The Lost Star Chart - Sneak Peak

The Lost Star Chart - Sneak Peak

The next Armchair Alien book is the science fiction adventure The Lost Star Chart by Jeannette Bedard. If you love a redemption story combining the feel of the Murderbot series with the fun of Indiana Jones in space, this novel is for you.

Here's a sneak peak:


Darla - present day

A pillar of greasy black smoke rose in the windless sky, carrying the acrid stench of roasted electronics and charred plastic. The wisps that reached me made my throat burn—I should have worn a respirator. I let out a ragged sigh. It was too late now, just like it was too late now for so many things.

The crash site of my once jaunty yellow shuttle painted the only colour on the bleak landscape of this world, a planet whose name I’d already forgotten. The familiar hum of that shuttle used to bring me solace, a reminder that I could always escape. Those days were gone. Things had changed. A lump formed in my throat, threatening to bring on tears.

I hated change.

“It’s time to move on,” I muttered to myself as I tried to compartmentalize my foolish sentimentality. Everything would be different from this moment on.

I sighed, attempting to be inconspicuous, and leaned against the rock next to me. They would be along shortly—whoever ‘they’ were. I glanced around for a better hiding spot.

Dusty and cracked, my surroundings offered little. Jagged gravel and grey sky stretched out to the horizon in all directions. This was the dullest planet I’d ever set foot on. No wonder the name of this place never stuck in my brain. My current hiding spot was the best option, so I settled in to wait. It didn’t take long.

Within a few minutes, a layer of sand—or worse, ash—had made its way inside my mouth. It coated my tongue, teeth, and throat, and tasted awful. I hated this world almost as much as I hated sacrificing my shuttle.

“If I looked up ‘hellhole,’ I’d find a picture of this place,” I said to no one. Yeah, I tended to talk to myself—because I made better company than most of the morons I came across.

But I had to admit the fire was on me—I’d set it as part of my ruse. I’d even landed hard enough to crumple the port side of the fuselage. My back was going to hurt for days from that piece of deception, but the idiots trying to kill me needed to be convinced they’d succeeded.

As if on cue, a second shuttle dropped out of the sky and headed toward my wreckage.

“And here they are.” I hunkered closer to my rock.

I recognized the shuttle’s make. It was a midsized, midbudget model designed to be unremarkable. This one didn’t even have its call sign painted on it—against Protectorate regulations, but this far off the beaten path, Protectorate regulations meant little.

Upon landing, two heavily armed people emerged from the shuttle. They searched through the smouldering remains of my own, no doubt hunting for any sign that I’d been on board. Should I have left a biological trace for them to find? Something to convince them I’d died in the crash?

Cloak-and-dagger crap wasn’t my thing. I swallowed, knowing it was too late for that anyway. It made no sense to doubt myself now. Despite my frequent wishes, I couldn’t turn back time and change things—and there were so many things I’d change if I had that power.

I bit my lip as I watched the pair of goons from my rocky hiding place. Would they suspect I’d just walked away? They had enough firepower between them to kill me in an instant if they realized what had happened.

One goon started surveying the surrounding landscape.

“Shit,” I mouthed, making no sound as I flattened myself as far as I could—which wasn’t much in my bulky clothes. I put my hand into my pocket and wrapped my fingers around my Emerg-Blast. The little box was highly illegal, but I didn’t like carrying more overt weapons. If I hit my Emerg-Blast’s button, it would emit an electromagnetic pulse with enough power to fry electronics to about a ten-metre radius—so if the bad folks had blasters, they would suddenly find their weapons useless. As they were left troubleshooting their weapons, I’d run away and hide. (I’ve never pretended to be brave.)

As for my electronics, I’d lined all my pockets with what were essentially Faraday cages, meaning my shit was well protected.

Then the cavalry arrived—or at least what passed for it in this corner of the universe. A shuttle flew into view, its rusted hull adorned with a single, garish red light twirling around like a baton. The local search-and-rescue squad was here to save the day—or so they thought. But I had to admit their presence should make my survival simpler and more likely.

The goon farthest away shouted for his companion, and they promptly rushed back to their unmarked shuttle. I snorted as they took off. They weren’t the brightest bulbs in the box, but they had enough street smarts to realize when they should get out of the way of the authorities. Hopefully they’d report to their criminal overlords that I was good and dead, ending the attempts on my life.

The search-and-rescue ship landed on the vacated spot next to my destroyed shuttle. (Have I mentioned how much I loved that shuttle?) My shuttle’s call sign and registration numbers were still visible through the fire, and I’d submitted a proper flight plan stating that I would be flying solo to this world. The rescue squad would report me as really and truly dead, putting my plan into motion and changing my life forever.

Making sure I remained out of view from my rescuers, I stood and began walking away from them. Uncertainty gripped me as I gazed at the horizon, but there was no turning back.

Just yesterday, Doug at the Shuttle Repair Shop (yeah, a lame name, but Doug wasn’t known for his creativity) gave my ancient shuttle a clean bill of health. After only a quick check-up, he said it was ready. Which, of course, had left me suspicious. In the past he’d always presented me with a long list of ‘needed’ work, and we’d haggle. This time was different. I knew for a fact there were issues—the right engine ran a little too hot, and a colossal clunk sounded every time I extended the landing gear.

Always check the mechanic’s work. Even though it had been nineteen years since Vi gave me that advice, this time it really paid off.

“Why would I waste my time?” I’d rolled over and locked eyes with her—those captivating, dark eyes that had entranced me since our first meeting.

“Why wouldn’t you? You’re the pilot, and it’s your life on the line.” She’d smiled, then tapped me on the nose with her finger. “And I’d be terribly upset to hear you died because you’d been stupid.”

I snorted, both now and back then.

“Take the basic mechanic course.”

“My evenings are better spent here with you,” I’d said in a lame attempt at romance. (I’d probably even tried to put on a cheesy, seductive expression.)

“Take the course.”

So I had. And today wasn’t the first time that knowledge had saved my life. Vi had been right. I’d taken the shuttle into the nearest berth as soon as I’d left Doug’s shop, and I’d found the explosives packed into my starboard engine. Doug wasn’t creative enough to want to kill me, but someone was—no doubt one of the many criminal factions around.

I swallowed. I still didn’t know who wanted me dead. Hopefully now they thought they’d succeeded.


As I walked away from the burning wreck of my favourite shuttle, I adjusted the strap on my goggles and pressed the AR icon on the interface. The sunlight dimmed as a holographic image appeared, giving me navigational information. Three kilometres away an old industrial complex sat with grime caked walls from decades of neglect—kinda like me. The buildings were my first landmark, so I headed straight for them.

With a flick of my gaze, I started Hank’s code. In the overlaid world created by my goggles, a massive hippo appeared at my side.

“It went as planned,” I said.

Hank didn’t reply, but then he never did. He was a hippo, after all, and not even a real one.

“There’s a settlement on the other side.” I pointed at the abandoned factory. “We’ll take the train from there.”

I had to admit, having an imaginary hippo as a companion was kinda weird. Once, there were real human beings in my life I could count on for company, but that went sideways. Like all relationships, the one with Vi failed eventually, and I never met anyone quite like her again. Long after she vanished from my life, I got my own ship (just like Vi and I used to chat about late into the night)—but I did it without her. Crew members came and went. The only ones that ever lasted had secrets as big as mine.

I let out a sigh, which Hank kindly ignored.

The dull orb that passed as a sun on this crap world began its dip towards the horizon, casting a harsh red light. The entire planet seemed smothered, covered in a crimson blanket, but at least the terrain wasn’t dull grey anymore. As it sank, the sun’s final rays highlighted the billows of my breath in the cold air.

The old factory’s imposing edifice filled my view now. It stood silent, eerily so. With each step, the metallic taste in the air intensified. At this range, the decaying structure appeared ready to topple at any moment. Nothing about it hinted at what they had once made behind its walls. It could have been millions of Hank the Hippo toys for all I knew. I looked down at Hank, and he looked up at me.

The cold air bit at my skin as I checked the temperature. The number had dropped significantly, and I risked hypothermia if I stayed out much longer. My aching knees begged me to stop, but I kept moving and continued my ruminating—which, I admit, was my superpower.

Who wanted me dead? I’d spent the last seventeen years running an ancient water tanker with a skeleton crew. To clarify, they weren’t actual skeletons, but just the minimum number of crew members the Protectorate said I needed to keep a licence. Delivering water wasn’t the kind of activity that created enemies. Yeah, I dabbled in some collecting—just old Earth artifacts. And yeah, my contacts were often shady. But I always paid well for my objects. And who tried to murder someone over an ancient trinket?

It was the stuff from Generation Ship 12, the last ship to leave Earth, that I coveted the most. I had packed nothing practical beyond a change of clothes in my backpack, but my most prized possession was protected in a waterproof sheath—a Hank the Hippo notebook sketched in by a little boy born on Earth. It was so precious, I barely looked inside, just the first few pages. Each one depicted a happy family heading out into the stars. Just thinking about it made me smile.

A crack drew my attention, and I spun around. The rocks to the right collapsed in a puff of dust.

From where I stood, a field of two-meter long piles of rocks extended to the old factory. The dying sunlight highlighted dozens, maybe over a hundred of them. Then it dawned on me what they were. Graves. I swallowed and got moving, not wanting to be anywhere close to here anymore. Clearly this world had killed all these people, and there was no reason for me to stick around.

My contact would be waiting for me at the base of the space elevator. I needed to catch the last train tonight to make it on time. This time I had a plan—the first step to my new life.

Fast moving, I was not. After I circled the factory, it took me another hour to reach the town. Full darkness had settled by then, bringing with it a bitter cold that cut to my core despite having programmed my nanite clothing to its warmest setting.

When I arrived, the townsfolk were smartly all indoors. Only a few old TUD units moved about, doing odd jobs—taking out trash, washing windows. (Who in the hell set a robot to wash windows in below-freezing weather?) I’d always been told that the TUD line of military robots was short for ‘totally useless device’. Since they were surplus now, anyone could get a TUD unit for cheap. I scoffed. I sure as hell didn’t need a useless device mucking up my world.

I pulled up my hood and zipped my jacket as high as it could go. It and my goggles obscured my face. To the occasional person I passed, I would be a random woman. Even if my murderers came to town and asked questions, no one would be able to describe me. It was foolish sentimentality, I knew, but I kept Hank at my side, his silent presence the only company I needed. Plus, he was invisible to everyone but me—no need for the locals to brand me as crazy.

The town—or more accurately village—consisted of a few resident blocks, some dilapidated stores, and a train station. I went directly to the station, ignoring my grumbling stomach as I passed the only restaurant in town. The night train waited, its sleek shape out of place compared to the surroundings.

I purchased a ticket from the automatic kiosk. When I’d gotten wind that someone was trying to kill me, I’d taken precautions with my credits—they were now tucked away in a chain of accounts no one knew I had (not even the banks). No one could track me through my money, which gave me a fair amount of freedom.

Keeping my face averted from the security cameras, I boarded the train. The lights blinded me as I stepped inside. I paused and let my eyes adjust, then sighed at the scene. The illumination in the car wasn’t nearly as bright as I’d first thought. Dim shadows filled the corners.

A pace farther in, the rank stench of body odour with a side of stale sandwiches greeted me. The smells suggested it had been some time since the car’s last maintenance—something that would have driven Vi nuts. Worn seats lined a narrow aisle. Ads for fast food, cosmetic surgery, and luxury vacations flashed on the panels above the windows, creating the kind of cluttered sight that typically graced low-end commuter trains. To make matters worse, a few cracked windows allowed dust and grime to enter. Random trash accumulated in the corners, and graffiti covered the seats.

On the plus side, hardly anyone was on board. I took a window seat on the side facing away from the town—one where the window was clear of any spray paint. I slumped down, holding my backpack on my lap, and dozed off.

A ping followed by the announcement of our departure woke me. I yawned and looked around just as a shudder passed through the train and all the doors slid closed. The car remained mostly empty. No need to be concerned about a chatty moron sitting next to me. With a groan, the train levitated and pulled out of the station.

Congratulating myself on my success, I closed my eyes and let my head tip back against the headrest. Finally I could relax, but, of course, my mind started racing instead.

While I couldn’t claim to have lived a perfectly law-abiding life, I could remember only one event that might have warranted killing me—and that had happened seventeen years ago. Was my past finally catching up to me? I wasn’t proud of what I’d done, but—

I swallowed and opened my eyes. “No need to dwell on that shit,” I said to myself.

There was nothing to see out the window, so I opened my backpack and pulled out my Hank the Hippo notebook. A smiling version of Hank graced the cover, and across the bottom in block letters was the name Minjun Lee. I knew it should be kept in a museum and fussed over by professional curators, but I wasn’t ready to let go of it. Besides, I’d been dealing with old shit for decades. I knew what I was doing.

I kept the notebook in a sealed bag, protected from my fingers, and a piece of cardboard on the back meant the book couldn’t be bent. I could keep it safe forever.

I slipped the notebook back into my bag and put my foot through the strap so no one could pull it away from me. Then I let my gaze fall on the dark landscape outside. There was nothing to see. I dozed off again.


Hakkun - 723 years ago

Hakkun was unable to look away from the view out the window. Less than twenty-four hours remained before Generation Ship 12’s departure, making this one of the last times he’d ever see Earth.

From his location in geostationary orbit, he could see the entire world. An angry orange glow raged around the equator from fires that burned out of control whenever the winds were right. An opaque band of yellow smoke smothered most of the midlatitudes. Only the poles showed any sign of life-giving greens anymore.

“When will Mommy get here?”

Hakkun shifted his gaze to the little boy gripping his hand. Minjun was only seven, unlikely to remember the charred-smelling air they’d had to breathe on the planet. Unlikely to remember leaving the world that had been their family’s home.

Minjun’s dark eyes widened beneath his unkempt mass of spiky black hair. “She’s coming, right?”

“Of course she is.” Hakkun squeezed Minjun’s hand. “She’s scheduled to be on the 6:30 pm space elevator car.” He smiled. “Nothing will keep her away from us. Now, let’s go find your new room.”

Minjun nodded, holding his prize possession tightly in his other hand. It was a lumpy backpack featuring Hank the Hippo’s smiling face. Inside he kept his analogue art supplies and a notebook featuring Hank’s over-the-top smile. Anything with the cartoon hippo on it was Minjun’s favourite.

“We’ve been assigned to cabin A-89.” Hakkun led Minjun away from the window. “The elevator to the bridge, where I’ll be working, is nearby.”

Minjun looked up at him. “Mom said you’ll be driving the ship.”

“That’s right. I’m one of the bridge officers. I’ll also be the one plotting our path through the stars.”

Minjun stopped and let go of Hakkun’s hand. He scrunched up his face as though contemplating something big. “But why do we have to go?”

Hakkun knelt to Minjun’s level. He didn’t want to tell his boy about the worsening air on Earth or how the ever-present fires threatened their former home. If crops failed again, there wouldn’t be enough food. Minjun had no future on Earth. Hakkun sighed.

“Let’s use the elevator to go back down to Mom. I don’t need to live in space.” The earnest look in Minjun’s liquid dark eyes melted Hakkun’s heart.

“We’re going on an adventure.” Hakkun stood and gestured to the surrounding ship. “We’re going somewhere new, somewhere safe and exciting.”

“My teacher said we’ll live our entire lives on this ship. We’ll never set foot on a planet again.”

“That’s true. But we get to go somewhere new. We’ll chart our own path through the stars.” Minjun didn’t look convinced, so Hakkun crouched again. He pointed to Hank the Hippo’s face. “Hank will be with us all the way.”

Minjun scrunched up his face the way he always did when thinking. After a moment he nodded as though Hank’s presence was enough to make their journey okay.

Hakkun stood again and took Minjun’s hand. The two of them started walking. “You should document our adventure in your notebook. You know your mom and I always love seeing your drawings.”

Minjun nodded, then pointed to the nearest door. “A-89.”

“Right, we’re here.” Hakkun pressed the door release, and it slid open.

A courtyard, circled with planters ready to be filled with plants, greeted them. Three adults at the farthest planter were moving seedlings from a cart. A pair of toddlers sat on the ground next to the adults. A little girl about Minjun’s age spotted them. She raced over, her mass of curls bouncing with each step. Her T-shirt featured the face of Hank the Hippo.

“Are you the last family for this pod?” she asked. “What are your names? And do you—”

“Fatima,” a woman at the planter said, cutting off the girl.

Fatima fell silent and bit her lip.

After wiping her hands on her pants, the woman came over. “I apologize. Fatima is very keen on making new friends.”

“It’s okay,” Hakkun said.

Fatima pointed to Minjun’s backpack. “Hey, you like Hank too?”

Minjun nodded and pressed closer to Hakkun.

“Welcome. I’m Scarlet. I’ve designated this pod’s lead.” The woman held out her hand out, and Hakkun shook it. “And you must be Lieutenant Lee. I was told there would be three of you.”

“My wife, Sonya, will arrive in a few hours.” Hakkun smiled to seem friendly. He hadn’t expected a shared living situation, but at least there were other children.

“Your rooms are over there.” Scarlet pointed to a door behind them. “And don’t worry, there’s a kitchen and a living room in addition to two bedrooms.”

Hakkun gave a sheepish grin. “Am I that obvious?”

Scarlet shrugged. “These are unusual times. On top of that, it seems you’ve just found out you’ll be living with three families you’ve never met.”

A uniformed woman stormed through the main door, interrupting Scarlet. “Lieutenant Lee?”

Hakkun turned toward the newcomer. “Yes, that’s me.”

“You’re needed on the bridge right away,” she said. “There’s been an incident.”

“I…” Hakkun’s words trailed off as he pointed to Minjun.

Scarlet came forward and looked down at the little boy. “Minjun, right?”

Minjun nodded, hugging his backpack into his chest.

“Why don’t you go with Fatima? She can show you your new home and maybe her Hank figures. She even has some of Hank’s friends.”

“Really? Which ones?” Minjun’s face brightened.

“I’ll show you.” Fatima grinned and took Minjun’s hand.

Minjun looked up at Hakkun, and he nodded at his boy. At least there was someone age appropriate and willing to be a friend, and everyone seemed friendly enough. Hakkun swallowed and told himself that everything was going to work out just fine.

Scarlet smiled, obviously reading his anxiety. “He’ll be fine with us. Go and take care of this incident.” She gestured to the open door.

“Okay.” Reluctantly, Hakkun turned and left his son in the care of strangers.


The other officer remained silent during their elevator ride to the bridge. Hakkun straightened his brand-new uniform tunic as the door opened. The bridge was larger than he’d expected—and shiny. Every surface gleamed, from the workstation displays to the flooring—even the upholstery on the captain’s chair had a sheen to it.

“Is that him?” A bear of a man turned toward the elevator. He wore the insignia of a captain.

“Yes. Sir,” the lieutenant who had come for him said before she strode to a workstation and sat down.

“Hmmm.” The captain looked Hakkun up and down. “Is your family on board?”

“Not quite, sir.” Hakkun shifted his weight from foot to foot.

“Not quite?”

“My wife is scheduled to be on the 18:23 car coming up the elevator.”

The captain frowned. “That’s not good. Why didn’t she travel with you?”

Hakkun’s mouth went dry. “She had some final business to tie up before departure.”

The captain turned to the lieutenant who’d come with Hakkun. “Gregor, how are we doing on passengers?”

“We are still waiting for 456 people to get up to the ship,” she said.

The captain turned back to him. “Lieutenant Lee, right?”

“Yes, sir.” Hakkun itched to ask why there was such concern, but he didn’t dare speak the words.

“You’re a navigation officer, correct?”

“Yes, sir.”

“I need you to plot our options for departing Earth’s orbit. Start with one at 1800 hours, then one every hour afterwards.”

“Sir?” Lieutenant Gregor turned their way. “We can’t leave without our full compliment.”

“We’ll stay as long as we can, but I expect that, for the safety of the ship, we might be forced to leave well before our scheduled departure time. Now, get to work.” The captain strode off, leaving Hakkun in his wake.

Lieutenant Gregor gestured for Hakkun to take the workstation beside her. “My name is Julia. Sorry I didn’t introduce myself earlier. With all the mob actions, I’ve been so distracted.”

Hakkun settled into the seat and brought up the orbital positions of all celestial objects in the solar system. “What’s going on.”

“A protest has formed at the base of the space elevator—it’s full of people unhappy about being left behind.” Julia checked over her shoulder, then turned back to him, dropping her voice a little. “They’re also mad that so many of Earth’s resources have been funnelled into these generational ships, leaving them with so little.”

The protestors weren’t wrong. The generation ship program had depleted the planet’s resources with only a fraction of the population eligible for departure. Those to be left behind were aware of the grim future ahead of them.

Hakkun licked his lips. Things were worse than he’d thought. “My wife is going to have to get past the protests.”

“Call her, see if she can get on an earlier car coming up,” Julia said.

“I gotta check these…” Hakkun scratched his head. Even though he knew they were correct, the orbital ellipses he’d just created seemed pointless compared to what Sonja was facing on the planet below. Why did he leave her behind? Crowds made her anxious and now she’d have to make her way through an angry mob all on her own.

“Call her on your screen. No one’s going to know. Multi-task that with your calculations. I heard you’re a hotshot navigator. You’ll do fine.” Julia smiled, an expression that didn’t reach her eyes. “I’ll block everyone’s view.”

Hakkun nodded and sent a message to Sonja.


Norman - two months earlier

The vivid blue sky topped the snow-covered peaks that surrounded Norman Butterworth. He sighed as he took in the view. Rayleigh scattering created the blue, just the way the textbooks had described old Earth’s sky. In the distance the fresh snow on the jagged mountains appeared crisp and clean. It was the kind of panorama that would fit on a holiday card.

“It’s your turn, my friend.” Haoyu had started with his usual moves, meaning the winner was a forgone conclusion.

Norman shifted his attention from the view back to the chessboard between them. They used to play on a real chessboard—a gift from Haoyu’s sister. However, a moment of excitement in the past had left it ruined.

Now they used a handmade version crafted from an upside-down resin tray stolen from the cafeteria. He’d spent days carving it and all the pieces, each designed to match Norman’s childhood set. He picked up a pawn. Like the rest, it remained rough to the touch.

“Have you ever thought about escaping?” Norman asked as he considered an unexpected move.

“That would be nuts. Look at what surrounds us.” Haoyu gazed out at the breathtaking landscape and sighed. “It may be beautiful, but there is nothing out there for us—no wildlife, no plants, not even water we could drink.”

Norman nodded. The guards were always quick to point out how desolate this planet was.

“And the prison is the only building around for miles. I doubt they’d even bother to search for us if we left.” Haoyu pursed his lips together as he looked at the view.

“Yeah.” Norman eyed his friend.

“We’d die within days.” Haoyu met Norman’s gaze.

Norman's assessment of the situation was the same. Every day for the past decade, he and Haoyu had come to the rooftop space, played a game of chess, and pondered their escape. To Norman this was just a thought exercise—something he thought prisoners were supposed to do.

“They picked this planet well,” Norman said as he stared at the board, his heart heavy with indecision as he hovered his pawn above a white square. After a long pause, he made his move.

“They certainly did. If you really want out of here, why don’t you take up my offer to have my lawyer look at your case?” Haoyu captured Norman’s pawn with his bishop.

Norman stared at him, wondering if he was offering a lifeline or baiting a trap. Haoyu was a member of the Long family, a crime family with a reputation for ruthless power plays. Norman didn’t want to get caught in their web. But still, the offer tempted him—anything to escape this intergalactic prison.

With his queen, Norman captured one of Haoyu’s knights.

“Are they your lawyer or your family’s lawyer?”

Haoyu chuckled. “Well played, my friend.” He moved his queen across the board and leaned back in his chair. “You’re wise to be cautious. But I assure you, my lawyer is not beholden to my family. He’s the best in the sector. I bet he could get you out of here.”

A gust of wind ruffled Norman’s mostly grey hair, bringing scents of snow and frost.

“I’d be worried accepting help from a crime family’s lawyer is the kind of favour I’d have to pay back forever.” Norman moved his bishop. “Checkmate, my friend.”

“It’s never been me. My sister’s the real crime boss. She always had a better eye for the long game than I did,” Haoyu said with a slight smirk. “Pun intended.”

Norman groaned. “Is that why you ended up here?”

The smirk on Haoyu’s face only broadened. “I can never tell, but I’m getting out soon. Let me have my lawyer contact you so you don’t have to spend your life here.”

“My actions resulted in Captain Kassinger’s death,” Norman said, his voice hollow. “There’s no denying it. I’m a murderer, and this is where I belong.”

Haoyu shook his head slowly, his eyes shining with sadness. “But it was an accident, my friend. You didn’t mean for it to happen.”

Norman clenched his fists, but he couldn’t bring himself to challenge Haoyu’s words. They sat in silence for a while as Norman’s thoughts churned. Even after seventeen years, that day remained etched in his mind. How he’d been foolish to attempt a crime for a pretty woman, how things had gone sideways, and how he’d been betrayed. He swallowed past the lump in his throat. Then there was the question of Captain Kissinger’s death.

Haoyu continued, “Besides, seventeen years is more than enough time to atone for that. I’m certain there’s a loophole that could help.”

“I don’t know.” Norman would never admit it, but he appreciated the routine here. The predictability almost made up for the fact the food was crap. Oh, how he missed enjoying a good coffee with a perfectly flaky croissant. He sighed. Although he dreamed of making a daring escape, he accepted that this was where he belonged.

“I’ll talk to my lawyer.” Haoyu started putting the chess pieces back into their box as a chime sounded, signalling the end of their time outside for another day.

Norman sighed. “This is where I deserve to be,” he said a second time.

Haoyu shook his head as the two men descended the stairs to the prison yard. They joined the fifty or so inmates in a single-file line against the chipped concrete wall, their faces stoic and eyes cast down, while the guards counted them. Only the echoing of guards’ boots and the ever-present wind broke the silence. After each prisoner was accounted for, a thick iron door slid open with a grinding groan, and they began their slow walk down to their level of the jail—slow because this group contained only long-timers, men who’d committed their crimes so long ago they’d become different people.

“Haoyu Long,” a guard said as they passed the checkpoint. “Come with me. Your lawyer is here to see you.”

Haoyu grinned. “I’ll get you out of here, old friend,” he told Norman before following the guard in a different direction.

Norman sighed. Did he want to get out of here? If he was free, how would he spend the rest of his life? He’d once dreamed of captaining a luxury yacht, but now the best he could hope for was a job as a deckhand on some crappy cargo ship. Once more he sighed and repeated his mantra of deserving to be there.

He peeled off to the right and into his cell. The drab grey concrete walls, lit by a single bright light overhead, comforted him, as if he were home again. He sank onto his cot and closed his eyes. Despite there being no way to know if he was being watched or not, being in his cell was soothing—his room felt like his own private sanctuary.

A buzzer preceded his door sliding closed. It was clear, meaning he could be observed at anytime. This prison was a perfect panopticon—there was no way to know if he was being watched or not. Eyes could be on him from the central control room, or a patrolling drone might pass at any moment. However, the authorities considered his cohort of prisoners as low risk, so they were allowed a few luxuries.

From the small table beside his cot, Norman picked up one of his luxury items. It had arrived in the mail a few years after he came here. It was a model of an old-fashioned steam engine, the kind once used on old Earth. Norman ran a finger over the shiny blue paint. He knew who the gift was from, and this was the only contact he’d ever had from her.

Next to the train sat an old-fashioned still photograph. He picked it up, the photo paper now soft from age. A toddler gazed back at him. Her grin was so big, you could see the gap in her two front teeth. The kid—his kid—wasn’t a kid anymore, and he’d missed her childhood.

Norman sighed again.

Where to find The Lost Star Chart:

Kickstarter in August 2024

Here at the Armchair Alien in January 2025

All the other places in March 2025 (pre-order is up)

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