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Dropnauts is arriving in just three weeks, so I thought I’d tease you a bit with another excerpt. 🙂 This one starts a century after The Stark Divide, and reveals what happened back on Earth.

This week, Hera the pilot:

The ending strains of Thus Spoke Zarathustra faded into the background as the Zhenyi settled into her new course. The ship would be on autopilot for two days as they hurtled toward the Launchpad.

There was nothing more for Hera to do for a while.

She pressed the releases on her biframe, pulling off the metal braces and tucking them into the webbing behind the seat.

Up here in space, she was free—in zero-gee her useless legs weren’t a hindrance. Through the suit legs, she touched the scars where the medics had cut her open to replace her crushed bones with rods printed from gumdust—the pulverized moon dust they’d used to make her whole again.

Luna would always be a part of her, no matter how far she roamed.

Somewhere behind them, Tovey waited for her return. She could still feel the touch of their lips on hers.

She shook her head, dispelling the memory. Don’t let yourself get lost in homesickness.

She got up and squeezed past chair and the gunmetal gray walls to her own seat, and settled in next to Rai. She snapped her seatbelt closed and peered out of her porthole. The red running lights of one of the other jumpers blinked in the distance.

Rai had swiveled his seat around, and he and Ghost were playing chess on one side of the cramped five-seat craft. Behind Hera, Tien was staring out at the stars, her overhead light dimmed.

Along with Tovey, her teammates were Hera’s family.

She’d known Ghost all her life, and Rai and Tien fortwo years while they’d trained on Luna, learning how to operate the jumper’s modified flight systems, packing her brain with everything there was to know about the Earth. They’d spent six more intense months together in the full Earth gravity of the Launchpad, time which had sealed their bond.

She’d met Tovey there too, but they weren’t a part of the mission. Pain gripped Hera’s heart. What if I never see you again?

Hera needed a distraction. She released her seat and swung it around to face Tien, the only one of them raised by her birth parents. She wondered for the thousandth time what it would have been like to have actual parents instead of creche parents. “How’d it go with your parents, Ti?”

“What?” Tien turned toward her, dark brown eyes glassy. They shimmered and Tien was back in the here-and-now, staring at her.

Sometimes Hera still saw Tai in her features, the man Tien had been when they first met. “I’m sorry, didn’t realize you were busy—” Hera braced herself to get up. She could watch the view from the pilot’s chair.

Tien flashed her a warm smile, brushing a long strand of black hair back behind her ear. “It’s okay. I was just reading poetry. What did you ask?”

“Your parents. How’d it go?”

Tien’s smile became a grin. “Better than I hoped. My father called me his daughter—for the first time. They told me they were proud of me and gave me their blessing to go.”

Hera’s jaw dropped. “That’s amazing, Ti.” She squeezed Tien’s hand. “What are you reading?” Anyone I know?”

“Probably not. Emily Dickinson. From the old United States.”

“Read me a few lines.” Hera loved poetry, especially the lyrical Old Earth stuff Tien found.

Tien’s lenses shimmered again. “Okay. How about this one?”

Hera closed her eyes to listen.

There is no Frigate like a Book  

To take us Lands away,  

Nor any Coursers like a Page  

Of prancing Poetry—

This Traverse may the poorest take         

Without oppress of Toll—

How frugal is the Chariot  

That bears a Human soul.

Hera bit her lip. “What does it mean?”

Tien bit her lip. “Hmm. That words have power. They can cross centuries to transport us to other worlds.” Tien smiled wanly. “That what we do now can still matter so much later.”

“That’s beautiful.” Tien was a closet romantic, but the old words still confounded Hera sometimes.“What’s a frigate?”

“A bird, or maybe a warship. It’s not really clear.” Tien frowned. “I can try to find out—“

Hera grinned. “Let’s say a bird. Better than a warship—”

The ship-to-ship radio blared to life with a loud burst of static. “This is Dax on the Bristol. We’ve taken a hit. I repeat—” More static. “—hit. there’s a lot of space junk—”

Hera swiveled and pulled herself out of her seat and into the pilot’s chair with the ease of long practice.

Sam’s voice came from the Liánhuā at the rear of the convoy. “Bristol, you there?”

Nervous silence filled the Zhenyi. No response.

Hera glanced back at her teammates. Rai was pale, sweat beading his forehead, the chess game forgotten. “Everyone buckle in.”

The radio buzzed again. “…lost contact. Something hit us and spun us around. We’re ok.”

Hera breathed a sigh of relief and hit the comm button. “What kind of something? The way’s supposed to be clear all the way to the Launchpad.” She activated the scanner. Five glowing red dots floated over her deck, one for each ship.

“Don’t know. It was too fast—” Loud static cut him off again.

“What’s happening?” Rai sounded panicked, his voice raspy.

“Keep it together, Rai.” She couldn’t deal with his fear and this at the same time. Hera leaned forward, staring at the dots—each of the jumpers were still there, spread out in a lazy line. She sighed with relief. “Dax, you there?”

“Yeah. We’re losing pressure…” Dax’s usually calm, suave voice broke. “Hissing hell, it cracked the hull—”

An apocalyptic boom, then nothing.

All the blood drained from Hera’s face, and her stomach twisted. Please let them be okay. Hera looked at the lights hovering above the deck again. The Bristol’s dot was gone.

Sam’s voice crackled over the comm. “What happened? Zhenyi, can you see the Bristol?”

Hera was racing to scan the space ahead of them. “Unexpected debris. I think—she’s gone, Sir.” Concentrate. She had to figure this out fast.

Dax, Jess, Ola, and Xiu Ying… cracking hell. She bit her lip hard, tasting blood.

Rai sobbed quietly behind her.

“Must have been a space-junk collision somewhere since they scanned it last, scattering more debris.” Ghost sounded calm, but that was one of his tells. He was totally freaking out inside.

“No shit, Sherlock.” Her eyes tracked the screen, looking for danger. She had no idea who in the whole pantheon of history Sherlock was, and right now she didn’t care.

Something flared bright blue above the deck. “Hang on!” She fired one of the aft thrusters, and a gust of steam pushed them out of the way of a piece of debris. It slipped past the window, a white-encased leg. Hera fought not to hurl.

“Oh crap. Wasn’t that—”

“Shut up!” The Bristol was gone. Better not to know who it had belonged to. “Sam, we have visual on Jumper One’s debris. Advise course correction. Sending revised path.” Her hands flew across the deck. Hold it together, Hera.

“Affirmative. One moment.”

Hera watched the sensor field nervously. “Ghost, sealant ready?”

“Yeah. Just a sec.” He rummaged around in the webbing along the wall of the craft.

Something struck the metal skin of the jumper. Air hissed out as the temperature and air pressure dropped precipitously. “Ghost!”

“On it!” He leapt out of his seat to find the pinhole puncture and applied a dab of sealant. It sucked into the hole and froze, holding tight. “Got it.”

More blips on the sensor field. “Hold on!” Hera fired the thrusters again, and the ship threw her sideways. No belt! She flew up out of the pilot’s seat, slamming hard against the metal ceiling of the Zhenyi.

Tovey, I love you… Searing pain was followed by darkness.

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