As a teenager, I read a lot of science fiction: Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Niven, Bradbury, the list goes on. I later grew tired of the genre, only to fall in love with it all over again when I discovered Iain M Banks. So it was inevitable that one day I’d try writing a space opera of my own.
Unsuitable Worlds is a partial manuscript I wrote between 2006 and 2009. I say “partial” because it comprises only the first two-thirds of a novel. I laboured long and hard with it, but I kept sabotaging myself by adding ever more convoluted sub-plots to what was a relatively simple story. Like a malignant tumour, the narrative grew and grew until it had to be surgically removed from my writing life.
But part of me still loves it, this twitching thing that continues to squat at the back of an archive folder on my laptop’s hard drive. Occasionally it glares at me with malevolent eyes, challenging me not to dismiss it as unresolved, derivative pap. Like all of my Undead Manuscripts, its crude heart still beats with something resembling life.
Here’s the complete first chapter of Unsuitable Worlds:
Unsuitable Worlds – Chapter One
The One You Don’t See Coming
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
‘So there’s rocks out there. So steer round them.’
‘It isn’t as simple as that, Kate, as well you know.’
‘Not as simple as you, Iss, that’s for sure.’
‘I’m telling you evasive manoeuvres aren’t enough. We need to raise our orbit.’
‘Give me the yoke, I’ll show you what we need.’
‘The Liana’s mine, Kate. You keep practising with the shuttle and maybe one day you’ll be allowed to fly one of the big grown-up ships.’
‘Size matter to you, Iss? From what I heard …’
Iss began levering his spherical body out of the helm. It was like watching a clam trying to squirm out of its shell. Kate considered knocking Iss unconscious before he could free his legs.
‘As a matter of form, Iss,’ said Cane, appearing from the conduit connecting the bridge to the companionway, ‘there’s no hitting ladies on Fleet vessels.’
‘Show me a lady and I’ll make a point of not hitting her,’ muttered Iss. But he wriggled back into the helm all the same.
‘As for you, Kate,’ Cane continued, ‘you should know better. Especially when we’ve got company.’
‘Company?’ said Kate. ‘Oh, you mean the Watcher, captain?’
‘Don’t call me “captain”.’
‘Don’t fret – I parked him back in the …’
Pierre Latesse’s soft, round face appeared behind Cane. Like Kate, he was smiling; but his single human eye was cold.
‘Next time you want a Watcher out of the way, Miss Souljammer,’ said Latesse. ‘You’d better just shoot him and be done with it.’
‘I mostly take orders from my captain,’ said Kate, grinning. ‘But if you insist.’
‘That’s enough,’ said Cane. ‘Kate, refuel the shuttle, please.’
‘Motor’s still hot.’
‘Then cool it, Kate.’
Her grin faded. ‘Aye, sir.’
Tossing a final scowl at Iss, Kate left the bridge.
What Kate had said was true: whatever Cane’s feelings about being captain, when he gave Kate orders she mostly followed them. Mostly. But there was a mutual thing going on: Kate did what she was told; Cane ignored her more creative interpretations of the rulebook. Like going barefoot in an alien jungle. In that respect, Cane’s style wasn’t really so different to Dieter’s.
Trouble is, Dieter didn’t think he loved you.
Kate pressed a hand against her breast pocket. The leaf was soft and cool beneath the fabric.
Instead of heading aft to the shuttle, Kate slipped through a small lockdown hatch into a service vent. Handgrips took her into the narrow cavity between the bridge wall and the shell of the ship. She squeezed between cables and bulkheads until she reached a ventilation grille. It was hot and greasy. The air was rank. Things felt loose.
Hang in there, old lady, thought Kate, touching a run of perished insulation. Some day we’ll all retire.
Peering through the grille, Kate found herself looking into the bridge. On the other side of the grille, just a hand’s breadth away, was the back of Latesse’s head. His hair was greasy.
At the helm, Cane was peering at a schematic of the Liana’s orbit.
‘Bear with me, Mister Latesse,’ Cane was saying. ‘I’ll be with you in just a minute. There’s something I have to discuss with my navigator first.’
‘Don’t mind me,’ said the Watcher.
Kate imagined Latesse’s hand in his pocket, still working that damned tap-pad. She wondered why he bothered with such an antiquated device when he was carrying a camera in his head. She also wondered why she hadn’t just pitched him into the deep halfway through the taxi run.
Iss thumbed the scope. Red dots appeared, right across the orbit, in their thousands.
‘These are just the rocks we can track,’ said Iss. ‘They might look pretty when they hit the atmosphere but, believe me, you won’t be smiling when one of them punches a hole in the air-scrubber.’
‘Tia says she needs this low orbit to complete her scans.’ Cane sighed. ‘Can’t we just work round the rocks?’
‘What do you think I’ve been doing these last four days? The trouble is, the lower we are, the higher the odds of getting hit. And the meteor activity’s increasing. Tia says we’ve slipped inside an old comet tail. If Captain Smith were here he would have …’
‘Can you just dodge the rocks for another day?’
‘Oh, I’ll do my job. But it’s the one you don’t see coming that gets you.’
‘I’ll bear that in mind.’
Latesse coughed. ‘Your captain is right, Mister Black,’ he said. ‘Or should I call you Isembard? Your record says you’re quite the Fleet man. Well, as I’m sure you’re aware, Fleet orders require you to hold station in this orbit until the Knowledge scans are complete.’
‘I know that,’ snapped Iss, ‘If you’re looking for people who buck the system maybe you should …’
‘That’s enough, Iss,’ said Cane. He crossed to the conduit hatch. ‘Mister Latesse, maybe you’d like to see the rest of the ship?’
Instead of following Cane, Latesse suddenly spun round to face Kate. Kate’s heart stuttered. She closed her eyes and held her breath.
When nobody hauled her from her hiding place, Kate opened her eyes again. Latesse wasn’t looking at her after all, but through a porthole set right beside the grille behind which she was hiding. Kate let out her breath, slow and quiet.
‘This planet …’ said Latesse. He was close enough for Kate to see a nervous twitch in the corner of his human eye. ‘Captain Sawyer, what would you say about its suitability?’
‘I’ll stand by Micado’s report,’ said Cane. He glanced at Iss, but the navigator’s head was buried in his scope. ‘She says it’s unsuitable. Kate landed a Seal there this morning.’
‘But you must have your own views. A gut feeling. You do have guts, don’t you, Captain Sawyer?’
Cane had dropped his hand to where his jacket fell in folds over his belt. Kate saw a bulge that shouldn’t have been there. She peeled her lips back from her teeth, stifling a gasp.
‘Guts?’ said Cane. ‘Oh yes.’
‘Hmm,’ said Latesse, still with his back to Cane. ‘Because the planet looks like terraforming fodder to me. Temperatures well within the bracket, good continent-to-ocean ratio, stable orbit. It just needs a light scouring to clear the biosphere. I’m surprised your Knowledge Officer has found cause to reject it.’
‘I never second-guess Micado. She knows her business.’
Behind the grille, Kate held herself rigid. The film of sweat on Latesse’s brow proved his confidence was a sham. Well-informed as he was, the Watcher was scared.
‘I’ve been reading up on you, Captain Sawyer,’ said Latesse. ‘You haven’t exactly been meeting your targets, have you?’
‘We can’t Mark the worlds if the worlds aren’t right.’
‘But who’s to say they’re wrong?’
‘Micado knows her business.’
‘I’m sure she does. She’s very experienced. A long and illustrious career. She used to be one of the Red Thinking Elite, I believe. So, how do you explain this: in the past twenty-three months of this tour, out of fifty-seven planets visited, you have Marked only one for scouring. One!’
‘Like I said – if the worlds aren’t right.’ Cane shrugged.
Latesse cocked his head. ‘It’s a year now since your predecessor committed suicide, isn’t it? How do you feel you’ve adapted to the pressures of command?’
Cane didn’t answer. He pressed his hand against the bulge beneath his jacket. Kate was sure it was a gun. At any other time she’d have been astonished. But she’d been distracted by something Latesse had said – something that had stopped her dead.
Micado – one of the Red Thinking Elite!
How had that one slipped past her? Even after all this time in the deep together, still there were secrets. Mind you, if anyone was well-placed to keep secrets it was the Liana’s Knowledge Officer. But … the Reds!
Time you and I had a little chat, Tia Micado, Kate thought. Got some questions I’d like to ask you.
Latesse was still talking. ‘Captain Smith was a known subversive. Perhaps you’re just following in his footsteps. Your record notes your … bohemian tendencies.’
‘Dieter had his problems,’ said Cane. ‘Don’t we all? By the way, while we’re talking about problems, Mister Apprentice Watcher, what did you do to get yourself posted all the way out here? I can’t imagine anyone volunteering for a barrel-bottom mission like this. Did you upset someone higher up the food chain?’
Latesse flinched. In his pocket, his fingers stopped tapping. ‘I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.’
Direct hit, thought Kate. Time enough for Micado’s secret history later. And her own, for that matter. Silently she applauded her captain. Not bad for a wild shot.
‘Uh, Cane?’ Iss started turning dials on his overhead.
‘Five minutes, Iss,’ said Cane, his eyes fixed on Latesse. ‘Then I’m all yours.’
‘If you think I’m going to stand for…’ began Latesse.
‘Cane, I …’
‘Iss, I said wait…’
‘… I’m going to file a report on you that will …’
Kate jumped. Cane jerked his hand from where it rested on the gun. Iss’s overhead was a bank of solid red. ‘What is it, Iss?’
Iss pointed out of the forward porthole.
‘There. I warned you. We didn’t see it coming.’
The rock was round and flat and spinning fast, like a stone skimmed across a pond. Edge-on to the ship, it was all but invisible until the last minute. The automatics picked it up but the scopes were so cluttered Iss had missed the proximity alert.
The rock hit the Liana astern. The cut was clean, almost surgical. It bisected the entire deep-motor assembly, shattering the delicate twister petals and sending them spiralling away from the ship like seeds on the wind. Fuel burst in a vast, shining cloud of vapour. Destabilised, the motor core began to disintegrate.
The impact set the Liana spinning. As she tumbled, shrapnel sprayed from her injured stern. The core of the crippled deep-motor began to glow white-hot.
Automatic detonators broke the slender waist connecting the deep-motor to the rest of the ship. Detonators like these were fitted as standard to most deep-ships: twister petals were notoriously unstable.
The amputated motor drifted clear. It revolved slowly in the harsh sunlight, gaining distance, finally breaking up as the core collapsed in on itself. The deep-motor’s remains joined the rest of the wreckage glittering in the hard sunlight around the Liana, which was turning more slowly now as Iss gradually regained control. As soon as he’d confirmed the short-motors were still working, Iss fired them up and the Liana limped clear of the debris field.
Beneath her, a shower of meteors turned gold in the planet’s upper atmosphere. The fire was briefly beautiful. Then the meteors were gone.
‘Meet Alamo,’ said Kate. ‘He’s our shellman. He’ll be taking your ship apart.’
Latesse stared at the oil-streaked engineer who’d joined them in the carapace. ‘I don’t understand,’ he said. ‘I thought you were prepping the shuttle to take me back. As soon as my sled gets me back to Heritage I’ll request a repair team on your behalf. You’ll only be stranded here a month or two.’
‘We’re prepping the shuttle,’ said Cane. ‘But you won’t be on it, Mister Latesse.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Repeats hisself, don’t he?’ said Alamo, rubbing filthy hands through sparse hair. ‘You set, Kate?’
‘You bet,’ said Kate. ‘Got your tools?’
‘Always.’ Alamo tapped the bandolier slung round his chest. Metal tools and electronic gadgets poked from numerous pouches on the bandolier. Alamo’s toolkit looked heavier than Alamo himself. The shellman looked even bigger than Iss, although he wasn’t. It was the muscles.
Kate sometimes teased Cane about flying with giants.
‘Tall girls and big guys,’ she’d say. ‘Even before you reckon her payload the Liana’s at maximum weight.’
‘Don’t blame me,’ Cane would reply. ‘Dieter chose the crew. I’m just stuck with them.’
Iss was a pain but Kate loved flying with Alamo. He made her feel safe. Also, put him in an EVA suit, he turned into a gymnast. If the shuttle broke with Alamo aboard, he’d just tow it home.
Latesse stared at the big shellman, then at Kate, then at the captain. Hidden in his pocket, the Watcher’s left hand manipulated the tap-pad with a fury. His eyes were wide and cold; sweat shone on his brow.
‘You can put down whatever you like on your report,’ said Cane. ‘But we’re taking that sled.’
The shuttle – whose whale-belly hung over them like a natural history exhibit – was still on the long power-down from Kate’s touchdown run. Without warning, it belched exhaust fumes into the bay. When the fumes cleared, Kate saw that Latesse had taken his hand from his pocket. It was holding not the tap-pad but a sleek and dainty pistol. Moving with surprising speed, Latesse darted behind Kate and pointed the pistol at her head. His hand was shaking.
‘As I explained,’ said Latesse, ‘I have orders to review the progress of your tour and report back on any irregularities, with particular attention to your poor Mark rate. I’ve been aboard for two hours and I’ve already recorded everything I need to know. Now take me back to my sled.’
Alamo selected a heavy link-spanner from his bandolier. Cane waved him back and opened his jacket. The pearl-handled gun gleamed like a jewel. Slow and calm, Cane withdrew the gun from his belt and levelled it over Kate’s shoulder at Latesse’s face.
‘Er, captain?’ said Kate. The back of Cane’s gun hand brushed her right cheek. The muzzle of Latesse’s pistol was cold against the back of her head. ‘You sure that’s a good idea?’
‘He won’t shoot you, Kate.’
‘And you know this because …?’
Sweat beaded on Latesse’s chin. The multiple lenses of his artificial eye shrank and clouded; the cilia stood stiff to attention. When Latesse swallowed, the sweat from his chin broke free in tiny droplets which drifted, weightless, in front of his face. Cane cocked the gun and thrust it forward. The gun’s barrel glided all the way past Kate’s cheek to touch Latesse’s right temple. Cane tightened his finger on the trigger.
‘If I have to,’ he said, ‘I’ll shoot. Which is more than you can do, isn’t it? Your finger’s on the trigger but your heart isn’t, am I right? So, since it looks like we’ll be spending a little more time together than any of us anticipated, perhaps we’d better get a few things straight. It seems to me we’ve got ourselves a ship without a twister drive. Along you come in something that’s all twister drive and no ship. Now look at this – here’s a shellman who can stitch the two together so well you’ll hardly see the join. So, here’s the deal: instead of you going back to Heritage and telling them all sorts of funny stories about how the crew of the Liana’s gone stir-crazy since their captain killed himself, and getting the Fleet to send out a big old cruiser to take us down, why don’t you fly with us for a while? I reckon it’s a fair exchange: you give us the sled and we’ll give you – how shall I put it? – a vacation. And maybe an education. What do you say, Fleet man?’
Under different circumstances Kate might have considered it a pretty speech. Right now, she would have preferred something with fewer words. Fewer guns too.
‘I don’t understand,’ said Latesse. There was something in his voice Kate couldn’t interpret; it might have been fury, or perhaps a plea.
Then Latesse lowered his arm. He flicked his thumb and the little pistol transformed back into a tap-pad.
‘Third time he said that, captain,’ said Alamo, flying in close and snatching the tap-pad. The Watcher looked tiny against the muscled shellman, and smaller still for having shrunk into himself. ‘I’m thinkin’ he could use that education.’
‘Know what?’ said Kate, turning herself to face Latesse. She was disappointed by the quaver in her voice. ‘Fleet you might be. Won’t stop me doing this.’
Bracing herself against the docking cradle, she swung her arm in a roundhouse that knocked Latesse end over end. After a brief flight, the Watcher hit the shuttle’s belly and bounced off into Alamo’s waiting arms. Alamo held him like a refuse sack and waited for disposal instructions.
Meanwhile Kate had turned on Cane. She balled her other fist.
‘You ever do that again, Cane Sawyer,’ she said, ‘I’m keeping the other one for you.’
It took Alamo two days to wrangle the twister sled on to the back of the Liana. Most of the work was heavy and manual, requiring Alamo to spend long hours in his EVA suit, cutting and welding. The control systems were standard Fleet issue, so the cabling was straightforward. Good fortune allowed the sled arms to tuck around the sides of the docking carapace, the smart new motor assembly neatly embracing the Liana’s space-worn shell.
Once the sled was attached, Iss ran the Liana through her paces.
‘All systems appear to be nominal,’ he said. ‘No signs of any bad handshakes. There are some groans from the airframe but I suppose that’s inevitable.’
‘Lady got all carved up,’ said Kate, stroking the helm. ‘You get a transplant, you’ll be groaning a while after.’
‘Of course,’ said Iss, ‘we can’t use the twister until we’ve cleared orbit. There’s plenty that can still go wrong.’
‘She’ll fly,’ said Kate. ‘It’s what she loves to do.’
‘There you go, anthropomorphising again.’
‘Just don’t get it, Iss, do you?’
In his cabin, Cane Sawyer floated shoulder to shoulder with Pierre Latesse, watching the planet’s night-side recede. Meteor activity remained high; white scratches criss-crossed the dark atmosphere, as though the planet were being mauled.
‘They’ll come after you,’ said Latesse. ‘As soon as they realise I’m missing.’
‘You’re assuming you’ll be missed,’ said Cane.
‘So what happens next? Are you going to lock me in the brig?’
Cane sighed. ‘You’re not a prisoner, Mister Latesse. Anyway, the Liana doesn’t have a brig. We’ll keep that tap-pad gadget of yours though. I wish I could confiscate that camera they put in your eye but I guess you’re attached to it.’
‘It’s still recording, you know. I can’t switch it off.’ Latesse paused, thought for a moment. ‘It observes me as much as it observes you.’
‘Then I guess you need to watch your step.’
‘I would have requested that repair ship.’
‘And you would have filed your report. They would have sent a cruiser. This way we’ve still got a ship that can run when she needs to.’
‘Guilty conscience, Captain Sawyer? Is that why you want to run?’
‘I don’t want to run. But if someone makes me, I will.’
The Liana rolled to starboard; outside the porthole, the planet heeled over. Cane fingered the scrap of paper he was holding in his left hand. He wanted the Watcher to leave, so he could read it again.
‘It’s the first time I’ve seen another world,’ said Latesse. ‘Actually, this is my first trip away from Heritage. It’s very … remarkable.’
Cane suddenly understood the Watcher really was young. Young and completely out of his depth. Officious as he was, dangerous as he might be, Latesse was just a kid.
‘They’re all remarkable,’ Cane said. ‘That’s the thing.’
‘I just can’t believe your Knowledge Officer has Sealed it. It looks so perfect.’
‘The job’s done.’
‘The Expansion goes on, Captain Sawyer, whether you like it or not. People need somewhere to live. It was all in the election manifesto. It was promised.’
Cane ground his teeth. Latesse was right, of course, which was exactly why, twenty years ago, Cane had voted against the Expansion. Not that the alternatives – the innocuous New Fabian Alliance and the frankly terrifying Dexters – had offered any credible alternative. But it made him feel better.
At that historic election, the Expansion’s flagship initiative Worlds for All had seduced the voting public. It had already seduced the wealthy terraforming conglomerates, who had major contributions to party funds. The Expansion had enjoyed a landslide victory then and ever since.
These days, the Expansion’s strength lay in its cashflow. Terraforming supported countless subsidiary industries: astronautics to move machinery from world to world; planetary designers; the shadowy nanotech people who made the microscopic scourers themselves. Not to mention emigration, social support, all the start-up schemes and technologies designed to give settlers a soft landing when they arrived in their virgin territories.
The result? A cosmic economy entirely dependent on an endless supply of new worlds. And nobody prepared to say stop. Why not? Because fundamentally people were greedy.
Because everyone wanted a world of their own.
‘Promised?’ said Cane. ‘What promise? A down-payment on your very own frontier home, delivered on demand? Space for all? If you missed the last planet, there’ll be another one along in a minute? Mister Latesse, once upon a time people like us actually assessed the new worlds we found. We surveyed them. Now all we do is bind them ready for execution.’
‘I think that’s a little strong …’
‘Have you ever seen a scouring? Terraforming isn’t the creative process they’d have you believe – it’s destruction, pure and simple. They call it the blank slate policy. Before they build, they tear down, destroy whatever’s already there. And you know what the thing is, Mister Latesse? We already have enough worlds. The Expansion claims to sell independence. And maybe it does. But only on its terms. And at one hell of a price!’
Cane broke off. Beads of perspiration popped from his brow into the zero-g. It was an old argument, one he’d fought over in many bars on many worlds. Nobody ever listened.
‘How long do you plan to keep me aboard?’ said Latesse, tight-lipped.
‘It’s six weeks to the end of the tour,’ said Cane. ‘After we drydock the Liana at Jonquille, I’m planning to disappear quietly somewhere to start my retirement, if the Fleet will let me. We’ll drop you off there.’
‘Wouldn’t you rather get rid of me now? I could turn you in when we reach Jonquille. Given the attitude you’ve taken – and the worlds you’ve robbed us of – you could find yourself spending your retirement behind bars, you and the rest of your crew. There are actual crimes here, Captain Sawyer: never mind the inappropriate use of Fleet Seals – I could have you charged with kidnapping a Fleet officer. Then there’s vandalising Fleet property …’
‘The sled? It isn’t vandalised. It’s just been redeployed. And as for “getting rid of you now” … a man can see a lot in six weeks. Can learn a lot, Mister Latesse. Now – you can go wherever you like on the Liana – except the crew’s private quarters of course. There’s a storeroom near the fuel cells you can use as a cabin. You’ll notice there’s a surveillance camera in there. You’re the one being watched now, Mister Latesse. Now please – I have things to do.’
When Latesse had left, Cane wrapped the oilcloth round the gun, locked it back in his desk. Only, of course, it was Dieter’s desk.
He looked at the scrap of paper he’d been holding. Written on the paper in Tia Micado’s tiny, elegant handwriting was this:
I have reviewed Kate’s image captures from World SFC-32908754. Orange desert world. Close analysis of image capture indicates the Seal was dropped. Simulation suggests possible pigeon failure. Probable Seal malfunction. Backtracking is necessary. The world with the orange desert must be revisited. The Seal must be replaced.
This must happen.
Since Dieter’s death, Micado had refused to leave the Knowledge blister. She’d stopped speaking too; now she communicated only via written notes. In love, she and Dieter had been so affectionate, always kissing, always holding hands. Especially after they’d had a row. With Dieter gone, Micado had closed up like a flower at dusk.
Real paper, thought Cane, turning over the message in his fingers. That woman’s such an oddity.
As soon as he’d steered the Liana clear of the planet’s gravity well, Iss unlatched the deep-space console from the overhead. Then he entered the data for the twist. The bridge filled with the rising whine of the sled’s deep-space motor cycling to full power.
Iss swung the ship round to give those on the bridge a final view of the planet. They were facing the dawn again: below them, a tiny round world glistened in the light of an alien sun. From here they could see no evidence of the ferocious meteor storms wracking its surface; the planet looked at peace.
‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ said Iss. ‘It’ll put us way a long way behind schedule.’
‘We’re way past worrying about that,’ said Cane.
‘That’s all very well for you to say, but backtracking isn’t exactly …’
‘Just do it, Iss.’
Still muttering, Iss engaged the drive.
The sled unfolded its twelve twister petals, long and sharp like blades of grass. The petals flexed to form a cage around the Liana, then began to spin. Soon the Liana herself had taken up the spin. Darkness opened up inside the petals and the ship twisted, everything twisted.
On the bridge, Cane and Iss and the Watcher Pierre Latesse watched the porthole shutters close against the chaos outside. At the aft end of the docking carapace, Alamo Washington ignored the escalating vibration and continued to clean jungle litter from the shuttle’s landing gear.
Alone in her cabin, Kate Souljammer had taken the alien leaf from her pocket. It was covered in minute hairs and felt like velvet. She thought about how Cane’s gun hand had brushed her face, and marvelled that it had felt like a caress.
The ship lurched. Kate pressed the leaf to her lips and felt herself folded, stretched and divided as the twister drive sucked her and the leaf and the ship out of the universe and into the unseen place where time slept and there was only a black spinning spiral that was both around and inside the ship, and which took her far and fast, twisting all the way, into the Great Beyond.
Copyright © Graham Edwards 2009