Once & Future, written by queer YA power couple Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy, is the inclusive, genderbent King Arthur retelling your bookshelf has been missing. The authors have taken one of Britain’s foundational myths and reimagined it as a story they call their “resistance fight song” (also: “queer knights-in-space opera”!). Ari is an illegal immigrant in a far future world, a fugitive in the galaxies under the thumb of the Mercer Company. But after a spaceship crash on Old Earth, Ari’s destiny finds her: she is the forty-second incarnation of King Arthur, confirmed when she pulls a sword from a willow tree. She pairs up with a teenaged Merlin in a planet-hopping quest to break the Camelot curse and save the planet she once called home. Capetta and McCarthy’s book promises to be an adventure of epic scale, including on-page representation and celebration of people of many different sexualities, races, and gender identities.
We are so pleased not only to reveal its cover, but to share an exclusive first chapter excerpt! Read it now, then preorder your copy, then count down the days till March 5, 2019.
Chapter one of Once & Future
Ari was hiding out in the Middle Ages.
The rubber knight’s costume she was wearing made squeaks with each movement and smelled like her brother—before he’d embraced deodorant.
“This is a weird secret spot, Kay,” Ari said through the slits of the faceguard on the knight’s helmet. She stiffly turned to take in the glass cases bursting with period drama: mannequins in knight regalia, sweating horses, and piercing swords. Off to the side, hook-nosed and formidable, was a lone figure labeled Merlin.
“It’s the best Old Earth myth,” Kay muttered, going over the grocery list on his watch. “Don’t you remember our classes on Lionel? Arthur was the one true king who saved his people from the Dark Ages. He gave a voice to all, righted the wrongs…made a round table.”
“So that no single person would be at the head. An equal voice for all.”
“An equal voice for all, plus he’s the one true king? Sounds like delicious hypocrisy.”
Kay blew out an annoyed breath. “No one comes in here, Ari. It is a good secret spot.”
Ari let him have that one, reminding herself that while this place felt like a harmless museum in a forgotten wing of a giant floating mall, it was also ground zero for the Mercer Company. The starship Heritage was the galactic corporation’s flagship, teeming with associates who would arrest her as soon as sell her a souvenir. She teetered back around in the stiff suit to face her brother. “How did you ever train in this thing at knight camp without peripheral vision?”
“Knights don’t need peripheral vision. They need chivalry.”
Ari snorted so hard her faceguard flew up.
Kay smacked it back down. “And the ability to realize when they should not draw attention to themselves.”
“Really? That plaque over there says chivalry gave birth to toxic masculinity, which caused Old Earth a few millennia of bullshit patriarchy.”
“Are you seriously picking fights right now?” Kay asked. “You’ve got to lie low. I’ve got to get supplies. Don’t make me wish I left you on Error.”
“You couldn’t. Mercer is doing random spot checks in the parking docks.”
“I could have left you stuffed in a trunk.”
“The patrols would look there.”
Her big brother picked up her rubber-gloved hand and slapped a coin in it. “Go. Over there. Let me think, will you?” He pointed to a telescope by the nearest window. Ari squeak-walked toward it. She dropped the coin in the slot and pushed up her faceguard enough to peer out at the main attraction on Heritage, Mercer’s most popular shopping and tourist destination: the view.
Ari squinted through the telescope. Up close, Old Earth was downright puny. Only a few thousand miles from the retired planet, and she could not figure out what was so sacred. She zoomed in, and the blue and white marble revealed green-brown clumps. When Kay stomped over on his magboots, she asked, “Is that all the land? Can’t be.”
“There were ice caps in its heyday,” Kay said. “Less water, more land.”
“Cradle of civilization, my ass.”
“Hey.” Her brother grinned at her, a maniacal, desperate, Oh my gods, just listen to me look. “Keep your voice down, okay? That planet means a lot to most people.”
Ari glanced at the crowds just outside of the museum wing, taking in Old Earth from the observation deck. The space rats were easy enough to rub elbows with, even if they were overemotional at the sight of the retired planet. They were like Kay, born on ships and tailored in patchwork flightsuits. The other humans, the crisp, smooth, elite Mercer Company patrons, were more unnerving.
And Ari? She didn’t belong to either camp.
Kay eyed a pair of mall cops in stark white Mercer uniforms as they made their rounds.
“Help me finish the list. We need to get out of here.” He pushed his silvery-gray hair from his scalp, and it arced damply over his brow. Her brother was doing what he always did under pressure: thinking with his stomach. “Did you like those protein preserves? The garlicky ones?”
“They made your breath stink up the entire ship for days.”
“So, three cases?”
Ari side-eyed him, and he added, “Plus breath mints. And for the cake, chocolate this year?”
“I don’t need a cake, Kay.”
“Ten years is a big deal. I vote chocolate. I eat most of it anyway.” Kay hadn’t even glanced out the window; Old Earth was old hat to Ari’s adoptive brother. He’d been onboard Heritage a bunch of times as a kid and claimed to be over the view. Still, whenever their provisions ran low, Kay set course for this exact starship no matter how far away they were.
“How many times did you come here with our parents?”
“Salt. Wounds,” he gruffed, confirming Ari’s theory that this place reminded him of better times, before his moms had taken in Ari, an illegal refugee, and they’d all had to start dodging Mercer.
Ari turned her telescope to the motley, cratered moon. Unlike Old Earth, it had been overrun by domed colonies named after ancient vehicular gods. Each one featured its name and mascot in great, glowing letters. Even from this distance, a neon ram’s head charged through a wall over and over, the letters DODGE blinking.
“Hey, we should stop there on our way out,” she said, pointing to the overrun moon with its billboards more brilliant than stars: Live shows. Dance halls. Oxygen bars. Something called an Elvis. “When’s the last time we went dancing, Kay?”
Kay snapped his fingers in front of the telescope, and for a second the automatic focus zoomed out dizzily and gave her a view of the powder granules of orange-cheese from his favorite tortilla chips.
Ari lifted her face, watching a drop of sweat travel down his cheek to his scruffy chin.
“Stop sweating. They’ll think you’re sick. Or hiding an illegal immigrant in the medieval times section.”
“Hilarious, Ari. Truly.” Kay wiped up his face with his forearm. “Tell me, are you able to stop your body from sweating on command?”
Ari squinted. “I haven’t tried. Maybe.”
“Look, don’t move from this spot while I pick up our supplies. Don’t talk to a soul, and if you must? Lie, Ari. I want you speaking eloquent, exquisite, capitalistic lies. Repeat after me: ‘Mercer is my king, my God, my salvation. I love to shop ’til I drop.’”
Ari’s lips pruned; she’d make herself sick uttering such nonsense. “I’ll stay put.”
He put his hands on her shoulders. Worry folded his adorably brutish forehead into lines. “If something goes weird, run. Take off in Error. Don’t wait. Promise?”
“I got it, Kay,” she said, slipping past promises she’d never keep. Ari clapped Kay’s shoulder, before he headed out of the museum exhibit and down the stairs that led to the heart of the mall. Ari moved to the balcony to watch him go, taking in a bird’s eye view of bleached consumerism. The ceramic tiled walls and floor were white. So were the identical Mercer storefronts: the symbols for grocery, pharmacy, clothes, and spaceship hardware among the most visible.
Worst of all, even the light pouring from the lofted ceiling was a blinding pale—the kind she couldn’t look straight into without wincing—which was exactly what Mercer wanted.
“Don’t look at us looking at you,” Ari murmured, her nerves prickling. She couldn’t blame Kay for sweating this place. The Mercer Company didn’t mess around. Ten years ago when Ketchans, Ari’s people, started speaking out against the company’s monopolistic tyranny, Mercer responded by placing a barrier around the entire planet, sealing everyone in. Not even communications could pass through. The Mercer Company proclaimed that Ketchans had become hostile, that they were bad for the economy and therefore must be walled off. Mercer had become more than just a greedy corporation with a monopoly on goods and services for the entire galaxy – they were the galaxy. They controlled everything from people’s food to healthcare to the freaking government.
Around the same time that Ketch got walled off, Kay’s moms found seven-year-old Ari abandoned, starved, afloat in a piece of space trash. They’d taken her in, loved her. They’d even tried to find a way to get her through the barrier and back home—and gotten arrested in the process. That was three years ago, and there hadn’t been any word since. They could have died in a Mercer prison or factory planet. Kay said not knowing was the easiest part; that was his favorite lie.
“Welcome to Heritage Mall.”
Ari managed not to shout. The words came from the image of the Mercer Company’s CEO, known only as the Administrator, whose bust was now projected above her watch screen.
“We’re so glad you could join us today on Heritage. All pilgrimages to Old Earth are rewarded with a twenty percent discount on souvenirs and government documents.” The man’s blank eyes and digitally-smooth skin hinted at intrigue, explicit knowledge, and caustic mischief. Ari wondered if he looked that way to everyone or just her. “Whether you’re in the market for a keepsake pebble from terra firma or a quickie divorce, the Mercer Company is at your service.”
The Administrator’s face disappeared. Ari swore inside her smelly, rubber knight’s suit and silenced her watch. “It’s just a pop-up ad,” she murmured to herself. “He’s not actually on this starship. It’s just an ad…”
“Look, my sweets! A knight!” An elderly couple swept into the Middle Ages display, as swift as a pair of roaches. They were on top of her in a moment, groping her suit, all up in her personal space.
“Hey!” she shouted. “No touching!”
Unfazed, the old man with dyed dark hair held up his watch. “Can I take your picture with my wife? We honeymooned on Lionel over fifty solar cycles ago, back when the planet was much more Mercer friendly, you understand.”
The spritely old lady posed on Ari’s arm, and all of a sudden Ari was seeing spots from a brilliant bang of light.
“Spotlight flash. Erases all shadows and lines digitally before the picture is even taken.” The woman chuckled. “It is a bit bright.”
“Take mine now!” the elderly man yelled handing off the watch to his wife, gripping Ari and repeating the blinding-by-luminescence bit. “Now let’s do one with the sword!”
Ari snuck a fist inside her helmet to rub her stinging irises while he pulled her toward the only display in the museum that wasn’t roped off. A golden, bejeweled sword stuck out of a stone in the center of the fake-cobble courtyard. Its handle was worn with smudges and dirty fingerprints. Gross. How many people had yanked on it since the last time it had been cleaned?
“Give it a tug! I’ll stand by and act surprised like, ‘Oh heavens, we’ve got ourselves a new King Arthur!’” he shouted.
Ari sighed and gripped the handle. At least the galaxy-worth of germs was only getting on Kay’s old rubber armor. When the flash shattered the air once again, she gave the sword a heartless tug. It didn’t budge. “Sorry, pal. Looks like we’re stuck in the dark ages.”
He waved her words away like they were annoying liberal chatter and beckoned for his wife to come over. “Now you take our picture,” he ordered.
Ari held out her hand for their seriously large watch while they got in position. Her eyes caught the platinum diamond on the back that denoted elite Mercer status, the shining proof that this piece of tech had access to data that most people’s did not. How easy would it be to type a few words and find out what kept both Kay and her awake in the endless night of deep space?
Ari glanced at the couple. They were discussing who should stand where, dissolving into a full-on argument. “Can I check out the photos you’ve taken?”
“Sure, hon,” the woman said. She elbowed her husband out of the way in order to give the sword her own series of entitled tugs.
Ari opened up the universe wide web and typed in the search bar. She didn’t think about what kind of alarms might fly up when she entered her adoptive mothers’ names; she didn’t care. She would give anything to hand Kay some answers, a bandage for their wounds. Besides, what were the odds that Mercer was watching this particular platinum account at this exact moment?
She tapped Enter, and the Mercer Company emblem spun lazily before blinking wide-open with information on her parents’ arrests. It listed their names, dates of birth, planet or spaceship of birth, and their joint status: Incarcerated. Deceased: Blank.
“They’re still alive,” Ari breathed, hardly believing it. She clicked on location, but a flaring red light darkened the information. Ari dropped the watch, spun on her long legs, and ran from the blinking warning on that screen:
MERCER ASSOCIATES ARE COMING TO ASSIST YOU.
Ari ripped off the knight costume and slid into the command chair on Error. She put her feet flat to the metal grating of the floor and engaged the ankle lock on her magboots. Hauling the crisscrossing safety belt across her chest, she pulled it more taut than usual. Only loose enough to breathe, and barely that.
Kay appeared in a flash of sweaty fear, his watch still buzzing from the alarm Ari had sent. He locked in, lording over the control panel. His frenetically moving fingers ticked against Ari’s anxiety, a tally running ever higher against them.
If this were a normal takeoff, Kay would have wandered into the cockpit five minutes after their preset hour, still in his boxers and clutching a mildly poisonous energy drink. This was entirely too reminiscent of the last time they’d run from Mercer—after their parents’ arrest.
Kay pressed the anchor release once, twice, before hammering it with his fist. An echoing bang announced that their tiny lifeboat of a ship had disengaged from the mall parking dock. He wasted no time in gearing up the thrusters, pushing toward the bumper-to-bumper lane of compact spaceships waiting to pass through the parking booth.
“Don’t suppose you paid for parking at the kiosk on your way out,” Ari said with a badly timed chuckle.
Kay groaned and hit the accelerator. They shot over the lane of ships, over the security bar at the parking booth. The alarms blazed, and he hit max throttle. Ari and Kay could have been mirror images of each other, leaning forward, staring at the small mouth of an exit, willing it to stay open long enough to blast through. They were both holding their breath—until they burst out of the parking area and into the black of space.
“If they weren’t suspicious of us before, they’re watching now.” Kay punched the speed while the floating mall shrunk behind them, far enough to show off the threateningly large Mercer fleet orbiting the stationary starship.
“Are they following?” she asked.
Kay stared at the rearview screen. And stared. “No.”
Ari scrubbed her face and let out a little scream.
“What happened, Ari? Or do I not want to know?”
She weighed her options. It didn’t seem like the right moment to admit she’d found out that their parents were alive, but she’d never been good at right moments. “I’m not…sure?”
“My gods, you’re the worst liar in the history of lies. Oh, here they come!” Kay throttled up while the rearview filled with Mercer pursuit cruisers, sirens blazing. “And the first thing they’re going to do is hack the hard-drive…” Kay’s voice took on a sarcastic lyricism when he was riled, and now he was nearly singing. “I’ve got to drop her offline or we’re going to be Mercer’s ugliest new puppet ship!”
He thrust the steering console to the side—in front of Ari—and began digging in the wires under the panel. Ari reached for the controls, watching the Mercer vessels grow ever closer in the rearview. Too close. They’d overtake Error. Imprison Kay. Lock Ari away for merely existing in their galaxy without their permission.
She stopped staring at the rearview and looked ahead—at the blue and white marbled planet. Ari throttled all the way, beyond the red zone, leaning into the burst of speed.
Grunting, Kay slammed into his seat. “What are you doing? We can’t outrun them!”
“We’re not going to outrun them. We’re going to hide.”
“Where?” he yelled. Ari pointed through the windshield, where the blue planet grew larger with swift brilliance. “Earth? Even if we survive landing, Mercer will kill us!”
“Mercer won’t follow. They can’t. It’s completely out of their jurisdiction. Earth is a protected nature preserve, predating Mercer’s existence.”
“How do you know that?”
“I read it on the freakin’ observation deck!” Ari had to grit her teeth against the speed as their ship passed into the upper atmosphere and began reciting its own name.
Kay punched at the controls, yelling over the stilted voice of the ship’s mainframe. Ari tried to slow them down with every trick, but they were hurtling through the cloudy atmosphere of the retired planet, rattling from the strain on the ship’s joints. The view from the cockpit was all crystal-blue ocean and green, white-capped mountains.
Until they passed through a gray cloud, a digital smokescreen, and were suddenly looking at the rusted, burnt-out shell of a wasteland. The whole planet was a garbage heap forgotten about long ago—apart from the dark strips where the land had been cleared to the bedrock.
“What the…” Ari mouthed just as Error moved on to a new warning complete with flaring lights.
“Illegal trespass! Illegal trespass!”
“Sweet girl, gimme a break!” Kay yelled. He pounded the silencer, but the red alarm lights continued to wash the cockpit with chilling incandescence. Ari tightened her chest restraint as the smog gave way to a jungle mass of crumbling cities.
Kay took the controls back. “If I hit the emergency parachute, they’ll know exactly where we land. If I don’t, we have a tiny chance.”
“Don’t hit it,” she said.
“We could die.”
Ari gripped her brother’s arm so tightly she wondered if their bones would fuse like melted plastic when the ship turned into a ball of flames. It made her feel better. There were worse ways to go than side by side with Kay.
He steered them toward a feral forest. The trees grew closer, and Kay managed to level out the ship, skipping across the canopy. Every single bash nailed Ari’s teeth together, and yet they were slowing—sort of—until Error nose-dived into a break in the trees, plummeted through branches, and slammed into the ground. The viewscreen was filled with smashed earth until the ship’s backend succumbed to gravity, falling with metal shrieks.
In the new quiet, Kay looked at Ari. “Hey, cheers. We’re alive!”
Ari couldn’t help herself. “They’re alive.”
“Our parents. I used some Mercer couple’s watch to look up their status. They’re alive, Kay. I don’t know where, but they’re still out there.”
Kay unstrapped, shaking his head while it turned first pale, then a red shade of punched. His grey hair flopped in his face and he had to pull it away with both hands to stare at her. Ari needed him to say something. Instead he closed his eyes. “Okay, I’m not mad.”
“Really? ’Cause you look mad.”
“That’s because I am mad. I told you not to do anything, so you leaped into Mercer’s files. Then you crashed us on the birth planet of all humanity, and you damn near killed us.”
“But you’re also…not mad?”
“Let me have two feelings right now.”
“They’re both alive?” His eyes were still closed tight. “Are they together?”
“I don’t know.”
Kay’s painful sigh ached through Ari. He shouldn’t have to go through this. There had to be some way to make a stand against Mercer. To find their parents. To free them. To have hope.
“Thank the celestial gods.” Her brother turned his glare at her, his voice rising sharply. “But the next time you want to wave your illegal flag and yell ‘na-na-na-boo-boo,’ could you please wait until after I’ve picked up supplies? Even if Error is in good enough shape to get off this rock, where are we going to go? We don’t have food, Ari. Do you know what happens to people in the void without food? They eat each other.”
“You can eat my left arm. I don’t use it much.”
“Can’t we stop somewhere else? How about that lively moon up there?”
“Which will be overrun with Mercer patrols in less than a day. Patrols looking for us after you flagged our moms and we evaded arrest.”
“Don’t forget about the parking ticket,” she added. He gave her a hard I’m serious look. “So we’ll be discreet.” Ari unstrapped her chest harness and unlocked her magboots. “Do you think Mercer will be able to locate us down here?”
“They won’t catch our flight signature. We’re too insignificant in this mess. Hopefully.” He squeezed the command chair—Captain Mom’s old chair—and Ari wondered if he was thinking about how she used to say, Hope is the food of the foolish. Eat up, kiddos.
Ari walked through the main cabin, toward the back of the ship, passing a half-smooshed cake in its box. Kay and Ari stopped, staring down at it. “I’m still eating it,” her brother said. “Happy ten-year anniversary of being my pain in the ass, I mean, sister.”
“Thanks.” She tried not to laugh…or grimace. They crossed the cargo bay, and Ari hit the door release. Rotting dense undergrowth instantly wafted into the ship. “Gross. What the hell is going on with this planet? It didn’t look this torn up from Heritage.”
“No. It didn’t.” Kay stared at the foul, dead forest, skeletal skyscrapers lining the distance like broken teeth in a monster’s mouth. His face turned dark before he pushed his feelings away. “Whatever is going on here is none of our business. Check the ship, especially the heat shields. I’m going to get the hard drive back online. If we have to run for that cheap excuse for a moon, we better do it before Mercer has taken over every square inch looking for us.”
Ari stepped out onto surprisingly spongy ground, and Kay punched the door closed behind her. She didn’t blame him for being mad; her timing was historically the worst, her impulses a series of epic mistakes. Being adopted by Kay’s family had only seemed to tear Kay’s life apart, and yet he still wanted her around. He still loved her like family. She had to work harder to make it up to him.
She walked around Error, which wasn’t in terrible shape for having dived through a hundred half-dead trees. For once, Error’s first life as a galaxy-class cruise ship lifeboat served her well; she was designed to crash.
Ari searched the skies for the off-white, boxy Mercer vessels which would arrest them on the spot, but the clouds were a solid dark gray. There was no Mercer. Her gamble had paid off. She needed to rub that in Kay’s face—once they were safe, of course.
Ari stepped deeper into the forest, her curiosity piqued. The gravity on this planet was heavy, and her whole body felt dense and stiff. The undergrowth thinned as she neared a clear-cut section, peering out at the madness of screeching, smoke-belching machines. No humans in sight.
Old Earth was supposed to be preserved. Who was leveling these trees? There wasn’t even soil left, just strips of gray bedrock, which was also being laser cut into cubes and hauled away by unmarked factory tanks with too many robotic arms. Someone was deforesting Old Earth, skinning it to its bones and then sucking out the planet’s marrow.
Oh, who was she kidding? It was Mercer. It was always Mercer.
So they had crash-landed in the middle of Mercer’s secret exploitation of the ancient home of all humanity. Great. Like she really needed another reason for Mercer to come after her.
Ari took a few pictures with her watch and was about to double back to Error when she spotted a gorgeous stone wall. The machines were close. They would overtake it soon. She walked along the edge, brushing her fingers down the smooth, fitted rocks. So much had fallen down—entire cities, mountains, countries—but not this. People had created it with their hands, bearing stones in their arms, leaving a mark on their world that lasted hundreds of years longer than any corporation or words or courage.
And the machines were about to eat it.
“Don’t do it, Ari,” she said in the same moment that she reached for the top of the stone wall, hauling herself up and over. She dropped down in a graveyard. Marble and granite headstones lay helter-skelter, mostly fallen, some crookedly half-sunk. And at the center of the darkly magical sight? A gigantic, ancient oak. Its gnarled arms were held up against the sky like a tribute to death. Ari jogged closer, her curiosity rewarded by an even stranger sight. Buried in the trunk of the thousand-year-old oak was a sword.
Her eyes trailed along the silver pommel and the intricate crossbar. Unlike the sword on Heritage, this one looked real. She walked all the way around it. The shining point glinted on the other side like a question.
There were things in this universe that Ari didn’t understand. Space travel for one, the segregation of Ketch for another, herself for the grand finale. But this tree—it needed to be set free. She’d never felt anything so strongly in her whole life, almost like someone was nudging her toward it. Almost as if that someone had been nudging for a lot longer than the last few minutes, and only now were they willing to tip their hand. She got her hands around the hilt and gave it a good tug.
The sword budged.
She tossed her long black hair behind her shoulder and set her stance wider. And pulled the sword. The blade came free with a ringing sound that didn’t seem possible, and even though it had been lodged in that tree for however long, it was sharp and clean.
And no doubt worth a lot of money. Their parents’ savings were running lean these days. Selling this sword could solve several problems…
“You’re pretty enough to pay for a whole host of repairs to Kay’s baby. Not to mention all the snacks his heart desires.” Ari swung it with a loose wrist. It had the perfect weight. Like it was made for her. Already, she didn’t want to trade it for tortilla chips, no matter how many it could buy. “Bad idea,” she muttered, putting on her best Kay impression. “So now you’ve got an impulse control problem and a sword.”
A cracking shriek sounded from the oak. Ari turned as the trunk gave way, a crumbling dark heart of bark where the sword had pierced through. She ran as it snapped, snarled, and cascaded into a heartless fall.
Ari had to dive out from under the whipping branches. Rolling onto her back, she breathed in gasps on the soft ground, cradling her new treasure. “What are you?” she found herself mumbling, running her fingers over letters etched above the hilt. It wasn’t in Ari’s native tongue, but it was the same alphabet Mercer pumped through the galaxy along with their crappy goods. The only language she’d spoken during the decade she’d been forcibly separated from her home planet.
Ari thought she recognized the word. It was so regal she whispered the name aloud.
Once & Future hits shelves March 5, 2019, and is available for preorder now.