About 3 years ago I took part in NaNoWriMo, an initiative to get people writing novels by giving you 1 month to write at 50,000 word story. The story I decided to write was a Science-fiction story called “Unity”, and was based on an idea I’d been throwing about for about 4 years prior, but never got around to writing. This was the perfect excuse. I ended up writing about quite a bit of it, but realised after reading it again that most of it was terrible.
The ideas were sound. I had a good premise and enough issues I wanted to deal with. The problems stemmed from having far too many characters, having no real story and certainly no drama or tension. I certainly didn’t want to read it.
A year passed, and another NaNo arrived. I wrote something different. I wrote with my mistakes in mind. I had a core set of four characters who would play off each other. I had a limited setting and a general direction for the plot. Unfortunately, that still wasn’t enough. I ran out of steam and just wrote because I felt I had to. I reached about 20,000 words by the end and most of it was still terrible.
This time it was the lack of a plan that scuppered me. I had one in Unity, but it needed scaling down from the colossal scope it had been originally. I took the four character idea from my second NaNo and as a result I merged my cast of about 10 characters into those core 4. I took the limited setting idea and expanded on it slightly so that I don’t get location fatigue, but not so much that I had to spend pages describing new locations every chapter.
After a couple of false starts I decided to stop trying to write linearly. I started at the end. I wrote the climax first. The final chapter where everything comes to a head. My characters were my focus. They drove the story, and showcased the issues I wanted to highlight.
I planned each characters development and anchored it at the end, fixed in point. It gave me a situation to aim for from the starting position I’d already well developed in my mind.
My slow on/off pace of writing worked. A year after starting again I’ve written 16,000 words. Yes, less than I wrote in a single month, but of generally higher quality than the rushed NaNo version. Yes, there’s the odd information dump, and a few walls of text, maybe some stilted dialogue, but nothing that a good editing once-over won’t fix once the thing’s complete.
Here’s a quick primer on the story. The Blurb if you will. After which will be an extract from near the beginning of the story.
Unity – Humanity’s first extra-solar colony. Out of contact with Earth, it has to fend for itself. It’s power structure, carefully crafted before creation, becomes fractured as headstrong personalities clash. The Bureaucratic and Orwellian Security Corps face off against the Socialist Liberty Alliance who value personal freedoms and civil liberties above all else. Locked in a cold war that threatens at any moment to erupt into a full scale conflict that would destroy everything they worked so hard to create. However, even in the depths of space, the hidden hand of the Colony’s corporate sponsors manages to reach out and stir trouble.
The extract below is set on a massive city-like Space Station orbiting Europa. The Capital Station of the recently independent Jovian Government. It’s the first mention of the Colony’s corporate sponsors, TSO, and an establishing character moment for the main protagonist, James Mitchell, who has just stepped out of the Spaceport and onto the Capitol Station proper. The extract is about 2,600 words long and is pretty much a short-story in and of itself.
This is the first piece of creative fiction I’ve ever put onto the web that wasn’t a certain Play-by-email fan-fic RPG that I was involved in when I was a teenager. So be scathing and critical if you must, but keep it friendly please.
The Sun. That’s what James missed most about living this far out in the Solar System. The glow of the colossal planets, around which the majority of Humanity now made their homes, were a poor substitute for the warmth and comfort that the familiar flame of his youth gave.
Even Saturn was obscured by the thick atmosphere of his new home Titan. He stood here orbiting Europa. A cold pavement beneath him, and a clear sky above him. Both inside and outside at once. Without even Jupiter to look up at. Just a million twinkling stars smeared over a false sky. Was there anyone on the far side of the station looking up at him?
Did any of them ever wonder what it would be like to have something there to look up at? Something beyond the flickering glow of a perpetual, featureless, artificial morning.
Humanity had given their home up, and buried themselves in these flying caskets. Forced into averting their gaze from the beautifully deadly vacuum of space by the hard radiation all around them.
James feared, from his study of humanity, that people could easily get used to this way of living. That a generation will be born one day that will never be able to set foot on a world with an open sky. The shock of a summer afternoon crushing their unprepared minds.
He was brought out of his thoughts abruptly by the arrival of a vehicle. It was long, black, sleek and shiny. The tinted windows obscured the inside view and it was hard to tell which direction was the front. The symbol of Jupiter embossed in a dark silver on the side. One of the windows near the front – that is, the end that arrived first – opened to reveal the face of a grinning bright eyed young man. His pale white face seemed all the brighter framed in the deep black of the vehicle’s chassis. James realised as he looked at the man, that he wasn’t facing the direction the vehicle arrived in.
“Dr Mitchell?” he chirped in an accent James didn’t recognise, he nodded an affirmative in response, “I’m here to take you to the Hotel sir”
“Thank you… “ he fished for a name,
“Alexi, sir. Alexi Korolev,” he leaned forwards and out of frame of the window, the door swung open and Alexi exited the vehicle. In one swift elegant gesture, he beckoned James into the open door.
“Thank you,” James said again, ducking through the door and into the vehicle. Alexi followed behind him.
Inside was distinctly luxurious. There were two rows of seats at either end of the vehicle curved in a crescent shape, facing inwards. It was even less apparent as to the direction the vehicle was to travel. The internal lighting was dull but adequate and James took a seat on the row opposite Alexi. . He sat his rucksack beside him and noticed a mirror behind the seats opposite him. In the dim light of the cabin, his bright ginger hair looked more of a rusty brown. His face looked weary and tired from the days events.
Alexi, who James could only assume was the driver of this car, opened a panel in the wall next to him. It’s screen emitted a soft blue light into the cabin, “Jovian Grand Hotel,” he said, sealing the panel up again.
With a start the vehicle began moving on its own.
James was curious, “No driver’s seat?”
“Surely you’ve seen an automatic car before?” Alexi smiled, “Even on Titan you should have them, hell, even on Earth they’ve been standard for decades”
“Yes, but just never one without any kind of human control system”
“Every car on the station is controlled centrally,” he explained, “in the incredibly rare event of any kind of accident, other cars are routed around. Plus they’re designed so soundly, that even in high-speed collisions we’ve never had a so much as a permanent wounding, let alone a fatality yet.”
James looked around him and discovered that the armrest of his seat folded away to reveal a small refrigerator, filled with food and drink,“And are they all this tastefully furnished?” James smirked
“Very few people own their own vehicle,” he explained, “normally people use unmanned taxis, and I’ll admit, there are very few that remain clean for a few hours at a time
“They’ve got cameras and monitoring computers to make sure nothing serious happens to them, and if they do they’re directed to the nearest depot for sanitising,
“Any serious vandalism is caught on tape, and not only that, but the owners know where they are. After all, they took them there”
James cringed internally, wondering how else this station could violate his privacy.
With one hand, Alexi reached into his own armrest and produced a glass, with the other he opened the control panel again. He pressed a few controls before putting his glass down. With a swift yank he pulled the whole control fascia from it from its housing,
“What the f-” James exclaimed, as Alexi pulled a select few wires out of the back of the panel. He cut his curse short,
“There, the monitoring’s been turned off,” he sat the panel back in its housing, “I know how much you value your privacy. They’ll be getting a looped recording of us sitting idle. We can talk freely now”
“What is going on?” James’ head was swimming,
“You may have guessed from that display that I’ve not been entirely truthful with you,” he began, “I’m an Agent in the service of TSO, I have an offer for you.”
“TSO? The Megacorp?” James was confused. He had a few ideas as to why TSO might require his services, and knew exactly why they could not contact him directly. While their reach certainly made its way to Saturn, they weren’t terribly popular on Titan. He decided to bluff. “You make spaceships, why would you want me?”
Alexi chuckled, picking his glass up again, “We make a lot more than spaceships, as you well know. We own shares in practically every company of note in the Solar System. Our interests are many”
“Why this subterfuge?” James glanced out the window, they were travelling far too fast to jump out the door, even if the computer would have let him open it, “Email me, phone me, there’s plenty of channels you can use to talk to me. Don’t just abduct me. This is like some bad spy movie. I bet your name isn’t even Alexi”
“You’re not in any kind of fiction,” he picked up a bottle of whiskey and poured himself a drink. He offered the bottle to James, who nervously declined, “We know what you gave the Jovians,”
The report, he thought, how did they know, “What are you going to do with me?”
“Oh Don’t worry, It’s nothing like that,” the Agent waved his hand down and grinned, in between a sip of whiskey, “While your report disturbs us somewhat, it’s inconsequential. The Jovians will be begging for our aid within the year regardless.”
“Then what?” James could see the Agent was enjoying himself. He clearly doesn’t get to do this as often as he’d like and was savouring it.
“Our offer is simple. We want you to design us a colony.”
The car thundered along for a few seconds. The only sound was the hum of the electric motor. James had no love for TSO. He knew they owned a majority in TTL, the blockade runners in the Independence War, directly supporting the Earth fleet. The Independence War was, publicly, a war against a corrupt and festering Political influence of Earth. Secretly, it was a war against TSO and their power hungry fingers, and that war never stops.
“I already have one,” he finally replied.
“I know. It’s a very nice moon you have there,” he retorted,
Shame if anything happened to it, right? James pierced the thinly veiled threat. He was dealing with a snake. A slithering serpent with slippery lies and half-truths. A manipulator of power. A ruiner of civilisations.
“We are willing to offer you enough money for this project that you could keep Titan alive through the Heat Death of the Universe if you desired”
Hollow honeyed hyperbole. A TSO funded Titan would be a compromised and worthless Titan.
“No deal,” James said, “Titan needs to remain self-sufficient, it needs no outside help or it is considered a failure”
“Yet you took money from the Jovians,” the Agent reclined and took another sip,
“The Jovians look to save themselves,” he said, “they care nothing about Titan, or about interfering with it”
“Fine. I’m not really authorised to tell you this,” he was, “I was supposed to wait until after you accepted. However, I like you, so I’ll give you this for free.”
James readied himself mentally for a torrent of lies,
“We have something that will change mankinds view of space forever. Something that will allow for rapid colonial advancement. Multiple research projects that we have been funding for decades are coming to fruition all at once, and set to open up the stars themselves to mankind.
“For over a hundred years we’ve been able to detect extra-solar planets, we’ve discovered hot Jupiters, Super and Micro-Earths. Some potentially habitable, some deadly and unforgiving. Now, we are almost ready to visit them in person”
James was impressed. He’d heard for years of TSO’s boasting of their research into faster accelerating ships, cryogenic suspended animation and various other technologies that would enable this vision. He had always wondered why they never did anything with them. Other than build faster ships.
“We have just one thing missing. None of our research into the social behaviour of human beings has been fruitful. People are the glue, and we just don’t understand them enough.
“We want to send a ship to another solar system. One where we know there’s a colonisable world. But we have no idea how to plan for a human civilisation in isolation. You do.
“We need you, Doctor.”
Well, he thought, it’s always nice to be needed. My research is what they need. Not me. If only they knew what I know, they wouldn’t be after it.
His mind ran through the conversation they’d had before the Agent exposed himself. Looking for some clue to his motive. James realised with a terrible sinking feeling that the Agent had made a very subtle threat.
He had to stall. The car had to be nearing its destination. He couldn’t guess what kind of trap this Agent had set for him that would injure or kill James but not the Agent.
“That’s a colourful picture you paint,” James paused “I apologise if this insults you but I don’t believe a word of it.”
“No offence taken,” the Agent smiled weakly, the impatience was beginning to show, he even put his half-emptied whiskey glass down, “Naturally, if you’re not interested, we can do it without your help, but the results, should we fail, will likely cause the death and misery of countless innocent people”
Emotional blackmail. James’ stomach sank, he’s not even trying to convince me. What’s the killer? What’s his final word? He’s holding a trump card, I know it.
“With your help, I know we can avoid it,” he grinned again, “you’ll be a hero”
“And if I fail, it’ll all be on my head,” James leaned forwards and pointed at the Agent “No way, I’m not being your scapegoat if your idea flops.
A Scapegoat? Maybe they do know my dirty secret.
He felt his stomach churn again, but this time it was the vehicle slowing. They’d arrived. James sighed internally. Was that it? The trump card? Be a hero in the eyes of humanity? A man who deliberately hides from sight on a shrouded invisible insular world?
The door automatically opened on the kerbside, and a sharply dressed valet appeared, “May I take your luggage sirs?”
James looked at the Agent, then back at the Valet, “No thank you, I’ve only got this,” he shouldered his rucksack.
As he shuffled over to the door, the Agent tapped him on the shoulder. He turned to see him holding out an envelope.
“Inside are my contact details should you change your mind,” James took it from him, “and a little incentive too”
James exited the car and turned around, “Money won’t change my mind,”
“I know,” The Agent grinned one last time as the door closed.
James tapped the envelope gingerly against his wrist in an attempt to gauge its contents. It did feel as thought there was only paper in it. Nothing substantial.
Personally delivered paper packages were used extensively at the Project to ferry secrets where electronic communication was deemed insecure enough. It made sense that other people with an interest in privacy would resort to the primitive practice of writing things down on paper.
He would wait until he was in his room before opening it. He was acutely aware that he may well be holding the Agents trump card.
He could quite easily go to his room and inform the Ministers that the driver they sent was a spy. Whatever was in the envelope had to be something special to stop him doing that.
The truth of the matter however, was that James had grossly over-estimated the subtlety of the low-ranking informant they’d sent to recruit him, or indeed his worth if exposed. A child who took it upon himself to play the spy game more than instructed or required.
Nothing he said had been intended threatening, or even untrue. Indeed, even before he revealed himself, rather than alluding to some dangerous trap waiting to be sprung on an unwilling passenger, he had been genuinely boasting about the stations road safety record.
The trump James was holding, however, was written by someone a lot more professional.
Well, you got this far. I hope you enjoyed it. Use the poll below for a quick rating, Comments and criticism are appreciated, but civility is requested. I’ve turned off the moderation queue for a while. If things get out of hand it’ll go back on.