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Spear of Light
The Glittering Edge, Book Two
By BRENDA COOPER
Prometheus BooksCopyright © 2016 Brenda Cooper
All rights reserved.
Charlie watched the grassy plains below the skimmer thin into sand and then gather and rise into steep-faced dunes. Lym's unrelenting sunlight washed the surfaces out, but from time to time he spotted shadows of hopping tharps and, once, the sinuous form of a sandcat as it slithered away from the skimmer's shadow. "Did you see that?" he asked Jean Paul.
His friend grinned at him, a flash of bright smile under unruly brown hair. "Did you see the first one?"
Jean Paul adjusted the controls with a few swipes of his fingers, bringing the skimmer lower. "A bit distracted, maybe?"
"Probably. But only a little of it's about Nona."
"You're lying through your teeth."
"I'm not." A low, conversational growl from the skimmer's back seat suggested that Cricket agreed with Jean Paul. Not that the big predator could possibly comprehend, regardless of how many individual words she clearly understood. She might have recognized Nona's name. After Nona left to go back home to the space station the Diamond Deep, Cricket had performed an elaborate three-legged hop through the station, muscles rippling under her dark coat, clearly scenting for something she couldn't find. She took up most of the back seat, her broad nose resting on her one front paw, and her white-tipped tail curled around her muscular haunches.
A ragged line of sea ate away at the dunes below, then they were over water. Charlie fretted. They'd be at the spaceport soon. At this rate, he'd be a wreck by the time Nona arrived. "I want to see the Wall," he said.
Jean Paul gave him a careful glance. "It's not like you knew the Next would do this."
Charlie's shoulders tensed even more. "Who knows what they'll do next?"
"No pun intended?"
Charlie didn't bother to answer, preferring to brood silently. He forgot everything else as they flew over a pod of Dali's whales. He counted slender backs and tall gray-green fins rising and falling almost in unison. Sun diamonds on the water made him blink, forcing him to count twice. Twenty-two whales, including three babies. The skimmer's computer confirmed that this was Arceson's Pod and that they had only lost one adult. A success.
He felt slightly better until they got close enough to Gyr Island to notice that the silhouette looked too sharp and too flat. The Wall. "I didn't think it would be that tall yet," he muttered.
He'd heard about it, but the news stories hadn't prepared him for the way it changed the contours of the land. A scar, an intrusion of nanotechnology on a place that only allowed for the simple and the ecologically balanced. A blight, he thought. A blight that he had relinquished all control over. Anger, always simmering inside him these days, coiled even tighter around a guilt he couldn't banish.
He reached over the back seat, running his fingers through the coarse fur on Cricket's shoulder and murmuring words of endearment, as if his animal could absorb his pain.
As they flew in to the spaceport, the Wall bulked over them in spite of the fact that it was at least three klicks away. He knew that much. He'd negotiated the place, chosen which fields to sacrifice and which to hold onto, forced the invaders away from the spaceport.
He hadn't thought to manage the vertical space the Next could take. The nearby crops would die with no direct sun. He'd be lamenting things he hadn't thought of for years.
He banked over the spaceport, looking for evidence of another impossible thing he'd heard. "They're doing it."
Jean Paul leaned forward, squinting toward the Wall. "What?"
"Melting their ships to build the Wall."
"It's not melting. It's disassembly."
"No shit. But they're really doing it. Damned Next. Destroying ships for a wall." The first few ships that Charlie had seen land were nowhere to be seen. None had taken off, but they weren't on the spaceport pad where they'd landed weeks ago. Another of the big boxy ships was no better than a silver puddle on the ground, its base material sliding in a line toward the Wall as if it were water. A second ship seemed to be just beginning the same process, the sharp edges of its top softening as thin lines of silver fell onto the ground in a bad caricature of a waterfall. The uncanniness of it chilled him.
Jean Paul glanced at him. "Don't let it get to you."
"Always." Charlie banked for the skimmer parking area, landing them fast and forcing the skimmer to brake hard enough that Cricket almost slid from the seat. She let out a disgruntled little yip.
A sturdy man with dark hair and eyes and a deep outdoorsman's tan started toward them. Kyle Glass. His square jaw was tight and his walk slow and controlled, as if he were holding back.
Charlie climbed out, followed by Jean Paul. Cricket hopped out and stood beside him, her head at his waist, her balance perfect in spite of the missing leg. She nosed the air, her wide, dark eyes watchful. He stared at the tongat long enough to give her a forceful stay command before he headed toward Kyle. While Charlie didn't prime his own weapon, he heard Jean Paul slide his stunner open. His best friend, his defender.
If it came to a fight, Charlie and Jean Paul would protect each other. Far better not to fight.
They'd all three been rangers together just a few years before, defenders of the wild plants and animals on the planet Lym, protectors and watchers who planted, purged, and recorded the great re-wilding, who kept poachers away from this one natural place in the whole solar system. Charlie had risen into a command position at Wilding Station, Jean Paul had stayed with him like glue, and Kyle had moved to a station near the farms.
A year ago, Charlie had been forced out into space, ripped from Lym and sent out to be its ambassador. When he came home, he'd had two soulbots with him: humans turned to Next against their will, but now — undeniably — part of the invading force. Kyle had ferried Charlie and the two robots home from the stars. They had unnerved him, and he had kept his distance ever since.
Charlie tried to pull nuance from Kyle's expression, but all he read was raw anger.
"Kyle!" He held a hand out in greeting. "What can I do for you?"
Kyle leaned back and brought his arm up.
Charlie bobbed to miss Kyle's open palm as it came at his face.
At least it was open. He'd have had to react to a fist. Charlie kept both of his arms at his side, struggling to control the heat rising in him.
Cricket barked, telling him she wanted to be out near him. Hopefully she would stay put. She'd never seen him fight, and he couldn't have her involved.
Jean Paul held his stunner up, pointing it at Kyle. "What's this about?"
Kyle didn't take his eyes from Charlie's. "You gave away our farm. That was mine. My dad's and mine. You negotiated away way too much, and you didn't ask us for the right." His voice was loud and shaky, edged with anger. "No one asked us anything. Not even Manny."
Calm had always been the key to Kyle, who ran hot. Charlie let a beat of time pass. "And you came out here to slap me?"
Kyle shifted on his feet, looking down and then back at Charlie. "I didn't believe you'd betrayed us. But everyone said it was you, and Manny wouldn't answer any of us. What happened?"
"I kept what I could." Charlie glanced toward the Wall, noting that it was uneven and thus probably not finished. "They were coming. They were coming no matter what. We traded. They agreed to stay contained in a few places. This is one of them. They agreed to let us keep most of Goland." He winced at how weak that sounded, and he pointed up, toward the black of space. "They have a whole fleet out there. They could have taken it all."
Kyle's eyes were still narrow, the anger not yet banked. "So you picked my farm?"
Charlie was glad he had worn his uniform. "I did what I had to do. Surely Manny will give you more land."
"Dad might take it, but not me. I want our land back. I was born there."
Charlie said nothing. Surely Kyle knew he couldn't have the past returned to him. "I understand. I'm sorry."
"I'm fighting, Charlie. I want you to fight beside us. We're going to make them leave."
Charlie arched an eyebrow. "Really?"
"We'll find a way."
Charlie stopped for a deep breath. "You can't fight them. We can't fight them. They destroyed a whole space station. Look what they're doing to their ships! Melting them. They can melt themselves, copy themselves, restore anything you kill."
Jean Paul spoke up, calm and reasonable. "How do you fight software?"
"That Wall's not software!" Kyle shouted, his face darkening.
Jean Paul spoke softly. "Sure it is."
Trust Jean Paul to have words for the heart of something Charlie had never thought of, not in that way. He was right. The emotion drained out of him, leaving emptiness touched with faint despair. "You can't fight them. Neither can I." His eyes flicked toward the Wall and then back at Kyle. "I don't even know if we can contain them. I tried to save as much as I could. There's more rangering to do. Come out to the station, to Goland."
"I'm not coming back."
"Too bad. We could use you. I'm sorry." He was stuttering. Pointless. "We need more hands now, not fewer. I'm sorry."
"I'm not. I'm sorry for you. I knew you'd fallen for the robots. I saw it. I saw it firsthand." He fell silent, staring, his jaw trembling with some emotion he wouldn't let escape him. "You'd best be careful. Most of the town knows you've lost track of which side you're on. I won't hurt you. I promise never to hurt you. But I can't keep everyone off you."
Charlie looked away from Kyle for a moment, back toward the huge silver wall. "Come back and work with us. You're big enough to get past this, and so is your dad. You'll be okay."
Kyle paused, swallowed, and met Charlie's gaze with a very earnest look. Even for Kyle. "Go back to Wilding Station. It's best. For now."
Charlie took a deep breath. Keeping his voice low, he asked Kyle, "Is that a threat?"
"It's a warning."
It sounded like a threat. "I can't take orders from you." He stopped for a moment, staring at the damned wall. "Maybe it will be okay if we give it a little time. Maybe we'll get something better than heartbreak out of the Next."
Kyle's face had closed down again. "Nothing will ever be okay again."
"That's a path to madness," Charlie said.
Kyle's face hardened. "Talk to me when you're ready to fight. In the meantime, be careful." With that, he turned and walked away.
Charlie stood silently, watching his friend walk away. He couldn't let this lie, but he also couldn't fix it, at least not right now.
Cricket leaned into him. He ruffled the fur on her neck before he turned toward Jean Paul. "If I hadn't gone away to space, I'd be as angry as Kyle."
"You're still the same as you always were."
"That's a lie. With great knowledge comes great confusion."
Jean Paul laughed. "Nona will be coming soon. I'll take Cricket and we'll walk around. She needs a stretch."
"Stay away from Kyle."
"He's gone." Jean Paul pointed. Sure enough, a single skimmer rose up toward the sky, the afternoon sun glinting on its silver skin. "Go. Clean up. You've only got twenty minutes until Nona shows up."
Charlie leaned over and gave Jean Paul a quick, tight hug. "Thanks for being here."
Jean Paul nodded, quick and perfunctory. "Always. Go meet your girl."
"She's not my girl."
"Right." Jean Paul gave Cricket a hand signal and the two of them left, walking toward the edge of the spaceport. Even with one front leg missing, Cricket kept up just fine. They headed toward a large expanse of grass between empty landing pads.
Charlie couldn't keep his eyes off the Wall. Software. He wouldn't have thought of it that way. His skimmer was metal, but it had no smarts. It wouldn't become anything else unless someone made it something else.
The Wall that blotted out part of the sky had made itself out of starships, and he had to presume it would become starships again someday.
The Next were software. But they all started as people. Thinking about that fuzzy question of soul was as hard as thinking about an individual raindrop in a storm, or a single droplet of fog.
He started toward the waiting area, still feeling in every way like he wasn't ready to see Nona. Maybe he'd never be ready to see her. She must be on her way already, in a shuttle that had left one of the stations orbiting overhead. What was she thinking? Was she possibly as nervous as he was, as conflicted? As hopeful?
* * *
There were other people in the waiting room. He recognized a family that lived near his uncle Manny. When he smiled at them, the father looked away and the mother stared for a brief, excruciating second and then looked away herself.
He used to be popular.
He leaned on the window beside the woman and looked out. As he did, he managed to recall her name. "Luissa, I hope you're well."
After a few breaths she whispered. "No one is well anymore. They're a plague on our lives."
Her husband gathered her in his arm and sidled two steps away, pulling his wife close. Maybe this was why Manny had sent his own family into hiding. Didn't anyone believe they'd done as well as they could?
Charlie didn't try to say anything else, and a bubble of space persisted around him even as the room filled up.
The observation deck was far enough away from the Wall that it could only steal a section of sky, the change subtle but unmistakable. The view should be flat green or yellow fields all around: grains and vegetables hugging the tarmac on the far side and stretching all the way to the boundary between soil and beach, the ocean just barely too far away to really see. Instead, square ships that the Next used for cargo blocked part of his view, and the Wall shadowed the fields even this early in the afternoon.
A sweet female voice played over the loudspeaker. "Five minutes until Shuttle Three lands."
The shuttle flew in low over the fields and slowed to a near hover before it set down on four legs and squatted on the tarmac like an insect settling flat onto the surface.
The waiting room doors opened, and Charlie and the others spilled out onto the pavement.
Nona walked down the ramp first. She wore a yellow dress and blue boots that matched the blue streaks in her hair. She stood with her feet braced and shaded her eyes from the sun, looking for him. He saw the moment she spotted him, the smile, the relaxation of her shoulders. Her simple dress showed off her blue and green dragon tattoo and highlighted the lacework tats on her wrists. She had a new one on one hand, possibly her captain's sigil from the Sultry Savior.
He forced a casual walk, came up close enough to smell her (clean and oily, like all spacers). He stood with the width of an outstretched hand between them. He'd met her right here, the first day she set foot on Lym. He'd gone with her to the far edges of the solar system and come back. They'd been lovers for one night and separated the day after.
They each had their duty. He hadn't seen her since before the system-wide vote on the Next, before he negotiated with the Next about Lym and turned the whole system against him, before the Shining Revolution murdered Chrystal, the new Next created from Nona's childhood friend.
She looked almost the same. Beautiful. Still pretty enough to shock him. The jewel in her cheek looked like a cut diamond in the sunlight, and her hair sparkled as well, as if had been painted with tiny, tiny touches of reflective glass. The green and blue scales of her dragon tattoo matched the colors in her hair. The differences he noted were small. She looked tougher. Less vulnerable.
Nona smiled up at him. The sunshine of it pierced him and he smiled back, and then he couldn't help himself anymore. He took her in his arms and pinned her to him, running his left hand along the small of her back and touching her jewel with his right. "I'm so glad you came."
She pushed just far enough away to look up at him and then past him and above them. "The sky is as fabulous as the first time I saw it."
He looked up. A few thin clouds painted over a deep blue field. After spending so much time locked inside a space ship, he'd sworn to appreciate the magic of sky every day. He smiled.
"It's so good to be here," she murmured.
This time he recognized her bag in the pile that had been offloaded and left on the tarmac. She stopped him before he could lead them toward Jean Paul and Cricket. "I brought a second one. I'll be here longer." She pointed out a large red bag on wheels.
Excerpted from Spear of Light by BRENDA COOPER. Copyright © 2016 Brenda Cooper. Excerpted by permission of Prometheus Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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