If you somehow haven’t heard of Mickey7 yet, you will soon: Edward Ashton’s 2022 novel will be a 2024 Bong Joon-ho movie (retitled Mickey17) starring Robert Pattinson, Steven Yeun, Naomi Ackie, Toni Collette, and Mark Ruffalo. Ashton’s sequel, Antimatter Blues, arrives in stores today, and io9 has the first chapter for you to read (or listen to!) right here.
It’s described as the “thrilling follow up to Mickey7 in which an expendable heads out to explore new terrain for human habitation.” Here’s a more detailed synopsis, followed by the audio and print excerpts:
Summer has come to Niflheim. The lichens are growing, the six-winged bat-things are chirping, and much to his own surprise, Mickey Barnes is still alive—that last part thanks almost entirely to the fact that Commander Marshall believes that the colony’s creeper neighbors are holding an antimatter bomb, and that Mickey is the only one who’s keeping them from using it. Mickey’s just another colonist now. Instead of cleaning out the reactor core, he spends his time these days cleaning out the rabbit hutches. It’s not a bad life.
It’s not going to last.
It may be sunny now, but winter is coming. The antimatter that fuels the colony is running low, and Marshall wants his bomb back. If Mickey agrees to retrieve it, he’ll be giving up the only thing that’s kept his head off of the chopping block. If he refuses, he might doom the entire colony. Meanwhile, the creepers have their own worries, and they’re not going to surrender the bomb without getting something in return. Once again, Mickey finds the fate of two species resting in his hands. If something goes wrong this time, though, he won’t be coming back.
Here’s the first chapter of Antimatter Blues by Edward Ashton! You can listen to the excerpt via Soundcloud, or scroll down to read it.
“I just saw myself in the corridor.”
Nasha looks up from her tablet. She’s sitting in our desk chair, feet propped up on our bed, wearing nothing but underwear and boots. That’s not a look that many people can pull off, but Nasha manages it with aplomb. She pushes her braids back from her face and drops her feet to the floor.
“Nice to see you too,” she says. “Close the door.”
I step into the room and let the door latch behind me. My rack looks a lot smaller than it did before Nasha moved in. The first thing she did when she got here was shove her bed in beside mine to make an almost-double, and the second was to fill up most of the remaining floor space with a meter-long footlocker that I’m not allowed to go into. Also, for some reason Nasha herself takes up a lot more space than her actual size would lead you to believe.
To be clear: I am not complaining about any of this.
I sit down on the bed and take the tablet from her hands. A look of annoyance flashes across her face, but she doesn’t resist. “Did you hear me? I saw another me. He was on the bottom level, near the cycler. I think Marshall has started pulling new copies of me out of the tank.”
Nasha sighs. “That’s impossible, Mickey. Marshall wiped your patterns when you resigned, right?”
“Yeah,” I say. “I mean, I think so. He said he was going to.” “And he hasn’t pulled anyone out of the tank in the meantime, right?”
“I don’t think so. Berto told me they wound up burning two drones when they shoved the fuel from my bubble bomb back into the reactor. I doubt they would have wasted those kinds of resources if they’d had a bunch of extra Mickeys lying around.” She leans back and props her feet up on the bed beside me. “Right. So unless Eight’s really been hanging out with the creepers for the last two years and just decided to rejoin us, you couldn’t have seen yourself wandering around the corridors. Are you sure it wasn’t Harrison?”
“Harrison? You mean Jamie Harrison?”
She grins. “Yeah. He’s like your doppelgänger, right? I could definitely see you mistaking him for you.”
Jamie Harrison works in Agriculture. He takes care of the rabbits, mostly. He’s short and skinny, with mousy brown hair that sticks up from his head in tufts, a perpetual nervous squint, and a prominent overbite. He looks nothing like me.
I don’t think he looks anything like me, anyway.
“Look,” I say. “I know what I saw, and what I saw was me. Maggie Ling was hustling him down Spoke Three toward the hub. They crossed in front of me just past Medical. They were probably twenty meters away and I only saw them for a second, but I know what I look like. It was definitely me.”
Nasha’s grin fades. “The hub, huh? And he was with Maggie?” Maggie Ling is head of Systems Engineering. The last couple of times she hustled me somewhere, I wound up dying of radiation poisoning within the hour.
“You believe me now?”
She shakes her head. “Didn’t say that. Let’s assume you’re right, though. After two years, however he managed it and for whatever reason, Marshall decided to pull Mickey9 out of the tank. What would he be doing with Maggie Ling, on the bottom level, headed toward the hub?”
I can feel my face twisting into a scowl. “The reactor.” “Yeah,” she says. “That seems like the most likely bet, doesn’t it?”
Mucking around inside the antimatter reactor is a prime job for an Expendable. We can withstand the neutron flux in there for longer than a drone can, and when we die, we’re a hell of a lot easier to replace. Just chuck the old body in the cycler, fire up the bio-printer, and wait a few hours.
Of course, I’m not an Expendable anymore. I’m retired. Unless I’m not, I guess.
“Anyway,” Nasha says, “whatever’s going on, it’s not really your problem, is it?”
I’ve got a lot to say to that. What’s my obligation to care about what happens to another instantiation of me? Is that me getting irradiated, or is it just some other guy who looks like me? What does the Ship of Theseus have to say about a damaged hull that gets left behind on an island somewhere and forgotten? But after five seconds of opening my mouth, changing my mind, and then closing it again, all I manage to come out with is, “What?”
“Think about it,” Nasha says. “What’s the worst-case scenario here?”
“Um . . . that Maggie Ling just sent a copy of me into the reactor core?”
“Right. So something needed to get done, and she did it. If she hadn’t pulled a new Mickey out of the tank to do it, what would her alternative have been?”
I know the answer to this one. Nasha stands, then pulls me to my feet and into a kiss.
“Worst case,” she says, “is that somebody just got sent into the core, and that somebody wasn’t you. I don’t know about you, babe, but you know what? I’ll take it.”
So here’s a solid fact: Warm Niflheim is a much nicer place than Cold Niflheim. It’s green and wet and covered with all manner of crawly things. You can even go outside now without wrapping yourself up in six layers of thermals. You’ll still need a rebreather, but the partial pressure of oxygen is almost twenty percent higher now than it was when we made landfall, so you won’t feel quite so much like you’re drowning while you’re walking around. On a good day, you can almost imagine that we’ve found the sort of place that they promised us when we boarded the Drakkar.
Here’s another solid fact: Warm Niflheim isn’t going to last forever. Winter is coming.
Miko Berrigan and his minions in Physics have spent most of the summer poring over records of the thirty years of observations that were made of Niflheim’s sun before the Drakkar boosted out. There were three warm spells in that period. The longest lasted seven years. The shortest was eleven months. The four winters that surrounded them ranged from two years to nine. The transitions weren’t abrupt, and they weren’t smooth. They were marked by lengthening oscillations between hot and cold that eventually stabilized into one steady state or the other. The season we’re in now went through a half dozen false starts before it really settled in.
The physicists back on Midgard thought what they were seeing was all due to interference from interstellar dust. Cute, right?
We haven’t been wasting the summer. Hieronymus Marshall is a jackass, but he isn’t stupid, and he wants this colony to live. We’ve been stockpiling food, studying the local fauna to figure out how they survive the winters, building out the dome to accommodate the first round of decanted embryos, releasing engineered algae that are supposed to begin the work of pushing the atmosphere further toward something we can breathe, etc., etc., etc.
The problem is that it all takes time, and that’s something we don’t have an infinite supply of. All the things that keep us alive here take enormous amounts of power, and right now the only real power source we have is the Drakkar’s antimatter reactor, still spinning away under the hub, slowly drawing down the last of the fuel supply that brought us here.
Which brings me back to Maggie Ling, hustling another me down Spoke Three toward the hub. Without the reactor, we might just barely be able to get by, as long as the weather holds.
That’s the thing, though. The weather is not going to hold.
I’ve spent almost all of my work shifts since my resignation with Agriculture. This isn’t because I have a green thumb or anything. It’s mostly by default. I don’t have the qualifications to do anything useful for Physics or Biology or Engineering. Amundsen in Security is tight with Marshall and also is still down on me for losing consciousness while Cat and I were fighting creepers on the perimeter two years ago, so he mostly wants nothing to do with me these days. I’ll probably get to spend some time changing diapers in the crèche once they start pulling babies out of cold storage, but that’s still on hold at the moment, pending a bit more confidence that we can keep them alive once they’re decanted.
So, that leaves me with Agriculture. On this day, in fact, I’m hanging with Jamie Harrison, taking care of the rabbits.
You might be wondering why we keep rabbits in a closed-loop ecological system. Raising animals for meat can be a net source of calories in a place where they can more or less fend for themselves, staying alive by eating things like grass and weeds that we wouldn’t or couldn’t eat. On Niflheim, though, that kind of thing is still entirely aspirational. Rabbits can’t eat the lichen and ferns that surround the dome now. The proteins that the natives use here are folded the wrong way for Union life. Instead we feed them tomato vines and potato greens and protein slurry, some of which gets converted into edible rabbit parts but most of which just gets burned up by their stupid mammalian metabolisms or turned into poop. At the end of the day, every kcal of edible rabbit meat costs us about three kcal of other stuff that we could conceivably have just eaten ourselves, as well as a huge pile of stuff that we can’t eat, but that could have gone back into the cycler. Rabbits are a massive luxury item in a place that is notably short on pretty much any other type of luxury. So, why do we do it?
Well, for one, rabbits are cute. Numerous psychological studies over the past thousand years of the diaspora have shown that humans need a certain amount of cuddliness in their lives, and rabbits are the only things on Niflheim that provide that for us.
Of course, they’re also delicious. As soon as they reach full growth, it’s off to the kitchen with these guys. In the meantime, though, they’re a lot more fun to hang around with than most of the people in this colony.
Jamie, on the other hand, is neither cute nor fun to hang around with.
Rabbits on Niflheim are treated essentially the same way maximum-security prisoners were treated back on Midgard.
They spend the vast majority of their time crammed into three small hutches pushed up against a wall next to the hydroponics tanks. Once a day, we let them out one hutch at a time into a slightly larger space bounded by a bulkhead on two sides and a short white wire fence on the other. They hop around a little, get whatever exercise they can, hang out with anyone who (a) needs a cuteness fix and (b) has sterilized themselves to Jamie’s satisfaction, and then get plopped back into the hutch for another day, where they while away the time eating, pooping, and making more rabbits.
It’s not a terrible life.
It’s better than mine in a lot of ways, if I’m being honest.
If I had any choice about my duty cycles, I’d probably spend most of them here. I don’t, though. I get to hang with the rabbits during working hours when Jamie puts in a request for my services, and that only happens on two occasions. One is culling day, which is when I get to go through the hutches and pick out the males who are big enough for eating and the females who are old enough that their reproduction has started to slow down. The other, like today, is hutch-cleaning day.
The good thing about hutch-cleaning day is that Jamie doesn’t trust me to do it properly. That means I get to spend the day wrangling the rabbits while he does most of the actual work.
I’ve just finished pulling the last of the kits out of Hutch One and dropping them off in the exercise yard when the door to the corridor slides open and Berto steps through.
“Hey,” he says. “How’s my dinner doing?”
I sigh, straighten, and turn to face him. He steps over the fence and crouches down to stroke a kit’s ears with one finger.
“Hands off, Gomez,” Jamie says without turning away from whatever he’s doing in the hutch. “You’re not sterile.”
Berto laughs. “Sterile? These things are rats in fancy suits, Jamie. You’re literally scooping piles of shit out of their house right now. If anyone should be worried about contamination, it’s me.”
“This is not a debate,” Jamie says. “Get your hands off of my animals or get out of my space. I can have Security down here in less than a minute.”
Berto’s smile disappears, and it looks like he’s going to argue.
In the end, though, he shakes his head and stands.
“Jamie’s right,” I say. “You know that, don’t you? These poor guys spend nine-tenths of their time crawling all over each other in the hutches. If you get one of them sick, they’ll all be dead in a week, and it’s not like we have a backup supply around here anywhere.”
“Whatever,” Berto says. “I didn’t come down here to play with the bunnies.”
I wait for him to go on. After a long five seconds, I raise one eyebrow and say, “So . . .”
His expression shifts from annoyed to confused. “So, what?” I roll my eyes. “Why did you come down here, Berto?”
He grins. “Oh. I was bored, mostly. Didn’t Nasha tell you?” Now it’s my turn to be confused. “Tell me what?”
“We’re grounded,” he says. “No more aerial reconnaissance until further notice.”
“No,” I say. “Nasha didn’t mention that. When did this happen?”
“I found out this morning when I showed up for my shift.
Maybe they haven’t told her yet?”
“Yeah. Maybe. Did they tell you why?”
He shakes his head. “Not really. The tech on duty said something about not being able to charge the gravitic grids, but that doesn’t make any sense. We’ve got an antimatter reactor, right? It’s not like we need to ration power.”
“Yeah,” I say. “You wouldn’t think so.”
“Not like it matters. I’m pretty confident at this point that there’s nothing out there that’s a threat to us other than the creepers, and I haven’t seen one of them within five klicks of the dome since the weather turned. Don’t get me wrong. I’d rather be flying than . . . well, than pretty much anything, I guess. I’m not kidding myself, though. Aerial reconnaissance at this point is a waste of time and resources.”
One of the rabbits is nosing at my boot. I crouch down to give his ears a scratch. “So if, just hypothetically speaking, we did have some kind of issue with power generation, grounding you and Nasha might be a good place to cut back, huh?”
He shrugs. “I guess so. Gravitic grids are power hogs. Those lifters use an ungodly amount of juice.” He hesitates, and his grin fades. “Do you know something, Mickey?”
The rabbit nips at my finger. I guess he wasn’t looking for affection after all. I nudge him away with one hand, then stand again and glance back at Jamie. He’s head and shoulders deep in the hutch, scrubbing at something with a disinfectant sponge.
“Look,” I say, “have you seen me around recently?”
His mouth opens, then closes again. He shakes his head. “What?”
“Have you seen me?” I say. “Maybe with someone from Engineering? Maybe looking kind of confused?”
His eyes narrow. “What are you saying, Mickey?”
I sigh. “I’m saying I think I saw another me this morning. I think Marshall is pulling Mickeys out of the tank again.”
He tilts his head to one side and folds his arms across his chest. “You’re saying that you think Hieronymus Marshall, Niflheim’s high priest of Natalism, is deliberately creating multiples?”
I hesitate, then shake my head. “It sounds stupid when you say it like that.”
“Yeah,” he says. “That’s because it is stupid. Did you actually see another Mickey somewhere? Did you talk to him?”
“I didn’t talk to him, but I saw him. For a second. From about twenty meters away.”
Berto rolls his eyes. “So you got a glance of someone from twenty meters off that kind of looked like you, and from that you’ve concluded that our commander, who has a visceral, reli- giously motivated hatred of multiples in general, and of you in particular, is secretly making more of you because . . .”
“Look,” I say, “I know what I saw.”
“You don’t,” he says, and gestures toward the hutch. “It was probably just Jamie. You two are like twins.”
Et tu, Berto?
I open my mouth to argue, or maybe to tell him to go fuck himself, but before I can decide which one he smacks me on the shoulder and says, “Anyway, it doesn’t matter, does it? What do you care if Marshall is pulling copies of you out of the tank and . . . I don’t know . . . making them fight to the death while he and Amundsen take bets on the winner? You’re retired, remember? How is this any skin off of your nose?”
That’s a good question, actually. I’ve given it some thought since Nasha asked me the same basic question. If there’s one thing I’m sure of after what happened with Eight two years ago, it’s that I’m the only me there’s ever going to be, no matter what Nine or Ten or whatever number they’ve gotten to by now might think about it. By that logic, if Marshall is pulling bodies out of the tank and throwing them into the reactor or making them play gladiator or whatever, it doesn’t actually have anything to do with me, but . . .
It kind of does.
“Look,” I say. “Forget about the whole morality thing. The person I thought was me was with Maggie Ling, and they were headed toward the reactor.”
Berto starts to reply, but then his smile fades and I can see the wheels turning.
“Oh,” he says finally.
“Yeah. And you just got grounded.”
“Right,” he says. “That might be a problem.”
“You think? How long would we last here without power?”
“Depends,” he says. “Are we without power because the reactor shut down gracefully and got decommissioned like it’s eventually supposed to, or are we without power because the reactor overloaded and vaporized everything in a fifty-klick radius?”
“Let’s assume option one.”
He scratches the back of his head. “We’d probably be okay for the moment. We’re still getting a fair amount of our calories from the cycler, I think, but that’s something we can work on if we start throwing bodies at Agriculture. There’s not much else going on around here that requires a ton of power and is also absolutely essential for our survival.”
“That’s for now. What about when the cold comes back?”
“Oh,” Berto says. “When that happens we’re totally fucked.”
“Yeah,” I say. “That’s pretty much where I wound up.”
He grimaces. “Okay. So what do we do?”
“I’m not sure we do anything. We’ve still got power at the moment and we haven’t been vaporized, so obviously the reactor is still functioning. I guess default is to hope that Maggie knows what she’s doing and that whatever’s going on is just a temporary glitch.”
Berto grimaces. “I’ve got plenty of confidence in Maggie, but if somebody’s screwing around with the insides of the reactor, it’s not her, is it?”
“Now, wait a minute,” I say. “I hope you’re not questioning my competence. If there’s one thing I’ve proved I’m good at around here, it’s fixing crap while picking up fatal doses of radiation.”
“Yeah,” Berto says. “That’s a fair point. Still, I’ve got to say—just the thought of something glitching in the reactor is enough to spook me. Any thoughts on how we can figure out what the hell’s going on?”
“Don’t mean to interrupt,” Jamie says from behind me, “but I’m finished here. If you hens are done clucking, would you mind getting these guys back into One so we can get started on Two?”
I look back at him. He scowls and points to the hutch. “Sorry,” I say to Berto. “Duty calls.”
“Yeah,” he says. “You do your bunny thing. I think I’m gonna do a little poking around. Ping me when you’re off-shift, huh?”
“Sometime today,” Jamie says.
Berto shoots him a glare, then steps back over the fence and goes.
We’re just getting the last of the rabbits back into Hutch Three when Jamie says, “You know, I heard what you and Gomez were saying earlier.”
I turn to look at him. “Really? So what do you think?”
He shrugs. “I think Gomez can go screw. You don’t look anything like me.”
I open my mouth to reply, then shut it again as my brain processes what he just said.
“I’m not saying I’m better-looking than you,” he says. “We’re just different.”
“So,” I finally manage. “Out of all the stuff Berto and I were talking about, that’s what you fixated on?”
“Yeah,” he says. “Pretty much. Why? Was there something else that I ought to give a shit about?”
I know the screening process to get involved with this mission back on Midgard was incredibly rigorous. I know they only selected the best and the brightest. Jamie, though . . .
Maybe he was somebody’s nephew?
I’m about to say something along the lines of, Yes, I agree that we look nothing alike, when my ocular pings.
<Command1>: You are required to report to the Commander’s office immediately.
<Command1>: Failure to do so by 17:30 will be construed as insubordination.
Okay, then. Here we go.
Excerpt from Edward Ashton’s Antimatter Blues shared by permission of Macmillan Audio and St. Martin’s Press.
Edward Ashton’s Antimatter Blues is out now; you can order the audio version here, or the print version here.
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