Vivian Liao is a wildly successful innovator to rival Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, prone to radical thinking, quick decision-making, and reckless action. On the eve of her greatest achievement, she tries to outrun people who are trying to steal her success.
In the chilly darkness of a Boston server farm, Viv sets her ultimate plan into motion. A terrifying instant later, Vivian Liao is catapulted through space and time to a far future where she confronts a destiny stranger and more deadly than she could ever imagine.
The end of time is ruled by an ancient, powerful Empress who blesses or blasts entire planets with a single thought. Rebellion is literally impossible to consider—until Vivian Liao arrives. Trapped between the Pride—a ravening horde of sentient machines—and a fanatical sect of warrior monks who call themselves the Mirrorfaith, Viv must rally a strange group of allies to confront the Empress and find a way back to the world and life she left behind.
Max Gladstone’s Empress of Forever is a smart, swashbuckling, wildly imaginative SF adventure—available June 18th from Tor Books.
They came from all around the broken world to pay Vivian Liao homage on her birthday.
Oligarchs and video stars and billionaires and their daughters, princesses and actresses hoping for her notice, fresh-faced tech circuit darlings hungry to stand where Viv now stood but with only the vaguest sense of what that meant, people she’d sent invitations and people she’d let bribe or beg their way onto the guest list, they came. The Saint Kitts airport had hummed with Cessnas and Gulfstreams and Tesla Aeros for days before the party, and the long black glistening cars that wound up the driveway of the beach-front mansion might have been a funeral procession save for the passengers’ brightly colored plumage. A funeral, maybe, for a tyrant.
They advanced on Viv like an army and she stood against them, her hair braided into a crown atop her head, her assistant, Lucy, by her side.
The guests came in part for the legend of a Vivian Liao birthday, in part for fear they’d give offense if they stayed home, but most came because they knew this might be the end. They could read the tea leaves as well as Viv, though not so deeply. Her name had been mentioned too often in the wrong tones on the wrong Sunday talk shows, by the wrong congressmen and administration mouthpieces. There had been a tasteful half inch in The Wall Street Journal about a routine investigation of one of her subsidiaries. They knew, as she knew, how it worked in America these days.
The men with the black bags and the ill-fitting suits and the bare concrete cells had finally decided she was more trouble than her disappearance would cause. There were lines, even when you were so rich your bankers got embarrassed. She hadn’t known about those lines when she was young, in part because they didn’t exist back then, or weren’t so clearly drawn. That was one of the reasons she’d worked so hard to become rich in the first place. She was a genius, but you didn’t have to be one to look around and see wealth was the only real freedom left. Get money and you could do what you wanted, help your friends, pile cash and power as a wall against the world. But there were lines now and she’d crossed them, and the fuckers in power did not forget. They were too dumb to keep detailed records, but they nursed grudges, which was worse. A record might get lost.
Her guests, she knew, would assume she’d overreached at last—maybe the massive free insurance program had been the final straw, or maybe gratis housing for her workforce in targeted congressional districts, maybe one of the newspapers she owned had skewered the wrong relative. Maybe she’d been too effective at breaking social media manipulation engines, or using them herself, or anonymizing user data just ahead of subpoenas. Rumor ran that the White House had been seriously pissed when FEMA reached Florida after Johannes to find two thousand relief workers in Liao Industries livery handing out free water, solar, and Internet in counties the administration designated low priority after the last election tally.
Viv knew better. She’d pissed off the right people, sure. But they came for her now not because they were angry, but because they were scared.
So was she. Terrified. At first she’d thought she was afraid of failure and its consequences, of black bags over her head, of needles slipped beneath her fingernails, of car batteries and clamps, of confinement in a narrow sleepless cell, drugged perhaps, until silence ate her mind. They knew she was proud—she’d been proud for so long in public—so they would try to break her and bring her low. Make her wallow. Snap her into so many pieces that if by some chance she were ever freed she’d spend all her days picking up the splinters of herself, a shivering wreck, no threat at all. But as she lay awake sleepless, curled around the sinkhole in her gut, she’d peeled back each layer of fear and found beneath those dark fantasies the reason she’d clutched them close as blankets on a cold night.
As scared as she was of failure, behind it lurked the vast and daunting prospect of success.
She might win. She might change everything. And it started here, as her guests mounted the stairs.
Her lungs refused to fill. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d breathed deep, or savored a glass of water. Her hands roamed. Her nails, in the last three days, had bitten her skin raw beneath her shirt. Her jaw was tight as if sealed with wire. She carried those sleepless nights with her as darkness in the corners of her vision, as mocking light in the eyes of fake friends. But, Christ, she could hide it.
So when her guests hugged her and thanked her with a last-chance-to-see sort of vibe and added their presents to the pile on the table, she laughed and hugged them back and thanked them and even remembered their names mostly, though Lucy had to remind her of old Karpov’s daughter’s as the young woman drifted cloudlike and glorious up the steps and Viv, in spite of everything, forgot how to make consonant sounds. Natalia. Lucy offered the name without rolling her eyes.
Yes. So wonderful to see you again.
Viv hadn’t invited any real friends she thought would come. The net was closing in, and she didn’t want it catching anyone she cared about. She’d withdrawn from her parents and brother at the first hint of trouble, she’d not been with anyone seriously since Shanda broke it off, she’d let correspondence lapse and made herself conspicuously absent from reunions, unavailable when friends came to town, missed the annual gaming retreat for two years running. But she’d hit the Forbes list at twenty-six, gone bankrupt at twenty-seven, then hit the list again, higher, at twenty-nine, and she knew how to have fun in public when she was alone.
Most of the older guests didn’t last the first night. On the second, Viv made a show of dissipation and excess—scotch and paintball all through the estate, diving, flirting, games. She got tossed into the pool. Lucy drifted behind her, brought her papers to sign when she had to sign them, ran interference with the catering and household staff, and generally contributed to the sense Viv was reveling to forget the noose around her neck. She toasted dawn with the few guests who were still awake. By the third night will and stamina began to flag, though most of those left were too young, too dumb, to admit it. People were passing out on couches, on the pool deck. Even Viv let her self-control lapse a little; when Natalia took her hand and led her upstairs, she followed.
This, she’d needed with a depth that would have held her back from asking. It was not love, but Natalia Karpov had lost two brothers and an uncle’s family when they’d said the wrong things in the wrong place at the right time and perhaps she, more than anyone else here, understood the shape of Viv’s sleepless nights and fear. Viv shook as Natalia undressed her, though the salt breeze through the open windows was not cold. She bit her lip, her breath short, frozen, strangled by her own muscles, until at a touch sliding downward from her belly she cracked and crashed against her and caught her in a grip so tight she gasped.
Viv wept in bed after, which she hadn’t done in twenty years. And then, the true gift: she slept.
The house was still when she woke before dawn by Natalia’s side.
Time to go.
She hadn’t run from anything since fourth grade. Running wasn’t how you crushed your rivals before they could crush you, how you built a start-up into an empire while cities fell into the ocean and Internet pastors said the Rapture was at hand. Hell, running hadn’t even worked when she’d been bloody-nosed and knock-kneed and hunted back in grade school. That’s why she learned to hit back.
But here she was, running from herself.
Even Viv had to admit that was a pretentious way of putting it. Yes, as she unwound herself from Natalia in the dark, she meant to leave it all behind, her guests and her companies and Lucy and her lovers and friends and fortunes, everything the world called Vivian Liao. But this wasn’t some low-rent psychotic break, retreating to an ashram, finding Jesus or Buddha or whatever.
Vivian Liao, globe-trotting billionaire, was too closely watched to disappear. The last time she got the flu the NASDAQ lost six hundred points. (Granted, that was during the pandemic, but she hadn’t had the bad flu, just the normal flu.) The government was after her now. If she changed her shape, left her houses and fortunes and armor behind, she could become small enough to slip through the net, take shelter, and strike back.
She dressed in silence.
Call it a tactical retreat. But when she crept downstairs wearing jeans and a gray hoodie and the cheapest sneakers she’d owned since her first IPO, no phone, no earpiece, no credit cards, nothing on her wrist but a watch that needed winding, and tiptoed in those sneakers over and around the sleeping, entwined bodies of her last enduring guests, out the half-open sliding door to the first pool deck and down the stairs to the second, then past the cabanas to the beach, she didn’t feel like a grown woman, much less a fugitive titan of industry on a mission of vengeance and liberation. She felt like a kid creeping through her parents’ barren house at night. Only, the house was her house now, and the attention she did not want to rouse her own. She snuck away from her body, down to the water.
The stars had failed and in the morning mist she could not tell sea from sky. If the world were as magic as it used to feel, she could just swim out until the out turned into up and the up to upside down, and tread water and raise her eyes to see this scrap of shoreline overhead, and with it all she meant to leave behind.
The fantasy would have been sweeter if there had not been real eyes up there in the sky beyond the blue, watching her, unblinking geosynchronous satellites with precision-machined lenses. The virus she’d slipped into their brains would only blind them for the next half hour. She wasn’t taking this stroll for her health.
Not that there weren’t health benefits to being a fugitive. Her doctor had told her to avoid stressful situations, and being duct-taped to a chair while some pensioned motherfucker with a shit mustache warmed up the electrodes would certainly qualify.
She wished she could have thanked Natalia. She wished she could have told Lucy good-bye.
She raised her hood and walked away. The waves erased her footprints.
By daybreak she had filled the sails of a twenty-foot schooner one of her aliases bought through an ad hoc Swiss microcorporation. When she looked back, the mansion on the beach seemed small, and she could not see her guests, or Natalia, or Lucy, at all.
To hell with that. She had a world to conquer.
She sawed off her braid with a knife at dawn, at the harbor’s mouth where water cooled and deepened and blued. Her head felt gloriously light after, but she couldn’t bring herself to toss the hair overboard. Hair is a kind of exomemory: the chemicals of life seep in and linger. Viv had started growing her hair long in freshman year, and they’d been through a lot together. If someone could read the memory of that hair, they’d follow her through her first patent, her first ten million, her first IPO, her first breakup, the first time she had sex. But the feds had terabytes of HD video to feed their tracking software. Viv never lived small or out of sight.
And she had designed the tracking software.
She’d done the hard part already, the cutting. Now all she had to do was chuck it over the side, and let the sea take the rest.
Instead she trimmed the sails. Wind calmed at her back as she matched its speed, and Saint Kitts set behind her.
A fair breeze and the Atlantic current, still there, however weakened, helped her make good time north; she sunbathed, read when the boat didn’t need her, and savored the silence, which she wouldn’t have for long. Blackbeard came this way before they sank him. No, that was a bad line of thought. Don’t obsess over losers.
She’d been careful to choose a boat that would not touch the Internet. It had been years since she last sailed without GPS, but she’d been preparing: charts, practice, clothes, a watertight sack with false papers and non-sequential bills.
Off North Carolina she set a tiny shaped charge in the keel, barely a firework but just enough to scuttle the boat, and added a change of clothes to the watertight sack. In her hand she weighed the braid, dry from days on the deck in the sun. Should have tossed it long ago. They might find it if she dropped it here, she told herself, before she added it to her sack, sealed the sack, and dove.
The sea rubbed her scalp and wove through her short hair. She did not think about what she’d lost. She’d get it all back.
Just watch her.
She surfaced and breathed. Her days had been a hush of sails and water, and the schooner’s small explosion felt like a crack in the world.
She needed more disguise than a haircut. In a rest stop bathroom near the beach, she added a baseball cap and heavy makeup. She stared at the face in the mirror while she sterilized a needle with a Bic lighter flame: she’d practiced the technique back in Mountain View, but she still wasn’t used to such heavy paint. The makeup made her eyes look extra large, her lips puffy. She looked like someone else.
She bit her lip between her teeth, and reopened her long-healed piercings with the pin. It hurt about like she expected: a short stab, a drop of blood on porcelain that water washed away. The earrings’ weight made her head feel tight, and the metal struck cool against her jaw. She’d never minded earrings in general, or she told herself she’d never minded them, and she liked when other people wore them well, but these, now, here, felt shameful. She was changing, ducking her head, trying to look like anyone. Piercing her flesh to satisfy their gaze.
She faked a limp to mess with gait analysis, and by the time she reached the used car lot her hip hurt like hell.
Cash bought a clunker cheap in the South, especially if you pretended not to notice the damage a northern winter’s salt left on the undercarriage. The salesman got chatty—you’re not from around here, are you—and she made up a story she hoped was not too memorable, prominently featuring a boyfriend. He stood a little too close and the sun was a little too bright, and he was a big man and she felt suddenly conscious of being physically smaller, without bodyguards or a phone or a car, a woman with short hair alone and carrying cash. Not scared, exactly, just conscious in a way she had not been for years. When he gave her the keys and made some dumb joke she laughed and said good-bye and redlined the car for the interstate.
She drove north, weaving between auto trucks, slow, just shy of 80. They didn’t let humans in the real fast lane anymore; autodrivers slipped past her on the left at 150-plus. Spoilers on the smaller cars stopped them from taking flight. Viv had three of those, the Maserati and two Teslas, back at the Mountain View house, if the feds hadn’t boxed them up already.
She stopped for gas and granola bars and nothing else. She’d memorized the checkpoints and detoured to avoid them, but she still saw three not-so-random stops, four patrol cars each, tactical armor, officers ringing scared civilian drivers who just happened not to be white. The first time, she considered pulling over to help. She had before. But she’d been Vivian Liao then.
Even in her five-minute gas station stops she learned how right she’d been to change her face and hair. Her picture had become a common front-page item in the tabloids and legacy press, and brief glances at public tablets showed the stories reblogged and shared everywhere, the headline “Where’s Vivian Liao?” flanked by machine-generated #content riffing on a fact list assembled by some intern in Bangladesh—maybe a kid Viv sponsored through school, that would be a nice grim twist. Most used the pic from that TED Talk in Stockholm, the one she only did because she lost a bet with Andrea, but sometimes they chose a red-carpet photo, two years old, from the eyeblink when she was dating Danika, before Danika won the Oscar and strategically got Religion. A school photo from Viv’s valedictory address showed up on HuffPo, and the National Enquirer bribed their way into a college pic from that time Steve dragged her to The Rocky Horror Picture Show: fishnets, leather, French cuffs, spike heels, tongue out, hair crown-braided even then.
She ditched the car in a stadium parking lot in Philadelphia and hopped a train to Boston. Her heart beat faster as she neared. She knew this place, she’d mastered it once, and now she crept back in like a rat. She’d loved those streets, that brick, those cameras, those prox card readers. She’d played with them, learned from them. And that was her picture on The Globe’s front page on an Amtrak dining car table—“Where’s Vivian Liao?” The TED Talk photo looked more like her than she looked like herself.
She didn’t have to go through with this.
She had disappeared. She could go further: miss her rendezvous, grab cash from a dead drop, take the Downeaster to Brunswick and use her fake papers and the cash to get to Canada, open a pizza place or buy one, some small survival business where she could stay out of sight. Find a girl. Settle down. Her enemies might want her broken, but they’d settle for her gone.
All she’d done, she’d done to reach Boston undetected. She had weapons here, a plan, a place to stand and a lever long enough to move the world. But worlds were big things, heavy, round, and once they started to move, they rolled with crushing force and did not stop no matter how many bodies lay across their path.
In two thousand miles of road her lungs had not yet filled. But if she left now, she really would be running away.
She got off the train at Back Bay, hat down, hood up, ears aching under metal hoops, and walked toward Boston Common and the future.
None of Viv’s fitful dreams prepared her for seeing Magda Lopez grown and married, reading a romance novel in line for the Clover food truck on Boston Common.
Thin rays of silver graced Magda’s dark hair. There was more of her than there had been in school, which was healthy considering that back in school she’d run ten miles every morning before eight, and she wore a thin gold ring these days. But she thumbed her place in her book just like she used to—she hated folding pages but could never keep track of a proper bookmark—and when she looked up to search the Common’s crowds her eyes were just the same, breathtakingly brown and kind.
They had been freshman-year roommates, one of the few pairs that stuck. They’d seemed destined for disaster at first, Magda a lean coltish track star from Texas, Viv faking sophistication far too well thanks to her parents’ coaching and her own relief to be a continent away from them at last.
Magda had left a boyfriend behind. For the first week she spent an hour on the phone with him each night, and on Thursday of the second week Viv came home tired from studying and tipsy from wine after studying to find Magda lying still and staring up at the ceiling. Her eyes glittered open and her breath was deep and forced. Viv climbed into her own bed, rolled onto her side, and turned out the light. As the dark closed in Magda let herself cry again. Viv listened, and wondered what she was supposed to do, and thought of Merlin in The Once and Future King, and felt like a foolish girl a long way from home.
When Magda trailed off but had not yet gone to sleep Viv sat up in her pajamas and said, “Hey” quietly. You didn’t throw a life preserver at the person drowning, but next to them. And Magda drew a ragged breath and said, “Hey” back.
Viv took a bottle of wine from underneath her bed, unscrewed the top, poured the wine into paper cups, and asked, “Do you know how to pick a lock?”
“No.” But she was sitting up at least, with a weak smile behind the thicket of her hair.
“Do you want to learn?”
She had, and then she’d played Viv a song from Into the Woods, and Viv slept through her quiz the next day but didn’t care.
That was how it started.
And now, after years and countless miles of road, Viv held her breath as Magda searched the Common crowd for her, and wanted more than anything to be seen, for Magda’s eyes to widen and for her to wave and call Viv’s name across the grass, even though the microphones in the trees and the robot dogs on patrol would hear her. Viv needed Magda that much, and she had not let herself know until this moment. When Magda paused on her, considered her face, then looked away without a blink of recognition, Viv thought, Good, the disguise was working, but she felt like she’d taken a wrong step on false ground and fallen through.
Hands clenched around her tourist map, she made her way to Magda.
Viv had never met her old friend’s kid; Victor was born right before the Collapse, when Viv’s life turned the bad kind of interesting, so he’d be two now. She wouldn’t meet him on this visit. Magda wouldn’t take her home, too dangerous. Helping Viv even this much risked dragging in her husband, and her son. But Magda had come, just like she’d promised in the coded message she’d sent six months ago after Viv looped her in on the plan.
She couldn’t turn Viv down.
Viv had never deserved her friends.
Of all the mean and lousy things the weasels on Viv’s heels had forced her to do, by far the hardest was to tap Magda on the shoulder, watch her turn, watch her eyes light up when she saw past makeup and earrings and cap—to do all that, and not embrace her.
She wanted more than to hug her friend. She wanted, though she’d never admit it, to be hugged herself, held and anchored so the wind could never blow her away, even if her fortunes, her fame, the Mountain View house, her companies, had all been torn from her, leaving her a runaway with a rucksack, a painted face, absurd earrings. A woman with fake papers in a country that didn’t used to care so much about that sort of thing.
She wanted to be human in her old friend’s arms.
But to be human was to be weak, and she couldn’t allow that now, here, as robot dogs wandered past sniffing the Common for bombs.
She shoved her map between them, open, and her grip was so tight she ripped it at the corner. “Excuse me.” Her voice shook. “I’m sorry, I’m lost. I’m trying to get to Faneuil Hall?” She mispronounced it like a tourist, and tried to look Magda in the eye but had to look away again fast, as if she’d stared into the sun. “Where am I?”
“Right here.” Magda kept her voice almost casual. She tried to take the map and for a second Viv did not let it go and they were touching through the tense paper. Viv forced her fingers to part. “Here, see, you just go up this road—it’s not straight, exactly, nothing really is here—” Another laugh, also forced. “—until you get to a plaza with a blocky concrete building, then down these steps.” A pause. Tongue touched lip. Eyes darted up, away. “Are you here for long?”
“Just the day.” They’d arranged the code phrase in advance. I’m not being followed, as far as I know.
“If you have time—there are a few other places you should see.”
A robot dog sniffed Viv’s ankle and moved along. Magda’s breath hooked, but she did not look down. She drew a pen from behind her ear and circled the Pru, the library, other landmarks, then folded Viv’s torn map and passed it back. When Viv forced herself to thank Magda and turn away she found the map’s folds held a key, and one of the circled landmarks was not a landmark at all.
People Viv’s and Magda’s age still called this kind of place an Airbnb even though that site rebranded after the murders. Same sort of thing, though, a nice one-bedroom night-by-night rental in Beacon Hill with a skylight above the bed and that bright early autumn Boston blue above. Champagne chilled in the fridge, decent stuff, actual AOP, rare these days with the climate; a shopping bag on the kitchen counter held a packet of fake rose petals, scented candles, and, separately wrapped, a few pieces of leather Viv didn’t examine closely. A Happy Anniversary card. A ruse—wasn’t it? Magda’s wedding had been in summer, though Viv couldn’t remember precise dates anymore without her screens.
Magda arrived in late afternoon, and as the door shut behind her Viv found herself enveloped.
She couldn’t breathe. Some of that was the hug—Magda had been working out—but wetness welled in her eyes and nose and a hot fist caught her windpipe. She held her like that long-gone life preserver. Oh, god, she was losing it. And if she lost it here, if all the disintegration came over her at once, she’d never pull herself back together for tonight.
“Viv.” Magda kept repeating her name, a murmur like waves washing the North Carolina beach where Viv had lain exhausted after her swim ashore, sprawled in flotsam beside the sack that held her braid and the remnants of her life. In a way Magda’s voice was that surf. In a way Viv had only now made landfall. “I’ve been so worried, Viv, they said maybe suicide”—good, she’d hoped for that—“and I knew you wouldn’t, I knew the plan, but, Viv, Jesus, you’re alive, I can’t believe it, and—your hair.”
Magda pulled away at that, hand on the back of Viv’s skull, and Viv grinned and wiped her own nose on her sleeve like, what, I have a cold. She turned the convulsions in her gut and lungs into something someone charitable might call a laugh, and lied, “I like it better this way.” There was so much she wanted to say about how grateful she was, about what a risk Magda was taking, but those words were too big to speak. “Thank you,” she said, and Magda’s look when she said that, her shock that Viv might feel she had to say it, almost broke Viv’s last thread of composure. But Viv had been through too much to take friendship or faith for granted.
For a while neither of them moved. They didn’t mention the stain Viv’s tears left on Magda’s shirt.
“Oh! That reminds me.” Though Viv hadn’t said anything. Magda reached into her purse and removed a small package wrapped in striped paper with a red bow. “It’s not much, but happy birthday.”
Viv blinked down at the package, then up at Magda, then down again. “Magda—I’m not—I can’t—” She didn’t trust herself to finish the sentence. “I know, you’re traveling.” She didn’t say on the run. “So it’s light. Go on, open it.”
She slipped a thumb under the seam and popped the tape, and there inside was a battered old black paperback with a seated Buddha ringed in rainbows on the cover. A woman stood behind him, glowing, with butterfly wings. Viv’s laugh caught. “You’ve sent me this book, what, five times?”
“Seven. Did you ever read it?”
She shrugged, feeling only a little guilty. She hadn’t had much time for reading in a while.
“I thought maybe you’d have time now.” She was trying to keep her voice light. “I’ve never been a fugitive, but I hear there’s a lot of riding in boxcars. And trains are slow. And before you say anything, I bought this in a used book store about ten years ago, cash. So it’s probably safe.”
If Viv had been a better person she would have been able to say out loud all the things she was still thinking, like I love you, and I should have stayed, I never should have gone off and made myself big, I should have stayed here with you and the others and built small and had dumb little fights and remembered everyone’s anniversaries. But she didn’t believe that last bit really, no matter how she felt it, so she hugged her again instead, less desperate now but more firm. “I thought about you all the way here.” It wasn’t true but it approached truth sideways. She couldn’t bear to think about her. “I missed you.”
“Of course you did. I bet all the rich jerks you invited to your birthday got you, what, stock certificates or something? Come on, let’s have wine.”
Magda poured this time, and the cups weren’t paper.
Viv asked about Victor, about work, about whether she still ran and what she’d been up to in the six months since it got too dangerous for them to talk, and did not mention what she’d come to do, or how she felt. Magda had always understood Viv, even at school when there was barely any Viv to know yet, just a passel of immature reflexes drawn from her parents, her grandma’s cultural revolution horror stories, and the science-fiction section of the public library. Viv needed to be strong. So it was Magda, blessed Magda, who took the silence that opened between them after the first glass of wine and said: “It’s all ready. Just like you asked.”
That night, she would break into Ogham.
Magda didn’t work for Ogham—she never had, technically; all the code she’d written for them had been part of a subcontractor consultant sort of gig, and she was never listed as an employee, so unless the feds did the kind of legwork nobody really remembered how to do these days except the Russians and Israelis, no one would be waiting for Viv, and no one would trace her intrusion back to Mags.
Ogham wasn’t Ogham anymore, after three acquisitions, an inversion, and two name changes, but the service was more or less the same—like a police precinct surviving each new junta that rolled through town. They cached the Internet, and served it to everybody.
Here was the problem: everyone wants everything instantly, but light only goes so fast. Easy solution: you move the Internet—most of it—closer. In a place like Boston, full of universities and hospitals and biotech and normal tech—including several of Viv’s own once and future companies— Ogham served machines with more processing power than the entire planet had back in the benighted oughts. Probably enough for what Viv had in mind.
Which was war.
Not the nuclear sort, at first. In a way, her enemies had betrayed themselves by coming for her now, when they’d let her other offenses slide. She wouldn’t have known she’d found a real threat otherwise.
When Lucy asked what she was doing in all those hours blocked out on the calendar for “Research,” Viv had said machine learning stuff, which was almost true. Viv’s project—the root of all this trouble—this idea she’d been piecing together in secret, sideways, while she saw what happened to the real visionaries in this space, so many surprise bankruptcies and leveraged buyouts and “market fluctuations,” not to mention the cancers and the deaths in the family and that one particularly grisly murder-suicide, this idea that led to the audits and “discrepancies” and talk show warnings that made her cut and run because, let’s face it, a lot of those “real visionaries” had been white boys and if that’s what the suits did to them, she didn’t want to find out what they’d do to her—Viv’s project was machine learning stuff like the Death Star was laser pointer stuff.
She had come within a hair’s breadth of a real self-optimizer: a smart program that could make itself smarter, without limit. Machine uplift, changing the destiny of the human race forever.
But what concerned Viv most, for now, were the ancillary benefits.
The most obvious was that, in a world run by machines, she’d own the machines. Hello, robot army. All those cameras, all that surveillance tech, all the levers of censorship and control—her cameras now, her tech, her censors, her control. She could walk out of any prison and into any vault. Which sounded fun, but that was thinking small. The entire global financial system depended on the strength of its encryption. A truly strong, self-improving machine intelligence could tear through crypto. Simply revealing what she’d done, let alone doing anything with it, would shatter markets. She’d have a gun pointed at the head of the world.
And of course, she’d control the nukes.
The fuckers would crawl. Or she’d crush them.
She’d enjoy that.
Oh, and once that was done she’d fix the planet. Geoengineering to put the climate back where it used to be. New math would pave the way for microtailored cancer treatments. Give a system like that the silicon and iron it needed to run, and it would solve global problems by the shovelful. A silver bullet. Bang.
Next stop, the stars.
Once she built the system, she could talk to it through a wristwatch— but first she had to make a trillion-node distributed protosentient mind. The easiest way to do that would be to seed a tiny bit of code on some appreciable fraction of all the computers in the world. To do that, she needed a zero day exploit or five—easy, if you had money like hers—and a distribution system—hard, with her enemies watching.
So she’d left, and gone underground.
There weren’t many places where you could reach as much of the Internet as Viv needed without bouncing off some censor gate. If Viv was really lucky, the government still thought she was dead. If she was less lucky but still generally on the ups, they’d expect her to go for the transatlantic cable anchor in New York—it would be ideal, if she had some way to slip past the DHS security and, worse, the Google security. Ever since New York became one of those euphemistically named High Watchfulness Zones, you couldn’t hide from its cameras anymore. Ogham was almost as good, and safer.
In the Amazon rain forest there lived a parasitic fungus called the Cordyceps, which grew inside a particular species of ant. The Cordyceps hijacked its host’s tiny ant brain and forced it to climb to a high place inside the colony, where the fungus bloomed through the back of the host’s head, killing it and raining infectious spores on the colony below.
Viv would be the Cordyceps, and Ogham would be her ant.
Bad analogy. It made this whole thing sound sinister. Viv wasn’t a mad scientist. She just wanted to crush her enemies, and save the world.
And after a few more hours on the couch with Magda talking about anything else, drinking in stories about Victor, his first word (book, Magda was so proud), teething and attendant lack of sleep, and oh did Magda mention they got a dog, this chill waggly pibble so strong she doesn’t even notice when Vic tries to ride her—after an afternoon’s safety, Viv felt almost ready.
So did Magda. That was the problem.
“No.” Viv moved away from her on the couch, hands out. “You’re not coming with me.”
“Once you’re in, you just let me in through the side door.”
“There will be cameras.”
“You’re already dealing with the cameras. And the rest of the security.”
“I can’t let anything happen to you.” After saying this most naked truth, Viv felt a burning sensation all over her skin and inside, only it wasn’t shame. Pride.
“Then don’t.” As if Viv had that kind of power. “Viv, I won’t let you do this alone.”
She gripped Viv’s arms and met her eyes, level, firm. “It was dangerous when you sent me your first letter. I answered because you needed my help. Do you think I’d stop halfway? You need someone to watch your back. There’s no way you’re talking me out of this.”
“Give me the key card, Mags.”
“No.” Her voice was flat, her gaze sharp, her body rigid and earnest, and Viv fell silent before the fierceness of her. “Not until you agree: I’m coming with you. No tricks.”
And Viv, after all her careful preparation, was caught.
That night, as she approached the building in shadow and streetlight, she thought about Victor, whose first word was book, and wondered what kind of monster she was to let Magda come.
She had been alone. She didn’t want to be alone again. And Magda wanted—
No. Viv could have lied, made herself out to be stronger, more controlled, less afraid. She could have turned Magda away, refused to let her come, faked an argument. It would have hurt, but she had hurt herself enough over the last few days—she was used to the prospect.
Perhaps there was some brutal subconscious calculus at work. The more incriminated Magda was, the less risk she’d sell Viv out under pressure. But that wasn’t the whole story either. She wanted Magda there. She’d come so far alone.
Had Viv arranged all this? Not consciously. Consciously, she thought this was a horrible idea.
Did that matter?
Could your subconscious be evil?
She considered ditching her, leaving Magda out in the cold. But she had promised.
Focus on the job.
If there had been a better option than a physical break-in, Viv would have found it back in Mountain View. The digital security here was top notch, built to resist advanced persistent threats, which people who weren’t security geeks tended to call governments. The physical security wasn’t a pushover either, but it came from a company that licensed tech from companies owned, through a double handful of sock puppets, by Vivian Liao.
Not that she built back doors into clients’ systems. That would be very wrong. No, she just kept plans to their systems around in case she ever needed to analyze her way through them. To improve them. For example.
Magda’s key card opened the door. Viv slipped in. The lights here were too bright, the halls too soft and silent. She breathed deep, stepped into the light and the security cameras’ field of view, and trusted to her makeup.
She’d spent weeks before she left, and three hours this afternoon, testing this idea, making sure she could pull it off with Magda’s over-the-counter makeup printer. Her face looked like a melted checkerboard, black and white swirled and spiraling. Back in high school the game had been to fool face recognition on her friends’ phones by painting her face weird patterns. She’d just taken that idea one step further.
The cameras asked the security system whether she was on the master list of People Who Were Supposed to Be Here. The security system tried to check—which meant reading Viv’s face. But where were her eyes under that makeup? What was her mouth? The system used math to break the black-and-white grid down to meaning, but since Viv knew the math it would use, she could control the meaning it would find. So when the security system read her face, it interpreted the melted checkerboard into a few dense lines of code, and executed them.
That was the plan. In ten seconds she’d know if it worked. She tried not to hold her breath. If she’d screwed up somehow, she’d need all the air she could draw for running. Ten seconds. She pressed her palms against her jeans and tried not to think about failure. At least if she slipped up here, Magda would still be safe.
Ten seconds. Six heartbeats. Well. Under these conditions, maybe more like twelve heartbeats. Or eighteen.
The hallway lights flickered three times, and she gasped with relief— and for air. That was it. For the next hour, the security system belonged to her.
So don’t waste time, Viv. Go.
Through the front hall, left, downstairs to the side door. Footsteps froze Viv solid, but it wasn’t a guard, just some dork trudging past with a monitor under his arm. He vanished around a corner, taking with him a few months of Viv’s life.
When Viv reached the side door she knocked shave-and-a-haircut against it, and the sensors heard her and popped the lock. Magda waited outside. She waved with her fingers, smiled parade broad, and Viv, still unsure, still scared, couldn’t help smiling back. She was enjoying this too much. At all was too much.
“You look ridiculous. I love it.”
Viv raised a finger to her lips. Magda placed one beside her nose like she was in The Sting. Viv rolled her eyes, nerd, but it felt so good to see her that Viv couldn’t sell the tease.
Viv led the way. Down and down, and then—the server farm.
It was cold here. Viv breathed out ghosts of fog. Another knock, and they were in. Take that, retina scanner.
Servers stood in racks. The room was silent save for fans and the air conditioner’s hum. Viv’s first step tested the tile floor as if it might crumble underfoot. The tiles gave slightly into the storage space below, but did not rattle. Magda followed her, steps light.
This was a new experience. Nerves expected. Viv had been a lot of things in a career newspapers sometimes called meteoric, which Viv liked because it made her think of dinosaurs. Now she was a thief. Stealing her life back. Stealing the future.
Magda watched. There was a console at the far end of the racks, some ancient hunk of desktop wired into the iron. Viv crouched beside it and drew her kit from her shoulder bag: AR glasses were more portable than a screen, but nothing beat a keyboard for input. She still felt pissed at Bill Gibson for promising her transcranial electrodes and failing to deliver. Also from her pack: a single-board computer the size of an old USB key, which contained the software she needed for the job, and the Ziploc bag that held her braid.
For luck, she told herself.
She plugged her computer key into the console. The glasses dazzled Viv’s eyes and made her sick when she swiped them on. She’d logged who knew how many thousands of hours in glasses by this point, but after two weeks off, your eyes forgot.
Her fingers remembered keys just fine, though.
Usually Viv did this sort of thing to music, but she had no player here, no earbuds, no phone. No matter. Between the fans, her heart, the clatter of the keys, she made her own soundtrack. She shivered from the cold, and anticipation. After two weeks away, her wrists didn’t even hurt when she typed.
This part never looked as dramatic as movies made it seem. The command prompt was a simple bracket, and the cursor hadn’t stopped blinking since 1983 or so. In arcane tongues, she asked some of the most powerful computers in the world to do her a favor.
Some of the most powerful computers in the world said yes.
There wouldn’t even be a progress bar if Viv hadn’t coded one herself. It crept up one percentage point at a time. Viv was changing the planet with less bandwidth (for now) than some kid in Allston needed to stream his latest Disney princess fix.
A red warning light burned in the top left corner of her field of view.
“Oh,” Viv said.
“Oh?” Magda did not sound happy about the prospect of an “Oh.”
“Don’t worry about it, but . . . we’re being tracked.”
“We?” and then: “Tracked?”
It’s fine, Viv thought, it’s fine, this is the kind of thing that’s fine. A red timer ticked down as layers of her anti-tracking onion peeled away. “They’re too slow!” She laughed. It felt good to be good. It would be close, half a minute maybe, but they wouldn’t catch her before the script did its work. Thirty whole seconds to spare. Numbers don’t lie.
“You’re sure?” And in Magda’s voice Viv heard the first sign her friend might finally understand that she should not be here. Magda was remembering her son, remembering that she was not pranking university security anymore, and that was a bad idea even way back then.
Viv could be honest. She was not one hundred percent positive. Systems made mistakes. Even her systems. But the progress bar was at ninety, ninety-two, and even if it got stuck for a second, like it did just then, they’d have plenty of time to escape.
The ground shook.
Viv fell back, sat down hard. The keyboard clattered to the floor, and she lunged to still it with one hand, overcome with vertigo and fear. That must have been an earthquake—even in Boston. She recognized the gut-level uncertainty, a hiccup, a skip. But an earthquake strong enough to knock Viv on her butt should have rattled the servers in their racks and set the racks themselves swaying. Instead Magda was glaring at Viv like she, Viv, had just gone mad. “Did you feel that?”
Not a quake, then; the world had gone weird but not quite quakes-in-Boston weird. Was that how fainting felt? Viv couldn’t afford weakness now, even if she had pushed herself hard all the way from Saint Kitts up the coast. She needed more coffee, more water, more sleep, maybe a square meal. She’d have time after this. Maybe give herself a day or two in the Airbnb before she hit the road again. As soon as this was done.
She glanced at the progress bar.
It was stuck.
Ninety-six. Ninety-six. Ninety-six.
And still the red trace counter counted down.
Magda looked at Viv, and Viv saw her fear, all this suddenly real. But that last four percent, that was Viv’s life, her salvation, everything for which she had fought, died (at least, they thought so), and run. Shadowy motherfuckers in suits were tearing down her life to stop that four percent.
But Magda wouldn’t be here if not for Viv. The fake rose petals. That bottle of real champagne.
Viv had no idea what the script, ninety-six percent executed, would do— if anything. She had no idea what she would do, if she left it ninety-six percent executed and ran with Magda into the night. This chance would not come again.
There were other data centers. Other options. The New York deathtrap, for example. But when they found what she’d tried to do here, they’d be on their guard.
Ninety-six. Still. And the red counter neared zero.
She swiped the glasses off, pulled the computer key. Jesus. She was doing this. She’d done it already. The earth shook again, or was that her? All the gear, in the bag. She ran to Magda, grabbed her hand—“What are you doing?” “Getting us out of here.”—in the server racks, in thousands, hundreds of thousands of computers around Boston and the world, her ninety-six-percent-done script did whatever it could do—and there was no time to explain, she was dragging Magda to the door, glancing back—
She’d forgotten the braid.
No time. But (she reasoned, sprinting back down the hall) if they found her braid they’d know she was here, and if they knew that—
She snagged the braid, left sneaker skids on tile as she turned back to the door.
And in those seconds, everything had changed.
A glowing woman stood in the space between the server racks.
Once Viv saw her, it took her a while to notice anything else.
The woman was a cutout of light without shadow or contour. Viv thought the woman was two-dimensional at first, but when she rose from her crouch—Viv knelt before no one—the shape changed in a way that suggested three dimensions, or more. Vantablack statues looked like this in person. Fuligin, but green. The light that came off her throbbed.
The woman wore a crown and a robe and none of this made any sense, but that didn’t matter, because this weird glowing figure had her hand on Magda’s shoulder, and the green light trickled from her shadowless luminescent fingers like sap, and Magda was stuck inside it with her mouth half open, reaching out, afraid.
The air conditioner hum had stopped.
Viv thought of cats in boxes. Alive and dead at once.
“After all this time,” the woman said, “I’d hoped for something more.”
Her voice was not loud. Just close.
Viv wheeled, but the woman was not behind her. Wheeled back, and she was standing so near that her face filled Viv’s field of vision. Somehow she’d closed the twenty feet between them in a second. They’d be eye to eye if the green woman had eyes, but what she had instead was a hint of a mouth, the only feature in that perfect face, a pure black line.
Viv flailed her pack around like a mace. It passed through the woman as if through fog, but when the woman grabbed Viv’s wrist, the wrist stayed grabbed. The green woman’s strength was not a thing of muscle but a fact, like fear, and like fear it burned. Viv’s flesh began to smoke.
The black mouth opened, and something glittered inside it, but the green woman’s words did not pass through air. They ignored Viv’s ears entirely and flipped switches inside her brain instead. The voice was rich as velvet cake and cello deep, the calm, inhuman warmth voices had when spoken softly with perfect diction close to a good microphone. “Don’t fight me,” she said. “You’ll only hurt yourself.”
Viv’s skin blistered. She growled, shoved all her weight against this woman, and fell through her to the floor. Her wrist burned like nothing she had ever felt, but she was free. She came up off the floor like the world’s worst sprinter, staggered, and ran straight into Magda—but bounced off her like she might have bounced off a concrete pillar. Viv reeled. When she looked up, the green woman stood over her again. She had not crossed the intervening space. She just moved, from there to here.
Viv couldn’t flex her left hand. Her fingers were wet, but she only knew this because they slipped on the floor, leaving bloody tracks.
“Disappointing.” The green woman knelt. This close, her raiment—fuck no, Viv refused that word, refused all the majesty of her—her clothes rustled, overdubbed, too rich, like the green woman’s voice. This close, Viv felt the heat of her. This close, her light had shifting patterns, shadows, patches like the surface of the sun.
Viv was going to die.
She had suspected, accepted this might be the case when she tried to run. She had just imagined the set dressing differently. A basement, or a room in an abandoned hotel. Wires. Pliers. She’d seen beds in a schoolhouse in Phnom Penh, where they tortured people for the crime of wearing glasses.
But whatever this green woman was, whoever she was, she was just another thing like that, another form of a fear Viv was ready for. So when the woman pressed her hand to Viv’s shirtfront and the cloth smoldered, Viv tried to keep herself together. Learn what you can. Escape if you can. “Who sent you?”
“No one,” that voice replied. “I don’t enjoy this, you know. But I must learn.” She wasn’t smiling. The set of that slit mouth made her look annoyed. Viv’s burning shirt stank of knives and fear-sweat. “We are being interrupted. I would have liked more time.”
The green woman hadn’t glanced at Magda once. If her control slipped, maybe Magda could get away. Viv’s shirt burned to ash, left her chest bare. The green woman’s fingers curled. Her sharp nails glistened.
Maybe, Viv thought, desperate, grasping at shreds of logic, maybe the green woman can’t be both here and not at once.
So when the woman’s hand plunged into Viv’s chest and cracked her ribs, Viv shoved her own body up, and slammed her forehead into the crevasse of that open mouth. Hard teeth printed Viv’s skin, and she felt a bone break near her eye, but none of that mattered. There was a hand around her heart. The green woman roared, and her mouth was large, and Viv understood its glitter now. There were stars in the green woman’s mouth between her diamond teeth, and somewhere a siren wailed, and the green woman cursed, and Magda screamed. Good. If Magda could scream, maybe she could run. Maybe she could escape. Maybe Viv had saved her after all, from herself.
She felt another earthquake that wasn’t one. The green woman gripped her heart, and lifted.
The world snapped, and so did Vivian Liao.
Viv drowned in green.
Pain guided her from strangling dreams to consciousness: pain in her chest where the green woman had plunged her claws, pain so great that set beside it all her previous yardsticks for suffering—the fishhook through her thumb, the arm broken climbing upside down off a bunk bed at camp, even the pain from her melted wrist in the server farm—seemed first drafts set beside a masterwork. She flailed against the viscous green fluid in which she hung suspended. By old swimmer’s reflex she swam for the surface, only to bounce off a curved rubbery membrane.
Wait. Green? Viscous? Membrane?
Soldiers and scientists call the process of decision-making under stress the OODA loop: the subject first Observes their situation, then Orients themselves to it, Decides how to proceed, and finally, Acts.
For most of Viv’s life, that loop had spun so fast its stages blurred together like a bike wheel’s spokes at speed. But now Viv’s OODA loop stopped sharp at Orient, and she pitched against her metaphorical handlebars and struggled not to fall.
She’d spent two years of nights dreaming about what might happen if her gambit failed, if her faceless adversaries in the administration caught her. But none of her nightmares involved a jade woman who seemed like a cutout from the world, or Viv herself drowning in green slime.
Fine. Slow down the loop. Start over, at Observe.
She found her chest intact, her ribs and breastbone whole, which was a pleasant surprise, which in turn said unfortunate things about recent events. Still. Good. She wouldn’t have to worry about bleeding out.
But she could not breathe.
Her mouth was open. The green stuff filled her lungs already. That she wasn’t dead suggested the green was a kind of oxygen-bearing fluid, but if it was supposed to feed her air it must have run out. Her chest spasmed. Her throat closed. The green smelled of blood and iron and felt jagged in her throat, and her stomach registered its extreme desire to throw up.
No. Permission sure as hell not granted. Whatever had happened back in the basement—where was Magda? What had that woman, that light, done to her?—Viv refused to choke on her own vomit before she could (1) rescue Magda, then (2) figure out what was going on and whose fault this was, and (3) pay them back with extreme prejudice, before at last (4) returning to her business of world salvation-slash-conquest.
So much for Orient. Now. Decide.
She needed out. She needed up.
The membrane jiggled and screeched beneath her fingernails. She wanted to laugh. A bad sign. Hysteria. Acceptance would come next, and the end. So long Viv.
To hell with that. She traced the membrane with her hands, followed it down until the ceiling became a wall, then curved back to bond with a flat floor. Not a dome: a bubble. Her fingernails found no seams in the bubble’s surface, but it was stuck to a flat platform underfoot.
Take it easy. Control your heartbeat. This is just a new observation. Orient: there’s no easy exit. Decide: you’ll have to make your own.
She curled herself into a ball, dug her toes into the floor, and pressed her hands into the bubble’s skin. They slipped. Tried again, and again, slip.
Lights danced between her and the world. She didn’t have long. She leaned forward. The lights weren’t all inside her—a flash, a tremor, suggested movement outside. She imagined her captors watching her, laughing, taking shitty CIA-salary-sized bets, five bucks says she lasts the minute, you’re on. I hope you’re enjoying this, assholes. Fingernails wouldn’t work? Fine. She pressed her teeth against the bubble, and bit, and tore. The skin gave. It didn’t break, but stretched enough for her to hook her hands beneath.
She wouldn’t have strength for a second try at this. All or nothing, all at once. Vivian Liao, deadlift for your life.
Her muscles strained, her heart beat faster with work and rage and fear. But decades of practice at the role of Vivian Liao, supergenius, had trained her into a kind of double selfhood. Yes, there was a part of her that quaked, that wanted, that hid or wept or yearned, a part that had spent the first ten weeks of ninth grade marinating in a full-body crush on Susan Cho with her slightly curly hair and her tight pink sweaters and that gold cross on the thin chain at her throat which her father the pastor gave her—that deep animal tangle, the meat of Viv.
Then there was another Viv who sifted through the meat and muck, found what had to be done next, and did it. Sometimes it found her alone with Susan Cho, on a museum trip, between two dinosaurs, and made her ask, fast as tearing off a Band-Aid, whether she’d ever thought about kissing girls, and whether Susan would like to kiss her. That part won her the kiss—and the breakup after, but what the hell. That part won her fortunes. This was not the first time it saved her life.
Her arms strained in their sockets, her legs, her knees, use proper form, dammit, it’s more efficient, spread the earth with your feet, trick every microcontraction you can out of this goddamn meat puppet, just get this motherfucker up. Up!
The skin tore.
The bubble ripped up the side and the green gunk rushed out and so did Viv. She burst free on the flood and collapsed, coughing green, choking until she drew her first breath of cool pure air, sweet as Susan Cho.
Her lungs hurt as if she’d never used them before. She sobbed between gulps of air, and tried to stop herself, and eventually succeeded. She realized she was cold, and realized after that that she was naked. Her nudity had not been worth noting in the bubble, since clothes were far down the hierarchy of needs past “not drowning.”
She heard a muddled commotion, growing more distinct as fluid drained from her ears. The thunder sharpened into the clang of metal striking metal, and there were screams, pained grunts, cries—not cries of terror, not canned McDojo kiais, but the unbidden roars human beings made when they tried as hard as they could bear to do something, and found, against all odds, that they’d succeeded. Some of those cries cut off abruptly. There were more screams. Whoever had caught her was under attack. Something was not going according to someone’s plan.
She rubbed green from her eyes, and blinked away the blur.
Where was she?
In a puddle, most immediately, alone on a dais in the center of an egg: eggshell white, eggshell round, eggshell empty. Small bright lights flickered and swarmed behind the alabaster wall. LEDs, maybe. No wires she could see, no fixtures. No visible cameras or mics, though that meant nothing. As torture cells went, it was more Silicon Valley than she’d expect from the current administration.
No exits, of course.
She was just trying to work up the urge to look for one when a door-sized section of wall bulged and petaled open.
Viv scrambled to her feet. She didn’t know where she was, or who was holding her and why, but whoever walked through that weird door might confuse her collapse, reveling in kiss-sweet air, for surrender. She refused to give these assholes the satisfaction.
She skidded, slipped, to hide against the wall near the improbably opening door, tensed to run, tensed to fight.
And a robot walked in.
Her OODA loop locked again.
Viv knew robots. Robots cleaned her house, robots drove her to work, robots built most everything she’d ever owned. Creepy blank-faced receptionist robots had long since replaced bank tellers in Japan.
But she’d never seen a robot like this.
It walked with unsettling smooth grace on oddly bent legs, and scanned the room with burning ruby eyes rather than cameras. She didn’t recognize the design of its joints, or the materials that composed its body—black sharp tines and what looked like broken glass, illuminated from within by pulsing red light. What tech was that? Nothing Viv knew, nothing she’d even seen gestures toward in Kenya’s best android labs. Viv’s robots moved like demon puppets. This moved like a person comfortable with killing.
The head spun toward her, and the torso followed. Eyes pulsed. Long fingers, three to each hand, shifted to extend knifelike claws.
Viv was still trying to figure out how the robot worked when it lunged.
She dodged too late, but her foot slipped and the fall saved her from the first sweep of its blades. Competence saved her the second time: she rolled to one side as its claws plunged into her cell floor, and kicked the robot hard in a span of its side that looked less spiky than the rest. Its claws tore free, and as she scrambled to her feet the robot’s limbs gimballed and wheeled until it found traction. It glared at her, red-eyed and furious.
And she almost died.
The robot opened its fanged mouth. A brilliant glow built within its throat, and if she’d spent a split second wondering why rather than diving left, landing hard on her side, and skidding in green goo, the bolt of light would have gone straight through her stomach rather than simply tearing a hole in the wall. The swarming lights behind the eggshell sparked and the chamber went dark.
She smelled ozone. Get up. Run. Don’t just fucking lie here. But her arms wouldn’t move.
She breathed rabbit fast and shallow and lay still and she could see nothing but the robot’s thorn-tree silhouette in the light through the open door. Its red eyes revolved toward her, and its fangs flickered as the weapon in its throat recharged. Laser? But she’d seen it—so, no. Plasma? But the light was so coherent, so directed. Even if it had been some kind of laser, all the weapons she knew that worked on similar principles needed a car-sized power source. But this one was a single integrated component of a robot already more complex than anything she’d ever known.
And in that moment, her preconceptions collapsed. She had no idea what was going on. Where she was. What was happening to her, and whose fault it might be. What might happen next. All her nightmares of basement rooms and torture electrodes and government agents were a kind of comfort compared to this: a structure of certainty telling her what was going on, who might come for her, how bad it could get. She’d built waterworks to contain her fear and convert it into options.
Lying naked and cold on the floor in the green goo before the robot, she felt those waterworks give way. Whoever had caught her, they weren’t government. She hadn’t mapped this territory. She was a stranger here.
But she knew who she was, and she would not lie down and wait to die.
So when the fire built in the robot’s mouth again, she tried to dodge.
Her left leg slipped out from under her, and she slammed against the floor again and skidded and, well, it hadn’t been much of a dodge but at least it wasn’t lying there to wait for death.
She heard a whipcrack and an explosion of sparks, and smelled more ozone, and curled herself into a ball and tensed for pain that did not come. Then she opened eyes she hadn’t realized were closed, and saw a monk standing between her and the robot.
It was a good thing she’d already given up. Now she could stop denying what she saw, and actually observe.
She’d thought monk because his head was shorn, and because he wore a red-and-yellow robe—but he was corded with muscle, and he held a club of multifaceted crystal in each hand. Lightning crackled along his left club, and from its glow and the light of the open door, she saw he was beautiful, dark, and strong.
He glanced toward her, earnest, concerned, and opened his mouth to speak—but the robot leapt at him, and his expression shifted back to oh shit as he spun to block with his clubs. They moved in silhouette. The robot’s claws tore into his robe and drew sparks, but did not pierce through. Its fanged mouth snapped at his throat, and he stepped back and knocked it in the face.
She’d seen people fight for money and for need, and she’d never seen anyone fight like this man: every movement natural and intent. The robot wasn’t strange to him. And he’d saved her life.
She found her feet, and circled around the battle’s edge. If she could get behind the robot, maybe she could jump it.
Or, a more practical part of her suggested, she could run for the door. What did she think she was going to do? Kick the robot to death? If she wanted to feel better about leaving the monk behind, she could tell herself she was looking for a weapon, a way to contribute. But what did either monks or robots have to do with her?
Before she could decide which way to run, toward the robot or the door, the robot’s head spun all the way around on its neck, and it lunged for her again.
So did the monk. He tackled the robot in midstride, and as its mouth opened and the fire built within he jammed his club down its throat and twisted with all his weight. The robot’s neck cracked. The monk fell first, and the robot fell on top of him. Viv heard a loud wet sound as the long blade on the robot’s elbow pierced through the monk’s robes into his stomach.
He growled his pain through clenched teeth. He forced his free arm up, club held in a reverse grip, and drove it down into the robot’s chest. With a loud pop and a hiss, the red light in the machine went dark, and its burning eyes died.
Viv stood naked over the dead robot and the bleeding man. The light from the door cast her shadow over them both. The monk’s arms went slack and he let go of his clubs, but rather than falling they flowed and swirled into crystal bracelets at his wrists, because why the hell would they not. He tried to push the robot body off him, and groaned when its elbow blade moved in his gut. He tried again, but his second push was weaker, and the pool of blood on the floor beneath him spread.
The door stood open.
She didn’t know anything about this man. A glance, that was all. She was alone here.
There might be more robots. Knowing her luck, there probably were. She should go. She should have gone already.
She’d never seen this much blood coming out of a person before. He was stapled to the floor. What could she even do?
She’d never seen a man so close to death—let alone a man so close to death for her own sake.
She took a step closer.
His eyes were wide with pain, with fear he would not be strong enough. Whatever story of adventure and heroism he thought had brought him to this dark eggshell room, this, now, was real: the blood, the blade in his stomach. He would die. And it was her fault.
He looked nothing like Magda at all.
Viv knelt over him, and guided one of his hands to the entrance wound. “Press down.” She demonstrated. He blinked, confused, but obeyed.
She heaved with her arms and legs and he screamed once as she lifted the robot off of him. She’d half expected a fountain of blood as she relieved the pressure on some cut artery, but there was less than she’d feared. Without the robot’s weight, he could breathe, shallowly. His teeth showed. One hand fluttered at the sash of his robe, which was thick with pouches and ornate tools, some of which she recognized. He kept trying to open one particular pouch, but his hand was bloody and his fingers slipped.
She opened it for him, and removed the contents: a thin silvery cloth that, unfolded, was a little larger than her palm. “What do you want me to do with this?”
He hissed, and pointed weakly at his stomach. “Patch.”
The sound his mouth made had nothing to do with the English word patch, or any word in any language she knew, but her brain connected sound to meaning as easily as if he’d been speaking English or Spanish or Mandarin.
She nodded. He took his hand off the wound, and she saw his robes had somehow drawn away as well. The hole gaped. There was meat inside him, and the wet walls of organs. But there was metal, too, and some weblike black tissue over the organs, and rather than throw up she covered the wound with the silver patch.
At least, she tried. The patch wiggled in her hand as it neared the wound, and she would have pulled away had he not grabbed her wrist and tugged her down.
The patch slapped against his skin, and he roared. It burned and moved beneath her palm, and his hand went deathly cold on her wrist. She felt his flesh knit, and where her fingers had once been able to tell where the metallic cloth stopped and his skin began, that divide blurred. The worked muscles of his abdomen flexed and so did the patch, which was neither metallic nor burning hot anymore, though quicksilver still against his dark skin. Then he lay still, sweaty, breathing.
Outside, the battle raged on. In here, they breathed together.
He tried to sit up, and though he winced with pain he did not scream. His eyes found hers and he said “Thank you” in that language she did and did not understand.
“Thank you,” she said back. “That thing would have killed me if you hadn’t shown up.”
“Sister,” he said, “you are naked.”
“I noticed.” She decided not to quibble about the sister part. “But unless you’ve got another robe stashed somewhere—”
He brought his hand to his sash, opened another pouch there, and in a confusion of dimensions, like a magician drawing a rope of scarves from his pocket, produced a new red-and-yellow robe like the one he wore. The way his draped his body made no sense to her, so she found a hole, stuck her arm through, and felt the fabric slither over her skin, parting, framing itself to a shirt and leggings. Then it was over, and she was clothed, if barefoot.
Could have used jeans, she thought, and the cloth thickened against her legs.
Weird. But she ignored it. So much of this was weird—don’t obsess. Focus on the dark, on this man’s eyes.
“I do not know your name,” he said. “Have we failed?”
He looked so ready for her to say yes, so heartbroken and resigned to the possibility of defeat, that she didn’t know how to answer him. “I’m Viv. And, I mean. We’re both alive. So I guess not?”
He shook his head. “What of the miracle?”
There were few words in Viv’s lexicon harder to say than what she said next: “I don’t know.” She covered faster: “I don’t know what you mean by a miracle. I don’t know where I am. I woke up here alone, and that robot thing came in, and then you.”
His smooth face seemed unused to confusion. She had a sense that he’d get a lot of practice if this conversation went on much longer. “You do not recognize a Pride drone. You are not of the ’faith?”
“I mean, my pastor and I had a pretty strong difference of opinion about the whole kissing-girls thing back in high school, and ever since—”
He rolled to his feet before she could stop him, as if he hadn’t just had two feet of metal buried in his exquisitely muscled gut—he did wince, at least. He stood in a puddle of his own blood, but his robes were clean. Either they didn’t show blood, or it didn’t stick to them. He tried to take a step, and found his limit. She caught him before he made it all the way down.
“Come on, man. You just got stabbed. Take it easy.”
He searched the dark eggshell room: the dais, the green goo, the dead robot. “There was a miracle in this place. We heard it out in the ’fleet, and followed its oracles from star to star. And you . . . woke up here. Who are you?”
“I already said. I’m Viv. Who are you?”
“Hong,” he said automatically, “Brother Heretic of the Mirrorfaith. Where are you from, Viv? How did you come here?” The sounds of her name went weird in his mouth.
“The last thing I remember, I was in a server farm in Cambridge.” That didn’t seem to make an impression. “Boston?” Glass-clear confusion, as if Hong had never once lied. “The United States?” Christ. Desperately: “Earth?”
She felt colder than she had while naked. She tried to convince herself this had to be a mistake—she didn’t know what weird effect was translating his words, maybe it had messed up somehow. That was a flimsy cover, but the alternative was too shudderingly immense to contemplate. “Look. I was trying to help my friend, and some green glowing chick showed up out of nowhere, and grabbed me, and I woke up here. Now, we should get somewhere else before another one of those spiky things finds us . . .”
He fell. Her first thought was of his wound, and she bent to help him up— but this fall was controlled, and he stopped when he reached his knees. When he looked up, his eyes were still large, but strange. She didn’t like this look. There was too much awe in it, on a face that had so recently reminded her of Magda. “My Lady.”
She ignored the guilty thrill she felt at that. “Okay, Hong.” She grabbed him by the shoulder and tried to guide him to his feet. “Come on, buddy. We don’t have time for this. I doubt we’ll have this room to ourselves much longer.”
“It’s you,” he said. “A miracle in flesh. The Empress brought you from your land for some strange purpose, and I did not see it.”
“This Empress—is she a glowing green lady? Deep voice?” Viv remembered the scorn in that voice, the smell of her smoldering shirt, the hand that had torn her heart from her chest and dumped her . . . wherever this was.
“The Jade Queen is one of the Most High Lady’s guises. Please, forgive my blindness. I called you sister.”
“I’d rather you call me Viv.” He shook his head. “Look, Hong. Are there more of those, what did you call them, Pride drones? Looking for us? For your miracle?”
He nodded mutely.
“So. Maybe that’s me, and maybe not, but I don’t see anything else around here, and either way I’d really like to not die. I have to get home. And I owe your Empress a punch in the neck.” Hong’s eyes widened. But then, he’d been talking about his Empress with a kind of religious awe, highly structured language. Maybe from his perspective she’d just proposed decking Jesus. Whatever. Later was a good time for worrying about that stuff. “She hurt my friend. She stole me from my home. I have to get back. So, just for now—no more Lady stuff, all right? No kneeling. Just Viv and Hong. Getting out of here, together. How does that sound?”
Hong closed his eyes and for a moment she was afraid she’d broken him. Then he reached out his hand, and she took it. His palm was callused and his fingers thick, and despite his wound he stood as if no one had ever had trouble rising. “Good,” he said, and she believed it. “Can you run?” They’d just jumped out of an airplane hand in hand, and here he was asking if she’d brought the parachutes.
“Yes.” She glanced down at his wound, his patch. “Can you?”
He smiled then, the unforced smile of a boy, or a man who sees his duty clear. “I can manage the pain, for now. We will take a left out the hall, then our second left and straight ahead to my ship. And if I fall behind, do not look back.”
Excerpted from Empress of Forever, copyright © 2019 by Max Gladstone.