns their craft; by doing and by reading. Along the way I’ve met some pretty bad ass bloggers and authors, types whom I share this voyage with. Perhaps building bridges is what leads to real success in creating.

This week The Teleporter has owned the day. Several times when complete strangers have cast the net out into the twittersphere looking for reads; my scrappy little underdog of a book has come out on top; above other books from authors with huge amounts of follows. That has always been my gimmick, the underdog who waits on the fringes of the unexpected, waiting to strike, waiting for my moment and proving to the international stage that I’m good at what I do.

Thank you to everyone this week, and before this moment. Those who left a review for the Teleporter before today are probably a huge reason why it’s been downloaded over 600 times in two days!

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Within the Dark Places by Duncan Thompson – review

There’s something lurking in the shadows of Druid Wood and it’s terrifying…

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As an avid fan of horror, I don’t scare easily but ‘Within the Dark Places’ is the closest to terrified I’ve been for quite some time whilst reading a book.

This story follows a small group who decide to spend their weekend in a woods with chilling results. From the very beginning there’s a stack of mystery and intrigue as to what exactly is lurking in the shadows which starts to play on the readers imagination more than anything; something which is text book horror and also very effective in a book like this.

It reads like a modern horror flick by way of a well written page turning style giving the reader no rest-bite between the sometimes graphic but always creepy fate in which the characters face. And believe me it does get graphic in a few places. This one isn’t for the faint of heart but I highly recommend it to anyone looking for a good scare.

Its paranormal and ‘creature feature’ combined with some of the usual tropes seen in horror but some cliches will always work and they do so very well here. Although this novella is on the short side, the whole story is delivered effectively and makes for some great horror reading.

4 Stars – I have already added the sequel to my TBR list! 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Teleporter is FREE to download!

KABLAMO!

Friends, bloggers and readers from all over the world my 3rd Book The Teleporter is officially free to download. This is a rare one off deal so go now to Amazon and grab yourself a copy….

(The Teleporter won’t be free to download for a very long time, trust me) 

Not convinced I hear? This post is dedicated to convincing YOU to make The Teleporter your next read!

Let the prosecution present to you ‘Exhibit A’ or also known as ‘dem’ Reviews…

Exhibit A:

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Reviews aren’t everything, I know and some of you know that. Maybe some of you are thinking I just paid a bunch of people to review The Teleporter I didn’t, in fact this book is relatively undiscovered…

FUN FACT: It only sold around 13 copies on release…. 

Indie books take a long time to gather any type of following, unless you got a pro marketing company, a boat load of money and lady luck on your side, so like all of my works the reviews have come after some time. It’s taken a whole year to get to 6 reviews and so its up to you, the reader to tell the world about it.

You could be responsible for telling the world about The Teleporter! (I’ll probably buy you at least 12 drinks for that type of support)

(No doubles, I have a mortgage to pay…)

Exhibit B: It’s a comedy….

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Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, let me admit these quotes are actually quite terrible at reflecting how funny The Teleporter really is (no wonder it only sold 13 fu**ing copies), but trust me, you’ll laugh, I did, a lot.

ANOTHER FUN FACT: My marketing campaign was probably terrible… there really are better quotes than the sh** above; lesson learned I guess and that’s the most important thing (what all partial failures like me say).

But… it’s not all ‘ha ha’. This book has a hell of a lot more going on than just gags. There is a real message and moral to the story. Our main protagonist struggles to come to terms with his new power, there is a whole responsibility thing going on with that struggle and friendship arc as well.

Exhibit 3: – It’s deep (not a sexual reference)

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Members of the jury, seeing as this book is a super hero story, it wouldn’t be one without subtly nodding to the Marvel cinematic universe. This quote above is said by a ‘Stan Lee’ type during the latter stages of the story.

Exhibit D: – The Teleporter is dedicated to breaking stereotypes by appearing as just another super hero story, but it isn’t just another super hero story!  

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The prosecution rests…

ANOTHER ANOTHER FUN FACT: I’m into courtroom dramas at the moment, can you tell? That ‘The People Vs O.J  show was awesome… yes I also realize I’m some years late, I’m an author, and I’m busy…

…and now awaits the verdict which will hopefully be in the form of a 1000 downloads or more. Let me know if you’ve grabbed a copy by commenting on this post or tweeting me! Happy reading and thanks for the support!

Extra fun fact: Every time The Teleporter is mentioned in this post, the link to the book is attached to it… so get clicking! 

Bonus shizzle/ further reading:

Here are some more reasons why you should read the Teleporter…

And this is what the cover looks like, although you shouldn’t judge books by covers, except mine because they rock!

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Ultra Super Bonus content: Are you still here? Well if you are I have promised to myself that The Teleporter will get a sequel if it gets more than 15 reviews… so what are you waiting for? 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 Great Reasons why you should read indie books!

March has been another great month for this blog, the views and numbers are the best ever.  My secret to that success is simple, Indie Book Reviews! And epic loyal followers like yourself.

Here’s the rundown of what I read and reviewed in the past month!

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Drake Peters; One Minute to Midnight by Kingsley Benjamin is a young adult sci fi story set in the near future and see’s the title character delve into the world of a secret academy that leads to a wider universe of aliens and powers of the mind.

I found this book to be very addictive and readable with the pages literally turning themselves. The flow breaks the usual mold of YA stories as quoted in my review  “Its very common for YA stories to spend too much time within the head and mind of a main character; ironically that doesn’t happen in this book and that is one of the many concepts that makes the story of Drake Peters accessible and full of pace which has the reader turning pages.”  

There were several nods to many stories I enjoy such as ‘Men in Black’, ‘Hunger Games’ and ‘X men’ making this book a must read!

Next up I read a book which sits in what might be my favorite genre of horror; exploration of an abandoned asylums…

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‘Building 51’ by Jenifer L. Place is a horror/historical fiction story with plenty of background information about an asylum located in the US (yes this place actually exists!). A group of friends decide to make an excursion to the place and come to realize something else is lurking in the dilapidated grounds and buildings.

‘Fusing elements of real history and the paranormal make this story and the characters in it feel like something is lurking and watching them. Something is and this gradually becomes apparent manifesting itself in a range of unique and creepy ways.’

We’ve all seen the films about abandoned hospitals but ‘Building 51’ is by far the most effective for the genre.

The third indie title I picked up in March was a unique young adult fantasy story with multiple lead characters. 

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Looking back at the time I spent reading ‘Blue Rabbit’ by Jimena Novaro, I must say I really really enjoyed this book. For anyone who is looking to write a multi character story would learn a lot from it.

I said in my review ‘the strength of this story comes from the multitude of great characters that help tell it’ but I would also add the imagination of such a story is a huge thing that made this book so great. There were many original concepts that culminate to a great final act along with characters that develop throughout the length of the story.

A lot of fantasy can be overwhelming but ‘Blue Rabbit’ serves as a great representation for the genre.

The 4th and final title I read this month was ‘Seeker: A story in the ChaosNova universe’ by David Noe and Laura Loolaid.

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I’ve never read a co-authored story and don’t let that put you off because this book is a credit to the sci-fi space travel genre.

The story is a journey for ‘Jewel’ the main character and bounty hunter who takes on a contract of great interest. What follows is a tale of deception, the unexpected and overall drama for our hero as she looks for the truth.

Shorter books don’t get enough credit, something which I have said before and its true, this book is well worth the investment. Like I said in my recent review, for anyone who liked TV cult classic ‘Firefly’ will want to take a look at this one.

And so that wraps up another month of indie reads.

All of my reviews feature on this blog and also get posted on Goodreads and Amazon. 

So the question is folks, are you an indie author? Are you looking for a review? Reach out and let’s get this ball rolling, I am always looking to add more titles to my TBR list. 

Remember above all, support indie authors! Leave a review and help them tell the world their work exists!

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seeker: A story in ChaosNova universe by David Noe and Laura Loolaid – Review

Page turning sci-fi with plenty of drama, deception and the unexpected…

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‘Seeker’ is a story and journey of discovery set in a wide futuristic universe of space travel.

‘Jewel’ the M.C is a bounty hunter or ‘Seeker’ and her latest ‘contract’ sends her on a journey that becomes a little close to home. What follows is a story full of intrigue, tension and twists that takes the reader on an eventful ride for ‘Jewel’ who makes for a strong and independent protagonist looking for answers; something which readers will immediately align with.

The ChaosNova universe is delivered and described in a readable and enjoyable style making this story accessible and appealing for all readers; something which is hard to grasp in the world of science fiction. The co-authorship of this book works tremendously well in representing the genre and could even be comparable to cult TV show ‘Firefly’ in its approach. Shorter books don’t get anywhere near enough credit and this one deserves high praise for its detail and world building.

I particularly enjoyed the way combat was masterfully described in a particular scene; something I would very much like to see more of in this universe along with ‘Jewel’.

Overall ‘Seeker’ is a story that represents the main character’s journey in learning about herself and her history along with a valuable moral about family. I am looking forward to reading more from the ChaosNova universe; a concept where the creators have put in a lot of work and it shows.

4 Stars