Ninefox Gambit: the beginning
10 months ago
We're incredibly excited about Ninefox Gambit. Yoon Ha Lee's debut novel is a dazzling mixture of action, heart and brains, a space opera like no other that will crowbar open your brain and stay lodged there for months after you've put it down.
We're so excited that we've decided to give a sneak preview of the opening chapter. So, without further ado, he's the first part of Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee. Enjoy!
by Yoon Ha Lee
At Kel Academy, an instructor had explained to Cheris's class that the threshold winnower was a weapon of last resort, and not just for its notorious connotations. Said instructor had once witnessed a winnower in use. The detail that stuck in Cheris's head wasn't the part where every door in the besieged city exhaled radiation that baked the inhabitants dead. It wasn't the weapon's governing equations or even the instructor's left eye, damaged during the attack, from which ghostlight glimmered.
What Cheris remembered most was the instructor's aside: that returning to corpses that were only corpses, rather than radiation gates contorted against black-blasted walls and glassy rubble, eyes ruptured open, was one of the best moments of her life.
Five years, five months, and sixteen days later, surrounded by smashed tanks and smoking pits on the heretic Eels' outpost world of Dredge, Captain Kel Cheris of Heron Company, 109-229th Battalion, had come to the conclusion that her instructor was full of shit. There was no comfort to be extracted from the dead, from flesh evaporated from bones. Nothing but numbers snipped short.
According to the briefing, the Eels had a directional storm generator. The storms scrambled vectors. The effect was localized, but it was troublesome when parallel columns ended up at opposite ends of a road a hundred kays apart, and fatal when movement along the planetary surface sent you underground instead. Too close and the storms might disintegrate your component atoms entirely. Cheris and the other captains had been assured that the weather-eaters would keep the storms contained, and that all the Kel infantry had to do was walk in and seize the generator.
That had been eighteen hours ago. It wasn't that anyone was surprised by the plan's failure. It was the carnage.
Heron Company had left the cover of the southwestern woods a scant eighty-three minutes ago. The intent was to advance in a tedious snaking curve east and then north around Hill 117 because intelligence had indicated that the Eels' vanguard would occupy the ridge nearer the woods and leave the hill route open. It was as Cheris's company made it out of the woods that they saw what had happened to the Kel who had preceded them.
Cheris was unable to organize her first heart-stop impressions of what had been the rest of the battalion. Feet scraped inside-out next to unblemished boots. Black-and-gold Kel uniforms braided into cracked rib cages. Gape-jawed, twisted skulls with eye sockets staring out of their sides and strands of tendon knotted through crumbling teeth. A book of profanities written in every futile shade of red the human body had ever devised, its pages upended over the battlefield from horizon to horizon.
Her company had survived thanks to dumb luck. A field grid error had delayed their advance, so they had missed the brunt of the attack. She didn't know if any other companies, or the other battalions, had made it. Her inability to raise regimental headquarters didn't come as a surprise. Communications going down was nothing new. Orders were orders, however, and it was best to move forward. Once they got close enough, the main body of the Eels would no longer be able to deploy the storms against them, lest they, too, be caught in their area of effect.
Pulses of heat in her left arm alerted her of contacts. Servitor Sparrow 3 reported the coordinates of an incoming Eel battalion, arrival estimated in two hours. The transmission ended in a burst of pain: the servitor had been detected. It was too much to hope that the Eels hadn't recognized it as a Kel servitor, and worrisome that they had let it know that it had been compromised before destroying it. There was no time to mourn Sparrow 3, who had been fond of Kel music; that would have to come later.
"Anything from the other servitors?" Cheris asked her communications officer, Lieutenant-engineer Dineng, over the subvocal relay.
A pause. "Nothing, sir," Dineng said. "Sparrow 8 is investigating the storm ahead."
Cheris frowned at the periodic flickers of reports in the form of visual overlays. If anything, they obfuscated her picture of the situation, but she was used to that.
She monitored relay chatter with half an ear as she compared old maps and new reconnaissance. Certain words crackled out of the soundstream again and again: Eels. Sleep. Storm, fractal coefficient, can't the weather-eaters hurry up. And, for pity's sake, was Kel Inoe going on about his sex life again?
For her part, Cheris wouldn't have minded holing up in the shadow of a rock and sleeping for a week. The week was one of the few time measures the hexarchate didn't regulate. In her old home, the City of Ravens Feasting, they used the eight-day week. When she was tired, it was easy to lapse out of the military ten-day week into the eight. In the furtive tradition of her mother's people, today would be Carrion Day, a reminder of the importance of scavengers. It was difficult to agree.
"Sir." Her senior lieutenant, Kel Verab, brought her out of her reverie. "I don't like the look of the silhouettes on Hill 119." It was southwest of 117. She brought it up on her display and frowned at the complicated silhouette. "Probably an installation of some sort and I bet it's got eyes. I give you odds the Eels will call in the artillery the second they think they can get all of us. Maybe we should keep heading east."
"We can't avoid the heretics forever," Cheris said. "We're going to have to hope that formation defenses hold for us if they start lobbing shells." She addressed the company. "Formation," she said, "Pir's Fan." It had a longer name, but nobody had time for the full names on the battlefield.
Pir's Fan was one of the simpler formations. As its name suggested, it resembled a wedge. It was easiest for Cheris: she held the primary pivot at the van, and everyone adjusted their position relative to hers.
The Kel specialty was formation fighting. The combination of formation geometry and Kel discipline allowed them to channel exotic effects, from heat lances to force shields. Unfortunately, like all exotics, this ability depended on the local society's adherence to the hexarchate's high calendar. And the high calendar wasn't just a system of timekeeping. It encompassed the feasts, the remembrances with their ritual torture of heretics, the entire precarious social order.
Cheris knew the formation's effect had begun to propagate when the world shifted blue and the blacks bent gray. Pir's Fan offered protection against the weather. It was usually better to rely on the weather-eaters, but Cheris had lost any faith that they would be effective on this mission. Unfortunately, the formation wouldn't shield the unit from a direct hit. She hoped to close with the generator before that became an issue.
If the situation changed, there were other formations. The Kel infantry library included thousands, although only a hundred or so were taught as part of Lexicon Primary. You also had to allow for transition time in modulation, especially between less familiar formations. Cheris could feed her soldiers the information through the grid, but it was no substitute for drill.
The march as they swung north steadied Cheris. Here stubby succulents, too low to be credible cover, grew only to be crushed underfoot. The plants gave off a stinging fragrance that attenuated into a watery, cloying sweetness. The regional survey hadn't flagged it as a toxic. Whether the plants had any meaning to the Eels, Cheris didn't know. She would probably leave Dredge, if she left Dredge, without finding out.
Lieutenant Verab alerted her of the enemy sighting via heat pulse. Over the relay, Cheris heard a junior sergeant shouting at someone who had dropped his rifle, a recent recruit who had a talent for botching things.
The Eels' field fortifications, which commanded one of the larger hills, looked like a rough shore in a sea of dust, and their patrols carried themselves with a certain sloppiness. But the distant figures stirred in agitation: Cheris was betting they had thought themselves safe.
Of momentary interest was the Eels' banner, which was of green fire and grim shadow with a twisting motif. The Eels called themselves the Society of the Flourish, although the hexarchate didn't use this name. Taking away people's names denied their power, a lesson Cheris tried not to think about.
Cheris snapped, "Unfurl Kel banner. Advance and fire. I want anything that twitches to die."
The banner-bearers ignited the generator, and fire blazed in the sky. At the heart of the golden flames was the Kel ashhawk, the black bird that burned in its own glory, and beneath it their general's emblem, the Chain of Thorns. Despite Cheris's amusement at Kel design sensibilities – of course the emblem was the flamboyant ashhawk, of course it involved fire – she felt a stinging in her secret heart at the sight of it.
Several green soldiers in Verab's platoon were shooting too rapidly at the guards and not very well. A sergeant, distracted by some other matter, was slow to direct their efforts more usefully, but Verab was already dealing with the issue. Still, better to be shooting than not to be shooting.
The storm started up around them, avoiding the Eel fortifications with dismaying precision. The world became a tumult of silhouettes. The smell of the earth was pungent, salt-grit-sweet. In the back of her head she realized that the sweetness came from the succulents flowering awake.
They were going to have to wade through the encampment before they could count on safety from the weather. Cheris wondered if the Eels would sacrifice their own so they could direct the storm's full fury against the Kel.
"Lieutenant, have you got your platoon in hand?" Cheris asked Verab.
For formation fighting, each soldier's state of mind mattered, or else the exotic effects would falter. It was a microcosm of the importance of Doctrine in hexarchate society. Formation instinct, which every Kel was programmed with during academy, was supposed to ensure the necessary cohesion. In practice, it worked better with some than others.
"They'll serve, sir," Verab said, biting off each word.
"See that they do," Cheris said.
The display showed that the other platoons were holding steady. Bullets hit the formation's protection zone and ricocheted at absurd angles. The rain pelted down around them, yet none of it touched Cheris or the soldiers standing near her.
Strangely, however, the rain was scattering into snow, the snow into crystal. She had Sparrow 14 bring her a captured crystal. It was a shining sliver, fracturing the light into rainbows if rainbows only knew the cold, sad hues of blue and violet. She didn't touch the crystal even though she was wearing Kel gloves. The Sparrow was already starting to corrode, and she expressed her regrets to it. It made a resigned chirping noise.
Pir's Fan should have shed the storm without additional transformative effects. Cheris frowned. She had spent a good portion of her five-year academy stint examining the mathematics of formation mechanics. When she chose a formation, she did so with a full understanding of its particular weaknesses.
The problem was that her analyses depended on the high calendar's consensus mechanics. She now had indication that the directional storm generator worked the way it did because it relied on a radically heretical calendar, with the attendant heretical mechanics, which were interfering with the formation's proper function. She was angry at herself for not anticipating this. Most of the time heretics used technology that was compatible with the high calendar, but the development of purely heretical technology was always possible.
Her superiors had to have known, but she didn't expect them to tell a low officer about matters that involved heresy. Still, the other Kel companies hadn't had to die the way they had, smeared into irrelevance. Like Cheris, their captains had relied on the weather-eaters, on their formations, on the exotics that their civilization had become dependent on since their discovery. Cheris didn't despise many things, but needless waste was one of them.
The deviation from the high calendar could be measured, and her unit gave her an instrument with which to perform the measurement. She sucked in a breath, listening to relay chatter. Storm and death and the color of the sky and blisters. Contacts contacts contacts and fucking crystals. Just a scratch, no – Chrif is down. That would be Chriferafa, who always got teased because her name was unpronounceable.
Bullets and Eelfire came at them like part of the storm. Cheris flinched in spite of herself as a tendril of fire hissed past, deflected by the formation.
Her soldiers weren't going to like her, but that didn't matter as long as they lived. "Formation override," Cheris said into the relay. Her breath was silver-white in the air. She barely felt the cold, bad sign. "Squadrons Three through Six, adjust formation." She wrote the equations on one hand with the other, letting the kinetic sensors pick them up for transmission.
A minor test first. Then, based on the results, additional tests to see what the deviations were and whether they admitted any good options. There was a certain amount of heresy in working with heretical mechanics, but her orders told her to work with the resources she had, so she was going to do exactly that.
The formation staggered. She couldn't see it clearly from her position, but the formation icon came up bright and prickly, warning her that the formation's integrity was failing. The grating tone in her head suggested that she order a retreat or have her soldiers modulate into an alternate formation, something, anything to conform with Doctrine. Her vision was reddening at the edges.
"It's part of the plan," she said in vexation, and overrode the warnings.
That wasn't the real problem. The real problem was her soldiers' hesitation. Squadrons Three, Five, and Six were following orders, although Six was having difficulty adjusting around the fallen. Cheris relented enough to request a snapshot from the sergeant. The directional storm had cut a gash through the squadron, leaving greasy stains and partial corpses in a growing pinkish puddle. Cheris suggested an alteration, but the sergeant was going to have to deal with the rest herself.
Squadron Four was resisting the order. Pir's Fan was something they knew and understood. The modifications she had sent them were not. The sergeant protested formulaically, all but quoting the Kel code of conduct. The formation didn't belong to the Kel lexicons. Unconventional thinking was a danger to a well-tested hierarchical system. Her orders did not advance the best interests of the hexarchate. And so on.
The storm fell in sheets of undulating light, snake-sharp and acrid. Cheris had Dineng send for another Sparrow to verify that the light was fatal. The Sparrow dodged a ribbon of light too late and was transformed into a mass of parallel slices and metal shrieks. It fell unmoving to the ground, where the light rearranged it again and again until it was nothing but an accretion of truncated cubes. Cheris winced, but there was nothing to be done now.
Cheris opened the relay and said to the recalcitrant sergeant, with great leniency, "Reconsider." It would be preferable to secure his cooperation. She would have to adjust the formation otherwise, with uncertain results.
She had eaten with him at high table for years, listened to his anecdotes of service in the Drowned March and at the Feathered Bridge between the two great continents of the world Makhtu. She knew that he liked to drink two sips from his own cup after the communal cup went around, and then to arrange his pickles or sesame spinach on top of his rice. She knew that he cared about putting things in their proper place. It was an understandable impulse. It was also going to get him killed.
Already she was rewriting the equations because she knew what his answer would be.
The sergeant reiterated his protest, stopping short of accusing her of heresy herself. Formation instinct should have forced him to obey her, but the fact that he considered her actions deeply un-Kel was enabling him to resist.
Cheris cut contact and sent another override. Lieutenant Verab's acknowledgment sounded grim. Cheris marked Squadron Four outcasts, Kel no longer. They had failed to obey her, and that was that.
Disjointedly, the new formation pieced itself together and pressed forward. They were taking heavier fire now. Two trees exploded at the touch of Eelfire as Squadron Five passed them. A corporal was stapled to a hillside by the resultant lash of splinters. A soldier three paces to Cheris's left fell out of formation and vanished in a vapor of blood and tatters. Kel Nikara, who had sung so well.
Squadron Four was already dissolving, but she had no attention to spare for it.
Cheris guided the advance from point to point. She adjusted the formation again by sending orders to individual soldiers, solving for intermediate forms in her head to keep the geometry within the necessary error bounds. The storm was dissipating: they were too close to the Eels. The next question was whether she could devise a formation that would give them better protection against the Eels' invariant weapons, which would work in any calendar, now that the storm was no longer a factor.
They were outnumbered five to one, but the Eels didn't have access to formations, so the Kel had a chance. Cheris was in a hurry, so a straightforward force multiplier was her best bet. More modifications. Her remaining soldiers knew to trust her. The soundstream reflected this. Eels, the stink of corpses, heavy fire from that copse, drumbeats. They were paying attention to the important things again.
To her relief, the force multiplier, adapted from One Thorn Poisons a Thousand Hands, could be linearized for use with her ad hoc formation. She and her soldiers were equipped with calendrical swords, ordinarily used for duels. Not her weapon of choice, but they were near the storm generator, which they were to take intact, and the general's orders had been clear. The swords shouldn't damage unliving objects, which was the primary consideration.
"Swords, now," Cheris said.
The Kel unsheathed their swords, each tinted differently, blank bars of light. Cheris's ran from blue near the hilt to red at the tip. As they closed with the enemy, numbers blazed to life along the lengths of the blades: the day and the hour of your death, as the Kel liked to say.
Except the date and time on Cheris's sword was wrong. She wasn't the only one who was dismayed. Maintenance, rather use my rifle, the dreaded calendrical rot. Not only were the numbers wrong, they jittered and sparked, snapping in and out of focus. A quick survey of her company indicated that everyone's swords were having the same problem. That would have been bad enough, but the swords weren't even synchronized.
"Sir, maybe another weapon –” Lieutenant Verab said.
"Continue the advance," Cheris said. "No guns." If the swords proved ineffectual, they would have to try something different, but the swords hadn't sputtered out entirely. That gave her hope, if you could call it that.
At first it went well. For every sword-stroke, tens of Eels went down as lines of force scythed through their ranks. Cheris's own swordwork was methodical, businesslike, the same way she dueled. One of her lunges pierced eight soldiers in the Eels' ranks. She had always been good at angles.
The Kel formation held as they butchered their way through the Eels. The hills' residual mist had a ruddy tint. Cheris made a point of noticing the Eels' faces. They weren't much different from the faces of her own soldiers: younger and older, dark skin and pale, eyes mostly brown or sometimes gray. One of them might have been Dineng's brother, if not for the pale eyes. But the calendrical light made them alien, washed in shadows of indefinite color slowly becoming more definite.
They hit an unexpected snag as the storm generator came into view. It crouched on the rise of a stubby hill, visible through a transparent palisade. The generator resembled nothing so much as a small, deformed tank. Cheris asked for, and got, an assay of its approximate mass from one of the Sparrows. The answer made her bite her lip. Well, that was what the floaters were for.
More bizarre was the fact that the generator was undefended except by four Eel servitors. They were armed with lasers, but so far their fire hadn't penetrated Kel defenses.
Cheris knew the current formation was losing effectiveness when the air went cold and gray. She was having difficulty breathing, and while she had an emergency air supply, they all did, she suspected this was just the beginning. Sure enough, it also became harder and harder to move.
Her first attempts at repairing the formation only resulted in a colder wind, a grayer world. Gritting her teeth – winter, entropy, it was time to get out but they were so close – she tried another configuration. It was hard to think, hard to make herself breathe. She thought she heard the song of snow.
"I need your computational allocations," Cheris told her lieutenants. They were so close to the weather generator, and the Eels were broken and peeling away behind them. They just had to grab the wretched thing and hold on until pickup arrived. But to hold it they had to have a working formation. It was enough to make her long for the days of straightforward bullets and bombs.
She liked the thought of stripping her soldiers' computational resources as much as they did, which was to say not at all. But they weren't in camp, where they could instantiate a more powerful grid. They had no access to the larger, more powerful grid of a friendly voidmoth transport or a military base. She had to use the field grid because it was all they had.
Cheris gave her company a second to understand what was going to happen, then diverted their allocated resources to herself. She ignored the protests, most reflexive, some less so: can't see, lost coordinates, it was so cold, a scatter of profanities. Verab was saying something to the other lieutenants, but hadn't flagged the conversation for her attention, so she assumed he'd take care of it.
She formulated her question so a computational attack might give her an answer in a reasonable amount of time. The company's grid was not sentient in the way of military-grade servitors, but if you knew how to talk to the system, it was capable of nuanced responses. As the world faded toward black, the grid informed her that she should proceed by a particular series of approximations. She authorized the computation and added some constraints designed to speed the exploration of likely solutions.
The problem was easy to see: not only did the storm generator rely on heretical mechanics, which also explained the weather-eaters' difficulties, it was itself a disruption to the high calendar. Cheris wasn't looking forward to reporting this to her superiors.
Green-black fire washed around them, the dregs of Eel resistance. Cheris silently entreated the formation to hold long enough for the field grid to chew through the computations. Faster, she thought, feeling so cold that she was certain that her teeth were icicles and that her fingers had frozen into arthritic twigs.
"The generator's ours, sir!" Verab cried as his platoon took out a last sputtering knot of Eels. They were clear for the moment.
"Well done," she said, meaning it. "Now we have to hang on."
The computations were taking their toll. Through the relay, Cheris discovered that Kel Zro in Squadron Three had offloaded more of her situational awareness functions into the relay than was strictly advisable, and was paying for it now. The soldier to Zro's right shouted a warning, and she corrected her position barely in time to avoid being splashed by Eelfire. Zro wasn't the only one having difficulties. Even people who used their relays with the usual precautions were desynchronizing.
Cheris asked the grid for a summary of preliminary results and skimmed through them. Nothing, nothing, nothing – aha. As the sky waned, she tapped in her suggestions and waited some more.
"Sir," Lieutenant Ankat from Platoon Three said, "I have this hunch someone's rallying the Eels to rush us. You know, the smart thing for them to do."
"I can't make the grid compute faster," Cheris said. "We're Kel. They're not. If we have to bite them off our heels with our teeth, we'll do it that way."
At last the system came up with a working model of the conditions they were suffering. She swallowed an involuntary hiss of relief and rapped out the orders with a tongue that might have been a lump of coal after the last spark's dying.
Like a machine dismembered into creaking components, the company moved in response. Cheris adjusted in response to the paths of Platoons One and Two, and had the rear platoons change front to deal with the Eel remnants. Gradually, as they found their proper positions, the last of the entropic cold summered away. Being able to breathe normally again was a relief.
Cheris allowed herself a second to contemplate the corpses of the Eels nearest them. Some had weathered into statues of murky ice. Others were puddling into mysterious colors, forgetting the proper hues of flesh, eyes, hair. She estimated casualties and recorded it for later comparison with the Sparrows' observations. It was important to acknowledge numbers, especially when the dead were dead by your doing.
She and the lieutenants reorganized the company to better defend the storm generator, using a formation that bore a disturbing resemblance to the Pyre Burns Inward, which was on the proscribed list. Then she sent a burst transmission informing orbital command that they had gained a tenuous foothold in Eel territory. With any luck it would go through.
For a moment she didn't recognize the command signature on the incoming call because she wasn't expecting it, not so soon after the transmission.
The voice was shockingly clear and biting after the buzzing haze of relay chatter. "Captain Kel Cheris, Heron Company, 109-229th Battalion, acknowledge," it said. She recognized the voice as belonging to Brigadier General Kel Farosh, who was in charge of the expedition.
Keeping an eye on the situation, Cheris responded on the same channel using the appropriate key. "Captain Cheris, General. We're securing the objective."
"Immaterial," Farosh said: not the response Cheris had expected. "Prepare for extraction in twenty-six minutes. You'll be leaving the generator. We've knocked out the Eels' local air defenses for the moment."
Cheris glanced over her shoulder at the generator, not sure she had heard correctly. The generator was surrounded by a coruscating knot of blue-violet light. The sight of it made her bones ache with remembered chill. "The generator, sir?"
"It's a job well-done," Farosh said, "but it's someone else's problem now. Leave it where you found it." She clicked out.
Cheris passed along the notification.
"You've got to be kidding, sir," was Verab's response. "We're here right now, let us finish the job."
"We could always volunteer to stay," Ankat said dryly. "You know how much Kel Command loves volunteers."
"It was clear that they want us out of here," Cheris said. But she shared their frustration. They had expected to drive the Eels out of their hiding places so the hexarchate's enforcers could reprogram the survivors to rejoin civilization. It was peculiar for the expedition to be cut short like this. Why send them to retrieve the storm generator if they weren't going to take it with them after all?
The youngest soldier – Kel Dezken, scarcely out of academy – slipped out of position trying to share a bad joke with a comrade, and died to a last Eel bullet. Cheris noted it in passing. Terrible timing, but Kel luck was frequently bad.
By the time the hoppers and medic teams came to ferry them into orbit, escorted by Guardhawk servitors and – of dubious utility – weather-eaters, Cheris was disappointed to abandon the battlefield. In a way each battle was home: a wretched home, where small mistakes were punished and great virtues went unnoticed, but a home nonetheless. She didn't know what it said about her that her duty suited her so well, but so long as it was her duty, it didn't matter what she thought about it.
The Guardhawks, angular birdforms, laid down covering fire so the company could board safely. They seemed to take a certain serene joy in their work, weaving up and down, back and forth. No formations; Kel servitors were formation-neutral.
Dredge's sun was bright in the sky. Its light caught on weapons fallen from broken hands, ribs cracked and gleaming with blood and yellowy fluid, the needle-remnants of storm crystals. Cheris boarded last. She fixed the battlefield in her memory as though she were scratching it into the sutures of her skull.
The hopper was crowded and stank of sweat and exhaustion. Cheris sat a little way apart from the other soldiers. She was looking out of the window as they arced into the sky, so she saw the waiting Kel bannermoth drop two bombs, neat and precise, on the site they had just left. A day's worth of hard battle and the entire objective rendered irrelevant by high explosives. She kept watching until the explosions' bright flowers dwindled into specks just large enough to trouble the eye.