All right, people: this is not a drill. I’m here to give away all of the precious secrets.
And by “secrets” I mean “hard work and lots and lots of editing.” Because that’s what goes into making a book.
I spent a lot of time working on both my first book, The Caledonian Gambit, and my second, The Bayern Agenda — years, in fact — and as you might imagine, they underwent numerous changes over that period.
The chapter you’ll read below, the opening of The Bayern Agenda, is far from where I started out all those years ago. It’s been tweaked in response to reactions from beta readers, my agent, my editor, and, perhaps most importantly, me. When you spend that long working on something, it’s hard not to learn a thing or two along the way.
So, out of the goodness of my heart — well, and because I was asked to — I’ll be sprinkling observations and comments throughout the chapter, letting you in on the thinking that went into constructing it. (Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything that comes later in the story.) Consider it a look behind the scenes, a VIP backstage pass, a look at how the magician pulls off their tricks. Enjoy.
Loitering was an art form.
You’ve heard it before, and you’ll hear it again, right now: First lines are critical. The most important thing is to hook your reader in such a way that they haveto read the next line. There are tons of ways one can do this, but what I’m shooting for here is a question raised by the first line’s seemingly paradoxical nature: How? How is loitering, something that, by definition, has no purpose, a form of art? To find out, we must read on!
Especially when one was loitering with purpose. Simon Kovalic’s gray eyes cast over the shelves with just the right mix of interest and vacancy. Not so bored that somebody would want to engage him in conversation, and not so interested that he missed what was going on around him.
And here, in the first full paragraph, we not only get an introduction to the person embodying this controversial statement — our protagonist, Simon Kovalic — but the implicit answer to that question: He’s pretending to loiter as a cover. But it still leaves us wondering why? The hook pulls back further.
He took in the antique shop in a glance, eyeing the few other customers on this frigid false night. Regulars, most of them, he guessed, with a sprinkling of tourists from elsewhere in the Illyrican Empire. Though why anybody would voluntarily choose to visit Sevastapol he had little idea; it wasn’t as if hewould be here if it weren’t for the job. But he went where the Commonwealth told him to go, even if it meant going deep into enemy territory to a moon where even the nice parts didn’t get far above freezing for much of the year.
Next, we establish the setting, as though we’re slowly zooming out. We’re in a shop. “False night” is an odd phrase that gives us the idea that something about this isn’t quite where we expect to be. Ah ha: We’re someplace called Sevastapol, which appears to be a moon. A cold one. And, most importantly, it’s behind enemy lines, and Kovalic’s here for a job. Here’s the first thread of our implicit danger.
Still, humanity – or the Illyrican portion of it, at least – had decided this rock was worth colonizing. Mineral deposits were one reason, but when it came right down to it Kovalic was pretty sure that they’d done it just because they could. Even in their pre-Imperial days, the Illyricans had felt they’d had something to prove, and what better way to do so than to tame a wild planetoid to their whims. It didn’t really matter that it was a barren, snowy rock; it had a breathable atmosphere and temperatures that were within the habitable range – if only barely.
We’ve established that the Illyrican Empire are our antagonists, and now get — filtered through the lens of Kovalic — an idea of what they’re like.
Through the thick, insulated windows Kovalic could see the snow hurling down outside. Blizzards were all too common on Sevastapol, and they were brutal and unforgiving; there were more deaths from exposure than almost anything else. Weather-related accidents were a close second.
Our second danger thread. Behind enemy lines andthe weather sucks.
Inside, however, it was perfectly comfortable; tapped geothermal pockets provided efficient heating for much of the populace. Kovalic had unwound his scarf and unzipped the parka he was wearing, stowing his balaclava and gloves in one of the coat’s voluminous pockets. He raised his arm, the motion splashing a colorful display across the fabric which included the local time. Orbiting a gas giant gave Sevastapol an irregular day/night pattern; they were in false night, the sun itself down, but the light never quite extinguished as it reflected off the huge mottled planet that dominated the sky.
A little bit of sci-fi window dressing. Nothing cooler than a giant planet in the background to help establish that we’re not in Kansas anymore.
“’Scuse me,” said a gruff voice, as a compact figure brushed past him.
“Not at all,” said Kovalic.
The shorter man continued on, browsing a shelf of antiquated books, most with faded printed covers, others covered in moldering leather. He didn’t seem to be reading them, though – mostly just staring glumly at the shelves.
“Anything?” murmured Kovalic.
“Not a thing, boss,” said Tapper. “Quiet as my Aunt Mary’s funeral.”
“Wasn’t that the aunt who wasn’t actually dead?”
“Yeah, but she didn’t want anybody knowing.” [I have, honestly, no idea what the story behind this is, but it tickles me. Maybe we’ll find out some day.]
“Right. Well, stay sharp. It’s almost showtime.”
“I was born sharp.”
Kovalic coughed to cover his smile. The general consensus was that Tapper was in his sixties, but nobody was sure exactly how old he was – even Kovalic, and they went back twenty years. But, despite the hair that had long gone steel gray and a face like a worn leather boot, Kovalic would have put him up against any operative half his age.
A quick character sketch of Tapper, just giving the most salient details: he’s on the older side, but he’s still a force to be reckoned with. And he and Kovalic have a lot of history. That’s important for some things to come later.
“Any of these good?” Tapper asked, nodding at the books.
“From a reading perspective or a collector’s?”
Tapper shrugged. “Your pick.”
Kovalic scanned the titles. “Definitely some classics among them, but I don’t collect them. Ask Page.”
“I don’t get it,” said Tapper, shaking his head. “These things just take up space. You can download any text you want. Why would you want to clutter up your home with these musty old things?”
Kovalic ran his fingers over the spine of one of the books. There was something tangible about it, he supposed: a connection you got with a physical book from turning its pages, that you didn’t get from reading the same text on a screen. The idea that, for hundreds of years, the same volume had passed through the hands of countless others, linking all of them together in one continuous thread. Not that he had any intention of starting his own collection: they were a serious pain in the ass to move.
Okay, every writer puts a little bit of a personal touch in their work. Both of my parents were librarians, so I have a deep and abiding affection for paper books, even if I mostly read ebooks these days. I like the idea of these physical objects persisting well into the future. Plus, without giving anything away, there’s something here that comes back into play allllll the way at the end of the story.
A sedate chime tinkled from the door at the front of the shop. He checked his sleeve again; it was just about time.
He nodded to Tapper. “Go mingle.”
“Aye aye,” said the shorter man, drifting off towards another corner of the shop.
Kovalic returned to perusing the shelves, taking his time before casually turning around to survey the display behind him. That gave him a chance to study the front of the shop and its occupants. Besides the shopkeeper – a tall, thin man, with tufts of gray hair that looked like they’d been glued on – there were a few other men and women scanning the shelves with the hungry looks of collectors searching for a find, and a couple who were poking about in the furniture section of the shop, wearing bright new parkas and exclaiming about each new item. Those would be the tourists.
Then there was the new arrival.
First, we establish the norm. Then, we break it to cause tension: The new arrival is not like the other people in the shop. Why?
Bundled up as the figure was, about all Kovalic could tell was that it was a man – a short, stout man with a ruddy nose protruding over a subdued plaid scarf. Rather than a parka, he wore a sleek wool overcoat; more elegant than functional in the brisk Sevastapol weather. That made him a man concerned with appearances, especially when combined with the wide-brimmed felt hat pulled down tightly on his head. As disguises went, it was amateurish at best, unnecessarily conspicuous at worst.
The man walked past the shopkeeper, who was too busy reading from a thin volume held at arm’s length to notice. He made his way stiffly towards the back of the shop in a manner so painfully casual that it practically shouted LOOK AT ME, I’M STROLLING, NOTHING TO SEE HERE.
We know from the jump that Kovalic’s trying to remain incognito, and we know just as quickly that our new player is failing at that.
Kovalic tried to avoid rubbing his forehead, and stared instead at the wall of books. He’d known going in that their contact wasn’t trained for this sort of thing, but the general, Kovalic’s boss, had deemed it an acceptable risk, given the man’s stature and the value of the information on offer. [Establishing the stakes. There’s a reason Kovalic is here, after all.] Then again, the general didn’t have to sit here and watch the worst tradecraft this side of an espionage vid. [We also get the idea that Kovalic reports to someone. Everybody’s got a boss!]
As the man got closer, Kovalic’s eyes narrowed. Something was off. The way the man was moving was wrong; his steps were wavering, unsure. Like he’d been injured. As if on cue, he clutched the side of the bookcase nearest Kovalic, his gloved hand gripping the wood as if his life depended on it.
Again, take the pattern, and break it. Not only is this person doing a bad job of remaining inconspicuous, but something elseis off, too.
Hefting the book in his hand, Kovalic opened his mouth to speak his part of the sign/countersign when he was interrupted by a mumble from the man in the hat.
“It was the… worst of times…” The voice was strained, hoarse, as if each word were being dragged out of it. The man was leaning heavily against the bookshelf. All the hair on Kovalic’s neck stood to attention.
Worse and worse. Behind enemy lines. Bad weather. Untrained contact. Injured. Screwing up protocol. This is Not Good. If Kovalic, a highly trained operative is worried, we should be too.
Kovalic reached over and tugged the scarf down, recognizing the face that he’d seen in the dossier: wrinkled, pale, and jowly. But the man’s complexion was flushed, like he’d spent too long in the cold. Sweat beaded on his forehead, and his eyes had gone glassy. They met Kovalic’s briefly, but there was no recognition there – they were empty and unfocused. The man swayed briefly, then started to crumple. Kovalic stepped over quickly, easing him gently to the floor.
“Shit.” He pressed his fingers to the man’s neck. There was a pulse, but it was thready and irregular.
Tapper, having seen something was off, made his way back over to his boss.
“What the hell happened?” he asked, his eyes flitting between Kovalic and the man on the floor.
Kovalic shook his head. “It’s Bleiden, all right, but he’s sick or something.” His gut clenched. He supposed that it could have just been bad luck: maybe he’d gotten the flu that was going around. Maybe he’d eaten some bad shellfish. Weird coincidences happened all the time. [But weknow we’re reading a book, and in a book, we don’t have coincidences: we have plot.]
Then again, Kovalic had found himself rather attached to his life over the years, and part of what had kept him alive had been sweating the small stuff. He glanced up at Tapper. “See if this place has a first aid kit.”
Tapper nodded and headed towards the front of the shop. A few of the other customers were now eyeing them curiously, though none had made a move to intervene. [Not surprising — we’ve all seen something weird happened without stepping in.]
His eyes alit upon a tall, dark-haired man who was watching the scene with studied disinterest. Snapping his fingers, Kovalic got his attention. “You. Gimme a hand.”
The man looked almost surprised to be addressed, then reluctantly made his way over and crouched down by them.
“How’s your field medicine training, lieutenant?” Kovalic murmured.
The man’s expression morphed from confused to sharp so fast it was a wonder it didn’t give Kovalic whiplash.
“Rusty at best, sir,” said Aaron Page. “Is he wounded?”
And here’s the third member of our team, Aaron Page. Page’s introduction is a deliberate contrast to both Tapper and Kovalic’s. Page is very verygood at blending in. So much so that even the narrative seems not to recognize him at first. This is a good example of something that’s harder to get away with in a visual medium like TV or movies: we’d probably recognize the actor’s face.
Kovalic patted the man down, checking for any obvious sign of injury, but, as he’d suspected, there was nothing. “I’m thinking poison.”
Page’s eyebrows went up at the conjecture. “But that would mean…”
“…that he was compromised. And that they knew we were coming.”
Deeper and deeper, remember? It wasn’t a coincidence, and now the stakes are raised. The danger’s come from vague to specific: somebody’s onto them.
In an earlier draft of the book, Bleiden doesn’t even appear here — a decoy is sent in his place, but messes up the contact protocol, which triggers Kovalic and crew’s realization that they’ve been betrayed. But having Bleiden there, but dying, instead brings much more urgency to the plot, and cuts out an element that was distracting and potentially confusing.
Tapper chose that moment to reappear with two things: a small dingy looking medkit that might have been new when the sergeant was young, and a troubled expression. “Uh, boss? We got company.” He jerked his thumb back at the windows.
Of course – he should have known there’d be another shoe. [There’s always another shoe. Let’s amplify that last danger thread by making it not just specific, but imminent.]
“Armed response troops, with a few plainclothes running the show.”
Kovalic sucked in a breath through his teeth. “That’ll be Eyes. Well, shit.” He’d hoped they’d managed to fly under the radar of the Imperial Intelligence Services, but with his luck he clearly shouldn’t be buying lottery tickets anytime soon.
Tapper gestured at the shop. “Boss, this place is a kill zone. We gotta move.”
The danger’s coming to a head here. We’ve identified our threat: the Imperial Intelligence Services, or Eyes. (Because, you know, they spy on people. And there are a lot of I’s in their name.) Now it’s time for our characters to take action.
Page had taken the medkit from Tapper and unzipped it, and was now rifling through the contents. “Without knowing what they dosed him with, I’m not sure which antidote to administer.”
Kovalic rubbed his forehead. Saving Bleiden would be ideal, but at the moment even getting themselves out of here was starting to look like a tall order. “Lieutenant, talk to me about options, and make it quick. Sergeant, see if there’s a back door.” He nodded towards the rear of the shop, where a path snaked between two bookshelves. IIS wouldn’t be dumb enough to leave an exit uncovered, [Our antagonists are good at their jobs, which makes them even more dangerous] but if there was any chance of getting his team out of here, Kovalic needed to know the lay of the land.
Tapper disappeared towards the rear of the shop while Page pulled out a vial and an injector. “It’s mostly bandages and ointments, but there is a dose of epinephrine that’s only a few months past its expiration date. If whatever they gave him triggered anaphylactic shock, that might help.”
Well, if it didn’t, he’d probably be dead anyway. Kovalic nodded to Page, who locked the vial in place and, without much in the way of ceremony, stabbed it into the man’s thigh. There was a clickand the man jerked.
Kovalic looked over at Page. “How do we know if it wor–”
The man gasped and convulsed, his eyes springing open as he tried to sit up. [Every once in a while, interrupting sentences is fun and a good way to crank up urgency.]
Grabbing him by the shoulders, Kovalic held him steady. “Easy there.”
The man’s gaze swung wildly, seizing upon Kovalic. “Are you… Conductor?” he wheezed.
Protocol had gone out of the window by this point, so Kovalic just nodded. The man’s hand came up and gripped Kovalic’s arm tightly. His voice was strained again, and he fought to get each word past clenched teeth. “Eyes… watching me.” His grip curled Kovalic’s parka sleeve, insistent, and the colors of the display flickered and warped. “Important… meeting. Bayern. Three… days. Per–” [And here we have our hook. Something’s going on in three days on Bayern. And what was that last syllable? Hmmm. Maybe nothing? … But probably not.] Suddenly, his eyes rolled back into his head and he started convulsing again. White foam leaked from the edges of his mouth as his face twisted into a pained rictus. After a moment, he went limp. [Welp, we’re not going to get anything more out of him.]
Kovalic put a finger against his neck, but this time there wasn’t so much as a faint pulse. Gesturing to Page, they gently laid the man down on the floor. Kovalic closed the blank eyes and let out a long breath, hand over his mouth.
Tapper caught Kovalic’s eye from the back of the shop and jerked his head. There was an exit, then. He also raised five fingers and pointed them towards the rear. Five men watching it, probably waiting for the order to breach. [Again, the danger gets specific and imminent.] Kovalic waved him over.
“Shit,” said Tapper, glancing down at the body. “He didn’t make it?”
Kovalic shook his head. “But he gave us something – we just need to make sure it doesn’t go to waste.”
“What’s the plan?”
“I’m thinking we need to give the abort signal,” said Kovalic, raising his sleeve and tapping an icon on the display. A burst of static exploded directly into his earbud, eliciting a curse.
“Too late,” he said, tapping it off. “They’ve already set up a jamming field.”
Tapper shook his head. “Not good. Standard portable jammer has an effective radius of about twenty-five meters.”
Kovalic peered at the wall behind them, measuring in his head. “That easily covers the whole shop. And getting out of its range is going to mean fighting our way through whoever’s out there.”
So, now we’ve set a goal, but it comes with an obstacle. Kovalic and his team need to escape, but in order to call for help, they’ll need to get out of the jamming field, and our antagonists are in the way.
“So, maybe we don’t go through,” said Tapper, pointing a finger at the ceiling. “Maybe we go up?” [Our solution is to go…literally outside the box.]
Kovalic looked up. The shop occupied the ground floor, but the building was at least four or five stories tall. Not quite high enough to get them all the way out of the jamming field, but it didn’t need to be – there ought to be a comm array on the roof that they could hijack to boost the signal. He didn’t like the idea of being trapped on the roof, but it was better than walking out of here and into the Illyricans’ hands. He glanced at his sleeve; it had been five minutes since Bleiden had come in, and Eyes surely had the place surrounded by this point. They had to move now.
Keeping the tension moving means not spending too much time dithering about options, both for the protagonist and the writer. When in doubt, make them move.
“Did you find a set of stairs back there?”
“Not quite. But I think I’ve got something.”
Kovalic turned to Page. “Keep an eye on the situation here. Let me know if it looks like they’re about to breach.” The lieutenant acknowledged with a tip of his head. Kovalic followed Tapper to the rear of the shop, which turned out to be a small storeroom with a side door that looked like it hadn’t been used since the founding of the Illyrican Empire.
“Jesus, would it kill them to send in a building inspection team every once in a while?” said Tapper, kicking at a soggy cardboard box filled with decaying books. Slivers of paper launched into the air, fluttering to the ground like dying moths.
“We’ll have to come back and enforce the fire code some other time. Talk to me about this exit.”
“Right,” said Tapper. “That door lets into a side alley, which feeds into the street out front, but there’s also roof access via a fire escape – I caught it on my recce earlier. They’re using standard breach tactics, stacking up right here.” He nodded to the wall to the left of the door. A workbench sat against the brickwork there; they each took an end and managed to shift it away from the wall, disturbing a cloud of what was undoubtedly valuable antique dust.
Wiping his hands, Kovalic rifled through his pockets, but they were empty aside from his backup comm unit. Weapons were a liability more often than a benefit in these types of missions, though he was wishing he’d reconsidered that stance right about now. [A detail drop on Kovalic’s character: he’s a spy who doesn’t like to carry weapons. Not quite James Bond here.]
Tapper, meanwhile, had produced a fist-sized tube from his satchel and had set about drawing a rectangular outline in some sort of white substance onto the brick wall.
Kovalic blinked. “Do I even want to know where you got that?”
The older man chuckled. “You know me, boss. Always prepared. I know a guy around these parts who owed me a favor, and he justhappenedto have a spare tube of detpaste going to waste. Imagine that.”
Kovalic opened his mouth, then snapped it shut. Some people collected books. Others collected high explosives. Who was he to judge? [And just as quickly, we get a matching detail on Tapper. He’s more practical — and perhaps less ideological — than his boss.]
Finished with the outline, Tapper peeled an adhesive tab from the rear end of the tube, slapped it on his sleeve, and gave Kovalic a thumbs up.
Kovalic nodded and ducked back into the front room. At some point, the shop’s other patrons had begun to catch on to the fact that something was amiss – except for the shopkeeper, who had remained engrossed in the text he was studying and who, Kovalic was becoming increasingly convinced, was hard of hearing.
Instead of browsing the wares, the rest of the customers were eyeing Page, who had taken up a spot near the door, but clear of the windows just in case IIS had deployed sharpshooters. Though he was leaning casually against the wall and staring off into the middle distance, that seemed to have just made the rest of the shop’s patrons even more nervous. They’d huddled together, watching him, and every time one of them so much as shifted their weight, Page’s eyes would snap to them and he’d give a curt shake of the head.
Kovalic cleared his throat and addressed the room. “Ladies and gentlemen, may I have your attention?”
Half a dozen gazes shifted to him, so he put on his best calming smile.
“This is an IIS security action. I apologize for the inconvenience, and we’ll have you on your way in just a moment. In the meantime, if you could just seat yourselves against the far wall?”
Quite a few of them blanched at that announcement – nobody really likedthe Imperial Intelligence Services, but that didn’t extend to questioning or disobeying them. That was way too much heat for the average law-abiding citizen. Although none raised an argument as they shuffled over to the indicated wall.
The best kind of excuse: one that people aren’t going to question. And it’s technically true: This isan IIS security action…our protagonists are just on the wrong side of it. Both spycraft and writing are a little like aikido, taking advantage of your readers’ or opponents’ momentum to make them do the heavy lifting.
Tapper materialized at his shoulder. “We’re ready to go.”
“Good,” said Page, joining them. “Because they’re coming in.”
“In that case, exit, stage right.” Kovalic gave a last look over his shoulder at Bleiden’s body, lying limp against one of the bookshelves, and his lips thinned. But there was no time to linger on regrets – they had bigger problems. He looked up and pointed a finger at Tapper. The sergeant touched a blinking icon on his sleeve and there was a deep bass thump that rattled the antiques on their shelves.
Yanking open the door to the back room, they darted in. Particles of dust were floating everywhere, but, with the exception of the giant gaping hole in the wall, it was hard to say whether the back room was actually in worse shape than before. Wind and snow whistled in from the makeshift door.
The three men clambered over the rubble that lay in the threshold of the new door, finding themselves in a narrow alley between two tall buildings. In addition to the debris from the explosion, there were five armed response troops scattered about: two of them were down and not moving, apparently flattened by the explosion, while one was staggering to his feet. The last two had their hands clapped over their ears and were shaking their heads slowly. Carbines hung from slings over their shoulders, and pistols were holstered at their waist alongside a standard issue pair of grenades. Their heads were swathed in helmets, balaclavas, and goggles.
Kovalic pointed Tapper towards the one who was trying to get up. The sergeant jogged towards him, then dealt him a swift kick to the head that knocked him back to the ground. Page had already closed the distance to one of the two standing members of the team, delivering a knee to the gut that doubled the trooper over, followed by a sharp elbow to the back of the neck.
The last was standing against the opposite alley wall; he’d started to regain his balance, and when he saw Kovalic coming towards him he fumbled for his carbine. But he was clearly still reeling from the explosion’s concussion, and as Kovalic’s hand came around – still clutching the hardcover book he’d been perusing earlier – it clipped him just under the chin, slamming his helmeted head back into the brick wall with a satisfying thunk. [Knowledge is power. Plus a tip of the hat to that scene in The Bourne Ultimatum, where Matt Damon beats up a guy with a book.] Not enough to knock him out, but it would at least ring his bell. Kovalic gave him a kick to the ribs, just to make sure he’d stay down.
When it comes to fight scenes, you could do worse than that classic Thomas Hobbes quote about life: “nasty, brutish, and short.” I love a well-choreographed fight on TV or in film, but in this context, we have professionals who are working towards one end: incapacitating the enemy. They’re not in this for fancy moves.
Tapper had already liberated the weapons of the trooper he’d downed, slinging the carbine over one shoulder. He’d also grabbed a comm unit, and was starting to collect the grenades from the other troops as well. Page had likewise stripped another fallen trooper’s equipment, checking the magazine on the weapon before locking it back into place. [Again, showcasing the team’s practicality. Who needs weapons when you can just take them from someone else?]
“They’ll localize the explosion any second,” said Tapper. “We’d better make ourselves scarce.”
Kovalic looked around: the alley dead-ended here, but, as Tapper had said, there was a metal fire escape on the side of the building – so at least the fire code hadn’t been wholly ignored. The last flight was retracted, but with a short jump Kovalic pulled it down, clanging loudly to the ground.
“Go,” he said, gesturing at Page and Tapper. The two didn’t need any further encouragement as they scrambled up the ladder, Kovalic following close behind.
It was five stories to the top, navigating stairways that switched back and forth upon themselves as though they were sailing ships taking advantage of prevailing winds. Snowflakes bit at Kovalic’s face, which had already started to numb from the cold. Reaching the top, he swung himself over the small lip that ran around the edge of the roof.
The roof itself contained an extensive collection of venting pipes, an emergency exit, and – Kovalic let out a sigh of relief – a comm array. Page was already ripping the cover off its junction box. As Kovalic joined them, Tapper took up position at the top of the fire escape, waiting for their pursuers.
Kovalic hoped to be long gone by the time they showed up.
“Stay low,” he muttered to Tapper. “Eyes probably has snipers on the surrounding rooftops. No reason to make it easy on them.” [The danger hasn’t let up, remember. The pressure stays on.] The curtain of snow around them made it hard to even see the adjacent buildings, but in a sniper’s thermal scope they’d stand out like a parade float. [Resuscitating the weather threat from earlier.]
Tapper gave him a dry look. “Not my first dance, boss.”
“Just go get us our ride home.”
With a nod, Kovalic went to join Page at the comm array. The younger man had a multitool clenched between his teeth as he twisted a pair of wires together; he looked up when Kovalic arrived, and took the tool out of his mouth long enough to say, “Two minutes.” [You want danger to feel more pressing? Add a ticking clock.]
Running a hand through his snow-covered hair, Kovalic glanced over his shoulder at the fire escape. Two minutes might be pushing it, depending on how fast the rest of the shock troops figured out where they’d gone. That meant the three of them would have to hold the roof while waiting for pickup, which was made easier by the fact that they had the high ground, and much, much harder by the fact that they were severely outnumbered. [Way back in the first page or so, we established that the team is on enemy ground — well, now that threat is being delivered upon. They are, as the song goes, outgunned and outmanned.]
“Do what you can.”
Page didn’t bother to respond, just delved back into the mess of wiring. Kovalic returned to Tapper, who was at the top of the fire escape, sitting with his back against the low wall.
The older man gave him a searching look as he sat down. “What do you think, cap? We’re in it this time, for sure.”
“Come on,” said Kovalic, nudging the sergeant. “We’ve been in tougher spots before.”
Tapper pursed his lips. “I can think of maybe one,” he admitted. “But I wouldn’t exactly put it in the win column.”
Again, Kovalic and Tapper have a long relationship. They’ve been through a lot together. We don’t have to spell out exactly what Tapper is referring to here, but it is a veiled reference to something we’ll learn about later on.
“Hey, any fight you can walk away from.” [Hat tip to the old aviation chestnut, by way of Launchpad McQuack.]
The sergeant gave a noncommittal grunt and checked his purloined weapon again.
Sighing, Kovalic looked up at the sky; between the city lights, the blizzard, and the false night, the sky had turned gray with tinges of pink. On a clearer evening you’d have a nice view of Yalta, the gas giant that Sevastapol orbited – its rings were spectacular. [If you’re detecting a Crimean influence, you’re not wrong. Picking names is about imparting a tone and a feel.] Certainly a hell of a lot pleasanter than a snowstorm.
“Boss.” Tapper’s hiss broke his train of thought. The sergeant caught his eye, then nodded towards the fire escape. “They’re in the alley.”
Kovalic looked across the roof at Page. “How’s it going?” he called softly.
Without turning around, Page held up one hand with a single finger extended, then returned to his work. [Tick tock.]
“We’re going to have to buy him some more time,” said Kovalic, grimacing.
“I was hoping you’d say that,” said Tapper. He hefted two of the grenades that he’d taken from the downed response officer below, then pulled the pins on both and lobbed them casually over the wall. [Again, we’re drawing the character of Tapper in strokes. He’s an old hand who enjoys the fight, especially if it involves explosives.] Distantly, Kovalic heard them clink to the ground, followed by an exclamation of surprise that was cut short by a pair of explosions that echoed back up to them. [Time bought; the clock is on hold.]
Leaving Tapper to watch the fire escape, Kovalic crossed over to Page, keeping his head low. “Page?”
The younger man pulled a circuit board from one slot, slid it into another, then slammed the junction box closed and handed Kovalic his own sleeve, which he’d peeled off and attached to the box by a pair of jury-rigged wires. The display rippled and blinked but showed a solid signal.
“Good work, lieutenant,” said Kovalic. He punched in a code and opened the channel, patching it to his earbud. “Skyhook, this is Conductor. Copy?”
For me, codenames really add to the spy flavor. James Bond using his real name all the time has always struck me as ridiculous — no real covert spy would do that.
A buzz of static flooded the channel, but a moment later a somewhat broken-up voice cut through. “Copy, Conductor. Three by three.”
“Roger. This is an abort. Repeat: abort. Immediate extraction required at source coordinates.”
“Sigma nine seven five.”
“Confirmed. Skyhook en route, ETA three minutes.”
“Best news I’ve heard all day. Heads up, the EZ is hot.” [Jargon is a spice: it can add flavor, especially in dialog, but don’t overdo it.]
“Acknowledged, captain. See you in a jiffy.” The comm beeped as the link was disconnected.
Kovalic looked up at his two teammates, but both of them had heard the conversation. “Three minutes to hold?” [The clock gets reset.]
Page raised his eyebrows. “Not going to be easy.”
“When is it ever?” Tapper said.
“Hey,” said Kovalic, with a shrug. “It could be wor–”
A shot pinged off the brickwork just behind him, sending shards flying in every direction. [It’s worse.]
“Down!” All three men hit the deck.
Kovalic rolled over to look at Page.
“High-caliber sniper rifle,” the lieutenant said, cool as a frosty beverage on a summer day. “Impact point suggests it came from over there.” He nodded in the direction of the next building over. There was a hiss and a sizzle, and Kovalic saw a shower of sparks cascade from the junction box, which had apparently caught part of the sniper round. Well, they wouldn’t be making any more calls. [No communication, and they’re pinned down. Hot water, indeed.]
“We’re going to need suppressing fire when Skyhook gets here,” said Tapper.
“Congratulations. You’ve just volunteered.”
“And I wondered how I always end up with the best jobs.”
Kovalic looked over at the fire escape. Tapper’s grenades had evidently thrown them into a bit of a disarray below, given that nobody had tried to come up and over yet. Still, they couldn’t count the rest of the armed response troops out of the fight. The net was being drawn fast.
Which was fine, as long as they weren’t in it when it closed. Bleiden’s intelligence might have been scant, but it was going to live or die with them.
And here’s the real rub: It’s not just our characters’ lives we care about here. It’s the vital intelligence they’ve recovered about that meeting on Bayern. Think of Rogue One, where our characters risk everything to get the secret data they’ve stolen off the planet. Here, there’s no way to transmit it, so our two goals become one: The characters need to escape if that intel’s going to make a difference.
“Two minutes. Page, hold off the sniper. Tapper, on three, suppressing fire into the alley.”
“Copy that,” said Tapper.
Sucking in a lungful of air, Kovalic steadied himself. “One… two… three.”
Page lifted his weapon, and sent a series of bursts in the direction the shot had come from. Simultaneously, Tapper and Kovalic popped over the low wall and fired down into the alley, the shots singing against the bricks and metalwork. A few muzzle flashes signalled return shots, but at this range and angle they were little more than blind fire.
After a few seconds, all three men slid down with their backs against the wall again.
“How long on the clock?” Tapper asked.
“Minute and a half,” said Kovalic. [Tick tock!] “We should be able to see him.” He scanned the sky in the direction that he was pretty sure was south, but the storm made it hard to see more than a few meters off the roof. The snowflakes kept flying into his eyes, refracting what little illumination there was from the streetlights below and the one flickering star above.
“Heads up! One o’clock high!”
Tapper and Page’s heads both swiveled to follow Kovalic’s glance.
“You sure that’s him?” the sergeant asked.
“If it isn’t, then we are in a hell of a lot more trouble.”
Which, of course, they could be, because as I’ve pointed out, the key is to keep making things worse. But clearly we need to cut our characters a break here: Time to throw ‘em a rope.
As the light came closer it resolved into a pair of points – two headlights – blinking rapidly on and off, in a very specific pattern. The whooshing noise of the engines was audible now, reaching them at a delay, given the craft’s speed.
“That’s him,” said Kovalic. “Sergeant, the signaling laser if you please.”
Tapper fumbled in his bag, then pulled out a small device about the size of a pen, and flicked it on and off rapidly, in the same pattern that the ship had blinked its lights. The headlights blinked again in confirmation.
“Suppressing fire again,” said Kovalic, circling a finger in the air. “Let’s keep the area clear for him. One… two–”
He never reached three, as a brilliant column of light descended from the heavens, piercing through the gray veil of snow and striking the incoming ship dead center. A fireball ignited in the sky, sizzling through the snowstorm. A moment later the sound of the explosion and the accompanying shockwave hit, blowing back Kovalic’s hair even at this distance.
And then we YANK that rope right out of their hands. They thought they were saved, but now their only lifeline has just been blown out of the sky. Shit just got real.
This moment is the one that drives the chapter for me and it was one of the first images in my head when I started writing. The utter helplessness of our heroes: stuck behind enemy lines, watching their only chance at escape go up in flames.
And then, in its wake, a sound of emptiness so loud it almost threatened to deafen him.
“Holy shit,” breathed Tapper. “I thought the fake transponder–”
Kovalic swallowed, his mouth suddenly parched. “They must have found out from Bleiden.” Though how heknew, Kovalic couldn’t imagine. [Dropping some breadcrumbs here — how were they betrayed? It’s not important right now, though. Right now, they have to survive.]
From below came indistinct shouts and the rattle of feet on metal. [All those dangers that we thought we were about to escape have just become even more pressing.]
“Boss,” whispered Tapper, “they’re coming. We need to go.”
Go? Go where? Their escape route had just been blown out of the sky. If IIS had identified the ship before destroying it, they’d have all the IDs his team had used to get on planet. Which meant they needed new ones – and that meant time. And a place to hole up.
We don’t want to give our characters too long to take a breath, but we do need to re-contextualize the situation. Their last objective was getting to the roof and aborting their mission, but now the goalposts have moved.
He took a deep breath. Roll with it, he reminded himself. [Readers of my first book, The Caledonian Gambit, might recognize this as Kovalic’s mantra.] First things first: getting off the roof.
“Page,” he said, catching the lieutenant’s eye. “How far to the next roof?” He nodded in the direction opposite from where the sniper had taken his shot.
The younger man shrugged. “Three meters, but it’s down. Doable.” More challenging, it meant jumping the alley where the troopers – and their many weapons – were currently hanging out. [Nothing’s ever easy.]
Kovalic nodded at him. “You first. Tapper and I will cover for you.”
Page didn’t question the order, just nodded and got to his feet. [Another detail for Page: he’s not only extremely competent and a natural operative, as we’ve seen, but he’s a consummate officer who follows orders.] Crouching, he got some distance from the edge of the roof and then looked at Kovalic expectantly.
With a nod, Kovalic raised one finger. Then a second. Then a third. At the third finger, Page took off, sprinting for the edge of the roof. As his foot planted on the low wall, Tapper and Kovalic swung their guns over the side, and fired off a few bursts towards the alley.
There was at least one thwackas a round struck home on body armor, followed by a grunt and a clatter as the trooper hit the deck. Out of the corner of his eye, Kovalic saw Page land and roll on the opposite roof and then spring up again, flashing them a thumbs up.
“You next, old man,” said Kovalic.
Tapper looked like he wanted to argue, but years of taking orders won out and he just gave a silent nod, then followed Page’s example. This time there were plenty of rounds flying upwards, [Foreshadowing the risks. They’re still being shot at] but with both Kovalic and Page providing cover fire from opposite sides of the gap nobody had time to draw a bead on Tapper. The sergeant didn’t stick the landing quite as gracefully as his compatriot, but Page helped him to his feet and the two waited for their commanding officer.
Kovalic rolled his neck, and then tightened the cinch on the gun’s strap. He crept towards the same place Page and Tapper had started their run, and took a deep breath. Then, counting silently to himself, he pushed off and sprinted all out to the edge.
The scariest part of making a jump was that moment of commitment: planting a foot and pushing off, floating over the void. As long as you didn’t hesitate, you’d be fine. You just had to trust that you’d make it. It had to be automatic, instinctive.
Kovalic didn’t think twice as his foot went down and his leg muscle tensed, sending him up and off the edge of the roof, arcing over the alley. He saw the roof of the neighboring building in front of him, and relief washed over him as he realized he’d make it with room to spare. [Like Kovalic hanging in midair, we’re about to let out that breath we’ve been holding…]
And then the biggest bee in the history of the universe bit him right in the shoulder, sending surprise and, shortly thereafter, stabbing pain through his whole torso. A split-second later he dimly registered the crack of a rifle report. Then he was just falling.
Oh no, he didn’t make it! Suspense! We’ve got to end our chapter leaving the reader wanting to turn the page and figure out what befalls — if you’ll excuse the term — our hero. Even if we are relatively confident he’s not going to die — he’s the main character, after all, and killing him in the first chapter seems particularly brutal — there have to be consequences. Plus, we still have that critical intelligence to report, and to do that, the team has to get off the planet. Buckle in, friends, because there are plenty of chapters left.