Chapter 1   Callie had been dead for three months, and she was sick of it. She sat strapped into an ornate wooden chair decorated with carved comets and stars, glaring at a viewscreen, ostensibly browsing news feeds on the Tangle but mostly waiting for a message from an alien that might not even come today, or tomorrow, or next week. "Soon" was a word that contained a multitude of possibilities. She shifted around, trying to get comfortable. Having chairs in microgravity was stupid, but what was the point in owning the throne of a pirate queen if you didn't sit in it sometimes? Besides, this kept her from pacing around the station, which was annoying everyone. Her engineer Ashok floated into the control room and crowed, "It's Gravity Day! Soon you'll be able to stomp around and glare with your feet on the ground!" "Unless you turn this ugly asteroid into a black hole by mistake." "I only spawn singularities on purpose, cap." Ashok spun himself with puffs of compressed air from his fingertips and twirled in a mid-air cartwheel. "Gravity Day! You should make it a national holiday. You don't make nearly enough imperial decrees." "To be an emperor, you have to rule multiple countries, Ashok. I'm in charge of exactly one asteroid in currently unincorporated space." She paused. "I do have two spaceships, though, so I could probably justify making you call me 'admiral'." "O admiral, my admiral." He clucked his tongue, one of the few unaugmented organs in his head. "No, that doesn't work at all." He glanced at her screens. "No message from Lantern yet?" Their friend Lantern was a Liar, the race of pathologically untruthful aliens who'd opened the stars to humans... and kept dark secrets from them, including the existence of an ancient, now dormant race of near-godlike aliens known as the Axiom. Lantern had been raised in the cult of truth-tellers - Liars who didn't lie - but the cult itself secretly served the interests of the sleeping Axiom, hiding the existence of their ongoing, universe-altering projects from outsiders. Callie's crew had stumbled upon an Axiom facility, and acquired forbidden Axiom technology, and as a result, the truth-tellers had tried to kill them. Fortunately, thanks to Lantern's infiltration and double-agency, the cult believed it had succeeded. Lantern had taken over the local cell of the truth-tellers in the Sol system, and as far as the elders knew, she was still loyal to them. She was checking their databases to make sure no record of their names, or the name of their ship, remained in the cult's systems. Callie didn't want to tangle with zealous assassins wielding unimaginable technology again. They'd only survived the first time by lucky accident. In the meantime, the crew was laying low. "No word," Callie confirmed. "I appreciate her caution and thoroughness and all those other admirable qualities, but I'd really like to come back to life already." "You talk like resurrection is inevitable, cap. If Lantern can't purge us from the cult's system without the big bad elders noticing, we might have to leave our old identities behind and start new lives in another system. That could be neat. I could be a chef named Reginald who specializes in algae-based dishes. You could be a saucy bartender who beats up drunks with a pool cue." "I'm already that, except for the bartender part, and the saucy part, and they aren't always drunks." "I was trying to hew closely to your essential nature. But cheer up. It's Gravity Day! I'm gonna flip the switch in-" He consulted some chronometer in his heads-up display "-forty-six minutes and eight seconds." She glanced at the current local time on her viewscreen. "At 7:07? Why then? Does the gravity generator need to warm up or something?" "No, but the gravitational constant is 6.674×10−11 m3 kg−1 s−2, so, you know." Callie sighed. "So you want to start it sixty-seven minutes and four seconds after six. I'm not sure that even qualifies as a joke, Ashok. Not even by engineering joke standards." "We've been stuck on a commandeered pirate base for three months pretending to be dead, cap. I've got to entertain myself somehow. I'm just glad Lantern got her hands - or pseudopods, or whatever - on this alien gravity-manipulation tech and was willing to share. Having a project has kept me from losing my mind." Callie scowled. "You have so many lenses all over your face, I can't tell if you're giving me a pointed look or not. I haven't lost my mind." Yet . "I just want to get off this rock and do something useful with my time." She considered sending Lantern another message through the encrypted channels that the ship - now station - AI, Shall, had set up through the Tangle, but the alien would have gotten in touch if she knew anything for sure yet. "How are things going with Elena?" Ashok asked. Callie relaxed a little. "Good. She's the only thing that makes being here tolerable." "Ouch," Ashok said cheerfully. She ignored him. "This Sebastien thing is wearing on her, though." She glanced at one of the tattle-screens, and it showed a peaceful sine-wave of their prisoner-patient's sleeping brain. "She was hoping we'd see better results by now." "I'm impressed every day you don't put him out an airlock." She was always tempted. "Uzoma and Stephen are doing their best to fix his broken brain." "Oh, I didn't think you'd put him out an airlock because he went psycho and tried to take over the universe and kill us all," Ashok said. "I know you wouldn't hold that against him. I meant because your girlfriend had a big crush on him and everything." "I don't push my romantic rivals into space, Ashok. I just out-amazing them. Anyway, I think Elena's crush started to wane when Sebastien kidnapped her and tried to feed her to alien robot brain-spiders." "I can see how that might have a chilling effect." He spun again, and waved. "I'm going to go tell everyone else that Gravity Day is upon us." "You could just have Shall make a general announcement." "Then I'd miss the opportunity to receive everyone's applause individually and in person." He paused. "I can't help but notice you didn't applaud. The thing you'd be applauding is my technological genius." "I'll clap after you fail to turn us into a black hole, and when my feet are firmly on the ground." "I love your optimism." He floated out of the control room and down one of the twisting corridors, cut long ago into the stony asteroid by miners and long since repurposed into living quarters by the pirates Callie had stolen the station from. She sat and brooded for a moment longer, then got bored. Maybe she should take the White Raven out on a little run, not anywhere near inhabited space where they might be identified, just to make sure the ship was still in good working order. She wasn't built for this level of inaction. Even being on Meditreme Station between jobs for a couple of weeks at a time had made her antsy, and Meditreme Station had been the size of a city and home to fifty thousand souls, instead of the size of a city block and home to fewer than a dozen. At least Meditreme had bars, before it got blown up. She was rapidly working her way through the late pirate queen's stash of stolen liquors. "Callie?" Shall spoke into the implant just behind her ear on their private channel. "I've got weird news and other weird news." "Did we hear from Lantern?" "I just received a voice message from her, yes, but it's not the all-clear you were hoping for. She has a line on some potential Axiom activity." Callie grunted. If she couldn't come back from the dead, killing genocidal space monsters could be a nice compensation. "Let me hear it." Lantern's voice, euphonious from her artificial voicebox, spoke into Callie's ear: "I have been in touch with the elders of my sect, who report a troubling development in the Taliesen system. Our cell of truth-tellers there has gone silent, missing numerous scheduled check-ins, and the central authority has grown concerned. As you know, the elders value their secrecy, but they admit there is a major Axiom facility of some kind on the outskirts of that system, and that our cell has been monitoring it closely for millennia. I don't know for sure if they have gone silent because of Axiom activity... but it is certainly a possibility. I am investigating further, and will be in touch with any discoveries." She paused. "As concerns the other matter, I expect to have an answer soon - I have scrubbed details about your ship and crew from every database I can access, and only have a few last precautions to take and investigations to make before I know if you're safe or not. I hope to see all of you soon." "Huh," Callie said. Taliesen had been a backwater for a long time, but now it was booming as a colony system - as of about a year ago, its innermost planet Owain had an Earthlike atmosphere, after almost a century of terraforming with Liar tech. Colonists were flocking to the planet now, hoping to grab their own little slice of paradise, and it had a certain wild frontier atmosphere. The settlers who'd moved in earlier, during the terraforming process, were a quirky lot, too. If the Axiom was waking up there, a lot of people could be in danger. "Michael's company was heavily invested in that system, right? Wasn't it his horrible uncle's pet project?" "The company contributed heavily to the terraforming project in exchange for resource-exploitation rights in the future, yes," Shall said. "Uncle Reynauld runs the operation there, last I heard." She sighed. "If I wasn't dead, I could investigate this from the human side - call up Michael and ask if he's heard about any unusual activity in the system." Shall cleared his nonexistent throat. "Speaking of Michael, that's the other weird news I wanted to talk to you about. I've been monitoring the Tangle, flagging various keywords, and, ah, I found something you might be interested in." "What's that?" "Your funeral announcement." " What ?" "Come in here with me and I'll explain," Shall said. Callie started to protest, but it was just a reflexive reaction to anyone telling her what to do, so she refrained. She unclipped a slim silvery diadem from the arm of her absurd pirate queen throne and slipped it over her forehead. She ran her fingertip along the smooth metal, and it read her biometrics or some such crap, and her vision briefly went dark. When sight returned, things weren't much lighter. She stood in a dark, empty warehouse lit by a single light high overhead. The temperature was cool, the air dry, and she couldn't smell anything except stone. She still marveled a bit at how real the world felt inside this Hypnos rig. She'd tried out an immersive system at a public arcade on Meditreme Station a decade earlier, a simulation of walking around some famous palace on Earth, and if you jerked your head around too fast, you could see the world filling itself in just a little bit too slowly, black polygons swarming away under a wave of color and texture and light. The smells of the flowers had been too strong and perfumey, the colors too vivid and oversaturated, the shadows too crisp, and there was a muffled quality to the sense of touch, like she was wearing double layers of latex all over her body, even when she'd tried to prick her finger on the thorn of a rosebush. The technology had progressed a lot since then. Ashok said the pirates must have attacked some plutocrat's pleasure craft and liberated this rig, because it was custom, and better than anything commercially available. Callie thought the Hypnos as a whole was a frivolous waste of time, but access to a high-end virtual-reality system had probably kept her crew and the others under her care from getting asteroid fever from idleness during their months on this rock. Her pilot and navigator Drake and Janice in particular spent a lot of time in the Hypnos, immersing together and then blissfully ignoring each other. Being in this simulation felt just like being in a real life... boring warehouse somewhere. The sensation of gravity was pleasant, though. She'd missed that in the past few months. Even during long hauls in space, she was mostly under thrust in a ship, the decks thrumming under her boots. She made a fist, wriggled her fingers, and rolled her head around on her neck. No twinges here, no muscle aches, no pain. That was nice. She looked down at herself and noted the utilitarian white jumpsuit with approval. "This is an improvement over the silk robe you had me wearing last time." Shall emerged from the shadows. His current avatar resembled a spidery mining robot the size of a one-person escape pod, studded with glowing optics and covered in folded manipulator arms, and he danced toward her on spindly multi-jointed legs. It was a form Callie had a lot of fondness for: Shall had saved her life in that body once. "You love that robe," he said. "Sure, but context matters, and talking about resource allocation isn't the right time for silk that stops at mid-thigh." "You're welcome to create your own avatars for the Hypnos, or even select one of the pre-gens. Everyone else does." "I don't need to be anything other than what I am." She looked around. "Why did you bring me in here?" "It's nice, talking face-to-face." "Virtual face to virtual faceplate, anyway." Shall somehow managed to convey a shrug. "When you're an artificial intelligence and your body is an asteroid, it's nice to inhabit a form a little more approachable sometimes." "I get that, but I meant, why are we in an empty warehouse? Last time we chatted in that weird tea house place. I liked that. The gunpowder tea was good. This is a dump." "Ah, I see - it doesn't look empty to me, but I have a different set of filters running. This is a marketplace in the Tangle. It's where I come to order supplies, purchased through a complex series of anonymous shells and redirects and culminating in automated deliveries to nearby points in space for drone retrieval. Since we're supposed to be dead and everything." "Huh." Callie walked over to a shelf and poked it. Felt like metal and plastic. "How's the marketplace work?" "The interface should be pretty simple for you. Just name something you're interested in buying-" "Potatoes," she said promptly. The shelves around her instantly filled with hundreds of heaps of potatoes: mellow gold ones, waxy red ones, small ones the size and shape of thumbs, football-sized mutant baking potatoes. Another set of shelves included tureens of potato-leek and potato-broccoli soup, vast tubs of potato salad in the German, American, and Jovian styles, vats of mashed potatoes, and baskets of French fries. If she glanced at any particular item, a text display shimmered into existence noting specific details, including estimated delivery time, quantity available, and price. "Why potatoes?" Shall asked. "Shut up. I like potatoes." "I remember." Shall gestured with an arm tipped with a diamond saw. "You keyword searched on 'potato,' which is why you got everything from latkes to compressed-air-powered potato guns." He gestured to more distant shelves in both directions. "Try 'raw potatoes' or a specific variety and you'll get more granular results." She went to a vat of mashed potatoes, and a spoon helpfully appeared. Words appeared in a shimmering golden overlay: "Free sample!" She snorted, took up a scoop, and tasted. Creamy, garlicky, magnificent. "Would it really taste like this?" She dropped the spoon and it vanished. "It would arrive in a sealed drum, dried and in need of reconstitution, and even then - no, probably not, but it would be recognizably the same species of food. It's easy to make everything taste delicious in the Hypnos. On habitats where there's nothing to eat but vitaminized slurry, the 'great restaurants of the galaxy' Hypnos package is popular. You can get the full experience of fine dining even if you're actually eating mush." He paused. "Human brains are stupid and easy to trick." "You say the sweetest things," she said, then added, "I want a chair," and the throne from the control room popped into existence. She sat down and laced her hands over her stomach. "So what's this about my funeral?" The surroundings blurred and became the galley on her ship, the White Raven , and instead of a mining robot, Shall appeared as a hooded figure in a black cloak. Callie was still in her throne, with a cup of coffee on the curved white table before her. Shall reached out with a gloved hand and slid a piece of paper across to her. "Join us in celebrating the life of Kalea Machedo, this Saturday at 3 pm at the home of Michael Garcia-Hassan, thirty degrees on the westward curve of Ilus..." She looked up. "What in the shit is this shit?" "Your ex-husband is having a memorial service for you this weekend," Shall said mildly. "Because you are dead, and he is the closest thing you have to a survivor, since your people on Earth are all gone." She groaned. She'd considered sending Michael a note to tell him she hadn't perished when Meditreme Station exploded, but sending any proof of her survival, or the survival of the crew, was a bad idea. Face-to-face communication - real, actual, non-virtual contact - was relatively safe. That's why spies preferred to meet that way, after all... "What are you going to do?" Shall said. "What makes you think I'm going to do anything?" "You're Callie Machedo. You always do things. And I know you've been bored." She grinned. "It's my funeral, Shall. It would be pretty rude of me to miss it, don't you think?" Excerpted from The Dreaming Stars by Tim Pratt All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.