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A Glorious Space Brawl Kicks Off Cassandra Khaw's Sci-Fi Adventure The All-Consuming World

Illustration for article titled A Glorious Space Brawl Kicks Off Cassandra Khaws Sci-Fi Adventure iThe All-Consuming World/i
Image: Erewhon Books

When a group of former crooks reunites for a rescue mission, they’ll need to battle a fierce AI and overcome their own differences if they hope to succeed. io9 is thrilled to reveal the cover and an excerpt from Locus and British Fantasy Award-nominated short fiction writer Cassandra Khaw’s first novel, The All-Consuming World.

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First, here’s a longer plot description to set up the excerpt.

A diverse team of broken, diminished former criminals get back together to solve the mystery of their last, disastrous mission and to rescue a missing and much-changed comrade... but they’re not the only ones in pursuit of the secret at the heart of the planet Dimmuborgir.

The highly-evolved AI of the universe have their own agenda and will do whatever it takes to keep humans from ever controlling the universe again. This band of dangerous women, half-clone and half-machine, must battle their own traumas and a universe of sapient ageships who want them dead, in order to settle their affairs once and for all.

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And here’s the full cover! The artist is Ashe Samuels, and the designer is Samira Iravani.

Illustration for article titled A Glorious Space Brawl Kicks Off Cassandra Khaws Sci-Fi Adventure iThe All-Consuming World/i
Image: Erewhon Books

Finally, here’s an excerpt from the (colorfully salty!) first part of The All-Consuming World’s first chapter.

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“The fuck am I doing here, Rita?”

Her voice is the boreal wash of moonlight upon the bulwark of their ship-in-orbit: a reduction of the fantastic, tepid when it could have been of a devouring temperature. But like fuck Maya is going to complain. Any contact with Rita is superior to the absence of such. “Getting Ayane home.”

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“Couldn’t we have sent her a fucking note?”

Maya absolutely loathes this shoulder of rock she’s ascending, even more than the asteroid itself which is saying a lot. She recalls when this place was moondust and noxious ice-melt, inhospitable by every interpretation of the adjective. But no one cares when it’s just clones on ground zero. Work, die, mulch the corpses, brine the proteins in the appropriate solution, bring them back. Rinse, repeat in the name of capitalism, amen and all that crap.

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It was better when the outpost was a refinery, when it was being reworked for human occupation. At least, it had been honest. Today, that slope is leprous with non-union brothels, casinos, back alley chop shops, tenements so thick with the unloved and the underserved, their laundry drip from thin windows like foam along the maw of a rabid animal.

“Rita,” says Maya again. “Rita, you fucking there?”

Light —blue-white, like the pith of a neutron star, like hope, like the halogen eye of a surgical lamp glaring into the wet nook where Maya’s heart is housed— flares through her overlay, searing patterns into her retinas. Maya ducks around a pillar before the thought of doing such is even embryonic. Half a second later, a surveillance bot lopes past, Doberman ears astride a trumpet of a muzzle, no teeth or tongue in sight, only a violent light belling from an octagonal aperture. Maya locks her breath in place until the clicking of its needle-point feet evanesces.

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“The first rule is you never talk about it.” giggles a man’s voice right, so close to the curve of Maya’s ear, she almost jumps.

“Fuck. Right. Off,” Maya snarls.

She propels herself from the wall, the cracked masonry flaking under the impact of her palms. Fuck Rita and fuck the crypto-geist she’d saddled Maya with. Explosives don’t need personalities. Least of all when they come with such baggage. But there he was anyway. Same fucking smile with one corner craned unnaturally high. Same eyes, gleaming jellyfish-blue-green. Same heft, same shoulders. Same as the day that Maya found him in Rita’s quarters, grinning like a cat. Fuck everything, Maya thinks to herself. Her fingers find her holsters, thumbs cocking the safety back, fists closing over enamelled grips.

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There we go.

Can’t believe that bot almost got the jump on her while she was carolling her grievances. She should have gotten the mods Rita offered her, traded up from her repository of wetware. The somatosensory implants were tripled-tested, lab-approved, and it’s not like Rita would have installed second-rate, factory-outlet shit in her brain. They need each other. Mad scientist and mad-dog mercenary. Like jam and cheese, guns and their holsters, god and glory. Forget that it would mean Rita acquiring unmitigated access to her grey matter. It’s not like Maya can hide anything from her.

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Well, too late now.

Maya lets go of the hand-cannons and digs the heel of a palm into the door, considers being discreet for about half a second, before she laughs coyote-shrill and goes fuck it. She kicks the door in. Fuck this. Fuck that. Fuck everything for the umpteenth time.

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A man, massive like an iceberg and twice-as-cool, looks calmly up from his terminal. He drums a finger against the plastiglass screen. Loose windows melt –holo-vid playlist, a two-for-one pizza advertisement– together into a plain, cold, ivory payment app. He takes no notice of Maya’s ghost, just makes a moue of his thin mouth. Maya wonders about the shit he’d seen. Those eyes are deader than hers.

“Sixty bucks for latecomers.”

Behind Maya, her crypto-geist —that skull-fucked piece of parasite programming, she thinks with a beat of fury— keeps gibbering, unperturbed, hotfixed to ignore all interruptions. Its image lightbleeds for a second, stutters, then stops: an infinitesimal failure that nonetheless curls Maya’s lips in simpatico. You can’t trust tech these days. “If this is your first night, you always have to fight.”

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***

Rita and Maya sitting on a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. If there was a schoolyard, that’d be what the kids would be singing. It’s fortunate that this day and age has surrendered homophobia to the firing squad of basic human decency, because Maya would have had to gun down the bigots otherwise. Not that she wouldn’t have shot them up anyway for being terminally wrong.

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They don’t have that kind of relationship. Never did. In another place and world, where the air isn’t spuming poison and toddlers aren’t bar-coded, who knows? Not in this life, though. Not even close. Maya has never been that kind of anything and Rita can’t stand being touched, won’t interact with anything without a layer of latex between her meat and the world.

But the two are tight as thieves on death row, knife and vein, gun and bullet. Maya will do anything for Rita, and she’s reasonably certain that Rita will break at least a few cardinal laws for her in return.

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Which is more than anything Maya deserves right now, and they both know it. That’s why Maya is strutting into the bobbit worm’s jaws, with nothing but a ghost for backup, riding on a wing, a prayer, and enough combat know-how to win all four world wars.

“Next contender!” an announcer howls.

Maya grins like a shark. Oh, she thinks, the sound unspooling between neurons like a tendon snagged on the tooth of a Great White. Oh, yes. That she can do.

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It’s so strange to her that this is what Ayane made, this chapel to archaic media, this place for the bored to offer their sweat and their worship to a fictional credo, an analogy for poison, no more sacrosanct than the urine crusting on the walls outside. Rita had made mention it’d be something like this, but still. Humanity can sail through constellations, for fuck’s sake. Did they need a god cobbled from lobotomized debris of retro cinema? Guess so, if it’s here. Ayane knows her audiences like a haruspice knows the scripture of organs and besides.

She tosses her head like a bull. The venue stinks of piss and blood and sour sweat, of mutual admiration expressed by men who’d never been taught how to love. Everyone here looks so typically male, it insults Maya a little. Weren’t there invitations for their wives, their mothers, the fuck-your-glass-ceilings bad bitches who, you know, round out the population? Maya casts a bored look around. If there were, those invitations were probably incinerated before they found their recipient. This place was tailor-made for men who wanted to still be men.

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And what a place: a wound dug into irradiated basalt, the place is seven kinds of building violations, with only one way in and out. No accoutrements. No fire exits. Just a vending machine pregnant with ancient soda and naked bulbs snaking across the ceiling, bleeding black wires over their heads.

Crack. Maya hears the sound of a jaw being broken, seconds before the crowd detonates into screaming. She prowls closer, already squirming out of her shirt and kicking off her shoes, a grin cocked like a loaded shotgun. Her data banks wake up at the influx of noradrenaline in her bloodstream, presenting options, triangulating opportunities.

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Nuke this shit to the ground. Y/N?

N. 

She’ll do it the old-fashioned way. Maya dismisses the overlay, sets her notifications on silent. Rita’s there, she knows, and Rita’s pissed, the messages piling up like a six-car crash. But all she can hear right now is the holy-holy-on-high hymn of violence singing through the strings of her being. All she can process is its siren invocation. It has its hook in her, pulling her onwards, and she is so okay with where they’re going.

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The light drags fingers along her muscled frame, reads out a scripture of scars and stitches, the places that only Rita has touched, scalpel carving sonnets into sinew. Illuminated by bloodlust, Maya shoulders past two skinheads and out into the ring. The men in the arena –they’re always men, she thinks with a scream of a laugh– go quiet.

“Well?” Maya says, slamming a fist into the square of an open palm.

“No shirt,” The guy who speaks up is a pot-bellied twerp with jeans that don’t fit his ass, goggles welded to cherub-cheeked face.

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Maya spreads her arms wide. “You want to see my tits? Is that it? You wanna see my tits? You want to motorboat that mess? That what you’re saying?”

She knows it’s not but she loves taunting shitheads like him. No one ever knows what to do when she shows up, avenging angel constructed in the micro. Five feet two when she deigns to have good posture, all tight lines and a helmet of black hair cropped close to the skull, face like a veteran’s tall tale. Maya’s countenance is a gossip reel of cicatrices, indentations where the skull stoved in and was shoddily rebuilt: you repair what you can when you can’t justify buying new.

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Sometimes, Maya wonders if she’d ever been “conventionally beautiful,” had ever had a shot at the fantasy of domesticity, the white picket fences on a blue sky-tumbled planet, a kid who wouldn’t mind a clone for parent, but fuck that and fuck this.

The man – someone’s dad, Maya is so sure of it, someone’s dad looking to reinvigorate his middle-aged spirit – exchanges looks with his peers, nervous. “I meant the guns.”

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“You want them?” She doesn’t give him warning. She doesn’t charge exactly, but she does accelerate, going from zero to fifty in three strides, closing the gap before he can process what’s about to hit him. She winds a punch, biosynthetic muscles bunching in a hallelujah of intent, and slams reinforced knuckles into the man’s nose. “Come and get them.”

Maya turns as the man drops first to one knee and then the next, hands over his face, blood ribboning down his front. She slaps her chest a few times, like some unmodified ape, some babyfresh human without a security protocol in the world, and walks a winner’s swagger around the circle of waiting faces.

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“Come on. Who the fuck is next?!”

***

The fourth rule — fuck two and three, who cares about the continuity?— is simple: only two guys to a fight.

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It’s Maya’s favorite rule in the world.


Excerpt from The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw reprinted by permission. Copyright Erewhon Books.

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The All-Consuming World by Cassandra Khaw will be out summer 2021; you can pre-order a copy here.

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