Windswept by Adam Rakunas will be out in September from Angry Robot, and not only do we have the cover, but we’ve also got a sneak peek at the book, courtesy of the lovely folks at AR. Enjoy! A larger cover image follows the excerpt, as well as more info about the book.
Cover art by Jessica Smith
Windswept: Chapter One
I was sitting at my usual stool at Big Lily’s, talking with Odd Dupree about his troubles down at the plant, when something big and stupid came crashing through the front door. Vytai Bloombeck’s head swiveled like a pumpkin mounted on a sack of compost as he scanned the faces of the regulars. I tried to duck beneath the ironpalm bar, but it was too late – he had zeroed in on me.
“Padma!” he shouted, moving toward me like a runaway cargo can, “I got something, make us both righteously wealthy, like Jesus would want.” He shoved Odd to the side as he plopped into two chairs. Odd’s eyes rolled back into his head from the smell. Bloombeck’s job was to fish blockages out of the city’s sewer mains, a Contract slot he’d kept since Time Immemorial because no one was stupid or desperate enough to take it from him.
“Not even Jesus wants you, Bloomie,” I said, wincing at the stabbing pain in my right eye. My pai was supposed to float text warning me that Bloombeck was within one hundred meters, but, thanks to the vagaries of my brain chemistry and the implant’s firmware, the damn thing always gave me an electric jab in the retina after he’d shown up. I’d complained to every tech I know, and they all shrugged their shoulders and gave me the Santee Anchorage Song-and-Dance about how We Don’t Have the Proper Tech, We Don’t Make Enough to Care about Your Problem, Just Wait for the Next Bloody Update. The Oh-God-It’s-Bloomie warning squatted between a migraine and my period on the pain scale, and the only treatment that worked was avoiding him. “You want to talk to me, you make an appointment.”
Bloombeck gave me his weird smile, all upper lip and blue gums. “You’re looking mighty fine today, Padma,” he said.
“Oh, stow it,” I said, holding my mug against my right temple, hoping the warmth would soothe my headache. If my pai hadn’t continued to be so useful, I would have paid a doc to jab a needle in my eye and burn the damn thing off my optic nerve. Maybe I could do that when I retired. If I retired.
“Whatever you have can wait until I’m done with Odd.” I pointed to the other end of the bar, the part closest to the open lanai. The fresh air off the ocean would help mitigate his scent. He grumbled away, leaving a wake of distressed people.
Odd ran a finger through his thick, gray beard, pushing aside the bristles that covered his faded Indenture tattoo, a caduceus. He hadn’t been a doctor or a nurse, but a pharmaceutical test subject for LiaoCon. The long years of his Indenture had left him a nervous, twitching wreck. Odd had been lucky to walk into his Slot, where the heaviest thing he had to operate was the crayon he used to mark pipes slated for replacement. He shivered as he looked at me. “So, you think you can get me moved to a different shift, maybe?”
“Getting you off graveyard’s gonna be tough,” I said. “You just don’t have the seniority.”
“I’m the oldest guy there,” he said.
“Yeah, but you’ve only been on Santee six years,” I said, blinking up his Profile on the Public. “It’s a long line ahead of you, Odd.”
“Glenn wants us home at the same time.” Odd’s eyes flickering like hyperactive birds. “Is that too much to ask? I do good work, I don’t grumble. Doesn’t that count for something?”
“Of course it does,” I said, looking at him and giving him a calm smile in the hopes he’d relax. I’d already plied him with two fingers of Uncle Mbeki’s Finest Kind Blend, but it just made his eyelids droop while the rest of him twitched. “But there are people who’ve been here twenty who’re waiting for someone to take their Slot. And you know how much the traffic’s dried up.”
He held up his hands. “I don’t want to be a bother, I know things’re tight for everyone. It’s just…” A quiver ran down his back, down his arms, into his fidgeting fingertips. “I wonder sometimes, was this worth it? Breaching and coming here?”
I put my hands on his, holding them until they stopped shaking. “You really think you would’ve been happy if you’d stayed on that lab ship? Getting stuck with every weird anti-viral and arousal pill they cranked out? You think you’d still be alive? You’d think you’d have found Glenn?”
He shook his head, his movements calm and steady.
“I know working graveyard sucks,” I said. “I did it too. I pulled a lot of crap shifts all over: at the brush factory, at the lifter base, even in Steelcase. I ever tell you I drove a crane for two years?”
He gave me a loose nod.
“And all that time, no matter how tired or dirty or sober I got, I never once thought I’d made a mistake coming here.” I took a sip of tea, hoping Odd would buy all this. “You have a good hard think about it, you’d agree. Breaching is never a mistake.”
He kept nodding, his head bobbing more and more. I thought that would have been enough for him, but then a thought must have come loose in his brain, because he stopped and said, “Yeah, but I still want to see my husband at breakfast. In the morning. I’ll take whatever you got. I’d even go to a refinery.”
“Odd, you know I wouldn’t do that to you. I know the treatment plant isn’t the greatest, but, Jesus, you really want to go to a place like Sou’s Reach? You think your gig’s bad now?”
Odd shrugged, his bony shoulders stacking up around his ears. “I hear Saarien’s a fair guy. He tries to work with everyone.”
“Just wait until the harvest rush when they’re working past capacity and you haven’t slept in a week and you’re slipping and sliding all over the place and trip right into the holding tanks. You slip in the water at our plant, you’ll smell horrible, but you’ll come out alive. You won’t if it’s molasses. You move out of Brushhead into that shithole, he will own you. And I couldn’t let that happen to you.”
“Then what can you do?”
I sighed and blinked up every job listing I could think of. No one at the treatment plant would want to trade away a decent Slot, not even if I paid them off. I could probably talk to another Ward Chair, see if they’d be willing to swap bodies, but I knew everyone held on to whatever they had. Ever since the Big Three decided our blessed little mudball wasn’t on an economically viable route, refueling traffic had gotten lighter and lighter, and that meant Contract Slots had gotten scarcer and scarcer. I heard whisperings that the only thing keeping Santee Anchorage from getting cut out completely was the fact that we sent more industrial molasses into Occupied Space than anyone within a six-jump radius. I suppose if I stuck with the Union long enough, I’d be promoted to those circles, but I had other plans, and all of them involved me no longer giving a shit.
Wait. Shit. There. A job flitted past my eyes, and I rewound it back. “Niccola Witt is going on maternity leave. She’ll be out for a year.”
Odd wrinkled his nose. “She does pollution control at the bottom of the plant. Her job stinks more than Bloombeck’s.”
“Odd, it’s not like you’ll be wading into the ponds without protection. You’ll get a full environment suit and a rebreather. Well, you’ll get her suit, ’cause we can’t afford a new one, but–”
“I don’t know, Padma. What happens when she comes back?”
“By the time she does, there’ll be people to fill her Slot and yours.”
He leaned closer, the always-scared look fading from his eyes. “You got a line on something?”
Bloombeck materialized out of nowhere. The smell hit me just before the needles in my optic nerve. “Padma, I really need to tell you this–”
I turned toward him, slow and steady. “Is it about your back dues?” I rubbed my eye to ease the pain. “Last I checked, you’re coming up on five years’ worth. And we haven’t even talked about penalties.”
Bloombeck scratched his face. His ink, a pair of crossed hedge clippers under a Union fist, redshifted under his grubby fingernails. I could never remember which of the Big Three he’d worked for before he’d Breached his Indenture, but you could tell they hadn’t valued him even then. The inkwork was uneven, like someone had just stamped his face with a spiked rubber pad before sending him away. At least when WalWa had tattooed me, they’d taken their sweet time, the bastards.
Bloombeck pointed at his temple. “I just texted you for an appointment. You’re free right now.”
“Since your four o’clock cancelled.”
I blinked up my calendar and saw that, sure enough, Estella Tonggow had stood me up again. Bloombeck had snaked her spot. I took a deep breath, wondering for the umpteenth time why our Union forebears hadn’t allowed me the power to beat the ever-loving crap out of people like Bloombeck. I knew that all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds Breached from the Big Three, and that we had to embrace everyone, but, Sweet and Merciful Buddha, even Vytai Bloombeck would have made them change their minds. “I will be with you in one moment.”
“Bloombeck, if you don’t shove off, I will call up Soni Baghram and have her arrest your ass.”
“Loitering with intent to annoy. Wait your turn.”
“Baghram wouldn’t do that,” said Bloombeck, giving me a little sneer.
“You want to bet?” I said. “You want me to call up the nice police captain and ask her who she’s more likely to listen to?”
I turned back to Odd. “You want the gig or not?”
He nodded, his face lighting up. “You’re the best, Padma. When do I start?”
I blinked over a few forms to fill out. “Get that back to me by tomorrow, and you can get rolling next week.”
Odd hugged me, then danced out of the bar. I looked back at Bloombeck and said, “Now, what can I do for you? And it had better involve you turning into a giant stack of money, ’cause I’m not interested in whatever scam you’re cooking up.”
“What makes you think I got a scam?”
“Because you’re talking.”
“What if I told you I knew about a bunch of people who wanted to Breach?”
“How could you come by info like that?”
“I got ears everywhere, and these ears tell me there’s a WalWa colony seeder six days out,” he said.
“Anyone can see the shipping queue, Bloomie.”
“But can they see there’s been grumbling ever since they came in from the Red Line?” said Bloombeck. “I heard it coming through the wireless.”
“How can you get reception all the way down there?”
He shrugged. “The piping, it does weird stuff to signals. But, look, these people know the Union runs this place, and forty people want to jump ship. That’s a good digit, yeah? Help you make your number?”
“It would, but only if I knew how much this would all cost me.”
“Only three hundred fifty yuan,” said Bloombeck. “That’s how much it’ll take to bribe the radar control officer at Sand Point–”
“Stop,” I said, looking out the window toward the lifter. Even though the giant black ribbon of coral carbon was twenty klicks offshore, its massive width filled the south window as it reached into space. The crawler platforms glinted in the late afternoon sky as they brought empty fuel tanks down to the water and full tanks and cargo cans to the sky. It was a sight that would have filled me with calm and contentment, but for the sweaty presence of Bloombeck. “I think you’ve said enough.”
Bloombeck brightened. “So, you’re in?”
“No, I said ‘stop’ because I’ve now hit my monthly limit for hearing your stupid shit,” I said, pointing to the door. “Get lost.”
“But you haven’t even heard the deal!”
“Bloomie, if it involves the words ‘bribe’ and ‘radar control officer,’ then I don’t need to hear any more.” I waved my hand at him and closed my eyes. “Now get the hell out of here. You’re blocking my breeze.”
This was the time of day when the land began to cool, sending the wind back out to sea. Big Lily had all the windows open, so I got a noseful of Brushhead’s afternoon scents: the laundry house up on Taupo Road where the proprietor kept plumeria, hints of naan and baguettes from Giesel du Marque’s bakery. There was the sweetness of citrus from the Shareholder terrace farms, the tang of arcing steel from the shops of Repair Street, the swirl of boiling molasses from six hundred distilleries, all of them heady and full and rich, and none of them able to cut through the rancid stink of Bloombeck’s odor.
I opened an eye. “You’re still here.”
“Forty Breaches, Padma,” said Bloombeck. “This is all completely on the level.”
“Your level isn’t even level,” I said, waving for Big Lily to bring me another tea. “You’re so crooked it defies physics.”
“But I know how to work an angle, and I got a winner,” he said. “You just hear me out, and you’ll see.”
I took a sip. “If you know about the Breaches, why do we need to bribe anyone?”
Bloombeck blinked. “Uh, what do you mean?”
“I mean, forty people wanting to jump ship. Even on one of those big colony seeders, someone would hear the grumblings and do something to shut it down. Call in some Ghosts.”
“Yeah, but this far out? With the little traffic we get now?” said Bloombeck, hunching closer to me. “You really think the Big Three care about us anymore?”
“I don’t see WalWa closing up Thronehill or slowing their demand for our cane,” I said. “But, still, even if this magical forty avoid attention, how would they get down here? They wouldn’t steal a shuttle or do anything flashy. They’d hide in an empty fuel tank or a cargo can or something that would let them avoid attention. They might even follow your lead and slip down through the bilge on Garbage Day.”
“Hey, that worked, didn’t it?”
“By accident, if I remember your story correctly,” I said. “Still, it’s got me thinking about bribing the radar control officer.”
“Well, someone’s got to cover for those people–”
“That’s a Union job,” I said. “And can you think of anyone in the Union who’d pass on information about forty Breaches when they could keep it for themselves? You walk into a Union Hall with all those fresh bodies, people are going to fall over each other to get you whatever you wanted. Wouldn’t you?”
Bloombeck opened his mouth to protest, then sagged back on his barstool.
“That was a nice try, Bloomie,” I said.
Bloombeck’s flabby arms plumped against his sunken chest as he sputtered, “Don’t you want to make your number?”
“Of course I do,” I said, “but I still want to respect myself in the morning.”
Bloombeck hissed, then leaned back in at me. “You think you’re so hot, with your payout and your brown-nosing with Tonggow. Like you’ve ever done anything for us here. You’re just ready to live it up on Chino Cove with all the other Co-Op fatasses.”
I slammed my fist on the bartop hard enough to shake everyone’s mugs. Despite the stench, I put my face right in Bloombeck’s. He flinched.
“Up until now,” I said, “I have been practicing some restraint, out of respect for Big Lily. She doesn’t like fights in her place, and I don’t want to get on her bad side.”
I grabbed an empty mug and held it up to Bloombeck. His eyes crossed as I tapped the mug on the bridge of his nose.
“That’s why I am going to use my words,” I said. “I let you slide on dues, Bloomie, because it’s not worth the effort to chase you down. You don’t register on the Union’s bottom line, the same way you didn’t register with your employer when you Breached. If you did, you think they would’ve let you roam around in your ship’s bilge?” I gave him a gentle tap on the forehead with the mug. “But when you annoy me like this, you make me wonder if maybe it would be worth squeezing that cash out of you, just because I’d have an excuse to kick your ass from one side of the island to the other. It’s like when the Big Three decides they need to make a show and send out Ghost Squads to sabotage each other. Or when they get their goons to crack down on Indentures so they don’t get ideas about Breaching. You ever see a goon work somebody over with a riot club, Bloomie?”
Bloombeck shook his head, his jowls shivering.
“I have,” I said. “I had to take a lot of classes in hostile negotiation in business school, and I did really, really well. You want to see what I learned?”
He shook his head again.
“Then get lost.”
Bloombeck’s eyes opened wide, and he tumbled over himself and a couple of seats on his way out.
I took a deep breath and sat back, blinking up a link to the Public and loading up the traffic queue from the top of the lifter. All the ships coming and going from Santee Anchorage lay there, listed in neat little rows, a spreadsheet that could tell all kinds of stories if you knew how to read it. Ten years ago, that story would have been one of scrapes with goons and derring-do on the high seas, of fishing Breaches out of the ocean like pickles from a barrel. Now there were only half a dozen supercarriers swinging by to grab a few billion barrels of industrial molasses, and those beasts barely needed to refuel from our ocean.
There were four colony seeders en route for refueling, but there was no way to tell if any of them were the ship Bloombeck had talked about. I scrolled them away until I saw the ships I knew were the real deal. I’d dug their names out of news reports, stolen Big Three financials, and all the gossipy whispering that traveled around Occupied Space faster than light. I smiled as I saw them: fifteen LiaoCon Xinzang-Class ore processors coming in from Nanqu. Fifteen claustrophobic nightmares filled with choking gases and horrible rations and enough people who would want to jump ship even if there weren’t a sprawling city at the bottom of the anchor. I had been making payments to people who ran orbital traffic control, enough for them to run broadcasts on my behalf and keep quiet. There was always a chance they could screw me over at the last minute, but that was a risk worth taking. Besides, the messages they’d broadblasted into space made a point of telling people to ask for me by name, all but ensuring I’d get the credit for them joining the Union.
I watched the queue for a few more minutes. The LiaoCon ships were still four hours away – a little tight for my timing, but I’d be able to take care of business before the miners started their descent.
Business. Gah. I blinked up the time: quarter past four. Damn Tonggow for ditching me at the last minute. How a woman that scatterbrained could make a rum as good as Old Windswept was a mystery. How she managed to keep her distillery running was an even bigger mystery. She’d been doing something right, though, for her to keep producing as well as she did, and, as long as she kept it together long enough for me to buy the place off her, I could make sure there was always a steady supply of Old Windswept…
My scalp tingled at the thought of the still running dry. I sipped my tea, but it was too late. My fingers grew cold, and my eyeballs watered, and that voice scraped across the back of my brain, dry as bagasse and sharp as nails: You really think they’re going to make it? You pushed away a good thing with Bloombeck, like you push away everything good, and now Tonggow’s not here, and you’ll never make it to six o’clock…
The breeze blew through the seaward windows again, carrying the cool green from the ricewheat paddies and the cane fields way out in the kampong, the bite from cane diesel engine exhaust, the heavy tones of coral carbon being spun into lifter cable. The first Breaches had called it getting windswept, back when they came down the cable and decided that their lives were worth more than their Indentures to the Big Three. It sure as hell beat holing up in Thronehill on the corporate side of the fence with the office drones, all of them breathing triple-scrubbed air and never getting a noseful of this. I breathed deep, forcing myself to relax, tamping back The Fear. I would not let it get out. Not today.
Big Lily walked up with my tea. “One of these days, I really will call Soni to bust that twerp,” I said.
“I would think Captain Baghram would be busy fighting real crime,” said Big Lily, setting down the mug. “Besides, you’d have to catch him doing something illegal, and I don’t think even Bloombeck is stupid enough to try that in here.”
“Soni and I are good enough friends that she’d do that for me,” I said. “Especially if I paid her off.”
She made a face. “I’m sure she’d charge you a pretty penny to lock him up. Save your money. It’s not worth dipping into your budget for the likes of Bloombeck.” She got a fresh bottle of Nelson’s Column from underneath the bar. “You want a little extra?”
“You know I don’t drink until after six o’clock.”
“Yeah, though I’ve never understood why.”
“Girl’s got to keep some mystery.”
“What’s the fun in that?” she said, opening the bottle. She gagged, and some of the rum splashed on the bartop.
“What?” I said, and then the smell hit me, like mustard and raw sewage. My eyes watered as my throat tightened. “Christ, Lily!”
People ran for the windows, and someone hit the massive fans that kept the place cool during the peak of summer. The air freshened, though the stink lingered, the puddle staining the bartop’s finish with yellow streaks. “You ought to tell your friends in the Co-Op about that,” said Big Lily as she capped the bottle and tucked it into a trashcan.
“What, you, too?” I said, eyeing the stain. What looked like steam rose from its lightening surface.
“Me, what?” said Big Lily.
“Everyone thinks I have some magic pull with the Co-Op, just ’cause I’m talking with Tonggow,” I said.
She grabbed a rag to clean the bar, eyeing the now-fizzing discoloration. Then tossed the skunked bottle in the bin and pulled up Beaulieu’s Blend instead. “Well, I hope you work things out with her. You’ve been talking about buying her place as long as she’s been talking about retiring. And better you than someone else. She makes a hell of a rum, and I’d like it to stay that way.”
She didn’t know the half of it. I eyed the Beaulieu’s and blinked up the clock. Four twenty-seven. Jesus.
I blinked up the two numbers that ruled my life: the number of people I’d recruited into the Union, and my cash reserve. I knew both numbers by heart, since they hadn’t changed in the past six months: 467 and 120,300. I’d fought like hell to get those people included in my headcount, and I’d scrimped to keep that bank account as filled as possible. It was enough money to buy out Tonggow now, but I needed the pension and completion bonus to get through the first few years of production. And I wouldn’t get there until I’d recruited five hundred people. It was so close I could taste my first batch of Old Windswept. Those mining ships would come in, those people would emerge from the can with my name on their lips, and I’d never have to deal with this crap ever again.
“You looked at your numbers again,” said Big Lily.
“You bet I did,” I said.
“Just don’t go crazy with it,” she said, pouring a splash of Beaulieu’s into a rocks glass and giving it a swirl. “Take it from a Shareholder who’s been in your shoes: what you do for the Union is important, but being your own boss? That’s more important.” She took a sip, then nodded. “At least Bill Beaulieu is still up to standard.”
“I’m sure he’d be thrilled,” I said.
“Hey, he was a Breach once, just like you, just like me,” said Big Lily. “He came here with nothing, did the same shit-work we all did, and he earned his way up and out. If a nice guy like him can make it, you’re a shoo-in.” She laughed, and I blinked away my numbers.
“It hasn’t happened yet,” I said. “Besides, those people might not Breach after all. Some other recruiter might nab them for their headcount. Carmody or Leslie Paik. Even Neil Scoon might rouse himself from his tomato patch to get ’em.”
“Or Saarien,” said Big Lily.
“Especially Saarien,” I said. “You know how many Breaches he’s pinched from me?”
“I think we all do, Padma.”
I sagged onto the bartop, careful to avoid the stain. “Every time I’ve gotten close to adding someone to my headcount, he snatches them away. Like those economists! You have any idea what we could do with that kind of expertise in Brushhead?”
Big Lily shook her head.
“Me neither, but I’d have done something with them. Instead, he keeps ’em all working in that deathtrap he calls a refinery, sucking away funding from the rest of us. Hell, now he’s talking about turning Sou’s Reach into an artisan community!”
“That’d be something,” said Big Lily.
“He stood up at the last Union Board meeting and said, ‘We need to acknowledge and nurture our innate creativity.’ Walked away with a hundred thousand yuan to make glassware or some crap like that. Just because he has the highest headcount on the planet.”
“I know he’s pissed you off by poaching bodies from you, but that’s how it was even during the peak times. Everyone wants out of their Slots, and recruiters want to make their numbers.”
“Yeah, but does he have to be such a dick about it?”
Big Lily shrugged. “Evanrute Saarien may an asshole, but he’s a loyal asshole.”
I almost spat on the bar, then thought better of it. “To himself, sure.”
“And to the Union,” said Big Lily, wiping the highball glasses clean. “He’s gone to the mat for his people, got his head cracked in the same picket lines as the rest of us. He may get wrapped up in all his speeches about the Struggle, but we’re on the same side, Padma.”
“His ego crowds out anyone else on his side.”
Big Lily shook her head. “You sure you’re not pissed because of what he used to do? A little transference, maybe?”
“Saarien isn’t the only former Corporate recruiter here,” I said. “What about Chenisse Lau? I used to hang out with her a lot.”
“You used to get in fights with her a lot,” said Big Lily. “Remember that year I banned you both from here?”
“She started it,” I said, looking into my tea. “Saying I didn’t pay attention to my Ward. What the hell did she know?”
“My point, Padma,” said Big Lily, “is that, while I can appreciate your desire to get your payout, there’s still plenty here to focus on. Chenisse was right: your Ward has to come first.”
“If you’re trying to tell me to go along with Bloombeck for the good of the Ward–”
“Oh, hell, no!” Big Lily laughed. “But what you did for Odd? That’s what you should be doing more of. Especially since it gets you stuff like this.” She put a plate of kumara cakes before me.
I smelled the sweet steamy cakes. “Oh, you are a doll.” I broke open a cake and took a bite, the hot filling burning my tongue.
Big Lily shook her head, then took out a fluted tasting glass off the rack behind her. She set it down in front of me, next to the bottle of Beaulieu’s.
“I told you, it’s not after six,” I said, reaching for another cake.
“It’s not for you,” she said, nodding to the other end of the room. I followed her chin and saw a guy sitting by the window. He wasn’t really my type, but he had a chest like a rum barrel and eyes that didn’t look too hard. “He’s been watching you all afternoon.”
“You have the best way of looking out for your customers.”
“It’s my job to know what my customers need,” said Big Lily, throwing me a wink and walking to the other end of the bar.
I grabbed my tea and the bottle and the glass and walked over to the window. The man with the not-hard eyes looked up at me.
“I like your taste,” he said, flicking his eyes at the rum.
“It’s not my favorite,” I said, sitting down across from him. He had a circle of stars around his Union ink, the sign of someone who’d put in time on the anchor. “But I still like to share it.”
He nodded as I poured him a shot of Beaulieu’s. “Sharing’s good.”
“So am I.” We clinked glasses.
Labor organizer Padma Mehta is on the edge of space and the edge of burnout. All she wants is to buy out a little rum distillery and retire, but she’s supposed to recruit 500 people to the Union before she can. She’s only thirty-three short. So when a small-time con artist tells her about forty people ready to tumble down the space elevator to break free from her old bosses, she checks it out — against her better judgment. It turns out, of course, it was all lies.
As Padma should know by now, there are no easy shortcuts on her planet. And suddenly retirement seems farther away than ever: she’s just stumbled into a secret corporate mission to stop a plant disease that could wipe out all the industrial sugarcane in Occupied Space. If she ever wants to have another drink of her favorite rum, she’s going to have to fight her way through the city’s warehouses, sewage plants, and up the elevator itself to stop this new plague.