The action-packed sixth novel in James S. A. Corey’s New York Times bestselling science fiction series, the Expanse, now a major TV series
The rocks had fallen three months ago, and Namono could see some blue in the sky again. The impact at Laghouat—first of the three strikes that had broken the world—had thrown so much of the Sahara into the air that she hadn’t seen the moon or stars for weeks. Even the ruddy disk of the sun struggled to penetrate the filthy clouds. Ash and grit rained down on Greater Abuja until it piled up in drifts, changing her city to the same yellow-gray as the sky. Even as she’d helped the volunteer teams to clear the rubble and care for the injured, she’d understood that her wracking cough and the black phlegm she spat out came from breathing in the dead.
Three and a half thousand kilometers stretched between the crater where Laghouat had been and Abuja. The shock wave still had blown out windows and collapsed buildings. Two hundred dead in the city, the newsfeeds said, four thousand wounded. The medical clinics were swamped. If you were not in immediate distress, please stay home.
The power grid degraded quickly. There was no sun to drive the solar panels, and the gritty air fouled the wind farms faster than the teams could clean them. By the time a fusion reactor was trucked north from the yards at Kinshasa, half of the city had spent fifteen days in the dark. With the hydroponic houses and hospitals and government buildings taking precedence, there were still brownouts more days than not. Network access through their hand terminals was spotty and unreliable. Sometimes they were cut off from the world for days at a time. It was to be expected, she told herself, as if any of this could have been foreseen.
And still, three months in, there came a break in the vast, blindfolded sky. As the reddened sun slid toward the west, the city lights of the moon appeared in the east, gems on a field of blue. Yes, it was tainted, dirty, incomplete, but it was blue. Nono took comfort in it as she walked.
The international district was recent, historically speaking. Few of the buildings were over a hundred years old. A previous generation’s fondness for wide thoroughfares between thin, mazy streets and curved, quasi-organic architectural forms marked the neighborhoods. Zuma Rock stood above it all, a permanent landmark. The ash and dust might streak the stone, but they could not change it. This was Nono’s hometown. The place she’d grown up, and the place she’d brought her little family back to at the end of her adventures. The home of her gentle retirement.
She coughed out a bitter laugh, and then she just coughed.
The relief center was a van parked at the edge of a public park. It had a leafy trefoil icon on its side, the logo of the hydroponic farm. Not the UN, not even basic administration. The layers of bureaucracy had been pressed thin by the urgency of the situation. She knew she should have been grateful. Some places, vans didn’t come at all.
The pack of dust and ash had made a crust over the gently sloping hills where the grass had been. Here and there, jagged cracks and furrows like vast snake tracks showed where children had tried to play anyway, but no one was sliding down it now. There was only the forming queue. She took her place in it. The others that waited with her had the same empty stare. Shock and exhaustion and hunger. And thirst. The international district had large Norwegian and Vietnamese enclaves, but no matter the shade of their skin or the texture of their hair, ash and misery had made a single tribe of them all.
The side of the van slid open, and the queue shifted in anticipation. Another week’s rations, however thin they might be. Nono felt a little stab of shame as her turn came near. She’d lived her whole life without ever needing basic. She was one of those who provided for others, not one who needed support. Except that she needed support now.
She reached the front. She’d seen the man handing out the packs before. He had a wide face, brown speckled with black freckles. He asked her address, and she gave it. A moment’s fumbling later, he held out a white plastic pack to her with the practiced efficiency of an automaton, and she took it. It felt terribly light. He only made eye contact with her when she failed to move away.
“I have a wife,” Namono said. “A daughter.”
A flash of raw anger rose in his eyes, hard as a slap. “If they can make the oats grow faster or conjure rice out of thin air, then do send them to us. Else, you’re holding us up.”
She felt tears welling up in her eyes, stinging them.
“One to a household,” the man snapped. “Move on.”
“Go on!” he shouted, snapping his fingers at her. “There’s people behind you.”
She stepped away and heard him mutter something obscene at her as she left. Her tears weren’t thick. Hardly enough to wipe away. It was only that they stung so much.
She tucked her relief pack under her arm and, as soon as her eyes had recovered enough to see, put down her head and started home again. She couldn’t linger. There were others more desperate or less principled than herself who were waiting at the corners and in the doorways for the chance to steal water filters and food from the unwary. If she didn’t walk with purpose, they might mistake her for a victim. For a few blocks, her starved and exhausted mind entertained itself with fantasies of fighting off thieves. As if the catharsis of violence might somehow bring her to peace.
When she’d left their rooms, she’d promised Anna that she’d stop by Old Gino’s on the way home and make sure the elderly man was getting to the relief van. But when she reached the turn, she kept going straight. Weariness was already sucking at her marrow, and the prospect of propping the old man up and going back through the queue with him was more than she could face. She’d say she forgot. It would almost be true.
At the curve that led from the wide avenue into the residential cul‑de‑sac that was home, she found the violent fantasies in her mind had shifted. The men she imagined herself beating until they apologized and begged her forgiveness weren’t thieves, but the freckled relief man. If they can make the oats grow faster. What was that supposed to mean, anyway? Had he been joking about using their bodies as fertilizer? Had he dared to make a threat against her family? Who in hell did he think he was?
No, a voice said in her mind, as clearly as if Anna had been there to speak the words. No, he was angry because he wanted to help more, and he couldn’t. Knowing that all you can give isn’t enough is its own burden. That was all. Forgive him.
Namono knew that she should, but she didn’t.
Their house was small. A half dozen rooms pressed together like a child squeezing a handful of damp sand. Nothing quite lined up; no corner was perfectly square. It gave the space the feel of something natural—a cave or a grotto—more than something built. She paused before she opened the door, trying to clear her mind. The setting sun had fallen behind Zuma Rock, and the grit and smoke in the air showed where the wide beams of light streamed past it. It looked like the stone had a halo. And in the darkening sky, a pinpoint of light. Venus. Tonight, there might be stars. She latched onto the thought like a lifeboat in the sea. There might be stars.
Inside, the house was clean. The rugs had been shaken out, the brick floors swept. The air smelled of lilac thanks to the little sachet-and-candle that one of Anna’s parishioners had brought them. Namono wiped away the last of her tears. She could pretend the redness in her eyes was only the outside air. Even if they didn’t believe her, they could pretend to.
“Hello?” she called. “Is anyone home?”
Nami squeaked from the back bedroom, her bare feet slapping on the brick as she barreled toward the door. Her little girl wasn’t so little anymore. She came up to Nono’s armpit now. Or Anna’s shoulder. The gentle pudge of childhood was gone, and the awkward coltish beauty of adolescence was clearing its throat. Her skin was barely lighter than Nono’s and her hair was as rich and kinky, but the girl had a Russian smile.
“Of course I am,” Nono said.
“What did we get?”
Namono took the white relief package and pressed it into her daughter’s hands. With a smile that was like complicity, she leaned close. “Why don’t you go find out, and then come tell me?”
Nami grinned back and loped off to the kitchen as if the water recyclers and fast-grown oats were a brilliant present. The girl’s enthusiasm was vast and partly sincere. The other part was to show her mothers that she was all right, that they didn’t need to worry for her. So much of their strength—all their strengths—grew from trying to protect each other. She didn’t know if that made it better or worse.
In the bedroom, Anna lay on her cushions. A thick volume of Tolstoy rested beside her, its spine bent by being reread. War and Peace. Her complexion was grayish and drawn. Nono sat beside her carefully, putting her hand on the exposed skin of her wife’s right thigh just above where her knee had been crushed. The skin didn’t feel hot anymore, and it wasn’t stretched drum-tight. Those had to be good signs.
“The sky was blue today,” Nono said. “There may be stars out tonight.”
Anna smiled her Russian smile, the one her wife’s genes had also given Nami. “That’s good, then. Improvement.”
“God knows there’s room for it,” Namono said, regretting the discouragement in her voice even as she spoke. She tried to soften it by taking Anna’s hand. “You’re looking better too.”
“No fever today,” Anna said.
“Well, only a little.”
“Many guests?” she asked, trying to keep her tone light. After Anna’s injury, her parishioners had made such a fuss, bringing by tokens and offers of support until it was impossible for Anna to rest. Namono had put her foot down and sent them away. Anna had allowed it mostly, she thought, because it also kept her flock from giving away the supplies they couldn’t afford to do without.
“Amiri came by,” Anna said.
“Did he? And what did my cousin want?”
“We’re having a prayer circle tomorrow. Only about a dozen people. Nami helped clean the front room for it. I know I should have asked you first, but . . .”
Anna nodded at her distended, swollen leg as if her inability to stand at the pulpit was the worst thing that had happened to her. And maybe it was.
“If you’re strong enough,” Namono said.
“I forgive you. Again. Always.”
“You’re good to me, Nono.” Then, softly so that Nami couldn’t hear them, “There was an alert while you were out.”
Namono’s heart went cold. “Where’s it going to hit.”
“It won’t. They got it. But . . .”
The silence carried it. But there had been another one. Another rock thrown down the gravity well toward the fragile remnants of the Earth.
“I didn’t tell Nami,” Anna said, as if protecting their child from the fear was another sin that required forgiveness.
“It’s all right,” Namono said. “I will if we need to.”
“How is Gino?”
I forgot floated at the back of Namono’s throat, but she couldn’t speak the lie. To herself, maybe, but Anna’s clear eyes forbade it. “I’m going there next.”
“It’s important,” Anna said.
“I know. It’s just that I’m so tired—”
“That’s why it’s important,” Anna said. “When the crisis comes, we all pull together naturally. It’s easy then. It’s when things drag on too long that we have to make the effort. We need to make sure everyone sees we’re all in this together.”
Unless another rock came and the Navy didn’t catch it in time. Unless the hydroponics collapsed under the strain and they all went hungry. Unless the water recyclers failed. Unless a thousand different things happened, any one of which meant death.
But even that wouldn’t be failure for Anna. Not as long as they were all good and kind to each other. If they helped carry each other gently into the grave, Anna would feel she was following her calling. Perhaps she was right.
“Of course,” Namono said. “I just wanted to bring the supplies back to you first.”
Nami rushed in a moment later, a water recycler in either hand. “Look! Another glorious week of drinking cleaned‑up piss and filthy rainwater!” she said with a grin, and it struck Namono for the millionth time what a perfect distillation of her mothers their daughter could be.
The rest of the package was oatmeal pucks ready to be cooked, packets of something that claimed in Chinese and Hindi to be chicken stroganoff, and a handful of pills. Vitamins for all of them. Painkillers for Anna. So that was something.
Namono sat with her wife, holding her hand until Anna’s eyelids began to droop and her cheeks took on the softness that spoke of coming sleep. Through the window, the last of the twilight glowed red, fading to gray. Anna’s body relaxed a degree. The tightness in her shoulders released. The furrows in her brow smoothed. Anna didn’t complain, but the pain of her injury and the stress of being suddenly crippled had mixed with the fear they all shared. It was a pleasure to watch it all fall away, if only for a moment. Anna was always a handsome woman, but when she slept, she was beautiful.
Nono waited until her wife’s breath was deep and regular before she rose from the bedside. She was almost to the door when Anna spoke, her voice rusty with sleep.
“Don’t forget Gino.”
“Going there now,” Nono said softly, and Anna’s breath went back to its deep sleep-slow tide.
“Can I come too?” Nami asked as Nono went back to their street door. “The terminals are down again, and there’s nothing to do here.”
Nono considered It’s too dangerous out there and Your mother might need you, but her daughter’s eyes were so hopeful. “Yes, but put your shoes on.”
The walk back to Gino’s was a dance in shadows. Enough sunlight had struck the emergency lights’ solar panels that half the houses they passed were glowing a little from within. Not much more than a candle’s brightness, but more than there had been. The city itself was still black. No streetlights, no glow in the skyscrapers, and only a few bright points along the sinuous length of the arcology to the south.
Namono had the sudden, powerful memory of being younger than her own daughter was now and going up to Luna for the first time. The utter brilliance of the stars and the starkly beautiful Milky Way. Even with the dust grit still in the high air above them, there were more stars out now than when the light pollution of the city had drowned them. The moon shone: a crescent of silver cupping a webwork of gold. She took her daughter’s hand.
The girl’s fingers seemed so thick, so solid compared to what they had once been. She was growing up. Not their little baby anymore. There had been so many plans for her university and traveling together. All of them gone now. The world they’d thought they were raising her in had vanished. She felt a twinge of guilt about that, as if there were something that she could have done to stop all this from happening. As if it were somehow her fault.
In the deepening darkness, there were voices, though not so many as there had been. Before, there had been some nightlife in the quarter. Pubs and street performers and the hard, rattling music recently come into fashion that clattered out into the street like someone spilling bricks. Now people slept when the darkness came and rose with the light. She caught the smell of something cooking. Strange how even boiled oats could come to mean comfort. She hoped that Old Gino had gone to the van, or that one of Anna’s parishioners had gone for him. Otherwise Anna would insist that he take part of their supplies, and Namono would let her.
But it hadn’t happened yet. No need to call for trouble before it came. There was enough on the road already. When they reached the turn to Old Gino’s street, the last of the sunlight was gone. The only sign that Zuma Rock was even there was a deeper darkness rising up thousands of meters above the city. The land itself raising a defiant fist to the sky.
“Oh,” Nami said. Not even a word so much as the intake of breath. “Did you see it?”
“See what?” Namono asked.
“Shooting star. There’s another one. Look!”
And yes, there among the fixed if flickering stars, a brief streak of light. And then another. While they stood there, hand in hand, a half dozen more. It was all she could do not to turn back, not to push her daughter into the shelter of a doorway and try to cover her. There had been an alert, but the remnants of the UN Navy had caught this one. These smears of fire across the upper atmosphere might not even be the debris from it. Or they might.
Either way, shooting stars had been something beautiful once. Something innocent. They would not be again. Not for her. Not for anyone on Earth. Every bright smear was a whisper of death. The hiss of a bullet. A reminder as clear as a voice. All of this can end, and you cannot stop it.
Another streak, bright as a torch, that bloomed out into a silent fireball as wide as her thumbnail.
“That was a big one,” Nami said.
No, Namono thought. No it wasn’t.