Orphan, refugee, and soldier-for-hire Asala Sikou doesn't think too much about the end of civilization. Her system's star is dying, and the only person she can afford to look out for is herself.
When a ship called The Vela vanishes during what was supposed to be a flashy rescue mission, a reluctant Asala is hired to team up with Niko, the child of a wealthy inner planet's president, to find it and the outer system refugees on board.
But this is no ordinary rescue mission; The Vela holds a secret that places the fate of the universe in the balance, and forces Asala to decide—in a dying world where good and evil are far from black and white, who deserves to survive?
From award-winning science fiction authors Becky Chambers (The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit, and Record of a Spaceborn Few), Yoon Ha Lee (Ninefox Gambit, Raven Stratagem, Revenant Gun, Dragon Pearl), Rivers Solomon (An Unkindness of Ghosts), SL Huang (Zero Sum Game.)
Don't miss the sequel to the Vela, coming in 2020 from Serial Box (serialbox.com)
About the Author
Becky Chambers is the author of the Wayfarers series, which currently includes The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, A Closed and Common Orbit, and Record of a Spaceborn Few. Her books have been nominated for the Hugo Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction, among others. She comes from a family heavily involved in space science, and spends her free time volunteering for her local astronomy club. As interstellar flight hasn't been invented yet, she currently lives with her wife in northern California. You can find her online at otherscribbles.com.
Rivers Solomon is a dyke, a Trekkie, a wannabe cyborg queen, a trash princex, a communist, a butch, a femme, a feminist, a she-beast, a rootworker, a mother, a daughter, a diabetic, and a refugee of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. They write about life in the margins, where they are firmly at home. Rivers' debut novel, An Unkindness of Ghosts, was pitched as "a science fiction meditation on trans-generational trauma, race, and identity." Though currently based in Cambridge, UK, where they live with their family, Rivers is originally from the United States. There, they received their BA in Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity from Stanford University in California and an MFA in Fiction Writing from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. They grew up in California, Indiana, Texas, and New York but spent much of their childhood wishing the mothership might come save them.
SL Huang is an Amazon-bestselling author who justifies her MIT degree by using it to write eccentric mathematical superhero fiction. Her debut novel, Zero Sum Game, is recently out from Tor, and her short fiction has sold to Analog, Nature, and The Best American Science Fiction&Fantasy 2016. She is also a Hollywood stuntwoman and firearms expert, with credits including “Battlestar Galactica” and “Top Shot.” Follow her online at www.slhuang.com or on Twitter as @sl_huang.
Read an Excerpt
Former Corporal Asala Sikou lay prone on the rooftop of Khayyam’s largest hydrogen processing factory, the pad of her finger just grazing the trigger of an 18-100B sniper rifle. The spotting stats flickered through her eyepiece, measuring distances and windspeeds, a translucent overlay of her vision that she barely noticed, even as she absorbed it all. Her cheek stayed welded against the stock of the rifle, as if both woman and weapon were carved from a single chunk of iron, and even her breath didn’t shift the rifle’s sights more than a hair.
Lines from an old, anonymous poem layered themselves gently through her waiting mind: The sands so red, a sky so blue, but not the blue of home. The sky on Khayyam was blue above her now—always blue, always cloudless. And silent, at the moment, as Asala had dialed her hearing implants off. Her military career had taken her hearing before she left the Forces behind, but these days when she watched and waited she used her deafness to add focus.
Below her, President Ekrem’s retinue glided to a stop in front of the Summit building. Ekrem’s entourage preceded him out, peacocked in the flashy colors that were popular on Khayyam right now. Asala registered their presence, but kept her focus across the square. Her protectee would be appearing soon . . .
With a twitch of her eye, the field of Asala’s scope stretched and flattened to show the whole throughway in front of the Summit building. If an attack were to come on the general, now would be the time.
Asala had lain on this rooftop for nine hours, since the moment General Cynwrig had arrived on Khayyam and been ensconced in visitors’ quarters. The seconds had dripped past, and the general had stayed inside. Gaggles of environmental protesters had made a few efforts at approach, but the riot police had easily dispersed them—they’d been tame demonstrators, not like the sensational self-desiccators who’d been plaguing the governors down south, and they’d made no move toward violence. But if Asala had been the one planning an attack on an Outer Planet dignitary instead of tasked with preventing it, she would have waited until . . . yes. Just about now.
The first of General Cynwrig’s people came out on foot and turned in sharp parade format toward the Summit building.
And there. Movement. The checkpoint cordoning off the street at the crest of the hill . . . a gang approaching on individual scooters, small but clear in her scoped vision. Over a dozen people—too many to mean anything harmless.
Asala hovered between breaths, waiting for the confirmation that they weren’t more protesters or misguided tourists. She got it almost instantly, when the first human guard crumpled to the ground. They were here to kill the general, and she was here to stop them.
Asala squeezed her finger back.
The rifle report impacted through her shoulder and chest. She couldn’t hear the chaos in the street below, but her bullet had found its mark—it always did.
Or marks, to be precise. Only an instant later, her homing bullet was followed by others from tripods across and along the square, programmed in patterns she’d preset into the master rifle against her shoulder. Fully half the attackers went down at once, and most of the rest staggered.
By then, the Khayyami riot police were on the scene. The survivors screamed and cowered as arcing bouts of electricity and clouds of nerve gas sprayed over their ranks. Asala took a last glance through her scope—it looked like the general herself had barely made it outside before being quickly ushered back in. Cynwrig was out of danger.
Something caught at Asala’s strategic senses, and she frowned. Could the assassins have made a mistake? Or was she missing something about their plan? She ran the incident back through her head, but it only served to verify her instincts: The best time for the would-be assassins to make their advance would have been when General Cynwrig was halfway across the square, farthest from any shelter. Asala still would have gotten them first, of course, but this attempt maybe even the riot police alone could have foiled.
Why had they gone so early?
She watched through the scope a moment longer, but whether the mistiming had been incompetence or intended as something more calculated, the attack was clearly over. The Khayyami forces could clean up.
Asala snapped her rifle into its transport case with the ease of long practice, dialed her hearing back up, and headed for the outside stairs to street level.
Asala walked casually down the throughway to the Presidential Palace and scanned herself through two sets of guards to a side entrance. Ekrem would want to see her after an incident like this. The first guards took her weapons, tagged them, and entered them into storage lockers, and the second set passed her off to a butler who politely left her in a smallish audience chamber to wait.
She stayed standing, quickly cataloguing her surroundings from long habit, even here inside the Palace. This room was customarily gaudy, with carved stone and plast cloth all sporting shiny depictions of sunbursts and waterfalls. Everything on Khayyam seemed to celebrate one of the two, although it wasn’t like any native Khayyami had ever seen a waterfall outside image captures. All water here came from either ice imported from the Outer Ring or hydrogen siphoned from the solar harvesters.
Ironic that so much of the Khayyami aesthetic favored sun depictions, when they all knew what their harvesting had done to the sun. Knew, and hadn’t stopped. At least Asala would be dead before the whole system finally killed itself.
A noise at the door.
Asala shifted on the balls of her feet, her hand going to her side holster before she remembered the air pistol she usually wore was with the Palace guards. She registered the people first—they moved with the deadly economy of security personnel, but in drab and utilitarian uniforms that shouted they weren’t from here on Khayyam. They took up posts on either side of the door, and between them skittered a metal-on-stone stream of . . . bugs? Hard black carapaces and far too many legs to be a design requirement, they moved with a slithering speed that made every one of Asala’s instincts stand on end.
She resisted the urge to rock back a step.
“My spiders. To me.”
Asala would have known that voice from the news captures, even before she took in the ruthlessly sharp uniform, the stark white hair, the glittering eyes that seemed to take in everything and reflect nothing. In person, up close, General Cynwrig of Gan-De was a black hole of a person: nothing but sinew and cold.
The robotic bugs skittered back across the floor, up the general’s sleek boot, over the deadly creases of her black uniform, and into a small silver canister that she snapped closed. AIs, then. People always said Gan-De society was in love with their robots. They should use refugees for some of those jobs instead, some Khayyami liked to say, shaking their heads sadly—as if they knew anything about Outer Ring problems, or were doing anything themselves other than sage nods and vague judgments. Asala tried to stay out of those conversations.
“I’m told you’re the person I owe for my life today,” General Cynwrig said, pocketing her robotic bugs. She did not sound grateful.
Asala forced herself to relax under that gaze, to stand straight and let her face go smooth and bland. She was a larger woman than the general, both taller and broader, and she fancied the other woman’s lip curled slightly while taking her in.
And Asala definitely knew the moment Cynwrig saw the clan tattoo. Dark blue, winding around Asala’s right eye, not a stark contrast against her dark brown skin but also not something anyone ever failed to notice here on Khayyam. The double-takes, that moment of eyes catching for a split second before people awkwardly hurried towards bland politeness a moment later, weighted down with everything they suddenly “knew” about Asala—Outer Ring, not from here, Hypatian—migrant, refugee, careful what you say . . .
But General Cynwrig’s reaction was different. Her whole face pinched in, and it wasn’t with misplaced pity. “Well,” she said. “I guess there’s a pattie that’s good for something.”
Oddly, her voice had gone admiring, almost as if she hadn’t just used a word Asala thought she’d left behind on the scrap ships.
But Asala barely heard it, because suddenly she was back there, a scared kid, with only her parents’ and uncles’ and aunties’ tearful assurances that this would be a better life, that they were ripping her from everyone she loved and forcing her across the solar system because she was one of the lucky, chosen ones, facing the mocking jeers at her accent and her tattoo, pattie, clannie, the Outties should all just die off already and leave the system to the rest of us . . . Luck and being chosen hadn’t been enough. Asala had pulled herself up without help, starting with three tours of service in multiple conflicts, earning gold stripes as a sniper, then decades of carving out her own business and reputation—she’d made a name and a place for herself here and for some fucking Gandesian to come in and reduce all that to nothing with a word—
“Now, now, General, I’d rather you didn’t use that type of language while you’re with us.” President Ekrem swept into the room, probably unaware that his timing had just prevented a diplomatic incident. Asala consciously unclenched her hands, but her skin still tingled.
“My mistake,” General Cynwrig said. “I admit I can’t keep up with the latest political sensitivities. I meant to say I didn’t know you were Hypatian.” She inclined her head slightly in Asala’s direction. “You’ve done well for someone in your . . . circumstances.”
Oh, you knew exactly what you were saying, Asala thought. And you know what you’re saying now.
“The general has asked that you be part of her personal security detail for the remainder of her visit to our fine world,” Ekrem said. “I told her you’d be delighted, of course. General, our sincerest apologies, again, for the incident today.”
“No matter. You prevented their success.” Cynwrig’s eyes flicked to Asala again.
“My people will be in touch soon with a revised schedule for our talks,” Ekrem continued. “I’m very optimistic we can strengthen trade relations between our two worlds while working together to address today’s solar concerns. And of course we’ll officially be adding Agent Asala to your detail.”
Agent Sikou, Asala thought. Her own annoyance surprised her—Khayyami didn’t use clan names, only patronymics, and she’d been going by only one name now for decades. She’d thought herself used to it. She flattened her lips together and managed to remain silent and minimally cordial as President Ekrem bowed the general out of the room.
“You,” Ekrem said, the moment the door closed behind Cynwrig and her guards. “You, I owe a bottle of the finest in fermented beverages, something ten or twenty years of water in the brewing. I wish I could give you an official commendation.”
Asala felt herself relaxing, her muscles uncoiling. She moved to one of the sunburst chairs and sat. “Then I’d have to be an official part of this operation. Speaking of which—‘agent?’”
Ekrem huffed a laugh and went to the side of the room, where he began measuring out two small trays of flavored grounds. “General Cynwrig doesn’t have to know you’re working off the books for me. The other security we’ve assigned to her has been read in on you since the beginning, but they’re very discreet. You don’t mind continuing on, do you? Intelligence isn’t convinced this was the only planned attack against the general—six additional credible threats have come in just since this incident.”
“You’re paying me, right?” Asala hoped it sounded as smooth as she wanted. “I hope I never have to have a conversation with the woman again, but you know me. I’m a professional.”
Ekrem chuckled again. “Oh, I love how mercenary you’ve gotten in our old age.”
“I’m surprised you wanted an outside contractor on this in the first place,” Asala said. “Usually the jobs you call me in for are a lot less official.”
“Asala! You make it sound like I’m having you run some secret black ops department. But I promise, I don’t just call you because bureaucratic channels are too . . . ehm, bureaucratic. I call you because you’re a lady who gets things done.”
He handed her one of the refreshment trays. The powder had a faint earthy scent, the richness of well-tended lichens mixed with a mild stimulant—Ekrem didn’t skimp. Asala took a pinch and folded it into her lip. “Do keep going. Flattery will get you everywhere with me.”
“Good, because I have another job for you after this. Something that, as you said, is . . . a lot less official. I need you on this, Asala.” The charm he’d used to such great effect on the campaign trail had turned serious.
She tongued the wad of powder against her gums. “What is it?”
Ekrem began to pace. “Have you heard of the Vela?”
“The ship coming in from Eratos, yes?” She’d heard Ekrem’s PR soundbites on it; everyone had—the rescue ship carrying the last of the inhabitants from their system’s outermost, dying world, a project the president had managed to spin into a banner of munificence even as he shrewdly sidestepped the refugee crisis on the other Outer Ring planets. Eratos wasn’t the only dying world, just the one dying fastest—the tiny colony on Samos had been gone for a decade, and after Eratos would be Hypatia and then Gan-De, and maybe the Inner Ring would finally come to care when it was their turn to freeze to death as the sun collapsed.
A leisurely extinction. One that allowed everyone to push any inconvenience to another place or another generation.
Ekrem waved a hand. “The Vela’s not just any ship. It’s the ship that won me reelection. I promised that saving the last of Eratos would be the first step to saving the whole system. The people need to see the Vela’s triumphant return—they need to see that this can be fixed, that we can save the people of the Outer Ring and then we can work to save everyone.”
He sounded so earnest. “You mean people need to see it before the next election cycle heats up.”
The president gave a half-shrug, acknowledging it. “Without strong leadership, we’d be even more lost than we are. I can read poll numbers; I barely beat the Globalist candidate last time, even with the Vela—I won’t pretend these things aren’t important.”
“So what’s the problem? The Vela sweeps into the Inner Ring, you stage a few parades on Khayyam celebrating that we saved the last of their world. What’s not to love?”
His face twisted. “It’s gone missing.”
“Oh,” Asala said. “I suppose that does make a parade harder.”
“Dammit, Asala. There are thousands of people on that boat, including the entire Eratosi Cabinet of Ministers. And do you remember Vanja?”
“Sure, the gravity queen. She died what, five or seven years ago?” Artificial gravity had existed before Vanja Ryouta, but her team had made it accessible and affordable, pioneering the way into a boom in interplanetary transportation technology.
“Her legacy is very much alive,” Ekrem said. “Her lab was still active out on Eratos, including her family—”
“All right, I get it.” It was always about the celebrities. “But what do you want me to do? If they went missing in space they could be anywhere. Get an astrophysicist to run some trajectories from their last known reporting location.”
“I already know where they went missing. Their last report was that they had to put in for emergency repairs at Hypatia.”
Asala went cold. “No.”
Ekrem didn’t seem to hear her. “They were going to do a flyby of Hypatia to pick up enough momentum to skip them past Gan-De and all the way to Khayyam. But instead they had to make a stop. Now, I’ve been conferring with orbital piloting experts about this—it’s not a lost cause, not yet. In a couple weeks the seventeen-year dead stretch ends again, and we’ll get our few-month chance when it’s possible to jump orbits from Hypatia and easily hit Gan-De. So if they were able to get their repairs done on the ground, they could potentially make it to Gan-De without it taking years and years, and then from Gan-De, the Inner Ring is a lot more accessible. Maybe not in time for primary run-offs, but they’d still arrive before . . .”
The seventeen-year planetary cycle. Ekrem talked like it was a distant academic truth. To him, it was.
To Asala, it had been the promise of an eternity alone, when almost thirty-four years ago her clan had scraped and bribed to get her a dirty berth on a ship to Gan-De. Curled alone in her bunk, with faceless, desperate masses of humanity crammed in around her, knowing that thanks to the practicalities of orbital mechanics it would be seventeen years before anyone could follow . . . seventeen years. A lifetime. And by then nobody could have followed her anyway, because Gan-De had long decided it had had enough of Hypatian refugees.
As far as Asala knew, everyone in her clan was dead. By the time she could afford to send a message back, the only reply had been echoing silence, and that was an answer all on its own. Hypatia had been a harsh place even before the creeping cold had turned dire, whole towns freezing to death in the night when the weather snapped wrong.
Desperate Hypatians still ran from their withering planet every seventeen years, unwilling to die by staying in place. But with Gan-De closed, for many it meant replacing a cold death on the planet with an even colder one in space, the refugees’ ragtag scrap ships disintegrating while they begged for a sliver of room in an overcrowded orbital refugee camp. If they got one, they won the right to die more gradually.
And now this upcoming opening would be the last time anyone ever fled Hypatia. The cold reality of the temperature projections spelled that out in black and white. Nobody on Khayyam talked of it—any whisper of Hypatia’s impending demise, and expressions turned uncomfortable, eyes skittering away. Ekrem would probably still blithely reassure everyone he could send a souped-up rescue ship until long after there was no one left to rescue. All while Khayyam’s corporations kept cheerfully harvesting the sun’s hydrogen, because the damage was done, so it wasn’t making a difference anymore, was it? Besides, they needed that hydrogen, for water manufacturing, for fusion power . . .
Ekrem was still talking. “. . . And I’m going to send my kid with you. My youngest, do you remember them? Not that I don’t trust you, of course”—he laughed nervously—“but Niko could use some real-world experience. Their apprenticeship’s been with a data analysis team over at Domestic Intelligence, and they’re raring to get some field work.” He stepped over to the wall and tapped an interface panel. “Send Niko in, would you?”
“Ekrem, you’re not hearing me.” Asala tried to keep her voice even. “I said—”
She didn’t get the chance to finish before a twenty-something kid whisked into the room, so eagerly they must’ve been waiting just outside the door. Niko’s round face beamed beneath a haircut that strove for the latest in androgynous layered-shag fashion, and they stood with the ramrod straightness of someone concentrating far too hard on how to make a good impression.
“Niko!” crowed the president. “You remember Asala? I think you met her when you were just crawling, or something like that. Remember, Asala?”
Asala didn’t. Ekrem often talked like this, as if they’d been at each other’s family gatherings every solstice and festival, instead of a grunt and an officer who’d bred some respect long ago in a different life. But she nodded anyway.
“It’s nice to meet you, Asala. Again,” Niko said, breaking into an even broader smile. “I can’t tell you how excited I am to work with—”
“Ekrem.” Asala raised her voice to break in. “Ekrem, listen to me. I said no. I’m not doing it. Find someone else to track down your missing ship.”
Ekrem’s face went long and surprised, like she’d just told him she was planning to vote for his opponent.
“But what about the Vela?” Niko blurted. “You must want to save the refugees; you’re from Hypa—”
“Good day,” Asala said, with an iciness that could have rivaled her homeworld. It might not be strictly polite to walk out on the president of Khayyam and his youngest child, but it was better than strangling said child, the consequences of which were probably even worse than if she’d punched the leader of Gan-De earlier.
She was not going back to Hypatia.
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