Drew Williams's The Stars Now Unclaimed, the first volume of The Universe After series, is a fun, adventure-filled space opera set in a far-future galaxy.
"The only thing more fun than a bonkers space battle is a whole book packed with bonkers space battles. Come for the exploding spaceships, stay for the intriguing universe."Becky Chambers, author of A Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet
Jane Kamali is an agent for the Justified. Her mission: to recruit children with miraculous gifts in the hope that they might prevent the Pulse from once again sending countless worlds back to the dark ages.
Hot on her trail is the Paxa collection of fascist zealots who believe they are the rightful rulers of the galaxy and who remain untouched by the Pulse.
Now Jane, a handful of comrades from her past, and a telekinetic girl called Esa must fight their way through a galaxy full of dangerous conflicts, remnants of ancient technology, and other hidden dangers.
And that's just the beginning . . .
About the Author
Drew is the author of The Universe After series, including The Stars Now Unclaimed.
Read an Excerpt
I had Scheherazade drop me on top of an old refinery, rusted out and half-collapsing. Around me the stretch of this new world's sky seemed endless, a bright sienna-colored cloth drawn over the stars above. I watched Schaz jet back off to orbit — well, "watched" is probably a strong word, since she had all her stealth systems cranked to high heaven, but I could at least find the telltale glint of her engines — then settled my rifle on my back and started working my way down, finding handholds and grips among the badly rusted metal.
It's surprising how used to this sort of thing you get; the climbing and jumping and shimmying, I mean. On a world free of the effects of the pulse, none of that would have been necessary — I would have had antigravity boots, or a jetpack, or just been able to disembark in the fields below: scaling a three-hundred-foot-tall structure would have been as easy as pressing a button and dropping until I was comfortably on the ground.
Now, without all those useful cheats, it was much more physically demanding — the climbing and jumping and shimmying bits — but I didn't mind. It was like a workout, a reminder that none of that nonsense mattered on the world I was descending toward, and that if I wanted to stay alive, reflexes and physical capability would be just as important as the few pieces of tech I carried that were resistant to post-pulse radiation.
By the time I made it down the tower I'd worked up a decent sweat, and I'd also undergone a crash course in the physical realities of this particular planet: the vagaries of its gravity, of its atmosphere, that sort of thing. Most terraformed worlds were within a certain range in those kinds of measurements — on some, even orbital rotations had been shifted to roughly conform to the standard galactic day/night cycle — but it's surprising how much small differences can add up when you're engaged in strenuous physical activity. A touch less oxygen in the air than you're used to, a single percentage point of gravity higher or lower, and suddenly everything's thrown off, just a bit. You have to readjust.
I checked my equipment over as I sat in the shadow of the refinery tower, getting my breath back. Nothing was damaged or showing signs of the radiation advancing faster than I would have expected. I had a mission to complete here, yes, but I had no desire to have some important piece of tech shut down on me at an inopportune time and get me killed. Then I wouldn't be able to do anyone any good.
As the big metal tower creaked above me in the wind, I kept telling myself that — that I was still doing good. Some days I believed it more than others.
After I'd recovered from my little jaunt, I settled my rifle onto my back again — a solid gunpowder cartridge design common across all levels of post-pulse tech, powerful enough that it could compete with higher-end weapons on worlds that still had a great deal of technology intact, low-key enough that on worlds farther down that scale like this one, it wouldn't draw undue attention — and set off across rolling plains of variegated grass.
This world was very pretty; I'd give whoever had designed it that. The sky was a lovely shade of pinkish orange that would likely shift into indigo as night approached. It perfectly complemented the flora strains that had been introduced, mostly long grasses of purple or green or pink, with a few patches of larger trees, mostly Tyll-homeworld species, thick trunks of brown or gray topped by swaying azure fronds. Vast fields of wheat — again, of Tyll extraction — made up most of the landscape that wasn't grassland; that made sense with the research I'd done before having Scheherazade drop me off.
The research told me that this world had been terraformed for agricultural use a few hundred years ago or so; it had seen only mild scarring during the sect wars, which meant it was a little bit perplexing that the pulse had knocked it almost as far down the technology scale as a planet could go — all the way to before the invention of electric light.
Still, trying to understand why the pulse had done what it had done was a fool's errand: I'd seen systems where one planet had been left untouched, another had been driven back to pre-spaceflight, and the moon of that same world had lost everything post–internal combustion. There was never any rhyme or reason to it, not even within a single system — the pulse did what it did at random, and looking for a will behind its workings was like trying to find the face of god in weather patterns.
I knew that much because I was one of the fools who had let it off the chain in the first place. That's why I was here: trying to right my own wrongs. In a very small way, of course. I was only one woman, and it was a big, big universe. Also, I had a great many wrongs.CHAPTER 2
I started walking. I had a ways to go.
Since the pulse had hit this world harder than most — left the atmosphere soaking in radiation that would burn out anything with an electrical system in hours, faster if it saw heavy use — walking was about my only option for locomotion. That was one reason I'd had Scheherazade — that's my ship — drop me off at the top of the refinery: so she didn't have to land. Trying to do so would have left her damaged, badly, even if she just set down for the brief time it would take me to disembark.
The other reason I'd set down so far from my target area was to make sure we weren't in view of anybody as she descended. It had likely been generations since anyone visited this world from the greater galaxy beyond; it was in a mostly forgotten system of a mostly forgotten corner of unclaimed, untended space. I didn't need to be hailed as some sort of savior by the locals, come to rescue them from their pulse-soaked world and lead them back to the halcyon years of never-was. And that would be the better option: more likely was to be marked as some sort of demon, here to finish the job the pulse had started. You never knew which it might be on worlds thrown back this far; better not to risk it at all.
Worlds like this one — even those designed for a single purpose, like agriculture — had been terraformed and designed for vehicles like high-speed rail and sublight orbital shuttles, not for perambulation, which meant I had a bit of a walk ahead of me. Still, I'd been cooped up inside Scheherazade for a long hyperdrive flight on the way here, so I didn't mind stretching my legs.
Starting my trek out in the boonies also meant I got a chance to know the local populace before they got to know me. Which, this time, started with screaming. It often did, for some reason.
The scream shattered the quiet of the open fields. High-pitched, piercing, a great deal of fear and pain and confusion. A child.
I broke out into a run. All these years later, that's still reflex. You'd think, after watching the pulse eat the universe and being helpless to stop it, that I'd be immune to the sound of others crying for help. You'd be wrong. What you can ignore en masse — the death of millions or billions — just by telling yourself it's too big, there's nothing you can do, is much more difficult to move past when it's just one person, right in front of you, and there is a way for you to help.
That's the same logic that had been used when the pulse was first dreamt up, after all. Just because it went wrong didn't mean the argument wasn't sound.
I slowed as I crested the hill, parting the grass with my rifle barrel; my weapon had been drawn as soon as I heard the child shriek. Down the incline below me was a simple wagon — probably the height of technology in these parts, wood and nails and iron-rimmed wheels — that had come to a stop, mostly because the beasts in its harnesses had been shot dead.
I didn't recognize the creatures, though the build and rough size suggested Wulf-homeworld extraction. It didn't much matter, really — they were whatever fauna had been on planet at the time of the pulse that the people here had enough of for breeding stock. What was more important, at that given moment, was the family seated at the front of the wagon, and the rough circle of men with guns surrounding them.
On every world, there are always men with guns. Even the pulse couldn't change that.CHAPTER 3
From my perch at the top of the hill — hidden in the tall violet grasses — I counted the aggressors. Three humans, two Wulf — how nice, interspecies cooperation was flourishing in the wake of the pulse, at least when it came to common banditry. Five total. Not too many for me take, not from ambush.
Now, years ago, back before everything went to hell, I would have run through a kind of value judgment here — was protecting three lives, the family in the wagon, worth taking the lives of five others? I had no legal or moral authority here — who was I to interfere with the customs of these people? There were trillions upon trillions of lives in the universe; why should I involve myself with eight? People lived and died all the time, many of them violently; all I would have cared about was whether the deaths before me would have impacted my mission.
I didn't bother with any of that nonsense now; I knew what I was going to do the instant I heard the child scream. The questions I asked at this point were of a very different sort — which one looked like he'd be the first to shoot, the fastest to react? Which one had the gun that posed the most danger to me, which one would be the type to start firing at the family the instant they came under fire from someone else, and which among them would panic, cower, flee? In essence: which one would die first, and which last?
I activated my HUD with a thought — another passive piece of tech that still gave me a nice advantage over those without — and marked all five of them, glowing red haloes surrounding their heads. Even if they were to duck for cover — there were a handful of decent-sized boulders down there, likely where they'd head — those haloes would still show up in my vision, letting me know where they were. Slowly I sank prone and raised the sights of my rifle to my eye.
I was still too far away to hear what was being said, but it didn't matter: gunfire had already been exchanged, weapons were drawn, beasts of burden had been killed. Whether or not the bandits were planning to let the family live if everything went their way didn't concern me: they'd sealed their fate when they aimed a weapon at a child.
I started firing.
My first round took their leader in the side of the head. One human out of the game. My second caught one of the Wulf lieutenants right in his muzzle; I doubted it would kill him, but intense pain drives Wulf into a kind of berserker rage, a physiological vestige of having been an alpha predator on a homeworld with plenty of alpha predators to go around. Useful in bare-handed combat, not so much in a gunfight.
My third shot cut into the back of another human, one who had been raising his rifle toward the family. Three down in fewer seconds. I was a lot of things, good, bad, or otherwise, but I did have my talents.
The fourth and fifth bandits — all that remained — were ducking behind the boulders, trying to figure out who the hell was shooting at them, but by that time, both the man and the woman in the wagon had produced firearms from somewhere, and the two would-be bushwhackers found themselves pinned down on all sides. I kept my rifle trained on their positions as the man from the wagon got up from his seat, calmly strolled toward where the first bandit was hiding, and fired off two rounds from his pistol — an ancient revolver even bigger than the one I wore at my hip. The red halo marking that bandit's position winked out. The fifth received much the same treatment, even after he threw his rifle to the side and tried to surrender.
When we'd envisioned the pulse, we'd never imagined it would remove all violence from the universe — just reduce its scale. In some ways, that had worked. But violence is ingrained in all of us, deep down to the bone. You push people in just the right way — you threaten their family — and they will injure themselves just to get to you. Did I blame the paterfamilias down there for murdering the man who'd held a gun on his child in cold blood? I did not. I'd done worse.
Speaking of: the injured Wulf was still crawling along the ground, trying to drag himself away, his fur slick with the blood flowing from his mangled muzzle, only the adrenal response of his species keeping him moving at all. The farmer was reloading; I put a round through the Wulf's skull myself, right between his bloodshot eyes. Cold-blooded, perhaps, but practical — he was never going to survive long, not with that wound, not with this world's level of medical attention.
Five down. Done.
The farmer below shaded his eyes and looked up the rolling hillside, roughly toward my position. I stood slowly from the waving grasses, holding my rifle up with one hand gripped around the middle — universal for "I'm not going to shoot at you." He nodded, and waved me down with his free six-fingered hand, holstering his own sidearm.
Looked like I'd made a friend.CHAPTER 4
I made my way down the hillside, pushing the grasses before me, my rifle still out but very carefully not pointed at anyone. The friendly local was a Tyll, which made sense, given that the sect that had controlled this planet before the pulse had been about seventy percent Tyll.
To human eyes, Tyll tended to come off as "reptilian," tall and green-skinned and scaled, though they were actually closer, genetically, to the flora of the human homeworld than any fauna. Like most of his brethren, the farmer's lantern-like jaw gave him a perpetual dour expression, as did the wide black pupils that swallowed up most of his eyes. Not that the Tyll are dour people; it's just one of those weird things — sometimes trying to read "human" expressions from nonhuman features can lead to faulty assumptions. Tyll are usually actually fairly cheerful, on a cultural level at least.
Not that this particular fellow had a lot of reason to be cheery. He greeted me with a polite — if cautious — nod, before running a hand over the stony plate Tyll grew on the top of their heads in place of hair. He turned to stare unhappily down at his dead pack beasts. "Appreciate the help," he said tonelessly. If he was thrown to see that it was a human woman who had come to his aid, he didn't show it, which also meant my local costume — a faded flight jacket over gray military surplus, both from a sect nowhere near this quadrant of the galaxy, both predating the pulse — was holding up, and that my particular genetic makeup — copper-colored skin, jet black hair — wouldn't be out of place among the local human populace.
He spat a wad of expectorant in the grass next to his dead beasts of burden. "The local settlement claims they've rousted all the bandits out of this area. You can see how much their claims are worth."
"Will you three be all right out here?" I asked him. I shouldn't have — I didn't know what I was planning to do if he said, "No, please help us" — but I spent a long time trying to think of myself as the sort of person who helped, who did good. In the long run maybe that hadn't been so true, but I kept trying all the same.
He nodded morosely. "We're not far from our farmstead," he replied. "We were just ... just trying to deliver ..." He gave the ground a good kick, next to his wagon's wheel — the wagon his beasts were long past capable of hauling. Probably most of a year's surplus crop was piled up within the wooden slats, and now he had no way to get it to market before it spoiled.
"Which way to that settlement?" I asked him. He pointed over the ridge, in roughly the same direction their wagon had been headed. I nodded, shading my eyes to stare off toward the horizon. The forests got a little heavier, the heavy blue fronds interlacing into a canopy, and I couldn't see anything past them.
"I'm looking for some civilization," I told him, trying to keep it casual. This kind of world had plenty of drifters and ne'er-do-wells, trying to make their living with a gun; I was dressed to match, very much on purpose. I didn't want to give the impression that I needed to be anywhere in particular. "When I get there, you want me to send somebody for you, maybe with some extra beasts?" His forked tongue flicked out — it's the Tyll equivalent of a human widening their eyes in surprise. "That is a generous offer," he told me. "I can't ask you to — you've already saved our lives."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Stars Now Unclaimed"
Copyright © 2018 Drew Williams.
Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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