Ren Hutchings’ debut novel, Under Fortunate Stars, is a time-twisting homage to classic space opera and science fiction, taking well-beloved tropes and twisting them on their head. It’s a paradoxical puzzle-box of a novel that reveals its secrets in bits and pieces, spread out over four different points of view that weave in and out of time.
io9 has your first look inside the novel, but first check out a brief synopsis:
Two Ships. One Chance To Save The Future.
Fleeing the final days of the generations-long war with the alien Felen, smuggler Jereth Keeven’s freighter the Jonah breaks down in a strange rift in deep space, with little chance of rescue — until they encounter the research vessel Gallion, which claims to be from 152 years in the future.
The Gallion’s chief engineer Uma Ozakka has always been fascinated with the past, especially the tale of the Fortunate Five, who ended the war with the Felen. When the Gallion rescues a run-down junk freighter, Ozakka is shocked to recognise the Five’s legendary ship — and the Five’s famed leader, Eldric Leesongronski, among the crew.
But nothing else about Leesongronski and his crewmates seems to match up with the historical record. With their ships running out of power in the rift, more than the lives of both crews may be at stake…
And now, you can read an excerpt from Chief Engineer Ozakka’s first POV chapter below.
Command Deck, ZeyCorp Gallion
Uma watched as Captain Olghan Fransk completed a slow, contemplative circuit of his office, his footsteps clicking over the purple tiled floor. Fransk was a tall, broad man, made even taller by the thick-heeled black boots of his dress-uniform. He usually carried himself with the kind of determined set to his wide shoulders that came with years of responsibility. But today there was a slump in his posture, and that made Uma almost as uneasy as the latest round of engine core diagnostics.
Fransk circled back to his desk. He adjusted the front of his formal purple blazer as he sat down, straightening the crisp collar adorned with ZeyCorp insignia. The company dress-uniform was reserved for special occasions and publicity ops, but the captain had been dressing this way ever since the Ambassador came on board.
“Olghan,” Uma sighed, fighting to keep the exasperation from her voice. She didn’t have a hope of keeping it together if Fransk couldn’t. “Would you just take a breath and calm down?”
“That depends on whether you’re here to tell me you’ve fixed the engines,” he said flatly. “Please tell me you’ve got something. It’s been hours, Uma.”
He never addressed her by her given name, except in private. In front of anyone else, it was always Director Ozakka, it was brisk nods and strict business. He preferred not to get too personal with any of his staff, and sometimes she thought he resented the fact that they had a shared history. But in moments like these — when things went to pieces — he treated her the way he always used to, as his closest confidante and oldest friend.
She followed Fransk’s gaze to the wide, oblong window. There was nothing out there, of course. Just darkness.
He looked back to her, his eyes hopeful. “Well? Anything?”
For an instant, she pictured Fransk as he’d been when they first met: the ambitious young student with his whole career mapped out, always in that blue jacket with their school’s glyph on the back, his curly hair pulled into tight criss-crossed braids like most of the popular politicians were wearing.
Olghan Fransk had the patience and tenacity to navigate a corporate bureaucracy. Her, not so much. She never would have imagined they’d end up working for the same megacorp.
“Sorry, no engine fix yet. We’re still trying,” she said. “We’ll have to run more diagnostics on the cores, more tests on this energy field. I need you to give me another overtime override.”
“Gods.” Fransk’s voice was hoarse with exhaustion. “How could this happen? We’re supposed to have state-of-the-art monitoring systems, aren’t we? That’s what our adverts say.”
“Well, we have a great record, all things considered,” Uma said defensively. “This ship’s gone years without a major technical incident. The Gallion’s one of the most reliable ships in the fleet.”
“Exactly! Years without any issues… but now? Now, when we have a Felen Ambassador on board, we have… this?” Fransk squeezed his eyes shut. “Ugh. This kind of thing is exactly why I never wanted to go into space.”
Fransk was more at ease with the intricacies of this company than anyone else Uma knew, but he was no spacefarer. Taking a captaincy in deep space had been an endurance test for him.
“I remember when you swore you’d never take a space posting under any circumstances,” Uma said. “You told me they’d have to drag you into that captain’s chair kicking and screaming.”
“I guess I had some gods-damned sense back then,” Fransk said bitterly. “They pressured me into taking this job, and you know it! A great career opportunity, they said. Just put in some time in space, make a few rotations with a flagship captaincy, and you’ll be in line for a ZeyCorp chancellorship!” He sighed. “Just think… next year, I could’ve been sitting in a nice office at Central, planet-side, with an ocean view.”
“And you still will,” Uma said. “Come on. ZeyCorp’s hardly going to sack you because we had an engine malfunction! It’s not even our fault; it’s this energy field — ”
Fransk’s shoulders sagged. “No. This publicity stunt with the Ambassador… this was important. It had to go off without a hitch. If we don’t make that summit, it’ll be a PR disaster, and they’ll have to find someone to blame. Central will have all our heads for this: you, me, Barnabyn…”
Uma frowned. “What’s up with Central and this whole Ambassador-ferrying saga, anyway? You know anything you haven’t told me?”
“Oh, just the usual ZeyCorp scheming from up high.” Fransk gave another sigh. “Big money, of course. Apparently, they’ve got potential investors hanging on the idea of building a direct corporate relationship between ZeyCorp and the Alliance. The company wants to secure early access to any new Felen science tech. This was the first step… and now we’ve gone and screwed it up.”
“Damn it. I’m sorry, Olghan.”
He stared at the dark window for a while before he looked back at her again.
“Just tell me, straight up,” he said. “How bad is it?”
Uma shifted her feet. “Well, the engine problem itself… that part’s frustrating,” she said, carefully selecting her words. “But the thing that’s actually scaring me is how we’ve lost contact with the network. We’ve been trying all this time, and we can’t get back online. We can’t reach anybody.”
Fransk’s brow furrowed. “Because of the interference from the energy field?”
“It’s not just that. Noussen found a way to filter out most of the interference, and we’re picking up live data from our hover probes again. We should be broadcasting and receiving. But… it looks like there’s nothing else out there.”
“What do you mean, there’s nothing else out there?” Fransk’s frown deepened.
“There aren’t any signals to pick up. It’s like the whole network just vanished. And we can’t detect any of the nearest stars where they should be. We can’t detect any stars at all.”
“But… then… where are we?”
“I don’t know. Nobody likes that answer, but we have no idea. We weren’t even at an eighth of our max skim speed when the engines went, and we didn’t make any jumps. We shouldn’t be more than a few hundred thousand klicks from where we last pinged the network! I can’t explain it. It’s like the ship just… slipped. And now we’re somewhere else.” She paused. “Or we’re in some kind of gap between wheres.”
Fransk shuddered visibly.
“We’ve started calling this place… the Rift,” she said. The word felt foreboding in her mouth.
The captain mumbled something low under his breath that sounded like an invocation. He wasn’t a particularly religious sort, and the last time Uma had ever seen him pray was when he’d forgotten to study for a university exam. But now he flicked his fingers in a quick gesture of prayer, just under the edge of the desk, as if he thought she might not notice it.
“Look, we’ll solve this, Olghan. We’ll get through it.” She leaned across the desk to rest her hand on his purple sleeve. “But it might take a bit more time.”
“Time is the one thing we haven’t got.” He twirled open a virtual console on his desk and keyed in two passcodes, looking pained. “There. You have your overtime override, Director Ozakka. Take a short break, and you can get back on the system in one hour.” His gaze met hers. “This is the last override the system will let me give you, so… please, for the love of all the gods, make this one count.”
Uma’s footsteps echoed strangely as she walked down the deserted corridor. The ship was always unsettlingly silent when they were in turnover, and it was worse than ever without the calming hum of the engines.
She seethed at the indignity of being ordered to take a break at a time like this, when Engineering had less than a quarter of its usual complement. The odds that they’d find a fix before the overtime overrides ran out were slim-to-none. But a tired crew was an unproductive crew, and they all desperately needed rest.
When Uma unlocked her apartment on the residential deck, the music track she’d been listening to picked right up where she’d paused it. The instrumental medley sounded almost mockingly cheerful now, chirping along as if nothing had changed since she’d left for work. She dismissed the music and turned on the ambient lights, illuminating the single rectangular room of her living-quarters.
There was little space for sentiment in the Gallion’s crew apartments. Each staff member had the same average, utilitarian room: a bed, a few storage compartments, a table and chairs. The rooms all had the same tacky furniture, bolted firmly to the floor so it couldn’t be moved. Most of it had a ZeyCorp logo emblazoned somewhere on it. This ship was never meant to be a place you got emotionally attached to. And yet, over the years Uma had spent here, the Gallion had started to feel a bit like a home.
She zipped off her boots, arching her feet as she shook them free. Her muscles were taut with tension; her head was pounding. She contemplated throwing herself face-down on the bed, but first she went to the low shelf where she kept her few personal effects.
There were her half-dozen fragile old books, their faded spines facing out, each book enclosed in an airtight clear container to preserve the delicate pages. Beside those stood the miniature model spaceship that she’d built long ago — a scale model of the Fortunate Five’s famous ship, the Jonah. And next to that was the last gift her father had given her before he died, a rare bottle of Etraxan agnathe on a gold-brushed stand.
She touched each of the items in turn, running her fingers over them. Everything felt oddly brittle to her since they’d entered the Rift, like it was all a breath away from disappearing.
At the end of the shelf was a picture of her father in a heavy wooden frame. She brushed her fingers over her father’s face, staring intently at the picture. Every detail was already burned into her mind: her father’s wide, dark eyebrows sweeping over serious eyes, a strong nose so much like her own, waves of thick hair that fell to his shoulders, his smooth brown skin unlined except for a scattering of wrinkles around his eyes. He wore his work uniform, a navy blue shirt with silver constellations embroidered on the sleeves. A slim lanyard bore the badge that identified him as a curator of Anvaelia’s branch of the Jonah Museum. The lanyard itself was peppered with colourful pins from the various historical societies he’d belonged to.
Uma could remember everything about this picture perfectly. But could she remember him as clearly as she once had? Could she recall the sound of his voice echoing in one of the Museum’s long halls? Could she remember what Papa had looked like in motion, striding through the door to his office? She tried to call his image to mind, but the memory felt as fragile as those crumbling books.
There was a time when she used to speak aloud to her father whenever things went wrong. She had often held half a conversation with this picture, asking for Papa’s advice, pretending he was still listening. But she hadn’t spoken to the picture in a long while, and she couldn’t think of anything to ask him now.
Instead, she lay back on her bed, closed her eyes, and let her mind grow as blank as possible.
And then, her bracelet chimed.
“Director Ozakka, I’m sorry to interrupt,” came Dean’s voice. “But we’ve just picked up a transmission.”
“Oh!” Uma’s heart leapt with relief. “Thank the gods. What kind of transmission? Is the network back?”
“I’m afraid the network is still unreachable, Director,” the AI said. “But we are receiving a broad-band local distress call from another stranded ship. I’ve already alerted Captain Fransk.”
“A distress call…” She exhaled slowly. That wasn’t exactly good news, but it was reassuring to know that the rest of the universe hadn’t vanished entirely. Of course it hadn’t. “Play the transmission back for me, Dean.”
“Certainly, Director. Here it comes.”
The back of Uma’s neck prickled as a crackling, garbled recording began to play.
“Calling all channels, we have an emergency! This is the civilian cargo hauler Jonah. Is anybody out there? We’ve had a complete systems failure… ran into some type of… unusual energy field… no power. If anyone’s receiving this, we need immediate assistance. This is an emergency. I repeat, this is Eldric Leesongronski of the Jonah, requesting assistance.”
There was a long silence, and then a second voice: “Ah, fuck. Give it up. I’m telling you, Leeg, there’s nobody else out here.”
The recording hissed, clicked twice, and the transmission ended.
Excerpt from Ren Hutchings’ Under Fortunate Stars reprinted by permission from Rebellion Publishing.
Under Fortunate Stars by Ren Hutchings will be released May 10; you can pre-order a copy here.
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