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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Stars Now Unclaimed

The Universe After (Volume 1)

Drew Williams

Tor Books

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CHAPTER 1


I had Scheherazade drop me on top of an old refinery, rusted out and half-collapsing. Around me the stretch of this new world’s sky seemed endless, a bright sienna-colored cloth drawn over the stars above. I watched Schaz jet back off to orbit—well, “watched” is probably a strong word, since she had all her stealth systems cranked to high heaven, but I could at least find the telltale glint of her engines—then settled my rifle on my back and started working my way down, finding handholds and grips among the badly rusted metal.

It’s surprising how used to this sort of thing you get; the climbing and jumping and shimmying, I mean. On a world free of the effects of the pulse, none of that would have been necessary—I would have had antigravity boots, or a jetpack, or just been able to disembark in the fields below: scaling a three-hundred-foot-tall structure would have been as easy as pressing a button and dropping until I was comfortably on the ground.

Now, without all those useful cheats, it was much more physically demanding—the climbing and jumping and shimmying bits—but I didn’t mind. It was like a workout, a reminder that none of that nonsense mattered on the world I was descending toward, and that if I wanted to stay alive, reflexes and physical capability would be just as important as the few pieces of tech I carried that were resistant to post-pulse radiation.

By the time I made it down the tower I’d worked up a decent sweat, and I’d also undergone a crash course in the physical realities of this particular planet: the vagaries of its gravity, of its atmosphere, that sort of thing. Most terraformed worlds were within a certain range in those kinds of measurements—on some, even orbital rotations had been shifted to roughly conform to the standard galactic day/night cycle—but it’s surprising how much small differences can add up when you’re engaged in strenuous physical activity. A touch less oxygen in the air than you’re used to, a single percentage point of gravity higher or lower, and suddenly everything’s thrown off, just a bit. You have to readjust.

I checked my equipment over as I sat in the shadow of the refinery tower, getting my breath back. Nothing was damaged or showing signs of the radiation advancing faster than I would have expected. I had a mission to complete here, yes, but I had no desire to have some important piece of tech shut down on me at an inopportune time and get me killed. Then I wouldn’t be able to do anyone any good.

As the big metal tower creaked above me in the wind, I kept telling myself that—that I was still doing good. Some days I believed it more than others.

After I’d recovered from my little jaunt, I settled my rifle onto my back again—a solid gunpowder cartridge design common across all levels of post-pulse tech, powerful enough that it could compete with higher-end weapons on worlds that still had a great deal of technology intact, low-key enough that on worlds farther down that scale like this one, it wouldn’t draw undue attention—and set off across rolling plains of variegated grass.

This world was very pretty; I’d give whoever had designed it that. The sky was a lovely shade of pinkish orange that would likely shift into indigo as night approached. It perfectly complemented the flora strains that had been introduced, mostly long grasses of purple or green or pink, with a few patches of larger trees, mostly Tyll-homeworld species, thick trunks of brown or gray topped by swaying azure fronds. Vast fields of wheat—again, of Tyll extraction—made up most of the landscape that wasn’t grassland; that made sense with the research I’d done before having Scheherazade drop me off.

The research told me that this world had been terraformed for agricultural use a few hundred years ago or so; it had seen only mild scarring during the sect wars, which meant it was a little bit perplexing that the pulse had knocked it almost as far down the technology scale as a planet could go—all the way to before the invention of electric light.

Still, trying to understand why the pulse had done what it had done was a fool’s errand: I’d seen systems where one planet had been left untouched, another had been driven back to pre-spaceflight, and the moon of that same world had lost everything post–internal combustion. There was never any rhyme or reason to it, not even within a single system—the pulse did what it did at random, and looking for a will behind its workings was like trying to find the face of god in weather patterns.

I knew that much because I was one of the fools who had let it off the chain in the first place. That’s why I was here: trying to right my own wrongs. In a very small way, of course. I was only one woman, and it was a big, big universe. Also, I had a great many wrongs.


CHAPTER 2


I started walking. I had a ways to go.

Since the pulse had hit this world harder than most—left the atmosphere soaking in radiation that would burn out anything with an electrical system in hours, faster if it saw heavy use—walking was about my only option for locomotion. That was one reason I’d had Scheherazade—that’s my ship—drop me off at the top of the refinery: so she didn’t have to land. Trying to do so would have left her damaged, badly, even if she just set down for the brief time it would take me to disembark.

The other reason I’d set down so far from my target area was to make sure we weren’t in view of anybody as she descended. It had likely been generations since anyone visited this world from the greater galaxy beyond; it was in a mostly forgotten system of a mostly forgotten corner of unclaimed, untended space. I didn’t need to be hailed as some sort of savior by the locals, come to rescue them from their pulse-soaked world and lead them back to the halcyon years of never-was. And that would be the better option: more likely was to be marked as some sort of demon, here to finish the job the pulse had started. You never knew which it might be on worlds thrown back this far; better not to risk it at all.

Worlds like this one—even those designed for a single purpose, like agriculture—had been terraformed and designed for vehicles like high-speed rail and sublight orbital shuttles, not for perambulation, which meant I had a bit of a walk ahead of me. Still, I’d been cooped up inside Scheherazade for a long hyperdrive flight on the way here, so I didn’t mind stretching my legs.

Starting my trek out in the boonies also meant I got a chance to know the local populace before they got to know me. Which, this time, started with screaming. It often did, for some reason.

The scream shattered the quiet of the open fields. High-pitched, piercing, a great deal of fear and pain and confusion. A child.

I broke out into a run. All these years later, that’s still reflex. You’d think, after watching the pulse eat the universe and being helpless to stop it, that I’d be immune to the sound of others crying for help. You’d be wrong. What you can ignore en masse—the death of millions or billions—just by telling yourself it’s too big, there’s nothing you can do, is much more difficult to move past when it’s just one person, right in front of you, and there is a way for you to help.

That’s the same logic that had been used when the pulse was first dreamt up, after all. Just because it went wrong didn’t mean the argument wasn’t sound.

I slowed as I crested the hill, parting the grass with my rifle barrel; my weapon had been drawn as soon as I heard the child shriek. Down the incline below me was a simple wagon—probably the height of technology in these parts, wood and nails and iron-rimmed wheels—that had come to a stop, mostly because the beasts in its harnesses had been shot dead.

I didn’t recognize the creatures, though the build and rough size suggested Wulf-homeworld extraction. It didn’t much matter, really—they were whatever fauna had been on planet at the time of the pulse that the people here had enough of for breeding stock. What was more important, at that given moment, was the family seated at the front of the wagon, and the rough circle of men with guns surrounding them.

On every world, there are always men with guns. Even the pulse couldn’t change that.


Copyright © 2018 by Drew Williams