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Chaos Terminal

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Chaos Terminal

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Author: Mur Lafferty
Publisher: Ace Books, 2023
Series: The Midsolar Murders: Book 2

1. Station Eternity
2. Chaos Terminal

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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Mallory Viridian would rather not be an amateur detective, thank you very much. But no matter what she does, people persist in dying around her--and only she seems to be able to solve the crime. After fleeing to an alien space station in hopes that the lack of humans would stop the murders, a serial killer had the nerve to follow her to Station Eternity. (Mallory deduced who the true culprit was that time, too.)

Now the law enforcement agent who hounded Mallory on Earth has come to Station Eternity, along with her teenage crush and his sister, Mallory's best friend from high school. Mallory doesn't believe in coincidences, and so she's not at all surprised when someone in the latest shuttle from Earth is murdered. It's the story of her life, after all.

Only this time she has more than a killer to deal with. Between her fugitive friends, a new threat arising from the Sundry hivemind, and the alarmingly peculiar behavior of the sentient space station they all call home, even Mallory's deductive abilities are strained. If she can't find out what's going on (and fast), a disaster of intergalactic proportions may occur...



Sense Enough to Come in Outta the Rain

A sentient space station should have perfect temperature, Mallory Viridian thought. This has got to be far below freezing. When the station imitated weather, it should be Los Angeles weather, not Pluto's bloodred snow. And when it was helping a resident, it should produce a pleasant flat walk, or even something downhill, not an uphill, snowy, windy trek that gave one frostbite.

The fact that there could be people aboard the station who wallowed in frigid, bloodred snow like a pig in slop, she refused to consider.

It was possible, she thought, squinting through the crimson swirls, that the massive space station was just in a bad mood.

Red snow stung the exposed skin on her face. Her ears ached. She shoved her hands deep into her jeans pockets and shivered. Her destination lay at the top of a freaking mountain-a fabricated mountain-inside a cave, also fabricated. She wanted to rest, but the risk of dying of hypothermia on the way felt very real.

She probably should have put on a coat, but she hadn't thought she needed it. The station took care of its residents. Why would she suddenly need to travel through a deadly storm to go to a meeting?

This isn't worth it.

When Mrs. Brown calls, however, you answer. The tiny woman had a steel spine and a personality that filled a room, yes. And she was more than capable of protecting herself and those she loved with deadly force, sure. But she was also the human host who had a direct connection with the station itself, so when she asked to speak to you, you answered.

The cave loomed ahead, a dark cut in the harsh red drifts all around her. She was almost there. Probably. She didn't know what she'd do if it wasn't there. This was a great place for someone to lure her to an ambush. Or, more likely, according to her experience, lure her to watch someone else being killed, giving her a new murder to solve.

Her fingers and toes tingled with the beginnings of frostbite, and Mallory gritted her teeth around her rubber oxygen breather to keep them from chattering. How much damage would Eternity allow her to suffer? And good Lord, why? Would she let Mallory die here? Mallory didn't think so, but she wasn't entirely sure.

Almost there.

Station Eternity liked her, that much she knew. She probably wouldn't let Mallory die of hypothermia. Eternity's whims overrode everything-except, perhaps, Mrs. Brown's own whims. Mallory wasn't entirely sure how the symbiotic connection worked. Mrs. Brown didn't seem to know much either.

The snow got deeper as she got closer, until she was pushing through knee-deep powder with a crusty layer of bloodlike ice on top. She gritted her teeth and pressed on, the muscles in her thighs hot and threatening to turn to loose rubber and then seize into a massive cramp. What is going on? Am I being punished?

The cave opening shimmered in front of her and then appeared much closer than it had been previously.

Inside, Mrs. Brown paced, hands on her hips.

"I guess you took the long way around?" she demanded.

Mrs. Brown had sent her a message that morning. Mallory had been going through the list of new clients to her detective agency, dismayed at the lost items, the stolen items, and the requests to find incomprehensible things for aliens-including, apparently, a lost day.

Reading a message from Mrs. Brown asking to see her that afternoon was at least something she could understand and be interested in doing.

Mallory wasn't too fond of solving murder cases, but it was what she knew, and she hadn't known how, well, boring it would be to do other detective work. Or, admittedly, how difficult it would be to investigate alien crimes done to aliens by aliens.

The weird thing was that Mrs. Brown had requested that Mallory meet her in a place she had never visited on the station. After getting the information, Mallory approached the wall terminal and pulled up a complex 3D map of Station Eternity. She had a bizarre impulse to rotate the map to look for a secret port that she could torpedo and blow it up, à la Star Wars. She shook her head to clear the connection; she had no desire to blow up Eternity. Where would she go then?

Like the Death Star, Station Eternity was the size of a small moon. Unlike the Death Star, it had no planet-killing ability (that she knew of, anyway).

Mallory moved the station around until she found a small glowing dot. "Now, where are you?" she asked, trying to puzzle out the map. She ran her finger over about three-fourths of the sphere, dulling the brightness. The dot lay amid a large open area on the station, one of the places that tried to mimic various planet biomes to give the illusion of home to visitors. This one looked extremely hostile for humans and-

"Oh, come on, red snow?" she said aloud. "Is that even a thing? Can I survive that?"

The globe spun in front of her, mute. After a moment, an image of Pluto popped up, along with a paragraph about the red methane snow in the Cthulhu region.

She shook her head. "Methane atmosphere and red snow? I can't survive on Pluto."

Another image popped up of a full-body protective suit. She rolled her eyes. A suit? She wasn't going into total vacuum or anything.

Eternity wouldn't kill her. She grabbed a jacket and an oxygen breather from the closet by the door and headed out.

Mallory put the last of her strength into galumphing through the snow to the cave. As she reached it, her legs gave out and she collapsed onto a dirt floor beside a campfire.

Mrs. Brown strode over to her and stood above her head, looking down. She looked slightly ridiculous in a big puffy coat and a homemade knitted cap. "Well?" she asked.

Panting, Mallory didn't move, just glad to be out of the wind. The fire's heat penetrated faster than a normal campfire would have, underscoring that, despite the exhaustion and the frigid temperatures, the station kept her as cold or as hot as it wanted to. She slowly sat up.

"What do you mean?"

Mrs. Brown frowned. Her light brown skin creased further and she pulled her cap off. Mallory sat back, sliding away from her a little bit. Mrs. Brown was a tiny prim grandmother who was also a three-time murderer-or a three-time self-defense killer, depending on whom you asked. She had been visiting Eternity with her granddaughter when the station's last host had been murdered. The station needed a host to communicate with its many residents and visitors and was in shock and distress after the murder. Mrs. Brown had stepped in to take over before the station could tear herself apart and kill everyone on board in a panic.

Mrs. Brown was always perfectly pleasant to Mallory, despite the two of them having a "history," as Mrs. Brown liked to call it. She was polite and proper, and Mallory knew she would suffer zero fools. She defended herself and her loved ones with deadly efficiency, and she both inspired Mallory and scared the shit out of her.

"I mean that the station is making this frozen hellscape for us to meet in," Mrs. Brown snapped, gesturing to the weather outside the cave.

"You didn't instruct her to do this?" Mallory asked.

"I hate snow, why the hell would I do that?" She glared at Mallory. "Why aren't you wearing a suit?"

"I- Why are you asking me? Can't you ask the station?"

"The station is saying that everything is fine," Mrs. Brown said. "She just said we had to meet here. She won't tell me why."

"Why did you want to see me?" Mallory asked, scrambling to her feet. "Maybe that will shed some light on the issue."

Mrs. Brown bent over and a tree stump rose from the floor to fit exactly where her butt landed when she sat back. Mallory shook her head in wonder.

"I wanted to tell you I was leaving for a bit, and I'm taking Infinity."

"You couldn't tell me this in your office?" Mallory asked. "Or mine?"

"I asked Eternity to give us a place where I could talk to you in private," Brown said, gazing out at the blizzard.

"What do you mean, private? How is this more private than any other room?" Mallory asked.

"Unless you squirreled them away in your pockets, the Sundry couldn't have followed you here, correct?" Mrs. Brown asked, referring to the insect-like alien that made up a hivemind that had taken a marked interest in Mallory.

"Oh. You're right," Mallory said. No insect could fly through that frigid methane nightmare. "But why keep stuff from them?"

"I don't know. Eternity suggested it. When I ask her why, she says everything is fine." Mrs. Brown shook her head. "I'd say she sounds like my grandmother when she was angry, but Eternity has never shown passive aggression before. I wanted you to know I was leaving, Eternity didn't want the Sundry to know, so this cave was her solution."

"Won't they know when you leave? They know pretty much everything that goes on around here."

"They won't know where I'm going," Mrs. Brown said. "Eternity felt strongly about this."

"That's so weird," Mallory said. "So where are you going?"

"A planet called November. Apparently it's an area of the galaxy where the sentient stations are born. I need to go there to learn more about all this." She gestured vaguely to the walls of the cave. "It's not just a matter of learning more about her. Eternity is still acting sickly after that disaster from a few months ago. I don't have the understanding to fix everything, so I'm heading to November. They tell me I can learn more about host relationships when your best friend is the size of a moon."

Mallory's gut sank. "Won't Eternity freak out again if you leave?" The scars, both internal and external, were still fresh from when Eternity's host had been murdered. In a confused panic, she had killed or injured many people unfortunate enough to be in her way. The thought of what the station would do if she lost another host terrified Mallory.

"Not if you help," Mrs. Brown said. "While I'm gone, Eternity will take a little nap." Seeing the look on Mallory's face, she smiled. "Oh, don't worry. Her life support and other necessary functions will be just fine, but she won't be able to communicate much. I need someone to look after her. I need you."

"You're hiring me to babysit a space station?" Mallory rubbed her forehead. "There has got to be someone else aboard who's got more experience with all of this. Hell, Xan would be better than me. Why don't you ask him?"

Xan was like Mrs. Brown; he was a human connected symbiotically to Eternity's daughter, the sentient spaceship Infinity. Both humans had deep mental and emotional communicative experiences with the aliens, which Mallory envied. She, too, had a symbiotic relationship with an alien race, but it wasn't nearly as healthy.

"I need Alexander for something else," Mrs. Brown said primly. "I want you for this."

Mallory shook her head vehemently. "No way. I don't know how your relationship works, or even how the station works. All I know is what goes wrong when she loses her host, and it's very bad."

"But she's not losing me. I'm going away for a bit, and then I will be back. She'll be asleep, mostly." She cocked her head curiously. "You really don't know why I'm choosing you?"

Mallory shrugged. "No, honestly."

Mrs. Brown clasped her hands together like a preschool teacher about to tell a story to a wiggling class. "Something's off with Eternity. The need for this cave, and saying 'it's fine,' and worst of all, wanting to steer clear of nosy insects tattling to their hivemind. She can't tell me what's off. So, I need someone to watch over her and keep the Sundry out of it."

"Why is she suddenly worried about the Sundry? I thought they got along," Mallory asked, extending her hands to the fire. The cave itself was quite warm, but her fingers were still red with cold.

"You don't seem to have done any research regarding the Sundry's role in the universe," Mrs. Brown said. "This surprises me, considering your experience with them. In fact, I thought they would have told you themselves."

The Sundry. A brilliant, complex hivemind that had come to Earth when Mallory was eight and stung her, giving them a human's eyes to look through, and giving Mallory an inexplicable ability to be drawn toward pockets of high probability of murder. She had left Earth because she was tired of murders, but it seemed that death had followed her to Eternity. On Eternity she had learned about her connection with the Sundry, which had explained her curse/gift a little better. But she hadn't agreed to the connection, and the hivemind terrified her. She had touched it mentally only a few times, and the deluge of data had been overwhelming. So, while Mrs. Brown and Xan had friendly connections with the station and a ship, Mallory was symbiotically connected to a scary hivemind of bugs she was allergic to. Not the ideal relationship.

"Communicating with them isn't fun," she said grimly. "And I can't really trust them. They don't see me as an individual; I'm just another sensory input device."

"Mallory," Mrs. Brown said in her patient-grandmother voice. "Sometimes we have to do what we don't want to do in order to learn things. You have a direct line to a near-omniscient hivemind. Don't ignore that because they were mean to you."

Resentment flared inside Mallory, but she knew that reacting would sound petulant. "If you're so eager to get access to the hivemind, why not let them sting you?" she asked lightly.

Mrs. Brown smiled. "Because I have you." She waved a hand as if hurrying the tense moment past them. "And I have enough to deal with connected to Eternity. And about her, she'll be mostly asleep. She'll keep life support going, and the elevators, monorail, atmosphere, water reclamation, energy; all of that comes from involuntary systems, like our circulatory systems. Think of it like watering a plant while your grandmother is out of town on a cruise."

Yeah, a three-time-murderer grandmother whose plant is a giant station that is sustaining thousands of lives, no biggie.

Mrs. Brown had killed two men in self-defense when she was a young woman, and a few decades later, she had murdered her second husband. She'd killed him in self-defense, but then had tried to cover it up. Coincidentally, her case was the first murder one Mallory had ever solved. Mrs. Brown went to prison for ten years. Currently she was technically breaking parole by living aboard Eternity, but humans were desperate to ally with alien races, and, ex-con or not, Mrs. Brown was connected to a sentient space station. The station and everyone on it would be quite upset if humans extradited her, so the federal prison system concerned themselves with just about any problem rather than appeal to bring her home. Mallory figured this made Mrs. Brown the most powerful human in existence.

Copyright © 2023 by Mur Lafferty


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