Ella Patel—thief, con-artist and smuggler—is in the wrong place at the wrong time. One night, on the border of a demilitarized zone run by the body-swapping alien invaders, she happens upon a man and woman being chased by a group of assailants. The man freezes, leaving the woman to fight off five attackers at once, before succumbing. As she dies, to both Ella and the man’s surprise, the sparkling light that rises from the woman enters Ella, instead of the man. She soon realizes she’s been inhabited by Io, a low-ranking Quasing who was involved in some of the worst decisions in history. Now Ella must now help the alien presence to complete her mission and investigate a rash of murders in the border states that maintain the frail peace.
With the Prophus assigned to help her seemingly wanting to stab her in the back, and the enemy Genjix hunting her, Ella must also deal with Io’s annoying inferiority complex. To top it all off, Ella thinks the damn alien voice in her head is trying to get her killed. And if you can’t trust the voices in your head, who can you trust?
Wesley Chu’s The Rise of Io is available October 4th from Angry Robot!
The Con Job
They call every major world war “the war to end all wars.” The day we actually get a war that deserves the title is the day the world ends.
–Baji, Prophus Keeper, two days before the Alien World War,
the war that almost ended all wars
Ella Patel loved metal briefcases. When she was a little girl, her appa used to take her to the cinema, and anything that was shiny and expensive and worth stealing was always kept in metal briefcases. She had learned that obtaining these sleek, silver boxes was the key to success, riches and good-looking, tall Australian men with muscular arms and etched cheeks.
Today, Ella’s dreams had come true. In bunches. The Australian men part was the notable exception.
Purple smoke drifted into the air out of the many cracks and rust holes of the Cage, a local bar welded together from twenty-three shipping containers stacked across three levels. The smoke was followed by a string of loud bangs from a fool blindly shooting his assault rifle in a small metal-enclosed room. The results weren’t pretty. Dazed bar patrons, eyes burning and ears concussed, stumbled out, some rushing away while others collapsed onto the muddy ground, too disoriented to walk.
Ella, a generous head shorter than the shortest patron, hid herself within the crowd as it spilled into the streets. She wore a set of swimming goggles she had permanently borrowed from an unsuspecting tourist and lime earmuffs bartered for with a pack of cigarettes. In her hands, she half-dragged two metal briefcases, each nearly as heavy as she was.
She waddled down to the bottom of the ramp leading to the bar’s entrance and dropped the briefcases. She raised the goggles to her forehead, hung the earmuffs around her neck, and looked back at the Cage. People were still streaming out, and she could hear curses coming from inside. Just for good measure, she took out another canister, pulled the pin, and lobbed it into the entrance. This time, the smoke was yellow. So pretty. Satisfied, she picked up the two briefcases, grimacing as she plodded down the busy street.
By now, she had revised her opinion of metal briefcases. Like that mythical fat man who was supposed to give her presents every year, this particular childhood fantasy fell far short of the painful reality. Metal briefcases sucked. They were big, unwieldy, and their sharp corners kept scraping against her legs.
Ella passed a vendor pushing a cart filled with scrap. The two made eye contact, just briefly, and then she continued waddling, one small step at a time, down the street. She was about to turn the corner when four men in military fatigues ran out of the Cage. One of them carried an assault rifle. He must have been the idiot who thought it was a good idea to open fire blind in a cramped smoke-filled room with metal walls.
They saw the big, shiny, sun-reflecting metal briefcases right away and gave chase. Just as they reached the bottom of the ramp, the vendor pushing the cart plowed into them, knocking all four into the mud. Ella suppressed a grin; she wasn’t out of danger yet. She continued down the side street and made four more quick turns, moving deeper into the Rubber Market near the center of the slum.
By now, word had spread that someone had discharged a gun. Several in the crowd eyed her as she passed, first staring at those blasted shiny briefcases, then at her. A few glanced at the commotion behind her. Violence was just an unwanted neighbor who always lingered close by. Most of the residents ignored the ruckus and continued their day.
Ella could hear the gangsters behind her, yelling at people to clear out of their way as they barreled through the streets like raging oxen. She looked back and saw the lead man waving his assault rifle in the air as if it were a magical stick that would part the people before them. She grinned; that was the exact thing not to do in Crate Town. The good inhabitants of this large slum on the far southwestern edge of Surat didn’t take kindly to being bullied. In fact, she watched as the main street suddenly became more crowded as the people – vendors, children and passersby – all went out of their way to block these outsiders.
By all indications, Crate Town’s name was as appropriate as it was appealing. Located at the front line between Pakistan and India during the Alien World War, it had grown from the shattered remnants of several broken countries’ armies. Without governments to serve or enemies they cared to kill, and no means of returning home, the soldiers became more concerned with feeding their bellies and finding roofs over their heads than fighting. The thousands of cargo containers at the now-abandoned military port proved the perfect solution for their infrastructure woes.
Four years later, Crate Town was a blight of poverty on the western edge of India as the shattered country struggled to rebuild after a decade of devastation. Ella wouldn’t have it any other way. She called this hellhole home, and she loved it.
She grinned from ear to ear as she turned another corner, confident that she had lost the gangsters. She carried the briefcases another three blocks and walked into Fab’s Art Gallery, halfway down a narrow street on the border between the Rubber Market and Twine Alley.
Fab’s Art Gallery was the only one of its kind in all of Crate Town. There wasn’t much need for commercial art when most of the residents lived in poverty. The gallery was long and thin, with perhaps nine or ten hideous paintings. A person didn’t have to be an art critic to think that the owner of this gallery had awful, awful taste. One of the pieces was actually painted by Fab’s six year-old son. It showed three stick figure hunters throwing pink spears at a stick figure elephant or giraffe or something. Ella didn’t have the heart to ask Tiny Fab what the creature actually was. Big Fab, the owner, likely wouldn’t have been offended by this, because the whole hideous art gallery front was his idea.
Ella walked behind the counter in the gallery and dropped the briefcases onto the floor. She collapsed, huffing and puffing. A pair of eyes blinked through a beaded curtain off to the side, and she saw the ends of a machete poking through it slowly retract.
“Was it everything you hoped it would be?” the crackly voice asked from behind the curtain.
“These things suck,” she snapped, kicking one of the briefcases. That was a bad idea, since hard steel easily beat toes in rubber sandals. “I was a stupid kid.”
A yellow-stained smile appeared beneath the eyes, and the machete pointed at the back door. Ella picked herself up and grabbed several strips of sweet salmon, ignoring the blade shaking at her threateningly as she passed by the beaded curtain. She wolfed down the strips as she entered a narrow alleyway and turned toward home.
Those gangsters would need the gods’ own luck to find her during early evening at the market in Crate Town. They might as well try to pick a kernel of rice from a pile of pebbles. All she had to do was wait out the day and keep an ear to the ground. Eventually, the foreigners would learn why the slum she called home was nicknamed the dirty black hole. Not only was it admittedly and almost proudly filthy, once you lost something in Crate Town, you weren’t going to find it.
That included people.
Once the coast was clear, she would fence the goods she had conned from the Pakistani gangsters, and she’d be living good and easy for at least the next few months, if not the rest of the year. It all depended on how many people were going to get sick this season, but from what she could gather from Bogna the Polish midwife, it was a great market right now for those with medical supplies.
Whistling, Ella rounded the corner and cursed the gods, all three hundred and thirty million of them. There, standing just out of arm’s reach, with their backs turned to her, were three of the gangsters, including the one with the rifle. She froze and slowly took a step back. And then another. One more step would have cleared her from the intersection, but today one of the three hundred and thirty million gods hadn’t taken kindly to being cursed at.
Just as she was about to retreat around the corner, something hard bumped into her from behind and, with a loud squawk, she found herself flying headfirst into the middle of the intersection then face down halfway in the soft ground. Sputtering, she looked up out of the mud. All three gangsters were staring directly at her. She froze. With just a little luck, they wouldn’t recognize her covered in all this grime.
“Is that the translator who just robbed us?” one of the big ugly guys asked.
So much for luck.
Ella slipped trying to get to her feet and one of the other gangsters, even bigger and uglier than the one who had spoken, got hold of her. Rough hands grabbed her by the shirt and easily picked up her scrawny body. Ella flailed in the air as the man squinted at her face.
He turned back to the others. “I think this is the right bit–”
One of the few advantages Ella had as a small girl was that no one ever thought her dangerous. That was a mistake. She grabbed a shank strapped to the back of her pants, and right as the uglier guy looked away, jammed it into his armpit. The man stiffened and looked down at her, and then both of them went crashing into the ground. Ella scrambled to her feet and ran for dear life.
There were several loud cracks and the ground nearby spit up mud in a straight line. She careened to the left and barged into a stall, and then bounced off it, overturning a passing wagon. She turned down a side street, then another, hoping to throw off her pursuers. Unfortunately, once they had caught sight of her, it was easy for the bigger men with their longer legs to stay on her tail.
Crate Town was Ella’s home though, her playground. She knew all the nooks and crannies like she knew her knuckles. She veered onto a narrow path between two rows of tents facing outward and sprinted as hard as her short legs could drive her down the divide, hurdling over the crisscrossing tent lines as if she were in one of those track and field races. Behind her, the tents began to collapse one after another as the two gangsters giving chase uprooted the stakes tying the lines down. Eventually, one of the men tripped and fell in a heap of tangled rope.
That was Ella’s cue. She cut to the right and made her way into a refuse dump at the end of an alley behind a warehouse. This wasn’t her favorite part of the plan, but one that almost always succeeded in emergencies. She found a small opening in the garbage heap and burrowed until there was only a small gap, just large enough for her to see the evening sky. Ella pursed her lips so tight her teeth cut into her flesh, and then she listened, and waited, breathing as shallowly as she could, both to avoid moving the garbage and to avoid smelling it.
Footsteps grew louder and faded. Men shouted nearby, and then they too were gone. Far away, a foghorn from a ship docked at the port blew, and then nothing. Few people came by this part of Crate Town except to dump their garbage, and most did so early in the morning. Once she thought the coast was finally clear, she stretched her hand out of the heap until it touched the air, and began to claw her way to the surface.
Just as she was about to poke her head out, she heard footsteps again. This time, it sounded like an army, far too many for it to be those gangsters. Ella pulled her arm back into the trash heap and waited.
Two figures ran by. There was something strange about the way they were dressed, as if they had thrown on their clothes hastily in the wrong way. The first figure, a man, reached the end of the alley and beat a fist on the brick wall. He was covered with a long dark jacket that seemed far too warm for Crate Town’s early summer weather. He went to the adjacent wall and tried the doorknob.
“It’s locked.” His eyes darted around the alley. “We’re trapped.”
He was speaking English, not like the mushy version she’d seen in American movies, but more like how Ella had learned the language when she first attended school in Singapore. Her knowledge of the language had come mostly from cinema though. The man turned to his companion, giving Ella a clear look at his face. He was a tall Caucasian with a receding hairline, high cheekbones, and a face so white, light seemed to reflect off it. His eyes were huge, but that seemed more from terror than genes.
The other figure, a woman by the looks of it, pulled back her headscarf, and a mass of long blonde hair fell out. A quick appraisal of the woman’s plain but finely-woven dark anarkali salwar told Ella she was well off. There were easily a dozen items on her person that Ella could fence.
The woman scanned her surroundings and Ella saw the glint of something shiny appear in her hand. “I guess we do it my way after all,” she said.
Ella immediately liked her. There was something about the way she composed herself. She held her hands in front of her and leaned in a way that suggested she were about to pounce on something, or someone. Her posture felt confident, intimidating.
Most of all, there was something attractive about her face. Ella couldn’t stop staring at it. It wasn’t really a pretty face or anything out of the ordinary; Ella had seen much better in the magazines. Nor was it scarred or ugly. It had no unique features. It was just how the woman wore it. There was something so determined and confident about her. It was the way she set her jaw and that aggressive, determined look in her eye.
New footsteps approached, and then Ella saw shadows, two hands’ worth at least. They surrounded the man and woman. Someone barked out words. There were sounds of machetes sliding out of their scabbards, and then the night became silent as all the players in that small alleyway froze.
And then chaos erupted.
Ella pitied the two. Two versus what looked like eight was terribly unfair. In the slums, numbers were all that mattered in a fight. She kept her eyes trained on the woman as the group of dark figures converged.
The woman attacked, swinging what looked like a metal stick in her hand. Her movements were a blur as she danced through them, flashes of silver slicing the air in the dim light. There was a beautiful violence to her, lyrical, fluid, deadly. Every time it seemed the shadows were about to envelop her, she would dance to safety, leaving a trail of falling bodies in her wake.
Ella had never seen anything like that outside of the movies, and she knew those kinds of fights were fake. This, however, was the real thing. In Crate Town, men got their way by being the biggest, strongest or meanest. There were few women here who could stand up to them. Maybe Wiry Madras by way of sheer meanness, but few others. Most resorted to cunning, cajoling or subterfuge. But this woman – this woman was something else.
Ella was so mesmerized, she forgot to keep her lips squeezed together. Her jaw dropped, and she took in a mouthful of garbage. She gagged and spit, then went back to staring at the woman.
Every so often, a random blow or cut would nick her, and she’d retaliate. A few more blows began to wear the woman down. She slowed, and the enemy attacks got closer, and soon she was getting struck more and more.
Ella held her breath, badly wanting to do something, to help, to fight alongside her. However, living on the streets, she knew the rules of Crate Town. She should not get involved. To her left, she noticed the man pressed against the wall. He had a silver stick in his hand, but he didn’t fight. He just stood there, frozen, wearing a look of indecisive panic on his face.
This guy was leaving her to fight all these thugs by herself. This hit Ella right in the gut. He should be doing something! It was so unfair. Being smaller and scrawnier than most kids, she had often been bullied as a little girl. A righteous rage twisted and burned inside her.
She looked back at the woman. By now, more than half of her attackers were lying unmoving on the ground. However, the remaining three or four were beating her up pretty badly. Her movements were no longer beautiful; she was staggering from each blow. One of the men took a bat and jammed it into her stomach, doubling her over. Another punched her in the face, and she crashed into the pile of garbage not far from where Ella was hiding. The woman’s eyes were glazed over and unfocused. Yet she continued fighting, struggling to her feet.
One of the men approached from the side, wielding a stick with two hands, ready to bash in her head. Ella watched the end of the stick hover in the air, about to end the woman’s life. She looked down at the woman’s face, and saw the determination still around her cheeks and mouth, even as the life in her eyes faded. Ella noticed the trinket around her neck and the expensive-looking watch around her wrist.
Something in Ella snapped. In a split second, she calculated the possible reward to risk for doing something. The woman was wealthy and there were only a few of those men left. Ella bet there would be a massive reward for saving her life. That, and honestly, it felt like the right thing to do, since that ass of a friend of hers was just standing there letting her die.
Ella jumped out of the garbage heap, shank in hand, and stabbed the guy behind the knee. He screamed and toppled over, and then the woman finished him off with a knife that magically appeared in her hand. She struggled to her feet and limped toward the remaining three thugs. She glanced over at Ella once, and then, without a word, focused on her assailants.
The three attackers weren’t taking Ella lightly. They were clearly puzzled by this scrawny little girl holding a bloody object in her hand, and they maneuvered accordingly, trying to stay in front of both Ella and the other woman.
The woman attacked, baton in one hand and knife in the other. She swung them in wide arcs, and the sounds of clashing metal hung in the evening air. She ducked under a swing and jammed the knife into the sternum of one of the attackers. Another thug got behind her and was about to strike when Ella jumped on his back and jammed her shank into the side of his neck.
The woman turned to face him just as blood spewed from his mouth. She shot a side kick to his chest that sent both him and Ella crashing to the ground. Ella just managed to jump clear and roll away to avoid getting crushed. The woman nodded at her and, for an instant, smiled.
“Look out!” Ella cried.
The woman stiffened as the point of a blade suddenly appeared through her abdomen. She lashed out in a circle with her baton and struck the side of her attacker’s head. Both bodies crumpled to the ground. Ella was on the man in an instant, her shank stabbing him in the chest over and over. She didn’t know how many times she thrust downward but when sanity returned, she realized that her hands were covered in blood, and his eyes were staring off into nothing.
Ella looked at her hands and fell onto her back. She had never killed anyone before. At least, none she was aware of. She had stabbed dozens of people in her short nineteen years. Most of them had even deserved it. It was one of the occupational hazards of living on the streets, but she had never actually stuck around long enough to see someone die from injuries she had inflicted. Until now.
The woman next to her coughed, and her labored breathing snapped Ella back from her daze. She crawled over to the woman and checked her wounds. There was blood everywhere, and Ella could sense her life slipping from her body with every second. Ella hovered over the woman, frantic. She looked up at the man, still frozen in place near the back wall.
“Help me!” she screamed. “Do something! Save her!” She picked up a rock as big as her fist and chucked it at him.
It brought him out of his stupor and he rushed over. He checked her wounds and paled. He turned to Ella. “Where’s the nearest hospital?”
“There’s no hospital in Crate Town.”
The two of them tried to lift the woman but the instant they moved her, blood gushed from the wound in her stomach. Her eyes rolled back and she grasped the man’s arm. “Make sure,” she gasped. “The news… Seth… reaches…”
And then she was gone.
Ella had seen enough death in her life for it not to affect her any more. Growing up during a war and then in the slums, she had seen terrible things. People beaten and robbed, their bodies left on the streets. The ravages of sickness and famine and starvation.
But for this death, Ella felt a terrible sadness. The feeling aggravated her. She lashed out at the closest person. She stood up and scowled at the man. “I saw you stand there doing nothing. Coward!” She was about to give him a swift kick to vent her frustration when she stopped.
The woman was glowing. A strange fog with sparkling lights was slinking out of her body until it formed a cloud hovering in the air. The tiny lights, thousands of them, blinked as if alive. The cloud began to float toward the man. And then it stopped, and then it moved toward Ella.
Ella yelped and retreated, taking several steps backward and tripping over one of the bodies. She fell onto her butt and began to crawl on all fours, trying to get away from this weird, supernatural demon stalking her.
The light floated directly above her and hovered. At first, Ella shielded her face, but then she peeked. First, one eye between her fingers, then both. Up close, the cloud with its thousands of swirling lights was beautiful. If this was a demon, it was an awfully pretty one. She reached an arm out toward it.
“You want her to be your host? You can’t be serious,” the man said. “You, get away from the Quasing.”
Quasing? Ella had heard that name mentioned before in passing every once in a while. They had something to do with the war that had raged across the world for most of the past ten years. Is this what everyone was fighting over?
“She doesn’t deserve you.”
Ella had no idea who the man was talking to. However, being told she didn’t deserve something grated on her. She had already experienced a lifetime of ridicule, of being denied and demeaned. She didn’t need this feeble man to pile onto it.
“Shut it, coward,” she snapped.
She reached for the living cloud, and then tiny bursts of light moved directly into her. Ella felt a jolt and a hard jab in the back of her skull. Her entire body clenched. She thought she heard a strange gravelly voice in her head that definitely wasn’t her own.
This is probably a mistake.
Blinding pain punched her in the brain and Ella felt her stomach crawl up her throat. She opened her mouth to scream, but all that came out were the regurgitated chewed up strips of sweet salmon. The last thing Ella felt was the sensation of flying, or falling, or the world being pulled from beneath her feet as she hit the ground.
Excerpted from The Rise of Io © Wesley Chu, 2016