The Widening Gyre

The Widening Gyre

by Michael R. Johnston
The Widening Gyre

The Widening Gyre

by Michael R. Johnston


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“The Widening Gyre is the best Space Opera I’ve read in years.” — Cemetery Dance Online

The Remembrance War Book 1

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 imprint of long-standing Independent Flame Tree Publishing, dedicated to full-length original fiction in the horror and suspense, science fiction & fantasy, and crime / mystery / thriller categories. The list brings together fantastic new authors and the more established; the award winners, and exciting, original voices. Learn more about Flame Tree Press at and connect on social media @FlameTreePress

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781787581432
Publisher: Flame Tree Publishing
Publication date: 03/14/2019
Series: The Remembrance War
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 589,076
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Michael R. Johnston is a high school English teacher and writer living in Sacramento, California with his wife, daughter, and more cats than is strictly necessary.

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?"

"What? No."

"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?"


Excerpted from "The Widening Gyre: The Remembrance War Book 1"
by .
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.


What is the book about?

It’s about self-creation, and re-creation. It’s about building a family to replace the one you lost, and reclaiming yourself from bitterness and the hole you’ve dug yourself into. It’s about healing, both yourself and your people.

Is there any advice you can give someone starting to write?

Find a group of people, both writers and non-writers, who will give you honest, kind, no-BS feedback. You want people who won’t be rude, but will tell you, openly, where you’re not succeeding as a writer, as well as where you’re knocking it out of the park. The best part of Viable Paradise, the writing workshop I attended, was that I met a group of writers who’ve stayed in touch. Many of us talk every day, both about writing and our lives in general. We discuss story elements, critique each other’s work, and help each other become better writers.

Beyond that, read. Read widely—I know a lot of writers and teachers say this, and it’s useful to remember I’m a teacher as well as a writer, so yes, I’m biased—but reading is truly important. I always tell my students that the best way to learn how language is used is to read it “in the wild,” so to speak. When you see how other writers use language, your brain is absorbing knowledge of grammar and structure without your even being aware of it.

Did you write in silence, or to any particular music?

It really depends on my mood and where I’m writing. If I’m writing in public I tend to write in silence. If I’m at home at my desk, I’ll play various “mood” playlists I’ve created. I have one for space battles, another for “sneaky” suspense, and another that’s just good instrumental pieces, most of them from TV or movie soundtracks. I generally can’t write to music with lyrics; the words get in the way and the next thing you know I’m typing the song.

What are you writing now?

I have a couple of projects in the works; one is the next volume of The Remembrance War, which I’m tentatively calling The Blood-dimmed Tide, and I’ve also got an epic fantasy series, a stand-alone fantasy novel, and another, separate space-opera series in various states of planning.

How does your job as a high school teacher interact with your writing?

Teaching uses a lot of the same creative energy as writing, so after a day at school, I’m often not really enthusiastic about sitting down to write. But if I manage myself, and give myself a little bit of time to unwind first, I can often get some words down. I get far more writing done in the summer months, but I’m working on ways to change that.

I also find inspiration in the classroom. I haven’t lifted any particular student from real life, but I’ve “borrowed” aspects of their personalities to inspire more verisimilitude in my characters.

What is the hardest part of creating characters?

For me, the hardest thing is making sure that everything I know about them in my head is actually on the page. For The Widening Gyre, I had a character who in my head was rich with meaning, but one of my beta readers pointed out that, on the page, he was flat and lifeless. So I had to rewrite some of the scenes with him to get some of that inner knowledge onto the page. I didn’t put it all in, though—there’s a couple of secrets in there that will never actually be said “on camera.” It’s a lesson I learned at VP—that sometimes, knowing something that you don’t put into the story’s narrative makes it feel more realistic, because real life is like that. We don’t always know everything that is going on around us, but that information still informs how the world interacts with us. In the novel, there’s one character who has a secret, and it directly informs how he interacts with everyone else, but the reader will never know what it is or even that the secret exists.

What was your favorite scene to write?

Any scene with Tajen and Liam was fun, but my favorite was the heist in the middle of the book. That chapter just came rolling out, and it’s the one most of the beta readers had no changes to suggest. One of my readers said “This scene should be filmed exactly as written.”

Who are your favorite authors?

I have a lot of favorites. John Scalzi, Melanie Rawn, Melinda Snodgrass, Tanya Huff, Brent Weeks, all are writing things I love these days. I also love the Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko, especially her book Ceremony, which should be required reading in American Literature classes.

When did you begin writing?

I first started writing in the tenth grade. I’d just moved to Sacramento, California, which was about six times bigger than my hometown, Napa, at that time. I didn’t know anybody other than my aunt and uncle, so to amuse myself I started writing stories. I never stopped, though I did sort of back away from it for a number of years, where I was just fiddling around with it and not pursuing it seriously.

Why was it so important to you to write a gay protagonist? Did you ever consider changing him?

I’ll do this one in reverse: I never considered it for a moment. Tajen being gay is not a huge deal in the story, but in real life, it was a hard line I wouldn’t cross.

Growing up bisexual was hard in the eighties; there weren’t a lot of positive portrayals of LGBT characters in the media I read and watched. When there were LGBT characters, they were often either villains or comedic relief characters.

When I found Mercedes Lackey’s Books of the Last Herald-Mage, they were eye-openers. I reread those books every couple of years; that’s how much they’ve meant to me. Even though it’s easier now for LGBT youth, at least in terms of positive portrayals of LGBT characters, I feel there needs to be more. And there need to be books where a character simply is what he is, and feels no need to worry about who he’s attracted to. So I decided early on in my writing of this book that I was going to do that. It’s very clear early on that Tajen is gay, but he never wastes a moment agonizing about it. He just is, and nobody around him cares much.

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