Karen Osborne continues her science fiction action and adventure series the Memory War with Engines of Oblivion, the sequel to Architects of Memory—the corporations running the galaxy are about to learn not everyone can be bought.
Natalie Chan gained her corporate citizenship, but barely survived the battle for Tribulation.
Now corporate has big plans for Natalie. Horrible plans.
Locked away in Natalie’s missing memory is salvation for the last of an alien civilization and the humans they tried to exterminate. The corporation wants total control of both—or their deletion.
Please enjoy this free excerpt of Engines of Oblivion by Karen Osborne, on sale 02/09/2021.
The Baywell forward team flanked Natalie easily, forcing her down to her knees, their coldsuit gloves slamming into the shoulders of the puppet drone. She felt the impact of hard metal on stony ground, teeth rattling, chatter from her brand-new memoria grasping at the space beneath her skull. Elsewhere, Ward had gone quiet; she could hear his ragged and nervous breath echoing hers in the earpiece, and a crackling from inside the suit, a loose violent rattling, a brokenness she couldn’t fix now.
“Auroran soldier.” She heard the whine of line-of-sight comms engaging, the crackle of a voice across the distance. A male growl, probably belonging to the leader occupying the mech at the center of the formation. “Are you surrendering?”
She said nothing. Saying yes would make this a war crime. Saying no would give Baywell the chance to retrieve the kicker. She could hear her old captain’s favorite phrase bouncing around like Kate Keller was here, and not dead: Space plus bullshit equals death. And this is bullshit, Nat.
The response to her silence was accompanied by the crack of the barrel of the leader’s boltgun against her helmet. Clang. For a moment, her animal hindbrain panicked, and the immersion cracked. The white walls of the lab flashed before her eyes, causing a splitting headache.
Clang. “Answer me, you Auroran shit.” The captain’s voice had gone venom-sweet.
Natalie licked her lips and tasted blood. Hell. One of the rig connections must have slipped.
“I crashed,” she said.
“Really,” the captain’s voice spat, then he turned to a person nearby. “Can we get a team to check out the crash site?”
Natalie let the words settle. In her ear, Ward was counting down. Eleven. Ten. Nine. In her belly, the kicker howled in impossible, twisting phrases.
Clang. “You have indenture tags, but nobody lets an indenture drive a fighter. You have two seconds to tell me who you really are, or I blow your head off.”
Her mouth went dry. She wasn’t supposed to say anything else. The board hadn’t said anything about getting the puppet rig’s unoccupied head blown off. If that happened, Natalie would still be alive, but Baywell would discover the kicker. Aurora would lose the weapons labs—and the war.
“I don’t suppose you want to surrender,” she said.
He snorted and raised the gun, flicking off the safety. “Plenty of space below for POWs, friend.”
“Okay. You’re right. I’m not an indenture. I’m a birthright,” Natalie lied. She had to keep him going for another seven seconds, and the best way to do that was to convince him that she might have actionable intel. Seven seconds was a fucking year when you were dealing with automatic boltfire. It was a lifetime with a bullet.
“What’s your line, then?”
“My family is—” The memoria showed her a picture she’d seen on Tribulation, lit by flashlight in a dark, destroyed office. People with their arms around each other, a small girl wrapped in a rainbow blanket. Words. “This Is My Family,” scrawled in black marker, like a reminder. Reva Sharma had been on Bittersweet during the war, while doing work for the Sacrament Society, hadn’t she? Could she eke a few more seconds out of that? The memoria whirred against her forehead. The words came out before she could stop them, pushed out by the sheer force of the memory and the strong immersion drugs.
“I’m from the Sharma line,” she said.
Ward’s voice crackled. “Six.”
She saw the captain’s gun waver for a moment. “Holy shit,” he said.
“She’s lying,” said the soldier next to him. A woman. “Intel says Sharma died on Phoenix, and her entire line in the war.”
“Intel’s full of pinheads, Susan,” said the captain.
Susan growled. “My sister died on Phoenix. I should know.”
“Really? For sure? The Aurorans didn’t return her body, did they? What do you think we’re fighting for?” She turned back to Natalie. “Look, what do you know? You give us something good, we can chat about your accommodations.”
Natalie chose a version of the truth. “Reva Sharma lied to me. That’s what I know. It stands to reason she’d lie to you.”
“You lying to us too?” Susan said.
As an answer, Natalie slipped her little finger into the trigger she’d set in the haptic rig, and pulled.
Most people assumed that Vai weapons were radically different from conventional bolts, bullets, and bombs. They were mostly correct—the powerful moleculars that did most of the killing in the war were incomprehensible, operational only when in direct contact with the Vai. The aliens’ lesser kinetics, though, still responded to the laws of physics, to vectors and triggers, to impact and intent. Natalie expected the yawning ache she’d last felt when the blue screamer went off at Tribulation, the silent, terrible wash of bright green light that meant detonation.
The light was red.
It took her less than a moment to realize what was happening, and another moment to realize she couldn’t do a thing about it.
“Run,” she whispered.
“What the hell is that?” said the captain.
“Run,” she repeated. The word choked against the panic in her throat, and any other answer would have been moot, anyway. It was too late. Within seconds, the puppet was drenched in blood-scarred radiance. The light crawled down her stolen arms, whipped up skeins of golden dust, careened out from the ground zero of her body—a red twist that torqued together like some devil’s idea of rope.
Someone had switched out the kicker EMP with Vancouver’s only redshift star.
“You’re fine,” he responded.
But she didn’t disconnect. She closed her eyes, but the Ingest-quality renderbots Ascanio had recommended for the suit slammed the visuals straight into her brain. The drugs dragged her deeper into eyes-wide consciousness. She’d seen some shit working the ordnance teams in the Vai war: catareactors making peach fuzz of people’s eyes and redoubt stars sending unholy fire through carotid arteries. She’d seen the gas of the greenhouse bomb on the battlefield at Cana snacking on soldiers’ lungs and making soup of her bunkmates’ bones. She’d seen the blue screamer itself, and the way it slipped up the spine, twisting the person apart at the vertebrae. She’d seen her friends die like this, on planet after planet, and on Tribulation itself.
But the redshift star.
Nobody had seen a redshift star work.
Nobody lived that long around a redshift star to know how it worked.
Natalie shook—violent, nauseous. Somewhere inside, she knew this had been inevitable. Applied Kinetics was all about the hope that wild Vai kinetics could be controlled and used in conventional warfare. But this—murder—hadn’t been the plan. Her mission was supposed to go a completely different way. The plan had been to take the base with the EMP, then use the ready platoon to secure the weapons labs. Even now, that seemed off, stupid—boltfire could damage the labs’ operational capacity. But the redshift star—
The star rolled out from the puppet’s stomach cavity onto the ground with a muffled thump, like a badly aimed soccer ball. The roughly spherical weapon had a pockmarked surface more like an asteroid or a stone than a ball of gas. It bumped to a stop at the foot of the leader, and split in half.
He was the first to go, and he went screaming: the red light slipped out from the weapon and shattered in sixteen directions. Red light shot up his leg, slithered under his fingernails, flayed his skin, turned him into strips of meat, and finally into a fine red dust that twisted in a hot electric current.
The others turned to run. She watched from her knees, calling to get me out, get me out, get me out, but they’d pushed more drugs into her IV, and the thrum of reality was so fucking loud, banging around in her ears like gunfire. Rooted to the spot, she watched the Baywells die, cracked by red light, twisted apart into dust.
Above, she gulped down sweet air.
She was losing immersion. She knew was on the planet, at the center of the furnace, standing in the middle of a tornado of red and gold dust. But she was also back home staring down her father on the winter-swept plaza, and occupying a tiny slab bed on a troop transport going to Cana, and breathing back on London with Ash and the dead and the dust, and smiling across the Twenty-Five mess at a man she didn’t recognize. Which was fucked up, because there hadn’t been a man on Twenty-Five—
—but the break didn’t last, goddamn estrefurantoin. The humans before her turned from skin and bones into blood and dust, brief flares and candles, little explosions that burned bright and burst into darkness, the small bursts of wind sending the dust that was left into fading spurts around the landing gears and tailpieces of the abandoned fightercraft. They were dying below her, too, the indentures who worked this mine, the innocents and the misfortunates, the Ashlans, the Natalies, people who knew that going corporate was the only way to get off starving Earth.
She remembered the alien on the concrete floor of the bugout bay on Tribulation, Ash telling her that there’s no such thing as a single Vai, even as her gun spun hot, even as the inhuman silver blood swirled around her feet. They didn’t know we could die, she’d said.
But Natalie knew.
Natalie should have known this, too—
She swayed where she stood, choking on a helpless anger hot enough to burn, struck with the inevitability of it all. Here she was, messing around with proxy rigs and kinetic weapons and other expensive bullshit, when Aurora had simply chosen the rawest of Auroran solutions—one that was efficient, effective, and cheap. Natalie would have thought of it herself, except she’d been to Tribulation. She’d seen efficiency when Ash triggered the Heart—seen the blank-eyed bodies spinning in their tombs, just alive enough to breathe.
She’d been efficiency down in that bugout bay, the Vai that had attacked Ash bleeding out at her feet—
—and it had been stupid, stupid, stupid of her to think the Auroran executive board would actually leave the outcome of this battle up to a platoon of soldiers with guns when a more efficient solution was offered.
The noise tapered after a moment, and she placed her borrowed fingers against the ground, imagining what was happening below.
“You’re a monster.”
A new voice. She whirled. The voice belonged to a man with brown eyes, close-cropped black curls, blue work pants, and an Alien Attack Squad swag shirt tight around his arms. He’d been standing behind Natalie the entire time, bare-handed and bareheaded, as if he weren’t afraid of the proxy and the power crackling around her stolen body at all. The air on Bittersweet wasn’t breathable, but he stood without a coldsuit, his chest rising and falling.
Her own suit still crackled with bright red light, fizzled and snapped with it. He wasn’t real. He couldn’t be real, she thought.
The last time she’d seen a human being survive the demolition of a Vai kinetic, it had been Ash, back on Tribulation. She’d been lined in blue, the light shoved down her throat, sparkling death at her heart. She’d lived. She’d lived because of what was done to her here on Bittersweet, below the surface of this cursed world.
“Who are you?” she croaked.
The man met her eyes across the distance. “You’re a monster,” he whispered, again.
“It’s not my fault. I didn’t do this.” Her stomach crawled with unwanted guilt.
“It’s never your fault, is it?”
Natalie’s world twisted, and a liquid knot under her skull snapped, as if enough of the drugs had worn off to make her finally realize that this was wrong, this was wrong, this was not her body, that they’d hijacked it to commit a war crime, that she’d just—she’d just—oh god, she’d just—and the scratching yellow dust of Bittersweet spun away from her, fading from gold to black. The last thing she saw was the man still watching as she collapsed, still alive even as an entire world turned to dust.
Copyright © Karen Osborne 2021
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