First Chapter of Storm’s Coming

Chapter 1

Rona Montgomery

Day One of the Expedition

“If it weren’t for you, Jorg, I don’t think Jess would’ve ever gotten past her anger,” Rona said.

He gave a little chuckle. His lightly freckled nose crinkled. “Yeah, Jessie was my biggest challenge.” He unzipped his jacket a few centimeters as he pushed his hood back to reveal a mass of tousled blond hair.

Rona tilted her head back slightly to look at him. “Jess will be OK, right? She will come back to us won’t she?”

“Sure she will. Jessie is a lot tougher than she thinks she is. Cameron is native to this planet. He knows what to do. He’ll take good care of her. He won’t let anything happen to her.” His words of encouragement didn’t ease Rona’s fears.

She wasn’t sure if he was trying to convince her or himself of Jess’ safety.

The warmth of his arm wrapped around her again, but this time it didn’t stay. After a quick hug, his arm fell back to his side just as she was leaning into him. Disappointed, she stepped away.

“Don’t fret. We’ll get Jessie back safe and sound.” His smile exposed his dimples, which soon faded alone with is smile.

They stepped onto a path made of pulverized granite and basalt, and headed toward their living quarters on the opposite side of the habitat. The path glittered with the different colored rocks.

The colonists had allowed the planet’s native plant life to flourish within the habitat. The Chinese-like garden was well-manicured and picture perfect. Every alien blade of grass, leaf, flower, branch, and rock was placed and shaped for its aesthetic beauty. But the gardens beside the Earth visitors’ living quarters were a different matter.

There the foliage was thick, cutting off the overhead view of the glass ceiling. Branches grew over paths and caught on sleeves, pant legs and long hair. They easily tripped those walking along the pathways. One might have thought they were in a real forest instead of an indoor garden.

Rona and her fellow scientists were banned from the rest of the habitat. They were told to stay in their area and use the exits nearest them when they went outside.

No one listened. Walking inside where it was warm and where one could sit by the lake was too inviting.

Rona’s brilliant teammate and very good friend, Chow Lu hurried down the path toward Rona and Jorg.

Lu was a petite 19-year-old, and as youthful as a 14. In the traditional Chinese manner, Chow was her family name and Lu was her given name. She was the youngest of the scientists who’d come to study the planet Akiane. Her short, thick black hair was cut to her chin. It bobbed and swayed with every step. Her orange one-piece winter suit was pulled up to her waist and zipped in place. The upper half of the suit swayed wildly behind her as she ran. She was always running somewhere.

“Has Jessica left already?” Lu asked breathlessly.

“Yes,” Rona said.

“That was fast,” Lu said. “I thought I’d have more time to get out there. I wanted to talk to her before she left. I have something important to tell her. Something she should know.”

“Then you should have been outside with us instead of playing with your dogs,” Jorg said irritably.

Lu stuttered when she was nervous or flustered. Jorg’s rebuke stirred her stuttering. With a guilty look, she said, “I-I-I w-wasn’t with the dogs. I w-was with the t-t-tech guy. We were trying t-t-to get into . . .”

Jorg interrupted her before she could finish. “It couldn’t have waited?” he demanded.

Rona had never seen Jorg snap at anyone before. He was the nicest guy in the world. He literally liked everyone, even the most disagreeable. And everyone liked him.

“Jorg,” she admonished, “don’t take your frustrations out on Lu. It’s not her fault Jess left.”

“Right,” Jorg said. He passed his hand through his hair. Then more gently, he said, “Sorry, Lu.”

“Tech Terzo says the colony’s data is old. He was having trouble connecting . . .” Lu tried to explain, but Jorg wasn’t listening.

He kicked at a black rock on the path. It tumbled past Lu’s winter boot toward the edge of the path and stopped.

Lu stepped to the other side as if he’d kicked the rock at her.

Rona wanted to comfort Jorg. Or maybe she wanted him to comfort her. Either way, she wanted to be with him right then, not with Lu. If only she could give Lu a hint to leave. Lu didn’t take hints. She didn’t understand them.

Jorg signed heavily like a lost little puppy. His head turned from side to side as if not seeing where he was, then said, “I’m going outside to the algae patch to collect samples.”

That was his field of study—snow and algae, and their ecology. He often visited a large patch of algae just north of the habitat. He’d probably spend the rest of the day there.

It would be a nice quiet place for the two of them to be alone and talk. A pang of guilt at moving in on Jorg while Jess was away hit Rona. No, she thought, Jess had her chance and turned it down. I stepped aside so they could be together, but Jess never encouraged him. She’s gone. It’s my turn. She and Jorg had been close before Jess, not in the romantic sense, but maybe this time they could be.

“Would you like company? I could come with you,” Rona suggested hopefully.

“I’d kind of like to be alone for awhile. I’ll catch up with you later,” he said, and hurried toward their work area. He was going for his equipment bag.

Rona sighed. Perhaps it would be better to give him time. Don’t rush him.

Lu said, “Jessica will be all right. It’s not like she’s alone. She’s with Cameron and his daughter. They’ll take good care of her.”

That was Rona’s only consolation. Jess was traveling with two colonists, Cameron and Nu Venia. Still, she wouldn’t be out there in the first place if it weren’t for them. This expedition was their idea, and they were dragging her along.

“I hope you’re right, Lu. Still, I’m in no mood to chase dogs right now,” Rona said.

She and Lu had come to study the DNA of colonists who had been isolated from the rest of humanity for more than three centuries. Unfortunately, the colonists weren’t cooperative. Lu decided to study the native dogs instead. At first Rona hadn’t been interested, but the lack of a project put her out of sorts, so she agreed to the dog project, which they named Canini: Latin for dog.

“Terzo and I learned something interesting,” Lu said as soon as Jorg left.

“Lu, I’d like to be alone too.” Rona needed time to think, process, and get her emotions under control. She’d lost her best friend and the one person she wanted to comfort her was in love with that friend. She sat on a rock, conflicted.

“I had this feeling,” Lu began, “I know it sounds strange, but I just . . .”

Lu wasn’t going to take the hint. She remained standing, staring at the tunnel exit; worry etched her young face.

Rona cut in. “I don’t care, Lu. I don’t want to hear about it. I don’t want to talk about anything. Just leave me alone.”

Now pain imprinted Lu’s face.

Rona instantly knew she’d hurt her feelings. She resisted the urge to apologize.

Even at 19, she can still be such a child sometimes.

After a moment’s thought, she reconsidered. Perhaps I should apologize. But she knew if she did, Lu would start talking again. She was in no mood to hear about dogs, technicians, or whatever project Lu was into today.

Lu sat on the rock next to Rona.

“I want to be alone,” she said, for the third time.

Lu nodded as though she understood. She still didn’t leave.

“I should have thought to read the Captain’s logs sooner. Then we would have known,” Lu rambled. “I’m not even sure it would have made a difference. I mean to the colonists.” Lu shifted her feet, twisted her fingers. She fretted for a few more seconds before she started up again; this time she spoke quietly to herself, “Over time facts can turn into legends and myths.” She paused. “That was why I wanted to research Woden. I wanted to know what was fact and what was fiction.”

Rona had no idea what she was talking about. She was in no mood to ask for an explanation. “Please, my sister.” Though not sisters, the phrasing was a slip into Rona’s southern roots, another sign of Rona’s emotions rising to the surface.

Lu continued speaking as though she hadn’t heard. “It’s just that over time, facts can be exaggerated. I thought it would be a good idea to check to the colony’s ship-logs. We, Terzo and I, were hoping to find some insight into this Woden—something the colonists were not telling us. It seems the original Woden was nothing like what the colonists say it is today . . .”

But Rona wasn’t listening. She was lost in the privacy of her thoughts. And those thoughts were mostly about Jorg.