Check out an exciting exclusive excerpt of Alexa Donne’s YA debut, Brightly Burning.
About ‘Brightly Burning’ by Alexa Donne
Brightly Burning is a reimagining of the literary classic, Jane Eyre…but in space!
In hopes of a more affluent present and future, Stella Ainsley leaves behind her job as an engineer on the Stalwart to be become a governess on the Rochester, an upper class interstellar ship. The Rochester seems like a dream come true, until Stella discovers some things that weren’t exactly covered in the brochure.
For starters, the ship seems to be haunted. To make matters even worse, the ship is tied up in an interstellar conspiracy. Things only get more complicated when Stella meets Captain Hugo, who causes as many problems as he eases. Stella must choose who to trust, and it’s a battle between her head and her heart.
‘Brightly Burning’ by Alexa Donne exclusive excerpt
I dreamed of the stars. I was swimming in them, on my back, doing a backstroke through black and gold. There was no sound, no air, and yet somehow I was breathing. Laughing, though I could not hear my own voice. I flipped onto my stomach, revealing the moon before me, the Rochester flanking her left side. The ship was a beauty, sleek and silver, her nose full of windows and her arms flung back behind her like folded wings. She flared, something bright sparking in her aft end, and with a panic, I realized she was leaving me. “No!” I screamed, but no sound left my lips. The universe echoed my panic, my fast-beating heart, Klaxons blaring in time with my breath. As the Rochester kicked away from me, the sirens sounded on, and all I could think was Why can I hear them out in the vacuum of space?
And then I woke up and realized the sirens were real. As soon as I opened my eyes and sat up, they stopped.
“Stella, I am sorry to disturb you, but you have an urgent call on comms.” Rori’s voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere. It was strange hearing her outside my shower or my earpiece. I retrieved my comms from my bedside table and put it on, immediately receiving a page from Officer Xiao.
“Stella, I apologize for the early hour, but you are urgently needed,” she said while I checked the time—it was just past six a.m. “There’s an issue in the airlock in the shuttle bay, and I need you to repair it as soon as possible. We’re expecting the captain today, so it must be fixed immediately.”
“What about Lieutenant Poole?” I asked, though I’d already hopped out of bed and started pulling on my underdress.
“Tied up in equally urgent matters, I’m afraid,” she answered. “You’ll find all the tools you need, as well as a spacesuit in the room next to the loading deck. Your bio scan will open it.”
“And Jessa’s lessons?” I selected the outfit clearly meant for engineering work—a simple black frock with no flouncy skirts but plenty of pockets.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll have breakfast brought to you at half past seven.”
I retraced my steps from a vague memory of a week ago, until the familiar sight of the transport bay bloomed into view, doors fitted with triple-reinforced glass giving me a view into the now-empty airlock beyond. Nothing looked out of place, but a glaring red light above the door separating the inner and outer bays—the outer one being where the airlock was essential—confirmed Xiao’s report. Alert, alert, danger, danger.
A wave of cold washed down my back as a memory popped into my mind. Another airlock, a different ship, my cousin Charles threatening to lock me inside so I’d be vented out into space when the next cargo ship came along. I swore I heard his cruel laugh behind me; I whipped around, expecting to see him and his friends, who followed him like lemmings around the Empire all those years ago. But I was alone. I hadn’t seen Charles in seven years, and no one here would throw me in an airlock to die. I took a deep breath to steady my nerves, reminding myself I was safe now. But the captain wouldn’t be if he arrived before I fixed whatever was causing the alarm.
To the right of the transport bay, I found the maintenance hold Xiao mentioned, where there was a spacesuit of my approximate proportions and a kit of tools. The suit was stiff and unforgiving, with a detachable helmet unit that would make it airtight. I climbed into the body of the suit, hauling a zipper attached to an extended wire over my shoulder and pulling with all my might. Eventually sealed up tight, I breathed in cycled air and fidgeted with thick, gloved fingers for my toolkit. I trudged with heavy steps to the holding bay, slapping open the doors and stepping inside, engulfed by the muffled yet still earsplittingly loud alarm. I flipped open an electrical panel in the wall and silenced the wail. I needed to be able to concentrate.
A tab unit next to the panel gave me the diagnostic picture that I needed. Separate oxygen and nitrogen units supplied the airlock with breathable air, normally cycled together in perfect proportion. The oxygen unit was malfunctioning. The holding bay was pure nitrogen. Any ship that tried to dock would read a proper pressure seal—and “air” present—but it wasn’t breathable. Not by humans.
A diagram and blinking red diagnostic lights showed me where the tanks were inside the landing bay. I grabbed the tab from the wall, and even though I was sealed into my suit, I paused before the door. How old was this suit? One leak and I’d drop like a stone, suffocating to death. When I couldn’t put it off any longer, I keyed in an override code and pushed the button releasing the door.
I followed the blinking red light on the tab, making slow, clumsy progress to the right, where I found the sleek panel that hid the massive tanks. The problem was immediately apparent once I’d unscrewed the offending panel. Someone had wrested a bundle of wires out of their proper sockets, disconnecting the oxygen tank from the ship’s system. I frowned, talking to no one. “It’s like someone reached in and yanked as hard as they could . . .”
I estimated it would take at least a few hours, maybe more, to fix it. It wasn’t as simple as reslotting the wires in—I needed to go in deep, where essentially connections were now loose and severed, and possibly redo the wiring from scratch.
Breakfast came and went. Albert delivered into the outer bay a tray with tea, toast, and soy patties, which I took a short break to cram into my mouth. Back out I went, belly sloshing with tea, but with a bit more energy. After another hour, I had sorted the worst of the problem, it seemed, though when I tested the system, the light persistently flashed red.
I hailed Xiao again on comms. “Officer Xiao, I’m having trouble getting the oxygen back online. Is there any way Lieutenant Poole might be free now? I could use a second opinion.”
“Lieutenant Poole is still indisposed, Miss Ainsley. Just do the best you can, and I will have her report to the landing bay as soon as possible.”
Her answer did nothing to settle my nerves. Who knew how long it would be until Lieutenant Poole would come? I had a thought.
“Rori, are you in here too?” I asked, taking a gamble.
“Yes, Stella, I am everywhere.”
Putting aside the fact that Rori’s seeming omnipresence was a bit creepy, I felt relief. “Rori, is there any information on the air filtration for the loading bay that you might be able to send to my diagnostic tab? I think I need to do a bit of secondary reading.”
“Of course, Stella. Please give me a moment.”
True to her promise, Rori complied a moment later with a ping to the tab, and I retreated to the corner to read, starting with a schematic overview, then moving on to a detailed troubleshooting manual. I became so engrossed, my head filling with ideas that would hopefully solve this problem, that I didn’t notice the outermost hatch door opening.
A small ship cruised inside, making a smooth, practiced landing. Everything went as it should: the ship docked; the outside hatch door closed behind it. I grabbed the tab and confirmed it one more time for good measure: there was no oxygen. If the people in that ship stepped out sans protective gear, they could die.
I screamed from my helmet, “Stop! Do not get out!” Then I realized there was no way they could hear me, and I couldn’t take off my gear so that they could hear me—I’d choke and suffocate as quickly as I could shout. “Rori!” I yelled. “Can you connect me to that ship’s comms? We have to warn them.”
“His network comms are turned off, Stella. I can announce the issue once he steps off the spacecraft.”
“He’ll be gasping for air before he hears you,” I said, trying to think of a secondary solution. If I couldn’t stop the passenger from getting off the ship, then I had to save him. I moved to the other side of the craft just as the doors slung open and a lanky figure stepped out. Not wearing protective gear, as I feared. I had only a few seconds. I darted a glance at the door connecting us to the outer bay and the passenger, and cast another down at my heavy suit, which made me slow. I would have to push with all my might and hope for the best.
Each step was like sinking through a stew. I counted the seconds in my head. Five, six, seven—he’d surely tried breathing by now. He could; he would even think everything was completely normal, until his lungs burned and everything went black.
Ten, eleven, twelve—I rounded the corner of the craft and found him on his side, still as death. My suit was like lead, weighing my limbs and slowing my steps. I grabbed him by both arms and dragged him to the door. It took all of fifteen, twenty seconds but felt like five minutes, me drag-shuffling him, throwing my left shoulder against the hatch button, waiting for it to open. And then it didn’t.
Frex! The stupid override command via the tab. There was no time for it! “Rori! Let us in!” And bless her, Rori ignored every single protocol there was and did it. I dragged the man’s heavy, near-lifeless body into the next room, the door sliding shut behind us. “How are the oxygen levels in here?” I asked.
“Oxygen is good, Stella,” Rori said, as calm as ever.
I wrenched off my helmet and zipped out of the cumbersome suit so I could attend to the man, who was barely breathing. I started mouth-to-mouth resuscitation—which thankfully they’d taught all the teachers aboard the Stalwart—forcing oxygen back into his lungs.
“Please don’t be dead . . .”
I breathed into his mouth, pumped his chest, repeated. I checked his pulse—it was thready but present. Then, suddenly, he gasped. Coughed.
He sat up, searching my face, blinking at the unfamiliarity. I found myself taken aback, really looking at him now that the panic had dissipated. He was young, close to my age, with strong features you might call handsome.
“Buy me a drink first, at least.”