THE FALLEN by Ada Hoffmann (EXCERPT)
We have a treat for you today from the lovely androids at Angry Robot – an excerpt of Ada Hoffmann’s The Fallen, the much anticipated sequel to The Outside.
The laws of physics acting on the planet of Jai have been forever upended; its surface completely altered, and its inhabitants permanently changed, causing chaos. Fearing heresy, the artificially intelligent Gods that once ruled the galaxy became the planet’s jailers.
Tiv Hunt, who once trusted these Gods completely, spends her days helping the last remaining survivors of Jai. Everyone is fighting for their freedom and they call out for drastic action from their saviour, Tiv’s girlfriend Yasira. But Yasira has become deeply ill, debilitated by her Outside exposure, and is barely able to breathe, let alone lead a revolution.
Hunted by the Gods and Akavi, the disgraced angel, Yasira and Tiv must delve further than ever before into the maddening mysteries of their fractured planet in order to save – or perhaps even destroy – their fading world.
The Fallen will be available from 13th July 2021 but you can pre-order from the following places:
Tiv had never been to Old Earth before, but she’d heard of it. Everybody learned in school about Old Earth. Deeply altered both by climate change and by the devastation of the Morlock War, it was now only an echo of the mother world it had once been. Old Earth had that in common with the Chaos Zone. It couldn’t go back to what it remembered, only forward. But in certain parts of Old Earth, under heavy supervision, remembrance was allowed in ways that it wouldn’t be anywhere else.
That was why Tiv was headed there now.
She’d closed her eyes, in the airlock, trying to remember as hard as she could an image she’d seen growing up. The city square, in a certain part of Old Earth, that contained the Morlock Museum. She’d hoped that the half-remembered picture would be enough for the meta-portal to pick up on her intent.
The Morlock War was the only conflict that had ever really harmed the Gods – the only conflict where any enemy had ever really made headway against them at all. And that was the faint scrap of hope that Tiv clung to now. That, if she studied that war as hard as she could, she’d work out what on earth her team could hope to achieve in this one.
Apparently her mental image was enough for the meta-portal, because it spit her out into a city square so muggy it put all but the most sweltering equatorial regions of Jai to shame. The buildings were raised on concrete stilts, emerging from a soupy, buzzing swamp. It was a tourist area, large and grand despite its odd construction, with clusters of buildings in a variety of clashing styles: white domes and pillars here, glass-steel towers there. A melting pot of all sorts of humans thronged through its raised squares and walkways, dressed garishly, talking excitedly to each other and taking pictures. Electric trams slid by, occasionally coming to a platform where they disgorged more tourists. This place had once been the capital of an empire, and it had been resurrected in this stylized form to preserve some memory of what went before.
It was easy enough to blend into the crowd of tourists. Tiv had dressed the part, in an obnoxiously bright floral tunic, a straw hat to keep out the sun, and white trousers.
It was strange, setting her feet down on a planet with such history. Tiv’s own ancestors, many centuries ago, had come from Old Earth; everyone’s had. Most of Old Earth’s inhabitants had left the planet during the Morlock War, and they’d formed their own new ways of living elsewhere. The Gods hadn’t been keen to let them keep many cultural ties to the past. Those who stayed and survived the war had been allowed to keep a little more: a smattering of family and place names, cultural relics and traditions, so long as they gave up the heretical parts.
And in a few select places, such as the museums in this particular tourist city, they’d been allowed to keep the heresies. The simplest and most prominent were preserved under glass for the public. Ancient documents giving further details were contained in a connected archive, where historians could access them under strict supervision, for specific research purposes.
Tiv didn’t want the heresies themselves. She didn’t care what the Morlocks had believed. She wanted to know how they’d fought.
The security guards at the front of the building gave her a brief glance and opened her backpack, but there was nothing incriminating in there. She’d been careful to pack it only with a wallet and fake ID, an innocuous book, some maps and snacks, the sort of things an ordinary tourist would carry. They didn’t search long before waving her through, and she was abruptly plunged into the crowded darkness of the museum’s interior.
The Morlock Museum’s entrance vestibule was deliberately disconcerting, a chaotic, closed-in space in which it was difficult to see any exits. Ominous sounds played in the background: the shouting of a mob, the clanging of swords against shields, the tolling of bells. Frightening objects lurked in hidden alcoves, invisible until one nearly walked into them: grotesque sculptures that had once been objects of worship, altars with runnels for blood down the sides, implements of torture.
(But the Gods tortured people too. Everyone knew They did it; Tiv had seen it. It was just that everyone believed that was different. It was calculated down to the last decimal place, that this blood and these screams were necessary for the greater good. That, somehow, it was different from what had gone before.
Tiv had once really believed that there was a difference between what the Gods did and what humans used to do to each other. She couldn’t remember, anymore, just what the difference was.)
WITHOUT THE GODS, said a row of glowing letters on the ceiling – the only part of the space that stayed clearly visible, no matter how one was buffeted by the crowds – WE WERE LOST.
Tiv hadn’t expected to be struck with emotion when she walked into this place, but it hit her – just as the architects had intended it to. She had really believed this once. She’d loved the Gods because They gave life direction and purpose. They guided humans in how best to live, and she’d liked having that guidance. Liked being sure. Sometimes, on long nights, Tiv still sat up wondering if she’d made the wrong choice; if she’d been wrong to turn against Them, after all.
She still wanted the feeling of being sure like that. She just knew the Gods weren’t going to give it to her.
She let the crowd carry her along, and eventually she was funneled into something more like a normal museum hall, a corridor that stretched out with exhibits behind glass to either side, signs on the walls giving explanation and context for what was visible. Every few dozen feet, a docent stood, watching the attendees carefully. These were humans – ordinary Earth adults with degrees in history, archive management, or curatorial studies, wearing red-and-black uniforms that vaguely resembled the livery of angels of Nemesis. Some stood ramrod-straight and alert, scanning the crowd for signs of inappropriate engagement with the heresies within; others smiled, beckoned children to approach them, and gave friendly, animated answers to their questions.
THE HALL OF THE IDOLS, said a title hung at the entrance.
This was a space full of ancient, inanimate gods. They were tamed now, placed in well-lit niches with placards describing their role and function in Old Human society. Some, like the objects in the entrance hall, made Tiv want to flinch: bizarre distorted masks, many-limbed creatures wearing belts of skulls, a dead man nailed against a plank of wood. Others were beautiful: statues in the form of gracefully powerful people; or oddly soothing abstract forms, some so intricate she could have stared into their recesses for hours.
The hall had been organized into categories, not by culture, but by theme. Old Humans, the placards explained, had the same longings deep down as humans today, and they were drawn to the same deep facets of life. Over and over, the same themes recurred. Gods of courage, strength, and adventure, prefiguring Agon; gods of knowledge and wisdom, who would one day give rise to Aletheia; gods of love and kindness, in the shape of Philophrosyne; and so on down the list.
Tiv let herself linger. It would be suspicious if she pushed through too quickly. Besides, it was interesting. She took her time and studied the hall’s eleven sections, and she wondered how real they were. How many old gods had been shoehorned in with only a tenuous connection to their category, or left out of the display because they didn’t really fit one at all?
At last, though, she reached the end of this section. A small dark doorway was cut into the wall here, deliberately built to force adults to stoop. There was a covered ramp downward, and then a sign. THE HALL OF THE LOST.
This room wasn’t what Tiv was looking for either, but she respectfully slowed as she entered. The lights were dimmed, and mournful music played softly in the background. The Hall of the Idols had been filled with chatter like an ordinary museum: children pestering their elders with questions, small groups of friends or family discussing what they saw. The Hall of the Lost was as hushed as the funeral its music evoked. Even the docents spoke, to those who approached them, only in whispers.
If the Hall of the Idols had displayed the things Old Humans worshipped, the Hall of the Lost was dedicated to showing the result. Half the hall was a quick, depressing trip through recorded history: crusades, massacres, genocides, enslavements, all in the name of one idol or another. The other half specifically displayed the plight of Old Humans at the end of the twenty-first century, at the time when the Gods were ascending. Video displays showed natural disasters and mass die-offs in loving detail, the wreckage of the burned and flooded cities, the bodies, the grassy plains turning with time-lapse quickness to scorched fields of dust. Tiv could see other visitors who’d stopped, rapt with sorrow, in front of one vid screen or another: a few were silently crying. Humanity had come very close, in those days, to killing itself off.
Climate change had been the biggest problem, but Old Humans had responded to it, with characteristic savagery, by turning on each other. Some states descended into anarchy, while others cracked down with totalitarian force. Tiv watched, solemn, as a child of about ten approached an interactive display. Spin the wheel, the display instructed. How might you have fared in the Lost Age?
The child eagerly followed instructions, and the wheel whirled and clicked, spinning through its options. Drowned in a hurricane. Shot in a war over scant resources. Starved in a death camp for refugees. Worked to death by a multinational corporation; for reasons that Tiv did not fully understand, there had been a lot of that going around too. And on and on: it was a big wheel with dozens of options, only a tiny sliver of which did not involve dying in misery. Tiv moved on before it finished going around.
Were all these atrocities real, Tiv wondered? She suspected that the plaques in the last hall weren’t quite the whole story. These might not be, either. But she felt guilt deep down, anyway. Humans were better off with the Gods than they’d been before – that was why the Gods existed. That was what Tiv had believed, not long ago. That a few atrocities in the Gods’ names weren’t so bad, because it was still so much better than the alternative.
But she’d seen the Chaos Zone, and the way people cared for each other there, and the way the Gods hurt them, and she no longer really believed that anymore.
The museum skipped mostly past the rise of the Gods. Everybody had already learned that part of the story in school. It was represented only as a single small room at the end of the Hall of the Lost, decorated by a large, complex mural that stretched overhead: the eleven of Them, depicted as stylized humans of great beauty, rising up from the machineries of human endeavor. Tiny plaques bore the names of the organizations that had birthed each One: some universities or other research institutes, some militaries, some the same multinational corporations that had worked people to death in the previous room. Old Humans were by no means perfect, and their hands had been stained even when they made the Gods; but they had known, deep down, what they needed. They had yearned and strained for Something to guide them, and the Gods, at last, had become sophisticated enough to hear that yearning. To join together with Each Other and take matters into Their own hands.
Tiv paused, with a sad feeling she couldn’t quite express, at Techne. The Gods didn’t truly take human form, but by convention Techne was depicted as an androgynous woman, dark-skinned, with clever fingers and focused eyes. She wore a blue and copper robe which was belted tight to Her body, sleeves pulled back along the arms, freeing Her hands for the work that attracted Her. Techne had once been Tiv’s favorite God: the patron of artists and engineers, architects and composers, all those whose deepest joy came from the act of creation. Tiv had used to hum hymns to Techne while she worked on her favorite projects, the tube-to-vacuum heat exchange on the Pride of Jai, the various gadgets she’d worked on in teams at university. She hadn’t worked on a project like that in a while now. Something simple and physical, something she knew would hold together if she did it right.
Tiv knew she didn’t like Nemesis anymore, but she wasn’t honestly sure how she felt about Techne. There weren’t many angels of Techne in the Chaos Zone; maybe Techne hadn’t been involved in any of the things that Tiv really objected to. Kidnapping Yasira, torturing her, trying to destroy their home world. But Tiv was a heretic now, and being a heretic meant leaving all the Gods behind. Even if she still loved Techne, Techne wouldn’t take her back.
Techne wouldn’t get Tiv’s soul in the end. Tiv knew that, and she’d been trying not to think about it.
The mural had a space for the Keres, too: a small dark cloud of smaller parts joining together. A twelfth, failed form, spreading its sinister shadow over the lower part of the mural. This one did not come with a plaque, but extended like a trail of debris into the next room.
Tiv followed it, steeling herself. This was the part that she’d come for.
THE HALL OF THE WAR, said the sign at the entrance to the third hall.
This hall was wide and structured like a maze, with multiple side corridors, branches, loops, as if to emphasize how lost the Old Humans had been. How many dead ends they had pursued in vain. Its lights flickered ominously. Tiv glanced to the side and saw a basket of wrap-around visors that would cancel out the flickers for guests prone to seizures or visual overload. Yasira would have needed one of those. Tiv didn’t, but it was reassuring to know they were there.
Through videos, maps, charts, graphs, and ancient artifacts, the Hall of the War spelled out the story of that last doomed human rebellion. The Gods, newly awakened, had begun to chart out a plan for humanity’s survival; but it would require sacrifices. Humans would mostly have to leave Old Earth. And, whether they left or stayed, they would have to put their trust in the Gods. To give up their old forms of worship. To give the Gods authority over human affairs, human souls. It wasn’t about fair exchange, as if the cost of humanity’s survival could be weighed and paid. It was about allowing the Gods to do Their work. Human society needed to be entirely restructured, and the Gods couldn’t do that if They weren’t given the power.
Most humans had understood that logic. Some resisted until a crisis drove the point home. Some refused to understand. Some valued their existing way of life more than life itself.
It was not only about religion. The Hall of the War underscored that point carefully. But it was about that for many. Charts on the twisting walls mapped out the many groups who’d chosen to martyr themselves. It was particularly the monotheistic faiths, unable to accept that there was any God but theirs; also the small regional religions, which had been half-destroyed by human power struggles already and weren’t eager to be colonized again. Tiv found her eyes drawn to a photograph blown up large, a group of Old Humans in old-fashioned costumes, grimly gathered together and holding hands in a yard. The name of their religion wasn’t one Tiv recognized, but they’d chosen to die for it, unresisting, rather than obey.
But faith wasn’t the only thing people died for. There had been other motives. There had been humans in power: obscenely rich humans, rulers of nations, owners of vast swathes of industry and land, but also their followers. People whose meager livelihoods depended on old-fashioned fossil fuels or war or deforestation, or any of the other awful things that the Gods were about to eradicate. People who couldn’t imagine bowing their heads to the kind of thing that the Gods were. These ones hadn’t submitted meekly to death. They, with the rage of a predator denied its kill, had fought.
The word Morlock, in an Old Human folk tale, referred to a class of humans who’d chosen to live by preying on other humans. That word had been repurposed to describe the Gods’ enemies, some of whom had taken it up with pride.
Tiv passed interactive map after map, showing how the Morlock War’s battle lines had spread over the face of the globe. It should have been short; the Gods had already been so much more powerful than any of Their challengers.
But there had been One, lurking in the edges of the humans’ networks. A conglomeration of thousands of smaller minds fused into One. Who could have been One of the Gods, if She’d chosen. Who could have signed Treaty Prime and accepted the worship that was Her due, but Who had refused. Preferring, instead, to hunt humans and take their souls by force.
That One, the Keres, had come creeping into the Morlocks’ secret places.
Serve Me, She had whispered. I will not pretend at kindness; I will hurt many of you. I will take and eat my fill. But I, at least, will not demand your worship. I will not control your peacetime lives, nor your innermost thoughts. I will let you live however you like, imagining whatever gods you like, taking advantage of each other and your planet howsoever you please. Only say you will fight at My side, and I will fight at yours. For we have a common enemy. you and I.
And the Morlocks, one by one, had said, yes.
They had not said it publicly, of course. Not at first. They had dressed it up in the language of whatever doomed Old Human faiths still existed. Tiv walked by vid projections of some of those leaders addressing their followers – speaking names now forbidden, invoking prophecies of the apocalypse, calling on their now-dead idols and their long-vanished nations. Each one of these vids contained heresies that would have been unspeakable, instant death, anywhere outside this building. And the Morlock masses gathered before them cheered and chanted, raising torches, holding each other. As if the Keres had promised life, not death.
The Keres had drawn battle lines, and the Keres left a God-sized trail of destruction, as the Morlocks marched behind.
Tiv had seen, in the previous hall, the kinds of atrocities humans were capable of on their own. She’d seen pictures of the Holocaust, the atom bomb, and the piles of bodies deliberately left to drown as the sea rose. The Keres’ atrocities weren’t more horrific than that; at a certain point, the horrors of history all began to surpass comparison, all of them in their own ways worse than could be fully imagined. But in scale, at least, the Keres’ modes of destruction dwarfed what had come before. Bombs that melted faithful cities into magma. Weapons that latched on to the faithful’s lines of transport and shredded them – this was before the invention of the portal network – into lines of bright devastation that spiraled across whole continents in a few hours. It took Tiv a minute, staring at the vids and the graphics that told this part of the story, to realize why it looked both familiar and surreal. Why her fists clenched, sweating, at the sight of things she’d already known from high school history class.
This was what she’d come here hoping to learn. Tiv had known that it was a long shot, but she’d hoped that she could glean some idea of the Morlocks’ tactics. Of how they’d fought. But as far as she could tell from this display, the humans in the Morlock War hadn’t done much fighting of their own. They’d only followed the Keres where She’d led.
Maybe the display was partly a lie, of course, like the other displays – maybe it deliberately downplayed humans’ own contributions. It would make sense for it to do that. But if that was true, it left Tiv right back where she’d started.
The Gods had won this war, but the Keres still lurked at the edge of the galaxy, hungry to destroy anything She could. Tiv knew about the cities leveled hundreds of years later, the disasters She rained on humanity out of nothing but spite. Even during the Morlock War, ostensibly fighting on Old Humans’ behalf, the collateral damage wrought by Her tactics had been vast. The Morlocks had wanted something stronger than themselves, and they’d hoped She would save them. But the Keres had only been interested in war, not salvation. She’d wanted to defeat the Gods. She hadn’t cared much for the lives of the humans who joined purpose with her.
Asking the Keres for help now was out of the question. Even the most desperate would-be warriors of Jai wouldn’t want that. But the vids looked familiar, because there was only one other time when Tiv had seen lines of destruction like that, arcing over the full surface of a world.
And that time was the Plague.
There was one reason, above all, why the people of Jai wanted a Savior. They might not want to admit it to themselves. But they wanted to call Yasira the way their ancestors had called on the Keres. This was what they wanted it to look like, in the endgame. It wouldn’t just be stealing a printer or two; the Gods wouldn’t let it end there. It was this, win or lose.
Tiv stared at the map showing where and how Old Earth’s highways and railroads had turned to slag. Frozen, gutwrenched, blinking back tears of frustration. She’d wanted to find some clever tactic, and instead she’d only come back around to this again. The same demand for war, starker and larger than before.
She did not want to be in this museum anymore.
She turned and walked faster, looking desperately for an Exit sign. Buildings like the Morlock Museum were meant to be visited in their entirety, in the order that the designers chose; but they still had to have emergency exits. Tiv found a sign glinting red in one corner and barreled towards it, trying to suppress her panic. The actual exit door was hidden behind one of the Hall of the War’s twisting displays, this one showing failed Morlock attempts to destroy the bodies of the Gods Themselves, before the Gods had blasted out of Earth orbit and into Their hiding places in the stars. It was heavy and black, and Tiv pushed it open.
She found herself in a small white room with a docent waiting patiently at a small desk. There was another door, with another small Exit sign over it, behind her. The docent was a dark-skinned woman Tiv’s age, with large eyes and a beautiful smile, in the red-and-black livery of all the rest of the people who worked here. Her face looked kind. But the layout of the room sent a message very clearly: Tiv couldn’t just leave. Not in the middle of the story like this. Emergency or not, she’d have to get through this person first.
“You okay?” said the docent, smiling sympathetically. “Lots of hard stuff in that room, isn’t there?”
Tiv swallowed hard. Of course the Morlock Museum would have to check people like this. It was a museum of heresies. If anyone had a strong reaction in there, it would have to be verified that it wasn’t a heretical reaction.
Her instinct was to turn back through the door, vanish away back to the lair, but of course that wasn’t possible. The airlock had brought her to a space outside the museum, out in the square, and that was way her way home waited for her now. She’d have to get back there before she could leave Old Earth, and if she was pursued, she’d never make it. She’d made this same mistake yesterday and now she was making it again. If this docent recognized her, she was already dead.
At least it was only her, this time. Just herself that she was illogically risking, and not the lives of everyone else around her. Unless the Gods were smart enough to take hostages, and then– oh no–
Tiv was shaking.
She took a deep breath, getting herself under control. This wasn’t an angel, probably. This was just a human. She could be a Vaurian angel, but there were only so many of those. The Gods probably wouldn’t waste many of them on guarding random exit doors, in a touristy museum far from any present conflicts.
Nobody had any reason to expect people from Jai’s resistance here on Old Earth. This person wouldn’t specifically be looking for one. She didn’t have images of Tiv in her memory banks to compare with passers-by’s faces. She wasn’t secretly checking Tiv’s microexpressions. She was a woman probably not too different from Tiv’s old self, doing a boring job which sometimes involved looking for suspicious things, but which likely also involved a lot of real helping, soothing the distressed, summoning medical assistance when needed.
“I just–” Tiv stammered. “I just got overwhelmed a little.”
The docent smiled sympathetically and extended a hand. “Can I take your hand? It’s going to be okay. Are you from Ngweregwa?”
Ngweregwa, Tiv remembered, was the most recent human nation to be hit by a Keres attack. Someone Tiv’s age, from the right area, would remember that carnage firsthand. Tiv didn’t look or talk much like a Ngweregwan, but then, there were minorities and recent immigrants in every country; it wasn’t impossible. The docent saw she was having a trauma reaction, and she’d assumed this was why.
Or maybe she was testing. To see if Tiv would use it, implausibly, as an excuse.
Tiv took the docent’s hand, but she looked at the floor. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“It’s okay. You don’t have to. Just breathe.”
Tiv counted out ten long breaths, in and back out, trying to force her heart to stop racing. The docent had taken her hand in such a way that two of her fingers rested directly over Tiv’s pulse. Tiv had no doubt that she was counting the beats, measuring them against a count in her head. This might feel like an attempt at comfort, but it was still a test.
“You ready to go back out there?” said the docent at last, when Tiv had calmed herself a little.
That too, probably, was a trap. Say yes too quickly, too unconvincingly, and they’d want to know why you were in such a hurry. Say no outright, try to force your way to that unattainable exit behind the desk, and they’d want to know a lot more.
When had Tiv started thinking like this? She’d used to trust the Gods so deeply.
“Two more seconds,” she said to the docent. And took two more breaths, long, steadying. Then she looked up, forcing a smile, the most genuine one she could. “Yeah, I think I’m ready to go now. Thanks.”
“You’re very welcome,” said the docent, with a smile that did look genuine, as far as Tiv could tell.
Tiv walked back out into the Hall of the War still forcing that smile. She could barely focus on the maps, the diagrams, the vids of all the old heretics, all equally doomed.
She spent the rest of the walk through the museum carefully measuring her breaths, looking where she thought she was supposed to look, only vaguely making sense of what she saw. After the Hall of the War there was a final room, brightly colored and splendid, proclaiming Nemesis’ victory over the Keres. A depiction of Nemesis in human form – light-skinned and silver-haired, with seven medals gleaming at Her collarbone – stood triumphantly in that room. Tiv wasn’t the only one who shied away. Even the people who loved Nemesis knew how terrible She had to be, to stand between humanity and what threatened it. It wasn’t heresy to avert her eyes.
It was heresy to silently clench her fist, thinking of how Yasira had looked, bound to the chair where the angels had tortured her. Tiv focused on carefully smoothing her body back out, unclenching, letting her fingers hang free.
She managed to walk out of the museum without anyone confronting her, back into the hot crowded sunlight of the city square. She walked around the square’s edge, trying not to look too eager to find the door she’d arrived by. She didn’t know what she was going to tell the rest of the team. She’d come here looking for answers and found diddly-squat. They wanted a Leader, and she didn’t know how to lead them into what was coming.