Seven resistance fighters who will free the galaxy from the ruthless Tholosian Empire—or die trying…
We’re excited to share the cover and preview an excerpt from Seven Devils, the first in a feminist space opera duology from authors Laura Lam and Elizabeth May.
Seven Devils publishes August 4, 2020 with DAW:
When Eris faked her death, she thought she had left her old life as the heir to the galaxy’s most ruthless empire behind. But her recruitment by the Novantaen Resistance, an organization opposed to the empire’s voracious expansion, throws her right back into the fray.
Eris has been assigned a new mission: to infiltrate a spaceship ferrying deadly cargo and return the intelligence gathered to the Resistance. But her partner for the mission, mechanic and hotshot pilot Cloelia, bears an old grudge against Eris, making an already difficult infiltration even more complicated.
When they find the ship, they discover more than they bargained for: three fugitives with firsthand knowledge of the corrupt empire’s inner workings.
Together, these women possess the knowledge and capabilities to bring the empire to its knees. But the clock is ticking: the new heir to the empire plans to disrupt a peace summit with the only remaining alien empire, ensuring the empire’s continued expansion. If they can find a way to stop him, they will save the galaxy. If they can’t, millions may die.
Eris got the call from her commander when she was in the middle of killing a man.
The guard slumped against her, dead in under thirty seconds from a blade to the throat, a stab in the carotid artery. Fast and quiet. The sharp, tangy scent of his blood wafted as she hauled the guard’s still-warm body against hers and slowly lowered him to the spacecraft’s floor.
Could she have prevented this death? If she were honest with herself: yes.
But she had a job to do.
Her Pathos, the communication chip embedded within her cerebrum, echoed through her skull with the most irritating musical tune. Commander Sher had chosen it because he knew Eris couldn’t ignore it. <Riiing riiiing this is important,> the tune sang. <Listen to meee and remember don’t murder people!>
<I’m busy,> she sent back through her Pathos.
Most Pathos only had a range of a planet, half a solar system at most. Sher was outfitted with a beta design that could bounce its signal off satellites as far as it pleased as long as he knew her rough coordinates.
It irritated the shit out of her. She had a spacecraft to commandeer.
The Scylla was larger than most of the ships she’d taken in the past. It had the capability to grow large amounts of hydroponic food, and if there was one thing the Novantae resistance was short on, it was food, followed by weapons.
Eris grabbed the guard’s identity card and cut off his finger with a swipe of her blade.
Almost every ship the resistance had was taken through force or subterfuge, and Eris was damn good at her job. She slid the identity card through the slot, pressed the guard’s severed finger against the pad, entered the code, and hurried down a second hallway that led to the main corridor. Five seconds to get through this section before the alarms sounded.
<Riing riiiing this is important — >
Eris gritted her teeth. Shoved the identity card in. Pressed the finger. Entered the code.
The door slid open. Oh, shit.
Eris rolled to the ground as the high-pitched blasts of laser bullets stung her ears. They dotted the metal of the ship above her head with a deafening clang clang clang. She shoved herself behind one of the storage containers before they could correct their aim and riddle her body with seared holes. Of course there would be soldiers on the other side. Of course. She would have been better prepared had it not been for that stupid —
<Riing riiiing this is important — >
Son of a bitch.
She commanded her Pathos to answer the goddamn call.
<Finally,> came the commander’s voice
<You had better be dying,> she said to Sher as she pulled the gun out of her holster.
Eris peeked over the storage containers and hid again just as more bullets rained and exploded like stars. Eight against one, six bullets left in her antique gun. If she ever smiled genuinely, she would have, then. Challenging odds—her favorite. Otherwise she wouldn’t bother running around with a weapon so old most people didn’t know what the flame it was. She had back up weapons, of course—Eris was always prepared for the worst. She had five knives and two Mors blasters, but this was her baby: a gorgeous filigreed Colt .45 limited edition RX Blaster from the turn of the last century. She was a beauty. Updated with little add-ons to keep her blasts deadly, but the shooting style was all old-school skill. No lasers to help aim.
<We need you back at Nova,> Commander Asshole said in her head. <Now.>
<I said I’m busy,> she replied, lifting her Colt.
One, two, three down. Lasers in the Mors weaponry might be more accurate, but her little baby had a beautiful curve to its fall that lodged the bullet right where she wanted it. It had charm. It had character. She liked its quirks.
And, yes, she felt sentimental about it.
<Get un-busy,> Sher said.
<I am>—she pointed her gun—<in the middle of>—one shot to the head of a soldier—<a job>—one shot to another’s torso—<and you are>—another soldier down—<destroying my focus. And now I’m out of bullets.>
<So use one of your other weapons.> He sounded impatient, as usual. <And try not to shoot them all in the head.>
<I’m outnumbered, what do you expect? I’ve shot a few in the knee, a few in the gut.> More than a few in the head. <Not sure it’s more of a mercy to leave them to bleed out.>
The soldiers yelled — calling for reinforcements from the other part of the ship. More loyal Tholosian soldiers would be flowing into bullet crafts, speeding through space to close off her exits. Eris had to seal the doors and disable the comm system, or she’d never take the command center.
She could practically hear Sher’s sigh through the Pathos. <Hurry up. I’ve got another mission for you.>
<Are you kidding me? I’m in the middle of commandeering a ship.>
She only had the blade in her boot left and less than three minutes before the other soldiers arrived. She’d told her other superior, Kyla, that she was looking for something challenging. Kyla never held back. Eris could never decide if the other woman was obeying her wishes or deliberately trying to kill her.
<Kyla says you’re usually faster than this.>
Eris paused. <She did not.>
<She’s telling me that if you don’t finish your mission in the next fifty seconds, it’ll be your slowest run time—>
<If you’d shut up—> she lunged from behind the metal container—<for one—> threw her blade into a soldier’s gut—<godsdamn —> dove to avoid a spray of laser bullets that exploded into white lights hind her upon impact—<second.>
Eris leaped on the last soldier, tore the Mors from his grip, and slammed her fist into his face. Her body modifications were a godsend, giving her strength unmatched by a common soldier. Her punch cracked the bones of his face. He staggered, spitting blood onto the floor. He didn’t manage to recover before she snaked an arm around his throat and snapped his neck.
Sorry, Sher. Sorry, Kyla.
She heard another bullet craft anchor to the hull. The screech as doors opened. The patter of footfalls above her as more soldiers—twenty at least—came to try their luck at killing her. Eris sprinted to the door that opened the command center. The captain was unprotected now, vulnerable.
“Wait,” he only just uttered before Eris grabbed his shirt.
“Disable the doors.” Her voice was low. When he hesitated, she grabbed his arm hard enough that he cried out. “Do it.”
His fingers moved fast on the controls as he sent the commands. Captains were trained in rudimentary defense tactics, but not more than the guards stationed outside. He would have seen her through the monitors, known his skills were no match for hers. If this had been one of her captains—if she were still General—she would have either killed him or sent him back for more training. No weakness. Only sacrifice.
So far, Eris could justify the corpses left in her wake tonight. Kill or be killed. This man wasn’t attacking. Kyla told her to kill only if necessary, save as many as possible. Eris should at least try to keep her word.
“There.” His voice trembled. “It’s done.”
“Good,” Eris said.
She saw the exact moment his Oracle programming kicked in. The glossed over eyes, the curl of his lips, hand reaching for his belt. His snarled words barely sounded like the voice he used before: “For Tholos.”
The captain lunged with a blade. Eris smacked the weapon away and pivoted, but he came at her and slammed her into the ground. His hands were on her throat, a tight squeeze. Eris saw stars. The Oracle’s programming was a benefit and a curse. Right now, it was pumping adrenaline through his body and running code through his brain until all that remained was the Oracle’s commands: the god of death, I kill for thee. In His name, I give my body.
Nothing else. No consciousness. No choice.
She hit him, aiming for his kidneys. Just enough to get him off her. But it was no use; the Oracle had taken over. The programming all Tholosians had hardwired into their brains since birth was bad enough, but the chip at the base of his skull gave the AI control over his body’s motor functions.
He was so far gone he might never come back. Shorted out into what the Tholosians called gerulae. Mindless servants. Human drones.
Eris edged the knife out of her wrist sheath and struck. She aimed for his arm—a disabling move—and shoved him hard enough to knock him on his back.
“Captain? Captain, come on. You’ve got to fight through the—”
“In His name,” he murmured, grasping the hilt of the blade. He yanked it out of his arm in a single move.
“Captain—” Eris scrambled to her feet.
“I give my body.”
The captain slit his own throat.
Eris stopped short, shutting her eyes at the sight. “Fuck,” she breathed. “Fuck, fuck, fuck.” She reached into her pocket, closed her fingers around the small animal figurine there. The weight of it helped her breathe. But it was a poor replacement for the man who had given it to her.
<Eris?> Sher’s voice came through the Pathos. <Is it done?>
She closed herself off to feelings. There was no place in her line of work to mourn the dead. There was only this: small moments after a mission. Taking stock. A quiet moment to tally up her kills.
Even the ones she’d intended to save. Or the ones she’d given quick deaths.
Did the Captain count?
<Yeah,> she told Sher, trying to keep her inner voice light, even as a heavy weight settled in her chest. Guilt had become too familiar. <Tell Kyla I beat my personal best for a ship this size.>
<Well done,> he said. <Now report back to Nova.>
<Fine. Be there as soon as I can.>
She pulled out of the call, stepped over the captain’s body, and entered a command into the ship’s computer. She might have killed a few to take the ship, but the ones who survived their wounds would have the chips at the base of their skulls removed, and be deprogrammed of Oracle’s influence. They’d be given another chance on Nova. Sacrificing the few to save the many was the way of the Resistance, and who survived was simply the luck of the draw.
The God of Death did not have favorites; he simply took.
Eris locked the other soldiers in and directed the ship back to Nova headquarters. Maybe some of the soldiers would be freed of Oracle’s programming and could be turned to the cause. Most would fail, and she was delivering them to their death.
She unclasped the necklace at her throat, with its tiny metal scythe, and bent over the captain’s corpse. She might not have been able to save him, but she could offer last rites. The ones she would have given in her previous life. He would go to one of the seven levels of the underworld of Avern, each the realm of a god. For the Tholosians, gods and devils were one and the same. Light only shown by the dark.
And her patron god was Letum, the most powerful of their pantheon. Death Himself.
Eris whispered a prayer to her insatiable god.
“Dinnae do this tae me, ye temperamental piece of silt,” Clo cursed.
Last night had been a late one. The Chrysaor had given up yesterday, and Clo had been dragged out of bed closer to midnight than dawn. The weather had been just as humid and hot as during the day, and the water system had been completely bogged. She’d spent a good hour cursing out the green mechanic who had let it go dry.
But that was the Resistance — never enough of anything to go around, equipment held together with little more than tape, bad welding jobs, and a prayer. Clo had managed to fix the damn thing and the ship had taken off for its mission. Less than five hours of sleep and she was back at it again.
The sand dunes rising around the compound were orange, yellow, and red. Every pore was drenched in sweat, sand, and engine oil. If she got hungry, she could probably cook an egg on the flagstones. Clo had been working on this engine all morning beneath the Novantaen sun. Another world from the damp, marshy swamplands where she grew up. She never thought she’d miss the smell of sulfur, peat, and stagnant water. Sometimes the Resistance itself seemed as dried out as this empty planet they’d claimed as their own—a movement that could crumble into dust. Clo swiped the back of her hand across her forehead. At least there were no wee flying beasties that bit in a swarm here.
The Valkyrie X-501 in front of her should be flying like a dream, but the damn ignition wasn’t communicating to the engine. Useless.
“We need yer wings, my snell one.” With only the metal of the spaceship to hear her, she always slipped back into the Snarl dialect of her youth. Maybe if she changed tactics, cajoled instead of insulted, the thing would listen to her. “Wouldn’t ye rather be out among the stars than mired on this blarin’ rock?”
On the next landing pad over, Elva battled her own engine. Like Clo, she worked alone. Unlike Clo, it wasn’t by choice. Elva was one of the few Evoli in the Resistance, a defector of the enemy of Tholos. The Evoli Empire was the last great holdout against the Tholosians, and with the Tholosian resource-rich planet Charon experiencing a mass die off as a result of an asteroid strike, the Empire’s food stores were strained to support all their citizens. They were desperate to conquer the farming planets owned by the Evoli.
Elva’s skin was dotted with swirls of freckles in patterns that branded her as different from Clo or the other Tholosians at Nova. The markings fell down Elva’s neck like stripes and curled around her collarbones. She had once told Clo that the pattern followed the lines of cell development in the skin.
Clo had become very familiar with those freckles one night in her bunk. The night hadn’t repeated itself, instead giving way to an easy friendship. One mechanic to another.
Elva’s knowledge was vital, and the Evoli tech she wove into the machines made them sing. Though the Tholosians at Nova had been deprogrammed of the Oracle’s influence, superstition ran deep, and some still whispered that the Evoli were majoi, especially their leaders, the Oversouls. Sorcerers that knew your every thought and emotion. They claimed no secret was safe. That they’d eat children, sucking the marrow from their bones.
Elva didn’t even eat meat.
“Elva!” Clo called. “Can I borrow your welder? Mine’s sunk!”
The woman nodded, crossing over to pass it to Clo. The sun highlighted the darker dapples in her red-gold hair, threw her features into sharp relief. They were a pretty people, the Evoli. Taller, almost ethereal, even when covered in engine grease. Unfair.
“You need a hand?” Elva asked, her Evoli accent dancing over the words like a song.
“Nah, I got it. Good luck on the Typhon.”
Elva flashed a grin and loped back to her ship.
Clo reconnected the wires again, even though she’d already done it three times this morning. Maybe if she tied them up extra tight. Her fingertips were calloused and nicked with countless scars from endless hours in machines. Clo climbed out of the engine and swung herself into the cockpit, grunting as too much weight hit her bad leg. She had a hole in the left knee of her trousers — Kyla would be right brackish when she saw it — and the dull silver of her prosthetic caught the artificial lights. She rubbed the part where skin met metal. She could never tell how much pain was physical and how much mental.
Clo started the flight sequence, whispering a half-hearted prayer to whatever sedging gods were listening — if any — then tapped her left shoulder, an old good luck movement from her childhood. She’d tried to translate it to Sher once. Closest she got was: never let the water level of the swamp go above yer shoulder, or ye’ll be head-deep in shite.
The engine fired to life. And then it purred.
“Yes, my beaut!” Clo called, slapping the walls.
She ran diagnostics while the spacecraft quivered, tapping her mech cuff and watching the readings with bated breath. Green lights. Atmosphere fully regulated. The temperature cooled from the inside of an oven to perfectly pleasant. Clo could smell herself, like old cooked onions. Not nice, but at that moment, she didn’t care.
She tapped out a message to her fellow nova that she was giving Valkyrie a test run and got the all clear. She fired up the launch sequence and the Valkyrie gathered speed, skimming along the fire-gold sand before swerving up, up, rising above the ocher and brilliant orange mountains of Nova and into the purple of the sky.
Clo let out a whoop, hands dancing across the controls, and the ship moved like an extension of herself. She sluiced through the atmosphere and up into the stars. Nova grew smaller in the distance.
It was only up here, in the darkness of space, that she felt truly at home. More than the old Snarled swamp of her childhood, more than the sweltering Novantae desert. One circuit of the planet, and then she’d touch back down and make sure everything was still functioning. Or maybe she could chance two orbits. A little more fun.
Clo probably should have shrugged into a spacesuit in case the ship’s atmosphere gave up, but she’d been too impatient to get off the rock. She rarely left now that Kyla had grounded her, since she lost her leg. No more reconnaissance, no more stealing ships from Tholosians. Much as she loved fixing engines, she was bogging bored.
She was a quarter of the way around Nova when she got the call. “Cloelia,” Kyla said, voice crackling over the ship comms. “I’m switching over to Pathos. Answer it this time.”
Clo had a habit of ignoring her Pathos when she was working on engines, even though Kyla yelled at her not to. <Hey Kyla,> Clo said, cautiously, all traces of Snarl gone from her voice. She sounded just like any other vial-grown Imperial. She shouldn’t be in trouble. She’d gotten the all clear.
<Touch back down. We need you at headquarters.>
<Right now?> Clo asked, fighting down annoyance. No second orbit for her.
<I have a mission for you.>
Clo’s pulse sped up, her fingers tightening on the control. <About time. I’ll just finish my circuit.>
Kyla let out a short laugh. <We’ll see how happy you are when you find out what it is. Have fun.>
Her hands tightened on the controls. From above, the planet looked even more like fire. The oranges and rust of the mountains, the yellow of the sand. The dusky blue of the small, rare pockets of water dotted throughout the desert planet. The Novantae resistance pumped most of their water from deep underground.
A tiny, overheated planet in a forgotten corner of the galaxy. The stronghold of the Resistance, hidden far from the Tholosian empire. Full of stubborn, fierce fighters, determined to be a thorn in the Empire’s side. There were no illusions here. It would take time and effort if they had any hope of toppling the Imperial family. But those working for Nova could make things difficult—and maybe, if the Resistance grew and flourished, they could make a difference. Skirmish by skirmish, ship by ship, soldier by soldier freed of the Oracle’s programming.
One. At. A. Time.
And maybe, she thought wryly, long after my aged corpse is launched intae space, those shitegoblins will be off the throne.
Clo landed right where she’d started. The Valkyrie set down like a dream. As she swung out of the cockpit, she uselessly patted at the shirt of her oil-splattered uniform. There was sand in the creases of fabric, the hole in her left knee looked awful, and her buttons were tarnished despite a polish from the harsh wind.
<Do I have time to wash and change clothes?> Clo asked as she motioned for Felix, one of the other mechanics, to bring The Valkyrie back into the hangar.
<No,> Kyla said.
<Seriously, I stink. Like sweat and oil.>
Clo could practically hear Kyla’s annoyed sigh. <Now, Cloelia.>
She broke into a reluctant run, grumbling at the use of her full name. Only her mother had called her Cloelia, and only when she had been well-salted with her daughter.
Clo opened the barracks door and stamped in, shaking sand from her boots. Sher and Kyla stood together; this must be one Avern of a mission for both Novantaen co-commanders to be here. They were often apart, one or the other off training recruits, checking ongoing missions, or surveying their growing spy network. Clo’s face softened at seeing Sher. He’d been away too long. Sher was technically her commanding officer, but she thought of him as more of an older brother, ever since he’d plucked her out of the swampwater and given her something to believe in.
Sher was tall and lean, muscled from his past training as a soldier for the Empire. His dark brown hair was in desperate need of a cut and his stubble was longer than usual, meaning he’d probably been at some silthole of a forgotten outpost for the past month. Just skimming mid-thirties, his face was still unlined, his skin a light, golden brown, but he was older than he appeared—one of the first cohorts of soldiers completely genetically engineered and programmed for fighting. He’d been among the only survivors of that particular crop of infants, along with Kyla.
Kyla stood taller than her co-commander, even in flat heeled boots. They were genetic siblings—born from vials within minutes of each other. She’d been forced to present as male in her time in the army, but transitioned after escaping Tholosian rule fifteen years ago with Sher. Her skin was a warm brown, a shade darker than her brother’s. Her hair fell in long, black curls that no pin or hair tie could cage. Clo could never decide if it was the fact that Kyla looked like she could kick Clo’s cattail without breaking a sweat that made her so formidable, or if it was Kyla’s eyes: black as ink and so piercing they made Clo squirm.
“Okay,” Clo said. “I’m here. Hey, Kyla. Welcome back, Sher. And—wait a minute—” She reached for his face—an insubordinate move for anyone but her. “Look at that fuzz! You trying to grow a full beard?”
Sher dodged her hand. “Oh, shut up—”
“You are! Look, how patchy.”
“I was going for distinguished.”
“Of course you were.” She leaned into him. “Distinguished. I’ll bet you’re trying to look all serious and broody for the troops, right, Kyla? He can’t fool us.”
Kyla didn’t answer, but she looked amused.
Sher rolled his eyes and gave Clo a side-on hug—then immediately wrinkled his nose. “What’s that smell?”
Clo glared at Kyla. “See? What did I tell you? She wouldn’t even let me wash, Sher. I’ve been at the engines since dawn.”
“This is more important,” Kyla said, serious again. “Before I brief you, I’m going to need you to remember your training: keep a clear head; stay calm; don’t act without thinking; don’t—”
A throat cleared behind her. Clo twisted, taking in the small woman in fragmented pieces before her mind put them together. Delicate features, deceptively doll-like, skin too pale for the harsh desert, hair night-black.
But those eyes weren’t really green. The last time Clo had seen that face, those eyes had blared a luminous gold. The cold, brutish expression was just the same.
If I ever see ye ‘gain, I’ll drain ye t’the dregs, Clo had vowed the last time they met.
She always kept her word.
Clo’s Mors was in her hand without a second thought. She pointed the gun at the other woman and fired.
Excerpted from Seven Devils, copyright © 2019 by Laura Lam and Elizabeth May.