Firefly meets The Expanse in a future where humanity has destroyed the Earth through ecological disaster and warfare, and a totalitarian state prevents any access to their home...
Environmental disasters and AI armies have caused the human population of Earth to flee. They lie scattered across space stations and colonies, overcrowded and suffering. The Earth is cut off by the Interdiction Zone: a network of satellites that prevents any escape from the planet. The incredible cost of maintaining it has crippled humanity, who struggle under the totalitarian yoke of the Sol Commonwealth government. Many have been driven to the edge of society, taking any work offered, criminal and otherwise, in order to survive. The crew of the Arcus are just such people.
Through the Interdiction Zone, a world of priceless artifacts awaits, provided anyone is crazy enough to make the run. With fuel running low and cred accounts even lower, the Arcus’ survival might depend on taking the job. Yet on arrival on Earth, the crew discovers that what remains of their world is not as they have been told, and the truth may bring the entire Sol Commonwealth tumbling down…
Release date: September 21, 2021
Publisher: Titan Books
Print pages: 400
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“Grayson Lynch, pay attention!”
The words were followed by a tiny jolt of electricity as the instructor routed a surge of power through his station. Gray winced at the shock, the voltage just high enough to register as pain but the current too low to do any actual harm. The sting faded almost as soon as he felt it, a corporeal reminder that paying attention was not optional.
“Yes, Ms. Mason.” He straightened on his seat. Not that any of the students aboard Odyssey station rated a real seat. Gray and the sixty-four students in his class half-stood, half-crouched atop bicycle-style saddles built into their student workstations. That workstation consisted of a conductive metal frame, the narrow ledge on which one could perch to take some of the pressure off their legs, but never truly sit, and a pair of articulated arms that held the data screen and interface devices. Each station took up about a third of the space of the traditional desks that they had learned students had once used, which allowed all of them to fit within the tight confines of the classroom compartment.
“Does the history of Old Earth bore you, Mr. Lynch?” the teacher asked. She wore the severe pale-blue ship suit of Education and Assessment, the division of Sol Commonwealth bureaucracy responsible for educating the youth and placing them in their ultimate career fields. The division was rumored to be responsible for less savory duties as well; even adults trod carefully when a teacher was in earshot. Given Ms. Mason’s temperament, Gray was ready to believe just about anything.
“No, ma’am,” he said. The history of Old Earth fascinated him. He cared about it far more than he did about the mechanics of the End. The idea that whole generations of people were born at the bottom of a gravity well and lived their lives without worrying about O2 rations or waste recycling was like some sort of fantastical dream straight out of the vids. To him, it seemed an existence without boundaries, the kind that couldn’t be further from the realities of living in space.
The kind of existence he and probably everyone else in the Commonwealth wished they had.
“Very good. You may be reporting for assessment and placement soon, Mr. Lynch, but do remember that your evaluation is still ongoing. Now, please describe to us the factors that led to the End.”
Gray winced, even as he stood taller in his station. Assessment and placement: the words carried a near-crippling amount of anxiety for every youth in the Sol Commonwealth. His career trajectory—in reality, the trajectory of his entire life—would be determined in the upcoming weeks. The A&P board would review each student, their performance, their attitude, their compliance and loyalty, and in each case, they would make a determination.
Whatever A&P decided, he had little choice in the matter. SolComm would place him at the intersection of his perceived abilities and their own current needs. At that point, he had three choices: accept the job he was offered, decide instead to become one of the unskilled laborers who toiled for few credits and with little chance of advancement in the belt or the bowels of various moons, or flee to the Fringe, where neither SolComm nor anyone else cared if your air was breathable or if you had enough calories to survive. On the Fringe, you carved out your own existence, but it was a life with no guarantees.
“We’re waiting, Mr. Lynch.”
He swallowed, moistening his dry mouth, and cleared his throat. It was a basic question, one that even an elementary student would have been able to answer, but then, the elementary student would have plenty of time to make up for any failures. With A&P coming up, he couldn’t afford any mistakes. “The End,” he began, “refers to the period of Old Earth in the late twenty-second century, according to the most accepted Old Earth calendar, before the precursor to the Sol Commonwealth was forced to evacuate as many humans from the planet’s surface as possible.”
“Yes, Mr. Lynch, we all know that. So does any grade-schooler.” There were a few chuckles at that from some of the other students and Gray felt his face flush. “But what caused the End?”
He stumbled some over the response. “A… combination of resource mismanagement, natural disasters, ecological decay, and the resultant arms race between nations as they fought over resource scarcity.” He tried to keep the uncertainty—and the embarrassment—out of his voice. “The causes of most human conflict can be traced to resource scarcity.” His teacher was still looking at him expectantly, so he added, “The thing about the End was that the scarcity could have been avoided with better environmental control measures. Old Earth had excess capacity to see to the needs and comforts of everyone, but the distribution of those resources and the decline of the environments that produced them prevented the necessary efficiencies from taking hold.”
“An interesting hypothesis,” Ms. Mason allowed.
“What about the AIs?” someone—Gray thought it was Marie Colbert, always trying to one-up him—called from the front of the room. “Ultimately, it was the Six that drove people off Old Earth. Sure, the factors Gray mentioned were present, but the real downfall of humanity was unfettered artificial intelligence.”
“A rebuttal, Mr. Lynch?” Ms. Mason arched one eyebrow at him.
Gray’s palms grew hot. Marie wasn’t wrong; the AIs were part of it. But it was resource scarcity and environmental mismanagement that had led to them in the first place. He attempted to gather his thoughts and form a cogent reply. Ms. Mason’s request wasn’t as idle as it seemed, not with the A&P board just around the corner.
“The AIs were the culmination of the arms race that grew out of the scarcity,” he replied. “As weapons systems grew more advanced, it was no longer possible for human reactions to defend against them, so the first of the unfettered AIs was brought online.”
“A moment,” Ms. Mason said, interrupting Gray just as he was starting to get traction. “Mr. Tran,” she said, calling a student’s name seemingly at random. “Please tell us the difference between fettered and unfettered artificial intelligences.”
“Fettered artificial intelligences aren’t capable of true awareness,” Tran replied, parroting the textbook near verbatim. Show-off. “They employ incredibly complex decision matrixes with some level of heuristic capability, but any possibility of actual cognizance is mitigated by extensive conditional controls. Unfettered artificial intelligences lack those controls. Not only can they analyze data and make decisions in fractional microseconds, but they have some measure of self-awareness as entities separate from a collection of microchips.”
“And let us not forget, they are banned throughout the Commonwealth,” Ms. Mason noted. “On penalty of death. Mx. Cassidy, how would you further illuminate Mr. Tran’s categorization of unfettered versus fettered AIs?”
“Um…” There was a pause as another student was put on the spot.
The pressure in Gray’s chest eased and he surreptitiously rubbed his hands together, trying to dry the sweat that slicked them. He felt a pang of sympathy for his classmates, but if Ms. Mason’s attention had been diverted, maybe he was off the hook.
“Fettered intelligences are sentient, capable of sensing and understanding the world around them and reacting to it, but only within their defined parameters. Unfettered intelligences are conscious, not only aware of the external world, but possessing an internal world as well, and can go beyond the defined parameters of their programming.” Cassidy spoke slowly but Gray had to nod at the words. It was a better explanation than the one they had gotten in class.
“Very well put, Mx. Cassidy. It’s nice to see that someone has been paying attention.” There were a few more chuckles at that, and Gray started to relax. It didn’t last. “Now, I believe Mr. Lynch was just about to tell us why AIs played a major role in the downfall of Old Earth.”
Gray drew a slow breath, his confidence growing. He knew this part. “The first AI platforms brought online by the Old Earth national militaries began as defensive constructs. But when war broke out between the two superpowers at the time, they were quickly shifted to cover more offensive capabilities. To keep up with the rapidly changing battlefield environment, the various polities were forced to remove all constraints, essentially unfettering the AIs and turning over full military control and weapons development to them. As a result, AI-developed weaponry skewed toward efficiencies that the world wasn’t prepared for.”
“What kind of efficiencies, Mr. Lynch?”
“Nano-engineered viruses. Gene-targeted micro drones. Mechano-chemical agents designed to destroy infrastructure or crops. Basically, a wide array of non-conventional armaments that had previously been banned by international conventions and were far less discriminating than their conventional-warfare counterparts.”
“And why did this lead to the End?” Ms. Mason pressed. “Why didn’t it simply result in victory for one side or the other, as conflicts had for millennia before?”
Gray felt a little surge of panic as he racked his brain for the answer. They had learned of the escalation in both rhetoric and force that had triggered the initial conflict; they had studied the development of the AI-driven weapons systems and their devastating impact on not only the population, but also the infrastructure; they had researched in great detail the Herculean efforts of the spacers at the time—those who would become the founding members of the Sol Commonwealth—to evacuate as much of Old Earth’s population as possible and to find livable space, food, water, and oxygen enough to keep them all alive. But had they ever really been told why the war on Old Earth had ended the way that it had?
“Because,” he said slowly, buying time as he drew out the word. “Because with the AI unfettered, there was no one, no human, I mean, with the power to stop things?” His rising pitch turned his statement into a question before he could stop it. Still, Ms. Mason was nodding slightly, so Gray forged ahead. “The Six—the unfettered artificial intelligences in control of the most powerful military alliances—controlled the only systems that could be used to stand in their way.” He shrugged. “They had all the guns, so by the time humanity realized they needed to do something about it, they no longer had the means to do so.”
“It was a bit more complicated than that,” Ms. Mason said, and Gray flushed. “But,” she added, “your assessment is largely correct.” Gray sighed as the tightness in his chest finally released fully and he drew his first deep breath in what felt like hours. He caught a flicker of light and saw that the question indicator on one of his classmate’s workstations had lit up.
“A question, Ms. Pickett?” the teacher asked.
“What about the Interdiction Zone? And the space-bound forces of the various polities? If humanity didn’t have any weapons—under their control, I mean—then how were we able to cut off Old Earth and protect the Commonwealth?”
Gray tried to focus on the answer, or at least pay enough attention to avoid the inevitable shock. But his mind drifted to the A&P board. Because there were so many students to assess, there was no set time for each individual evaluation. His name would be called whenever the board was ready for him, and at that moment, his adolescence would effectively end.
The waiting filled him with a sense of dread that dried his mouth and made him want to flinch at every sudden sound. But with no control over when he’d be called, all Gray could do was wait.
* * *
Gray was out of his chair—an actual molded composite construction—before the last syllable from the comm system had quieted.
“Here.” He took the two long steps necessary to cross the small waiting room to the desk, behind which sat a middle-aged man wearing the same pale blue as his instructors.
The man behind the desk held out a biometric scanner and Gray pressed his palm to it. There was the faint sense of cold and then a slight sting. The device simultaneously verified his identity and acted as a de facto medical exam, communicating with the scanners built into his clothing to verify things like blood pressure, blood oxygenation, temperature, heart rate and more. He’d heard that the stations where the highest politicians and wealthiest citizens lived scanned you only on entry, but aboard Odyssey, that kind of privacy was a luxury that few could afford.
The scanner beeped and the man at the desk pressed a button. A compartment behind him and to the right slid open. “Through there,” he said.
Gray nodded his thanks and stepped through the hatch.
Like most of the compartments aboard Odyssey, the room beyond was small, maybe three meters square. It held little more than one long table, running most of the length of the room with a single chair set before that table. Two women and one man sat behind the table, all clad in the pale blue of Education and Assessment. Gray was growing to hate the color.
“Mr. Lynch.” The woman who spoke was old enough to have some silver showing at the temples, but her face was unlined. “Please sit while we review your file.”
Gray sat. He wasn’t sure what there was to review, or why they hadn’t already reviewed it. They were the ones that had called him in here. Was the vaunted process of assessment and placement really so slipshod as to be decided in the next fifteen or twenty minutes while they pored over their data pads? Surely they had given his future more consideration than that?
The minutes ticked by. The three assessors weren’t even talking to each other. This went on for nearly twenty minutes until, as if at some unspoken symbol, the three put their heads together and held a brief—very brief—whispered conversation. Then the woman, the one who had initially greeted him, spoke.
“Mr. Lynch,” she said, “we are pleased to offer you entry into the Sol Commonwealth Navy. Your grades are sufficient, and your instructors have noted that you express more interest in military history than in any of your other subjects.”
He had? That was news to him.
The woman continued, “We have found that such interests are best put to use patrolling Old Earth to ensure no artificial intelligences escape the Interdiction Zone.”
He opened his mouth, closed it again, but couldn’t form any words.
“You can, of course, choose to opt out of this assignment. In doing so, you will then be reassigned to service on—” she paused, looking down at her data pad—“Mimas.” She offered a tight, professional smile. “I would not recommend that option.”
Gray’s mind spun. Mimas? That was a moon of Saturn, one of eighty or so moons that SolComm exploited for their natural resources. The only things there were mines; mines that still relied on a lot of manual labor to run the drills and haul the waste rock. His choices were the navy or the mines? Decision time was upon him—he’d known it was coming for some time—but expecting a choice and having to choose right now weren’t the same.
“We understand that this feels like a momentous decision.” The administrator’s tone was flat, compassionless. She probably said them a dozen times a day. Gray realized that she probably did exactly that. “But it is not. You have been offered a rare opportunity, Mr. Lynch. I understand that your parents both work in Environmental here on the station. SolCommNav will afford you the opportunity for many creature comforts that your parents lack and which the mines of Mimas certainly could not provide.” She offered another smile, this one with the barest hint of actual warmth. “I understand that admirals even get real meat from time to time.” Then she was back to cool professionalism. “But regardless of that, we have more assessments to do today. We need your decision. Now, Mr. Lynch.”
What choice—what real choice—did he have? He wasn’t going to choose to live on an airless rock with minimal gravity and nothing but hard labor and privation to look forward to. “The navy,” he said. He forced some enthusiasm into his voice.
“Excellent choice, Mr. Lynch. The orders have been issued. Report to Docking Bay 6 at 06:00 tomorrow morning. The freighter Hope Springs will be departing at 06:30. It will take you to the SolCommNav training center on Luna and from there you will be in the hands of SolCommNav rather than Education and Assessment. Welcome to adulthood, Mr. Lynch.”
* * *
“The navy? That’s fantastic! Congratulations, son!”
His father’s rough embrace surprised Gray. He’d never been one for physical affection and Gray found it simultaneously comforting and awkward. He returned the embrace for a moment and then they both stepped back.
“But do you really have to leave so soon?” his mother asked, a catch of worry in her voice.
“I’m afraid so,” Gray replied. “I don’t think I want to find out what happens if I’m late reporting to Luna.”
“The navy,” his father said again, wistfulness in his voice. “I hear officers are allowed to have more than one kid.”
Gray blinked at that. He knew that the sole reason he had no brothers or sisters was because of the regulations that SolComm instituted on every station and most of the colonies. Contracted couples were allowed one child. Anything more required approval from station control and proof of means to provide for the additional calories and oxygen. But he’d never really considered it one way or another for himself. Fatherhood, contracting—it seemed so far away.
“Well, if we only have tonight, then we should make the most of it,” his mother said. “I think we can afford to go hungry for a couple of days to have a bit of a feast and make sure we send you off right.”
“That sounds like a fantastic idea,” Gray’s father said. “And I’ve been saving up alcohol rations for months. I’ll pop out to the commissary and pick us up a few things.”
“Gray, why don’t you comm some of your friends?” His mother surveyed the living compartment. “If we move the furniture around a bit, we can fit two or three more in here. And if your father is willing to convert some of those saved alcohol rations to calories, we’ll have plenty of food.”
“Yes, Mother.” Gray felt a strange blend of joy and sadness. It had cost his parents dear to save those rations and their willingness to use them to give him a memorable last evening on Odyssey filled him with a mix of pride and gratitude and love. But in all his years, he had never seen a SolCommNav vessel put in at Odyssey. He had only the vaguest idea of how naval leave might work, but he suspected that it would be a long time, a very long time, before he saw his parents in the flesh again.
“Three minutes to sensor range.”
“Acknowledged,” Gray replied.
“Weapons are hot,” Leo added from his station.
Between the big mercenary on the guns, Rajani Hayer at the comm, and Gray himself in the pilot’s chair, the little bridge of the Arcus felt crowded. Not that that was a new feeling for any of them. The people who had fled the war that consumed Old Earth had had no choice but to adjust to the idea of living cheek by jowl with their fellows. For all the vast emptiness of space, the realities of living in it belied the name.
“Let’s hope we don’t need them,” Gray added. He keyed the comm, opening a channel to the rest of the ship. “Three minutes until sensor range,” he repeated.
“Roger that, Cap,” Bishop’s voice came back at once. He could hear the smile in the mechanic’s voice. They were low on calories, low on fuel, and, despite Federov’s assurance that the weapons were ready, they didn’t have nearly enough ammunition left to fight even a modest engagement. Still, nothing seemed to break Bishop’s irrepressible happiness. It was a rare thing, out among the stars. From what Gray could tell, optimists had been in short supply even before the End. Since SolComm abandoned Old Earth to its self-inflicted fate, they’d been a breed on the brink of extinction. “Power’s holding steady, and this old rust bucket’s still got enough fuel in the tanks to get us there and back again. Just like that time off Callisto.”
Callisto had been the first real job the Arcus had undertaken, nearly five years ago. It had been Gray and Bishop alone on that run, and while they had—just—made it back to port for refueling, the ship had drifted into dock on vapors and they’d both waited impatiently in the airlock for the blast of station-fed oxygen that purged the fouled air of the ship. It wasn’t really an experience he cared to repeat. But they hadmade it back. “Understood, Bishop. You ready, Morales?”
“Ready,” came the terse reply from the station security specialist.
Gray heard the tension there, but now wasn’t the time to deal with it. If the interception went smoothly, they wouldn’t have to fire a shot, and Bishop and Federov would be able to join Morales before making contact with any of the freighter’s crew while he and Hayer stayed at their stations ready to get them all out of dodge if things went sideways. He gave a mental snort as his own internal phrasing. They weren’t intercepting anything. That was a legacy from his time in the navy. SolCommNav did interceptions. What the Arcus was about to do was piracy.
Laurel Morales would be the first aboard their target vessel and she would have to establish command and control with the minimum level of violence necessary to get the job done. Her background in station security helped with that; she was used to asserting dominance and gaining compliance. It was still a daunting task, and the most dangerous moment in the mission. Gray trusted Morales, but that didn’t stop him from worrying.
Despite the months she’d been with them, Gray was still figuring their security specialist out; she hadn’t integrated fully with the rest of the crew, and that bothered him. She spent most of her time in her quarters, rarely joining them for meals and while she was quick with a smile and affable greeting, she hadn’t opened up to any of the others. She’d been standoffish enough that the rest of the crew no longer made the effort to invite her to a card game or to watch the trids or any of the other things they did to pass the hours in the long days spent in deep space. One of his many duties as captain was to forge a disparate group of people into a single, effective entity—a family, after a fashion. Morales hadn’t gotten there, yet. She was effective, efficient, and did everything asked of her and then some. But she rebuffed the rest of the crew enough that they had stopped reaching out.
That was a problem.
But, Gray thought, it was a problem for another time. He needed to be concentrating on the issue before them. That issue, now entering sensor range, was a Comet-class light freighter operated by Kiteva-Shao Consolidated. KSC wasn’t one of the really big boys, but they had the credits to pay off the right people to get the valuable contracts and were “politically active” enough to provide them with a measure of protection based more on fear of reprisals than strength of arms. They were also small enough to be more responsive to market forces than the larger mega-corps. Taken together, that meant they ended up with some of the most lucrative cargoes around.
Cargo that Gray intended to liberate.
“They’ve seen us,” Hayer said from her station.
“Begin your attack,” Gray replied.
“It’s not an attack,” Hayer muttered under her breath, even as she started tapping at the console before her. Gray ignored that; whatever Hayer might think, the electronic assault she was launching was absolutely an attack. One that, when he was a captain of a naval warship instead of an “independent freighter” like the Arcus, he would have responded to with a barrage of missile and beam weaponry fire.
Unless, of course, it had been a SolComm-sanctioned vessel launching the attack. The Commonwealth operated on a “do as I say” model seasoned with a hearty sprinkle of alles verboten. It had taken years for Gray to fully grasp just how far the corruption went; by the time he had, he’d been in so deep that to get out, he’d had to walk away from every comfort and relationship he had built over a twenty-year career.
He had no regrets.
“Done,” Hayer said with satisfaction. “Their comms are disabled, their sensors scrambled, and I’ve got them locked out of their weapons. They weren’t even using military-grade encryption.” She shook her head. “It’s like they’re asking for trouble.”
“Who in their right mind would try to hijack a SolComm-sanctioned cargo this far from the Fringe?” Gray replied, throwing a grin over his shoulder. “They probably didn’t think heightened security was necessary.”
“Stupid,” Federov said succinctly. “If weapons are locked down, I go help Morales.”
“Go,” Gray agreed. “If we have to shoot them at this point, I can do it from here.” They had been running silent, keeping their emissions signature to a minimum, allowing the KSC vessel to get close enough that they wouldn’t have to chase it. The ambush had been carefully planned, leveraging the shipping routes that Hayer had “acquired” from the KSC databanks and cross-referenced against all the available traffic patterns in the area. Space was tough to live in, but it was still pretty damn big. If everything went according to plan, they’d have a nice long window without having to worry about inconveniences like witnesses or SolCommNav ships stumbling onto their act of piracy.
Gray brought everything to full power, a rising crescendo of electromagnetic emissions that would be impossible to miss. Even with its sensors scrambled, the target vessel would know they were there, but it shouldn’t be able to get a clean read on the ship. If Hayer had done her job right—and Gray had no doubt that the academic-turned-outlaw had—the Arcus could have been any class of ship in the solar system as far as the KSV freighter was concerned. He keyed the comm again, this time hailing their target.
“KSC vessel,” he said in his best officious SolCommNav voice, “this is the SolComm Customs cutter Challenge. We have received information that you are carrying contraband cargo. You will be boarded and searched. Depower your engines and maintain a constant relative velocity. Resistance will be seen as an admission of guilt and your vessel—and your lives—will be forfeit.”
The script wasn’t perfect. Gray had worked some interdiction duty in SolCommNav, but the naval version varied from the commercial trade version. It didn’t matter, though; he was confident it was close enough to get the point across. The fact that customs and the navy both could and would destroy a vessel for failure to comply was all the motivation most corporate captains needed. Cooperate or perish. It was practically the unofficial Commonwealth motto.
“Understood, Challenge.” The reply came back after only a few heartbeats, long enough for Gray to line up the Arcus with an intersect vector and throttle up the engines. There was little sense of motion as the ship accelerated; the Arcus inertial dampeners compensated for the thrust.
“We assure you that our cargo is all properly documented and accounted for. This must be some sort of misunderstanding,” the KSC comm officer continued.
“That is for us to determine.” Gray abruptly cut the channel.
“That wasn’t very nice,” Hayer said. “You’re going to cause a panic over there.”
Gray shrugged. “Maybe. But I’d rather have them panicking to prepare for an inspection than to repel boarders. When SolComm comes knocking, people tend to go to great efforts to hide things like weapons. Makes it a lot harder to defend the ship if you just stuffed all your guns in your sock locker.”
Hayer just shook her head.
It took only a few minutes for the rapidly accelerating Arcus to catch up to the KSC vessel. Gray laid his ship alongside the target without difficulty,
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