Chapter Reveal: Under Strange Suns by Ken Lizzi
Title: Under Strange Suns
Author: Ken Lizzi
Publisher: Twilight Times Books
In the tradition of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, Under Strange Suns brings the sword-and-planet novel to the twenty-first century. War is a constant, and marooned on a distant world, former Special Forces soldier Aidan Carson learns there is nothing new Under Strange Suns.
Under Strange Suns
This was going to change the world.
The realization was stunning, almost blinding. Doctor Brennan Yuschenkov stared vacantly at his vanity wall. He did not register the BS from Stanford, or the Master’s and PhD from M.I.T. The award certificates and the grip-and-grin photographs of his smiling mug matching the formulaic toothy expression of whatever politician or astronaut or CEO he was posing with were so much static. He didn’t realize it, but the grin now stretching his leonine features out-classed every framed example he was failing to notice.
When he snapped out of his fugue he finger-stabbed a speed dial button on his desktop telephone. “Azziz, got a minute? If not, make one. Bring your notebook, this is big.”
Yuschenkov rose from his chair, surprised at how stiff his body was. He paced his office, waiting for his graduate assistant, Mehmet Azziz, to reach the faculty offices. Yuschenkov had to share this, and immediately. He could feel a creeping fear that he’d forget a piece of the puzzle. Or that he was wrong about some aspect. And who better to ask than Azziz, the man with the best grasp of particle physics on campus? Next to his own, of course. Yuschenkov muttered to himself, gesticulating, pausing on occasion to allow the Cheshire Cat grin to reoccupy his face as the beauty of the idea reasserted itself over the fear.
“Doctor Yuschenkov?” Azziz said, having stood unnoticed in Yuschenkov’s office for several seconds.
“Azziz, didn’t hear you there. Damn, you’re a sneaky one.” Yuschenkov wrapped his research assistant in a bear hug, his face pressed against the narrow chest of Azziz’s lanky frame, the young man’s beard bushing atop the physicist’s head. They broke apart, Azziz stepping back with evident discomfort. “Sit, sit.” He dropped back into his desk chair while Azziz took one of the guest chairs.
“I won’t say it turned out to be surprisingly simple, because it’s not,” Yuschenkov said. “It’s complex, very complex, as you’d expect. But I think it will be surprisingly inexpensive. And that...well, that is going to make a difference.”
“Yes, sir,” Azziz said. “If you don’t mind my asking, Doctor Yuschenkov, what is very complex, surprisingly inexpensive, and going to make a difference?”
“What? Oh, of course. FTL, Azziz. FTL. Faster. Than. Light. A propulsion system. A spaceship drive. FT-fucking-L.”
“Sir? Is this another prank? It took me a week to get my car disassembled and out of my apartment last time.”
“No joke, Azziz. I’ve cracked it. Now take down some notes. I don’t want to lose this. See, we weren’t considering quantum entanglement as it pertains to gravitons...”
Azziz wrote as Doctor Yuschenkov spilled out the pieces of his theory in a disjointed, haphazard fashion: the controlled entanglement of gravitons, the directed acceleration of one half of the pair, the attraction/feedback reaction shifting phase to the tachyonic at just faster than light, the pulsing incremental increases beyond. Theoretical upper limits. Imaginary mass. Relativistic effects. The impressive size of the quantum-field bubble the drive was likely to generate. Azziz took it all down, assembling the jumbled pieces into a coherent picture as he did so, his handwriting growing sketchier as increasing comprehension burgeoned into excitement.
Later, notebook pages scattered across Yuschenkov’s desk, the whiteboard opposite the vanity wall inked near black with scrawled calculations, the two men slumped again in their respective chairs.
“This will change everything,” Azziz said.
“Bet your ass it will. How things will change, that’s the question. I mean, this would be big even if building a drive was so monstrously expensive and difficult that it would require the combined gross national product of half the First World. But it’s going to be cheap. Relatively. Corporation level cheap, and not only multi-nationals. Think about that.”
“Yes, sir. The prospect raises any number of possibilities.”
Azziz’s words held a positive ring, but a frown briefly marred Azziz’s forehead. He considered Azziz, wondering if this was the man to assist in the birth of this brave new wonder. The man was acquiescent to a fault. Always “yes sir” and “glad to help sir.” He wasn’t precisely obsequious, not an ass-kisser, but nonetheless quick to comply. Very much the opposite of Yuschenkov’s demeanor back during his own sentence as a graduate assistant – “Hotheaded” he discarded as hyperbole, but “willful” perhaps captured it. Funny, so much of his work was solitary. Lonely contemplation. The “eureka” moment a completely individual achievement. Yet to proceed beyond that was going to require interaction with others, each step of development creating a widening circle of involvement. So if he wanted his work to expand beyond the confines of his own skull he’d have to start making allowances for individual differences.
The FTL was important, more so than he could comprehend at the moment. Shouldn’t he ensure a smooth working relationship with his assistant? Still, the nagging doubt lingered. Would he jeopardize the theoretical and developmental work by yoking himself to such a diametrically opposite personality? On the other hand, maybe that is precisely what he needed to do. Yin and yang and all that.
“What sort of possibilities hit you first, Azziz?” he asked, reclining his chair and interlocking his fingers behind his head.
“Well, broadly: mining, exploration. Colonization.”
“Colonization? That assumes exploration locates a habitable rock. Can you imagine that? ‘Homestead Planet X, new headquarters of the Nabisco Corporation.’”
“Yes, sir, though I presume state actors would be preeminent. Perhaps easing population pressure might ease geopolitical tensions?”
“What, convince North Korea to emigrate en masse, settle Planet North Korea? Or a moon. People always seem to ignore the habitable possibilities of satellites. The twin Marxist-Maoist Moons of Mu Cephei?”
“Planet Kim, Worker’s Paradise, Antares Local 501.”
Yuschenkov laughed. Azziz essaying a joke was so unexpected that the surprise elicited laughter even though the joke hardly deserved it. “Well, why not. I think the drive is going to be cheap enough for even a starving gangster regime to slap together a ship. And the Norks do have basic heavy lift capabilities. Even if they didn’t, the rest of the world would probably be happy to chip in, buy ‘em a one-way ticket. But I don’t know. Geopolitical tension, as you put it, is chronic. You can’t just alleviate a symptom. Reduce the population by half, the remainder are still going to be at each other’s throats.”
Azziz didn’t reply. Yuschenkov eyed him, momentarily considering letting the subject drop, but tact as a virtue adhered only lightly to him. “And what about your – what’s the polite way to phrase it now – co-religionists? The misconstruers of the Religion of Peace as the doctrine is properly understood by wiser heads such as yours. Will they be founding New Mecca, facing east five times a day – toward Betelgeuse?”
Azziz flushed, seeming to shrink within his buttoned-up Oxford shirt and ill-fitting blue blazer. “Did you miss the sensitivity seminar again this year, Doctor Yuschenkov?” He cleared his throat. “I cannot speak for every member of a vast, scattered, and divided community, sir. Still, I would hazard a guess that those more violently zealous in their beliefs would be unlikely to leave.”
“Sorry, Azziz. Wrong of me to put you on the spot like that. I don’t always weigh my words before I let them drop. Right. Shall we pick this up in the morning, or shall we start sketching in how to mount the drive to a spaceship?”
“I’ll order some pizza, sir. No pepperoni, sorry.”
* * *
“It’s astonishing. How can it be cheaper and easier to construct a revolutionary FTL drive from scratch than it is to build a spaceship using proven technology and existing components?” Yuschenkov didn’t bother hiding his disgust, even allowing a trace of bitterness to season his words.
His office looked largely the same, though the vanity wall had gathered a few more photographs during the year that had elapsed since his discovery. Azziz sat in the same chair, looking uncomfortable even though he was not the target of Yuschenkov’s ire. Next to Azziz, in the second guest chair, lounged a trim, middle-aged figure in a smart suit. Fredrick Lincoln, the Thomas Coutts University treasurer, was smooth, oozing competence, and always ready with an answer. A computer tablet on his lap held several open files which he viewed frequently during the conversation.
“I understand your frustration, Doctor Yuschenkov, and I and the Board of Regents share it. Constructing this test vessel and proving your theory will be the gaudiest, largest feather in Thomas Coutts’ cap. But reality is reality.” Lincoln consulted one of his files. “And the FTL is not, as you suggest, an insignificant expense. The amount of rare-earth minerals required alone is staggeringly expensive.”
“Why? Hardly that rare. I consulted with the geology department and they assured me the minerals are relatively plentiful.”
“Plentiful in the ground, maybe. But scarce in usable, for-sale, quantities. The Chinese imposed an embargo on export of rare-earth minerals to the U.S. two years ago. And domestic supplies are locked down. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get twenty federal agencies and fifteen state and local agencies to sign off on any mining venture? And even when that miracle occurs there’s still five years of litigation with every environmental organization in the book. If you’d just agree to cut the Feds in...”
“No. True, we’re proceeding slowly now, but let the government take control – and make no mistake, you let that camel’s nose under the tent, that’s what’ll happen – and we’ll have a working ship about a day before they shovel dirt over my grave. You’re a miracle worker, Lincoln. I’ve got faith in you. There must be some stockpiles of the stuff already scooped out. I don’t need much of it. I’ll need a fair amount of scandium and at least a kilo of yttrium. I’m not trying to corner the market. While you’re at it, a bit more palladium would actually be welcome while we’re still in the testing phase.”
“Yes. It’s not critical, but on rare occasions – say once every twenty to one hundred test runs – there is a wave surge in the graviton splitter that renders the drive inoperable. Azziz discovered that a bath in a weak solution of palladium and acid resets the splitter. Just one of those anomalous lab results. Anyway, we require more than just the raw materials for fabricating our own FTL drive mount and linkage. What about the airframe – or spaceframe, I guess. What about existing components? Can we get that off the shelf? Russian hardware? Private industry?”
“We’re looking at acquiring obsolete equipment. If we want new, our supplier is going to want to be our ‘partner’ and demand we share the technology. I realize you aren’t quite ready to relinquish control yet. So far the university is backing you, but the pressure from Washington is increasing. Say the word and we can partner with NASA.”
“Not until we have enough momentum to steamroller a bureaucracy. Stick with the obsolete hardware. At least we know it works. Do we have any leads?”
Lincoln consulted his tablet. “We have a line on a mothballed Dragon capsule. Perhaps you would like to inspect it with me, help me with an idea of its condition and value.” When Yuschenkov nodded, Lincoln continued, “I’ve also put out a request for bids for launch vehicles. The Russians and three private, heavy-lift companies have indicated interest. So it’s not all bad news. But – and I hate to harp on this – I don’t know how long I’ll be able to stonewall the government. The rumors are growing that we’re sitting on something very big, hence the pressure. Our patent lawyers are filing applications as piecemeal as possible, but eventually someone is going to put this all together and then...”
“Look, I’m not trying to hide anything. This is very big, yes, and I want to share it. But, and I repeat, not until we’re past the point where a dozen agencies and meddling congressional subcommittees can strangle this baby in the cradle.”
“Be careful what you want to share, Professor. The University fully intends to capitalize on its half of the patent licensing.”
Yuschenkov laughed. “Of course. By the time the patents expire, Thomas Coutts will have an endowment to rival Harvard. But more immediately, nice work tracking down hardware, Lincoln. Keep me informed. And get an extra ticket for Azziz; he’s more current on aerospace than I am. Been brushing up during thesis writing breaks. Slacker.”
* * *
New Mexico’s Spaceport America hadn’t hosted such a crowd in years. Spaceport authorities had opened shuttered warehouses and hangers to accommodate the assembled journalists, politicians, celebrities, and the just plain curious.
A young girl holding her mother’s hand stood in an advantageous location with assorted VIPs. She had an unobstructed view to a gantry supporting a Falcon Heavy rocket, atop which perched a gumdrop-shaped capsule. It was quite some distance away but using her pink binoculars, adorned with her favorite cartoon space pony, she could just make out a bulky-suited figure crossing a catwalk from gantry to capsule.
“Is that Uncle Brennan?” she asked her mother.
“Yes, Brooklynn, that’s my impetuous brother. Can’t leave the test flight to a test pilot.” Brooklynn’s mother, Colleen Vance, emitted a resigned sigh.
“What is ‘impetuous?’” Brooklynn asked.
“It is another word for ‘impulsive.’ It means he sometimes acts before he considers all the consequences.”
“Oh. Hey, look, Mom. There is Azziz.” She pointed with her free hand toward the left end of the VIP gallery where Azziz stood in the company of several men who Brooklynn thought looked a lot like Azziz: bearded, skin a few shades darker than hers, which she knew would have started to redden by now if her mother hadn’t liberally slathered her with sunscreen. She waved, then nudged her mother until she started waving as well, the motion sufficient to draw Azziz’s attention. He waved back, but it seemed hesitant and it seemed to bring disapproval from his friends. She saw some of them gesturing and white teeth gleaming through their beards as they spoke. Azziz dropped his hand.
“Should we go say hello?”
“No, Brooklynn. I think Azziz has a lot on his mind today, and it doesn’t look as if his guests would approve of us visiting.”
A countdown broadcast from loudspeakers mounted throughout the spaceport terminated further conversation. Fire burst from beneath the rocket, curling and breaking like a heavy sea hitting a rocky shore. The rocket seemed to gather itself, then lifted sedately into the sky. Brooklynn felt her mother’s hand squeezing hers almost painfully.
The countdown voice broke out from the loudspeakers again. “And we have liftoff of the Eureka for the first test of the Yuschenkov Graviton Faster-than-Light Drive.”
After the rocket disappeared from sight, Brooklynn followed her mother into a VIP lounge where television monitors displayed telemetry and a computer simulation of what was happening aboard the FTL test flight. Brooklynn sipped a cup of a mango and orange juice blend as the capsule separated from the last stage of the rocket. A quiet, uninflected voice provided one side of a conversation and occasional commentary, describing the checklist Uncle Brennan and his co-pilot, a Colonel Memphis Brown Jr., were running through prior to testing the drive. By this point, the calm voice was abbreviating the title of the Yuschenkov Graviton FTL drive as the “Y-Drive.”
Brooklynn was sucking on ice cubes and her mother was on a second glass of chardonnay when the capsule’s attitude adjusters fired, pointing the nose of the Eureka at a spot a couple hundred miles east of the moon.
“Roger, Eureka,” the quiet voice announced, “you are a go to engage the Y-Drive.” The voice added, “Good luck.”
The telemetry spasmed and the computer simulation froze. The voice said, “Y-Drive engaged, single pulse. Y-Drive bubble intact. Eureka beyond the light cone. Reacquiring.” There was a pause, then, as the numbers and charts on the telemetry screens resumed accustomed patterns, “Eureka reacquired, reverse thrusters engaged.” The computer simulation showed a curving edge of the moon, and beyond it a flaring, receding dot.
“Where are they going?” Brooklynn asked.
“Nowhere, sweetheart. They are trying to slow down. I don’t really understand it, but Uncle Brennan told me that once the – the Y-Drive was disengaged the Eureka would drop to below light speed. But it would have a lot of momentum, it would keep going in a straight line very fast, so they have to put on the brakes.”
“Can’t he just turn around and use the Y-Drive again?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he wouldn’t be able to stop before hitting the Earth. Or maybe it can be done, sort of canceling out the momentum. You’ll have to ask him. Besides, this is the test flight. He’s only supposed to turn on the Y-Drive once.”
“Eureka, telemetry indicates an attitude shift. Please check angle of yaw,” the quiet voice spoke. Brooklynn looked at the screens again, noticing the numbers on one of the charts steadily increasing. She watched for several seconds before the voice spoke again. “Negative Eureka, you are not cleared to engage the Y-Drive. Ground control is aware that braking maneuvers and the return trip will consume some time, but ground control would like to emphasize that it does not care if you are bored.”
Brooklynn’s mother sighed. “Ground control is wasting his breath,” she said just before the telemetry spasmed again.
* * *
When Brooklynn saw Uncle Brennan trot down the ladder from the Eureka, she broke into a run. She heard her mother call her name and begin to sprint after her, but with her mother in high heels, Brooklynn felt comfortable outracing her.
People in uniform, firemen, people in white lab coats, people in business suits with cameras, all joined in the race. She couldn’t keep up and got caught up in the crowd. But then she heard her Uncle’s voice say, “One side, make a hole. Pioneer coming through.” And there he was, dropping to his knees in front of her, arms open to embrace her.
“You did it, Uncle Brennan,” she said into his chest.
“Damn right, I did, little Brooklyn.”
* * *
“Damn it, Azziz, I know Alpha Centauri is the closest. But it hardly makes a difference for the first interstellar test. If something goes wrong, it really doesn’t matter if we’re going five light-years away or fifty. We’re hosed either way. We can’t stop at the nearest service station for repairs. It’s either going to work, or it isn’t.”
Doctor Yuschenkov’s ebullient glow had ebbed over the year that had elapsed since his historic test flight. He wanted to push on, stretch the envelope, move from a walk to a run. But success, instead of opening the path, seemed to have erected barriers. More scientists, more engineers, more organizations accreted to the program and each successive test became less of a stride than a baby step of decreasing length. To Yuschenkov, every advance was frustratingly glacial. Even the impending – at long last – flight to Alpha Centauri, the first manned interstellar voyage, seemed paltry and unimaginative, not the bold leap it should have been.
“But there is a planet, sir. And it’s hardly larger than Earth.” Azziz said. He looked harried, as well he should, nearing the appointed time to submit his doctoral thesis and yet still spending the lion’s share of his working hours on the Y-Drive project.
“Not in the habitable zone, Azziz. It’s a rock. No, they’re all so goddamned cautious. No progress is unattended by risk. And I’m the one taking it. Well, I and the rest of the crew. Sure you don’t want to come along? I can swing it for you. I’ve still got a little pull on this project. We’re talking making history here. You can get another chance to argue your thesis. The first trip to another star, well that’s unique.”
“No, sir. I’ll keep my feet on this planet, thank you.” Azziz patted the grass next to the concrete bench where the two of them were sitting in the quad, eating sandwiches in the creeping afternoon shade cast by the towering brick edifice of the library.
“It is a nice planet, Azziz, I’ll give you that. I do intend on coming back, you know.” It was a nice planet, and Thomas Coutts a nice campus. Across from the two men the gables and chimneys rose and fell along the roofline of the administration building. Students crossed between the classical facade of the music hall to the left and the Victorian plinths fronting the natural history exhibition to the right, while others sat on the lawn in the center; eating, studying, chatting up, sleeping. “The thing is, I want to get off this rock immediately every time I hear ‘we still need to test the cosmic ray warning sensors’ or ‘we need to determine acceptable redundancy of shielding within the redoubt’ or ‘we haven’t determined optimal nutritional requirements to compensate for bone loss.’ Something out there might kill me, but if we wait until we’ve perfected every precaution, I’ll already be dead by the time we launch.”
* * *
Doctor Yuschenkov was, however, very much alive on the bright, clear desert morning in early March when he craned back, looking up the gantry at the capsule that was to deliver him to Eureka II, waiting in orbit for him and the rest of the crew.
Brooklynn Vance gazed up at him. Her uncle appeared heroic, framed against the rocket, staring up at the heavens. Her mother was there, as were Azziz and the Eureka II crew, but at that moment only Uncle Brennan existed.
He brought his regard earthward, down to her, and she thought she saw the entire universe shining for a moment in his eyes. He squatted to eye-level, which was only a couple of pencil marks on the kitchen wall taller than last time he had gone into space. “Big day, right Brooklynn? Wish I could bring back a present for you, but I don’t think I’m going to find a mall out there.”
“I can come help you look. I wouldn’t take up much room.” Her voice held the same teasing tone his did, but there was an earnest appeal in her widened eyes and lifted brow.
“You’ll be up there soon. We’re going to open the stars for business. You might open the first toy store on another planet. Or a moon; people always forget the satellites. Someday a traveler like me might buy a teddy bear from you for his niece in your shop on the moon of a gas giant 50 light-years from Earth.”
She giggled at his sing-song vision even while he hugged her. Then she watched him hug her mom, shake hands with Azziz, and walk away with the rest of the crew to a building at the base of the gantry.
She watched the launch again from the VIP section, though it wasn’t as full this time; the real action wouldn’t happen until after the capsule dropped off its passengers at the Eureka II. But it was still exciting to watch the rocket lift itself skyward on its tail of fire.
She watched television in the hotel the next day, lying on the bed next to her mother and eating pizza from the box. A camera mounted on the capsule that had delivered the Eureka II crew was beaming Earthward the image of the first starship as it squirted attitude jets, adjusting itself to point in the direction of Alpha Centauri. The starship looked like a flattened tube of girders with a blockish engine cluster at one end and a slowly spinning ring at the other. A voice was explaining the mission while scrolling text along the bottom of the screen provided essentially the same information.
“Doctor Yuschenkov and the other three crew members of the Eureka II – Colonel Brown, Doctor Abrams, and Doctor Chandra – have completed the final checks for initiating humanity’s historic first interstellar voyage. Ground Control reports that attitude corrections are complete and final countdown is underway for initiating the Y-Drive, as Doctor Yuschenkov’s Graviton Drive has come to be called. Plans call for a four-week outward trip to what some have begun calling Planet Best Bet, orbiting Alpha Centauri. The crew will remain in orbit for a month of study, then will return to Earth, arrival scheduled for approximately three months from today.”
Another voice replaced the first, sounding distant. It was counting down. When it reached zero Brooklynn saw the central portion of the engine cluster strobe red. The Eureka II disappeared and the blackness where it had been appeared to ripple momentarily, then subside.
* * *
Three months later Brooklynn was again eating pizza with her mother and watching television, this time at home. Reporters in various locations consumed airtime, repeating variations of the same basic message: “We expect them anytime.”
“Don’t get anxious, Brooklynn,” her mother said for the third, or maybe fourth, time. “They aren’t coming on a train. There is no timetable. Today is just the earliest they are expected. Remember, Uncle Brennan is in charge. He might have decided to stay a day or two longer to look around.”
Brooklynn spent the rest of the day flipping through the news channels, waiting. Her mother let her stay up an extra half-hour before putting her to bed.
It took Brooklynn a week before her excitement turned to worry. And it took three months for her mother to sit her down and say, “I’m sorry, baby. I don’t think he’s coming back.”
Ken Lizzi is an attorney and the author of an assortment of published short stories. When not traveling – and he'd rather be traveling – he lives in Portland, Oregon with his lovely wife Isa and their daughter, Victoria Valentina. He enjoys reading, homebrewing, and visiting new places. He loathes writing about himself in the third person. Connect with Ken on Facebook and Twitter.