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Empress of Forever

Empress of Forever

by Max Gladstone

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“A classic space opera...a universe we’ve never seen before.” Delilah S. Dawson, New York Times bestselling author

From Hugo Award finalist Max Gladstone comes a smart, swashbuckling, wildly imaginative adventure; the saga of a rag-tag team of brilliant misfits, dangerous renegades, and enhanced outlaws in a war-torn future.

A wildly successful innovator to rival Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, Vivian Liao is prone to radical thinking, quick decision-making, and reckless action. On the eve of her greatest achievement, she tries to outrun people who are trying to steal her success.

In the chilly darkness of a Boston server farm, Viv sets her ultimate plan into motion. A terrifying instant later, Vivian Liao is catapulted through space and time to a far future where she confronts a destiny stranger and more deadly than she could ever imagine.

The end of time is ruled by an ancient, powerful Empress who blesses or blasts entire planets with a single thought. Rebellion is literally impossible to consider--until Vivian Liao arrives. Trapped between the Pride—a ravening horde of sentient machines—and a fanatical sect of warrior monks who call themselves the Mirrorfaith, Viv must rally a strange group of allies to confront the Empress and find a way back to the world and life she left behind.

A magnificent work of vivid imagination and universe-spanning action, Empress of Forever is a feminist Guardians of the Galaxy crossed with Star Wars and spiced with the sensibility and spirit of Iain M. Banks and William Gibson.

Empress of Forever is tense and vast, complex and twisty, a space opera epic that’s a lot faster on the draw than Star Wars or Star Trek ever dreamed of being. But at its core, it’s an epic about the value of empathy and the importance of compassion. It’s amazingly good.”—Locus

“With Empress of Forever, Max Gladstone’s remarkable talent is operating at full stretch, demonstrating the strength, power, and originality at his command. This unique and propulsive novel yields a deep, cellular-level enchantment filled at every turn with curiosity and delight.”—Peter Straub

Empress of Forever is a story that will make you weep with wonder. The whole book is filled with the kind of snark that I love and an endless majesty of stars. It broke me to pieces and then stitched me back together with golden thread. Simply glorious.”—K.B. Wagers, author of Behind the Throne

“Galaxy-saving space opera with cool original settings and a unique band of adventurers that change each other for the better. It was a wild ride and I really enjoyed it.”—Martha Wells, Hugo Award-winning author of The Murderbot Diaries

“Incorporates wonder and wit to create a feminist, humanist playground. Introduces one mind-blowing concept after another, capitalizing on the concept of personal power while candidly addressing personal failure. This feast for the imagination intelligently captures the complexities of a variety of relationships in an adrenaline-fueled series of escapades and will leave readers both exhausted and elated.”—Publishers Weekly, starred review

“A fantastic tale of adventure on the grandest scale of epic space opera, spanning galaxies full of battles and traps as well as trade and negotiation, all told with humor as the crew seeks allies, weapons, and ships to fight back against The Empress to save the galaxy—and so Viv can find her way home.”—Booklist, starred review

“Vivian is an amazing woman: with no more than her sharp wit in a universe of AIs and enhanced beings, she still ends up being the key to the truth. Gladstone's epic space opera and fast-paced adventure will thrill readers.”—Library Journal, starred review

At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780765395832
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 06/18/2019
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 204,603
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

MAX GLADSTONE is a fencer, a fiddler, and a two-time finalist for the John W. Campbell Award. He is fluent in Mandarin and has taught English in China. He is the author of the Hugo Award-nominated Craft Sequence of novels, a game developer, and the showrunner for the fiction serial, Bookburners. A graduate of Yale, Max lives and writes in Somerville, Massachusetts.
Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Award–winning author of the Craft Sequence of fantasy novels, MAX GLADSTONE has been thrown from a horse in Mongolia and once wrecked a bicycle in Angkor Wat. He is the author of many books, including Last Exit, Empress of Forever, the Craft Sequence of fantasy novels, and, with Amal El-Mohtar, the internationally bestselling This Is How You Lose the Time War. His dreams are much nicer than you’d expect.

Read an Excerpt


Vivian Liao escaped the Bahamas at daybreak on a twenty-foot schooner one of her aliases bought through an ad hoc Swiss micro-corporation. She left lovers and friends asleep on the shores of St. Kitts near the beach house she rented with the last of her serious money. She wanted to avoid goodbyes, and attention. The IRS waited back on shore after all, and other feds behind them, eager to offer her the kind of deal that would come with a tracking anklet and strict rules about foreign contacts. If she was lucky.

To hell with that. She had a world to conquer.


It was a slow news week, so her picture became a common front page item, reblogged and shared and plunked and kreated everywhere, with the headline Where's Vivian Liao flanked by machine-generated #content riffing on a fact list assembled by some intern in Bangladesh — maybe a kid Viv sponsored through school, that would be a nice irony. Most used the pic from that TED talk in Stockholm, the one she only did because she lost a bet with Andrea, but sometimes they chose a red carpet photo, two years old, from the eyeblink when she was dating that actor, what's-her-name. Danika. A school photo from her valedictory address showed up on the Huffington Post, and the National Enquirer bribed their way into a college pic from that time Steve dragged her to the Rocky Horror Picture Show: fishnets, leather, French cuffs, spike heels, tongue out, hair braided to a crown on her head.

She sawed off that braid with a knife, at dawn, after she reached the harbor's mouth where water cooled and deepened and blued. Her head felt gloriously light after, but she couldn't bring herself to toss the hair overboard. Don't you dare call it superstition. Hair is a kind of write-only exomemory: the chemicals of life seep in and linger. Viv started growing her braid in freshman year, and they'd been through a lot together. If someone could read the memory of that hair, they'd follow her through her first patent, her first ten million, her first IPO, her first breakup, the first time she had sex. But the cops and feds have terabytes of HD video to feed their tracking software. Viv never lived small, or out of sight.

And she designed the tracking software.

To survive on shore, she had to change: don a baseball cap, heavy makeup, big hoop earrings (later she'd re-open her healed piercings with a Bic-heated pin in a rest stop bathroom), walk with a slouch. And ditch the braid.

She'd done the hard part already, the cutting. Now all she had to do was chuck it over the side, and let the sea take the rest.

Instead she trimmed the sails. Wind calmed at her back as she matched its speed, and St. Kitts set behind her.

Fair winds and the Atlantic current, still there, if weakened, helped her make good time north; she sunbathed, read when the boat didn't need her, and savored the silence, which she wouldn't have for long. Blackbeard once came this way before they sank him. No, that was a bad line of thought. Don't obsess over losers.

News reports of her disappearance broke on the radio late on the first day. They called her an entrepreneur, a unicorn builder — god, who used that term any more — they called her infamous. She wanted to listen, but switched the radio off instead.

The boat, by design, did not touch the internet. It had been years since she last sailed without GPS, but she'd been preparing: charts, practice, clothes, a watertight sack with false papers and non-sequential bills.

Off North Carolina, not far from the sandbar where Blackbeard died, she set a tiny shaped charge in the keel, little more than a firework, just enough to scuttle the boat, and added a change of clothes to the watertight sack. In her hand she weighed the braid, dry from days on the deck in the sun. Should have tossed it long ago. They might find it if she dropped it here, she told herself, before she added it to her sack, sealed the sack, and dove.

The sea rubbed her fresh-shorn scalp. She swam, and did not think about what she'd lost. She'd get it all back.

Just watch her.

Cash bought a clunker cheap in the South, especially if you pretended not to notice the telltale damage of northern winters' salt on the undercarriage. She drove north, weaving between auto trucks on the interstate, slow, just shy of 80. They didn't let humans in the real fast lane these days; autodrivers slipped past her at 150-plus. Spoilers on the smaller cars stopped them from taking flight. Viv had three of those, the Maserati and two Teslas, back at the Mountain View house, if the feds hadn't boxed them up already.

She ditched the car in a stadium parking lot in Philadelphia and hopped a train to Boston. Her heart beat faster as she drew close, whole set of Taiko drummers at work there, hammering. She hadn't felt this way when she dove into the sea. She had not felt this fear, or this kind of sick, when she pitched investors, when she had her picture taken, when she signed for her first big loan. But going back to Boston somehow made all the time since she left feel real. She knew those streets, that brick, those cameras, those prox card readers. She'd loved them once, played with them. That was her picture on the Globe's front page, with the familiar question — Where's Vivian Liao? The TED talk photo. It looked more like her than she looked like herself.

She left the train at Back Bay, hat down, hood up, aching with the earrings' unaccustomed weight.

Magda didn't recognize her at their food truck rendezvous. That didn't mean much — machines were better than friends at that sort of thing these days. And when Viv walked up behind Magda, her heart began to ache again. Not with fear of discovery, though. It ached with love.

Viv and Magda met when they were students, basically children, neither done baking yet. Time had set them both. Thin rays of silver graced Magda's dark hair, and she was slimmer than she'd been back in school; but what stopped Viv, what really made her ache, was the ring on Magda's finger.

Viv had never met her old friend's kid; he'd been born right before the Collapse, when Viv's life turned the bad kind of interesting. So he'd be two, now. And she wouldn't meet him on this visit. Magda wouldn't take her home, too dangerous, couldn't risk tainting her family if it came to proscription, if the government got involved. Her coming here at all, helping Viv even this much, was dangerous, and dragged in her husband, her son — Viv panicked before she remembered the kid's name, which was Victor. And Magda would swim further into the deep end before this was over. She couldn't turn Viv down. Because of love.

Viv did not deserve her. She never deserved her friends.

But she used them all the same.

Of all the things the men in suits had made Viv do in the last week, by far the most vicious was to make her tap Magda on the shoulder, watch her turn, see the light in her eyes when she saw past makeup and earrings and cap, the smile Magda could not quite control as the space between her lips formed Viv's name — to make Viv go through all this without hugging her. The first friendly face in two thousand-odd miles of sea and road and rail.

She wanted more than just to hug her — she wanted, though she'd never admit it even to a therapist, to be hugged herself, held and anchored so hard she'd never slip away, even if her fortunes, her fame, the Mountain View house, her companies, had all been torn from her, leaving her a runaway with a rucksack, a painted face, and absurd earrings. A woman with fake papers in a country that didn't use to care about that sort of thing.

She ached to be a human being in the arms of her friend.

But to be human was to be weak, and she couldn't allow that now, here, as robot dogs wandered past, sniffing the square for bombs. Keep control, Viv. You have important vengeance business to attend to.

So she only asked Magda for directions to Faneuil Hall, mispronouncing it like a tourist would when she showed her cheap map. A robot dog sniffed Viv's ankle and moved along. Magda kept it together, which Viv, dammit, wanted, no matter how much she needed a friend's touch. Magda drew on the map, circled a few landmarks. The map she passed back to Viv held a key, and one of those landmarks was not a landmark at all.

People Viv's and Magda's age still called this kind of place an Airbnb even though that site had folded after the murders. Same sort of thing, a nice one bedroom in Beacon Hill with a skylight above the bed and that bright early autumn Boston blue above. Champagne chilled in the fridge, decent stuff, actual DOC, rare these days with the climate; a shopping bag on the kitchen counter held a packet of fake rose petals, scented candles, and, separately wrapped, a few pieces of leather Viv didn't examine closely. A Happy Anniversary card. A ruse — wasn't it? Magda's wedding was, she thought, in summer, though she couldn't remember dates like that anymore without her screens.

Magda arrived in late afternoon, and before the door shut behind her Viv found herself enveloped.

She couldn't breathe. Some of that was the hug — Magda'd been working out — some the wet stuff welling in her eyes and nose and the hot fist that caught her windpipe. Oh, god, she was losing it. And if she lost it here, if all the last two years' disintegration came over her at once, she'd never pull herself back together for the mission.

"Viv," Magda kept repeating her name, a murmur like the waves washing the North Carolina beach where Viv had lain fresh from the ocean, exhausted by her swim ashore, sprawled in flotsam beside the sack that held her braid and the remnants of her life. And in a way Magda's voice was that surf. In a way Viv had only now made landfall. "I've been so worried, Viv, they said suicide at first —" good, she'd hoped for that — "I knew you wouldn't, but, Viv, Jesus, you're alive, I can't believe it, and — your hair."

Magda pulled away at that, hand on the back of Viv's skull, and Viv grinned and wiped her own nose on her sleeve as if, what, I have a cold, and turned the convulsions in her gut into something someone charitable might call a laugh, and lied, "I like it better this way." And: "I missed you." There was so much she wanted to say about how grateful she was, about what a risk Magda was taking with all of this, but she could not bear to speak it. The more she wrapped it in words the less real it felt. "Thank you," she said, and Magda's look when she said that, her shock that Viv felt she had to say it, almost broke Viv's last shred of self-control. But after her recent betrayals, Viv had been through too much to take friendship or faith for granted.

For a while neither of them spoke. They didn't mention the stain on Magda's shirt, the wet spot where Viv rested her head for that moment when she almost lost control.

Magda always understood Viv, even at school when there was barely any Viv to know yet, just a passel of immature reflexes drawn from her parents, her Grandma's Cultural Revolution horror stories, and the science fiction section of the public library. Magda saw that Viv was close to breaking, that she needed a friend, but she saw too that Viv could not take help right now, not that kind of help anyway, the kind that accepted and addressed and soothed her own weakness — not without becoming in her own eyes someone who could not do what she'd come to do, that is, escape this tightening noose and rebuild her empire. So Magda, blessed Magda, said: "It's all ready. Just like you asked."

That night, they broke into Akamai.

Magda didn't work there any more — she never did, technically, all the code she'd written for them a subcontractor consultant sort of gig, and while people might still remember her, her name was never on the employee roster, so unless the feds did the kind of legwork nobody really remembered how to do these days except the Russians and the Israelis, no one would be waiting for Viv.

There weren't many places where you could reach as much of the internet as she needed for her next step without encountering some censor gate, some government filter. If Viv was really lucky, the feds still thought she was dead, and wouldn't be watching any of them. If she was less lucky but still generally on the ups, they might expect she'd go for the transatlantic cable anchor in New York — it would be ideal, if she had some way to slip past the DHS security and, worse, the Google security, and, worse than that, the cameras. Ever since New York became one of those euphemistically named High Watchfulness Zones, you couldn't hide from its cameras any more. Akamai was almost as good, and way safer.

Akamai wasn't Akamai any more of course, after three acquisitions and an inversion and two name changes, but the service and facilities were more or less the same — like a police precinct serving whatever new junta rolled into town. Akamai cached the internet, and served it to everybody.

Here was the problem: everyone wants everything instantly, but light only goes so fast. Easy solution: you move the internet — most of it — closer. In a place like Boston, full of universities and hospitals and biotech and normal tech — including several of Viv's own once and future companies — Akamai served deep internet, rich databases, heavy information, serious work, to machines with limitless processing power — limitless for everyday purposes, at least. Probably enough for what Viv had in mind.

What she'd told Magda on the Airbnb couch, Magda who understood that Viv explained things in lieu of talking about, say, her fear, or the shame of running, or how it felt to duck her head every time she saw a camera, was that she needed a bargaining chip, something she could use from a safe distance — the moon, say, or Mars (Christ, but she missed Elon) — to buy the government off. She wanted an empire seed, tech she could use to raise the kind of capital no one had ever raised before and buy herself out of hock. To get that, she had to finish a special piece of research.

What research?

And that was where she lied. Even to Magda. Not a complete lie, though. Machine learning stuff, was what she said.

Viv's project — the root of all this trouble — this idea she'd been piecing together with help from friends and brilliant colleagues, in secret, sideways, as she saw what happened to the real visionaries in this space, the surprise bankruptcies and leveraged buy-outs, the market fluctuations, the cancers and the deaths in the family and the one grisly murder-suicide, the idea that she felt certain was behind the audits and "discrepancies" and the tightening federal noose which had made her cut and run because, let's face it, a lot of those "real visionaries" were white boys and if that's what the suits did to them, what might they do to her — Viv's project was machine learning stuff like the Death Star was laser pointer stuff.

Viv was within a hair's breadth of a real self-optimizer: a smart program that could make itself smarter, without limit. Total machine uplift, with all the valuable knock-on effects. Fast prime factorization would break most current forms of encryption forever. New math would pave the way for microtailored cancer treatments. Give a system like that the silicon and iron it needed to run, and it would solve global problems by the shovelful. A silver bullet. Bang.

Next stop, the stars.

To finish the project, she needed time and space and computing power. Once she built the system, she could talk to it through a wristwatch — but first she had to make a trillion-node distributed protosentient mind. The easiest way do that would be to seed a tiny bit of code on some appreciable fraction of all the computers in the world. To do that, she needed a zero day exploit or five — easy, if you had money like hers — and a distribution system — hard.

In the Amazon rainforest there lived a parasitic fungus called the cordyceps, which grew inside a particular species of ant. The cordyceps hijacked its host's tiny ant brain and forced it to climb to a high place inside the colony, where the fungus bloomed through the back of the host's head, killing it instantly and raining infectious spores on the colony below.

Viv would be the cordyceps, and Akamai would be her ant.

Bad analogy. It made this whole thing sound too sinister. Viv wasn't a mad scientist. She just wanted to remake the world in her image.


Excerpted from "Empress of Forever"
by .
Copyright © 2019 Max Gladstone.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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