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Lifeboat

A reader asks, "What are you working on now and can you share it?"

At this very moment I'm poking at a couple of different things, throwing ideas against the wall and seeing what sticks. I'm still in the research phase (I think!) of a book about the end of the Amarna period in Egypt, but I haven't reached the serious writing part yet.

However, I have just finished Lifeboat! Written with Amy Griswold, Lifeboat is like that book. You know. The one you read out of the library about fourteen times when you were a young teenager and can't find anymore. Maybe it was by Andre Norton or maybe it was by Marion Zimmer Bradley. But it had explorers on a strange planet and characters you really liked and a social science premise and characters with complicated relationships and a story about how people pulling together could be their best selves and survive any disaster. That book. The one that felt like Star Trek Next Gen or old original Battlestar Galactica. The one where ordinary people became heroes and you put the book down feeling a vast wave of fondness for them all, even though there was some hard stuff in there that made you think. But it never made you want to stop reading or say to yourself, "Why are human beings so basically nasty?" Those books -- Forerunner Foray and Ice Crown and Darkover and all the rest. That's what we hope Lifeboat is like. We miss those books, and maybe you do too!

So here's a little sneak peak at Lifeboat, from almost the beginning of the book. I'd love to hear what you think!



The shooting had stopped, which ought to be a good thing, but somehow Macarius doubted it. For one thing, he occasionally felt light, a sure sign of damage to the ship's gravitational systems. The screens in his cabin wouldn't activate except for showing the emergency message. Then the door sealed, a sure sign of a hull breach somewhere. A precautionary measure, the screen said. As a precautionary measure.

Not good. None of it was good. He was going to die like a rat in a cage, in this nice first class cabin for which he actually had a ticket, entirely alone.

On the other hand, doing something like forcing the door would be incredibly stupid if there were a hull breach. He'd manage to suffocate himself while the crew worked to seal the breach and repressurize.

Macarius paced from one side of the tiny chamber to the other, past screen and workbench and the bed in its elegant fastenings, cabinet and sanitation cabinet and all, perfectly modular and absolutely pristine, fit for a servicer. Fit for one who practiced as an Imperial Counselor, licensed to plead before any judge in the Empire. Which was certainly what his vita said he was.

He was a dapper little man with thick wavy hair, handsome enough for the canon of servicers, if not very tall. Height was not part of their canon, and certainly not for a Counselor at Law. A pleasant speaking voice, yes. An appearance that would not give offense, of course. Carefully cut robes made the most of his pleasant features and disguised his barrel chest. Lanky grace was preferred, but the canon did not require it. Command of language and a sympathetic countenance trumped all. He had been very successful, especially with Labor juries who found his manner reassuring, authoritarian enough to seem in command of the facts without being supercilious.

The ship shuddered. Macarius looked around nervously. There wasn't really much point in weeping or wailing. There was no audience to see it. As for prayers, well, surely everyone aboard the ISS Grace was already praying, and he didn't think that there was much of consequence he could add — please don't let them blow up the ship? It more or less went without saying.

There was a chime tone, and the message on the screen changed immediately. "First Class Passengers will proceed to their lifeboat stations without delay. Doors are unsealing. First Class Passengers will proceed to their lifeboat stations without delay."

With a faint hiss the door unsealed. Macarius opened it. The air held a faint whiff of ozone, the vaguest touch of a burned scent beneath it, white corridor carpeted thickly, wall panels glowing backlit. Other doors opened too, heads appearing in ones and twos. No panic. That was the good True Caste propriety at work. Panic would be improper. And of course they would be saved. Screaming and running was for the common herd.

"Here we go then," the gentleman across the hall said, stepping back to let the woman with him precede him.

"Indeed we do," Macarius said calmly. "Lifeboat station then." He had his vita and his chips with him, and more importantly the chips he'd gone to Hydara for, the ones that had been worth getting in this damned position in the first place. With any luck, he'd make it yet. His mother had said he was too lucky to kill.

Their lifeboat station was just beyond the bulkhead door at the end of the first class section. It opened onto a scene of chaos.

The air was close and thin, dozens of people jammed into the airlock corridor that curved around the perimeter of the ship's ventral surface, most of them pushing and yelling. An Imperial Marine stood at the entrance of the nearest airlock, keeping them back by virtue of sheer bulk. Macarius' head barely came to the middle of his chest.

"First Class passengers and Priority only!" he said, blocking a man who tried to push past. "First Class and Priority." The tattoo across his forehead proclaimed his rank, double stars over his left eye, a sergeant built like a bull elephant.

The woman ahead of Macarius waved her vita. "First Class passenger!" she shouted. "Please!"

He looked at it quickly, the blue lines of type crawling. "In," he said, and half shoved her into the airlock.

Macarius opened his mouth.

"Let us through! Clear please! Priority!" A young woman was pushing through the crowd, a grav gurney before her, parting the others willing or unwilling. Macarius had a glimpse of the poor soul who lay on it, pressure blanket tight around him, face obscured by the respiration cover. "Let us through!" She was blond and pretty, physician's mask raised on her forehead glittering silver with the data stream, but she wore the red suit of a Guild Healer instead of doctor's black. "Medical priority!"

The Marine glanced at her for a moment, tiny and disheveled next to him, red suit stained with darker things. "Go on," he said, stepping aside.

The man who had tried to get through before made a lunge for it, and the Marine grabbed him by the back of the neck, bodily flinging him against the wall. Macarius heard the smack as he hit, the crunch of his nose breaking, leaving a wet smear of blood on the wall as he slid down.

"First Class and Priority only," the Marine said, the veins standing out in his neck.

The girl pushed her patient through the airlock, not stopping to look back.

"Next," the Marine said.

"First Class," Macarius said, his heart beating loud in his ears. It was real. The ticket might be the only thing on the vita that was, but it was real.

The Marine read it. "Go on," he said.

Macarius stumbled over the threshold and through the second door.

The lifeboat's rear compartment was supposed to hold twelve or so, but at the moment it was more than full. The grav gurney took up half the floor space, passengers huddling around the door.

"Move on forward there," Macarius said. He scooted around the gurney and looked through the door to the second compartment. Another whole compartment the same size and still empty. "Come on now," he said, gesturing to the Guild Healer. "Move on forward so you don't block the passage. You there, madam. Everyone forward. Make room for those coming aboard."

They did what he told them. People usually wanted someone to tell them what ought to be just common sense. They'd fit more people aboard if the first comers moved all the way in. It wasn't hard science. Any laborer who'd ever ridden an omnibus ought to be able to tell you that. Of course it was doubtful any of these people had ever ridden an omnibus.

For a moment the entire ship shook and Macarius was thrown off his feet. Or rather flew off his feet as the gravity flickered. He had been moving, so he was eighteen inches off the floor and leaning one second later when the gravity came back and he came down over the arm rest of the last seat. It caught him right in the ribs and hurt like hell, but no harm done. From the screams it seemed that panic had caught everyone at last.

"Come on now," Macarius said, raising his voice. "Move on forward. Make room behind. Everyone know their station." And that was tonic, though his side hurt and his head swam with the thin air. But there was no help in screaming.

He looked back up the airlock. Another woman with her arm in a pressure wrap being half dragged along by a teenage boy. "This way, madam," he said. "You there, let her have the near seat." The Marine was still standing across the entrance like a guard dog. And a good thing. The sign by the door said the capacity was forty. He'd guess there were forty aboard now, but if the Marine moved a sea of humanity would flood in. Was there a manual release? Yes, there. He could close the hatch if he had to. If they overloaded the lifeboat's air supply it would be a short trip for everyone.

No more First Class Passengers. The Marine was letting in those he decided got priority for some reason. A woman with two children, her clothes Third Class all the way, the little girl crying and reaching behind for someone left at the airlock.

"Right this way," Macarius said, glaring a handsome man out of the bench seat with its shortened straps for children. "There you are, safe and sound."

He headed back up the passage. The air was thin, and a faint breeze pulled at his skin. Oh bad. Very, very bad.

The ship shook again, the chime tone changing again.

"What's that?" he shouted to the Marine over the rising din.

"All hands abandon ship," the Marine shouted back. "Here!" He shoved a baby into Macarius' arms. "And come back for another!"

Panic. Screaming. The Marine with his pain baton was holding the crowd back.

"I can get both at once," Macarius said, scooping up the second child, a little boy barely standing in a green jumpsuit. He hurried back down the airlock, one in each arm.

The injured woman in the first seat looked up, bruises across her face starting to swell.

"Take the baby!" Macarius said and she reached up for the littlest one with her good arm.

The gravity fluttered again but he held on, the toddler's face against his neck. Don’t fall on the toddler. That would be bad.

"I'll take him." The Guild Healer reached for him, arms outstretched, blood down the front of her suit, the child's eyes wide though he was terrified into silence.

"I'm going for another," Macarius said, and made his way back up the airlock. It was like descending into a mine. The gravity was unequal. The ship was now down.

"Damnation," Macarius said.

The crowd had fallen away from the door quite literally, tumbled against the opposite wall. The Marine stood braced in the outer door, holding with all hands and feet. He had another infant's swaddling caught in his teeth, the baby dangling beneath him screaming.

The lights went out.

Macarius tried not to tumble against him in the darkness. "We've got to go!" he shouted. Holding onto the grips with one hand, he fumbled about until he caught a tiny flailing arm. "Got it!" He swung it against his chest, trying to find the other grip in the dark.

"…one more…." The Marine said something that was lost in the hiss of air, breeze turning into wind.

Behind, light shone faintly down from the lifeboat's internal systems. "We have to go!" He shouted again, pounding on the Marine's shoulder. "We're out of time." One more, two more, ten more, the fatal math of waiting too long. "We have to go or none of us will get off!"

The wind tore at him, tunneling like wind through the streets of a city, through the lowest levels between towers.

"Now!"

He couldn't move against it. It was all he could do to hold on to grips and screaming infant.

Slowly, as though he were moving underwater, the Marine moved one arm, hitting the manual release for the outer door.

The wind stopped, air loss temporarily sealed by the bulkhead. Macarius took a deep, shuddering breath. "That won't hold long," he said. The Grace was depressurizing. On the other side of the door they were dying now, this moment.

He grabbed the Marine's sleeve. "We need to go. Do you know how to fly this?"

The Marine nodded, dazed from oxygen deprivation or perhaps just slow on the uptake. "Yes."

"Go on then." Macarius shoved him toward the inner door, hurrying as fast as the gravity would allow. "Launch as fast as you can." They were meant to take orders. Maybe the fellow would think Macarius ought to be giving them.

He handed the baby off to the woman with the kids and sealed the inner doors manually, double checking the instructions. It took seconds. It seemed like forever. Beneath his feet there was a new rumble, the lifeboat's engines coming online. The lights flickered and then strengthened as main power came up, the lifeboat's systems separate from the Grace.

The door sealed. Lights showed green. There was no window, so he could not look back. He felt the acceleration in his bones, clung to the handhold inside the airlock and knew they were away, but he could not look back. He never could.

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Comments

( 23 comments — Leave a comment )
_illumina_
Feb. 18th, 2012 12:44 pm (UTC)
Ooh, wonderful! I definitely want to know what happens next!
jo_graham
Feb. 19th, 2012 11:46 am (UTC)
Oh cool! That's what we hoped you'd be saying at this point!
rymenhild
Feb. 18th, 2012 02:52 pm (UTC)
That looks amazing.
jo_graham
Feb. 19th, 2012 11:47 am (UTC)
Great! I'm glad you like it!
(Deleted comment)
jo_graham
Feb. 19th, 2012 11:48 am (UTC)
Oh good! We love those books and we miss them. I'm glad this works for you.
aishabintjamil
Feb. 18th, 2012 04:02 pm (UTC)
Absolutely. i want to see the rest of this. I loved all those books - have just been having a nostalgia fit and re-reading some of them - and this looks like it will compare well with them.
jo_graham
Feb. 19th, 2012 11:51 am (UTC)
I'm delighted you like it! I love those books, and we enjoyed writing one like them.
violetclove
Feb. 18th, 2012 07:30 pm (UTC)
A very promising start! I'm looking forward to reading more of it when it comes out. I love stories with that old-fashioned space opera feeling.
jo_graham
Feb. 19th, 2012 11:52 am (UTC)
Oh good! I hope you enjoy it!
heatherlayne_n
Feb. 18th, 2012 11:23 pm (UTC)
Eep! Very exciting!

Could you, at some point, do a post about what it's like to co-write a book? Logistics, planning, drafting, revising, etc. I'm thinking about co-writing with a friend for NaNoWriMo this year. (If you've already done such a post, could you link me here?)
jo_graham
Feb. 19th, 2012 11:53 am (UTC)
Thank you!

And a very thought provoking question! I just did an entry on it for you and posted it this morning.
athanasy_atimy
Feb. 19th, 2012 07:42 am (UTC)
Oooh, yes please! I'd definitely read more.

I seemed to miss the Norton / Bradley type of books as a young teenager and skipped straight into the lighter end of Heinlein and Azimov (if there is a 'lighter' end). But this certainly has the feel of a ripping adventure and I'm all for that.

Just let us know when the ebook's available.
jo_graham
Feb. 19th, 2012 11:54 am (UTC)
Oh good! I'm glad you like it, and I hope you enjoy it!
cadenzamuse
Feb. 20th, 2012 07:54 pm (UTC)
Oh man, this definitely has that feeling to it. And I want more! Especially about who Macarius is...
jo_graham
Feb. 21st, 2012 07:41 pm (UTC)
Thank you! I'm glad you like it. Macarius is not at all who he seems to be, that's for sure! And three of the four other main characters first made their appearance in that scene -- the little Guild Healer, the Marine, and the man on the stretcher. Oh, and a fifth, I suppose. The baby in the green jumpsuit.
jansma
Feb. 25th, 2012 04:06 pm (UTC)
Exciting. I want to read the rest. :)
jo_graham
Feb. 26th, 2012 01:05 pm (UTC)
Thank you! We're definitely psyched.

And I have a strange feeling you'll like Fortunato, the Marine.... Just a strange feeling....
jansma
Feb. 26th, 2012 01:17 pm (UTC)
Hmmmm... is he like anyone we already know, perhaps?
jo_graham
Feb. 26th, 2012 01:23 pm (UTC)
*g* Let's just say I'm sure he's your type!

The stars across the forehead, perhaps.

Leandra, Fortunato, Janus, Per-Aven and Macarius....
jansma
Feb. 26th, 2012 01:30 pm (UTC)
I do have a fondness for stars, 'tis true. :D
jo_graham
Feb. 26th, 2012 01:45 pm (UTC)
And complicated relationships!
jansma
Feb. 26th, 2012 02:37 pm (UTC)
o.O No idea what you could possibly mean... *whistles*
( 23 comments — Leave a comment )