If you are still on the fence about whether or not our YA sci-fi romance, by Hayley Reese Chow, will be a good fit for you, take a minute to read the first chapter!
We hope this sneak peek will help you say YES!
With every step, Ezren breathed in another lungful of restored sanity. With every leap, she bounded away from the underground cage of Tuzuno outpost. And with every gust of wind lashing her heavy topsuit, she could pretend that she was free here in Belethea’s rocky landscape. A wild laugh gurgled up, and she flung her head back and howled with the frenzied storm curling around her.
The navy-shaded funnel cloud above her whipped at the castle of thunderheads towering over the jagged cliffs on the horizon. Ezren’s weather map beeped in her goggs, warning her of the maelstrom’s vicinity, its red-stained radar image updating every six minutes next to her green vitals readout. Eh, she still had another 146 seconds. At least. Ezren breathed in the tangy scent of the charged air, digging her boots into Belethea’s mauve dirt, its scant layer of hardy weeds rippling against the craggy surface.
Even from four clicks out, the storm hurled dust and rock chips at her in between rumbles of thunder, warning her to go back to her underground home where she belonged. After twelve downside days in a row, she was just about sick of Tuzuno’s narrow tunnels. And the truth was, if you couldn’t handle Belethea’s stormy temper, then you didn’t go topside at all. Which was also why she was out here alone.
Well, that and the fact that even though the newly-risen sun would shine for the next six hours, it was nearing the middle of the night. But Ezren would take a topside run whenever she could get it, and she wasn’t about to waste a second of decent conditions. She and the other terraformers had worked hard for sufficient O2 to enjoy these stretches of atmospheric calm, so surely someone should enjoy it.
Her long, powerful strides devoured the mossy rock plateau stretching before her. Sweat beaded under the goggs strapped around her helmet, soaking into the compression liner of the clunky, old-fashioned topsuit that anchored her in Belethea’s lower grav, her emergency pack cinched around her shoulders and waist.
The goggs beeped again, and Ezren’s eyes flicked back to the radar. Mother suns. She’d have to turn around now if she didn’t want to get stuck in a storm den and endure one of her mother’s multi-day rants on topside safety.
With a reluctant huff, she turned back toward the metal-cased dome now 4.73 miles behind her down the incline. Ugh. It really bothered her that she wouldn’t be able to get up to double digits today. But… then again, she did still need to finish that mother-shafting history report.
The wind was howling so loud now, Ezren almost didn’t hear her goggs chirp with the message.
Incoming call from Micah: Accept?
Did that girl ever sleep? Ezren blinked twice, and Micah’s overly bright voice crackled in her ears. “Why didn’t you tell me you were going topside, you surface rat?”
“Surface rat gonna surf.” Ezren laughed dryly.
“Are you tracking this storm?”
“You could say that; I’m practically in it.”
“Ooh, perfect!” she squealed. “What if I told you I got a storm truck, six trays of algae bombs, and four instrumentation birds to set off?”
“You lucky sneak! Where’d you steal those from?” Ezren’s mouth widened in a smile under her dented helmet.
“And just why would I give away my secrets?”
“Fine, be that way, as long as you let me in on the heist.” She mentally flicked her coords Micah’s way, the neurochip in her goggs chirping confirmation. “Come get me!”
“Only four miles out? Tsk, tsk, Ezzy, are you going soft on us?”
“It was a short window!” A boom of thunder vibrated through Ezren’s suit, but she could just make out the black storm truck already charging toward her across the incline, careening around the wart-like boulders peppering the stony slope.
“You gotta be in top shape if you’re going to place in the race royale tryouts.”
Ezren groaned. “Seriously, can’t you even go fifteen minutes without mentioning that stupid race?”
“Not this week. Didn’t I tell you? Belethea’s team is holding open tryouts for the first time ever, and they start in 79 hours and 42 minutes.” The skid of the truck’s wheels on rock crunched through her comms. “This is a huge deal.”
Micah probably had already mentioned the tryouts, but all her BRR gossip tended to go in one ear and out the other. Not that Micah seemed to mind repeating it—constantly. Still, Ezren couldn’t help but smile at her friend’s unbridled enthusiasm. “Well, my fingers are crossed for you, M. I know how much you love the race royale.”
“Massive understatement, Ez. The BRR is my life. It’s the whole reason I took this internship in the first place.”
Ezren let herself skid down a gravel-slicked cliffside, her feet steady on the familiar terrain. “Oh, c’mon, interning at a planet engineering research outpost on one of the first-ever half-terraformed planets is way crisper than that ridiculous publicity stunt of a race.”
The storm truck roared up the serrated incline, its shock-hardened bumper careening into a boulder twice its size. Micah flung open the door, her signature pigtail buns a luminescent shade of green and her blue multi-lensed goggs glinting on her forehead. Her eyes—gold today—glared at Ezren from her heart-shaped face. “Get real, Ez! There are teams from all three habitable planets and all twenty-four space stations. It’s the one thing literally everyone in the system can agree on but you.”
“Yeah, yeah.” Ezren shooed her with a hand. “Move over, I’m driving.”
Micah had been interning at Tuzuno research outpost for a couple of months now, but her driving skills still left much to be desired. In fairness, the fickle storms, unforgiving terrain, and low grav made for a steep learning curve.
Micah scuttled into the passenger seat while Ezren slammed the door shut, mentally linking her goggs to the driving AI. “Well, if anyone can make it, you can.” Ezren adjusted the six-point harness to her slight 5ʹ2ʺ frame. “They’d have to be scabbed to turn down your application.”
She slammed on the accelerator, the storm’s debris of rocks bouncing off the truck’s metal casing. The holo-projection on the armored windshield showed the funnel clouds multiplying above them. Ezren had to get to the top of the ridge before the wind devils touched down if they were to deploy the goods.
Micah let out her oddly deep belly laugh. “I wish, girl. I have many assets”—she brushed a speck of dust from the storm-tracking arm bracer she’d designed herself—“and I may eat, sleep, and breathe the BRR fangirl life, but I was not cut out to run, drive, and fight my way across a hostile environment.” She paused, jolting against her harness as Ezren adjusted the magnetic balance that kept them from bouncing off the surface. “But you, on the other hand…”
Ezren snorted, swerving to avoid a small avalanche while she cut her way up the spiral rock ridge as fast as she dared. “Have you cracked? I’d rather die than squirm under a million hovercams.” Her skin prickled at the thought of it. “Besides, don’t they have some ridiculous academic standards or something? You know my test scores are borderline at best.”
“Oh, please, details. You’d be a perfect match. You’re a born Obronian with the experience of a Belethean and a frankly unnatural love of exercise.”
Ezren stuck out her tongue and blew a raspberry.
“And besides the obvious fame and fortune and my undying love, you’d get the chance to win the terranium prize for Belethea. Think of all the research you could do.” Micah tapped on her storm tracker, a 3D holopro popping up from her forearm. “We have 185.3 seconds to release the microalgae into the atmosphere to maximize its chance of survival and spread the instrumentation as far as possible.” She unbuckled the trays from the space at her feet, stacking them into a release box on her lap.
For a moment, Ezren’s mind stuck on the thought of the terranium—the precious compound’s unfathomable energy output powered everything from atmospheric regulators, to space stations, to intergalaxy cargo ships. It was the real reason every planet and station in the system sent their royalers into the BRR death trap.
A person-sized rock crashed against the broadside of the storm truck, sending them spinning and bringing Ezren back to reality. She fought against the pull of the collision, her mind racing as she reacted to the AI output to straighten the truck and continue the climb. “Don’t try to sweet-talk me. Belethea’s team is the worst.” She slammed on the brakes and unbuckled, pointing to the narrow peak clawing the sky like a crooked finger. The wind screamed around the cab, the funnel clouds twisting dangerously toward the ground. If they touched down this close to them, even the armored storm truck would be tossed around like a pebble in the churn belt. “Give me the goods. I’ll run them up.”
“They’re primed and ready to go, so all you have to do is pop the lid off.” Micah shoved the box into her hands. “You have 58.2 seconds.”
“Challenge accepted.” Ezren flashed a grin at her and shoved out into the storm. Small chunks of ice pattered down from the violent sky while lightning and thunder held a lively argument in the illuminated heavens. Ezren snatched the tow hook from the front of the truck and clipped it to her pack’s harness before scrambling up the spire.
In Belethea’s low gravity, she dug her feet into the ground, dodging the largest of the projectiles and bracing as another knocked against her head, the outer shell of her helmet breaking off with a crack. Mother suns. That was the last fully intact helmet they had. Head ringing, she hugged the hard surface, one hand clawing into clumps of belweed as she climbed.
“I’m here,” she called into the comms. The storm swirled furiously around her, tearing at the box in her hands.
“Are you sure you can’t get any higher?” Micah asked.
Ezren ducked another rock that looked sharp enough to impale her. “I can if you’re ready to pull me in.”
Ezren double-checked her projectile radar, turned off her boots’ magnetic lock, and then jumped off the cliff, spreading her arms and legs wide. Even with her heavy suit, the wind lifted her body like a kite, swirling her up with the rest of its debris. Her stomach wrenched as the tether yanked at her chest, fully extended from its storm truck anchor. In one smooth motion, she yanked the lid off the box, and the green and gray capsules whipped away like dandelion seeds.
“Deployed,” Ezren said, her thoughts dashing away on the wind. A smile spread across her face as she looked out over the mottled purple-and-green curve of Belethea below, and she let out a triumphant whoop. Her body twisted among the frenzied clouds, and her racing heart soared, a wild laugh shaking her heaving chest.
Then, her harness tightened as the storm truck reeled her in. Another few moments and she was back in the driver’s seat, adrenaline tingling across her sweat-dampened skin as they raced away from the storm.
Micah only shook her head. “It really is a chaffing shame.”
Ezren couldn’t dim her smile even for a moment; the rush was too fresh, her mind still fuzzy with the thrill. “What is?”
“Belethea has never won the race royale, but they’ve never had you.”
Ezren shrugged. The race was a publicity event, a sham, entertainment for the masses. She cringed at the thought of her face plastered all over Virtual Society with comments and jokes and ridiculous holos. Out here, with the dirt under her feet, she could ignore all of that. This was the real work, the real Belethea.
And they would have to take her away kicking and screaming.
“You’re going to be late again!” Sam shouted, his voice cracking, while Waffle, their short-legged capybog, trilled her disapproval.
Ezren raised her heavy head, blinking her bleary eyes in the harsh electric light of her room. Her vision focused on Waffle first; the genetically engineered mix of a dog’s half-flopped ears and a capybara’s resting bored-face stared back at her. Groaning, she pawed the bedside table for her goggs on their charging rig. What day was it, again? She wrinkled her nose, and then the realization hit her like a Belethean tornado. All three of her alarms were going off. That meant…
She leapt out of bed with a swear. “Asdef! Professor Holland is going to kill me.”
Sam sighed, his bright blue gaze hooded. “That’s what I was trying to tell you.”
The tiny round hummingbot chirped on his shoulder. “Well, it’s understandable. She didn’t get in until three hours ago.”
“Again?” Sam tsked with an unsympathetic smirk. “Mom’s going to fritz.”
“Wow, thanks for selling me out, Giles.”
Ezren grabbed a long, chunky sweater off the clothes-strewn floor and threw it on over the tank top and tights she’d slept in. Then she snagged her pack and her goggs from her desk, littered with about a dozen other electronic trinkets, cups, and exercise bands. She dashed in and out of the tiny, shared bathroom, pausing only briefly to knot her mousy hair atop her head. Oh well, at least she didn’t get a grade for personal appearance. She lunged into their living room and dashed to the cramped kitchen, turning on the sink to fill the water bladder from her pack, willing it to flow faster.
“So how many tardies does it take before Holland kicks you out?” Sam asked as he trailed after her, a slight limp in his step and Waffle at his heels, nubby tail wagging.
“Sam, shouldn’t you be leaving for class already?” Ezren stuffed the bladder into her bag and grabbed a nutri-pack. “And did you take your meds this morning? Pain, cell regen, bone regrow, organ stimulant—”
“Of course. I’m not the irresponsible one here. In fact…” He projected the station time from the shiny green goggs on his forehead. “I still have five minutes before I have to leave.”
Ezren frowned. That may have been a fact, but she knew the real reason Sam hadn’t left was that he didn’t want to walk alone. Even though, at twelve, he was more than capable of navigating the perfectly safe pedestrian corridors to get to his class.
“And all of my homework is already turned in.”
Ezren gasped, standing frozen in her whirlwind. “Mother suns.”
“What?” Sam tensed, his eyes wide. “What is it? Are you okay?”
“No, no, no!” Ezren lurched back into motion, barreling toward the door. “I totally forgot about the stupid history essay.”
Clutching his chest, Sam puffed out a relieved breath through his cheeks. “Oh. Well, that’s normal. Could you save the dramatic gasps for actual emergencies?”
Ezren stomped her feet into her battered mag-trainers. “Sam! Let’s go!”
The door hissed open, and Ezren tried to will herself to be calm. She could do this. Being twenty minutes late wasn’t the end of the world, but this essay was worth fifteen percent of her grade. She’d have to finish it on the way.
She mentally brought up the file and skimmed through what she already had. Honestly, she only needed a two-hundred-ish word conclusion on the origins of the Casolla system. Okay, no problem. She could do this. She pulled up her mental dictation program from the neurochip in her goggs.
Ugh. Something about the original earthen discovery of the wormgate tech, which brought the first hotshot astro-pioneers to our beloved Casolla, a gas giant with twenty-two moons in the perfect Goldilocks zone around star CCVII-Zao.
Sam greeted a passing researcher whom Ezren hadn’t even noticed. “Ez, Tom just said hi. Have you gone into zombie mode or what?”
They wound through the underground corridors, a colorful holopro of a tropical forest lining the walls today while the clicks of Waffle’s webbed toes echoed on the metal floor. A few families and researchers passed them, but as a rule, Tuzuno wasn’t a very crowded outpost. One of the many things Ezren loved about it.
“Shh, I have to finish this essay.”
“You’re trying to think it out through your goggs?” Sam barked out a laugh. “Seriously, Ez, that’s a new low even for you.”
“Oh, hush, I’m almost done. Just make sure I don’t run into anyone.”
A seventy-one-year journey in cryosleep ended in years of station living while they tweaked the atmospheres of nearly perfect moons, Dreitis and Obrone, to exact earthen levels. Slap a few biodiversity domes on them to preserve the native microbial life, import their favorite flowers and beasties from back home, and the settlers flocked for the fresh dirt.
But they couldn’t fix everything. Though Obrone was almost Earth-sized, oceans covered 95% of its surface. And while floating and underwater domes had been invented back on Earth, they cost a hefty chunk of creds to build and maintain.
The floor inclined to surface level, and Sam and Ezren walked into the dome—the thriving greenhouse center of Tuzuno. Layers upon layers of greenery stretched out on clear racks above them, and a bright blue sky holopro coated the dome’s rounded metal ceiling. It was pleasant, but Ezren still preferred when the weather was calm enough to unshutter the dome and reveal Belethea’s own unique beauty. Those days were far and few in between, though.
Meanwhile, Dreitis had the opposite problem. Nearly one-fifth Earth’s size, and with about 10% of its water supply, it topped its max population cap in no time. Which is what continues to drive terraforming tech today, specifically on Belethea, with its hostile and unpredictable weather patterns, and Crion, with its weak atmosphere and icy surface.
“Okay, well, good luck with Holland, Ez. I have a feeling you’re going to need it.” Sam gave her a little salute at the door to his class.
“Thanks for the vote of confidence, Samster. Have a good day, and I’ll pick you up after physical therapy.” She absently ruffled his dirty blond hair.
“Don’t forget, he got bumped twenty minutes earlier today,” Giles chirped from his shoulder.
“I won’t forget!” Ezren was already turning toward her corridor, desperately searching for her last sentences.
So the wormgate travelers keep coming. Some convert their arks into stations and fall into orbit with the rest of us, while some pass through on their way to other habitable systems. The never-ending stream of travelers gives Casolla its diversity, while its unified dedication to discovery keeps its political mess at peaceable levels.
Done. She blew out a hoarse sigh of relief, skimming it over once more. It wasn’t great, but it would pass… Probably. She was turning into her class’s corridor when she bumped straight into a short, bearded man with square goggles wrapped around the bowler perched atop his bald head. With an indignant huff, he straightened the vibrant red cravat tucked into his matching paisley vest.
Ezren scooted back, her vision focusing and cheeks burning. “Oh my, Professor Holland, I’m so sorry.”
Holland let out a slow breath, his lips pinched with exasperation. “Ms. Hart. You’re late.” He ostentatiously projected his empty inbox holo into the air between them. “And I didn’t see your assignment in my messages this morning.”
Ezren let her eyes go wide and her jaw drop. “You didn’t? What? Are you sure? I could’ve sworn I sent it.” She let her goggs flash her class folder screen in front of her. “Oh no! Look, it’s still right here in my outbox.” She mentally flicked it toward him and cringed with an apologetic grimace. “So sorry about that, Professor Holland.”
Holland’s squinty gaze narrowed even further. “Ms. Hart, may I remind you that I only require you to be physically present two days of the week. We’re only five weeks into the semester, and this is your fourth tardy.”
Ezren ducked her head with a wince, hoping she looked properly contrite. “I apologize, Professor Holland. I promise I’ll try to do better.”
“Furthermore, while your test scores are technically passing, I’m disappointed by to your studies, which honestly surprises me considering your mother’s reputation. Do you aspire to further education upon your graduation?”
Ezren shrank just a little more at all the “ations” he volleyed at her like little spitballs of disappointment. “Well, I did apply to Belethea Cyber University, so I could attend from here, and maybe have a chance at a scholarship.” Then, they could put the money saved toward Sam’s regenerative surgery fund. With enough money and a proper doctor this time, they could re-code Sam’s corrupt regen cells, adding decades to Sam’s prognosis and—
Right. First she had to deal with Holland. Swallowing, Ezren continued, “I’ve also been getting lots of hours in the lab, so I was hoping the experience—”
“I’m sure you’d eventually like to do something a little more challenging than data processing. Get your priorities in order, Ms. Hart, or even Belethea Cyber won’t take you. For when they call me for a recommendation, I can assure you, I will be perfectly honest.”
Ezren bobbed her head in a fervent series of apologetic bows. “Yes, sir, of course, your honesty is all that I could ask. I will endeavor to regain your esteemed respect in the future.”
“All right, all right, enough of the simpering.” Professor Holland straightened his vest over his round belly and nodded, his mustache twitching. “You still have ten minutes left to take the pop quiz that your punctual classmates have been working on for the last thirty.”
Shoulders caving, Ezren felt the blood drain from her cheeks. “Yes, sir.” Surely after this, the day could only look up.
Also tune in to my live instagram chat with Hayley Reese Chow on April 3rd at 5pm PST!!!
Psssttttt… one more thing!!!
Starting on Mar 28th until Apr 3rd,
the kindle preorder of Into the Churn will be on sale on AMAZON for only 99¢!