The Stars Are My Salvation: The Reason Cover Image

The Stars Are My Salvation is the debut science fiction novel by Hollywood veteran screenwriter, Stephen Langford. The first book in an exciting new series, fans seeking intergalactic adventures, unlikely heroes, thought-provoking political discourse, alien agendas, and secret agent missions, will find all of this and more within.

The Stars Are My Salvation: The Reason (Book 1) will be available in Hardcover, Paperback, and eBook formats from Stygian Press on May 23, 2023. Read a preview of the Chapter 1 below.

Did you miss the Prologue preview? Catch up by reading it here!

Chapter One

Ninety years ago: 2086

The orbital insertion burn shook the Falcon spacecraft and its crew for six minutes. They had been traveling at three hundred thousand miles an hour across the solar system, and had been firing a series of breaking retroburns in the past twenty-four hours to decrease the ship’s velocity. The Falcon engaged its final burn as it slipped into Pluto’s orbit.

Pluto was the last body in the solar system that hadn’t been explored. It had been twenty years since the last venture to one of the moons of Neptune, Triton. Pluto was three billion miles away from Earth. It was simply out of reach until a breakthrough on a new fusion propulsion system in 2081. After the revolutionary advance, work began on a manned Pluto landing with a touchdown scheduled for 2086, and the Falcon was chosen as the spacecraft to make the historic journey.

Captain Jedidiah Fitzhugh was short in stature with a broad chest and sandy brown hair. He clung to a porthole staring out at Pluto, floating. He stared down at the northern hemisphere. It was a mixture of white and red with a patch of black. He was alone in his quarters, and that’s the way he liked it. Fitzhugh didn’t want the crew to witness his boyish glee. He’d always dreamed of being immortalized in the history books. Soon, he would be the first man on Pluto. His name would be mentioned alongside the greats: Gagarin, Glenn, Armstrong, Fuentes, Delton, Scott, Akido and now, finally, Fitzhugh.

The lander, the Cyclops, was online and ready. The landing sequence would commence in a mere five hours. The mission was staying within parameters… until the burping started. He had Mexican food for dinner and quickly surmised it wasn’t agreeing with him. The burping became more intense. He tried soda, then gas tabs, then finally sonic antacids, but nothing seemed to work. Fitzhugh went to the zero g toilet, and that’s when the fever started. He went to sick bay and saw Dr. Kyle, who quickly concluded that he needed his gallbladder removed. Fitzhugh was beside himself, insisting the doctor was wrong. His temperature was rising, as was his anger. The doctor had to forcibly sedate the captain to take him into surgery.

Fitzhugh’s second in command, Mariah Chen, lurked by the sick bay, clinging to a handle as she floated. Dr. Kyle turned toward Mariah and informed her the captain was incapacitated, and she was now in command. It was her task to pilot the Cyclops for its imminent flight down to the surface of Pluto. She pressed her face against the window. She stared down at Pluto. It was all on her now. She’d been thrust into history by a gallbladder attack. Mariah would be the first person to step on the surface of Pluto.

Mariah was five foot five, toned, with jet black hair that slanted to the left. She was assigned to be the copilot, but that had all changed in a matter of half an hour. She was now in command and had to make the critical go or no-go decision. Mariah checked the time and realized the landing window was rapidly approaching. Communications with Earth took four and a half hours each way. That meant missing two landing opportunities if she aborted. They had a finite amount of time on Pluto. The tight schedule was jammed packed with science and exploration. With only a brief launch window for their return to Earth, she had to make a decision.

Mariah floated down a corridor packed with bulky equipment and netting. She grabbed at the netting and thrust herself forward, then used her boot to bounce herself off a wall, which sent her sailing into her quarters. She sealed the door and glanced around at walls that were lined with pictures of her family and a boyfriend she had disappointed due to her devotion to the mission. It was either Frank or going to Pluto. It was a hard decision for her when she chose to go to Pluto.

She peered at the ship’s clock. They had twenty minutes to finish the preflight checklist. Her chest heaved at the responsibility. She closed her eyes and meditated, calming herself. This is what she had trained for. The remote possibility of her taking command on account of Fitzhugh being incapacitated had been one of the training scenarios.

Mariah picked up a photograph of her mom, Casey. She taught her how to be a strong woman and not shrink in the face of great responsibility. Mariah stared at her picture as she floated sideways and gripped more netting to steady herself. She had never been in command before. Fitzhugh didn’t delegate. He was a self-admitted control freak. She sighed loudly, wondering if she was up to it. She had only commanded simulated flights in Houston. Mariah questioned if she could find that perfect balance of focus and compassion that makes a great leader. She reasoned she would just have to. She only hoped the crew would sense this and support her. Mariah opened the door and floated back to the flight deck. All eyes were on her.

Mariah surveyed her crewmates’ faces. These were the people with whom she had trained for four years and spent the last three months in space. They were family, and she realized she was their leader now. She shot her hand up and pushed herself down to a standing position on the ship’s grated floor.

“Alright, let’s finish the Cyclops’ checklist. Pluto deorbit in 21:20. Hop to it, people.” Mariah noticed the crew seemed uneasy. She couldn’t reveal she was uneasy too. So, she grinned broadly.

“Take it easy, everybody. We trained for this. Sobisky, you’re my copilot now. You’ve done the simulations. You can do this.”

            Sobisky’s pale face brightened. A plum-shaped guy with a beard and a few patches of hair left on his bald head, he was a quiet man, but very skilled at what he did. He was third in command and didn’t relish being the new Number One, but he stepped up, nevertheless.

“You heard her, people. Move.” Sobisky nodded to Mariah. He had her back.

As the crew jumped into action, Mariah let out an infectious whoop.

“We’re landing on Pluto and we are the first!”

Mariah kicked herself forward toward the lander hatch. She gripped a blue handle and pumped it twice, then punched in the code on a panel of square green buttons. The locks released with a loud metallic click. The hatch opened, and Mariah dove in. Sobisky floated in after her. They steadied themselves in the lander, sliding their boots into slots that locked their feet into a standing position. They both began their preflight checklist and finished powering up the lander.

Members of the landing party took their positions. Evan, the youngest crew member at 27 years old, floated by the lander hatch waiting for the signal to close it. Sobisky nodded to Mariah that he was ready. Mariah gave Evan the thumbs up. He sealed the hatch and worked his way down to his seat, where he punched in a series of commands.

“We’re green and go for undocking,” Evan said.

Mariah pulsed the reaction jets and backed the ship away from the Falcon, gently puffing the reaction jet with her grip handle. She made a flip maneuver that turned the ship on its back, facing away from Pluto. Mariah watched the Falcon getting smaller in her window. She couldn’t fathom she was going to be the first human being to set foot on Pluto, but she couldn’t let that cloud her thoughts. She had a job to do.

Mariah stared straight ahead, calling out the ship’s status. She knew that by the time NASA learned of Fitzhugh’s condition, she’d have already landed the Cyclops. Because of the distance from Earth, all go, or no-go decisions were up to her and her only. She called out that the landing was green and go.

The crew’s confidence in Mariah grew swiftly, and she could sense it. She was meant to be here. Her assuredness was unwavering. She may have been a rookie, but she was a natural commanding figure, and the crew could feel it.

Mariah went through the flight command sequence like it was her tenth landing on a planet, though it was only her first. “T-minus twenty seconds to deorbit burn,” she said calmly as she gripped a controller handle, lightly tugging on it and lining up the ship to the navigation target pulsing a light green on the flight panel.

The Cyclops twisted on its axis ever so slightly. The computer indicated she had a green light for the deorbit burn. Mariah tapped the code that told the A.I. to take over, then checked the pair of landing straps that held her in place. She was no longer the pilot; the A.I. was flying now. The cabin went silent. Mariah remained stoic. Twenty seconds later, the engine fired and they dropped down to Pluto.

The Cyclops hovered for a few minutes, searching for the perfect terrain for landing. They were floating about one hundred feet above the icy surface. The engines were stirring up ice and rock below the Cyclops, creating Plutonian dust devils, possibly the first ever to adorn this ancient world. Mariah checked the fuel gauge. It was getting low. She spotted where she wanted to land, a flat, open space, and disengaged the A.I. She grabbed the lander grip controller and became the pilot once again.

“There’s a nice sexy spot.” She grinned and eased the lander to a soft landing. As they settled on the surface, the Cyclops pushed ice and rock out of the way as the landing pads settled in. She shut down the engines, keyed her mic, and calmly said, “Houston, the Cyclops has landed. We are on Pluto.”

The message sailed through space at light speed.

Mariah undid her landing straps and turned around to the crew with her hands on her hips, beaming. “Suit up everybody. It’s time to make history.” The crew crowded by the window, stoked to be the first humans to gaze at the surface of Pluto.

The crew donned their spacesuits, which took a little over ten minutes. They checked their seals and oxygen supplies, and then Mariah rechecked each one of them herself, giving each a thumbs up as she approved. Sobisky turned on the camera drones that would film them outside. The drones disconnected from the lander floating outside as their tiny micro-pulse jets fired, supporting them.

“Ready anytime you are, Skipper,” Sobisky said.

It was the first time anyone had called her skipper after her sudden ascension to commander of the mission. It touched her, and she pulled Sobisky into a hug. She didn’t mind showing her emotions to the crew. Overwhelmed, Sobisky hugged her back.

“Start decompression,” ordered Mariah.

Mariah reached for the hatch handle, pumped it three times, and opened it. Then she turned herself around and backed out the hatch. Her first sight outside the ship was the Cyclops itself. She saw Evan waving to her through the window. Mariah waved back. She saw a shadow overhead and realized it was one of the drones filming the historic moment. Mariah gripped the ladder and put her boot in the first rung. She eased down to the pad as she felt something she hadn’t felt in a while: gravity. It was one-fifteenth of Earth’s, but it was gravity, nonetheless. She climbed down to the pad and landed with a bounce. She could see Dr. Fitter on his way down the ladder after her.

“Hey, Doc, you’re gonna love the view,” Mariah said, still lingering at the bottom of the ladder.

“I will if you get moving,” he responded. Mariah stepped back out of the way as he descended.

Mariah twisted around and saw the digi-drones locking their cameras on her. They were lining up in preparation. Her eyes drifted across Pluto’s landscape. It was grey, icy, and alien. Words escaped her. Nothing profound formed in her mind. But then it came to her.

She stepped off the pad and whooped and hollered, dancing a jig. Ice chips and pebbles kicked up, floating around her before settling to the ground. Dr. Fitter was now on the landing pad, smiling at her antics.

After that impromptu display of euphoria, Mariah Chen, the green-eyed Chinese American cowgirl from Plano, Texas, became an instant sensation on Earth… with a four-point-five-hour delay.

“Look at me, I’m a Plutonian!” she said, doing a back flip. Mariah was always an outsized personality. She was vivacious and boisterous. Whenever there was a party, she was the life of it. Only now, she had an audience: Earth, Mars, and a few moons. She was funny, charming, and hardworking—and the world loved her for it.

Millions of t-shirts were sold with that phrase. Her broadcasts from Pluto were the most watched digital event in history. People couldn’t get enough of her unadulterated joy in science. Mariah would start each broadcast saying, “Let’s start exploring, everybody!”

For over five days, the crew of the Falcon explored the region called Tellen Terra. The discoveries were boundless, but unfortunately no one was aware of the deadly secret of Hadley Ridge. Beneath it was an active ice volcano. It had been brewing for over fifty years. The survey equipment detected it too late. By the time the data arrived warning of impending eruption, it had blown during a live broadcast while Mariah and Dr. Fitter were examining a rock. The screen went white, then finally cleared to reveal two eerie, frozen statues: Mariah and Dr. Fitter.

People were shattered. The world mourned their loss. It was a tragedy that affected the solar system as a whole. The vivacious Mariah was gone. She had been an inspiration to countless viewers. The mission to Pluto had devolved into a tragedy. Mariah’s optimism had touched millions. Her five days on Pluto had filled people with hope. She allowed them to dream that anything was possible.

Sobisky had descended down to the surface and openly wept in his pressure suit as he gazed at Mariah, eternally frozen in time. He turned away and headed back to the Cyclops, climbing the ladder and sealing the hatch behind him. He took off his suit as Brenda, a mousey geologist, stepped forward, kneading her hands nervously.

“What about Mariah and Dr. Fitter?” she asked.

“They should be a monument,” Sobisky declared, his jaw firm.

“You mean leave them?”

“If we touch them, they might shatter. This way, they’ll always be here,” he said with reverence.

Sobisky told the crew to get into their positions. Mission rules were certain. If there was a loss of any crew, that called for an immediate abort. He was in command now, a position he’d never desired, but Mariah gave him strength he didn’t think he had. Sobisky had to be that person for Mariah and her memory. He fired the ascent engine and the Cyclops rose back into orbit, docked with the Falcon, and headed home. The site would be considered sacred. Mariah did end up in the history books. She was the first human on Pluto. But her chapter ended in tragedy.

We hope that you enjoyed reading this preview and look forward to joining the adventure with the crew of The Stars Are My Salvation. If you would like to add The Stars Are My Salvation: The Reason to your Goodreads shelf and help spread the word, we would also greatly appreciate it!

Can’t wait to get your hands on a copy for yourself? Pre-Order your autographed copy in either Hardcover (with dust jacket and laminate case finish) or Paperback from us, or get a non-autographed copy from your favorite local bookstore or online here. Also available in Kindle eBook format on Amazon!

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