I may have already posted this one…or one similar to this, when we were funding the book, but I am giving myself a do-over now that we have a cover for the book!
I give you an excerpt from Christopher L. Bennett’s Arachne’s Crime! Now available at on line.
Stephen kept his eyes on the lights in the sky, even as he lay in the mud. The more they tried to beat him down, the more he took comfort in the heights humanity could reach.
“Look up there,” he told them once he’d grown strong enough to defend himself and win the chance to be heard. “Look at what we have the potential to achieve if we use our energies together instead of wasting them against each other.”
At first, Benjamin was his only audience, gazing up with him at the points of light that swept across the heavens. Stephen spoke to inspire the boy, to give his younger brother the same hope that had sustained him. But he did it for the others too. He knew that fighting them off would only make them come back with greater force. To protect Benjamin, he needed a more powerful weapon, one that could reach into minds and change them, turn their own power to his side. And so he spoke.
“Most of the world isn’t like this anymore,” he told the starving, bitter people around him whether they listened or not. “The governors keep us hungry and desperate so we’ll turn on each other. So they can call us savages and use it to justify keeping us down. So we won’t have the strength to stand against them and the militias that keep their entitled white asses in power. But look up there, brothers,” he urged, even as the bullies’ hands grabbed at him and tried to hold him down. “You can see it’s a lie. You can see that by standing together, human beings can scale the heights of heaven.”
And one by one, they started to listen. One by one, their hands fell away and their eyes turned upward with his, watching the countless points of light that soared outward in a line like regimented fireflies, a scintillant cascade growing ever faster with distance.
“What are they?” Benjamin asked, gazing up at him with those big dark eyes as they stood together on the levee. The boy’s rich brown face was Stephen’s only reminder of their father.
“Auxons. Self-replicating robots. Or parts of one. They need to start small so they’re easier to accelerate—the drive beam can get them close to lightspeed in days. Once they get there, they’ll combine into larger robots, ones that can make more robots. They’ll build a whole ecology of probes to survey the fifth planet and tell us whether humans can live there. And if the answer’s yes, then we’ll tell the auxons to build a settlement for us, so it’ll already be waiting when the colony ship gets there.”
Ben beamed at how clever it was, and Stephen took joy from the sight. He’d never appreciated it enough when Ben had been this young. A burst of brilliant light illuminated Ben’s face, and Stephen turned his gaze back outward to watch the fireworks blazing.
“You know it wasn’t really like this.”
Stephen turned. Cecilia LoCarno leaned against a grafitti-scrawled wall nearby, her sinewy frame taut and ready even in her casual pose. The light from the fireworks put red and blue highlights in her severely cut silver-blonde hair. “You’re romanticizing it again, aren’t you? Brilliant lights soaring to the stars? You know they launched the microsail probes over months, and with a microwave beam, not visible. Oh, plus it happened a decade and a half before you were born. And, well…” She looked down at Ben, but said no more.
She didn’t have to. His eyes stung as he turned back to his brother, older now and standing rigidly beside him while their mother gazed up apologetically from her sickbed, her delicate Chinese features sunken and gaunt. “Why won’t they help Mama?” the youth demanded. “They have the medicine.”
“I’m working extra-hard,” Stephen told him. “Saving everything I can.”
“Then they’ll just raise the prices! They’ll never help one of us. There’s only one way to get it!”
Benjamin was already receding from the room. Cecilia tried to stop Stephen from following. “You know where this leads. Don’t give into it.” He resented her for making him remember. Ben had never grown any older than Stephen saw him now. All he had done to protect his brother had been for nothing. He pushed past her, trying to catch up to Ben and stop him from making the same mistake that had taken their father, but again he felt hands holding him back. “Let go, Cecilia!”
“No, you let go!”
Now they were side by side in the waiting room, in the cheap plastic seats where he felt he’d been imprisoned for ages, waiting for the word that his mother had died at last. In the opposite corner, a silver spider was weaving an intricate web. “Why are you here?” he asked Cecilia.
She shrugged. “Maybe we were both thinking of the mission at the same time. Arachne picked up on the common cues and hooked us in.”
The mission. He stared at her, startled, before he remembered again. Her words confirmed that she was the real Cecilia LoCarno. People who were really there had a different feel about them, but sometimes Stephen didn’t remember to pay attention. “How do you do that?” he asked her.
“You always know it’s a dream.”
“Disciplined mind. Goes with the job.” She smirked. “Plus, it’s easy to tell in here. Reality isn’t in the habit of giving us what we want.”
Stephen glanced around. They were in his orbital shuttle, awaiting clearance, and the computer was announcing a prolonged delay. Through the window, the flooded remains of Florida were merely a thin streak vanishing over the horizon. Ben was gone now… had been gone for a very long time. “I know that as well as you do, Cecilia. More. Yet I always get drawn into the dream.”
She punched him in the arm. “You would. That’s why you need me to drag you back to reality.”
“Not here, I don’t.”
“Hell, yes. Otherwise you’d have remembered on your own—relived the shooting and tortured yourself with losing Ben all over again. Jesus, for such an optimist you sure are pathetic in here,” she added, knocking him on the forehead. He cried out in pain; she tended to be rough in the dream realm. Inhibitions were low in unreality, since memories were fleeting. “Or is that it?” she asked. “Maybe that’s why you needed to travel so far from Earth—to run away from all that.”
“I’m running toward something, not away.” He sighed as he stared out the port. The shuttle was hemmed in now, in a holding pattern flanked by other craft, distant points that seemed to be drawing closer. “At least, I will if we ever get clearance to leave!”
Cecilia frowned. “Wait, you’re right. I sense it too. Something holding us back, holding us still. Even before you said anything, I think I could feel it.”
Stephen struggled to remember how this dream world worked. “Then it’s… something from Arachne? A message?”
“But just impressions. Damn, I wish we were awake enough to perceive direct telemetry without all the subconscious filtering. Just… try to concentrate on the ship, on the space outside.”
He looked out again, and the Earth-orbit vista was gone, replaced by a vast spiderweb gliding through the interstellar void. Arachne was a broad cone of shroud lines connecting three great rings of magsail cable, with crew and cargo modules and laser assemblies strung along smaller rings toward the rear. In reality, the gossamer craft was virtually invisible while coasting. In dreamtime, she shimmered, the magnetic field of her sail glowing like an aurora. Gamma Leporis lay ahead, but not an orb, just a bright point, fiercer and whiter than Sol. It brightened suddenly—no, a flash from a closer source? Like the fireworks reflected in Ben’s eyes. What was Arachne trying to show them? More flashes, nearer—meteors flashing past the ship. Hitting the ship? He wasn’t sure what he’d seen, but whatever it was, something changed. The wind died down, Arachne’s sails falling limp, the ship dead in the water. “Do you see us… becalmed?” Though they were in communication, they weren’t necessarily perceiving the same things, not without verbal or contextual cues to put them on the same page.
“Parked. In orbit of something, but there’s nothing there. A brown dwarf? No, but there is something… something drawing near.”
His dream Arachne was now a clipper ship with canvas furled, adrift beneath the stars, endless black reflecting in the calm sea. A voice called faintly from above. He looked up to see a great silver spider skittering along the rigging, alert and ready as a ripple fractured the starlight. But beyond her, Stephen Jacobs-Wong saw dark shapes drawing in, pirate boats with oars muffled and lanterns doused. “Stand by,” he heard himself call, “and prepare to be boarded.”
“Stephen? Can you hear me? Please respond.”
The voice faded in and out at the edge of Stephen’s consciousness… no, it was his consciousness that faded in and out. The clear, soothing alto—Arachne’s voice, yes, sounding authentically human yet more pure and perfect—held steady as it always did. He tried to make a noise, but hibernation gel filled his throat. He remembered to subvocalize, got something out, but instantly forgot what he’d said.
“I’ve had to rush your revival. This will be difficult, I know. But you must focus.”
Try as he might, he caught only fragments. Detected… contact… gravitational… boarded… inside.
Then the gel drained away and all he knew was the struggle of his weak, unused muscles to expel it from his throat, his lungs… merciful that he’d forget… and then a hand on his arm, and—
A dragon? In a space helmet?
He was pulled free and hit a cold, hard surface… and then everything was a blur.
Christopher L. Bennett is a lifelong resident of Cincinnati, Ohio, with a B.S. in Physics and a B.A. in History from the University of Cincinnati. A fan of science and science fiction since age five, he has spent the past two decades selling original short fiction to magazines such as Analog Science Fiction and Fact (home of his “Hub” series of comedy adventures), BuzzyMag, and Galaxy’s Edge. Since 2003, he has been one of Pocket Books’ most prolific and popular authors of Star Trek tie-in fiction, including the epic Next Generation prequel The Buried Age, the Enterprise — Rise of the Federation series, and the Original Series prequel The Captain’s Oath. He has also written two Marvel Comics novels, X-Men: Watchers on the Walls and Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder. His original novel Only Superhuman, perhaps the first hard science fiction superhero novel, was voted Library Journal‘s SF/Fantasy Debut of the Month for October 2012. He has three collections reprinting his original short fiction, Among the Wild Cybers: Tales Beyond the Superhuman from eSpec Books (containing an original Only Superhuman prequel novelette) and Hub Space: Tales from the Greater Galaxy and Crimes of the Hub from Mystique Press.