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Gravity of a Distant Sun

Adda and Iridian have survived the murderous AI that tried to kill them in Barbary Station and an evil megacorporation in Mutiny at Vesta but now they’ll need all of their ingenuity to make it to the end of this epic trilogy.

Adda Karpe and Iridian Nassir are on the run—both from the authorities who want to imprison them and the artificial intelligence that want to control their minds. Trapped on a desolate black-market space station on the edge of Jupiter, they’re nearly out of allies—and out of luck.

Now, they have one last shot to find a safe haven where they can live together in peace—across the interstellar bridge to another galaxy. Getting onto that mission will take everything they’ve got and more. But on the other side of that bridge lies the life they’ve always dreamed of...if they can survive long enough to reach it.

Chapter 1: Days until launch: 99

CHAPTER 1 Days until launch: 99
A machine whirred and clicked beside Adda’s bed. It kept distracting her from the world. This hospital’s rooms were white and green. This was her . . . second? Hospital. This month? That was strange too. Gale-force air-conditioning rustled the antimicrobial curtains around her bed. She had a blanket, but she was still cold. The curtains covered only two sides. The other two were walls.

At least she had her family with her: her little brother, Pel, her wife, Iridian. A cam fed their images to rows of small projectors in the virtual window’s frame on the wall by Adda’s bed. Several stories beneath the window, Iridian crouched behind her shield next to a big cargo bot. It was stopped in front of the building across the street. Iridian frequently turned her beautiful eyes, so brown they were almost black, up to the cam that fed Adda’s window. Pel huddled between Iridian and the other building’s wall, with his arms crushing his curly hair against his head.

The part of the machine tracking Adda’s heart rate twitched and flashed new numbers that flickered into bright green starbursts. If someone else were in the room, they’d call the starbursts a product of Adda’s imagination.

The window wouldn’t show her what was scaring Pel, because she couldn’t reach the cam controls. Her comp was somewhere else. Without the comp, she couldn’t ask the artificial intelligence that managed the hospital’s environment controls to move the cam for her.

That—the intelligence, or rather, another like it—was why she was here.

Remembering was awful. Sometime within the past few weeks, she had let an intelligence trick her into trying to kill Iridian. Iridian had survived because Adda had overdosed on sharpsheets to stop herself. The overdose was why Adda was in a bed in a hospital, and why Pel and Iridian were . . .

Time slipped. Remembering was awful. Why are they in danger?

You’re awake! The whisper in Adda’s ear startled her, even though it was just Iridian talking over their implanted comm system. Adda must’ve subvocalized her question. The lump in her throat wouldn’t let her speak. Don’t worry about us, Iridian said.

On the street below, Iridian grabbed Pel’s shoulder with the hand not holding her mech-ex graphene shield. Her golden-brown skin glowed in the cam feed beside Pel’s white neck, which paled further when Iridian said something to him. The glow might’ve been in Adda’s head, but with sunsim shining pretend sunlight beyond the walls of her room, she believed in it. Iridian was speaking to Pel louder than the range her throat mic would pick up. Pel’s arms were thinner than they should’ve been. The three of them had been saving money by eating as little as possible since . . . ? Since. He took them down from around his head.

People on the projection stage at the end of her bed sometimes talked about her and Iridian. The nurses and doctors reacted when the figures said Adda’s name, so that wasn’t a product of her damaged brain. Maybe the newsfeeds had more information.

The pad that controlled the stage was next to the clicking machine, inside the curtains. She poked the pad until it put TAPnews on the stage. A familiar figure rose an arm’s length high, just beyond Adda’s blanket-covered feet. The figure represented a real woman, not a newsbot, dressed in fashionably iridescent purple that complemented her olive skin. Her dark hair twisted to hide itself behind her head until she turned toward the cam.

This correspondent was a fan of Sloane’s crew. That’d been Adda’s and Iridian’s crew too, until . . .

“. . . Suhaila Al-Mudari, here with the latest on the search for former Sloane’s crew members Iridian Nassir and Adda Karpe,” said the woman in the newsfeed. Adda had met her in person once. “They’ve been spotted outside Ceres Station’s Fortuna Hospital—”

In Adda’s ear, Iridian whispered, Babe, I’m getting Pel out of here. No matter what the ITA or the damned AIs do, I’m coming back for you. Do you understand? I’m coming back.

The Interplanetary Transit Authority. Awakened artificial intelligences, ones with wills of their own and no supervisors, were guiding the ITA toward Adda and Iridian, because they . . .

Because . . .

The machine blinked Adda’s pulse in red starbursts as her heart pounded in her chest. Oh gods, the ITA was here, and even the newsfeeds knew Iridian was too. She and Iridian had broken a lot of spacefaring laws with Sloane’s crew.

And Adda was stuck in this bed. Even if she had her comp, she couldn’t help Iridian and Pel. Every time she used it, she saw and heard and felt terrifying hallucinations. Sometimes she bled from the nose, which was what had scared Iridian enough to bring Adda to this hospital. She’d bled all over her face and her shirt last time.

On the street below the window cam, Iridian leaned to put her shaved head close to Pel’s brown hair, then gave him a shove. He stumbled away from the cargo bot. If she turned her head, Adda would see him out the window, but TAPnews had a higher perspective on the same street. The TAPnews cam drone rotated to offer an even clearer view. Suhaila was still talking, but it just sounded like noise. That happened sometimes, after Adda’s overdose.

Iri, she subvocalized through the mic implanted in her throat. Drones. If the newsfeed was using them, then the ITA and Ceres Station law enforcement would be too.

Damn, said Iridian. How can I get them both out? Sometimes Iridian subvocalized when she didn’t mean to. The small version of Iridian on the projection stage yelled something at Pel. He ran down the street in the opposite direction of whatever was happening on the other side of the cargo bot.

Something hit Iridian’s shield and knocked her back a half step. She had a gun, a cheap projectile weapon they’d bought during their flight from Sloane’s crew and the ITA. She only held her shield now, though, with both hands, in a constricted stance Adda had never seen her use before. Crammed into a doorway in the building across the street, Iridian looked small and alone.

A drone the size of Adda’s head swept into existence on the stage. The motion flickered in the corner of her eye too. Up! Adda clenched her hands in the foam mattress beneath her and hoped she’d actually said that to Iridian.

Iridian pivoted to put the shield between herself and the drone above her while she pressed her hand to the pad beside the door. The door stayed shut. She leaned against it. The doorway only hid a few centimeters of her. She drew the gun, finally, and shot at the drone. It bobbed in place.

The door to Adda’s room opened to admit three stern people in blue ITA armor, their faces projected in three greenish-white dimensions against the black backdrop of their helmet faceplates, glowing through the curtains around Adda’s bed. A nurse came in behind them and pushed the curtains open. According to the time stamp on the newsfeed and what Iridian had told Adda on the way to this place, she’d only been in the hospital overnight. In those dark hours, the ITA had found them.

“This is her?” one of the ITA people asked the nurse, who nodded. “Gods, she’s drooling. But she’s looking at us, right? Can she understand what we’re saying?”

Adda hadn’t noticed herself drooling. Lately, her muscles had been very unreliable. She was almost used to it. They’re here, she subvocalized to Iridian.

“Yes.” The nurse frowned at the ITA intruders and crossed his arms in a rustle of white, easily sanitized fabric. The nurse didn’t even look at the clicking machines. A medical intelligence solved the machine problems. The nurse was there to fix people problems.

On the projection stage, something small and round bounced into the doorway Iridian was hiding in and stuck to the door. Before Adda could subvocalize a warning, the round thing turned into a small gray cloud. Iridian dropped to her knees. She said something outside her mic’s range, and then her whisper came through the speaker in Adda’s ear. That was a nannite grenade. Iridian was looking up at the cam that fed Adda’s window, so Adda tilted her head to watch Iridian through the window. Sorry, babe. I don’t see Pel. I think he made—

The nurse and the ITA people were talking. Iridian’s shield and gun fell from her hands as she bent in half, arms wrapped around her stomach, showing all her teeth. Without her comp, Adda was locked in her mind while people hurt Iridian. She couldn’t even access the Patchwork, which passed for internet this far from Earth.

Patchwork access had caused that last nosebleed, the one that’d made Iridian bring Adda here. Adda had opened a Patchwork connection to check on AegiSKADA, the intelligence that’d killed a lot of people but that was now under control. Not her control. Captain Sloane was supervising it. The pirate captain was doing all right with it, as far as Adda had been able to tell.

Her brain and the neural implant net that rested on top of it had been strange ever since other intelligences had influenced her, when . . . When she’d hurt herself, and almost hurt Iridian. This was the first time she’d allowed her intelligence assessment software to access her neural implant and the Patchwork since that night. Thus the blood. Gods, she wished she could sit up.

The ITA people and the nurse had been watching the newsfeed instead of looking out the window, since the cam drone had a better angle than the stationary cam on the hospital’s outside wall. Blue-uniformed people in the street approached Iridian with weapons raised. Iridian just knelt there, curled over herself, like she was hurting.

“They’ve got her,” said one of the people in blue armor in Adda’s room. “About damn time.” Outside, two ITA people dragged Iridian away. Her eyes were shut tight and her mouth was open like she was screaming.

Adda screamed too, a wordless howl at her damaged brain, at the people hurting Iridian, at the ITA. Tears stung her eyes. The nannite culture the grenade had exposed Iridian to must’ve reached her nervous system. Immobilizing nerve pain was considered humane treatment. Even if it weren’t, nobody would stop the ITA from using it. Theirs was still the biggest fleet in the solar system. It shouldn’t cause permanent damage, but gods, it must’ve hurt Iridian so badly.

At some point, Adda had stopped screaming. The nurse was talking to the ITA agents at a normal volume. “Yes, but do you have to do this today? Stress isn’t what she needs right now.”

“She should’ve thought about that before she took out twenty-nine Vestan security corpsmen,” the ITA man told the nurse. To Adda, he said, “Adda Karpe, you’re under arrest for—”

There were plenty of things she might be under arrest for. She tuned him out and subvocalized, I’ll see you soon, Iri. I promise. Somehow, she’d get them both out of this.
Photography by Carlos Romero

R.E. Stearns is the author of Barbary Station and Mutiny at Vesta. She wrote her first story on an Apple IIe computer and still kind of misses green text on a black screen. She went on to annoy all of her teachers by reading books while they lectured. Eventually she read and wrote enough to earn a master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from the University of Central Florida. She is hoping for an honorary doctorate. When not writing or working, R.E. Stearns reads, plays PC games, and references internet memes in meatspace. She lives near Orlando, Florida, with her husband, a computer engineer, and a cat.

If Barbary Station was a variant on the gothic novel in space (complete with a haunted house in the form of a space station), Mutiny at Vesta is a nested, layered series of capers in which Adda and Iridian work with limited resources and the pressure of time and other people’s competing priorities to pull off the damn-near impossible.

– Tor.com

Stearns’s second space opera is heavy on rousing action scenes, political intrigue, and high AI weirdness…

– Publishers Weekly

The book truly is a blend of space opera and military sci fi, and consistently wriggles between the crew interactions and feeeeeelings, to command structures, heavily explained tech, and A.I. workspaces.

– J.S. Fields, author of Ardulum

Fans of space opera, female protagonists, and independent thinkers will enjoy this piece of science fiction…

– Booklist

Stearns writes measured, tense, and intense space opera, filled with a diverse selection of believable characters.

– Tor.com

“An exhilarating mashup of Golden-Age widescreen and zeitgeist cool. Totally unexpected. More please!”

– Award-winning author Stephen Baxter

"This book is good fun. I really enjoyed this, and I bet you will, too."

– Ann Leckie, Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of Ancillary Justice

"Grabs you in chapter one and doesn't let go. This book is for everyone who ever wanted to be a space pirate."

– Mur Lafferty, Award-winning author of Six Wakes

"A super cool novel. It mixes unpredictable mysteries, a murderous AI, space battles, an awesome and fashionable Pirate Leader in Captain Sloane as well as a healthy dose of romance and found families...a blend of Die Hard and the Illuminae Files."

– Kirkus Reviews

"Strong characters and fast-paced action define this debut SF thriller."

– Library Journal

"A worthwhile finale to a fun SF adventure series."

– Kirkus Reviews

More books from this author: R. E. Stearns

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