The cat's name is Mr. Paws. He's an expert mathematician and becomes the kids' friend who's willing to help them with their calculus homework. But he's also attached to his creator, a stealthy presence who runs a secret genetics lab. Why does that lab exist? Who finances it? And who on the space station are his collaborators? The kids' parents? Station personnel? The twists and turns will keep the reader guessing.
What one reviewer said of the first edition: "Mr. Paws is a true feline with a special attitude.... The kids do their share of the problem-solving.... The scientific terminology is convincing, and the space station is described in minute detail, which true lovers of sci-fi will appreciate." H. M. Prévost, author of Desert Fire.
A. B. Carolan is a reclusive writer from Donegal, Ireland, who specializes in young adult literature. He might be a descendant of the famous Irish bard Turlough O'Carolan, but rumor has it he was raised by leprechauns. A.B. collaborates with Steven M. Moore.
Steven M. Moore is a writer of many mystery, thriller, and sci-fi stories. Born in California, he's done a bit of globe-trotting for work and pleasure, allowing to experience the wonderful diversity of people and cultures in our world. He met A. B. at Blarney Castle. Not so reclusive, Steve now lives just outside NYC in Montclair, NJ.
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As the Earth turned below them, the edge of atmosphere a shimmering halo, Shashi's brown eyes were dancing. She looked around at her three friends, challenging them.
Brian was the first to recover. He checked the expressions of amazement on the other players' faces and then looked back at Shashi.
"What a streak of luck!" was all he could say.
"Maybe she's cheating," said Susan. Her voice was always little more than a whisper. Shashi still heard the comment.
"Take that back," she said. "I've never cheated at —"
A loud pop, which made them all jump, interrupted her. In other circumstances, their jumps would seem funny as they all rose and floated back to the floor in the micro-gravity environment. A red warning light over the entrance to the Sky Lounge started flashing. A siren began its piercing wail.
"We've been hit!" said Juan Carlos. "Afuera! Pronto!"
They all knew that meant, "Get out fast!" They dove for the door, but the automatic systems were too quick and were already closing it. Susan reached under it with a leg, as if to stop it.
"Loca!" Shashi said, meaning "Crazy!" "It's not an elevator. It'll cut off your foot!"
Susan jerked her foot away just in time. She looked at the others, her blue eyes wide with fear. Shashi stood her up and shook her.
"Get it together, butthead. We've trained for this!" Shashi glared at the others. She ruffled her brown hair in frustration. Brian watched it fall in slow-mo onto her shoulders.
"Not here," he said. "The rest of the station is sealed off from us. We'll soon be without air."
That observation froze them long enough for Juan Carlos to micro-g skip to the lounge's wall next to the window. His feet hardly touched the floor. Some called it "the spaceman's shuffle," others "the Devil's dance."
He ran his hands over the wall; aided by the rush of air headed in that direction, until he found the small hole. The hole was about the size of a small coin.
Shashi had followed him. As they both studied the hole, they could see the edge was shiny.
"Listen. What's that?"
They all heard a plaintiff meow.
"Sounds like a cat," said Brian. He brushed his sandy hair out of his eyes as he looked at the ceiling. "From up there." He pointed to an air vent that was no longer producing fresh, circulating air.
"There are no cats here," said Shashi. "Get focused on the problem at hand, space weasel. How do we plug the hole?"
"It's a race between vacuum and nanos," said Juan Carlos. He was referring to how nano-devices, embedded in goo within the walls, are programmed to plug small leaks. "They're making the edge shiny. Which will win?"
His melodramatic scientific detachment annoyed Shashi. "I'm not a betting girl, except for poker." She yanked an epaulet from the shoulder of her school uniform. "I don't think Ben will care when I explain what I used this for." She rolled up the epaulet and stuffed it in the hole.
"Now I'll bet on the nanos," said Juan Carlos with a smile. "They'll work in and through the cloth, making it solid, keeping the air from escaping."
"What do you think hit us?" said Susan, inspecting Shashi's handiwork. Her hair became even redder under the emergency warning light. Brian had come over too, still glancing periodically back at the air vent.
"Probably a piece of space junk some astronaut or cosmonaut left here two hundred years ago. Screws, nuts, bolts — who knows? Orbits keep being perturbed by lots of things, so it becomes a crap shoot whether you get hit." Shashi looked around, daring any of her friends to object to her explanation. "Right now there's the problem of how we're going to get out of here. Would you believe the lounge has no intercom system?"
"A slight oversight," said Brian.
"'Incredible screw-up' are the right words, mi'jo." Shashi saw her friends nodding. Even Susan caught the condescending tone of her Spanish equivalent of "my son." "I guess we'll have to wait until our AI figures out one: this lounge is sealed due to a breach; two: there are four people inside, namely us; and three: it has to tell someone about it. Now I think we should continue playing since I have a full house."
The AI, or Artificial Intelligence, was the old organic computer that ran the station. Sometimes it interpreted its programming too literally. The four of them considered it a friend.
They reluctantly agreed to Shashi's plan. All were thinking if someone rescued them, Ben would know they weren't doing his extra assignment on twentieth century authors.
* * *
Ben Yang called the four — the often haughty Shashibala Garcia, the generally moody Brian Kelso, the able tinkerer Juan Carlos Lopez, and the soft spoken Susan Rich — the Fearsome Four. They were tops in his small group of students on the International Space Station. They also made his life difficult because they challenged him as much as he challenged them.
Ben often joked with their parents that he had time-traveled back to the nineteenth century U.S. in the sense he taught all the kids in a one-room schoolhouse. The educational area in the station, while small, contained multiple rooms and specialized labs, but even some of that area was dedicated to adult education. In the space station, real estate was at a premium. Ben's office was a bit larger than the average closet. It didn't even allow him room to meditate — he did that in the corridor.
The space station was still the only Earth satellite that serviced traffic in and out of Earth's gravity well. While there were many satellites in both low and geostationary Earth orbits, or LEO and GEO, the space station still marked the frontier between Earth and beyond. Tarnished with the grime of years of space exploration and exploitation, it was nevertheless home to Shashi and her friends — and Ben knew they roamed it inside and out.
Shashi's mother had told Ben that when Shashi was a child, the kids played hide and seek in the maze of interconnecting habitats, docks, labs, and micro-g factories that comprised the station. As they grew up, they visited big rigs, the huge ships that brought cargo back and forth from the outer planets. Some returned to Earth for brief visits. None of them liked Earth culture.
Now they were teens, except Juan Carlos, who was a mature twelve. Ben knew one of their favorite hangouts was the Sky Lounge, a small module, which held thirty people for a dinner party, or four kids, who wanted to enjoy the spectacular view of Earth turning below while they played a secret game of poker in their pajamas. He loved the place himself.
Like military brats of earlier times, the four managed to find themselves in all kinds of trouble while their parents worked and the kids weren't under Ben's care. The Fearsome Four's penchant for mischief taxed parents, teachers, and administrators alike, yet none of the latter yearned for the days when station personnel could not have their children onboard.
Shashi's mother, Kantimati, was a doctor on the medical staff. Brian's parents, Brendan and Akasuki, were astrophysicists. Susan's father, Franklin, worked in communications. Juan Carlos' father, Alvaro, worked in physical plant, and his mother, Consuelo, was another astrophysicist.
All the adults agreed with Ben that growing up on a space station had its limitations. Besides school, the kids, like all station personnel, had to work out daily in the high-g exercise capsule, affectionately called "the torture chamber," a spinning barrel that allowed them to keep their muscles in tone so that anyone who wanted to do so could return to Earth.
The most common visitors were big rig captains and crews, crusty misfits who would never think of returning to Earth on a permanent basis. The scientific and technical people and their support staff at the station and elsewhere in space and on the outer planets didn't like that idea either. Together these Spacers formed a loose society of independent-minded individuals who didn't care for the problems of the planet below. The Spacers called the planet-bound people on Earth, and sometimes even the colonists on Mars, Downies. Ben thought the names were a bit pejorative, so he never used them.
This division of the human race into Spacers and Downies provided plenty of material for sociologists. Still, it was not one of conflict, in spite of the jokes and kidding. Downies came to the space station all the time and felt at home. They were rich tourists or politicians who wanted to brag that they had seen Earth from space. The average Downy could not afford the ticket.
* * *
"I need to pee," said Susan.
"The bathrooms are just on the other side of the door," said Brian. "You know that. You'll have to hold it in. Can you?"
"For a little while. Boys need to pee too, you know."
"Wow! Susan Einstein, where've you been hiding?" Shashi smiled at her.
"That and other things could be a problem," said Juan Carlos, ignoring Shashi's taunt. "I'm getting thirsty. Think, my friends. How can we signal we're trapped?" They all started thinking about how to do that. Besides their need to tend to bodily functions, the station's AI might compensate for the loss of pressure by pumping all the air from the lounge in preparation for repairs. Because communication with the AI was cutoff, they needed to be more pro-active.
Shashi was happy Susan came up with a solution.
"Short circuit," she said, pointing to the lighting fixtures. "We need a screwdriver to get at the wiring, though."
Juan Carlos whipped a small screwdriver out of his pocket. "My dad says to always carry a screwdriver. They're lifesavers for physical plant workers."
"Right," said Shashi. "I'm the tallest. I'll stand on Juan Carlos' shoulders because he's the second tallest."
"I'm just as tall," said Brian, puffing out his chest.
"Let's not quibble about millimeters. Hoist me up."
She felt a momentary thrill as Brian put his hands on her waist and lifted. She hoped he didn't notice her reaction. There was no evidence yet that the feeling was mutual.
The micro-g value made it easy. Remaining on Juan Carlos' slim shoulders was another trick. The same micro g-value made it hard for her to maintain her balance.
Shashi was better qualified than her friends were for the required acrobatics, though. She and her mother as well as Ben Yang were followers of the Way, a new religion that was sweeping through the Spacers, a religion that was a hodgepodge of aspects of Zen, Zoroastrian, and Pantheistic teachings, along with influences from other faiths and cults. She was used to her meditation exercises that often required feats of balance.
She managed to uncover one fixture. "There are a lot of wires here, guys. How do I know which one to short? Hey, I think I hear that cat. Sounds like a cat, at least." She was close to the defunct air vent.
"Maybe it's the Cheshire cat. The vent is like an upside-down rabbit hole," said Brian, his smile and twinkling blue eyes giving away that he enjoyed his own joke.
"Forget the cat," said Juan Carlos, walking back and forth in baby steps to keep his balance under Shashi. "Use the screwdriver to straddle the wires and try various combos. The one that dims the lights will work."
On the third try, there was a shower of sparks. The lights went out. The blinking red one still warned them of the leak, but the siren had stopped. The brilliant diamonds outside the station, the stars of the Milky Way, were still visible through the special glass and their feeble light punctuated the darkness of the Lounge.
"I guess you did some serious damage there," said Brian.
Shashi stepped off Juan Carlos's shoulders and floated down. "I'd like to see anyone do it better," she said, her brown skin flushing a little in anger.
"The question is: will my father or one of his coworkers see it in their diagnostics?" said Juan Carlos, rubbing his shoulders. "Or will the AI tell them?"
Neither happened. They soon heard banging on the huge metal door. They yelled for a moment, but then Susan put her hand up to quiet them as she put her ear against the door.
"It's Natasha. She's asking if we're all right. Knock twice if we're alive."
"That's stupid," said Brian.
"Just knock," Shashi told Susan.
Susan pounded twice on the door with the heel of her hand and then put her ear to the metal again.
"She's asking why we're in the lounge. Don't we know it's off limits during sleep cycles?"
"Tell her — no, I'll tell her," said Shashi. She put her mouth close to the door. "Hey, swine-breath, stop quoting regs and get us out of here!" She backed away from the wall, making fists.
"Now she's saying she'll go and find Alvaro," said Susan. "She thinks that when we killed the lights, we also shorted the door override. She says there's a manual release in a control panel across from the bathrooms. The physical plant guys still need to write a software patch to take the AI offline in that area."
"How's that demented witch know all that?" said Shashi.
"She's really good at writing software," said Brian. "And making trouble for everybody. She's probably going to tell our parents. Or worse, Ruthie."
"I don't care," said Shashi. "Will she go get Alvaro?"
"I think so."
"Then we're back to waiting," said Susan.
"Shall we play another hand?" said Shashi.
They had begun a third hand when Alvaro's staff opened the door. Natasha Kluchevski was nowhere in sight.
The next wake-cycle Ruth Ellen MacGregor felt old as she faced Natasha Kluchevski. The girl had followed Alvaro Lopez into Ruthie's office. They had been waiting to contribute their version of the Sky Lounge accident.
The many wrinkles lining Ruthie's face contrasted with Natasha's smooth, white skin. Although the blond and blue-eyed thirteen-year-old was mature beyond her years, their sixty-plus age difference meant communication between them would be difficult.
Our only common reference frame is this bucket of bolts in the sky. None of these kids has much in common with Downy kids. In pampering their parents, maybe I've deprived them of their humanity.
Ruthie took the easy way out. She passed the problem off to Alvaro.
"It appears, Dr. Lopez, you have a problem."
He nodded. "I'm going to have to add an intercom port and a door override on the inside of the Sky Lounge. People can get trapped in there. Thanks to Natasha, nothing bad happened."
Natasha blushed. Known to her peers as the Gnat, she was thin and studious. Her mother worked for Alvaro.
Under Ruthie's steady gaze, Alvaro squirmed. She knew he realized what was coming — a time constraint!
"I want the intercom and door override in place before Senator Martinez arrives. What an oversight!"
Everyone called her Ruthie. Old and short, she had a gravelly, shrill voice that didn't match her size. She was so short that she had a made-to-order high desk chair that allowed her to put hands or elbows on her desk like any normal person.
She was everyone's boss, except for the scientists, and they usually did what she wanted. Her grumpiness was legend because she didn't tolerate foolishness when it came to running her space station. She was the direct liaison between the station and the rest of the United Nations Space Agency.
She had been around for years. She was proud of the way she handled the diverse group she commanded. She knew many people didn't like her and didn't care.
"OK, for now. Natasha, I want you to write a little report on your version of what happened. Bring it to me ASAP." The Gnat made a face. Ruthie was also her English Lit professor. "And Alvaro, from you I want a full report. In addition to the door override proposal, I want to know why you don't have the AI tell security if any of our children are alone in the Sky Lounge."
"That seems like spying!" said Alvaro.
"'Seems' is an inappropriate word in this case — it is spying. Spying for safety's sake. Now, you're both excused. Send in those four young miscreants as you leave."
* * *
The Fearsome Four filed into Ruthie's office. Instead of looking guilty, as she expected, she observed they were defiant.
"Who was winning?" said Ruthie.
"Winning what?" said Shashi, the dance of her bushy brown eyebrows giving away that she had understood the question and was playing dumb.
They are all growing up. Such different personalities. Such smart kids. Shashi was already a young woman. It was obvious to Ruthie she was interested in Brian. The others are not quite as quick. Are they going to make my life miserable?
Decades earlier Ruthie had promoted the idea of allowing families with children on the space station. In general, it had been a wise decision, especially in the area of improving station morale. No child had ever been as wild as these four, though. She often wondered if they were missing out on some things compared to Downy children.
"I'm talking about poker. Who was winning?"
"Shashi was," said Brian. Shashi dug her elbow into his ribs and he grimaced.
"Does it matter who was winning?" said Juan Carlos. "We were enjoying the Lounge. It's been a real morale booster. I understand you designed and promoted it."
Excerpted from "The Secret Lab"
Copyright © 2018 A. B. Carolan and Steven M. Moore.
Excerpted by permission of Carrick Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Begin Reading: Prologue,
Note from A.B. Carolan,
Excerpt from The Secret of the Urn, A.B. Carolan,
Note from Steven M. Moore,
Notes, References and Disclaimers,
Extracts from the First Edition,
About the Authors,