Sample (This is a work-in-progress)
last updated on 11/1/2019

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Chapter 1 – Test Flight


Planet Imna shook with anger. Its quakes spread to new places, gathering strength, killing. At the age of eight, Mallory Leighyan boarded a spacecraft headed for Daishon—a planet that never quaked.

Through the window of the spacecraft, she gazed back at the dark circle of Imna. Four orbital rings crisscrossed the atmosphere like life rings thrown to a drowning victim. Crowded habitats dotted and dashed the night with blinking red lights. In numb silence, Mallory ran a finger across reinforced glass to trace the smudge of her home continent. Part of her still played in her backyard and swam at the beach. But those places couldn’t fit on this spaceship, big as it was. There was only room for what remained of her—the scared and lonely part.

Photos of quake damage were all she had left. In place of a countryside, they showed a vast landfill where everything used to be a piece of something else. Roofs lay smashed on the ground beside the floors they once covered. Shattered glass blanketed the scene like frozen teardrops. Father said the wreckage had been a huge city, but Mother thought it was a sprawl of smaller ones. Neither could say which cities they’d been or where one ended and another began. The quakes had stolen the names and shapes of those places.

According to forecasts, at this time tomorrow, her hometown would be next to fall.

“Remember what you see.” Father’s words echoed in her mind. “This is what a planet can do to defend itself.”

The new world would be better, he promised. Its cities still had names and people lived in safety. They trusted the walls to stand and the ground to lie still and silent. Mallory’s lower lip quivered as it usually did before a long cry—the kind that put her to sleep and made her wake up raw and sticky.

One world got to be safe and another didn’t.

Mallory pressed her palms against the window, as if to push the spacecraft back toward Imna.

With a smile only adult faces could make, Mother stooped beside her. “You’ll love our new home. And it’ll love you.”

“Will it?”

“Daishon will be slung with joy to feel the patter of your feet.” Mother pointed two fingers to the floor and wiggled them into a walk.

“But Grandpa and everyone else won’t be there.”

Mother walked her fingers up Mallory’s arm, tickling it. “They might come later. Grandpa expects the quakes will go away if he waits long enough.”

“Is he right?” Mallory asked with a glimmer of hope.

“The quakes are still far from him, but he’ll have to leave someday.”

“Is Imna dying?”

Father put on a big smile. “Every planet knows how to heal itself.”

Mallory wanted to look out the front of the spacecraft for Daishon, but it wouldn’t be visible until next week when they’d pass through the wormhole.

 Father pointed at Imna. “Look past the orbital habitats to the city lights on the ground. See how they cover the western half? All is not lost.”

Mallory nodded, but couldn’t help but notice the darkness that shrouded the rest of the land, where the quakes had snuffed out power and light.

“If you look closely,” he continued in a whisper. “There’s a bright red patch on the east coast.”

With a mental command, Mallory turned on her holovisor in zoom mode. The bulb on her forehead projected a square of sapphire light, showing a closer view of the scene. A blanket of liquid fire was burbling out of a mountain. “Lava.”

“That’s right.” Father smiled approval, as if this were a mere geology lesson.

Buildings poked up from the fire. Dialing up her visor magnification revealed blue squares of light hovering over the rooftops.

Holovisor projections. Many flickered with the word “Help” in big red letters.

Mallory gasped. “Someone’s trapped down there!”

Without warning, Mallory’s visor cut off, and wouldn’t turn back on. Mother stepped in front of the window.

“Where’d my picture go?” Mallory asked.

“I turned it off. That’s not for you to watch.” Mother smiled through tears.

“The people need help. We have to go back!”

“I’m sorry, but we can’t. Someone else will rescue them, Little Moon.”

***

Ten Years Later

Mallory sliced the hologram of a sphere in half. Poking with a finger, she bored into each piece twelve holes. The action would’ve been as satisfying as popping bubble wrap if the modeling software provided popping sounds.

She selected a white composite and sent the model file to the printer. The hum of vent fans and the whir of stepper motors blended into a familiar sound she’d come to think of as her personal theme song. At the moment, it provided background music for the plea she muttered to whatever god might be listening.

Please let the drone keep a steady course this time.

Father’s workshop used to be a haven from society. Its wooden planks and paneling made the place feel more like a cabin than an advanced lab. But now it was a testing ground for her engineering mettle. This drone would fly in the biggest contest of her life.

Competition wasn’t new. The shop’s walls were festooned with robotics ribbons and medals. Trophies and their associated bots lay enshrined in a glass case beside the chem locker. But all those contests were mere qualifiers for this one.

The model printer chugged away, building layer upon layer until each drone half was complete.

Leah, her best friend and next-door neighbor, perched her chin on Mallory’s shoulder to watch. When the printing stopped and the cooldown period passed, Leah set a parts bin on the counter and clapped her hands. “Now for the fun part.”

Mallory plucked the drone halves from the printer with tweezers and transferred them to a microscope base. Peering through the eyepieces, she directed tiny robotic grippers to snap her homemade rotors, thrusters, and cameras into place. In the hollow center she installed the internals: a battery, gyros, inertial and lidar sensor suite, and a control board. Soldering nanobots wired everything together, filling the air with the sweet tang of burned rosin.

“Take a look.” Mallory stepped aside to allow Leah a final check.

Leah nodded, snapped the housing shut, and sealed it with visor glue—the same stuff used to mount a holovisor base to the skin.

Model number eleven was complete. They named it The Ticklemonster after a bobblenut raft in their favorite show.

“Newest code’s installed?” Mallory asked.

Leah set the mini drone in a padded case. “So new you can smell it.” She gave an appreciative sniff. “Can’t wait to see Tickle in action. Today’s windy enough to put flight control through its paces.”

Mallory slipped the case into the pocket of her black jenul slacks—the same fabric the Daishon natives wore—and stepped out into the backyard. Leah skipped ahead through the plush grass with an air of excitement, but anxiety weighed down Mallory’s feet like magnetic boots during a space walk. The girls crossed the lawn and weaved through a strip of spear-like reviru trees, crunching fallen spinners underfoot, and stopped in a clearing they called the picnic field.

This was their favorite place, overlooking the foothills of the Thassi Mountains and their blue-flowered trees. Leah liked to say that tropical waters had climbed onto land and hung themselves as holiday ornaments.

Not that tropical waters were up here in northern Mikklesia. They were only a three-hour mag train ride from the arctic wilderness of Virsai, where their mini drone would enter a contest of exploration:

Virsai Spy. Probing the Forbidden Continent.

All who dared explore that snowy land died in a flash of crackling light. Animals sent in with cameras were slaughtered by bright and blurry objects. Dense clouds hung above the treetops, blanketing the entire landmass. They blocked aerial photography and somehow brought down aircraft. Live video feeds showed tanks careen into covered pits.

Today’s explorers, like Mallory and Leah, sent drones instead. Every last one was lost, however—shot down by hazy glowing spots in the clouds.

“Let’s see if Tickle can beat the record,” Leah said.

The longest flight across Virsai was thirty kilometers in from the coast. Exceeding that would win them acceptance to the Daishon Research Facility—where the best scientists invented the highest tech.

“It shouldn’t matter how far a drone travels so long as it makes a big discovery,” Mallory said. “I’d rather document a new animal species than wander over stretches of empty tundra.”

“Let’s win first, then make our big discoveries at the Facility,” Leah said.

If we win. Where do I sign up for this confidence of yours?” Mallory often made an outward show of doubt, but at her center lay an iron core of certainty. Failure was too painful an idea to entertain. “Well, this has to work. We can’t get in the normal way. Applicants with two degrees and ten years of experience are getting rejected.”

“If Eleni got picked up as a robotics intern—”

“—Her father donated a billion mikkles!”

Leah shook her head. “Come on. People aren’t buying their way in.”

“No, their parents do that for them through shell corporations. Have you seen her portfolio? We made better nanobots as nine-year-olds.”

“Her dad does own the Mitria orbital habitat,” Leah admitted.

Mallory threw up a hand. “There you go. They say every time a hab airlock opens, money flows into the owners’ pockets.” She realized only now that her voice had grown into a shout. “Sorry. I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at a system that accepts money in place of scientific merit.”

“Do we need the system?” Leah asked. “If building magma drones is our real goal, we can do that on our own. Without the Facility’s help.”

“I keep telling you—that’s the hard way. We need their planet simulators. And their new alloys that withstand the heat and pressure of magma.”

For all the technological bluster of their world, nobody’d managed to build magma drones—robots able to dive down a volcano to the liquid mantle. Ground imaging couldn’t see through the crust to the forces driving Imna’s ever worsening quakes. But a drone under the tectonic plates could map convection currents and track pressure changes. Armed with that knowledge, Mallory might find a way to return tectonic activity to safer levels.

Magma drones were the first step to saving her birth world and her family who refused to leave it. A longshot, to be sure.

But she had to try.

Her mother’s words still rang in her ears: Someone else will rescue them, Little Moon.

Problem was, nobody’d rescued the people in that lava-filled city. Mallory checked. In her dreams, Grandpa Spenner and her other Imnan relatives were the ones trapped on that building, waving their arms and shouting. But in real life, they were still safe. The quakes still hadn’t made it to their coast.

“There’s no easy way to propel machines through hot sludgy rock,” Leah pointed out.

Mallory pulled the drone case from her pocket and nodded. “Not yet. Give us a century or two and we’ll figure it out.” Of course they didn’t have that long. The latest forecasts gave Grandpa’s area another month until everyone was due to evacuate.

No matter what happened to her family, Mallory wouldn’t let Imna stay broken for good. Not if she could help it.

She relaxed her tight shoulders and zoomed her visor on the first of ten croquet wickets left out from the previous trial. Sending mental signals to her visor, she placed a virtual waypoint in the middle of the thin metal loop, uploaded coordinates to the drone’s flight controller, and did the same for the other wickets.

In a solemn voice, Mallory quoted their favorite show, “‘The time has come to confront Kast’.”

Leah cracked a smile.

With a steadying breath, Mallory signaled The Ticklemonster to take wing and start recording. Six video feeds flickered onto her projection—one for each cardinal direction, one for the cloudless sky above, and another for the swaying grass below. Leah’s excitement mingled with her own as their creation zipped off to the first wicket.

At three millimeters wide, the drone was hard to spot with the unaided eye. Hopefully it would zip right past whatever bizarre creatures destroyed all the other drones. Its white casing would blend in with Virsai’s snowy terrain, its thermal signature was dimmer than that of small birds, and its rotors made less than a decibel of noise. Unless predators picked it out from among the din of bird calls and steady winds, the drone should fly unnoticed.

Most contestants opted for a larger design, because a gust of wind could toss such a light craft against a tree. Even today’s breeze made Mallory set a low flight path, where undergrowth offered some shelter.

Leah glanced between video feeds “That’s not enough landscape footage. Need more altitude. At least one more meter for better photogrammetry.”

“Thought we weren’t worried about mapping coverage.” Mallory brought the drone a half meter higher. “There. That’ll have to do. Don’t want to get zapped by the spots in the clouds when we do this for real.”

Battery size was another problem for small drones. It took a surprising amount of power to keep the rotors spinning, nav systems running, and cameras beaming video signals back in real-time. Mallory pulled a chem nap from her back pocket and wiped the sweat from her hands.

Please let the battery last.

With so many engineering problems to solve, Mallory felt overwhelmed. Maybe Mother was right. All the money she’d spent on this project could’ve paid for her first semester of college. Then again, Mother never did like her interest in hardware, hoping to sway her over to the coding side of robotics. But something about the very sight of code made Mallory’s eyes hurt.

No. She and Leah would make this work. Their drone would crack Virsai open like a gorizen shell. Future drones would be modeled after The Ticklemonster.

“Three wickets in, and we haven’t blown off course even once!” Leah clasped her hands together and rocked from foot to foot.

Mallory let some of her worry melt away. “Your stability fixes really worked.” This would be the model that landed them a spot as geology interns. She could almost smell the crisp white lab coat with her gray name tag.

Halfway down the field, the video feeds were still clearer than those of prior flights. But half the power was already drained. Odd. It hadn’t flown long enough for that. Mallory’s worry returned, and even Leah’s face fell.

Two wickets later, the battery indicator plunged to ten percent. The drone sank into the grass, and Mallory cringed. The feeds blanked out one by one until the battery died.

Leah drew in a deep breath and cupped a hand over her mouth. “Really?”

A low growl started from Mallory’s diaphragm and climbed up her throat like a grolnod leaving its den. “Five kilometers—a mere sixth of the distance we need.”

Even without Virsai’s fierce winds and vicious creatures, the drone had failed.

“That’s why nanobots are better.” Mallory turned off her visor and ran a hand through her long auburn hair. Nanos usually had host power to draw from, so they didn’t need batteries.

***

When Mallory and Leah returned to the workshop, Mallory’s father was elbows-deep in an ULPA-filtered glovebox. He pulled his hands out of its glove ports and spun to face the girls, brows raised in anticipation. “So, how did it go?”

Mallory slumped over the main work table with a sigh. She brushed aside the design sketches and set the mini drone case on the bare wood surface. “Tickle was perfect in almost every way…”

“But it ran out of juice.” Father hopped onto a stool and lifted the gnat-sized object between a thumb and index finger. “Hard to up the capacity without enlarging the battery. You know, by doubling battery dimensions, you raise electrolyte volume eight-fold.”

“But that would make the battery eight times heavier.” Leah frowned. “That would cost us a bigger frame, louder rotors, and a brighter heat signature.”

He set the drone down. “Would that be so bad?”

Mallory sank into a chair and leaned on the table, rubbing her eyebrows, careful to avoid the visor bulb mounted above them. “Other contestants focus on speed and end up with clunky predator magnets. We can’t make the same mistake.”

“Then you need to lower power consumption or devise a longer-lasting battery.” Father opened a cardboard box and pulled out an integrated circuit chip. “You’re using an off-the-shelf model like this, aren’t you?”

“We are.” Leah twirled a lock of hair on her forefinger. She only did that when she was really worried. “Custom processors aren’t worth the trouble for the tiny efficiency boost. Motors are the real power guzzlers.”

Father put the chip back and nodded. “True. So that leaves you with making a better battery. Or… scale up the drone and find other ways to achieve stealth. You might muffle the sound with baffles, lower the heat signature with foam, and program some adaptive camo-lighting into the frame.”

He reached across to pat Mallory’s hand. “Whatever you decide, I’m sure you’ll make it work.” His tone of casual confidence did more for her than a hundred pep talks. “I have friends at the Cradias battery plant if you need help.”

Mallory fidgeted with the drone case as if to coax some secret from it. “How can I keep you aloft, huh? By tickling you?” She set it down and got up to stretch.

Father came around the table, his face trying to conceal a grin. “Let’s test your theory.” He poked Mallory in the side, making her leap back from the table. “You went airborne for a moment, so you might be onto something.”

Mallory poked him back, looking at Leah for support.

Leah shook her head. “I claim neutrality.”

“Take a break, Mal. Go exercise,” Father said. “Lift some weights like Grandpa Spenner does. Then come back fresh.”

Mallory scoffed. “The heaviest thing I’ll ever lift is a stack of paper books.”

“Are you sure? You never know when you’ll need to be strong,” Father said with a hint of a smile. “We pick some moments, and—”

“Some moments pick us,” Mallory finished, wondering what moments he might be thinking of. Strength wouldn’t solve any of her problems. Just brilliance.

In the silence that followed, a strange thing happened.

The floor wobbled.

Microscopes and boxes rattled on countertops, and the drone case vibrated to the edge of the center table. Mallory stopped it right before it tipped. “Thank the City Beyond.”

Father looked around the shop frantically. “What in corruption was that?”

Mallory knew too much geology to deny what had happened. Her long-held fear came out of stasis, immobilizing her until Father rushed into the house through the adjoining door. Mallory followed him to the kitchen where Mother browsed a news site on her holovisor.

Mother tapped the holographic page with a finger. “Says here that site excavation gave the area a wallop. Something about too many explosives.”

Mallory crossed her arms and frowned. “If the blast was big enough to shake the ground, why couldn’t we hear it?”

She didn’t dare say what she thought it was. What it couldn’t be. This wasn’t Imna, after all. Quakes didn’t happen here on planet Daishon.

Ever.


Chapter 2 – Oracles of Doom


Mallory and her father headed to work on the scenic train the next morning. Crossing the entry cabin, she waved to Mr. Hunzi. She never got used to his racking coughs, or the way he limped down the aisle with a walker, his joints struggling for balance. Like most other Daishon natives, he refused to take medical nanobots because high technology would “corrupt his soul.” Mr. Hunzi claimed he’d rather die of chronic pneumonia than cave in to that evil influence.

Mallory had received med nanos when she was a newborn, just as her parents had, and Leah’s family, and pretty much every Imnan she knew. If med nanos were corrupting her on the inside, she felt no sign of it. Tech wasn’t inherently evil, as most natives claimed, but Mallory had to admit that the neural implants some Imnans wore was pretty suspicious.

I won’t let a machine do all my thinking for me.

Her steps sank into the plush carpet, lending a spring to her step that clashed with her somber mood. Bold vermilion drapes framed every window and smiles adorned the faces of the native crew members who welcomed her. Mallory looked up at the wood paneled ceiling and eyed the swirls of its intricate filigree to distract herself from thoughts of yesterday’s tremor.

Most Imnans didn’t need to ride into the city every day, because they lived downtown among their own kind. But Mallory and Leah’s families lived out in the suburbs among the natives to immerse themselves in Daishoni culture. They dressed in natural fibers as the natives did, spoke Daishonic with them, and even made overtures toward lower-tech living.

Not that they’d ever give up their med nanos. That would be taking cultural immersion too far.

Tech aversion aside, Mallory liked the natives better than her own people. There was a wholesomeness about them—a willingness to ask questions about life that science and math were never meant to answer.

She stepped into her usual room where Father was waiting and slid the door shut behind her. Lacquered wooden walls reflected the sunlight pouring in through large windows. A bed big enough for three people occupied one end of the room and a pair of high-backed chairs faced the view. This was much better than standing in the crowded high-speed train, clinging to the overhead handles and bumping into strangers with each sway of the cabin.

Mallory followed her nose to a snack table bearing a stoneware platter heaped with purple findleberry cakes and ringed with melon slices. A little fridge sat tucked under the table, stocked with bottles of fruity tea and cold yirno. Their artistic labels bore bold swirling fonts that had to be of native design. Few Imnan companies would devote time to such needless frivolity, as they saw it.

The very concept of a scenic train was a native one. It was everything the Imnan magnetic train wasn’t—slow, spacious, and beautiful. After three hundred years of Imnan occupation, the Daishoni were still here, restoring color to a world their invaders had turned to gray.

Mallory and her father sank into their chairs and enjoyed the view of mountains and blue flowers.

“I know you’ve been avoiding the Imnan news.” The jollity in Father’s blue eyes became forced, and his words didn’t flow with their usual smoothness. “But you’d hear about this eventually, and I wanted to be with you when you did.”

Mallory swallowed hard and tried not to guess what tragedy happened back on her birth world this week. Father turned on his visor, pulled up an article, and scrolled down, skimming the text with his finger. Mallory braced herself, clutching the folds of her long black dress. The headline read, “Quake on the west coast of Sarnon triggers tsunami, drowning a quarter million.” Below that a video started to play.

Floodwaters swept houses from their foundations like flotsam, washing them across the city. A bride and groom clung to a traffic signal pole as water surged by. The bridal veil was caught on the corner of a crumpled tin roof and soaked with mud. Bridesmaids formed a human chain to pull them to safety, but their anchor point broke free, and the water claimed them all.

Mallory drew in a breath to steady herself. “It finally hit the west coast. That wasn’t supposed to happen for another month.”

Father turned off his visor and put a hand on her knee. “It’s over six hundred kilometers south of Grandpa and the others. They’ll be fine for now.”

Mallory felt meteor-stricken. She gazed out the cabin window at the swath of blue flowers, trying not to see them as floodwaters, pushing away the muddy veil from her mind. None of her loved ones had died this time. Was it wrong to feel relieved while others were grieving?

The quakes were weeks away from spreading to all of her home continent. And once they arrived at a new area, they became a permanent condition, shaking the land at least once a month, making it impossible to rebuild.

Of the twenty-two living grandparents on her father’s side, Great-Great-Great-Grandpa Spenner was the oldest. He was the patriarch, and to the rest of the family still on Imna his word was scripture. Because he wouldn’t evacuate, they wouldn’t either.

“I still don’t understand why they don’t come here,” Mallory said. “Where there are no quakes or tsunamis or drowning brides.” Excluding yesterday’s tremor, anyway.

Father seemed to be formulating a tactful answer. “Grandpa might look young, but he’s an old man inside. Imna’s been his home for a century and a half. That place is in his bones, and one day his bones will be in that place.”

“That day may come sooner than it needs to,” Mallory grumbled.

“Easy enough for us to say.”

“I have to believe Imna’s seismic problems can be fixed. If deep drilling is to blame, can’t they fill the holes? Or if wastewater injection is breaking down bedrock, can’t they pump that water back out?”

Father shook his head. “I don’t think any two experts can agree on the exact cause. But they all say the planet will need geologic ages to reverse it.”

The train finally lurched into motion. As the countryside unfolded, they fell silent to watch. This was the Feldencourt that mag train passengers never saw, because their view was fogged by a plastic tube and blurred at high speeds. The old Anhasan saying was true: beauty waited for those who slowed down to observe it.

Blue became gray as trees gave way to houses at the city outskirts—an area booming with new construction. Cranes poked up everywhere, keeping vigil over their naked metal newborns. Along the horizon stood three new arcologies, each resembling the base of a black pyramid and straddled by a huge gantry. Even at half-size, they dwarfed other buildings. And the completed one, called First Arcology, towered over those. The skyline was like a contest of young boys standing on tip toes to see who was tallest.

Though arcologies didn’t need to be high-strength here on Daishon, nobody dared deviate from the original design. Some said King Ryecross planned to use them as bomb shelters if war should ever break out.

Or maybe he fears this planet will break someday, and end up like Imna.

The floor rumbled as the train passed an older section of rail, sending Mallory into a flutter. She normally appreciated these imperfections, but now they reminded her of the tremor.

Father scanned the scenery with the same focused look he gave a document he was about to translate. “This is preparation for the biggest influx yet. Real estate developers expect a million refugees will arrive before the year is out. That’s why they’re investing so much in new housing.”

“They’re betting on Imna’s collapse.” Mallory white-knuckled the arms of her chair, realizing the cranes were a statement.

They stood as oracles of doom for her birth world.

“Was this talk supposed to make me feel better?” Mallory slumped forward and rubbed her forehead with her fingertips, careful to avoid her visor bulb.

Father leaned over and put an arm around her. “It’s all going to work out, you’ll see.” He squeezed her shoulder. “They’ve been lucky for over a decade, right? And besides, if the quakes did approach their city, the other family members would pressure Grandpa Spenner into leaving.”

Mallory looked up. “You really think so?”

He nodded. “I do.”

The cabin swayed and the wheels squealed as the train looped entered the city. Flashing into view was a major boulevard draped in shadows cast by high-rise apartments. It was all so gray and austere, as if the architects cared nothing for aesthetics. Every so often, an old-fashioned lamppost stood in sharp contrast to the drab, flat metal surfaces. Mallory smiled. She had the natives to thank for this one holdout from the old Feldencourt before the Imnans came and “improved” everything.

Automated sweeper cars roved the sidewalks to collect sandwich wrappers and plastic bottles with their long bristled rollers. Each sweeper displayed electronic billboards that cycled between different ads.

Morning commuters moved along in slow, steady pulses. The cars were small and pill-shaped, and their pedestrian warning buzzers blended together like a swarm of bees, sounding muffled through the train window.

Mallory and her mother once built a robotic bee for a homeschooling project. They flew it into a hive to see if real bees would accept it. Mallory fabricated the hardware and Mother programmed it. Through a tiny camera mounted on the bot’s forehead, they watched as the worker bees attacked it. Within seconds, the camera feed went offline. So much work for so little payoff. They’d pledged to use more organic-looking materials next time.

The train trundled past a machine supply store where a small boy tugged on a flatbed cart with large spools of wire and a junior tool set. His mother bustled after him, her arms overflowing with boxes of solder and shrink wrap.

“That kid can’t be older than five,” Father said.

“He’ll sleep with his new tools tonight,” Mallory added. “But he’ll loathe the sight of them after his first sixteen-hour lab day. I’ve never understood why Radianism drives its followers so hard.”

“Radia is a harsh goddess. I’m glad I got your mother out of that.”

Such devotion to science was normal to most other Imnans. They claimed art was a waste of time, and treated language as a palanquin meant only to bear up its engineering lords. To them, words were fickle, and numbers factual.

But to Mallory, both were only as reliable as the people who used them. Words weren’t slaves to numbers, but equal partners. And they were beautiful in a way numbers could never be. A song of numbers would be strange after all. Okay, music theory and harmonics relied on math, but that was a tiny technicality.

Still, she’d spent untold hours studying Daishonic and helping Father with translation. Time she could have devoted to science. If she had, she might’ve already designed a workable battery for her drone. Her competition didn't study language arts, so they might have a leg up.

The train shrieked to a halt at the first station. Father, perhaps out of whimsy, got off here instead of at their normal stop. Mallory followed him across the station and onto a cobblestone street lined with buildings crafted in bricks of vibrant reds and olives. Their tall windows framed in glistening white reviru wood drew her eye. Mallory grabbed her father by the arm to stop him.

“How have I not seen this area before?” she asked.

Father gave her a wry smile. “There’s a lot of Feldencourt we haven’t explored. We should take more time for that.”

An unusually high number of Daishon natives walked the streets. Across from the station was the Anhasan bakery one of her coworkers raved about. From the glorious smell of it there was little wonder why. The line went out the door and wrapped around the building. The pale-skinned natives didn’t seem to mind, because they were engaged in face-to-face conversations, without visors or neural implants.

Next they passed a travel agency, a Protectorist chapel, and a few old-fashioned blacksmith forges open for public viewing. The natives had their own little part of downtown. The whole city should feel this cozy.

Before we Imnans came, maybe it did.

Mallory could have pulled up a map on her visor, but Father knew the way to the office from here. After a few more blocks, they came to the street she knew so well. The brick storefronts were gorgeous by Imnan standards but stodgy compared to the native ones they’d passed earlier. A little farther down and their wooden sign emerged from the others with the name Use Our Words engraved on it twice: once in blocky Imnan lettering, and below that in swirling Daishonic script.

They entered an hour late, so everyone else was in the thick of their projects. Father kissed Mallory on the forehead and went into his front corner office.

He’d let Mallory and Leah decide on the office’s décor, and the result was still striking. Rich wooden floors and desks gave the space a natural feel, while pastel chairs, curtains, and overhead lampshades soothed the monitor-strained eye. Visitors said it seemed more of an art gallery than a translation shop, and Father took it as a compliment. Translation is art, he’d argued.

But the office didn’t have seismic cross beams. How well would it hold up in even a moderate quake? Mallory shook herself.

Stop thinking about that. Yesterday was a one-off.

Her coworkers typed away at their desks, translating employee handbooks. New refugees from Imna found that most scientific jobs were already taken. So they were settling for non-research positions, even in native-run construction firms—hence the new handbooks.

Mallory checked her desk for sticky notes and found one from the chairman of the Feldencourt Robotics Guild. He was once again begging her to join. No time for that with Virsai Spy to prepare for.

She threw away the note, passed the break room that always smelled like fresh-brewed yirno, and bounded up the stairs to the interpreter floor. Klein Arkenfeldt sat in the sound booth recording Imnan voice-overs for a native TV show. The Recording In Progress sign hung on the door. He’d lined through the word “Recording” with a grease pencil and scrawled the word “Brilliance” above it.

Brilliance in progress? Mallory snorted and moved on. Klein was her favorite coworker, Leah’s father, and one of the few older adults who treated her like an equal. “A twenty-year age difference isn’t what it used to be before med nanos,” he often said.

Restoring some semblance of routine, Mallory shut herself in an empty call room, turned on her holovisor, and pulled up the day’s files. Signs that were translated into Imnan for the local zoo needed a second check. The first sign was for the barnit exhibit. Its four legs, broad trunk, and swishing tail reminded her of a grazing hycus, but with an upright torso jutting up where the hycus’s head would have been. One of its upper arms, having hands instead of hooves, was reared back and clutching a stone. The caption read, “Don’t throw objects. They throw your back.”

Mallory winced. It should have read, “They can throw them back at you.” Good thing they sent this in for QA. She fixed the wording, saved the file, and gazed at the image. In her mind, the rock in the barnit’s hand became a boulder that rolled down a mountain at her Grandpa’s house, set in motion by a quake. She turned off her visor and rubbed her eyes.

“I can’t do this right now.” She stepped out to search for Klein, who was leaving the booth.

“Good timing,” she said.

“What’s the matter? You have that face.” Klein’s dark brown eyes squinted concern. He always knew when something bothered her. Either he’d picked up that skill over the years of knowing her, or she wore her worries too openly. Probably some of both.

He put down his mug and waited. Only now did Mallory notice he was wearing his dress shirt made of jenul. It was about time he started wearing that to work.

“How do I make Grandpa Spenner see reason?” She chewed her lip and waited, hoping his brilliance was still in progress.

Klein rubbed his scruffy beard. “Wait until the rest of the family gets scared enough. They’ll threaten to leave without him.”

“But they claim Iprau wants them to stay to help quake victims.” Mallory curled her lower lip. “I say that’s just an excuse to stay in a familiar place.”

“Help your enemies, even at great personal cost,” Klein said. “That’s what they believe, right?”

Mallory shook her head. “Ipraunism can be every bit as twisted as Radianism. They could do acts of charity here. We have new communities springing up that are entirely Imnan. They’d fit right in with the other expats.”

“Wish I had an easy answer for you.” Klein picked up his mug, swirled its contents, and made a show of peering into it. “The yirno bubbles have no suggestions, either.”

Father came up the stairs and Klein’s head gave a sudden jerk. “President Leighyan’s coming! Quick, everyone look busy.”

“You look busy enough, Interpreter Arkenfeldt,” Father said in a droll tone. “Which of her several worries is the President’s daughter distracting you with this time?”

Klein turned his hiked-up brows toward Mallory. “Several worries? You’re too young for all that.”

Even without a telltale smile, Mallory knew he was joking. She was thinking of a witty response when a manila folder in Father’s hand caught her eye. The top of a paper had slipped out to expose a handwritten note. It contained the words Ground Vault.

“What’s that?” Mallory asked, pointing at the paper.

Father pushed the note back inside the folder with a twinge of worry in his eyes. “Believe me when I tell you it’s nothing.”

“Why do you have a file about the Ground Vault?”

“You’re not going to let this go, are you?” Father said through a sigh. “If you must know, we can talk about it next week.”

The Ground Vault was an abandoned mine in the Daishon Research Facility. According to the natives, millions of their ancestors had been forced to work inside it until the mine caved in, burying everyone alive. But that was over three centuries ago.

Why was Father carrying around notes about that?


Chapter 3 - Day Of


The city center provided a refreshingly open area beside Downtown Feldencourt’s relentless verticality, but Mallory had been too busy scouring the Spacenet to enjoy it. News outlets on both worlds had plenty to say about the tremor, though most of it amounted to speculation. The one thing everyone agreed on was the magnitude—a four, which sounded about right. Eyes dried out from all that reading, Mallory turned off her visor and sat beside Leah on the fountain’s edge. A soft morning breeze attracted brown sieblers to the plaza, and bread donors kept them there. Leah nibbled the crust from around a slice of bread then tossed the middle part to the birds. Preening and chirping for food, one little supplicant hopped around the stone fountain and up to Mallory.

She chuckled. “This one’s a groomer like you, Lee-lee. Quick, lend it your mirror.”

Surprisingly, Leah pulled out her compact. But instead of showing it to the bird, she gave herself a once-over and put it back in her purse with a “hmpff.” Leah could go around with frizzy hair and still turn heads, but she’d done up her blonde tresses in a twisted side braid that seemed held together by some new fundamental force of physics. She didn’t care about impressing anyone—this was simply part of who she was.

A crowd gathered around them for the announcement of the Facility’s next big invention. Mallory normally shared Leah’s excitement at these events, guessing the product to be unveiled and how they might use it. But this time a slurry of other thoughts dampened her mood.

Like how to make their battery last longer.

Fortunately, Cradias Battery Lab would present its latest advances this evening, and Mallory had bought tickets. Maybe she’d learn something helpful there. The lab wasn’t known for micro batteries, though, so this was another longshot.

Mallory whispered the word to taste the sound. “Longshot.” A single word to describe all her dreams.

Baby sieblers squawked over the hiss of water jets, and Mallory threw them a slice of bread. “The tremor didn’t topple any buildings but it shattered my sense of security.”

The comment came out of nowhere, but Leah was used to her randomness. She said, “I wondered when you’d bring this up. You know, some experts think it was an explosion.”

“Enough to shake the ground for a fifty-kilometer radius?” Mallory asked. “I wish it were true.”

“So we managed to break the ground, like Imna did?”

Memories of endless landfills gave Mallory a shiver. “You know what they say, ‘The bigger the mistake, the more likely it is to be repeated.’”

Deep drilling was illegal here on Daishon, but corporations didn’t always observe the law.

“If we don’t win the contest, let’s move to Anhasa.” Mallory looked for the rise that comment would get from Leah, and found it in the crinkle of her eyes. “Next year, after you graduate. We’ll get away from all the Radian fanaticism while we do college. Maybe my mom’s right and I’m letting my ambition overreach my ability.”

“Your mother doesn’t really doubt you. She just doesn’t want you to be hurt if we fail.” Leah waited for a response, but Mallory bit her tongue.

With a slight shrug, Leah went on, “Yeah, I know that sounds contradictory, but we’re talking about parents here. And who said you had to wait for me? You could go to Anhasa today as a crisp new adult. Look at all those adulty things you do now.”

Mallory shook her head. “I’m not leaving you.” They both knew she meant it. Any place without Leah Arkenfeldt wasn’t a good one.

“Two more minutes.” Leah changed the subject, her green eyes lighting up. “‘The Facility will change everything. Just like they always do. And that’ll never change,’” she quoted with a wink.

The Daishon Research Facility produced more inventions than all other labs in the Kingdom of Mikklesia combined. Even research centers back on Imna envied its success, and readily adopted all the tech it developed, like the holovisor and med nano. Mallory wouldn’t know how to function without either. Both products had been released at events like this one, so people came every month for the next life-changer.

She rinsed crumbs off her fingers in the fountain and flicked water from her fingers, careful to avoid spraying strangers. She stood and motioned for Leah to follow with a tilt of the head, and the two of them picked their way through the crowd to Leah’s father.

Klein leaned against the rail of a raised walkway and read from one of his Daishonic language flash cards. Like his daughter, he was excited for the tech release video, but not enough to let up on his language study. At Leah’s sneaky approach, he put away his card and gazed out at the view of downtown Feldencourt.

“You didn’t see anything,” he said.

Leah crossed her arms. “I don’t know who’s worse, you or Mallory.”

Mallory pulled out a flash card of her own and waved it in front of Leah. “I don’t deny my obsession. I flaunt it.”

“The two of you.” Leah flicked the card with her forefinger. “Paper cards, too. As if low tech is better.”

Truth was, low tech provided a welcome break from the modern world around them.

 Mallory followed Klein’s line of sight to the First Arcology. Dominating the view, it resembled a matte-black pyramid with each of its three main faces hollowed out in the middle. Its sheer size and beveled edges stood out from the sharp corners of the rest of the city. Made of carbon nanotubes and standing aloof from all those inferior skyscrapers, it was the safest place to be during a quake.

Not that quakes ever happened here.

Fingers pointed and faces turned to the giant outdoor monitor which displayed the Facility logo—a four-sided stone plinth with a human arm jutting out of each side. Nobody knew what it symbolized, but it looked downright freaky.

The crowd hushed as the logo faded and the video began. A man stood inside a cutaway view of an underground bunker. He was speaking on his visor to a woman on the surface. Their communication signals, shown as dotted green lines, cut through every layer of rock and soil between them.

“With our namiron neutrino comm system, your call will never be blocked,” an announcer said in crisp Imnan while Daishonic subtitles appeared on the screen. “Calling a friend on Imna and have planets, moons, and stars in the way? Our signals pass through them all. Namiron comms are available now for visors and implants.”

A cheer went up as if this were a colossal breakthrough. Indeed, it was impressive, but not enough to hug neighbors and cry on their shoulders, as some were doing. Maybe they were really tired of dropped calls.

Klein took a photo of the comm system with his holovisor. “They finally got it working. The Facility never sleeps.”

“Their implants innovate for them while they sleep, right?” Mallory said in a wry tone.

Klein scoffed and pulled out another flash card. “Don’t get me started on that. Anyone who thinks you need a computer in your head to do good science hasn’t met your parents, Mallory. That reminds me. Where did they go?”

Mallory pointed up to the arcology. “Already at the party.” She reached over to bend his flash card so she could see it. “More political jargon. Are you planning to run for office?”

He snorted a laugh. “Me? I’d sooner run from it than for it. No, I’m prepping to translate campaign fliers.”

Leah leaned over to Mallory and stage-whispered, “He likes political stuff more than he lets on.”

Klein handed Mallory his deck of handwritten cards. She thumbed through them while crossing the plaza to the arcology. Her parents would be at the welcome party on the top floor, greeting the new refugees from Imna. This was a convenient venue because many immigrants moved into the apartments here. Where they came from, these graphene walls represented safety.

Maybe the rest of us should move in with them.

The elevator glided with unnatural smoothness, in stark contrast to the scenic train, ushering them to a place exempt from seismic disaster.

Mallory handed the flash cards back to Klein and stepped into the black metal hallway. With the wave of splayed fingers, kids tagged the walls with virtual chalk visible only through visors.

“Ooh!” Leah tugged on Mallory’s sleeve with a smile. “We could scribble out my dad’s vocab words.”

Mallory grinned. At seventeen, Leah still had a playful streak. “Maybe in a bit.”

The hallway opened out into a dining area separated from the outdoor balcony by a semicircular wall of tempered glass. Mother sat inside at an empty table, working on her tablet. The air smelled of grilled meat and spices, but she seemed unaffected by it. Her work involved staring at the screen more than actual typing, and she’d stare off at some distant place and whisper questions to herself. Strangers must have thought she was holding a neural conversation through an implant.

She was writing code to help probes find more wormholes—contract work for the Facility’s astronomy department. Whenever Mallory pumped her for details about that secretive place, Mother would change the subject.

“He’s over there with the gaggle.” Mother pointed toward the balcony without looking up.

Father wants you to be more social, Mallory managed not to say to her.

As if she’d read her thoughts, Mother added, “I’m almost done. Why don’t you head on over?”

Leah’s mother shouldered her way through the crowd with a plate of shelled gorizen in one hand and a bottle of yirno in the other. Delia Arkenfeldt’s green eyes shone like Leah’s, but were a bit teasing. She took a seat and dangled a gorizen slice in front of Mother’s tablet. “She says she’s almost done, but we know better.”

“I’ll be done for today is what I meant.” Mother swiped the slice from Delia’s hand. “Design takes time.” She nipped at the edges of the disk-shaped fruit, then set it on a napkin.

“Hurry up, Henel. Find us another wormhole,” Delia said. “And a shiny new planet for Imnans to take refuge on. Before Daishon gets as crowded as Imna.”

Mother shot Delia a sidelong glance. “If we had a reliable way to clear space debris from the path of interstellar ships, we wouldn’t need wormholes so badly. Hard to vaporize micrometeors while flying at a tenth of light speed.”

“Is anyone working on that?” Mallory asked.

“We develop whatever tech our leaders want, in the order they prescribe,” Mother said, her face tightening. “It’s like they have a road map of invention only top officials get to see.”

Mallory perked up, waiting for more details. She’d never before revealed so much about her employer. Mother stopped herself, as if she’d already said too much, and sank back into her work.

“If we can travel the stars, then surely we can make a probe that detects wormholes,” Delia teased.

Comments like that made Mallory cringe, even when made in jest. Interstellar travel might sound advanced, but it wasn’t hard to traverse a wormhole. No matter how far apart Imna and Daishon were in normal space, they were close together in actual flight. It was only fifty million kilometers from Imna to one end of the wormhole, twenty million through the throat, and fifty more from the outlet to Daishon, for a total of one hundred and twenty million kilometers. Even the slowest ships could fly that in under three months. Space arks most immigrants rode made it in three weeks. And Spacenet signals beamed through it in about seven minutes, depending on orbital alignments at the time.

Delia’s eyes widened as she scanned the balcony. “So many Iprauns in this batch. Taxes must be high overseas if they’re willing to come here and put up with this Radian government of ours.”

“Put up with?” A balding stranger garbed in the red sash of a Radian priest invited himself over. He had an air of forced nonchalance about him. “Iprauns love it here. Lots of Radians for them to convert.”

Mallory smelled an unsolicited sermon coming on. “Shouldn’t you be in a lab, building up your merit sum?”

“He’s here for the immigrants,” Delia answered for him. “He hopes to recruit at least two families into his pace unit. That would bag him as much merit as a day of lab work.”

The priest narrowed his eyes. “And who are you?”

Delia put up a hand to fend him off. “Somebody who used to be Radian.”

“And what are you now?”

“More of a Protectorist.” She held out her wrists to show they lacked the customary black bands. “Not inscribed, though. Not yet.”

“But you come from a Radian family.”

“I’m done pleasing them. There’s more to life than achievement and the approval of others.”

The man left with a scowl. Mallory smiled. Her parents had also been leaning away from Radianism and toward Protectorism. According to The Book of Books, one uncontested God created the universe with words of great power. A God who drew people to Himself and His city beyond the worlds. Mallory didn’t know if that was true, but wanted to read more about it when she got the chance.

The door to the balcony opened and laughter drifted through. Father was the center of attention at parties, his affability attracting others with ease. He waved Mallory over.

Her approach drew curious looks. Although her tan skin, blue eyes, and auburn hair pegged her as an Imnan, she wore the black natural fibers of a native—an uncommon mix. Most Imnans wore the synthetic fabrics befitting Radian custom. Why they preferred that gaudy, plastic-feeling getup was something Mallory never understood.

“And here she is.” Father introduced her to the other Imnans, all of whom appeared under forty, but could be as old as two hundred.

With med nanos it was hard to tell.

Conservative natives were the only reason Mallory knew what aging looked like. They cited a passage from The Book of Books as the reason they avoided high technology, but Mallory felt their interpretation was a bit skewed. Thankfully, the younger generation wasn’t as stubborn, but their adoption of “foreign instruments of corruption” caused a schism among their people.

Father’s acquaintances soon drifted off to other conversations, probably put off by her clothing, though they’d never admit it. This was why Father wore synthetics to events full of Imnans.

“Sorry to scare them away,” Mallory said.

“You did no such thing. They knew I wanted time with my daughter.”

“What did they say?”

“That even the newest orbital habs above Imna are full, and the next ones won’t be built until year’s end. And quakes make it impossible to build new arcologies. All evacuees must come here now.”

“Are you going to talk to Grandpa again? Pleeeeease.” Mallory tugged at his arm and gave him the saddest eyes she could manage.

“He’s heard about our little tremor by now.”

“So? Our one tremor is nothing compared to what he faces. That’s why all these people still came.”

“Talking to him again won’t help.” Father pinched the bridge of his nose. “He’s avoided disaster for this long so he must be invincible. Or so he thinks.”

Geologists didn’t know what made Daishon so stable. It must have had tectonic activity long ago or there’d be no mountains, oceanic trenches, and volcanoes. Perhaps its tectonic plates slowed over time. Now only the slightest murmurs registered on seismographs.

Until two mornings ago, that is.

Someone choked out a laugh and Mallory turned. A little girl lifted her daddy’s shirt and scrawled a virtual message on his midsection:

Danger. Belly quakes!

The man roared with laughter, making his whole body shake, along with his belly and the words. His mirth spread to the other immigrants, and smiles of relief shone through, as if everyone breathed out a collective sigh. Quakes were something they could finally joke about. The entire galaxy now stood between them and the calamity they’d escaped. They had a new sun and moon to bask in, and new constellations to look for.

***

The Leighyans and Arkenfeldts left the party in the late afternoon to get good seats at the battery presentation. Mallory and Leah were the only ones who really needed to go, but their parents came along for support, even though they would’ve preferred to stay for the whole party.

Still rattled by the tremor, Mallory was loath to leave the safety of the arcology. She couldn’t confine herself there out of fear, though—not when this presentation might help her win Virsai Spy.

Mallory joined Leah and Klein at the tech release schedule posted outside the building, but the rest of the group moved on toward the downtown area.

“Uh, guys.” Leah pointed down the street. “We’re falling behind.”

Mallory’s parents and Leah’s mom had already passed Radia’s monument, a giant marble statue of a goddess who’d never wanted her followers to spend time making art, not even on works like this. Radia’s stern face glared in the sunlight, as if to warn off any who dared approach her.

Mother turned and called out, beckoning with both hands.

Mallory started walking toward her when the street shook. She fell flat on her back, and her head knocked against stone as it rumbled on. Then came a loud crack, and the world tilted, sending her into a long slide down the street. Pavement scraped through her dress and into her skin, making her cry out in panic, then in pain.

***

Her heels slammed onto a narrow ledge, stopping her on a tilted slab of rock. If the slab pitched forward any more, she’d fall into a wide trench of sinking pavement. Thankfully, the quaking stopped. With painstaking care, Mallory turned onto her stomach and gripped the top edge of the slab. Her toes strained to keep purchase on such a thin footing.

A robotic street sweeper slid her way, scraping the pavement with a high pitched squeal. It missed her by centimeters, and Mallory stole a glance over her shoulder to watch it tumble away.

A hundred meters down the trench, the ground crumbled into a vast fissure. Cars, buildings, and people tipped into it. A chorus of screams and screeches. Faraway skyscrapers groaned and snapped. Their crashes drowned out the sirens. Thankfully, no tall buildings stood nearby other than the arcology, and that was built for moments like this.

Quakes just like this.

Mallory swallowed. There was no denying it now.

Her parents clung to the base of a lamppost. Leah’s mom, however, slid toward the fissure on her back, limbs flailing. Her cries rent the cool spring air and sliced through all other sounds.

Then she tumbled into the hole.

The mother of her best friend—gone before her eyes.

It happened so fast. The world went out of focus as Mallory tried to breathe, tried to decide if anything was real anymore. The rictus of pain on Delia’s face burned into her mind’s eye, knocked at the door of her denial, begged for acknowledgment.

Had Leah seen that? Where was she? Mallory strained her gaze up and found her and Klein at the top of the slope. Relief swelled in Mallory’s chest at the sight, but Klein was stomping toward the edge while Leah tugged at his arm, holding him back. What was he doing—trying to come down here to help? He’d only get himself killed. But then Leah gave him a stern shake and shouted something that made him stop. He wrapped his arms around her and shook his head, eyes squeezed shut.

Mallory craned her neck around again to her parents, who were still holding on, shaking. She zoomed in with her visor at the lines of fear around their eyes, saw their fingers slipping.

Don’t let go. Those fingertips are all you have left. A single lamppost was keeping them alive. One of the lampposts the natives had fought the city in order to keep.

“I’m up here!” she called out to them. She wanted to wave at them, but didn’t dare let go of the rock section with either hand.

I’ve got to do something. But what?

The ground nearest the fissure buckled and angled again, and the post her parents were holding broke free of the sidewalk.

And just like that, they were gone.


Chapter 4 - Irreversible Moment


Mallory gaped at the bare patch of dirt where the lamppost had been. What had she just seen? That moment, the weightiest one she’d ever have, expired with astonishing speed. Mind reeling, Mallory grasped for a way to reverse the flow of time, slow it down, see what that moment contained. Find some scrap of proof that she’d seen it wrong. That it wasn’t half so bad as she feared. But how to get back to that instant? Time dragged everyone down a steep, bumpy slope like this one, after all.

Wait. Her visor’s automatic recordings! She called up the last few minutes of footage on her visor. The video projecting onto the pavement below and between her hands. A quick scrub of the time line put her right when the lamp post broke free.

Mallory braced her self and played it back in slow motion: Mother losing her grip. Sailing backward into free fall for a crystallized moment. Smacking down on the slab farther down the slope. Father redoubling his grasp on the pole for safety it no longer gave. Finding himself drug down faster by it. Both parents hurtling over the brink as if sucked into a black hole. Their screams dropping into the event horizon after them. The stony slab flopping over last, putting a lid on their mausoleum, in case they were to sprout wings and fly to safety. Soil and sky conspired to make their capture certain.

Still unsure of what she’d seen, Mallory played the video segment again. She scrutinized every pixel to guess what transpired beyond the brink. Did the slab and pole land on them, or did they fall far enough to one side? Did they manage to catch some protrusion on the very lip of the crevasse and stop their fall? She replayed the segment again and again to look for what wasn’t there. As if by force of will she could conjure up some path of escape.

Mother. Father. Leah’s mother. They existed for half a century and vanished in one irreversible moment. Mallory ground her teeth and turned off her visor. They didn’t leave quake-torn Imna ten years ago only to die in one here. They had to be down there fending off the specter of death with the sheer force of their intellect. Mother was giving it logical arguments for leaving them alone, while Father scared it away with corny jokes and Delia poked fun at it.

With med nanos, they were supposed to live another nine hundred years. On that scale, their lives were only getting started.

Mallory found wider places to plant her heels and ease the load on her fingers. Gravity was convincing her of how real this was. The forces of nature wanted her to know what they’d taken from her.

The ground under Radia’s monument tilted and broke away. Screams rang out as the enormous object plunged into the hole.

With no way to climb to level ground, Mallory waited. Please don’t let this section of road give way next. As the minutes wore on, her fingers might give out before help came.

Help was coming, right?

Mallory cringed at each creak and vibration of her slab, trying not to breathe too heavily lest she jar it free. But then a sheet of pebbles broke free overhead. She squeezed her eyes shut as they rained down on her, and she nearly lost her grip. In a flutter, she took in great swelling gasps. This made her slab wiggle more freely, deepening her panic.

Get it together!

Leah and Klein called out, pointing frantically at her.

A rope dangled beside her. Finally! She wanted to reach for it, but the very movement could cause her anchor point to break away. A scuffling came from above. It was a firefighter, descending toward her with short, choppy steps. Stenciled across the back of his uniform were the words “First Arcology Fire Dept.” He wrapped an arm around Mallory’s waist and lifted her up the slope, grunting and smelling of smoke. His arm was strong and protective, like Father’s. Worry for her parents collided with relief at her rescue, trapping a sob in her windpipe.

Back on flat ground, the fireman tilted his helmet to expose an enormous holovisor bulb. “Are you hurt?”

Mallory barely shook her head when his visor projected a green band of light around her trunk that quickly vanished. She’d never seen virtual chalk applied this way before. Then an urgent voice came over the fireman’s visor phone, and he rushed off.

Curious, Mallory turned on her visor. The green band was still wrapped around her, along with the words “No care required.” Virtual chalk wasn’t just a kid’s toy. She panned her visor up at the crowd and gasped. Bands of every color filled the air. Those attached to people stretched out on the ground were mostly red or black.

“Triage tags,” a man with a green band beside Mallory said. “Looks like you and me got lucky.”

“Yeah. Lucky.” Mallory limped to a patch of grass. Dizzy and suddenly cold, she sank to her knees, and stared into the distant haze. Her visor revealed a dense region of black triage bands around the fallen buildings. She turned off her visor and let her eyes glaze until Leah’s braid came bobbing through the crowd.

Leah looked Mallory over and froze. “Saps, your back looks chewed up.”

Sirens, horns, and screams jumbled together in her head. Mallory was only vaguely aware of Leah’s voice behind her. But then a sharp pain on her lower back brought her to full awareness, and she whipped around.

Leah held up a brown bottle. “H-h-hold still. This’ll ease the burden on your med nanos.” She was schooling herself into a forced calm that didn’t quite make it to her voice.

Mallory nodded and cringed as the stinging continued, distracting her from everything else.

Klein’s shouts rang through the background noise. “Let me through. My wife’s down there!”

A police officer, sweaty and streaked with white powder, put up a hand. “We’ll find her. Stay with your girls. No telling what might happen next.”

“But the quake is over,” Klein said.

“We don’t know that.”

“They only last a few seconds.”

“This shouldn’t have happened at all,” the officer said. His eyes squinted a challenge.

Klein made a groan of exasperation and swore in Daishonic. Something about his pronunciation reminded her of Father. Mallory turned on her visor, about to call him, when Klein held up a hand to stop her.

“Already did that. No response.”

Mallory couldn’t help herself. She dialed anyway and left a message. She tried Mother next and then Leah’s mom.

“They would’ve called us by now,” Klein said. “Maybe their visors got busted, or can’t get a signal down there. They didn’t get the new namiron comm add-on yet.”

“Can’t we check the medical board for their vitals?” Leah asked.

“Yeah! If they’re still alive, their nanos would still be reporting to the board.” The idea leaked a little hope into Mallory.

“I called them, too,” Klein said. “Got a recording. Said they’ll post a list of lost signals when they can.”

Mallory checked the med board’s Spacenet site but found nothing. Frustrated, she looked around, unsure of what she hoped to find. Firefighters hauled up more people and handed them over to paramedics, who laid them out on stretchers and carried them away. Clutching Leah’s arm for support, Mallory struggled to her feet, pushing back a rekindled panic.

There’s a chance they could still be alive. There has to be.

Klein paced and grabbed his hair in balled fists. “Quakes don’t make huge holes like this.”

“Apparently they do,” Leah muttered.

“Only in the movies. What really happened here?”

“A big sinkhole?” Mallory guessed, backing up to the boardwalk to take in the full picture. The scene stunned her into reverential awe.

Feldencourt was a graveyard with toppled buildings as headstones.

She scoured the crowd for familiar faces, pretending she wasn’t really looking for her parents. Her eyes strained to see through the smoke and dust. Along the streets, flames shot up. Some of them flashed to steam as water gushed onto them from broken hydrants and fire mains that now lay exposed.

What Mallory wouldn’t give to have The Ticklemonster on hand. She’d fly it into the hole and look for her parents. What were their chances of survival? Even if the fall hadn’t killed them, soil and rock and roadway was still pouring in on top of them. Pinned under all that weight, they would suffocate.

Medical nanobots were lifesavers, but even they had their limits. They’d kept trauma victims alive with internal microsurgeries while medics came. Even now, they were healing the scrapes on Mallory’s hands and back, making her skin itch and scab over. But could they keep heavy objects from crushing her parents? No. But they could be sheltered in the hollow of a building, if they were lucky. She’d heard stories of people surviving unimaginable accidents. Anything was possible.

In the back of her mind, a small doubt found its voice. The unknowns were piling up alongside the rubble.

Breathe. Think rational thoughts.

The statue of a goddess had fallen in with everything else. Radia crushed her followers in death as she had in life. The irony was almost enough to make Mallory bark out a laugh of scorn. So much for rational thoughts.

Leah tried a few calls, each one going to a recording. Mallory wanted to ask a complete stranger to try as well. As if placed from the right visor, the call might go through.

What was the last thing she’d said to her parents? Probably something mundane like asking about dinner plans. It bothered her that she couldn't remember. As if that would matter.

Wasn’t she supposed to feel something, like anger, fear, or sadness? Why, then, did her feelings refuse to feel? What kind of monster was she?

This wasn’t supposed to happen here. Daishon was an unquakable world.

This was just an emergency drill. The Facility was projecting an elaborate simulation, and her parents were puttering around somewhere, waiting to come out and say they were okay.

Mallory rubbed the scrapes on her hands and knew better.

The rumble from two days ago hadn’t been a construction accident. It was a warm-up for today.


Chapter 5 - Looking For Bodies


The aroma of grilled hycus awakened Mallory from what felt like a dream, the memory of which burned an afterimage of anguish inside her. Head pounding, she sat up on her living room couch, reaching back to find bandages on her lower back and rump.

Yesterday hadn’t been a dream. The quake really happened.

“You’re awake!” Leah sidled up to her on the couch. Her smile didn’t glow as it had before. “It's already two in the afternoon. I thought your nanos had been destroyed because your recovery is so sluggish.”

She examined the scrapes on Mallory's hands and nodded. "Maybe you just needed rest."

Mallory turned on her holovisor and pulled up her medical diagnostics. An outline of her body appeared with large red patches showing injured areas. Swarms of tiny blue dots indicated where med nanos were hard at work. Most were gathered in the hands.

“Right,” Leah said. “Your hands get first priority after all life-threatening conditions are cleared.”

“Huh?”

“We set up an advanced care directive for this last year, remember?”

Mallory nodded. “Yeah. My head’s a bit foggy, I guess.”

Leah pointed at a side panel of notices. “Your cortisol levels are still high from the stress, but the bots are helping to regulate that. Once that’s normal, your other wounds ought to heal much faster.”

Mallory turned off her visor and sighed, feeling a blip of relief she couldn’t quite enjoy.

Leah’s red-rimmed eyes probed hers, and she blew out a deep breath as though preparing for a grave announcement. “You were asleep when the med board finally updated the listings. Their signals went offline just minutes after the quake.”

"All three of them?"

"All three. My mother first and your parents shortly after." Leah’s eyes fell to her hands, which were clenched together into one tight fist. She pressed her lips into a shaky line.

“But has anyone found their…?” Mallory’s voice hitched. The word bodies felt too ugly to say.

“Rescue teams are still digging.” Leah wiped away tears with the back of her sleeve and said, “If reason be the keeper of what’s real, I think it fell somewhere. How can I lift it when I’m faint with loss and rank despair?

It was from Mallory’s favorite poem, written by the Imnan poet Brahsin. Mallory supplied the next lines.

I put the thought of death in deepest hole to think no more on it.

It tunneled out, and I can’t find the strength to dig another pit.

Mallory found comfort in the old words. They gave her license to feel that death was some cosmic rip-off to be scorned for the absurdity that it was.

The scene replayed in her mind. One moment, her mother was waving to her. The next, she entered an impromptu grave, putting a period on her life where a comma should have been. She might have outdone the great Paul Rhineholt, giving the Daishon Space Agency a way to find many more wormholes. The world needed creativity like hers. Now it rotted under a pile of rocks.

She could still see Father in his workshop, eyes glued to the magnified display of the molecular circuits he designed. “I got my doter registration card, so I’m allowed to dote on you,” he’d say whenever she refused his torrent of hugs. What she wouldn’t give for one of them now.

He’d taught her to design nanobots at the component level when she was just seven and inspired her to learn new languages when she was nine. They’d written Daishonic flash cards and quizzed each other at random. He’d have even more to teach her. More projects to build. A wish list of places they wanted to visit.

Things that might have been would now never be.

But another part of Mallory couldn’t help but wonder if maybe her parents and Leah’s mom survived somehow. As morbid as it sounded, she needed to see their bodies to be sure. Med nanos going offline didn’t always mean the person carrying them had died.

“They wanted to stay at the party, but I dragged them out to the battery presentation,” Mallory said with a husky voice. “If I hadn’t been in such a hurry to leave…”

Leah took her hand carefully, avoiding the scrapes. “This wasn’t your fault.”

“If we’d only waited for another five minutes. Just five corrupted minutes!”

The realization registered on Leah’s face, but she shook it away. “We couldn’t have known.”

“I knew the first rumble wasn’t a construction accident. I knew something had happened to our planet,” Mallory said, the words carrying the weight of a confession. “Yet I dismissed it. I’ve made it my business to learn all about quakes—I should’ve made every one of us hole up in the arcology right after the tremor.”

Klein set a tray of food on Mallory’s lap. “We were all in denial, including men who’ve made a century-long career of geology.” The grilled hycus came sprinkled with fresh dill and steamed solis stalks on the side, the way she liked it. The act of chewing distracted her, and the food would help speed her healing along, as med nanos needed it for fuel.

The rational part of Mallory realized this wasn’t her fault. The rest of her didn’t.

With a strangled groan, Klein collapsed into the recliner across the room, his eyes sunken and bloodshot. This action of his seemed to lack an immediate cause, but Mallory understood all the same. Grief could dislodge itself at any moment of its choosing. Just like those slabs of rock downtown.

Leah cleared away the plates and curled up beside Mallory, some of her hair sticky with tears. Mallory put an arm around her and squeezed as if to staunch the loss of joy. To her surprise, the motion didn’t cause a stab of pain. At least her body had begun to heal. Distant sirens wailed through the shattered windows. Everyone sat with blank faces, letting silence have its say.

What to do next? The question was cold and practical. How could Mallory decide anything in a world that made decisions for her? The very air seemed a fragile thing, as though it, too, would slip into the maw of the planet.

Then the house trembled.

“An aftershock. We also have those now,” Klein said flatly. “Why not?”

Mallory sat up straighter, her eyes darting around the room.

“Relax,” he held up a hand. “Aftershocks are normal. Well, for planets that get quakes.”

"I hope you're right," she muttered.

The moment of panic lent her the clarity of mind to take in what had become of her house. Aside from a mess of fallen objects, it seemed unaffected. The lights were still on and the net signal was as strong as ever.

But the mess was considerable. Books had spilled from their shelves throughout the living room. Picture frames hung at odd angles. Curtains and paintings lay sprawled on the floor.

Even her mother’s curacora tapestry had fallen. It had a hundred and thirty-two rows of names, one for each family member and a bar graph of his or her merit sum. This was the closest thing to art that Radians were allowed to create, showing how much the family had contributed to Radia’s glory over the years. Though Mallory didn’t believe in that stuff, she felt fond of the heirloom. It reminded her of ancestors who’d died before the med nano. Back when dying was easier to do.

Well, it was still easy enough.

Even without disease and old age to contend with, statisticians predicted most would die before their thousandth birthday because the probability of a fatal accident would accumulate to one hundred percent by that point. Mallory used to scoff at such a claim.

“Haven’t seen the inside of my own place yet,” Klein said.

He wasn’t ready to see pictures of his wife, Mallory guessed. She didn’t see any of her own family photos at the moment. Either they’d fallen or someone had taken them down as an act of mercy.

Leah pulled up a list of recovered bodies, all dead or severely injured. None of the names was familiar. After a bit of searching, Leah found a page of drone videos. The first one showed the bottom of a cavern, the view panning back and forth. Large chunks of rock littered the floor, and other drones searched between them. Some held lamps while others scanned for heat signatures. The camera angled up to the ceiling where a few stalactites hung like pointy teeth. Most had snapped free and lay smashed on the floor.

Klein came over to inspect the footage. “So there’s a system of caves below the city! Rock formations like those don't come from quakes but from very slow geological processes. The quake merely exposed a cave that was already there.”

The newly exposed caves would have fascinated the geologist in Mallory under other circumstances. Right now they were a burial ground.

Leah switched between cameras, squinting for any sign of human life and finding nothing. She turned off her visor and yawned.

“If you need more sleep, just pick any bed you want,” Mallory offered. “And please stay the night. I don’t want to be alone. In fact, stay every night.”

 “Are you sure?”

“I never understood why we lived in separate houses.”

 “If you change your mind after a few days—”

“I won’t, but you might. You know how bad my cooking is.”

“We’ll cook,” Leah said. “But first I need to go grab my stuff.”

***

For the next three days, Mallory answered all incoming calls, hoping for an update. But each call was only some relative asking if everyone was okay. She repeated the story to all of them, speaking with all the cheerful determination she could muster and cringing at their gush of reassurances. Grandpa Spenner's call was the hardest, because he kept insinuating that he'd been wise to stay on Imna after all. Maybe he was right.

After day four, the calls tapered off and so did Mallory’s hopes. Klein couldn’t keep himself from encroaching on the police barriers around the fissure, begging for entry. Many other grieving survivors did the same, and the officers were getting impatient. Rescue squads from neighboring cities were helping to clear debris from the hole, their cranes straining against massive stone slabs at all hours. The rumbling of engines and creaking of chains rang in Mallory’s ears as she watched from the arcology balcony. She stood on the spot where she’d embraced her father not one week ago, treating it like a shrine and growing wistful.

If only she had taken the clue the ground had given her two days earlier, she might have begged everyone to take shelter here in this very building. They could have lived.

A sudden boom drew her gaze back to the city center and beyond the fissure. The cross section of a high-rise building was exposed to the air, laying bare its staircases and elevator shafts. An excavator broke through a concrete slab near the bottom with its clawed bucket, and then shoved the pieces aside. Firefighters pulled out several bodies—a man and two small girls, their figures drooping like scorched weeds. Mallory turned away with a sharp breath. Four days in, they were still finding corpses.

Over half the structures that once blocked the sky were now leaning or collapsed. Most cranes had been knocked flat, and their works-in-progress were so much scrap metal. The oracles of doom against Imna had turned against Daishon.

The open skyline exposed a view of cities beyond Feldencourt. Mallory zoomed in and found that Cradias, the nearest one, was virtually unscathed. Good for them.

A woman she recognized from the welcome party leaned over the railing to gaze at the devastation. “They said we’d be safe from quakes here.” Her voice was flat, unexpectant.

Mallory wondered the same thing. She called up articles about the event, looking for answers. Geology researchers approached the barriers but were denied access like everyone else.

“If they survived, we’d have heard from them by now,” Klein said. “Other survivors are talking about funeral arrangements. Maybe we should, too.”

“Isn’t it a bit soon for that?” Leah said. “Can’t we give it at least another week?”

He shrugged. “Officials say they’ve dug down through most of the rubble and they’re not finding all the bodies they expected.”

“How?” Mallory said. “They wouldn’t decompose that quickly, even without nanos.”

“Rescue teams are searching the vast side caverns, but they claim that may take months.”

“There’s got to be something more we can do,” Leah said.

“Pray to Radia, Iprau, the Highest One, or whatever god you believe in,” Klein said. “Or sneak down into the hole and risk jail time. That’s what happens when you get caught, not that I asked. They aren’t even allowing private drones to enter.”


Chapter 6 – Triple Ceremony


Two weeks came and went, and the phones remained silent. The day had finally come, and with it the guilt of having given up on their loved ones. Klein insisted the search for missing people down in the crevasse had become a search for bodies, to give closure to surviving family.

After agonizing over all possible scenarios, Mallory grudgingly agreed. At best, the human body could only live without water for up to a week. With any sort of bleeding wounds, that time would be shorter. Camera drones and rescue personnel that scoured the cave system found very little water—just the occasional pocket of surface drainage, and those lay kilometers from the sinkhole. The caves were well above sea level, after all. There was little chance of a badly injured person crawling that distance in the dark to find water.

So even if her parents and Leah’s mom survived the fall, and weren’t crushed by falling objects, they would’ve dehydrated over a week ago. And if they’d somehow licked enough condensation off the rocky floor to survive, they would’ve shouted for help. And given the acoustic nature of the caves, that sound would carry to rescuers. No, there was only one realistic outcome.

And despite that indisputable logic, denial held on by a pinky in some deep cranny of Mallory’s subconscious.

She didn’t want a funeral to ruin her fond memories of the picnic field any more than the test flight failures already had, but Klein had said it was most appropriate place. She was forced to agree, because it was where they’d gathered every summer for games and barbecues. Where Mallory and Leah first met. Even now those memories clashed with her new reality, if indeed it was real.

The sky had the gall to be a beautiful blue, the loss of Mallory and Leah’s worlds meant nothing to it. Great Aunt Indipica and her daughter Salbonee linked arms with Mallory and made a slow march down the center aisle to the front row of folding chairs overlooking the pond.

They sat on the left, with the extended Leighyan family. They were almost all from her mother’s side: The Arcreths who lived in Eastern Feldencourt, and the Nywins who’d scattered to the northeastern coastal cities. Grandma and Grandpa Arcreth, who resented Mother’s foray into Protectorism, put on tolerant faces. They hugged Mallory even though it meant touching her very Protectorist dress.

Leah and Klein sat on the right. Because both sides of Leah’s family tree lived on Daishon, twice as many of them had come. Mallory only recognized the other Arkenfeldts because they’d picnicked in this very field a few years ago. All the others traveled from as far as the Capital.

From the look of things, Leah was glad for the distance between her and most of her other family members. They were so devoutly Radian that they appeared to resent having to leave their labs for a duty that wouldn’t add to their merit sums. Their faces held more anger than sadness. What a monstrous god they served! Good thing Radia’s monument shattered at the bottom of the fissure. Then she relaxed. Maybe that was unfair. Radia could be just as appalled at her followers' behavior.

But it was a good thing the whole kingdom wasn’t Radian. If everyone did research, how would the garbage collection, policing, and farming ever get done? As it was, the Iprauns and Protectorists handled all the menial work for them. Relatives or not, with attitudes like these, no wonder these people felt like strangers.

She and five others were the only people wearing white. Surrounded by a dense cloud of red figures, it seemed they were sitting in a pool of blood. Salbonee draped her jacket around Mallory’s shoulders, thinking her cold. Mallory drew the jacket tight, taking comfort in its smooth inner lining, wearing it like armor.

People were calling this a triple ceremony. One service to commemorate three lives. Some thought that each person ought to have their own day, but Klein and the girls overruled. Their families had done everything together. They even died together. They should also be remembered together.

But had they actually died? Even now, faced with the tokens of death, Mallory wondered if this was all a mistake. Maybe they found plenty of water, lost their voices so they couldn’t shout for help, and were still awaiting rescue?

Mallory gripped the sides of her chair with silent anger. Stop fabricating a reality you’d prefer.

Both families were indignant that the funeral would be Protectorist. They wanted a freeze at the city cryotorium like proper Radians. The girls argued that the bodies were missing, the cryotorium would be clogged with other funerals, and their parents weren’t Radians anyhow.

Shortly before the ceremony began, Great-Great Grandma Julsie, who looked like a twenty-five-year-old, gave Leah a scowl that hinted at her true age. “This is not a wedding! Go inside and put on a red dress, Dear.”

Leah’s mouth sagged open. Mallory was about to cross the aisle and say something she’d regret when Klein, also dressed in white, guided the woman back to her seat. “You know Protectorist customs. Would Radia condone religious persecution against your own family? At a funeral?”

She stiffened and, after a moment’s thought, relented. “I suppose not.”

He nodded and returned to Leah. His easy grace reminded her of Father. Mr. Arkenfeldt was the only parent she had now, and she could ask for nobody finer.

Most of Father's side of the family was watching this via a seven-minute-delayed broadcast over the Spacenet—light traveled only so fast between worlds. Only Salbonee and her parents came in person since they lived here in Feldencourt. And because Salbonee’s father, Mr. Romna, was a Protectorist lay leader the girls asked him to speak. He stood with his hands clasped behind his back, garbed in a simple white robe, and said a brief prayer. Then he went before the memory boards, each overflowing with handwritten letters. He posted some of his own before he started.

“Please stand for the words of the Highest. From the Prophecies of Semme, chapter three, verses one and four.”

3rd-Great-Grandpa Musel remained seated with his arms crossed. His wife yanked him to his feet and gave him a withering stare. This created a stir. Mr. Romna waited for things to settle before he continued.

From above there will come Scribes, who by My words will find My face. A people who were not called My own, they will do what My people could not, with power My people had not, and end the suffering of the oppressed of this world. My Light is in their left hand, and My Sword is in their right.

My Scribes will plunder the house of the strong. The Siat sends forth My words to all the worlds where corruption is found, and it will be no more. Then I, the Highest One, will pluck the Root of Corruption from where it springs. And then the Root will be no more.

Everyone took their seats. Mallory had heard this passage before and wondered at its meaning. She leaned forward, eager for an explanation.

“This is a promise from the Highest to a universe shivering in grief,” Mr. Romna began. “A promise that He will raise up three champions, called Scribes, to overturn one of the two great evils we face. He calls it ‘corruption’, a deceiver of worlds and a destroyer of lives. One day it will be removed. We are not told when or where it will happen, or who these Scribes are, but we anticipate their coming.”

Mallory’s eagerness fell. I’d anticipate their coming more if they could rescue my parents.

Mr. Romna continued, “But today the Highest One can start to purge us of the greater of the two evils—the evil in the heart of every man. The evil that brings us death and suffering. You have only to call on Him to be your Protector. This is a perilous universe, and it takes His infinite power to rest in safety. Call on Him now.”

Outrage flickered in the eyes of the audience at the open declaration that the High Protector did the saving, not Radia. A few got up and stormed off. Mr. Romna pushed on as if nothing happened.

“In the fullness of time, the Highest One will bring the City Beyond the Worlds to the realms of men. He’ll give each of us who believed in Him a new body. A body that cannot be corrupted by evil or sickness or death. One that doesn’t need medical nanos or neural implants. Those who died in His protection, like Tomsa, Henel, and Delia, will be restored to us in new bodies of their own, robed in white. And we will never say good-bye to them again.”

The words draped over Mallory like a warm blanket fresh from the dryer. She looked straight ahead at Mr. Romna, and at the Book of Books in his hands. Were all those promises true, or just something Protectorists wanted to believe? Maybe it was time to consider Protectorism in more detail, and see if its claims were based on facts or wishful thinking.

Others came forward to share memories, listing the achievements of each departed person as if this were a Radian funeral. Klein was about to object when Leah stopped him.

“It’s okay. They did accomplish much,” she said.

Mallory agreed with a nod, not trusting herself to speak. Indeed, they had taken time last night to stitch the final merit sums of their parents onto the curacoras, which flapped in the breeze atop the memory boards. It was a Radian rite the girls could agree to. The oldest relatives appreciated the gesture though they still glared at Mallory and Leah for not having added their own names to them. Curacoration was only for those who publicly chose Radia, and neither girl had done so. Mallory knew they never would.

Officials from the space agency praised Mother for her work and pledged to finish it in her absence. It was an Ipraun thing to say, like pledging to fulfill an afterwish, but none of the Radians seemed to mind.

Father’s translators promised to continue working at Use Our Words. In his will, ownership of the company passed not to Mother, but to Mallory. She didn’t want to think about any of that just now. She didn’t want to be here, doing this, admitting they were dead.

Mallory and Leah lingered in the picnic field for hours after the ceremony, long after the others had left, the chairs were packed away, and the sun and horizon met for a colorless exchange. The girls sat on a log by the pond and stared in silence.

Leah pointed to a croquet wicket still left out, and Mallory looked away. She didn’t need a reminder of her failure. There was no way she’d grapple with the battery problem right now, or any problem for that matter. She didn’t even have the heart to read the notes left on the memory boards.

When night fell, the darkness somehow made everything real to Mallory. She broke down in Leah’s arms, acknowledging at last that her parents were gone.


Chapter 7 – Limits of Cruelty


The three of them droned their way through the next two callused months. The arbiter of what’s fair and what’s not had paid Mallory frequent visits. She’d have grown bitter if it weren’t for all the energy that bitterness required. Mallory sipped a yirno while staring at a blank portion of the dining room wall. She nursed her mug and thought of how to peel back the scabs of her life and recover a fraction of her former happiness.

Her parents had fallen into a one-hundred-meter-deep hole right before her eyes, and she still couldn’t believe it. Even after watching the footage from her holovisor, which had sensed the blunt force of Mallory’s fall and triggered automatic filming. Law enforcement used recordings like these to identify assailants. Doctors viewed them to treat trauma patients. In this case, it preserved the last memories of her parents.

Mallory viewed the recording only once more, then offloaded it to an external drive. She asked Leah to hide it from her, not wanting to watch the video again and again.

What could I have done to save them?

The search for bodies officially ended. Construction crews began to divert the highway around the hole, their laser-guided graders plowing up newly-exposed soil like moles in a garden. The hole itself couldn’t be repaired without filling it in, and nobody wanted to do that. It would always be there, a reminder that no planet lounged in perfect safety, not even this one. Geologists came from all over Mikklesia to take seismic readings and rock samples. The same experts who had boasted that this was an unshakable world.

So much for that.

Mallory studied geology like never before, poring over textbooks and net articles until her eyeballs dried out. One particular article rattled her, pinpointing the quake’s epicenter to a location that made her spray warm yirno all over the dining table.

The Facility.

Leah read the headline. “They make groundbreaking tech… then break the ground with it.” She raised her eyebrows. “Did they cause the quake?”

“A geological experiment might have gone wrong,” Mallory answered. “Or it could be illegal drilling. Look at what’s happened on Imna.”

Klein hurried down the stairs while fumbling with his briefcase and talking on his visor.

“And I need to be on-site for this? You can’t send me the docs?” He paused. “Oh, I see. And you’re sure it’s only for today? I can stay for… Got it. Thank you.”

He clicked off the visor and turned to the girls. “That just happened.”

“What just happened?” Mallory and Leah asked at nearly the same time.

“The Facility wants me to do live interpretation while inspectors appraise damages to the chem labs. That’s good money. If this becomes regular, we might pay off our office building this quarter.”

Translation contracts were picking back up now that the city had begun its laborious return to normal life. Mallory used some of her inheritance money to replace broken windows around the house and office. At least their properties had missed the brunt of the quake’s destruction.

“Alright, Ladies. This will be a quickie. One day of work. In and out.” Klein straightened the tie that the girls hated and made for the door.

“Don’t they already have in-house interpreters?” Mallory said. “Why do they need you for that? Unless this was your idea. Was it?”

Klein ignored the question. “I’ll be back late tonight, so take care of your own meals.”

They said their good-byes, and the girls exchanged looks.

“Wish you could go with him?” Mallory asked.

“Don’t you?”

“We can stow away in the backseat before he drives off.”

Leah gave Mallory a playful shove. “I see you’re feeling better.”

“Wait. On the day we learn the Facility has some connection to the quake, your father finds a way to get in there. Do you think he heard us?”

***

Klein did not return that night, or the next day. He didn’t even call—which wasn’t like him at all.

During the next few days, the girls devoted all their waking hours to finding him. Because Mallory took a leave of absence from Use Our Words and Leah was on summer vacation, they both had plenty of time. They just needed leads.

The Facility gatehouse claimed to have no record of Klein’s entry and the police investigation proved fruitless. Detectives scoured the places the girls had already searched, but found no clues. Mallory and Leah called up friends, relatives, and past clients, hoping he’d gone to do on-site interpretation for one of them. Nobody had heard from him.

After all they’d lost, had they lost Klein too? Were they completely parentless now? Mallory had refused to believe it, then wondered if she were blundering into the same denial as before, when her parents had died.

No. There had to be limits on how cruel life could be.

Four days had passed and the girls had exhausted all the obvious options. Reviru trees howled in the wind through the open window in the dining room. It sent the curtains flapping at the back of Mallory’s head as she sat at the table, perusing the company database.

She squinted at the Facility translation contract, hoping to find some clue in the wording she might have missed the first twenty times she’d read it. “The contract is for a single day, not four. What are we missing?”

Mallory rubbed the edge of the dining table as if to coax answers from it. She couldn’t bring back Leah’s mother, but she would very well bring back Leah’s father. Even if she had to rip the sky open with her bare hands.

“You don’t suppose he stole off into the fissure to do his own search for survivors?” Leah called out from the living room table where her makeshift workspace took shelter from the wind. She switched objective lenses on a picoscope she’d brought up from the workshop, replacing a faulty processor for a new nanobot of her own design. She’d started the project to help herself get over the quake losses. It had now become a way to cope with her father’s disappearance.

“The Medical Board lost his signal on the night he left for the Facility,” Mallory said. “That’s odd, because the rescue personnel never lost theirs, even while they ventured many kilometers into the caves. And many didn’t have the new namiron comm system add-on.”

Leah looked up from the scope and turned off its spotlight. “He broke his visor on the way down, then.”

Mallory shook her head. “The police have the fissure under constant video surveillance. He didn’t appear on any of that footage. It was the first thing they checked.”

“Might there be another entrance to the caves?” Leah switched off the scope monitor, not even having used it.

“Perhaps. But something like that couldn’t stay secret for long.”

“Maybe the Facility sprang extra work on him?”

“Klein’s too meticulous to have left that out of our database. And besides, he would have called.” Mallory clicked off her visor.

“He probably can’t from inside the Facility.”

“If he’s in there, he’s taking his time, nosing around while he has the chance. It’s what I’d do.”

Leah wafted away the smoke made by the soldering nanobots. The smell brought back memories of when everyone was alive and together. “Investigating for four days? With his med reporting turned off?”

“What else can we do if the police can’t help?”

“Call him again.” Leah’s voice broke.

Mallory crossed the room and put an arm around Leah. “If he didn’t answer the first thirty times, maybe it means the Facility has blocked his signal, just like you said.” She paused, then snapped her fingers. “We need to get in there.”

“In where? The Facility? How do you—”

“I don’t know. But we’ll find a way.”



Want to read more? Email dwest@ezimin.com for the rest of the book!