The lives of three women—Katrina, Shizuka, and Lan—become entangled by chance and fate in Ryka Aoki’s Light From Uncommon Stars, a defiantly joyful adventure publishing September 28th with Tor Books. From the author:
Lan is my favorite character because she’s just so darn sweet. She has survived both personal tragedy and loss on a galactic scale, yet she has never failed in her duties to her family and station. And though such rigidity might have stunted her emotional growth, it has also kept her in some ways as innocent as a child. And yet, this child needs to be mother and captain to her entire family. I love Lan.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt below—meet Lan, or check out the previous two excerpts!
Shizuka Satomi made a deal with the devil: to escape damnation, she must entice seven other violin prodigies to trade their souls for success. She has already delivered six.
When Katrina Nguyen, a young transgender runaway, catches Shizuka’s ear with her wild talent, Shizuka can almost feel the curse lifting. She’s found her final candidate.
But in a donut shop off a bustling highway in the San Gabriel Valley, Shizuka meets Lan Tran, retired starship captain, interstellar refugee, and mother of four. Shizuka doesn’t have time for crushes or coffee dates, what with her very soul on the line, but Lan’s kind smile and eyes like stars might just redefine a soul’s worth. And maybe something as small as a warm donut is powerful enough to break a curse as vast as the California coastline.
As the lives of these three women become entangled by chance and fate, a story of magic, identity, curses, and hope begins, and a family worth crossing the universe for is found.
Lan Tran loved her donut. Her giant concrete and plaster donut.
Once common in LA’s Eisenhower years, just a few of these giant donuts remained in greater Los Angeles. There were Kindle’s Do- nuts, Dale’s Donuts, and Randy’s Donuts, of course. Donut King II was in Gardena. In La Puente, there was the drive-through Donut Hole.
And here, above El Monte, rose Starrgate Donut.
Lan’s donut meant a future. Her donut meant family.
In the night quiet, Starrgate Donut hummed, almost like a starship. Stationed in the front, her twins Windee and Edwin navigated the donut case, stocking it with galaxies of sweet, colorful lemon creams, apple fritters, double chocolates, Boston crèmes, twists. At her back, Shirley and Aunty Floresta maintained operations, while below, Markus was busy planning their next expansion.
“Hello, Captain!” The twins saluted.
Lan returned their salute.
“Carry on,” she said with a satisfied smile.
Shirley emerged from the back with a tray of chocolate éclairs.
“The replicators are operating within tolerances, Mother.”
“Thank you, Shirley. But create the next batch with thirty percent less residual heat. We won’t have many customers, so they don’t need to be hot, and we can save power that way.”
Lan Tran stared out the window. The stars beckoned as they
One did not have to be a rocket scientist to make a donut. But that didn’t mean it didn’t help.
A picture of Mr. and Mrs. Thamavuong still hung on the wall. They had acquired Starrgate in 1979. At the time, it was known as El Monte Donuts. The Thamavuongs sold classic, American-style donuts made with happiness and care. And, in the ’80s, video games became popular, so the Thamavuongs brought them into their store.
El Monte Donuts became known not only for apple fritters, but for Pac-Man, Asteroids, and Defender. Their most popular game, by far, was Stargate. Dedicated video game players would spend hour after hour, quarter after quarter, rescuing people from an alien invasion that would never, ever cease. Eventually, the Thamavuongs decided to buy, rather than rent, first one, then two, and finally three Stargate machines. Since they kept them in good playing condition, their shop became known informally as Stargate Donuts.
Eventually, Mr. Thamavuong changed the name of El Monte Donuts officially to Starrgate Donut (with the double r to avoid any trademark trouble). Even after the video game craze passed, the name stuck over the years, and up until when the Thamavuongs were ready to retire.
By then, they had realized that they had put so much love into the shop, they had forgotten about having children to take over the business. Developers began to inquire. Some even offered a fair price. But Mrs. Thamavuong would look at their big donut and cry. Their entire lives were in that donut.
Then one night, the Thamavuongs received an email from a woman named Lan Tran. Ms. Tran said that she wanted Starrgate Donut because of their big donut.
The sale was completed almost immediately. There was no bargaining—they named a price, and this woman agreed. Even better, she promised that Starrgate Donut would keep selling donuts and shine like a beacon into the night.
The Thamavuongs spent three weeks with Lan and her family to teach them their basic operations and how to run their equipment. Then they handed their treasured recipe book and keys to Ms. Tran and retired, full of good memories and good American currency, to Laos and their beloved Vientiane.
Once they left, Lan put the recipe book away. Instead of cooking, she had her crew digitally convert and store two dozen of each type of donut the Thamavuongs had made. These reference donuts would then be quickly and virtually perfectly reproduced by the ship’s replicators. The result? Cake donuts would always be colorful and pretty. Yeast donuts would be invariably golden and soft. No surprises, no worries.
Eventually, her crew might learn to make donuts as the Thamavuongs did, but for now, Lan’s duty was to their safety and their mission.
Because donuts were not the sole reason why Lan Tran and her crew were on this planet.
Lan strode past the kitchen and opened what had been the door to the cleaning closet. But instead of mops and buckets, behind it was a new shiny elevator leading down to the recently completed lower level, which now housed the control center, research laboratory, sick bay, and living compound, as well as an underground hangar for their starship.
Here at Starrgate Donut, Lan and her family would safely wait out the fall of the Galactic Empire, continue their work, and live undisturbed, as long as—as Mr. Thamavuong stressed—they gave donuts to the police officers for free.
“Captain.” Markus Tran saluted as she entered the research lab.
“Lieutenant. How are the modifications coming?”
“The donut is smaller than ideal—but it is nothing we can’t address. Please note the modifications I’ve made. With your approval, I will begin implementing them immediately.”
Lan looked over the plans and nodded. Her son had become quite the engineer, hadn’t he?
“What about power?”
“As predicted, preparing this complex depleted over sixty-two percent of our power reserves. It will be at least three months before they return to normal levels, but our day-to-day operations should not be affected. However, there is a greater concern.”
“Yes, Captain. Even at one hundred percent, our ship’s main reactor would be far from adequate. We need to find an external power source, but this civilization’s energy production falls short by several orders of magnitude.”
This was no surprise. After all, this planet hadn’t yet harnessed fusion, let alone point singularities or antimatter.
“I’ve been working on a solution to that,” Lan said. “For now, continue fabrication and low-power tests. You may also divert ten percent of the ship’s power when we are not running the replicator.”
“That will be all.”
“See! He called her mom!”
“No, he said ma’am.”
“He said mom!”
The twins rushed toward her as the elevator closed behind them.
“Edwin! Windee! Didn’t I tell you not to run in the halls? Your brother is tuning the warp field. And why aren’t you at your posts?”
“Sorry!” they said in unison.
“So, you two, what is all this about?”
“We wanted to know—” Edwin started.
“That now that we’re off ship, should we call you Mom or Captain? I wanna call you Captain,” said Windee, saluting.
Lan saluted back. She tried not to smile.
“Very well, Ensign Windee.”
“But sometimes can I call you Mom?” Edwin said. He grabbed her waist and held on tight.
“Oh, Edwin… Settling on one name will be difficult, won’t it? What matters is that we’re together, and safe. And that means no more running through the halls. We don’t want anyone to get hurt, right?”
“Good. Now, back up to the store, you two. Don’t you have jobs to do?”
Lan watched them running back to their posts. She shook her head and smiled. Family. She would cross a universe for her family.
In fact, she already had.
Excerpted from Light From Uncommon Stars, copyright © 2021 by Ryka Aoki.