Una McCormack's The Undefeated is a thrilling space opera adventure featuring a no holds barred heroine on the front lines of an intergalactic war...
She was a warrior of words.
As a journalist she exposed corruption across the Interstellar Commonwealth, shifting public opinion and destroying careers in the process.
Long-since retired, she travels back to the planet of her childhood, partly through a sense of nostalgia, partly to avoid running from humanity’s newest—and self-created—enemy, the jenjer.
Because the enemy is coming, and nothing can stand in its way.
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|Publisher:||Tom Doherty Associates|
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About the Author
Una McCormack is a New York Times bestselling author and a university lecturer in creative writing. She has written novels, short stories, and audio dramas for franchises such as Star Trek, Doctor Who, and Blake’s 7. She lives in Cambridge, England, with her partner and their daughter. They have no cats and one Dalek.
Read an Excerpt
MONICA GREATOREX HAD, in her sixtieth year, resisted acquiring dependents but had (in that easy way we may observe in the rich wherever and whenever we are) accrued considerable wealth without particular effort on her part. Money begot money, and this miraculous alchemy had eased Monica's passage through life, a life which she would be the first to admit had been blessed — with adventure, travel, lovers of all persuasions, and, above all, the liberty to do whatever she chose. Looking back over her six decades, she was satisfied that she had not, on the whole, squandered either her talents or her resources. In her youth she had been glamorous and notorious, making a dazzling match to a writer renowned for his courage and virility; but, seeing herself in danger of being wholly eclipsed by his sun, she ended the union abruptly, remaining the chief (if unadmitted) subject of his prose until the end of his life. After this had come what she called "the wandering years," journeying around the periphery worlds in search of kicks and stories. This was towards the end of the Commonwealth's last big push for expansion, and the sight of a refugee child eating grass transformed Monica's consciousness. She became a warrior with words then, sharp despatches from up and down the front that made her reputation for courage and unorthodoxy. Some credited her with shifting public opinion; Monica herself knew that history was not authored singly and that she had merely been the right person in the right place at the right time. Still, the awards had been pleasant, people's lives had been saved, and an old grudge had been settled.
She enjoyed life in the public eye for many years until she reached her fifties — a dangerous time for a woman — when she was forced to return to old Earth to oversee the decline of her mother and, eventually, the inevitable clearing of a house. Once the necessary formalities were complete, she left that torpid world as quickly as she could, returning to her wandering, pushing ever outwards from the core towards the periphery, in search of something different now — some meaning, perhaps, some form of understanding of the changes she had seen throughout her life, and the changes that were about to come. Her writing by now was long-form, less amenable to the swift attention spans of her former audiences. Commissions and engagements had disappeared and she suspected that many people assumed she was dead. She thought that she was never more alive — pushing out towards the edge, towards freedom, but eventually she admitted that her course, while slow and erratic, had been drawing her ever nearer to the source of all her wandering: Sienna, the world where she had been born, and from which she had been abruptly transplanted after her father's death.
Her haphazard journey had so far taken the best part of three years. She was in no particular hurry, although she was aware that events might overtake her. Still, for the moment she was content to observe, at first hand, the differences in these places since the travels of her early womanhood. Not all of them had resisted the Commonwealth's expansion, accepting it as inevitable, and they had come through those years more or less intact. Even in those which had insisted upon their right to self-determination there was by now little evidence of those years of disruption. All across the periphery worlds, there had been a great levelling, exactly as the Commonwealth promised. There were schools, and hospitals, and business centres, and great towers of glass and steel, and if anything of particular interest or value had been lost in this explosion of creation, there was little sign of its ruins. Except perhaps here and there, in a quiet backwater, where Monica saw old people, in old buildings, clinging to old customs as their worlds decayed about them, their descendants long gone. She would stay awhile, observing, and then would be gone. Dimly, at the back of her mind, she felt the first stirrings of a book forming about these dying worlds, but she committed nothing to paper. It was hard to write, at this time, when nothing about the future was certain.
So her voyage continued, from comfortable long-haul liner to comfortable long-term let, and whenever her companion, Gale, hinted discreetly that perhaps they might think of finishing this trip and returning to the central worlds, she would move them on in the opposite direction. These hints had become more frequent in the past few weeks and, had this not been Gale, and had Gale not been jenjer, Monica might have called them "urgent." She was aware (How could she not be?) that many other people were now in transit, and that she and Gale were travelling against the general tide. But she was not finished. Not yet.
Their next stop was Meridian Station, and she knew that Gale had the impression that this would be as far as they would go. But from Meridian you could perhaps get passage to Sienna, and on Sienna ... Well, what exactly would be waiting for her there? Monica was not sure. Over the past few weeks, as Sienna drew closer, she had been revisiting her earliest memories. She remembered her mother, cool and distant, and her father, source of authority and some affection, but no less distant. She remembered the sun upon old stones, and inexorable water, stretching beyond the horizon, the limitless expanse of the lake. She remembered the shock; but she knew she had forgotten the whole. It all happened many years ago, of course, and more had been forgotten than Monica as yet realised, but memory abhors a vacuum, and pulls that way, pulls and pulls. The river of history bends towards restitution.
Cushioned in her quarters, Monica did not feel the liner dock at Meridian, and it was not until the jenjer steward politely knocked on the door of their berth that they were aware that they had arrived. Gale, who had been sitting beside her, rose up, silently. She watched him twitch his collar and cuffs in a habitual gesture which did not, by law, entirely conceal the indigo marks around his wrists and neck. His bond had been costly, but Monica was used to expensive things. He was high functioning; he was handsome, too, decorative, which pleased her. She liked expensive, beautiful things. When he and the steward finished organising the baggage, he offered his hand to help Monica to her feet. "Ma'am," he murmured.
"I don't think we'll stop here long," she said, and she felt his hand relax, a very little, until she went on. "We'll book passage to Sienna as soon as we can."
She observed no new tension, no anger, indeed no sign at all that he was disturbed by this news. He was, after all, very costly. "Of course," he said. "Of course."
* * *
At Meridian Station, it became impossible to deny that everyone else was going the other way. The station was busy — no, frantic — although not yet with the pitiful desperation that Monica had seen in the many transit camps from which she had reported in her glory days. Many of the people here were greatly invested in showing that this was a temporary arrangement and that they would soon be returning this way, bringing their possessions back with them. A winter holiday, perhaps, or spending a few years on the central worlds for the sake of the children's education ... Anything other than admit that this was a one-way ticket. Was this for the benefit of observers, or for the benefit of themselves? Monica sensed that it was a little of both.
She watched them with professional interest. She drew word-sketches in her mind, little thumbnails that would enliven a larger piece of writing, more out of habit than any expectation that they might see print. The fretting mother; the blustering father; the pale bewildered child who, white-knuckled, clutched some beloved object or adult hand. She saw from the quality of their possessions that these people were the ones with options: they would have other, safer homes, on other, safer worlds (if such a place existed), and could afford to make the long journeys. The poor (and even in the Commonwealth, there were poor people) would follow later, she guessed, carrying much less and going gratefully wherever the troops told them. She saw few jenjer, of course, and was curious to see how people managed with that support absent. Every so often she allowed herself to wonder where they all were. Had they been left behind to take their chances? Had they seized the moment and gone? Or had some preemptive action been taken against them? Gale had also noticed their glaring absence and had attracted some thinly veiled hostility: sharp angry glances; the occasional muttered curse. On the surface he was unruffled, but she promised herself that they would not remain here very long, and even felt a little proud at her sensitivity.
Still, they were here for a few days at least, so she took rooms in the habitat section. This was done with more ease than one might have expected from the crush of bodies filling the embarkation hall. She guessed that people wanted to be sure they were at the front of the queue for passage away from the station: this meant camping by the departure gates, not staying in accommodation. The rooms were pleasant enough for a station this far from the core, and she slept well. In the morning, she walked with Gale to the docking section, and was in time to see the dash for the ship departing for Greymouth. Cases and baggage suddenly became nonessential in the scrum for seats. She stayed aloof, an observer, intervening only once when she stepped forwards to delay the advance of a big man who had attracted her attention several times, with his loud voice and bullying ways. She dropped her writing case at his feet, making him stumble as she bent to retrieve it, keeping him there long enough to cost him his seat. The gates closed with him on the wrong side. He turned to her, looking ready to quarrel, and then Gale made his presence felt, and her adversary went on his way, muttering curses.
"Ma'am," Gale murmured, gently moving her on, "this will soon not be safe."
She had seen enough. The situation was already volatile, and as soon as the freighter captains hawking their goods decided that the money on offer was not worth the risk of being this close to the periphery, it would become desperate. Someone would have to come from the core, she thought, although they might have their own problems soon. Everything was changing so very quickly.
For a day or two she thought that perhaps not even money would buy her passage to Sienna, but at last she found a small ship whose pilot had nerves steelier than most, and was still making semi-regular flights there and back. There was cash to be made bringing people up from Sienna, she said, although she hadn't taken someone back there in a while ... She studied Monica and Gale with calm curiosity. Her name was Hulme, and she was a type that Monica had seen again and again in her youth, making a living from the troubles of others, but scrupulously, not exploiting them. People wanted to get away, and Hulme asked a fair price to take them, and she put herself in some danger to do so. Nobody knew when the enemy would arrive, after all. But she would gladly take Monica to Sienna, for that fair price. Gale she eyed thoughtfully, but at last shrugged and let him board.
The ship was snug and well maintained. Monica took to her cabin for the start of the journey, resting, and even going so far as to open her files to make a few notes about what she had seen at Meridian. And what had she seen? Pretty much what she expected: people who had realised that their lives were not going to be able to continue, who were hurrying to find a safe harbour. She had seen this before, years ago, during the expansion. Everything changed; nothing changed. Was that the wisdom of old age? To live through the same cycles, over and over again ... She stopped writing after a line or two, closing the files. Her mind drifted towards Sienna and what she might see there, what might be left after so long. She quickly gave this up as pointless speculation, and went in search of food. As she ate, she found herself subjected to a series of brisk and no-nonsense questions from Hulme, aimed at establishing the purpose of Monica's journey, how long she was intending to stay, and whether or not Monica had the means to get off-world again. Monica's answers to the last two questions were necessarily hazy. She knew that Hulme found her vagueness puzzling, to say the least, but if Monica wanted to fly into uncertainty without clear plans for how she might come back, that was her business. As to the first question: "I grew up on Sienna," Monica said. "I wanted to see it, one last time ..."
"Before it's gone for good, huh? You've left it a bit late."
Monica smiled. "I suppose so. Yes, perhaps I should have come back sooner."
Hulme, she saw, had one more question. "Your friend ..."
"Gale. How are you planning to keep him supplied while you're down there?"
Monica blinked. The high functioning of jenjer, and their longevity, came at a cost to their metabolism, and this required regular and expensive medication, but this was something she never discussed with Gale. It would have been intrusive; more than that, it would have been tasteless. She made sure that the money was there, and he saw to his needs as he saw to hers, and she did not trouble herself. Hulme, seeing she had no answer, moved on; it was Monica's business, after all. "I guess I could always come and get you," she said. "But don't leave it too long. At some point, well ..." She shrugged. "I can't stay in this neck of the woods forever. If they're coming ..." She was the first person Monica had heard say it out loud, and even she hesitated to admit the enormity. If they're coming ... But they were coming, weren't they? There was no doubt of that. Somehow, over the long years, enough of them had got away, and nurtured their fury, and now they were coming ...
"Well," said Hulme. "You know your own business. But there's not much left on Sienna, and as for your friend ..." She shook her head. "You might want to think carefully about how far you can reasonably take him."
Monica heard, but with no answer, she deferred the matter to another day.
* * *
Hulme delivered them to Sienna's main spaceport, and left them behind briskly and without a second look. Monica's last sight of her was Hulme making a deal to take someone back to Meridian. Would she make any more trips back here? Or would she cut her losses now and go? Where would she go to? Where could any of them go? The core was well defended, but she sensed that would not matter to the people who were coming. They would not stop until they had justice.
Sienna, once upon a time, had been strategically significant. The largest in a loose federation of trading partner worlds, it had been proudly independent, and clear in its ambitions to remain so. It exulted in its difference: different measurements, different documents, even conducting its affairs in three different languages. But after it was swallowed up, that significance dwindled. No longer a bridgehead to further expansion, it became simply one of many peripheral worlds within a larger union. Arriving in the capital for the first time in half a century, Monica saw that its fall had been more wounding than in other places. Smaller worlds made the switch to the Commonwealth much more smoothly, substituting one master for another. Places like Sienna, resenting the yoke, chafed against it, thereby losing influence and opportunity. With Sienna's reputation for intransigence (churlishness, some said), the dealmakers of the Commonwealth looked elsewhere to exploit the opportunities in this new region. Sienna's capital retained its old looks, but much faded. No glass and steel, but the old white brick and adobe, decaying slowly under the sun. The old government buildings, which had seemed so glamorous to her when she had last passed this way, aged twelve, now seemed small, parochial, and tumbledown. She suspected they had been this way, even all those years ago.
They found a small hotel that was glad of the guests, and Monica, understanding that the money would be used to take the family to Meridian, quietly doubled the price, ensuring excellent service and embarrassing gratitude. In the afternoon, she rested in her room, white curtains drawn against the light. Gale went out on an errand (to secure what he needed, she assumed, but did not, of course, ask); when he returned he was considerably more cheerful, and he brought with him the information that he had hired a driver to take them out to Torello.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Undefeated"
Copyright © 2019 Una McCormack.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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