The world is a mess. That’s one fact we can all agree on. And when reality is hard to talk about or to understand, sometimes fiction is the best way to express what’s really going on.
Edited by Rogue One co-writer Gary Whitta, along with Hugh Howey and Christie Yant, the anthology offers short stories written by 27 ultra-diverse writers and linked through collective themes of “rebellion, resistance and revolution”.
“Though it’s a sci-fi book I’m sure I don’t need to tell you why that theme feels very much in the here and now,” Whitta told us via email.
“In fact that’s why I created it, as an opportunity for today’s best science fiction authors to speak to the current socio-political moment through the medium of [science fiction].”
The contributor list is a veritable who’s who of Hugo and Nebula award winners, as well as New York Times best-selling authors. They include our former colleague Charlie Jane Anders, John Scalzi, Kieron Gillen, Saladin Ahmed and Daniel H. Wilson.
And on its own, all of that would be interested enough. But there’s more.
“The whole thing is a charity project with proceeds from the sale of the book benefitting the American Civil Liberties Union, with whom we are in partnership,” Whitta said.
“No-one involved with the making of this book will take a penny from it, everything will go to the ACLU. So not only do you get an amazing new sci-fi anthology but you also get to support a very worthwhile cause, now more than ever.”
Again, the book is available today on Amazon and, below, you can read a full, exclusive excerpt from the anthology. It’s called The Blast by Hugh Howey, and it’s reprinted with the editor’s permission.
The Blast by Hugh Howey
Every time a blast goes off, people see the truth.
It gives Aiya chills to think about what will happen today, when her brother pulls that trigger and another blast rocks the city. That he won’t be able to see it himself is not contemplated. That this will likely be the last time she walks by his side is not contemplated. All she can think about, all that consumes her, is the maelstrom to come.
Her brother Fariq is nineteen — three years older than her and a head taller. Aiya long ago learned how to trot by his side, in his shadow, little skipping leaps for every powerful stride from his long legs. He was their parents’ sun, their star, the eldest, the one. She was the alqamar, the moon, his nickname for her. Today was his day. But tomorrow? What is the moon without the sun?
The capital — where she and her brother were born and raised — crackled with morning energy: The whiff of cooking meat, women with bundles of cloth and baskets of vegetables, men wrestling stubborn goats, the throaty rattle of tired cars choking on old gasoline, the bray and clop of horses as wooden cart wheels carved scars into desert streets. An army-green pack of the Minister’s soldiers watched Fariq and Aiya pass, frowns lurking under mustaches, every head swivelling their way with the finely honed distrust of youth. It was not misplaced, Aiya thought to herself. They were up to no good.
“Forget them,” Fariq said. “There is nothing on us but our thoughts.”
“Those are bad enough,” Aiya whispered.
She recognised one of the soldiers, Ruq, a friend of her brother’s from school days. Now Ruq wore the green of the Ministry. Now Ruq saluted posters. A month ago, there had been a blast, and soldiers like these had fired into crowds. Had Ruq fired the gun he cradled now like a child? Children cradling children, Aiya thought. Oh yes, they would fill her with bullets for all that she carried silently in her head.
“This way,” Fariq hissed. He turned into the market, where the jostling of shoppers squeezed like a fist between the alley of stalls. Here, Aiya could keep up. She twisted and turned through the crowd, keeping an eye on her brother, turning obstacles into games. She could move through a sea of people like a fish can glide upstream. She was waiting on her brother on the far side of the market, tapping her foot and crossing her arms as if she’d been waiting since dawn.
Her brother marched by without word. No sass. No playful pop to her head. Nerves, Aiya realised. Her great brother was nervous. Of course he was. She hurried after him, admonishing herself for games, remembering what was at stake, following along at a trot as she and her brother zigged and zagged and circled back on their path, making sure they weren’t followed, before ducking into the cobbler’s house, down into the hidden basement, where all the bombs were built.
The cobbler lowered the hatch that kept the basement hidden from soldiers. Aiya heard the flop of a heavy rug above her head, the rain of dust from old beams drifting down. Her eyes adjusted to the darkness. There were whispers ahead, another door to fumble through, and then the glow of a single bulb swinging from its wire, shadows moving about nervously, while the cobbler’s wife bent over her latest creation.
The rest of their small cell of freedom fighters was already there. They waited with barely concealed impatience. Several had their cell phones out, faces underlit by small screens that used to provide access to the outside world, back before the Ministry shut down access to search engines, social media, and all the rest. They stashed their phones away now that the star of the hour was here. A round of hugs, kisses to both cheeks, sweat-salt on Aiya’s lips, the stubble of boys turning to men, all eyes on her brother.
“Is it ready?” Fariq asked.
Maru turned from her work. She had a lens over one eye, which made that eye seem twice the size of the other. There was a screwdriver in one hand, impossibly small. When she spoke, only one half of her mouth moved. The other half held something invisibly small, probably a tiny screw or a piece of wire. “Are you ready?” she asked.
Fariq nodded. Several of the other boys shifted their weight around, perhaps eager for their turn, for the long straw. And now Aiya could see the nerves that jangled her brother. The back of his shirt was spotted with sweat, even though the morning was cool. His hands were clenched into white-knuckled fists. His shoulders stood by his ears. All the little things Aiya had been trained to spot in their enemies, to know when they were scared, she was seeing in her brother for the first time. Suddenly, she needed to pee. Suddenly, the weight of the day pressed down on her.
“Are you sure?” Maru asked. She lifted the magnifying lens and peered at Fariq. “You know what’s at stake, boy?”
Fariq nodded, and Aiya noticed her brother was looking past the old woman to the device on the table. A series of devices, really. A tangle of wires and heavy cylinders.
“I’m ready,” he said.
“Then let’s get you suited up.”
The cylinders went around Fariq’s waist. Webbing and heavy-duty velcro and cinched knots. Then the wires and switches. Over it all, the special coat to keep the device hidden. Maru gave careful instructions, but Fariq did not appear to be listening. No matter, both siblings had heard the spiel before. They’d watched friends prepare. They’d been like the others in their small cell, shifting their weight from foot to foot. They knew the drill.
“— you will be shot.”
These last words cut through, and somehow Aiya’s brain pieced together what she’d missed, the words just prior. “Do not get caught before you reach your objective, or you will be shot.”
Death. That’s what waited this day. Death in the shadows. Death in the market. Death in the stalls. Death running through the streets, tapping strangers on the shoulders, who fall like puppets with cut strings. A blast goes off. Soldiers open fire. Bullets ripple through crowds to switch off people like the devices of yore. Switch them off before they can think. Before they can speak. Before they can know.
A city of people who know how to read, but the only thing with words anymore are these big screens that flicker with messages from the Ministry, demanding trust. As if that’s how trust works. A city built on older cities, where language and numbers were invented, and now those in charge say to trust only the words from the great Leader. A city with a history of learning and radiating truth outwards, now walled off from the rest of the world and drowning in lies.
Fariq pulled the coat tight around his bulging waist. His face was a sheen of sweat. Those gathered in the basement broke into prayer, thanking Fariq for his courage. The anointed hour was approaching fast — the square and the market would be packed on this holy day, this holiday the Ministry had decreed for its own celebration. A day to gather ’round and tell the Leader how magnificent he was. More statues to erect. More giant screens to hang all full of propaganda. The only things that got done these days. The rest of the world a dark, dark mystery.
The day was warmer now. Just a half hour later, but deserts both burn and cool with hardly a notice. Aiya took point for her brother, leading him through the crowd, watching for soldiers so that he only had to follow. She was his second this day, his moon. An honour and burden. And in her mind, she thought of all those who would be affected by their actions in mere moments, all the attention they would divert, and it was no longer hypothetical, no longer a dream to conjure lying in bed at night, but real, and now, and terrifying —
A hand on her shoulder pulled her to a halt, a strong grip. She started to twist to defend herself, to fight off someone in green fatigues, but it was her brother.
“I can’t,” he said.
His eyes darted about. Aiya turned and tried to follow his gaze, but he wasn’t looking at anything. Studying him again, she saw that he was pale, a sheen of sweat on his face, a tremble of cheek just below one eye. She pulled him aside, out of the flow of people leaving the market with their hauls of vegetables and bolts of cloth. There was a dark alcove between two sandstone buildings. She and her brother huddled together in the cool deep shadows.
“You can’t?” Aiya hissed.
“I’m sorry,” he said, shaking his head. “Go. Get away. I’ve shamed us both.”
Aiya could not process this. None of the outcomes of this day included her brother not pulling that trigger. The idea that he might live, that he would never be in harm’s way, barely dented her awareness. All she could think were the millions of people expecting him to do this, waiting on him to do this, needing him to do this.
“Give it to me,” she heard herself saying. And somehow, the words made her feel two inches taller. Or perhaps her brother was sagging. Even in the darkness, she could see his eyes burn as she spoke. “Give it to me,” she said again, sounding almost like their mother. “Fariq, I can do this.”
And perhaps the greatest sign of his fear was that he complied without a word. That the coat shrugged off his slumping shoulders, that he turned so she could reach the buckles on his back, that he numbly helped her into the belt, cinching it tight, readying her in the darkness, strapping on a bomb that would soon bring terrible amounts of light.
Aiya moved through the crowd the way a snake crosses sand, a silent slithering, a seeming stillness, the graceful weave of purpose and surety.
This is how religions grow, she thought to herself. With the fervor she now felt in her bones, the power given to those who feel weak, the conviction granted to those who live in times of doubt. She knew her country was great. Not just in the past, but deep in its bones, in the marrow of its people, in the ingenuity of its youth and the stores of its resources. They would tap these wells again. Leaders fall. Regimes die. The public rises up. They just have to know. They have to be woken.
She was ready to wake them.
In the central square, she could feel the pulse of the people waiting, waiting for this, for their deliverance. They huddled in tight groups. There was the din of a thousand voices, all vying to speak and be heard. Aiya pressed through the gaps, avoiding two guards here, a dozen soldiers there, straight to the heart of the square, the anointed time ticking down, her heart beating like a tightly wound clock.
The cylinders dug into her hips. The coat was heavy and too large. They would know in an instant it was her. They would know when all the cameras pointing into the square were checked and double-checked, when the blast was triangulated. They would see it was her. This was her last thought before reaching for the trigger, the thought of all those who would find out. Their parents, who had no idea. Her friends, who would be amazed. Her brother, who would live in shame. Her poor brother, the moon.
Aiya squeezed into a group of students, let them press in all around her, and she flipped the safety off the switch and squeezed the trigger. There was a click, a faint hum, a feeling like heat around her — but maybe it was imagined, maybe it was the bodies against her, or the coat, or the press of the moment. And across the crowd, the shockwave radiated outward. It could be seen by the glowing screens, by the deafening hush, by the hiss of whispers that followed. A thousand palms glowed bright. Fingers danced. Waves soared down from space, and through Aiya, and were pushed out by wires and who knew what else, powered by the heavy batteries around her waist, and for a moment her small world was connected to the rest of the world. No fence was high enough. No wall could stop her.
Shots rang out. Bullets were fired into the sky. Speakers blared commands to go home, for whoever it was to shut down their transmission, for nobody to move, to both disperse and stay still, the panic of those in charge who know they are not fit to rule.
Aiya moved with the crowd of students; she huddled over and scurried with them. The girl next to her was crying. Aiya heard her squeal into her phone, “Mum? Mum it’s me!” One of the many who were waiting for the hour, waiting for the blast. Another boy was watching his phone. Aiya caught a glimpse of the screen. Hundreds of emails and messages going out into the ether, pre-written and queued up for this day. Little blue bars of hope counted toward 100%.
The boy tucked the phone away to help up someone who had fallen. Aiya was swept this way and that. She prayed no one would be shot. She knew the soldiers would be flying their drones now, trying to pinpoint her. She knew they would try to jam the signal again. She also knew the cobbler’s wife was smarter than all of them put together, that frequencies would hop and slither the way Aiya could move through a crowd. She could feel truth and connection radiating out from her back, pulling on the juice from her batteries, a bright thread linking her glorious homeland to the rest of the world, praying it was enough to tug them along through these darkest of times.
“She’s right here,” someone said. Aiya feared it was a soldier, that her blast would be over so quick, but it was one of the students. She felt strong hands on her again, holding her up this time, helping her along. More bodies pressed in around her. “The old university,” someone said. It was on a hill. Lots of people gathered around its abandoned halls. The hope was to spread the signal as far as possible for as long as possible. Give everyone a chance. A taste. Aiya felt herself swept up with the crowd. Now it was not just her transmitting, it was all of them. A web. She was just the hub.
Gunfire behind them. The buzz of drones. Some people scattered. Some sat with their backs to the base of all those statues, their Leader looking to the heavens while his people sat and got word of the rest of the world, sent news out about their plight, traded messages and plans, traded codes on where and when to meet next, how to disrupt, how to help, how to get what was needed where.
They reached the university as the drones and the gunfire drew closer. Aiya looked at the time on someone’s phone. An hour! How was that possible? And so many city blocks covered. A blast for the ages. She checked the light on the switch and saw it flashing red like her heart. Almost out. Almost done. A full charge. She had slipped through like a snake across the dune. Looking around at the students who had joined her, she saw their expectant faces, their wide eyes, the look of admiration. When had a blast gone so well?
Gunfire, this time not into the sky. A boy shrieked in pain. There were drones directly overhead, buzzing and blasting them with the downforce of air. Students threw rocks at them. Another protester was shot. Someone grabbed Aiya from behind and started to rip her coat off, tear the device from her. She waited for the knife between her ribs, the bullet to her neck. The rip of velcro. A weight off. “Go,” her brother shouted.
Aiya turned and saw him cradling the device. The coat was at his feet. He held a tangle of wires and batteries and antenna. Another round of gunfire. People dropping. Some bleeding, some covering their heads. And all around, the surreal calm of those still connected, still sipping on truth, or trying to bring down a drone or get in the way of a soldier without getting killed.
The boy who had sent all the emails and messages pulled Aiya away, even as she tried to swim toward her brother. The drones were like flies now, casting shade. They dove in, and the soldiers pressed from all sides, and Aiya and the others barely slipped through. Her last glimpse of her brother was of him crouching by the base of a statue, the great Leader looking to the heavens, toward satellites and airwaves and all that would be his downfall. Shots rang out, the birds all across the statue scattered in a flock of panic, and Aiya saw on their great Leader’s stone face white tears of worry.