We’re thrilled to share the cover for Thin Air from Richard K. Morgan, author of the award-winning science fiction novel Altered Carbon. An atmospheric tale of corruption and abduction set on Mars, Thin Air is available October 9th from Del Rey.
On a Mars where ruthless commercial interests violently collide with a homegrown independence movement, as Earth-based overlords battle for profits and power, Hakan Veil is an ex-corporate enforcer equipped with military-grade body tech that’s made him a human killing machine. But he’s had enough of the turbulent red planet, and all he wants is a ticket back home—which is just what he’s offered by the Earth Oversight organization, in exchange for being the bodyguard for an EO investigator. It’s a beyond-easy gig for a heavy hitter like Veil … until it isn’t.
When Veil’s charge, Madison Madekwe, starts looking into the mysterious disappearance of lottery winner, she stirs up a hornets’ nest of intrigue and murder. And the deeper Veil is drawn into the dangerous game being played, the more long-buried secrets claw their way to the Martian surface. Now it’s the expert assassin on the wrong end of a lethal weapon—as Veil stands targeted by powerful enemies hellbent on taking him down, by any means necessary.
Check out the full cover and read an excerpt from the novel below!
It was early evening when I hit the Mariner Strip, and up in the Lamina they were trying again for rain. Got this thin, cold stop-start drizzle, weeping down out of a paprika sky.
I didn’t have the detail on it, I’d been too busy. Some newly-written sub-routine was what I’d heard, something consulted in from the edgy end of the industry, coded and cooked and cut loose, somewhere up there amidst the vast shifting gossamer layers that keep the Valley warm. Must have had some solid marketing muscle behind it too, because the streets were crowded for a mid-week night. When the rain kicked in, it felt like the whole city jammed up to watch. Everywhere you turned—people stopping to crane their necks and gawk.
I spared the sky a sour glance of my own, didn’t stop. Shoulder on instead, keep the pace, through stalled knots of rubberneckers and eco-geeks talking shit. Anyone looking to get wet behind this would likely be waiting a while. In the pushy seduction of the marketing, people tend to forget—nothing falls fast around here. And new code or not, this attempt at downpour wasn’t going to be breaking any basic laws of physics. Mostly, the promised rain just floated and blew around overhead, scornful of the half-hearted gravity, and tinged in the dying light to a blood-red spray.
Pretty to look at, sure. But some of us had places to be.
The Strip loomed around me—five-storey settlement-era facades in scarred antique nanocrete, repair protocols long exhausted. These days the inert surfaces are lathered by decades of storm-wind and grit into something that looks more like flat expanses of coral at low tide than anything you’d call man-made. Back in the day, the COLIN engineers were all about huddling down and shelter—they ran the build either side of a broad channel dug out between the exposed foundations, mirror image structures rising on either side. Sixty meters wide, that channel, and three kilometers long, bent just a little out of true to take advantage of existing fault-line geology in the Valley floor. Once upon a time, it housed hydroponic gardens and manicured recreational spaces for the original colonists, all of it roofed in under glass. Parks, velodromes, a couple of small amphitheaters and a sports field—even, so they tell me, a swimming pool or three. Free access for all.
Now the roof is gone, and so is the rest of it. Knocked down, torn out, cleared away. What they left in its place is a scuffed and littered sunken boulevard, tangled up with barrows and street stalls, all vying to shift cheapest product to the crowd. Get it while it’s hot, people, get it now! Last season’s discounted coding spikes, semi-smart jewelry, faked or stolen Marstech—it’d have to be at those prices—and fast food, lots of it, steaming from a myriad different woks and pans. Street chemists hang about on the fringes, pushing Twenty Tailored Ways to Get Out of your Head in a Hurry; street-girls and boys stand at corners, flexing a more basic route to the same escape. You could argue, I guess, that you’re still in a recreational space of sorts. But it’s a pretty gaunt and garish spirit of fun that stalks down the Strip these days, and if you ran into it, you wouldn’t want to meet its eye.
For those chasing that particular ghost regardless, you reach bottom via long escalator tunnels hacked inelegantly right through the original structure—there’s one at the end of most of the cross streets where they back up to the stretch of Settlement-era build, hemming it in on both sides with architecture altogether less hunkered and hermetic, conceived for a generation who could suddenly Go Outside. The cross streets end, the expansive aspirational leap and soar of the Outdoor New butts up abruptly against the somber, ragged backsides of the Settlement Old. You step on the escalators under big cowled openings in the worn nanocrete, and the endless alloy belt-ride carries you through and down.
Or—if you’re new to Mars, fresh off the shuttle, or just a nostalgia freak—you do the loud tourist thing and ride the gargantuan antique cargo elevators at either end of the channel. Twinned thousand-square-meter loading platforms, still pistoning massively up and down like the breath in slow lungs, smooth as the day they were put in. Got these tacky fake-historical loader stand-clears blaring out on looped track from bullhorn speakers along the safety railing. Rotating yellow and red warning cherries, the whole deal. The grimy heavy engineering prowess of the old High Frontier, preserved today for your jaded Earth delectation.
Either way—platforms or endlessly moving covered stairways—you’re left with pretty much the same sensation. You’re easing down slowly, sinking into the belly of something huge and probably hazardous to health.
Fine by me.
I’d taken the escalator down from the end of Crane alley, which put me about a klick away from where I wanted to be—slow going with the weather geeks clogging up the flow. And as I came out under the exit cowl, against all the odds, there was some genuine street level rain to contend with too. It slapped my face wet as I moved through the crowds, it dampened my collar. Put an unaccustomed beading of moisture on my brow and the backs of my hands. Felt pretty good, but then so did everything else right then. It was there in the tension of the grin I had to fight to hold off my face.
Three days awake, and running hot.
Over my head, early lights were coming on behind long-redundant storm slits in the upper levels of the build, hinting at sultry mysteries within. Everywhere on the antique architecture, club names and logos clung like a plague of gigantic luminescent beetles and centipedes. And across the drizzling sky, the first of the ‘branegels spread their almost invisible soap-bubble wings. Silver flurries of preliminary static shivered down their surfaces, like coughing to clear your throat. The images shook out, the long night’s video pimping began.
I’d thought maybe, with the shuttle just in from Earth and docked that morning, that we’d have some ultratripper montages, or standard profile spots for Red Star Lines and Horkan Kumba Ultra. But tonight, it was rainmaker publicity that led the parade—moody intense footage of taut young bodies, cavorting on night-time streets in a rain-storm the likes of which no-one around here would ever get within fifty million kilometers of seeing for real. Thin dark clothing drenched through, ripped and torn, a kind of favela-chic thing, clinging to curves and declivities, molded around nipples teased erect, framing cold cuts and slices of water-beaded flesh. Marketing copy bannered repeatedly across the pan-and-grab footage—
Particle Slam Dunk—Get Wet, Why Don’t You!!! A Joint Coding Venture, brought to you by Particle Slam, in Capital Partnership with the Colony Initiative.
And up on the gossamer screens, partnerships formed and broke up among the taut young things, as they got all up-close and personal for the marketeers’ lenses.
Meantime, the rain—the real rain, back here in the real world—stuttered abruptly out. It blew away to nothing, left a long pregnant pause, then started in again, weeping slow. Hard to know if the new code was working well or not; it could have been running that staggered feed as part of an energy saving protocol, could have been teasing for effect, or it could just have been buggy as fuck. Eco-code geeks stood around all along the Strip, squinting up into the sky, arguing it back and forth.
“Toldya they’d get it sorted. Particle Slam are solid, soak. Whole other kind of outfit than those Ninth Street guys. Feel that on your face?”
“Yeah, just barely. Feels like some crap standard seepage to me.”
“Oh, fuck off. Seepage wouldn’t even make it down here. Look there—puddles, it’s making already.”
I slipped past the debate, avoiding the puddles, filing detail for later. Particle Slam—never heard of them. But I’m used to that kind of thing when I wake up. Eco-coding is a fast game, even back on Earth, and out here with all the brakes off and Gentle Commerce smiling down, it’s so fucking Darwinian you get tired just thinking about it. Out here, a code house can go from Next Big Thing to dinosaur bones in less time than it takes the shuttle to do the long season turnaround. Takeaway—when you’ve been dead to the world for the last four months, you can miss an awful lot.
But some things don’t ever change.
Every evening, the Strip flickers to languid life, like some faulty neon tube given a kick. It blinks and fizzles and settles down, gleaming slantwise and constant across the street grid of Bradbury’s old quarter like a cryptic grin, like a signal for eager moths. Saw it once from LMO—I was drifting in decanted, mission’s end on a mutinied belt freighter I’d sooner forget. Nothing better to do now than prowl the silenced decks and stare out the window as the world rolled by beneath. We chased the terminator in across Ganges and Eos, and as night fell, I watched the Gash come up and around. Brooding rift valley walls, sunk thousands of meters deep in the Martian crust, colossal piles and drifts of tectonic rubble across the vast open floor between. Here and there, a dim, dotted crop of settlement lights, thickening and tangling together as they closed in on the big bright blotch of Bradbury itself, further up the valley. And there, slapped right across the old city’s heart, was that big, bent grin, three thousand meters long.
Elsewhere across town, corporate logos and COLIN promo panels sparkle the skyline with liquid crystal fire, doing their bit to hold back the encroaching alien dark. But there’s only so much brand loyalty and belonging you can buy against that darkness, and the forces inside you know it. Deep down where the human hardwiring runs, the clock is running too—turning over its lurid numerals like the cards in an endless, losing hand.
Just a matter of time before you wake up to that fact. And when you do, the knowledge is chilly on the nape of your neck.
And then, sooner or later, you’re going to spiral on in and batter yourself against the lure of the Strip, just like all the other moths.
Used to think I was different.
Didn’t we all.
Filament-thin whine past my ear, and the inevitable needling sting. I slapped distractedly at my neck—pointless irritation reflex, the code-fly was there and gone, as designed. Even in Earth Standard gravity, the little fuckers are way faster than the flesh-and-blood mosquitos they get their basic chassis from; around here, tweaked for local conditions, they’re like little stinging flecks of quicksilver in the wind. Touch, spike, payload delivered. You’re bit.
Not that I’m bitching. I mean, you live out here, you need to get bitten. Can’t afford anything else. This is the High Frontier, soak, and you’re just one part of the giant rolling upgrade that is High Frontier Humanity.
Problem is, four months behind the hatch and you’ve missed so many upgrades, every c-fly on the block has you in its evil little post-organic sights. Three days back out, and you’re a human fucking pincushion. Your skin itches in a dozen different places from the delivery punctures. Fresh gas exchange turbos for your lungs; melatonin re-up version 8.11.4; booster patches for the latest—and shakiest—osteopenia inhibitors; corneal armoring 9.1. So forth.
Some of this shit you’ve paid to have inflicted whenever the new mods come in, some of it COLIN gifts you with, out of the goodness of its efficiency-oriented little heart. But it all has to be balanced and bettered and optimized for performance, and then bettered all over again, version by version, upgrade by upgrade, bite by bite. And that makes it a dependency you’ll never quit so long as you live anywhere other than Earth.
Not that I’m bitching.
* * *
Vallez Girlz was right where I’d left it four months back. Same tired old frontage, just past the escalator outflow point for Friedman boulevard; still flashing the same old looped enticement footage from five-meter display panels either side of the door. Same sleazy Fuktronica backbeat and sub-sonics from speakers hidden away. The screen on the right was still cratered and cracked from where they’d smashed my head against it in the fight, and something looked to be wrong with the feed—footage of the dancers kept shredding to a confetti of airbrushed flesh and hair, laced through with bobbing, disembodied long-lashed eyes that floated like tears in zero G.
Or maybe it was supposed to look like that.
Moving too fast here, soak. Where’s the leak?
I forced my pace down to a rubbernecker’s amble. Went past slouched with hands in pockets, hood up against the intermittent rain. It gave me all the time I needed to scope out the front of the club. Loose crowd of hopefuls queuing to get in, milling about in the wash of Fuktronica heard and unheard. Two blunt guys on the door in time-honored fashion, headgear the usual wraparound shades thing. And the same old superannuated Port Authority scanner hanging spread-winged from the lintel like some prehistoric bat about to take flight. Skinflint Sal Quiroga, same as it ever was—he bought that scanner at a decommissioned tech clearance sale nine years ago, and even then, they say he put the levers on someone in the Port Authority back office to get a chop on the price. Leverage, he told me once, is the whole key to this place. You don’t got leverage, you might as well go right back to Earth.
Hollow laugh—for most long-term residents of Bradbury, the only way you’ll ever get back to Earth is via some pretty hefty leverage. Long Fall Lottery aside—Fifty Fabulous Homebound Winners Every Single Year! It Could Be You This Time! But you Gotta Play to Win!—it’s not like they’re giving the tickets away.
I gave it another fifty meters, in honor of those fabulous winners perhaps, then did an about-face and drifted back. Took down my hood as I went up the short run of steps to the door. No point trying to hide. When you work doors—and I’ve been driven to it myself once or twice, over the years—nothing trips your internal alarms like a punter trying to shroud his features. Uh-uh, pal, no you don’t. Now you got me all woken up.
I didn’t want these guys waking up just yet, I needed to get in close. So I kept my expression dialed down to Fuktronica-induced consumer lust, met the right-hand doorman’s blank shades gaze as he glanced my way. I didn’t know him—and my memory’s good for men who’ve handed me my arse in the past—so he couldn’t know me either. But these days that doesn’t count for much. Behind the headgear, he’d be checking his list. Face-recog systems, the bane of decent gate-crashers everywhere on the ecliptic.
I spotted the tightening that went through his frame as the software flagged me up. Then the loosening that followed as he digested the data.
I saw his lip curl.
“Dom?” Attention wandering off to the side, where his colleague was busy scoping some barely-clad curves that wanted entry. He touched his headgear at the ear, did something to the Fuktronica, pulled the ambient volume down. “Hoy, Dom. Remember that sad-case hib cunt you and Rico bounced a couple of months back?”
Dom glanced over at us, visibly irritated by the distraction.
“Hib? What fucking hib? You mean that guy….?” Voice fading out as he saw me. A wide grin came and lit his face. “That guy.”
“Guess some people never learn, right?”
“I’m here to see Sal,” I said mildly.
“Yeah?” Dom flexed his right hand idly, looked it over like some power tool he was thinking of buying. “Well, he don’t want to see you. Didn’t want to see you last time around, neither. Remember how that worked out?”
“He’ll see me this time.”
They swapped a glance—glitter of unkind mirth, back and forth, there and gone, wiped away. Dom’s companion sighed.
“Look, soak—it’s a quiet night, alright. Do us all a favor. Fuck off now, before we have to do something structural to you.”
Found myself grinning. Running hot. “Can’t do that, guys.”
Dom snorted. Reached for me—
I snagged his hand at the wrist, fast. You’ve got to be fast—gravity at a shade under .4 Earth standard, you’re getting miserly returns on mass and momentum. Any impact you make is going to have to come from your speed. I snapped his little and ring fingers backward at the base, twisted them with savage force. He made a noise like rupturing, and I locked up the arm. Drove him to his knees on all the sudden shock and pain. Kicked him hard in the belly as he bowed.
Let go, let him sag and hit the floor.
You’d not usually get past doormen on the Strip like this. They’re a hard-bitten lot, ex-Upland work gang enforcers mostly who can’t hack the thin air anymore, and can’t afford the newer turbo add-ons to make up the difference. So they slide back down the Valley and into the stews of Bradbury, and here they find what muscle work they can. As a man who’s seen his own fair share of career slide, I don’t generally hold this against them. They do a job that has to be done, a job I’ve had to do myself occasionally, and they mostly do it pretty well.
But they were in my way. And everything their software said about me was wrong.
They didn’t stand a chance.
The other guy went for his twitch-gun, there in the holster at the small of his back. Wrong move, and too late—I was in too close, he was way too slow. Probably suffering a bit of shock, this wasn’t supposed to be happening at all. I stepped in, blocked the draw before he could clear the gun, chopped him sharply in the throat. Tripped him as he staggered back, helped him on his way down with a hard palm heel to the chest. Even at .4 Earth standard, that’ll do it. He hit the ground on his back, gagging and flapping.
I stooped and took the twitch-gun away from him.
Reversed it, shot him with it point blank.
Blunt crackle and hiss, like a pan of heated oil poured out—I saw his shirt ripple where the splintered crystal load went through. His eyes rolled up in their sockets, his body arched up off the floor with the force of the spasm. Sudden earthen stench of bowels as they voided, a grinding, gagging sound from deep in his throat. Foaming spit on rictus-ripped lips. One rigidly splayed hand flapped frantically at his chest, over and over, like a trapped bird’s wing.
Off to one side, Dom lunged desperately at me from the floor. I shot him too.
Then I stepped delicately between the two spasm-locked bodies, under the batwing scanner, and through the door beyond.
Excerpted from THIN AIR by Richard K. Morgan. Copyright 2018 by Richard K. Morgan. Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, an imprint of Penguin Random House. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.