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Howling Dark

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Howling Dark

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Author: Christopher Ruocchio
Publisher: Gollancz, 2019
DAW Books, 2019
Series: Sun Eater: Book 2
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
Sub-Genre Tags: Science-Fantasy
Space Opera
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Hadrian Marlowe is lost.

For half a century, he has searched the farther suns for the lost planet of Vorgossos, hoping to discover a way to contact the elusive alien Cielcin. He has pursued false leads for years among the barbarian Normans as captain of a band of mercenaries, but Hadrian remains determined to make peace and bring an end to nearly four hundred years of war.

Desperate to find answers, Hadrian must venture beyond the security of the Sollan Empire and among the Extrasolarians who dwell between the stars. There, he will face not only the aliens he has come to offer peace, but contend with creatures that once were human, with traitors in his midst, and with a meeting that will bring him face to face with no less than the oldest enemy of mankind.

If he succeeds, he will usher in a peace unlike any in recorded history. If he fails, the galaxy will burn.



Green eyes watched from the darkness like statues in a fog. I felt them like fishhooks in me, dragging me upward. I felt wrong. Cold. The image of Bordelon's face on the holograph-moments before I wiped it from existence-seemed to float on the air. His was not alone. Gilliam's was there, lips twisted as he was, a sneer made flesh. And Uvanari. A confusion of sound filled my universe: the screams of dying men, the cheering of the Colosso crowd, my own blood pounding in my ear.

I knew then, knew that I had been dead, and that all this sensory weight was the cost and burden of consciousness returning. Of being alive. I was alive. Again.

"Lord Commandant?" A familiar voice, strangely accented, hinting at a language I could not remember-if indeed I knew it at all. "Lord Commandant?"

I was hiding in a basement on Pharos, that was it. There was a woman with me, a woman I loved, her hair blacker than the shadows. We were hiding from Bordelon and the Normans after they sold us to Admiral Whent. No. No, that was a long time ago, and a long time since Emesh, but my confused brain drank the scent of her and of burning wood, recalling the warmth of her and the taste of the ration bars we had shared alone in the darkness.

"Lord Commandant?"

The fog was clearing, retreating into the depths of history and of time as yet uncounted. I could still hear shouts, sobs, and I knew they were my own, conducted through bone and time to make me feel and see the horrors of my past because to know them was to be alive. Hard fingers tore my clothes that night in Borosevo, Cat's body sank into the canals... At once sharp as new experience, my memories retreated from me like votive lanterns to the skies. I grasped at them, and found my arms like trunks of lead, unmoving. Warmth was rising in me, chasing out that pelagic cold, bleeding in from both my arms.


I was in a bed. Or else in something very like a bed, and someone was standing over me. I beheld old Tor Gibson, his gray eyes green in my delirium-green as his robes-his leonine mane and whiskers bristling in the wind off Meidua's waters.

"Dead?" I croaked, unsure if I meant himself or me.

The old scholiast smiled. "Not yet. We might avoid that yet."

"Lord Commandant, lie still please." That strange voice. Familiar. It came from Gibson's mouth, or so I thought. "You're still fugue-blind."

"No," I said, looking at the scholiast. "I can... can see Gibson."

"There's no one here but us!" The voice had moved, was opposite Gibson now, but the scholiast had not changed.

When Gibson spoke, his lips did not move. The actor knows he is on stage. The character knows there is no stage. It sounded like one of his scholiast's aphorisms, but I could not remember it.

I was going mad. I was in a basement on Pharos-or was that years ago? She had been there with me, with Admiral Whent's thugs out after us, and we had come out alive. And Gibson was dead. And I'd been dead-or nearly so. Frozen.

"Do you know where you are?"

A question, a question that spoke to the oldest exploratory and orienting circuits in the ancientmost corners of my brain. Do you know where you are?

As if the curtains on a stage were pulled back and the holography of the set pieces generated, the fog cleared and the real world took form. I was in medica. White walls, white floor, white ceiling. Too clean. I lay in the opened husk of a portable fugue crche that someone had floated in here and bolted to the slab for revival. Turning, I saw that Gibson was gone. A hallucination? A vision brought on doubtless by the fact that there was still a part of me that thought in Gibson's voice.

Twelve years since Emesh.

It came back to me. "We're on the Pharaoh." We had acquired the ship on Pharos, had taken it after that business with the Normans and Admiral Whent, after Bordelon betrayed us. We had been hired-alongside Bordelon's company-to run weapons to freedom fighters attempting to overthrow the planetary dictator Marius Whent, all part of our efforts to build our credibility as a mercenary outfit as we hunted for Vorgossos. But Bordelon had betrayed us, and we had been forced to fight our way out. Marius Whent had been forced to surrender. Emil Bordelon had been killed, betrayed in his turn by his own soldiers-because I'd made them an offer they could not refuse.

The woman at my bedside, an ink-skinned Norman with hair like curling steel, nodded a judicious little nod. "Yes. And do you know who I am?" She wore a set of burgundy fatigues, form-fitting. A uniform. My uniform, I had designed it, with the flapped pockets and piped sleeves.

"Doctor Okoyo," I said, an address and not an answer, "I don't think there was any cryoburn." I tried to sit up, at once aware as Adam of my nakedness.

"Don't move, Lord Marlowe." She pushed me down, gentle but firm, and said, "I've not got all the TX9 out of you."

Turning, I saw the blood bags hanging from their staff beside me. AB Positive. Opposite was a drip pan emptying the anti-freezing agent from my veins. It shone cerulean in the too-white light; almost black. After a moment, I said, "You could have left me for a medtech, doctor."

Okoyo snorted. "Commodore Lin would skin me if I did that, and you Imperial types actually skin people."

"You have a point," I conceded, "but you've nothing to fear from us, surely." We sat in silence a moment, the doctor busying herself with a diagnostic terminal while I pretended I was not naked and aware of it. I tried to sort the visions I had seen. Waking from fugue was never easy. The men who had abandoned me on Emesh had shoved just enough blood in me that they could not be accused of murder, and I had been unconscious for that ordeal, but on each occasion since, I had passed through a warren of memory and noise to the quiet of the world. The brain hyper-acted, so they said, on returning to consciousness. It was like dying, I thought, for in fugue the processes of my life were suspended as in formaldehyde, and that was as good as being dead. I was little different than a corpse, or a side of meat in a freezer.

I was wrong, of course. It is nothing like dying. Nothing at all.

"What's the standard date?"

"Sixteen two-nineteen point one-one." She did not turn her head.

"November," I mused. Of the Year of our Empire 16219. Forty-eight years since Emesh, though I had lived but twelve of them. Forty-eight years pretending to be mercenaries. Forty-eight years free of Count Mataro and his designs on me for his daughter. Forty-eight years a special conscript of the Legions of the Sun.

Forty-eight more years of war. Of the abortive, genocidal crusade against the Cielcin, the xenobites who drank of human worlds and preyed upon our people like wolves among sheep. Forty-eight years hunting for Vorgossos, carrying Cielcin prisoners and the hope of parley. Of peace.

"Is there some news?" I asked, sitting up now that the doctor could not stop me. My head swam, and I braced myself against the hard edges of my crche. After a moment I stabilized, and tore a folded robe from the slab beside me. "Did we get a lead on that arms dealer the pirates gave us back on Sanora?" The doctor turned at the sound of my movement and hurried to my side. Her voice strained, she tried to lay me back down, but I held up a hand. "I'm just trying to cover myself."

Okoyo glowered. "You're just trying to make yourself pass out, Lord Marlowe."

"It's all right," I murmured, voice suddenly faint. "It's all right."

She kept an arm around my shoulders, and it was all I could do to puddle the robe in my lap-but that was enough. My own breathing consumed my attention, thick and wet. Rolling, I bent over the drip pan and coughed up a glob of the violet suspension fluid that yet settled in my lungs. "You're not all right," Okoyo said. "You've been an ice cube for the last six years."

"Six years?" I asked, surprised. I had not done the math. "Where are we?"

The doctor shook her head. "Best leave that to the Commodore, Lord."

Bassander Lin looked older than I remembered, and I wondered just how much of the intervening travel time the prickly captain had spent awake. I say captain, of course, because that was what he was. His role as Commodore was a mask, a persona, as much as was my position of Lord Commandant. The change in him was a subtle thing: no creasing about the eyes or mouth, no gray at the temples. But then, Lin was patrician, a bronze-skinned Mandari from an old family, his blood nearly so elevated as mine. The only real change lay within those black eyes of his. Something had hardened in them, the slow venom of our long association transmuted to amber; crystallized. His quarters aboard the Pharaoh had belonged to the Norman Commodore Emil Bordelon, and Bassander Lin had made some effort to remove all signs of the rooms' previous occupant. The pornographic artwork was all gone, the ornate frames discarded, the carpets removed. I could still see the fixtures in the floor where the Commodore's too-large bed had been, replaced by a simple soldier's cot. There were no blankets.

"Sleep well?" he asked, surveying me from behind his desk. "Okoyo gave you a clean bill of health." He had an annoying habit of answering his own questions. So I didn't speak, but slumped low in my chair, uncomfortable in my crimson uniform. Bassander was dressed identically, but on him the high collar and tokens of rank seemed to rest easy. I at least had no badges to wear, save the sigil I had made, picked out in gold thread on the left bicep. Bassander toyed with a heavy mug on his desk, not looking at me. "That woman Corvo thinks she's found our man."

I sat upright, leaning over the edge of the desk. Lin's flinty gaze tripped over my face, and he took a drink. "The Painted Man?" That was what the Sanoran pirates had called him.

The captain shook his head and stood, turning his back. "Some bastard called Samir. He works for The Painted Man, or so Corvo tells it." He was built like a rapier, rail-thin and slim-shouldered, and stood framed against a holograph plate depicting a collage of security feeds from inside the Pharaoh. "She sent one of her lieutenants down to the planet. He made contact."

"We have Vorgossos, then?" I asked.

Bassander did not move, save to toggle the feeds on his holograph plate, displaying other parts of his ship. "No." He put his hands on his hips, and I noticed the highmatter sword clipped there. It had belonged to Admiral Marius Whent, who had nearly cost us our lives during the Pharos affair. "Corvo's man says Samir's a local, just someone who covers for the Extrasolarian."

"We need to set up a meeting..."

"It seems that way." The captain shrugged, running hands through his wood-smoke hair. "Wouldn't be a problem if we had the 437th with us, but... with a band of misfits like ours... it's a joke." We could not have called for reinforcements in any case. They were thousands of light-years and decades of real time away.

"Just because we're a front, Bassander," I said, biting off his name, "does not mean we're a joke."

Bassander Lin made a small dismissive noise in his throat and looked back at his screens. "We're outnumbered six to one by those Normans you picked up, as if your Colosso rats weren't bad enough."

It took a long, steady breath to keep me from hurling his mug at him. I crossed my arms instead. "We needed reinforcements."

"We needed soldiers."

"They are soldiers."

"They're foederati!" Bassander turned around at last. "They're loyal so long as we pay them. They'd turn on us in a moment if they saw a better offer."

"Then we don't let them get a better offer." It was my turn then to snort derisively. "We're paying them half again as much as Bordelon was."

"That's not to say a higher bidder won't come along. I don't trust them. I don't trust Corvo. It's only working because the money is steady."

"Won't it stay that way?" I asked, putting my face in my hands. My head was pounding; I'd left medica far too soon. "The Empire. The Legions are backing us. Corvo knows that. The Meidua Red Company-"

"The Meidua Red Company," Bassander sneered, shaking his head as he slung back into Commodore Bordelon's old chair. "Do you know what it is? For me?"

I pressed my fingers against my eyes, tried to clear my head. "The tribune gave us a mission, to find the Cielcin, to try and-"

"It's a punishment post. She's saddled me with you and your misfits, Earth only knows why."

My eyes narrowed. "How long have you been awake?" He spoke like a man too long on his own, like he'd rehearsed this conversation with himself a thousand times in the naked corridors of the Pharaoh while the rest of us slept. Bassander seemed to take my point without answering it. He glowered, allowing me the opening to ask, "So you want me to head down to the surface? Find Samir? Find this Painted Man?"

The Commodore who was truly a captain frowned. "I just want you holding Corvo's leash. Like I said: I don't trust her."

"She's been with us now for seventeen standard years," I said. "I gave her command of the Mistral." At another look from Bassander I raised my hands, temporized, "We gave her command of the Mistral. She's good at her job." Before that, Otavia Corvo had been Emil Bordelon's third officer on the Pharaoh, and if the way she turned on her previous master was any indication, the man left much to be desired where commanding officers were concerned. Still, I couldn't say that I did not understand Bassander's trepidation. Unbidden, my eyes went to the front of the desk, where tangled relief carvings of nymphs and satyrs writhed in unprofessional ecstasy.

Copyright © 2019 by Christopher Ruocchio


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