The Wrong Stars by Tim Pratt

TheWrongStarsCallie Machedo is the scruffy, emotionally damaged captain of the cargo/gunship White Raven, and when she discovers a derelict human spaceship in trans Neptunian space she doesn’t know if it’s a box that will hold gold or spiders, but she’s not the sort that doesn’t want to find out. The ship shouldn’t be there at all, considering that it left 500 years before to seed a new colony, but its navigation logs show that it reached its destination and jumped back using a drive that nobody has ever seen before, or at least, no human. The alien race that showed up a few centuries after the ship left, bringing wormhole access and other advanced tech may be all too familiar with the technology that allowed the ship to make a point to point jump, and it scares them to the center of their starfish shaped beings.

There’s a lone survivor on the ship, Elena, and when she’s woken out of cryosleep her panicked first words are about a very unfriendly first contact. First contact for humans, but not for the Liars, the name the aliens we know have earned for themselves. The drive is evidence of an alien presence they call the Axiom, and they knew them all too well once upon a time. So well that they abandon the space station where White Raven docks to seek safety. Not that they explain that to anyone, and not that anyone would believe them anyway, as they’ve created a culture of obvious fabrications.

Callie and her misfit crew cut a deal with Elena to use the drive to jump back to the site of her first contact and try to rescue her crew mates, who’ve been sucked up by what appears to be an automated alien station and shipyard. If they survive, they’ll keep the drive, which is pretty good pay, and besides, the cap has sort of a thing for this plucky gal.

Mayhem, exploration, alien arcology and romance ensue.

The White Raven’s crew is your usual gang of brilliant misfits. A human machine cyborg, a ship’s doctor whose religion is centered around hallucinogenics, a badly reconstructed navigator and comms expert,  and the ship’s computer, whose AI template was taken from the captain’s ex-husband, which causes no end of issues for her. All in all, it’s a right good crew.

As the story unfolds we get the Liars backstory, which isn’t pretty, and deal with any number of terrors on the alien station, which makes for a lot of fast paced action and daring adventure. Before the end we’ll discover that the Liars haven’t just been lying to us, they’ve been lying to themselves as well and it’s time someone faced the truth. That would be the crew of the White Raven, of course.

As space opera goes, this is more fun that fact. Tim Pratt is more at home with fantasy than science fiction, and the nuts and bolts aren’t the focus of the story. It’s all just there and it all works, so you’re asked to go with it and pay attention to the emotional dramas created by the crew, most importantly the love quadrangle between the captain, Elena, the ship’s computer, and the crew member from Elena’s ship that used the last of his free will to stuff her in a cryopod and send the ship home as an alien probe sank its teeth into his brain.

The Wrong Stars neatly wraps up this episode, but the Axiom series has another two books planned to resolve the conflicts with the Liars and the Axiom that it set’s up. It’s a fun read, and it will be interesting to see where the author goes with the rest of the arc.