Fiction is more important than you think. When stories go wrong, the Genrenauts step in to prevent the consequences from rippling into our so-called real world.
When a breach is discovered in Science Fiction World, rookie genrenaut Leah Tang gets her first taste of space flight. A peace treaty is about to be signed on space station Ahura-3, guaranteeing the end of hostilities between some of the galaxy’s most ferocious races, but when the head architect of the treaty is unexpectedly kidnapped, it’s up to Leah and her new colleagues to save the day. At any cost.
The Absconded Ambassador, the second novella in Michael R. Underwood’s Genrenauts series, is available February 23rd from Tor.com Publishing.
Saving the World with PowerPoint
Working as a Genrenaut was like being a member of a theater troupe run by a burnt-out hippie who melded Devising with MBA management: the ideas were outlandish and random, but the execution was 100 percent corporate. There were reports, meetings, and lots of emails—but while the format was familiar, the content was delightfully bizarre.
Emails had subject lines like “Cultural Trend Forecasting Report,” “Best Practices in Alien Relations,” and more. The required reading and viewing made Leah Tang feel like a double-booked media critic for the City Post, and the meetings, overseen by the alternately imperious and playful Angstrom King, were half weekly process and half crash course in graduate-level dimensional narrative theory, a subject that Leah hadn’t even known existed a week ago.
King advanced another slide as the team sat in a conference room. He stood at one end of the table, opposite the screen. Shirin Tehrani sat upright, taking notes longhand on a legal pad, never looking down, but somehow still writing impeccably. Leah would have to ask for lessons on that, too. To Leah’s right, Roman De Jagers had his boots up on the table, tablet in his lap, chair leaned back five degrees short of toppling. Roman tapped through a pattern-recognition game while King continued his breakdown.
King had never once chewed Roman out for his lack of focus, but Leah had realized over the week since she started the job that Roman was focusing—he just needed something to distract his hands and part of his brain. She’d had classmates like that—too much going on to only ever be doing one thing.
A poster on the wall opposite Leah showed the Genrenauts seal, a constellation of worlds, a regular blue-and-green Earth in the center, all of the others bearing a logo for their genre—crossed revolvers for Western world, a heart for Romance, a rocket ship for Science Fiction, and so on. Memorizing the logos had been a day-one job, right after her genre fluency evaluations.
The organization’s motto curled around the worlds:
Every World a Story, Every Story a Proper Ending
The latest slide was so corporate it hurt, showing a set of wire diagrams. But what they represented was anything but normal. “Our forecasters have reported increased dimensional activity,” King said. “All five bases corroborate, showing narrative breaches up fifteen percent year over year.”
“So we can expect overtime to continue, then?” Shirin Tehrani asked. “My son has a recital this weekend, and if I’m off-world, I’ll be in the doghouse for months.” Shirin sported a pashmina scarf and wore her hair braided, a steaming mug of coffee sitting at her place setting, making this her third cup of the day.
“I’m afraid not,” King said. “Twenty-four-hour on-call status will continue until disturbances taper off or until we’re back up to full strength.”
Another Genrenaut had come back with serious injuries two days ago, putting their in-house medical wing up to capacity. Rachelle, their head nurse, was threatening to walk if she didn’t get the payroll to bring in temporary help.
King continued. “Forecasting expects the Romance world to be the next to show a breach, given the drop in use of and satisfaction with dating apps and a reduction in applications for marriage licenses. However, Wright’s reconnaissance run yesterday didn’t show anything amiss, and the readouts aren’t indicating a breach, so . . .”
“We wait.” Roman slid his feet off the table and leaned forward, setting his tablet in front of him.
“Indeed. You’ll find new genre briefing priorities in the team’s Cloud Box. Leah, this is your priority for today. Your entrance interview ranked you Yellow on Rom-Com, but Red on category romance.”
Leah shrugged. “My mom was the Harlequin fan. I never took to them.”
“Your personal tastes will inform your perspective, but any field agent, probationary or no, is expected to be conversant in all of the genres for which we’re responsible, which means that you’ve got a date with your eReader.”
“Yes, O captain my captain,” Leah said, saluting with a fist over her heart.
King clicked through one more time, and the presentation ended with the Genrenauts logo.
“You have your assignments,” King said, shutting off the projector and walking out of the room. To Leah’s eyes, King had been harried over the week, way more stressed back home than he’d been in the field. She was still getting to know everyone, though, so maybe stressed was just his default. She’d noticed that this week he ate ham hocks, collard greens, and skillet cornbread, where all he ever ate the week she started was steamed chicken and broccoli.
Leah snatched up her tablet and turned to Roman. “Any favorites you think I should start with?”
Roman gestured to the tablet. Leah handed it over.
He swiped through to a text file and started tapping. “I’m partial to the romantic suspense. But the MacKennas are really witty historicals. Probably more accessible than other stuff the tastemakers put on the reading list. I’ll forward you some of Mallery’s favorites. She’s our specialist for that genre.”
Active agents were evaluated on their genre knowledge: the ability to identify and explain genre-specific archetypes, plot arcs, and aesthetics—the same skills that would let them operate effectively in that genre’s world to find and address story breaches.
Leah’s first mission had been a whirlwind. She’d only seen a tiny portion of the support staff required for the Genrenauts’ operation to function. Besides the field agents, there were medical, admin, and the tech division that kept their ships in order, as well as the quartermasters that worked on the various dimensional properties from different story worlds, from cybernetic enhancements to artifacts and spell books.
Leah was amused but not surprised to hear that the tech division recruited heavily from the Imagineers, in addition to the R&D departments of leading tech firms. There was the forecasting team, which brought Big Data analytics to the multiverse, studying stocks, cultural trends, sales patterns, and media coverage to try to forecast and identify ripple effects from story worlds.
Finally, there were the curators, who worked with the forecasting team to determine which films, music, TV, and books were making waves in Earth Prime—the manifestations of flows from story worlds. They studied viewer metrics, distribution deals, award lists, and more. Seeing everything from the outside, it looked and felt like a Rube Goldberg machine at times.
But it was still more fun and more profitable than answering phones and processing expense reports.
Leah plopped her tablet down on a beanbag chair and went to the kitchenette to pour herself more coffee.
Just as she was raising the mug, the divine smell of the local blond roast tantalizing her nose, a harsh klaxon went off.
The Breach Alarm.
Leah took a long swig of coffee, then set it down with the reluctance of leaving a new lover in bed to leave for work. She turned to Roman for commiseration. “Craaap.”
Shirin hadn’t even gotten to sit, instead turning in place as she walked into the break room to head right back out.
“What? This is the fun part. To Ops we go.”
Ops was the nerve center of Genrenauts HQ, where Preeti Jandran and a half-dozen other staffers monitored the weird science end of the business, using sensors and systems no one had bothered explaining to Leah and which she was happy to leave as a mystery, as long as they pointed her in the right direction.
Walking into Ops, Leah once again felt like she had stepped into NASA, or maybe an IMAX room. Or a NASA IMAX room. Twenty screens filled the far wall; the floor was packed thick with consoles and sensors and workstations.
King stood by one such station, looking over the shoulder of Preeti, the team’s designated handler. Preeti’s fingers whirred across a keyboard, one screen showing what looked like seismic activity, the other tuned to a CNN news feed.
“What’s up?” Shirin asked.
“We’re picking up several red flags. SpaceX just lost a shuttle in mid-launch, and the ISS is reporting cascading software failures.”
“Which means a breach in Science Fiction world,” Shirin said by way of explanation. Since each world had a thematic tie to Earth Prime, when there was a breach on a story world, the ripples on Earth would come along specific lines, manifesting on Earth in mostly predictable ways.
On her first mission, a breach in Western world had rippled over to create a rush of gun violence. And when Fantasy world broke, its breaches would ripple over as sectarian violence and destructive tribalism.
Preeti nodded at Shirin’s evaluation. “Our latest recon to Ahura-3 showed everything in order, with an upcoming diplomatic summit. But sensors show the station as the epicenter of the ripples.”
“That’s enough to get started,” King said. “Suit up, team. Probie, you’re with me.”
Leah followed King as he set off again at flank speed.
* * *
King chewed up the floor as they made their way to Bakhtin Hangar. “This is not the ideal world to have for your second at-bat, I must admit.”
“I was raised on Trek and Battlestar, man. I’m good.”
“Genre awareness by itself is not sufficient for this world. This breach has been tracked to Ahura-3, in the space opera region. Ahura-3 is a hub to dozens of species, accommodating thousands of languages, biological and cultural variances. Only Roman, Shirin, and one other field agent on this entire base are rated to head an operation in that world.”
“But won’t it just be bumpy forehead aliens and pseudo-European political intrigue?” Leah asked, going off the first (and shortest) of the matryoshka-like cultural briefings of the story worlds in the base’s jurisdiction. The Science Fiction world was dominated by the Space Opera and Military SF regions, alongside Contemporary Action-Adventure stories and Cyberpunk. But the region hadn’t seen a landmark formal or narrative innovation since the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. At least, so said the Genrenauts analysts.
King let her question sit as he swung open the doors to the hangar, showing two of the three ships in their berths. The ship they’d taken to Western world was being rolled out to the launch pad, dozens of techs running diagnostics, checking gauges, and so on. The ship was one of three active in this hangar, and so carried the super-specific name of US-3.
Quite a production. And all buzzing away in a corporate campus that looked more like an insurance office from the outside than a base for dimensional adventurers.
“By that logic,” King said in the tone of a disappointed professor, “you’d tell me that the blues is simple because it only uses four chords. Try telling that to Nina Simone and B.B. King.”
Leah nodded. “But we’ve got universal translators, right?”
“Thankfully. We couldn’t do anything there without them. But linguistic translation and cultural translation are very different. You’ll stay with Roman, Shirin, or myself at all times. No running off, even if you have the best idea possible. Your initiative with the Williamsons was admirable, but there are too many pitfalls in this region for a green agent, and we’ve finally gotten you through orientation. It’d be terribly inefficient to replace you now.”
Leah caught the joking tone he was laying down, and replied in kind. “Gee, thanks. Y’all know how to make a girl feel welcome.” Leah looked over her shoulder as Roman strode in, already changed into sexy-grubby space-traveler garb—a ratty sweater over mesh shirt, loose cargo pants, and a shoulder bag which she’d bet dollars to donuts contained guns. Or blasters, or whatever the term du jour for the SF weapons of the world.
“Do you have a bag of guns for every world?” Leah asked.
“Of course not. No guns in Fantasyland,” he said, not missing a beat.
“But you should see his collection of wands and staves,” King said. “I want takeoff in ten. Roman, you and the newbie on walk-around.”
This part, at least, she knew. Roman went to stow his bag of guns and supplies, so Leah started her checks for hull damage or anything else that might cause minor to catastrophic failures during their cross-dimensional flight between Earth Prime and the story world.
She’d done the walk-around as they left Western world, so she knew ostensibly what to look for, but it didn’t stop her from starting over and doing another complete circuit when Roman thundered down the hatch stairs to do his own inspection.
“How do I tell the difference between a scuff and a mark that could become a tear or gash or another we’re-all-going-to-die kind of thing?”
“Scuffs will buff off. Plus, we don’t usually scuff. Dimensional turbulence dents and bends more than scuffs. We keep the ships clean, so you should be able to spot any we’re-all-going-to-die things pretty easily.”
Leah scanned the ship’s hull. “This looks good. Anything I missed?”
“Nope. I’ll check the circuitry here, and we’ll be good for preflight. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, this walk-around is just for show.”
“But nobody wants to be time number one hundred.”
Roman tapped his nose. “Especially if King’s around. We’ve got time, so you can change into your off-world gear now. We’ll arrive within sight of Ahura-3, though they use audio comms. Protocol says we all have to be in field gear when we launch.”
Leah turned to start dashing, ten minutes being nowhere near enough time to walk to the wardrobe room, find clothes that fit, change, and get back to the launch.
But once again, Shirin proved to be a little bit psychic. Crossing the hangar floor in an ankle-length maroon-and-yellow robe-dress-thing, she held up a black-and-silver duffel bag for Leah. “Dressing corner there,” she said, thumbing at a corner that had a tri-folding screen and a stool.
“Quick changes don’t have to be fancy, but they do have to be done. Two minutes.”
Leah hustled over, pulling the curtain across the floor behind her as she shrugged her sweater off. While in HQ, all field agents were required to wear VDUs, Versatile Dress Units—aka underwear that could pass in any number of worlds. VDUs didn’t apply to all worlds, but eight out of ten wasn’t bad, and SF world was one of the eight.
Leah zipped open the bag and pulled out the first item, a black underskirt. She swapped out her jeans for the skirt, and then drew out the expected big damn Science Fiction dress-robe hybrid, similar to Shirin’s, but emerald green and less fancy. The bag also had a variety of jewelry—anklets and bracelets and earrings—which would have to wait until they got on-world. No way was she going to try to put on earrings during dimensional chop. Four holes per ear were enough.
That was another thing she missed. Regs meant that she was only allowed the “normal” stud earrings, which meant her other earrings and bar had to stay at home.
Unless SF world turned out to involve Bajoran levels of ear-bling.
She stuffed her Earth Prime clothes in the duffel and then jogged across the hangar floor to climb into the ship. She stowed her bag in one of the airline-esque locked-and-secured box cubbies, and then climbed up the rungs along the side of the ship and slid into her seat to buckle the X-straps that would keep her roughly in place even if they ran into more dimensional chop.
“Not bad, Probie. But next time, finish the job,” Shirin said, pointing to her own resplendently adorned ears. “And when we get there, there will be makeup.”
“It’s the future! Haven’t they outlawed makeup already?”
Shirin shook her head. “It’s the only way Xenei can tell human women apart, unfortunately.”
“Well, that sounds horrible and rife for abuse,” Leah mused.
King climbed into the ship. “Hasn’t even touched down, and Probie already plotting to abuse Xenei? I knew you were a quick study, but this is above the call of duty. Keep this up and you’ll make the rest of the team look bad.” King closed the hatch and spun the wheel tight. “Preflight?”
“Finalizing now,” Shirin said. “Preeti says we are clear for crossover, forecast indicates minimal friction between here and our destination.”
Roman gave Leah a smile. “Looks like you lucked out this time.”
Leah crossed her fingers as King climbed into the copilot seat and strapped in. The team lead opened up the comms, joining Shirin in the switch-flipping game. “Mid-Atlantic Actual, this is US-3, initiating launch sequence.” Leah had never been much for flight simulators, so from where she sat, they might as well have been making it all up. As long as it worked.
Leah dug her fingers into the seat as the ship began to rumble.
“Here we go,” she said under her breath as the ship lurched ahead, punching through the dimensional barrier between Earth Prime and the story world. Through the view-screen, the inside roof of the hangar disappeared, replaced with a coruscating rainbow and VFX that looked for all the world like the Kirby Krackle from silver age comics.
The ship rattled, shaking her in her seat, but in just a few moments, the shaking receded, replaced by comparatively gentle gravitational force pushing her back against her seat. And the Kirby Krackle out in the void was replaced by . . . actual void. As in space. Stars and distant nebulae and a grayish dot in the distance.
“So, we’re in space now. Like, actual astronaut space.”
Shirin said, “You got it.”
Leah’s hair floated up and around, wrapping around her head, bouncing back and forth. The edges of her dress rippled free, held back at the waist by the straps.
Not only were they in space, but their ship didn’t come with artificial gravity, which meant zero-g. Honest-to-goodness, Sally Ride is my homegirl zero-g.
“I’m in space right now,” she said, her brain processing the reality of the situation through the excitement of a five-year-old who had watched shuttle launches like they were the World Series, who had made cardboard spaceships several years beyond the time frame when child psychologists said was “normal.” Fantasy had been her first love, but her heart had made space for, well, space.
“Quite something, isn’t it?” King asked.
“Permission to squee, sir?”
“Just don’t get it on the seats, Probie.” Leah could hear the man’s smile, an old theater trick for reading tone when you were upstage of your castmates.
“Aye, captain. Sanitary squeeing only.”
“Carry on.” Her grin went ear to ear, watching the interplay of light and darkness play out for infinity. What she wouldn’t give for a 360-degree view-screen right about then.
“One hundred thousand klicks to broadcast range of Ahura-3,” Shirin said. “No anomalies or other ships within sensor range.”
“That is what a dimensional crossing should feel like. Well done, team.”
Leah took a few minutes to stare out into the nothing. Internally, she was doing a class-A booty dance.
King turned in his seat. “Leah, see if you can squee and finish getting dressed at the same time. We’ll be hailing Ahura-3 in about ten minutes.”
Leah unbuckled and floated out of her seat, hands out to brace herself against colliding with the seat in front of her or the hull above.
“How’s it feel?” Roman asked.
“This is so cool!” Leah said, failing to keep her voice professional.
“Get it out of your system—we won’t be able to mess around once we port,” Shirin added.
Fly in zero-g. That’s another one off the bucket list, she thought to herself, grabbing her chair and pulling herself toward the bulkhead, applying Ender’s lesson and interpreting the base of the ship as “down.”
I need to be able to talk about this with someone outside the team. They’ve got to have allowances for best buddies or something, right? she thought. But the orientation package had specifically said that no one, not even loved ones, were allowed to know the reality of Genrenauts operations. So she’d have to contain her excitement with friends.
For a moment, she was content to tool around the ship and tackle the challenge of applying jewelry and makeup in zero-g. Necklaces would be… interesting.
Excerpted from The Absconded Ambassador © Michael R. Underwood, 2016