Today's Reading

3.

It was well past midnight and the party was still in full swing when Alan signaled to her with a motion of his chin. Kira understood, and without a word, they slipped out of the mess hall.

They leaned on each other as they made their way through the compound, careful to keep their cups of punch from spilling. Kira wasn't used to the bare look of the corridors. Normally overlays covered them, and stacks of samples, supplies, and spare equipment sat along the walls. But all that was gone now. Over the past week, she and the rest of the team had stripped the place in preparation for leaving.& If not for the music echoing behind them and the dim emergency lights along the floor, the base would have seemed abandoned.

Kira shivered and hugged Alan closer. Outside the wind was howling—an eerie rushing that made the roof and walls creak.

When they arrived at the door to the hydroponics bay, Alan didn't hit the release button but looked down at her, a smile dancing about his lips.

"What?" she said.

"Nothing. Just grateful to be with you." And he gave her a quick peck on the lips.

She went for a peck of her own—the punch had put her in a mood—but he laughed, pulled his head away, and hit the button.

The door slid open with a solid thunk.

Warm air wafted over them, along with the sound of dripping water and the gentle perfume of flowering plants. The hydroponics bay was Kira's favorite place in the compound. It reminded her of home, of the long rows of hothouse gardens she'd spent time in as a kid on the colony planet of Weyland. During long-haul expeditions like the one to Adra, it was standard procedure to grow some of their own food. Partly so they could test the viability of the native soil. Partly to reduce the amount of supplies they had to bring with them. But mostly to break the deadly monotony of the freeze-dried meal packs the company supplied them with.

Tomorrow, Seppo would rip out the plants and stuff them into the incinerator. None of them would survive until the colonists arrived, and it was bad practice to leave piles of biological material sitting around where they could—if the compound were breached—enter the environment in an uncontrolled manner. But for tonight, the hydroponics bay was still full of lettuce, radishes, parsley, tomatoes, clusters of zucchini stems, and the numerous other crops Seppo had been experimenting with on Adra.

But that wasn't all. Amid the dim racks, Kira saw seven pots laid out in an arc. In each pot stood a tall, thin stem topped with a delicate purple flower that drooped under its own weight. A cluster of pollen-tipped stamens extended from within each blossom—like bursts of fireworks—while white speckles adorned their velvety inner throats.

Midnight Constellations! Her favorite flower. Her father had raised them, and even with his horticultural talent, they had given him no end of trouble. They were temperamental, prone to scab and blight, and intolerant of the slightest imbalance of nutrients.

"Alan," she said, overcome.

"I remembered you mentioned how much you liked them," he said.

"But...how did you manage to—"

"To grow them?" He smiled at her, clearly pleased by her reaction. "Seppo helped. He had the seeds on file. We printed them out and then spent the last three weeks trying to keep the damned things from dying."

"They're wonderful," Kira said, not even trying to hide the emotion in her voice.

He hugged her close. "Good," he said, his voice half-muffled in her hair. "I wanted to do something special for you before..."

Before. The word burned in her mind. "Thank you," she said. She separated from him just long enough to examine the flowers; their spicy, overly sweet scent struck her with the full, staggering force of childhood nostalgia. "Thank you," she repeated, coming back to Alan. "Thank you, thank you, thank you." She pressed her lips against his, and for a long while, they kissed.

"Here," said Alan when they broke for air. He pulled an insulated blanket from under one of the racks of potato plants and spread it out within the arc of Midnight Constellations.

They settled there, cuddling and sipping their punch.

Outside, the baleful immensity of Zeus still hung overhead, visible through the clear pressure dome of the hydroponics bay. When they'd first arrived on Adra, the sight of the gas giant had filled Kira with apprehension. Every instinct in her screamed that Zeus was going to fall out of the sky and crush them. It seemed impossible anything so large could remain suspended overhead without support. In time, though, she'd grown accustomed to the sight, and now she admired the magnificence of the gas giant. It needed no overlays to catch the eye.

Before... Kira shivered. Before they left. Before she and Alan had to part. They'd already used up their vacation days, and the company wouldn't give them more than a few days of downtime back at 61 Cygni.

"Hey, what's wrong?" said Alan, his voice soft with sympathy.

"You know."

"...Yeah."

"This isn't getting any easier. I thought it would, but—" She sniffed and shook her head. Adra was their fourth time shipping together, and it was by far their longest shared posting. "I don't know when I'm going to see you next, and...I love you, Alan, and having to say goodbye every few months really sucks."

He stared at her, serious. His hazel eyes gleamed in the light from Zeus. "So then let's not."

This excerpt ends on page 25 of the hardcover edition.

Monday, November 2nd, we begin the book Driving the Deep by Suzanne Palmer.
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