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Some Desperate Glory

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Some Desperate Glory

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Author: Emily Tesh
Publisher: Tor.com Publishing, 2023
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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Space Opera
Alternate/Parallel Universe
Military SF
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Synopsis

A thrillingly told queer space opera about the wreckage of war, the family you find, and who you must become when every choice is stripped from you...

While we live, the enemy shall fear us.

Since she was born, Kyr has trained for the day she can avenge the murder of planet Earth. Raised in the bowels of Gaea Station alongside the last scraps of humanity, she readies herself to face the Wisdom, the powerful, reality-shaping weapon that gave the majoda their victory over humanity.

They are what's left. They are what must survive. Kyr is one of the best warriors of her generation, the sword of a dead planet. When Command assigns her brother to certain death and relegates her to Nursery to bear sons until she dies trying, she knows she must take humanity's revenge into her own hands.

Alongside her brother's brilliant but seditious friend and a lonely, captive alien, Kyr escapes from everything she's known into a universe far more complicated than she was taught and far more wondrous than she could have imagined.


Excerpt

Chapter One
Agoge

The sky lit up with green subreal flashes as a Wisdom cruiser dropped out of shadowspace. Kyr took a deep breath, narrowed her eyes to see past the hyperspatial feedback, and watched for the tiny dart coming through in the cruiser's wake, nearly hidden behind its mass and shine. Her battered combat suit wouldn't pick it up yet, but in the visible-light spectrum human eyes were a long-range sensor that the majo always underestimated.

There.

She had two charges of her jump hook left, but using it would set off the majo ship's alarms. Her mask was fractured after the last melee skirmish and held together only by rep gel and hope. If it cracked again, here above the clouds where the battle raged in Earth's outer atmosphere, she would asphyxiate.

A cruiser that size held some seven thousand majo soldiers and countless deadly drones, but it was a distraction. The dart was the real threat. The fist-sized antimatter bomb it carried would go off with enough force to crack the heart of the planet below. The secondary payload would start the crust and core unraveling. If Kyr did not reach the dart first and deactivate it, the living blue curve of the planet below would soon be nothing but a long trail of ice settling into a glittering ring somewhere between Mars and Mercury.

Kyr hesitated, thinking. She had six minutes before the dart's course was irretrievable and the planet was doomed. She could use her jump hook to reach it, alerting the cruiser in the process and leaving herself with majo fightercraft to fend off while she tried to disable the bomb. Or she could attempt stealth. The defense platform she was standing on was littered with the shells of shot-down enemy fighters. Kyr could try to jury-rig one to get it flying again, and sneak past the cruiser toward the deadly sting in its tail. The rest of her unit was gone. The defense platform itself was disabled. If the majo even knew there was still a human soldier here, they would not be paying her the attention due to a threat.

That was their mistake.

While Earth's children live, the enemy shall fear us.

Kyr used her jump hook.

Her suit's built-in alarms screamed at her and the feed in the corner of her vision informed her she was risking permanent neurological damage as she was dragged sideways through shadowspace without any better protection than the cracked combat mask. She gasped, feeling the sensation ghosts of arctic chill and impossible heat blast through her and vanish. Washes of green light flickered around her as she landed on the narrow nose of the dart. She threw herself flat, clinging with her thighs, and started bashing at its covering panel with the hilt of her field knife.

The panel was etched in alien script with a word Kyr knew: ma-jo. It was their name for themselves, for their civilization, for their language, and for the source of their power.

It meant "wisdom."

Dark pits opened in the cruiser's underside, and rows of majo fighters buzzed into life in the gloom. The unmanned dart swayed wildly from side to side. Kyr swore triumphantly as the panel came loose and fell away--fifty thousand feet to the ocean below--and used the gun in her free hand to shoot two fighters out of the sky without looking around.

The planet-killing bomb was a coppery sphere. Her breath caught as she stared at it. She didn't have the skills to even open it, let alone disarm it; but the triggering mechanism tucked into its side looked like the diagrams she'd seen. Kyr thought calm, calm, and went to work slowly, using everything she'd been taught about majo engineering.

She almost had it, with forty seconds to spare: and then abruptly a secondary cover panel slammed down over the whole thing, glittering with the greenish light of a shadowspace extrusion, and a voice said, "You act in opposition to the Wisdom. Desist."

"Fuck you," said Kyr, getting her knife out again.

"Your actions are unwise," said the dart. "Your actions are unwise. The Wisdom acts for the greater good. Your actions are unwise."

"There's fourteen billion people down there, fuck you," panted Kyr, who had never got this far before, as she bashed at the panel.

But a stabbing pain in her thigh was a shot from a majo fighter that had come up on the blind side of her damaged suit. She lost her grip on the dart and fell and fell and fell, and falling she saw the cruiser pop back out of existence as quickly as it had appeared. The dart aimed itself down toward the blue.

The last thing Kyr saw was the antimatter explosion beginning; the death of her world, just as she had seen it happen hundreds of times before.

The simulation cut out. Kyr sat up slowly on the grey plasteel floor and put her head in her hands. She'd run Doomsday four times today, and now she had the dull headache that happened when you spent too long in the agoge. She worked her jaw a few times as if she could shove the pain out that way, and slowly got to her feet.

"Well done, Valkyr," said Uncle Jole.

He took a halting step toward her. Even with his old war injury slowing him down, Commander Aulus Jole was an impressive-looking man. Like most soldiers of his generation he towered over civilians--he had half a foot on Kyr, who was not short--and was broadly built along with it: evidence of warbreed genetics, of military-grade nanite implants, and of having always had enough to eat as a child. He looked enough like Kyr that he might really have been her uncle. They shared the space-pale skin that was the commonest complexion on Gaea Station, and they both had grey eyes and fair hair--though his was cropped short, while Kyr of course kept hers in a regulation ponytail. On Commander Jole's collar shone twin wing badges: the etched circle of the Earth, for Command, and the lily pin of Hagenen Wing, the elite of the Terran Expeditionary, his old unit.

"Still training in rec hour?" he said. "You're worse than me."

This was a joke: no one was worse than Aulus Jole for spending hours in agoge simulations. Most of these upper-level ones were based on his own experiences from his Hagenen Wing days, when he had been one of the Terran Federation's most successful operatives: infiltrating majo bases, defending civilian installations, commanding troops in open firefights in the final days of the war. And the scenario Kyr had just run, of course. It was Aulus Jole who had stood on a disabled defense platform and watched death come for his world. It was Aulus Jole, newly crippled by majo brightfire, who'd been only a handful of instants too late.

Kyr knew he had tried to kill himself once, because her older sister, Ursa, had been the one who found him. She thought it was probably more than once. She saw the blue planet unraveling in her dreams, and felt it as the void pulling shards of new-forged ice out of her own heart; and she hadn't been there. She hadn't even been born.

"I still failed," Kyr said. "I couldn't do it. I'm sorry."

"We have all failed. But Earth's children endure. And while we live--"

"The enemy shall fear us," finished Kyr along with him.

Jole put his hand on her shoulder, making her startle and look up at him. "I'm proud of you, Kyr," he said. "I don't say that enough. Go find your mess and relax. It's your rec rotation."

Rec rotation was a joke. Kyr knew where the other girls from Sparrow mess were: hand-to-hand practice mats, shooting range, volunteer rotations in Systems or Nursery. Recreation was a waste of time, a luxury that belonged to people who had a planet of their own. For the soldiers of Gaea Station, the last true children of Earth, there was no such thing as rest.

Kyr went anyway, reluctantly. Her head still ached from hours of the agoge. As the chamber closed behind her she saw a glitter in the air as the defense platform reappeared. Jole was running the scenario again.

She had not gone five steps down the grim, ill-lit corridor that led from the agoge rooms back up to Drill when Cleo stepped out of the shadow of one of the other doorways. Here was one of the other Sparrows, probably fresh from running scenarios of her own. Cleo had dark brown skin and tightly curling black hair; since there was no way to make it go into a tidy regulation ponytail, she had special permission to wear it cut short. Like Kyr, she was a warbreed, a child of the genetically enhanced bloodlines of humanity's best soldiers. Her training scores were second only to Kyr's own, and had once been better, before puberty gave Kyr an untouchable advantage in height and strength.

Cleo had been the tallest in their mess when they began their cadet training at age seven, but had never reached the full size her genetics should have given her. She was a brilliant shot and the only girl in their age cohort who could still beat Kyr occasionally in hand-to-hand practice, but she was not up to a Level Twelve agoge scenario like Doomsday--not yet, and probably not ever. They would have their adult assignments before long, and cadet training would no longer be a priority.

She glowered up at Kyr. Her arms were folded. "What did he say to you?"

This again. "Nothing," said Kyr. "He told me well done. That's all."

"And what did you say?"

"I said thank you," said Kyr.

"What about assignments?"

"What about them?"

"You didn't ask?"

"No, Cleo, I didn't ask," said Kyr, her patience fraying. "He's our commanding officer."

"But he's your uncle, isn't he?" Cleo said. "You could ask. For once you could get something for being special. But you didn't even think of it, did you? You didn't think of the rest of us, because you're the great Valkyr and we're only your mess when it makes you look good."

"Are you eight?" Kyr said. "Stop trying to pick a fight with me. Work on yourself if you're jealous. If you want a combat wing assignment, earn it. You could still hit Level Twelve if you tried."

She meant this as encouragement. Cleo took it differently. Her expression went cold, and her dark eyes were full of flat dislike. "You have no clue, Valkyr, do you," she said. "Just no clue at all. Fine. Fuck off, then."

Kyr had nowhere, really, to go. Cadet barracks were for sleeping; no one wasted time in the arcade but weaklings and traitors-in-waiting; and despite everything Kyr had always been taught and everything she knew she owed to her species--as a survivor, as a woman--she always got bored and uncomfortable in Nursery, the one wing that never turned female volunteers away. But Commander Jole's advice to relax had had the edge of a command, and Kyr respected Jole's commands. She walked away from the agoge watching one foot go in front of the other on the chipped plasteel tiling. She put Cleo out of her thoughts-- Cleo was increasingly difficult to deal with lately, and Kyr didn't want to think about her--and instead thought of nothing; but that nothing turned again and again into the unraveling death of her planet. She looked up when she heard the tinny music from the arcade. The lights were bright in there. She could see a few people awkwardly hanging around. No one Kyr knew, or wanted to know; no one worth knowing.

Ursa would have told her to be less judgmental, but Ursa's opinion had stopped mattering when Ursa left.

Kyr turned right back around, with sudden decision, and marched herself down through the rock tunnels that riddled the station's heart to Agricole.

Gaea Station was--somehow, just barely--self-sustaining. It was a source of pride and terror to its inhabitants that they lived not on a lifezone planet, where luxuries like water and air and food and heat could be relied on, but on and in a rocky planetoid that drifted in four-century sweeps around Persara, their distant blue star. Gaea's water came from an icy asteroid that had been anchored to their little hunk of rock with military-grade cable. Its heat relied on enormous jury-rigged solar reflectors, repurposed from dreadnought-class warships, that Suntracker Wing worked endlessly to defend from debris. Its food and air were the business of Agricole Wing.

Kyr paused when she slipped through the plastic sheeting into the high hall where Gaea's life was sustained. She felt a familiar sting of pride. Gaea might not be beautiful, it might not be rich, but look what humanity could do, even on a dead rock in a worthless system.

Sunlamps poured out yellow-spectrum light on the greedy greenery. Every inch of space was used. Vines were trained around the rungs of the ladders that led from the depths far below to the heights of the rocky ceiling. Condensation dripped down the walls, and mist hung in the air. In among the crammed order of the omnidirectional garden soared great dark shapes that held it all together: the massive trunks of Gaea's private forest, carefully modified trees that processed the station's atmosphere and kept them all from choking to death out here in the depths of dark space.

The trees were precious because they were irreplaceable. The shadow engines at the station core had overloaded fifteen years ago, when Kyr was two years old. Systems had managed to save the station, but sixty-eight humans had died, and the feedback from the interdimensional blast had trashed their delicate gene-tailoring suite. Gaea did not have the resources to repair it. These trees were sterile, and could not now be cloned. They would last a long time. They had to.

Kyr knew what she was looking for here. She went to the nearest ladder and climbed until she reached the shadowy heights of Agricole, where wide green canopies spread. Magnus was there dozing sprawled on a broad branch like a lazy lion. Kyr's twin was even bigger than she was; neither of them was nanite-enhanced, but they had been born before the disaster, back when Nursery was still able to design real warbreeds. They were both based on the same parental cross, the one that had produced Ursa before both their genetic forebears had died. Ursa had already shown signs of being something special, so it had made sense--even though it was against population policy--to create siblings.

And they were something special. Kyr knew this as a fact. They were the best of the best of Earth's warrior children. Kyr was tall and muscular, and to that build Mags had started to add bulk, the broad powerful body that frightened the shit out of the majo. Out of the many sentient alien species that made up the so-called majoda, only the spindly zunimmer had a natural height over five and a half feet. Kyr had fought hand-to-hand against eight-foot zunimmer shock troops in the agoge. Their bones were light and brittle, and you could snap their spines easily if you went in at just the right angle. Kyr weighed more than one of them. Mags probably weighed more than two of them.

But then Mags was a living propaganda poster for both sides. In the old days you could have slapped a Strong Together slogan over him--massive, blond, square-shouldered--and made a recruitment still for the Interstellar Terran Expeditionary. Since Doomsday, human actors who looked like him played villains in majo dramas. Collaborators. Kyr felt disgusted just thinking about it.

It made her voice come out sharp when she said, "What are you doing?"

Mags opened his eyes. "Hi, Kyr."

"Why are you asleep?" demanded Kyr.

"It's rec rotation," said Mags. "Sleep is recreational."

"We can't afford to sleep."

"What's the point of being alive if you can't sleep?"

Something in Kyr bubbled and burst. "The point," she snapped, "is that we're at war and we're dying, that they've taken everything from us and you just--"

"Oh, hey, hey, Vallie, hey," said Mags, sitting up from his enormous slouch and before Kyr's eyes transforming back from the unconquerable giant to the soft idiot who'd been a natural victim for bullies when they were still in Nursery. "Don't cry. Why are you crying?"

"I'm not," said Kyr. She sat on the broad branch beside him. The air smelled thick and sweet, and condensation was beading on her arms and face. Agricole felt more alive than anywhere else on Gaea. Mags put his arm round her shoulders. "I nearly beat it," Kyr said. "Uncle Jole's scenario. Doomsday. I nearly beat it. I couldn't do it."

"Oh," said Mags.

"Don't oh. It matters. You know it matters. And it's all right for you. You have beaten it."

"Once," said Mags. "And I think he went in and made it harder afterward. You get that it's meant to be unbeatable, right?"

"It was the Wisdom," said Kyr. "I got as far as the dart and then the Wisdom put an extra shield on the bomb and then--"

"Yeah," said Mags. "That's what I mean. It's supposed to be unbeatable because of the Wisdom. Because they're unbeatable, with the Wisdom."

"How did you do it?" Kyr demanded. She had never asked. She'd wanted to do it herself first. But she'd been so close. "How did you win?"

Mags took his arm away from around her shoulders, and lay back down on the great branch staring up into the patterns made by sprays of foliage hanging down from above. He said, "Do you know Avi?"

"Who?"

"Avi," said Mags. "Otter mess, cohort above us. Assigned Systems Wing."

Kyr said, "Oh, the queer one?" She had only a vague mental picture of the person Mags was talking about. Short, red hair, a squint. Not a warbreed. Gaea had been founded by survivors of the Terran Expeditionary, but armies were more than just soldiers, and there were the genes of technicians, cleaners, medical staff, administrators in the cadet messes too. Kyr knew how important they were. Genetic variety was vital for a species to survive, and there were already so few true humans left. Without people like--oh, like Lisabel, in her mess, who was a guaranteed Nursery Wing assignment if Kyr had ever seen one, humanity had no future.

"Sure," Mags said. "The queer one."

"What?" said Kyr.

Mags didn't answer.

"What about him?" Kyr said. "How do you know him?"

"Met him in the arcade in rec rotation."

"What were you doing in the arcade?"

"Rest and relaxation?" said Mags. "I find losing really badly at video games relaxing."

"You lose?"

"Everyone loses at something, Vallie."

Kyr, who didn't, gave him a narrow look. Mags was only gazing peacefully up at the tangled plants. There was something coming into flower directly above them, big purple clusters of waxy blossoms. Kyr didn't know the name of the plant. She had no expectation of ever being assigned to Agricole. "So what about Avi, then?"

"Avi," said Magnus, "does not lose at video games. He was beating me. We got talking."

"What is there to talk to someone like that about?" said Kyr. "He's leaving, isn't he?" It was amazing how selfish people could be. Nearly everyone like that she had ever heard about had ended up refusing assignment and leaving Gaea Station, taking themselves over to the majo side, as if having sex that achieved nothing mattered more than saving your entire species or taking vengeance for a murdered world.

Mags said, "I don't know if he's leaving. We'd be sorry to lose him. He's beyond good at what he does."

"Systems?" said Kyr. "It's important, sure--"

"Games," said Mags.

"Oh, come on."

"I'm serious," said Mags. "That's how I beat Doomsday. Avi talked me through it."

"I don't remember ever hearing about him beating a Level Twelve simulation." Kyr would have heard: she tracked the training rankings constantly, for the boys as well as the girls. It was how she knew that there were only a handful of boys (five, exactly five) with better scores than her in her entire age cohort: six of them altogether who regularly trained on Level Twelve, the hardest. There were, obviously, no girls as good as Kyr. Boys had a natural advantage. Mags, the perfect soldier, was one of the five. His scores since his last growth spurt were the best in Gaea's short history.

"Well, we were a team," Mags said. "I went in with an earpiece. He talked to me the whole time. He's not even an agoge designer--" Kyr snorted; of course a nearsighted nineteen-year-old who'd never even cracked the top thirty wasn't allowed anywhere near military training, the heart of Gaea's strength. "No, Vallie, it was incredible. He's the smartest person I've ever met. He watched me run it and fail a few times, and then he said we'd do a serious run while he called the shots, and doing it with him in my ear made Doomsday feel like--I don't know, like having fun. He knew everything that was coming and he knew exactly what I had to do about it. I just followed along. It was magic."

"So you cheated," said Kyr.

"It wasn't official," Mags said. "It was a rec hour thing. It didn't go in my scores." Mags knew how serious training scores were.

"It was all over the station," said Kyr. "Everyone knew you'd beaten Doomsday." Magnus could have saved our world was how people had said it. Magnus could. Kyr had put every free minute into the Doomsday scenario since she'd heard. And now it turned out the whole thing was just fake, some arcade-haunting nobody taking advantage of Mags the way people always seemed to, treating the agoge like a game.

"It was just a thing," Mags said. "Avi wanted to see if we could do it." He propped himself up on his elbow to meet Kyr's eyes and said more urgently, "But you see what I mean, right? We shouldn't want to lose someone like him."

"Because he's a cheat?" said Kyr.

"They cheat, don't they?" Mags said. "The Wisdom cheats. Why shouldn't we have cheats of our own? And anyway it's not cheating to have someone else giving orders in agoge, we do that in tactical exercises, that's normal. Avi's just really smart. I think they ought to tap him for Command."

"Of course you do," said Kyr, but she couldn't help it, she smiled. Mags was just like this, he had this absurd soft spot for lost causes. "Okay, fine, it's nice that you're being friendly. Someone like that probably doesn't have a lot of friends, right? Just don't get too upset when he leaves."

Mags lay back down. A purple flower had come loose from the waxy tangle above and drifted down onto the branch. He picked it up and with great care balanced it on his forehead, not looking at Kyr the whole time. "I don't want him to leave," he said.

"People leave," said Kyr. "When they're not tough enough or committed enough or honorable enough. Ursa left."

Mags made the same pinched face he always made whenever someone mentioned their older sister. "Yeah," he said. "I guess she did."

Copyright © 2023 by Emily Tesh


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