Quinn Neen and his friends have survived the uprising and the ruthless Fosaanian leader’s attempt to kill them, but the galaxy is still hurtling toward war. With just a few days before Quinn starts his mandatory military training, he plans to spend the time with Mira, the Fosaanian girl he’s in love with. When a mysterious message forces them on a journey to an isolated planet named Reyet, Quinn’s plans quickly change.
A coup on Reyet throws everything into chaos, leaving Quinn and Mira evading enemies they know, and some they don’t, including the planet itself. Now, time is running out for Earth, Fosaan, and Reyet, and there may be no place left in the galaxy that’s safe.
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You know it's a great celebration when the partygoers decide the light fixtures should be used as necklaces. A long line of dancers snaked by me draped in the small globes, singing a song I didn't recognize. In the darkness, the lights glittered like a miniature version of the stardust that made the Crebian Nebula so famous.
If Mira had been here we might have been dancing too, though I wasn't much of a dancer. My little sister had told me I danced like a robot gone haywire, and it was embarrassing to watch me. But I could have managed a slow dance without crushing Mira's feet. It would have been an excuse to be close to her without needing to think about tomorrow. Tomorrow. I used to look forward to tomorrows.
Lights flashed overhead far up in the sky, those of an incoming ship making for the only spaceport on Reyet. It was too dark to make out what model, but I assumed it was one of the passenger liners coming to pick up some of the tourists who'd been stranded after the coup. I hadn't realized the spaceport would be reopened so quickly. The coup leaders had only escaped a few hours before. Some of the musicians stopped playing. People began pointing up at the ships. "You don't think Ansun is coming back, do you?" I heard a woman ask. Even though the night air was as hot as if it were still midday, hearing Ansun's name sent a chill down my back.
I didn't think it was him. Ansun and his most fervent Free Planet League supporters had fled. They wouldn't be back. He'd head to another planet to carry on the revolt, attempting to break the tight grip Earth's military held on the galaxy. I thought he might try to go back to Fosaan, where he'd originally set in motion plans for the uprising.
I wished I didn't have to go after him. Each time I found myself face to face with Ansun, I knew there was a good chance I wouldn't walk away from the encounter. If Mira had been with me, I'd have been happy enough to stay on Reyet, living day to day in a place where no one knew who I was and no one cared.
I heard my name called from a new line of dancers. "Quinn! Come dance!"
It was Lainie. She was easy to pick out as she swayed in the middle of the group. The small strand of lights she'd attached to the ponytail on top of her head swirled around in a dance of their own as she moved.
"Later," I yelled, but she'd already passed me. Knowing Lainie, she'd be the last one dancing long after the others had dropped to the ground from exhaustion.
I wiped the sweat from my face. I should have picked a different place to get away from the worst of the crowds. The government building behind me was empty, but it backed up against the cliff where no air moved, not that there was ever much breeze on Reyet. More sweat trickled down my forehead. My eyepatch was as soggy as if I'd doused my head in water. I wished I had a nice container of cold water to pour over the rest of me.
There was no reason to stay, but I knew when I moved it would set in motion something that couldn't be stopped. I wasn't quite ready for that. A few more minutes.
I watched as the line dancers passed. I saw a couple twirling around and around in the same place so slowly I could tell they were following a beat of their own. They were so lost in their kissing, I'm sure they didn't hear a note. One of them was a Reyetan and the other was a Fosaanian. Unbelievable. So much had changed so fast.
If things had gone differently, that might have been Mira and me dancing. I would have pushed away any thoughts of what the future might hold for both of us. I'd have held her in my arms and ignored the music, just like the two in front of me, even though an Earther and a Fosaanian was as unlikely a couple as a Fosaanian and a Reyetan.
Fosaanians didn't think much of intermingling with lesser beings, which to them meant anyone not Fosaanian. And according to my grandfather, as an Earther I shouldn't be mingling with Fosaanians either. In his view, anyone not born on Earth was not as good, for a long list of ridiculous reasons. And anyone born Fosaanian was especially dubious. They'd been at war with Earth when a supervolcano had almost destroyed their civilization. Even though it was 300 years ago, they had technically still been listed as an enemy. With Ansun's revolt, they'd been upgraded to an active danger.
A voice next to me made me start. "They're going to regret this party tomorrow," Decker said. "They used up a lot of food and drink tonight, and it was already in short supply."
"I suppose they hope that since the coup failed, supply ships will start coming back."
"Yes, but Earth's Combined Forces will come back too. All this chanting about Reyet for Reyetans won't matter then. Earth will install a new governor right away, and it will all go back to the way it was. Corruption, shortages, etc., etc. ..."
"Looking on the bright side as usual," I said. No one had ever described Decker's personality as cheery. I pointed to the couple who had given up all pretense of dancing and were just kissing. "At least the Fosaanians who broke with Ansun are doing their best to get along with the Reyetans."
"I doubt that will last. Most of them will go right back to despising each other once life is back to normal."
"Maybe not," I said. "I know how they feel. Sometimes you just want to think about the now, not whatever may come." I motioned to the carine he wore around his neck. "You looked like you were having a good time playing with the other musicians. You were obviously living in the now when you were playing."
"Lots of good musicians here," he said, a wistful tone in his voice. "As much as I hate this place, I wish I had more time to try out some of the other instruments." He brought his carine to his lips like he was going to play something but then dropped his hands and sighed. "So do we have a plan? As soon as communications are back up, we're going to need to let people know where we've been. I know you don't want to start officer training, but you're not going to be able to get out of it now. Our excuse that we were taken to Reyet against our will is all used up now that the coup has been put down."
I had a plan, but it didn't involve Decker, and it didn't involve officer training. By morning I'd be gone, and with any luck, I'd find Mira and figure out how to help her get her sister away from Ansun. I wished we could figure out a way to get rid of Ansun for good, but I feared that would have to fall to someone else. We were unlikely to be able to trick him again.
I didn't know how to tell Decker and the others my plans. They'd not only object, they'd want to come along. I didn't want them to. We'd barely managed to survive our previous encounters with Ansun, and I wasn't going to put them back in danger.
"I've got some ideas," I said, stalling for time, "but I want to talk to Lainie first."
"Have you seen her?"
"Just a minute ago. She's dancing." I didn't ask why he wasn't. Decker was less likely to dance than I was.
"Good. At least she's shut the MI robot down. I don't like that thing. It asks too many questions for a bot."
"It's supposed to! A multiple intelligence bot needs to ask questions to learn." I felt a tinge of unease that Lainie had activated it. We'd taken it away from Ansun, and it had incredible powers, some we didn't know how to control.
"Lainie is getting too attached to it," Decker grumbled. "She treats it like a person. She even refers to it as a 'he,' like it has a gender. Just because it generates a male-looking hologram and is named Samson doesn't give it a gender."
I laughed. "You're jealous of a hologram generated by a robot? You know Lainie. She's just interested in the MI because it isn't working right. It's a challenge for her to see if she can fix the programing." The bot couldn't manage to make a complete hologram, so each time it generated the image, there was a body part missing, usually a hand, a foot, or an ear. It didn't seem to affect the robot's capabilities, but if one function was flawed, that might be a sign other functions were flawed as well. We hadn't had it long enough to know.
The few MIs in existence were all still in the experimental stage of development, but the ones Ansun had stolen were a real danger to all of us for the chaos they could cause. Ansun had already managed to use an MI to hijack military communications, even getting into ships' command and control. Without the MIs, he wouldn't have been able to stage the coup, and even though it had failed on Reyet, I knew he wasn't going to give up his plans to grab what power he could.
"Maybe you can talk to Lainie," Decker said. "We need a plan for that bot. It's dangerous for Lainie to have it. Ansun is going to want it back, and he'll come after us if he can. She needs to give it back to the military. It belongs to them. If they find her with it, they won't care how she got it. She could go to prison for years just for holding onto something so classified."
A man ran by and tripped over his own feet, bumping into Decker. Decker grabbed him by the front of his shirt and said, "Watch where you are going!"
"Sorry, sorry," the man said, the whites of his eyes showing. Decker was big, and when he was in a bad mood, he looked bigger.
"Ease up, Decker," I said. "It was an accident." When Decker wasn't playing music, he had a rapid-burn temper.
The man tried to nod his head, but Decker's hold was practically choking him. "Accident," the man gasped. "Need to get out of here."
Decker released his grip, and the man nearly fell down. He regained his balance and then backed away.
"Watch where you are going," Decker said again. The man nodded and ran off, stumbling as he went.
"Someday, someone is going to pull a weapon on you," I said. "What if he'd had a knife or a walthaser? He wouldn't have to be sober to do some damage at such a close range. I don't want to be the one to tell Lainie you died because someone bumped into you. Not a very heroic way to go."
"I know. I know." He wiped his hands on his shirt. "Greasy little grimer."
Another Reyetan danced by with a Fosaanian girl. The girl looked a little like Mira. All Fosaanians had long necks and slender faces, but this girl's hair was the same bright white, with a sheen to it that caught the light.
"That girl looks like Mira," Decker said. "Hey, I'm really sorry about everything. None of us can figure out why she left without telling you where she was going."
"I'm sorry too," I mumbled, "but she knows what she is doing, and she won't think of anything else until she gets her sister back." I didn't even know if Cadia was still alive, but Mira believed she was. I didn't want to talk about Mira. She'd left without telling me, but then arranged for someone to give me something extremely valuable of hers. That was the clue that made me think she wanted me to follow her. I hoped I wasn't wrong. If I'd misunderstood, it would be one of the biggest mistakes I'd ever made. Sometimes, though, you just have to go with your instincts.
Decker dropped the subject, probably because he thought he had said enough. The two of us weren't much for heart-to-heart talks anyway.
"I'm still hungry," he said. "Do you want to see if there are any crizald skewers left?"
"No thanks. Go ahead. I'm good." Grilled crizald had grown on me in the time we'd been on Reyet. I'd learned to overlook the unappetizing yellowish color, but the heat had killed my appetite. Or maybe it was the thought of what came next.
After Decker left, I wandered a few steps closer to the exit but still couldn't bring myself to leave. When a few more people ran by, I thought they were just in a hurry to get to another part of the party, which had spread all over Edge City on both sides of the gorge.
Small groups of musicians were scattered all over the plaza, but the music began to die off. The group closest to me packed up their instruments and took off, rushing as if they had to be somewhere. I noticed the sky had lightened. It was near dawn.
It was only when a man grilling food on a nearby brazier told the waiting customers he was done cooking that I began to get concerned. No one on Reyet turned down money.
"What's going on?" I called out to him. He didn't answer as he packed up his remaining food and hurried off. There was an uneasiness creeping through the remaining crowd. Not a good sign.
I heard a creaking sound behind me in the shadows of the colonnade. I glanced back and saw a dark shape, someone crouching on the ground. There was another shape stretched out on the pavement. One of the two moaned, "Leave me alone."
I'd just warned Decker about watching out for people with weapons. I sighed, knowing I couldn't walk away. "Hey, what's going on?" I called.CHAPTER 2
At the sound of my voice, the kneeling person jumped up. It was a man, but I couldn't make out much about him except that he was short and thin, his hair hanging in greasy strands over his face. I caught a whiff of a weird odor, a mix of clothes that had been worn too long and a floral disinfectant.
"Mind your own business," he snarled. I realized he had a stun knife in his hand.
I put my hand in my tunic like I had a weapon of my own. "I think you should leave now," I said as I took a step closer. Another drop of sweat ran down my face. I hoped this game of nerves was going to go in my favor.
I won much more easily than I thought I would. He hesitated and then turned and shambled away, creaking as he moved, almost like a bot that needed repair.
I went over to the person on the ground. The disinfectant scent had disappeared with the man who had run away. The man on the ground stank too, but only of the local drink, something called kronos juice. I touched him with my foot. "Can you hear me?"
The man groaned and struggled to roll over. I knelt down, taking shallow breaths so I wouldn't breathe in his fumes.
"You shouldn't stay here," I said. "Someone was trying to rob you. Can you stand up?"
The man groaned again. He opened his eyes. One of them was milky white and didn't track to my face. I recognized him. He'd been one of the guards at the prison where my dad had been held. He'd been willing to talk to me after he noticed my own eye patch. Our mutual eye injuries apparently gave us a bond.
I shook his shoulder. "Sergeant, get up," I said. "This isn't a good place to pass out."
He covered his face with his arms. "Go away!" he said. "I don't have anything for you to steal!" "I'm not going to steal anything," I said. "I'm just telling you it would be a good idea for you to go someplace else to sleep it off."
He took his arms away from his face and peered up at me. "You look familiar," he said.
"We've met. My dad was in the prison. You helped get a message from him to me."
"Oh right. You're that Earther." He struggled to sit up. It made the smell worse, but at least he appeared more alert. Once he was in a seated position, he looked around. "How did I get here?"
"I don't know, but you should find someplace else to go before someone tries to rob you again. When I spotted you, someone was going through your pockets. If you had anything valuable in them, it's probably gone."
He leaned against one of the pillars. "I didn't have anything," he said. "I spent it all tonight."
That didn't surprise me. "I need to get going," I said. "Do you want help getting to your feet?" I reached out a hand.
Between the two of us he did manage to get up, though once there he leaned against the pillar and put a hand to his head.
I looked back at the plaza. More people were leaving. A woman knocked over a brazier and gave a yelp of pain when it touched her leg. She ran off, leaving the fuel burning in a heap on the stone of the plaza. I didn't like not knowing what was happening. It was definitely time to go.
Since the man seemed like he was okay, I said, "I have to be somewhere, so I'm leaving now. See you around."
"Sure, kid. Thanks." I started to walk away when I heard him call, "Hey, wait a minute!"
I turned back around. "What?"
"I thought you said you were one of those Far Edge trekkers who came out here just to see the sights and then got caught in the coup."
I hadn't actually said that, but I'd let him assume that when I was trying to find a way to free my father after he'd been arrested. The sergeant took a wobbly step toward me. "But one of the other guards said your dad was jabbering about a lot of stuff. About an admiral and getting the admiral's grandson out of here. Are you somebody important?"
I tried to keep my face blank, forcing a laugh. "I'm nobody. My dad was really confused because of the head injury. He's at the hospital now, and he's still not making any sense. In fact, I was just on my way to check on him when I found you." I waved. "Got to go. See you later."
I jogged away, figuring he was in no condition to come after me. And if he did tell someone about me and my dad's babbling, it wouldn't matter. I'd be gone soon enough.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Paradox Hunt"
Copyright © 2019 Dee Garretson.
Excerpted by permission of Month9Books.
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