I swear sometimes this book is going to kill me. I’ve been working on volume 3 of The Voidstrider Saga for almost two years. (I wrote the first one in six months.) The light is showing at the tunnel’s end, at last. I’ve got about 18,000 words to go and then of course the revisions, but let’s not think about that now. Today, I want to give you a little taste.
This is, it goes without saying, raw first draft stuff which will likely see some heavy changes before it goes to print. It’s a little spoilery but not too bad. (And it will make no sense unless you’ve read the first two books, obviously.) Here we go:
Interlude – SADIRA
Garish holograms and flashing OLEDs competed for attention with twirling aug mirages, visible only to those with the right implants or an expensive set of lenses. The aug usually won, thanks to its interactive nature and freedom to dance and twirl in midair, performing dazzling and impossible contortions over the heads of slow-shuffling tourists with wide eyes and deep pockets.
Inebriated business magnates from Earth and Luna mixed with Cerean merchant princes and wealthy Martian patricians, staggering through the haze of light and sound as they made their way to the next attraction. Rich kids from all over the system stumbled about, laughing and heedless of the constant noise of bells and sirens or the neverending clatter of chips emanating from every other establishment they passed.
A middle-aged man in rumpled business formal haggled with a three-armed, green-skinned prostitute outside a red-lit entrance. A servitor, tall and spindly like a stainless steel coatrack, hauled an obese woman in her sixties from another entryway and tossed her carelessly to the ground. She rolled onto her back and stared with eyes gone hazy from some potent narcotic. Nearby, a young man horked vat-grown shellfish into a mobile trash receptacle as his three Belter buddies stood round laughing uproariously.
Downtown Eros on a Saturday night.
A beautiful woman in a loose-fitting, red slacks-and-jacket ensemble strode purposefully along this crowded promenade, ignoring the the outrageous sights and deafening sounds of the glittering asteroid city of sin. She was trailed by six companions, spread out in a tight arc behind her and clad in the same shade of red she herself wore. They moved with purpose through the chaos.
The woman was tall – not quite Belter tall, but tall and slender atop long legs. She had dark brown skin and silken black hair that flowed free over broad shoulders. She walked with her spine straight and her eyes straight ahead, betraying no sign of the nervousness she felt. Sadira had not physically set foot on the asteroid in almost four years. She was counting on anyone who knew her to assume she was here as an aug and nothing more.
She was accompanied by a diverse group, though each was stunningly attractive and none boasted unnatural skin tones like the three-armed streetwalker who had just concluded negotiations with the drunken bussinesman. Three women, two men, one enby; they had as little in common with the green-skinned prostitute as a mountain lion shares with a house cat.
Eros was an exclusive playground for the system’s most obscenely wealthy, but more than one visitor had risked bankruptcy and ruin to spend an evening with one of Sadira’s Companions. Their time and attention came at a steep price, and not for something so trivial and fleeting as sex – although those few clients fortunate enough to earn a Companion’s physical affection often claimed the experience had changed their lives forever. Nevertheless, it was for other skills Sadira’s Companions were so highly sought after.
They had yet other talents as well, talents not for sale or lease at any price. In all the worlds where humans dwelt, none but Sadira could have called on those talents. It was for these talents she brought them along this evening.
Sadira reached the far end of the plaza and continued on along a narrower corridor branching off to one side of the main thoroughfare. The glitzy frontages fell behind as she and her Companions passed into a less heavily trafficked area of the station. Two hundred meters off the plaza, the corridor came to a dead end in a set of double doors undecorated by lights or holos. Above the doors, laser-etched into the wall itself, the emblem of Station Security glowered down on any who approached. Sadira ignored it, leading the way inside.
It was a typical substation, anonymous and interchangeable. It had been chosen by simple virtue of being the closest to the docking spar where Sadira kept her ship. Inside was a wide, featureless lobby with bare steel benches, two cramped visitor’s kiosks, and a long counter. Behind the counter, a bored young woman in uniform sat pretending she wasn’t watching some muted gameshow on her handset. She looked up, bemused at the entrance of seven gorgeous strangers in matching scarlet finery.
“Can I help you people?” the woman managed after a second.
Sadira ignored the officer. It was one of her two male Companions – Bolaji – who leapt the counter in a blur of red fabric and rippling black skin. Bolaji landed beside the startled woman soundlessly. His delicate hands shot out to either side of her head and he jabbed two slender fingers directly into each vagus nerve. The woman crumpled to the floor in a dead faint.
Sadira meanwhile made her way to the end of the counter, where a section lifted up to allow entry. She and the others came around to join Bolaji where he stood gazing down at the unconscious woman. He knelt as Sadira approached, checking to make sure the security officer was still breathing. Like all the Companions, like Sadira herself, Bolaji was determined not to kill anyone.
“Come along,” said Sadira. Bolaji met her eyes briefly, then nodded. He snatched a holstered electrolaser from the woman’s hip before rising to lead the way deeper into the substation. Behind where the stunned woman had sat was a broad corridor leading deeper into the station. Interrogation and holding cells lined one side, offices and a small lab the other. Past these, the corridor ended in a T-junction.
Bolaji and another of the Companions, alabaster-skinned Mariko, preceded Sadira and the rest. They were halfway to the junction when two half-armored officers charged round the corner from the left, a trio of cylindrical crowd suppression drones at their heels.
Sadira stopped and ducked into the alcove of an interrogation cell doorway as her Companions advanced. Crackling electrolaser beams flashed past her shallow cover. Grunts and other sounds of exertion, followed by broken-off screams, reached her ears. She heard flesh and bone striking composite alloy, the throbbing hum of a pulser. Sounds of breakage. Silence.
Sadira stepped out from the doorway and continued down the hall. Her six Companions fell in around her as she reached the junction. Ignoring the two unconscious human guards and three piles of mangled scrap, she turned right at the corner. The central lift was five meters ahead.
Every substation on the asteroid was connected by lift to Security Central. This allowed Station Security to keep a minimal force in any given area, with heavily armed reserves never more than an elevator ride away. It was also Sadira’s way in.
The lift car arrived, empty. Sadira stepped inside. Her Companions followed her, turning around once they were aboard and spreading out to provide cover. The car, designed for the rapid deployment of entire squadrons, was far from crowded with only seven passengers. It rose smoothly, leaving the outer surface levels rapidly behind.
No one spoke. Sadira closed her eyes and focused on measured breathing to quiet her anxiety. Her stomach fluttered and dropped. Panic fed panic, and her heart lurched until she realized it was only the dereasing gravity as they approached the asteroid’s center. She opened her eyes, still counting down each breath.
The lift stopped and the doors opened.
Sadira and the others began to drift from the car floor the moment it stopped. Bolaji and the others flung themselves out, scattering to frustrate any ambush. Lennon, the enby, was last out. They slapped the door control on the way, locking it open. Sadira gripped a rail at what had been chest-height and stayed put. She sucked in breath, one two three four.
Beyond the open doors was an egg-shaped lobby, its long and short axes aligned with Eros’s own. Lifts lined every surface, with grablines criss-crossing the open space and leading up or down or sideways to the enormous circular aperture in the egg’s narrowest point: the entrance to Security Central.
Bolaji, Mariko, and the rest caught hold of grablines as they shot into the foyer’s micrograv. Spinning in place, they aligned themselves with the circular aperture and launched toward it. Cylindrical drones emerged from the aperture. Freed of the heavier gravity their counterparts had endured in the near-surface substation, these drones rose on airjets to meet the intruders. Electrolaser fire crackled, intermixed with the heavier weaponry of the suppression drones.
Sadira bit her lip. Breathe out, one two three four. Breathe in…
Her view was limited to the narrow opening of the lift car’s door. An occasional stunner bolt flashed like controlled lightning. After perhaps a minute, the e-laser fire was replaced by hurtling amethyst toroids of supercharged plasma that left drifting afterimages in her vision.
An unfamiliar voice shouted commands. Human guards had joined the drones, which might be a good sign. Or a very bad one. She heard more energy weapons fire, and the staccato chatter of a machine gun before it cut off amid a lot of angry shouting.
Sadira realized she’d closed her eyes again when she felt a warm feeling of pain building behind them. One two three four. She forced herself to loosen her grip on the rail. Her palm ached with the shape of it. She opened her eyes. One two three four.
The noise of fighting had died down in the egg-shaped foyer. A handful of straggling stunner zaps sounded and then it was quiet. Sadira’s breath caught in her throat on the three count.
She sagged against the wall. It was Bolaji’s voice.
Sadira allowed herself a second to regather her composure. Then she emerged from the lift car with as much grace as she could summon. She felt clumsy in comparison to her Companions, who waited over — er, down there at the circular entrance.
They hovered around the entrance, holding lightly onto the grablines converging there. As she pulled herself closer, Sadira saw that five of her Companions were clustered around a sixth, who was not moving. Oh no. No… Sadira drew herself to a stop at the edge of the group, staring in horrified anguish over Mariko’s shoulder.
It was Therexa. The woman hung motionless in the center of the group. Her hands floated limp, arms spread to either side. Burn marks scarred her scarlet blouse. A wide hole had been drilled through her midsection. Globules of blood welled up and floated ponderously from the ugly wounds. She was dead.
Sadira’s lip curled around a rising sob of anguish, locking the sound in her mouth behind an ugly, twisted snarl. Her hand reached for Therexa’s body of its own accord. Her eyes saw nothing else. There were sounds, muted. She blinked and the present moment returned, the egg room and her five surviving Companions clustered around her in commingled grief. She swallowed her pain and ripped her eyes from the corpse.
One two three four…
“Keep moving,” she said. “We’ll come back for her.” If any of us survives, anyway. She left that part unsaid. If any of them hadn’t known the risk, it was floating right there staring them in the face now. Therexa. She had loved dogs. Her quarters on the ship were filled with holographic puppies, jumping and yipping and licking at anyone who came through the hatch. Sadira shook her head. “Let’s go.”
Bolaji went first. The others followed him, Sadira coming last. The entryway was a narrow tube, one meter long. Beyond, Security Central opened out around them in a cylindrical hall. Sliding doors circled the hall, breaking up the gunmetal monotony of otherwise featureless curving walls. Guidelines ran along the walls and criss-crossed the open space in a chaotic spider’s web.
Sadira took a moment to match the disorienting layout in front of her with the map she’d memorized before leaving the ship. Bolaji and the rest waited, postures tense and eyes darting to and fro. She nodded to herself and indicated a door three quarters of the way down the hall and forty-five degrees around the cylinder.
They started off, picking their way along the network of guidelines. A door opened a little deeper in the cylinder. An angry face appeared, sneering behind a pistol. Lennon shot first. A nasty little hole appeared in the security officer’s face and he fell back out of sight. Globules of blood floated out into the central space. It took Sadira a moment to realize what Lennon had done. She looked at the enby in surprise.
“For Therexa,” they said with a murderous expression. “I say kill ‘em all.”
“We’re better than that,” Bolaji snapped from several meters ahead, where he was leading the way. The bitter anger threaded through his disappointment made Sadira take a second look at her own reaction. “We’re better than they are.”
“No,” said Sadira, frowning sadly. “They’re being controlled. Directly, indirectly, whether they know it or not. We’re not better than them, Bolaji. Just freer.” She turned her face back toward Lennon. “We’re here to balance that out and break the chains, not slay the chained.”
Lennon bit their lip and nodded. Bloodlust faded from the enby’s eyes, replaced with regret. Sadira reached over and clasped their shoulder. Their eyes locked for an instant. Lennon nodded again, firmer this time.
They made it the rest of the way to the door Sadira had chosen without incident. It wouldn’t open until Lennon shot the control panel. Sparks flew and the emergency system kicked in, slamming the door open to prevent anyone being trapped inside during power loss. The gunfire started immediately.
A bullet tore through Lennon’s shoulder, spinning them away from the open door. The enby clutched at the wound, hissing in pain. The rest pushed back and opened fire. Two heavily armored combat drones emerged, guns blazing. Sadira pushed away from the wall in a near panic. Bolaji screamed as a stream of bullets shredded his kneecap. Mariko tossed an EMP grenade at the drones and shrieked a moment later as machine gun fire tore into her abdomen. Lennon caught at a line to steady her spin and opened fire. The grenade went off. The drones sagged, weapons falling silent.
Sadira sucked in gulping breaths. She couldn’t seem to get enough air. Blood was everywhere. It was on her face. She didn’t think any of it was hers. She wasn’t sure, though. She caught a line nearby and pushed off to reach Mariko. The pale woman had collided with two lines where they crossed, and lay against them like a fly caught in a web. She was breathing still, if raggedly. Her stomach was a gory mess. She opened her eyes when Sadira reached her.
“Mariko…” She clasped the dying woman’s hand. “Oh, no. No, no, no.”
“Finish it,” Mariko said, the words bubbling through the blood in her throat. She coughed, spitting flecks of red across her lips. “For Therexa.”
“And for you,” Sadira promised.
Several moments passed. They could have been an eternity, or no time at all. Sadira looked up. Lennon had bandaged their shoulder as best they could and was helping a grimacing Bolaji adjust the tourniquet he’d wrapped around his thigh. The black man’s left knee was a shattered, pulpy wreck. He blew out a pained breath and gave her a half-hearted thumb’s up.
“You two wait out here,” she told him. “Watch our backs.”
Along with her two remaining Companions, Sadira entered the room. Kal was just a step ahead of her when the wall-mounted laser cut him in half. His face froze in a final expression of surprise as his torso slid away from his hips. Kel opened fire, her wail of grief lost in the thundering buzz of her e-laser. She raked the beam across both walls, scorching the paneling and blasting the mounted lasers to glittery bits. When she finally released the firing stood she lurched to her brother’s side and sobbed.
Tears streamed down Sadira’s cheeks. She pushed ahead. She had a job to finish.
Gunfire sounded out in the corridor. Reinforcements must have arrived, probably from one of the substations. Maybe more than one from the sound of it. Kel clutched at her brother and wept. Lennon and Bolaji fell back to the doorway, firing their commandeered weapons in seemingly every direction.
Sadira reached the massive computer bank at the back of the otherwise empty room. Tears blurred her vision. She wiped at her eyes with one hand, the other digging in her pocket. She pulled out the memory stick, held it up and scrutinized it before turning it around in her hand and searching the terminal before her for a port.
There. All she had to do was stick it in.
She knew the Djinn was dead, knew also the Djinn was always too wily to let that stop her. Somewhere out there, a digital copy of the woman still existed. As long as it did, it would never stop fighting the Angel. And neither would she.
“I told you once I owed you my life,” she whispered, seeing Melynaur’s face in her mind’s eye. “I think now the debt is finally settled.”
She rammed the memory stick into the port. Green light stuttered just above it. The data was transferring, the Djinn’s virus insinuating itself in the Angel’s proxy mainframe. Sadira hoped it would work.