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SYFY WIRE Del Rey Books

Mankind faces annihilation in John Birmingham's military sci-fi saga, The Cruel Stars (Excerpt)

By Jeff Spry
Cruel Stars Hero

Summer's last gasp is at hand, but cheer up, there's still time to squeeze in one more trip to the stars with a fantastic beach read from Aussie sci-fi author John Birmingham titled The Cruel Stars — and SYFY WIRE has an exclusive chapter excerpt to share alongside some thoughts from its visionary writer.

Adorned with a captivating cover by artist Arielle Pearl and featuring an unrelenting space adventure deep into enemy territory, The Cruel Stars arrives for Del Rey Books on Tuesday, Aug. 20, with a gale force of enthusiastic fan reviews and critical accolades.

The book's epic blitzkrieg of outer-space battle action focuses on a supposedly long-extinct species called the Sturm, as a handful of valiant heroes unite to help save civilization from a dormant species threatening to obliterate humankind.

Reminiscent of wild space odysseys like The Expanse and Battlestar Galactica, the plotline introduces us to aggressive "species purists" intent on destroying humans outfitted with genetic or cybernetic enhancements. The Sturm had appointed themselves as the one true “Human Republic” and sliced a bloody wound across the stars, killing billions before finally being vanquished and driven into the remote reaches of Dark Space. After centuries of peace, everyone foolishly believed the Sturm had perished — but they were very wrong.

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Now the enemy has returned with a vengeance and wiped out the majority of humanity’s defenses. Humankind stands on the precipice of extinction, and its only hope is a few intrepid souls who survived the initial sneak attack: Commander Lucinda Hardy of the Royal Armadalen Navy’s only surviving warship; Booker3, an Earth soldier sentenced to die; Princess Alessia, a young royal of the Montanblanc Corporation; Sephina L’trel, the leader of an outlaw rabble; and Admiral Frazer McLennan, the infamous hero of the first war with the Sturm, who wishes to kill his old nemesis.

John Birmingham

Birmingham cites several influences for The Cruel Stars, especially the grand space operas of old, but more recently his obsessions with the worlds of Peter F. Hamilton, James S.A. Corey, and John Scalzi.

"As much as The Cruel Stars is an old-fashioned space opera refashioned for modern times, however, there’s even older code written into its DNA," he tells SYFY WIRE. "The naval adventures of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Hornblower, of course, and Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series (e.g. Master and Commander), and a personal fave, Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea.

"One of the things I find fascinating about galaxy spanning civilizations is how they organize themselves and pay for everything," he adds. "In a lot of SF we tend to see what happens at the very top of that system, not the bottom. The Cruel Stars is a decapitation strike on a star-spanning society in more ways than one. It violently removes the top layers of the Human Volume and we get to see all of the nasty stuff underneath. It makes for an interesting moral question for our heroes. Is this a system worth defending?"

The striking cover art by Arielle Pearl is a point of pride for Birmingham, and he recalls his emotional reaction upon first seeing it.

"I made an inappropriate moaning sound. It was all pleasure," he recalls. "I have never loved a cover image the way I loved this one. And it really does capture the idea of a few small, holdouts standing against a great and terrible foe. It’s magnificent. If I ever meet the artist, I will buy all the beer."

Outer Space

Now, enjoy our exclusive excerpt from The Cruel Stars by John Birmingham.

Copyright (c) 2019 by John Birmingham. Reprinted by arrangement with Del Rey Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.

“Bannon! Where in the Dark have you been?”

Hardy startled at the barking voice, as much at the accent as at the volume and sharpness. The rich, stentorian tones of someone who grew up at court on the Armadalen homeworld were unmistakable, especially when the speaker made an extra-special effort to cover everything in gold leaf.

The reception bay was a small area, not much larger than the transit lounge where she’d spent so many hours. The walls and ceiling were bare rock except for a thin but obvious coating of sealant shining under the glowstrips. Three of the four security checkpoints were closed. The fourth stood open to admit new arrivals to the afterbrow of the ship. There was no sign of the destroyer. Instead two sentinel droids, their glacis plates stenciled with the name Defiant, stood mutely in front of the displacement portal, flanking a young man in day uniform. He wore the insignia of a first lieutenant, and Bannon snapped to attention. Hardy did not. The man did not outrank her. Not in any military sense.

“I told you I wanted those stores double-checked,” the lieutenant said loudly. “You’re the officer of the deck. Not a bloody hotel greeter.”

“Sir, my apologies, sir, but Lieutenant Hardy was hours—”

“Lieutenant Hardy isn’t on deck until 1800 hours,” he said. “She is not a priority.” He was shouting at Bannon, but Lucinda knew the whole charade was intended for her. She struggled to maintain a neutral face.

His expression turned dark as he took in her lack of deference or even reaction.

“And you would be the famous Hardy, I presume,” he said, giving her the impression that it was an onerous and unwelcome duty even to say her name.

“I am Lieutenant Hardy, Lieutenant . . . ?”

She left the question open. For the merest second he had almost elicited a “Yes, sir!” from her, his long experience of assumed privilege conspiring with her trained obedience to the chain of command to force a submission to which he was not due. Not while he served in uniform.

“You took your time, Lieutenant,” the officer said.

He did not offer his name. Perhaps she was supposed to know him or know of him.

“I was waiting at surface level transit as per my travel orders . . . Lieutenant,” she said, annoyed by how much his tone of voice seemed to compel her to address him as a superior. Bannon, she sensed, was remaining at attention beside her.

Lucinda guessed that she was in the presence of some minor scion of the Royal House who was serving his three years before taking up a directorship on one of the Habs or dirtside, possibly even down on the planet below them. He was very obviously a first lifer, like her. Like all of them. Junior officers were almost always first lifers. After all, who would go back for a second bite of that cherry?

The anonymous princeling, or count, or whatever he was, lost focus while he consulted his neural net. A lieutenant, she reminded herself; he was just a lieutenant, like her, possibly with even less time in service. He stared through her and Bannon, who was still standing rigidly at attention and saying nothing. It was the first time Ian had shut up since she’d met him. Lucinda was tempted to grab an image cap of the nameless officer and run a personnel search while he made them wait. See if she could track down his legend, the public record of his naval service. But maybe also see if he’d been the sort of second-or third-tier wastrel who kept the scandal servers and gossip bots busy before he had to sign on.

Instead, she kept her interface down and her expression neutral. She would not give him the satisfaction.

His eyes came back from searching the middle distance, and he smirked.

“A charity case, eh?”

She felt her cheeks beginning to burn, and knowing that she was blushing only made it worse. Beside her, Bannon remained as silent and still as the hard vacuum outside.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” the officer said. “Did Naval Records get it wrong?”

He made a show of checking his neural net again, although she doubted he even bothered pulling it up. He simply enjoyed the performative cruelty.

“It says you were recommended for officer training school by Coriolis Habitat Welfare because . . .” Again the play of actively consulting records. “Because, oh, dear, your father was transported to a defaulter colony. Oh, my.”

The sentinels, bipedal combat drones, remained utterly still. With horror, she realized that this close to deployment they might be inhabited by human minds, not the ship’s Intellect.

God, this would be all over the other ranks’ mess before the end of watch.

The still anonymous lieutenant sucked air in through his teeth. “I wouldn’t go lending money to this one, Bannon,” he snorted. “Would you?”

Sublieutenant Bannon took just half a second too long to answer.

“Well?” asked the other man, sensing there was more fun to be had in that moment of hesitation. “Would you?”

Still at parade ground attention, Bannon seemed to be struggling to lift a great weight, as though Lucinda’s bag, which he still carried, somehow had increased its mass tenfold.

“If Lieutenant Hardy was in need of any assistance, Lieutenant Chase,” he said at last, “I would be happy to help her. As, I’m sure, she would do for me.” He sounded as though he were cutting off his own toes. “Any officer of the Fleet would.”

Lucinda smiled. She knew who this baby martinet was now. Or who his family was at any rate. And that was the same thing really. The Chase dynasty.

“Of course I would, Ian,” she said.

Chase did not smile. He stepped forward, deep into Bannon’s personal space, speaking softly, as though to a lover. “You forget your place,” he said. Chase paused before putting a sharper edge on his voice, on the blade of that finely honed aristocratic accent. “And your family’s,” he added.

It was all Lucinda could do to maintain an air of bemused nonchalance. She could feel Bannon’s collapse at the implied threat to his family.

“And you . . . Lieutenant,” Chase went on, smirking at her as though amused by some private joke. “You don’t even have a place. You’re not one of us. You will never belong.”

Vertigo and sudden untethered fury threatened to unbalance her, and Chase could sense it. His smirk turned genuinely nasty.

“By coming aboard, you understand you give full consent to a search of your person and baggage. Open the bag and strip to your skivvies. You’d be better off out of that hobo’s ragbag of a uniform, anyway. I imagine Habitat Welfare organized that for you, too.”

“What?” Bannon said, half gasping the question.

Chase turned the grin on him like a point defense turret acquiring a target.

“You left the ship, too, Bannon. This close to deployment it behooves me to maintain the strictest security. So get those coveralls off or I’ll have the sentinels cut them from you.”

“You can’t—” Bannon started.

“He can,” Lucinda interrupted. She was stone-faced, and her voice was devoid of all affect. She was already unbuttoning her jacket. The buttons, of course, were slightly too large for their holes, and she struggled to undo them.

Chase’s eyes sparkled with delight at her admission but even more at the trouble she was having removing her cheap off-the-rack dress jacket. He seemed ready to double down on the game when he suddenly came to attention as rigidly as Bannon. Something or someone behind her had brought the young man’s theater of cruelty to an end. The sentinel droids stomped out a crashing salute.

“Ah. Excellent,” said a slightly gruff male voice. It sounded bearish but kindly, like a cartoon grizzly or a Montanblanc forest thumper in a children’s story.

Lieutenant Chase performed a textbook salute.

“Defiant!” he said.

Lucinda and Bannon followed suit as the eerily glowing spherical jewel of an autonomous Combat Intellect floated by at chest level.

“Defiant,” they said in almost perfect unison.

It was smaller than the Intellect they had passed on the upper levels. That had been oblong in form and at least a meter in length. This entity, gendered male, was much smaller, a ship’s Intellect rather than a Fleet-level adept. About the size and shape of a baseball, it looked like nothing so much as an itinerant black hole turned sentient and roaming loose.

“Is this our new tactical officer?” the eerie black sphere asked, although it knew full well who she was. The Intellects knew everything. “Lieutenant Hardy? Welcome aboard. I’ve heard the most marvelous things about you from Admiralty and from the Terran Intellect of No Place for Good Losers who was with you during that spot of bother with those dreadful pirate fellows in the Bectel system. Come along, Chase!” the Intellect scolded. “We have a genuine hero piping aboard. It’s not every day we welcome a Star of Valor winner to the wardroom. Remind me again, Chase. Do you have a Star of Valor? I can’t quite recall you winning one, which is odd, because as you know, my memory is virtually infinite and actually infallible.”

The Intellect moved off with regal grace, humming a show tune from a musical Lucinda had seen back on Armadale during a rare weekend off from the Academy. “You didn’t tell me about the medal,” Bannon stage-whispered as they fell in behind the merrily humming Super Intellect. Lieutenant Chase stalked ahead of them but behind the Intellect. The infinitely dark displacement field closed over Defiant and cut off the song.

“The records were sealed,” she said.

The Intellect should not have known about the medal, and if it did know, it should not have revealed that it knew.

But the Intellects were like that.

You never really knew what they were thinking.

Ahead of her, Lieutenant Chase stepped through the displacement field, his shoulders hunched over, like a naughty boy ordered to the headmaster’s office. It shimmered darkly around him. Bannon enjoyed a brief snort and a smirk before composing his features just short of the nanofold.

“Welcome to Defiant,” Bannon said, indicating with an open hand that Lucinda should precede him. She nodded, drew in a short breath, and stepped up to the oily black event horizon. It always put her in mind of a shark’s eye: obsidian, fathomless, and . . . hungry. But on the far side there was a new ship. A new crew. Another chance to remake her life and, one day, to save her father. She stepped aboard.