Anya Ow is the author of The Firebird's Tale and Cradle and Grave. Her short stories have appeared in publications such as Asimov's, Uncanny, Fantasy Magazine, the 2019 Year's Best Dark Fantasy and Horror anthology and more. Born in Singapore, Anya has a Bachelor of Laws from Melbourne University and a Bachelor of Applied Design from Billy Blue College of Design. She lives in Melbourne with her two cats, working as a graphic designer and illustrator.

Ion Curtain by Anya Ow

Anya is an Aurealis Awards finalist.

"Citizens of the Federation. Greetings from the Core."

For decades the UN and the Russian military have navigated a tense interstellar Cold War.

Lieutenant Kalina Sokolova is aide to Counter-Admiral Kasparov, the major strategist for the Russian Navy. She is also an elite spy working for the UN. She is tasked with watching the Counter-Admiral, and assassination is not out of the question.

Solitaire Yeung is a corsair, a scavenger, a pirate. In the heart of a destroyed Russian battleship, his salvage crew makes an explosive discovery: the brain of the ship's top secret artificial intelligence. And against their better judgment, they take it and run.

The UN wants it, and the Russians want it back, but they're not the only ones hunting it. An even more powerful foe grows in the darkness of space. Now all of humanity has to fight to survive...


Russian spaceships, pirates, a mysterious wreck and A.I. all collide in this explosive wide-screen science fiction epic – what's not to like! – Lavie Tidhar



  • "An addictive space opera"

    – Publishers Weekly
  • "A fast moving, deeply satisfying space opera complete with loveable rogues and messy politics."

    – K. B. Wagers, author of Hold Fast Through the Fire
  • "Brings the vibes of Star Trek and Expanse and a good spy movie"

    – British Fantasy Society



The Kashin-class destroyer Song of Gabriel Descending Gated out of tian into normal space in what would have looked like a magic trick to a casual observer. One moment it wasn't there—and the next, it was: a monstrous orbital spear, ringed with centrifugal decks and slung with pulsar teeth. As the Gabriel synched back to the network and broadcast its location on general and VMF channels, it began to wake some of its crew from their pods, powering down its stardrive and warming up its standard engines. Then it settled down gleefully to wait.

Commander Viktor Kulagin, to his profound irritation, woke up from podsleep to the deep bass caterwauling of some pre-Ascent Sol song. Booming from the seeded speakers along the hull was a brassy, trumpeted military reveille.

"Ship, shut it off!" Viktor growled, stumbling over to the cleanser to throw up. Podsleep, in general, had never agreed with him. For all that Song of Gabriel Descending had been upgraded with the very latest in suspension tech when it had been refitted with an Eva Core, its Gating process was even more jarring to his physiology than usual.

The cleanser voided, and Viktor stepped into the purifier. "Good morning, Captain," Ship said, in the voice of a young woman. "I've woken the Tula and Orel Directorates. Once you've all finished feeling sorry for yourselves, breakfast will be served."

Viktor leaned his forehead against the smooth, cold plasteel shell of the purifier and prayed briefly for patience. "You're not yet far enough from Sol that I can't get you refitted off my ship," he warned. Viktor finished the rinse cycle and stepped out of the purifier, pulling on his pressed uniform from the wall shelf.

"Kwang ships are not far from anywhere. Unlike the non-Kwang ships that can only Gate into tian from stellar platforms. That was the point of getting refitted in the first place."

"This is a military ship," Viktor complained, not for the first time. "I don't know why they coded you into a Kwang Core." It was already an old argument between them, one that Ship leant into enthusiastically. Ship had a pedantic soul—if an artificial super intelligence could be said to have a soul.

"Hmm, I wonder, could it be that there are military benefits to being able to Gate without a Gate?"

"I didn't mean that." Viktor scrubbed his hands over his eyes. "I meant you. What is the point of encoding a military ship with a personality?"

"I suppose they thought it'd be better than having you talk to an ASI with the emotional range of a toaster," Ship said.

"I would've preferred that," Viktor grumbled, though High Command had explained the reason behind the non-clinical aspect of the ASI to all Kwang ship captains. Military, impersonal ASIs would run the risk of what the Admiralty delicately called 'over-efficiencies'. In simulators, they often tended to chuck their inefficient human passengers out of the airlocks.

On some days, Viktor could even sympathize.

"You're lucky that I'm functionally obliged to like people," Ship said, as Viktor went through his usual limbering up exercises in the small Captain's cabin. "I was bored within tian. I'm glad you're all awake." There was a faint pause. "And alive."

"You can't get bored. You are an ASI."

"I'm bored all the time," Ship retorted, with mock sadness.

"Of all ships, why mine?" Viktor muttered.

It was a futile sentiment. High Command had told all four Kwang Ship Captains in confidence that the Kwang Project had almost been a failure. Coding a pure ASI from the ground up would take years, if only because it had to be taught the appropriate ethical constraints and thought processes. Dr. Alek Kwang had instead mapped and coded the brain patterns of a handful of test subjects, a controversial lateral decision that had proved to be mostly a failure. Most of the original Cores had woken up unusable, save those mapped with the brain patterns of Alek's daughter, Eva. The VMF Rossii, the Russian Federation's Navy, had still been willing to gamble on outfitting a brace of ships with Eva Cores.

Now Viktor and a thousand people under his command were effectively test subjects. Were his ship to snap and decide to vent them all, there would be little that Viktor could do but hope to use his Captain's overrides in time. Still in a grim mood, Viktor made his way to the Bridge rather than to the mess hall. His stomach was in no mood for sustenance right out of podsleep, and Viktor felt no real need to add more involuntary vomiting to an already-bleak day.

A skeletal crew from the Orel Directorate were already operating the consoles, doing their routine status checks. Lieutenant Petrenko glanced up as Viktor headed to the Captain's chair. He was dour, and whippet-thin, older than Viktor by a decade but without the driving ambition that would allow him to rise further in the VMF.

"Counter-Admiral Shevchenko left you a message, Captain." Petrenko stepped away from the Captain's chair. The crew spoke in Russian in the common spaces of the ship rather than Galactic, as a matter of preference. "Captain has the Bridge." Viktor sat down. The synthsteel chair molded automatically to his back, rippling as it did so, before synching to Viktor's DNA, unlocking Captain's access.

"You should be eating right now," Ship said into Viktor's ear on a private line. Viktor ignored it. Viktor's access linked up to the galactic network, pinged from packet courier drones that Gated routinely back and forth from the stellar Gates, releasing broad-access as well as private band data across tian. The VMF used their own private couriers. As Viktor waited, his access code unlocked a datapak on the encrypted VMF band. The familiar insignia of the Imperial double-headed golden eagle flickered into view, the words 'Voyenno-Morskoi Flot' interspersed with a pulsing warning in Russian that the incoming VMF transmission was confidential.

"Shevchenko to Captain Kulagin." Counter-Admiral Grigor Stepanovich Shevchenko had made the recording aboard Gagarin station. He was in his boxlike office; everything neatly battened down and secured following military regulations, even in normal grav. "If you are receiving this then I presume that your second Kwang jump has gone well and you are in the Morgana System. While you woke from podsleep, your Ship will have sent me confirmation of a successful jump. I will be brief. The Slava-class cruiser Farthest Shore has disappeared. As you know, Captain Nevskaya's cruiser was the only Slava-class warship to be fitted with an Eva Core."

Viktor kept his expression deliberately blank. The skeletal crew had faltered at their consoles, watching the feed. At Viktor's pointed stare, they returned to their tasks. Shevchenko's recording continued. "The Farthest Shore was set to arrive at the Borei System after a few test jumps. It never got there. The VMF courier picked up its distress beacon recently, set on our private band in the Autarch System. Its second jump of the set. You are as of this point the closest of the VMF ships—Kwang or not—to the Autarch System. Gate there immediately and investigate. You are authorized to defend yourself in the event of hostile elements. Transmission end."

"Ready to Gate again at any time," Ship said into the silence. Viktor muttered something foul under his breath. "Shall I get everyone to return to podsleep after an hour?"

Viktor nodded. "Have it known. We will Gate again once the hour is past." In the corner of his eyes, he could see even the stern Petrenko grow a little pale. Humans risked heart failure on successive jumps through the spatial tunnels between Gates—referred to even in the VMF under its Galactic term 'tian'—even with the best implant tech available. An hour's grace between each Gate was the minimum recommended break, but anyone who'd had to Gate within a small span would know that they could be fighting nausea for days. Even the most hardened naval officer would cringe at the prospect. Viktor knew that his crew would not be happy, but orders were orders. "In the meantime, I want to see all known records on the Farthest Shore and the Autarch System."

Before Petrenko could move, Ship brought up neat reams of dense datapaks over the deck. The files were organized by date and classification level, along with a small 3D hologram of the Farthest Shore, rendered to a greater degree of detail than Viktor had ever seen. The tiny ship floated perfectly over his deck, with its pulsar racks and single typhoon lascannon mounted close to its tapering nose. Most space-only ships were built for efficiency and to maximize shield tech. As such, they tended to be bulbous and pod-like. The Farthest Shore—like all VMF warships—looked like the blade of a knife.

"I didn't know that our decks could do that," Petrenko said.

"I upgraded our systems while we were Gating," Ship said in Viktor's ear. Petrenko's eyes widened fractionally. Ship had shared that with the lieutenant as well. "Under my directive, I am allowed to carry out any necessary non-invasive upgrades autonomously."

Viktor took in a slow breath. Kwang ships were going to take some getting used to. "What else did you upgrade?"

"Fuel core efficiencies. I'm going to work on our shielding next."

"Get Engineering to sign off on your 'non-invasive' upgrades first," Viktor said, his hands tightening on the armrests.

"I'd know better than them, and I won't sabotage myself. What would be the point? I'm authorized to—"

"That's an order," Viktor said. The thought of having his Ship quietly edit itself without first being signed off by a human made his skin crawl. "Send me a copy of any upgrades that you make."

"If you like." Ship sounded faintly reproachful as it went quiet. Viktor ignored it, flicking through top-level data.

The Farthest Shore had been meant to jump to the Autarch System after visiting Ila. It was on the final leg of its experimental trip after Gagarin station, testing how far a warship as large as it was could Gate under a Kwang Core. It was supposed to arrive at Borei to briefly bolster VMF presence in what was technically one of the Neutral Zones. There was a Federation colony in the System called Duma, a small mining colony on a harsh snowball of a planet rich in huginnium—one of the core elements of stardrive seeds. There was also a Virzosk Inc trading post that had once been a Federation generation ship, sitting at three day's hard sail from the Autarch System's stellar Gate. The colony itself was three months' standard sail from the stellar Gate, the second-to-last planet from the Autarch sun. The Farthest Shore's distress beacon was placed about a week's sail from the stellar Gate, between the Gate and Duma.

"Viktor brought up the star map of the Autarch System with a wave and pointed. "We should jump here," he said. Ship helpfully made a pinpoint mark with coordinates.

"Three days' sail from the beacon?" Petrenko asked.

"Too close and we might accidentally Gate into survivors or wreckage. Besides," Viktor said, "if it is a trap, I don't want to jump right into it."

"Easy," Ship said.

"Yes, sir." Petrenko hurried down to the lower deck of the Bridge to broadcast their acknowledgement and response through to the VMF courier. Viktor waved away the star map and brought back the hologram of the Farthest Shore.

"That's nearly a third bigger than I am," Ship said helpfully, as though reading his mind. Viktor closed his eyes briefly in irritation. All VMF crew wore implants that linked them to a ship, Kwang or otherwise, allowing the constant monitoring of their vital signs. On a non-Kwang ship, this was routine and barely noticed. Ship, on the other hand, had quickly proved that it could read vital signs to such a detailed degree that it could uncannily predict what its crew was thinking. It unsettled Viktor's crew. It unsettled Viktor.

"You are doing it again," Viktor said.

"Just forwarding an opinion that if something out there could damage a VMF cruiser, they'd have no problem damaging me."

"You are Ship. Ship is not meant to have an opinion."

"I think I would have had more fun as a UN ship," Ship said. It let out a surprisingly human laugh in Viktor's implant as Viktor stiffened in outrage.

"I can still get you refitted," Viktor grit out.

"Not until this mission is over, you can't," Ship said, "and I think you'd probably warm to me before this is over."

"I don't think so."