Sample (This is a work-in-progress)
last updated on 4/10/2021

book cover

Chapter 1 – Test Flight


Mallory huddled in the aft concourse with twelve thousand other passengers. As their spacecraft glided out of the station, everyone bade solemn farewells to Planet Imna. All eight years of Mallory’s whole life had taken place there. Leaving felt like betrayal. Abandonment.

Her parents squeezed in close, sniffling and squinting to hold back tears.

But Mallory cocooned herself in numb silence, gazing out the view port at the dark side of Imna. Orbital rings crisscrossed the sky. Crammed with evacuees, their habitats dotted and dashed the night with red beacons. Mallory ran a finger across the glass to trace the outline 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 ship, big as it was. There was only room for what remained of her—the scared and lonely part.

During odd snatches of time, she’d found herself lingering on recent photos of quake damage. In place of a cityscape, they showed a vast landfill where everything used to be a piece of something else. Roofs lay smashed beside the floors they’d covered. Shattered glass blanketed the scene like frozen teardrops. No one knew where one city ended and another began, because all the landmarks were gone. The quakes had stolen the names and shapes of places that had once felt so permanent.

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

Father promised the new world would be better. Daishon was its name, and the whole planet was said to be free of large quakes. Its people trusted the walls to stand and the ground to lie still. 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 ship 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. Her eyes were tinged with red. Had she been crying too?

Mallory wanted to peer out the front of the spacecraft for Daishon, but it wouldn’t be visible until they passed through the wormhole next week. What would a new planet be like? Would it smell funny?

Mother had said to think of this as an adventure. And it would be. Daishon was a whole new world to explore. But Mallory hadn’t finished exploring her old one.

 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. Not yet.”

Mallory nodded, but couldn’t help but notice the darkness shrouding 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. Liquid fire burbled out of a mountain and oozed around a cluster of tall concrete buildings. “Lava.” She murmured the word in awe.

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

Some structures hadn’t fallen yet, poking up from the fire in grim defiance. Dialing up her visor magnification revealed blue squares of light hovering over the rooftops.

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

Mallory gasped. “People are trapped down there!”

Father sucked in a sharp breath and stepped in front of the window to block the view, hands raised. “Let’s look elsewhere, shall we?”

Without warning, Mallory’s holovisor cut off. Mother crossed her arms and leveled a stare at him. Furrows in her brow swallowed up her visor bulb.

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

“I turned it off.” Mother looked down and smiled through tears, her voice husky. “That’s not for eight-year-olds to watch.”

“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 with a sideways chop of the hand. Then, with deft pokes of a finger, she bore twelve holes into each piece. Doing so would’ve been as satisfying as popping bubble wrap if the modeling software provided popping sounds. And a traditional user interface made manual gestures unnecessary, but where was the fun in that?

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 the 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 her haven from society. Its wooden planks and paneling made the place feel more like a cabin than a 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. Robotics medals covered the walls. 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.

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 ended, she set a parts bin on the counter and clapped her hands. “Look how little the new stabilizers are!” Her eyes were made for easy smiles.

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

“Take a peek.” Mallory stepped aside to allow her friend 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 of the forehead.

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.” Indeed, her long hair tentacled out behind her.

As Mallory slipped the case into the pocket of her black jenul slacks, the same fabric the Daishon natives wore, she stepped out into the cool backyard. Leah skipped ahead through the plush grass with an air of excitement, but Mallory harbored a niggling worry something about this new design was off. They crossed the lawn and weaved through a strip of alpine reviru trees, crunching fallen spinner seeds underfoot, and stopped in a clearing they called the picnic field.

This was their favorite place. It overlooked 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 found here in northern Mikklesia. By mag train, they lived only three hours away 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 loomed above the treetops, blanketing Virsai’s entire landmass. They blocked aerial photography and somehow brought down aircraft. Live video feeds had shown armored rovers careen into covered pits.

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

“Let’s see how far Tickle makes it this time,” Leah said.

The longest flight across Virsai was thirty kilometers in from the coast. Any team who broke that record this year would win acceptance to the Daishon Research Facility, where the best scientists invented the latest tech.

When Mallory had asked Mother why the Facility cared about this contest, she said, “Virsai Spy separates those who can solve hard problems from those who merely have knowledge. Truly creative thinkers are an endangered people group, I’m afraid.”

Her answer made sense, but was Mallory creative enough? She gazed across the grassy field, trying to picture it as an icy wasteland. “It shouldn’t matter how far a drone travels, so long as it finds something new. 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.” This could all be for nothing if we can’t keep a stable flight path. Mallory swatted the thought away, unwilling to let it cripple her confidence. “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. Students aren’t buying their way in.”

“Their parents hide donations for them through shell corporations. Have you seen Eleni’s 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 her voice had risen to a shout. “Sorry. I’m not mad at you. I’m mad at a system that accepts money in place of 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.”

“We’ve been over this before. That’s the hard way. We need their planetary simulators. And their heat-resistant alloys.”

For all the technological bluster of their world, nobody could build a drone 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 would map convection currents in far more detail than a seismometer network. Armed with those data, Mallory might help return Imna’s seismic activity to safer levels.

Magma drones were the first step to saving her birth world and the extended 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 had 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, 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 Spenner’s area another month until everyone was due to evacuate.

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

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

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

Leah cracked a smile.

With a steadying breath, Mallory opened the case and signaled The Ticklemonster to take wing. 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. In the actual contest, that grass would be crusted in ice, and wind would slap the trees around. Though this was only a test run, Mallory’s excitement mingled with Leah’s as their creation zipped off to the first wicket.

At three millimeters wide, the drone was hard to spot with the unaided eye. Its white casing would blend in with Virsai’s snowy terrain. With a thermal signature dimmer than that of small birds and rotors that made less than a decibel of noise, it should zip right past whatever bizarre predators had destroyed all the other drones.

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

Leah glanced between video feeds. “Not enough landscape footage. Lift up for better photogrammetry.”

“Thought we weren’t worried about that.” Mallory brought the drone a half meter higher. “There. That’ll have to do. Don’t want to get zapped 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 back live video signals. Mallory pulled a chem nap from her 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.

She clenched the chem nap in a shaking fist. No. They 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 worked!” This would be the model that landed them a spot as geology interns. She could almost smell the crisp white lab coat and gray name tag.

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

Two wickets later, power plunged to ten percent. Tickle sank into the grass, and Mallory cringed. As the feeds blanked out one by one, she raced over to find the drone before 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. “Five kilometers—only a sixth of the distance we need.”

Even without Virsai’s fierce winds and unseen predators, Tickle had failed. Mallory turned off her visor and ran trembling fingers through her long auburn hair. “Solve one problem, create another. It’s a shame we have to explore with drones, anyway. We should go there in person."

“And get zapped?” Leah said.

“So we wear conductive suits. We’d be fine.” Mallory closed her eyes and saw herself there, in Virsai. For the barest moment, she felt the crunch of snow underfoot, watched the glowing spots gather. Their light lured her close, welcoming her. But then the world flashed to white. Her eyes flew open. “Who am I kidding? I’m no rugged explorer. Unless you count libraries.”

***

When Mallory and Leah returned to the workshop, Mallory’s father was elbow-deep in an ULPA-filtered glovebox. He pulled his hands out of its glove ports and turned, brows raised. “How’d it go?”

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

“But the new stability thrusters sucked the juice out of it, didn’t they?” Father hopped onto a stool and lifted the gnat-sized object between a thumb and index finger. “You know, doubling battery size will raise electrolyte volume eight-fold.”

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

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

Mallory sank into a chair and leaned on the epoxy resin table top. She rubbed 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 try to reduce power consumption.” Father opened a cardboard box and pulled out an IC chip. “You’re using an off-the-shelf model like this, right?”

“We are.” Leah twirled a lock of blonde 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 more efficient battery. Or… scale up the whole design and find other ways to achieve stealth.” He reached across to pat Mallory’s hand. “Whatever you decide, I’m sure you’ll make it work.” His casual confidence did more for her than he probably realized. “My friends at the Cradias battery plant might be able to 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 suppressing a grin. “Let’s test your theory.” He poked her in the side, making her leap back. He chuckled. “You went airborne, so you might be onto something.”

Mallory returned with a poke of her own, looking at Leah for support.

Leah held up her hands. “I claim neutrality.”

“Take a break, Mal,” Father said. “Go exercise. Lift some weights like Grandpa Spenner does. 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.” He flexed a bicep. “We pick some moments, and—”

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

In the silence that followed, the floor wobbled.

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

Father flew to the window and peered out. “What in corruption was that?”

Mallory’s long-held fear climbed up from the chasm of her stomach. She darted glances around the room, seeking an explanation. Father rushed into the house through the adjoining door, and she followed him to the kitchen where Mother browsed a news site on her holovisor.

Mother tapped the holographic page with a finger. “Site excavation gave the area a wallop. Too many explosives.”

Mallory scanned the text for more details. “The work’s happening in Kirst District?” She crossed her arms and frowned. “That’s clear on the opposite side of Feldencourt! We wouldn’t feel demolition charges from that far away.”

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


As if nothing unusual had happened yesterday, Mallory and her father began their morning commute to work. They boarded the scenic train, as always, preferring it over the mag train. Crossing an entry cabin, Mallory waved to Mr. Hunzi. She’d never gotten 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.”

Mallory had begun receiving med nano injections as a newborn, like her parents had, and Leah’s family, and almost every Imnan she knew. If they were corrupting her on the inside, she felt no sign of it. Tech wasn’t evil, as most natives claimed, but the neural implants some Imnans wore were pretty sketchy.

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

To send signals from the brain to an outside computer was one thing. That’s how holovisors worked. Users sent commands to the visor base on the forehead, which decoded them in its internal processor and relayed projection data to the bulb. No Imnans balked at this.

But letting a computer talk directly to the brain and store human memories on disk? That was creepy.

Mallory’s feet sank into the plush carpet, softening her steps as she moved down the cabin aisle. Bold vermilion drapes framed every window, and smiles adorned the faces of the native crew members who welcomed her. She 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 lived downtown with their own kind. But Mallory and Leah’s families lived out in the suburbs among the natives to immerse themselves in Daishoni culture. They spoke Daishonic with them, dressed in natural fibers like they did, and even made overtures toward lower-tech living.

Not that they’d ever give up 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, and a willingness to ask questions about life that science and math could never answer. Some Imnans questioned her for associating with the Daishoni, as if they were inferior. A few stoogledonks asked if the natives were even human! Mallory had never come so close to smacking someone.

She nodded a greeting to Briette, her favorite train attendant. Like other natives, she had pale skin and a slightly narrower skull, but appeared Imnan in every other way. She’d broken the taboo of marrying an Imnan, though. Even bore him two young boys. Poor things would grow up in a world hostile to their kind.

Not that society was nice to anyone, come to think of it.

Mallory followed Father to their usual quarters. Lacquered wooden walls reflected sunlight that streamed in through large windows. A twin size bed occupied one end of the room and a pair of leather chairs faced the view. This felt much cozier than standing in the crowded high-speed mag train, clinging to overhead handles and bumping into strangers with each sway of the cabin.

She followed her nose to a snack table in the corner. It held 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 devoted time to “needless frivolities” like art. Mallory scoffed on the inside. I need a bit more frivolity in my life.

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 remained, preserving color in a world their invaders had turned to gray.

Mallory sank into the chair beside Father’s and enjoyed the view of mountains and blue flowers.

“I know you’ve been avoiding the Imnan news.” The normal jollity drained from his eyes as he turned on his visor. “But you’d hear about this eventually.”

Mallory swallowed hard and tried to guess what tragedy befell her birth world this week. Father pulled up an article and scrolled down, skimming the text with a finger. Mallory braced herself and leaned over for a better viewing angle of the flat hologram, clutching the folds of her long black dress. The headline read, “Quake on the west coast of Sarnon triggers tsunami, drowning a quarter million.”

She drew in a sharp breath. “That wasn’t due for another month! It’s not near Grandpa and the others, is it?”

Father shook his head. “It’s over six hundred kilometers south of them. They’re fine for now.” He scrolled down to a related video and clicked play.

Floodwaters swept houses from their foundations like flotsam and washed them across the city. A bride and groom clung to a traffic signal pole as water surged by. Soaked with mud and dragged away from the bride, the veil got snagged on the corner of a crumpled tin roof. Bridesmaids formed a human chain to pull them to safety, but their anchor point broke free, and the video stopped.

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 from spreading to cover the rest of her former home continent. Once they arrived at a new area, they became a permanent condition, ravaging the land at least once a month, making it impossible to rebuild. The sheer magnitude of the shock waves allowed nothing but completed arcologies to survive.

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

“I don’t understand why they won’t come here,” Mallory said. “Where there are no tsunamis or drowning brides.”

Or quakes. Yesterday’s tremor didn’t count, did it? Nobody had died, and no buildings collapsed, but she couldn’t shake the notion that something in Daishon’s crust must have changed.

Father jutted out his jaw the way he always did when 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 should,” Mallory grumbled. “I have to believe Imna’s seismic problems can be fixed. If deep drilling is to blame, can’t they fill the holes?”

Father shook his head. “No two experts agree on the cause. But they all say the planet needs geologic ages to reverse the damage.”

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

Blue and green became gray as trees gave way to houses at the city outskirts, an area booming with industry. Cranes poked up everywhere, keeping vigil over their naked metal newborns. Along the horizon stood three arcologies under construction. These self-contained habitats resembled the base of a black pyramid at this early phase, each 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 broke out between Mikklesia and the Republic of Anhasa across the sea.

Or maybe he fears this planet will break someday, like Imna did.

The floor rumbled as the train passed an older section of rail, setting Mallory’s insides aflutter. 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 to be translated. “This is preparation for the biggest influx yet. Real estate developers expect a million refugees will arrive before the year is out. They smell money.”

“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?” She slumped forward and rubbed her forehead with her fingertips, careful to avoid her visor bulb.

Father leaned over and put an arm around her. “Things might work out in the end. Who can say?” He squeezed her shoulder. “Once the quakes approach their region, the other family members may pressure Grandpa Spenner into leaving.”

Mallory looked up. “You really think so?”

He bit his lip. “One moment, death seems far away, the next it climbs into your shirt with you.”

The cabin swayed, and the wheels squealed as the train entered the city. A major boulevard flashed into view, draped in shadows cast by high-rise apartments. It was all so gray and austere, as if the architects lacked the cone cells needed to see color. 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 litter with their bristled rollers. Each sweeper displayed electronic billboards that cycled between ads and reminders of tomorrow’s tech reveal.

Electric vehicles moved along in steady pulses. Small and pill-shaped, their pedestrian warning buzzers blended together like a swarm of bees, the sound muffled through the train window.

The cabin trundled past a machine supply store where a 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.

That’s why 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.

“My competition might be putting in sixteen-hour days on their drones,” Mallory said.

Father fixed her with a serious look. “They can’t compete with you, Mal. Know why? Because you’re an adventurer.”

“I am?”

“You will be. Your language skills’ll take you places you never imagined.”

“Huh? How do you figure?”

He shrugged. “That’s just what languages do.”

The train shrieked to a halt at the first station. Father, perhaps out of whimsy, got off at an earlier stop than usual. Mallory followed him across the square 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. She grabbed her father by the arm.

“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 unusual number of Daishon natives walked the streets, more than Mallory had ever seen in the city. Across from the station was an Anhasan bakery, probably the one her coworkers raved about. From its glorious aroma, 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. They engaged in face-to-face conversations, without visors or neural implants. If anyone was worried about what happened yesterday, nobody showed it.

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.

After a few more blocks, they arrived at a street she knew so well. The brick storefronts were gorgeous by Imnan standards, but lacked the color of the native ones they’d passed earlier. A bit 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.

Because they entered a little later than usual, everyone else had already settled into the thick of their projects. Mallory’s father kissed her 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 lent the space a natural ambience, 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 during a quake? Mallory shook herself.

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

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

Mallory passed the break room that always smelled like fresh-brewed yirno and bounded up the stairs to the interpreter floor. Leah’s father, Klein, sat in the sound booth doing 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 “Brilliance” above it.

She snorted a laugh and moved on. Klein Arkenfeldt was her favorite coworker and one of the few older adults who treated her as an equal.

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 in place of the hycus’s head. 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.”

She winced. It should have read, “They can throw them back at you.” Some zookeeper must have trusted a translation app. 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 temples.

“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 plastered her worries all over her face. Probably some of both.

He put down his mug and waited. Only now did Mallory notice his jenul dress shirt. About time another Imnan started wearing natural fibers like the natives did!

“How do I make Grandpa Spenner see reason?” She chewed her lip, 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 and help quake victims,” Mallory said. “I say they’re just being stubborn.”

“Serve everyone, enemies included, 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.”

“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 worries is the president’s daughter distracting you with this time?”

Klein turned his hiked-up brows toward Mallory. “More than one worry? You’re too young for all that.”

Even without a telltale smile, she knew he was joking. She was thinking of a witty response when her eyes landed on a manila folder in Father’s hand. The top of a page 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. “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. “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


Eyes dried out from reading, Mallory turned off her visor and sat beside Leah on the stone rim of the fountain. The city center provided a refreshingly open area between the forest’s edge and downtown Feldencourt’s relentless verticality, but she’d been too busy scouring the Spacenet to enjoy it. News outlets on both worlds said plenty about the tremor, though most of it amounted to guesswork. One thing everyone agreed on was the magnitude—a four, which sounded about right.

A soft morning breeze attracted brown sieblers to the plaza, and bread donors kept them there. Leah nibbled the crust from a slice of whole grain ermile, 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.”

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.” She could go about 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. Not that she cared about impressing anyone—this was simply part of who she was. She smoothed out her baby blue high-waist skirt. It was her favorite, perhaps because it accentuated her slender figure. Made from a blend of natural and synthetic fibers, it struck Mallory as a compromise between Protectorist and Radian fashions, though Leah claimed she just liked its texture and shape.

Mallory’s long black jenul dress, which flared wide below the knees, felt plain by comparison. It was this plainness that, oddly enough, made it stand out around other Imnans. And cause them to look down on her, as if she’d become a native.

The lawn now packed, newcomers backed up to the fountain area, waiting 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 questions dampened her mood:

Why was Father concerned about the Ground Vault?

What caused the tremor the other day?

How do you make a drone battery last longer?

Cradias Battery Lab would present its latest advances this evening, and Mallory had 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 she 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. “Some 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 planet, like what happened on Imna?”

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.” She looked for the rise that comment would provoke from Leah and found it in the crinkle of her eyes. “Next year, after you graduate. We’ll leave all this 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 get hurt if we fail.” Leah waited for a response, but Mallory bit her tongue.

With a slight shrug, Leah went on, “Yeah, 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 them as dry as she could. Then she stood and motioned for Leah to follow with a tilt of the head. As the two of them picked their way across the plaza to Leah’s father, they dodged strangers hunkered down in camping chairs or stretched out on blankets.

Klein leaned against the rail of a raised walkway and read from one of his Daishonic flash cards. Mallory knew that, 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, Klein stashed his card away and gazed out at the view of downtown Feldencourt.

“No flash cards here,” he said with a straight face.

Leah crossed her arms. “Not sure 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 a forefinger. “Paper, too. As if low tech is better.”

 Mallory followed Klein’s line of sight to the First Arcology, which hosted these tech reveals for the Facility. 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 hologram of the Facility logo now projected from the arcology’s tiny rooftop. The 3D image hovered some twenty meters from the ground and depicted a stone plinth with four flat sides and a human arm jutting out from the center of each. 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. “Tired of poor connection speeds to Imna? Our neutrinos pass through planets, moons, and stars, giving them a direct route. No more signal redirects to distant relay stations. We bring you a galaxy of data in half the time. Namiron comms are available now for visors and implants.”

Even in daylight, the hologram managed a striking replica of space. Another green line beamed up from Daishon’s surface while the camera zoomed in to show the signal from its own perspective. The view passed through the fiery heart of a star and the rocky cores of asteroids along the way, touching down on an orbital hab above Imna. The video ended on the traditional spec sheet, and 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.

Well, detecting namirons meant the Facility had developed a material able to interact with them. How did they pull that off?

Klein bookmarked the spec sheet netpage with his holovisor. “They 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 for a peek at the word. “More political jargon. Are you planning to run for office?”

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

Leah leaned over to Mallory and stage-whispered, “He likes politics 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 who 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 trio entered the arcology and boarded one of the many elevators. In stark contrast to the scenic train, it glided with unnatural smoothness, ushering them to a place of sleek modernity.

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

“Ooh!” Leah tugged on Mallory’s sleeve. “We should join them.”

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

The hall opened into a dining area and an adjoining kitchen where arcology cooks bustled about in white aprons, setting out large foil trays on a buffet line. Beyond that, a semicircular wall of tempered glass looked out onto a balcony and a view of downtown. Mother sat 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 frowning at the screen more than typing, though she’d sometimes stare at some far-off place and whisper questions to herself. Strangers must’ve thought she was holding a neural conversation through an implant.

She was writing code to help probes find another wormhole—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. Sassy, even. 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. “What we need is a reliable way to clear debris from the path of interstellar ships that travel to places without a nearby wormhole. It’s 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. “They have a road map of invention only top officials get to see. Innovation can’t really be scripted out like this, but nobody asked my opinion.”

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 build a probe that detects wormholes,” Delia teased.

Mallory cringed, even though Delia was only kidding. Only a stoogledonk would think that because people could fly between two stars, they should be able to solve all other tech problems with ease. Interstellar travel might sound advanced, but it wasn’t hard to traverse a wormhole. And no matter how far apart Imna and Daishon were in normal space, it cut actual flight distance down to 121 million kilometers. A spaceliner had ferried Mallory and her parents along that route in only three weeks. Spacenet signals beamed across 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, judging by the gray coveralls. 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.”

Not this again.

Mallory smelled an unsolicited sermon coming on. Shouldn’t you be in a lab, building up your merit sum? She wanted to ask this whenever zealots like this intruded on private conversations, but didn’t want to be rude.

“Isn’t it the Radians who wish to convert the Iprauns?“ Delia asked. “Each new person you bring to pace unit bags you as much merit as a day of lab work, right?”

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 relaxed. That run-in went better than the last. Her parents had also been leaning 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 to His city beyond the worlds. The natives called him “The High Protector.” Unlike Radia and Iprau, He didn’t demand his followers to devote their whole lives to scientific achievement or fanatical servitude.

The balance that Protectorism taught sounded right to Mallory, but she wanted to sit down with The Book of Books and learn more before making any decisions.

The balcony door 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 sported 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 refugees, all of whom appeared under forty, but could be as old as two hundred.

With med nanos, it was hard to tell.

They drifted off to other conversations, probably put off by her clothing. This was why Father wore synthetics in the city.

“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 on the surface. All evacuees must come here now.”

“Will you talk to Grandpa again? Please.” Mallory tugged at his arm.

“I’m sure he’s heard about our little tremor.”

“So? That’s nothing compared to what he faces.”

“Talking’s never helped before.” Father pinched the bridge of his nose. “He’s avoided disaster for this long, so Iprau must be protecting him. Or so he thinks.”

Geologists didn’t know what made Daishon so stable. It must have had tectonic activity at some point or there’d be no mountains, oceanic trenches, or volcanoes. Perhaps its plates had fused together, because only the slightest murmurs registered on seismographs.

Until two mornings ago, that is.

Some claimed that none of this could be true, since Daishon had a magnetic field. Mallory never understood this argument. The molten iron core could still churn beneath a joined crust, and magma oozed out through small gaps, so what was the problem?

Someone squealed 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. 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. Only Mallory and Leah needed to go, but their parents came along for support, even though they would’ve preferred to stay.

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, Leah, and Klein paused at the tech release schedule posted outside the building.

“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 ground heaved. She flew into the air and fell flat on her back. Her mouth snapped open as if to scream, but the wind was knocked out of her. The ground rumbled on, bumping her head against stone. Spots flooded her vision, and her ears rang.

Then came a loud crack. The world tilted, sending her into a long slide down the street. Mallory screamed as pavement scraped through her dress and into her skin. Her visor’s heads up display flickered on, showing her vital signs before winking out again.

Her heels slammed down on a narrow ledge, stopping her on a slab of rock. A wide trench of sinking concrete gaped below her, deepening by the second.

The quaking stopped.

The slab teetered as if ready to flop forward at any moment. With slow, agonizing movements, Mallory turned onto her stomach. She gripped the top edge of the slab. Her toes strained to keep purchase on a thin ridge of stone.

Something high-pitched squealed from above. She looked up in time to see a robotic street sweeper sliding toward her. Unable to move, she closed her eyes and tensed for the impact. But the metallic crash never came, just the breeze of its passing. She stole a backward glance. The robot was already gone. It must have missed her by centimeters.

A chorus of screams and screeches echoed as the trench below crumbled into a vast fissure, gobbling up cars, buildings, and people. Faraway skyscrapers groaned and snapped. Their crashes drowned out distant sirens.

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, her face squinched up in a rictus of pain.

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.

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 scrambling 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. 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 about their eyes, saw their fingers slipping.

Don’t let go. 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 release the rock 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 found wider places on the slab to plant her heels and ease the load on her fingers.

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

Unable 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 slip before help came.

Help was coming, right?

She cringed at the slab’s every creak, trying not to breathe too heavily lest she jar it free. Pebbles rained down, and she tried to dodge them, making the slab teeter. She froze, willing the rock to become still, sucking in great swelling gasps.

Get it together!

Leah and Klein hollered, pointing frantically at her.

A rope dangled beside her. Finally!

“Grab it!” A male voice called from above. Mallory did so, but didn’t dare try to climb it. She wasn’t sure she could.

A scuffling came from above. It was a firefighter, descending toward her with short, choppy steps. The slab held steady, even under the added weight. Mallory glanced down and saw chains wrapped around the base of the slab.

Stenciled across the back of the man’s uniform were the words “First Arcology Fire Dept.”

“I’m about to lift you out of here. Are you hurt?” he asked. Mallory shook her head.

“Hold on tight.” He wrapped an arm around her waist and lifted her up the slope, smelling of smoke. His arm was strong and protective, like Father’s. Relief at her rescue collided with worry for her parents, trapping a sob in her windpipe.

Back on flat ground, the fireman set her down and looked her over. The front of his helmet had a clear plastic bulge, and an enormous holovisor bulb glowed under it. “Are you hurt?”

Mallory had barely shaken 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. He put a hand on Mallory’s shoulder. “Have a medic check you out. I have to go.” Then 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 projection 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 said. “Looks like you and me got lucky.”

“Yeah. Lucky.” Mallory limped to a section 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 called Father, Mother, and Delia. Nobody answered. Then she gazed down at the bare patch of dirt where her parents’ lamppost had been. The moment they fell, ponderous with the weight of terror, had expired with astonishing speed. Mind reeling, she 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. But how to get back to that instant? Time dragged everyone down a steep slope like this one, after all.

Wait. Her visor’s automatic recordings! With a mental command, she called up the last few minutes of footage on her visor. A quick scrub of the time line put her right when the lamp post broke free.

She braced herself and played it back in slow motion: Mother losing her grip. Sailing backward into free fall for a crystallized instant. Smacking down on the slab farther down the slope. Father redoubling his grasp on the pole for safety it no longer gave. Finding himself dragged 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.

Still unsure of what she’d seen, she played the segment again. She scrutinized every pixel to guess what had transpired beyond the brink, obsessing over the little details. 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 to look for what wasn’t there, as if by force of will she could conjure up some path of escape.

Mother. Father. Delia. They’d 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. No. 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 let her eyes glaze until Leah’s braid came bobbing through the crowd.

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

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

Leah held up a brown bottle with a shaky hand. “H-h-hold still. This’ll ease the burden on your med nanos.” She schooled 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 one shouldn’t have happened in the first place,” 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 to call him again when Klein held up a hand. “Already did that. No response.”

Mallory couldn’t help herself. She dialed anyway and left a message.

“They would’ve called us by now.” Klein ran his fingers through his hair. “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! Their nanos could still be reporting to the board.” The idea leaked a little hope into Mallory.

“Their signals were lost,” Klein said in a hollow tone.

Frustrated, Mallory cast about, unsure what she hoped to find. Firefighters hauled up more people and handed them over to paramedics, who laid them on stretchers and carried them away. Clutching Leah’s arm for support, she struggled to her feet, pushing back a rekindled panic.

They could still be alive. They had to be.

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

“Apparently they do,” Leah muttered.

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

“The quake created a sinkhole?” Mallory guessed, backing up to the boardwalk to take in the full picture. The scene struck her with a rather morbid impression.

Feldencourt was now 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 still poured 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 healed 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 might 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 worry found its voice. The unknowns piled 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.

The weight of everything must have hit Leah just now, because she squatted into a ball and buried her face in her hands.

Mallory wanted to comfort her, but had no comfort to offer anyone.

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 had to be an emergency drill. The Facility was projecting an elaborate simulation, and her parents were puttering around somewhere, waiting to come out and apologize for the scare.

Mallory rubbed the scrapes on her hands and knew better. No, a sim wouldn’t be this realistic. Wind carried the acrid odor of chemical-laden smoke, triggering her into a coughing fit.

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



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