Looking for a romance that is (truly) out of this world? Hold Back the Stars by Katie Khan is a futuristic Romeo and Juliet that takes place amongst the stars. As a couple falls through space with only 90 minutes of oxygen left, we get to see flashbacks to their love story as it unfolded on earth. This will be one that will have you reaching for your tissues! Read on for an excerpt from the harrowing first chapter. Available now wherever books are sold!
“This is the end.” They lurch into focus: Carys is breathing hard, a gasping panic filling her fishbowl helmet. “Fuck,” she says. “I’m going to die.” She reaches toward Max, but the motion rolls him away, out of her grasp.
“We’re going to die.” Her voice is choppy with shallow breaths, the sound loud in the glass of Max’s helmet. “Oh, god—”
“Don’t say that,” he says. “We are. Oh, god—”
They are falling in space, spinning away from their ship, two pointillist specks on an infinitely dark canvas.
“We’re going to be fine.” He looks around, but there’s nothing out here for them: nothing but the bottomless black universe on their left, the Earth suspended in glorious Technicolor to their right. He stretches to grab Carys’s foot. His fingertips brush her boot before he’s spinning away and can’t stop.
“How are you so calm?” she says. “Oh, hell—”
“Stop, Carys. Come on, get it together.”
Her foot tumbles up in front of his face, and his face swings down by her knees. “What should we do?”
Max pulls his legs up to his body as far as he can, trying, through the panic, to calculate if he can change the axis on which he’s rotating. The fulcrum? Axis? He doesn’t know. “I don’t know,” he says, “but you need to calm down so we can figure this out.”
“Oh, god.” She flails her arms and legs, anything to stop their trajectory away from the ship, but it’s fruitless. “What the fuck are we going to do?”
Hit harder by the impact, she is spinning away at a faster pace than he is. “We’re being pulled apart as we fall, Cari, and soon we’ll be too far to get back to each other.”
“We’re falling on different trajectories—”
“Yes.” He takes a moment to think. “We need to get back to each other,” he says. “Now.”
“On three, swing your arms toward me as if you’re diving into a swimming pool.” He demonstrates the move. “Bend your upper body as much as you can. I’m going to try to kick my legs toward you, so grab me. All right?”
Their audio crackles. “One.”
“Wait!” Carys puts up her hand. “Can’t we use the impact to change our course back to the Laertes?”
With matte black sides and no lights visible in the hull, the Laertes lies abandoned above them, a ship passing in the night. “How?”
“If one of us hits the other hard enough,” she says, “would it push them back?”
Max thinks. Maybe. Maybe? “No. Let’s get us tethered first, then worry about that. Before it’s too late—I don’t want to lose you out here. Ready?”
Carys throws her body forward as Max throws his back. Her arms fly out as he kicks his legs up toward her; for a second they’re suspended, like inverted commas, before the swing pulls them parallel. They come up level and she grabs his legs, hugging his feet. “Got you.”
Now falling head to toe, they use their arms to rotate clockwise, cartwheeling slowly along with each other until, finally, they’re face- to-face.
“Hi.” She puts her arms around his neck. He takes a tether from the pocket on his thigh and gently wraps the floating rope around them, securing her to him.
Max catches his breath. “We need a plan.” He looks back at the Laertes, lurking in the shadow of space as they fall farther from it with every moment. “We need to get help.”
Carys has pulled herself around to Max’s rear, where she’s rummaging in the back of his silver suit. “Who’s going to help us? We haven’t seen a single soul for—”
“We have lights,” she says, “rope, water—why didn’t we take propellant? We’re so stupid.”
“We had to try—”
“We should’ve taken the time. You should’ve let me go back and get the nitrogen—”
“It was an emergency. What did you want me to do? Watch your head shrink as you suffocate and die?”
She swings back around so they’re helmet to helmet and looks at him in reproach. “That’s not how it happens, and you know it. The EVSA said head shrinking was a twenty-first-century myth, propagated by bad movies.”
“The EVSA said a lot of things. The EVSA said we’d be totally safe, and nothing would go wrong.” Max taps the blue European Voivode Space Agency badge on the arm of his suit. “They also got us to sign a risk-assessment waiver, if you remember.”
“I can’t believe this is happening.” She looks around. “Shall we try Osric?”
“Yes. Of course. Yes!” He hugs her sharply.
Carys pulls her flex down across her knuckles and moves her fingers to type, the strip of mesh webbing measuring her muscle re-flexes and finger movements across an invisible keyboard.
Osric, do you read me?
Are you there, Osric?
I’m here, Carys.
There is a ping in her audio and the words appear in blue on the left side of her helmet glass.
“Thank god. Max, I’ve got comms with Osric.”
Can you call for help?
Certainly, Carys. Who would you like to call?
Base? The EVSA? Anyone?
“Ask if there are any ships nearby,” says Max, “just in case.”
Is anyone within distance to rescue us, Osric?
No, Carys. Sorry.
Are you sure?
Yes, Carys. Sorry.
Can you talk to Earth?
No, Carys. Sorry.
She screams in frustration, the sound distorting inside her helmet and through their audio. Why not?
My receptor was damaged in the accident. I believe Max was trying to fix it when we lost oxygen, Carys.
Sorry, Osric. Typo.
No problem, Carys.
We’ve got a big problem, Osric. Can you help?
How would you like me to help, Carys?
She sighs. “Max—I’m going around in circles talking to this thing.”
He rubs the sleeve of her suit. “I didn’t have time to connect my flex, Cari, so you’ll have to, for now. Find out anything you can. Any vehicles in the neighborhood?” She shakes her head.
Osric, she flexes, can you send the Laertes to us?
Negative, Carys. Navigation systems are unresponsive.
Can you move her?
Negative. Navigation systems are unresponsive.
Negative. Navigation systems are unresponsive, including the guidance system that would allow me to rotate the Laertes.
If she could bury her hands in her hair, she would, but they’re held captive in gloves, her tawny plait encased in the glass fishbowl helmet. The small daisy tucked behind the helix of her ear has fallen slightly out of place.
Can you help us calculate how to get back to the ship?
Carys? If I might suggest, something more urgent is pressing—
Calculate how to get back to the ship, Osric.
Situational Analysis is telling me the trajectory you’re on allows no path back to the Laertes without nitrogen thrusters, Carys. Have you got nitrogen thrusters, Carys?
Can you stop putting my name at the end of every sentence, Osric?
Thank you. No, we don’t have propellant. Any other way?
Please wait while Situational Analysis calculates.
Hurry. “Osric says we can’t get back to the ship without thrusters.”
Max grimaces. “Definitely not?”
Carys? Something more urgent is pressing—
“What else can we try? Osric says the navigation sys tems are offline. Shall I ask if—”
Situational Analysis is showing that your air canisters are not full. We were outside on the Laertes for quite a long time. The sum of the remaining air and the used oxygen does not equal the cumulative total.
What do you mean? Speak European, Osric. Please.
Your air canisters were underfilled.
Additionally, Situational Analysis detects they are leaking.
“What?” Surprise makes her forget that Osric can’t hear, so she quickly types again. What?
You both have damage to your oxygen canisters.
How much air do we have left?
“Cari?” Max says.
I’m afraid you have only ninety minutes of air remaining, Carys.