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When Sparks Fly
By Autumn Dawn
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2009 Autumn Dawn
All right reserved.
Chapter OneA Zzel dragon looked in her window. Gem Harris-daughter screamed as the huge reptilian eye blinked and focused on her with malevolent intent, knowing she was going to die. Then she heard a snort. The huge native reptile was laughing. At her.
With a growl of ire, she stalked to the kitchen door, ripped it open and walked outside. "All right, who wants to die?"
The neighbor's punk son Bijo and his green-haired Kiuyian buddy pelted out of the scrub-covered side lot, laughing like miners on a drunken spree. Dressed in shabby jackets and with their hair razored like wannabe rock stars, the pair had been bugging her with pranks since she'd told their fathers she'd seen them ditching class. It wouldn't have been her concern, but they'd been doing it on her property and had nearly gotten into a brawl with some customers.
The Kiuyian boy tripped over his big feet and crashed into a thorny bush. He yelped and jumped out.
Gem smirked. Served him right for pulling his shape-changing pranks on her. He'd be picking thorns out of his hide for the next half hour. Maybe she ought to plant a few carnivorous bushes out there while she was at it-or just leave what ever grew naturally. Saints knew they weeded enough dangerous indigenous species out of the struggling gardento form an entire hedge.
She watched the kid dust himself off. Gem didn't mind Kiuyians in general, but they could get up to serious trouble with their shape-changing abilities. The talent had helped them survive on their hostile home world until they'd learned enough to colonize other planets. Luckily there were few Kiuyians who could change into fully humanoid shapes other than their natural form, or she'd have a bar full of underage drinkers. Mostly they stuck with animal forms or humanoid/animal crosses.
There'd been an influx of Kiuyians to Polaris in the last seven years. Most of them were dirt poor, brought in as cheap labor to work the mines. Gem still hadn't made up her mind about the aliens as a group. Sometimes they came in as customers, and those who spent money behaved ... for the most part. There had once been a drunk who changed into a three-headed serpent and puked all over the floor. She'd had the sot working odd jobs ever since, to help pay off the damages.
She reached for the thick wooden door, letting herself back into the spacious kitchens of The Spark.
Like the Kiuyians, Gem's family had come to Polaris for the mines. Unlike the Kiuyians, Gem's father had decided that building a business to cater to the miners was more profitable than grubbing around with the ore. Her father, Airk Harris, had homesteaded their land and built this inn on it. Until his death last year, he'd called the inn a work in progress, and it showed. The fortress like building was still mostly unpainted. Both interior and exterior walls were striped with multihued layers resembling sandstone, a result of the pouring process of construction. It was a mark of the inn's cheap, if sturdy, materials; more expensive buildings on Polaris were one color, often glossy, even jewel-hued.
For herself, Gem liked the stripes. The look was earthy and unpretentious, much like her family.
The tables were inexpensive antigravity tiles that doubled as screens. The menu and drink list appeared in several languages on the surfaces, allowing guests to touch- select their orders. These orders were beamed directly to the bar and kitchen, streamlining ser vice. Or it usually streamlined ser vice, assuming the servers weren't flirting with the customers. Gem had a terrible time keeping the girls who worked for her from turning the place into a brothel. There had been one incident last year ...
Well, it was hard to find good help. Polaris was a very reserved community, and it was vital that the family maintained its reputation, both business and personal, if they wanted to succeed. Those who didn't toe the line here were ostracized. A business run by three sisters could easily be ruined.
The antigravity tiles could be used as lighting, lined up to form banquet tables or stacked against the wall if she wanted to turn the bar and dining area into a dance hall. The inn had a private room that doubled as a family dining room and parlor, but most of the time Gem and her sisters just ate in the kitchen. They charged extra for guests who wanted the private room.
The floor was actual sandstone, polished to a high sheen. A couple of robotic floor-cleaners the size of dinner plates zipped around like miniature flying saucers, sucking up dirt and vaporizing sticky spills. Occasionally they'd zoom over to the incinerator hidden behind the bar and eject a stream of waste before going back for more.
The inn had one type of all-occasion, oversize mug used for its soups, drinks and desserts, and one size of plate; all were formed of self- cleaning glasstic. If a food type needed a knife, it wasn't served, which was okay, as most guests were happy using spoons or their hands.
Gem's father had had big dreams. He'd once considered naming the inn after himself, but since he had no sons and his unmarried daughters were properly addressed as Harrisdaughter, he'd settled on The Spark. He'd promised his still young family that it would be the starting point for any and all business on the newly colonized planet of Polaris. Now that he'd died, it belonged to his daughters.
As she surveyed the room, Gem took in a table that was a little too raucous and grimaced. A woman was holding court with a table full of miners. Too much longer and there'd be trouble. Gem shuddered, knowing she'd have to deal with the situation before it got out of hand.
They were in an odd position for three single women. They'd inherited the inn, of course, and their father had been well-liked, but if they weren't careful how they conducted themselves, respectable customers would shun them, Then they'd be forced to accept seedier clientele if they wanted to survive. She didn't want to see her father's memory dishonored that way. Although he'd come from a planet with more relaxed standards, Airk had chosen to settle here. It was a good place to raise a family, what with its high ethical standards, and he'd taught his daughters to respect the culture.
Gem didn't really mind, anyway. She didn't want the uncertainty of a casual relationship. When she finally did find a man, she planned to keep him. That way, she'd only have to train a husband once. She didn't have time to fritter away on emotional upheaval and broken hearts. She'd seen enough of her customers drowning their sorrows in liquor to give her a distaste for the dramas of the lovelorn.
Before Gem could intercept the hooker and send her packing, her sister Brandy came up from the cellar toting a small keg. She glanced at Gem with her mismatched blue and brown eyes as she walked toward the bar. "We've got rodents in the tubers again. I set traps. Rissa's in the taproom, and those miners are at it early today."
Gem grimaced, already heading for the L-shaped hall that separated the rooms. "I see her. Why didn't you deal with it? You can knock heads just as easily. You have the red hair."
"It's nearly brown." This was Brandy's standard response to the old argument. "You have a better touch than me. Quit whining."
It was midmorning, but the taproom was already half full, thanks to the new trainum mine that had been found. The blue ore was a crucial ingredient in the starship fuel used by the Galactic Explorers, the corporation famous for exploring-and some said exploiting-most of the newly discovered planets in the last thirty years. Of course, most of the ships in the Interplanetary Council's jurisdiction relied on the energy-rich mineral as well. Any new discoveries were a boon to the local economy, and the recent claim was causing a huge influx of visitors, the side effects of which were not all pleasant. A case in point was this brazen chit perched on a miner's lap.
Gem pointed to the hooker, Rissa. She jerked her thumb over her shoulder. "You, get out. We're not running a brothel."
Rissa pouted her full green lips and leaned over to whisper in the miner's ear. Her wildly curling green hair slipped forward over her chest, doing a better job of covering her than her low-cut dress. She knew better than to cross Gem, though. She didn't linger.
As the hooker slunk off, the miner set up a protest. "Hey! We were just having a little fun. Lighten up, cutie." His skin was tinged blue with dust from the ore he worked, and he and his two buddies exuded an unwholesome aura.
Before the man's mind could travel farther down a road she didn't like, Gem warned him, "I'm the owner of this inn, and I have the best drinks in town. If you ever want another drop of alcohol here, mind your manners and don't hassle me or my help. I won't hesitate to have you blacklisted." She paused a moment to let her threat sink in, then walked off.
She hated dealing with riffraff, but that was part of being the owner of this place, and her father had made certain she knew how to do all aspects of the job. It had gotten harder lately. The lunar mines had turned Polaris into a boomtown, and the influx of transients was mostly male. Women like Rissa were in demand, and growing bolder about plying their trade. Once a place got a rep for tolerating hookers, it was hard to clean up. The Spark didn't need that kind of attention. If Gem and her sisters wanted to remain respectable businesswomen, they had to stay vigilant.
Polaris was a gas planet. "Planet" was a bit of a misnomer, actually, when considering the areas where people lived. All the inhabitable land masses were made up of huge orbiting chunks of rock, floating islands formed from asteroids that had been pulled into orbit around the planet's core. The atmosphere here was breathable, a belt of air somehow comfortable for most life-forms. While there was no sea, colonists had mined ice from the moons and formed lakes in available craters. They'd filled those lakes with fish and sea life. Water was valued and carefully recycled; hauling in more from the moons to form new reservoirs cost money.
Colonist farmers had used that original shipment of ice to turn the barren surface of their asteroids into islands of lush growth, gradually adding small livestock as grasses took root and flourished. Each asteroid had an electric biodome over it to keep the precious water vapor inside. Individual climates ranged from hot and humid to warm and arid, depending on the crop grown. Land that was not farmed was either residential, commercial or used for mining trainum, platinum or gold. People like Gem and her sisters were getting rich from the influx of new business, but increasing lawlessness meant they also paid for it. Polaris was an exciting, if dangerous, place to be.
Gem was joint owner of The Spark with her two sisters, but as the eldest, she was in charge. She had the temperament to deal with trouble, manage the kitchens, the taproom and their accounts-and it was a good thing, too, because in addition to the inn, they had two rental cabins and the huge garden to oversee. Polaris had only been settled for forty years and its farming industry occasionally struggled. Anyone who wanted variety and independence grew their own produce and spices. Only the very wealthy purchased off-world food, because shipping prices were insane.
Gem and her family worked hard and their business thrived, catering to whoever arrived at the nearby spaceport and appreciated good food and excellent brews, whether they were locals or passing through. The brewmaster The Spark used was so good that Gem had recently made arrangements to export some of his goods-for a share of the profit, of course. She was always keeping an eye on the family business.
"Gem!" Her sister Xera stomped down the stairs, a fistful of wadded linens in her hands, her short black waves of hair bouncing around her face. "That stupid Guok you rented to last night threw up in the bedding! I told you he was drunk." Xera had a temper to match her Amazonian build. She probably would have chewed out the hapless alien if he hadn't already skedaddled.
Gem leaned back as she got a whiff of the offending sheets. Guoks were flabby white bipeds that looked like walking sacks of jelly. Gem knew little of the aliens, though she'd heard they were usually harmless. Now she knew they had vomit to rival sewer sludge. Lesson learned.
Eyes watering, she waved her sister off. "So, go toss them in the wash. What do you want me to do, hunt him down and shoot him?" The Spark had forty rooms, and Xera and her maids were in charge of cleaning them. The trouble was, Xera wanted out of the job.
"The puke ate through the sheets. We'll be lucky to salvage the mattress." Xera handed the sheets to a passing maid and followed Gem's retreat into the kitchens. The cooks were busy preparing the noon meal. Hungry, Gem helped herself to some seafood salad and tried to avoid her sister by heading for the office.
"Don't think you're going to dodge me," Xera called out, following her inside and shutting the door. "I'm twenty years old, Gem, old enough to know I don't want to be head house keeper anymore."
Gem sat behind her battered desk and crossed her feet on top of it. She was twenty-five, herself, and still had no idea what she'd rather be doing. Why should Xera want to change all of a sudden? All she'd done for the past two months was whine. "You know we need you," Gem tried to explain.
"I want to be a pi lot for the Galactic Explorers," Xera replied.
"No, you don't."
Gem groaned. They had a rule about disparaging each other's dreams. "Okay, I'm sorry. Go on." She waved weakly, disgruntled by the idea of replacing her sister, concerned that Xera was going away where she couldn't have tabs kept on her. Since their father died, keeping tabs had been Gem's job, but her sisters were growing up.
"I already have my private pi lot license. I've been shuttling between the islands every chance I get. I'm ready for deep space now. I talked to the recruiter ... He can get me off- world next week."
Gem's face darkened. She didn't like to be reminded of how often Xera fled their asteroid island to go exploring. It was dangerous. There were too many claim wars to go rambling around alone. And now she was planning to go even farther away?
Xera forged ahead. "I've trained Rosa. She's capable and very eager to get the raise."
Gem looked around at the walls, which were painted a restful white-sage, and sighed. The office doubled as a sitting room, with a few well-worn and overstuffed chairs and a long, leather-covered bench that provided space to crash if anyone needed a place to sleep. The bow window behind them looked out over the garden. It was open at the moment, and wisps of flower-scented air stirred the linen curtains. How many times had she stared into the fireplace, watched the flames burn as she dreamed of the future?
She and her sisters had spent many evenings here, talking, fighting, laughing. They were her family, but now everything was changing.
She focused on her sister's face. "Are you sure, Xera? You'll end up a long way from home for a long time to come."
Xera snorted. "I've only talked about it since I was sixteen. The flying lessons, the weapons training ... You knew where all that was leading!"
"I'd hoped you'd change your mind," Gem admitted.
Gem blew out a breath of air. "Okay. Let's look at what you need to do to get your affairs in order. You said a week?"
Xera looked surprised, then grinned.
So Gem helped the first of her sisters prepare to leave home, spending the next hour with Xera, going over her plans and finding no flaws. It was hardly surprising, she realized; of her two sisters, Xera was the more levelheaded.
It was late that day when Gem finally wandered down to the taproom. There were a few regulars, but the place had quieted. Her bartender was there, polishing glasses, so she wandered over and took a stool. "Hey, Jaq. Where're our guests?"
The elderly man raised bushy white eyebrows. "Races today. Forget?" In his late sixties, Jaq had a head that was bald as an egg, yet he still managed to grow an impressive handlebar mustache.
The races. Of course. The Simian- Goat Runs were held once a week. Lemur monkeys were trained to ride goats. Clinging to miniature saddles, the monkeys would burst out of starting gates, whipping their goats to high speeds with riding crops. It was funnier than a squirrel drinking whiskey, and drew huge crowds. Bigger crowds than simple alcohol, at least. (Continues...)
Excerpted from When Sparks Fly by Autumn Dawn Copyright © 2009 by Autumn Dawn. Excerpted by permission.
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