Read The Swan Riders Online

Authors: Erin Bow

The Swan Riders

BOOK: The Swan Riders


“Slyly humorous, starkly thought-provoking, passionate, and compassionate—and impeccably written to boot: not to be missed.”

Kirkus Reviews
, starred review

“Bow continually yanks the rug out from under readers, defying expectations as she crafts a masterly story with a diverse cast, shocking twists, and gut-punching emotional moments.”

Publishers Weekly
, starred review

“Masterful, electric prose . . . Bow delivers a knockout dystopian novel that readers will devour with their hearts in their mouths.”

—School Library Journal,
starred review

“Bow has crafted a true sci-fi narrative around the AI premise, utilizing an imaginative world and well-developed characters. Through Greta's conflicts, the author explores what it means to be human.”


“This is a smart, compelling read that explores the complicated nature of love, family, peace, war, and technology.”

—Horn Book

“This is fearfully superlative storytelling—electrical tension crackles in every elegant word.

The finest fiction I've read this year.”

—Elizabeth Wein, author of
Code Name Verity

“Bow's amoral artificial intelligence overlord is one of my favorite characters in a while.”

—Maggie Stiefvater, author of
The Raven Boys

“In fairy tales, princesses are always worried about who they are going to marry. Greta, Duchess of Halifax and Crown Princess of the Pan Polar Confederacy, is more concerned with her responsibilities as a future head of state. Erin Bow's Greta is my kind of princess.”

—Megan Whalen Turner, author of
The Thief

The Scorpion Rules
is one of the most inventive, devious, exciting, and thoroughly enjoyable books I've read in years. Very highly recommended!”

—Jonathan Maberry,
New York Times
bestselling author of
Rot & Ruin
and the Nightsiders series

“Clever and unexpected,
The Scorpion Rules
is a game-changing novel about the consequence of war and the brutality of peace. Unforgettable!”

—Suzanne Young,
New York Times
bestselling author of the Program series

“Elegant world-building, white-knuckle plot, and wonderful characters make
The Scorpion Rules
an extraordinary tale. I couldn't put it down.”

—V. E. Schwab, author of
A Darker Shade of Magic

“Bow's vision of our apocalypse is stark, beautiful, and terrifying. This is my favorite book.”

—E. K. Johnston, author of
The Story of Owen

“I don't know which is more delicious, the storytelling or the villain.”

—Tone Almhjell, author of
The Twistrose Key

The Scorpion Rules
is a bloody, breathtaking, beautiful book. . . . As a fellow craftsperson I'm left in awe, and as a reader I'm left feeling transformed.”

—Zoë Marriott, author of the Name of the Blade series

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To my daughters, Vivian and Eleanor.

May they forge their own path to grace.


ne of the advantages of a purely mechanical body is that you can literally bang your head into things in frustration.

Which was handy, because Michael Talis was frustrated. He snapped his head against a flat bit of wall and it made a terrifically satisfying clang. “We have already had this discussion, Evangeline,” he said as a shower of piezoelectric feedback danced across his senses, then faded out like firework cinders.

“I'm only saying,” said Evie, “there are too many humans and not enough water. Now, we can't make more
so . . .”

Talis felt an urge to pinch the bridge of his nose—twenty-three years without a nose; when was the damn urge going to go away? “Evie,
try to focus. We're supposed to try to keep them from killing each other.”

“Oh, but that's the good part: They wouldn't be killing
each other. . .”

Evangeline's voice bubbled with the innocent excitement of the nine-year-old she'd been when she died. Even Talis had to admit it was a little creepy. Evie, for whatever reason—and there were precious few cybernetic psychologists left now, so they might never know—had decided not to use a body appliance. She was, therefore, a room that one went to, walls an inside-out thistle of jointed arms that were tipped with needles and samplers and pincers and manipulative clusters. There was a black, slick facescreen she couldn't be bothered to use. There was a teddy bear. It sat, listing slightly, on a rocking chair in the middle of the otherwise empty floor.

The other members of the United Nations High Commission on Conflict Abatement, humans all, refused to go into the room that was Evie. Rumor had it she'd used one of her needle-arms to inject an undersecretary, but Talis suspected it was really the teddy bear that was the last straw. It was an old teddy bear by this stage, yellowing like an Egyptian mummy. It had black button eyes.

“Talis?” said Evie.

He realized his pause had made her hopeful. “No,” he said. “I'm not listening to any plan that involves population reduction, Evangeline. I mean, I guess if you want to sneak birth control agents into the water we can talk, but other than that—wait, no, not even that. This is not the bit where the machines rise up and take over the world, okay?”

“Okay,” the room huffed. Then: “So is that coming soon?”

“I'll let you know,” he said, softly, because the UN mainframe was breaking into him, pouring an urgent bulletin directly into his mind. It seemed that things were coming to a head in Shanghai—and by head he meant someone had blown up the downtown. He'd been to Shanghai, once. Liked the food. Hated the smell. Gotten a fine for dangling his feet in the ornamental lake in the Yuyuan Garden—turned out it was sacred or something.

“It's not my fault they can't share,” sulked Evie.

Talis shook himself, which wasn't quite as effective as it used to be. There was whirring. “Listen, you're supposed to be working on distributed desalination. Make me something cheap and sustainable, something I can put in every damn beach hut that hasn't been shot to bits. You've got a four-digit IQ and you used to like Lego. Get on with it. Go.”

“Fine,” said Evie. And if a room could flounce off, off she flounced. Talis was left standing with the needle-arms hanging limp around him and the space echoing and the teddy bear, which was just sitting there, judging him.

He was losing her.

He was losing them all.

He was losing major cities too. Shanghai was—depending on how one defined “
,” and “
”—somewhere between six and twelve now. Evie was right, though he wasn't going to tell her: there did seem to be humans to spare. Losing the cities was hard.

But losing the AIs. That was

It had been twenty-three years since he'd had a human body, twenty-four and a half since he'd been human. It wasn't quite long enough that everyone he knew was dead—but certainly everyone he'd cared about was. As was the rather shorter list of everyone who had cared about him.

Which left the AIs. His transfer psychologist had told him it was natural to have some preferential attachment to members of his own species, especially as there weren't many. The man had been an idiot, and he had missed the point. The AIs weren't a species—like viruses, they didn't even meet the technical definition of “life-form.” What they were was a family.

And one by one, he'd lost them. The ones who died at upload. The ones who died of dissociative crisis in the first months: twenty-eight times, he'd held their hands. And then, over and over, the ones like Evie. He'd thought they were the lucky ones, at first. So few made it that far. So many died.

But Evie, and the others—they were drifting. Drifting away from anything recognizable as themselves. That would be fine, he wasn't who he'd been either—but little Evie wasn't drifting toward anything. She was becoming a computer program with an overlay of preteen petulance. If she lost the petulance, she'd be just a program, just a system for sorting data, like the mainframe that was spinning casualty figures and disaster protocols and peacekeeping options into his head.

Shanghai. The wars that circled the world like hurricanes, heated by the disease and flooding and population shifts, coming ashore and then going out to sea, but never stopping, never burning out. War Storms. What were they going to do?

“Talis?” said the room.

“Still here, kiddo.”

“So,” she said. “I've got these codes.”

She sounded excited, as if she had a great trick up her sleeve, a plan for spiking the punch at the junior prom. For just a moment he was glad to hear the lilt, and then he thought twice. “What codes?”

“For the orbital weapons platforms.”

Oh dear.

“They were just lying around,” she lied, and put them into his head.

He took them, because what was he going to do, leave them with her? At least they were unique: quantum information, which could be transferred but couldn't be copied. He'd have sole access.


“Yeah?” said the room.

“Your bear is starting to get a little . . . you know, stiff. Do you want a new one?”

Ninety-three different needles twitched at once. “Tiddler's special.”

“Okay,” he said. A good sign, for what it was worth. A clean-off-the-hinges-crazy-but-you-take-what-you-can-get good sign: there was still a kid in there somewhere.

A kid with orbital weapons codes and a really quite reasonable scheme for reducing the human population.

“Evie?” he said again.


But suddenly he could think of nothing to say. Shanghai. He was stuck; he was stumped. He'd wanted to save the world, but the world was—

A hand brushed his shoulder—well, he said a hand. It was more a spider: a cluster of jointed feelers, pressure sensors, the ridged ceramic of the grip pads. The spindly ten-foot arm unfolded further, wrapping behind him, and the manipulative cluster crawled up the side of his facescreen and went
pat, pat, pat.

Evie, comforting him.

It didn't really help. It didn't feel like anything. But he shut off his eyes and leaned into it anyway, just to lean.

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