Ardulum. The planet that vanishes. The planet that sleeps.
Neek makes a living piloting the dilapidated tramp transport, Mercy's Pledge, and smuggling questionable goods across systems blessed with peace and prosperity. She gets by—but only just. In her dreams, she is still haunted by thoughts of Ardulum, the traveling planet that, long ago, visited her homeworld. The Ardulans brought with them agriculture, art, interstellar technology…and then disappeared without a trace, leaving Neek's people to worship them as gods.
Neek does not believe—and has paid dearly for it with an exile from her home for her heretical views.
Yet, when the crew stumbles into an armed confrontation between the sheriffs of the Charted Systems and an unknown species, fate deals Neek an unexpected hand in the form of a slave girl—a child whose ability to telepathically manipulate cellulose is reminiscent of that of an Ardulan god. Forced to reconcile her beliefs, Neek chooses to protect her, but is the child the key to her salvation, or will she lead them all to their deaths?
"... is a masterful blend of space opera tropes and hard science fiction concepts, written by a scientist working at the top of their field. This is a glorious love letter of a book, pushing the idea of what space opera can be and who it's written for, utilizing a complex web of science facts and science fiction concepts to ask questions about truth and history and who benefits."– Seanan McGuire
"…battles and chases, old fashioned scrums between aliens, and political maneuvering, all make this one of my favorite ever space romps, brainy and enjoyable."– Amazon review
This is another "holy shit" book. And by "holy shit" book, I mean "holy God guys, read this immediately."– Goodreads review
Chapter 1 — Risalian Cutter 17
Joint Resolution Mandating a Youth Journey
Be it resolved: youths of all Systems should enjoy the benefits of education, cultural understanding, and interplanetary travel that this new age of universal freedom, safety, and peace allows. Therefore, be it enacted that all youths, aged to each species' level of near-adulthood, may embark on a cost-free, two-year Journey off their home planet. None shall interfere with the Journey for any reason, except to provide assistance to facilitate smooth cultural exchange. Youths may travel in groups or alone, may engage in paid or unpaid employment, or may sign on to ships or governmental service as long as such service does not occur within their home system. In this act shall each youth find their own path within the safe, open arms of the Charted Systems.
Charted Systems General Mandate 27
It was colder than normal in her cage today. The girl shivered as she watched the crystalline strands stride across the metal mesh of her enclosure. Placing her fingertips against the mesh, she giggled when a strand touched her and puffed into a sweet-smelling smoke. With her mind, she reached out to another nearby strand and pushed it, sending the repeating segment bounding alongside the metal into the far corner of the cell.
The strand hovered on the mesh, awaiting her command. It made no sound, and she knew that the beings with the bright blue skin gathered outside the enclosure could not see it. They clustered around their consoles and trays and screens, and ignored her. That made the game more fun. The girl hopped into the air, and the strand hopped to the next section of mesh. She twirled—creating a cool breeze against her bare, translucent skin—as the strand wove in and out of the solid metal wire. She flopped to the floor and released her link to the strand, sending the crystalline form back into the matrix of her cage.
She lay on the porous metal, eyes closed, and began to play a new game. In this one she played with sounds, listening to the noises of her world—the noises of the blue creatures. Air wheezed between the slits in their necks, whistled through rows of pointed teeth. Pursed lips forced high-pitched squeaks that, combined with vibrations from their throats, produced a strange form of communication.
Her mother never communicated like that—with noises. The blue creatures never communicated with images, either. Their minds were closed off, unscalable, and no matter how much she tried, the girl couldn't make the same mouth noises. She couldn't communicate with them, but she could listen and pretend, all without drawing attention to herself. Her mother hated it when she did that.
Trying not to attract attention, unfortunately, was a rather hard thing to do. There were only so many times you could push strands around before boredom drove you to other things, and the blues were mysterious. Three times a day, they would bring food and place it inside through a small opening near the ground. They never went past the mesh, and the girl and her mother never left it. There was nothing inside the cage to give to the blues in return for the food, although her mother said giving them something was a silly idea. The blues never made noises at them and never showed much interest in anything. Maybe there was something even more interesting beyond the wall, beyond the door through which the blues came and went at different times. Maybe there were other colors or beings that she could actually communicate with.
The girl longed to investigate those doors—to open every one and learn about what could be inside. How many blues were there? What were the funny things they had wrapped across their bodies? The wrappings looked soft, and she longed to rub the corner of one against her face, or to place it beneath herself as she slept. Where did the food come from, and how was it made? Her imagination spun, images of crazy contraptions pieced together from the blues' artifacts filling her consciousness.
Her mother turned her head and made eye contact, her concern flickering through the girl's mind. A strong sense of disapproval followed the concern. The girl stopped her imaginings and kicked her legs grumpily against the floor. The metal fibers were warm on her bare skin, and she thought, not for the first time, that life was incredibly frustrating. She'd lived her whole life in the cage. Someday, she was going to get beyond the outer door.
The sounds of a few strands sparking where her body lay in contact with the mesh disrupted her listening game. The girl watched their brilliance slowly fade on her bare arm, her thin hairs rising ever so slightly and then lying back down. Sounds created by the blues filtered back to her ears, except this time, they seemed louder. Interested, the girl sat up. Mouths were moving more quickly. Flaps of neck skin, purple suddenly instead of blue, slapped against one another. The fine, black hair of each blue was pulled taut instead of let loose down their backs. They stood rigidly, and it looked uncomfortable. It was unusual. The girl edged closer to the mesh boundary and squinted, trying to make out more details between the shimmering strands.
A blue wearing a yellow covering entered the larger room. It grabbed the familiar gray wrappings of another, shorter blue. The mouth noises increased in pitch, and short-blue squeaked the same sound several times in a row. The sound didn't mean anything to her, but she repeated the noise in her head several times, wondering if she should try to remember it. Captain Ran. Ranranran. RanRANran. The girl giggled as she changed the emphasis. Blues were silly, and their noises that much more so.
Only young things made mouth noises, her mother had explained once with an image of the girl as a baby making high-pitched sounds in tandem with mental images for food. She'd outgrown it. She wasn't a baby. She was almost ready to create the funny wrappings her mother had shown her—the ones that she would rest in for a little bit so she could grow big. After that, she would be as tall as her mother, taller than the blue things maybe, but she still wouldn't make those silly mouth noises.
She looked at yellow-blue, whose neck was beginning to purple. The blues were big, but they still used mouth noises. They weren't very smart. The girl smiled. After she grew, she could teach them, maybe, if her mother would let her. The blues would be a lot more interesting if they communicated properly. She could teach them all the things her mother had taught her, too—about strands and mental pictures and how to eat food slowly so it didn't get stuck in your throat and make you cough.
The girl sent an image to her mother of herself outside the cage, slowly chewing, mouth open, so the blues could see. Concern and fear answered her, sweeping away her proposal. Confused, the girl tried to probe her mother for answers, but her mother buried them as quickly as they'd come. Instead, the feelings were replaced by a reserved calm, followed by a sharp image of the girl inside the cage, far away from the blues.
That her idea had been refused was upsetting, and she stomped her foot—but only a little bit. She recognized her mother's emotional cover-up and, irritated, turned her attention back to yellow-blue. She took a few steps back from the mesh, begrudgingly.
Farther away, yellow-blue's slits were a deeper purple, and the lighting overhead made them shiny. The striking color accentuated the harsh mouth noises. She watched yellow-blue direct three other blues—pointing at her, pointing at her mother, pointing at the mesh. The shortest one came up to the mesh and probed it with the flat of its hand. Yellow-blue let out a string of high-pitched babble, and short-blue fell back, its neck searing into purple.
Fear began to seep past her mother's careful barriers and into her mind. She sent a questioning feeling to her mother, who responded with an image of the girl in the arms of a blue, herself still trapped inside. The girl frowned. She didn't want that to happen. She backed away slowly and stood behind her mother. A protective arm wrapped around her, and the girl peered around her mother's elbow, keeping her eyes on the blues and letting her mother's fear permeate her mind.
Yellow-blue approached the mesh this time, running fingers slowly across the surface and staring directly at her. Blues had never looked at her before—not like that. The girl buried her face in her mother's back and watched through her mother's eyes as the blues touched small, black boxes near their hips. A clang filled the air, an acrid smell rose up from the floor, and new layers of mesh surrounded each blue—like individual cages. Only the shortest blue was without one.
Yellow-blue turned a red knob next to the wall panel, a panel the girl had never seen anyone go near before. A soft hiss filled the air, and again there was a shot of acrid odor. Then, in between the space of two blinks, the mesh enclosure—the cage in which she had lived her whole life—disappeared.
New scents of metal and an unusual body odor made her tongue feel funny as it hit her nose. The air temperature dramatically warmed. Her mother's emotions became chaotic—the only concrete desire the girl could make out was one of protection.
Despite it all, she was curious. No walls meant she could touch a blue, if she wanted to—could feel the little bumps on their skin, touch their shimmery, dark hair. That thought was appealing, so the girl peeked her head back around. Maybe she could touch one without stepping from behind her mother if they kept coming forward.
They were close now, surrounding the girl and her mother in a tight semicircle. They held strange bent tubes, ends pointed at her mother. Strands hopped along the tubes' surfaces in a merry game. The girl reached out with her mind to touch a strand, but a wave of rage from her mother cut her off. Frustrated, the girl slowly stretched her hand towards the shortest blue, keeping her mind blank so her mother wouldn't know what she was doing. The short one looked at her—right at her—and the corners of its mouth turned up, revealing rows of pointed teeth, and took a knife from its covering.
She drew her hand back quickly, unnerved by the image, but short-blue caught her by the wrist. Her mother spun and swung a fist at the blue's jaw. It dodged, shifting its body to one side, and pulled the girl along with it. The grip on her wrist was strong, and she was slammed to the floor, the metal digging into her knees.
Before she could process what had happened, short-blue hauled her to her feet and pushed her into the blue with the yellow coverings. This blue grabbed her by her hair, which was much more painful. She tried to pull back, to return to her mother, but the tension on her scalp made her eyes water with pain.
The strands stopped moving.
Stillness filled the room even though the blues persisted in making their noises, the short one ripping at her mother's arms with long claws. The girl knew what would come next, so she went slack, the weight pulling down the blue that held her as well.
Her mother pushed the strands around them with her mind. Crystalline units shot from the walls, the protective mesh, and the bent tubes, and bound together into a thick cord in the middle of the room. The blast that followed rammed into the short blue's back. The blue dropped the knife and fell into her mother, who quickly moved to the side and allowed the blue to slam face-first into a wall and then onto its back, leaving it crumpled at an odd angle on the floor, smoking.
Yellow-blue produced several low noises from its mouth and gestured as a strange, foul-smelling tendril of smoke wafted up from short-blue's now empty eye sockets. The girl gagged. She had seen her mother push the strands before, but it had never smelled this bad. She hadn't realized anything could smell this bad.
Her mother stumbled forward as two other blues took hold of her. Moving the strands was hard work—the girl knew from practicing. Her mother would be tired now. Instead of calling again to the strands, her mother reached for her, and the girl pulled against the blue that held her. Their hands locked, and the girl's skin burned as her mother dug in with fingernails, trying desperately to keep them together as the blues pulled them apart. But her mother was tired from strand pushing, and the blues that held her were very strong. Finally, they were connected only by the fingertips, and then, not at all.
Her mother sent another image. This one showed the girl kicking and biting yellow-blue. Nodding in understanding, the girl began to thrash. She jerked her body left and right, swinging her arms wildly and pulling her head at odd angles.
Stomping and biting, her mother gained a few centimeters towards her. Excitement rose in the girl but was dashed just as quickly. Holding the girl tightly by her hair in one hand, yellow-blue lunged forward. The creature picked up the fallen knife, grabbed her mother's arm, and slashed it right at the elbow joint. Pain seared through her mother's mind and ripped into hers. The shock of agony made the girl's body go limp, and she slumped to the floor.
Yellow-blue turned back to the girl and made more noises, gesturing for her to resume standing and move towards a strange cylindrical structure behind it. When she didn't respond, yellow-blue sighed and gave a quick yank to her hair. She continued to slump, the biting pain in her arm and growing dread eclipsing the sharp pulls at her scalp and neck.
Three pushes came in rapid succession from her mother, targeting the blues that held her. Unlike the short one, however, these blues were protected by individual mesh barriers—the strands hopped wildly off the surfaces and shot around the room. A long strand hit a stationary console, which burst into flame. Another bored into a wheeled tray. At impact, the tray exploded and metal shards ricocheted off the walls. None of the blues were hurt.
Suddenly, yellow-blue grabbed the girl's leg with a free hand and hoisted her up off the ground, swung her a couple of times to gain momentum, and then roughly tossed her into the cramped space of the cylinder, forcing her limbs inside with its foot.
The impact of her head against the metal wall sent white spots blooming behind her eyelids. The girl tried to pull her legs in tightly, but yellow-blue's sharp toenails raked her translucent skin and drew blood from the prominent veins underneath. Wetness streamed down her face. She wanted to close her eyes, but she couldn't look away from her mother.
Wild with fear, her mother sent a message of warning. Pictures began to form in the girl's mind—pictures of her breaking out of the cylinder, of running into the main room and smashing the black boxes, of running out the door…
The image stream broke when a loud CRACK reverberated through the room. Energy had discharged from one of the bent tubes the blues carried. In the first heartbeat, strands shot forth and hung in the air. In the second heartbeat, they moved into her mother's head. There was a pause. In the fourth heartbeat, her mother's head shattered. Bits of skull and gray matter splattered the legs of several of the blues as the body slumped in its captors' arms. An eye, intact, rolled across the floor and stopped a meter from the cylinder, the pupil looking right at the girl.
Yellow-blue holstered the bent tube and turned, its expression blank, as the cover was placed over the cylinder. The girl's world turned dark, her mind turned dark, and there were no strands left to give her the illusion of safety.