In the fading light of a dying star, a soldier for hire searches for a missing refugee ship and uncovers a universe-shattering secret…
Orphan, refugee, and soldier-for-hire Asala Sikou doesn’t think too much about the end of civilization. Her system’s star is dying, and the only person she can afford to look out for is herself. When a ship called The Vela vanishes during what was supposed to be a flashy rescue mission, a reluctant Asala is hired to team up with Niko, the child of a wealthy inner planet’s president, to find it and the outer system refugees on board. But this is no ordinary rescue mission; The Vela holds a secret that places the fate of the universe in the balance, and forces Asala to decide—in a dying world where good and evil are far from black and white, who deserves to survive?
We’re excited to share an excerpt from the first season of The Vela, a new Serial Box series co-written by Yoon Ha Lee, Becky Chambers, Rivers Solomon, and SL Huang after a concept created by Lydia Shamah. Episode 1—SL Huang’s “A Leisurely Extinction”—will be released on March 6th.
Episode 1: A Leisurely Extinction
Niko had never imagined getting anywhere near General Cynwrig during her stay on Khayyam. Other than maybe as part of a protest, if such a thing wouldn’t have spun Father right out of his orbit. Or, well, the occasional fantasy about hacking Cynwrig’s computers into answering every command with dancing pink ponies and statistics about refugees.
How anyone could ignore the situation on the Outer Ring was beyond Niko. And how the general could be so heartless—there was plenty of room on Gan-De! Not like Niko’s own home planet couldn’t do loads better too, but few refugees could make it this far in-system on their own. The distance conveniently allowed educated Khayyami to wash their hands of all those deaths, and all with disgusting gentility. But Gan-De was worse: so many countless Hypatian refugees at their door, stuck in orbit or in transit, in camps, and yet “Gan-De for Gandesians” was still somehow going strong.
It made Niko furious.
Yet here they were, trotting willingly toward the guest quarters of none other than General Cynwrig herself. Because that was where Asala was. Asala, whom Niko had managed to offend the very first time they’d opened their mouth.
You should have known better. She’s diaspora; it’s probably painful! You should have been more sensitive!
The Gandesian and Khayyami guards at the door to the general’s suite took a bloodscan before questioning Niko closely about their purpose and whether Asala was expecting them. Then one guard went inside, presumably to check with Asala, but Niko wasn’t worried. People rarely refused the president’s youngest child a meeting, even if they wanted to.
And Asala’s face when Niko was ushered in showed she’d really, really wanted to.
Oh dear. How to turn this around?
At least General Cynwrig herself wasn’t present—she must be in the inner rooms to the suite, with Asala alone in the anteroom as her bodyguard. Thank heavens.
“I told your father no,” Asala said flatly as soon as the guards had gone back into the hall and the door had shut behind them. “There’s nothing to discuss.”
“I think there is, though,” Niko pressed. “I know you probably feel like someone else can just go instead, but you didn’t hear Father when he was briefing me—he says there’s no one as good as you. You could be the difference between those poor people dying or—”
“That’s not my problem.” Asala turned away.
“If it’s not you, I don’t go either!” Niko accidentally said it too loud, and pressed their lips together, a gate shut too late. It was true, though—even the privilege of being one of Ekrem’s children wouldn’t get Niko an assignment like this. If Asala refused, and Father went through official channels, he’d be forced to dispatch a squad of senior intelligence commandos. And that squad would certainly not include Niko, a green rookie whose only training so far had been data work.
But Father wanted Asala, and he wanted this kept quiet, and he also wanted a hedge against any Hypatian loyalties she might have left, just in case anything went wrong out there, and that meant a rare Niko-shaped chance. For Niko’s part, they’d been privately hoping Asala had Hypatian loyalties left in spades, though that was looking less and less likely.
Asala had turned back, her gaze narrow and calculating. Niko decided to try for some partial honesty. “I care about the Outer Planet refugees, okay? A lot. I think we should be doing so much more. Part of my apprenticeship has been working on the nets, making connections with people out there, but here I am sheltered on Khayyam and I can’t do anything. This is a chance for me to get on the ground and help people in a real way—”
“And what, you want to prove to Daddy that you can pull off a mission?”
That hit a little too uncomfortably close to another truth. Niko winced internally and tried not to show it. “I can. I’ve pretty much finished my training, and I’ve got a lot of contacts on the Outer Ring now. And I have specialties in network accessibility and computer security.”
“You mean you’re a hacker?”
Niko half-smiled. “We don’t call it that when it’s for the government.”
Asala’s expression didn’t change, and Niko was second-guessing whether the joke had been a good idea when a knock came at the door and a pair of Gandesian guards entered, a short dark man and a tall woman with close-cropped hair.
“We’re changing duty shifts,” said the man. “They told us you have a visitor. Just confirming the situation.”
“Confirmed,” Asala acknowledged. “You can leave us.”
The female guard turned as if she were about to exit back into the hallway. But instead she palmed something across the door’s inner lock, spun with a dreadful fluidity—
And stabbed her partner in the neck.
No! Not now!
That was all Niko’s stunned brain had time for before Asala shoved them out of the way. The floor somersaulted into Niko’s cheek—ow—and Asala grunted—was she hurt? The traitor guard had some sort of hand weapon out, brandishing—
Asala launched herself at the guard out of nowhere. The weapon in the guard’s hand pulsed once, and Asala half-folded over, but somehow that didn’t stop her, and she plowed into the woman and took them both into the wall so hard something cracked.
The guard’s pistol skittered across the anteroom floor. Only a few meters from Niko.
Niko’s mind had blanked out, half-coherent thoughts popping like oil on hot metal—She can’t kill Asala! and Would she have killed me too and Blood, there’s so much blood, how is there this much blood. And finally, after far too long: I can be the one to stop her, I can, I can do it, GO.
Asala and the guard were grappling on the other side of the room. The wet, meaty thumps of flesh on flesh, the crack of someone being hurt badly and a yell of pain—no, don’t listen, just get to the pistol, ignore the blood, how is it everywhere? Niko tried to take ahold of the guard’s weapon with tacky, shaking fingers, not at all sure they were holding it right, and raised it toward the other side of the room.
Asala did something with one leg then, something vicious that landed a knee in her opponent’s face. The guard toppled off her.
“I said stop!” Niko cried. The pistol wavered in the general direction of the bleeding guard. “Stop or I’ll shoot!”
The assassin’s eyes went intense and dark at Niko then, and Niko had a sudden flash of certainty that this was it, they were going to die here. They tried to find the weapon’s trigger but their fingers didn’t seem to be able to move—
The moment of distraction, however, was all Asala needed.
In a sequence Niko wouldn’t be able to reconstruct till afterward, Asala spun up to one knee, clearing her own air pistol that she hadn’t had a moment’s time to draw during the fight. It popped once, a final, deep sound that seemed to suck all the air out of the room, and the guard crumpled to the anteroom floor right at Niko’s feet.
“Hey. Hey, kid.”
Asala was right next to Niko somehow. How long had she been talking?
“Hey, kid, you okay? Give me the pulse pistol, all right?”
Asala’s hands closed over Niko’s bloody ones. Niko tried to unclench from the gun. “It’s over?”
“Yeah, it’s over. Are you hurt?”
“I don’t—” Niko patted their hands over themself as if that would answer the question. “I don’t…”
“Take a minute.” Asala went over to the door—she was limping, and hunched over, and she was hurt, hurt saving Niko—and touched the interface panel next to it. Niko became aware of banging outside it, more guards, the ones the assassin had locked out.
“This is Asala,” Asala announced into the interface. “The situation is under control. Tell the president I have Niko in here with me and neither they nor the General Cynwrig were injured in this attack. We have one casualty, a Gandesian guard. The assassin is also dead. But I’m not opening this door until we get some additional vetting on everyone outside it.”
She limped to a sofa at the side of the room and sat heavily, one gun in each hand.
A skittering noise came from the inner door to the anteroom, and Niko half climbed the wall before realizing it was just the Gandesian AI spiders. The AIs. You know about their AIs. They’re just like you studied. But seeing them in person was different.
And of course, right behind the horde of spiders came… the general.
Niko felt like vomiting. General Cynwrig. A military dictator who ran Gan-De with the efficiency of a factory, all while blithely killing Hypatians by the shipload, leaving them to die a slow death in space, all because she’d decided Gan-De should only be for certain humans—how Niko’s own father could talk to this woman like it was all okay and make trade deals importing their water in exchange for tech—
Niko couldn’t understand it. Didn’t want to understand it.
“Well,” General Cynwrig said. “It seems I have you to thank once again, Agent Asala.”
Asala grunted. “I suggest you go back into your rooms until we have all this sorted out, General.”
Cynwrig’s eyes crawled over Niko. “Who’s this?”
“President Ekrem sent a messenger to speak to me about something unrelated. Bad timing. They’re not involved.”
“I see.” The general took another moment, studying the two dead bodies on the floor. Then she said, “I’ll be in the back rooms. Don’t mind my spiders. Given the circumstances, I feel I must send them a little further afield. You understand.”
She turned on her heel with military precision, and the door slid shut behind her. The robots remained, however. A good portion of them skittered over to squeeze out under the door, while the rest tap-tapped around the room, taking in Niko and Asala and the guards. Watching.
That’s what Gandesians do with their spiders. You know that. The reminder didn’t stop Niko from being unnerved.
“Creepy, aren’t they,” muttered Asala. She leaned down to get her face right up close to one of the bugs. “I said you’re creepy. What are you going to do with that?”
“They’re intelligence-gathering robots,” Niko said. The words came out dry and stuttery. “I guess she wants more, um. Intelligence. Because of the—because of all this.” They bit their lip. You’re talking too much. You always do. Just shut up, shut up.
“Hell, I’d like some more intelligence, too,” Asala said.
Niko’s mind was starting to unblank, but it was filling with thoughts they didn’t want to have, like how the guard had moved to kill them both without the slightest hesitation and how Niko had completely frozen and Asala had shoved them out of the way…
My fault she’s hurt. All my fault.
“Do you need a med team?” Niko asked. “We can call one in…”
One of Asala’s shoulders lifted and then lowered. “Eventually. I’ve had worse.”
And you were trying to convince her you were ready to go out in the field. At the first sign of pressure you fell apart, while she sits there shot acting like it’s a stubbed toe.
The adrenaline and panic were receding, leaving shame behind.
Was there any chance of salvaging Asala’s impression of them? Some way to show Niko wasn’t just a data rookie who froze up at the first sign of trouble?
Intelligence, Asala had said. Something useful…
The traitorous guard was still lying where she had fallen. Niko tried to figure out how to step over to her without tracking through all the blood, but it was impossible. They gingerly crouched down to start lifting the flaps on her pockets.
There has to be something here. Something worth showing Asala …
“Shouldn’t you wait for the forensic team for that?” Asala said it from over on the couch, not moving.
“You want to wait and take whatever sanitized report they choose to give you?” Niko said, with more bravado than they felt.
The edge of a smile quirked Asala’s tired expression. “You’ve got more guts than I gave you credit for, kid.”
The compliment should have delighted Niko, but instead their heart was banging out of their chest. Was it cheating, to do things this way? It had to be. It felt like it.
And—worst case—what if Niko couldn’t find any evidence at all, even missed something really obvious, and then Father would ream them out for disrupting the scene and Asala would think they were a green know-nothing and—
Oh. There. At the bottom of a back pocket. Niko drew out the thick packet. Across the room, Asala’s eyes widened and she sat up slightly—she knew what it was, too.
“That’s concentrated Glow,” she said. “Way more than for personal use. That much is an automatic intent-to-deal charge.”
“Which means it’s also enough for a payment,” Niko said. “What’s the going rate for assassinating a head of state?”
And whoever happened to be in the way. Niko felt another wave of nausea and tried not to think about it.
Asala frowned. “There aren’t many people who would use Glow as currency. Too hard to unload, unless…”
“Unless you’re in the trade. She’s got to be out of Khwarizmi.” That wasn’t too big a leap, was it? Niko didn’t think so. Khwarizmi, the only other Inner Ring world, was warmer even than Khayyam and a haven for pleasure resorts and smuggling cartels alike. Just the shady sorts who might believably have assassination as one of their goals. Asala would agree, wouldn’t she?
“Glow dealers wouldn’t have any beef with Gan-De,” Asala said, as if feeling it out. “But the Khwarizmian syndicates also deal in ice smuggling. Throw Gan-De into chaos, especially now, and the black market for water would go through the roof.”
“What percentage of Khayyam’s water comes from ice mining on Gan-De or Hypatia, instead of pulling it from the sun? It’s a lot, right?” Niko agreed. “And with all the—the environmental crisis—on Hypatia, Gan-De’s where it’s at.”
Asala didn’t look entirely convinced. “Maybe…”
Come on! Niko barely bit back from voicing their frustration. This is solid information. You know it is!
It wasn’t the wall interface. Asala dug out a personal handheld, miraculously undamaged even after the fight.
“Your father’s coming down here,” she said. “He has the interrogation reports from the suspects who survived this morning’s incident. It seems you’re right—they were out of Khwarizmi.”
Niko took a breath and tried to look the part of a confident intelligence expert who’d expected nothing less.
They weren’t at all sure they managed.
Excerpted from The Vela Episode 1: A Leisurely Extinction, copyright © 2019 by SL Huang.