I’d like to introduce you to Charlotte Dobson: the Associate Scientist working on Interplanetary Travel at Dawns’ Laboratories. In a world that functions entirely on the notion of achievement, she does very well indeed. Passing the intelligence test to genius standard, Charlotte achieves the status of a Superior Better at the age of 11, becoming an automatic champion of the Cause.
What is the Cause, you ask? Well, the Cause is a government policy – a brainchild of the Panel. It alludes to the idea of fighting a noble ’cause’ through Science, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Art, literature and even the distraction of love are set aside to ‘save the Earth’ from the monstrous ‘Expansion,’ through science. The focus is narrower than that, even, because the only science worthy of note is that which focuses on colonizing an alien planet, light years away. Is there a hidden meaning that this policy is the ’cause’ of countless miseries in the book? Probably.
The desired planet is Oscar 70 (thus named through a system involving the phonetic alphabet and a tally of the planet’s Earth-like features) and reaching it is Charlotte’s lifeblood. Operating as a metaphor on several levels, Oscar 70 is Charlotte’s idea of paradise. It is important for me to point out here that the universe of Worlds Away is an alternative one, and the red dwarf star which Oscar 70 orbits is entirely fictional. For those sci-fi buffs amongst you (I know you are out there – please be out there) I have based Oscar 70 on a wide range of exoplanets, and the unique features of this tidally locked exoplanet make it as much of a character to me as Charlotte herself.
But I digress, as I often do when the word ‘exoplanet’ is uttered.
You might have noticed that the opening sentence of chapter one is, ‘The stars broke the darkness, but only just.’ Charlotte’s Earth, for all her privilege and status, is a dark one. Her desire to reach the stars could be seen as a symbol of hope and the enterprising nature of the human race, but it could also be viewed as a desperate and lazy attempt to escape what she finds unsatisfactory about her current existence.
Love her or hate her, I am sure we all know a Charlotte Dobson. Someone who is generally polite and kind, but who has a lot and still wants more. Someone willing to ignore darkness around them and focus on a new light. Someone who is blind to how overwhelmingly lucky they have been. I am reluctant to say more, except the fact that one of the novel’s conflicts arises when Charlotte’s blind enthusiasm and hope is called into question.
Below is an excerpt from the second chapter, where Charlotte, now 22, is working in her lab:
Steam consumed the windows of Dawns’ Laboratories so badly that they resembled a waterfall. The workers there, accustomed to the icy conditions, laboured on regardless. A careful observer would notice the relics from the building’s past: long tables that once served as packing lines; a wall of superfluous plug sockets; pale rectangles on the floor where plastic moulding machines once stood; out of date yellow markings where neat little mechanisms once trundled, collecting the plastic frivolities that Mankind used to make and put into boxes. Now, each person wore the regulation factory black, lifted only by the single red apple on their chests. They worked in groups, generally, huddled around whiteboards or microscopes, muttering complex equations and bold hypotheses to one another in hushed tones.
Charlotte Dobson, several floors above this, downed coffee number seven, suppressing the shaking of her fingers as she manipulated the Speedlight capsule for the sixth hour on end. Not for the first time, she felt like her fingers would lose their grip on the cold handles of the titanium box before her. The set-up was simple: Charlotte worked on one box and an identical box, containing a small weight, lay dormant at the other side of the room. The two were connected by a thin tube, which arched over her head. Every so often, a pimple of green or amber would flicker on the corner of the box and she would start, freezing for a moment before continuing. Fleetingly, she wondered what the excess caffeine and potential radiation would do to her growing foetus, before remembering that she would never allow the pregnancy to reach term, anyway. Cursing this job’s capacity to give her thinking time, she noted that she had not yet booked the procedure. She did not note how she continued to trivialise what she planned to do. Nor how she was letting time slip through her fingers.
“Ms. Dobson, your work space does not meet our regulations. Kindly follow the cleansing procedure correctly before you continue your work.”
Perhaps it was his sanctimonious air, the way he emphasized “correctly,” or just the fact that he could not refrain from staring at her body rather than her face, despite her manifold qualifications, but Charlotte flinched at Thomas’s presence yet again. She was accustomed to working with Supplementary Humans; despite their proven lack of scientific ability, many of them had been chosen by the great Richard Dawns to help further the Cause by assisting at the laboratories – the hub of the action. Even so, being a daily presence made them no less disquieting, no less of an awkward addition to the work environment. And for one of them to actually tell her how to act – the Associate Scientist working next to Daniel Dawns on the development of Speedlight and antimatter technologies – outrageous was not the word. Staring at her work more intently was the best response she could muster.
Charlotte made an effort to steady her breathing. Of course she shouldn’t allow a mere Sup to rile her, but Thomas was one of the worst. She hated herself for thinking it, but how dare he speak to her like that? His job was to maintain a healthy work environment and support when requested, and requests from Charlotte were rare. Casting a cursory glance around the room, Charlotte noted derisively how he wasn’t much good at his first job, either. Ever since the Expansion, to say that resources were scarce was a horrendous understatement, but even so, she believed that they could do better. Old books, no longer relevant to their mission, operated as makeshift tables and paperweights, the windows, drowning in condensation, were grimy and rotten and her beloved kettle, her only contraband item, was plundered by limescale. Even in the regulation dark light, she felt the filth crawl on her skin.
Perhaps the poor working environment was a deliberate ploy to enthuse the workers. Feel too cosy on a planet and why would you be so keen to find a manner of leaving it? Doctor Richard Dawns wasn’t known for his carrot tactics: stick was far more his style. But there, on the filthy magnolia walls, it was plastered: Oscar 70 – or the paid artist’s impression of it, at least- the poster that all workers at Dawns’ Laboratories were encouraged to display. The carrot.
Charlotte did not need encouragement. To her, Oscar 70 was the most beautiful thing she had ever seen. Like her, like everyone, it floated alone, isolated and vulnerable in the darkness. A perfect sphere, 30% larger than Earth, Oscar 70’s perfect curves beckoned like a lover. The interstellar probes indicated that this planet had less water than Earth, but more land, something that everyone, certainly Charlotte, craved. Earth that beautiful things can live on. Earth that bears fruit and food. Earth that would feel warmer under an alien and youthful red dwarf sun. She saw mountains and valleys the colour of her beloved coffee, milky and rich, spill forth from the virgin landscape, whilst the surrounding seas remained supine and silver, calm despite the tumultuous life above. If she wasn’t careful, Charlotte could stare at this image for hours on end, feeling her feet touch that strange ground, feeling the heat of the sun on her face. It was everything to her.
So, to return to work. A small reminder of why she surrounded herself with Thomases and grime and freezing cold conditions was all it took to get her back to her desk. Antimatter’s relationship with Speedlight was relatively new, and every time she returned to the box, Charlotte cared less about its massive potential to kill if placed in the wrong hands, but more the potential it held to reach her beloved other world. For that, she would die ten times over.
Her breath caught in her mouth.
She had done it: the weights had moved from the box in the corner to this one seamlessly before her unblinking eyes. She checked the numbers. The particles had moved a fraction more slowly than light. They had moved so quickly, in fact, that return travel to Oscar 70 would be possible. Easy, in fact. If her calculations were correct, the Speedlight they had would facilitate interstellar travel on an enormous scale.
For a second, Charlotte felt that anything – breathing, responding, thinking – would be forever impossible for her. She just wanted to live in this moment of possibility and hope. If she was wrong, it was back to the grime, the cold and the loneliness. If she was right, her perfect Oscar 70 would belong to other people. She’d be forced to share it with Sups and Betters alike, and the thought made her shudder. But, time was of the essence; Earth was suffocating under the weight of people. She must report her findings to Doctor Dawns.
She clutched her growing tummy. For the first time in her life, she feared progress.