For any who might be interested, I thought I'd post a teaser excerpt from the first chapter of the new novel I'm working on. It's a far future sci-fi set on a colony planet in another solar system. It's tentatively titled Penthesilea, and I'm sure it will change quite a lot before it is done!
The morning of her thirteenth birthday, Keng entered the family room to accept the embraces and kisses of her mothers. She had bubbled with excitement for weeks, knowing something special would happen today, though no one, not even the habitual gossips, would do more than drop hints. Her oldest mother, Adanya, smelled faintly of cloves as she drew Keng close in her thin arms and whispered in her ear, “I’m so proud of you, first child of Themis. Always so many questions. Now today some can be answered.” Adanya kissed her cheek and held Keng out at arm’s length, eyes shiny with tears.
Keng was afraid to respond in case her voice broke. She took a deep breath and used the moment to scan the faces in the room. Naturally Mother Slade was not there. All twelve of her other mothers, but not her favorite. Keng had hoped that today would see a change in the way Slade treated her. If not when Keng was officially counted as a woman grown then when?
Mother Zahra looked at her with her lips quirked in a smirk. “Why so sad? It’s your special day.”
“I think you know,” Keng whispered.
“Oh, we all know, young lady,” Zahra said. “So much warmth and love in this family, and the one you miss is she who so rarely speaks a word to you or deigns to glance your way. Perhaps if I beat you I would be your favorite?” Keng didn’t need Zahra’s grin to know she was at least half joking.
“I’m sorry, Mothers,” Keng said to the gathering. “I only thought that today perhaps I could see my whole family together for once.”
She watched the smiles as her mothers passed glances around the room. Something was up. Keng wished they would just get on with it. She didn’t like surprises.
“We’re sorry to tease you so,” Mother Hasinah said. “It is only that we know today you will get something that you have long wanted, so we are happy. Go to the roof garden, love. Your gift is there.”
Keng suppressed the urge to immediately head for the stairs and completed her round of the room, accepting hugs and congratulations from the rest of her mothers. On her way out the door, she spotted one of the cats lazing near the bottom of the steps and scooped him up. “Come, Mouser. Let’s see what the big surprise is.”
The stairs to the roof garden rose only a single story since her family’s home lay near the edge of the great dome. Keng sometimes wished she were lucky enough to live near the center in one of tall buildings, and every so often she took the long trudge up the stairs of one of the tallest in order to stare out over the entire colony. She had read of doll houses during her studies, and if she lay on the edge fifteen stories up and looked down, she could pretend that all of Panthesilea was her own personal doll house.
Every building had rank upon rank of gardens, helping to feed the colonists, along with the farms that Keng had heard lay outside of the dome. Her own gardens were meagre, given that the home was a mere one story. It primarily consisted of hydroponic fruits and vegetables, though several of the mothers insisted on a few types of flowers as well. Keng reached the top of the stairs and fell quickly to her knees, for she saw Mother Slade performing her exercises near the central fountain and she knew the security chief disliked being disturbed. “Go on, cat,” she hissed, and dropped Mouser on the top step, where the gray furred beast scurried right back down the way they had come.
Keng liked to try to sneak up on Slade, but she had never once succeeded in catching her unawares. From her knees, Keng peered under a row of hanging grapes and watched as the slim but muscular figure flowed through a series of lunges and blocks and kicks. Except for eyelashes, Slade was hairless, which always made Keng think of her as looking both young and old at the same time. Keng wished to learn martial arts as well. They seemed far more interesting than the usual gardening and sewing performed by most of her mothers, or the Tai Chi most of the women did each morning out on the lawns. Usually by now Slade would have halted her routine and glared at Keng until she departed, but this time Slade went on punching and sliding as if she were unaware of Keng’s presence. Keng recalled that her present was supposed to be here. She looked at the benches near the fountain but could see no sign of a package. A moment later, Slade completed her routine and bowed to some invisible opponent before turning to Keng and crooking a finger at her.
Keng was surprised. It was the first time Slade had ever invited her to approach. Cautiously Keng rose to her feet and skirted the garden rows until she came to the patch of grass near the fountain. There she halted and remained silent.
Slade stood straight and still as a statue, remaining expressionless for so long that Keng wondered if she was meant to speak first. As she debated on what she might say, Slade spoke at last. “Thirteen.”
Slade had a deeper voice than most women, but she always spoke in a soft manner, even when angry. “I’ve been tasked with providing your birthday gift.”
Keng wasn’t sure how to respond to that, so she remained silent.
“Come,” Slade said, and stalked past Keng toward the stairs.
Keng scurried to catch up and fell into place a meter behind as they descended. Instead of turning into the house, Slade passed on, and Keng understood that they must be headed toward the security hut near the edge of the dome. That made Keng smile. She had always been forbidden from entering the ten meter protective zone circling the inner perimeter of the dome.
As they drew near the security hut, Slade motioned for Keng to stop, while she continued on. The hut’s door slid aside and Slade reached in and pulled forth two backpacks. Now Keng’s heartbeat raced and she gave a little hop in place. At last she was going to get to see the world outside the dome. Slade passed her a pack, and she felt the lumpy, hard-packed exterior with one hand before slipping it over her shoulders.
They stood near the edge of the dome, just off the paved road used by the auto-haulers that brought in supplies from the factories and farms outside. It was the nature of the dome that Keng could never catch a glimpse of the outside world, even when trucks were passing through. Her studies had taught her about the material used to create the dome, a synthetic substance that everyone called anaglass. Keng had never before been so close to it. She wanted to reach out and touch it, but she didn’t dare with Slade standing nearby.
“We’ll pass through in a moment,” Slade said, “but first prepare yourself.”
Keng wasn’t sure what Slade meant, so she took a moment to gather her thoughts. She knew what she should see beyond the dome, but studying something is far different from seeing the reality. The nearby surface of the dome shimmered and swirled with a deep blue that reminded her of Mother Magda’s tea cups. It looked solid, yet on a daily basis Keng watched auto-haulers pass in and out as if the wall were air. And when she looked up, the dome looked like a clear blue sky with fluffy white clouds. The afternoon sun was hidden beyond the buildings, but a pale sliver of moon showed overhead.
“How long is the day out there?”
Slade’s sudden question snapped Keng out of her reverie. “I don’t remember exactly. Less than eighteen hours.”
Slade nodded and said, “Let’s go.” She walked directly into and through the blue wall and vanished from sight.
Despite having watched so many people and vehicles pass through for years, Keng was nervous, as if touching the anaglass might shock her. She groped out with one hand and was surprised when she felt nothing at all upon passing it through the wall. Then she shrieked as a strong hand grasped her wrist and yanked her through.
Keng gasped. Everything looked wrong.