"Every now and then the Space Opera genre wakes up from its current day mediocrity, and something good shines under the light of a different star. This is what happened with this book." - Angelo Benuzzi
Eight hundred years ago, the Zhen Empire discovered a broken human colony ship drifting in the fringes of their space. The Zhen gave the humans a place to live and folded them into their Empire as a client state. But it hasn’t been easy. Not all Zhen were eager to welcome another species into their Empire, and humans have faced persecution. For hundreds of years, human languages and history were outlawed subjects, as the Zhen tried to mold humans into their image. Earth and the cultures it nourished for millennia are forgotten, little more than legends.
One of the first humans to be allowed to serve in the Zhen military, Tajen Hunt became a war hero at the Battle of Elkari, the only human to be named an official Hero of the Empire. He was given command of a task force, and sent to do the Empire’s bidding in their war with the enigmatic Tabrans. But when he failed in a crucial mission, causing the deaths of millions of people, he resigned in disgrace and faded into life on the fringes as a lone independent pilot.
When Tajen discovers his brother, Daav, has been killed by agents of the Empire, he, his niece, and their newly-hired crew set out to finish his brother’s quest: to find Earth, the legendary homeworld of humanity. What they discover will shatter 800 years of peace in the Empire, and start a war that could be the end of the human race.
FLAME TREE PRESS is the new fiction imprint of Flame Tree Publishing. Launching in 2018 the list brings together brilliant new authors and the more established; the award winners, and exciting, original voices.
About the Author
Born in the San Francisco bay area and raised in Napa, California, Michael R. Johnston grew up steeped in everything Science Fiction and Fantasy from Asimov to Zelazny, as well as endless terrible SF TV shows he still has a slightly embarrassed fondness for.
Faced with the choice between moving back in with his parents and continuing school, or paying his rent, he took “a year” off from college. He spent time as a court process server, a retail sales associate, a sandwich maker, and a data entry tech, before finding himself in a management role.
A decade later, burnt out from his job in political research and facing 30, he decided he’d had enough and returned to college, graduating with honors from California State University, Sacramento. In fall 2006, he became a high school English teacher, a job he likens to herding a swarm of angry bees. It’s the best job he’s ever had.
In 2013, he attended the 17th Viable Paradise Science Fiction Writing Workshop. The experience of having his story critiqued by other writers, some of them professionals he’d been reading for years, helped him realize he could write professionally, and introduced him to some of his best friends.
He currently lives in Sacramento, California, with his wife and daughter, surrounded by a circle of incredibly geeky and amazing people. When he’s not writing or teaching, he spends time with his family, plays video games and tabletop RPGs, and reads. He blogs at MJohnstonBooks.com, and can be found on Twitter @MREJohnston.
Read an Excerpt
My ship was almost ready for jump when the HUD projected in my visual cortex notified me of a distress beacon about five light-minutes out; the code meant a human ship was being attacked by marauders.
I thought about ignoring it – the odds of actually receiving a given distress signal are so astronomically low that the ship in distress had to know getting help was a long shot. The chain drive's ability to bypass the laws of physics cuts in-system travel times down considerably, but it still takes hours and sometimes days to get from a jump point to the inner system. Space is plenty big and empty, and life's pretty cheap on the outskirts of the Empire. And Kintar was on the outskirts of the outskirts. The 'dock-master' on Kintar – a position so rarely needed it was a part-time gig – had informed me I was the only ship to dock there in weeks.
And that was if the signal was even genuine in the first place. The last 'distress signal' I'd answered had turned out to be a marauder battle gang, and I'd lost a good cargo when I had to dump it and run from far too many ships to fight by myself. I'm good at combat, but I'm not that good.
On the other hand, the signal's transponder code identified the ship as human. And humans, as a species, were already in pretty short supply in the universe. If that signal was real, I'd be condemning them to death by ignoring it. A memory of a tiny, gnawed-on body bubbled up from the depths of my military service, and I clenched my jaw. The marauders aren't known for being kind to human prisoners.
And most importantly, if I left this ship to die, there was no way I could look any human in the eyes ever again.
I sighed as I took the jump system offline, locked in the distress call's bearing, and swung my ship around. I dropped out of chain drive just long enough to reorient the ship toward the signal. A little more than five minutes later, I dropped out of chain drive again, heading at full burn toward what looked like a complete clusterfuck. "Well, shit," I said.
Four marauder vessels were harrying a single freighter. Those odds were terrible, but I hadn't been in a fight for a while, and my trigger finger was getting itchy. My scanners were telling me these ships had seen better days, but the tactical computer's threat assessment made it clear this was still going to be a hard fight. Even though I was using military-grade combat and tactical implants, and even though I'd heavily modified my ship over the years to increase its effectiveness in combat relative to its class and weight, my controls and equipment were probably no better than those the marauders had. Bottom line, I was flying a freighter, albeit a souped-up one, and not a fighter. Even their third-rate castoff junkpiles were more dangerous, ton for ton, than my ship.
On the other hand, the marauders would see me as a trader with some guns. They had no idea who I was, or how much I'd upgraded my ship. If I was lucky, they'd see me as easy pickings until after I'd done some damage.
But all that was secondary. The signal had been real, and people were in danger. I was in this fight. "What the hell," I said aloud, "you've gotta die of something." I'd always maintained a running commentary with my copilots, even when it wasn't necessary, and after fifteen years flying alone, I still couldn't shake the habit. I activated my combat systems and went to work.
My NeuroNet's tactical implants flashed the information from my ship's sensors into my brain, appearing seamlessly in my vision. The trader was IDed as the Maggie's Pride. I chuckled at the coincidence and, even more glad I'd answered the call, opened a comms channel. "Maggie's Pride, this is Tajen Hunt on the Lost Cause. I'm on the job, Katherine, but any help you can give would be nice."
Her familiar voice came back almost instantly. "Tajen!" she cried with relief. "Weapons and propulsion are down," she said, dropping into the measured tones of someone who's been in combat before. "We're trying to get them back up, but you're on your own for now."
"No worries. I'll swat these gnats while you get your systems back up."
The marauder vessels were, as usual, using their transponders to broadcast 'psych-out names' in the Zhen language, intended to scare the crews of small trading vessels into making mistakes. It often worked on civilians who weren't used to combat, but it didn't work on me; this was going to be a very bad day for the marauders. Today's corpses in the making were Death Dealer, You Die Now, People Taste Good, and my personal favorite, Fuck You. I chuckled and activated my comms through my neural link. "Attention marauder scum," I said. "You have the exceedingly bad fortune to have fired on a friend of mine. You have 10 seconds from this transmission's end to cease your attack and leave. Anyone still here at that moment is getting their ass handed to them."
Warning marauders off had never worked before, but I didn't really care; I was doing it to amuse myself. I had it on good authority that the marauders hated the trash talk human pilots loved to broadcast. I flipped the safeties off of my weapon system; my implants, synced to my ship's sensors and computer systems, prioritized targets and gave me targeting reticules for manual fire.
As my weapons came up to full power, the energy bleedoff caused my skin to tingle. The flow of data through my combat implants, as well as my measured breathing, focused my mind to a razor point. It was like I was back in the Zhen Imperial Star Force again, aiming my ship's weapons at the enemies of the Empire. I felt more alive than I had in some time. I locked onto the You Die Now and fired, the feeling of my finger tightening on the trigger satisfying out of all proportion. The bright yellow-white pulses of plasma fire stabbed out from my ship, impacting the You Die Now's dorsal shield. The shield fluoresced with the first hit, got brighter as the firepower concentrated on the shield grew, then flared as the shield collapsed and plasma chewed through the hull and into the ship's guts. I got lucky; I'd hit their reactor core. The entire ship blossomed into a bright yellow ball of light as I flashed past, already locked onto another target. My eyes flicked to my comms for a second, and with a thought I opened a channel. "One down, three to go!" I yelled. "Who's next?"
My battle computer alerted me to two incoming missiles. My pulse quickened even as I launched decoys, but the missiles were too close, and only one was fooled into detonating early. "Smart missiles. Shit."
I quickly changed vector, angling for one of the marauder ships. My lips tightened against my teeth. I felt the skin around my eyes bunch as I focused all my attention on that ship, my brows furrowing and my jaw clenching.
I flew perilously close to the Death Dealer, firing plasma blasts into his shields the entire time, then changed vector to put him between my ship and the missile, briefly slamming into chain drive. Quick start-and-stops like that risked damaging the drive, but it worked. The missile lost me and slammed through the marauder's depleted shields, leaving them a dead hulk. "That's two, you degenerate morons," I said over the comms. "Give up yet?"
A glance at my plot showed the remaining ships closing in on me. People Taste Good was closest, firing plasma bursts that flared against my shields. "Ha!" I shouted, not caring that nobody was on my ship to hear me. "Those are military-grade shields, asshole! Good luck getting through 'em."
No sooner had I spoken than the ship bucked under me as I took a solid hit. I flicked my eyes to the corner of my HUD that showed shield status and saw the upper shield had collapsed and there was a new hole in my hull. "Well, of course it did," I muttered. Just for a second, I considered getting out of this mess and leaving Maggie's Pride to her fate, but even before the familiar memory of dead ships hanging over Jiraad came to my mind's eye, I knew I couldn't do it. That freighter was still out there alone, and I wasn't going to leave fellow humans to die – especially when the captain was a friend of mine. "I've never lost a ship yet," I said, my voice developing a quavering quality I didn't particularly like. I reached out and patted the console. "Let's not start today, okay, ship?"
My ship's tactical computer automatically shunted power from the ventral shields to the dorsal, giving me back a small amount of coverage. I accelerated hard, grunting as the G-forces overcame my mass field's ability to compensate for inertia. As I shot between the two marauders, ignoring 15 different alarms going off in my ears and my brain, I hauled back on the stick, flipping the ship onto her back so I was flying backward at several hundred meters per second, and fired everything I had at People Taste Good. My plasma fire burned away her shields in time for my last missile to slam into her hull, blasting a large hole in it. There was a flash of light from within, but the ship just went dead in space, still traveling in the same direction. I checked the plot and found that Fuck You had activated her chain drive and was already too far away for me to catch. "Yeah, you better run!" I shouted, throttling up to fight my inertia and locking the autopilot onto the freighter I'd come to rescue.
I checked my damage reports. Luckily the marauders' ships had been in crap repair, because my own ship had been taxed to the breaking point by that fight. My systems were still in one piece, but I was out of missiles, and the damage had caused my fusion reactor to come perilously close to redlining. I shuddered when I saw that report; had the automatic dampener systems not kicked in just in time, my ship would have become a momentary miniature star. Just imagining it caused goose bumps all along my spine. I was going to have nightmares for weeks. Worst of all, that hit on my topside had burned through the hull and damaged my chain drive's impeller system. That was a repair I couldn't manage out here even if I'd had the parts.
"Skalk," I cursed in Kelvak. It's my favorite language to curse in – there is nothing as satisfying as the harsh consonants and default imperatives of the primary Kelvaki language. I set my ship to return to the Maggie's Pride. While the autopilot took me back, I considered my situation.
The loss of the chain drive was a problem. The chain drive system exploits a fluke of quantum physics to allow speeds up to around 95 per cent of the speed of light with no irritating relativistic effects. This far out on the edges of Kintar space, with my C-drive shot, I was going to get to know relativity quite well. There was no way I was going to get to the nearest repair station in Kintar's inner system in anything less than six months' subjective time, and that would be at least four years to everyone else. I had enough food and water – between emergency rations and recycling, I had enough for a year, if I was careful.
On the other hand, I had to count myself as lucky. Had the attackers been from one of the wealthier, more put-together marauder clans, I would have been dead.
The autopilot brought my ship close in to the Pride, and I cut thrust and held station off their starboard side. Just in case Katherine Lawson, formerly a soldier of the Zhen Imperial Space Force, had turned more mercenary than she used to be, I locked weapons onto the Maggie's Pride, took a deep breath, and lounged back in my chair, the very picture of not giving a shit.
"Katherine," I said in a sardonic tone, "just so you know, I took a huge risk to help you. Anyone still alive over there, or did I completely waste my time?"
Katherine's face appeared, translucent, in my field of vision. "Tajen," she greeted me with a smile, "I guess I owe you now."
I grinned back. "Indeed you do," I said, releasing the targeting lock on their ship. "What's your situation over there, Katherine? Everybody in one piece?"
She seemed to deflate. "We're alive, but we took a lot of damage to our sensor suite. We're blind over here. All we've got are mass sensors."
"Can you repair it?"
She rolled her eyes. "If I had the parts, but we don't. I keep telling my quartermaster to get spares into stock, and he keeps telling me we can't afford them." She seemed annoyed, and if I remembered her personality as well as I thought I did, it was entirely at herself.
"I am quite familiar with that problem," I said. "What parts do you need? Maybe we can make a deal. Which, in this situation, means I'll give you whatever you need."
She sent me a text file with a list of parts.
I compared them to the ship's manifest. "Sorry, I haven't got any of those," I said. I looked around my cockpit, chewing the corners of my lips. "Look," I said, "my chain drive is out. I haven't got the spares to fix it. You willing to take me to Kintar, so I can get a transport ship out here?"
"I wish I could. But as I said, our sensors are out. C-drive is working, but without sensors we're not going anywhere. We could set off our beacon again."
"Hell no," I said. "We're already risking the marauders coming back with more ships the longer we sit out here. Let's not make it easy." A stray thought led me to check my scanners, and I said, "Do you have functional spacesuits? Looks like one of the marauder ships is still mostly in one piece. Maybe they had something we can use."
"Good idea," she said. "We've got enough suits, but my crew's busy trying to keep us from losing any more systems. I'll come with you."
* * *
An hour later, Katherine was sitting beside me in the copilot's chair as I brought the Lost Cause to matching velocity off the port side of a marauder vessel that was still mostly intact. There was a gaping hole in their hull, and no signs of life on my scanners, but I was reading a power source within. "Well, there's something still working over there," I said.
"Yeah," she said, her face glued to the sensors, "but I'm not sure it's going to be useful. I'm reading a lot of excess radiation in there."
Her brows furrowed, her eyes flicking as she tracked the data. "Probably not," she said at last. "They're running a Skan:to J75 reactor, they put off zeta radiation, but not too much. I'm not reading anything out of the ordinary." She shrugged. "Probably should have brought my medical guy along, but he's pretty slow. We should be all right, though – I'm not getting any danger warnings."
"Still, let's make it quick," I said. "We're moving pretty fast. We don't want to get too far away from your ship." I swung out of my chair and followed her to the starboard airlock. I grabbed a small bundle off the airlock wall and, holding it to my chest, sent an activation signal from my NeuroNet. The bundle began to unfold itself around me, the nano-machines that made up the device forming themselves into an armored spacesuit and linking wirelessly into my NeuroNet's command and information lines. I paused the process before the helmet formed, and it settled into a collar at my neckline.
"Nice," Katherine said. "A full nano-suit. No wonder you can't afford starship parts." Her own suit was less high-tech, and had to be put on the old-fashioned slow way, by climbing into it limb by limb.
I shrugged. "Seems you're missing some parts too, Captain. What's your excuse?"
She sighed. "We've had some bad runs recently, and our ship costs a lot to maintain. We can't all fly Kitkitlan-class ships." She got an impish look I remembered well. "Some of us have crews to maintain."
"I like flying alone. Less people to piss me off."
She stopped, her helmet in her hand, and looked at me. "That doesn't sound like you."
I could feel the skin on my head tighten. "How so?"
"Well, when we served together, I remember you being a pretty social guy. As I recall, you spent a lot of time in the crew lounge when you were off-duty. You still play the fiddle?"
"No," I said. "Not in years."
"I thought you loved that old music. You used to say it was the most important thing left of Earth."
"Things change," I said.
She took the hint and changed the subject, gesturing to my nano-suit. "When I mustered out, they confiscated everything they'd issued me, including reducing my NeuroNet's hardware access to civilian systems only. I guess there are some benefits to being the 'Hero of Elkari'."
I shrugged, not really comfortable with that particular sobriquet. "It also helps to have – well, not 'friends', but 'people who owed me favors' among the Zhen officer and medical corps. I called in the favors."
"Some favor. I haven't seen one of those since I left the military."
"And now you have," I said.
She looked at me. "Did I do something wrong?"
"Then why are you suddenly so ... blank? I mean, don't get me wrong, I know we're not buddies, but we always got along, and the few times I've worked with you, you seemed friendlier. If you don't mind telling a fellow ex-soldier ... what's eating you?"(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Widening Gyre: The Remembrance War Book 1"
Copyright © 2019 Michael Johnston.
Excerpted by permission of Flame Tree Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I received a free copy of THE WIDENING GYRE by Michael R. Johnston in exchange for an honest review. Captain Tajen Hunt, part of humanity’s remnant, was a war hero for humanity’s host species, the Zhen, and a role model for humans. Though humans were treated as second-class citizens by the Zhen, Tajen’s progress through the Zhen military and entry into the officer corps made history for the humans. Tajen retired after a catastrophic failure and began working as a civilian freighter. When his brother dies, Tajen and his cadre end up on a quest to find the lost planet Earth. The Zhen do not want it to be found. First, you should be informed that Captain Hunt is gay. There is not any graphic sex in the book, only kisses. However, there is leering and yearning and discussing. This was completely irrelevant to the main storyline; this aspect of the book was only included because the author, apparently, wanted to make a point. Space opera, at it’s best, does not even touch on the sexual/romantic fantasies and yearnings of the main characters until many books into the series - the characters are too busy to settle down. Second, if you don’t mind the author’s politics or can overlook them and the failure to market the book as LGBT literature, the plotline and the story were pretty good. #TheWideningGyre #NetGalley