Millions died after the first contact. An alien weapon holds the key to redemption—or annihilation. We’re excited to share an excerpt from Karen Osborne’s unforgettable science fiction debut, Architects of Memory—available September 8th from Tor Books!
Terminally ill salvage pilot Ash Jackson lost everything in the war with the alien Vai, but she’ll be damned if she loses her future. Her plan: to buy, beg, or lie her way out of corporate indenture and find a cure. When her crew salvages a genocidal weapon from a ravaged starship above a dead colony, Ash uncovers a conspiracy of corporate intrigue and betrayal that threatens to turn her into a living weapon.
“All right, she’s gone. What the hell happened out there?” Keller asked.
Ash’s memory flashed in bright light, a searing headache, sheer, choking panic, then the calm of realizing it was all over. Christopher’s voice. “I opened the locker to see what was inside. Whatever it was, it knocked out every circuit I had.”
Keller frowned. “Before that. When you were having a seizure.”
“I didn’t have a seizure.”
“Your hand was shaking.”
Keller sighed and stood, straightening the hair hanging in strands over Ash’s forehead. “Do not bullshit me out here, Ash. You know my mantra.”
“Space plus bullshit equals death,” Ash recited.
Keller nodded. “Your illness is getting worse.”
Ash bit her bottom lip. “No.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Damn it, Ms. Keller. I’m not even forty.”
“Stop using my citizen’s name when we’re alone. I’m Kate to you. And I care about you, and I’m sorry about—”
Anger flared bright in Ash’s chest, and the words came as fast as a cascade failure. She couldn’t stop them. She didn’t want to stop them. “Sorry? You know what’s actual bullshit? This. Stringing me along, making me fall in love with you when I was still hurting over Christopher, then telling me we can’t be together—” She hauled in a breath. “And then shit like this, making me hope, getting us hazard scale pay, when I know where it’s actually going to end up. Making me look at you, saying you care about me, every single day, while you know how I feel—”
Keller’s fingers grabbed her upper arm. Ash tried to yank herself away, but they tightened, the lights of the bridge catching in the stones of Keller’s citizens’ rings. Her grip almost hurt.
“I didn’t make you do anything. I wouldn’t. I would never. But you know what would happen if anyone discovered we’d been together,” Keller said. “You know they’d reassign you, probably to a shit detail like the one you had at the Wellspring mine, and when your new doctor found out—it would be over for you. Never say I don’t care. If I didn’t care, if I still didn’t want this to work, I would have had a very different conversation with Solano. You need to be patient. I’m working on it.”
An ugly displeasure kindled in Ash’s belly. “You arranged for my indenture to be served aboard Twenty-Five, and you can arrange for it to be served elsewhere just as easy, huh?”
Keller looked hurt. “That’s not what I mean. You’re really talented. I would have wanted you here, regardless.”
“Regardless. You’re giving me one hell of a mixed message, Kate,” Ash said. “And I’m sick of it.”
The captain’s eyes hardened. “You want mixed messages, look at yourself. You say that you’re part of this crew, but you don’t tell me that you’re hallucinating. You could get us all killed.”
“That’s not supposed to happen!” The words tore free. “I can’t be patient. I’ve only been infected for a year. Hallucinations, voices, seizures, it’s all stage four endgame shit. Not tomorrow. Eight years from now. Maybe nine. But you still talk like we’ve got time.”
“Don’t we?” Keller said.
“No.” Keller closed her eyes and let go of Ash’s arm, and she slouched forward. “We still can’t make any rash moves.”
“Why not? I would. For you.”
“It’s different when you run the show.” The other woman swallowed before continuing. “I can’t be your girl out here. I have to be your captain first. That’s why. I’m responsible for your life, and for Len’s, and Natalie’s, and Sharma’s. Not just yours. I need to be honest with you, and you need to be honest with me for their sake. And we need to continue to work on getting you citizenship, and—”
“You want honesty, Kate? I’m dying,” Ash spat.
A chime from the reporting system sliced through the tension between them. Keller’s attention was stolen immediately, and Ash felt a swell of momentary grateful heat in her cheeks. She leaned forward to look over the captain’s shoulder; Keller had received a data dump from Len, full of numbers and graphs Ash didn’t quite understand.
When Keller was done reading, she grabbed Ash’s hand.
“This could be something,” she said. “Let’s get through these next few days. Rio will be here before we know it. Let’s see what the hazard pay nets us. We’ll make it work. Please, Ash.”
Ash thought about Keller’s skin on hers, the other woman’s hair running through her hands, her quarters in the dark. She felt light-headed, angry and assuaged, dizzy and as certain as she’d ever be about anything. “All right.”
Keller squeezed once more, then put the report on the ansible monitor so Ash could see it as well. “So. The thing in the locker. Do you think it’s Vai?”
“Sure felt like it,” Ash said softly. Quiet suffocation. Death. Voices.
She heard a clattering at the access tube. Sharma pulled herself out, breathless and full of blue-sweater bluster like she’d just won the lottery. “Oh, it’s Vai. For sure. But that’s not the interesting part.”
Keller sat back down. “I’m listening.”
Sharma brought up her medbay interface on the main ansible monitor, then ducked into the same report Len had just filed. “Look at those usage numbers. The Vai weaponry we’ve seen— zappers, screamers, even greenhouse bombs—even at Grenadier, they rarely registered over a six-point-two on the Miles scale, right? This one’s a fourteen-point-five. Isn’t that exciting?”
Ash’s hand started to shake, and she shoved it in her pocket. Not in front of the doctor. “I think the word I’d use is terrifying. That could take out dozens of ships. A planet.”
“Could it have killed Tribulation?” said Keller.
Sharma’s eyes widened. “It certainly could have. But that’s still not the interesting part. Number one, from the compositional analysis taken by the indenture’s pod before it failed, we know it’s not a kinetic, but it’s not a molecular style with which we’re familiar. It’s doing two things we don’t expect Vai moleculars to do. Number one, it functions when there aren’t any Vai around. Number two, it let Indenture Ashlan live.”
The doctor’s face was formal and excited all at once, and she waved her hands in the air like a child at a birthday party. “That’s nothing compared to number three. What if the fourteen-pointfive isn’t power output, but power input?”
It took Ash a few moments to catch on, but Keller’s eyes widened immediately, and she stood, crossing the bridge until she was nose-to-screen with the data. “A battery. An engine?”
“A zero-point battery. This could change everything,” Sharma said. “I mean, it’s been posed by some people at HQ for a while that the Vai use zero-point energy, but it’s always only been a theory. And if this is real, the fact that it drained the pod battery and disrupted Ash’s memory is . . . worrying. It could be messy. That doesn’t mean it’s out of the question. General quarters or not, all the scientists on London would have wanted to see it. And power loss explains why we never received most of the battle data.”
Sharma went silent. Keller stayed where she was, staring at the numbers, swaying like a squirrel charmed by a cobra. Ash’s mind was a sudden deluge of implications, rolling over each other faster than she could open her mouth to say them, but one of them was in front of all the others.
“An end to scarcity,” she said.
She might as well have dropped a bomb in a quiet forest.
Sharma pointed to her. “We hope,” she said. “We don’t even know what the Vai look like, let alone have any idea how Vai energy exchange works. Human spaceships are easy to describe: refined celestium fuel powers the grav-drive, the grav-drive powers virtually everything else. But for all we know, Vai ships are powered by magic. We figure out how this works, and everything changes for Aurora. This could be the difference between survival and suicide if they come back, the thing that keeps Aurora as a market leader until the end of time. We must figure out how it works. We must get this to some proper engineers. Immediately. We can’t wait for Rio. We need to call a colleague of mine on Medellin, then get back to Europa Station straightaway.”
Ash’s heart thudded. “And give up top-tier hazard pay?”
“This is bigger than any of us, indenture.”
“Oh, I know,” said Ash. She pushed off the wall, taking two steps toward Sharma. “You’re a birthright, so let me remind you of why Len, Natalie, and I are even here.”
Sharma narrowed her eyes. “You can’t be a citizen if you’re dead.”
Len popped up from the access hatch, followed by Natalie; she’d combed her hair and changed her uniform. “I heard that,” he said, “but Ashlan’s right. We’re doing this ourselves.”
Keller sighed. “Guys.”
“We need to wait for the professionals, indenture,” said Sharma, shooting a glance at Len.
Len flexed his arm. “You’re looking at them, doc.”
“Guys,” said Keller, louder this time. She rubbed her temple, as if fighting off a headache. “I appreciate your thoughts on safety, Reva, but I can’t ignore the fact that this mission could be life-changing for our indentures, and if they’re willing to try, I think we should listen to them. How do we run tests on this thing without turning Twenty-Five into Tribulation?”
Sharma crossed her arms. “We call Medellin. We push hard for Europa Station.”
Keller sighed, then leaned forward in her chair. “What about going to the planet?”
There was silence on the bridge. Natalie shuffled her feet. “Aren’t we, ah, not supposed to land there?” Natalie asked.
Sharma tapped her chin in thought. When she spoke, it was with a hint of dark, professional anger. “It isn’t as safe as a proper, locked Company lab with proper, trained Company scientists. But you can’t suck power out of dead plasteel. The worst that would happen is that you’d have to wait around for the solar rechargers to work.”
Keller rubbed her eyes. When she looked up, her gaze rested on Ash for a few seconds longer than she probably should have. “Okay, planet it is. Ash, you have the most experience with this thing, so you get to run this show down on the planet. Get it set up. I’ll get back on the ansible with corporate to tell them what we’re doing.”
Ash closed her eyes for a moment. The weapon’s painful light was still there, a seared, violent memory. She felt weight like a band around her throat. Someone was whispering behind her eyelids, someone that sounded like dead Christopher, and she opened her eyes to stop it. Keller had her arms crossed, and she tapped her thumb against her opposite elbow, a rapid and erratic tattoo.
“Mr. Solano did say we’re the best,” Ash replied.
“Damn straight we are,” whispered Natalie. “Come on, Ash, let’s go get this thing.”
Ash followed her, grinning at Keller before she swung a leg over the lip of the hatch and dropped into the ship’s spine. The captain had a faraway look on her face and a short, amused smile on her lips. Ash let herself think of a planet and a lake and a cabin, Keller in a sweater with her head on Ash’s shoulder, and the thought kept her so warm she put aside her worries about the quiet, prickling lights and her shaking body.
Citizenship was just around the corner.
Excerpted from Architects of Memory, copyright © 2020 by Karen Osborne.