Two alien worlds.
One teen emissary.
No reality she can trust.
Thirteen-year-old Liz Smith has been ripped away from one foster family after another for years, so the idea of a permanent home is tantalizing. Who cares if that home is a colony sixty-five thousand light-years from Earth? The friends in her trusty e-reader will keep her company just fine on her interstellar relocation.
But when the adventure of a lifetime turns into the disaster of the cosmos, Liz can only retreat so far into the books that have always sheltered her from loneliness and loss. Trapped in half-truths and secrets that leave her questioning reality, can one orphaned bookworm find a way to stop two races from destroying each other … and somehow write a happy ending to her own story?
If you like books about space travel, aliens, or cross-cultural transitions, you’ll love this poignant science fiction adventure.
to get your copy of Heartsong now and start the journey today! (Shh! Today only, the ebook is available for free!)
Read on for a sample of the story …
My love of reading started the whole thing.
The best place to read on the Laika was in the lifeboats. I’d discovered that on the first leg of the trip, during the flight from Earth to the jump point off of Phoebe. I mean, what else was there to do when we couldn’t see much through the viewports? The view was exciting when there was one, but when you’re far away from anything, space all looks the same.
The hyperspace jump that shot us across the galaxy had been quick, of course, so no time to get bored there. And after we came out of it at the jump point off of Somav, the blue giant that would light my skies for the rest of my life, the flight toward the little moon Soma was pretty exciting, too. I couldn’t stop staring as we passed Somavia, the blue and white planet I knew none of us would ever see close up again. I wondered about the aliens whose home it was. What were they like? The pictures and video Forerunner had sent back, from the few passes it had taken in high orbit, left everyone with more questions than they answered.
Of course, we knew the planet had a breathable atmosphere. If it hadn’t been for the alien race who already lived there — and the tirtellium that we were going to mine on Soma, of course — New Horizons Industries might have decided to set up its colony on the planet Somavia instead of on its moon.
We passed Somavia three days ago, and we’d been orbiting Soma ever since. Which was also exciting, at first. I couldn’t wait to actually get down there and start life on my new home. A home I would get to help create, along with the adult scientists and miners and the rest of the Young Explorers. A home I would never be taken away from just when I was starting to settle in. My forever home. Normally I hated new beginnings, but this one was different. This would be the last new beginning of my life.
Even the colony’s name, chosen by the Samoan astronomer who discovered this solar system, was perfect. Avanoa, which apparently meant opportunity in the Samoan language, sounded to me like a kingdom from some fantasy novel.
Not that life in Avanoa was going to be a fantasy. I knew that
starting a colony would be hard work, but that didn’t matter. A real home, with friends I would never have to say goodbye to, would be worth any amount of work.
Soma was interesting to look at, though not as pretty as the planet it orbited. The moon was mostly brown, with splotches of gray-green surrounding the dark blue dots that marked the location of its scattered lakes. With no actual oceans, the moon had just enough water to support a little plant and animal life. Nothing too dangerous, at least as far as we could tell from Forerunner’s pictures. Insects. Some fish and crustaceans that might or might not be edible. Small reptilian or maybe amphibian creatures that lived in and around the lakes. A handful of different mammals, all tiny, that made their homes in the hills. Nothing that seemed likely to bother two hundred human colonists setting up a new home on their world.
Of course, the aliens could be another story. We knew the Somavians had developed a limited form of space travel; we knew they had mines on Soma, too. But whatever they were mining for, it wasn’t tirtellium, and they only had a few tunnel mines in a few locations. We planned to set up our colony hundreds of kilometers away, where if all went according to plan, they wouldn’t even know we were around. Forerunner’s sensors had not detected any other artificial satellites in orbit around either Somavia or Soma, and as far as we could tell, the locals had no instruments capable of detecting Forerunner, no way to suspect we were coming. Its orbit was carefully programmed to keep it out of sight of any of their mines after dark, when it might be visible from the ground as a moving point of light.
The adults all said that hopefully we would never have to encounter any Somavians, but all of us kids hoped we would. I mean, why would anyone in their right mind not want to meet the first real live aliens actually confirmed to exist?
Jessie, who loved science fiction movies almost as much as I loved reading, had often kept Maria and Shaliqua and me awake late into the night back in our dorm room discussing all the possible alien-related adventures that awaited us if we ever made contact. Most of those possibilities were a lot more fun — though some were scarier — than the idea of living in isolation and never letting the locals know we were on their moon.
Anyway, judging by Forerunner’s footage, Somavian culture seemed peaceful, with no evidence of any wars going on down on their home world. If they did find out about the humans in their solar system, hopefully they wouldn’t mind us being there. We wouldn’t bother them, and with any luck, they wouldn’t bother us. And if they did get mad, well, the Laika had some weapons. Not enough to wage war with, but hopefully enough to convince them to leave us alone.
So much to wonder about. So much to look forward to. I could hardly wait to get down to the surface and start my new life. But here we all were, stuck in orbit for three whole days so far. Three painfully long and boring days. Earth days, that is. It had been nearly five Soman days, though we wouldn’t officially switch to using Soman time until we landed.
Atmospheric storms. Who would have thought that storms would be this big of an issue on a world with virtually no precipitation? Our science team had come up with a theory about minerals in the soil reflecting particles and wavelengths from the solar flares that Somav had been throwing out since our arrival. Whatever the case, the result was some pretty impressive windstorms in parts of the atmosphere. Since the spot picked out for Avanoa was directly underneath one of the worst storms, Captain Tyler insisted it wouldn’t be safe to try to land yet.
But no one had anticipated that the flares and storms would go on this long. At first, I was glad of the opportunity to orbit my new home and see what it looked like from space. But after a while the excitement faded, and everyone turned grouchy as we all grew more and more bored and impatient. The movies and games preloaded on our Horizon-brand tablets weren’t good enough to keep everyone happy, not while we had to put the adventure we’d all waited over a year to start on hold indefinitely. And I’d never been a big fan of video games or movies anyway.
So I did what I always do when real people get too annoying. I pulled out my old-school Novareader and turned to my true friends, the ones who never got annoying, who would always be there for me no matter what, who I never had to say goodbye to. And I escaped to the one place I had found on board where nobody would bother me or interrupt my adventures to ask what I was reading or exclaim over their new high score in who-cares-what-virtual-adventure on their RizeTab.
The Laika was designed to be taken apart when we arrived. Its decking and bulkheads would be used to help create Avanoa’s buildings until we could construct permanent residences from local rock, and that was one of the reasons the ship was so large. But big though it was, it had no extra empty space. Every compartment was full of freeze-dried food items, mining equipment, packages of seeds for genetically modified crops designed to grow well in the moon’s dry soil, and educational resources for us youth, because even on an interstellar adventure, there was no escaping school in some form.
So I had discovered in between Earth and Phoebe that the lifeboats were the best place to read. I wasn’t sure if I was really supposed to hang out in them, but they were unlocked, because after all, what would be the point in locking something that people would need to get into in a hurry in an emergency?
I sat curled up on a seat in Lifeboat 1, alternating between reading and looking out to see if anything interesting had come into sight down below. But from this angle, the one window — a wide viewport at the very front — was mostly full of stars, only a tiny sliver of Soma visible from one edge. I could have turned on the screen at the lifeboat’s navigational console and adjusted it to show me any view I liked, but that might trigger some sort of alert, and I didn’t want anyone showing up to tell me I wasn’t supposed to be in here.
So I joined Caz and her friends on their travels across the Granbo system, caught up in their space adventure on my Novareader screen, since my own space adventure had turned pretty dull. Lunch was another two hours away, so I might as well enjoy myself in the meantime.
And I did — until the ship vibrated more vigorously than usual and the fasten seatbelts sign flicked on.
I often felt as though several of me were debating inside my head. For a moment, Cautious Liz wondered if I should return to my seat. But what was the point? Practical Liz reminded me that I would be just as safe here in the lifeboat, and if the turbulence got bad, walking around with the Laika lurching under me would not be the smartest idea.
I already had my seatbelt on, since that was the best way to keep from floating around. Not that floating around wasn’t fun, but there was too little room in the lifeboat to do mid-air flips and spins without banging into things, and drifting around while I read made it hard to focus on the book. Of course my magnetic-soled shoes could have kept me anchored to the deck, but not when I wanted to sit cross-legged.
So I just tightened my seatbelt a little and turned back to The Gypsy Pearl. We had encountered turbulence lots of times in the last few days, thanks to the solar flares. It was no big deal.
But the vibrations grew stronger, and then the ship started lurching under me. I lowered my Novareader and looked around, but there was nothing to see here in the little lifeboat. The stars jumped and jerked outside the window, and if it hadn’t been for my seatbelt, I knew I would have been thrown about and probably injured already.
I waited for the crackle of the intercom and Captain Tyler’s voice to explain what was happening or issue instructions. But I heard nothing, and I wondered if the flares had damaged the lifeboat’s intercom system. They had interfered with the Laika’s electrical systems before, after all. Now I wished I’d returned to my seat while I could. If something dangerous was happening, I would rather face it with the others in the main cabin, where at least I would know what was going on.
Without warning, the lights flickered and then went out. Now that was a first. An instant later, an alarm screeched, making me jump. I gasped, really worried for the first time since we left Earth. The screeching continued as the stars swirled and zigzagged, sending faint but frightening shadows thrashing around me like alien spirits trying to take over the ship. For a second I wondered if that could actually be happening. Maybe the Somavians had powers we didn’t know about. Maybe they were trying to drive us out of their system … or worse.
Then the emergency lights embedded in the deck glowed to life, and I let out my breath in relief. The navigational computer two rows ahead of me powered on automatically, its screen lighting up green.
My relief was short-lived, though. The alarm kept blaring its intermittent warning. Screech! Silence. Screech! Silence. Screech! The turbulence was worse than ever, as though the Laika was a wild horse, bucking and leaping and trying to throw its rider off. And that rider gripped the edge of her seat all alone there in the lifeboat, wondering what in the universe was happening.
Suddenly the whirling stars vanished and Soma swung into view, filling the viewport ahead of me, a blur of brown-blue-gray-green-brown. I barely had time to notice before it was gone and the streaking stars reappeared. Then the moon appeared again.
My stomach was spinning as fast as the ship. Thank goodness I had inherited the Smith Stomach of Steel, or my breakfast would probably have ended up all around me. I could only imagine what a nasty experience that would be in zero gravity with the ship thrashing around like this.
A new noise caught my attention. A mechanical noise, a series of clicks and clinks and the sliding of metal against metal. I had only ever heard it before in simulations, but I recognized it right away, and my heart lurched in terror. “No!”
Words flashed across the computer screen, large enough to read from where I sat. LIFEBOAT LAUNCHING.
“No! I yelled again. I fumbled for the seatbelt clasp and flung myself across the tiny cabin, lunging for the manual override button beside the door. Not a smart move, I have to admit, considering how wildly everything was jerking around me. But I panicked. Can you blame me? None of our training, none of the simulations, had dealt with what to do if the lifeboat you were sitting in alone accidentally detached from the ship.
I knew what to do if a lifeboat didn’t detach when it was supposed to. I knew which lifeboat I was supposed to board in an emergency. Not this one, though they were all the same. I knew who my lifeboat buddies would be — a fairly even cross-section of the ship’s crew in terms of age and abilities, so we would have the best possible chance of survival in case not every lifeboat made it. I knew how to steer the lifeboat and bring it down for a controlled landing, even though I wasn’t the assigned helmsperson in my group. We had all learned all those skills, just in case.
But I didn’t know how to survive in deep space or on Soma’s surface on my own. The cupboards contained emergency rations and survival gear, of course, but not enough to live off of indefinitely. Of course the lifeboat would emit a signal that the ship’s sensors would pick up — I knew they were picking it up already, as of the moment my craft started to detach — but what if no one could come and get me right away? What if I landed on Soma, but the Laika couldn’t land for days or even weeks? They would have no way to rescue a stranded teenager who shouldn’t have been reading in a lifeboat in the first place.
And what if the aliens found me before my people did?
All that went swirling through my brain within a couple of seconds as I slammed my fist into the manual override button again and again. But nothing happened. That is, the hatch didn’t open to let me out into the ship’s corridor. But the incessant alarm finally went silent, and the frantic jerking and thrashing stopped, replaced by a slow, gentle twirl.
For a second, Optimistic Liz dared to hope that the trouble was over. But I knew that wasn’t it.
The lifeboat was no longer connected to the ship.
Too horrified even to yell again, I watched the Laika drift past the window, Somav’s light tinting her silver-white hull a metallic frostbite-blue against the blackness of space. She was still spinning and dancing like some huge bird as the solar flares played havoc with her electrical systems. And then I saw only stars, and then the mottled brown of the moon, then more stars. And then there went the Laika once more, further away this time.
Grabbing the back of a seat for leverage, I shoved off from the deck, thankful for the zero-gravity training. Floating was faster than clomping along in magnetic shoes, and I had to get to the controls now. I had to steer myself back to the ship.
But as I seized the arm of the helmsperson’s chair and maneuvered my body into it, I realized I had no idea how to reattach a lifeboat to its socket on the ship’s side. They had never taught us that. Were lifeboats even designed to reattach once they were separated?
Well, somebody must know the proper procedure for this kind of emergency. Captain Tyler or one of the other adults could talk me through the process. Right?
I fumbled for the seatbelt, twisting my ankles around the legs of the chair so I wouldn’t float off in the meantime. Jabbing the intercom button, I called, “Help! I’m in a lifeboat that just detached! What do I do?”
Realizing how panicked and little-girly I sounded, I took a deep breath and tried again. “I mean, this is Liz Smith on Lifeboat 1, calling anybody on the Laika who can hear me. Come in, please.”
There was no response, and I realized that the communication light wasn’t even on. The intercom was offline.
Great. Dang solar flares.
I took another deep breath. I had never felt so alone.
But the controls in front of me looked exactly like the ones in the simulator. I could do this. It would be just the same as I had practiced.
Except this was no game, where the only real struggle was to beat my classmates, to be the first to land my virtual lifeboat safely.
This was a real emergency.