Max is a cheery xeno-archeologist from Earth, stranded and trying to find a way home. Lahra is a stern warrior of a nearly extinct race searching for her people’s heir. Wheel is the couple’s cybernetic pilot running from her past and toward an unknown future…
The trio traverse the galaxy in Michael R. Underwood’s space opera adventure Annihilation Aria, publishing July 21st with Parvus Press. Read an excerpt below!
The crew of the Kettle are deeply in debt to the drifting city’s most powerful gangster, and she wants her money back. So when a dangerous but promising job comes their way, Max, Lahra, and Wheel have little choice but to take it if they have any hope of keeping their ship, and themselves, afloat. But the crew of the Kettle gets more than they bargained for when they find themselves in possession of a powerful artifact, one that puts them in the crosshairs of the Vsenk, the galaxy’s ruthless and oppressive imperial overlords.
Before they know it, Max, Lahra, and Wheel are pulled into a web of galactic subterfuge, ancient alien weaponry, a secret resistance force, lost civilizations, and giant space turtles. The Vsenk will stop at nothing to recover what the crew of the Kettle has found and Max’s brains, Lahra’s muscle, and Wheel’s skills may be all that stand between entire planets and annihilation.
Can they evade space fascists, kick-start a rebellion, and save the galaxy, all while they each try to find their own way home?
Max Walker was very good at running for his life. He had plenty of motivation, given the ravenous horde of purple space locusts nipping at his heels. He cradled the mapping device in his arms, shielding it from the locusts. Dying would be bad. Coming out empty-handed wouldn’t be much better.
It was that kind of day. A “you really should have come up with a better plan, but hindsight is 20/20, and hey, you’ve got a kickass wife with a giant sword beside you, so it’s not all bad” day. Unfortunately for Max, those days were pretty common. But hey, he hadn’t died yet.
Lahra Kevain, said kickass wife, ran beside him, keeping stride, though she could have easily lapped him any time she wanted. Lucky for him, she’d decided that she liked him enough to save him from the aforementioned horde of space locusts. Even wearing a twenty-kilo set of EVA-capable armor, Lahra moved with impeccable grace. It made sense though, since she spent more time in her armor than out of it. A soldier-caste Genae, Lahra was made for battle. Even when she was running for her life, she wasn’t really worried.
As far as he could tell.
They fled the tomb so fast that Max could barely maintain his mental record of the turns and doorways and puzzles that had taken them hours to work through on their way in.
But now, there was only running. And holding onto the mapping device, which would maybe, possibly, hopefully give Max and Lahra the information they needed to finally make real progress on their respective missions.
One of the locust beasties ripped a chunk off the heel of his space suit. Air bled out like a whoopee cushion, and his O₂ gauge started sagging.
“We need to run faster!” Lahra said, still calm despite the odds.
“This is me running faster!” Max replied through huffs and puffs.
Max kept his eyes forward even as he felt the beasts scraping at his heels and crunching beneath his feet. They were gaining.
None of this would have happened if the tomb had been properly sealed. But no, some grave robbers had gotten to the site before them and screwed everything up. Great job, assholes. He’d refrained from kicking their skeletons. It wouldn’t help.
“Keep going!” Lahra said, and he felt her drop back.
“Lahra, no!” The vid feed from Lahra’s suit showed the horde of locust beasts swarming her, the screen filling with the purple creatures and their black teeth.
“Die, beasts!” she shouted, her scattergun barking death in every direction. “Wheel is just around the corner! I will catch up.”
More gunshots. More dead locusts. But the next sound was different—a cry of pain from Lahra.
Max hailed their pilot, Wheel, on the ship. “We got swarmers here. Need a hot extraction.”
“No atmo, no flamethrower, kid,” came Wheel’s reply. On easier days, Max would describe Wheel as terse.
He could see more of Lahra in the diminished cloud of locusts, her armor gouged and slashed in dozens of places. But the smile on her blue-hued face told him she’d be fine.
“Hit the wall!” she called. Max dove to the side. It’d only taken a few months to accept that in a fight, Lahra knew best.
A blast from the scattergun disintegrated another chunk of the swarm, and Lahra burst free, the creatures fading into the shadows.
She staggered forward, swatting away a few stragglers. “Get us out of here, now!”
They took the final corner and ran down the rest of the hallway. Max’s O₂ gauge was tickling the red.
The Kettle’s forward lights flashed through the small passageway Lahra had dug through the rubble. It had only been a few hours, though it felt like days.
“Standing by. One of these days, you kids are going to walk leisurely out of a tomb, arms full of loot and not pursued by anything.”
Max chuckled. “We wouldn’t want to give you a heart attack.”
“I mean, if that did happen, those nanites would just jump-start you, right?”
“Better to nail the jump than count on the net, kid.”
Lahra’s feet pounded on the floor of the temple foyer as they approached the rubble. “There was never real doubt that we would succeed.”
Max crawled through the tunnel, still babying the mapping device. The hold of the Kettle opened like the maw of a friendly fish, Wheel holding the ship steady. Lahra followed shortly after, sword-first since she wouldn’t fit with the blade locked onto the back of her suit. He offered her a hand as she emerged from the tunnel. She took it and squeezed, letting him “help” even though she was fine on her own. It was one of the many ways they showed one another that they were a team, always looking out for one another. Like when she’d sit up with him as he was studying even though his research could literally put her to sleep.
Max took one last look at the tomb as the ship pulled away, the ramp rising to close. Another brush with death, another run-and-gun engagement, and, if they were lucky, another step closer to home.
But whose home? And what did that mean for him and Lahra?
* * *
Lahra sang “Sahvo’s Embrace” to her armor in the sun-soaked cargo hold. The embrace was an aria of resilience and rebirth from the epic of Zhore, sung originally by a love-struck guardian to the princess who was her charge.
The song awakened the suit, allowing her armor to repair itself using the sun’s energy. The coral-steel resonated with her voice, stitching itself back together, scalloped ridges and joints sealing and smoothing over. One by one, traces of her and Max’s last misadventure faded, and the suit returned to its optimal form.
Lahra stood in underclothes, the cargo hold baking as mostly-filtered sunlight streamed through the starboard portal. The portal nearly filled an entire side of the cargo bay, eight meters high and ten meters long. The radiation of the nearby star was reduced such that it would not harm her but would still power the suit’s regenerative capacity, guided by her song. And it might help restore the lustrous azure tone her skin had gained that summer working sentry on the grain farms of Ikerr.
Her voice was low, solid, like packed earth. Her mother’s voice had been richer, like fresh-tilled soil. Halra Kevain had sung to Lahra all her life, taught her all the songs needed to operate the suit and to fight as a royal guardian. All of the greatest power of the Genae was conveyed through song, from the marches of the royal guards to the songs of restoration, as well as the snippets Lahra had picked up from other Genae.
Lahra’s repertoire was a mere shadow of the full power of the soldier caste, so much of their legacy lost.
Lahra lifted the heel of one of the suit’s legs and watched the puncture hole close over. More warmth slid into her tone as she continued, diving into the chorus. “Sahvo’s Embrace” was meant to be sung in call-and-response, sergeant to her squad. She’d taught it to Max, but with the way he fought (mostly through stealth and hiding behind solid objects), it failed to serve its original purpose. The Embrace sang strength into a squad’s suits and their limbs, recalling the rebirth brought with the sun’s return in the spring.
Max stood on the other side of the cargo hold, bent over his laboratory and research desk, where he had hooked their just-liberated device into his terminal. Up a ladder from the hold were the gunner’s turret, the living quarters, and the hatch to the engine room. Above that, at the top and front of the ship, was the cockpit—Wheel’s domain.
Max all but lived at his desk. In the seven years Lahra had known him, he’d always been driven, focused, but also kind, charming. He remembered names as easily as textual citations. But not songs. Singing was hard for him, his voice thin. He had an ear for language but not music. A cosmic joke, one of many.
The suit was whole, her song complete. She left it in the sun to absorb energy, her greatsword locked in place on the suit’s back.
“How goes the decryption?” Lahra took her customary place to Max’s left, looking on as he worked.
“Mostly there. Anything I can’t crack, Uwen can take care of. Anyway, he likes it when I go to him for help. Think he enjoys feeling useful.”
“Or that you still have more to learn.”
Max nodded, the wall lamps illuminating his brown skin. “Which is true. This section here still makes absolutely no sense to me. And without that, I can’t tell if the chart is telling us to go into the center of the Forbidden Sectors or if it wants us to go beyond warp space.”
“Surely it is the former.”
Warp space delineated the known galaxies. Beyond those bounds, ships crawled along at a fraction of the speed of warp travel. The Forbidden Sectors were so-dubbed because they held the core of the Old Atlan Empire, destroyed by the Vsenk in their usurpation. But since those broken or abandoned planets contained forgotten Old Atlan technology, they were an ideal place to hunt for artifacts.
“I sure hope so. Not sure we could convince Wheel to take a three-month trip on burners only.”
“You want me to take the ship where now?” Wheel called down the echoing halls of their ship. The Kettle was small enough that it was hard to ever be truly out of earshot.
“Nowhere yet!” Max shouted back.
Lahra laid a kiss on his temple, her fingers trailing along his shoulder and neck as a reminder and a promise. “Let me know if you need any help.” She relished in his happy shudder and hauled herself up the ladder by door to the engine room. She walked by her shared quarters with Max, Wheel’s quarters, the bathroom, the gunnery station, the ship’s meager galley, and then up another short ladder to the cockpit.
Cruji snored in one corner, curled up in his straw-laden cage. The Molja was a mass of tentacles and feathers and had no practical use aside from boosting morale.
Wheel was elbow-deep in the Kettle’s control console. The Atlan’s skin was the color of faded moonstone, arms and much of her back replaced by cybernetic implants. When she plugged in all the way, the console grew to meet her, screen connecting to a cybernetic eye, panels and switches sprouting cables to interface directly with Wheel via ports from head to hip.
The Atlan were the only species fully adapted to cybernetic enhancements, allowing them to control spaceships through a neural link. Lahra or Max could pilot the Kettle, but only Wheel could truly inhabit it. Atlan’s cybernetics spanned a wide range of technologies, none more fiercely guarded than those allowing direct connection with ships’ computers and warp drives.
Lahra and Max had been working with Wheel (and as a result, living on the Kettle) for several years. Wheel was taciturn, mostly liked being left to herself and the ship’s business, but she had unparalleled contacts—including fences who would take nearly any Old Atlan artifact Lahra and Max could find.
The Atlan had once ruled warp space, but when the Vsenk took over, the Atlan homeworld was destroyed and the survivors scattered to the winds. They survived by adapting and through their monopoly on the capacity to interface with warp drives. What took a day’s travel via warp space would take months otherwise.
Now the Atlan were pilots, mechanics, and engineers. They’d made themselves essential but rarely held power beyond their lock on transportation. The Vsenk resented the Atlan’s adaptation and continued to scapegoat them at every turn.
“How’s the imperial traffic?” Lahra looked out the viewscreen into the black. Sensors would pick anything up before her eyes could, but she couldn’t break the habit. And any system could fail. “Always trust yourself more than your gear,” her mother had sung to her time and time again. That line was one of dozens from a song she’d composed to a traditional tune, an amalgamation of half-remembered lessons from her own youth.
Wheel’s arm twisted, and a map with dozens of red dots popped up on the screen next to Lahra, showing their weaving path through the gaps left between the imperial sensors. “No patrols within range. Just the buoys they’ve littered around the system like Drell droppings.”
To hear them tell the tale, the Vsenk Imperium had ruled for ten thousand years. They created the universe and loved their creation so much that they chose to live among their children as benevolent god-emperors.
Lies, all of it. The Vsenk had overthrown the Old Atlan and made warp space their own a thousand years ago. Since then, they’d tried to erase every bit of history they could. Controlling schools, outlawing texts, enforcing an imperial monopoly on comm relays, the Vsenk kept a tight grip. But the Vsenk had destroyed a half-dozen inhabited worlds along the way, eliminating most of the Atlan’s greatest technology.
The Empire could keep the real histories in the margins, but people remembered the truth of the Vsenk’s rise and the Atlan’s fall. Most were just smart enough not to say so where the Vsenk could hear them.
The last people to challenge the Vsenk had been the Genae, Lahra’s people. The Genae gave the Vsenk their greatest challenge, but in the end, even the battle songs of her sisters were powerless against the Vsenk’s super-weapon, the Devastation. The Vsenk cracked the entire planet of Genos into several pieces, ending the war in one stroke. The surviving Genae, including Lahra’s great-great-grandmother, scattered on the solar winds, swearing vengeance and pledging themselves to restoring the crown.
The Vsenk were many things—cruel, arrogant, aggressive; but above all else, they were absolutists. They prized decisive victories.
With more than two dozen systems to patrol, however, even the Vsenk couldn’t be everywhere at all times. By best estimates, there were only a few thousand Vsenk, even after centuries of aggressive breeding programs to counteract their low fertility. They leaned heavily on a vassal-driven military, which meant that Lahra and Max could operate at the edges, keep off the radar, and be about their missions without running afoul of Imperial forces for more than a bribe here or there coming or going from docking stations.
Most of the time.
“How long until we’re back at the Wreck?” Lahra asked.
“Without attracting Imperial attention? Better part of two days.”
Max walked into the cockpit on the comms. “That should be plenty of time to figure this thing out and be ready to chat with Uwen.”
“Two days it is,” Lahra said. “I’m going to check our supplies, see how much of our payment we’ll need to end up pouring back into the ship.”
Wheel cocked her head to the side the way she did when she was analyzing data. “The Kettle’s plenty hungry, but she can last a while if need be. As long as you two are fine eating algae paste.”
Max made a sound of mock delight. “Just like momma used to make.”
“Why not?” Lahra asked. “It’s incredibly efficient food.” Growing up, efficient food wasn’t available. You took what you could get.
Max had come from Earth, an industrialized, non-spacefaring culture. But at least they too had music, so they were odd, not barbaric.
Lahra slipped into a song of memory as she began her rounds, tallying spare parts, rations, and more. The song helped her hold the numbers and details in her mind, a musical memory palace.
They’d survived another adventure, and now the song of battle and exploration gave way to the daily work songs of maintenance and travel.
Until the next explosion. Which would inevitably come sooner than they expected.
* * *
“Okay, I’ve got good news and shit news!” Wheel called down to the lovebirds.
“Shit first, dessert second!” Max called back.
“The shit news is that the there’s an Imperial patrol boat parked just outside the Wreck. Probably trawling for bribes. Good news is, we made it. Hurray.”
Max’s frustration echoed through the halls and up into the cockpit. “Fucking greedy assholes. Bet you the entire Empire would collapse in on itself if they couldn’t get people coming and going. Base tax rate’s already highway robbery.” His footsteps echoed through the halls as he approached, Lahra alongside him. The Imperium didn’t just suppress historical truth and tax citizens within a centimeter of their life, they also aggressively conscripted troops from vassal planets and encouraged infighting through scapegoating and competition for appointed political positions.
Wheel pulled her gaze from the comms to scowl at Max. “Play it cool, okay? I don’t want the Kettle flagged in every imperial system for the rest of eternity.”
Lahra shrugged. “It’s only a matter of time before we end up on some list or another of theirs. They have as many lists as there are imperial citizens. Suspected dissidents, information smugglers, heretical historians, draft dodgers . . .”
Wheel tuned Lahra out as the Kettle took its place in line. Half an hour later, when they finally pulled by into range of the bribe boat, Wheel took the call.
The voice was melodious, probably a Rellix. “Vessel, you are required by Imperial law to transmit your information and submit to search.”
It was a constant struggle trying to make a living on the edge. Imperial patrols at every port requiring licenses and bribes, taxes pushing most everything into gray and black markets, and the humiliation of keeping up their ring-kissing supplication skills.
Wheel sighed, then switched her comms to broadcast. “This is freighter designate the ‘Kettle.’ Captain and proprietor Wheel speaking. I am transmitting my license and registration codes.” She sent with it a notice of an unclassified credit packet transfer that could be assigned anywhere by the recipient. Cleanest, simplest way to send a bribe. Flunkies could even send it up the chain to their bosses. If you were being extorted at the end of a barrel, making the transaction as easy as possible tended to get you out of the line of fire faster.
“Yes, confirming receipt of your transmission, Kettle, thank you for your prompt reply.” She could practically hear the Rellix measuring the bribe and weighing their response.
A few moments later. “Freighter Kettle, your data are in order. You may proceed. For the Empire.”
“For the Empire,” Wheel said through only mostly gritted teeth. It wasn’t enough to bleed them dry at every port; the Imperium also demanded that they speak their words, bow to their flag, and salute their god-warriors on sight. For the rulers of a galaxy-spanning empire, the Vsenk’s egos were terribly fragile.
Wheel had spent the past decade out on the periphery and had no interest in going back into the core planets, where the Imperials had squads in every neighborhood, overbearing propaganda posters, and vid-screens looping their official histories. The dangers and uncertainties of the edge were far more comforting.
The Kettle’s comms pinged again. Jesvin.
Wheel’s whole body went tense. Voiddamnit.
They were getting it from all sides today. Her nostrils flared as the message played through her comms implant.
My dearest Wheel,
I’ve received word that you’re returning to our glorious home, and I look forward to hosting you in one of my fabulous garages. I know how you like to pamper the Kettle after your little adventures, and I want only the best for you. While my finest engineers are seeing to your ship’s needs, I hope you’ll do me the courtesy of coming over for Vrial so that we can discuss your recent ventures and that little matter of your outstanding debt.
I remain dutifully yours,
Wheel steadied herself and sent a confirmation receipt, red creeping in at the edges of her vision. Without an immediate response, Jesvin would just repeat the message every five minutes until Wheel replied or until the Rellix’s goons could track her down.
“Get up here, you two. Jesvin’s on our ass again.”
Excerpted from Annihilation Aria, copyright © 2020 by Michael R. Underwood