Tor.com Publishing has introduced us to many an author over the past two years, publishing one exciting debut after another. Next month, another joins their ranks: Corey J. White, author of the space opera Killing Gravity. The book stars Mariam Xi, voidwitch by training, woman on the run by trade, set upon by bounty hunters, and left to die in a wrecked spaceship.
You can read Mariam’s whole story on May 9, but you can meet her right now in an exclusive excerpt from the novella—just keep reading past the official summary to enjoy the first two chapters.
Mars Xi can kill you with her mind, but she’ll need more than psychic powers to save her in Killing Gravity, the thrilling science fiction space adventure debut by Corey J. White.
Before she escaped in a bloody coup, MEPHISTO transformed Mariam Xi into a deadly voidwitch. Their training left her with terrifying capabilities, a fierce sense of independence, a deficit of trust, and an experimental pet named Seven. She’s spent her life on the run, but the boogeymen from her past are catching up with her. An encounter with a bounty hunter has left her hanging helpless in a dying spaceship, dependent on the mercy of strangers.
Penned in on all sides, Mariam chases rumors to find the one who sold her out. To discover the truth and defeat her pursuers, she’ll have to stare into the abyss and find the secrets of her past, her future, and her terrifying potential.
Trying to comprehend a whole star system while my ship bleeds atmosphere? There are worse ways to die.
Control panels glow in fuchsia panic. Low steady hiss of oxygen. I’m floating in what used to be the cockpit of the battered Oxeneer-class corvette I called home these past few years. Now it’s a coffin with ambient lighting, adrift in the void.
Seven crawls into my helmet and gets fur up my nose. I feel like I’m being smothered but can’t get too angry with her; she probably just wants to make sure I’m still breathing. With Seven blocking my mouth, the condensation on the inside of my helmet starts to clear. I can see out the viewport, where the local system has pulled out all the stops. One bright star and five planets hang in space, with a shimmering silver sphere just off the bow, orbited by debris. All these celestial bodies look carefully arranged, like they’re trying to tell me something.
Fuchsia flicks over to light blue as a message comes through the comms.
Distress Signal Response. Assistance incoming. T-minus thirteen minutes.
The words come across the inside of my helmet. There’s more, but Seven is in the way, purring gently. And, anyway, trying to focus on the glowing letters makes the pain behind my right eye worse. My head pulls to the left of its own volition, the way it does when I’ve got a migraine, and I get even more of Seven’s fur in my nose.
They’re probably all ruined, but I disable security countermeasures and watch the slow ballet of planets through the viewport while I wait, trying to ignore the ache in my head. The speckled purple planet in the middle drifts out of sync with the others, and for a second I’m sure it’s telling me to run.
An echoing doozh sounds through the ship, and my heart rate spikes so high that my Head-Up Display flashes a warning—as though a pulsing red exclamation mark is going to help me relax.
I hear the sound of cutters working on the hull; with the docking mechanism trashed, they have to cut their way in. This will play out one of two ways: either it’s a legit rescue, or they’re leeching me. They’ll pull away with a circular chunk of my hull, spilling my remaining atmosphere into the void, then they’ll wait until suffocation or the cold kills me.
I leave the cockpit, headed for the sound of their cutters, stopping in the armory on the way through.
The Klaxon sounds and my heart jumps again. I’m just waiting for the hull to be cut away and reveal the depths of space beyond. Instead, it splits down the middle and I see the external door of the other ship. The light over the air lock starts spinning, and as I watch it I try to calm my breathing so it matches the cycle of its spin. Inhale two full rotations, exhale two full rotations.
The panel beside the air lock pings and turns green, and the door opens silently.
The woman standing in the doorway is tall and broad, held upright by her ship’s gravity while I’m stuck floating. She’s the palest person I’ve seen in a long time, so pale her blond hair might actually be natural. It’s cropped military-short under the helmet of her suit, and her back is proper rigid. Her silhouette is made even larger by the fierce-looking combat exoskeleton bolted to her limbs and torso.
“You alone?” she asks. Her voice sounds tinny over the thinband universal comms.
The scattergun in her hands looks even more dangerous than she does. She could have brought a waver—a tight-beam neutron blast that destroys organic matter and not much else—but I figure the heavy weaponry is a message. She’s telling me she’s only here because they’re legally required to respond to a distress beacon. If I want to mess about, she’ll have no qualms putting me down.
“Just me and Seven,” I say. She looks at me quizzically, and Seven yawns and stretches inside my helmet. If I hadn’t just danced with that bounty hunter, I’d twist her exoskeleton into a pretty figurehead for the front of her ship, but I can barely keep both eyes open with the pain in my head.
“I need a retinal scan before I let you on board,” she says. That’s when I notice the drone hovering over her shoulder—a lensed metal ball, the air surrounding it distorted by its miniature propulsion drive.
“I don’t think you should do that.”
“Rather I leave you here? ’Cause that’s the only other option.”
My hand reaches for the plasma charges in my satchel, but I stop myself, then sigh. “You do what you’ve gotta do.”
The drone hovers over and flashes a light in my eye, and instantly my migraine peaks again. My head pulls to the left, and to her it probably looks like I’m trying to dodge the scan.
The little drone blips happily, and the soldier looks at her wrist-mounted screen. “Mariam Xi,” she says, and I let her pronounce it wrong.
“Just Mars,” I say.
“There’s very little about you in the system.”
“I like to keep my nose clean.”
“Yeah, or the opposite,” she says. “Einri, scan the rest of the ship for life-forms, weapons, anything worth its weight in creds.”
Everything I care about is in my suit and my satchel. They can have the rest. They will have the rest; emergency response might be mandatory under imperial law, but that doesn’t mean it’s free.
“Come aboard then, Mars.” She says it like I’d lie about my own name, like she doesn’t even trust me that far. She’s smarter than she looks.
The first one to greet me after we cycle through the air lock is the AI.
“Welcome aboard the Nova,” it says, voice flat. It’s not so much androgynous as completely artificial. Most ship owners splurge on a personality module, so whoever runs this ship must be very cheap, very biz, or very both.
“What is the Nova?” I ask.
“The Nova is an Easter-class crusher and tug,” the AI informs me. “Built out of the Otomo-Ward shipyards in—”
“That’s plenty, ship.” I’ve never jacked a tug before, but I can see how it might have its upsides.
“It’s called Einri,” a new voice says. “I’d appreciate it if you showed the AI an atom of respect.”
“My bad,” I say, then offer them a small smile. I guess this person must be the captain and owner. They aren’t always one and the same, but without any corporate insignia in the main hold, I assume it’s a small operation.
The captain is tall, slender, with soft-looking lips on an otherwise sharp face. The clothing is all shades of gray—large, flat panels of fabric cut into an angular jacket and long skirt. It’s a deliberately gender-neutral ensemble, the sort of thing some people might miss or deliberately ignore, but one that I’m plenty familiar with. Their feet are bare, and they must be following my gaze, because their toes curl against the textured metal floor.
I can feel the bulk of the soldier standing behind me, and the captain nods to her. She waits a few long seconds before she moves past me, exoskeleton clanking against the floor. She puts the scattergun in a locker along the far wall and makes a show of locking and palm-printing it before leaving the hold.
Once we’re alone, the captain asks, “What are you planning to do with your ship?”
I shrug. “Nothing; it’s scrap.”
“Scrap’s my specialty.” They smile now, because this emergency response might actually be worth something at the end of the day. “What about the other, ah, object?”
I don’t want to explain what it used to be and how it got into its current spherical situation, so instead I say, quietly, “I don’t think anyone’s gonna claim that wreckage.”
They hold out a hand and I start to freak out: Do they expect money? Or an ID pass? Then after I’ve stared at the hand for way too long, I remember. I unclasp the lock on my suit’s gauntlet, take it off, and shake their hand.
“You can call me Squid,” they say. Now that I’m looking closely at their face I see a flow of color beneath the skin. They must see me staring, because the chromatophores change to a soft shade of pink, like reddening cheeks, responding to stimulus.
“It’s a pleasure, Mars. As per imperial regulation, you’re entitled to food and board until we reach our next port, and I’m entitled to charge you for same. I can deduct it, and my rescue fee, from the creds earned after selling your ship for scrap, or you can work to pay your way.”
“The deduct thing—let’s go with that,” I say, running out of words as quickly as I’m running out of energy. I feel Seven scurrying inside my suit and rushing down my arm. She sticks her head out of the sleeve and looks around, slitted eyes taking in the dock.
“Delightful,” Squid says, then reaches down.
I expect a squeal, but Seven doesn’t bite. She gives Squid’s proffered hand a quick sniff, then runs up the extended arm to perch on their shoulder.
“What is it?” Squid asks and scratches under Seven’s chin; she leans into it.
“I dunno; some sort of experiment. I rescued her when I was a kid,” I say, which is totally, technically, true.
Squid glances at me, then back to Seven. “When you were a kid?”
Seven suddenly decides she’s bored with this new human and jumps, but it’s only a short drop and she doesn’t need to flaunt her glide membrane just yet.
Squid looks like they’re about to ask me something else.
“If you don’t mind,” I sputter out, “I think I’d like to bunk down. Catastrophic systems failures tend to take it out of a girl, not to mention floating in the abyss waiting to die. Maybe just wake me for the next meal?”
“Yes, that’s fine. Einri will guide you to your quarters. Do you need anything from your ship before it’s crushed?”
I just shake my head and walk away; I get the feeling that Squid could extend this conversation indefinitely. I make a clicking noise in the back of my throat, and Seven scampers up from wherever she’s been sniffing about to climb up onto my shoulder.
Quarters are close to the dock, and it only takes a couple of minutes of following Einri’s directions to get there. I drop my satchel, strip out of the rest of my space suit, and lay down. I swear I’m out before my head hits the pillow.
“I’d really prefer if you didn’t do that.” Squid’s voice sounds a bit odd, and when I glance up I see it’s because they’re talking to me via the ship’s minidrone, its lens-eye looking down at me.
The three plasma charges are laid out on the floor and I’m crouching down, trying to remember the passcode I used to lock the detonator. “Uh, this isn’t what it looks like,” I say, not sounding very convincing.
“So you weren’t planning a one-woman shipjacking?”
“We need to talk, Mars; everyone’s gathering in the mess hall. If you pack those charges away and head to the mess now, this little misunderstanding can stay between the two of us. Otherwise, I send Trix to come find you. Believe me when I say she won’t take your explosive plot as calmly as I have.”
Talk? I don’t know what Squid’s game is, but any rational captain would have me ejected out the nearest air lock.
“All right, let’s talk.” I stand up, and the drone starts moving down the hallway, gliding backward so it can keep its eye on me.
When I get to the mess hall, everyone is already waiting for me—but by “everyone” I just mean Squid, the soldier Trix, and some other guy. I expected a tug to need more manpower, but I guess the ship and its AI must do most of the work. Now that Trix is out of the space suit, I see one of her arms is prosthetic—the same glossy black and deep red as the exoskeleton she was wearing.
“Oh, hey,” the guy says, lifting a forkful of rehydrated egglike protein to his mouth. He nods at me; his head is close-shaved, skin glossy beneath the mess-hall lights. He’s got a broad frame, but there isn’t much of him hanging off it.
Trix just scowls at me, and for a second I think Squid told her about the bombs, but then I figure if that was the case, she’d do a lot more than scowl. Squid’s at the far end of the mess, pacing.
“So, what’s this about, Squid?” I say.
“We have company inbound—an imperial vessel. We’ve been ordered to stay here and await their arrival.”
“How did they find us?” the guy asks.
“I told you not to scan me,” I say to Trix, and for a split second her brow furrows. That look tells me she thought they were coming for her, and all of a sudden Trix gets a little more interesting in my books.
She stands and her chair tips over. “You brought this down on us?” she says, but it’s less a question and more an accusation. She charges at me, and without the exoskeleton she moves fast—too fast. Before I can stop her, she’s got her massive paw of a hand wrapped around my throat.
I can feel my face turning red, but I give her a cheeky grin; in my experience, when someone’s acting tough, nothing pisses them off more.
“Let go of her, Trix,” Squid says.
“How about instead I snap her neck?” She clenches her prosthetic fist, and I don’t doubt the arm could do it.
“Trix, trust me.”
Trix loosens her grip, and that’s when I strike out. She flies backward and lands on the mess-hall table, scattering food and ersatz coffee. The guy jumps out of the way, saying, “What the hell?” but then he’s leaning down over Trix, checking on her.
Squid walks across the room. “There’s no need for that,” they say, hands up placating-like, as though I’m an angry animal or a kid throwing a tantrum. “You’re among friends here.”
“Like hell she is,” Trix says, picking herself up off the table.
“Trix,” Squid barks, angry and impatient. They stare Trix down, playing the boss card, which Trix seems to grudgingly respect. After holding their gaze for a long moment, Trix looks away and Squid continues. “There’s plenty of room on this ship, plenty of work, and we could use someone with your talents.”
At least now I know why Squid is trying to stay on my good side. Though I do wonder how they figured it out.
“The only talents she’s shown are sleeping and bringing trouble down on us,” Trix says, but she sounds uncertain, and I’m guessing my little telekinetic display unsettled her.
Before Squid can say anything, Einri interrupts. “Excuse me, captain. There’s a gravitational field forming within dangerous proximity of the Nova.”
“Take evasive action.”
Einri doesn’t respond with words, but I feel the ship shift beneath my feet, and the pull of gravity deep in my gut.
“We’ll have to pick up this family meeting later,” Squid says, then they turn and run toward the cockpit.
I can hear Squid’s soft footfalls ahead of me, but I’d probably still lose them if it wasn’t for Einri’s directions. Without a personality mod, it’s hard to say, but I’m pretty sure it’s pissed at me. I would be, too, if someone had been planning to rig my guts with explosives.
I get to the cockpit and I’m actually impressed. It’s way more advanced than the utilitarian, scuffed metal of the rest of the ship: modular control panels, with screens on every surface giving a near-360-degree view of the surround.
I wait for Squid to do something, then I see their rigid posture and the blank look in their eyes and I realize they already are doing something—a pilot suite implant is giving them direct access to all systems. I’m so impressed I nearly whistle.
“You mind letting me in on your neural chatter?” I ask.
“Sorry,” Squid says, except they don’t actually say it: the voice comes from the room itself.
“The wormhole’s gravitational differential is low,” Einri says, “well within standard operating limits. It’s only the proximity that’s a factor.”
“How long do we have?”
Before Einri can respond, we get the answer. The ship emerges from a wormhole on our starboard side, folding down into its fourth-dimensional form, planes and vertices being spat out by the universe itself. A wormhole always brings some gravity from its starting point—the bigger the differential between start and end points, the more likely you’re going to cause some major damage.
“Wolf-Spider, armored personnel frigate,” Einri says.
What Einri doesn’t say is that it’s got the MEPHISTO colors painted down its side—no logos, that’d be too obvious. At this distance we can’t see yet, but shocktroopers will already be scurrying out onto the hull with their tensile tethers and weldthrowers, preparing to launch at the Nova as soon as they’re in range.
“The scrapped ship floating nearby when we found you—was that connected to this?” Squid asks.
So that’s how Squid figured it out: ran some scans on the ball of wreckage I made.
“Not officially, but yeah, probably,” I say, and I realize it must sound really vague. I feel bad bringing this kind of heat down on them, right as they caught me planning a shipjacking, no less. “It’s a long fucking story.”
“Einri’s been playing dumb with the comms panel since that first message came through, but if they get troops on board, I’ll have to cooperate.”
“I know, I know,” I say. “How do I get to the air lock?”
“What are you going to do?”
“I’m gonna take care of it. How do I get to the air lock?”
“Can you promise me you won’t try and steal my ship if we help you?”
I just nod, and then I remember that Squid’s oculars are probably busy with operational data. “Yeah, I won’t try it again; you have my word.”
“Einri, show her the way, and find us a wormhole.”
The guy is standing naked in the vestibule, the pants half of his space suit pooled around his ankles. I stand in the doorway for a few seconds, not really sure where to look, unable to stop myself from seeing the way he has absolutely no hair on his body. In the mess hall I just thought his head was razored, but it’s more than that. I can even see his weird, hairless ball-sack dangling between his legs.
He bends down to pull up his pants, and that’s when I finally look away. He holds the pants with one hand, turns around, and offers his other. “Mookie.”
I shake it. “Mars.”
Each of his forearms is decorated with a luminescent tattoo—fine lines that shimmer and glow above the skin. One is a caduceus, the other the schematics for some model of rifle. On his upper arm there’s a patch of pinkish skin, glossy like plastic, and I figure that’s where his unit insignia would have been. When you sign up to the imperial military—or are drafted—they put you through a process they call Temporary Augmented Alopecia. You go AWOL and you’re stuck that way for life. Some vets prefer to stay hairless after living like that for a few years; makes them feel like they’re still connected, I guess, still part of the service.
“You don’t need to come out with me,” I say.
“You’re not the only one with a dog in this race.”
I put my satchel down, and Seven pokes her head out and stares at me. “Stay on board,” I say, “this won’t take long.” She runs up my body, coming to rest on my shoulder. I sigh. “All right then.”
After I’ve suited up we pass through the air locks. As we leave the exterior door the artificial gravity releases its hold. I drift outside, and my eyes want to look out to the stars, but I force them down to the hull of the ship so I can see the handholds.
I left my hooded cloak on underneath the space suit for Seven, because it’s better than her blocking half my view while I fend off a boarding party. Already I can feel her purring against my spine; she could sleep anywhere.
“Einri, can you spin the ship around; give us a clear view?” Mookie asks.
“Negative. Locating a wormhole takes navigational precedence.”
We clamber around the hull fast, or as fast as one can in zero gravity. First a large orange planet comes into view, its surface obscured by gray-black clouds, then the Wolf-Spider is there, stars twisting and blurred in the wake of its engines.
From the ship’s-eye-view it looked small and distant, but now seeing the frigate proper, my heart is thundering. Like all imperial vessels, MEPHISTO ships are Northern Cooperative designs; the hull’s curved surfaces make them look grown as much as built—biological, insectoid. Where an insect’s eyes would be are a hundred lenses and other sensors, and its carapace bristles with spikes that could be antennae or weaponry. I hope they still want me alive.
This close I can see the shocktroopers on the ship’s hull—burgundy smudges shimmering against the background of space. I hook my tether to the hull and wait.
Mookie comes up beside me, and through his visor I can see his facial tattoos glowing in the dim light of space. He takes hold of the waver that dangles from his belt, then asks, “What do you need me to do?”
“Drag me inside if I pass out.”
I ignore him because the Wolf-Spider has started banking. The first squad launches, and I focus on the trooper to the far right. I sweep my hand across, and they tumble sideways, spinning. The shocktroopers are all tethered together—I send the whole pack plunging left and down away from us, a tangle of bodies and tensile steel.
“Void-damned spacewitch,” Mookie says, breathless.
He sounds impressed rather than freaked out, but still I say, “Don’t fucking call me that.”
The first squad is already retracting when the second blasts off from the personnel launch pads. I make a shoving motion, and they go backward, spinning head over ass until they collide with other soldiers on the hull.
I don’t have to move my hands, but it helps focus my intention, pushing body and mind to one purpose. That’s what they taught us, anyway, when I was a kid. I can feel my brain inside my skull—not a pain, just a presence. No matter how many times I do this, I can never get used to it. It’s like my brain is vibrating in there, or swelling up against the bone. It feels wrong. It feels like I was born for this.
They must think I could do this all day, because the next group are a pack of specialists, launching off the hull with personal blastpacks, white hiss of gas escaping behind them and no tethers to get tangled in.
I yell, loud, forcing the sound up from my diaphragm—another trick they taught us—and swat these elite troops one by one. By the time they’re all spinning off into space, my throat is on fire.
“You fucks!” I sweep my arm out, and the troopers on the hull scatter, bouncing off the hull and stopping suddenly at the ends of their tethers. I feel that pressure building up in my chest and pause. I exhale and I force myself to remember these aren’t the same troops, these aren’t the ones who were there; maybe they don’t deserve to die. Maybe.
The Wolf-Spider spins again and banks up, revealing a series of tubes along its base. A missile shoots toward the Nova’s engines, and I reach out and grab it. I think about sending it back and killing every last one of those troopers, but I don’t. I crush the missile in my hand, and the explosion must be like a declaration of war, because more missiles tear through the void between ships, and I fling them away from the Nova.
I’m screaming again and Seven is awake now. She’s in the helmet with me, and she’s baring her tiny little teeth at the whole universe like she’s going to kill it herself, like together we’ll watch it all burn. And there’s water building up in my eyes, and the missiles look like blurry stars streaking through space, and all I want to do is die and kill and cry, and then my vision shrinks down to a single pixel, and I know what that means, but it’s too late to stop it.