We hope you’ll enjoy an excerpt from The Other Side of Fear, Jan S. Gephardt’s new science fiction novella about the XK9s of the Orangeboro Police Department on Rana Habitat Space Station. The novella’s events happen before the adventures described in her 2019 novel What’s Bred in the Bone.
Chapter One: Planet-bound
By Jan S. Gephardt
“Wake up. Today, you head planetside.” The voice of Pamela Gómez’s brain implant reverberated through her skull. “Wake up. Today, you head planetside.”
Exhaustion sucked her deeper into her nest of sheets, drew her toward the sweet warmth of Balchu’s body next to hers. Had she finally slept after all?
“Wake up. Today, you head planetside,” the alarm feature persisted. “Wake up. Today, you head planetside.”
She pushed herself upright with a groan. Sitting or standing up was the only way to toggle the damned alarm off. Planetside. This day actually came.
Balchu’s warm caress almost seduced her back under the covers.
She shook her head. “Uhn-uh. Can’t.”
He sighed, then sat up with a groan of his own and eyed her. He didn’t have to say anything. All the words they’d already said hung around them like a cloud of angry ghosts.
Pam lurched up. Padded the few steps to the kitchen. She inserted her mug, and their coffeepot dispensed a blurt of inky liquid. Few candidates were acclimatized to micrograv, so they’d been warned to eat little or no breakfast till they were underway in the shuttle. Not that she was hungry. She sipped the scalding brew. It helped keep her eyes open. Too bad it couldn’t thaw the ice in her gut.
Balchu finished in the bathroom quickly.
She filled another cup. Extended it to him when he joined her in the kitchen.
He thwarted her intended clean hand-off with a grasp that engulfed both her fingers and his mug. He relinquished them only after he’d given the back of her hand a kiss.
She bit her lip and pulled free.
With leaden limbs and brick fingers, she packed final items. Seal-locked her Department-issue duffel, then dragged it into their small, threadbare living room. The rancid oil smell from the Ultra-Fast Tempura Shop downstairs hung thicker in here.
Balchu slung the heavy duffel over his shoulder without asking.
She could carry that herself. She almost said so, but she didn’t want to carry that herself. “Thank you.”
His dark eyes regarded her from beneath thick black eyebrows. He opened his mouth as if to speak, then closed it again and shook his head.
She grimaced. Thank you for not saying ‘please stay’ one more time. Too late now. The need to leave him for a month or more had been one of the larger obstacles for her, despite all the fighting they’d done recently.
Idiot girl, Mother’s voice chided, an unwanted mental warden encamped in the back of her skull. You got attached. That’s a fool’s game! The words stung as much now as the day Mother’d learned Pam was living with Balchu. Pam took a long, slow breath. Now is now. What is, is. Foolish or not, here I am.
One stride brought Balchu to the door. He looked back, inhaled as if he meant to speak, then shook his head again and pushed the door open.
Pam followed. Yes, I know. XK9s are huge dogs. “the size of a damned pony,” he’d said, during one of their arguments. He wasn’t wrong. Even though it meant a promotion from Patrol to Detective First Level, the bump in her pay wouldn’t rent a bigger place. If she was Chosen. Which was a big “if.” She shook her head, heartsick. Not likely.
Applying for this had started the same way she’d ended up in the Police Academy. What if? Wouldn’t it be interesting? I could be someone special. Back then, she’d dared herself to apply, in part because Mother would hate it so much. Then she’d discovered she really was pretty good. Good enough to graduate in the upper third of her cadet class.
She and Balchu pang-pang-panged down the metal stairs to street level, then tramped through mist-shrouded predawn neighborhood blocks. The XK9 cadre was a reach, a challenge, another self-dare. She’d never had a dog. Mother wouldn’t even discuss it. She and Balchu couldn’t afford one. But all her life she’d wished for one. Dogs always seemed so happy to be with their people, so accepting.
Unlike Balchu this morning. He strode forward, back bowed by the weight of her duffel. His silence pressed down on her like a rebuke.
She scowled at him. “You know if you really didn’t want this, you could’ve told the truth on the Family Acceptance form.” The Orangeboro Police Department didn’t want to place an insanely-expensive XK9 into an unwelcoming home environment. Balchu must’ve lied his ass off to keep her in the running.
He marched through the mist, head down. “I didn’t want it to be my fault, if you washed out.”
He could lose his job as a Detective Second Level with the Vice Unit, if the OPD found out he’d lied. The thick fog chilled her. She walked faster. “Are you sorry I didn’t wash out?”
The coffee she’d drunk turned to acid in her gut. “Did you secretly expect me to fail?”
His broad shoulders slumped. “Don’t do that. Not today.” The duffel’s strap slid. He caught it, hitched it higher with a frown. “I just—oh, hell. It’ll be whatever it is.” He tromped away into the fog.
“Balchu!” She hurried after him. He didn’t slow or look back.
The commuter terminal lay ahead, an island of brighter mist in the steadily-lightening morning. All three tiers of candidates must report to Orangeboro Grand Central Terminal by 05:30.
Balchu halted at the edge of Central Plaza. He stared toward the terminal.
She stopped beside him. Grand Central was the borough’s primary transportation hub. Always busy, it usually wasn’t this busy, this early. She glanced up at his face, harsh with glare and shadows.
“I guess this is it, then.” He let out a long breath.
“Guess so.” She swallowed against a pit-of-the-stomach drop. “Can we not part angry?”
“Yeah, let’s not.” He bowed his head. “I’m gonna miss you.” Emotion roughened his voice.
Her throat tightened. “Me too. Miss you already.” They hesitated a moment longer, silent. Then Pam took a deep breath and plunged forward.
Easy to spot the other candidates in the crowd. Like her, they wore plain blue Safety Services jumpsuits. Like her, each had just one overstuffed duffel for their personal gear. But the crowd on the elevator platform was far bigger than just the other twenty-nine XK9-partner candidates. It looked as if everyone’s entire extended family had come to see them off. Her only “family” present was Balchu.
As if Mother would come for something like this.
Pretty much everybody else’s mothers were out in force, though. Also, their fathers. And their aunties, uncles, cousins, lovers, nieces, nephews, and grandparents. She even spotted a few dogs on leashes, or smaller ones in people’s arms. Of course, the dog lovers would jump at this opportunity.
Longing ached through her. All her life, she’d watched other people’s families and wondered from afar.
They all looked alike. Sure, costumes, ages, and skin pigmentations varied, but every family member hovered near their candidate. Voices chattered in hopeful, anxious, affectionate tones. Brows pinched with loving concern, an expression she’d never witnessed from Mother. Hugs, kisses, hands held, images captured . . . she turned away. Her throat ached. How would that feel, to be surrounded with love?
No family is as happy as it looks, girlie, Mother’s voice snapped from the back of her mind. Her vision flooded.
Balchu’s hard expression softened. He lowered his head, put his arm around her.
She clung to him, cold inside. Would they—as a couple—survive this separation?
You’re better off traveling light, Mother always said. Men leave. Who needs them?
But who was leaving, now? Pam wrapped her arms around Balchu, pressed her face against his chest. He held her, but said nothing.
At last, Pam pulled back and blinked hard. Then she stared at the other candidates’ families, her voice too constricted to speak.
Don’t you fall for it, Mother’s voice warned. Love is an illusion. It’s a trap.
Illusion or not, those loving gestures and fond faces presented a beautiful vision. Of course, glamour and illusion were the nature of traps, weren’t they? Doubt shuddered through her.
Balchu drew her closer. His solid warmth steadied her. Was that an illusion, too?
IMAGE CREDITS: Many thanks to Lucy A. Synk for the painting used for both the header image and the cover of The Other Side of Fear (© 2020 by Lucy A. Synk). We’re also grateful to Jeff Porter for the character concept artwork (© 2016 by Jeff Porter).