Today we’ve got an excerpt of Cinnabar by Edmund Newton. Cinnabar is an Inkshares project, which means that authors pitch a book, readers pre-order, then once the preorder threshold is met, Inkshares offers a full service publishing experience. You can read more about Inkshares at their website.
Cinnabar is one of the top five books in Inkshares’ Sword and Laser Collection contest, and every week throughout the contest, Inkshares will post chapters from the works that catch their eye. Enjoy this excerpt of Cinnabar, and be sure to support the project if you like what you read!
Here’s what Cinnabar is about (via Inkshares): “Inspired by tales of space travel, from Ray Bradbury to Alfonso Cuaron”
Read on for the excerpt!
We’re talking here about Darwin Brown and Fyodor Golovin, known affectionately in their day as the Light Boys. Everybody – the whole world, in fact — had almost forgotten about them when one August evening the space-based Galactoscope picked up a peculiar blip on the edge of the stratosphere. The scope quickly zeroed in on an old V-4 ship, holding to a brisk elliptical orbit between 160 and 235 miles above the surface of the planet. In a flash, Galacto had this odd apparition up on monitors all over the Strunck complex, crisp enough to read the serial identification code on its side. V4.
And near the tail, in smaller letters, X2NEPLA, along with a random pattern of the corporate logos of the co-sponsors of the boys’ unlikely mission. Yes, it was “X-to-anyplace.”
“Kee-rist, it’s Brown and Golovin!” exclaimed the usually unflappable base announcer, in a startling violation of the Strunck’s rigid code of stiff-lipped stoicism.
Nobody seemed to notice the gaffe, as project supervisors, techies, clerical staff, and an assortment of hangers-on and passers-by, a lot of them muttering imprecations of their own, stampeded into the central viewing room to catch the extraordinary sight in 38 feet of ultra-high def.
The base hadn’t heard a word from the boys in almost seven years, and we all assumed they were somewhere out in the stars, lost forever. About a year into their mission, the old V-4, heading roughly toward the Libra constellation, had cut its electronic umbilical cord, and communications went deader than Yuri Gagarin’s hallowed buried-in-concrete ashes, never again to glimmer back to life.
There had been others sent out, too, in that era. A whole procession of them – O’Malley and Petrov, Baker and Orozco, Ipswich and Mbele, and more – all on exploratory missions during a particularly giddy time in Strunck Labs’ space program, when deuterium-based fuel was suddenly cheap and plentiful. Most of those early space forays were inglorious failures. One or two ended like the quaintly familiar 20th century rocketry film clip, with ships barely airborne before taking a disastrous U-turn back to earth. The rest amounted to a couple of quick, sputtering orbits around the home planet before a chastened return to the base. But old X-to-anyplace had streaked off into the unknown with Fyodor Golovin and my cousin Darwin Brown aboard.
Now here they were again. Or, at least, here was their ship, looking light and fragile out there on the edge of the ionosphere, its baked silicone shell still as pristine as a new convertible in a car dealer’s showroom.
Then, as everybody gasped and whooped in amazement, a hatch opened on the starboard fuselage, and out floated a man in a loose-fitting neoprene suit, with the familiar globe helmet from six or seven years ago. He paused near the hatch door, seeming to take in the blue expanse beneath him.
“Golly,” somebody muttered.
Right he was. Though the face piece of the helmet was too thick to reveal the man’s facial characteristics, the compact frame, with broad shoulders and stubby limbs, was unmistakably that of Golovin.
He maneuvered himself toward the front of the ship, using his tether as a guide, then proceeded to pry a two-foot fuselage panel loose. A matching piece of curved silicone tile danced out along the tether from the interior of the ship, and Golovin fitted it into place.
One of the bodyshop boys was nodding exaggeratedly, yes, yes, yes, pointing out what he thought was a slight abnormality in the curve of the original piece.
“Some sort of ding,” he snorted. “That sucker musta kicked up some divots.”
Using tools from a utility belt, Golovin screwed the new panel in, polished it to a high sheen, and melted a sheet of Mylar onto its surface, a brand new fender complete with the white toque logo for a popular brand of flatbread. Then, in violation of all the rules and regulations regarding man-made space debris, he folded the replaced piece and pitched it over his shoulder into space. It was vintage Golly. The space outlaw, behaving badly. As usual.
Back at Strunck in Florida, we all began drifting reluctantly back to our workstations to await more astounding developments.
Sometimes an event can jolt even the most hardbitten astronauts or mission veterans into a moment or two of wonder. I wasn’t the only member of Strunck’s staff who wandered out onto the blacktop that evening, with the empty launchpad looming there in the dark, awaiting its next launch. The support structure was half-finished, almost ruinous, with the pad looking like some ancient religious idol tossed up there by a primitive tribe. A shore breeze had cleared out some of the humidity, bringing momentary clarity to the soft sweep of the Milky Way. Meteorites were flaming to life and the breeze seemed to caress the stargazers on the blacktop, but the stars themselves, sharp as nail points in the velvety sky, never seemed so distant, so cold, to me.
I strained to spot the orbiting spacecraft but saw nothing but starry sky.
What was out there really? A whole lot of nothing. Darkness and blinding light.
“Sweetie, it’s your grandmother.”
It was the call I was expecting. I switched over to the wall monitor, and an image of Grandma, gray hair bundled on top, watery blue eyes searching the lens, floated into view.
“Well, we heard the good news, Michael. It is good news, isn’t it?”
“It looks that way, Grandma. I just haven’t talked to him yet.”
“Is Charles all right?”
I tipped over a salt shaker on the kitchen table, trying to disguise my deep apprehensions about Chuck. I pulled salt and pepper shakers and sugar bowl into tight formation with studied care.
“Far as I know,” I said.
“We’re all here, having a little family fricassee,” Grandma said, holding up a tapered glass with something frothy and amber.
Grandma panned the lens around to show all the members of the family, sitting or standing in pained formality. I mean, when did they ever gather as a family except funerals and weddings?
“Say hello to your beautiful bride,” Grandma said.
Wendy stooped into the picture.
“Hi, hon. I miss you.”
Her dark eyes looked at me with concern, wishing, no doubt, it could have been a more intimate exchange. She smiled a little reassuring smile and waved.
It was one of the drawbacks of working for Strunck, no spouses allowed on the base, and most of the time Wendy and I had to suffer our separation in silence. There was a faint look of abandonment about her, this dark-haired beauty in the midst of this pale, fair-haired family.
“I miss you a lot,” I said.
The other family members offered a few pleasantries about Chuck and wishing me well, and that was that.
Grandma signed off with a hearty, “Bring that bad boy home to us, Mikey.”
It took four days of fruitless signaling from the communications center and whatever tinkering that was going on up there in orbit – in fact, who knew what was going on up there? – before, at 0630 on the fifth day, the ship’s shortwave suddenly crackled to life just as the sun was peaking up from the Atlantic.
“Home base,” said a quavery version of Brown’s voice, dry as a dust ball, shaking the lethargy out of all the early shift workers sucking at their coffee containers. “V-4 requests permission to land via airstrip 954E. Over.”
“Roger,” said the shift commander. “Proceed.”
And that was it. The ship headed down into the atmosphere at an oblique angle, shaving the distance to the base like a knife peeling an orange.
As the Light Boys were tinkering, the world press was gathering in the parking lot at Strunck. There were busloads and truckloads of them, deploying transmitting equipment, laying cable, jabbering on their phones, arguing about floor space, trolling their competitors for bits of information, or trying to cadge tips from passing Strunck employees. They were absolutely crazy for this story, milling around the lot like wild horses in a high desert corral. And who could blame them? This was huge. Unless the Light Boys had been hiding out on some comfortable resort planet for the past seven years, this would be, as I judiciously described it in one of my press releases, the conclusion of the first-ever successful space voyage at speeds approaching or even exceeding the speed of light. The universe may at last have been opening up its vast portals to us, and Brown and Golovin could be on the verge of being proclaimed the greatest human explorers in all of human history.
Speed-of-light — SOL, as Irwin Strunck liked to refer to it — was the pinnacle of the old man’s illustrious career, which included a couple of moon shots as one of his own astronauts, and he played with it like a kid with a brand new Funge Bunz. Don’t ask me, the humble P.R.-guy English major who just happened to be related to one of the astronauts, how the boss’s genius crew actually pulled off that little miracle of science. (Besides, as far as the Strunck brass were concerned, it was mostly proprietary information.) All I knew was that Strunck’s SOL technique was said to have nothing to do with the crusty old science fiction notions of warped space or wormholes or intergalactic folds. The way the old man explained it was as a serendipitous discovery by the quantum lab that resulted in “a unexpected energy-mass synchronicity surge.” The crucial element in this, at least for Strunck’s purposes, was that the Light Boys’ ship, en route to the stars, actually had no verifiable locus, just a line of possibilities, sliding across the universe as an indeterminate smear. More or less.
The troubling question for me – one of the troubling questions, at least – was this: what would be the lasting effects of seven and a half years in a speed-of-light trajectory on a couple of astronauts from Planet Earth? I mean, were we going to see a pair of healthy human beings step out of the space capsule or two speed-addled mutants? Was my second cousin Darwin Brown going to be the same old taciturn Chuck that I idolized as a teenager or maybe some barely-human creature whose molecular structure had been subjected to so much bond-dissolving stress that he’d be little more than a stack of organized sand? I shuddered at the thought.
Of course, the working press was beating the drums for the we-are-not-alone angle. Had X-to-Anyplace fulfilled its original mission, traveling to a ruddy, Earth-sized planet in the southern quadrant, bringing back news of strange life forms (or, at least, of marketable mineral resources)?
Were they carrying, miracle of miracles, actual specimens?
“For a century or more, scientists have speculated that, by the sheer odds, there must be other planets out there, inhabited by living creatures,” began one tightly-wound feelo reporter in a stand-up from the parking lot, with Strunck’s huge main hangar looming in the background. “But until now, we’ve had no palpable proof,” he added, his voice thick with momentousness.
Overhearing this as I ducked through the parking lot, studiously avoiding eye contact with members of the press, I tamped down my urge to leap in with a no-no-no. Hell, no. Finding life forms somewhere out near Libra would be a lot more than a lottery-winning long shot. The cynic in me, a gloomy voice from somewhere in the dungeons of my mind, said the notion was one pot of gold that even Strunck and his brilliant minions were never going to elevate above “mythic” or “legendary” (though they might play it out for a couple of trunks of federal money). Let all the reporters and pseudo-scientist know-it-alls blabber away. The idea of millions of biospheres comparable to our own, sprinkled around the universe like salt on a cracker, was just a lot of anthropocentric – or maybe biocentric – nonsense, spouted frequently by feelovision reporters for the entertainment of the masses.