In Defy the Stars, a new YA novel from Star Wars: Lost Stars and Star Wars: Bloodline author Claudia Gray, a young soldier named Noemi is enmeshed in an intergalactic war — while also fighting a more philosophical battle closer to home. You see, there’s a robot, Abel, who’s programmed to obey her, but if her plans go into place, the robot could end up dying — and, Westworld-style, he seems a whole lot more like a living, feeling being than a collection of metal and computer chips.
Before Defy the Stars‘ publication on April 4, EW is excited to reveal the book’s first two chapters, and its gorgeous, explosive cover, below.
Excerpt from Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray
In three weeks, Noemi Vidal will die—here, in this very place.
Today is just practice.
Noemi wants to pray like the other soldiers she hears around her. The soft ebb and swell of their whispers sounds like waves against the shore. Zero-G even makes it look as if they’re underwater—their hair fanning out from their heads, their booted feet swaying out from their launch harnesses as if caught by the tide. Only the dark star field outside the few small windows reveals how far they are from home.
The troops around her share a mix of faiths. Most of the People of the Book are seated close together: The Jews clasp hands with one another; the Muslims have been seated in one corner, to better pray toward the distant dot in the sky where Mecca lies. Like the other members of the Second Catholic Church, Noemi has her rosary beads in hand, the small stone-carved crucifix floating near her face. She clutches it tighter and wishes she didn’t feel so hollow inside. So small. So desperate for the life she’s already given up.
Every single one of them volunteered, but none of them is truly ready to die. Inside the troop ship, the air is electrified with terrible purpose.
Twenty days, Noemi reminds herself. I have twenty days left.
It’s not much comfort to cling to. So she looks across the row at her best friend, one of the noncombatants who is here only to map potential trajectories for the Masada Run, not to die in the process. Esther Gatson’s eyes are shut in fervent prayer. If Noemi could pray like that, maybe she wouldn’t be so scared. Esther’s long golden hair is pinned up in thick braids that ring her head like a halo, and Noemi feels her courage kindle back into flame.
I’m doing this for Esther. If I don’t save anyone else, at least I can save her.
For a while, anyway.
Most of the soldiers harnessed near Noemi are between the ages of sixteen and twenty-eight. Noemi is only seventeen. Her generation is decimating itself.
And the Masada Run will be their greatest sacrifice.
It’s a suicide mission—though no one uses the word suicide. Seventy-five ships will strike at once, all running at the same target. Seventy-five ships will blow themselves up. Noemi will be flying one of them.
The Masada Run won’t win the war. But it will buy Genesis time. Her life for time.
No. Noemi looks at Esther again. Your life for hers.
Thousands have fallen in the past few years of this war, and there’s no victory in sight. This spaceship they’re on now is almost forty years old, which makes it one of the newest in the Genesis fleet. But each glance shows Noemi another flaw: the patching that hints at a past hull breach, the scarred windows that blur the stars outside, the wear on the harnesses that anchor her and her fellow soldiers into their seats. They even have to limit the use of artificial gravity to conserve power.
This is the price Genesis pays for a pristine environment, for the health and strength of every living thing on their world. Genesis will make nothing new while something old still functions. Her society’s oath to limit manufacture and industry has profited them more than it cost—or it had, before the war erupted again, years after all the weapons factories had been shut down, after new fighter ships had been built.
The Liberty War had seemed to end over three decades ago; of course they’d trusted in their victory. Her planet had begun scaling back. The scars of the war still lingered; Noemi understands that more than most. But even she, along with everyone else, had believed they were truly safe.
Two years ago, the enemy returned. Since then, Noemi has learned to fire weapons and how to fly a single-pilot fighter. She’s learned how to mourn friends who had fought beside her only hours before. She’s learned what it’s like to look over the horizon, see smoke, and realize the nearest town is now only so much rubble.
She’s learned how to fight. Next she has to learn how to die.
The enemy’s ships are new. Their weapons are more powerful. And their soldiers aren’t even flesh and blood. Instead they have mech armies: robots, shaped like humans but without mercy, without vulnerabilities, without souls.
What kind of cowards go to war but refuse to fight it themselves? Noemi thinks. How evil do you have to be to kill another world’s people and risk none of your own?
Today’s just a practice run, she reminds herself. No big deal. You’ll fly it through, get it down, so when the day comes, no matter how scared you are, you can—
Orange lights along each row begin to flash, warning all troops that the artificial magnetic gravity is about to kick in. It’s too early. The other soldiers exchange worried glances, but the threat galvanizes Noemi. She shifts herself into position and takes a deep breath.
Wham! Hundreds of feet slam onto the metal floor at once. Noemi’s hair tumbles down to her chin, kept back from her face by the padded band she wears at the top of her forehead. Instantly she snaps into battle mode, untethering herself from her harness and reaching for her helmet. Her dark-green exosuit feels heavy again, but it’s supple, as ready for battle as she is.
Because it sounds like the battle is waiting for them.
“All warriors to their fighters!” shouts Captain Baz. “Signs indicate we’ve got ships coming through the Gate any second. We launch in five!”
Her dread vanishes, scorched away by warrior instinct. Noemi joins the lines of soldiers separating into squadrons and hurrying down the narrow corridors that lead to their individual fighters.
“Why are they here?” murmurs one round-faced guy, a newbie just ahead of her in line, as they dash through a tunnel with missing panels and exposed wiring. His skin has gone death-white beneath his freckles. “Do they know what we’re going to do?”
“They haven’t blown us up yet, right?” Noemi points out. “That means they haven’t found out about the Masada Run. It’s lucky we were up here when they came through, so we can fight them off farther from home. Okay?”
The poor new kid nods. He’s shaking. Noemi would like to be more comforting, but the words would probably come out wrong. She’s all rough edges and sharp elbows, her heart hidden so well by a quick temper that almost nobody ever recognizes she has one. Sometimes she wishes she could turn herself inside out. That way people would see the good in her before they saw the bad.
Battle brings out her bad side, where it’s actually a positive. Anyway, no point in trying to improve herself now.
Esther, who’s directly ahead of the boy, turns and smiles at him. “It’s going to be all right,” she promises in her soft voice. “You’ll see. When you’re in your fighter, your training will kick in, and you’ll feel braver than anything.” He smiles back, already steadier.
After Noemi was orphaned, she hated the world for existing, she hated other people for not hurting as much as she did, and she hated herself for continuing to breathe. As kind as the Gatsons had been to take her in, she couldn’t miss the looks Esther’s parents gave each other—the exasperation of doing so much for someone who couldn’t or wouldn’t appreciate it. Years went by before Noemi could feel any gratitude, or much of anything at all besides anger and bitterness.
But Esther never made her feel bad. In those first awful days, even though they’d been only eight years old, Esther had already known not to try comforting her friend with cheap words about memories or God’s will. She’d known all Noemi needed was for someone just to be there, asking nothing of her but making sure she knew she wasn’t alone.
How come none of that ever rubbed off on me? Noemi thinks as they hurry through the final corridors. Maybe she should’ve asked for lessons.
Esther shifts to the side, guiding the scared boy ahead of her to fall into step by Noemi’s side. Immediately she says to Noemi, “Don’t worry.”
Too late. “You don’t have a fighter today. Only a scout ship. You can’t go out into battle in that thing; you should just monitor us from here. Tell Captain Baz.”
“What do you think she’ll say? Sit here, get some knitting done? Scouts can transmit a lot of valuable info during a skirmish.” Esther shakes her head. “You can’t keep me out of every fight, you know.”
No, just the worst one. “If you get hurt up here, your parents will kill me, and that’s if Jemuel doesn’t get to me first.”
Esther’s face does this thing every time Noemi mentions Jemuel: Her cheeks pink with pleasure, and she presses her lips together to hold back her smile. But her eyes look as stricken as if she’d just seen Noemi lying wounded and bleeding on the floor. Once, Noemi had been glad to see that—to know that Esther cared about Noemi’s heartbreak as much as her own happiness—but now it’s just irritating. She says only, “Noemi, it’s my duty to be out here. The same as yours. So let it go.”
As usual, Esther’s right. Noemi takes a deep breath and runs faster through the corridor.
Her division reaches its launch array—a line of small, single-pilot fighter ships as sleek and streamlined as darts. Noemi jumps into her pilot’s seat. Across the room, she can see Esther doing the same, with just as much purpose as if she could really fight. As the translucent cockpit canopy locks over her and Noemi clamps her helmet into place, Esther gives her a look, the one that means Hey, you know I’m not really upset with you, right? She’s good at that look, especially for someone who almost never loses her temper.
Noemi gives her the usual smile back, the one that means Everything’s fine. Probably Noemi isn’t good at that, because Esther’s the only person she ever shows it to.
But Esther grins. She gets it. That’s enough.
The launch-bay panel begins to open, exposing the squadron’s fighters to the cold darkness of space at the farthest reaches of their solar system. Genesis is hardly more than a faint green dot in the distance; the sun she was born under still dominates the sky, but it appears smaller from here than either of her planet’s moons looks from the surface. For that first instant, when there’s nothing before Noemi but infinite stars, it’s beautiful—beyond beautiful—and she thrills at the sight as if it were her first time seeing it.
And as always, she wishes her most secret, most selfish wish: If only I could explore it all—
Then the panel opens fully to reveal the Genesis Gate.
The Gate is an enormous, brushed-silver ring of interlocking metal components, dozens of kilometers wide. Within the ring, Noemi can glimpse a faint shimmer like the surface of water when it’s almost too dark for a reflection, but not quite. This would be beautiful, too, if it weren’t the greatest threat to Genesis’s safety. Each Gate stabilizes one end of a singularity—a shortcut through space-time that allows a ship to travel partway across the galaxy in a mere instant. This is how the enemy reaches them; this is where all the battles begin.
In the distance Noemi can make out the evidence of some of those past battles—scrap left over from ships blown to pieces long ago. Some bits of the debris are mere splinters of metal. Other chunks are enormous twisted slabs, even entire blasted-out ships. These remnants have settled into lazy orbit around the Gate’s gravitational pull.
But they hardly matter compared to the dark gray shapes speeding away from the Gate, slicing into their system. These are the ships of the enemy, the planet determined to conquer Genesis and take their lands and resources for its own forever:
They poisoned their own world. Colonized Genesis only so they could move billions of people here and poison it in turn. But worlds that sustain life are few and precious. They’re sacred. They have to be protected.
The signal lights flare. She releases her docking clamps as Captain Baz’s voice speaks to the squadron via her helmet mic: “Let’s get out there.”
Disengage clamps: Check. Noemi’s ship floats free of its moorings, hanging weightless. The others rise beside her, all of them ready to scramble. Her hands move to the brightly colored panel before her. She knows each button and toggle by heart, understands what each light means. Systems readouts normal: Check.
Her fighter leaps forward, a silver comet against the blackness of space. The shimmer in the Gate brightens like a star going supernova—a warning that more Earth forces are on the way.
Her hands tighten on the controls as she sees the Gate burst into light, and ships begin to crash through, one after the other.
“We have five—no, seven confirmed Damocles-class ships!” Captain Baz says over comms. “We caught ’em by surprise. Let’s use it.”
Noemi accelerates, her silver fighter streaking toward the farthest Damocles vessel. These long, flat, boxy ships are unencumbered with artificial gravity or extensive life support, because they aren’t for carrying humans. Instead, depending on ship size, each Damocles carries anywhere from a dozen to a hundred mechs, each one heavily armed, programmed for battle, and ready to kill.
Mechs aren’t afraid to die, because they aren’t even alive. They have no souls. They’re pure machines of death.
Noemi’s eyes narrow as she sees the first hatches open. Thank God, these are smaller ships, but they’re still carrying a powerful mech force. If they could just blast one or two of the Damocles ships into atoms before they launch their deadly cargo—
Too late. The mechs shoot out wearing metal exoskeletons, with just enough sheathing to keep the robotic warriors inside from freezing in the coldness of space. As the Genesis fighters approach, the mechs begin to shift position. They spread their limbs wide to expand their shooting range, like carnivores pouncing on prey. As long as Noemi’s fought, as hard as she’s trained, she still shudders at the sight.
“Attack sequence—now!” Baz calls, and battle cries echo through Noemi’s helmet. Noemi spins her fighter left, choosing her first target.
Over comms, one guy yells, “Kill ’em all!”
Blaster bolts from the mechs slash through the air toward Noemi, fiery orange streaks that could cripple a fighter in moments. She banks left, fires back. All around her, Genesis fighters and Earth mechs scatter, formations dissolving in the chaos of battle.
Like most people of Genesis, Noemi believes in the Word of God. Even if she sometimes has questions and doubts the elders can’t answer, she can quote chapter and verse on the value of life, the importance of peace. Even though the things she’s blowing out of the sky aren’t truly alive, they’re…human-shaped. The bloodlust stirred up inside her feels wrong in a way that all her righteous fury can’t entirely cure. But she powers through it. She has to, for the sake of her fellow soldiers, and for her world.
Noemi knows what her duty to God is right now:
Fight like hell.
As Abel floats in zero-G, in the dark quiet of a dead ship’s equipment pod bay, he tells himself the story again. The black-and-white images flicker in his mind with total accuracy; it’s as if he’s watching it projected upon a screen, the way it was shown centuries ago. Abel possesses an eidetic memory, so he only needs to see things once to remember them forever.
And he enjoys remembering Casablanca. Retelling himself every scene, in order, over and over again. The characters’ voices are so vivid in his mind that the actors might as well be floating in the pod bay beside him:
Where were you last night?
That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.
It’s a good story, one that holds up to repetition. This is fortunate for Abel, who has now been trapped in the Daedalus for almost thirty years. Roughly fifteen million, seven hundred and seventy thousand, nine hundred minutes, or nine hundred and forty-six million, seven hundred thousand seconds.
(He has been programmed to round off such large numbers outside of actual scientific work. The same humans who made him capable of measuring with perfect precision also find the mention of such numbers irritating. It makes no sense to Abel, but he knows better than to expect rational behavior from human beings.)
The nearly complete darkness of his confinement makes it easy for Abel to imagine that reality is in black and white, like the movie.
New input. Form: irregular flashes of light. The drama stops cold in Abel’s mind as he looks up to analyze—
Blaster bolts. A battle, no doubt between Earth and Genesis forces.
Abel was marooned here in just such a battle. After a long silence, warfare has reignited in the past two years. At first he found that encouraging. If Earth ships were again coming to the Genesis system, they would eventually find the Daedalus. They would tow it in to reclaim everything inside, including Abel himself.
And after thirty terrible years of suspense, Abel would finally be able to fulfill his primary directive: Protect Burton Mansfield.
Honor the creator. Obey his directives above all others. Preserve his life no matter what.
But his hopes have faded as the war has churned on. No one has come to find him, and no one seems likely to do so in the near future. Perhaps not even in the distant future. Although Abel is stronger than any human being and a match for even the most powerful fighter mechs, he can’t tear open the air-lock door separating him from the rest of the Daedalus. (He tried. Despite knowing down to the hundredth decimal point the ratios working against him, Abel still tried. Thirty years is a long time.)
Neither Abel himself nor this ship would have been abandoned lightly. Abel has run through the various scenarios many times, but he can’t accept it. Mansfield could have fled to save himself, meaning to return for Abel, but he was simply never able to. Then again, the battle intensified so much that day that any human escape from the Daedalus might have been impossible. In all probability, Mansfield was killed by enemy troops on the same day Abel became trapped.
And yet, Burton Mansfield is a genius, the creator of all twenty-six models of mech that currently serve humankind. If anyone could devise a way to survive that last battle, Mansfield could have.
Of course, Abel’s creator could also have died in the years since. He was in his late middle age thirty years ago, and with humans, accidents sometimes happen. Perhaps that is why he hasn’t come. Surely only death would keep Mansfield away.
There is another possibility. It is the least likely of all plausible options, but not impossible: Mansfield might still be aboard, but in cryosleep. The cryosleep chambers in sick bay could keep a human alive with minimal life support for an indefinite amount of time. The person inside would be unconscious, aging at less than one-tenth the normal rate and waiting for a rescuer to bring them back to life.
All Abel would have to do is get to him.
Before he can find Mansfield, however, someone must find him. So far, Earth’s forces have spent no time searching the debris field for functioning ships. Nobody has found Abel; no one is even looking.
Someday, he tells himself. Earth’s victory is inevitable, whether it comes in another two months or two hundred years. It’s entirely possible for Abel to live that long.
But Mansfield would surely be dead by then. Maybe even Casablanca won’t be interesting after that many years—
Abel tilts his head, peering more carefully at the sliver of star field he can see through the pod bay’s window. After a moment, he reaches out to the closest wall and pushes off, bringing himself closer to the view. In the ultra-thick glass, he has to look through his own translucent reflection, with his short gold hair fanned out around his head as though he were in a medieval manuscript, gilt-edged.
This battle is coming nearer to the Daedalus than any other ever has. A few fighters are already on the edges of the debris field; if Earth’s forces continue separating the Genesis troops from one another, some of the mechs will soon be very close to his ship.
Very, very close.
He must determine a method for sending a signal. It would have to be a low-tech solution, and the signal could only be very basic. But Abel doesn’t need to send information to a human, doesn’t have to worry about the limitations of an organic brain. Any small pattern amid the chaos might attract the attention of another mech—and if it has a chance to investigate, its programming will compel it to do so.
Abel pushes against the wall to propel himself through the pod bay. After thirty years, he is all too familiar with the few pieces of equipment in here with him, not one of which can help him power up the ship, open the pod bay door, or communicate directly with another vessel. But that doesn’t mean they’re useless.
In one corner, suspended a few centimeters from the wall, is a simple flashlight.
Helps with repairs, Mansfield had explained, his blue eyes crinkling at the corners as he smiled. Humans can’t rewire a spaceship with nothing but their memory of the schematics. Not like you, my boy. We need to see it. Abel remembered smiling back, proud that he could replace weaker humans and serve Mansfield better.
And yet he could never hold humanity in contempt, because Mansfield was human, too.
Grabbing the flashlight, Abel launches himself toward the window again. What message should he send?
No message. Only a signal. Someone is here; someone seeks contact. The rest can come later.
Abel holds the light to the window. He has not used it during the past decades, and it still holds sufficient charge. One flash. Then two, three, five, seven, eleven—and so on through the first ten primes. He plans to repeat the sequence until someone sees him.
Or until the battle ends, leaving him alone for many more years to come.
But maybe someone will see, Abel thinks.
He isn’t supposed to hope. Not like humans do. Yet during the past several years, his mind has been forced to deepen. With no new stimulation, he has reflected on every piece of information, every interaction, every single element of his existence before the abandonment of the Daedalus. Something within in his inner workings has changed, and probably not for the better.
Because hope can hurt, and yet Abel can’t stop looking out the window, wishing desperately for someone to see him, so he will no longer be alone.