Unsuitable Worlds – An Undead Manuscript

Unsuitable Worlds by Graham EdwardsEvery fiction writer has a trunk full of broken manuscripts. Most of mine are sad, lifeless things. But a few are different. Neither dead nor alive, they dwell in purgatory. They are the Undead Manuscripts.

Unsuitable Worlds is a space opera that never got finished. It was inspired by the epic science fiction novels I devoured as a teenager, and is to some degree derivative of them. That’s one of the reasons I never finished it. But there are aspects of the story that I still love, and a vibe that I may yet revisit, either by rebooting this project or by using it as a springboard to jump higher.

Here’s the beginning of Chapter One of Unsuitable Worlds. Make of it what you will. There’s a link to the the complete chapter at the bottom of this post.

Unsuitable Worlds – Chapter One

The One You Don’t See Coming

1

‘The planet looks good to me,’ said Kate’s passenger.

His face was hard up against the porthole, his breath misting the scratched plexy. But Kate wasn’t interested in him.

She gazed up at the planet. It hung above the shuttle like a miracle. She drank it in: vast continents, a spiralling storm, the long shadow of the dawn. Near the equator bright fire flashed: a meteor dashing itself against the atmosphere like a boat against rocks. Somewhere beneath the clouds was a jungle. Kate sighed: she was missing the place already.

Kate curled up her toes inside her boots. Alien soil scratched – a delicious sensation. Going barefoot was strictly against the rules, of course, but she reckoned it was a perk of the job. Why bother with a touchdown at all, if you didn’t actually make contact? Besides, it only took a moment to put a Seal in position. Plenty of time to go walkabout. Anyway, she’d be weightless again soon enough; zero-g could drag you down harder than any world.

Especially an unsuitable world.

‘So you’ve actually landed on it?’ said the man in the passenger seat. His voice was an unwelcome interruption.

Kate faced a choice: reply to the little squirt or make mischief. She chose the latter and jerked the yoke hard to starboard. Her passenger’s head cracked against the porthole.

‘Ow … why did you do …?’

‘Sorry,’ said Kate. ‘Orbit’s lousy with rocks. Won’t be the first meteor you’ll see.’

‘Yes, but …’

‘You should buckle up. Ride’ll get snappier yet.’

Grumbling, Apprentice Watcher Pierre Latesse tightened his straps. Kate spun the shuttle so the sun punched through the porthole and across his face. Latesse winced.

‘Doesn’t this kettle have automatic shades?’ he said.

‘Not a priority,’ said Kate. ‘Long as Alamo keeps the motors running I’m happy. Niceties take care of themselves.’

‘You have niceties?’

‘You’d be surprised.’

‘I’m surprised you’ve Sealed the planet: it looks splendid.’

‘It’s unsuitable. Micado writes it off, the pigeon flies, Heritage strikes another one off the list.’

‘Hmm. Well, perhaps I got here just in time.’

‘Matter of opinion,’ muttered Kate, twisting the yoke hard to port. ‘There she is.’

The planet fell aside. Ahead, bright against the blackness, a squat yellow deep-ship rolled into view. Suddenly, perversely, Kate wanted nothing more than to be aboard. Deep down she loved the old crate.

Kate spiked the motor and the yellow ship grew big, fast. She angled the shuttle towards the docking carapace. Her muscles remembered the moves; they’d performed the manoeuvre often enough. She relaxed and let them work.

From the corner of her eye she observed the Fleet man.

He was young and officious. He lacked both a beard and a chin to hang it on. He was greasy. Kate was unimpressed. His hands fascinated her though. His right hand hovered constantly around his face, pulling his lip, touching his eyebrow, rubbing his chin: a nervous hand. No wonder his forehead shone. His other hand was buried in his pocket; it too was restless.

Typical Fleet greenhorn: first sight of an alien dawn and he’s massaging up a handful of morning glory.

Like all Watchers, Kate’s passenger only had one eye – the left. The right-hand socket was filled with a froth of artificial lenses. Cilia stuck like fly-hairs from between the little lenses; the cilia wiggled as they sniffed the air. With his various senses – some human, some not – the Watcher scanned the deep-ship’s battered shell. Kate squirmed: it felt like he was scrutinising her own skin.

Okay, so she’s beat up. So would you be after sixteen months in the deep.

She left the deceleration late, savouring her passenger’s panic as the carapace rushed at them. At the last minute she stamped on the retros, throwing them both against their straps. A sharp thud sounded as the shuttle thunked into its cradle. Outside the porthole, hoses whiplashed into waiting sockets. New air flooded the stale cabin. The air tasted different, but it was hardly fresh.

Through the rear-quarter porthole, Kate could still see the limb of the planet. Beside it hovered the sled from which she’d just ferried the Fleet man. As she watched, the carapace doors folded shut, blocking the view.

Kate wondered how much trouble her passenger intended to stir up. A lot, she thought dismally. I guess they had to catch up with us sooner or later. It’s all up to you now, Cane.

Latesse removed his left hand from his pocket. Kate stared at the old-fashioned tap-pad he’d been hiding. His fingers were dancing across the keys.

‘Surprised?’ he said. ‘I like to make thorough notes. Why, what did you think I had in there?’

‘You don’t want to know,’ said Kate, starting the airlock cycle. ‘Flight’s over, mister. Time to meet and greet.’

The Fleet man gave Kate a smile she didn’t like. She tried not to look at his artificial eye. ‘I know all about you,’ he said. ‘I know quite a lot about all of you. I’ve done my research.’

While a scowling Kate broke the seal on the airlock, Pierre Latesse’s fingers continued to type out the first chapter of his report on the Expansion Fleet Coupe d’oeil-class Deep-Space Surveyor CO6527 Liana.

2

Through a porthole set high in the Liana’s dorsal shell, Cane Sawyer watched Kate plough the shuttle into the carapace. He flinched on the ship’s behalf and wondered if the Fleet man was a nervous flier.

If he wasn’t beforehand, he will be now. Twenty minutes with Kate Souljammer’s enough to give anybody nightmares.

Actually Cane was glad to see the shuttle safely back. Kate had been down on the planet a day longer than planned. He knew she liked to make touchdown – it was why, against protocol, he let her go alone. Kate Souljammer was a wild bird; after weeks cooped up in the ship she needed to spread her wings.

But this time it was different. This time she’d seemed more desperate for release than ever. That expression on her face, just before she’d launched the shuttle. For a minute Cane had wondered if she was planning to come back at all. The thought of never seeing Kate again made him shudder.

‘Captain Sawyer?’

Cane turned to see the Liana’s navigator loitering in the circular cabin hatchway.

‘Just call me Cane, Iss.’

‘Oh yes, of course. I keep forgetting.’

And I keep wanting to punch you on the nose.

Iss gripped the hatchway rim. ‘Can I come in?’

Isembard Black was big enough to fill most rooms he entered – not exactly fat, more spherical, and solid with it. That wasn’t the only reason Cane wanted to keep him outside.

‘Give me five to myself, Iss. I’ll see you on the bridge.’

‘Uh, I don’t think this can wait.’

‘The bridge, Iss. Five minutes.’

Iss clenched and unclenched his jaw. His eyes roved, never settling. He shoved violently off the hatch rim and drifted away down the long cylinder of the companionway; the thin wall panels sang like drumskins as he pushed himself along. Coming or going, Iss liked to be noticed.

The trouble with Iss was he wanted to run the ship. But Cane was in charge, if only by default. Sometimes Cane thought maybe he should hand over command of the Liana to Iss. It would solve a lot of problems.

But that was nothing to the problems it would create.

It’s tough at the top, Iss, Cane thought, opening the captain’s desk – his desk now, as he still had to remind himself. I never knew just how tough until now.

From the desk, Cane pulled an oilcloth wrap. He unlaced the wrap to expose an antique gun with a handgrip the colour of pearl. The grip was inlaid with silver. The silver gleamed against his black skin.

Cane hefted the gun, appreciating its mass, then tucked it into his belt.

Cane checked the porthole again: the carapace doors were closed, which meant their guest was probably aboard by now. Standing, Cane adjusted his jacket to conceal the gun. He ran his hand over the top of his head, enjoying the rasp of the stubble.

He flew down the companionway towards the bridge.

4

Just a year ago, Cane Sawyer had been the Liana’s nominal second-in-command. Nominal because nobody could believe then that Captain Dieter Smith wouldn’t live forever. They believed it now, of course.

Dieter Smith had been more archetype than man: square-jawed and sure, the perfect choice to guide a Fleet surveyor through the unknown deep. And they’d all loved Dieter, because – as long as they obeyed him when it came to the crunch – he’d let them do their own thing.

Dieter would let Kate take off in the shuttle whenever the mood took her; he’d let Iss play with the twister settings, testing the Liana’s long-range motors to the limit on even the simplest inter-world run; he’d let Alamo customise the shell to his heart’s content. In short, Dieter had indulged them all. Including Cane.

A geographer by training, Cane was theoretically part of the Liana’s Knowledge department. It was his job to map the new worlds they were out here to classify. In practice, Tia Micado did all that. She worked the numbers on gravity and climate, measured the proportion of land against ocean, turned a thousand hostility/equability factors into colourful graphs. That suited Cane. He preferred a more creative approach.

Cane’s cabin was a zero-g mess: a drifting collision of brightboards and old-fashioned canvases, half-finished models of alien terrains, a hundred artistic works-in-progress. Cane’s hands were always splashed with pigment; sculpting foam always clogged his fingernails. Until he’d joined the Fleet, art had been just a hobby. Out here, in the deep, he’d found his muse.

Dieter would often come to Cane’s cabin to watch him paint. After a companionable silence, Dieter would start talking about the world floating outside the porthole. Usually he’d be agonising over the decision they were here to make: is this a suitable world for human colonisation? Will we mark this world for scouring?

‘Scouring’s just another word for rape,’ Dieter would say. ‘What gives us the right?’

‘It’s our job,’ Cane would reply. ‘People have to live somewhere.’

‘But it’s such a beautiful world.’

Cane would listen, and sketch the view, and Dieter would admire his work, and then leave with a sad smile on his face. And then, regardless of Micado’s recommendation, he would order the planet to be Sealed.

Thus Cane came to think of himself – or rather his artworks – as Dieter’s silent conscience. Which suited him. Because, though he never said so aloud, actually he agreed with every word Dieter said.

And, suitable or not, the worlds really were beautiful. All of them.

Soon they were Sealing practically every planet they visited, whatever its merits as a world of opportunity for settlers. Which meant they weren’t achieving their quota, which meant they were breaking Fleet rules. Micado fought Dieter over his defiance, insisting they Mark at least some of the planets they visited. But Dieter overruled her every time. Sometimes their arguments lasted for days. But they always made up in bed.

Dieter’s defiance meant something else too, something they all knew: sooner or later, the Fleet would catch up with them.

This was knowledge they could live with because, out here in the deep, the Fleet seemed far away. And all of them – except the ever-loyal Iss, of course – embraced the idea they were outlaws. Dieter, especially, thrived on it. As for Cane – wasn’t every artist meant to be a rebel?

Until, one day, without any warning, Dieter put a bolt-gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.

I’ve killed too many worlds, Dieter’s suicide note had read. I’ve tried to make amends but it can never be enough. I can’t see another path.

They’d carried on where Dieter left off. What else could they do? In her grief for her lost lover, Tia Micado took up his baton. She locked herself in her Knowledge blister and went Seal-crazy, refusing ever to Mark another world.

The crew supported Cane’s automatic promotion to captain. All except Iss. Cane himself hated the idea. But he hated the idea of taking orders from Iss even less.

‘It’s only ‘til the end of the tour,’ he said when he moved out of his cabin and into Dieter’s. ‘And it’s what’s Dieter wanted. He said so, in his note.’

And so they went on, doing what they’d always done. Cane stopped painting and started running the ship. Running a quiet little rebellion against a greedy employer. Even without Dieter, it seemed to make sense.

But as time passed and the end of the tour loomed, Cane began more and more to wonder what the hell he was doing. He hated being in command. He hated making decisions. He hated the way Kate looked to him for orders. He wondered what she’d do if he ordered her to kiss him.

Most of all, he wondered what kind of reception committee would greet them when they finally returned to the Expansion Fleet hub on Heritage.

Now he didn’t have to worry about that any more: the Expansion Fleet had come to them … (continues – click here to read the complete chapter)

Unsuitable Worlds extract copyright © Graham Edwards 2009

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