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Compelling new SF from the pen of Jaine Fenn

This month we’re delighted to be publishing a superb story from Jaine Fenn, who is the absolute queen of character driven SF. She was described by SFX as ‘a major new talent’ – and Queen of Nowhere is brilliant demonstration of why. If you like your SF pacey, suspense-driven and scientifically convincing, this really is one for you. We focus on Bez, a brilliant hacker on a mission to bring down a vast interstellar conspiracy, and it’s a humdinger of a story. Touches of paranoia are interwoven beautifully with genuine danger. Action vies with the construction of a vast, delicate, technological trap . . . and in the midst of it all our frighteningly smart hacker may even find a heart.

As you can tell, we at Gollancz Towers rate Jaine Fenn rather highly! But don’t just take our word for it – here’s a sneaky peek at the first chapter for you too.

We’re also giving away three copies of the book. To enter, read the extract and answer the question: What did Bez get caught doing nineteen years ago? Email your answers to competitions@orionbooks.co.uk, with the subject ‘Queen of Nowhere’ and including your postal details, by midnight 29th January 2013.

 

If you’re listening to this, I’m dead.

You’ve had some dealings with me; you might even recognise the name ‘Orzabet’. That doesn’t matter. I don’t matter. What matters is the information you’re getting now, and what you chose to do with it. 

<file under: Preface>

After  three weeks of luxurious  indolence, Bez was ready to become someone else. She had, however, intended to make the change on her own terms. Not like this.

The cops were waiting when she came out of customs,  a man and a woman in silver-grey uniforms, looking faintly uncomfortable. The female officer said, ‘Are you Medame Oloria Estrante?’ It  was  a  doubly pointless question. For a start, the station authorities  would not accost disembarking tourists randomly: they knew, or thought  they knew,  whom  they were addressing. Secondly, Oloria Estrante did not exist. But the fact that  the cops used the name, and sounded convinced by it, went some way to allay Bez’s initial alarm. ‘I am,’ she said, in the tone of perplexed irritation hub-law expected from the leisured classes. ‘What can I do for you, officers?’

The starliner’s other passengers were filing past, some of them looking back curiously. Bez made herself ignore the unwanted attention, at the same time clamping down on the urge to start analysing possible causes of, and ways to deal with, this unexpected and unwelcome development. First priority:  stay cool.

The female officer said, apologetically, ‘We’d like you to come with us.’

Bez had fired up her basic headware  – the legal suite, as she thought of it – the moment  she spotted the law. Her overlays con- firmed the pair were what they appeared to be; or, at least, their uniforms  had genuine tags. That reduced, but did not eliminate, the chance of this being Enemy action. Bez favoured the two officers with a put-upon  frown. ‘Where to? I was hoping to get some shopping in during the stopover.’ She needed to keep conforming to their expectations.

‘Just to our offices, to answer a few questions.’ She sniffed. ‘Do I have a choice?’

‘I’m afraid not.’

‘Then you had best lead on.’ She kept her tone faintly  incredulous, like someone with nothing to fear, but the moisture had left her mouth and breathing evenly took some effort.  At times like this she wished she had mood-mods. Fortunately there weren’t many times like this.

As the cops fell into step either side of her she asked, ‘Can you at least give me some idea what this is about? I’m assuming there’s some mistake, which  I’m happy to help you clear up.’

‘I’m not sure it would be appropriate  to say,’ said  the male officer.

The female cop said, ‘I believe Medame Estrante has a right to know what the matter pertains to.’ The woman was one of those people who treated the conspicuously rich with deference, regardless of how unpleasant they were in return. Bez had noticed such behaviour before when in this persona. ‘We’re investigating certain financial irregularities,’ the cop explained.

Trying for an air of indignant confusion, Bez asked, ‘What sort of financial irregularities?’

‘The theft of a significant sum from a semi-dormant  account.’

‘Theft?’ That kind of accusation warranted  outright  indigna- tion. In some ways interstellar  tourists were the easiest cultural group to impersonate; their disdain for those without the excessive wealth required to travel the stars made them imperious  and un- reasonable, like holodrama  caricatures of themselves. ‘Ridiculous.’

‘The account in question belongs to a Frer Yolson. Does that name mean anything to you?’

 Yolson? Ah, of course. Not the Enemy after all, thank the void.

‘Medame Estrante?’

She started at the sudden interjection  of the male cop, who had just laid a hand  on her arm. She flinched,  shaking him off. How long was it since anyone had deliberately touched her? ‘As I thought, a simple mistake,’  she said, fighting the colour rising to her cheeks.

The female cop was staring at her. ‘Are you sure, medame?’

‘Yes,’ she said firmly. She needed more data, but she doubted these two knew  much and she was far from confident of her ability to get info from them without  arousing their suspicions. ‘Shall we carry on and get this foolishness sorted out?’

‘As you wish.’ The female cop started walking  again. Bez fell back into step and concentrated  on controlling her physical reactions.

They came out on to the dockside proper.

Tarset was the least glamorous hub-point  in human-space, and for most tourists it was no more than  a brief stopover between more interesting destinations. The station’s dockside district provided the usual services – bars, brothels and basic supplies – but the main concourse was a no-frills,  three-storey strip-mall.  The only concession to aesthetics was the faux starry sky projected across the ceiling, barely visible through the holo-ads.

The irony was that she had not needed to disembark  here at all. She could have checked her datadrop from her cabin on the star-liner. But should anyone be taking  an interest in her, they might wonder why, when most of the other  passengers made at least a cursory visit to the station, Medame Estrante did not; and yet, at the same time,  she accessed a secure messaging service. Besides, while genuine tourists were sniffy about the place, Bez had a certain fondness for Tarset. The station had originated as a mash-up of ancient colony ships, and the resulting state of constant renovation left it full of usefully untended spaces, physical and virtual.

Should she access the drop now? It might contain intel indicating why  the law were so eager to talk to her. No: her escort would notice if she tuned out, and Oloria Estrante was meant to be a good little Salvatine, eschewing ungodly implants. Going virtual would blow her cover.

It was early evening so the mall was moderately crowded. She weighed up her chances if she made  a run for it. Given how co- operative she had been so far, the law might not expect that. If she could get into the service tunnels, it would just be a case of holing up for a while then re-emerging with a new identity. But first she would  have to physically evade her escort, who outnumbered her, were combat-trained  and carried weapons. Far better to think her way out.

Their progress through the evening crowds was making  heads turn. For someone who lived her life as a wilful ghost,  such scrutiny was intensely uncomfortable.  Bez read the current timestamp from the chrono display in the top left of her visual cortex, taking it as a single integer and computing  its square root. When she had regained her equilibrium,  she began to consider how the current predicament could have arisen.

The good news was that whatever the problem was, it did not appear to be related to the Estrante persona itself, merely to the associated funding. The underlying cause would probably be human fallibility. It usually was.

The rich and reclusive ‘Frer Yolson’ was maintained  by the agent she designated as Beta16, one of her oldest and most reliable financial agents. His databreaking skills were sound, and he had no reason to betray her. At least, not willingly . . .

This situation could have been initiated by the Enemy after all. Why else would anyone in the hubs care about the financial affairs of a religious  recluse in a distant spur-system? Even if these were genuine cops acting on genuine orders, there was still no guarantee this really was just about the funding  of a single persona. And once she was in custody, she would  no longer be in control of the situation. Should the real question be: from where did the orders to arrest her originate?

No. Bez applied what she thought  of as ‘best-case  principle’ to kill that line of reasoning. When  paranoia became a way of life, the ability  to selectively ignore negative outcomes became a vital skill.It was either that or constantly be paralysed by fear and indecision. Once she knew  more, she would  re-assess.

The  two officers stopped, so Bez did too. They had arrived at a bank of elevators.

The door opened to reveal a half-full car. At the very front, a young woman and young man were kissing passionately. Everyone paused, united  in mild, indulgent  embarrassment, waiting  for the pair to register that they were causing an obstruction.

If she had been by herself, Bez would  have turned and strode off without  looking back. But stuck between the two cops, she was no longer an observer but a participant,  complicit in this minor emotional drama. The lovers were so rapturous  in their oblivion. So very happy. Her heart started to race with an emotion more complex than the fear she was already suppressing, and moisture tickled the corners of her eyes.

The girl noticed what was happening first and broke away from the boy with a shy giggle.

Once upon a time, that was me. Then the Enemy forced my lover to walk into the sun, and everything fell apart.

The boy blushed and looked at his feet. The pair shuffled back to let Bez and her escort enter.

A barely audible  sound whispered round the dozen others already in the car, somewhere between an approving  sigh and stifled laughter. Events like this brightened  a dull day for normal people. Not for Bez. Already  tense from maintaining  the façade of the Estrante  persona under close inspection,  the sight of people experiencing the ordinary joy she’d had torn from her opened up a hollow  in her soul. She blinked  hard but one stupid, weak tear still escaped down her cheek.

She stared at her chrono again, eyes unfocused from her surroundings.  She must take this incident  as a reminder of her resolve. People would  always love and hate and hurt each other but if – when  – she succeeded in bringing down the Enemy, then such pain would occur on purely human terms.

By the time they reached their stop  she had her emotional responses locked down. If the cops had noticed the stray tear, they gave no sign.

They exited the lift at one of the station’s admin floors. Tarset’s corridors ranged from the plain through  the highly  customised to the barely serviceable; in this section the décor was well maintained if utilitarian. Bez called up a public map on a soft overlay and used it to track their progress, confirming  that they were heading for Tarset’s main Legal Enforcement offices.

Any residual thoughts of finding out more from her escort had been blown away by the sight of the lovers, which had left the shell between appearance and true self worn  dangerously thin. Instead she found  herself recalling  the two other times she’d had brushes with the law. The most recent, three years ago on Mercanth station, had been as a victim  of crime: hers had been one of a dozen rooms in a mid-level  hotel targeted by thieves who had (inexpertly, in her opinion) hacked the locks. The cops had been mildly perplexed by her lack of possessions. The earlier and more alarming  occasion had been on Indri, when her illegal headware was newly installed and she had yet to hone her databreaking skills. It was nineteen years ago, but the memory still made her uncomfortable. Her first ever attempt to ride a trickle-down,  and she had screwed up. She got dumped and tagged trying to break through the firewall of a local banking  node. Because the alert had been raised before she had penetrated  the bank’s system, she had got away with a fine.

As they rounded  the final  corner she shut down her headware. Police offices, like customs posts, had active scanners.

She held her head high as she walked  through  the open door into the hub-law offices, but she could not shake the feeling that she was walking into a trap that was about to snap shut behind her.