The Sun Runners: My Seventh Novel

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The image on the right is entitled Space Window and is by Tim Evanson. It is used in accordance with his Creative Commons license.

The blacksmiths' guild had been up and operating for a month, but Adelheid called for a ceremony to mark the occasion.

And at the ceremony, where the elected guild leaders, the advisory council and Adelheid's security detail met and Adelheid handed over the blacksmith guild's charter, she said to them, "Make me a crown."

Later that day, she watched as the top blacksmith twisted glowing iron, bending it around a guide so it made a graceful curve. Then, using tongs, he held the iron in the torch-flame again, before bringing it out and hammering it, each clang spraying sparks.

Adelheid watched him work, her hands clasped behind her, an orange sash over her blue uniform.

Finally, the blacksmith took the glowing iron lacework and dipped it into water, which gushed with steam.

Bringing it out, wet, still steaming, he placed it on a towel to cool.

Finally, Adelheid picked up the wrought-iron crown. She turned it over in her hands, inspecting every detail critically. The dark bar curved and wound around itself in a tiara shape, beautiful without jewels, and strong.

She nodded, and gripped it tight. "This will do. Let's go."

She placed the crown on her head and turned to face the future.

The Sun Runners represents my first completed first draft since the initial completion of Icarus Down just over eight years ago. Writing it down like that, it sounds like more of a drought than it is. In between those dates, I had to revise and rewrite Icarus Down, and then I did a complete set-aside-and-write-from-scratch draft of The Night Girl, effectively making it Night Girl 2.0. I've also had a number of non-fiction books to write, and promotions for Icarus Down.

But this has been a tough novel to write. My first inspiration came in late December 2014, while Erin was at the wheel during our regular winter drive to Des Moines and Omaha. I envisioned a world inspired by Kim Stanley Robinson's 2312, where Mercurian cities were kept on the dark side of the planet by riding on rails that expanded in the advancing heat of the sun. I changed that from towering cities to ten-kilometer-long trains, and I imagined young Frieda Koning, crown princess of one of these latitude towns, losing her arms as she rescues her city which has gotten stuck on errant rocks that are chewing up the wheels moving along the rails.

The rest of the story built in fits and starts. I imagined a silent Earth, that had collapsed due to environmental problems over a century beforehand, only to awake and speak to its colonies now. That century long silence got shorter and shorter until I realized that one of the hearts of the story was the intergenerational conflict, and Adelheid appeared. She was Frieda's grandmother, mentor and primary antagonist, and she demanded her own story set during the start of the silence.

From initial inspiration, it has taken me three-and-a-half years to put together a first draft. And, let me tell you: it's a mess. But at least it's a complete mess, if you know what I mean.

There are further subplots that need adding, and a lot of details to fix on my world-building. Motivations need smoothing out and justifying. And let me say that some of the science has me tearing out my hair (space is big, and even on a small planet like Mercury, distances are long, and we can't speed up how fast the sun rises). Howeer, there's a lot that I'm proud of here, and I look forward to polishing things in the coming months, especially once I hear what my beta readers have to say.

The Asteroid Scow
The Cloud Riders Continues...

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I'm pleased to say that I pushed The Cloud Riders above 12,000 words this week, though progress may stall there for a bit. I have to return to The Sun Runners, which is getting close to finished. However, I'm pleased that I have an opening chapter and the beginnings of an outline. I have a good idea, at least, of where this story is going, and I'm excited to drive the road that gets there.

Below, please find the second half of chapter two of The Could Riders, as Sam, Xavier and Zia go through police and rescue training, and meet their major complication.

So began our instruction as police cadets. It wasn't bad, actually. We had bully instructors, and we had good instructors. We had students who excelled, and we had students who quit after two weeks. And we had Captain Nevins, watching over us, hard but fair. He was clearly in charge of the place, aside from the paperwork, and so it was a sign of his commitment that he took on our class of first years personally.

I did better than average. Actually, I was in the top five. Xavier was right in the middle, where he often liked to be. Zia was number one, of course. She was excellent at martial arts, while I held my own. My classmates soon found that it was to their advantage, not to mention amusing, to pair me with her, though I'm proud to say that she didn't knock me onto my back more than 75% of the time.

We practised aerial moves in our gymnasium, lifted weights to build our arm muscles, and learned every aspect of our aerial suits, some of the weapons we would use (rarely), and the masks that would save our lives.

I managed to live with my celebrity, downplaying it, by just staying calm and working hard. My friends, Zia and Xavier, helped me cope with the rough spots. The tasks that I'd looked forward to were both hard to try, but easy to master, and I was given plenty of opportunities to try.

Police work is not the gritty excitement that the Old Earth vids make it out to be, but it's far from boring. Especially as we prepared to step outside the oxygen enclosure for the first time.

Four weeks into our drills and instructions, they put us on one of the larger rescue Zeppelins, and took us ten clicks away from the Chris Jones HAVOC, my home town. There, we changed into our aerial suit uniforms, and picked up our masks. We stood there, ranks of young people, outlined in black carbon fibre and green fabric, facing doors whose windows opened onto a blank and fluffy horizon, while Captain Nevins gave us a last set of instructions.

"As far as you're concerned," said Nevis, "these masks are an organ of your body. Losing it is as bad as losing a lung, and I don't have to tell you why." He slapped the mask that he was holding in his hand for emphasis. "If you are ever in any part of a craft that is at all likely to experience an envelope breach, you are wearing this. You will check the seals daily, and you will submit them for repair if any flaw is found. Carbon dioxide can be a stealthy killer as well as a vicious one. A small leak can hamper your cognitive abilities, and make you slow, fatigued, confused, and in this job, if you're any of those things, you're dead. Now, find a partner and help each other put on their mask!"

We paired up -- or tripled up, in my case. Zia, Xavier and I slipped the masks on, then helped pull strands of hair back that would have compromised the seals.

The masks, well, masked most of our faces with a breather that mimicked our mouth and nose in black enamelled metal. The straps were also black. We looked like robots, except that the mask and the goggles focused attention on the eyes, which were clearly human.

I waggled my eyebrows at Zia and Xavier. Xavier let out a chortle that echoed behind his breather. Zia rolled her eyes -- something which the goggles really emphasized.

Corporal Callister cleared her throat on the radio, directly into our ears. That was a sound I was going to hate in a hurry. "Now," she said. "Is everybody ready?"

There were mumbles from us.

"I'm serious," she shouted, making many of us flinch. "This is the real deal! Check the status of your seals, now! Wee open the doors in sixty seconds."

I did, touching the controls by my temple and watching the indicators scroll across my vision on my visor. Air seals tight. Oxygen levels full. I was ready. I gave a thumbs up, as did Zia, and everybody else.

At the doors, Susan nodded. "All right, you lot. Let's see what you can do outside."

She pressed a control. Fans whirred to life, sucking in the precious oxygen-nitrogen mix, and the outer doors of the deck opened.

As we stepped outside onto a metal platform, the green portions of our uniforms changed colour, shifting brown, then dark red, then scarlet. I resisted the urge to check the fit of my mask again. This was it. We were in the carbon dioxide of Venus, where one puff of air could kill us. Just keep your breathing steady, I told myself. In. Out. Do not hyperventilate. Focus.

Philip's voice crackled on the radios of our headsets, just a few decibels too loud. "All right, cadets. Time to show what you learned indoors. Moodley!"

Xavier jerked up.

"Lucky you," Philip drawled. "You're with the pilots today."

Xavier pumped his fist. "Yes!"

"Don't get too excited. They're not letting you anywhere near the controls until you're good and ready!" Philip snapped. "Dekker! Naidoo! You climb the rungs. The rest of you, get ready to toss the darts!"

Some of my classmates were insulted to have to do all of the tasks we'd learned inside again once we were let outside, though they were wise enough not to show it. Others, myself included, were wiser still to know that training outside was a whole different balloon than training inside. For one thing, there was the wind, but most of all, there was the depth.

As I moved hand-over-hand along a set of rungs to the end of a girder sticking out of the side of our Zeppelin, I made the mistake of looking down. There were clouds beneath me, and I suddenly lost track of the distance. One moment, I thought a cloud was so close, I risked putting my foot in it and getting burnt. The next, I realized that those clouds were kilometres below. You'd fall for five minutes, and still be a speck that could be seen from the Mess windows.

I'd seen these clouds through glass, and it's amazing how much of a difference glass makes. Sure, there was a safety net beneath me, but out here, the wind brushing my neck and whistling against my mask, it didn't look like enough.

Suddenly, my knuckles were white against the rungs, and I couldn't let go. My breathing quickened and I had a disturbing realization that I was about to scream.

"Hey, hey, it's okay!" said a voice in my ear. Zia's voice.

She said it like a whisper, even though the explanatory text that flashed at the corner of my vision told me she'd found a private channel to speak to me.

I turned my head, and saw her a few feet away from me, hanging from both hands. I could only see her eyes, but they were enough.

"You've done this before," she said. "Indoors. You're as fast as I am. You've got this. Right?"

I forced my reply through a dry mouth. "R-right." I took a deep breath of oxygen, held it, then slowly let it go. "Right." I focused on one hand and willed the fingers to open. Then I grabbed the next rung, and that was enough to break the spell. I went hand over hand to the end of the girder and touched the finishing button before turning. As I passed Zia, I said, "Thanks."

She clambered past and touched the button.

We switched up after that, with Zia and I joining the group tossing darts. A training Zeppelin pulled alongside our platform, and moved back about fifty feet. I spotted Xavier in the co-pilot's seat, watching the pilot with interest. He spotted me and gave me a thumbs up.

Cadets stood on the Zepplin's platform, keeping one hand to the ship, while the other held a weight (called a "dart") at the end of a long cable. Swinging the dart, they judged the distance, took aim, and lobbed it across, the cable trailing behind like a comet's tail. Our side would catch the darts, and reel in the cable, before tossing the darts back.

Zia and I had gone a couple of successful rounds when I saw it. Movement caught my eye, and I found myself looking up.

There was a speck in the blue sky. I frowned at it. I'm Venusian-born, so the possibility that it was a bird didn't enter my mind. Specks shouldn't be above you, unless it's another Zeppelin. This didn't look like a Zeppelin. It looked so small, I thought it was a person. And if a person was alone in the big, clear sky, they were falling.

But the speck was moving slowly, too slowly. And as it got bigger, I realized that it wasn't small enough to be a person. Instead, it had been too far away for me to judge. It was bigger. Much bigger. But it still wasn't a Zeppelin.

"What the heck's that?" I pointed.

"What?" Zia's voice rasped in my ear. She looked at me, then tried to follow my point. Her gaze strafed the sky. "I don't see anything."

Then the speck did something that no person or Zeppelin could do: it fired a rocket burner.

"What, the-- I see it!" said Zia unnecessarily.

Other students were looking up, and the speck fired more rockets, in short bursts, trying to slow its descent. A tossed dart barely missed my legs and clanged against the metal platform.

"Dekker, what the hell are you doing!" Philip roared, delighted to have a chance to ream me out.

I pointed at the speck again. "But, Corporal! Look!"

Despite himself, he looked, and his hands dropped to his sides. "What, the--"

It was all over the chatter on our radios now. Radio control was getting seriously annoyed.

"What in sulphur is that?"

"It doesn't look like one of the robot shuttles."

"What's it doing?"

Nevins' voice cut through the chatter. "Quiet! All of you! Corporal Mode, report! What do you see?"

Then Zia identified it, though I could tell she hardly believed it. "It's an asteroid scow."

Philip scoffed. "Are you joking, Naidoo? That's over a hundred million kilometres too far away and eight years too late--"

Susan's voice cut in. "She's right." I looked over at Corporal Callister. She was staring with the rest of us, her shoulders slack.

I looked up and realized that Zia was right, even if Philip wasn't out of line by being incredulous. I still had a copy of Janes' Book of Spacecraft, and now that I realized my eyes weren't deceiving me, the outline became obvious.

But it should have been impossible. After the Earth collapsed, the asteroid scows had abandoned their mines and formed huge convoys, completing the journey to Mars by pooling resources. It was almost as long a trip between Mars and Venus as it was between the Asteroid Belt and Mars; it would have been harder for a single ship to survive.

And as the rockets fired intermittently, pitching the scow back and forth, I realized that it hadn't survived, yet.

"It's in trouble," I said into the radio. "We need to catch it, or else it's going into the clouds."

Silence greeted my words, but I wouldn't have it.

"I said, we need to catch it!" I pointed to the cadets on the opposite platform. "Come on! Tie off your cables, we've got to build a net!"

"You're not the one to give the orders, cadet!" shouted Peter into my ear, even as I saw cadets starting to latch the cables into place and gather up the darts.

I faced him. "If we don't do anything, whoever's in there is going to die!"

He shook his head. "This has nothing to do with us. The pilot's probably dead already. Those rockets are firing on automatic."

"What is our job here?" I yelled.

"Cadet, stand down!" Susan snarled. "Let the professionals handle it. They've got the training to take the risk."

I rounded on her. "But we're the only ones out here, and we're running out of time! Who else can do this if not us?"

Susan glared, but said nothing. She glanced at Peter, who looked up at the struggling scow. He tapped his radio. "Captain Nevins? What are your orders, sir?"

The next moment of silence stretched, along with our nerves, as we waited for Nevins' response. Everyone kept an eye on the struggling scow as it descended lower and closer. "Come on," I breathed.

On the line, I thought heard Nevis mutter, "Blake Dekker's is going to kill me."

But I knew he knew I was right: if we did nothing, we would stand around watch the scow as it fell out of the sky to its doom. I couldn't do that, and I didn't think Nevis could, either.

And I was right about Nevis.

"All right." His voice crackled through our radios. "Cadets, this is not a drill. We're going to catch that scow."

My stomach lurched as the engines revved, and we dropped. We had to get far enough under the asteroid scow in order have enough time to build the net to catch it.

I wasn't afraid. Or, was I? I wasn't excited, either, though my heart pounded and my fingers tingled. Maybe it was equal parts of both, to know that training time was over, and we were moving to save someone's life.

If there was somebody alive in there.

We dropped two hundred meters, the other Zeppelin keeping pace with us, and I imagined that the temperature rose, though I knew rationally that the temperature changes didn't happen that fast.

Then the other Zeppelin flashed a light, and lobbed a dart.

"There she goes!" shouted Susan. "Dekker! Catch it!"

My eyes were already on the dart, its nib rounded to prevent puncturing the outer skin, its guide-wire trailing out behind it. It drifted across the distance between the two ships, rising and falling in an arc that I traced ahead, seeing how far out--

My fingers clenched the stanchion, I leaned out above the cloud floor and embraced the falling dart with my left arm. Zia, who'd already had her fingers clenched on the strap across my shoulder blades, hauled back, and I swung up my prize.

"Good work, cadet!" should Philip. "Now tie her off!"

We did, while Xavier flashed the light and fired our dart across the gap. More darts were flying, sending out guide-wires back and forth cross the gap, building our net. I looked up. The asteroid scow was fifty metres above us and falling, faster now.

Susan touched her communicator. "Sir! She's coming in hot!"

Nevis ordered more power to our engines, which revved up. Even so, we all looked up nervously as we heard the shuttle's engines fire and misfire. Gravity was winning the battle. She was forty meters above us. Twenty. Ten.

I gripped the stanchion hard as the scow hit our net of guide-wires. They sagged. The gap between the two Zeppelins narrowed sharply. The floor pitched. Our engines strained. Nevis's orders rang in our ears, but there was nothing we could do until the engine crew could stabilize our altitude.

Then the floor stopped pitching. The guide-wires tightened, and the scow rose as the Zeppelins pulled apart. A look at where we'd tied them off told us that everything was holding. Now stable, the scow's rockets stopped firing.

So, we had the scow. Now what? Somebody had to look in, and as soon as all departments reported all clear, the order came through.

"Dekker! Naidoo!" Susan shouted. "You're up!"

Zia and I glanced at each other, then at cadets behind us who signalled that our harnesses were ready. I focused on the scow in our net.

Okay, so today, I got lucky. This is much more excitement than I had any right to expect from being a police cadet. I didn't care. So, I'm no Raymond Chandler, but could Philip Marlowe do this?

I leapt from the gantry and opened my arms wide. The frills of my aerial suit caught the air, and I flew.

Philip would correct me, loudly, to say that I glided, not flew. But it was easy to forget that I was harnessed to a guide-wire that could pull me back to the rescue ship when I gave the signal, or when I looked like I was in trouble. The wind buffeted my face and my mask as I rushed towards the scow. I flew. Then I tucked my arms and legs in, braced, and landed against the nose of the spaceship, knocking only a little of the wind out of me.

I clung to the nose of the spaceship. Zia's boots clomped as she hit the metal next to me. The window shields weren't engaged, so I could see into the cabin. There was someone sprawled against the controls.

"Somebody's in there," I said into my radio.

"Are they alive?" asked Zia.

"I don't--" Then the figure stirred. Whoever it was pushed away, and looked up at us through the helmet of a pressure suit. I couldn't see much through two panes of vacuum-rated glass, but I saw a pair of eyes that were wide, afraid and pleading, before they slumped back onto the console.

It pulled at me, that look. At that moment, there was no way I was going to let this ship slip through our net and vanish into the clouds of Venus.

"Yes!" I shouted. "We're going to need oxygen, and some way to get through the airlock."

"We can haul in the scow." This was Peter's voice. "Get it to a secure area where we can blast in the doors."

"How long is that going to take?" I snapped. Thirty minutes, at least. "The pilot's dying in there. We have to go in, now!"

"Orders, Captain?" said Susan through the radio.

I waited. I'd pushed as far as I could without risking charges of insubordination. Actually, I was pretty sure my outburst was going to go on a report, somewhere. But I waited.

Finally, Nevins said, "Get them oxygen tanks. Cadet Naidoo, move to the airlock. Tell me what you see."

She did, while I stayed by the window and watched the stricken pilot. Zia clambered across the hull of the asteroid scow. The grips in the gloves and the toes of our aerial suits helped, but she found footholds that I could not have seen. Finally, she reached the outer airlock and pulled the panel off of the controls next to it, letting it fall to the clouds below us. She peered in at the touch panel.

"Whoever it is cut most of the security lockouts on the airlock," she said. "I can override the rest. Samuel, is the pilot in a space-suit?"

I looked again. "Yeah." Though I didn't know how useful it was at the moment.

"Captain Nevins, sir," said Zia. "Requesting permission to enter."

"Do it," Nevins replied. "You too, Dekker. Somebody will be along shortly with the oxygen."

I left my position by the front windows of the scow and crawled across the hull to where Zia was keying in codes. The screen flashed green, and the door slid back. Zia and I shared a look before unhooking the safety wires from our harnesses (tying them off on handholds by the door), and slipping inside.

I'd never seen the inside of an asteroid scow before. There weren't many pictures, and I suspected it was because the interior was boring. The scows were built on the cheap. They needed to be in order to make asteroid mining profitable. The scow had one room, which served as control centre, kitchen and place to sleep. A single cot had been pulled down from its receptacle in the wall. In the stern of the cabin were tanks holding air and the ship's fuel. These were controlled with dials and gaskets, and the all the dials showed nearly empty.

We looked to the bow, and saw the pilot, still slumped over the controls. We came closer.

It was a woman. She was dressed in the modern form-fitting pressure suit, and she looked to be about the same age as Zia and me. Not that I was sure how I could tell. Even slumped against the controls, she looked taller than us, and thinner, like a willow tree. Her arms looked like delicate branches. We couldn't see much of her face because her helmet was so fogged up.

I touched her arm, and she jerked, letting out a cough that might have been a cry of surprise.

She rolled over, and slipped off the console and slid down to the floor, struggling, but failing to sit up. Seeing us, she reached up to undo the locks of her helmet.

I glanced at my sleeve. The fabric between the black bands had faded to brown-green as we'd entered the scow. They were now growing increasingly bright red.

"Whoa, whoa," I said, grabbing her hands and holding them as she struggled. "Take it easy. The air in here's no good."

"He's right!" Zia came forward, flourished a silver tank before pushing the woman to her back. I looked back at the airlock. Two more cadets had joined us, having delivered the oxygen. They stood, watching, not sure what to do with themselves.

Zia continued, "We've got oxygen. Just hold on. Samuel, hold her down!"

"I'm trying!" The woman wasn't holding on. She was panicking, and though she looked weak, panic was giving her a strength that made it hard for me to hold her. The other cadets hovered, unsure what to do, and to be fair, I wasn't sure, either.

Zia pulled the covering off the emergency air valves of the woman's pressure suit and fitted the air tank to one of the nozzles. She screwed the tank in tighter and tighter until the seal broke. Air hissed into the pressure suit.

The effect was immediate. The woman froze. Her chest heaved as she gulped in the better air. Zia pressed a hand to the woman's abdomen to tell her not to hyperventilate.

The woman's breaths became slower, longer. She looked at us. Looked at me, carefully and for such a long moment that I frowned. I saw blue eyes, red hair, pale skin and freckles. Her nose was long and narrow. Her lips were a dark line -- probably still blue from hypoxia.

Then she reached up and twisted a knob on her helmet. She spoke. At first, all I could hear was her voice muffled through her helmet, before it finally sparked on my radio.

"Can you hear me?" she gasped. Her voice was high, soft, and wispy. There was an accent I could not place, butt it made made me think of old Earth country houses, and Agatha Christie.

"We can hear you," I said, clasping her hand to keep her from tuning her radio out of our common frequency. "We got you. You're safe, now."

"Can you move?" asked Zia.

The woman tried to sit up, but she fell back instantly. "I... can't," she gasped. She let out a grunt, and there was pain in it. I could see panic rising in her eyes again. "I can't!"

"Are you hurt?" I asked. "Is anything broken?"

"I don't know," the woman wheezed. "It's all just so... heavy!"

Zia and I looked at each other, perplexed. "What do you mean?" I asked.

"Everything! Everything is so heavy!" She let out a little cry, as though even that was painful. "I can't... Help!"

The mysteries piled up. Who was she? How did she get here? The asteroid scows had fled the Asteroid Belt ten years ago, after the Earth collapsed. The ones that survived took refuge on Mars, the last one docking eight years ago. Docking at...

That's when it hit me: Mars.

She was a Martian.

On a planet with three times the gravity.

I shouted into his radio. "We're going to need a med team, with a exo-suit, right now!"

My radio squawked. "What?" Susan sounded incredulous, and I didn't blame her. "Where do you think we're going to get an exo-suit?"

"Just find something, or make something," I shouted. "She's going to need it!"

I leaned back in. "It's okay," I said, finding and clasping the woman's hand, gently. "We're getting you out of here and to hospital. You're going to be safe. Tell me: what's your name?"

The young woman struggled for breath. Her eyelids fluttered. She looked at me.

"Pandora," she wheezed. Then her eyes closed, and her head fell back.

Falling on Venus
The Cloud Riders Begins in Earnest

light-sky-sunset-night-sunlight-morning-51378-pxhere.com.jpgThe fiction writing has gone fairly well these past two months. I added over 10,000 words to The Sun Runners, and the story now sits at 97,500 words. Frustratingly, it remains unfinished, though I am closing in. It's the way it goes, though. Back in February, the end looked to be in sight, but there were still so many scenes that needed doing, gaps that needed closing, and on and on. At least I can say that the number of open gaps has been significantly reduced. The story could still top 100,000 words.

And it's going to be a mess. I know it. But you know what they say about the sh*tty first draft. I do believe there is a lot of good in this story, and now that it's all down on the page, redrafting will help make it a lot better.

And I also did a fair amount of work on the stand-alone sequel, entitled The Cloud Riders. Dangerously so. As this book is still in its infancy, it's at a spot where it's more fun to write. It would be easy to get swept away, and focus on The Cloud Riders, leaving The Sun Runners unfinished. That hasn't happened, fortunately, but The Cloud Riders has passed 10,000 words, and now has an opening chapter. Three opening chapters, actually. You saw the first part, really a prologue, over here. In it, Samuel Dekker is introduced as a twelve-year-old Venusian writing to a Martian pen pal, who turns out to be named Pandora. The following is the first half of chapter two, and is set six years later. Samuel Dekker, now eighteen, ruminates on his life as he prepares to enter cadet school for the Venusian Police and Rescue Forces. He wants his life to be interesting, and it will be. He just should be careful what he wishes for...

Chris Jones HAVOC, Venus
July 3, 2322

It was an early breakfast at the cadet school's Mess Hall. Through the windows, I could see the beauty of Venus below me as the Sun rose.

The sulphuric clouds kilometres below mounded black and orange, while the sky turned red, tinging to blue. Soon, the Sun would...

"Hey, where's the Sun?"

"There was a CME last night." Zia ate a spoonful of yoghurt, and swallowed. She licked the spoon. "Daylight's cancelled until it passes."

Coronal Mass Ejection. It would be dusk for hours. "Darn it!"

...Eventually, the Sun would rise turning everything white on white. I stared out, smiling as I felt the HAVOC's engines purr beneath my feet.

The Mess Hall was full of people, who'd divided themselves up by year. I could tell who they were by how they sat. The first year cadets clustered around our tables, nervous, excited, chattering like flocks the starlings on Old Earth. The second and third years sit and relax. Like ducks. Maybe not ducks. Swans, perhaps? Either way, they smile benignly and not-so-benignly at the younger students, wondering if they were ever that uncool.

"Sammy?" Xavier's voice almost breaks my concentration.

Watching over them all are the seniors, who have been given their first taste of authority, and like it too much. If they were allowed to preen, they'd do so like peacocks. Instead, they stand like flamingoes around the edge of the room.

"Sammy?" Xavier called. "You with us?"

Zia sighed. "He's caught up in his diary, again."

I ignore the distractions. I am a first year, and I know the next four years will be hard work. I'm ready, though. I'll make Dad proud. I'll graduate strong, get a placement aboard a large cloud-miner, maybe even the capital--

"Samuel Dekker" Zia shouted.

I flinched. "What?"

She held out a cup. "You want the last yoghurt?"

Did I look like I wanted the last yoghurt? Did police detectives ever let themselves be caught dead with yoghurt? Did--

"You sure?" Xavier chimed in. "It's blueberry!"

Blueberries! They were in season at last!

"Thanks!" I snatched the cup. Zia smirked at me. She knew police detectives didn't let themselves get caught dead with yoghurt, but she knew how much I liked blueberries. I respected that.

And I liked that smirk.

#

These were my friends, Xavier Moodley and Zia Naidoo. I'd known them since elementary school. We've become kind of inseparable.

Xavier likes a good joke. He's always hunting for one. He's the youngest of us -- still seventeen, just a couple of weeks from turning eighteen. He preens. He admits it. He dresses up. He puts himself out there. He was the first on the floor to dance. The first to dance with someone. The first to have somebody ask him to dance. As elementary school became vocational school, he'd had several dates, with people liking his dark eyes, hair like chestnuts, and his cheeky grin. He preferred the girls -- young women -- of our grade, but nobody left disappointed.

"You aren't writing about us are you, Sammy?" Xavier laughed.

As for Zia, she'd glommed onto our group at that awkward age where boys and girls weren't supposed to hang out together -- in spite of all our teachers' best efforts to break us out of our gender roles. Well, she didn't care what the other girls thought. Or boys, for that matter. It made the teachers happy, and Xavier too, I think. But, she was cool. She could hit a target better than anybody, and helped me with my math studies.

Zia was tall early on. Taller than me for a couple of years, which Xander teased me about mercilessly, until she hit him. She didn't dance. I'm not sure if it was because people didn't ask her, or if she wouldn't let herself be asked. Her black hair was twisted up behind her. She had smooth dark skin. Her high cheekbones emphasized her dark eyes.

Those eyes were glaring at me now. "You'd better not be writing about me, Samuel."

And she called me Samuel. When everybody else called me Sammy, and I wanted to be called Sam. But that was her way, and I'd long given up trying to correct her.

"Seriously," said Zia, "I'm going to take that thing and toss it in the recycling."

She looked out at the world with a wry smile. It made you want to smile back.

"Right, give that here!"

The bell rang as she lunged at me. I scurried back. Xavier shoved back his seat and picked up his plate, and Zia's, while I struggled to hold my book out of Zia's grasp. "Come on, you two!" he called. "Class time."

"Kind of occupied!" I grunted as Zia grabbed my shoulder and tried to climb me to get at my book.

Just then, we heard a cough that, though we hadn't really met anybody yet, still told us to stop what we were doing right now.

We turned, and I saw a man built just like my father, but older, white haired, and with a rounder face. The face didn't look angry -- it couldn't look angry, but it looked like it had seen a lot, and what it was seeing right now disappointed it greatly.

You can also tell a lot about a person by how he changes the room around him. Every student in their seats within a four chair radius were now staring at their plates, even if some of them had their hands discretely over or near their mouths, stifling their laughter. At us.

It was Captain Nevis. The school commander, and our first teacher for the day.

Crud.

"Ah." Nevins nodded, like we had lived down to his expectations. "Cadets Dekker and Naidoo. Nice to see you energized and ready to start the day. I look forward to you applying that enthusiasm to your studies." Then he turned and marched off.

Zia let go and backed away from me. And once Professor Nevis was out the Mess door, she slugged me in the forearm.

"Ow!"

"Thanks for getting us into trouble, Samuel!"

"You were the one who tried to climb me!" I snapped.

Xavier guffawed.

"Shut it!" Zia and I said to him, in unison.

He just grinned. "Come on. We'll be late."

Everybody else was filing out. Zia and I looked at each other. Then I tucked my book under the arm and put my tray away. We headed off to our first class.

#

So, there we were, just out of vocational school, now in our apprenticeship phase -- or, for our field, cadet school -- learning the ropes to become a member of the Venusian Police and Rescue Force.

At our first class, Xavier, Zia and I found three seats together by a table in the middle of the room. Twenty of us, all fresh-faced cadets, faced the front whiteboards of that small auditorium in nervous anticipation.

The door by the front of the hall burst open and two upperclass students marched in; a young man and woman, both seniors. They faced us beside the lectern.

"Greetings cadets," said the young man, emphasizing the second word in a way that made us instantly hate him.

"I am Corporal Susan Callister," said the young woman. "And my colleague is Corporal Philip Mode. We are here to help Captain Nevis, your professor, teach you what you need to know about aerial work."

"So, listen up!" Philip smacked a desk with a ruler. "What you hear from us will probably save your lives."

"So, respect your betters, pay attention to your lessons, and you might not wash out," Susan added.

"The first thing you need to know about aerial work for the Venusian Police and Rescue Force is how to fall," said Philip.

"Yeah!" Susan chuckled. "Don't."

"Because if you fall, you will die," said Philip.

"I know you think you'll be wearing aerial suits, and you will, but aerial suits don't help you fly," said Susan.

"They help you glide," said Peter.

"Which is just like falling, only slower," said Susan, relishing every word.

"But you'll still be falling faster than anybody could ever hope to catch you," said Peter. "So aerial suit or no, falling beyond your last handhold on a Uber-Zeppelin is death. Eventually."

Susan nodded. "Eventually. One good thing about falling from Venus is that you don't die from the impact."

"Yup," said Peter. "You're dead before you hit the ground."

"Long before you hit the ground," laughed Susan.

"With every meter you descend, the temperature goes up and up," said Peter.

"Along with the pressure," said Susan, bringing her hands together like she was squeezing water from a balloon. "Until it's like there's rocks on your chest."

"Then you pass into the cloud level," said Philip.

Susan laughed. "Boiling masses of sulphuric acid."

"Not to mention, perpetual lightning," added Philip.

"Zap!" cried Susan.

"By this point, the temperature around you is above boiling," said Philip.

"Above the combustion point of paper, in fact," Susan added.

"But it's not like you'd spontaneously combust," said Philip.

Susan chortled. "Yeah. You'd need oxygen for that."

"That's true," said Philip. "Instead you'd just kind of... melt."

"By the time you reach the surface, the pressure is enough to compress you into your oxygen mask," said Susan.

"Which at least makes you a conveniently-sized package to bring back up from the surface," said Philip.

Susan cackled again. "Not that we will. We don't have the resources for that."

I'll say this for them: they had our full attention.

Just then, the door opened, and Philip and Susan snapped to attention. Captain Nevis strolled past them. "Cadets," he said. "Welcome to your first week of immersive training for the Venusian Police and Rescue Force. I see that you've met my teaching assistants, Corporal Mode, and Corporal Callister. They will be giving you instruction when my duties require me elsewhere."

Well, that's just great, I thought. I looked over at Zia, and caught her glance and eye-roll.

Nevins turned to face us, taking us all in for the first time. He looked just as he had in the Mess Hall. He wasn't built like a drill sergeant, and he wasn't carrying any weapons. His eyes were bright in a face that closed every other emotion off. He exuded professionalism, duty, and an understanding of all the laws that could get you into trouble if you dared cross him, and how to go around said laws if the laws didn't work to his liking. I decided not to cross him.

Nevins began slow-stepping up the aisles between us. "Now, before I begin instruction, there are a few things I want to make clear. I am here to teach, and I expect you to learn, because if you don't learn well enough in this job, you will die, and I won't have that." He walked past our desk, heading towards the back of the class before turning. By some instinct, or some ancient knowledge that we must have gleaned through osmosis, we kept our ears open, and our eyes facing front.

"You may not think it to look at me," he went on, "but I am not adverse to a little fun now and then. So as long as any comic relief or letting off of steam doesn't threaten anybody's health and safety or their job performance, I am all right with that, but if I see you losing focus when lives may be on the line, you will know your mistake and take steps to fix it, or else."

He stepped closer. "Finally, I would like to bring to your attention that we have a bit of a celebrity here."

Suddenly, Captain Nevins was beside the desk I shared with Xavier and Zia, hands clasped behind him, and looking straight at me. His face betrayed nothing, but he towered over us cadets who were sitting down. "Am I right in deducing that you are Samuel Dekker, the son of our famed retired commissioner Blake Dekker?"

Science tells me that people's eyes do not exert a noticeable physical force on the things they gaze at. I have my doubts. I felt every one in the room staring at me, even though my back was to most of them. I could feel the blush rising up my neck, but I kept my gaze level with Captain Nevins. What could I say but the truth? "Yes, sir."

Nevins turned to address the class. "Commissioner Dekker, I must add, was commissioner during the Troubles that occurred after the Earth government collapsed and all communication with the planet ceased. You may remember, or you will have read in your histories, that he held this colony together. Those histories are correct. I served alongside him. He was brave, dedicated, honourable, loyal, and above all, ambitious."

And he became commissioner, I thought, while you're older and still a captain. Is that why you put the emphasis on the word 'ambitious'?

"I didn't expect him to retire so soon, frankly," he added.

Nevins might not have known -- I think he didn't know -- but that stung, and it was an effort for me not to show it.

Nevins turned to face me, and I couldn't decide whether the slight twitch of his lips was a genuine smile, or a smirk. "Can we expect similar great things from his son?"

Again, the eyes of the classroom were on me, and I realized that the next thing I said would mark me for the rest of cadet school. I couldn't help but be irked. I hadn't asked for this. But what could I say?

Perhaps it wasn't what I said, but how I said it?

I stayed calm. I took a steadying breath and opened my mouth. I heard myself say, "I'll do my best, sir. Thank you, sir."

Nevins grunted. I couldn't tell if it was a disappointed grunt, or an impressed one. He held the stare a moment longer, and I returned it. Then he turned away.

"I expect nothing less from you, Cadet Dekker, and from all of you," he thundered to the classroom, snatching up a marker and approaching the whiteboard like a tank on a trench, "So, let us begin."

Books 49, 50, 51, and 52

IMG_4027.jpgI have been fortunate that, for the past year or so, I've had non-fiction book projects to work on. The work-for-hire assignments piled up, sometimes threatening to overwhelm, but never completely, and these kept me busy until early May when I went on my train retreat and finally resumed work on The Sun Runners.

I really enjoy these assignments because of the challenge, the income, and the diverse subjects I get to research. One frustration has been that these work-for-hires sometimes take a while to send author copies back my way. I've had to buy some of my own copies through my local bookstore in order to put together a portfolio of my work. Recently, however, my publishers came through and a package arrived in the mail containing these hardcove beauties.

Of particular note is the book The Science of Hydro and Wave Energy. This was one of the first books I wrote for an American education packager, and it was a significant departure from my earlier non-fiction books. Written for a high school audience and featuring eighty pages, I was able to really get in depth on the subject, and I was really proud of what I wroge.

So, these covers are books 49, 50, 51, and 52. My Goodreads Profile lists a grand total of 66 publications to my name, although one is a compilation of my first three fiction novels, and another is a short story Erin and I contributed to a fan anthology, so I believe I have 64 books in the wild. The author copies of these have not arrived yet, and a couple of titles arent due for release until September. I also have a bunch more that haven't appeared on my Goodreads profile, yet. I have officially lost count of the number of books that I've written, but I am pretty sure that I'm over 70.

Onward to 100...

Dear Starbucks
(On Drive-Thru Small Talk)

architecture-building-business-303324.jpgPhoto by Dom J from Pexels

Dear Starbucks,

I generally hold your company in good regard. You may not be perfect, as the recent unfortunate incident in Philadelphia showed, but in your response to it, and in most of your other dealings, I feel that you try your best. I feel that you try to be progressive, and you try to leave the world better than when you found it, in spite of the loads and loads of money you make off of it.

And I get that this approach affects your policies, and how you want your employees to treat their customers. I further get that you want your customers to be happy, and that one way to do that (in theory) is to have your employees be happy at them as well. For the most part, this approach is better than Tim Horton's, which has taken the attitude of quickest prepared, quickest served, quickest buck, damn the quality torpedoes.

But recently I have encountered a policy -- and I'm pretty sure that it is a company policy, given the number of times this has happened to me -- where while I am stuck beside your drive-through window waiting for my Venti flat white, the person manning the window leans out with a smile and says, "So... What have you got planned for this weekend? Anything interesting?"

How many times has that backfired? Seriously? How many people have responded by saying, "Well, I'm off to a funeral tomorrow. They're burying my (sniff!) grandfather, who (sniff! choke!) died after a long battle with cancer, and--"

More often, I suspect the answer that most drivers want to give is "No." and leave it at that. However, such an answer seems to surprise said cashier or barista, saying "No?" and then they struggle to try and keep the conversattion going. "You just going to relax by yourself, or go visit somebody?"

This is why in improv you're told to always answer "Yes, and..." in order to build something. Except, I didn't ask to play this improv game, as my answer of "No" should have told them. Really, to paraphrase Alannis Morrisette, why are they so petrified of silence?

As nice as these individual baristas and cashiers are -- and they are nice and professional and polite -- I know that they don't really want to know what I'm planning for my weekend. I don't want to know what they're planning or their weekend. I don't care what any stranger wants to do this weekend, so long as it's (a) legal and (b) between consenting adults. I don't need to know anything more. These questions strike me as intrusive, and sometimes a little frustrating because, quite often, I don't know what I have planned for my weekend, either.

To sum up, Starbucks, you really need to rethink this drive-through small talk policy, because you should be asking yourself, if I wanted small talk, why the heck would I be pulling up to the drive-through window?

Sincerely,
Just Get Me My Coffee, Please.

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