Mike Chen brings us a Space Opera/Family Drama mash-up.
BLURB supplied by Harlequin Trade
When Jakob Shao reappears after fifteen missing years, he brings turmoil to his sisters, Kass and Evie, and intergalactic war on his heels.
Every family has issues. Most can't blame them on extraterrestrials.
Fifteen years ago while on a family camping trip, Jakob Shao and his father vanished. His father turned up a few days later, dehydrated and confused, but convinced that they'd been abducted by aliens. Jakob remained missing.
The Shao sisters, Kass and Evie, dealt with the disappearance end ensuing fallout in very different ways. Kass over the years stepped up to be the rock of the family: carving a successful path for herself, looking after the family home, and becoming her mother's caregiver when she starts to suffer from dementia. Evie took her father's side, going all in on UFO conspiracy theories, and giving up her other passions to pursue the possible truth of life outside our planet. And always looking for Jakob.
When atmospheric readings from Evie's network of contacts indicate a disturbance event just like the night of the abduction, she heads back home. Because Jakob is back. He's changed, and the sisters aren't sure what to think. But one thing is certain -- the tensions between the siblings haven't changed at all. Jakob, Kass and Evie are going to have to grow up and sort out their differences, and fast. Because the FBI is after Jakob, and possibly an entire alien armada, too.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mike Chen is the author of the award-nominated Here And Now And Then and featured in Star Wars: From A Certain Point Of View—The Empire Strikes Back. He has covered geek culture for sites such as Tor.com, The Mary Sue, and StarTrek.com and used to cover the NHL for Fox Sport and other outlets. A member of SFWA, Mike lives in the Bay Area with his wife, daughter, and rescue animals.
Author Website: https://www.mikechenbooks.com/
Everything in front of Jakob Shao was dark.
His eyes adjusted after several seconds, turning the void into a black sheet laced with brilliant white dots, countless stars coming into focus. Jakob raised a finger and poked at the nothingness, only to feel a magnetic pushback from deflective impulses. Force fields, really, as Jakob still used the Earth terminology brought from a childhood of movies and comic books. Whatever they were called, they kept the vacuum of space from sucking him out, freezing him, possibly imploding him.
The atmosphere dock of the Awakened ship wasn’t much more welcoming than deep space. It didn’t help that he stood barefoot and nearly naked, only an ill-fitting cloth halfway between a burlap sack and a poncho draped over him. The Awakened probably used it more to maintain their hostage’s body temperature than comfort, and definitely not for fashion. But where were his captors?
Where was anyone?
Then a voice called out.
A familiar voice, a not-human one that strained to yell his name in a vocalization that came halfway between a crow’s caw and an electronic blip. The implanted chips between Seven Bells soldiers constantly translated for species, but nothing came through here. Something must have burned out the chip, leaving only natural expression, a human word forced into alien physiology.
It called Jakob’s name.
Jakob ran to the voice, tracing the sound while rumbles vibrated the floor. Spigots of steam and gaseous vapor burst onto him, and his bare feet crunched on jagged debris. He turned a corner and though different lights flashed and fluctuated through the dim space, he saw a familiar figure.
The unmistakable silhouette of curling horns and humanoid frame of Henry’s native species stood out against beams of light, and Jakob called out. “Henry!”—The simplest name he could assign to his friend given the physically impossible way of pronouncing their culture’s names. A harsh draft blew dust in his face, fragments hitting his bare shoulders as he charged forward. “Henry! We need to go right—”
Except Henry would not be able to go anywhere.
Stripped of his standard armor and clothing, his friend’s set of eight eyes all focused on him, their face angling away. One arm reached out to Jakob, straining to move.
The other remained frozen, a statue pose as the crystallization took over, organic matter gradually desiccating from the bottom up. Jakob paused, slowly putting together what it all meant.
Jakob was in the Seven Bells first wave of defense, but his power-armor mech had been damaged and he was captured in space. Henry was to lead the second wave, an on-the-ground defense squad that took advantage of his native planetary knowledge.
They must have failed. Which meant Henry’s homeworld had fallen to the Awakened, their technology analyzed and usurped, their population and wildlife crystalized to be used as building material.
Jakob took his friend’s hand, a pincer-like claw with small sensory tentacles in the palm. “I’m so sorry. So sorry,” Jakob said repeatedly, taking far too much time given the exploding craft around him. Henry’s shoulder froze, body crystalizing from elbow to forearm to claws until the whole appendage stiffened and the sensory tentacles stopped moving. Jakob leaned forward as an invisible weight suddenly pushed in on his skull, a pressure from the center outward. He looked at Henry, only their head and neck remaining, eyes closed, but tilted his way.
Jakob knew what to do, what Henry wanted. It was the way their species passed on generational knowledge during final moments.
He let Henry in.
And several seconds later, Jakob absorbed information, secrets, devastation, all of the things that Henry saw and felt while Jakob had been captured. And a number.
A sixteen-digit number that could change everything.
“Go,” Henry managed in their unearthly voice before the crystalization process inched upward, eventually taking over their entire head with a sparkly dead texture.
Then his friend collapsed, their transformed body falling apart like a sand castle imploding under its own wait. Henry's remains scattered, spilling everywhere and getting between Jakob's toes. When he turned, he felt the grind beneath his feet.
But there was no time to mourn or be disgusted. He needed to go. But where?
Jakob sprinted, checking all corners and hallways. But whatever had happened before he came to had caused the ship to be evacuated, mostly ransacked of anything useful. At a hanger bay, his captured half-wrecked mech sat, stripped of any useful tools. The only thing intact was a decryptor—a tool for espionage. Not escape.
That wouldn’t help here, though he grabbed the device anyway—technically, a neural encryptor/decryptor—and looked for a way out. In the corner, a holographic interface flickered on and off.
That just might do it.
A closer look had Jakob laughing at his luck: the half-functioning interface was the ship's compressed-matter transporter system, something he was familiar with since the Seven Bells regularly scavenged them from downed Awakened craft. He craned his neck up at the too-tall interface next to him, fingers flying over controls he understood just enough to operate. It hummed to life, a low vibration nearly eclipsed by the ongoing rumbles of various decks exploding above him. A white glow signified it was ready to fire him across space.
Him—and the knowledge he'd stolen.
But what destination would provide safety until the Seven Bells recovered him?
A star chart glowed in front of him, and the vast pool of space lay at his fingertips. One of those tiny dots represented a chance. He just had to figure out which one—fast.
Jakob scanned the possibilities, already tensing for the brutal gauntlet of compressed matter transport: an invisible bubble sealing around the body, then throttling it through a newly generated wormhole that collapsed upon exit. He needed somewhere safe, somewhere primitive that the Awakened would completely overlook. Only then could he track his fleet without putting them in danger. Solar system upon solar system whirred in front of him, the options coming and going until he paused at one choice.
One obvious, hilarious, completely impossible choice.
Earth. The place he’d departed fifteen years ago.
Jakob zoomed in on the image, examining its projected rotation. Pure dumb luck handed him a win here; they were passing through within three light years, perfectly within the edge of the transporter’s radius. The holographic light pulsed, indicating the system was ready to go.
But what if the Awakened chased him, captured him again? He could hide his body, yet his mind still represented a risk: specifically, the device implanted in his head that connected to the Seven Bells command fleet, activated only when speaking the right words. The Awakened were known for torturing to the point of unconsciousness, trying to pry secrets that might tip the war one way or another, except he’d been trained to protect the activation phrase with his life.
His life for the entire fleet’s life.
But did the Awakened have other ways to extract that information, something more strategic than pain? If they tracked him down, could they try some type of mental probe or memory scanner?
Jakob turned to think, his bare foot kicking against a smooth object that suddenly caught his attention.
The decryptor he salvaged—a basketball-sized device that could scramble certain parts of his memory. A way to blank out the activation phrase from his mind, guaranteeing its safety—and thus, the fleet’s safety—in any situation until the Seven Bells located him. Jakob calculated the risks. As one of the Seven Bells’ leading engineers, patching up damaged equipment in the heat of battle was standard procedure. But scrambling and patching up his own mind?
There was a first time for everything.
Jakob held the decryptor to his forehead, pressing it firmly and thinking as hard as he could about the specific phrase to activate the skull implant’s emergency communications signal. A very quick, very sharp zap hit him, and with it, scrambled that memory, now unlockable solely with this very device.
But he suddenly realized that if the zap’s blast radius scrambled tangential memories, he might lose more: what had happened, what he needed, his whole mission. Jakob’s eyes darted around, searching the broken space for something that might provide a way to give himself tangible backup clues.
The pipes on the walls.
Whatever liquid they contained might be as good as ink.
He grabbed jagged shrapnel off the floor and smashed the line, neon blue dripping out. It didn’t produce steam or eat through the floor. Good enough. His finger stung a little under the viscous liquid, and with it, he wrote words on his exposed skin.
Dizziness and nausea struck as details blurred out of existence, and Jakob knew disorientation would hit soon enough. He held the decryptor close, hugging it while activating the scan sequence of the transporter. A thin beam of light trickled over him, a tingle crawling over his skin while the transporter calculated the shape and strength of its protective bubble. It nearly finished when sparks flew from the far side of the room, another shake knocking him off balance.
“Shit, shit, shit,” he said while reinitiating the scan, uttering Earth curses that still stayed with him. The scanning beam re-appeared, only to stop halfway down his body. He tried again and then again, but each time, it refused to move past the decryptor.
Jakob squinted at the repeated message on the transporter’s interface, but without the supporting communications tech from Seven Bells on him, it was incomprehensible. He looked at the decryptor in his hand, then back at the interface, then over at the message.
Maybe that was it. Jakob with the device might be too much.
He set the decryptor on the floor and retargeted the scan beam. Several seconds later, a planetary image indicated a target destination. The decryptor shot off across space, a simple white flash as it vanished.
He’d have to find it. But what if the decryptor's memory fallout erased those details? What if the transporter veered him off course on his own journey? How would he even know where to start?
Jakob turned back to the holographic map; the decryptor had been sent somewhere on the west coast of the North American continent. The Bay Area. Images flashed through his mind, faces surfacing after so many years of disconnecting from that life.
Mom. Dad. Kassie. Evie.
Such a word felt weightless, devoid of any meaning now. But it gave a shorthand to the decryptor’s location.
He jabbed his finger into the smashed pipeline, dipping into enough alien goo to write one more message. GO HOME, he wrote across his left shoulder. That would point him in the right direction, no matter where on Earth he started.
Jakob took in a deep breath, then hit the controls again on the transporter. The beam returned, scanning him up and down. Seconds passed and the air changed, like he was encased in a layer of plastic— pressurized energy protecting him across the vacuum of space. Around him, various hums and vibrations indicated the system would activate in moments.
The room shook as a hole tore open in the ceiling, fire and shrapnel showering him.
“Weapon. Signal. Go home.” He told himself, repeating the words. If all the writing dissolved or washed off, he could try to remember these few words. He readied himself, and only now did he notice bits of crystalline sand stuck to his legs and feet. Nausea hit Jakob, but whether it came from the decryptor process or seeing Henry’s remains, he wasn't sure. Fists formed with tight fingers and tensed arms, and he forced himself to picture Henry's crumbling body, a reminder of why he needed to do this.
He had to make it to Earth safely. He had to retrieve the decryptor and contact the fleet.
Because he wasn’t just a Seven Bells soldier trying to find a way back. Those sixteen digits Henry had chiseled into his mind would win the war.
He just needed to tell them first.
Excerpted from Light Years from Home by Mike Chen, Copyright © 2022 by Mike Chen. Published by MIRA Books.
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