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Cover Reveal: From Darkest Skies

We’re delighted to reveal the cover for FROM DARKEST SKIES, from new author Sam Peters. The striking image was created by the wonderful people at Blacksheep and we think you’ll agree looks rather chilling.

FROM DARKEST SKIES is a high-concept science fiction thriller wrapped around a love story, a man’s search for the truth about his dead wife, and his relationship with the artificial intelligence he has built to replace her. Set in a future where the aliens came, waged war, and then vanished again, this is a striking new voice in science fiction.

After a five year sabbatical following the tragic death of his wife and fellow agent Alysha, Keon Rause returns to the distant colony world of Magenta to resume service with the Magentan Intelligence Service. With him he brings an artificial recreation of his wife’s personality, a simulacrum built from every digital trace she left behind. She has been constructed with one purpose – to discover the truth behind her own death – but Keon’s relationship with her has grown into something more, something frighteningly dependent, something that verges on love.

Cashing in old favours, Keon uses his return to the Service to take on a series of cases that allow him and the artificial Alysha to piece together his wife’s last days. His investigations lead him inexorably along the same paths Alysha followed five years earlier, to a sinister and deadly group with an unhealthy fascination for the unknowable alien Masters; but as the wider world of Magenta is threatened with an imminent crisis, Keon finds himself in a dilemma: do his duty and stand with his team to expose a villainous crime, or sacrifice them all for the truth about his wife?

See the stunning cover and read an exclusive extract.

From Darkest Skies will be available in hardback, ebook and audio download on the 20th April 2017.

 

 

EXIT PAPERS

Memories  are like hibernating bears. They disappear into some dark cave until you forget they were ever there, and that’s when they wake up and roar.

The Fleet officer on the other  side of the desk pinged a series of files to my Servant.  She didn’t  look  up,  and  I didn’t  bother reading them. Most of me wasn’t even in the room.  Most of me was back on Magenta, seven years ago, lying in a bed in a sky- boat  cabin,  not  daring  to  move  because  Alysha  was  sleeping on my arm and I didn’t want  to wake her. The sun outside  our window was rising over a purple sea of broken  ice, glorious, dazzling and wonderful, but I was turned  the other  way, look- ing at Alysha’s face, lost in the moment,  her skin aglow in that dawn  light,  eyes closed, hair  like fire. We’d decided  to start  a family.

‘You have twenty-four hours to leave the Gibraltar Extra- national Territory. After that  time you will be subject to arrest and internment. Agent Rause, do you understand?’

I  tried  to  shake  Alysha away by  staring at the desk.  An antique from  the early  twentieth  century  or  else a  very  fine replica. Eventually  I managed  a nod.

‘A shuttle  will take you to orbit at 0900  hours  for transfer  to the Fearless and your return  to Magenta. You are dismissed and discharged.’  The woman  looked up at me, a long hard glance of hostile steel. Maybe she was hoping for a confession she sure as hell wasn’t going to get. ‘Whatever  your government  decides to do next, that’s up to them. I hope they bury you.’

I stood a moment  longer, wallowing  in memory, numbness turning  to lead-limbed  dread.  I was out. Just like that,  lost in a Magenta sunrise,  golden light pouring  across Alysha’s sleeping face. I was going home.  It wasn’t  what  I’d wanted.  I’d fled to Earth  for a reason.

The door shut behind me as I left. Sixteen hours to pack and go, the last five years of my life abruptly brought to an end. I should have  handed  in my papers  the  day  the  bomber  calling  himself Loki got stabbed  to death in prison,  but I hadn’t, and a day had become a week had become a month,  then six, then a year.

Back to Magenta, to where Loki had blown  up my Alysha. My  Servant  flicked  through the  news  while  I summoned a pod to the Gibraltar Spire. An Entropist attack  on the Defiance out  of  Arcon  was  grabbing  the  Fleet  headlines,  but  I didn’t work  for them  any more,  so I skimmed  it and  threw  it away. I took  the elevator  to the spire’s observation deck; out  on the balcony I savoured  the  view,  looking  down  for  the  last  time at burnished chrome towers and the reinforced  concrete that cloaked  Gibraltar Rock from top to bottom. Polished and slick on the outside,  rotten  underneath. That  was Earth  for you.

There were other  places I could go. Other  worlds  . . .

‘Hi,  Keys.’ My  Servant’s  hidden  personality bloomed  into life. Alysha’s voice, whispering  in my ear like a lover.

‘Hi, Liss.’ The  sound  of her  crumpled  me like a punctured balloon,  the tension  of the last weeks suddenly  gone.

‘Give me a moment.’

It took her a few seconds to catch up. She was like that when she’d been asleep for a while, integrating every sensation,  every newsfeed,  every sight and  sound  into  her memory,  unravelling the  world’s  progress  since  she  was  last  awake.  Liss.  Alysha. Back when  I first knew  her,  everyone  called her Al, but  she’d told  me one night,  early on, before  we were sleeping together, that  she hated  it, that  it reminded  her of Fat Al the barman at the  Chopstick where  half  the  bureau  agents  went  after  work. We’d tried Ally for a few days, but she’d hated  that  even more, and  so we’d settled  on Liss. Data  and  algorithms, that’s  what Liss was now, but she hadn’t  always been that  way, and it can be hard  to  see a simulation  for  what  it is if the  simulation  is good enough.

‘So we’re  going  back  then?’  she  asked,  although it  wasn’t much  of a question.  It wasn’t  as if I was being given a choice. I closed my eyes and  imagined  the real Alysha leaning  against the  rail  beside  me. Right  there  on  top  of the  Gibraltar  Spire, close enough  to  touch,  a physical  presence,  the  fingers of her hand  resting  lightly on my own,  a quiet  togetherness, soaking it all in. Over  the Mosque  of the Two  Holy  Custodians to the south  was the North African  coast.  A six-mile Masters’  tower rose from the waves there. Alysha would have liked that.  We all go through our  years of obsession  with  the Masters  and  she’d never quite grown  out of it, but the real Alysha had been dead for  five years,  and  I was  staring  not  to  the  south  but  to  the north, across the endless blue waters  of the New Spanish Sea.

There  was  a lump  in my throat. A light  blinked  in my eye. Liss had finished her assimilation.

‘I had to turn  you off for the inquiry,’ I said. ‘I couldn’t risk Fleet finding you. They’ve been all over me since the Tech-Fair.’ She paused  as if catching  her breath. ‘I don’t mind.’

‘I’m going to miss this, you know.  This view.’ The north  face of  Gibraltar sprawled  beneath  the  balcony,  concrete  terraces and  dazzling metal  as far as the sheer perfect  cliff into  the sea where Spain had once been.

‘I know  it’s not the way you wanted  it to end, but—’

‘Which bit? The part  where  a priceless Masters  artefact  got stolen from under  my nose, or do you mean the bit just before, when I got blown  up?’ I didn’t  remember  much from after  the explosion.  I’d been lucky. Concussion and a lot of bruising  but no  serious  injury.  I certainly  didn’t  want  to  talk  about  it. I’d had  enough  of that  from  Fleet these last three  weeks. ‘I didn’t want  it to end at all, Liss. I was happy  here.’

She had the grace not to point out the lie.

‘Why do you suppose  the Masters  left Gibraltar alone?’ she asked instead.  ‘Why just one little rock?’

‘Why did they do anything?’

Further  along  the  balcony  a  pair  of  telescopes  pivoted  on the safety rails, but even with their thousandfold magnification the  sky  and  the  New  Spanish  Sea merged  into  a  white  haze long before the Pyrenees coast far to the north. I looked  down to where the sun blazed back at me from a thousand dazzling reflections.  A  Yen-Shu  lifter  carrying  an  orbital   shuttle  was taking off from the pad beneath  the spire, rising on an array  of enclosed rotors.  It powered  away across the water.

‘Do you ever wonder  what happened to the people who lived here?’ Liss asked.  I didn’t  need to. No  one did. We’d still had a few vestigial  satellites  back  then,  hiding  as space  junk.  The world had watched  as the Iberian Peninsula disintegrated, every atom  of  solid  matter  above  sea  level and  a  few yards  below turned  into  vapour  all the  way  to  the  Pyrenees.  Seven hours, more  or less, was all it had  taken.  A whole  country  gone.  All except the rock of Gibraltar.

I made  a  face.  ‘No.  Do  you?’  Two  countries,   I reminded myself. Everyone always forgot  Portugal.

‘Not the way I used to.’

Liss’s voice was bland.  Not  sad, the way I’d always expected it to be back in the early days when I’d first turned  her on – I’d soon understood that ambivalence  to her own condition was ingrained  into her algorithms.

‘It wasn’t only here,’ she said.

‘I know.’  The Masters  had  changed  the shape  of the planet. The  casualty  estimate  later,  when  we’d  recovered  enough  to count,  was five billion  dead.  It had  taken  them  about  a week. When  they  were  done  they’d  carved  a  pattern of  deep  sea trenches so immensely intricate that we didn’t have proper maps of  them  even  now.  Some  of  the  trenches  went  down  twenty miles and  more.  They’d  sculpted  other  worlds  too:  Mercury, Venus, Titan.  The list went on.

‘Do you ever wonder  what it was all for?’ I asked. ‘Can you?’ Liss made a sad laughing sound, peculiar, like the call of some timid  night-time  creature.  It was  her  own  sound,  that  laugh, not  a copy  of the  real  woman  Alysha  had  once  been.  ‘Keon, do  you  think  there’s  anyone  who  doesn’t?  I know  I did  back when I was alive. I think  I wondered about  it a lot. But I don’t

remember. It’s just a feeling. Or an inference, if you prefer.’

‘You didn’t talk about  it much.’

‘“Nations divided,  smiling lies, blind  deaf and  dumb  to  the terror  to come, from  darkest  skies.”  I think  I must  have made everyone I knew read that  awful poem about  the coming of the Masters.’

‘Yes.’ I made a face.

‘It mattered to me, I think.’

I basked  in the heat, watching  the Yen-Shu labour  out across the sea and up into the sky, thoughts drifting  away among the stars.  Other  lifters came and  went  from  the pads  below. Little ones, mostly.

Liss. I wanted  to reach out and touch her, but she wasn’t real.

‘The Masters  started  extra-solar colonisation five years later. Why did they do  that?  Or,  if you like it better  the  other  way round,  why did they wait so long?’ Her voice dropped. Quieter. More  intimate.  ‘What was any of it for? We all wonder,  Keys. How  can we not?’

‘The last  person  born  before  Liberation Day  died  a month ago. A hundred and fifty-two years old. The Masters  are gone. We’ll forget. That’s what  humans  do. We move on.’

‘The  past  is  the  past.  It’s  not  a  place  to  live.’ Her  voice changed,  shaking  off dusty  cobwebs  of wistful  ennui.  I won- dered sometimes: did she have a special algorithm for that, and if she did, could I have it too? ‘So this is it?’ she chirped.  ‘We’re going home?’

Half a mile into the sky the Yen-Shu dropped its shuttle  and veered away. The shuttle  fell like a cormorant diving for a fish, then levelled and flared sun-bright as its fusion engines ignited. It soared upward on a graceful arc of vapour. ‘That’s us tomor- row,’ I said. ‘Sixteen hours  to get out.  Fifteen and a half now.’ The  dim  rumble  of a sonic  boom  reached  the  spire.  The  flare of the shuttle  vanished  into the sky. I wanted  to go back to the apartment where  Liss had  her shell, to  where  I could  see her, touch her . . . but I couldn’t tear myself away from the sun. This was the last time I’d ever stand  here,  perhaps  the last time I’d ever see Earth.

‘It’s not your fault, you know,’  she said. ‘Any of it.’

I did  know,  but  that  didn’t  make  it any  better.  ‘Give me a minute alone up here, will you?’

‘I’ll wait for you back home.’

She flitted  away,  slipping  out  of my Servant  into  the  ether, a sudden emptiness. I closed my eyes and pictured my Alysha walking  away,  stopping  and  turning  to face me, hands  on her hips,  head  cocked  sideways  the  way  I remembered   her  most clearly.  There  was  something  coquettish about  her  when  she did  that.  Five years  and  I could  almost  believe she was  back, really here; five years and I still felt the loss of her as keenly as in the days after she died; but when I opened my eyes there was only the bright  empty sky.

Going  back.  I made  a resolution to  myself. The  same  resolution  I’d made  a hundred times over. I was going to find out what  had happened. I was going to find out who had done this to  us and  why.  So I didn’t  care  what  Fleet thought I’d done, because  none  of that  mattered. I was  going  to  put  Alysha  to rest . . . Except I wasn’t. There was no one to hunt  and uncover and  punish,  no place to exact  revenge.  That  had  all happened years ago.

I took  the glass-bubble  lift down  the spire and  stared  across the  old  straits  towards the  African  coast  with  its tower.  The Masters  had built it in the last days, long after they’d scattered us  across  the  thirty-seven  colony  worlds.  Thrusting six  miles into the sky, scratching  at the stratosphere. The start of a space elevator,  maybe?  No  one knew  for sure. No  way in, no struc- ture,  no apparent purpose. For the last hundred and fifty years it had stood,  a white stone mystery glittering  in the sun making everything  around it insignificant.  The Entropists claimed  that the  Masters were  a  metaphor for  life,  random and  terrible. Useless nonsense,  Alysha would  have said.  Life was  for living and  you  made  the  best  you  could  of it. We thought we were better  out  in the  colonies,  that  we didn’t  have Entropists, not the  real  ones,  the  crazies  who  liked  to  blow  things  up.  Then Loki  had  decided  to  show  us we were  wrong,  and  blown  up Alysha’s train.

Blind, deaf and dumb  to the terror to come. I wished I could still hold her hand.

Other  skyscrapers  grew  around me  as  the  lift  went  down. Arrays of spikes and rods on their tops pointed  across the water of the straits towards the Masters’ monolith. Feng shui to reflect malicious spirits back to their source, a legacy of Gibraltar’s sale to the Chinese to pay off the British national debt. The Chinese had given the rock to Fleet a couple of decades later,  and their workers  and  their  superstitions too.  At the base of the spire a tunnel  buggy took  me into the warren  they’d built,  repackaged as cheap accommodation for the support and maintenance crews who  made  Fleet’s Earth  headquarters work.  I walked  the  last few hundred yards  through the strip-light  tunnels,  picking  my way over cable bundles and between the roaming  neon-lit vend- ing stalls that  meandered perpetually down  there  like vagrant drunks,  mewling their  offerings of cheap  kale burgers  and  lot- tery tickets.  The air was damp  and  stale and  smelled of diesel fumes, the ventilation  system on the blink again.  Liss thought I was mad  living down  here, but  the cramped  tunnels  reminded me of home. I liked their gaudy squalor,  and I liked the contrast between their underground ghettos  and the haughty  vertigos of glass and chrome above. Most of all, though, it was cheap.

The  armoured plastic  sheet  that  passed  for  my  front  door opened   as  I  approached.  Liss was waiting  inside, her shell standing  in the gloom. As I came close she stepped into the light and hugged me. The strip lights outside were harsh  and unkind and showed  her for the artificial construct she was. In the light her skin wasn’t  right,  her face not  expressive enough,  the eyes just a little dead, but I’d learned to look past all that.  It was her soul I’d been trying to preserve.

I held her and  shuddered. There  were more  perfect  shells to be bought  if you had the money.  The best – the most lifelike – were the sex toys, but I couldn’t  do that,  not to Alysha, and so Liss was a designer hostess model, built for high-end restaurants and private caterers.  Made no sense on Earth,  where there were already  too  many  people  and  not  enough  work,  but  they  got made  anyway.  She was warm  and  soft and  she was Liss. That was all that  mattered.

‘I’m better  in the shadows,’  she said. ‘I know  that.’

I pulled away. Our place was a mess. I hadn’t started  to pack, but then, come to think of it, I hadn’t really unpacked when we came here.

Liss poured   me  a  drink,  some  seaweed-derived spirit,  and leaned  against  the wall beside me. Servos and  batteries,  metal and  artificial  skin,  but  the  cracksman  who’d  crafted  her  personality  had  captured her  mannerisms  perfectly,  the  way  she moved, the way she pressed into me.

‘Tell me,’ she said. ‘Tell me what happened. Make up a story. I used to like that.’

‘Used to.’ I downed the shot of seaweed, hit by a sucker punch of the old grief, and hurled  the glass at the wall. It bounced.  ‘I don’t  want  to  go  back!  Five years  on  another planet.  You’d think  that  would  be enough,  you really would!  Why isn’t it?’

She leaned her head against my shoulder.  ‘Because you never let yourself move on, Keys. You’re stuck in the same place you were in when you came here.’

Her, that’s  what  she meant.  Making  her. Building Liss from the  ashes  of Alysha’s memory.  Couldn’t  argue,  but  we’d long ago drained  the lake of that  conversation and  I didn’t  want  to talk  about  it,  not  any  more.  I looked  around instead,  taking stock. Takeaway boxes lay piled up waiting for me to call a recycling drone. Empty bottles. Old dried bits of food on a piezoelectric  easy-clean  carpet.  A sofa with  cigarette  burns  on the arms  that  I’d never bothered to replace because  I knew I’d never use it. A bed for those now-and-then nights when I wasn’t away  at  some  conference  or  on  some  mission.  Damp  patches on  the  walls  because  the  underground ventilation  was  always playing up. The stains and discarded  debris of a disposable life. I’d been in Gibraltar for seven months.  Looking  around it was like I’d barely arrived.

We’d  had  a  house  on  Magenta.  A  home,  the  two  of  us together,  Alysha and  me, a neat  and  tidy nest. We’d cared  for it as we’d cared for each other.  The only things cared for here were  the  array  of screens,  their  q-ware  hosters  and  the  coffin for Liss’s shell.

‘You must hate me for this,’ I said.

‘I don’t hate you for anything.’

‘Then  I  must  hate  me.’ Which  was  probably closer  to  the truth.

‘It’s your last night on Earth,  Keys. Leave me behind.  Go and have some fun with Agent de Korte. She likes you.’

‘It’s a bit late for new friends, don’t you think?’ It had taken two years for the cracksman  to make Liss, to get all the data for a complete  persona  shipped  from  Magenta, in bits and  pieces and  mostly  done  in secret.  Two  years  and  an  absurd  amount of money,  a debt  I was  still paying  off.  But she was  as near to perfect as could be made, and you don’t get that calibre of cracksman  anywhere  except on Earth.

You don’t get the ethics either. Shells and Servants run simulated personalities all the time, but not of real people. We don’t do that  on the colonies. Major  trouble.  Prison time.

Boxing everything up was easy. The tech had its own packaging. Everything else came down to throwing untidy bundles into a polycarbonate crate followed  by a long-overdue summons  to Gibraltar’s recycling  and  maintenance drones.  Other  days  we might  have  made  a game  of it,  thrown things  at  each  other, laughed,  forgotten for a moment  that she was just a shell of someone  dead,  but  not  today.  Took  about  half  an  hour,  and that  was that:  I was good to go. Goodbye,  Earth.

‘I’m going to miss this place for its gravity.’ I tried to laugh, to make it sound like a joke, but I didn’t fool either of us. I wasn’t going  to  miss the  violence,  the  dirt,  the  poverty,  the  crowds, the inequality.  But on Earth  they knew how to build something grand.  They  knew  about  scale and  awe,  and  most  of all they knew how much it mattered to have a way to escape. Magenta didn’t have any of that.

Maybe  I’d drive past that  home we used to have . . .

I’d have to see Alysha’s family. My own. The people we used to work  with . . .

I sank to the bed and held my head in my hands,  looking  for a way out that wasn’t there. Liss sat beside me. She touched  my arm.

‘I’ll miss the bitsphere,’  she said,  ‘How  deeply everything  is connected. I’m glad  gravity  isn’t  something  I need  to  worry about  any more.’

‘Five years is a long time,’ I said.  ‘They’ll put  me under  for transgravity treatment for  weeks.  I’ll have  to  shut  you  down again.  Fleet  have  the  best  q-ware.  I don’t  trust  them  not  to snoop.’

‘I know.’

‘I don’t know  how to do this, Liss.’ I was shaking.

‘You’re going to  take  me home,  Keys. We’re going to  start a new life.’ She dimmed  the lights. As I curled  on the bed she ran a finger across my hair. ‘You don’t look after yourself,’ she said. ‘I wish you would.  You need to face that  I’m gone. You need to live your own life. A new one without me. It would  be better for you. We both know that.’ She climbed into her coffin.

‘I know.’  I thought of my Alysha  lying beside  me,  holding my hand,  warm  and  alive in flesh and  blood  again.  Knowing Liss was right wasn’t making it any easier. ‘Just keep breathing, right? Going to have to do this whether  I want  it or not.’

‘That’s the one, Keys. Here if you need me.’ The same thing we’d once said to one another every night as we drifted to sleep.

Twelve hours  later we were on our way to orbit.

Excerpted from From Darkest Skies © Sam Peters 2017