We are thrilled to be able to reveal the cover of Christopher Hinz’s new sci-fi novel Starship Alchemon, as well as the cover for the novella Hinz wrote with Angry Robot’s MD Etan Ilfeld, Duchamp Versus Einstein and an exclusive excerpt from the first chapter of Starship Alchemon.
Check out the covers below:
Read the exclusive excerpt from Starship Alchemon by Christopher Hinz below:
CHAPTER 1 From Starship Alchemon by Chris Hinz
The assignor had a hunch the meeting would be unpleasant. He wondered if the young woman entering his office already knew the outcome.
LeaMarsa de Host wore a black skirt and sweater that looked woven from rags, clothing surely lacking even basic hygiene nanos. Whether she was making some sort of anti-Corporeal statement or whether she always dressed like a drug-addled misfit from the Helio Age was not apparent from her file.
The assignor smiled and rose to shake her hand. She ignored the courtesy. He sat and motioned her to the chair across from his desk.
“Welcome to Pannis Corp, LeaMarsa.”
“Thrilled to be here.”
Her words bled sarcasm. No surprise. She registered highly alienated on the Ogden Tripartite Thought Ordination. Most members of the bizarre minority to which she belonged were outliers on the OTTO scale.
“Would you like something to drink?” he asked, motioning to his Starbucks 880, a conglomeration of tubes and spouts. The dispenser was vintage twenty-first-century, a gift from the assignor’s wife for his thirtieth birthday. “Five hundred and one varieties, hot or cold.”
“I’ll have a juggernaut cocktail with Europa cryospice. Hold the cinnamon.”
“I’m sorry, that one’s not in the menu.”
She grimaced with disappointment, which of course was the whole point of requesting such a ridiculously exotic drink.
He unflexed his wafer to max screen size and toggled through her file. An analysis of her test results appeared.
“The Pannis researchers at Jamal Labs were most impressed with your talents. You are indeed a gifted Psionic.”
She flopped into the chair and leaned back. An erratic thumping reverberated through the office. It took the assignor a moment to realize she was kicking the underside of his desk with the toe of her flats.
He contained his annoyance. Someday, he hoped to have enough seniority to avoid working with her type. And this young woman in particular…
She was thin, with long dark hair hanging to her shoulders, grossly uncouth. His preadolescent daughter still wore her hair that long, but who beyond the teen years allowed such draping strands, and LeaMarsa de Host was 23. Her skin was as pale as the froth of a milkshake and her eyes hard blue gems, constantly probing. She smelled of natural body scents. He didn’t care for the odor.
“Let’s cut to the chase,” she said. “Do I get a starship?”
“At this time, Pannis Corp feels that such an assignment would not be in the best interests of all involved.”
“What’s the matter? Afraid?”
He’d been trained to ignore such a response. “Pannis has concluded that your particular range of abilities would not be conducive to the self-contained existence of stellar voyaging.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“It boils down to a matter of cooperation.”
“Haven’t I cooperated with your tests? I took two months out of my life. I practically lived in those hideous Jamal Labs of yours.”
“And we’re certainly pleased by your sacrifice. But when I’m speaking of cooperation, I’m referring to factors of which you may not even be conscious. Psionic abilities exist primarily in strata beneath the level of daily awareness.”
“Really? Never would have guessed.”
He paved over the snark. “You may wish to behave cooperatively but find your subconscious acting in contrary ways. And trust me, a year or more in a starship is a far cry from what you underwent in our labs.”
“You’re speaking from experience?”
“Actually, no. I’ve never been farther out than Luna.”
“Then you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
She stared at him so intently that he worried she was trying to read his mind. The fear was irrational. Still, like most of the population, he was categorized as a psionic receptor, susceptible to psychic forces, albeit mildly.
He forced attention back to the wafer.
“Pannis is willing to offer you a choice of more than a dozen positions, all with good salary ranges. And the benefits of working for a mega are remarkable.”
“What’s the most exciting position?”
“Exciting? Why, I don’t know.” He tapped the wafer, scanned pages. “Ah yes, here’s one that sounds quite exciting. Archeological assistant, digging up 19th century frontier cultures in the American Southwest in search of lost caches of gold and silver.”
He looked up from the wafer. “Pardon?”
“Do you have anything with blizzards? I like storms.”
Storms? Dear god, these people were a trial, and more trouble than they were worth. Still, he understood the economics behind the current frenzy among Pannis and the other megas to employ them.
Only last week the latest discovery attributed to one of LeaMarsa’s kind had been announced, a metallic compound found in the swamps of the dwarf planet Buick Skylark. The mega funding that expedition, Koch-Fox, was touting the compound as key ingredient for a new construction material impervious to the effects of sunlight.
He scanned more pages on the wafer. “Yes, here’s a position where storms factor in. The south polar regions, an industrial classification. You would utilize your abilities to locate ultra-deep mineral deposits.”
“While freezing my butt off? No thanks. Anyway, no need to read further. I’ve made my decision.”
“I choose a starship.”
The assignor couldn’t hide his disappointment. “Again, you must understand that a starship is not in the best interests of…”
He trailed off as the door slid open. An immaculately dressed man with dark hair and a weightlifter’s build strolled in. He wore a gray business suit with matching headband. A pewter-colored vest rose to his chin and a dwarf lion perched on his shoulder, a male judging by its thick mane. The cat couldn’t have weighed more than five pounds. A genejob that small cost more than the assignor earned in a year.
The man was a high-ranking Pannis official, the InterGlobal Security VP, a rank rarely seen on this floor of the Manhattan office complex. His name was Renfro Zoobondi and he was hardcore, an up-and-comer known and feared throughout the corporation. The fact that Zoobondi was here filled the assignor with dread.
A black mark, he thought bitterly. I’m not handling this situation correctly and my file will soon reflect that.
Zoobondi must have been monitoring their conversation, which suggested that LeaMarsa was even more important than her dazzling psionic ratings indicated. The VP was here to rectify the assignor’s failure.
He won’t come right out and criticize me. That’s not the Pannis way. He’ll say I’ve done a fair job under difficult circumstances and then see to it I’m given a black mark.
Zoobondi sat on the edge of the assignor’s desk and faced LeaMarsa. The diminutive lion emitted a tinny growl.
“You are being uncooperative, Mizz de Host.” The VP’s voice was deep and commanding.
She shrugged. He regarded her for a long moment then turned to the assignor.
“Access vessel departures. Look for a minor mission, something leaving within the next few weeks.”
The assignor did as asked while cloaking surprise. Is he actually considering such an unstable individual for a starship?
Zoobondi wagged a finger at LeaMarsa. “Understand me, young lady, you will not be given a major assignment. But Pannis is prepared to gratify.”
The assignor called up the file. He scanned the lengthy list, narrowed down the possibilities.
“The Bolero Grand, two-year science project, galactic archaeology research. Crew of sixty-eight, including two Lytics–”
“–Perhaps something smaller,” Zoobondi suggested, favoring her with a smile. “We want Mizz de Host to enjoy the special bonding that can develop aboard vessels with a minimal number of shipmates.”
“Yes, of course. How about the Regis, crew of six? Fourteen-month mission to Pepsi One in the HD 40307 system. They’re laying the groundwork for new colonies and request a Psionic to help select the best geographic locations on the semi-liquid surface.”
“Perfect. Does that work for you, LeaMarsa?”
“No. Sounds boring.”
“It does, doesn’t it,” Zoobondi said with a smile. “I’d certainly get bored traipsing across a world of bubbling swamps looking for seismic stability.”
The assignor was confused. Something was going on here that he didn’t understand. If Zoobondi wanted her to accept the Regis mission, he would have made it sound more attractive.
“Any other possibilities?” the VP asked.
“Yes. Starship Alchemon, eighteen-month mission to the Lalande 21185 system. Investigation of an anomalous biosignature discovered by an unmanned probe. Crew of eight, including a Lytic.”
Zoobondi shook his head. “I don’t think so.”
“Why not?” LeaMarsa demanded.
He hesitated, as if working on a rebuttal. The assignor understood.
He wants her to accept this mission. He’s leading her along. The assignor had been with Pannis long enough to recognize applied reverse psychology, which meant that this meeting with LeaMarsa was part of a high-level setup.
It was possible he wouldn’t get a black mark after all.“Departing lunar orbit in seven days,” he continued, following the VP’s lead. “They’ll be landing on the fifth planet, Sycamore, where the probe found evidence of bacterial life. It’s a violently unstable world, locked in perpetual storms.”
He glanced up at LeaMarsa, expecting the presence of storms to produce a reaction. He wasn’t disappointed.
“Sounds perfect. I want it.”
The VP adopted a thoughtful look, as if pretending to consider her demand. The dwarf lion rubbed its mane against his ear, seeking attention. Zoobondi ignored the animal.
“Where do I sign?” LeaMarsa pressed.
“Would you please wait in the lobby.”
She strode out with that stiffly upright gait that seemed to characterize so many Psionics. Renfro Zoobondi held his tongue until the door whisked shut behind her.
“You’ll take care of the details, make sure she’s aboard?”
It wasn’t really a question.
“Yes sir. But I do have some concerns.”
The assignor hesitated, unsure how forthright he should be. This was obviously a setup. For reasons above his security clearance, Pannis wanted LeaMarsa on that ship. But dropping a powerful and moody Psionic into such a lengthy mission fell outside the guidelines of standard policy, not to mention being enticing bait to some Corporeal prosecuting attorney looking to make a name. He didn’t want to be the Pannis fall guy if things went wrong.
“Sir, I feel obligated to point out that LeaMarsa de Host is no ordinary Psionic. The Jamal Labs report classifies her in the upper one-ten-thousandth of one percent for humans with such abilities.”
“There are a number of red flags. And the OTTO classifies her as—”
“Most Psionics have issues. A long voyage might do her good. Bring her out of her shell.”
“She suffers from the occasional loss of consciousness while wide awake, a condition the Jamal researchers term ‘psychic blackouts.’ Even more disturbing, she’s been known to inflict bodily harm on herself through self-flagellation or other means. Presumably, she does this as an analgesic against some unknown emotional torment originating in childhood.”
The VP looked bored. He stroked the lion’s back. The animal hissed.
The assignor tabbed open another part of LeaMarsa’s file and made a final stab at getting his concerns across. “Sir, to quote the Jamal analysts, ‘LeaMarsa de Host is a disturbing jumble of contradictory emotions. It is imperative that careful consideration be given to placement in order to prevent—’”
“The Alchemon is one of the newer ships, isn’t it? Full security package?”
“Yes sir, the works. Anti-chronojacker system with warrior pups. And of course, a Level Zero Sentinel.”
“A very safe vessel. I don’t believe she’ll cause any problems that the ship and crew can’t handle.”
The assignor knew he had to take a stand. “Sir, putting someone like her aboard that ship could create serious issues. And wouldn’t it make more sense for her vast talents to be utilized on a mission here on Earth, something with the potential for a more lucrative payoff?”
“Better for her to be first given a less critical assignment to gauge how she handles team interaction.”
“Yes sir, that makes sense, but—”
Zoobondi held up a hand for silence. He slid off the edge of the desk and removed a safepad from his pocket, stuck the slim disk to the wall. A faint, low-pitched hum filled the office as the safepad scrambled localized surveillance, rendering their conversation impervious to eavesdropping. The lion squirmed on the VP’s shoulder, bothered by the sound.
“We’re entering a gray area here,” Zoobondi said. “Trust me when I say it’s best you don’t pursue this subject.”
The assignor could only nod. If things indeed went bad, he likely would be the one to take the fall. And there was nothing he could do about it.
Zoobondi smiled and threw him a bone. “I believe you’re due for a promotional review next month.”
“Everything I’ve read suggests you’re doing a fine job. Keep up the good work and I’m certain that your promotion will come through.”
The VP deactivated and pocketed the safepad and strolled out the door. The assignor was relieved he was gone. There were dark tales murmured about Renfro Zoobondi. He was ruthlessness personified, supposedly having arranged for the career sabotage of men and women standing in the path of his climb up the corporate ladder. There was even a rumor that for no other reason than the twisted joy of it, he’d killed a man in armor-suit combat.
The assignor returned to the file on the Alchemon expedition. Reading between the lines, he wondered whether researching a primordial lifeform was really the mission’s primary purpose. Could Pannis have a different agenda, a hidden one?
He closed the file. If that was the case, there was little to be done. He was midlevel management, an undistinguished position within a massive interstellar corporation. Going against the wishes of a man like Renfro Zoobondi was career suicide. The assignor had a wife and young daughter to consider. What would happen to them if he lost his job and possibly fell into the ranks of the “needful majority,” those billions who were impoverished and struggling? It wasn’t so farfetched, had happened to a good friend only last month.
That night, the assignor slept fitfully. In the morning he awoke covered in sweat. He’d been in the clutches of a terrifying nightmare.
Thankfully, he couldn’t recall any details.
Starship Alchemon by Christopher Hinz will be published on 8 October 2019 from Angry Robot.