A secret war against artificial intelligence and a future, unknowable foe; and a love that transcends death and time…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell’s action-packed sci-fi adventure Light Chaser—available August 24th from Tordotcom Publishing.
A love powerful enough to transcend death can bring down an empire.
Amahle is a Light Chaser—one of a number of explorers who travel the universe alone (except for their onboard AI), trading trinkets for life stories.
When listening to the stories sent down through the ages she hears the same voice talking directly to her from different times and on different worlds. She comes to understand that something terrible is happening, and only she is in a position to do anything about it.
And it will cost everything to put it right.
The sight of the cat stopped Amahle in her tracks. It lay curled on the wooden countertop of one of the hastily erected market stalls, between the buckets of apples and blackberries the merchant had brought in this morning on his cart. Sleek and black with white paws, the animal seemed oblivious to the commercial tumult around it—the livestock; the laughter of children splashing through the mud; the chatter of men and women browsing and haggling over the various wares on display; and the ever-present sound of rain dripping from the canvas awning.
She could barely remember the last time she’d seen a cat with her own eyes. It must have been a couple of circuits before—so, at least two thousand years—and several dozen light years closer to the Central Worlds. She hadn’t even known there were any here on Winterspite. But then, given their medieval technology, she supposed they needed something reliable to guard the fruit and grain stores from rats and other vermin. Rats had travelled between the stars to every world in The Domain;
even the post-scarcity worlds had them.
“What’s its name?” she asked in the local tongue, reaching out to tickle the animal behind its ear. The stallholder blinked at her with rheumy eyes.
“I just call him ‘cat.’”
“Is he yours?”
“I reckon so. Much as a cat belongs to anyone.”
“Is he for sale?”
The man scratched his beard. “I don’t know. Nobody’s ever asked to buy him before.”
Amahle reached inside her cloak and brought out a couple of coins. “I’ll give you two gold florins for him.”
To his credit, the stallholder kept a straight face; the man would have made an intimidatingly good poker player. Two florins represented more wealth than he would likely see in an entire season. “Lady,” he said, “you’ve got a deal.” He fetched a wicker basket from his cart, placed the cat inside, and fastened the lid.
“I keep him in here when we’re traveling,” he explained.
“Thank you.” Amahle passed over the coins and took the basket in return. The little transaction had begun to draw a crowd. People were watching curiously, whispering to each other. Beneath her woollen cloak Amahle wore an ancient orange dress, which was made from cotton, a fabric plentiful enough on Winterspite, so she should’ve blended in without trouble. But the vivid colour acted like a beacon among the muted tones worn by the general populace. That along with the fact she had all her teeth made it very clear she wasn’t from around these parts.
“Hang on.” The stallholder frowned, as if seeing her properly for the first time. He looked her up and down. “You’re her, aren’t you?”
Amahle sighed. She’d wanted the chance for a bit of a look around before announcing herself at the palace. After all, these people had been waiting a thousand years for her to come back; she’d thought another couple of hours wouldn’t hurt. But now, once everyone knew she was there, they’d start acting on their best behaviour, trying to impress her or to curry favour, and she’d lose the opportunity to experience the culture firsthand, through her own eyes. Though culture might be stretching it…
“I might be.”
“You are, though.”
The merchant looked down at the money in his palm, then clenchedhisfingersoverit asifitmightturn todust and blow away.
“Holy hell,” he said. “You’re the Light Chaser.”
“And you just sold me a cat for two gold florins.” Amahle glanced around at the onlookers. “They’ll probably write songs about you.”
With her cover blown, Amahle had little choice but to make her way to the Golden Keep at the centre of town, where she formally announced herself to the guards, and was shown in to the throne room.
The last time she’d been there, a thousand years previously, the ruler had been a hairy brute who went by the soubriquet Olaf the Butcher. This time around, a young woman occupied the throne. Her name was Gloriana. She had long white hair and delicate features, but her eyes were so flint-like you could probably have struck sparks from them.
“Your Highness,” Amahle said formally, bowing her head but not her knee, “I have returned to trade to our mutual benefit. I’m gladdened to see how much the kingdom has prospered under your rule; so much has improved since my last visit.”
The queen gripped the throne’s smooth arms—arms that had once been similarly gripped by Olaf’s bloodstained, sausage-like fingers—and acknowledged this with a slight inclination of her head.
“You are welcome, Light Chaser. Although I confess you are not as I had pictured you.”
“Really,Highness?And may I be so bold as to ask how you’d imagined I might be?”
Gloriana brought a porcelain finger to her rosy lips. “I thought you’d be taller.”
“I get that a lot.”
“And we have this portrait.” She waved to the wall where, surrounded by paintings of past rulers and legendary heroes, someone had hung a picture of an auburn-haired goddess. A chain of stars circled her head; golden threads made up her gown; and her features were arranged in an expression of divine contemplation. In one hand she held a memory collar; in the other a golden set of scales.
“Ah.” Amahle placed the cat basket on the flagstones beside her and straightened up. The animal mewed piteously.
“Is this not a likeness of you?”
“I remember sitting for the preliminary sketches. The artist was a young man by the name of…” She clicked her fingers trying to summon the memory.
“Rothenburg,” the queen said.
“Ah, yes.” Amahle smiled. “Gregor Rothenburg. He was young and kind of attractive in a pallid, skinny way. And a little too free with his artistic licence, if I recall correctly.”
“He was one of our greatest artists. A master. And because of his association with you, his surviving works are now considered treasures almost beyond price.”
Amahle shrugged. As far as she was concerned, she’d spent a couple of weeks with Gregor, the protégé of another—probably now long-forgotten—artist. The young man had caught her eye during one of Olaf’s interminable banquets, a soft-hearted contrast to the barbarians of the court. Thinking of him now, as a revered historical figure nine centuries dead, made her feel ancient and disconnected. How many decades had he lived, growing slowly old and infirm, after she’d returned to the stars? She was always curious about such things. She took lovers on many of the worlds she visited, and often wondered what became of them. Part of the delight of retracing her circuit was the prospect of being able to access the memories stored in their collars—assuming the collars had survived the intervening years; sometimes they got lost or damaged—and find out the missing portions of their stories. Did they marry, or pine endlessly for her return? Achieve greatness or live simple, unremarkable lives? It was a poignant experience, discovering what happened to them after she flew away, eternal and ageless, leaving them mired in the confines of whatever society had birthed them. Somehow, she felt such bittersweet knowledge kept her in touch with her humanity.
To change the subject, she congratulated Gloriana on her mastery of the Trade Language.
“Thank you,” the queen replied. “I have been schooled in it since birth, in anticipation of your arrival.”
“I appreciate the effort.”
“You are welcome, although…”
“I’d assumed you might arrive with a little more pageantry.”
Amahle shrugged. “I don’t really go in for all that. I’m just here to do my job, that’s all.”
For the first time, the queen smiled, and her mask of formality slipped a notch. “As, dear Light Chaser, am I.”
Amahle returned to her shuttle in the hills beyond town, where she had surreptitiously put down before the first light of dawn, and changed into something more befitting her legendary status. When she returned to the Keep, she had swapped her old dress for a black silk tunic with matching breeches, a gleaming steel breastplate, and a finely wrought scabbard containing a sword with a jewel-encrusted pommel. She felt faintly ridiculous but understood how important it was to project an image to impress the locals. After all, she’d need them to remember her again in another thousand years. And yet, she’d also been careful not to wear anything that might upstage the queen. She knew from experience that bad things happened when those in power felt their status threatened or diminished. Behind her, a train of cargo pods followed a metre above the rough ground, their motion through the air exactly the kind of casual, understated miracle she hoped might be verbally passed from generation to generation over the coming centuries.
The cat, she’d turned loose in the shuttle’s cargo bay, hoping that with the help of some time to itself, along with the plate of sardines she’d procured from the food printer, it would acclimatise it to its new position as ship’s cat.
When she reached the castle, Gloriana’s servants set her up in the main hall, at a trestle table groaning with refreshments and sweetmeats. Amahle would have liked a cup of coffee, but given the nearest coffee plants were a dozen light years to antispinwards of this planet, she contented herself with a goblet of wine. While she drank, various ministers made speeches to the assembled crowd of nobles and dignitaries; trumpet blasts hailed proclamations of gratitude for her safe arrival; and minstrels played while everyone feasted. Then, protocols duly observed, they got down to business.
A thousand years earlier, Amahle had entrusted a hundred memory collars to individuals all across Winterspite’s sole habitable continent and left strict instructions for those collars to be passed down through the generations, from old to young, until her next visit. To wear one was an honour almost akin to a sacred duty, for when the Light Chaser came back, she had let it be known she would bring fabulous gifts in exchange for their safe return. After all, these collars were her primary reason for being there—not that the locals knew that. She was careful to downplay the value of the collars in order to keep their payment demands modest. But she’d gone through this ritual on Winterspite at least eight times now, maybe more. The Mnemosyne’s AI would know, if she could be bothered to ask it. She was used to not knowing her deep past; not even her enhanced neurones could recall everything. As new memories were made, so older ones vanished like exorcised ghosts to make room for them. At every planet on her circuit, she collected in the old memory collars and distributed new ones to take their place, rewarding the populace with luxuries, weapons, and gadgets that were exotic enough to be valued but not useful enough to harm the stability of each world. The various scattered societies of human space had been stable for millennia, each locked into its own rigid status quo, and it would be a serious offence to disrupt what had been so carefully wrought during the Great Dispersal, when those societies had been founded by the dynamic pioneers breaking free of Old Earth’s restrictions and intolerance to establish their nirvana civilization out amid the stars. Although to her, some people’s version of nirvana was weird indeed.
As well as the merchants who raced to the capital seeking profit, Gloriana quickly summoned the families who had been entrusted with collars on Amahle’s last visit. When they stood nervously before her, they unclipped their collar—a thin, pearlescent band of pliable material—and handed it to her. In return, she presented them with a few trinkets and a new collar, along with a stern admonition to continue the tradition of handing it to their descendants. Out of the original hundred, nearly seventy collars came back. A disappointing total, but not unsurprising on a planet as brutal as Winterspite.
Many of those who sought an audience seemed awestruck to meet her in the flesh. She was, after all, a legend from ages past; a custom passed down in folk tales, art, and stories. Some, she was sure, had ceased actually believing in her and were now ashamed or stunned to see her before them. It was as if a powerful but partially forgotten deity had suddenly decided to drop by to see whether everyone still adhered to her commandments. Those who hadn’t—whose families had lost, damaged or forgotten their collars—begged for mercy as they were hauled away by the palace guards to face the queen’s displeasure for having deprived the world of the gifts the Light Chaser might have bestowed in return for their cooperation. Those who’d kept the faith presented their collars with expressions of palpable relief and smugness, accepting the tokens she handed them while they silently thanked every single one of their ancestors for not breaking the chain.
The process went on for a week as the collar wearers arrived, and the merchants offered what they considered riches. Amahle was more interested in handing out collars to the new batch of wearers, favourite sons and daughters of the queen’s court presented in notso-subtle fashion, as well as people Amahle chose at random—maintaining tradition. During this time, she tolerated the trades for material items the merchants believed valuable, a tactic which demonstrated her visit wasn’t just about collars. So, incredibly complex medicines were given to sick children as if they were little more than a soothsayer’s coloured water; a year’s wages to the ragged and malnourished; handsome swords or daggers to the men-and women-at-arms; books and art to the scholars. Then, after a fortnight of godawful food and bitter wine and wearisome vigilance for the queen’s erratic—and occasionally lethal—moods, she closed the last of the cargo pods and sat back in her chair with relief. She was seriously considering dropping Winterspite from her circuit, and to hell with her contract with EverLife. She was convinced Winterspite was becoming shabbier every time she visited. Or maybe she should just switch her trading to a more enlightened kingdom. Yeah, right, so much choice there. Her mood wasn’t helped by the fact she hadn’t got laid this visit. Again: choices.
As the guards hurried the last of the citizens out of the hall, Queen Gloriana swept back into the room. She had been absent since the midday feast, at which she’d picked sparingly at a piece of chicken while her noblemen and women gorged themselves around her.
“All done?” she asked.
Amahle gave the nearest pod a pat. “Yes, thank you, Your Highness.”
“No, thank you, Light Chaser, for bestowing your favour on us once again. The payments you have made to our subjects will surely change many of their lives for the better and provide them with stories they shall doubtless use to regale their children and their children’s children.”
“You are quite welcome.”
“And do you have anything in your magic boxes for us?”
Amahle smiled. “But of course. As you know, my collars are but inconsequential fripperies. Whims to gladden my ancient heart. But my real reason, as always, is to pay tribute to the royal bloodline of Winterspite, the most regal and divinely chosen monarch in all of creation.”
Gloriana’s cheeks reddened, and Amahle’s smile widened. Flattery worked every time. She’d used the same words on Olaf the Butcher, and on each of his predecessors. She knew the script by rote. It was what the Light Chaser said before conferring her most special and valuable gifts.
“Behold!” She turned to the pod with a special gold emblem (hurriedly embossed) on the side, and pulled out a sequinned tunic.
“More than a shirt, your highness. The fabric of this garment contains useful properties. It can turn aside a dagger’s thrust, a sword’s strike, and even a bolt from the most powerful handheld crossbow. Whether you decide to keep it for yourself or hand it to your champion, it will make the wearer impervious to nearly all weaponry.”
The queen’s eyes narrowed as she considered the implications. “I see,” she said. “A most valuable gift indeed.”
“And of course, I’ve brought you emeralds and rubies.” She slid a drawstring bag over the table. “Enough wealth to refurbish this whole town and introduce sanitation to the slum districts, should you see fit.”
The queen weighed the bag in her hand. “Or to equip an army to subdue our neighbours to the north,” she said.
Amahle shrugged. “I guess so.”
“Thank you, Light Chaser. Will you be spending the night with us?”
Amahle glanced at the large window at the end of the hall. Darkness had fallen some hours ago.
“I guess so.”
“Excellent.” Gloriana smiled. “I shall have a chamber made up for you. But first—” She clapped her hands and a servant appeared carrying two glasses and a flask of brandy Amahle recognised as being one of the gifts she’d left Olaf the last time she’d been here. “First, we’ll partake of this most ancient and venerable beverage, and you’ll tell me something of your travels in the far distant lands beyond the sky.”
Excerpted from Light Chaser, copyright © 2021 by Peter F. Hamilton and Gareth L. Powell