In this second series of my ya books, action and depth are priority one.
I my first sci-fi series, the storylines were more fantasy. Hope, the main character in Hope Defined, was connected to another universe where her alter ego Dinah lived. Around the time I wrote that book, Harry Potter was still hot, and I imagined a gifted, fantastical black girl to inspire children of color the same way. But I was such a neophyte, and didn’t know anything back then about writing or promotion. (We’ll see how much I’ve learned!) Though Hope Defined got some respectable reviews, the outer space elements involving Dinah lost some people. With Skin Trials, this concept is promising, and I didn’t want to risk this time that it wouldn’t connect. So for this series Skin Trials, the books are rooted mainly here on Earth.
Most of this past eighteen months, I’ve devoted myself to elevating my writing, releasing two more books in the Hope series last year. (They are currently unavailable while I get new covers made and look into having them edited again.) I also wrote other novels under a pen name, so I could feel free to mess up and try to make money without public scrutiny.
I’ve worked exhaustively on this novel all year. The concept is provocative, and so I knew the writing had to be also – the storyline, main characters, conflicts, and obstacles. Everything needed to deliver on a few levels. For Seren Jernigan to relate to you was important to me. Though she’s rich and powerful, she has a compassionate heart. Nevertheless, her biased parents raised her to rule with discipline. Their teachings will conflict with the powerful secret she learns about herself, and the journey it takes her on.
For this series, I hired an editor to scrutinize the story. I needed more than just my boyfriend (bless his heart). My second aim was to write an impactful novel of substance. It had to be something I and others could feel in these challenging times. So much has happened between 2016 and particularly in 2017, culturally in the world and personally for me. This cultural tension also deserves a platform in modern science fiction.
I will get more into the “feels” later. For now, I hope you enjoy this excerpt, and I hope I’m hitting my goal of giving you a stronger experience. If you think I’m on to something, become a Citizen of Seren’s Perfect Society, finish reading the first chapter, get all the secret materials and grab the prequel A Perfect Society. I invite you to please, please email me to let me know what you think.
This is also the official cover reveal. 😏
Skin Trials – Chapter One
Seren took comfort in the silver-lined mountains resting beyond the armed Guardian patrols. They seemed to glow under the moon’s light. Against the black night, their illuminated ridges seemed to taunt her. On these clear nights, she wished she had wings. She would fly over the mountains, to endless peace. Squinting her eyes, she tried to peer and see which stars were shining. But a blinding searchlight from an armed police robot shined down from the sky, sweeping the ground and disrupting her thoughts. Annoyed, she pulled her gaze back into her college loft. In outer space, the Americans didn’t need guns, Guardians, or classified access grades. The young astronaut only needed to remind her father’s investors of that. Space held the only freedom for the most important Americans now.
“We cannot allow the rebels seeking to destroy our new nation to… no.” The focus must be progress. The seventeen year-old racked her brain for the effective closing words of her speech. Pacing her livingroom, she batted her eyes several times. She had a tendency to do that— squeeze her eyes a lot— when her nerves shook her. She had guessed she did it because even momentary darkness gave her a brief reprieve from the world. A few feet away, her public relations assistant, who also often doubled as a personal assistant, typed replies to the numerous press and media inquiries buzzing on the holopad or phone.
She sighed while her fingers twisted a rubber band between them. Before one of the biggest presentations of her life, occupying her hands made her more comfortable. Sometimes holding her fidget cube seemed to fuel her brain to think faster. Other times it was a Rubik’s cube. It might have been Baoding balls she rolled through her fingers. She never mentioned it to anyone, but she could even ably twirl a butterfly knife. Her bodyguard Tiny had taught her, just for kicks. But she preferred the angled challenge of cubes, as opposed to the smooth, unimposing roundness of spheres. Neither of her parents shared this fascination, so on occasion it annoyed them, resulting in her having hidden and tucked objects of various shapes all over their house. Her father, an aeronautics engineer and military contractor turned politician turned business titan, had all of her cubes weaponized for her protection in public. As a result of having to be careful, she used them less. So today, she twisted a rubber band. It was also harder for people to notice. For the final words of her speech, she thought, How would Dad say it.
“Space is mankind’s final frontier. We must honor this high calling, above any lesser agendas aiming to distract us from it.”
“That was perfect, Ms. Jernigan.” Maura, Seren’s small, sprightly public relations assistant said. The rest of her words swam in Seren’s thoughts and became white noise.
“Maybe I should have used humankind instead of mankind. More politically correct,” Seren thought aloud, before deciding against the change. As far she and her family, and all of their Level Five friends, were concerned, the man was still head of the home. Speaking louder to address the voice-commanded digital assistant built into the audio system of her home. “Auta, can you modify my speech to add that line?”
“Already did, Seren. It’s now stored in your holopad,” Auta’s digital voice replied. “Your facial features and vital signs indicated you were satisfied with it.”
“Thanks,” Seren said looking out of her bay window again. Dawn arose now from the other side of the planet. She looked at the clock. “I’d better go run. If I don’t do it now, it’ll never happen.” Entering her bedroom, the lights automatically came on and she began flipping through a computerized drawer system for workout clothes.
She struggled to pull a sports bra over her messy, tight blonde curls that sprang out everywhere. “God, it looks like the space journey is already happening on my head.”
Rushing to pull on her leggings, Seren’s eyes landed on her inner thigh and she froze. A foreign brown spot stared back at her. Very small, no bigger than the black eye on a black-eyed pea. Squinting, she tried to see it better. She rubbed her finger against it, attempting to wipe off the stain. It didn’t budge. Then, she pinched it, as if she could pull it off. The dark discoloration sat with resolve. Disrupting the continuous whiteness along her skin.
“Auta, I have a spot on my skin. I’ve never seen it before. This isn’t skin cancer, is it? Are the vitamins working? Maybe a stronger dosage?”
Maura laughed from the other room. “Ms. Jernigan, you’re only seventeen. Far too young for skin cancer!”
Auta’s electronic voice replied, “Most likely a sun spot, Ms. Jernigan.”
“When is my next vitamin treatment?”
“Two weeks. Would you like me to contact Dr. Placer for an earlier appointment?”
Now Seren grew annoyed. “Yes, please. Maybe we should also start looking for a new geneticist? I wonder who Agnethe is using. I’ll ask her later,” she thought aloud. Her closest friend since childhood was actually on her way for Seren’s big presentation this morning.
“Dr. Placer has treated you your whole life. Maybe you should discuss it with your parents first?” Maura suggested.
Seren rolled her eyes. “Maybe. But I’ll be eighteen in a few months. Time for me to start picking my own doctors.”
Auta interrupted her thoughts. “Ms. Jernigan, your morning run. You have only one hour and seventeen minutes before you must arrive at the Aerospace Dome for preparation.”
“Go. Everything will be waiting on you at the Aerospace Dome when you get there,” Maura assured while packing a drone that would transport Seren’s personal items across her school campus.
She tossed on some running gear before she approached the VScan digital reader built into her wall, and the tiny blue light quickly flashed to capture her eye impression. The heavy metal door activated to slide aside, letting in a crisp blast of morning Wyoming mountain air. A floating, wireless pad arrived at her door. She stepped onto the SkyPad, the flat circular, device of no more than three feet in diameter.
“Ground.” The steel-plated SkyPad lowered her the three stories from her ellipsoid-shaped college loft to the ground.
Shoving wireless earbuds into either side of her head, she spoke, “Tina.” Immediately, the symphony music of “River Deep” and Tina Turner’s gutsy voice filled Seren’s ears. The rest of the world disappeared into Seren’s morning jog. To the west, stood the aerospace buildings on the flat land, and to the east, lay a small field before patches of clean, lush forest sitting at the base of Crystal Mountain. For the next several miles lay uninterrupted natural beauty of Medicine Bow, Wyoming. Her sneakers sank through the grassy path, and she pushed east toward early morning sunrise. Just to be safe with time, she would only run six miles, instead of ten.
A deceptively low wooden fence surrounded the field from the rest of campus. At the touch of Seren’s fingers, its wooden gate unlatched as the sensors inside the VScan read her fingerprint impression. Tiny, but deadly, metal spikes protruding above the grass receded into the ground. She proceeded across the field toward the scenic college grounds for the next hour.
The voice of Seren’s mother cut in to her ear. “Seren, hon, you there?”
Seren refused to answer. Her parents would have to wait until after the presentation. She would see them when she flew home tonight. Until then, this run would likely be the only moment of peace she would have for the next two days.
Her mother continued, her voice displaying clear annoyance at Seren’s silence. “Fine, don’t answer then. I know you’re out running at the crack of dawn, which I have asked you repeatedly not to do. I’ll bet you didn’t take Tiny with you either.” She referred to Seren’s six-foot, four-inch bodyguard, who her mother correctly guessed was not with her.
Rejecting the call, she switched back to her music. Seren wrapped up her jog and headed to the Aerospace Dome. From her side of the protective silver fence separating school students and staff from the world, in the distance she could see the food trucks, media crews and wait staff lining the single street entrance to this part of campus. The facility and surrounding grounds already bustled with preparations and security for the official unveiling of Space Liberty. As she approached the dome, VScans inside the metal doorframe read Seren’s eyes, verifying her identity, and the metal doors slid back.
“Welcome to the Aerospace Dome, Seren,” the Auta voice, installed in nearly every high-tech facility, greeted her as she entered the backdoor of the dome. The long, steel and silvery walkways curved around, descending to the lowest underground level of the three-story complex, where a slew of offices, control rooms, locker rooms and showers lined the halls for students, professors and staff who worked long hours. On the other side of thick walls, in the main holding chamber, sat the smooth saucer-shaped space ship Space Liberty, the apple of Seren’s eye for the past seven years. Though the skeptical media had dubbed her ship “Escape Liberty,” she remained undeterred about her dream of the smartest, safest people in America creating a whole new world.
A pair of long legs approached from the opposite side of the curving walkway. She recognized them without hesitation. Distracted to the point of nearly being absent, her teammate Trane was up and working early. She wondered if he had gone back to his loft after their team dispersed late the previous night. With his head bent down, studying a holopad even as he walked, she could only see his wooly, thick black hair.
“Careful. Flying objects ahead,” she called.
His head jerked up and he nearly dropped his holopad. “Hey,” he replied in a groggy voice, wearing a sleepy, excited grin. “Today’s the day.”
“It is. Pretty awesome that it’s actually happening, huh?” she beamed back at him. Trane might have been the only person alive who loved space more than Seren. They had spent many long nights over the last three years “nerding out” over gravity simulation devices, sometimes munching on space food, and listening to Nirvana.
He nodded his head. “I couldn’t sleep. Brain wouldn’t slow down. So I came back over here. Where else could I be? My family is ecstatic right now.”
Seren jumped at the mention of his family. “Were they able to make it out here?”
He lowered his eyes to the floor a moment, and he shrugged. “No That’s alright. I’ll send them a little video once it gets approved.”
Seren’s heart dipped for her teammate. “I’m sorry, Trane. I know you really wanted your little sister to see….”
“No worries,” he interrupted her, raising his voice and making it sound cheery. “The fact that I’m even here… it gives them hope, you know?”
Seren almost thought she saw his eyes glisten. Did she see joy or sadness in his dark irises? She had learned not to ask. She knew any answer would be too complicated. Instead she attempted a reassuring smile.
“Yes, it does. They’re lucky to have you. This program is fortunate to have you in it,” Seren offered.
She watched his face change. Trane started to say something else, and stopped himself.
“Let’s go shower up, shall we? I’ll see you in a few,” he said, avoiding her gaze now and trudging off toward an office with a shower. Seren hated that they couldn’t be real friends. He was the person on her team she trusted most. But she was six years younger than him, and she was his superior.
Seren walked into one of the offices students used that contained sleeping cots and often doubled as sleeping quarters. Once she entered, dahlias greeted her in congratulatory sprays lining the wall. She immediately recognized Black Satins, Clearview Daniels, and Maarns from the country of Holland, blooming in all of the bright colors she liked, courtesy of her parents and boyfriend Lyndon.
“Hiya, Princess, thanks for joining the rest of us before you’re coronated in your big moment,” the familiar voice of her Level Four older classmate Kit called out from one of the rooms. Kit’s fit, sturdy body sat up on a sleeping cot and began wrestling on her work coveralls. Seren noticed her fold up a small paper that had a drawing on it in crayon, and shove it into her backpack. Seren averted her eyes to pretend she hadn’t seen it. She rarely asked about her teammates’ personal lives anymore. Not that she didn’t care.
Seren’s parents had helped create Perfect Society, America’s genetics-based government. Over the previous fifteen years, this meritocracy had come to replace the old democracy. Now the old perks everyone once enjoyed – speaking at will, journalism, going to college – had to be earned. In this system, Seren played a big role in deciding if her Level Four teammates would ever own a home or get their degrees.
She looked at Kit and grinned. “Our coronation. We all worked hard on this.”
“Tell your parents that,” Kit smirked. “Maybe one day, I’ll have a moment of glory too. Until then, we, your loyal subjects, will just fume privately at you Fives behind your backs.”
Seren stopped short of uttering the words that lingered on her tongue. That her father, Stephen Jernigan, paid for most of this space project, so Seren had the right to stand front and center.
“You want some cheese with that whine?” Seren shot back at her nemesis. She had gotten used to their not so subtly cloaked jealousy of her coveted status as a U.S. citizen having a Classified Access Grade of Premium Level Five. In America’s new Perfect Society hierarchy, Seren already held a number of privileges and benefits Kit would have to earn over the next several years. Among them were the right to lead college research and workplace teams, travel anywhere in the nation, buy premium groceries and foods, and receive unlimited financing for college, a home and top-quality medical care. Agitated Level Fours who were born highly intelligent, but with a yellow flag on their birth certificate, carried some resentment. They unleashed it in small fits from time to time. But even Kit knew not to upset a powerful Five like Seren who could make or break her chances of ever elevating.
“No, but I wouldn’t mind taking a spin in your little aerocar,” Kit replied, sliding in a subtle request to fly Seren’s state-of-the art driverless car. It wouldn’t be released on the public market for another year.
“Work hard. Get your own.” Seren wouldn’t be guilted into letting people take advantage of her. To lighten the mood, Seren hopped in a shower stall, ran some water and splashed some of it over the divider where Kit sat.
“You’re a brat! You know that? Hurry up and come out of there, so I can go meet my public,” Kit said.
She used the narrow mirrors wedged between lockers, while wrestling her wild blonde curls into a controlled bun. Seren’s eyes hit the tiny brown spot on her thigh again. Beginning to burn up all over again at the sight of it, her eyes quickly searched the rest of her body just to confirm she hadn’t missed any more spots this morning. Still perfectly clean, ivory skin. As she threw on her coveralls, credentials, and some light makeup, her best friend Agnethe entered the room.
“You made it!” Seren jumped.
“Of course I wouldn’t have missed it. Dad’s up there too,” Agnethe said as they hugged one another.
Agnethe handed Seren, not another set of dahlias, but a big basket of exotic fruits and vegetables from other countries. “What do you bring the weirdest workaholic ever? Who doesn’t secretly drink, rarely watches holovision, and who has literally everything? You bring her all the weird foreign food she likes that nobody on Earth thinks about! And the latest movies she hasn’t watched since she has no life to speak of!”
They both laughed as Seren looked over the jujubes, mangosteens, and muskmelon from India, and avocados from Mexico. Avocados had been outlawed years before in America when it severed relations with Mexico to control immigrants. They now were only available on the black market, which Agnethe accessed regularly. Much to her parents’ chagrin. Agnethe had had a devious way of forcing Seren out of her nerdy bubble since they were born. Theirs was the unlikeliest friendship, with Seren being the tomboyish thinker who took Judo, and Agnethe being a beautiful prima donna who modeled. Their opposite interests allowed them to help one another. Starting at the sandbox when Seren confronted girls who made fun of Agnethe not wanting to touch a dirty ball. Or at summer camp when none of the boys wanted to dance with Seren because of her wild hair. Agnethe had fixed it for her.
“I’m so glad you’re here.”
“You know we went to California to inspect the new prisons Dad designed. So it worked out we could stop through here.”
“I made Mom, Dad and Lyndon stay away,” Seren laughed.
“Wow. And all of the West Point posse that claims you as theirs too? You mean you actually got them not to come and take over your space ship?” Agnethe snickered, referring to the powerful friends of Seren’s father.
“They’re too busy getting ready for tomorrow. That’s why we scheduled this the day before,” Seren joked.
From Denver, Colorado, Seren and Agnethe had watched their families recreate the nation, making it safer and more modern one city at a time. The ambitious set of scientists, tech innovators, military leaders and political visionaries had also raised their children in the same tight knit Denver circles, so they spent enough time in one another’s homes to practically be family. Agnethe understood how Seren’s mother would go stand at the front of the room during Seren’s speeches and stare down any person who even coughed before Seren finished. While Seren’s father was a little easier, he tried to control the event and order Seren’s staff around from behind the scenes. Not today. She needed to establish she was a leader in her own right, without the distracting presence of her famous parents, U.S. Senator Mariel Jernigan and business titan Stephen Jernigan. And her boyfriend Lyndon’s nerves sometimes got worse than Seren’s.
“You’ll be fine. I’ve also got another surprise later on the way to Denver. We’ve got some pitstops. I packed you an alternate bag,” Agnethe whispered with a wicked grin.
Seren tried to suppress laughter. “We’re finally going to die. The night before the country changes. We won’t live to see everything our folks worked hard for. Great,” Seren smiled with sarcasm.
“But at least we’ll die in one awesome adventure. Way better than rotting in pretty dresses at some boring gala.” They walked toward the SkyPads where Seren’s teammates had begun gathering. Agnethe and Kit exchanged tense looks. “The best news for you is I’m here now so you don’t have to talk to her anymore,” Agnethe whispered.
Kit scowled. Standing several feet away, Kit likely didn’t hear Agnethe’s words, but Agnethe’s glare made it apparent that she discussed Kit. Seren’s other team members shifted and stared at one another.
Seren tried to ease the tension. “Hey, you guys, we finally made it! Congratulations!” Seren’s classmates that she led on her team clapped and called their polite congratulations back to Seren. She knew their applause stemmed from a sense of obligation, and not so much actual joy. Not when every one of them dreamed of standing in Seren’s shoes and leading this mission themselves. Knowing that, Seren tried to be as sensitive as she could. “I hope to see you at my parents’ house tomorrow night. Our plane will be here for you tomorrow afternoon.”
Kit threw out a salute, calling back, “Aye, aye, Master… I mean Captain. Sounds fun! Looking forward to partaking in your expensive soiree!”
Trane squirmed a bit. “Actually, I’ve decided to fly home to Virginia and be with my family. Use the next couple of days to… get away. Sorry that I’m going to miss the big party. I know it’ll be fun.”
Seren felt a wave of disappointment. Trane was the peacemaker of the bunch, or really, the person who backed Seren when her older teammates challenged her directives. “I didn’t know you had been thinking of not going.”
Trane shrugged. “Last minute decision. Haven’t been home in a while, and with all that’s happening… and my sister being sick and all… thought this was as good a time as any.”
His face tightened, and it seemed to twist with all he didn’t share, particularly how the East Coast was being reorganized, section by section, as law enforcement and the military took over parts of it. Seren kept the conversation simple this time, not wanting to give any of them ammunition to start a debate. Again, she used caution in selecting her words. Seren felt her mouth get dry as she struggled with the words, since they all knew what his family really endured — a resettlement.
“Of course. I hope the trip goes smoothly.”
“Sure, you do,” Kit contributed. “Why don’t you offer him some of your Premium Level Five healthcare? I’m sure that might help his sister get better.”
“And while she’s at it, why doesn’t she fix your family’s entire violent history? Since that’s her fault too,” Agnethe snapped back, flipping her strawberry blonde hair, and rolling her baby blue eyes. Seren grabbed her arm to silence her. Kit’s mouth fell open.
“How did you know—?” Kit started.
“Why is she even down here? Shouldn’t you be somewhere primping in some useless magazine or something?” another Level Four crew member asked. Seren tossed the girl a warning stare, and the crew member’s face turned regretful.
“I guess you missed that whole part where Fives don’t have Four limitations,” Agnethe said with a wink.
“Agnethe, chill. Please. Time to go up now, everyone,” Seren cut in. She would remind Agnethe later not to taunt them, but she wouldn’t admonish her best friend in public. Seren turned to Trane. “I hope you’ll reconsider, but I understand.”
“Do you? I want to know how she knew about my classified…” Kit started again.
“Kit, let it go. Honestly. Now please? This is a good day. We’ve all worked hard. Let’s own what we’ve contributed here? Yes?” Seren half-pleaded.
Agnethe and Seren exchanged another quick hug. before Seren and her team stepped onto the SkyPads and ascended to the second floor main lobby. The ooh’s and aah’s of Level Five school children floated around the Dome’s lobby, and they began waving and cheering. Press cameras began filming and snapping. Reporters started with the questions. Seren’s bodyguard Tiny appeared at her side from nowhere, and only then did she move toward the throngs.
“And there she is. The youngest astronaut in history,” one male reporter noted from within the press pool. Seren walked up with a gracious smile, grabbed a student’s holopad and stylus pen and began signing her electronic autograph.
This isn’t the end of the first chapter. You can finish the whole chapter with no purchase necessary by signing up. I’ll keep you updated about the novel’s release, the serial I’m planning, and giveaways.