Rory Thorne must use the fairy blessings gifted to her to change the multiverse…
We’re excited to share an excerpt from How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge, the second book in K. Eason’s space opera duology—available October 27th from DAW.
After avoiding an arranged marriage, thwarting a coup, and inadvertently kick-starting a revolution, Rory Thorne has renounced her title and embraced an unglamorous life as a privateer on the edge of human space.
Her new life is interrupted when Rory and her crew—former royal bodyguards, Thorsdottir and Zhang, and co-conspirator Jaed—encounter an abandoned ship registered under a false name, seemingly fallen victim to attack. As they investigate, they find evidence of vicious technology and arithmancy, alien and far beyond known capabilities.
The only answer to all the destruction is the mysterious, and unexpected, cargo: a rose plant. One that reveals themself to be sentient—and designed as a massive biological weapon. Rose seeks to escape their intended fate, but before Rory and her friends can get Rose off the derelict ship, the alien attackers return.
Rory and her friends must act fast—and wisely—to save themselves, and Rose, and maybe the multiverse, too, from a war humanity cannot win.
The G. Stein drifted, dribbling threads of plasma and small plumes of what had been atmosphere from a rather large hole in its engine core. Its registry declared it a civilian delivery vessel, owned by the Flora and Flowers Terrestrial Distribution (or FFTD), which was a subsidiary of the Sons of John Corporation, which in turn was a founding member of the Merchants League.
“That’s odd,” said Thorsdottir, because it was.
First, there was exactly one human settlement in the Samtalet system, a mining station bored into the seventh moon of the heavily ringed methane giant Kaosol, which was unimaginatively and rather misleadingly called SAM-1 (there being no SAM-2). SAM-1 had one hostel, two public houses, one of which served food with its alcohol, a gym, and a general store. No florists. No demand for flowers. SAM-1’s greenhouse was very practically dedicated to food production, the materials for which came along with the bi-yearly resupply ships.
And second, G. Stein appeared to’ve fallen victim to pirates, except who would want to steal flowers? And yet, there the ship was, leaking plasma.
Beside Thorsdottir, Vagabond’s pilot-navigator, Zhang, made one of those throaty grunts that might mean I agree, that is very odd or Oh, here we go again. Knowing Zhang, it meant both.
“G. Stein, this is Vagabond,” said Rory Thorne, who, being neither pilot nor gunner, sat in the little folding chair at the back of the very small cockpit, operating communications on a jury-rigged board. Communications were supposed to run through the pilot’s station, but Zhang had declared herself unqualified. Thorsdottir thought that was wisest. Rory was good at speech-making, and Zhang was prone to distress if she had to interact with strangers.
“I don’t think they’re going to answer.” Thorsdottir had to concentrate to keep the reflexive highness behind her teeth. Rory was adamant that she be called simply Rory these days, and for Thorsdottir, shedding the custom of her profession was proving difficult.
“Sst. I’m trying to hear.” Rory waved an impatient, imperious hand. Her head was cocked, her eyes unfocused, as if that would help amplify whatever sounds might be coming through her earpiece.
Thorsdottir exchanged a look with Zhang in the main screen’s reflection. Rory Thorne might have given up her title, might insist that she was just a normal person, but she had not quite shed the habits of a lifetime of command.
That was all right. Thorsdottir and Zhang had not shed their habit of obedience to Rory yet, either. Thorsdottir thought she might be getting a little closer; Rory’s tone elicited the smallest twinge of annoyance this time.
Vagabond did not have much in the way of long-range scanners. It had been a small Tadeshi military transport in its past life, and its scanners were mostly limited to can I shoot at that and will it shoot back and can I land there, all of which ran through a small (which is to say, intellectually limited) arms-turing. At Thorsdottir’s prompting, the arms-turing began looking to see whether or not any of the external aetherlocks were intact enough for Vagabond to dock.
Her screen erupted into a cascade of anxious orange numbers.
Thorsdottir swore under her breath. “We’re not looking at a Merchants League ship at all. That’s a Tadeshi warship running a false ID.”
Zhang glanced over. “Then I think we know why the ship got shot. That’s what happens to warships. What we don’t know is what it’s doing here. We are a long way from the front.” She put Vagabond into an evasive roll that got the ship pointed—as much as voidships point anywhere—on a vector aimed back at SAM-1.
“What are you doing?” Rory’s voice cracked, sharp with old habits of command. “Bring us back around. If that’s a Tadeshi warship, we need to know what it’s doing out here.”
Zhang stabbed a look at Thorsdottir in the screen’s reflection.
Thorsdottir sighed. “We don’t know about any passive defenses G. Stein may have left. Warships always have redundancies. Its arms-turing could still be tracking us, even if its primary turing’s offline.”
Rory shot a glance at the center console, where the ship’s main turing lived, and smiled. “Vagabond would’ve noticed that.”
Vagabond’s primary turing (third-hand, independently manufactured by Johnson-Thrymbe) was a little less intellectually limited than the arms-turing, and responsible for synthesizing whatever information scans brought to it, and for navigational calculations. It tolerated Zhang and Thorsdottir, and seemed marginally more fond of Jaed, but it liked Rory. In return, Rory seemed to think of it as an ally, rather than a collection of code. Thorsdottir thought that was romantic and not especially helpful. A turing was limited by its hardware, much as people were. Whatever a turing wanted to do, there were limits to what it could. This turing wanted to please Rory, and Thorsdottir suspected it might fudge data in order to do so.
Zhang did not take her eyes off her controls. “Whoever did this to G. Stein could come back. Since they destroyed a warship already, I think it is safe to assume they could destroy us, too. We’re not dealing with simple pirates, pri—Rory.”
Rory made that noise in the back of her throat that meant she was trying to be patient with these objections, and that patience was starting to slip. “Begging the question why they left in the first place, and who they are, if they’re shooting royalists, they might be friends of ours. Or perhaps no one did this. Perhaps it’s a catastrophic equipment failure.”
Thorsdottir side-eyed Zhang. “I see a hole in the engine core. That suggests a torpedo’s involvement. But it could be a ruse. An ambush. A ship meant to look crippled, to lure people in. The attackers might be leaving it as bait.”
“Bait for who? There are no Confederation outposts in Samtalet.”
“There’s us,” said Thorsdottir.
“We’re not technically rebels. We’re independent contractors employed by the stationmaster. And besides, you don’t really think that ship was meant for us.”
Thorsdottir wished, not for the first time, that she knew how Rory did that: how she always knew when someone was hedging the truth, or saying something they didn’t quite believe, or flat-out lying. “No. But I think it’s indicative of bigger problems than someone dodging system tariffs.”
“Exactly,” said Rory. “I was prepared to think a floral delivery vessel out here must be smuggling something interesting. But a royalist warship, masquerading as a delivery vessel—I think we’ve interrupted an operation of some kind, and I think we need to know what it is. So. Let’s prepare to board.—What?”
Thorsdottir and Zhang looked at each other. Zhang let her breath out. “There could be survivors, and they could be expecting a boarding party.”
Rory took a bite of air, precursor, Thorsdottir thought, to another But you don’t think so. And then she blinked, and let the air out, and stared, narrow-eyed, at the bulkhead, as if she could see through to the ship drifting outside. “All right. Then we’ll be prepared for that, too. But first, Zhang, find us a useable aetherlock.”
That took a moment, and it was not Zhang who found it, but rather Thorsdottir’s trusty arms-turing, still looking for things to target and shoot. It beeped an alert, and then red-lined the aetherlock and inquired whether or not it could fire.
“No,” Thorsdottir told it, unnecessarily (arms-turings did not have audio receptors) and a little bit testily. She fed G. Stein’s aetherlock’s coordinates over to Zhang, who brought Vagabond alongside. The primary turing would deal with the actual business of docking, the fine and minute adjustments for which Zhang had not yet developed the reflexes (she had been trained for atmospheric piloting; the void-piloting was a skill-in-progress). Zhang, meanwhile, engaged the external video feeds. At this distance and these speeds, the turing could actually render an image. Seeing where they were going always reassured Zhang, even if it was blurry variations on grey.
Thorsdottir ignored the image; it gave her a headache. She wished, not for the first time, that Grytt could be pried out of retirement (“I like my sheep”) on Lanscot. A former Kreshti marine would be far more useful than a Royal Guard in a hostile boarding situation. Oh, privateers boarded ships all the time, and this would not be Thorsdottir’s first boarding, either; it was just that most of Vagabond’s vict—er, targets—were not interested in a straight-up fight. They preferred to sneak around, and when cornered, preferred surrender to violence.
There came a distant, metallic clang, and a grinding sound that would have been alarming if Thorsdottir hadn’t heard it before.
“We’re locked on.” Zhang looked unhappy.
“Excellent. Then let’s get ready to board. Thorsdottir?”
A Royal Guard would say Yes, Highness. A Royal-Guard-turned-privateer said instead, “On it,” as she released her harness.
She squeezed past Rory and the comm-station and dogged the hatch between cockpit and Vagabond’s very small, very cramped crew section, where the final crew member remained in his harness, both hands clamped to the arms of his chair.
“You can let go now,” said Thorsdottir.
“Huh,” said Jaed Moss. He did not move. “What just happened? There was rolling. And a bang. Did we dock?”
Thorsdottir squinted at Jaed. He was pale, but not especially green, and there were two fever-bright spots on his cheekbones. Excitement, fear, but not explosive nausea. She grunted, shrugged, and shot a look at the cockpit.
Then she closed the hatch again, which was both safety protocol and good sense, if one wished to discuss Rory’s decisions not in Rory’s hearing.
“The delivery ship wasn’t a delivery ship. It wasn’t even a smuggler. It’s a Tadeshi warship running a false ID, and someone shot a hole in it. Zhang took evasives as a precaution but its turings aren’t firing. I don’t know exactly what kind of warship it was. Zhang doesn’t either. Maybe you’ll know.”
The spots of color on his cheekbones intensified. “Because I’m Tadeshi?”
Yes, Thorsdottir wanted to say. Your political origins automatically confer specialist knowledge on military vessels. Jaed Moss had come from station-born privilege, and although the Free Worlds had compulsory military service, Thorsdottir knew for a fact that Jaed had never served. There were advantages to one’s father being the usurping power behind the Tadeshi throne.
Thorsdottir knew that Jaed was a little bit (a lot) sensitive about his familial background, and also probably a little nauseous from Zhang’s flying, so she tried to be, if not kind, at least neutral.
“No. Because you told us that you used to have a poster of all the Tadeshi warships above your bed, and I therefore assume some expertise on your part.”
“Oh. Well. I can look.”
“Good. Then get out of your harness and come do that.”
Jaed’s eyes followed her across the cabin. His fingers plucked at his harness as if at a harp’s strings. “Um. So someone got here first, shot up G. Stein, and now we’re doing . . . what, exactly?”
Thorsdottir braced both hands against the hardsuit rack.
“Now we’re going to board and see what they were hiding, or smuggling, or whatever they were doing.” She kept her voice as neutral as a k’bal in a conflict.
Jaed pinched his lips together and watched while Thorsdottir popped the seal and released her hardsuit from its place on the rack. He had acquired, thanks to Rory, more than a little arithmancy; Thorsdottir supposed sourly that he was probably looking at her aura and seeing just how unhappy she was with the prospect.
The cabin hatch clanged open. Rory ducked through, smiling so brightly and sharply that Thorsdottir’s heart dropped. Rory had looked just like that before she challenged the Prince of Tadesh to a duel to first blood to establish his worthiness to marry her. See how all that had turned out.
“I’ll just be a minute,” said Rory in a tone that dared anyone to argue. She kept the smile bared as she squeezed through the narrow space between the bunks and helped herself into her own hardsuit.
Thorsdottir bit her lip and craned her neck to see through to the cockpit. Zhang had cranked around in her seat, straining her harness and staring do something at Thorsdottir. They had all discussed, at length and in detail, why Rory should remain in Vagabond when they did hostile boarding actions. Practically, Rory was the back-up pilot, if something happened to Zhang. She was not experienced, or particularly skilled, with weapons, most of her practice having been confined to simulations and a long history of playing Duty Calls; but she had a good relationship with Vagabond’s primary turing, which seemed to regard Zhang as a professional hazard.
Since Rory had decided not to honor their prior agreements, it fell to someone to argue with her, and from Zhang’s expression, she expected that someone to be Thorsdottir.
Jaed was studying the former princess. “Rory. What’s going on?”
Thorsdottir expected a nothing, which is what she or Zhang might’ve gotten; but Rory looked at Jaed, and hesitated. Then she raised an insouciant eyebrow.
“I heard a transmission coming from G. Stein. It’s not on the standard channels, and I thought it was just noise. But there’s a pattern to it that I can’t pin down. It’s like . . . a whisper. Or I’m just hearing feedback. Or maybe it’s some arithmancer’s grocery receipt.”
“Or maybe,” muttered Thorsdottir, “it’s a battle-hex that will fry us the moment we breach the hull.”
Rory grinned at Thorsdottir. “You sound like Grytt.”
“Thank you,” said Thorsdottir. “Where would this communication be coming from, though? Or who? Hardsuit comms won’t penetrate a ship’s hull. The main turing is down.”
“I don’t know. That’s why I’m going with you to look.”
“So you intend to leave Zhang on board as our pilot?”
Rory looked up sharply, as if Thorsdottir had shouted please do not be stupid about this (which she had in fact been thinking) instead of making a respectful, quiet-voiced query.
“Is that a problem?”
Thorsdottir wished again for Grytt or the Vizier (who, like Rory, had rejected his title and who, like Rory, Thorsdottir couldn’t quite imagine without it). They had come pre-loaded with Authority, capital A, to which even a princess might respond.
Though since, through no fault of their own, they had left Rory to extricate herself from Jaed’s father’s coup attempt and imprisonment, their influence over her might be somewhat diminished even if they were here. Still. They had never hesitated to tell Rory what they thought, and so Thorsdottir—mouth dry, heart crawling up into her throat—said, somewhat sharply, “Yes. You’re the agreed-upon back-up pilot. If you truly believe there are people over there, then Zhang is better prepared for a firefight than you are.”
Rory’s eyes narrowed.
“And if there is an arithmancer or a battle-hex, how much help will Zhang be?”
Well, first, Zhang’s ’slinger bolts went where she aimed them, every time, with appalling accuracy. Arithmancers—even military, battle-hex wielding arithmancers—were susceptible to ’slinger bolts. Secondly, and more importantly, to Thorsdottir’s reckoning, Zhang had a Royal Guard’s paranoid caution, not a princess’s curiosity.
The words backed up in Thorsdottir’s throat. Rory demanded honesty from her—they weren’t friends, exactly, weren’t staff anymore, so what? Crew? Close associates? But not equals, not Grytt-or-Vizier level authority, not anyone who could say what was necessary. She wished for Rory to use that uncanny insight and just, for once, read Thorsdottir’s mind.
Rory stared at her, expectant.
“I’ll go,” said Jaed. “Instead of Zhang. I can shoot, and I’m an arithmancer. In case, you know. Battle-hexes.”
It was not often Rory was struck silent. She regarded Jaed with round eyes and her mouth just a little agape. Then her lips came together, and her brows leveled out, and her expression went smooth as glass. She slapped the seals closed on her suit with more force than necessary.
“You’re half the arithmancer I am.”
The utterance was not kind, in either sentiment or delivery, and shocking for that reason. Rory demanded honesty, and gave it in return; but she was usually better at diplomacy.
Jaed recoiled, red-faced and surprised and, Thorsdottir suspected, hurt. It was no secret to anyone that he had, at one point, entertained feelings for Rory, which she had ignored gently and completely, and that he had, some six months into the nascent courtship, given up. There was no rancor between them, but he could be sensitive to Rory’s moods, even now.
Thorsdottir had intended a career putting herself between people (royalty, Rory) and harm (people with ’slingers or pointy things). Rory’s choices had necessitated a change in Thorsdottir’s profession, but the underlying principles remained. Put herself between someone about to do damage and someone who needed protecting.
“I agree with Jaed,” she said, more loudly than the narrow confines of the ship and the proximity of her targets would warrant. “If you’re going to leave Zhang here, then he should come with us. He’s got a greater familiarity with Tadeshi warships than we do. And,” she drilled her stare at Rory, trying to be one-eyed, mecha-eyed Grytt, “he’s at least as good with a ’slinger as you are.”
He was, in fact, better, Rory’s aim being somewhat unpredictable. Thorsdottir saw the sentiment reflected on Jaed’s face, along with a surprised and uncomfortable gratitude.
“Fine.” Rory’s face might’ve been the visor of her hardsuit, or one of the marble statues in the Thorne palace gardens. Serene, unblinking, utterly without pity.
Jaed, accustomed to sitting at comms when Zhang and Thorsdottir boarded vessels, was not as quick, or as practiced, getting into a hardsuit. Thorsdottir refrained from reaching over and helping him with the seals as he fumbled first one leg, and then the other, into the greaves and mag-lock boots. The transition from station-bred second son of a usurping traitor to spacer was a large step, perhaps even larger than the one from Royal Guard, at least when it came to handling the equipment.
Thorsdottir readied the ’slingers and stuck her head and shoulders back into the cockpit.
Zhang had lowered Vagabond’s forward blast-shields; this time, the view of G. Stein was real-time, live, on the other side of the transparent polysteel porthole. Now Thorsdottir could see for herself the scoring on the hull, blackened and still glowing with little white pockets of flame and unlike any damage she’d seen before.
High-velocity projectiles left holes in a hull, if they got past the shields. They didn’t set it on fire. Fire wasn’t even supposed to happen in void. There was no phlogiston. Fire didn’t, couldn’t, happen without phlogiston. Never mind that fire didn’t burn through metal, either.
And yet, clearly, some kind of fire did.
“Is that—what could’ve done that? Plasma? Some kind of battle-hex?”
“I don’t know,” Zhang said softly. “Neither does Rory. But she wants to find out.”
Thorsdottir pitched her voice low. “What’s this about a transmission?”
“She said she heard something and she wanted to investigate. You know everything I do, right there.” Zhang flicked a worried glance over her shoulder. “Rory’s told me to stay here. Please tell me you’re taking Jaed.”
“I am. If I can’t have you, I need someone else to hold a ’slinger.”
Zhang took a breath and swallowed. “He will watch your back effectively. I can’t predict his value if you meet resistance.”
“I can. A third target for an angry Tadeshi marine,” Thorsdottir muttered. She was sorry the moment she said it.
Zhang’s voice dropped somewhere between whisper and breathless. “I told Rory that I don’t think anyone should board that ship. Whoever did this, did that”—and she thrust her chin at the scorched ship outside the porthole—“may still be out there, and Vagabond is no match for a warship.”
Thorsdottir squinted past G. Stein, at the velvet void beyond. There were a lot of places a ship could conceal itself, beyond the reach of Vagabond’s instruments. It was wise, for some version of the word, for Zhang to remain on board. Thorsdottir still hated it.
“Be careful,” said Zhang.
“We will,” said Thorsdottir. “We’ll go quick as we can.”
That was certainly true. But Thorsdottir did not add, we’ll be back before you know it, or we’ll be fine. She and Zhang demanded honesty from each other, too.
Excerpted from How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge, copyright © 2020 by K. Eason