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Excerpt: Architects of Memory by Karen Osborne

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Millions died after the first contact. An alien weapon holds the key to redemption—or annihilation. Experience Karen Osborne’s unforgettable science fiction debut, Architects of Memory.

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.

Please enjoy this free excerpt of Architect of Memory, on sale 08/25/2020.


1

Natalie towed Ash back to Twenty-Five in relative silence. The solar backup charger kicked in halfway through the debris field, and Ash was able to slot the pod back into its housing on the outer hull under her own power. She felt the pod shudder into somnolence and sighed as the airlock cycled and the door opened: she was safe.

At least one thing had gone well today.

Len waited just beyond, the corners of his mouth creased in relief and worry. He gave Ash a sturdy hug with one brown, muscled arm. “This is not Alien Attack Squad,” he said, his voice clogged with rare emotion. “Cliff-hangers are for vids, Ash.”

“I’m sorry.” She leaned into the warmth of the hug. “Don’t worry. I made it out.”

He didn’t laugh. “You look like hell.”

“I’m fine.”

“Well, you won’t be in ten minutes. Doc’s on her way down, and the captain’s blazing mad.”

Ash gave him a playful push away. “I can handle Kate Keller.”

He rolled his eyes. “I’m sure you can. But, Ash, about the doctor—”

“Sharma’s not going to even touch me this time.”

His eyes darted, half nervous, over to Natalie’s pod; the younger woman was still inside, running postflight tests. His voice dropped, went half husky. “The last twenty minutes were a shitshow for all of us. I just . . . want you to take this seriously, okay?”

Ash snorted in response. “Leonard Downey, chief executive of snark, is asking me to take something seriously?” She laughed. “You remember when I got that concussion from hitting debris near the Mumbai? I took that seriously. The Company bill set my citizenship date back three whole months. Len, I’m walking, I’m talking, I’m fine. There’s no reason to be worried.”

“And what’ll that savings do for you if you’re dead?”

She tensed. Thought of the light in the pod, of the dizziness, of the darkness. Of the things she couldn’t tell him. “It’s not that easy. You know it’s not that easy.”

Len sighed, rubbing the back of his head. “No,” he agreed. “It’s not.” He paused. “I’m going to take a look at your pod, and hopefully, we’ll get some answers.”

“Thanks, Len,” she said. “Don’t worry, I won’t let anyone know you care.”

“You’re the best.” He laughed, tossed some diagnostic tools into the pod, gave Ash another quick hug, and climbed in. The door to Natalie’s airlock slid open, and the younger woman jumped out, her short hair spiked and lawless from where it had been crushed in her helmet. Dr. Sharma ducked out of the ship’s spine, wearing a blue sweater and an unusually fascinated look on her face, a lancet and vial cupped in her manicured left hand.

“Indenture, we’ll need—”

Ash’s breath froze and she backed up. I can’t let her do a blood test. She’ll find out. “You know I can’t afford the needles, Dr. Sharma.”

Sharma shook her head. “You’re going to have to get over it. I’ll bill it as mission-critical, so it won’t go against your indenture. We’re all lucky this isn’t an autopsy.”

Ash ran her hand through her hair. “Look. I feel fine. I just need a glass of water. I need to wash my face. Give me five minutes.”

Sharma cracked a sour little smile, stepping forward. She grabbed a penlight from her pocket and turned it on, shining it straight in Ash’s eyes without warning. Ash winced and turned her chin to one side, the bright light exacerbating her stabbing headache.

Ow, doctor, for the love of God—”

The doctor pursed her lips in thought. “You said you were breathing the entire time?”

“I suppose I had to be.”

The doctor turned off the penlight. “Because you have petechiae on your face, on your neck, broken capillaries in your eyes— you’ve been punched, or spaced, or strangled. That’s strange. And not expected.”

“I feel fine. Why do you care so much anyway? I’m just an indenture.”

“You’re not just an indenture, Ashlan. Not to me, at least.” Sharma sighed. “But right now, I suppose I’m simply concerned that you don’t fall on your face on the way up to the bridge. Luckily for you, we have a captain who believes your health is secondary to listening to the whims of our chief executive.” She gave Ash a once-over and pointed toward the bridge, the tools still dangling in her hand. “I’ll be waiting in the medbay when you’re done.”

Ash released a pent-up breath of relief and turned toward the entrance to Twenty-Five’s central spine. “I’ll be down as soon as I can. Promise.”

“Please do. You’ve been through a trauma you don’t even remember,” Sharma said. “That’s not a good sign.”

“I don’t mind not remembering trauma,” Ash said, grabbing the ladder with one hand and swinging up onto the bottom rung.

Ash heard the soft, put-upon sigh of the doctor as she pulled herself up to the bridge, and the relief felt feather light once out of direct sight. She’d led Sharma to think her fear of medicine was understandable, that it stemmed from the brusque, prodding mannerisms of the Wellspring doctors back at the Bittersweet mines, men and women who viewed the Company’s human workforce less as people to be healed and more like machines to be patched up. It was a convenient mask for Ash’s very real fear: that Sharma would discover her illness, an illness that would disqualify her from citizenship anywhere but in a gutter back on Earth. Lately, she’d thought the doctor had become a little suspicious, less likely to humor her, less likely to bill a procedure as mission-critical, to force her into it, to make her pay for her own downfall.

That was bad enough. A new blood test would ruin everything.

Auroran citizenship was a better deal by far than Wellspring’s version, which came after decades, if at all—but Ash knew she still trod dangerous ground. Aurora Company prided itself on cross-vertical investments, pairing agricultural colonies with hubworld industry for a stable revenue stream. Wellspring Celestial’s main strategy relied on mining celestium and water ice, and for a while, it had been sound; they had a near monopoly on the celestium-rich hubworlds and moons, and a steady stream of poverty-stricken uncitizens like Ash’s family, willing to sell themselves into indenture for the opportunity to get cit tags. Refined celestium ore was 65 percent of the fuel mix that powered the grav-drive, and 25 percent of the tough plasteel hulls that made escaping gravity wells possible. It had made Wellspring’s executive class rich as hell—at least until the Vai arrived to smash their business model and their desperate underclass.

Ash hadn’t even known things could be different until Keller and the others yanked her screaming from the Bittersweet wreckage.

She pulled herself up to the bridge, feeling tired. Like everywhere else on Twenty-Five, the command space was tiny, every single open space used for floor-to-ceiling interfaces, storage, toggles, and consoles. It was full of noise, lights, beeping things, and constant activity. After the quiet of the pod, the thousand small distractions of a smooth and stable Twenty-Five sounded positively beatific.

Ash was surprised to see vehicular control occupied by Keller’s XO, the red-haired and taciturn Alison Ramsay, who normally spent her time on the night shift. Ash started to apologize, but Ramsay grinned and brought her index finger to her lips, indicating the ansible monitor. Keller’s back was to Ash, talking with a somewhat familiar brown-haired man wearing an executive’s torc around his neck. It took a few seconds for his face to register.

Shit. Ash colored, shoved down a mouthful of panic and dropped into the salvage control chair.

Ramsay kept her eyes on the ship’s power levels, tapping with little purpose, her real attention clearly on hearing the conversation Keller was having with the Company CEO. Joseph Solano was known for his hands-on management style and propensity to show up at important work sites, but even he rarely enjoyed this long of a chat with any of his captains. Ash ducked, staying out of the visual range of anyone involved.

“My head of R&D is desperate to begin. Is the quarantine box onboard yet?”

Keller straightened her shoulders. “I don’t think that’s a prudent decision—not after what it did to my indenture. I’d need your express authorization.”

Solano loomed. The man was the skinny side of plump and wore his hair in curls, with light coffee skin, a well-kept black beard and the white, stretched tattoo of a birthright citizen curling around his ear. He sat at a desk in front of an illuminated Company logo like a newscast plutocrat and wrung his hands while speaking. “You have it. I obviously don’t want you to do anything that would put an investment like Twenty-Five at risk. But we’ve been trying to put together the events of the Battle of Tribulation for over a year, and this is the closest we’ve ever been to a real answer.”

“We know what happened at Tribulation, sir,” said Keller. “London led the battle. The Manx-Koltar cruiser took the right flank, and Mumbai the rear. They won, sir.”

“But how did they win? The Vai slaughtered London in fifteen minutes, Captain Keller. They could have pushed on past Tribulation, into Aurora’s shipping lanes and straight on to Europa with just a few gunboats to stop them. But they didn’t. They stopped fighting. They retreated behind the White Line. We shouldn’t have won, Captain, and the secret to that victory is right under our noses. I don’t need to tell you we need to obtain this device before the competition does. Once they find out that Rio is moving toward Tribulation, we’ll have a lot of unwanted company. It would be prudent to get started before our arrival.”

Keller took a quiet breath. “What about the intercorporate treaties?”

“Those haven’t been enforceable for months. Other companies should be classified as hostile for the duration of your deployment here. This mission is our future, Captain Keller, and we need to secure it right now. Aurora is prepared to offer whatever support you need to properly secure the device before our arrival,” Solano said.

Ash’s hand curled, her breath catching. Solano had basically just dared Keller to ask for overtime. Hope kindled in her chest. Come on, Kate, she thought. Push.

Keller looked over her shoulder, acknowledging Ash’s arrival with a quick tilt of her chin. “Actually, we could do more than get started. We have Dr. Sharma on staff, and she worked in R&D for over ten years.”

“Hm,” Solano said. He paused and looked off-screen. “All right. If you can give us a basic dossier on the item by the time Rio arrives to take over, you get a bonus.”

Keller paused, then licked her lips. “I was actually thinking hazard scale pay, sir. For everyone.”

The CEO laughed. “I knew you’d ask. Fine, I’ll authorize hazard scale. You’re the best, Keller. Don’t make me regret it.”

“Of course, sir,” Keller said.

Solano’s voice softened. Out of the corner of her eyes, Ash could see Ramsay stab at her keyboard, biting the bottom of her lip. “This is not just salvaging equipment and bringing our soldiers home, Kate. This is history. Ensuring the future of humanity. We have to be ready if—when—the Vai attack again.”

“We’ll do it, sir,” Keller said.

“Fantastic. Do us proud. Rio de Janeiro out.”

Copyright © Karen Osborne 2020

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