The Firmament of Flame is the third installment in Drew Williams’ Universe After series—available now from Tor Books! We’re pleased to share an excerpt below.
For nearly a century, the Justified have been searching for gifted children to help prevent the return of the pulse. Until recently, they thought they were the only ones.
Jane Kamali and her telekinetic protégé Esa, now seventeen, barely managed to claim victory against a Cyn—a being of pure energy—hell bent on hunting down the gifted. Now they face an army.
The Cyn and their followers will stop at nothing to find Esa and the others. No one knows what they want, but Jane, Esa, and their allies in the Justified are determined to find out.
Even if they have to go to the ends of the known universe to do it.
This is not my fault!”
“This. Is. Entirely! Your! Fault!” Jane wasn’t just shouting because she was angry with me—though she was, she was very angry with me—she was shouting to time her words between the cracks of her rifle shots, the echoes of the gunfire booming down through the great vaulted chamber we found ourselves suspended above.
Even shouting between the reports of her rifle, her words were almost drowned out by the crackling bolts of electricity that kept soaring over our heads, not to mention the roar of the belching flames jetting from the exhaust pipes below. Underneath all that chaos, there was also the tramp of dozens of steel boots, that particular sound coming from the automatons left behind to maintain this space station, automatons now trying to kill us instead. The service bots were clambering out of the piping that curled down the walls, boiling from vents and ductwork, emerging from every possible crevice like mechanical maggots bursting out of metallic internal organs, an image from some station mechanic’s body-horror nightmare.
How many machines did you need to keep a space station running? A few hundred, apparently, and they were all very interested in killing us, even though we were trying to stop the station from self-destructing, which would have vaporized all the automatons right along with everything else onboard. “Self-preservation” didn’t rank high on non-sentient automation’s programming.
“It’s not!” I protested to Jane, tracking the targets rushing toward us through the steam and flashes of chaotic light, though I was saving my rounds until they were closer. Meanwhile, I kept arguing, because… well, because that’s what I did. “We’re on an intelligence-gathering mission! I was gathering intelligence!” Now the machines were close enough to hurt, and I punctuated my sentence with a staccato burst of small-arms fire from Bitey, my submachine gun; timed it just as Jane stopped to reload. Even my lesser-caliber rounds punched right through the automatons, carving pathways through their steel exoskeletons; these things went down easily enough, but they just kept coming, more and more of them flooding from the crevices and cracks in the station’s framework.
“We’re on a very specific intelligence-gathering mission; that means gathering specific intelligence! It does not mean—Sahluk! Ammunition!” Jane shouted her interjection further back the reactor core, to where the big Mahren— seconded to us for our current wild goose chase—was holding the center span of the catwalk, along with Sho. The mismatched pair—the massive stone-skinned security officer and the only half-grown Wulf, his fur slick with sweat in the heat—were laying down fire as well, defending both our position forward as well as Javier and the Preacher, further back; Javier was covering the Barious as the synthetic tried to hack her way into the mainframe of the suicidal AI running the station, trying to get us access to its core.
The machine intelligence hadn’t been suicidal when we’d first come onboard—it had been perfectly welcoming, then. It was only after Schaz tried to access some of its internal databanks—to track down who had been here before us, otherwise known as “the entire reason we were out here”—that the machine had gone, well… insane. It had been a trap, the AI wired to self-destruct as soon as someone came asking—that someone being us. Fortunately, it took time to overheat a station’s fusion core, time that we could hopefully use to stop that incredibly catastrophic thing from happening— but the machine knew that was what we were trying to do. Hence the army of repurposed service bots.
Sahluk was a little busy to respond to Jane’s request, given that he was trying to pull his big rock fist out of the center of one of the automatons, but Sho acted in his stead, pulling a magazine from the big bag o’ bullets the Sahluk toted everywhere with him. Winding up like he was pitching in some sort of sport with a very odd-shaped ball, Sho hucked the magazine through the snapping connections of electricity with a surprisingly good arm. The young Wulf had spent several years paralyzed from the waist down; he was mostly better now, thanks to some exobraces wired directly into his nervous system, but he still had the upper-body strength he’d developed hauling himself around without the use of his legs.
I fired Bitey dry, trying to hold back the horde as Jane grabbed the thrown magazine and slapped it into her rifle; of course, even while she was doing that, she took time to berate me. “‘Intelligence gathering’ does not mean haring off to investigate every Golden Age relic we come across!”
“I had the watch,” I responded hotly, beginning to back up toward the others even as I swapped out magazines myself—our position was going to be overrun; it was just a matter of time. “It was my call! We knew the cultists had been through this system, and it only made sense that they would have stopped here: plus, clearly—I was right!”
“And if we all die here, I hope you take a great deal of solace in that fact! You should have woken me; you should have woken Marus, or the Preacher, or Sahluk! Hell, you should have woken Javi!”
“Wait, why am I last on the list?” Javier asked, from far enough away that his voice was coming through the comm rather than over the sound of fire and electricity and explosions that filled the cavernous reactor. Even through the patchy connection, though, I could still make out his incredulous tone. “We are off the maps, Jane,” I said through gritted teeth—that wasn’t just my anger, it was also a side effect of me gathering up my teke; I let it loose in one big blast, the telekinetic force smashing into the wave of enemies charging up the catwalk at us. That sent them crashing backward into the ranks of the machines behind them, creating impacts that sent limbs clattering across the pipes and into the fire-filled exhaust ducts below. “We’re out of leads— this was the last system where we had any sort of vector for the cultists’ transport. I had to—”
“Ladies, perhaps save this conversation for once you’re off the death-obsessed space station,” Marus said calmly—of course, he could afford to be calm: he was still safe onboard Khaliphon, in orbit around the station, along with his own apprentice, a young Avail called Meridian. Granted, the two of them were still helping—along with the AIs of our networked ships, they’d been diverting energy to other parts of the station, the only reason the reactor core hadn’t already overheated—and granted, they’d still die if the entire thing went up in a ball of atomic fire, but at least Marus didn’t have dozens of reprogrammed maintenance machines trying to tear his head off his shoulders.
“No!” Jane replied, her voice still just as hot as Marus’s was cool. “She only ever listens to me when she’s—”
“Through!” the Preacher shouted, cutting off whatever remark Jane had been about to make and stepping back from the panel. With a sharp jerk, the Barious unplugged herself from the access port, the connections still trailing sparks. “Esa, Sho—you’re up!”
I fired Bitey dry—yet again—then turned, already running, the catwalk shivering under my boots as the entire station began to quake; we were close to a meltdown now, as evidenced not just by the shaking, but by the marked increase in fricking lightning singing over my head and flames belching out of exhaust ports around us. Time was… definitely of the essence.
As I passed Sho, he was already dropping to one knee—counting on Sahluk for cover, and the Mahren was doing just that, achieving said cover by bashing together two automatons until they came apart in his fists—and the Wulf’s eyes were sparking like thunderstorms at sea; he was channeling the electrical currents from the atmosphere into himself, filling his body up like a battery. Granted, that wouldn’t have been hard at the moment, given the sheer amount of electrical energy surrounding us, but it would still take him some time to draw it all into himself, and I still needed to be in place before he did.
I ran faster. The big blast doors at the end of the catwalk were sliding open, the Preacher’s hack giving us access; the AI core was visible now, hanging over the reactor furnace itself like a giant mechanical heart—you’d need a vertical leap of about twenty feet to get up there with the access ramp retracted, which, of course, it was. I didn’t have a vertical leap of twenty feet.
What I did have was telekinesis.
I passed Javier and the Preacher, both firing down at the automatons still trying to overwhelm our positions, and I pushed at the catwalk beneath me just as I reached the edge; pushed hard. Newton’s third law kicked in, and I went sailing upward, toward the AI core. I was going to make it. I was going to make it. If I didn’t make it, I was going to fall into atomic fire and vaporize, moments before the station itself did the same thing, taking my friends with it. I was going to make it.
I hoped I was going to make it. Propelling oneself across a deadly drop into atomic fire with a bone-rattling push of telekinetic power that came from being born soaked in radiation nobody understood wasn’t really an exact science.
I made it, barely; hit the edge of the core hard enough to bruise, then clung to the exposed piece of piping on the bottom with the tips of my fingers just before I slipped, fell, and got vaporized by the heart of the reactor. Gritting my teeth, I tightened my grip until I could free a knife with my other hand—all the time I spent arguing with Jane aside, I was always glad she’d drilled into me very early on to never go anywhere without a knife—and used the tip to jimmy open the access hatch on the side. With that done— still hanging over an atomic furnace—I plunged the blade in between two of the connections, at the precise spot Marus had told me to look for, the information gleaned from the schematics he’d been able to download before the station shut him out.
Golden Age AI tech, and we were going to do a hard reboot with a conductive knife and about a megajoule of direct current. There had to have been a better way to do this.
Too late to think about it, though: that megajoule was headed my way, courtesy of Sho—he’d gathered up all the electric energy he possibly could, then sent it leaping into the catwalk at his feet, headed my way like a lash of current. It was already racing along the metal in cresting waves. The rest of our team were grounded thanks to their combat gear and the catwalk itself, but I was hanging in the air, completely exposed to all that power—and that was very much the plan.
The energy arced up off the catwalk, snapping above the glow of the atomic furnace beneath me—a bright line of azure lightning cutting through the orange blaze of the reactor—and I reached out with my free hand to grab hold of it with my teke, letting it build and build and build and build until I couldn’t hold any more.
That was when I poured all of it into the knife.
For a moment, I didn’t think it was going to work. I was sure it wasn’t, in fact—I was going to lose my grip, or the core would just explode, and either way I’d go tumbling into the atomic fire, and that would be it; our search for the cultists who worshiped the Cyn would be done, our search for answers would be done, and all we might have learned, all we’d learned already, would be gone. We’d never return to Sanctum, we’d never be able to tell the rest of the Justified what we’d found, as it had been months since we’d last been able to send them a broadcast; we’d never know if there had really been a cure for the Barious, a cure for the pulse, a way to turn the fact that the Cyn could eat pulse radiation into something we could use to do good.
Maybe Jane was right; maybe I shouldn’t have altered our course.
Then everything around us shut down: everything but the fire of the furnace beneath me—the lightning, the belching flames, even the automatons— it all just… stopped, ground to a halt like a Golden Age piece of tech being exposed to pulse radiation. There was a moment of silence, deep and still, and then the AI core came blazing back to life.
Steel shutters slammed closed over the reactor core beneath me; I let myself drop, slowing my descent with another burst of teke. The crushing horde of automatons began to jerk back to awareness, their homicidal tendencies wiped along with the reset of the AI, and they went wandering off one by one—those that still had limbs—presumably looking for brooms or whatnot, to clean up the mess we’d made on the way here. It had been half a millennium since the end of the Golden Age; hell, maybe they’d be happy to have something to do for once, even if that was just sweeping up rubble and shell casings and their own blown-off limbs.
“Welcome to the Raizencourt Observatory, travelers,” the AI voice said brightly, restored to the friendly, welcoming tones she’d used before whatever trap Scheherazade had triggered had sent her into a suicidal algorithmic crack. “How may I help you today?”
Just don’t try to murder us all again, machine; that would be a good start.
The observatory’s externally induced suicidal tendencies averted, our little troop—including Marus and Meridian, who had joined us from Khaliphon, now that there was markedly less murder happening on board— gathered in the station’s lobby, just off the docking bay where we’d set down our ships. The lobby’s walls were decorated with tasteful images of worlds and systems taken by the Raizencourt telescopes, a somewhat… bizarre collection of perspectives, given that those same worlds and systems might not have looked anything like those images any longer, assuming they even still existed at all: this station wasn’t just a pre-pulse relic, it was pre–sect wars, too, from a time period before the primary occupation of most beings in the galaxy had become the eradication of every other being in the galaxy who didn’t think exactly like they did. Odds were, at least a handful of the worlds in those picture frames had been destroyed completely, wiped off the galactic maps.
Marus and Meridian, the two “intelligence operatives” (read: “spies”), had joined us so they could pore through the data the Preacher had accessed from the observatory, once a thorough scan had revealed there weren’t any more traps of a suicidal nature hiding in the AI’s code. The spies made a mismatched pair, Marus with the bright green coloring and slim-shouldered frame of the Tyll, and Meridian—like all Avail—with skin like cut obsidian, so dark it seemed to swallow the light around her.
Still, they were no more mismatched than Javier and Sho, the fur-covered Wulf already broader through the shoulders than his human partner, despite the fact that Sho still had a few years before he hit full maturity. And mismatched species or not, there were reasons Sho had been assigned to Javier, and Meridian to Marus: “boundless curiosity” was the first descriptor you’d reach for when it came to the pair of explorers, whereas “emotional stability” was probably what you’d be more likely to apply to the pair of intelligence operatives.
I kind of hated to wonder what that meant for Jane and me, what commonalities someone might find in us, but we’d been partnered up for over three years, and whatever similarities we now shared that we wouldn’t have otherwise, I was comfortable with them.
While the spies worked their way through the data, the rest of us argued about the trap we’d wandered into; that was… kind of what the Justified did. Argued, I mean.
“So. They know we’re on their trail,” Sahluk said, his usual understatement still sounding like a minor rockslide.
“Or they’re just paranoid,” Jane shrugged; Jane always thought people were paranoid, mainly because that’s what she saw when she looked in the mirror. I’m not complaining—her paranoia had kept us both alive, on several different occasions—it just meant she tended to see it, even when it wasn’t there.
Sahluk shook his head, rubbing at the fringes of crystal “beard”—a sign of advancing age, one Mahren started to develop once they slid into their second century of life—that lined his jaw like stubble. “They were using this place as a staging ground, as a processing area,” he replied. “Nobody else knows it’s here, or it would have been picked clean by now, and it’s too damn useful to destroy just on the off chance somebody came along—this was aimed at us, specifically.”
“He’s right,” JackDoes agreed; the little Reint engineer had also steered clear of the fighting earlier, though he’d been onboard Bolivar, Javier’s ship, in the docking bay, because, among all of us, he had the least combat training. I understood why the Sanctum Council had sent him along: with four ships on an open-ended mission, they’d known we’d need a starship engineer to keep us all flying—already had, in point of fact, several times over the last six months—but he was still the one I worried about when violence erupted, as it always seemed to. Sho had grown up in a war zone; Meridian, at least, had several years of Justified field training under her belt, if not practical application; JackDoes was the only one of our team who wasn’t rated for combat of any kind. Violence just wasn’t in his nature.
“This was a trap, and it was set for us,” the Reint continued, his wide-set reptilian eyes blinking rapidly as he leaned forward to turn his viewscreen around so we could see. I had no idea how to actually read what he was showing us—I’d grown up on a heavily pulsed world, so computer programming was very much not my area of expertise—but his tail was swishing behind him in excited emphasis, so I just assumed the data proved his point. “It was put in place recently; very recently. As in, the recruitment vessel—the same one whose vector we followed here—left it behind after they exited the system.”
Six months of searching, and that was the best lead we had: a single cargo vessel, jury-rigged to haul people rather than heavy machinery, one we’d tracked from a heavily pulsed world, a world often visited by cultists who came offering salvation… salvation that came in form of “shining beings who could wipe the pulse away.” The cultists called themselves “the Bright Wanderers,” but the beings they had described during the recruitment session we’d infiltrated—described in tones that bordered on worship—sounded exactly like the Cyn, and it was the Cyn we were after.
Jane and I had run into one of the forgotten species almost entirely by accident, during a routine mission to pull a gifted child—Sho, as it turned out—from a pulsed world. The Cyn had been after him as well, but we were less interested in why the Cyn were collecting gifted children than we were in the biological anomaly that the Cyn themselves represented: namely, as beings of pure energy, they subsisted on radiation, which meant they could eat pulse radiation, could “cure” pulsed worlds, or at least pockets of them. Even if there were somehow billions upon billions of their kind, hiding somewhere in the galaxy, they couldn’t cure the whole universe, of course—but just a handful, on just the right worlds in just the right places, could make a massive difference.
Yet none of them had tried. In the hundred years since the pulse—and nearly five hundred since the Cyn vanished from any historical record—no Cyn had been seen, not until Jane and I had been attacked by one of the glowing bastards. He’d been a homicidal maniac with a zealot’s fervent belief in some form of apocalyptic religion—the sort of thing these “Bright Wanderers” also seemed to buy into, which wasn’t a good sign—but just because he’d been a murderous lunatic didn’t mean all of them were, and finding just one of the Cyn willing to eat the pulse around, say, a Barious factory would mean the reversal of the slow-motion extinction of the synthetic race, an extinction the Justified had unwittingly set in motion when they’d detonated the pulse bomb in the first place.
That was why the Preacher was with us, at least. “The Cyn you met on Sho’s homeworld—he worked alone,” she mused, leaning back against the wall, her metallic exoskeleton gleaming in the overhead lights. “Yet these Bright Wanderers seem to worship his kind as some sort of… saints, or demigods, as avatars of some greater force.”
“So did the Cyn we met on Odessa,” Javier reminded her. “Kept going on about a ‘goddess.’”
“Which is not a phrase we’ve heard the Wanderers use, yet,” the Preacher pointed out. “These ‘Wanderers’ worship the Cyn; the Cyn worshipped something else. I don’t know that we can safely assume they’re part of the same collective. That doesn’t mean”—she held up a palm to forestall Sahluk’s objection—“I don’t think we should be following the cult; just that we should keep in mind that the maniac who… desecrated… Odessa Station might not have been in league with these… believers.” The electronic glow behind her eyes flared a bit at the mention of Odessa, the station where I’d been born, the station where the Preacher had conducted experiments to try and cure her people of the pulse—experiments that had resulted in me, a gifted child exposed to much more powerful doses of radiation than most, and so with much stronger gifts to match.
The Cyn had arrived on Odessa shortly after the Preacher had fled with me in tow; he’d butchered his way through her former colleagues—a massacre she hadn’t known about until we’d returned from our confrontation with the Cyn, and told her what had happened just after she’d exiled herself. She couldn’t take a Cyn on directly—their ability to manipulate energy meant destroying the fusion core in her chest would be as simple as thought to them—but given the anger that constantly threaded through her voice at the mention of the Cyn, that was probably a good thing… for the Cyn, at least.
“In league with him or not, they’re still selling snake oil to poor pulsed worlds that don’t know any better,” Sahluk grunted. He’d been born into the Justified, and spent most of his life on Sanctum—he tended to view pulsed worlds as blighted, benighted war zones, because if he set foot on one, that’s likely what it was: somewhere harboring the enemies of the Justified, enemies he’d been sent to root out. As a result, the Bright Wanderers’ recruitment spiel—“Join our cult, and we’ll deliver you from the pulse forever”—sat especially poorly with him: it seemed like grifters running cons on those who already had nothing left to lose.
As someone who’d grown up on a pulsed world, though, I knew there was always more to lose. “Not if they can deliver,” I reminded him. The Cyn could eat pulse radiation—we’d seen one do so, and there was no reason to believe he was some sort of anomaly. They couldn’t do it on the scale the Wanderers were promising, but it still wasn’t as though the cultists had pulled the idea from thin air.
“You know they can’t,” JackDoes said to me, his words coming out in a hiss—he didn’t mean it as an insult; the way his mouth was shaped just made everything sound that way.
I shrugged. “I know that if somebody landed on my world, offered to get me away from the violence and the pulse both at the same time, I maybe wouldn’t look too hard at what sort of conditions were attached. Given that’s how I met Jane—and how Sho joined the Justified, as well—I would say it makes a certain amount of sense, people buying into the Wanderers’ line.”
“All the more reason to stamp it out,” Sahluk answered with gravelly surety. “Not our mission,” the Preacher reminded him. “Our mission is the Cyn.” He shifted uncomfortably—his age meant Sahluk had been Justified since before the pulse, back when the Justified stood for something more than “trying to stop the pulse from returning.” He still thought like what the sect had been back then—peacekeepers, soldiers, police. Jane and Marus and Javier, all of whom had operated outside the limits of Sanctum for most of the past century, had grown accustomed to the notion that the galaxy was a crueler place than that, had the notion that trying to help everyone just got you killed, but that way of thinking was still alien to the Mahren: as far as he was concerned, the Justified did right, and what the Bright Wanderers were doing… there were a lot of words for it, but “right” wasn’t among them.
“In that case, we’re in luck,” Marus said, turning away from his own screens to face us. Like every time he looked at me, I felt a twinge of sick guilt at the ruin the Cyn had made of his face: the lunatic had taken his eyes as he screamed, while I was lying on the floor just feet away, helpless to do anything but watch. Marus had been given mechanical implants at Sanctum, of course, but they weren’t him, stood out from his green face like metal lesions, and they meant he could never descend to a heavily pulsed world again— the rads would melt them right inside his head.
He’d never given me a reason to feel guilty, of course—he’d dealt with the injury with typical Marus stoicism—and now those eyes turned toward his apprentice, who was grinning up at him, revealing teeth just as black as everything else about her, from skin to hair to irises. Marus smiled back, and gave her a nod. “Meridian managed to crack the station’s own scan logs,” he said, “and reverse engineer the data locks on the radiation telescopes, searching for different patterns than it ordinarily flags. She’s reading Cyn energy signatures; the same ones our ships picked up from Odessa. The Bright Wanderers aren’t just serving the Cyn—there’s one on board their vessel. We’ve found what we’re looking for.”
Excerpted from The Firmament of Flame, copyright © 2020 by Drew Willams.