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By Aubrie Dionne, Caroline Phipps
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2011 Aubrie Dionne
All rights reserved.
Aries sped through space in her escape pod as if she fled the event horizon of a dying star. The controls blinked warnings around her, but she ignored them, pressing the touchscreen to fire the engines to full capacity.
Let's see how fast this antique can go.
Her sweaty palms slipped on the cold metal as she clutched the restraining bar across her seat. Freedom intoxicated her, coursing through her veins like she drank liquid fire.
She squeezed her eyes shut and screamed, releasing raging emotions held back from years of conforming and keeping her true thoughts silent. Many times Aries had thought her head would implode from the pressure, but instead she'd schemed, plotting the day of her departure down to the last water bottle. As the sound of her voice dissipated, she opened her eyes and peered at the stars as they blurred into streaks of shimmering light.
The time flashed on the screen in fluorescent green: 1638. Aries committed the numbers to memory. She'd have at least three hours before the ceremony and reception ended and her fellow Lifers began searching for her. Her shipmates would check her cell first, then activate the locator embedded in her arm. When they realized she'd jumped ship, they'd stop the engines and count the escape pods. By then, Aries would be a parsec away from the New Dawn.
Maybe they wouldn't come. Giddiness bubbled in her throat with the thought of the ship coursing away without her, but she knew better. They'd turned the New Dawn around before, and knowing Lieutenant Barliss, he'd have it no other way. Not only was he a high-ranking officer, but she was his chosen mate, scheduled to be bound to him in ceremony next month. Her escape would prevent Barliss from passing on their combined genetic code. There was no doubt that a man who followed the Guide to the letter would come after the woman whose DNA he needed.
The orange bulk of Sahara 354 claimed the horizon on the main sight panel. Aries soaked in the sight of the small, forgotten planet, like the first time she'd seen pictures of old Earth. Although the conditions of life on Sahara 354 were reportedly bleak, to Aries it looked like a haven. Blue and red lights flashed on the panel in front of her, warning her of the change in trajectory as the pod entered the planet's gravitational pull. Aries shut off the thrusters and allowed the vessel to sail into orbit. She glided in space, using the pod's sensors to complete a full scan of the surface, searching for signs of resources or life. Although she had enough food and water for days, they'd only delay an inevitable death if she couldn't find further sustenance.
Time ticked away, seconds she knew she couldn't waste. The New Dawn traveled much faster than an escape pod, and she needed time to fake her own death and disappear. The vast wasteland stretching before her only had small pockets of water and plant life. If she didn't choose her landing spot wisely, she'd be plummeting to a real demise.
The sight panel for the exterior cameras beeped, letting her know the pod now glided close enough to visualize the surface. Aries drew up the suggested location with the tip of her finger. The screen displayed a smear of sand cut with jagged protrusions of rock, but the life-form locator told her more. A conglomeration of several beings inhabited the area, and not mere insects or microscopic fungi: human-sized creatures. She dismissed the thought of Outlanders — the New Dawn had traveled too far, too fast, for any straggling humans to have made it to this planet ahead of her. Whatever form the creatures took, if they could survive down there, then so could she.
Aries triple-checked her readings before entering the coordinates. She wasn't going to make the same mistake as the last escapee. She blocked a vision of Tria's grotesquely dehydrated skin from her thoughts. Her friend had made a run for a different planet without testing it for compatibility. In Tria's mad rush to get away, she'd landed on a barren rock with a vacuum atmosphere that had sucked her lungs dry in seconds. The New Dawn had gone all the way back to find a corpse.
With a nervous touch on the control panel, Aries retested the quality of the atmosphere, the pull of gravity, and the radiation levels. Scouts had explored the territory centuries before astrophysicists had fused together the first chrome plates of the New Dawn. Their historical readings had proven accurate for other planets, but Aries still verified the findings for herself. The 354th known desert planet ranked close enough to Earth. Not adequate to sustain a large population or major colonization effort, but adequate to keep a 120-pound woman alive.
Taking a deep breath, she punched in the coordinates. The panels went wild, compiling the information. The computer estimated a new trajectory, and she turned on the thrusters once again. The engines rumbled, pounding deep within her stomach.
The inside of the pod rattled. Lifers never used or maintained the flight pods, so she felt lucky the one she'd chosen worked at all. Would the metal skin on this pod hold together as she entered an alien atmosphere? She could either take the risk, or circle this planet until the New Dawn came back to get her — the New Dawn with Lieutenant Barliss aboard. Holding her breath, Aries activated the final landing sequence. Even if the descent killed her, she'd rather perish on an alien planet than complete her ceremonial obligations.
The restraining bar of her chair shook violently, and she lost feeling in her arms. The air boiled in the small compartment, and her face burned. If she didn't disintegrate, then her head would burst from the pressure. Tears flicked backward from her eyes while she held on, gritting her teeth. An alarm sounded, reminding her to release the parachute. She tried to move, but the force of gravity glued her hand to the armrest, stretching her skin taut. After counting to three, she took a breath and grunted as she yanked her arm up and pressed the touchscreen, hoping the chute would work.
A bright flash of light blinded her, and splotches exploded under her eyelids. The pod hit the ground, and her world went black.
* * *
Disappointment weighed down Lieutenant Astor Barliss' shoulders as each member of the congregation filed in. No one knew the whereabouts of his intended. After the first speaker took the stand, Barliss' displeasure turned into astonishment at her absence. She played the game meticulously, like he did, appearing at all the events, performing her job at optimum capacity and sitting in the first pew of the congregation without deviation. How could she miss the pairing of Commander Gearhardt's great-granddaughter with the general's son? An anxious dread settled in his chest as he wondered what conclusions they'd draw about him and his own, absent bride-to-be.
Stars glittered on the sight panels around them as the ship sped toward Paradise 21. Even an important ceremony such as this wouldn't slow or hinder their optimum flight speed. The speaker's voice echoed off the glass, resonating throughout the domed chamber. Barliss focused on the preprogrammed flickering of the candles on the altar, something that could be controlled, instead of the vast unknown stretching in all directions.
The ceremony drew out until he felt like a wound coil waiting to spring. The close proximity of the congregation stifled him — too many people to keep tabs on, too many to control at once. As the couple recited their final vows, he breathed a sigh of relief, eager to stand up and move around the room, ready to talk to the right people and make the right impressions. After the usual applause, everyone rose and gravitated toward the trays of food.
Smoothing one stray hair into the gelled-back hairstyle he wore perfectly, Barliss pushed through the congregation. The throng of bodies cluttered the main deck, each one carrying a delicate champagne glass with bubbling liquid, vintage stuff from old Earth. If it were any other day, he'd allow himself one glass for appearances, but the absence of his intended from such an important occasion made him sick to his stomach.
As Barliss worked through the crowd, he dodged stray comments from his lower officers, ducked underneath a tray of miniature breaded zucchinis, and cut through the couple's extended family, all to give his formal congratulations to the bride and groom. The digital numbers on his wristband accumulated, but he knew better than to leave a ceremony without giving his well wishes. Especially this one. To gain favor with the higher command would put him in a position of advancement. It was all part of the political game, the single sport he excelled at. Only after paying his respects could he start looking for his intended.
"Lieutenant, it's always a pleasure to see you." A man in a white tuxedo broke through the crowd to cuff his shoulder. Barliss gauged the timing of the line. Another ten people waited before him to pay their respects, so he could spare a moment for his old friend.
"Gerald, I trust you're doing well with your new bride. How long's it been? A month?"
"Seems like five years to me." He chuckled, but darkness tinged the corners of his eyes. "How can computers be wrong, eh?" He downed his glass of champagne in one desperate gulp. "You have your own ceremony coming up soon, right?"
"Yes, I do." Barliss stifled his excitement, straightening his collar so his gold lapel pin caught just the right amount of light, and the New Dawn's insignia of a seventeenth-century ship cutting through water rested above his right bicep.
"How you ever got paired with such a beauty ..." Gerald trailed off as his own designated life partner came up and clutched his arm.
Barliss sized her up. Thick makeup covered her ruddy complexion, but nothing could cure her limp brown hair and bony nose. No matter how she stuffed the dress, the front would never be filled out in the right places. Not well enough for Barliss' taste, anyway. Her beady eyes always had reminded him of the bats in the loading bay.
"Lieutenant Barliss, you look stellar today."
Barliss' eyebrows rose, questioning her appraisal. He made it a point to look stellar every day. He didn't spend fifteen hours a week weight training for fun and games. "So do you, Tilda, my dear," he lied, playing the game.
She giggled and squeezed Gerald's arm.
Gerald winced as if she'd grasped him too tightly. Tilda waved to someone in the crowd and placed a wet kiss on her husband's cheek, smearing her lipstick before slinking away. Gerald gave her a little wave and turned back to Barliss. "Like I said, you're the lucky one."
The compliment was not entirely welcome. Too much attention to his pairing might raise suspicions. Aries embodied beauty itself. With hair like old Earth's sunset, unblemished skin, and curves in all the perfect places, Aries was a prize. Not only that, but her parents reigned as the top two astrophysicists on the New Dawn. Barliss' mouth watered just thinking of all the connections he'd attain. He bowed to Gerald. "My apologies. I must take my leave to give my respects to the new couple."
"Of course, my friend." Gerald saluted him by waving the champagne glass in his hand. Drips flung across the room and Barliss stepped to the side swiftly, careful not to get any on his pristine, white, ceremonial uniform.
Gerald called over his shoulder. "I'll be seeing you at the celebration after-party, correct?"
Barliss nodded, but his eyes strayed. "If I can get back to the main deck in time, yes."
It took forever for the line to move forward. Everyone inched over to talk with him concerning his own impending ceremony, asking embarrassing questions about his intended's absence. He reached the end of the receiving line, feeling like a schoolboy who'd forgotten to bring his homework. Damn Aries for this humiliation.
"Congratulations, Mr. and Mrs. Byron Locke. You two make quite the outstanding pair."
"Thank you. Lieutenant Barliss, is it?" The way his name fell off the bride's tongue made him feel like an inconsequential fly. He resisted the urge to squeeze her hand too tightly as she offered it, instead kissing it properly before letting go.
"Yes, appointed five years ago by your great-grandfather, himself."
She scanned the crowd behind him, already losing interest. Barliss scrambled to find a topic to prolong the conversation, to make himself memorable and perhaps win a meeting with the commander.
"Such a lovely ceremony — "
"You're the one paired with Aries Ryder, aren't you?"
He fidgeted with his lapel pin, as if hailing Aries now would make her appear. "That's correct."
"Where is she? I was so looking forward to seeing her today. She was my mentor, you know. She did everything she could to help me prepare for my engineering exams."
"She's ..." He paused, loosening his collar. "Not well."
The new Mrs. Locke's face turned cold. "She's never missed a day of work in her life."
"Like I said, she's not well." His answer came out more curtly than he intended. Mrs. Locke stepped back as if he'd hit her and wrapped her fingers around her new husband's arm. Mr. Locke whispered something in her ear. She gave the lieutenant a brusque nod and turned away.
The next pair of guests pushed by him to greet the bride and groom, and his opportunity slipped away. Damn it! This was all Aries' fault. Frustration boiled inside him like hot mercury. Throughout the whole ceremony, all he'd been able to think of was the future, a future he'd carefully engineered through many years of slippery politics and hard work, a future that granted him Aries as his intended. He had to find her to put her in her place, to remind her being his partner came with certain obligations.
Barliss quietly walked out of the main hall, then picked up the pace, sprinting down the main entry shaft to the personal cells at the rear of the ship. The corridors had an eerie stillness to them, as if the commander had evacuated the vessel and Barliss was the last one left to roam the decks, eternally alone.
Of course, his imagination sped on hyperdrive. Everyone was here, clustered on the main deck, attending the ceremony as dictated in the Guide. Everyone except Aries. Barliss' worry turned to anger, hardening like crushed steel inside his stomach. She'd better have a good reason for her absence. As his future partner, she'd stained both their reputations.
He reached her cell in a record amount of time, his ten-mile morning runs paying off. He pressed the hailing panel and waited for a response.
The corridor lay as silent as deep space. He buzzed again.
"Miss Ryder, this is Lieutenant Barliss. Are you well?"
He shifted his stance to lean against the door, as if he could hear through the thick, chrome wall. Except for the ever-present hum of the lights, silence insulted his ears. He looked at his wristwatch: 1638. The ceremony had started just after 1500 hours, so she'd been missing for almost two hours.
He pressed his lapel pin, paging the main control deck, tapping his foot as he waited. It took long moments for someone to answer. Everyone was enjoying themselves at the reception.
"Activate Aries Ryder's locator immediately and inform the commander. She's been missing for two hours."
He buzzed the door again, wishing he'd taken the time to talk with her at breakfast instead of strengthening ties with the upper command. She'd seemed distant these past few weeks, shoving her food in her mouth to avoid talking. Their meals together ended quickly. Barliss had been thankful for the silence at the time. After all, a woman's frivolous banter didn't interest him.
"Sir." The lower officer's voice startled Barliss from his musings. He didn't like the tone of voice or the pause at the end.
"What is it?"
"Her locator. It's not onboard."
"How can that be?" Barliss' tone questioned the subordinate's capacity.
"Either she's taken it off and ejected it, or gone with it, but in any case, it's not onboard."
Those final words resonated in Barliss' head, and he fell back against the chrome wall, stunned.
"Why didn't the alarm sound?"
"I don't know, sir. She must have tampered with the energy cell."
Barliss narrowed his eyes "Well, turn it back on. Try a different frequency. Have someone check the escape pods."
Excerpted from Paradise 21 by Aubrie Dionne, Caroline Phipps. Copyright © 2011 Aubrie Dionne. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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