Tuesday, 7 January 2014
Loser's Flight - title suggested by Jonathan (Job) Silverthorn, my one and only beta reader - is a short novel by myself and Victoria Russell.
Science Fiction, Dystopian, Teen Fiction, Leaving Home and Coming of Age story.
Here's a pre-release taster.
Victoria Russell & Chris Northern
There were things the Linesman Automatic knew about. Movement along the power lines, negotiating and examining pylons, connections, insulation, the lines themselves. It had eyes of a sort, saw more than it knew about. Over the lines a great blue and white mass replete with irrelevant movement, sometimes light and sometimes dark and neither state mattered. Below, attached to the foundations of the pylons, the solid earth that held the structure firm. On top of the earth a green shifting body that required no attention so long as it was short and did not interfere with pylons or lines.
The Linesman Automatic moved over the lines and paid attention to what was needful to its purpose. The rest, it saw but did not know or understand or care. That which has no consequence is ignored as an irrelevance.
One of these things it saw, but did not know, was a girl who walked alone. In the terms of her society, she was a Loser.
She was alone, and her name was Susa.
I'd determined to follow the lines for no other reason than Automatics maintained them and maybe, just maybe I would find at their other end another place that was also maintained by Automatics. Maybe there I would find shelter, food, people and a new place to be.
I was a Loser, self-selected for colonization, and I did not then know that colonist was just another word for outcast. Home was behind me now and I could never return, on pain of death.
I'd seen it happen twice in my sixteen years. Desperate starving exiles who returned, pleading for food and shelter and life... only to find sudden death from a rare gun in the hands of a Security Guard acting under the orders of an Administration Officer.
On this bright clear day, the sun pleasantly warming my skin, I watched an Automatic as it ran along the lines, checking all was well along every millimeter. I wondered if it knew as little about me as I knew about it. Did it know I was a human girl? Did it know I was a Loser, alone, a colonist rejected by my society, cut loose to make my own way in the world? I doubted it even noticed me, or could care if it did.
All I knew about it, to be fair, was that it was an Automatic and that it checked power lines for flaws. I knew no more than that, and only knew that much because I'd once seen a pylon repaired by an entirely different Automatic. It had been a big yellow and black vehicle, lights flashing to draw attention to its dangerous bulk. The business end had arms and tools, like most Automatics. I'd watched the noisy, hovering machine cut free a section of the pylon, pull a new length from its own body, cut it to length and weld it in place before it moved back in the air to briefly survey the job and then moved on. Maybe back to wherever it came from, maybe to fix another rusting pylon. Never to be seen again, by me at least.
That Automatic had to come from somewhere. There were many Automatics around Home, busy at their tasks, but none like that one, not that I knew of. Wherever it came from would likely have at least some people, and Automatics that supplied food, water, shelter, all the comforts of home for those who lived there.
The problem would be finding such a place. And maybe persuading the people to take me in. Maybe they would. Maybe they would test me first. I shied away from my doubts.
I should have felt a lot of things as I walked away from home the day after my sixteenth birthday. Dread. Loss. Shame. Despair. Fear. All of those and more. I was sixteen and alone and exiled now into a wilderness that I knew nothing about.
I was a Loser. I'd failed. I should feel like a failure. I hadn't won a single competition in my last year before adulthood, a year of serious competition in various events. According to everything I'd been taught since earliest childhood, I was useless. I couldn't shoot, or fire a bow, or fence, or run or jump or climb or... well, the list was endless. I couldn't do any of them well enough to win a single event. Not once in fifty-two events over the last year, the year that counted, the year that decided if I could remain a citizen of Home or not.
It had turned out to be not.
No one came with me. No one had the same birthday I did. When I ran out of time I ran out of time alone. I was popular enough, I supposed; my friends had tried to throw competitions to give me a chance to win but there were always others who did not, and even friends were reluctant. It might be their one chance to win a place themselves. Once won, secure, they no longer competed. It was a big risk to throw an event. Everyone needed to win at something. There was always the risk you would throw the event that turned out to be your one real chance. In any case, nothing had made any difference for me.
I walked away from the buildings of Home. Underfoot a broad flat path of grass that cut through ruined buildings of the Unmaintained region. Away from Home, leaving behind the safety of the place where Automatics maintained everything. Here, in the unmaintained region, constructions of all sorts decayed, crumbled, rusted and fell apart.
I had a backpack with food, a tent, some basic equipment. I carried water but had explored around Home well enough to know water wouldn't be an immediate problem.
And I had a plan.
The decayed buildings fell away behind me and the swathe of grasses broadened out to be bordered by forests. The pylons marched on, and so did I. Following them to wherever they might lead.
I walked easy, the morning warm, night a distant concern. I felt optimistic. Enthused. Excited.
And scared. But I was busy lying to myself about that.
Home had food, shelter, warmth, comfort, safety. Everything everyone needed, all supplied by Automatics, according to some unknown scheme of their own. The factories produced parts. That's what they were and that's what they were called. Parts. Bits of machinery. Function and purpose mysterious and unknown. And they were shipped out by Automatics, just as the food was shipped in.
But only enough food for so many. Home could not support more.
Hence the games. The competitions to see who would remain... and who would have to go out into the world alone and survive or die without everything they and I had become accustomed to.
Hot water. Clean sheets. A bed of blissful comfort. Furniture. Warmth. Clothes. Everything. All maintained and provided by Automatics. For two thousand six hundred people. And not one more than that. One more person meant less for everyone and eventually not enough for anyone, until everyone was hungry all the time. The competitions solved that. The Administrators enforced it ruthlessly. In the past there had been growth beyond the Automatics’ supply quotas and then rebellion followed sure as day followed night. A conflict of attrition until numbers were reduced through casualties and stability was re-established.
The competitions were better than that, at least. Only those unable to compete successfully were turned out to survive or die without Automatics to supply their needs.
So now I had to find a way to supply everything I needed for myself, at least everything I needed to survive. Alone.
I began to think about it, even as I tried not to panic about it.
Food. I carried some. Not much. Mostly dried, mostly survival rations. A week, maybe. Ten days to find a source of food or begin to go hungry. Water. I carried some and could get more from any river or stream. I had a small kit to test the water for pollutants so that would not be an immediate problem. Shelter. I carried a tent, a sleep-bag. It would do for now but I couldn't live the rest of my life in a tent. Heat. I carried a small flame maker, but I knew it used compressed gas and wouldn't last forever. I'd need something to burn. Wood. I'd need to cut it. I had a small hand axe. A knife.
I sighed when I realized I'd run out of assets.
I had clothes, I reminded myself. Good stout boots. Cold weather gear that was lightweight and both thermal and waterproof.
I wouldn't freeze.
Nothing I had would last forever. None of it would be replaced. The few sanitary items I had were the last I'd ever see, and their impending loss prayed on my mind almost as much as food.
I might be a Loser but I would find a new home. I would find a way to survive until I did. I was young, strong, and confident. So I told myself, listing these qualities among my assets.
The pylons marched on and I moved from one to another, a hundred meters between them. The woods closed in on each side but a broad corridor was clear and easy to travel. Doubtless the Automatics held the forest back to keep the pylons safe. I was glad of it. It made for easy walking through waist-high grasses.
I looked back, once.
Home already seemed far away. The sprawl of the unmaintained areas with Home almost lost to sight, tucked away in one corner by the lake that stretched beyond. If I'd been able to secure a boat I might have gone that way instead. But Administration would not release a boat to a Loser.
I looked back only once, then. There was no going back and no sense looking back with longing for all I would soon miss, all I already did miss. I had to go on.
I walked three kilometers or so. I couldn't help wondering how far I'd have to go before the pylons led me somewhere. More than three kilometers, anyway.
Bored, I fantasized about the place I would find.
And hopeful, trying to ease my fears, I made it a good place.
The last thing I expected to see was someone else ahead of me. Two hundred meters away, the figure stood and waved.
I stopped and stared.
It was too far to make out details. Two hundred meters up a gentle slope. There was nothing to obscure my view, and apart from a few high clouds it was a clear day, warm but pleasantly cooler in cloud shadow. A breeze moved the grasses in waves and the leaves of the trees moved to join in a chorus of sighs. The figure stooped to heft a pack and sling it to his back. There was something in the way he moved that gave him away.
“Jeth,” I whispered, part excited and relieved, but equally dispirited by his recklessness. “You fool.”
There was nothing for it but to go forward. Nowhere else to go, the meeting now inevitable. What else would I do? Run from him? There was no need for that. He was no threat to me. Only to himself.
Jeth waited for me but as I came close, apparently couldn't resist the urge to help me bridge the gap between us.
Fair skinned with green eyes, the folds under his eyes made him look like he was always squinting at something he wasn't quite sure of. In this case it was probably true; he couldn't be sure what reception I would offer.
He smiled easily as he came close, though. He opened his mouth, doubtless to say something cheerfully disarming, but I cut him off.
“Jeth,” I made an effort to keep the relief I felt out of my voice. “You damn fool. What are you doing here?”
I could see him visibly change tack. “Keeping you company, Susa.” He turned to display his pack. “What else could you think?
He was right. It was obvious, but it needed saying. He was putting himself at risk needlessly. Or at least prematurely. “Your birthday isn't for two months. That's eight chances to win a place thrown away. Why?!”
“I didn't like the idea of you going alone,” Jeth said, not looking at me. “And let's face it,” he gestured to himself in a sweep of one arm, and then he met my gaze squarely, “my chances of winning an event are fairly remote.”
He looked like me. Lean and fit, healthy, his muscles toned. But I knew what he meant. He was like me. A little below average height and weight. Not quite strong enough or agile enough to win a wrestling or any other hand-to-hand event. Reflexes not fast enough to fence... the list went on. We had trained in the same groups, faced each other in practice and competition. We were both well below average. Almost good enough at some things, but just not quite there, no matter how hard we focused or trained or specialized. We were both rejects of our own culture. Losers.
“You might have gotten lucky,” I said, feeling bad for him.
“I don't believe in luck,” he said, again not looking at me, his attention skidding over the terrain around us.
Neither did I. I believed in training hard, being prepared, being better than the competition so that I could win. But I hadn't won. My beliefs were ashes, burned by harsh reality.
“I'm going to miss showers,” I said, not knowing why. Maybe just to be saying something.
“Home can't be the only place with showers,” he said. “The food, medicines, all of it has to come from somewhere. Home can't be the only place in the world where Automatics keep things going. Think about it,” he grinned, “there must be loads of places.”
I didn't want to dampen his enthusiasm, but I wasn't feeling optimistic and he still had a chance to go back and win a place for himself. “So why do exiles ever come back, if there are loads of places?”
His face went stiff, grim, maybe annoyed. He certainly sounded annoyed when he spoke. “Maybe some colonists just don't go far enough.”
“So we just keep looking until we find somewhere?”
He nodded stiffly. “We do.”
He turned and pointed along the lines of pylons marching off into the distance through the woodland and over a hill in the distance. “Your idea to follow the pylons is a good one,” he said.
I'd told my friends what my plan was. There was no reason not to.
“It's part of the reason I decided to come with you,” he glanced at me with a shrug. “Maybe you will have other good ideas.”
When this one turns bad, I thought. Well, maybe it wouldn't, and if it did then maybe I would think of something else.
I just hoped I thought of the right thing before it was too late. Before, desperate and hungry and cold, I decided to head Home and beg them not to kill me, or maybe to just kill me quickly and be done. The second exile I'd seen return had done that. Defeated. Just wanting it to be over. And they'd killed her.
“We should go,” he said, gaze flitting briefly back toward Home, an anxious expression resting momentarily on his young features.
I wondered why but didn't feel like questioning it now. I was, I admitted to myself, glad he was here. I was glad not to have to do this alone.
“Plenty of daylight left,” I said with a bright smile that wasn't even close to what I felt. “We should make best use of it.”
So we secured our packs and set off together into the unknown.
“You could still go back,” I offered after we had walked a while.
He'd listened to my vague plans and offered little in return, save obvious talk of food security. We would soon enough have to think about that. By preference we would succeed in foraging before our meager supplies ran low.
Then we had lapsed into silence. I counted pylons as we walked along the clear lane they were the focus of. I was curious about what kind of Automatics would ply the route to do the job of pushing back the forest, but it was idle curiosity. The Automatics did what they did uninfluenced by us. What difference if I saw them or not? I counted the pylons to keep a record of how far we had come. Ten pylons to the kilometer. Forty two so far.
He shook his head and looked back the way we had come before answering. “Well, I wasn't given kit, you know.”
I shrugged. “It won't matter. I mean, the Storeman might order a beating but no one is going to kill you for petty theft.”
He pulled a face, half grimace; half frown and shot me a sideways look, judging my mood. “Well, some of the things I wanted weren't on the list of issued equipment for colonists.”
That's what they called us. Colonists. Go out into the world and found a colony.
Yeah. Alone. It was a fiction. Go away and stop eating our food. That was the truth. Your extra mouth to feed is not needed.
It was made abundantly clear in the crèche as soon as you could walk and talk. The older kids would tell you. Practice, get good at something, be ready to compete in your sixteenth year and win a place or be cast out into the wilds.
I let the comment stand for a while and turned it over in my mind. “You stole restricted items.” It was a flat statement, not in any way a question, and I sounded as angry as I was. He hadn't thought it through. He never did.
“Well, I had time to prepare once I decided I was going to go. It's not like I waited for my birthday and hoped. A colonist pack was easy, of course. Hell, Admin' give you one anytime if you want to go voluntarily. It's not like they are guarded. But the other stuff took time to locate, figure out a way to get in, pin it down so I could do it all in just a few hours before I left so they wouldn't notice and close things down until they were found.”
“But they will notice,” I was still angry but holding it tight.
He shrugged. “Handgun and ammo, field glasses, a Medikit each, a few other things. Yeah, I guess they will miss them.”
Restricted didn't just mean restricted to who could have them, the Administrators and Security Guards. Restricted also meant rare. Items the Automatics didn't deliver. Irreplaceable things.
“They are going to come after us!” I exploded.