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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Empress of Forever

A Novel

Max Gladstone

Tor Books

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1


THEY CAME FROM all around the broken world to pay Vivian Liao homage on her birthday.

Oligarchs and video stars and billionaires and their daughters, princesses and actresses hoping for her notice, fresh-faced tech circuit darlings hungry to stand where Viv now stood but with only the vaguest sense of what that meant, people she’d sent invitations and people she’d let bribe or beg their way onto the guest list, they came. The Saint Kitts airport had hummed with Cessnas and Gulfstreams and Tesla Aeros for days before the party, and the long black glistening cars that wound up the driveway of the beach-front mansion might have been a funeral procession save for the passengers’ brightly colored plumage. A funeral, maybe, for a tyrant.

They advanced on Viv like an army and she stood against them, her hair braided into a crown atop her head, her assistant, Lucy, by her side.

The guests came in part for the legend of a Vivian Liao birthday, in part for fear they’d give offense if they stayed home, but most came because they knew this might be the end. They could read the tea leaves as well as Viv, though not so deeply. Her name had been mentioned too often in the wrong tones on the wrong Sunday talk shows, by the wrong congressmen and administration mouthpieces. There had been a tasteful half inch in The Wall Street Journal about a routine investigation of one of her subsidiaries. They knew, as she knew, how it worked in America these days.

The men with the black bags and the ill-fitting suits and the bare concrete cells had finally decided she was more trouble than her disappearance would cause. There were lines, even when you were so rich your bankers got embarrassed. She hadn’t known about those lines when she was young, in part because they didn’t exist back then, or weren’t so clearly drawn. That was one of the reasons she’d worked so hard to become rich in the first place. She was a genius, but you didn’t have to be one to look around and see wealth was the only real freedom left. Get money and you could do what you wanted, help your friends, pile cash and power as a wall against the world. But there were lines now and she’d crossed them, and the fuckers in power did not forget. They were too dumb to keep detailed records, but they nursed grudges, which was worse. A record might get lost.

Her guests, she knew, would assume she’d overreached at last—maybe the massive free insurance program had been the final straw, or maybe gratis housing for her workforce in targeted congressional districts, maybe one of the newspapers she owned had skewered the wrong relative. Maybe she’d been too effective at breaking social media manipulation engines, or using them herself, or anonymizing user data just ahead of subpoenas. Rumor ran that the White House had been seriously pissed when FEMA reached Florida after Johannes to find two thousand relief workers in Liao Industries livery handing out free water, solar, and Internet in counties the administration designated low priority after the last election tally.

Viv knew better. She’d pissed off the right people, sure. But they came for her now not because they were angry, but because they were scared.

So was she. Terrified. At first she’d thought she was afraid of failure and its consequences, of black bags over her head, of needles slipped beneath her fingernails, of car batteries and clamps, of confinement in a narrow sleepless cell, drugged perhaps, until silence ate her mind. They knew she was proud—she’d been proud for so long in public—so they would try to break her and bring her low. Make her wallow. Snap her into so many pieces that if by some chance she were ever freed she’d spend all her days picking up the splinters of herself, a shivering wreck, no threat at all. But as she lay awake sleepless, curled around the sinkhole in her gut, she’d peeled back each layer of fear and found beneath those dark fantasies the reason she’d clutched them close as blankets on a cold night.

As scared as she was of failure, behind it lurked the vast and daunting prospect of success.

She might win. She might change everything. And it started here, as her guests mounted the stairs.

Her lungs refused to fill. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d breathed deep, or savored a glass of water. Her hands roamed. Her nails, in the last three days, had bitten her skin raw beneath her shirt. Her jaw was tight as if sealed with wire. She carried those sleepless nights with her as darkness in the corners of her vision, as mocking light in the eyes of fake friends. But, Christ, she could hide it.

So when her guests hugged her and thanked her with a last-chance-to-see sort of vibe and added their presents to the pile on the table, she laughed and hugged them back and thanked them and even remembered their names mostly, though Lucy had to remind her of old Karpov’s daughter’s as the young woman drifted cloudlike and glorious up the steps and Viv, in spite of everything, forgot how to make consonant sounds. Natalia. Lucy offered the name without rolling her eyes.

Yes. So wonderful to see you again.

Rubberneckers all.

Viv hadn’t invited any real friends she thought would come. The net was closing in, and she didn’t want it catching anyone she cared about. She’d withdrawn from her parents and brother at the first hint of trouble, she’d not been with anyone seriously since Shanda broke it off, she’d let correspondence lapse and made herself conspicuously absent from reunions, unavailable when friends came to town, missed the annual gaming retreat for two years running. But she’d hit the Forbes list at twenty-six, gone bankrupt at twenty-seven, then hit the list again, higher, at twenty-nine, and she knew how to have fun in public when she was alone.

Most of the older guests didn’t last the first night. On the second, Viv made a show of dissipation and excess—scotch and paintball all through the estate, diving, flirting, games. She got tossed into the pool. Lucy drifted behind her, brought her papers to sign when she had to sign them, ran interference with the catering and household staff, and generally contributed to the sense Viv was reveling to forget the noose around her neck. She toasted dawn with the few guests who were still awake. By the third night will and stamina began to flag, though most of those left were too young, too dumb, to admit it. People were passing out on couches, on the pool deck. Even Viv let her self-control lapse a little; when Natalia took her hand and led her upstairs, she followed.

This, she’d needed with a depth that would have held her back from asking. It was not love, but Natalia Karpov had lost two brothers and an uncle’s family when they’d said the wrong things in the wrong place at the right time and perhaps she, more than anyone else here, understood the shape of Viv’s sleepless nights and fear. Viv shook as Natalia undressed her, though the salt breeze through the open windows was not cold. She bit her lip, her breath short, frozen, strangled by her own muscles, until at a touch sliding downward from her belly she cracked and crashed against her and caught her in a grip so tight she gasped.

Viv wept in bed after, which she hadn’t done in twenty years. And then, the true gift: she slept.

The house was still when she woke before dawn by Natalia’s side.

Time to go.

She hadn’t run from anything since fourth grade. Running wasn’t how you crushed your rivals before they could crush you, how you built a start-up into an empire while cities fell into the ocean and Internet pastors said the Rapture was at hand. Hell, running hadn’t even worked when she’d been bloody-nosed and knock-kneed and hunted back in grade school. That’s why she learned to hit back.

But here she was, running from herself.

Even Viv had to admit that was a pretentious way of putting it. Yes, as she unwound herself from Natalia in the dark, she meant to leave it all behind, her guests and her companies and Lucy and her lovers and friends and fortunes, everything the world called Vivian Liao. But this wasn’t some low-rent psychotic break, retreating to an ashram, finding Jesus or Buddha or whatever.

Vivian Liao, globe-trotting billionaire, was too closely watched to disappear. The last time she got the flu the NASDAQ lost six hundred points. (Granted, that was during the pandemic, but she hadn’t had the bad flu, just the normal flu.) The government was after her now. If she changed her shape, left her houses and fortunes and armor behind, she could become small enough to slip through the net, take shelter, and strike back.

She dressed in silence.

Call it a tactical retreat. But when she crept downstairs wearing jeans and a gray hoodie and the cheapest sneakers she’d owned since her first IPO, no phone, no earpiece, no credit cards, nothing on her wrist but a watch that needed winding, and tiptoed in those sneakers over and around the sleeping, entwined bodies of her last enduring guests, out the half-open sliding door to the first pool deck and down the stairs to the second, then past the cabanas to the beach, she didn’t feel like a grown woman, much less a fugitive titan of industry on a mission of vengeance and liberation. She felt like a kid creeping through her parents’ barren house at night. Only, the house was her house now, and the attention she did not want to rouse her own. She snuck away from her body, down to the water.

The stars had failed and in the morning mist she could not tell sea from sky. If the world were as magic as it used to feel, she could just swim out until the out turned into up and the up to upside down, and tread water and raise her eyes to see this scrap of shoreline overhead, and with it all she meant to leave behind.

The fantasy would have been sweeter if there had not been real eyes up there in the sky beyond the blue, watching her, unblinking geosynchronous satellites with precision-machined lenses. The virus she’d slipped into their brains would only blind them for the next half hour. She wasn’t taking this stroll for her health.

Not that there weren’t health benefits to being a fugitive. Her doctor had told her to avoid stressful situations, and being duct-taped to a chair while some pensioned motherfucker with a shit mustache warmed up the electrodes would certainly qualify.

She wished she could have thanked Natalia. She wished she could have told Lucy good-bye.

She raised her hood and walked away. The waves erased her footprints.

By daybreak she had filled the sails of a twenty-foot schooner one of her aliases bought through an ad hoc Swiss microcorporation. When she looked back, the mansion on the beach seemed small, and she could not see her guests, or Natalia, or Lucy, at all.

To hell with that. She had a world to conquer.

Again.

She sawed off her braid with a knife at dawn, at the harbor’s mouth where water cooled and deepened and blued. Her head felt gloriously light after, but she couldn’t bring herself to toss the hair overboard. Hair is a kind of exomemory: the chemicals of life seep in and linger. Viv had started growing her hair long in freshman year, and they’d been through a lot together. If someone could read the memory of that hair, they’d follow her through her first patent, her first ten million, her first IPO, her first breakup, the first time she had sex. But the feds had terabytes of HD video to feed their tracking software. Viv never lived small or out of sight.

And she had designed the tracking software.

She’d done the hard part already, the cutting. Now all she had to do was chuck it over the side, and let the sea take the rest.

Instead she trimmed the sails. Wind calmed at her back as she matched its speed, and Saint Kitts set behind her.

A fair breeze and the Atlantic current, still there, however weakened, helped her make good time north; she sunbathed, read when the boat didn’t need her, and savored the silence, which she wouldn’t have for long. Blackbeard came this way before they sank him. No, that was a bad line of thought. Don’t obsess over losers.

She’d been careful to choose a boat that would not touch the Internet. It had been years since she last sailed without GPS, but she’d been preparing: charts, practice, clothes, a watertight sack with false papers and non-sequential bills.

Off North Carolina she set a tiny shaped charge in the keel, barely a firework but just enough to scuttle the boat, and added a change of clothes to the watertight sack. In her hand she weighed the braid, dry from days on the deck in the sun. Should have tossed it long ago. They might find it if she dropped it here, she told herself, before she added it to her sack, sealed the sack, and dove.

The sea rubbed her scalp and wove through her short hair. She did not think about what she’d lost. She’d get it all back.


Copyright © 2019 by Max Gladstone