Malka Older, the author of the Centanal Cycle, has a new book coming out. The Mimicking of Known Successes is both a cozy science-fiction mystery and an introspective slow-burn romance that comes together in startlingly tense moments of action. As Mossa and Pleiti work on a missing-person case together, the book navigates academic politics and interstellar mystery, developing an utterly charming whodunnit. Read on for an exclusive excerpt!
On a remote, gas-wreathed outpost of a human colony on Jupiter, a man goes missing. The enigmatic Investigator Mossa follows his trail to Valdegeld, home to the colony’s erudite university—and Mossa’s former girlfriend, a scholar of Earth’s pre-collapse ecosystems.
Pleiti has dedicated her research and her career to aiding the larger effort towards a possible return to Earth. When Mossa unexpectedly arrives and requests Pleiti’s assistance in her latest investigation, the two of them embark on a twisting path in which the future of life on Earth is at stake—and, perhaps, their futures, together.
The cover is followed by an exclusive look at the prologue and first chapter of the novella.
The man had disappeared from an isolated platform; the furthest platform eastward, in fact, on the 4°63′ line, never a very popular ring. It took Mossa five hours on the railcar to get there, alone because none of her Investigator colleagues were available, or eager, to take such a long trip for what would almost certainly be confirmation of a suicide.
The platform appeared out of the swirling red fog, and moments later the railcar settled to a halt at what could barely be called a station. Mossa, who had not been looking forward to the long trip herself, had nonetheless passed it in a benevolent daze, looking out at the gaseous horizon that seemed abstractly static as it moved in constant strange patterns. Once disembarked, she found the rhythm of talking to people on the platform only with difficulty.
“And you say he was standing here?” Mossa asked.
“That’s right,” the settler confirmed. “Staring out into the eastern fog. People do that sometimes, no harm in it.”
Mossa grunted, not quite in agreement. She was aware that just because she didn’t understand the appeal—you couldn’t see a meter out into the muck anyway, what did it matter how far the ring had to curve before the next platform?—didn’t mean that others wouldn’t. But if you were emotionally inclined to find significance in that sort of thing, doing so on this platform seemed fairly likely to deepen any gloom you were feeling. The beaten metal was largely bare, the single ring crossing along it lonely, and it might have been a psychological effect of the sparse construction and distance from anywhere else on the planet, but the gasses seemed to flow high here, wraithing around them as if the platform had sunk lower than the standard height.
Maybe it had. The maintenance team didn’t make it out here very often, judging from the streaks of oxidation on the ledge.
“And then?” Did he leap? Fall? The parapet edging the platform was the regulation height, enough to rule out any but the most outré of accidents.
“He turned and went into the pub.” The settler gestured towards the stretch of platform beyond the minimal overhang that stood in for a station, where five buildings huddled into the atmosphere: four residences, with probably two or three separate homes apiece, and a pub with a home above it. The general store would come on a railcar, Mossa figured: a good long stop at the end of the line to allow the residents to select their purchases before sliding back in the other direction.
“Had a lovely big breakfast. Last meal, I suppose,” the settler added, with mournful satisfaction.
The person shrugged, most of the motion muffled by their atmoscarfs, enveloping enough to be more properly called wraps. “Didn’t see him after that.”
“When did you realize he was missing?”
“It was Ganal, at the pub, noticed first. Like a good pubkeep should. Then when she mentioned, ‘Where’s that stranger? Came in on the morning rail?’ we all started looking.” The settler shrugged. “Nowhere much to hide here, no railcars had been in or out, so. One way or the other, he went over.”
Mossa and the settler stared down from the platform in silence, observing the constant writhe of the gaseous mixture barely below them, barely visible in the dim glow from the gaslights of the platform. At last Mossa turned away. “I’ll need to speak to the pubkeep.”
“Turned in now, shouldn’t wonder.”
Nobody wanted this to be easy. Mossa didn’t want to spend any longer on this piece of grit than necessary— she certainly wasn’t going to sleep here—but she had to at least try to find out what had happened to this mysterious stranger. “We’ll have to rouse her.”
The settler shrugged without surprise. “You might as well have a meal there, then. Soften her up, and give you something to do while you wait for her to be able to make sense. She only went to sleep a few hours ago, see.”
The pub was cozier than she expected: stacked rows of low pipe fires burning blue along one wall and rather nice rugs piled on the floor and hanging from the walls. A rabbit lollopped under some chairs in the corner, and a partridge muttered to itself on a perch high up behind the bar.
Mossa had not wanted the food, from a reluctance to commit herself to staying any longer than absolutely necessary as well as a deep suspicion about the quality of the meal. She was surprised to enjoy it.
“Heirloom Haricots,” the pubkeep said, nodding as she poured herself another swill of caffeination from her thermos. “It’s not just in the name.”
Mossa looked up at her, still chewing. “How did you know?”
The pubkeep lifted one round shoulder. “You had that look on your face, like you couldn’t believe what you were eating.”
“They are tasty.”
The pubkeep nodded at a planter. “Sequenced by my ancestor as a school project. We found it buried in one of the data caches they brought on the evacuation, along with gigs of other useless stuff. You won’t find the same flavor profile anywhere else on Giant.”
“The rest of it’s good too,” Mossa said, rendered generous by the unexpected bounty.
“Had to live up to the beans.” The pubkeep yawned and nodded. “Now you know, maybe you’ll come out here for a meal once in a while.”
Mossa nodded, although she doubted she’d ever want that taste badly enough for a five-hour rail ride each way. Especially if she didn’t have access to an Investigator railcar and had to go public. “Tell me about the stranger,” she said, putting her utensils down reluctantly.
The pubkeep yawned again, her first words squeaking around it. “Not much to tell. He came in, ordered breakfast—the cheese slurry over green beans. I asked where he was in from, and he said Valdegeld, but kind of proud-like, you know how some of them do, and he started dropping bits about how important he was there with his work and all and he clearly wanted to be asked more ’bout it, so I didn’t.” The pubkeep’s lined face spread in a grin, then dropped the smile just as quickly. “You don’t think that’s why he—”
Mossa considered the question. “People who are very pleased with themselves are rarely driven to suicide by lack of interest from a single stranger.” People who were very pleased with themselves generally did not jump off of isolated platforms without an audience, either. Of course the pubkeep’s character assessment might not be valid, but . . .
Valdegeld. That at least gave her a place to start. Mossa noted that her desire to return there, the specific pulls of tactile and taste memory, were balanced almost evenly by a strong emotional reluctance.
“Heh, you’re right at that.” The pubkeep ran a cloth over the counter for the third time, then turned to fiddle with the atmosfilter controls, though Mossa detected no anomaly in the admixture she was breathing. “I guess I did ignore him a bit. Every time I did say a word to him his answer was about how wonderful Valdegeld is, great center of learning and culture bladdabladdabladda, which isn’t so much of interest, or mostly how wonderful he is, which is less so. So I let him be.”
“Reasonable enough,” Mossa said.
“Right. I washed up, made breakfast for myself and Loba, who usually comes in before starting his day. When I looked around again he was gone. I assumed he’d gone to do whatever he came here for.” Despite the pubkeep’s hopes, it seemed people did not come all this way just for the green beans.
“And how did you notice he was missing?”
Yawn. “Well, I asked around a bit. Not everyone comes in here during the day, but usually at least someone from every building on the platform, you know? And I kept asking who the stranger was visiting and what he was here for and no one knew. Every once in a while we get poets or young people who want to come out here just because it’s far away from everything, although not that many because everyone knows the platforms on 0°98′ go much farther east. So when I stepped outside of the pub I took a look around the platform, in case he was, you know, staring into the void or whatever they like to do. But I didn’t see him. I checked whether there had been a private railcar in, but nothing since the scheduled rail in the morning. And we would see it: everything fronts on the line, you can’t have something come in without people seeing. Then I asked with a bit more purpose, but nobody knew him. We couldn’t find him. And then we sent the telegram to the Investigators.” A pause. “Took you long enough to get out here.”
Mossa understood peripheric resentment of the center, but felt no need to explain why this had been a low priority regardless. She considered redoing the interviews with the platform residents, but it was a soggy idea all around. If the locals had lied to their pubkeep, they certainly weren’t going to tell her the answer. Unless the pubkeep was lying, but why would she do that and not get them to confirm her story?
“Sad,” the pubkeep said. She had finished her cup and was pouring from the thermos again. “Although why someone would come all the way out here instead of stepping off their own platform I never understand, bothering others for nothing like that. But”—swerving back to guilt again—“I suppose there was nothing we could have done.”
“No, of course not,” Mossa said. “Nothing at all you could have done.” She didn’t know that, but there was no harm in saying it. And she didn’t know what had happened to the stranger either, but she found her inclination was that he hadn’t dropped off the edge of the settlement into the featureless and crushing gasses of the planet. Or at least, if he had, it hadn’t been by choice.
Because Mossa had used a private railcar pertaining to the Investigator’s collective for this trip, she was able to depart as soon as she wished. The vehicle was comfortable enough, on the basis that its users might sometimes be required to travel for long periods without particularly wanting to. It was well-heated, and there was tea available, and Mossa sat wrapped in the cushions and covers and brooded. She had turned one of the wall panels into a storyboard for the investigation, plotting the little she knew and what she wanted to find out. It didn’t require a review of the paltry first and the much more extensive second to figure out where she needed to go next, however. And when she considered who might be helpful there, she found the optimal, alluring, inconvenient name immediately.
Valdegeld. And Pleiti.
A strong tempest swirled in as my railcar approached Valdegeld University Platform. I was coming back after a short holiday and eager to get back to my rooms and my studies, so I watched the approach of the storm with annoyance. I could see it long before it caught us in its tendrils, the pressure changes tinting the fog orange, then pink, then fierce red, deepening as it closed with our ring, the famous 1°02′ that stopped at Valdegeld’s main station as well as at Trubrant and Giant’s capital, Yaste. It had taken me three changes to get back from my parents’ farming platform on a much less traveled ring, and I was weary. Our carriage slowed as the first ráfagas of wind shuddered it on its single rail. Then someone must have calculated we were better off risking a rush to the station rather than waiting it out sans abris, and we accelerated, speeding even past the point where the signals suggested a lenten approach to the station. I braced myself for a hard brake, but Valdegeld platform is exceedingly long, and the railcar found a stopping point with only a bit of sharpness.
The carriage continued rocking even after we stopped, the storm bullying into the platform station and shoving railcars, fog, and, from what I could see through the windows, pedestrians. I stared for a moment, enjoying the dramatic view: the fast-moving fog of the massive perturbation fit the romantic, gloomily august image of Valdegeld, an image that still entranced me long after I had officially become a resident. I gathered my atmoscarf, slung my satchel, made for the door.
There was a small cluster of faces on the andén—like petals on a branch, my Classical training interjected, even if I could not visualize petals with exactitude—but I wasn’t expecting anyone to be waiting for me, and I gave them no more than a cursory glance, turning immediately towards the Avenue Supal exit. Storm-driven miasma curled reddish around hurrying travelers, the blank door to the waiting room, the wheeled tea kiosk, and then a face looming suddenly out of the dimness.
I smiled automatically, then stared. For a moment I felt myself back in time, a student again, greeted by my closest friend after a short absence, but no: I was a Classics scholar, a plum position that after two years still seemed almost unbelievable luck, and I hadn’t seen this face in half a decade.
“Mossa? What are you doing here?”
“Ah. Well.” Mossa looked around. “Perhaps we could talk somewhere more private?”
I had almost forgotten we were standing in the middle of one of the busier stations on Giant. “Come along, then.”
I led her up Supal, which hadn’t changed much since Mossa and I were students: the typically curlicued lanterns; the tea shops designed for every taste from quiet to rowdy, basic to exclusive; the prayer booths in a range of denominations; the quaint bookshops in every specialization. Shops offered every need of the scholar, from magnifying eyewear to artificial lighting, tactile enhancement, containers of various stimulants, auditory recorders, atmospheric mufflers for every part of the body, hypnotic hummers, erudite guides to the university, plated reminder mechanisms. The uneven paving of the street creaked somewhat underfoot, aged and familiar, and rose steeply away from the station, allowing for the many unsightly functions of platform life to take place below the walking level. That wasn’t necessary on more recent platforms, but when Valdegeld was constructed, heating, to take one example, was propounded through vast mechanisms of steam and turbine, many of which still clunked along below the quaint buildings lining the way, emitting drifts of vapor that mingled with the motley planetary fog.
The roof that covered the station had extended up to this point, shielding us from the worst of the tempest and containing a hint of warmth, but a rush of chilled yellowish fog ahead signaled the shift to the university proper. Even Mossa, always so contained, grimaced at the sight of the storm playing out across the high steeples of Valdegeld. We dashed across the open plaza, the perturbation churning gaseous clouds above around and through, and delved into the narrow alleys of the university.
The streets there were crooked and uneven, burrowing among high buildings constructed in the sinuous style of a century and a half earlier, a fashion that, though outmoded, still held a powerful enough grip on the popular imagining to thrill me every time I looked up at them. I took us up Potash Lane, a slightly less direct route to my rooms but more sheltered. I searched, as always, for the almost unnoticeable seam where inconsistencies in the surface of the platform traced the plating of an ancient satellite, snagged from its orbit and hammered flat. I loved Valdegeld’s quaintness, its details of salvage and bricolage, unlike the newer, uniform platforms pressed in enormous pieces from asteroid metal. A glance at Mossa, however, told me she was feeling the cold more than any architectural appreciation or, for that matter, nostalgia, and I hastened to lead her to my rooms. We cluttered into the archway entrance, I called a quick halloo to the porter huddled in the warm lodge, and then we were up the stairs and piling into my own scholar’s suite.
Automatically, I banged the switch for the fire, and cheerful blue flames leapt into existence. “Vile out,” I commented, unwrapping my atmoscarf and holding my hand out for Mossa’s so I could hang it up. She handed it to me and started a slow circuit of the room, examining the furnishings and accoutrements, lingering over the reproduction of a Classical atlas, the tiny cubical qibla astrolabe, the engraving of an antelope. I watched her, not without a quick internal reassessment of my decorating and comfort choices.
“Well then,” I said, to distract us both. “What are you doing here?”
Mossa, I was pleased to see, looked a little ashamed. “I thought you’d suggest a café or something. But I’m glad to see your rooms. The scholar suites are—”
“What. Are you doing here?”
Mossa looked even more uncomfortable. “It’s work.”
I considered that. “I haven’t done anything bad.”
Mossa rolled her eyes. “Was looking for your help.”
“Oh. With what? Wait. My help? What kind of help?”
Mossa sighed, loosened her jacket. “May I sit?”
I frowned at her, but she was just as chilled and damp as I was. “Oh, very well. I suppose you want tea, too?”
“And scones? I’ve been thinking about the university scones from the moment I turned in this direction.”
I frowned more, but again, same. I touched the order buttons. “Well then?”
Mossa looked like she really needed that tea. “Something’s happened that we’re having trouble understanding.”
“And you think I can help?” Mossa lifted her eyes to my stare. “Something at Valdegeld?” But there were many people at Valdegeld; would she really come to me first? “Something happened related to the Classics faculty?” I was a scholar, yes, but with only two years I was a very junior one. “Do you need an introduction to one of the University administrators? The dean of the Classics faculty, or the University rector, perhaps?” The Investigators could have gone directly to any of those people, but Mossa might prefer a more oblique route.
“Maybe.” Mossa stood again, and started pacing.
Perhaps it wasn’t the university. “Or,” I tried, “there was a problem with the mauzooleum?”
She winced. “Please tell me you don’t call it that.”
“I’ll tell you you best not call it that when we’re speaking with the Chief Preserver, if that’s who you need.”
“Hardly a preserver when they were all already dead,” Mossa commented, and I glared.
“You’re going to argue the finer points of linguistics with me?”
“Why not? I thought,” her voice perilously gentle, “that your job was mainly numbers.”
Fortunately, at that moment, the bell rang, and I went to retrieve the scones from the dumbwaiter. “Less time than it takes for a plate of university scones,” I said, setting them on the low table before the fire, “for us to quarrel.” I fetched my sugar, cinnamon, cocoa, and garam masala shakers, and the pot of honey, and added them to the table. Mossa said nothing, though she did not immediately snag a scone, either. I sighed, and settled myself on the cushions to one side of the table, gesturing her towards the other. “Any word, if there’s a problem with the mau—with the Koffre Institute for Earth Species Preservation, isn’t that more important?” I took a scone, and after a moment Mossa did the same.
The requisite chewing delayed our conversation for a few minutes, which was probably a feature. The fire crackled, crumbs melted against my tongue, outside the gases furled and unfurled and the vast planet turned its swift rotation. At last Mossa, having ingested the entirety of her scone, picked up her tea cup, drank, and put it down again.
“A man has disappeared.”
“He was seen on a remote platform yesterday morning, and very thoroughly gone from it after an interval in which no railcars, communal or private, arrived or left.”
“Radiation and recombinants!” I exclaimed, startled into the epithet. “Are you saying he threw himself into the planet?”
Mossa had taken advantage of my interjection to claim another scone and dust it with cinnamon, and she regarded me with raised eyebrow as she chewed her first bite.
“An exuberant verb you’ve chosen. But yes, the assumption is he stepped, leaped, or—”
“Was thrown off the platform,” I said, putting down my own half-finished morsel. I remembered that she was here for a reason. “Did I know him?”
She shot her eyes at me again but, unsurprisingly, did not answer. Mossa would tell the story in her own way; it was part of her method. “He told someone on the platform, before he went over the edge, that he worked at Valdegeld.” There was a speaking pause.
“Pleased with himself, was he?”
Mossa acknowledged this with an angled, noncommittal nod. “We checked for missing scholars here—he was old for a student—and got a description from those who saw him, on the platform and on the railcar he took to get there. We’re fairly certain of his identity.” A dismissive gesture. “Hardly difficult; there are very few eager to visit the platform whence he disappeared. But he didn’t go there from Valdegeld. His journey had originated at the Preservation Institute.”
I waited through her pensive silence, then said, “That seems a bit thin. You wouldn’t have come to me based on that, so I suppose I know him.”
Her eyes flicked at me, and I wondered what elaborate potential storylines had distracted her from my presence. “He arrived at the Preservation Institute directly from here,” she said, brisk now. “He is employed at Valdegeld, in the Classics faculty; yes, I imagine you know him. Bolien Trewl.”
My recollection of the melancholy reason for referring to him did not arrive in time to contain my habitual response to the name.
“Know him, and dislike him,” Mossa stated.
I attempted a dismissive gesture, then gave up on it as a bad job. “Nobody likes him—I should say, none of my friends like him. He has his own crowd, I’m sure.”
“I hope so,” Mossa said mildly. “I would like to talk to them. But first tell me why you and others do not.”
“Ugh, you know the type.” I grinned at the impatient expression on her face, which said I will, as soon as you tell me which it is. “Self-important. Believes his own research is the most important consideration in any circumstance, except possibly his own comfort, preference, and consequence.”
“But his research is important to him? Or only a means of making himself important?”
“Let me think. I’ve never wanted to spend this much time analyzing him before.” I took another bite, chewed, swallowed, and drank some tea. “I think his research is vestigially important to him; that is, I think he chose his area because he believed in it, but by this point it’s important because he believes in it, rather than the other way around. And he is truly unbearable on the subject, far more than in other conversations, although he does like his own opinion about even the most trivial things.” I tapped the plate between us. “The first time I met him, in my first week back here after—when I came back for the scholar post, he told me that the prickly pear scones were the best, I would be sure to like them the most, none of the others were worth trying.” Years ago Mossa would have rolled her eyes in appreciation of this comemierdería with me, perhaps spouted some devastating critique; now she nodded distantly, understanding but not participating. I found myself deeply disliking her professionalism.
“What was his research area?” she asked.
I took another scone in compensation for emotional distress. “Altitude, he believed altitude explained everything there was to explain in organism distribution. Ugh, he could go on for hours. And I will say,” I added around my crumbly bite, “that while he must have considered others and chosen it out of some reasoning, at this point it is all to his greater glory and I don’t think he could hear the import of a word against it.”
“What else?” Mossa asked. “You worked with him?”
“Thankfully, no. It would probably have happened at some point, but I’ve managed to stay on different projects. I did see him every once in a while. He was in another hall, but sometimes I would be there for dinner with a friend or I’d notice him at the table here. Or at the station, here or at the Preservation Institute—Tempests! I saw him five days ago!”
Mossa did not jerk upright, as I really thought she might have, just raised her eyelids a bit. “At the station?”
“In effect,” I said, a bit disgruntled to be so drawn in. “And do you know, I thought at the time he looked a bit odd? But I was in a hurry, on my way back from the Institute, about to leave for the farm.”
That got her at least shocked enough to pick up her cup of tea, and then put it down again and lift the pot to refresh us both. And her voice was sharp. “In what way odd?”
“Looked harried. I caught his eye—not on purpose!— and he turned away, wanted nothing to do with me. Oh stars, he was off to do something desperate, wasn’t he?”
“Very probably,” Mossa said. “But what?”
Excerpt from The Mimicking of Known Success by Malka Older reprinted with permission from Macmillan/Tordotcom Publishing.
The Mimicking of Known Successes is available for preorder now. It will release March 7, 2023.
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