Willful Child (Excerpt)

These are the voyages of the starship A.S.F. Willful Child. Its ongoing mission: to seek out strange new worlds on which to plant the Terran flag, to subjugate and if necessary obliterate new life-forms, to boldly blow the…

And so we join the not-terribly-bright but exceedingly cock-sure Captain Hadrian Sawback and his motley crew on board the Starship Willful Child for a series of devil-may-care, near-calamitous and downright chaotic adventures through ‘the infinite vastness of interstellar space.’

Willful Child is available November 11th from Tor Books. Steven Erikson—New York Times bestselling author of the acclaimed Malazan Book of the Fallen sequence—has taken his lifelong passion for Star Trek and transformed it into a smart, inventive, and hugely entertaining spoof on the whole mankind-exploring-space-for-the-good-of-all-species-but-trashing-stuff-with-a-lot-of-high-tech-gadgets-along-the-way, overblown adventure.

 

 

PRELUDE

The Future

 

It was the middle of the night when the robotic dog started barking somewhere in the middle of the junkyard. Half pissed, Harry Sawback levered his huge, beer-bloated body from the sofa. The trailer rocked as he made his way to the door. He collected a shotgun from the umbrella stand. He glanced back to where his son was lying asleep on the sofa, but the runt hadn’t moved. Grunting, he swung open the door and stepped outside.

There were various paths through all the crap and Harry knew them all. He shambled past a heap of mechanized garden gnomes, some of them still waving or offering up a onef-ingered salute—every craze in the last fifty years had its own mound. The junkyard covered what used to be a town. Harry paused, weaving slightly, as he regarded the nearest gnome. He’d blown its head off a couple months back, with the very same shotgun he now cradled in his hands. The damned thing was still waving. Scowling, Harry continued on.

Robotic guard dogs were twitchy things. Chances were the dog was facing down a cricket hiding in a tin can. A solid kick in the head would silence it, and if not, why, a mouthful of twelve-gauge would put things right.

“See, boy?” he muttered, as if his son were trailing a step behind him, the way he often did when Harry set out to patrol the dump. “This is what a PhD in astrophysics gets you. That sky up there? Once, you could actually see the stars! Imagine that!”

He passed between tall stacks of flattened gas-guzzlers, busy rusting while waiting to be recycled. The stink of rotten oil was thick in the sultry air.

“Summer night like this, boy? They’d be blazing down. Blazing! So I said, fuck it. Fuck astrophysics! I wasn’t even born when they mothballed the last shuttle. And then what? Fuck all. Oh, right, it got cloudy. For like, ever! Anyway. That’s why I switched fields, right? Got me a new PhD. Media Studies, fuckin’ eh. Research in front of a goddamned television— beauty.” He paused to belch. “I used to think, boy, that when you grew up, it’d be ‘beam me up, Scotty,’ and all that. But the meatheads who were always in charge, well, they stayed in charge. Now we’re fucked.”

Coming round the last stack of cars, Harry Sawback halted.

Spark, the robotic guard dog, was standing in front of two impossibly tall, ethereal figures in shimmering suits of some kind. A small blob of light was hovering above the dog, pulsing in time with its prerecorded, monotonous barks. Behind the creatures, an enormous black shape loomed above the mounds of junk, silhouetted against the silver hue of the sky.

“Hot damn,” whispered Harry.

Spark heard and swung round. The hinged mouth opened and it spoke. “Intruders, Master! Suggest bite command! Or chase command!” Its ratty, kinked tail wagged back and forth. “Or kill? Please, Master! Please! Kill command! Everyone after me: Kill command! Kill command!”

“Cut it out,” Harry said, stepping forward.

It was hard to make out what the damned aliens looked like. As if special effects came with being highly advanced, or something. They phased in and out of existence, like afterimages, but Harry could more or less make out elongated faces, bulbous skulls, and a trio of something like eyes set midway between the high, broad forehead and the sharp, pointy chin.

“Kill?” Spark asked plaintively.

“Nah. Route a call through to, uh, shit. Never mind. Every scenario I can think of ends up bad. Air Force? Army? Police? Department of Defense? CIA? FBI? NSA? Teamsters? It’s all bad, Spark. We’re talkin’ The Day the Earth Stood Still. Paranoia, terror, stupidity, panic, secrecy, I can see it all, playing out just like a movie. Remember movies, Spark?”

“Mound twenty-six, Master. Videocassettes, DVDs. From here, proceed down aisle thirteen until you reach—”

“Shut up and let me think,” Harry said, still squinting at the aliens.

At that moment, the glowing blob spoke in perfect American. “State of Transcendence? Is this Heaven?”

“No,” said Harry. “It’s Newark, state of New Jersey.”

The blob pulsed rapidly for a moment, and then said, “Oh. Shit.”

“Kill?”

Harry could now hear the heavy thud of helicopters, fast closing. “Stand down, dog.” He rested his shotgun over one shoulder and took a step closer to the aliens. “Trouble’s coming, friends. Trust me on this—I’ve read the script.”

The patter of feet drew Harry around to see his son, wearing his Enterprise pajamas, rushing up to them, eyes wide. “Dad! First contact! Vulcans!”

“Wish it was, boy,” Harry replied. “More like… idiots.”

“Look at that ship! Beam me up! Beam me up!”

Spark’s tail started wagging again and the dog said, “Everyone after me! Beam me up! Beam me up!”

Sighing, Harry tried again. “Hey you, aliens! Get back in that ship of yours and blow this Popsicle stand. Pronto! The Men in Black are on their way. The royal fuckup’s about to hit the fan.”

The blob flickered and then said, “Discorporeal transition judged incomplete. Royal fuckup confirmed. Not Heaven. New Jersey. Earth. Humans. Quasi-sentient species XV-27, category: Unlikely. Intelligence rating: Ineffectual. Cultural Development Phase: Age of Masturbation, Ongoing. Message to orbiting fleet: Recalibrate Transcendence parameters to effect spiritual disembodiment as soon as fucking possible. Technology abandonment implications… who cares? We’re outa here.”

The blob vanished. An instant later, so did the two aliens.

Their ship remained.

“Dad!”

“Yes, son?”

“They left the door open!”

“I see that.” Harry belched again. Now he could hear sirens along with the thump of helicopter blades. Blurry spotlights burned through the thick foggy night sky.

“Dad?”

“Yeah?”

“Joyride?”

Harry turned to Spark. “Dog! Got a challenge for you.”

“Challenge, Master? Good! Challenge! Command me!”

“There’s a case of twenty-four in the trailer. Collect it up and deliver it back here. You’ve got two minutes, tops.”

The robotic dog bolted down the nearest aisle.

Harry smiled down at his boy. “Well now, it ain’t stealing, is it?”

“No! It ain’t!”

“Besides, from what that blob said, there’s a whole fuckin’ fleet of these things up in orbit right now, so it’s not like this one’s anything special, right?”

He watched his boy run toward the hovering ship. A ramp materialized from the open doorway. In a flash the boy was up it, vanishing inside.

There was the sharp crack of locks being blown at the dump gate. Growling under his breath, Harry lumbered forward. “Fuck that dog!” he muttered, taking his first step onto the glowing ramp.

“Master!”

Spark rejoined him, the case of twenty-four stuck onto its shoulder as if glued there.

“Nice one!” Harry said. “Release static hold—there, good going, I got it now. Let’s go, Spark!”

“Space!” cried the robotic dog. “Kill!”

Pulling free a can of brew, Harry popped its top and drank deep. He could hear cars in the yard now, and flashing lights lit the muggy sky above the nearest mounds. Reaching the top of the ramp, Harry stepped into a small oval-shaped room. “Ramp up,” he tried.

The ramp vanished.

Grinning, Harry drank down another mouthful and then said, “Door close.”

The door closed.

Spark was dancing in circles. “Kill command! Kill command!”

The ship hummed, and from outside sounded numerous explosions. The sirens stopped.

Harry stared down at the guard dog. He belched again. “Aw, shit, now you’ve done it. Never mind. Let’s go find the boy, shall we? We got us a galaxy to explore!”

From some hidden speaker, his son’s voice piped, “Dad! Found the bridge! It’s all voice-command!”

“Well then,” Harry said, as a door opened in the wall in front of him, revealing a corridor, “take her up, boy! Take her up!”

He found his son seated in a perfectly scaled command chair on a raised dais in the center of an oval chamber he assumed was the bridge. A giant viewscreen commanded the facing wall. Other stations lined the walls to either side, with strangely shaped seats in front of each one.

On the screen, the steamy clouds were fast thinning as the ship climbed through the atmosphere. Even as Harry paused to watch, the last wisps shredded away and the deep blue of space spread out before them. They climbed free of the atmosphere and slipped out into the dark.

Lit by the sun, the alien fleet filled the viewscreen.

“Dad! There must be thousands!”

“And it ain’t even Christmas,” said Harry, plucking out another can and tossing it to his boy. “How did you find a proper chair?”

“They just reconfigure.”

“So if I wanted, say, this one to be an easy chair—ah, beauty.” He sat down opposite a station of some kind, even though he could see no switches, toggles, screens, or anything else. Swiveling the chair and leaning back, with Spark curling at his feet, Harry stared at the swarm of huge spaceships glittering like diamonds against the black velvet of space. “Listen, boy, got some advice here—”

“It’s okay, Dad. I hated that school anyway.”

“What’s that?”

“Besides.” The boy raised his left arm and turned it to show off the slim watch wrapped round the wrist. “I brought my media library. Best SF films and television of the twentieth century!”

“Smart man. So you figured it out, eh?”

The boy waved at the screen. “The human race just got its ass saved.”

“But right now,” Harry said, tossing his empty can to the floor, where it was instantly swallowed up, “everything out there is virgin territory. It’s our only chance, boy, to see how it all is, before us humans pour out like roaches from an oven.”

“A real education!”

“You got it. Better yet, no fucking taxes! Of course,” he added, pulling out another beer, “in a few years we’ll have to swing back, find you a girl.”

“A girl?”

“Trust me, boy. You’ll want one. And then, off we go again! Three of us to the stars!”

“They’ll come after us, Dad. Government! Space Cops! Tax Men! The girl’s parents!”

“We got us a whole galaxy to hide in,” Harry said, stretching his legs out. “Now, let’s see if we can order us up some Southern fried chicken.” He faced the panel and frowned. “Give me a button,” he said. “Any button.”

A single red toggle appeared, blinking.

“Well now, that’s interesting. What do you think? Food replicator? Sure, why not? Southern fried chicken, please.” He reached out and flipped the toggle. The red light burned bright for a moment, and then went out.

“Dad?”

“Hmm?”

“I just brought us around to look at Earth.”

“Where the hell’s my chicken?”

“All the lights went out.”

Harry twisted round in his seat and studied the planet now on the viewscreen. “So they did. Analysis, boy?”

“Uhm, electromagnetic pulse?”

“I’d say so. Big one, too. The whole frickin’ planet’s gone dark. Well, hey, that gives us a bit more time, I’d say.” He finished his beer and collected another one. “Thank God we ditched jet engines for blimps, or it’d be serious crash and burn down there. There’s one good thing coming from running out of oil, hey?”

“We need to set a course, Dad.”

“Hmm, you’re right. Okay, take us to Mars. I always wanted a better look at Mars. Besides, there’s the wreckage of the Beagle that needs finding. Who knows, could be we can fix it up.” He nudged Spark with one foot. “Dog, what do you think? You want a friend?”

The robot lifted its head, tail slapping the floor. “Friend?”

“Beagle.”

“Beagle? Beagle friend!”

“Just think,” Harry said, “first shot from the Beagle beamed back to that British Mission Control, will be the butt of another robot dog.”

Father and son laughed.

They laughed all the way to Mars.

 

Excerpted from Willful Child © Steven Erikson, 2014

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