Ana only knows her name because of the tag she finds pinned to her jumpsuit. Waking in the featureless compartment of a rocket ship, she opens the hatch to discover that she has landed on a barren alien world. Instructions in her pocket tell her to observe and to survive, no doubt with help from the wicked-looking knives she carries on her belt. But to what purpose?
Meeting up with three other teens--one boy seems strangely familiar--Ana treks across the inhospitable landscape, occasionally encountering odd twists of light that carry glimpses of people back on Earth. They're working on some sort of problem, and the situation is critical. What is the connection between Ana's mission on this planet and the crisis back on Earth, and how is she supposed to figure out the answer when she can't remember anything?
|Publisher:||Random House Children's Books|
|Sold by:||Random House|
|File size:||3 MB|
|Age Range:||12 - 17 Years|
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This is how she wakes. There is a heavy pressure on her chest and a dull weight in her legs. Her mouth feels like cotton and the air is stale. Her eyes are glued shut.
No . . . not glued. She thinks they might open, if she tries.
Her eyes are open now, but she can't see any difference. The room--is it a room?--is pitch-black, a solid wall of dark.
A pulse of red light explodes in the darkness. She clamps her eyes shut again, but the brightness scours the backs of her lids. She takes quick, shallow breaths as the burst of light fades.
Flash! Another takes its place, then another.
Behind closed lids, her eyes are starting to adjust. She forces them back open. Fiery light-shadows streak around her, shadows that look alive.
She shifts her head and looks down, trying to assess her condition in these quick bloody snapshots hemmed in by viscous darkness.
She's strapped to a padded chair with armrests and a propped-up leg support that goes out past her feet. A dark band stretches across her upper thighs; another two crisscross her chest. She arches her body, pushing against the bands, but there's no give. She can feel her skin starting to bruise and she slows her frantic efforts. There has to be a way out of this.
The room is as round as a bucket, skinny with a high, dome-shaped ceiling but otherwise empty. She digs her fingers into the strap across her thighs and tries to pry it up. Nothing. With her fingertips she follows the band to the edges of her chair. Like a seat belt, maybe that's what these are? But she can find no spring-release button.
What's going on?
Where am I?
The pulses are coming from somewhere to her left. She reaches out in the direction of the light, feeling for the wall. There! She finds something flat and round. A button. She pushes her palm against it.
The belts around her chest and the wide one on her thighs snap open. There's a sudden sharp pricking below her waist, almost like something pulling out of her skin. She catches the band that was on her lower body and sees a row of long, thin prongs along the underside. On the front of the belt is a row of fine print, one label assigned to each prong: ELIMINATION . . . FLUID . . . LIFE SUPPORT . . .
A violent shudder ripples through her body. What is going on?
Letting go of the belt, she bends forward at the waist and stretches her ankles and knees, groaning as her muscles shift position for the first time in what feels like quite a while.
A second later, the red light on the wall goes off and a flashing green one takes its place. She turns her head to the left and sees that the green light is coming from a second button, right next to the first.
Is this some kind of a game? Her heart beats faster as she presses the new button.
Bright white light floods the room. She throws her hands over her eyes, but the light pushes through her fingers and cuts into her. Too bright. Too white.
And that's when she notices.
Her mind is white, too. Blank.
It's strange, because she can picture and name all the objects in her little room--the chair, the walls, the seat belts. She stretches her mind and thinks of cars, computers, pepperoni pizza, ice-cold root beer. But all these objects float like ghosts in her mind. There's no one in the car. The root beer has no flavor. The computer is static, its screen dark. She knows about all these things, but she doesn't know them. They are not attached to any memories.
What about her? Where does she come from?
She blinks under her hands.
Who am I?
With a shock she realizes that she has no idea. Here's what she knows about her world: A tall, round room. Bands across her thighs and over her chest. A red light that pulses and a green light that is pressed, and then a white so bright it cuts through everything else.
That's it--her history, her memory, her now.
This is the first chapter of her life.
Panic rises up inside her, squeezing like a fist. She stays sitting for what seems like a long time, hands still shielding her eyes from that too-white light, while somewhere nearby a very low sound goes tick, tick, tick. Gradually, the quiet rubs away at her fear until the sharp edge dulls and her heart rate begins to slow.
Sliding her hands off her face, blinking a little as her eyes adjust, she looks down at her body. She doesn't recognize it, not the lanky arms or the long legs or the lumpy vest over a gray jumpsuit that covers her from neck to ankle. The heavy-duty black boots. The little white square that's pinned to her chest.
Wait. The what?
The nametag! She is wearing a nametag.
It's small, an ordinary slip of paper inside a flimsy plastic label, held in place on her jumpsuit with a silver pin. She tugs the pin free with trembling fingers.
Yes. The paper has a word on it, three printed black letters in the upper right corner: ANA. That's the only thing on the tag--the rest is completely blank. But it's enough to start.
Ana. The name is a wave that lifts her and a hand that holds her and a boat that carries her away. It's a compass that says: Head this way! It's a banner that tells her: All is not lost.
She recognizes it immediately. It's her own name.
Feeling somehow stronger with this knowledge inside her, Ana sets the nametag down on the armrest of her chair and turns her attention to the tiny room. The walls are checkered like a quilt, each square padded with velvety red cushion and edged in polished gray metal. The ceiling, studded with fluorescent lightbulbs, rises to a narrow peak high above her, and is also lined with puffy cushioning.
She doesn't see the belts that had been holding her. Did they retract into her seat? She looks down over the side. The chair sits on a pole--like a dentist's chair . . . but have I ever gone to the dentist?--and underneath is a yawning black space. A grille walkway surrounds her seat and bridges the gap between her chair and the far wall, where there's a door set into the red padding. A door! It's an odd oblong shape, like some kind of a portal or a hatch, and made of solid-looking metal.
Ana slides off the seat and plants her feet on the walkway, her legs shaking a little at first. As she stands all the way up, her hand brushes something on her right hip: a tough nylon sheath with a smooth, dark handle at the top. Instinctively, she reaches across her body with her left hand, grasps the handle, and pulls it free to reveal a twelve-inch dagger made of a matte, nonreflective metal and with an edge so sharp it looks like it could cut steel.
What? Heart hammering, Ana slides the blade back into place. She glances down at the bulky vest she's wearing--bulky because it hides more weapons?
Ana looks back at the door. She has no idea where it leads, but it's suddenly clear that there will be no lighthearted surprise party waiting for her on the other side.
Still a little unsteady on her feet, she crosses the grille walkway to the door. A bar-shaped handle bisects it at hip level; to one side of the door is a small, dark screen. A fingerpad. Without thinking, Ana presses her index finger against the screen.
Her stomach is churning. Making fear soup, she thinks, and the thought makes her smile. In spite of all the uncertainty surrounding her, Ana's heart lifts. Her mind might be broken, but that expression had to come from somewhere, didn't it? Maybe there are more fragments of the past drifting around her mind space, bits of her old self waiting to drop in at some random moment, when she least expects it.
The fingerpad beeps, and she hears a series of clicks and whirrs from inside the door as the locking mechanism begins to disengage. She reaches for the handle.
And that's when she sees it. On the lower half of the door there is a mesh pocket, and sticking out of the pocket is the edge of something that looks like paper.
Ana reaches down and pulls the paper free. It's an envelope with one word written in careful block print, the same word that was on her nametag, her word: Ana. Inside the envelope is a sheet of paper.
She slides the sheet out and unfolds it. Her eyes run over the handwritten words.
You have now arrived on Paradox. I realize that you must have questions, but I can give you no answers at this time. You will not remember who I am, nor will you recollect the events that have led you to this place.
That is as it should be. You have undergone a procedure known as surgical retrograde amnesia. You have no memory of your past, and you are on unfamiliar ground, but your body has been well trained. You have been sent to Paradox with a specific mission: Experience. Discover. Survive.
Experience your surroundings; follow the preset path of your journey with a careful eye to anything that might be worthy of observation. Discover what is hidden, looking below the surface for things that might be out of the ordinary. And survive, for if you do not then all of this will be in vain. Your body is its own record. Be mindful of the countdown.
Your world--our world--is on the brink of disaster. Your mission must succeed. If not, I cannot vouchsafe your future.
With regards toward your best success,
J. R. Pritchett
Ana stands still for a long time, trying to process all this new information. Paradox? J. R. Pritchett? Surgical retrograde amnesia? None of it makes any sense. They're all just words, ideas with no weight behind them--nothing like her name, which came alive when she saw it.
Looking down at the paper again, she notices something else. Scribbled at the bottom in smudged black ink--written in a shaky hand, different from the main note--are two letters: O+O
What is that supposed to mean?
What does any of it mean?
She starts to crumple the letter, then stops and folds it over and over until it's a flat square that can fit in the hollow of her palm. She finds a pocket on the front of her suit and slides it inside. The panic in her gut, the cold emptiness of all she doesn't know, is so strong it's almost numbing. But she has to get moving.
Broken or not, there's only one way she's going to find answers.
The fingerpad flashes green, and Ana grasps the door handle. The bar moves easily under her weight. With a gentle hisssss, then a click, the door unlatches.
Ana pushes and the door swings open.
She is greeted by an endless swath of dry brown earth. Giant boulders that are gray and black and dull green and even coral pink are scattered across the landscape. She realizes she's looking from a height, and as she pushes the door wider, she sees it's a ten- or twelve-foot drop to the ground. Off ahead a cliff cuts across the horizon, so far away it's barely more than a haze in the distance.
And the sky . . . she tilts her head back. The sky is pink! It's as if she were inside a huge peach, the top half of the world streaked with ribbons of orange and yellow and red--and, yes, cheek-blushing pink. Over it all hangs a watery yellow sun.
What is this place?
The wind hits her then, a gust of chilly-fresh air that takes her breath away for a second, and she leans into it, pushing the door out until it's flat against the outer wall and it latches into place.
That's when she sees it. Over the horizon way off to her left, low over the distant cliff wall, looms a second sun.
Two suns? That's not right. And yet, there they are, one dim and high overhead and the other lolling white-hot on the horizon.
Is this a sign that the strings inside her are broken worse than she'd thought? Or is it something else?
She should be seeing buildings. She should be seeing trees. There should be signs of roads and cars. Planes, maybe. Instead, there's just dry, empty land, and the wind beating against the heavy door, and two suns pulsing in the raspberry sky.
She thinks about the letter and its talk of exploring, of discovering, of trying to save her world, almost as if--You have now arrived on Paradox--as if that world that needed saving were somewhere else. Somewhere not here.
No way. That's ridiculous . . . isn't it?
And yet the more she thinks about it, the more the idea fits, sliding into another one of those gaps in her mind with a perfect fit. Gripping the doorframe, Ana steps up onto the threshold, teetering a little as the wind whips across the doorway. She considers the drop and wonders what to do next, but even as she thinks it, her right hand is reaching toward a heavy-duty switch in the doorframe. She flips the switch in a practiced motion, as if she's done it countless times before, and a mechanical whirr fills the air. A second later a staircase is unfolding beneath her feet, the base hitting the ground with a resounding boom.
Your body has been well trained, the letter told her. She's just starting to understand what that means. She steps onto the top step and finds it surprisingly solid. Well trained or not, her legs are shaking, and for a few moments she focuses on tensing and releasing the muscles until she gets herself under control.
These are running legs, she suddenly knows. She has a flash of a foot hitting a puddle, water arcing out in a brown swell; athletic shoes slapping on concrete; bare toes tamping down soft black rubber. Thud, thud, thud. There's no body or face attached to the image, but she senses the movement in those legs and knows they are hers.
It's not a memory, exactly, but it's a piece of her all the same. A ripple of warmth floods her chest.
Carefully, Ana climbs down the staircase. Only when she reaches the ground does she allow herself to turn and look at the place she's left.