Brenda Cooper has given SERIOUS WONDER an exclusive sneak peek at her new sci-fi book [easyazon_link asin=”1633880508″ locale=”US” new_window=”default” nofollow=”default” tag=”seriou03-20″ add_to_cart=”default” cloaking=”default” localization=”default” popups=”default”]Edge of Dark (The Glittering Edge)[/easyazon_link]. Enjoy.
[easyazon_image add_to_cart=”default” align=”left” asin=”1633880508″ cloaking=”default” height=”500″ localization=”default” locale=”US” nofollow=”default” new_window=”default” src=”http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/519P4bCIUTL.jpg” tag=”seriou03-20″ width=”333″]Edge of Dark (The Glittering Edge)[/easyazon_image]The bold beat of drums filled the observation bubble above Testing Meadow Three on the station High Sweet Home. Chrystal Peterson struggled to keep the tempo. As usual, Katherine, Jason, and Yi tolerated her periodic mistakes. The drums had been her idea even if they were Jason’s handiwork, and yet she struggled more than the others to maintain cadence.
Incense, baking bread, and cooking spices mingled in the warm air. Sweat ran down between Chrystal’s shoulder blades and dripped off her chin. Jason’s dark purple hair bounced as he moved. He raised his hand higher than usual and brought his hide drumstick down hard on the wide, painted drumhead. The others followed a half-beat behind him, even Chrystal. Three more beats, hard and slow and all together, and they stopped, faces flushed.
Jason gave Chrystal a beseeching look and nodded toward the kitchen.
She smiled. “Shall we eat?” Her cooking skills far exceeded her ability to keep a steady beat on the big drum. She ladled stew into deep bowls and poured fresh water for everyone while Yi sliced bread and piled it on a plate.
They ate together, the testing meadow spinning ever so slowly around them, meadow above and below and to each side as if they hung suspended in a can with a garden planted on the inside of the walls. The meadow itself was a beautiful swath of delicate grasses in shade after shade of pastel: sweetgrass and tall grass and yellow grass and moss grass and more. Here and there copses of trees stood amid faux rocks. Thin surface streams broke up the grass next to the trees, yet even these seemed like accessories for the grass.
They fell into companionable silence as they ate.
“Perfect dinner,” Jason told her, leaning in to plant a vegetable-stew-flavored kiss on her lips. He started clearing the table. She stood up and Jason took her plate from her. “You and Yi can leave us to clean up.”
Yi had been her sous chef for dinner, cutting up the root vegetables and crushing spices. A tall thin man with a dark mop of hair, Yi was all angles and bones with intense black eyes. He had always lived in the far stations like this one, and he was the oldest partner by at least ten years. She went to sit beside him, watching the meadow for jalinerines. They spotted a small herd above them. The grazers moved together in a group, nuzzling each other from time to time. “I really can’t believe they earned approval on the first pass.”
Yi, who never doubted anything, put an arm around her and pulled her close. “Of course they did. We did.”
The new animals had progressed through approval in two years less time than they had expected. The grazing herd produced milk with perfect protein balance and none of the allergens that made dairy hard on some humans. In addition, they thrived across a wide range of gravity changes and created a very useful fertilizer as long as their diet included grasses the four had modified.
In spite of their success, Chrystal worried. “They came out exactly to spec, but will that be enough?” Katherine had led a clever marketing effort, but there were a lot of designer animals the last few years. “Will they stick?” she asked Yi. “Really?”
“We have good numbers.”
They’d taken over three thousand orders for jalinerines and grass seed— enough to take three or four years to fill. They’d labored over design, creation, birthing, and testing. They were almost ready to turn the day-to-day work over to a manager they’d handpicked to run the distribution company.
“I like them” she said. These were their first mammals, a response to a new fad for four-legged creatures on some of the stations.
Yi smiled. “Be careful. Don’t go all soft on them like Katherine. She’s going to hate leaving.”
A high-pitched alarm made her jump.
Yi let go of her and craned his neck, as if looking for a visible threat.
Jason dropped a dish. It clattered against something else and a drinking bulb rolled along the floor. She could barely hear Jason’s soft curses under the blatting attention signal.
Chrystal pulled up her calendar. No scheduled drill.
Loudspeakers filled the room with the bland feminine voice used for ship-wide announcements. “All on-duty crew report to stations. Civilians are to enter lockdown.”
In other words, go to their room.
Katherine stared at three of the jalinerines grazing directly above them. “We should put them in their stalls.”
She was right.
Yi looked thoughtful. “There’s never been a lockdown on the High Sweet Home.”
“We’re close to the Ring,” Jason snapped. “It’s got to be pirates.”
“It could be any kind of breach,” Yi countered. “Or an unexpected drill.”
“They tell us before drills,” Katherine reminded him, still watching the jalinerines, which had all stopped grazing and lifted their slender necks and small, fine heads in reaction to the unusual noises. “We might be in our rooms forever. We have to feed and water them.”
“I don’t think it’s safe,” Yi said.
“Look, I’ll go with you,” Chrystal told Katherine. She turned to Jason. “Why don’t you and Yi load the bedroom up with supplies. Water and food and stuff. Something to read.”
The alarm went off again, stopping the conversation. The noise ran up Chrystal’s spine like a child’s whine.
Katherine grabbed Chrystal’s arm. “Let’s go. Now.”
Chrystal hesitated for a moment, but the jalinerines were their future. She relented and followed the inexorable pull of Katherine-on-a-mission.
The observation bubble was home and lab as long as they rented the testing meadow. The bubble hung stationary in the exact middle of the cylinder. Half of its walls were clear and half done in mirror paint that reflected the great meadow back at itself. The mirrored part allowed crew members who wanted to sleep or shower or make love to do it without being watched by the herd.
Eight anchors attached the observation bubble and living hab to non-rotating points at each end of the long testing cylinder. “The forward number two line,” Katherine whispered loud in Chrystal’s ear, her breath hot and her voice just loud enough to blot out the announcements. Chrystal glanced at the herd. They hadn’t yet moved very far, but looked alert and worried. The light-colored leader, Sugar, trotted around the group, trying to keep her charges together.
At the supply cabinet by the doorway, Chrystal’s hands shook as she fastened the metal clips and carbon straps that made her harness.
It would break Katherine’s heart if anything happened to the animals. Katherine finished first and helped Chrystal fasten the last buckle.
Snugging and checking each other’s gear in long-practiced moves calmed Chrystal a little. Katherine was almost as tall as Yi, so Chrystal had to work to find the right angle to tug her straps tight enough. “You okay?” she asked.
Katherine nodded. She’d found time to catch her long, multicolored hair back in a ponytail on the run down here, and the red and black dragon tattoo on her neck seemed to shine in the bright lighting of the preparation platform. “At least the alarms have stopped. Maybe it was a mistake.”
“I hope so.” Not that it felt that way. The announcement was a direct order. But Katherine would never leave the animals, and Chrystal would never leave Katherine.
Chrystal went down the zip line first, whooping as she sped through the warm air with her feet splayed wide in front of her. The jalinerines looked up at the familiar sound and started trotting toward their barn. The arrival of anyone from the bubble meant treats and brushings and other things they loved.
The alarm blared again, louder outside of the bubble. The zip line wasn’t super steep, but Chrystal had figured out how to get a reasonable head of steam up anyway by swaying and kicking her feet, and the alarm drove her to sway even faster. She landed easily on the platform at the far end, knees slightly bent, and turned to see Katherine a little too close behind her.
Katherine bulled next to her with a grunt. The two women ended up tangled together in harnesses and ropes. “Hurry,” Katherine urged, as Chrystal’s fingers sped through the work of disentanglement. They hung their harnesses up on hooks.
At the base of the platform, the great meadow rolled around them, all grass on the edges. Chrystal took a few steps to match the rotation, and leapt onto the grass, grabbing a rope handhold provided to help the researchers. The shift from a world managed by gravgens to the spin gravity of the cylinder unbalanced her for a moment.
As usual, Katherine managed the change perfectly. She headed toward the barn where the animals had already gathered. Chrystal jogged to catch up.
The alarm changed to voice again, repeating the same short message. Chrystal and Katherine stood still through it, holding hands and looking at each other. Katherine’s eyes were wide and worried.
As soon as the loudspeakers stopped, Katherine let go of Chrystal and grabbed handfuls of the grain they used for training. The animals nosed the air and stopped prancing, the food slightly more interesting than the odd sounds.
Chrystal walked behind the herd, providing subtle pressure toward the barn. Sugar usually went first, but this time she watched warily as Katherine led her herd into the barn one by one. They had seven of the ten animals in stalls when the alarm went off again at a higher pitch. Sugar raced around the other two and then led them away.
“We shouldn’t have made them so fast,” Katherine said, between the end of the alarm and the start of the actual message. She grabbed for a tranquilizer dart gun and looked like she was about to follow the escapees.
Chrystal blocked her way. “Leave them. They’ll be all right or they won’t be. The same is true for these.” She gestured at the seven animals they’d gotten into the barn.
Yi’s voice sounded in Chrystal’s ear. “Are you almost done? Do you need help?”
“Soon,” she said. “We’ll hurry.”
“Good,” he replied. “Be careful.”
The message started again, effectively ending the conversation. It sounded different this time, but the words were too garbled to make out in the warm, busy barn.
“Do they all have water?” Katherine yelled over the loudspeaker.
“Maybe.” Chrystal ran up and down the stalls, peering over stall doors. The warnings were getting on her nerves now, pushing her to go back home.
The jalinerines looked restless, beseeching eyes turned toward her. She reached into the stall to pat her favorite, a dark brown female with pale tan spots named Kinship.
Katherine stood in the middle of the barn, looking around. “We should add extra feed.”
“They’ll eat it all at once. Maybe we should have left them out where they can get grass.”
Katherine looked torn, and a little frantic.
“Come on,” Chrystal said. “They’re half and half now. We need to go back.”
Katherine returned to the barn and opened two of the stall doors. “That’s half and half.”
Chrystal laughed, which drove the intense look from Katherine’s face. The taller girl stepped over to Chrystal and folded her in her arms.
“You’re right,” Katherine murmured. “We should go.” She leaned down and her lips crushed Chrystal’s, an urgent kiss full of the need for hurry and the scents of animal and grains. Katherine led them through the reverse moves to get near the spinning edge. They stood close together, holding hands, watching the rotation for the right moment to step on. They hooked into fresh gear and caught the zip lines to glide home.
Outside, everything on the open deck had been tied down or stowed. The kitchen counters were spotless. In the bedroom, Yi moved like a cat, stuffing loose objects quickly and very neatly into drawers. Jason looked up from the side of the bed where he was tying a bulging backpack to the foot of the bed.
When they were busy with the jalinerines below, Chrystal hadn’t been able to quite make out the second message, but up here it was clear. She recognized the Head of Security. “Next ships are approaching. Defensive measures are underway. All nonessential staff are ordered to strap into acceleration couches.”
Chrystal froze, suddenly cold. “You were right,” she whispered to Jason.
“Hurry,” Yi hissed.
They chose their usual sleeping positions, with Jason and Yi on the far sides and the two women in the middle. Chrystal was next to Jason and she helped him dig for the straps, which they’d only used twice in the last three years. Both times, they’d been part of planned drills, and Katherine had laid the straps all out the morning of the drills after she made the bed. Now they were wadded and stuck in crevices on the sides. Little pouches in the beds hid the middle straps, and Chrystal broke a fingernail getting one out.
Another round of alarm and messaging happened as they settled, and then re-settled when they discovered that Katherine had an arm trapped and needed to shift yet again.
Chrystal’s little finger touched the side of Jason’s hand, and one foot brushed Katherine’s foot. Otherwise they lay all in a row, looking up. Their breathing filled the cabin.
Katherine was the most prone to talk about her feelings. “I’m scared.” “It’ll be okay.” Jason’s answer to everything.
“From your lips to the universe,” Katherine whispered. “They sound serious.”
© Brenda Cooper – Unauthorized reproduction or distribution is strictly prohibited