Next week, Tor.com are due to publish For the First Time, Again, the third novel in Sylvain Neuvel‘s Take Them to the Stars series. To celebrate the release, the publisher has provided CR with this except. First, though, here’s the synopsis:
Against the backdrop of authentic historical events, Sylvain Neuvel concludes his acclaimed Take Them to the Stars series with a biting satire on the role of authority in all its guises, bringing us a truly breathtaking science fiction trilogy that spans the ages.
When you don’t know The Rules it’s hard to stay safe.
After a traumatic incident, Aster’s blood work comes back with some unusual readings. Unsurprising, as she’s the last of an alien race called the Kibsu, though she doesn’t know it.
She becomes the focus of a hunt, with her mortal enemies, the Trackers, on one side, and the American government on the other. But help has come from a most unexpected quarter.
Whoever finds her first, it won’t be good news for Aster.
Or for the world!
Now, read on for four short chapters of the novel…
My bed’s covered with broken glass. It’s pretty, like the sun reflecting off a lake, or when they find the diamonds in those heist movies. It’s making my head spin a little. I never been drunk, but I bet this is what it feels like. My heart’s racing, even if I’m supersleepy. Everything’s . . . not real, like I’m in a dreamworld or some magical realm. Like Labyrinth. “It’s only forever, not long at all. . . .” Crud, I stepped on my Cabbage Patch Kid crawling in through the window. I must have had a shard on my shoe, ’cause there’s a cut above the eye now. I think I like it. She looks badass. Desirae Chandelle, the destroyer.
I don’t know what happened at the hospital. There were people running in the parking lot. This woman said: “You can’t stay here, kid!” I got into her car and we drove off. She drove me all the way to Gulfport. I told her my dad couldn’t pick me up till later. It didn’t take them long to start looking for me. There were two cop cars parked out front when I got here. The regular kind. I guess they think I’ll see a cop and think: Yes! Take me back to Bruce Willis so I can live in D.C. with the Army Law & Order. Fat chance. I let Mrs. Bloom’s dog loose to distract them—sorry, Mrs. Bloom. Damn dog likes to scratch at our lawn and Mrs. Bloom sounds like a fire alarm when she’s upset. The cops were still chasing the dog when I jumped the fence and climbed to my window. Anything to turn Mrs. Bloom off.
—Oh, there you are. Come here, Londo. The house is empty, I know. Don’t worry. I’m taking you with me. We’ll pack you some kibble for the road.
I told myself I came back for the cat, but I had to see the house again. I wonder what they’ll do with it. Pa had no family that I know of and I doubt houses go to adopted children, at least not to the fugitive kind. That’s what I am now. This is so messed up. Like, what do they want with me? I’m not the one shooting at people everywhere. They should just—Where are you going, you crazy cat? Food’s down in the kitchen.
Oh, Pa’s room . . . It’s so tidy. It’s always just me and him—I don’t remember the last time someone came over—but he keeps his room spick-and-span like the Queen’s spending the night. He used to travel before . . . before me. He said he liked sleeping in hotels. I thought he just missed traveling, but what he really liked was climbing into a well-made bed. Three pillows, not two, and bedsheets so tight you have to put your feet sideways. It seemed like a lot of work for ten seconds getting into bed, but he always liked the little things. Fancy bowls for breakfast, silverware for grits. I think those were a wedding gift. I wish I’d known his wife. I wish he were here. . . .
—What’d you find there, Londo? Oh, the box. We’re not allowed to look in the box.
I suppose he won’t mind if we take a peek. Still feels wrong, though. That box was for private, precious things. He scolded me just for being near that thing. What’s this? Perfume. A woman’s, must have been his wife’s. What does it sm—Ew, gawd. I think it’s gone bad. A bunch of Greyhound tickets. He really did miss traveling. There’s nothing but paper in here. Crud. That’s my last school report. Really, Pa? That’s all my school reports. I knew he was proud, but . . . See what you did, Pa? I’m crying now, on your supertidy bed. I can’t stop. I want to; it hurts, like someone tickling me for too long. It hurts everywhere inside, but I can’t . . . I’m shaking like a shitting dog now, making a big wet mess of things.
I miss you, Pa. And I hate you! You’re not allowed to leave me like this. . . . “Me and you, Aster. Me and you.” That’s what you said. You said it all the time. It didn’t matter if I had a bad day at school, or if it rained for three days, or . . . whatever. None of it mattered because we had each other. That’s what you said. You lied! Now say it’s not real! Say it! I’m gonna close my eyes and sleep till you shake me awake and tell me it’s not real, all right? . . . Just come back, Pa . . . please.
Just for one day. We’ll go to Blockbuster like before. Three movies for the price of two. We’ll do the crossword puzzle over breakfast. God, I miss that. Remember how you used to cut my toast in the shape of things? Always something different. Toast in the shape of a turtle, a sailboat. Cat toast. Car toast. None of them really looked like anything—oh, Yoda! Yoda looked like a Siamese cat. I loved guessing what it was, though. First thing I did when I got out of bed was think about the day’s toast. Why’d you stop, Pa? I grew up, I know, but why that day? One morning you looked at me and thought: Aster’s grown-up. No more fancy toast. I wish I could be in your head for a minute. Was it something I did? Something I said? Maybe it’s just . . . I ain’t never said thank you, have I? I meant to. Thank you. Thank you for the toast, Pa. Thank you for everything.
I should get up and go, but I can’t move a muscle. I can’t keep my eyes—
Where—Oh. I’m still here, lying on his bed. He’s still gone and I’m . . . nowhere close to knowing what to do. The cops didn’t go anywhere either. I can’t stay here. One of them will need to use the bathroom sooner or later. It feels wrong to leave everything. Those were his things; now they’ll throw them away, or give them to someone. I should take a picture with me at least. This one, maybe. No, I want one of the both of us. There’s a good one in the living room.
—Here, Londo. Let’s go downstairs and pack you some kibble.
There it is. I always liked that picture. I have no idea where we took it, though. This ain’t our yard; it’s— I don’t have time for this. Cat food, cat food. There it is. I should eat something too. I haven’t since . . . then, but I don’t think I can. My stomach’s all gwaaargh. Cheez-It. That’ll have to do. I can eat on the way there, wherever “there” is. I don’t have any money. I don’t know anyone. Where am I supposed to sleep? I’m pretty sure shelters will call the cops if a minor shows up at the door. Kids run away from home all the time. Where do they go? I don’t know any movie that can help either. Well, there’s Wizard of Oz; she runs away. Oh, and E.T., but they get caught. I need—
Someone’s at the door. Cat, backpack, and out the back. I know, Londo. I don’t want to go either. Crud, I didn’t even change. . . .
Bitter Sweet Symphony
They look happy. They’re kind of funny looking, but they look happy. Father and son, sharing a meal in a crummy truck stop. They don’t care about the hundred-year-old wood paneling, or all the holes in the red leatherette—my seat looks like it’s been chewed on by a horse. Maybe they’re on a road trip. Driving coast to coast and stopping everywhere. The Brain Museum. The world’s largest pistachio! Or maybe the son’s going to a new school and Dad is driving him there. A good school. Like, his parents were superproud when he got the letter, but he’s worried ’cause he won’t know anyone there. Pa said I could probably go to a school like that if I really wanted to. Maybe they’re going to buy a dog! A Dalmatian. No, one of those really big ones that save people after an avalanche, and they have to go where there’s snow to get one. Colorado . . . Maybe they live right next door and Dad didn’t feel like cooking. Well, whatever they’re doing, they’re having a good time doing it. They’re a family, with food. I should really stop staring, but that sweaty glass of iced tea looks darn yummy right now. So’s the—I’m not sure if it’s chicken or what, but I’d kill for those mashed potatoes, and gravy. God, gravy. I’m starving. Londo peed on the Cheez-Its. Bad cat.
I feel like I ain’t slept in a month. I did sleep, though. I slept at the park, at the bus stop, in that woman’s car when I was hitchhiking. I slept the whole time. It was supernice of her not to talk. I’m still plumb sleepy all the time. Everything’s slow, and hard, like walking through snow or molasses or something. I think I just need food.
No food. No father. No home. No money, no clothes. Clothes would be nice. I ain’t got friends I can call, an aunt I could stay with. I don’t know where I’m going. I don’t know where I’m gonna sleep tonight. I don’t know how I’m gonna eat. I ain’t got a plan. I really need a plan.
What do I got? I got cops chasing me, and Bruce Willis. He’s out there, somewhere. And I got . . . I got folks shooting other folks like it’s turkey season, at a Christmas party no less, and a hospital. What kind of person shoots up a hospital? That’s horrible! Even for a mass murderer. Oh, I got a cat in a stinky backpack and nowhere to let him loose. At least he stopped crying. He’s either too tired or he’s come to terms with life’s suckiness. Poor thing. He just wants to sit on Pa’s lap and watch TV. He can’t anymore, but there has to be something between that and living in a bag.
Crud, I got something else now. I got a waitress coming my way again and still no clue how I’m supposed to get myself a free meal. Has “I found a hair” even worked in a place like this? I mean, it’s got lots of things going for it, but cleanliness ain’t one of them. I been in the bathroom. Also, the waitress looks nice, even with a black eye. I wish I knew what happened to her. Maybe not. Anyway, I’ll feel bad if she ends up footing the bill. What do they do in movies? I seen Down and Out in Beverly Hills, but I ain’t digging through this place’s trash. Ewww. No way. I need to eat, though.
Maybe I should just tell her everything. “Hi! I’m a wanted fugitive running from the police, and the Army.” Plenty of folks hiding from the cops, but I got the Army on my tail. I’m a special kind of fugitive. Anyway, I’d really like to eat something before I walk back to the highway and hope to God I don’t get picked up by Jack the Ripper. Also, I can’t pay. . . . Yeah, right. I’m better off finding a hair. What if I find a whole strand of hair? She’s here. Make up your mind, Aster!
—You going to eat something, dear?
—I . . . I was waiting for my dad. He . . .
—You said that twenty minutes ago. You all right, honey? Ha! No. I’m not all right. I’m broke, and starving and scared. I just want someone to say: “Everything is going to be fine,” and hug me, hug me so tight I can’t breathe. I want a hot shower. I want clean socks. I want someone to take me home and give me a bed. Will you do that for me, lady? Will you take me home with you? Right. I didn’t think so.
—I . . .
—You don’t have any money, do you?
— . . .
—Tell you what. It’s on the house.
—Free meal on your birthday! It’s your birthday, right?
—Oh, for Christ’s sake! Just say yes. Nod or something.
—HEY, Y’ALL! BIRTHDAY GIRL HERE! WHOO! What can I get you, hon? Anything you want.
—Can I have what they’re having?
—Good call. CARL! ONE CHICKEN-FRIED STEAK! Anything to drink?
—Coming right up.
—Excuse me, ma’am? Why are you doing this?
—Only two kinds of people coming through here. Those going someplace, and those running from someplace. I figure if you catch a break now, maybe next time I see you, you’ll be the kind going someplace.
—Thank you, ma’am.
—You’re welcome. Just help someone else when they’re down, okay? And a bit of advice: See that big man over there shining the gum machine? That’s my boss. Don’t let him see the cat.
—Yes, ma’am! You hear that, Londo? You have to stay in the bag. I’ll let you out in the parking lot, I promise.
—Be right back with your iced tea. Nice costume, by the way. I love Sailor Moon!
Finally! Still, I really need new clothes.
I been on a downward spiral the past couple days. Very downward, more like a straight line to the ground. I didn’t think I had it in me. I was ready to give up, surrender to the cops, or Bruce Willis. I would have without that chicken-fried steak. I’m glad I didn’t ’cause now? Now I think I got it. I went to Sears.
I made it all the way to Houston yesterday. I hitchhike at night now. I figured that out last night, hitchhiking. I got on I-10 and this old man picked me up right away. He said he fixed copy machines for a living, which sounded interesting, but I was so tired I asked if he minded me sleeping. The passenger seat reclines almost all the way. It’s free, and you only have one person to worry about, not like everyone when I slept in the park. I got four hours of rest and I crossed two state lines. I don’t think the cops will look for me here. I ran out of a hospital; that shouldn’t put me on America’s Most Wanted, right? Right.
The old man dropped me at the mall, like I asked. First time I ever went without Pa. He used to give me money and a list of things. He’d drop me off and wait in the car. Hours if need be, he didn’t care. Anything not to go in. Pa hated shopping, like hated hated. He went on and on about how dumb Sears was for stopping their catalog. . . . It was weird not having him there. I might have cried a little. I was hungry like a big dog afterwards, so I walked all around the food court looking for free samples. It was breakfast, though. They never give samples for breakfast. I shopped for clothes instead. I had no money, but the shopping part was fun. I felt normal for an hour or two. I found an STP shirt at the record store, a nice one. I found good jeans, tried them on and all. Oh, and a bag, to put money in if I ever got more money than it cost to buy the bag. Shopping took longer than I thought. It was past noon by the time I made it back to the food court. I took my sweet time. I walked slooooow, read all the menus, smiled at everyone. All I got was a piece of chicken the size of a grape and an iced coffee I didn’t want, but it looked like it had chocolate in it so I took it anyway. I thought I might faint I was so hungry. I sat down at a table for two and I noticed the butt end of a burrito sitting in a tray at the table next to me. It was full of lipstick. Supergross. Then I saw another tray with food in it, and another. I don’t know what’s wrong with people. I always bring back the tray. I got dizzy looking at all the half-eaten food everywhere and that’s when I saw it. Nachos. A plateful of them. Like, whoever sat there got a phone call or had a heart attack. Oh, and two wings, but the nachos! It’s the perfect food! You don’t touch a nacho chip unless you’re going to eat it. It’s because of the cheese. No one wants to touch cheese if they don’t have to, not when all you get is this one napkin. Wings are sort of the same, I guess. It’s a weekday, so there wasn’t anyone my age at the food court, but I talked to an old couple—they were nice—and the lady who cleans tables after I brought back all the trays.
Then I went to Sears. Well, first, I found an old newspaper lying on a bench. I went to the Sears entrance and I threw the newspaper in the trash. I said some cuss words out loud and I dove into the bin looking for receipts. I found a butt load of them. Cheap stuff, mostly. A lipstick here, a bra there. And boom! Next to a McDonald’s cup, jackpot. I walked in, went straight to the sporting goods section, and asked for the Fila Jr. golf set. They were all out. They did have the Pierre Cardin 4 Piece Luggage Set at $99.99—that thing is humongous!—and the Sixteen Minute Digital Voice Recorder for $49.99. I stopped to look at the telescopes for a minute—I want one so bad—but you can’t really look at anything in the store. I ripped off the suitcase tags in the bathroom, dragged my butt straight to Customer Service, and asked for a refund. I was so nervous I liketa peed myself. The lady asked if my mother was with me. I told her she was buying me something for my birthday and I couldn’t be there because it was a surprise so I was taking care of this for her. I wasn’t sure if I made any sense. Must have; she said it was sweet of me to help my mother out, how she wished her daughter did things like that, but she doesn’t even call ’cause she’s too busy taking care of that lazy no-good boyfriend of hers. “Here’s your money, dear. Have yourself a nice day.”
I did! I had a great day. I went to the movies. Galaxy Quest just came out. I got butter on my popcorn, the real deal. It was awesome. I love Sigourney Weaver, and the guy who only plays villains was in it, but he wasn’t a villain. He was supposed to be supersmart but wasn’t, but then he was. And I thought: me too!
I’m a genius. I’m a brand-new-jeans-and-STP-T-shirt-wearing genius. I threw my Sailor Moon costume in the trash. I liked it a lot, but it smelled funny. I have forty-six dollars and thirty-three cents in my shiny new bag. Also, I ate. The best part is I have a plan, sort of. I can go from Sears to Sears all the way to California. I never seen the ocean. I lived by the ocean, but it was called gulf, not ocean. This’ll be my first ocean ocean. Everyone on TV says they moved to L.A. when they were superyoung, so maybe I can find work there, if I lie about my age. If not, at least it’ll be warmer. I can sleep outside like I did at home when the house got too hot. It’s all because of that waitress and that chicken-fried steak. I think she was right. If I ever see her again, I’ll be going places. I got this.
Interstate Love Song
Where am I? Right. I’m in a car, with . . . young lady gripping the wheel like someone’s trying to take it from her. We’re not moving. Wait, why aren’t we moving? She’s talking to herself, but I can’t make out most of it. I think she mumbled “roadblock.” I guess that’s what it is. I can’t see a thing; it’s raining cats and dogs outside. It’s pretty, though. Water streaks breaking the blinding light ahead. I wonder what state we’re in. Texas, probably. We’re always in Texas. There’s a silhouette approaching. Blue raincoat. Headlights behind us light up the three yellow letters on his chest. He knocks at my window. Smile, Aster. He’s talking to someone. Did he just say: “It’s her”? Crud! Crud! Crud! Lock the doo—Too late. Two big men dragging me out of the car.
—Let me . . . GO!
I’m kicking, screaming. I’m squirming, facedown, federal agents gripping my every end. This ain’t about Sears, not for a Pierre Cardin luggage set. This is Bruce Willis, has to be. How could they find me? I don’t even know where I am. And why? Peculiar blood test. It’s got to be more than that if they’re putting up roadblocks all over. Do they think I killed those people at the Christmas party? Do they think I killed Pa? Crud, I’m burning up again. I’m so hot it feels like the rain is steaming off my skin. Bad thoughts going through my mind. Grab a gun. Shoot from behind that truck’s headlights. There are dead people everywhere. I did that. There’s a horror movie playing in my head. Wake up, Aster. It ain’t real. This is, though: four grown men holding me in midair. I can’t fight them off. There’s too many of them, and nowhere to go even if I broke free. This is it. Game over.
I stop fighting them. They stop fighting me. Tit for tat. We can get out of the rain, now. I don’t know where they’ll take me. Jail, maybe, if they think I killed Pa and Mrs. Sparks. If they don’t then I’ll end up in Washington. He said they’ll take good care of me. Plenty of folks want to join the Army; living with them can’t be that bad. And there’s things to do in D.C., I think. I might not be there long. I mean, how “peculiar” can my blood test be? Low blood sugar? Anemia? It’ll take them a week tops to figure it out; then I’ll be boring again. They’ll grow tired of me and send me back to Child Services. Whatever, there’s no point thinking about it now, not while I’m flying a couple feet aboveground. Why won’t they put me down? They’re not paying attention to me at all. What are they—I can’t see what they’re looking at. My eyes hurt too much from all the rain and tears.
—YOU THERE! GET BACK IN YOUR CAR!
Whoa. Vertigo. I hit the ground chin first. The feds dropped me like a sack of spuds. I’m dizzy now. The road tastes metallic; I must have bit my tongue. I feel the cold water spreading through my shirt, my jeans clinging tighter to my legs. It doesn’t matter. I ain’t getting up. There’s nothing for me up there, except a jail cell or a hospital room. I’d rather lie here and watch raindrops hit the ground. Life’s simpler when you stare at something small. A ladybug, a penny, a bit of oil making rainbow swirls on the pavement in front of me.
Bang. The pavement goes bright all around my shadow. I recognize the sound, like I knew it was Pa from hearing his footsteps. More flashes, more bangs. A mob of paparazzi heckling a movie star. A box of fireworks going off all at once. This can’t be real. It’s make-believe, has to be. I want it to stop. If I want it hard enough, maybe someone’ll yell, “Cut!” and it’ll go back to normal. This normal, I don’t care. I’ll go to jail. I’ll go happily if they make it stop. My heart’s pounding against the sidewalk like a jackhammer. Please, anyone.
UGH. Something fell on my back, something heavy enough to knock the wind out of me. I turn to look. It’s a person. Blue raincoat. “FBI” on the shoulder. There’s this blank look on his face. It’s Mrs. Sparks all over again. He doesn’t know he’s dead any more than she did. Another head hits the ground. Another. They’re dropping like the rain now. I can’t watch. I won’t close my eyes either; that just means a different nightmare. I cover my ears and hide my face against the road.
Silence, almost. I hear the rain again, and the sound of idling cars. I turn to see. PUSH. THE. DEAD. MAN. OFF. OF. ME. . . . Whoa! There’s a woman with a rifle standing above me. From down here she looks like she’s eight foot tall. Did she kill all these people? She’s not FBI, that’s for sure. She’s wearing coveralls, like a boilersuit. Square jaw. Wet hair in her face. She looks like Demi Moore in G.I. Jane after they put her through hell. I crawl backwards and sit against a car. I’m really scared, but I’m also awed. It wasn’t perspective. She’s André the Giant. She’s . . . I never seen anyone this big. She’s a demigod.
She’s a Russian demigod?
—. . .
I don’t underst—Oh my god. She’s reloading. Did she kill all those people just so she could kill me? I don’t wanna die like this.
—Please, ma’am! Please don’t kill me!
Silence. The rain stopped in an instant. She gives me her hand. I take it and she helps me stand. “You can let go now. Or not.” I think she wants me to go with her. Where, though? We can’t just w—
Whoa! The rain is louder than ever. I’m on the ground. She’s still standing above me. I guess none of that was real. I think I’m slowly losing my mind.
Aaaahh! She’s raising her gun now! I DON’T WANNA DIE! I DON’T WANNA DIE!
I—Am I dead? It sounded like thunder this time. Deeper, louder than before. I don’t think I’m dead. I can move my hands. They’re covered in . . . something. AAAAH! She—Her face is gone! Her whole face! Ewwwww, that’s what it is. That’s her face on my hands. It’s everywhere! There’s bits of brains and bones and . . . eyes on the car headlights, on my shirt. Oh crud, it’s in my hair. There’s eyes in my hair. There’s a tiny bit of bone. I can’t get it off. I CAN’T GET IT OFF!
She’s still standing there, even without a face. How could she be st—Now she’s falling, slow, just like a tree. There’s someone behind her holding a shotgun. It’s not a cop. They’re on a motorcycle. Black leather, black helmet. Whoever it is, is raising their visor. I can’t make out a face. I——
Come with me if— Just come with me, Aster.
He knows my name.
—Who are you?
—My name is Samael. I’m a friend of your mother’s.
Sylvain Neuvel’s For the First Time, Again is due to be published by Tor.com in North America (April 18th) and Michael Joseph in the UK (April 27th).