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Excerpt: Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone

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A wildly successful innovator to rival Steve Jobs or Elon Musk, Vivian Liao is prone to radical thinking, quick decision-making, and reckless action. On the eve of her greatest achievement, she tries to outrun people who are trying to steal her success.

In the chilly darkness of a Boston server farm, Viv sets her ultimate plan into motion. A terrifying instant later, Vivian Liao is catapulted through space and time to a far future where she confronts a destiny stranger and more deadly than she could ever imagine.

The end of time is ruled by an ancient, powerful Empress who blesses or blasts entire planets with a single thought. Rebellion is literally impossible to consider–until Vivian Liao arrives. Trapped between the Pride—a ravening horde of sentient machines—and a fanatical sect of warrior monks who call themselves the Mirrorfaith, Viv must rally a strange group of allies to confront the Empress and find a way back to the world and life she left behind.

A magnificent work of vivid imagination and universe-spanning action, Empress of Forever by Max Gladstone is a feminist Guardians of the Galaxy crossed with Star Wars and is on sale on June 18, 2019. Please enjoy the following excerpt and read the first three chapters on Tor.com.

4

They ran side by side down the hall through a war.

Hong of the Mirrorfaith turned out to be infuriatingly fit, with a distance runner’s level stride. The patch worked scarily well: if his injury slowed him, Viv couldn’t see how. He matched her pace so easily she had no doubt he could have lapped her on a quarter-mile track without noticing they were in a race. Viv, buzzed on adrenaline, had recovered enough from the almost drowning and the robot fight to feel pissed at him for that, but she was breathing too hard to joke about it, or to ask any of the questions gathered in starling flurries in her mind.

So she made lists.

The hall outside was made from the same milky translucent material as the egg chamber, its floor hard and cool and regular underfoot, except for the bodies. Most of the bodies belonged to Pride drones, but for every five of those she saw another fallen monk in red-and-gold robes like Hong’s. Mirrorfaith. The monks held broken crystal weapons, or none at all; one dead woman had both hands buried in the torso of a large, jumbled robot-form that did not look even remotely human. Had she just been imagining it, or did that monk have four legs? Were those wings sprouting from the woman’s back?

Viv built systems in her head. She’d made her fortunes that way. But every time she tried to assemble a pattern from the facts she’d gathered since waking in that bubble, some new sight gave her yet another piece that didn’t fit, suggesting a larger puzzle than she’d thought. She wandered in mist, and what she thought were houses were only the boots of giants.

Hong hadn’t recognized Earth. The Pride drones, Hong’s patch—hell, even Hong’s robe suggested whole disciplines of science and engineering toward which she’d seen only the faintest gestures. She’d traveled the world, built subsidiaries in 150 countries, and never heard a language like the one he spoke. But she somehow understood that language without ever having learned it. And Hong seemed to think all this was commonplace.

He had said, We followed its oracles from star to star.

False certainty had almost killed her back in the eggshell room, blinding her to possibilities. So don’t be certain. Steer into the skid. Wherever you are, it’s bigger and more complicated than you know.

She’d never been good at admitting things like that back home, either.

Thinking home hurt. In the server room she’d been so close to getting out, to saving Magda at least if not herself. When she woke in that green bubble, drowning, she’d thought she must be in some federal facility, maybe even close to Boston, not much ground lost. But with each new puzzle piece she found, home, safety, and Magda drew farther away. She grasped in the mist for the faces of friends, and found only more giants—their footprints, their scattered tools, the wreckage they had left behind. She was far from home. Far from the people she had sworn to help, the people she had risked everything to save.

At least she had an ally in the mist beside her. Even if he was in indecently good shape.

“Don’t look back,” Hong said again. His voice held a hint of concern, as if they were discussing bad weather on a hike rather than sprinting past corpses.

By the time she found enough breath to ask why, she heard the scraping and skittering that followed them, needles on glass growing louder. She saved her breath and ran faster.

The second left, he’d told her. When they made that turn, she stopped. The room was littered with more Pride drones and more monks’ bodies, but she had those puzzle pieces already. But the floor here was made of transparent crystal rather than alabaster, and beneath her, well . . .

Is that a star?

Dumb question, Viv. Don’t waste list space on something you can answer yourself.

It was obviously a star. Directly underfoot, in fact, and taking up most of the sky, which meant that the sky was underfoot, which meant that they were in space—over a bright red orb mottled with sunspots and continental drifts of chromosphere. Impossibly huge, impossibly close. A star so nearby should have vaporized her, should have boiled metal. But not only was she, not to mention the room in which she stood, distinctly un-vaporized, but a stalk, a thick, impossible column, descended from some nearby structure straight down to pierce the stellar surface.

Are those black holes?

That was less obvious. It took Viv’s oxygen-starved nerd brain a few more seconds to confirm her senses’ evidence: they were small compared to the star but still vast, voids in space surrounded by lensed starlight and whirling accretion discs of plasma drawn from the red star. There were many of them, black holes exceptionally plural, twenty to her left, twenty to her right, a chain disappearing beyond the stellar horizon. Viv wasn’t a physicist, but she had some sense of the tidal forces involved, the gravitational effects. A natural system like this would have torn itself apart.

The black holes had been moved here. Or built here.

She didn’t know which was worse.

She had guessed. Of course she had. But she hadn’t let herself believe. She was farther away than she’d thought possible. Magda and Lucy and

Shonda and her parents and her brother and Earth and everything she’d known and loved and fought for shrank to a point at the farthest reach of sight, the way whole galaxies looked smaller than fireflies in the sky. She fixed them in her vision, in her heart. She had been brought here, which sug- gested that there might be a way back.

She’d find it. For the moment, though, here she was.

In space.

Her laugh was wet and her eyes blurry and her knees weak when Hong grabbed her arm and pulled her after him and she began, again, to run. Out of the crystal chamber into another alabaster hall. She trusted Hong, and her legs. At least those worked like she was used to.

When you’re both safe, she told herself, you can ask him about the Pride. About these shape-changing robes. You can ask how you came to be drowning on a, say the words, space station. You can ask where he’s from, and whether that monk really did have wings. And how to get home.

Then she realized she was running alone.

Don’t stop, he’d said.

Fuck that. He’d saved her life. She would not let some stupid code of honor rob her of her only partner in this mess.

She turned.

Good news first: she could still see Hong.

Bad news: he stood locked in close combat with an immense Pride drone, and now she saw what those giant broken things they’d passed looked like when awake: a red-eyed scorpion six feet tall at the shoulder, with a torso like a silver Ken doll rising from its spiked back. If Hong hadn’t looked so serious she might have mistaken their battle for some kind of sick dance, the man and the scorpion-centaur-doll-thing, his clubs clanging off its armor plating, its claws scissoring through space he’d just left. One of the Ken-taur’s forelegs reared back and speared down into Hong’s thigh, but glanced off, and she realized that Hong’s leg wasn’t flesh at all, but a blue-black metal almost the same tone as his skin.

The Kentaur’s mouth opened, and light burned in its throat. Hong raised his clubs, crossed, to block, but Kentaurs seemed to have stronger cannon than the little drones. This blast struck Hong’s guard and tossed him back up the hall toward Viv; he bounced and rolled like a thrown tin can as the Kentaur boiled after him.

He tried to shoulder her away even as she helped him to his feet, but blood leaked through his patch and he winced. “Go. I can slow it down. You must reach the ’fleet.”

“So come with me.”

Then Hong made a great mistake. If he’d shaken her off and sprinted back down the hall to face the Kentaur again, Viv might have had no choice but to run. She had no weapons, no armor, no sense of how to fight that thing, let alone kill it.

But he tried to stare Viv down. And, warrior monk or not, however tough they built them wherever he’d come from, they didn’t build them to win a commanding-glare contest with Viv.

“You saved my life,” she said. “We’re getting out of this. Together.” And together, they ran.

Copyright © 2019 by Max Gladstone

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