Last December, R.E. Stearns’ debut space opera novel Barbary Station blew me away. Set in a futuristic solar system that feels similar to the world of The Expanse, it follows two aspiring engineers, Adda and Iridian, as they leave behind corporate jobs and exorbitant student loans to join a pirate crew led by Captain Sloan on a space station called Barbary Station. Upon arriving, they discover a dire situation: the crew is trapped by the station’s AI, which has gone rogue and is trying to kill everyone on board.
Eventually, they escape, and in Stearns’ next novel Mutiny at Vesta, the whole crew jets off to their base of operations on the asteroid Vesta, only to find that their situation is more perilous than they realized. A mega-corporation traps them into a contract, forcing them to prey on civilian and transport ships that they wouldn’t have targeted on their own, while the AIs that followed them off Barbary Station have their own agenda.
Mutiny at Vesta hits bookstores on October 2nd, but we have an excerpt for you to read while you wait.
Adda subvocalized the terms to her comp and scanned the Interplanetary Transit Authority’s passenger vessel requirements. The small ITA contingent in Rheasilvia’s docks should’ve stopped and inspected passenger ships that lacked a permit and special insurance. The bribes Sloane’s crew paid should protect the Casey and its crew, but Adda didn’t want to risk putting the ITA agents in that position.
Apparently the captain didn’t either. Sloane had been off Vesta for a long time. Things might’ve changed.
To keep herself occupied during the trip from Barbary Station, Adda had scoped out the ITA’s databanks. After careful trial and one or two frightening errors, she’d exploited a backdoor entry into several corners of the ITA’s internal system. As the newest systems infiltrator on a pirate crew, she expected to get good use out of that access to humanity’s largest semiofficial law enforcement organization. She hadn’t planned to use it this soon, but it was the best solution she saw to the problem at hand.
“I’ll send the code again,” Captain Sloane said more loudly. “Our copilot caught a virus, you see . . .”
A string of letters and numbers appeared on Adda’s comp. She gasped and Iridian said something. Adda’s hands shook while she inserted the code and the Casey’s ID into the ITA’s system.
“Apology accepted,” Sloane said in the direction of the bridge console’s mic. “We’ll proceed.”
“Fucking unnecessary,” Tritheist grumbled.
“Babe, talk to me.” Iridian shook Adda by the shoulder. “Are you okay?”
Adda nodded slowly. “The Casey got into my comp again.” The awakened intelligence had broken through her new defenses around her data, and she didn’t even know when it’d happened. Her motion sickness returned at full strength. Strange sensations in her neural implant net could be a side effect of extended periods in close contact with awakened intelligences. As far as she knew, she was the first person ever to have spent this much time with one. That was the terrifying, exciting beauty of traveling with them. She should take more notes.
Beside her, Iridian swore and muttered, “That invasive, invisible, parasitic—”
“It also helped us create a passenger transport permit so we wouldn’t be stopped.” That meant that the Casey had been listening to what they said in the cabin, watching Adda’s comp activity, and drawing accurate conclusions about what Adda was doing. And then it’d created an unused ID in the correct format, which might’ve taken Adda more time than she’d had.
Even though the Casey’s intelligence crawling through her personal hardware was a violation, she felt obligated to defend it. The Casey’s intelligence, and those of the other two ships from Barbary Station, were likely the only awakened intelligences in the universe. She refused to put them at risk of deactivation by anyone, even her wife.
Footsteps approached from the bridge. Captain Sloane clutched recessed handholds in the wall to maintain balance in the shifting g-forces the Casey generated as it flew toward their designated dock. While Adda had been concentrating on her comp, the captain had donned a full suit of gold and black armor, covered with the long coat Adda associated with captaincy. Like Tritheist, the captain’s helmet faceplate was raised to communicate without a comms system. Equipment and supplies clanked and thumped belowdeck.
“We’ll dock shortly, but I’ve recommended to the Casey that she depart afterward,” Captain Sloane said. “We should leave the docks and enter the main part of the station quickly as well.”
“Something up, sir?” Iridian was still working on shaking her military habit of calling everyone “sir” unless they looked significantly feminine. Captain Sloane looked solidly nonbinary. “I don’t love flying around in a ship that could break all our brains if it tried hard enough, but it’s the only one we have.”
“As I’ve been unable to confirm that port authorities have been suitably compensated for our convenience,” the captain said—Adda interpreted “compensated” as “bribed”—”there’s some possibility that we’ll receive a well-armed welcome from one or more local interests. We have nothing to gain by waiting for a firefight, but I’d rather the Casey not sustain damage and retaliate against us or the station.” That was one of many possible reactions, all equally likely and difficult to predict. The Casey didn’t have guns of its own as far as Adda knew, but its awakened AI didn’t need weapons to cause damage.
“You’re assuming it will stay or go because I ask it to,” Adda said. Captain Sloane gave her an incredulous look, and she shrugged. She wished she had a better answer, but she was as worried as the captain probably was about what the Casey would do. She had a lot of experience with normal AIs. There were no experts on awakened ones.
“Who’s suicidal enough to shoot at us?” Tritheist gripped the handle of a chem canister launcher at his hip. He scowled toward the interior door to the passthrough, the half-a-hallway structure that connected to a dock’s half-a-hallway to create an airlock, like he expected someone to break in. “This is your dock, on your station.”
Sloane shrugged, the casual gesture magnified in the armored suit and at odds with the way the captain watched the bridge console, where threats would be projected on a simplified map. “It’s been two years since I was in a position to supervise crew assets personally, and I’ve had difficulty reconnecting with my usual information sources. People become . . . ambitious.” Captain Sloane pointedly looked from Adda to Iridian. “I’ve not yet risked contacting my headquarters since we left Barbary.” The lead cloud surrounding Barbary Station would’ve made Sloane’s contact with whoever was left in charge of the crew’s headquarters sporadic at best. It would’ve been impossible without the Casey, who had occasionally carried messages out to the rest of the universe.
While Iridian helped Adda and Pel free themselves from the wall, Sloane murmured something in Tritheist’s ear, knocked two knuckles against the lieutenant’s armored chest, and returned to the bridge console. “First thing’s a station sec scan,” Tritheist announced, as if the three people he was lecturing weren’t a meter or two away from his face. “Most of the weapons are in a shielded compartment and that should be all the illegals we’re carrying, but we’ve never scanned the Casey ourselves so we don’t know what she’s got hidden. Stay calm, keep your hands visible, move slow.”
“Yes, sir.” Iridian’s hint of sarcasm was too small for Tritheist to call her out for it, but if even Adda identified it then it also couldn’t be missed.
The whole ship felt as if it had turned abruptly on its side, and sickening weightlessness returned as the Casey slowed to a near stop. Adda’s hair, which fell over her eyes in Earthlike gravity, drifted up and out of her way. Iridian’s shaved scalp kept her looking as powerful and confident as usual.
Tritheist kept talking. Iridian would tell Adda anything she needed to know later. If there were any hidden compartments in the Casey’s main cabin, they were well hidden from Adda’s perspective. The ship’s comprehensive communications suite and the manacles installed on the bathroom wall suggested that the Casey was designed for espionage. Three awakened shipboard intelligences had left Barbary Station with Sloane’s crew, but only this copilot intelligence had changed its own name. The Casey smuggling a previous owner’s contraband was a real possibility.
“Scanning now,” Sloane said. “It doesn’t affect their work, but they prefer that we stay relatively still.”
As soon as Sloane and Tritheist looked back to the bridge console, Pel waved his arms above his head. Adda yanked the one she could reach down to his side. “Grow up!” she whispered.
“We should have been cleared by now, Captain,” Tritheist grumbled.
“Formalities must be addressed,” said Captain Sloane. “Particularly if my influence on dock security has diminished.”
“Dock sec should be keeping the ITA pricks occupied like they fucking used to. Where do they think their pay comes from? It’s sure as hell not ITA; that’s the point of joint stationspace control. All they have to do is get us through the damned docks. Useless.” Tritheist lapsed into spacefarer cant, which was multilingual gibberish to Adda.
The window projected onto the wall replaced the view of the dock passthrough’s exterior wall slowly moving past them with route records. This route had taken them through most of the Near Earth Union, with a stopover on Mars before exiting NEU territory en route to Vesta, one of several populated asteroids in the asteroid belt. That trip would’ve been much longer than their actual route, which had cut across the reliable routes between Vesta and Barbary Station.
Adda hadn’t told the Casey to do that either. She subvocalized to her virtual intermediary to see if it could find any indications as to how and why the Casey was making those decisions. AI were frequently incomprehensible even when they wanted to be understood, but it was worth trying.
The bridge console pinged three times in quick succession. Captain Sloane looked at Tritheist, who skimmed through some text projected in the center of his black comp glove. “That’s ‘cleared to engage passthrough locks,’ Captain.” The Casey was completing the docking maneuver on its own, but Sloane still had to act like a pilot to avoid raising suspicions among the Rheasilvia Station dock personnel.
Captain Sloane nodded, once. “So the ITA are satisfied. My people have done the minimum required to facilitate our arrival. Now I wonder who might be waiting in the terminal.”
Sloane stepped through the Casey’s open interior door and stopped on one side of the passthrough’s exterior door, which was still closed. Tritheist stood on the other side, skimming a map on his comp glove. “This isn’t our dock, is it?” The lieutenant’s question sounded more like a grim acknowledgement than an effort to clarify.
Sloane’s shoulders slumped slightly, matching the captain’s resigned frown. “It is not.”
Iridian stepped into the passthrough with them, although three was the maximum number of people the ship’s airlock could comfortably hold. “How can you tell?”
“This is my home,” said Captain Sloane. “I know how the route to my terminal feels.”
“We’ve been off Barbary Station long enough for news to make it here,” Iridian said.
“Unlike the ITA stationed here, the Rheasilvia constabulary, and whomever is behind them, know who I am.” Sloane’s voice was calm, but the captain’s flushed face could mean anger or embarrassment. Possibly both. Vesta should’ve been their safe haven. Adda sighed as she let go of that particular hope. “Weapons?” Captain Sloane added.
Iridian took long steps to a compartment in the bedroom. She tossed bowl-shaped palmers of the pirates’ design to Sloane and Tritheist. The weapons fit into the palm of one hand and disabled human targets with some kind of invisible particle beam when fired. She kept one for herself and patted her shield, currently collapsed into a small rectangle of folded metal hanging on her belt hook. Another palmer was still in the shielded compartment, but Adda’s aim wasn’t much better than Pel’s.
Sloane fitted a palmer on over one armored glove, with the bowl shape facing outward, then gripped a handhold in the passthrough wall. “Tritheist, Iridian, Adda, you will join me in a meeting with the current station leadership to determine who allowed this inconvenience to occur. If killing someone will stop this incompetence, I will do it.”
Adda inquired, very carefully through her digital intermediary, whether the Casey would be able to subsume whatever AI coordinated Rheasilvia Station’s law enforcement. With intelligences there was a very fine line between “ability to do something” and “do something now,” but if Captain Sloane were expecting violence, now would be the time to risk that miscommunication.
The intermediary reappeared, from Adda’s perspective, in the center of the Casey’s cabin. It thrust its hand into her comp glove, through her own hand, with no sensation to accompany the motion since she was in reality, not a virtual workspace. Her comp screen filled with several hundred links to vids and articles about awakened, or nearly awakened, AI that had been summarily executed by humanity and their networked zombie intelligences.
“You’ve made your point,” Adda murmured to the Casey’s AI copilot. Intelligences didn’t experience fear, but their developers granted them a degree of self-preservation, which awakening should strengthen. Although the Casey might be willing and able to overpower Rheasilvia Station’s management AI, doing so carried too big a risk of strangers discovering the Casey’s awakened status and subsequently destroying it. That was a more specific hint at the Casey’s decision-making motivations than she’d expected her intermediary to find.
The intermediary also delivered results of the Casey’s dock systems scan. Everything from the maintenance schedule to the buoy guidance system carried Oxia’s markings. The corporation only stored its most essential, short-term data locally. The whole exchange between Adda and the intermediary had taken less than ten seconds.
Iridian returned to her strap-in station beside Adda and pointed at a red symbol that had appeared over the window projection beside the passthrough. It was a square with a stick-figure person, arms and legs extended in an X shape, hovering in its center. “When you see that symbol, it means you’re losing some grav within the next sixty seconds,” said Iridian. “It’s mostly gone already. Vesta’s grav is pretty low, like a tenth of Earth’s Moon’s grav, I think.”
“Is there a sound for that, too?” asked Pel. “She can put up all the symbols she wants, and they won’t tell me a thing.”
“You know, I’ve never heard the Casey use audio alerts,” said Iridian. “If we have to get back on this thing again, maybe Adda can ask it to add those.”
Adda gripped the straps over her shoulders, but the worst gravity shifts were over. The wall and floor were in their correct position, and they barely shuddered as the Casey’s passthrough connected to the station and the “docking complete” notification lit beside the interior passthrough door.
The passthrough’s exterior door clunked and whirred open. Iridian activated her boot magnets and freed herself from her harness. Her kiss bumped the back of Adda’s head against the wall. “We made it this far!” She crouched to activate the magnets on Adda’s boots and help her down. Gravity’s pull toward the floor was so slight that it justified the Casey’s warning.
Adda turned toward the bridge console on reflex, although the intelligence was listening on active mics throughout the ship. “Casey, we may need to leave quickly. Will you wait here fifteen minutes?” She glanced at Sloane, who nodded. The Casey added a countdown timer to the console projection of ship statuses and the starscape framed in Rheasilvia Station’s interconnecting architecture.
“What are you doing, deploying AI without the captain’s order?” Tritheist snarled.
Sloane put a hand on his arm, pushing him away from Adda in the low gravity. Tritheist staggered backward as his boots gripped the metal floor. “She’s welcome to create as many emergency exits as she’s able.”
“With respect, Captain, that AI is dangerous.” Tritheist’s tone and volume softened to communicate deference.
“Fuckin’ A,” Iridian muttered.
“As are we all,” said Captain Sloane.
Pel beamed at this assessment, from his tangle of straps and limbs in the strap-down station against the wall. The long coat drifted around the captain’s boots in Vesta’s low gravity as Sloane, Iridian, and Tritheist walked through the Casey’s passthrough and into the terminal, Iridian in front with her collapsed shield on her belt. Adda, feeling distinctly harmless in their company, helped Pel peel himself off the wall to follow them.
Cams mounted prominently on the terminal walls recorded an empty room outside the passthrough. The words oxia corporation welcomes you to rheasilvia station, accompanied by a shape that looked like a flower with three petals, were physically printed onto wall paneling that amplified the crew’s steps in the empty space. Sloane’s lip curled into a cultured grimace of disgust as the captain read the message. The terminal’s far door, presumably leading to the rest of the station, was closed. No one waited there to greet them.
If Sloane’s second-in-command on Vesta wanted to welcome them back, she should have at least sent a lackey with VIP passes for public transportation. And if she wanted to alert station security to the crew’s presence without alarming Captain Sloane, then she should’ve sent an expendable lackey. The empty terminal felt like a trap, but not one arranged by whomever Sloane was planning to meet.
Adda caught Sloane’s eye and hoped she looked less afraid as she felt. “We’re leaving, yes?”
Sloane passed them on the way into the Casey’s passthrough, pulling Tritheist through an abrupt turn toward the ship with a grip on his elbow. “We are.”
“Wait, what?” Pel said. “We just got here! There’s a bar in the nightlife module where—”
Adda grabbed his wrist while Iridian pulled the folded metal rectangle from her belt. When Iridian shook the folded metal, it expanded into a semitransparent shield that covered most of Pel and Adda while Iridian held it between them and the empty terminal.
Adda smiled her thanks. Iridian’s shield stance, with her bent knees, feet apart, strong arm raised, and hard, dark eyes was a thing to behold.
Something slapped into the shield near Iridian’s elbow. Her arm thumped into Adda’s and Pel’s chests and they both tumbled up the ramp after Sloane and Tritheist. Iridian swore and dragged the shield along the outer passthrough door’s frame like she was scraping something off it. “Get in!”
She inhaled like she was going to shout something else, but a small explosion drowned her out. Fragments clattered off the passthrough walls and into the Casey’s main cabin, the low gravity cluttering the air with them as well as the floor and ceiling. Iridian bounced off the far wall and caught the base of the Casey’s pseudo-organic tank to stop herself from careening back into the passthrough. The pinkish-gray liquid in the tank sloshed against its sealed lid. The exterior door thumped shut.
The Casey’s engines hadn’t had time to cool, so its passengers needed to strap in before the takeoff bounced them off walls too. Adda pulled Pel toward the strap-in stations across from the passthrough and stuck one of the straps in his hand.
“Hey, I am literally in the dark!” said Pel. “What’s going on?”
“We’re under attack,” Adda said. “Captain, do you think it’s station security, ITA, or someone else?”
“Since they attempted to apprehend us quietly,” Sloane called from the bridge console, “that rules out the ITA.” Explosives didn’t fit into Adda’s definition of “quiet,” but this seemed like a bad time to argue with the captain. Tritheist swept small pieces of metal from the air and pocketed them on his way to the seat at the desk console, on the opposite end of the main cabin.
Iridian stood and slammed her fist on the control panel beside the passthrough. The passthrough’s inner door shut with a low hiss. Her bare head and hands bled red droplets that drifted toward the floor. “I hate getting blown up. Let’s go.”
Adda pulled a coiled cable from its hiding place in her heavy silver necklace. One end plugged into her comp glove, and she threaded the other into her pinkie-finger-size nasal jack. The chrome jack connected her neural implant net directly into her comp glove’s system, which let her work faster than she could have with external inputs alone.
She subvocalized a command to her comp to re-create her gray intermediary, which appeared in the main cabin. Only she could see it. Today its humanlike figure had Captain Sloane’s broad shoulders and long, flowing hair, which whisked around the figure in the still cabin air as she directed it to interface with the Casey’s intelligence.
Iridian stomped across the ship in her magnetic boots, bleeding and scowling and beautiful and terrible. Adda stood in mute admiration until Iridian pressed her back into her harness. It had, perhaps, been too long a trip in the company of Adda’s employer and little brother. The lack of a honeymoon to go with her wedding was surprisingly distracting.
Iridian barely got Pel and herself strapped in before the ship lurched backward—forward, except behind them? Gods, there was no right way to describe ship motion without math—and disconnected its passthrough from the dock.
From the pilot’s rotating seat at the bridge console, Sloane called, “Adda, comm interference would be convenient.”
“On it,” Adda said. The Casey was capable of handling that itself, but it hadn’t so far. “Are you listening? Flash lights once for yes,” Adda murmured. She startled when the whole cabin went dark for a second.
“What the fuck was that?” Tritheist shouted.
“Roll call,” Adda said so quietly that only Pel and Iridian reacted, Pel with a nervous laugh and Iridian with the frown she wore every time they discussed AI.
The Casey’s transmitters were occupied with a long-range comm already in progress, and it stopped Adda from reallocating any of its comm capabilities to interfere with law enforcement broadcasts. None of the human occupants’ comps were connected to the system as far as Adda could tell through her intermediary. The Casey was communicating with parties unknown. Adda settled for a comp-based program, which triggered other transmitters as they came in range to create radiating signal waves. It was the best she could do, for now.
With gravity pulling on her harder than ever at the speed the Casey was flying, taking one of the thumbprint-size purple squares from her sharpsheet case was tricky. Adda laid the premeasured dose on her tongue and activated systems interface programs on her comp while the sharpsheet sizzled and dissolved.
The window projected across the passthrough door, and the wall opposite Adda displayed Rheasilvia Station’s metallic latticework whizzing by so close to the Casey’s hull cams that Adda flinched. Some spaces between beams looked large enough for the Casey to fly through, although Adda fervently hoped it wouldn’t.
They rocketed over the lip of the crater, revealing a horizon much closer than Adda’s Earth upbringing had led her to expect. Then the Casey dove back into the maze of Rheasilvia’s industrial installations, which branched toward acres of solar panels surrounding the station.
The floor in front of the doors to the bedroom and bathroom lit up with a projection of two small wedge-shaped ships. Piercingly bright red and blue lights lit the Oxia Corporation logo on the ships’ sides. It wasn’t the ITA’s insignia, at least. The ships’ outlines were highlighted in a dashed red and blue line, a visual code that law enforcement vessels throughout populated space used to identify themselves. The sharpsheets’ effects shivered through her mind and begged for a focus. Adda closed her eyes to concentrate on finding and scrambling their pursuers’ comm frequency.
A few minutes later, a jolt and a horrifyingly loud scraping sound from the ceiling made her eyes open wide. The ceiling currently felt like more of a side than up or down. The wall behind her shook. The cam projecting above her head showed metal tubes that curved up on either edge of the view. Something crunched and the ceiling turned into a black void for several seconds, until the Casey shut off the projector.
“We didn’t break off something important, did we?”
The fear in Pel’s voice persuaded Adda to sacrifice accuracy for comfort. “Whatever it was didn’t slow us down.” She had to yell over the continuous dragging scrape, which now came from both above and below them. It stopped abruptly. The projection by the doors showed the opposite direction of the one they were going in (gods, how did spacefarers define that?) and displayed a passage between two loops of metal that looked too narrow for a human to stand in.
The comm traffic her comp projected across the back of her hand indicated that the passage was giving the station security vehicles pause. Adda closed her eyes, relying on subvocalized commands to redirect her comm interference efforts as needed.
“Captain, how many of the evasion maneuvers are up to you?” Iridian asked, referring to preprogrammed ones that pilots could activate at will, according to stories Adda had read.
“None,” Sloane said. “The bridge console appears to be disconnected from maneuvering controls.”
Iridian squirmed against the wall beside Adda. Adda risked a glance at her, and mostly saw her knuckles whitening around the straps at her shoulder before nausea forced Adda’s eyes closed again. “Casey,” said Iridian, “don’t get us killed.”