As a thank you to Malazan fans on this site and everywhere, Steven Erikson has offered up a special treat! Enjoy this preview of “Willful Child,” an uncompleted sci-fi story that Steven Erikson has been tinkering with recently.
“SPACE … it’s fucking big.
“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 life-forms, to boldly blow the –”
Hadrian spun in his chair. “Ah, my First Commander, I presume.”
“Halley Sin-Dour, sir, reporting for duty.”
“Thank you, sir. The ranking bridge officers are awaiting review, sir.”
“Are they now? Excellent.” Hadrian Alan Sawyer rose from behind his desk. He smoothed out his uniform.
“Captain? You do not seem to be attired in regulation uniform. The official attire for Terran Space Fleet, Captain’s Rank –”
“Whose ship is this, 2IC?”
She blinked. “You command this A.S.F. vessel, sir.”
“Precisely.” Hadrian adjusted the shirt once again. “This is polyester.”
“Excuse me – poly what?”
“Now,” said Hadrian, “do lead onward. To the bridge! We should get these formalities done with.” Following her into the corridor, he continued, “I want to be on our way as soon as possible.”
“Of course, sir,” said Sin-Dour. “I understand. New ship, new crew –”
“Newly commissioned captain, too. It is indeed a clean slate. Our lives begin today, in fact. Everything else was mere preparation. Tabula rasa.”
“Sir, I was wondering. You were speaking when I entered your Personal Command Room.”
They halted before the iris door at the corridor’s end. She studied him and he in turn studied her.
She was tall, demonstrably Terran, with straight black hair that he suspected kinked for the last dozen centimeters of its considerable length – although that was all bound up in clips and whatnot, in keeping with regulations. From her file he knew that she had been born in Northern India, close to the old Pakistan border, post-Caste but from Sikh bloodlines. She was full-bodied and absurdly beautiful, yet held herself stoically: he’d yet to see any expression but the one she wore now, which was reserved and rigidly impersonal. Hadrian suspected that his Academy reputation was well-known to her, which, all things considered, wasn’t all too surprising. As was the case with Hadrian, this was her first posting off-planet.
While he, of course, weathered her careful examination with the usual aplomb. Hadrian was as tall as she was, fit, handsome, fair-haired, artificially tanned but not to excess, with a winning smile that held barely a hint of lasciviousness.
“Was it a quote, sir?”
“More or less. Remember television?”
Another moment of silent regard passed, perhaps somewhat more strained than the previous one, and then she faced the portal. It opened.
“Captain on the bridge!” she announced in a deep, full-throated voice that rolled out, came back, and landed in Hadrian’s groin. He stepped onto the bridge with momentary difficulty.
His ranking bridge officers were arrayed before him in a line behind the command chair. Hands behind his back, Hadrian moved to the beginning of the line to his right.
The officer before him was under two meters tall – which in itself was unusual in this day of optimization – wide-shouldered and slightly bow-legged. His crew cut revealed a skull that was mostly flat above a low, bony forehead. His small, slit eyes, dark brown or perhaps even black, were set deep and fixed straight ahead. The face surrounding them was honey-coloured, high-cheeked and wide. His very thin moustache and spiked beard was black and perfectly trimmed.
The man spoke, “Lieutenant DeFrank, Buck. Chief Engineer and Science Officer, Guild Number 23167-26, First Class.”
“Welcome aboard, Lieutenant,” Hadrian said, nodding. “I understand that you served aboard the ASF Exculpable.”
“That is a Contact Class ship, yes?”
“Yes sir, it is. Or rather, was. Lost during the Misanthari Debate, Year Eleven, in the White Zone.”
“The risk of ignoring the rules,” Hadrian said.
“Never park in the White Zone.”
The Chief Engineer’s brow made a gnarled fist, evincing confusion. Then he said. “I was one of twenty-two survivors, sir.”
“It would have been unusual, don’t you think, had you numbered among the crewmembers lost.”
“So, you were lucky, Lieutenant, which I count to be a good thing, especially when it comes to my Chief Engineer.”
“I prefer survivors. As I’m sure you do, as well.” He smiled and then added, “What do you know? We already have something in common. Very good.”
Hadrian moved on to the next officer.
The man before him was Varekan. During the era of extraterrestrial kidnappings, back in the Twentieth Century, before the Interlopers were outed and then exterminated with righteous vigour, human DNA extraction – and bodily transplantation – had led to the populating of a number of G-class planets in some kind of seeding program gone awry. The Interlopers’ strategy had been flawed from the start, as their human sampling methods inadvertently selected for loners, misfits, the psychologically imbalanced, and a disproportionate number of long-distance truck-drivers. The seeding of one exoplanet, Varek-6, had created a quasi-functional human civilization with only modest genetic tweaks to accommodate higher gravity (1.21), frigid climate, and month-long nights. The psychological profile of the resulting culture was, alas, unanticipated.
Physically, the Varekan standing before him was short and wide, with an adapted physiology that was some sort of blend of Inuit with Neanderthal traits. Epicanthic folds, elongated nasal passages, occipital bun, cold-adapted surface to mass ratio and shovel-shaped incisors (which was a non-functional detail in the man’s file, but curious nonetheless). The man was dressed in standard Varekan: tanned hide shirt from some native caribou-like ungulate, a collar of horn-teeth, baggy hide leggings, felted boots, and a faded black baseball cap. His Space Fleet bars were marked by beadwork, rather nicely done.
The Varekan bore the usual Varekan expression on his broad, flat features. Existential angst treated all animation with shame, all emotion with guilt, and anything but utter nihilism to be a waste of time. Hadrian had seen more life in a basketball.
“Lieutenant Galk, Combat Specialist,” the man said.
Hadrian nodded. “I trust you have already examined the Combat Command Cupola, Lieutenant.”
“I have utmost confidence in its state-of-the-art mundanity, sir.”
“Mundanity? Is that even a word, Lieutenant?”
“It’s entry in Dictionary of Common Varek, sir, runs to thirty pages.”
“Connotative variations, sir. The Varekan elaborated on Common Terran during their century of isolation, albeit selectively.”
“Ah, right. The Dark Side of the Dictionary.”
“Are you well?”
“Under the circumstances, sir.”
“Excellent. Welcome aboard, Lieutenant.”
“If you say so, sir.”
Hadrian moved on. “Ah, Adjutant, we meet again.”
“This surprises you, sir?”
“I’m not one to invoke the Yeager philosophy of droll understatement, Adjutant.” Hadrian raised his voice slightly, to ensure that all on the bridge could hear him. “I am a captain of the Old School. As you will all soon discover. We are about to set out into the infinite vastness of interstellar space. A place of wonder, of risk. A place fraught with the unknown, with potential enemies lurking in every shadow, every gas-cloud, every asteroid field or partial accretion of proto-planetary rubble. Hostile planets, hostile aliens. Hostile aliens on hostile planets. And out there, in that unending cavalcade of danger, I intend to enjoy myself. Am I understood, Adjutant?”
The woman’s eyes had widened during his speech, a detail that pleased him. “Sir, forgive me. I spoke out of confusion, since you selected me from the available Adjutant roster on the Ring.”
“Indeed I did. Now, for the sake of your fellow crewmembers, do please identify yourself.”
“Adjutant Lorrin Tighe, Chief of Security, ACP Contact Liaison, Rated to serve all Engage Class vessels of the Terran Space Fleet, such as the Willful Child.”
“Very good, Adjutant. I look forward to our working together to ensure ongoing co-operation between Terran Space Fleet and the Affiliation. After all, we’re in this bed together, aren’t we?”
Those lovely eyes widened even further.
Smiling, Hadrian stepped over to the next officer, and looked down.
The first alien species to join the Affiliation, the Belkri averaged a meter in height during their middle stage – a period of somewhere around fifty years when the Belkri were sociable enough (and small enough) to engage with other species. Round, perched on three legs and sporting six arms – projecting from middle height and spaced evenly around the torso’s circumference – with each arm bearing six joints and hands with six fingers and three thumbs, the creature before him had tilted its eye-cluster – atop the spherical body – upward to meet his gaze. Mouth and speech organs configured as needed and for sake of the mostly Terran crew, now formed just below the eye-cluster. In a voice like the squeezing of an overinflated beach-ball, the Belkri said, “In Terran tongue, I am named Printlip. Medical Doctor, Surgeon, Rank of Commander, Chief Medical Officer rated for the following class of Terran vessels: Contact, Engage, Initiate. Belkri exo-assignment Cycle One, Initiate.”
In Printlip’s file, the gender designation was listed as Unknown, which, Hadrian now reflected, was probably a good thing, since the alien wore no clothing beyond footwear that resembled Dutch clogs. Its skin was smooth and looked stretched, mauve in colour fading to pink at the poles. The eyes – at least a dozen of them and the colour of washed-out blood – wavered on their thin stalks like anemones in a tidal pool.
During the Belkri’s speech it had visibly deflated, and upon its conclusion there was the thin, wheezing sound of re-inflation.
“Doctor,” said Hadrian, “welcome aboard. Are you satisfied with the configuration of sickbay? Are the raised walkways of sufficient height alongside the examination beds, diagnosis feeds, biotracking sensors? Are the analysis pods set to bilingual display? How is the lighting, floor traction, suction drains, decontamination units? Have you met your medics and nurses?”
“Sir,” Printlip whistled, “Sickbay is now fully reconfigured. Raised mobile walkways function as expected and are of sufficient height alongside examination beds, diagnosis feeds, biotracking sensors. Analysis pods are properly set to bilingual displays. Lighting commands responsive. Floor traction optimal. Suction drains functional. Decontamination units within spec range. Medics andnursesarehrrrlelluloop…”
Hadrian studied the deflated, misshapen sack lying on the floor at his feet. “Excellent,” he said, nodding as he moved on.
“Lieutenant Jocelyn Sticks, sir. Navigation, Helm, Screens.”
“That is a lovely perfume you are wearing, Lieutenant. Do I detect patchouli and frankincense?”
He smiled at her, studying her round, pretty face and overlarge eyes. “Is the Willful Child your first off-planet assignment, Lieutenant?”
“Yes sir. It’s all very exciting.”
“Indeed it is, Helm, indeed it is.” He wondered, briefly as he stepped to the last officer on deck, if his selecting certain bridge officers on the basis of their file photos, was perhaps somewhat careless. But then, the task of ship pilots was hardly taxing. Even so, he would have to gauge carefully the full measure of her witlessness.
The last man snapped a perfect salute and said, “Lieutenant James ‘Jimmy’ Eden, Communications. First off-planet posting. Honoured to be serving under you, Captain.”
“I’m sure you are. Thank you, Lieutenant. If I recall from your file, you were in the last Terran Olympics, is that correct?”
“Yes sir! High-G beach volleyball, sir. We came in fourth.”
“Well, I can see that kept you in shape.”
“Indeed sir. I have volunteered for all surface assignments, sir.”
“So I noted. But as I am sure you understand, we are about to receive Combat Marines, marking the debut of inter-service co-operation in Terran Space Fleet. Also, the role of ship to surface communications is essential when we have people on the ground, on a potentially hostile planet. Accordingly, I expect you to be planted in your seat at Comms during such excursions. And, in keeping with my desire to assure myself of your readiness in such circumstances, I am double-shifting you on the duty roster for the next seventy-two hours.”
“Of course, sir!”
“Now then, best man the phones, eh? We are about to de-lock and get under way.”
Comms was always a problematic specialty, as no cadet in their right mind would ever want to end up on a starship as little more than a tele-operator. From Eden’s file, Hadrian knew the man had barely scraped into the Academy on intelligence and aptitude tests. But then, an athlete out of the medals didn’t have much to look forward to in the way of future prospects, much less a career. Jimmy Eden counted himself lucky, no doubt. But the likelihood of assigning the over-muscled, gung-ho bright-eyed all-too-handsome-in-that-square-jawed-manly-way officer, to the glamour of surface missions – and potentially upstaging Hadrian (who intended to lead every one of those missions and to hell with Fleet regulations, brick-brained marines and all the rest) was as remote as finding an advanced civilization of space-faring insects in a ship’s bilge-dump.
Striding to his command chair, Hadrian swung round to face his officers and said, “Enough lollygagging. To your stations. Comms, inform Ring Command we’re ready to de-lock.”
“Helm, prime thrusters. Prepare for decoupling. We’ll smoke later.”
Buck DeFrank spoke from the Engineer Station, “Antimatter containment optimal. Surge engines ready, Captain.”
Hadrian sat down in the command chair and faced the forward viewer. “If anything but optimal, Buck, we’d be spacedust. In the future, spare us the redundant statements.”
“Yes sir. Sorry, sir.”
“I know,” Hadrian added, “it’s all very exciting, isn’t it? Don’t worry, we’ll shake things out soon enough, and I look forward to your panicked cries from Engineering Level.”
“Panicked cries, sir?”
Jimmy Eden swung round in his seat at Comms. “Ring Command acknowledges, Captain. Good to go.”
“De-locking complete,” Helm reported.
Hadrian studied the forward viewer, which presented a colourful wallpaper of a Hawaiian sunset. “Someone turn on the hull cameras, please, Ahead View. Helm, maneuvering thrusters. Take us out.”