Meet a Most Unique Hero in The Warrior Within, by Angus McIntyre
If there’s one thing we can say about Tor.com Publishing, it’s that the imprint is never afraid to try something new—whether that means taking a risk with the tone or subject matter of a story, or introducing a new author to the world. Next March, a new space opera promises to check off both boxes. The Warrior Within is a science fiction novella by debut author Angus McIntyre, a graduate of the Clarion Writers Workshop, and it sounds fresh and new—a man with multiple artificial personalities living in his head, stuck on a blasted backwater planet, must deal with three interlopers who’ve come off a starship looking to kill a woman.
Today, we’re showing off the cover art for the book, featuring art by Martin Deschambault and design by Christine Foltzer, as well as sharing the first chapter. You’ll find both just below the official summary.
Karsman has a dozen different people living in his head, each the master of a different set of skills and hoping to gain mastery of Karsman’s body. He survives on a backwater planet dominated by the Muljaddy, a mostly ambivalent religious autocracy, where devotion and prayer can be traded in for subsistence wages and enough food to survive. Surrounded by artifacts of a long dead civilization, the population survives off its salvage, with Karsman eking out an uneventful life as the unofficial mayor of his small town.
But that life is soon interrupted, when a group of commandos arrive, coming from the wastelands as only off-worlders could. They’ve come to kill a woman, or so they say. At first the commandos merely threaten as they search. Unable to find what they’re looking for, they begin to ratchet up their measures, separating the men from the women, instigating violent encounters, and eventually staging a coup against the Muljaddy and his Temple.
Faced with the task of protecting his quiet town and a woman he might love from the commandos who could want to kill her, Karsman must balance between maintaining his personality and harnessing the personas whose skills he desperately needs.
And here’s the excerpt…
On the day after the Passing Festival, three men walked out of the swamps and came into town to kill a woman.
Normally, Karsman would have been one of the first to know about the strangers. But while the strangers were making their way across the salt flats that lay between the city and the distant marshes, Karsman was a good four or five kilometers away, heading out of town along the Road.
He walked hand in hand with a young woman. She had lilac hair, and fine gold wires were woven into the flesh of her right ear. The gray wind jacket that she wore was crisscrossed with colored ribbons. Her name was Mera, and he had known her for just two days and nights.
On the Road ahead of them, the vast wheeled bulk of a Temple advanced at slightly less than walking pace, towed by a dozen tractors, its spires and minarets stark against the hazy orange of the sky. Long strings of prayer flags flapped in the wind. Behind the Temple, a column of trucks and vans crept along in bottom gear, towing flatbed trailers laden with struts and panels: pieces of prefabricated housing that would be reassembled to make a new town somewhere farther down the Road. Young children stared sleepily from the cabs of the trucks and last night’s revelers lay sprawled on top of the cargo like wounded soldiers being carried off the battlefield.
Karsman and Mera walked at the tail end of the procession, holding themselves a little apart from the other walkers.
“I should go back soon,” said Karsman for the second or third time. Mera tightened her grip a little, holding on to his large hand possessively.
“Why?” she said. “Why not come with us?”
He considered the question. In truth, there was little enough reason to go back. The strip-town behind him was like any of a thousand others: not much more than a cluster of shacks thrown up along the fringes of the Road, huddled in the shadow of an abandoned Builder city. The only man-made structure of any solidity or size was the Temple, twin to the one now moving ponderously down the Road ahead of them. Even after twelve years, Karsman had few real attachments there—a handful of friends, some drinking companions, a couple of occasional lovers—no one he would really miss. The possessions he had left behind in his own shack would scarcely fill a small knapsack. Nothing he owned was worth the trouble of going back.
At the side of the Road, two young girls stood holding hands. They paid no attention to the crowd, which parted to move around them and closed up again. One of the girls had pushed her goggles up onto her forehead so that she could stare into her companion’s eyes, and Karsman recognized her as the daughter of one of his neighbors. There was something so theatrically tragic about her expression that Karsman could not help smiling.
As he watched, she dropped the other girl’s hand and turned away. Her lover stared after her for a few moments more, then shrugged, turned on her heel, and broke into a slow jog, hurrying to catch up to the trucks ahead.
It was the same at every Passing Festival. Temporary alliances formed during two days of revelry, then quickly dissolved as the passing Temple moved on down the Road. A few festival pairings became something more permanent. One person might choose to stay behind with a lover when the Temple left. Another would say good-bye to home and family and follow a new partner down the Road to an unknown destination, attaching themselves to a different Temple and making a new life in a new community. The arrangement might or might not last. Often, defectors simply drifted back after a few months, riding a road train back down the Road and picking up their lives again where they had left off.
Karsman had seen it all before. On a couple of occasions, he had considered the idea of moving on himself. But this was the farthest he had ever taken it, the farthest he had ever been from town since his arrival. He had the feeling that he was approaching a point of no return.
Mera tugged at his hand. “Come on,” she said.
He let her lead him off the Road and up the slope of the windbreak. For most of its length, the Road ran level, raised no more than a half meter above the surrounding terrain. Here and there, however, great berms of concrete and earth were raised up on the sunward side of the roadway. Their inner faces were studded with niches that served as storm shelters. At their highest point, the windbreaks rose as much as eighty meters above the road, more than tall enough to protect even the tallest spires of a Temple from a gale blowing darkward.
Karsman and Mera sat down on the lip of the windbreak, feet dangling, watching the convoy roll slowly past below them. There were already a handful of other couples there, taking advantage of a last few moments together or simply admiring the view.
The view, such as it was, was made up of alternating stripes of color. Immediately below them lay the broad band of the world-girdling Road, its smooth black surface strangely resistant to the blowing dust that colored everything else a dull red. The Road ran arrow-straight all the way to the horizon in either direction, so flawless in its undeviating regularity as to seem almost unreal. Seen from above, it looked like a fissure splitting the planet in two.
On either side of the Road lay a wide strip of desert, dry red earth and rock, speckled here and there with grayish clots of dead vegetation. From the top of the windbreak it was possible to make out the irregular scratches of dry watercourses, like abstract writing on the arid ground. Rainstorms strong enough to fill them were rare. Over the years, the stream beds gradually filled with red dust and the wind blurred their outlines, softening and smoothing them until they blended back into the desert.
Far to sunward it was just possible to make out the beginning of the next band of color, a swathe of yellow-gray mudflats that marked the limits of the desert. From their present vantage point nothing else was visible, but Karsman had climbed some of the taller towers in the Builder city and knew that the banding continued. Beyond the mudflats lay a belt of swampland, visible as a confused scribble of contrasting textures: the black of floating vegetation mixed with glimmering patches of open water and the rusty knobs of outcrops. On rare clear days, you could sometimes see beyond the swamps to a white line of breaking waves and the red glint of the open ocean beneath a liquid shimmer of heat haze. Over it all hung the fat orange blob of the sun, perpetually hovering a few degrees above the horizon.
“So, why not come with me?” Mera asked.
Karsman shrugged. “I have—” He hesitated. “responsibilities.” He was aware of the absurdity of the phrase even before he finished speaking. He bit his lip, embarrassed by his own pomposity.
Mera, however, took him seriously. “Because you’re the mayor,” she said.
“I—what? No, that’s just something they call me. It’s more a joke than anything else.”
Karsman’s mayorship was entirely unofficial, his qualifications no more than a steady temperament and the willingness to occasionally thump a few heads together in the interests of keeping the peace. The local Muljaddy held the monopoly on spiritual and political power; the Temple guards were the only sanctioned wielders of coercive force.
“And you’re not curious to see what’s down the Road?” Mera continued.
He shrugged again. Privately, he doubted that whatever lay farther down the Road was any different to what he had already seen. He had traveled more than most, and all he had ever seen was the same red desert and dry scrub, the featureless black ribbon of the Road broken at intervals by windbreaks or the clusters of gaunt gray towers left by the Builders. And in the lee of the towers, the haphazard jumbles of strip-towns, each one much like another, anchored in place for a few years by a Temple and then packed up and trucked farther down the Road when the Temple’s Muljaddy decided it was time to move on. Karsman had lived in a few strip-towns before he came to rest here. As far as he was concerned, there was little enough to choose between them.
He refrained from saying any of this, because once he started listing the ways that every place on the Road resembled every other place, he would eventually have to acknowledge that the only difference between this strip-town and the next would be the presence of Mera. Then he would have to tell her that that was not quite enough to convince him to pick up and move, and he had no wish to hurt her feelings. He genuinely liked her. She was smart and funny and spontaneous, and the last two days had been good. In the end, though, she was not quite enough to overcome his own inertia. Almost, but not quite.
He turned his head and looked back along the Road toward the towers of the Builder city, gray phantom shapes in the haze. Squinting, he could just make out a few tiny figures crawling on some of the higher galleries: scavengers, trying to pry loose a few crumbs of salvageable material or hoping to stumble on a hidden doorway to some section that hadn’t already been picked over thirty times before. Tomorrow morning, he would be one of those ant-like figures. If he chose to go with Mera, then he would find himself on a different tower in a different city, but the work would be the same, the hard gray metal of the Builder towers no less unyielding.
The sight of the towers made up his mind for him. He stood up, brushing the dust from the seat of his coveralls.
“I should be getting back,” he said.
Mera’s face was unreadable, her eyes hidden by the scratched yellow plastic of her wind goggles.
“If you change your mind, you know where to look for me.”
He nodded. “And if you change yours, I’ll be here.”
He stooped and kissed her lightly on the forehead. She squeezed his hand.
“Good luck, Karsman.”
He turned and started to descend the slope of the berm, heading back toward the city. When he reached the Road, he glanced back. There was a figure standing on top of the windbreak, silhouetted against the sky, but he could not be sure that it was her.
When Steck finally found him, Karsman was sitting behind a windbreak at Kido’s shop, picking through a handful of roasted sandnuts, trying to decide whether it was worth walking down to the Temple and turning a prayer wheel a few times to earn himself a better breakfast. He was dimly aware that something was happening outside, but in his present mood he felt no curiosity about it at all.
He cracked another nut between his teeth, spat fragments of shell into his hand, and popped the round gray core into his mouth. He sucked on it slowly, running his tongue over the fibrous surface.
“There you are,” Steck said, putting his head around the corner of the windbreak.
“Here I am,” Karsman agreed. He rubbed his hands together, scattering bits of broken shell on the ground.
“I thought you’d left town,” Steck said, sounding slightly out of breath.
“I thought about it.”
“Did you hear about the men?”
Karsman shook his head. “What men?”
“Coming out of the swamps.” Steck pointed vaguely to sunward. “Three of them, walking together.”
Karsman held the nut between his teeth for a moment, turning it around with his tongue.
“No one lives in the swamps,” he said.
“Not round here,” said Karsman. “And not for long anyway.”
There were always a few people who rejected a life of dependence on one Temple or another and tried to strike out on their own, but maroon colonies seldom lasted more than a few months. Without a Temple to provide food and drinkable water, life was desperately harsh. Few food crops would grow in the dead, dry soil. The native plants—the fan weeds and watervines that covered the brackish waters of the swamps, the gnarled bushes of the brightside deserts—were all inedible, good for nothing more than raw mass in the Temple’s converters. A few maroon colonies turned to banditry, preying on trucks along the Road until a Muljaddy sent Temple soldiers to hunt them down and crucify them as a warning to others. In the end, all the colonies failed, and any survivors crept back to the Road to be reintegrated into the closest strip-town.
“Maybe they’re out-of-towners who overslept and forgot to leave with the rest,” Karsman suggested.
Steck shook his head. “They’re coming across the desert.”
He sat down in the chair opposite Karsman. “You know how I’ve been working on that high spire, up on Tower 24? There’s this one finial there, right on the edge. If I can just expose the base plate, then I think I can get the whole thing free.” He patted the cutting torch at his hip. “Anyway, I was up there this morning and I happened to look to sunward.”
“Well, I saw something moving. At first I thought it was just bits of dry weed picked up by the wind. But when I looked again, it was closer. And that’s when I realized that they were actually moving toward the town.”
“Men,” said Karsman.
“Men, women, whatever. But human. Headed this way.”
“Huh.” Karsman cracked another nut.
“They came from the swamps,” repeated Steck. “You should come and see.”
“Why me?” asked Karsman rhetorically.
“You’re the mayor,” Steck said.
Karsman grunted. He tilted his head back and spat the husk of the nut over the windbreak.
“Very well,” he said. “Take me there.”
A small crowd had gathered at the edge of the Road, drawn up in a cautious semicircle about the three strangers. Karsman counted fewer than twenty people in all: most of the population of the strip-town were still in their shelters, sleeping off the excesses of the Festival.
The strangers appeared to be human, or at least close enough to the human baseline to be counted as such. The one that Karsman took to be the leader was androgynously handsome, with strong, sculpted features and dark hair pulled back in a short ponytail. There was something almost foppish about his manner, but Karsman knew better than to let himself be deceived by appearances.
The second man was small and slightly built, with a narrow, forgettable face. But for the unusual cut of his clothes, he could have passed for a local, his skin and hair only a shade lighter than theirs. He held himself a little apart from the others, as if hoping to escape attention. Ignore me, his manner seemed to say. I’m not important.
The third man was not someone you could overlook. He was a pallid giant, taller even than Karsman and still broader across the shoulders. His shaven scalp was covered with a dense mass of tattoos. Like the others, he carried no weapons openly, but his long coat could have concealed a small arsenal. Instead of a dust mask, he wore a khaki scarf wrapped around the lower part of his face, and his eyes were invisible behind a narrow visor of smoked glass.
More than anything else, their clothing proved that they were not maroons. Instead of rags, they were dressed in close-fitting outfits with breeches and outer jackets of military cut. All three wore light packs and webbing harnesses hung with pouches and small pieces of equipment that Karsman could not immediately identify. Even unarmed, there was something unmistakably alert and martial about the way they stood. Karsman knew soldiers when he saw them.
Any conversation that had been going on before Karsman and Steck arrived had died away. A few of the men in the crowd held tools as if ready to use them as weapons, obviously distrustful of the strangers. They relaxed slightly as Karsman approached, relieved that the matter was now out of their hands.
The ponytailed leader registered the movement. He turned toward Karsman. “You, big man—are you in charge here?”
“Not me,” said Karsman quickly.
The stranger continued as if he had not spoken. “Where can we get some food and a place to stay?”
“If you’ve got scrip to spend, at any of the shops along the Road,” Karsman told him.
“And if we haven’t?” asked the smaller of his two companions.
“You can go turn a wheel at the Temple.”
The soldier’s eyes narrowed, as if he suspected that he was being mocked.
“Is this your town?” he asked.
Karsman shook his head.
“So if you don’t run the place, who does?”
“The Muljaddy, of course,” Karsman said.
“What’s a Muljaddy?” the stranger asked.
Someone in the crowd at his back tittered, then fell quickly silent as the soldier glanced their way.
One of Karsman’s personas, the one he thought of as Diplomat, tried to come to the fore, but Karsman quickly pushed the persona back. He felt a momentary disorientation before Diplomat reluctantly unloaded itself and let Karsman take control of his own mind again. Diplomat would be the right choice, of course. Diplomat was all about nuanced communication, about smoothing out the rough spots and the misunderstandings. But Karsman had no desire to take on the role of emissary. Whatever was happening, he suspected it was better not to get involved. The star people could find their way to the Temple, and the Muljaddy could deal with them. It was none of his business.
“You’re not from here, are you?” said Steck. “Are you off a starship?”
The stranger turned to look at him. “That’s right.”
There was a ripple of movement in the crowd, as if the onlookers were uncertain whether to draw closer to the visitors or to pull back to a safer distance. “So why are you here?” asked one of the bolder spirits.
“We’re here,” the stranger said, “to kill a woman.”
“They’re soldiers, aren’t they?” said Steck as he and Karsman walked back toward Kido’s.
“Of a kind.” Karsman glanced back over his shoulder to verify that the three strangers were still walking the other way, headed down the road toward the Temple. A few curious townspeople followed them, keeping their distance.
“Could you take them?” asked Steck.
Karsman stopped. “What?”
“Could you beat them in a fight?”
Karsman shook his head in exasperation. “Steck, I don’t think you understand what soldiers are. Me, I’m a brawler. Round here, I pass for a tough guy. But those three are professional killers. They’re biohacked, chipped and wired. They can butcher you nine different ways while you’re still thinking about where to land the first punch. I wouldn’t last fifteen seconds.”
Don’t sell yourself short, said Warrior, his speech a flicker of aggression in Karsman’s head. You and me, like old times. We could take the big one out, no problem. You saw the way he stood. Size always makes them sloppy. They get used to winning fights by sheer muscle and mass. Overconfidence kills.
And what if he has a Warrior of his own? Karsman asked. He felt a tremor of hesitation from the persona.
We’re better, Warrior insisted.
You don’t know that, said Karsman. What were you saying about overconfidence?
“Which one is the most dangerous?” asked Steck.
“The soldiers. Which one do you think is the most dangerous?”
Karsman shunted Warrior to the back of his mind.
“I don’t know,” he said. “The little guy, maybe. Or the one with long hair.”
Steck stopped and looked at him, frowning. “Not that huge guy?” he asked. “He’s bigger than you are.”
“Maybe,” he conceded, unwilling to go into his reasons. “Listen, Steck, they’re all dangerous. You stay away from them. Tell everyone else to do the same. Any idiot who gets in their way is going home dead.”
“Do you think they’re really off a starship?”
“And they came all this way just to kill a woman?”
“That’s what they said.”
“Why would they do that?” Steck asked.
Karsman did not answer. He had been wondering the same thing himself.
Preorder The Warrior Within, available March 6, 2018.