Read an Excerpt From The Scourge Between Stars

Jacklyn Albright is responsible for keeping the last of humanity alive as they limp back to Earth from their forebears’ failed colony on a distant planet…

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from The Scourge Between Stars by Ness Brown, a tense sci-fi/horror blend set aboard a doomed generation ship—publishing April 4, 2023 with Tor Nightfire.

As acting captain of the starship Calypso, Jacklyn Albright is responsible for keeping the last of humanity alive as they limp back to Earth from their forebears’ failed colony on a distant planet.

Faced with constant threats of starvation and destruction in the treacherous minefield of interstellar space, Jacklyn’s crew has reached their breaking point. As unrest begins to spread throughout the ship’s Wards, a new threat emerges, picking off crew members in grim, bloody fashion.

Jacklyn and her team must hunt down the ship’s unknown intruder if they have any hope of making it back to their solar system alive.


 

 

The Sun was a golden stitch in the black tapestry of the void, just one needlepoint among thousands visible through the Calypso’s observation deck window. It made an extra zag in the sawtooth constellation of Cassiopeia, even though the ship had left Proxima b a century ago. The Sun should be blinding by now, the biggest thing in the sky, but Jacklyn still needed the ship’s astronautical charts to tell which star it was. Which star was home.

The observation deck was dark. Infrared sensors could see her sitting against the deck’s pressure glass, just a few inches from the vacuum of space, but she had been doing calculations in her head for long enough that motion detectors had forgotten her and reserve lighting had blinked off to conserve power. The math was bleak.

None of the ward representatives at today’s briefing had liked her results either. Reclamation couldn’t divert any more water to Orion Ward; Foodstuffs couldn’t violate rations for Cygnus Ward. Jacklyn had crunched the numbers for them, but the reps still expected her to hand over resources the ship didn’t have. Only a few of them had appreciated her invitation to go back to Proxima b and get more themselves.

Their forebears had taken only fifty years to sail from their burning home world to the false promise of a new start. At their current hamstrung pace, Jacklyn’s crew would take centuries. They had two miserable choices: limp backward to surely meet death, or crawl forward and maybe prolong it.

Neither option had yet pulled ahead. Jacklyn wanted to ask for the consensus of the Tiamat or the Pele, but Comms hadn’t made contact with the other ships in the Goddess Flotilla in months. They hadn’t heard from the rest of the fleet in much longer. They would have to make their own graves.

Recycled air from the deck’s vents blew across Jacklyn’s nape, raising the wiry hairs there. The prickling sensation pulled her out of her thoughts and into the sudden clench of hyperawareness. She strained her ears, but the only sounds on the deck were the humming of the grav system and the metallic groaning of a tired spaceship a few decades away from decay. Right as she considered waving an arm to trigger the lights, a voice whispered in the darkness right next to her.

“Jack.”

Jacklyn flinched, jerking her hands up. The motion made light flood the deck, blinding her.

Artificial breath puffed against her ear. “It’s only me.”

Jacklyn didn’t relax. She blinked iridescent spots out of her eyes and gritted out, “I told you to quit sneaking up on me, damn it.”

“I’m sorry.” Watson’s voice modulated regretfully. Its glowing blue eyes stared back at her without blinking where it crouched beside her.

Jacklyn suppressed a shudder and pushed her braids back with the beanie she had taken off to think. “What do you want?”

“The doctor asked for you.” The android stood up in a well-oiled stretch of repurposed metal. “He’s made progress.”

A few objections leaped to the tip of Jacklyn’s tongue. The first was for Watson to stop calling the man a doctor; he was the head technician of Data, not Sickbay. The other was for the head technician to remove Watson’s new social behaviors; she hated the droid even more now that it could experiment with tone and body language.

“We had a briefing during alpha shift.” She rocked onto her feet, dwarfing Watson by a whole head. “Why didn’t he say anything then?”

Watson smiled stiffly. “He wants to show you.”

Rolling her eyes, Jacklyn gathered her scuffed datapad and left the observation deck without waiting for Watson. A few swipes on the pad brought up a holographic schematic of the ship; all was well besides the red-flagged labs deck, still under repair. Jacklyn had been on that deck when the hull was breached—the memory of foul-smelling fire suppressant, shrieking repressurization alarms, and empty eyes staring into hers flashed through her mind. She pinched her arm for focus and stepped into the closest lift, where the droid caught up with her.

The ride up to the tactics deck was short but uncomfortable. By the time Jacklyn was ready to snap at Watson’s mechanical attempts at small talk, the lift doors hissed open and admitted them to one of the long corridors that stretched between the hull of the Calypso and her keel like the spokes of a wheel.

They took a gangway all the way to the deck’s central atrium, a space in the ship’s ribcage where her blood and guts ran along the walls and floors in miles of wiring and piping. They walked the circumference until they hit the doors to Data, one of the most cramped parts of the ship.

The department was a honeycomb of blinking consoles and constant readouts, each techie’s hexagon crowded with terminals. Wires stretched hazardously across aisles; extra screens hung precariously from jury-rigged mounts. Despite Ventilation’s best efforts, even though every surface was practically oozing heat-sink paste, it was oppressively hot.

Jacklyn received harried salutes from the few personnel who glanced up as she climbed through the clutter to the head technician’s office, a loft that hung over the rest of the hive. She barely finished waving them at ease before they went back to their analyses. She wasn’t bothered—she wasn’t the Calypso’s real captain anyway.

Otto Watson was inside his office, engrossed in the terminals taking up the entire wall, curled up like a bug in his chair. Jacklyn got a headache just looking at the monitors flashing raw input from around the ship, but he seemed to have no trouble parsing the data with his bare eyes.

“The droid said you have a progress report,” Jacklyn said tersely.

Otto startled, kicking away from his console. “Jack! That was quick. Usually I have to wait a blue moon for a visit.”

She didn’t laugh. “What’s so secretive that you couldn’t tell everyone earlier?” They could have used some good news at the briefing, which was otherwise spent discussing how close the Calypso was to collapse.

Otto’s eyes got feverishly bright. “Eureka.”

Jacklyn had heard that before. “Explain.”

Otto beckoned Watson over and pulled it close with an arm around its shoulders. The sight of Otto’s space-pale hand against its artificial skin, the same color as Jacklyn’s, rankled. That he had given it his own name rankled worse.

“Three months ago the third engineer sanctioned the diversion of extra power to Sensors,” he said, hushed. “Ship receivers were tuned to maximum sensitivity for eight hours. We don’t have any extra cache space here, so Watson is holding on to the data for now.” He tapped Watson’s temple with a bony knuckle, right beside the crack that split its faceplate from brow to chin.

Jacklyn was almost too irked by the touch to parse the implications. A second later she sucked in a breath. “You crammed all that information into the droid? Are you trying to fry its brains out of its skull?” She turned incredulously to Watson, whose synthetic expression was as placid as ever.

Otto’s lips pursed at the interruption. “Watson is the most advanced post-zettascale system ever constructed.” He didn’t have the decency, as its creator, to blush as he said so. “It’s about as difficult for her to ingest the data as it is for you and me to take a biscuit with our coffee.”

Jacklyn hated when he gave the droid pronouns. “You took info that Sensors usually forwards to Comms and jammed it inside Watson,” she summarized, enjoying Otto’s scowl. “Why?”

“I’m doing much more than that,” he insisted. “I’ve developed and imported into Watson a processing library more sophisticated than anything Data has ever run before. This morning I put the finishing touches on a new series of tasks that should be able to find what we’ve been missing.”

Ever since the fleet decided to forsake the failed colony on Proxima b, they’d been creeping along at twenty-second-century speeds, feeling their way forward blindly. The prospect of finally being able to see was astonishing. For the first time since she was a girl, since the first time she felt the Calypso shudder and groan under the godly blow of an invisible, cosmic hand, Jacklyn allowed herself to wonder if they really could make it across the remaining trillions of kilometers of their journey alive.

Otto saw her seedling of hope and ran a proud, proprietary hand down Watson’s back. The smile sprouting across Jacklyn’s face withered.

“Have you tested the tasks?” Her voice came out hard.

“Just once,” Otto admitted. “That’s all I had time for after the briefing. That’s why I had Watson escort you here.”

He pushed Watson between them and curled his long fingers over its shoulders, leaning down by its ear to order, “Demonstrate.”

Watson obeyed. The droid’s jaw dropped in a too-wide yawn, hanging open like a hinge. Gooseflesh rose along Jacklyn’s arms at the unnatural gape. She expected Watson to speak, but words were not what came out.

The sound it emitted from its gaping mouth began as static, a fuzzy hum that Jacklyn could’ve mistaken for raw noise: vibrations from the Calypso’s energy core, pulsar chatter, the constant background hum of the universe itself. Then the sound started to take shape.

The static warbled into long, distinct notes. It reminded Jacklyn of recordings she had heard of old sounds from Earth: plaintive humpback whale song, or the dissonance of a tuning orchestra. The notes started to pulse, each throb of noise wavering in pitch, almost like words in some celestial sentence.

Something about it made her gooseflesh turn into an outright chill. With astrophysical and instrumental sources ruled out, there were only a few things it could be.

“I can only speculate,” Otto said, kneading Watson’s unyielding shoulders excitedly. “But this might be the way forward.”

Jacklyn fisted her hands in the fabric of her uniform, feeling some strange crossbreed of wonder and unease. “How long will it take to decipher?”

“It could take weeks—months—years to translate this data.” Otto hummed. “Perhaps longer to figure out how to use it to map a safe route.”

Jacklyn had never been planetside in her life. The first generation of settlers had left Earth over two hundred years ago, and the failed colonists had fled Proxima b in disgrace several decades before she was born. She had only ever known the Calypso’s artificial light and gravity, its recycled atmosphere and nutrients. The daydreams from her childhood—of real soil squishing between her toes, of ancient air circulating through her lungs—played in her mind again.

But in her dreams she had always emerged from the Calypso after her father and mother, with her sister beside her. No matter the promise this signal held, that dream would never come true. She was painfully reminded of that by the eerie sound floating out of Watson’s familiar face, a face stolen from the grave.

She looked away. “Turn it off.”

“I trust you understand the magnitude of this moment,” Otto said, closing Watson’s mouth and cutting off the transmission.

“Of course,” Jacklyn gritted out, wanting to slap his hands away.

“We’ll still be in danger until we’re back on Earth,” he warned, “but this signal might be our species’s first lick of luck in centuries.”

Jacklyn stared at Watson, who bore Otto’s skinny hands on its artificial skin with fish-eyed patience. “Might.” She scowled.

“Watson could be the key to saving humanity,” Otto said, brushing back the droid’s coily hair and cupping its cheek in his clammy palm.

Anger and nausea roiled in Jacklyn’s gut. For the sake of the ship she had spent the last three months trying to swallow her disgust, her resentment, her grief. Now all of those threatened to rise in her gullet.

“Carry on then,” she snapped. Otto jumped at her tone, but she wasn’t looking at him—she was looking at Watson, who tilted its head at her curiously. Unable to stomach its docility anymore, she turned on her heel and stalked out of the office.

“I’ll message you with any developments!” Otto called.

Jacklyn held her breath through Data’s oppressive heat until she could make it back to the cool air of the atrium, where she was in no danger of vomiting all over the processors that could take them home.

***

Jacklyn exited the lift on the command quarters deck. She almost regretted storming out of Data, but just thinking about Otto going through the ship’s salvaged metal and choosing a face for his pet droid that Jacklyn had known and loved made her stomach clench again. She pinched her arm as she stepped onto the gangway.

Her bootsteps echoed down the long corridor as she marched toward the bridge crew quarters. It was empty—everyone was already at their stations, spending their leisure time down in the wards, or sleeping off their last shift in their bunks. Nobody else visited the captain’s bunk except her.

She halted in front of the door marked with the name Albright. For a long time she stood there clenching and unclenching her hands, glad that no one could see her wrestle with the decision to knock. Just before the gangway lights blinked off, she banged a fist against the door.

There was, unsurprisingly, no answer.

Jacklyn let out a slow breath, waiting until her lungs burned before sucking in the next. “Captain,” she called. She paused for an acknowledgment that didn’t come. “I’m here to report ship and mission status.”

She looked as stupid yelling outside the bulkhead now as she had the first twenty times. “We voted to decelerate again today. Repairs are ahead of schedule, but we can barely take another hit.” She recited the items from the briefing at the wall. “I vetoed the delivery of extra resources to Orion and Cygnus Wards. There will be more demonstrations, but our ration levels are already critical.” After a pause, she shared what had happened in Data. “Otto may have figured out a way to avoid the engagements.”

That was their word for the sudden, catastrophic blows that struck the Calypso without warning. Sometimes months would pass between engagements, sometimes only days. There was no way to predict when and where the next hit would come; that was beyond the capabilities of their current systems.

At least three ships in the Goddess Flotilla—the Ishtar, the Freya, and the Lieu Hanh—had gone silent somewhere in the last few billion kilometers. Communications had degraded so badly that Jacklyn didn’t even know if the Hero or Epic Flotillas were still flying. It was entirely possible that they had been swatted like bugs by the dangerous force lurking in the void.

If Otto was right, then Watson had just discovered their first confirmation of something else out there in the space between stars, perhaps the very thing that took the Calypso between its teeth at random and shook. Their systems hadn’t been powerful enough to detect anything during engagements, until now. If they could finally sense them, they could survive them.

“That souped-up droid of his,” Jacklyn continued. “He completely revamped its protocols—now it makes Comms look like a joke. It might even be able to keep us all alive.”

No response.

Jacklyn cursed the part of herself that was still hurt by the silence. Her throat tightened, and her voice lowered until there was no way anyone would hear her through the door anyway.

“Dad,” she choked out, leaning forward to let her forehead thunk against the metal. She wasn’t sad, not anymore; the tears that stung the backs of her eyes were hot and angry. “How long are you going to make me do this by myself?”

The captain had stopped answering his comms and leaving his quarters last week. As the first mate, she could only cover for him for so long. She stared at the closed door, wondering for the nth time if she should rip out the panel next to it, scramble the wires controlling the mechanism, and force her way in.

The vomitous shock and horror she had felt five years ago, when she did the same to her mother’s quarters, was still fresh. She worried that she’d find Captain Noah Albright just like she had found Tegan Albright: sprawled across the bunk floor, stiff and blood-swollen on one side, staring out way beyond the Sun with wide, filmy eyes.

That was absurd, since infrared sensors in the captain’s bunk would’ve alerted her already. But it was a stain she couldn’t wash from her mind.

She yanked off her beanie and slid down the wall until her head hung between her knees. Her braids fell forward in a curtain around her face. In that small privacy she let herself cry. Her shoulders shook quietly for several minutes; she had dammed up so much over the last three months.

When she was done, she wiped her uniform sleeve across her face and gathered her braids back to order. She turned sharply from the captain’s bunk. There was no more time to waste waiting for relief that wouldn’t come, not when the next threat to their survival surely would.

***

Jacklyn completed her rounds right before the start of the next gamma shift. After alpha shift she had relinquished the conn to the second mate and taken a lift downship to perform the off-duty routine she had carried out ever since becoming first mate: clear each deck and confirm for herself that the Calypso was still mostly spaceworthy.

The five wards comprised thirty decks of galleys and messes, gymnasiums and recreation rooms, libraries and schools, religious alcoves and nurseries, as well as quarters for the rest of the six-thousand-member crew. Jacklyn patrolled each one, marking down the repair teams hustling to reconstruction sites, the cargo droids pushing supply carts, the off-duty staff sipping moonshine. All the while she ignored the bitter looks from the huddles of crew members that had begun gathering lately in dark corners of the ship.

The doors to the silos were secure. The conditions in the farms read Earth-normal. Sickbay had finally discharged all but a fragile few patients. Security had nothing to report. In record time Jacklyn landed all the way down in Engineering, where she found the second engineer scrolling through projections of the Calypso’s propulsion module on a holographic table. He didn’t look happy.

She knocked on the doorframe. “Problem, Kachi?”

The storm clouds on Onyekachi James’s face lightened. “Hey, Jack. Same shit, different day.”

“Shock absorbers?” she asked sympathetically.

“Shock absorbers,” he sighed. “I get the backlash about decelerating, but it’s the only reason we’re not meat splatter on the walls. Everything from the pusher plate to the meteoroid shield is screwed up. If we tried going at pre-Proxima speeds, we’d get juiced by all the g’s.”

He’d explained it to her before—the decades that the fleet had spent on Proxima b, exposed even at the terminator to the host star’s radiation tantrums, had corroded a number of systems and machines.

“The engagements don’t help,” he said bitterly.

When the engagements first started, the engineers had hypothesized that the fleet had encountered some kind of interstellar energy fluid, though their forebears hadn’t reported anything of the kind. As the engagements got worse, conservative explanations were replaced with the harrowing realization that they might not be the only ones roaming the void.

Jacklyn’s mother used to call the engagements the gods duking it out.

The ones behind the engagements probably weren’t gods, even with the ability to make interstellar war, but they were definitely too advanced for the fleet’s antiquated systems to detect or hail. The Calypso had no way of sidestepping the invisible crossfire of the skirmish that had drifted into their neighborhood since their species had last crossed this empty space.

Jacklyn wished she had good news for Onyekachi, but it was in short supply. She would have to wait until Watson gave them more than whale song for that. Until the droid found a way off the board of whatever dangerous game into which the fleet had unwittingly wandered, or even a way to communicate with the players.

“Keep up the good work,” Jacklyn said.

Onyekachi shot finger guns at her on her way back to the lift.

Jacklyn recognized the compulsiveness in the decision to make one last trip to the bridge, but she indulged herself anyway. The second mate, Asher Kind, still had the conn; he rolled his eyes as soon as she stepped through the doors.

“Go to bed,” he said in lieu of a greeting.

“This is my last stop,” Jacklyn promised.

Asher huffed. “You and Jolie deserve each other.”

Flustered, Jacklyn scanned the room; from the captain’s vantage point she could see every station, several holoschematics displaying the Calypso’s vitals, and the entire viewfinder looking out into the blackness of space. It was too bright to see the tapestry of constellations, but this screen wasn’t for stargazing—it was overlaid with coordinates and trajectories.

Jacklyn wasn’t surprised to see the third mate, Jolie Singh, at the sensors console, keeping a keen eye on the deflector shield preventing the ship from getting turned into scrap by stray particles; she always reported to the bridge a few minutes ahead of her command. Feeling Jacklyn’s attention on the waterfall of her glossy hair, Jolie glanced up and met her eyes with unerring accuracy. She examined the shy look on Jacklyn’s face and then smirked.

Cheeks hot, Jacklyn quickly looked away. “Any updates?”

Asher was smug. “None. Just another few trillion kilometers of nothing ahead.”

“Or worse,” Jacklyn murmured to herself.

Right as the words left her lips, the bridge erupted with blaring, staticky noise.

Every head snapped toward the communications station. The console was crackling with sound, gone unexpectedly live. The head comms techie’s fingers raced across the switchboard, trying to shut off the harsh hissing.

“Comms?” Asher asked sharply.

The techie frowned at his station and reported, “Malfunction.”

Jacklyn waited for him to wrestle the console back under control, but the speakers continued spitting and popping. “What is that?” she finally asked.

For the first time since he joined the bridge crew, the techie hesitated. “A message.”

Jacklyn was at the comms station before she thought to move, nearly checking Asher with her shoulder as they both came over to listen.

The signal-to-noise ratio was abysmally low. This was nothing like the scrubbed-up audio she had heard in Data. Punches in the static vaguely reminded her of words, but she couldn’t make out anything coherent. Just as she leaned closer to the garbled sound, the transmission cut out.

“Were you recording?” Asher demanded.

He accepted the techie’s withering look. “Stand by.”

Asher turned to the rest of the bridge. “Back to stations.” The ship trembled a little underfoot as the helmsman returned it dutifully to course.

Jacklyn waited impatiently while the techie doctored the damaged broadcast with one hand and crammed his earpiece in with the other so hard she worried he might rupture something. His face went tight as he listened to the replay.

“Jack, Asher,” he said lowly. Jacklyn had never heard him sound unsettled before. “Listen.”

She took the offered earpiece.

The static buzzed in her ear again, but this time it fizzled into clarity. The last fragment of the message came out loud and clear.

“… is… the Atalanta. Something—ssssss—ollow… xima. It’s… the ship. Wa—ssssss—epeat, warning… ssssss—ssssss—ssssss… on’t… epeat, don’t… ssssss. This is Captain Isidora of the Atalanta. I—ssssss—anyone listening. Please. Don’t open the door.”

 

Excerpted from The Scourge Between Stars, copyright © 2022 by Ness Brown.

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