The Scourge Between Stars by Ness Brown takes the contained-spaceship-stalked-by-aliens trope and elevates it to a treatise on colonialism, generational trauma, and human hubris. Imagine Sigourney Weaver’s protagonist in Alien meeting Nnendi Okorafor’s Binti series and you’ll have an idea of the kind of tense, claustrophobic science fiction horror that Captain Jacklyn Albright is dealing with in this novella, which you can check out a preview of here!
The official synopsis:
As acting captain of the starship Calypso, Jacklyn Albright is responsible for keeping the last of humanity alive as they limp back to Earth from their forebears’ failed colony on a distant planet.
Faced with constant threats of starvation and destruction in the treacherous minefield of interstellar space, Jacklyn’s crew has reached their breaking point. As unrest begins to spread throughout the ship’s Wards, a new threat emerges, picking off crew members in grim, bloody fashion.
Jacklyn and her team must hunt down the ship’s unknown intruder if they have any hope of making it back to their solar system alive.
The cover is below, followed by an exclusive look at the first chapter.
The labs deck was eerily empty without the familiar swarm of researchers scuttling around. Instead of distracted techies and diligent work droids, there were warning holograms and scaffolding skeletons. The only other people on the deck were engineers completing repairs to the hole busted in the Calypso’s hull. Now that they had finished going through debris and jettisoning what couldn’t be recycled, rebuilding had begun in earnest.
Jacklyn should’ve been in her bunk, but she had gasped awake from yet another nightmare earlier: air pipes leaking precious oxygen in stinging bursts, walls turning into floors as onboard gravity malfunctioned, blood gurgling from a throat constricting around her name. There was no falling back to sleep after that.
And there was the niggling mystery of the Atalanta’s transmission. She had wasted an hour on her cot trying to imagine the context of the message. Neither Asher nor Jo- lie could suggest any useful interpretations when they had retreated to the captain’s ready room to discuss. There were several obvious doors not to open on a spaceship, but which one could warrant a message like that?
Jacklyn came to the labs deck to assist where she could. At first Viktorija Novak had protested her presence. Despite being one of the few crew members bigger than Jacklyn, the first engineer was too nice to tell her to get lost. Jacklyn exploited that weakness until Viktorija pointed her in the direction of a low-priority task where she wouldn’t be in the way.
She was fixing a pressure-dented maintenance hatch in the gangway, far from the delicate work around the hull breach. If she stood in the deck’s atrium, she could probably hear the ruckus of the construction. All the way over by the astrophysics lab, however, it was silent except for the metallic sounds of the Calypso’s indigestion.
The droid helping her was a hypodroid, a class below the palindroids that assisted the lab techies and much less sophisticated than an android like Watson. Its face was a featureless plate, and its speech capabilities were rudimentary. Somehow that had become weird to Jacklyn. The droid held the hatch open for her while she made sure its seal was still airtight.
She kicked the hatch back to something like smoothness, swinging her legs out of the way as the droid let it drop with a heavy thud. It motored over to a wall panel to tick the task off the communal repairs checklist. She expected it to move on to the next job, but it turned back to her.
“Anomaly detected,” it announced.
Jacklyn frowned down at their handiwork. “In the hatch?” “Negative,” the droid said. “In the wall.”
Jacklyn scanned the sides of the corridor as far as she could see; none of the bulkheads were so much as scratched. “What kind of anomaly?”
The droid whirred in consideration. Jacklyn’s foot tapped in annoyance. “Hey,” she said after a minute. “What kind of—”
A bang reverberated down the gangway.
Jacklyn startled, whipping her head around. The corridor was still empty; the echo of the sound wavered and then disappeared around the passage’s distant end.
“What was that?” she asked the droid. It could have been a panel falling from the ceiling or one of the repair crew clanking over this way, but she couldn’t see anything down the dark hall.
The droid didn’t respond. Jacklyn bent to check its face- plate and was surprised to find that it had stalled, hot to the touch. She got ready to pull its plate and let the freezing corridor air equilibrate the excess heat, reaching for the too- warm metal.
Another bang shattered the quiet right next to her.
She flinched away from the droid, spinning around. They were still alone in the corridor. She didn’t see anything on the deckhead or the gangway that could have made a noise like that. The only thing in front of her was the bulkhead.
“Anomaly in the wall . . . ?” she murmured. Maybe there was a busted pipe bucking against its fastenings, or a piece of debris rattling around behind the metal panels. She stepped forward to put her ear to the nearest one.
For several moments she heard nothing besides the Calypso’s inner workings. The sound had comforted her as a child, something else to listen to besides her parents’ furious whispered arguments. At the very edge of her hearing, she noticed something underneath the hum of the grav and reclamation systems: a scratching noise, the kind of tinny shriek she used to make by dragging her nails down the wall of her bunk as a troubled kid. The moment she wondered what it could be, another bang thundered right under her cheek, nearly tossing her back on her ass.
She sucked in a breath. “Goddamn it.”
The bang came again. And then again. Jacklyn’s stomach knotted. What was this? A bubble in the intestines of the Calypso? In between the shuddering knocks on the bulk- head, the scratching came longer and louder.
Jacklyn jumped when the droid suddenly spoke.
“Anomaly detected,” it droned. Its faceplate began to smoke. “Anomaly detected. Anomaly. Anomaly—”
Another bang, this one hard enough to shake the metal panel in front of her. Jacklyn’s heart leaped into her throat; she took an involuntary step backward. Just as she turned to go find a maintenance techie, she slammed into something big and solid and went sprawling.
A shadow hunched over her, seizing her arm. Jacklyn’s pulse spiked hard—she tried to thrash out of the tight grip, until she realized her overreaction. Standing above her was Viktorija.
“A little jumpy, Jack?” she quipped, hauling Jacklyn up with one hand and dusting off her uniform. She gave her a once-over and frowned when she noticed Jacklyn’s wide eyes. “What’s wrong?”
“Droid said there’s an anomaly in the walls,” she said. “Something’s knocking around in there.” She cocked one ear down the corridor, but all the clanging from before had ceased. Her heart rate slowed back to normal.
Viktorija dragged a hand down her face. “I’ll have another droid look at the problem, since that one seems to have given up.” She glanced over Jacklyn’s shoulder at the smoking droid.
Jacklyn frowned. “Do the hypodroids often overheat like that?” She tallied up the number of them on the ship, estimating how long it would take to examine each unit for faulty cooling systems.
“Not at all,” Viktorija said thoughtfully. “I’ll take that one for inspection. Did Vidal come this way?”
“Huh?” Jacklyn was still smoothing down her braids and trying to do the math. She vaguely recognized the name.
“The mechanic with the Cygnus Ward tat on his neck,” Viktorija described, indicating his height with her hand. Ac- cording to the gesture he came up impressively to her chin. “He said he was going to get more epoxy from the machine shops, but he never came back.”
Jacklyn hadn’t seen anyone else in the corridor for more than an hour. “It was just me in here.”
Viktorija scrutinized her. “Are you sure you’re alright?” With her arms crossed she looked a few seconds away from ordering Jacklyn back to her quarters.
Jacklyn didn’t need telling off; even she could tell it was time to get some rest. “Guess I am a little jumpy.”
Both of them startled at the chime of her datapad in the quiet corridor. She fished it out of her pocket and opened the emergency message from the chief security officer blinking on the screen.
“Shit,” Jacklyn hissed, pocketing the pad again. “I’ve got to go.”
“What’s wrong?” Viktorija asked, already calling the lift for her.
Jacklyn sighed. “There’s a riot down in the wards.”
Excerpt from The Scourge Between Stars by Ness Brown reprinted with permission from Macmillan.
The Scourge Between Stars is available for preorder now, and is due out in March 2023.
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