Excerpt: EDGE OF DARK by Brenda Cooper (Pyr)

CooperB-GE1-EdgeOfDarkEDGE OF DARK is the latest science fiction novel from Brenda Cooper. It is the first in the Glittering Edge Duology, and is published next month by Pyr Books. Here’s the synopsis:

What if a society banished its worst nightmare to the far edge of the solar system, destined to sip only dregs of light and struggle for the barest living. And yet, that life thrived? It grew and learned and became far more than you ever expected, and it wanted to return to the sun. What if it didn’t share your moral compass in any way?

The Glittering Edge duology describes the clash of forces when an advanced society that has filled a solar system with flesh and blood life meets the near-AI’s that it banished long ago. This is a story of love for the wild and natural life on a colony planet, complex adventure set in powerful space stations, and the desire to live completely whether you are made of flesh and bone or silicon and carbon fiber.

In Edge of Dark, meet ranger Charlie Windar and his adopted wild predator, and explore their home on a planet that has been raped and restored more than once. Meet Nona Hall, child of power and privilege from the greatest station in the system, the Diamond Deep. Meet Nona’s best friend, a young woman named Chrystal who awakens in a robotic body….

Now, on with the excerpt…

CHAPTER TWO

NONA

The room reeked of antiseptic and medication, the sharp scents fighting the thick flowery smell of lilies. It was enough to make someone sick. Nona coughed. The miasma of smells clotting her throat felt like death. Death was close—very close. Her mother Marcelle’s skin had gone the white of the nurse’s uniforms, so thin that spidery veins latticed her cheeks and ran in red threads along the pale line of her neck. Her body had thinned too; she could be a child huddled under the soft blue throw.

Nona and her mom had spent so many years being confused one for the other that Marcelle’s fall into old age seemed impossible, like a bad dream Nona would wake from any moment. She checked the small mirror above the sink from time to time, as if she needed confirmation that the horror hap­pening to her mother wasn’t happening to her. Her own skin was still taut with youth. Her blue eyes matched the blue streaks in her hair, which hung heavy and limp in the medical air.

It hurt to see her mom so weak. Marcelle had been a warrior once, a lieu­tenant in Ruby Martin’s army. She had fought in an insurrection long before she came home here to the station the Diamond Deep. She had even fought ice pirates as The Creative Fire came home after generations in space. She had fought disease and illiteracy and every unfair thing she ever came across. But for Marcelle, for everyone who was born on the spaceship, the fucking unfair cheat of old age had stolen their lives. That was the only way she could think of it—all of the people she loved the most in the world, all of her family, gone or almost gone. Doddering. Forgetful. Trapped in robotic chairs.

Old age sucked.

Nona had been the first person from The Creative Fire to be born here on the Deep and given the cocktails of life. A month or two either way, a tiny change in the priorities of the returning crew from the Deep, a little less finan­cial success on the part of Ruby the Red, and Nona would be age-spotted and weak by now.

She hated death. Not only her own death, but all death. She’d lost her father the year before, and the pain of Onor’s passing was so deep that this loss—this final loss—couldn’t hurt her more. Not really. It couldn’t.

A nurse brought in another vase full of flowers—blue roses this time. An impossible color that had to be engineered—so bright Nona thought they might glow if the lights of the medical monitors ever went off and let the room be truly dark. At least the roses didn’t smell as strong as the lilies. “From Satyana,” the nurse mumbled.

“Thanks.” After the door closed again, Nona whispered to her mom. “Are you awake?”

No movement. Just the slightly rasping sounds of thin and labored breath.

“Satyana sent you flowers. They’re exactly the color of her eyes.” She took her mother’s hand. “I’m going to miss you, mom. I will. So much.” Marcelle’s hand was cold, the fingers almost turned to claws. “It’s going to be hard.” A whine edged Nona’s voice, and she hated whiners.

She’d survive this. Somehow. She didn’t want Marcelle to remember her whining.

She stood and stretched, taking a deep breath. “Do you want some music?” Without waiting for an answer, she turned on some of Marcelle’s favorite music, traditional songs from the old revolution that Nona had never really liked. But this wasn’t her last moment. It was her mom’s. Or close. On the way in—hours ago now—the nurses had told her to expect death. They’d taken her aside and said, “A day or two. That’s all. Maybe less. Do you want support?”

She’d laughed at them, playing tough. “I’ll be okay. Really.” They had been steady, looking back at her with no comment. They were always steady, full of the angelic beatitude of hospice nurses. It didn’t help that they wor­shipped Marcelle. And Ruby, whose dolorous and dead voice filled the room.

“Honey?”

Nona turned at the unexpected sound of her mother’s voice. Marcelle looked stronger than she had for days. “Yes?” Nona took her mom’s hand again. It felt cold and still, as if her hand had already lost contact with her heart. “Yes?”

“Remember what you promised your dad?”

She nodded. A tear she hadn’t even felt landed on the back of her hand. “I do.”

“We didn’t tell you.” She stopped and swallowed, her hand gripping Nona’s almost as strongly as she used to. “There’s enough for you to go. You can go to Lym. There’s more than we ever told you.”

Nona had planned to go anyway. She’d saved enough for a volunteer’s passage. She’d studied the ecosystem to make herself worth putting on the list. She leaned down and kissed her mom on the forehead. “I’ll go find a sky, mom. I can’t promise I’ll stay on Lym, but I promise to see a sunset. For dad.”

“Go. For. You.” Marcelle’s voice faded a little. Then she gripped and pulled so that she was sitting up, the muscles of arms that had been too weak to hold a cup somehow holding her up as she clutched Nona’s arm. “Satyana. See Satyana.”

“Okay, mom.”

“Promise?”

“I promise. I’ll go find Satyana.”

“Do you see her?”

“Satyana?”

“No. Ruby.”

Her mom had been claiming she saw her old friend in the corners of the room for three days now. A ghost. A memory. Ruby had seen Nona born, had held her once. But Nona had no memory at all of her famous ancestor. Or sort-of ancestor. Whatever. She’d actually never been able to sort out the relationship between Ruby and Marcelle and Onor. They guarded that time in their emotional lives, the only clues pictures of the three of them in infinite varieties of twosomes.

At best, Marcelle was seeing the past. She’d remembered scenes from Nona’s childhood, birthday parties and trips to garden habs that Nona didn’t remember even after Marcelle recited every detail down to the color of the wrapping on presents. “I’m sure Ruby’s there, mom. If you say she’s there, she must be there.”

“I’m going to go with her now.”

“Okay, mom.” Nona watched the light in her mom’s eyes dim. It took a long time. Over and over she whispered, “I love you,” like a mantra or a shield.

When there was nothing left to do, Nona braced herself for the stab of loss that came when her dad died.

It didn’t come. Not exactly. Instead she felt thinned and raw, insubstantial. Marcelle slipped down her arm, the strength gone from her fingers. Nona caught her gently, laying the shell of her mother down on the bed and then sitting and staring at her face, unable to look away.

Ruby’s voice kept spilling from the wall speakers. Surely that was why Marcelle thought she saw her. Ruby was everywhere in the room—in a portrait on the wall, in the music, in the weight of Marcelle’s life.

The music played through until it stopped.

The door opened. Nona didn’t look up; the corpse had bespelled her. It didn’t matter. Only Satyana smelled or walked like Satyana. Ship’s grease and flowers and credit and fancy clothes and good hair products and success. Satyana was all of those things at once, and each of them more than anyone else Nona knew. A power of a woman, a force. Almost a mother to Nona as well, or at least Satyana thought so.

For once Satyana didn’t issue any orders. She sat down on the bed opposite

Nona and quietly asked, “Are you okay?”

“I’m a little dizzy.” She hadn’t realized it until Satyana asked.

“Let’s go.”

“Where?”

“Did your mom tell you to come see me?”

Nona nodded, apprehensive.

“I’m available now.” Satyana said it like time with her was a gift.

“I’m not. I have to see to mom.”

Satyana gave her a long assessing look. As usual, Satyana didn’t seem to approve of what she saw.

Losing her mom didn’t hurt the same as losing her dad. It wasn’t sharp. It destroyed her in a completely different way. Other than the occasional round of tears that snuck up on her in bathrooms or in the middle of the night, she became a ghost on the Deep. She begged off work, avoided crowded galleys, and stayed alone with just herself and the vast hole that filled her insides.

She ignored Satyana for a week before she called. “I’m ready.”

“Good. I’ll meet you tonight.” With that, Satyana hung up abruptly, surely right in the middle of some deal or important social event. Nona hadn’t really wanted to talk to her anyway. She showered and dressed in neat, pressed blue pants and a white blouse.

Satyana met Nona on one of her ships. Of course. Everything important to Satyana happened on a ship. The Deep had almost as much livable surface area as a planet, but only if you added in the berths on the myriad ships that made up much of the perimeter of the station. Some came and went, of course, but others had simply been parked and absorbed into the fabric of the Deep. Satyana had come here on a ship, run out of credit, thrown a few parties, and decided to stay. Now she was the queen of entertainment on the Deep, and not incidentally, rich and powerful.

Rich enough to give her ships stupid names.

They were deep inside the Sultry Savior, Satyana’s newest cruiser-class ship. It was midsized and midpowered and still more expensive than any one human should be able to afford. At least Satyana hadn’t forced a tour on her. She’d taken Nona through security with a hand wave and settled her onto a comfortable couch and given her a bulb of tea and a blanket.

Nona sipped the sweet green tea and waited while Satyana cut fruit, her back to Nona. When she turned, she looked worried. “I’m sorry that we lost your mom.”

“I know.” Satyana and Marcelle had worked together for decades, even though Nona had been sure Marcelle didn’t entirely trust the other woman. “I hate it that she had to die that way.”

“Of being old?” Satyana asked.

“Fucking age.”

Satyana didn’t look at all shocked. “We’ll all die someday,” she said. “Maybe sooner than you think.”

Satyana wanted her to ask what she meant, so Nona sipped at her tea and waited the older woman out.

Satyana sat beside her. “This ship. The Sultry Savior?”

“Yes.”

“It was built for you.”

Nona blinked. She didn’t want a ship. She sipped her tea, thinking over her last conversation with her mom. “To take me to see a sky?”

“For you to command.”

Nona spilled hot tea on her knee and jerked away from it, spilling more.

Satyana held Nona’s hand still, steadied it, removed the cup. “Your parents commissioned her when you were thirty-five.”

So long ago? “Does it take twenty years to build a starship?”

“It takes longer to build a captain.”

“You don’t approve of me.” Nona made it a statement.

Satyana sat back, looking thoughtful. “I’m mystified. That’s all. There’s so much more to you.”

Than what? Nona stiffened. “Shouldn’t you just say I’m not my mom and I’m not Ruby?”

“Isn’t that obvious?”

“I can’t be them. There’s no evil empire to fight. The Brawl is a third of the size it used to be and it’s almost humane. There’s nothing to fix.”

“Is that it? Is it all too easy? Brace yourself.” Satyana’s expression looked far more serious than usual. “This would be a really good time to take on more responsibility.”

Nona managed not to flinch, but only because she was used to Satyana. “And become a captain?” Nona couldn’t imagine it. She’s never even tried to fly the little skimmers that were readily available to get around the Deep via the outside, preferring the inner passageways and the trains and, under duress, the taxis.

Satyana laughed. “Anyone who might have just given you a captaincy is dead. But you should start seeing the world soon. I’ll have someone fly you to Lym. Henry James can take you in the Savior.”

“I can’t afford to fly my own ship anywhere.” Her parents had spent their lives working for the community that had come with them on The Creative Fire, never taking even their fair share of the community’s credit, never living in fancy habs or buying new clothes. They had given Nona years of education. They’d trained her as a diplomat and, when she didn’t get a good job with that skill, they let her learn station biology. Nona had leveraged that degree to teach at Startide University, which paid her daily living fee and as well as a small salary. “I’ve saved enough to buy passage down and back. On the Lower Glory. I’m helping in the garden to reduce the fare.” She shook her head, something Satyana had said earlier finally sinking in through the fog of the last week. “How’d they commission a ship?”

“A friend of theirs drank himself to death, but he left them his money on the condition that it couldn’t go into the common pool.”

“Naveen.”

Satyana looked surprised. “Do you remember him?”

“Only a little.”

“His brilliance and greed saved your parent’s lives, but his addiction killed him early.”

“He died of drinking?”

“No—he died because he was drunk one day and went out an airlock. None of us knows why.”

Nona knew she should react to her mysterious benefactor’s death, or at least to the idea that she had a mysterious benefactor. She’d been wrapped in her parent’s history for her whole life. She was still wrapped in the hole of them, the missing pieces they had taken with them. “I would rather go on the Lower Glory. I’m looking forward to learning about the biology of ship’s gardens.”

To Nona’s surprise, Satyana looked pleased. “Do you want to know how much Naveen left you?”

She closed her eyes. Her mom would have told her if she’d wanted her to know. But Marcelle had always been devoted to the common good—she had abhorred individual riches. “It’s far more than I need, isn’t it?”

“Yes. And it’s been invested for a long time. It will change your world.” Wow. “Why didn’t mom spend the money?”

Satyana let out a sharp laugh. “She liked being poor. She used to lecture me about lavish living if I bought an expensive drink.”

Nona laughed as well. “I bet.” She examined the interior of the ship. The idea that it might be hers shocked her into seeing it differently. Everything was locked and bolted down, of course. A lot of the walls were white or silver, a few black in contrast. The place screamed for pictures. If she did ever take control of it, she’d decorate. “I was only about six when Naveen died. I remember he was a force in our lives for a while, that he came over for dinner and dominated the talk. They argued.”

“Your parents helped thousands of people have good lives.”

“I know.” Her mother had sacrificed time and credit to save every crew-member of The Creative Fire. Nothing had ever driven Nona as hard, possessed her and honed all of her decisions. It bothered her. She had always thought that when she grew up, she’d find a calling like her parents’ had, but she had been an adult for decades and it hadn’t happened yet. Satyana loved to pick at that particular wound. Nona shifted the conversation. “You sound like you think something’s changing.”

“Do you remember your history? Your parents staved off a ship full of Next.”

“Ice pirates?”

“Yes.” Satyana’s face showed distaste for the term.

“The fight was outside the Ring of Distance, right? Before they came back from all the flying?”

“True. But the Next are coming in now. All the way into the Glittering.”

Nona froze, stammered. “H-here?”

“Not yet.”

Nona sat up. “How do you know?”

Satyana laughed, perhaps at the idea that any of her knowledge could be questioned. “The Historian is my friend.”

So were the Economist and the Futurist and probably everyone else on the Council. “And the Council knows what? How?”

“They know that there are more raids per year now than there were a decade ago. The Next are testing our defenses, finding weaknesses.” She leaned closer to Nona, her voice dropping. “Don’t tell anyone I told you so, but the Council is scared. Frightened to the bone. They’re building more warships, making alliances between stations where they would have been fighting trade wars before.”

“Should we be scared of the pirates? Didn’t one of them turn out to be

Ruby’s friend?”

Satyana shrugged. “I only met Aleesi once. Briefly, the day she died. It doesn’t matter. One robot isn’t representative. The Next are rumored to have as much attack capability as we do now. Maybe they have more. And we have the good real estate.”

“I’m no war captain.”

“No. You’re not. This isn’t a warship. It’s built for diplomacy.”

“I’m not a diplomat either,” Nona said.

“You’re trained as one.”

“I haven’t done it.”

“And no one’s asking you to, not yet. You have the bloodlines, the history, the training. Now you have the ship. Almost, anyway.” Satyana had fallen into the cadence she used with staff, expecting Nona to hang on her every word. “It’ll come to you when I say it’s ready.”

“It or me?”

“We may need you.”

She didn’t want to be anything Satyana wanted her to be. But for the first time since her mom’s death, the hole in her middle felt a tiny bit smaller. She had some new things to think about. “I’ll come back and talk to you. After I see a sky for dad.” And bury some of her parents’ ashes on Lym. Which wasn’t any of Satyana’s business. Maybe after that she could go to High Sweet Home, and visit her best friend, Chrystal. That would keep her away from Satyana for a while. “I’ll find you when I get back.”

Satyana’s face was impossible to read. “I’ll see that we shake down the Savior. When you come back, I’ll go out in her with you.”

Great.

“Don’t you want to know what all you have now? What’s yours?”

Nona shook her head. “Not yet. First I want to go see a fucking sky.” This time her swear word got a reaction. Maybe entertainment moguls didn’t curse.

***

Brenda Cooper‘s Edge of Dark is published by Pyr Books in March 2015.

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