Paddy Doyle Writes Home – 25th September 2217
First things first. I doubt you’ll be astonished to learn I’ve got myself a Dishonourable Discharge from the wonderful Colonisation Service of the European and Interstellar Community. The surprise is that I stuck it for so long with that fancypants bureaucracy. As I’m sure I’ve told you before, I had to get along with such people to be able to voyage to distant stars and work with the gigantic machines I’ve always loved. Machines that fascinated me more than most people do, I can’t deny. You brought me into the world, you gave me my first lessons in how to be human, you know what I’m like and approve of most of it. You were hoping I’d grow out of some of my wilder ways and I almost did. But following the damn rules all the time grated on me, the more so since most of those I worked with were devout believers in continuous and respectful obedience.
When the good ship Ludwig Feuerbach was late back, you must have worried. Then when we returned but there was a news blackout, you must have worried a whole lot more. But that was just the Colonisation Service being itself: no news until the Commission of Inquiry is ready with an Interim Report. And I was allowed to let you know I was safe and well, just ‘under investigation’. You’d have wondered ‘for what’? and they should have said, but they wanted it all wrapped up and definite before they released any news. Even now I’m not allowed to say everything: just that I didn’t go punching someone for being officious or insulting, which you might have been expecting. For that I’d just have been fired or maybe just fined and given a warning, and this is much worse. But they’re censoring us. They will have been reading this letter and maybe insisting on changes before you’ll be getting to read it.
What I can say is that I’ve been fired and also ‘Dishonourably Discharged’, which would be a whole lot worse for someone whose whole life revolved around the status that the Colonisation Service gives to her or him. You know I’m not like that, but also it’s not that unfair. And not to panic, I can get another job easy enough. It’s not something I’d be wanting my family or friends to be protesting at and get myself labelled ‘difficult’ by the next people I might want to be working for. I signed up for EIC’s fancypants rules and I broke a rule and I admitted it. It was intended just as a kindly act, but I put a life in danger. That never gets forgiven on a starship or on any sort of spacecraft in the Colonisation Service, and probably it should not be. I know I felt unforgiving about such matters until it happened to be me, so I accept they must be ruthless. Even if it all ends well, the guilty party always gets a Dishonourable Discharge. So please don’t let anyone be complaining about what has happened to me, even before it all gets set out officially.
Set out officially. Yes. They’re not quite ready to do that, even though they are settled on booting me out and don’t mind it being known. But I’m still being censored from telling you most of what happened. The Colonisation Service are often tough and secretive like that and are in our case. When we got back to Fenris Nodestation with our Captain not there and the Top Brass learning what had happened, we got an Investigatory Clamp put on us along with a Commission of Inquiry. This meaning that we were not allowed to leave the starship till they were through with examining us. People could only send a message to their families saying that they personally were safe and well, and no more without permission. They did give me permission for one extra, me breaking off my engagement with poor Morna. It is saddening, but I was certain both then and now of it being the least unkind thing to do.
You might also think it typical of me that I had another ladyfriend. Another little sally before married life, or that’s how I planned it. And that my latest ladyfriend, a lady whom I wrongfully got involved with while still intending to later on be marrying Morna, also turned out to be a psychopath. Sweet little thing she was, on the surface. A neat smiling pint-sized little lady whom I could have picked up with one hand. She did try to give me due warning, maybe wanting to avoid future trouble or else she has her own rules of honesty. But I misheard and thought she was an osteopath. Thought it was a little hobby of hers along with being a damn good and even a brilliant pilot. Being expert at re-adjusting other people’s joints sounded like a hobby with aspects of power-games which she was like with some people but not with me.
Her being a psychopath with the potential to be criminally insane: I’m sure that is something you’d have worried about if you had known. Worried quite apart from me cheating on poor Morna, which indeed I should not have done. But little Denise’s psychopathy was really nothing to worry about. The authorities in the Kingdom of Wessex had spotted her as a teenager. To be let roam free she had to be checked each month or two to see that she’d done nothing bad recently. I suppose that means she could run up quite a score of murders before her next check, but really she’s not like that. As she explained it to me, she doesn’t particularly want to kill anyone or yearn to do so: she just lacks the normal strong human aversions against doing anything so wicked. And since she also has a sensible aversion against spending the rest of her life in a padded cell, she behaves herself. She’s also brave and clever and rose to the emergency quite well. Don’t please be blaming her, which I can see would be quite a natural thing to be doing from what you maybe know of the crisis, news probably leaking though not from me.
The crisis. Yes. What we were doing was routine – our routine, taking a few million tons of cargo and more than four hundred highly qualified colonists through hyperspace to an alien world where the atmosphere is full of deadly carbon monoxide. Not a pleasant place, and I didn’t bother visiting Planet Statis while we were there. Not just dangerous but also very dull. Sealed habitats full of busy scientists who mostly chat about more science during their time off. Outside, swamps and fungi: a place that only a frog or a scientist could like it. But no one thought it a particularly dangerous world: not if you remember not to be breathing the air outside of the sealed domes. And they are working hard to make it habitable and it will definitely be so one day. You’ll have heard about their big setback, of course, and the people who tragically died. But not why our ship has been under a news blackout. Yet the why of it, I’m sad to say I can’t tell you yet.
But I can tell you a story that should put you ‘in the right bawling park’, as the Yanks say. It’s long been on public record, but is also small and not well-known. But I remember it all too well, because it was told to me a couple of years back by the man himself. I’m pretty sure I never told you or the others, because you’d have been upset and maybe not understood; Old Earth being so safe now in our civilised and benevolent 23rd Century. Yet with what happened and my own sad error, you’ll need to understand soon enough. To realise that kind hearts can’t always do what they’d wish to do in the face of the cold equations of a vast unhelpful universe. It wasn’t made for us: only small little bits of it can be made suitable for protein organisms that need a little bit of oxygen and water. That need temperatures in a range that is astonishingly narrow by cosmic standards. And in all of those places, there are other protein organisms living their own lives and sometimes inconveniencing us, mostly with no malice intended. It takes knowledge and an effort to follow the rules first imagined by Exemplar Naomi Mitchison and to peacefully co-exist, if such a thing is even possible.
By the bye, that lady also had views on sex somewhat to my taste. Asked on her 90th birthday what she regretted in life, Naomi answered, ‘Yes, all the men I never slept with’. And she had progressive 21st-century views several years ahead of Exemplar Ursula Le Guin, even. Has always made more sense to me, though I also favoured one at a time. Yet I was ready to accept an Old-Style or Narrow marriage with Morna, as part of settling down. May later do it with someone else, but that depends on my life getting settled. But not on Earth, for sure. I’ll not risk falling in love with another woman why wanted me to quit starships. Other women, fair enough, but not the vaster universe.
Now about the ethics of life and death. That was the kind of problem that wrecked the life of poor Johnny Coyle, who used to be a First Footer. If I’ve not told you before, these First Footers are the selected finest and first humans to set foot on a new world that had only been explored by little droids and drones before that. The place was Planet Osborne and they’d set feet on quite a bit of it already. Johnny had become Team Leader for a bunch of Early Explorers, who’d been brought in after the First Footers had done the basics. The Early Explorers are people less trained or less experienced or less talented than First Footers. Men and women who hope to be First Footers one day, but only about one in seven makes it.
When it was just the First Footers, they had also at first been round in Precautionary Suits. But then they ‘got out of the can’: dressed more normally when they decided that there was nothing unusually bad out there. Some growling creatures big enough to eat a human, but also they had never seen a human before. Real-life predators don’t go attacking humans at first sight, the way they do in the movies. Predators except when very hungry don’t go tackling possible prey they’ve not met before, since it might have who-knows-what sort of a defence. And then and also later Johnny and a few others also carried a Wagner Peacemaker – that’s a rifle-type device that can deliver a blast of Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ and some flashing lights towards anything aggressive, maybe tuned for local conditions. And if that fails, they can shoot out real hot-burning fire that scares off most things. Last of all they can make their weapon work as an Unkind Teardrop, which fires a hypersonic water droplet that rips its target apart much better than the dum-dum bullets that war-criminals used in our savage past. But a proper First Footer would be ashamed of firing an Unkind Teardrop at one of the local animals, since it was their home and they deserve respect. Johnny had never had to do so, nor even use the fire.
Nothing else should have been a threat to life or limb. The air on Planet Osborne is malodorous but breathable. The local microbes are so alien that all of them die at once if they try invading us. And those bugs don’t even do anything vicious like Old Earth’s Tetanus which lives in soil and dies inside a human if it gets in through a wound, but also first produces a toxin that kills the human. (Which to me seems pretty pointless, but I’m assured biology is mostly like that. Not neat and sensible like engineering, which after all has intelligent design behind it.)
So anyway, Johnny and his people think it is safe enough to be out in a jungle-like part of the planet in just jungle gear, and people can work a lot better like that rather than being like canned meat inside of a Precautionary Suit. But then while going to study and admire some really quite beautiful shrubs and flowers the drones had spotted, several of them fall into a deep crevice that suddenly opens up in front of them. It turned out the planet had little ant-like creatures that built their nests many places in the soil, including over deep cracks in the ground, turning them into lethal traps. So Johnny goes sliding down, but he is quick-reacting and jabs his Wagner Peacemaker into a small crack in the rocks he sees coming up. Bends it in two and also breaks his arm hanging onto it to slow his slide; but that gives him time to grab a big tree-root with his other hand and he hangs on painfully until someone is lowered down with a rope and can haul him back up.
It is then up to him as leader to decide what to do next. Three others had fallen beside himself. Two had also found convenient tree roots to grab onto – anyone who gets to be even an Early Explorer has to be pretty damn good at staying alive. But then there’s young Sid who had no such luck, and where he fell it seems that the crevasse was tens of meters deep. No communication and sensor contact was lost, suggesting it had been a hard and fatal impact: but Sid might have been alive even so. Yet though they had ropes, they were not properly equipped for climbing down into deep crevasses where all sorts of dangers might be lurking.
So, what was Johnny to do? He was still in command: he’d been given a special pain-killer that leaves behind a lot of the pain but also doesn’t cloud the mind like most of them. With his broken arm he could not be expected to do anything personally. But two of the party had rock-climbing skills from mountains and thought that climbing down a rocky crevice would not be too different. Except it was different, and also they had too little rope and no hard hats to cope with things falling down on them. Johnny ruled that they should stop and call for back-up by a couple of the First Footers in Precautionary Suits, which took nearly half an hour. His reckoning was, poor Sid is probably already dead. If he should somehow be alive, he can probably wait that long.
The others didn’t like it, of course. My instinct would have been to go in gung-ho and never mind what the Team Leader says. These were more disciplined – the Colonisation Service has strict rules for those they might consider as candidates to be First Footers and Early Explorers, and for World Exploration in general. One thing they expect is always obeying the rules and following ‘lawful orders’. I was told when I joined the Colonisation Service that my attitudes would rule me out for either of the World Exploration departments if I ever had a hankering to go that way, which I didn’t. These had been found suitable and qualified: they obeyed and stayed waiting, while all the time wondering if poor Sid might be down there and bleeding to death when they should be helping him.
You might be wondering, what were the ant-like things doing all this while? It turned out nothing much: they were not as aggressive as Old Earth’s ants which are descended from wasps and more remote from bees, surprisingly. And unlike even bees, they didn’t get all aggressive when they figured their home was being attacked. Instead they were nowhere to be seen and in much deeper little pits and burrows. They did eat meat and would feast off of some poor creature that fell into the trap they had made, but they’d wait until it seemed securely dead and nothing else was around. People standing near and talking and with a very alien odour was enough to scare them off. But only later when they were studied carefully did anyone work out what they were like.
So, two people in Precautionary Suits turned up – those are like giant three-meter robotars, if you’ve not seen them. You wear them like it was your own body, but giving you superhuman strength, and also your own body is inside of it, unlike a robotar. So they go scrambling down the crevasse the way you can when inside a suit that is hundreds of times stronger than a human. The suits are cunningly devised so that your ordinary little movements translate into something just the same and no stronger. But when you are going all out for speed or strength or both, the suit translates it as ‘as much as possible’ and gives you what seems like superhuman qualities. I have been trusted to play with the suits and fine-adjust them in starship training areas a few times when we were carrying Early Explorers – I never did get as far as meeting working teams of First Footers. But as you perhaps can guess, all of the rule-bound stuff means that those engineers they have among their number are not the best of engineers. They are rather too ready to think that something must be working if the book says it does. In my time I had caught a few little errors that might have caused a tragedy without my work, and it came to be that they’d ask for me to check their work even when it seemed all perfect. Which it sometimes was, but not always and it was appreciated.
In this case, all was working well. And the people in the Precautionary Suits found that poor Sid had indeed died the instant he hit the bottom of the crevasse, or maybe even before that from a rock he hit on the way down. They also had a tough time even suited as they were, and reckoned that people trying to climb down unaided would have likely got themselves killed. Johnny got a commendation, but also it had stressed him so that he felt like quitting. He knew that he could have been wrong, even though the odds favoured him being right. And the other side was, should he have been more alert for a hidden crevasse? There was an Commission of Inquiry, which is normal when someone dies or even comes close to dying. And it said no, there were no signs that Johnny should have picked up, and everyone knows Early Exploring is dangerous. But he was not so forgiving of himself.
He wanted to quit. They persuaded him to stay on, but it broke his nerve. He can’t command any more. Got himself reduced to the ranks of the Early Explorers: so another time, it will be somebody else’s tough call. I suppose that it makes him a good man: in fact I’m sure of it. The Colonisation Service figures things with a bunch of cold equations and in their eyes it was all sensible, the ‘best use of human resources’. But we are people as well as ‘resources’. Without kind hearts, we would not deserve to be alive.
Of course kindness can also mislead. Rules are needed, sometimes. But I never really expected to personally bump into anything as bad or tragical as poor Johnny face, given the era of peace and prosperity that we are now living in.
From the private family correspondence of Paddy Doyle, preserved by his family. Letters made available for research by the Eludi Foundation, following our assurances that nothing remotely personal will be made public until 20 years after the death of everyone who knew him.