Lost Horizon Sneak Peek
Kansas Space Station—2312
“Forty-seven, forty-eight, forty”—the door slides open, barely making any sound besides a soft swish of air—“nine, fifty.”
“What are you doing?” My cousin Sabrina barges in and then flops on my bed.
The lack of privacy used to bother me when I moved in with Uncle Henry and my cousins six years ago. Now, it’s part of my life. Square footage is limited in any space station, even here in Kansas, the largest space station in the Star Freedom Alliance.
With a quick jump, I get onto my feet, rubbing my sweaty hands on my skintight workout pants. “Killing time.”
In true dramatic fashion, Sabrina rolls her eyes. “You’re such a weirdo, Dorothy.”
“Dorothy is not a weirdo.” Adrian, Sabrina’s younger brother, comes in, followed by the robot dog he designed, Mumu.
People call me a prodigy because I’m the youngest cadet to ever graduate from the Space Academy program, but the true prodigy is the kid in front of me. He has accomplished more in the field of robotics at only eight years old than the seasoned scientists the Star Freedom Alliance employs.
His blond hair is sticking out in all directions, and there’s dried jam on his chin. Despite his genius status, he’s still a young boy. I reward him with a smile as I place my hand on the wall in front of me. The surface glows for a second before the embedded sink juts forward. A mirror hangs above it, showing just slightly flushed skin and a sheen of sweat on my forehead. I’ve used a headband to push my bangs back, but a few rogue strands have escaped and are now stuck to my temple. The splash of cold water on my face serves to reinvigorate me—and also prepare me to deal with Sabrina.
“What do you want? We have to head to Master Shogun’s class soon.”
“Ugh, don’t remind me. Anyway, a few of us are going to Tethis tonight, and I was wondering if I could borrow some credits.”
Frowning, I lean against the wall. “What happened to all those credits Uncle Henry deposited on your account as a graduation gift an hour ago?”
I know it was a substantial amount because I also received it.
Adrian cuts in before Sabrina can reply, “She spent it all, buying fancy clothes to impress her stupid boyfriend.”
“Shut up, Adrian. No one asked you.”
“Well, can’t your boyfriend pay for everything, as he always does?” I raise an eyebrow.
Sabrina makes an exaggerated motion with her hand while her eyes widen a fraction. “We’re going to Neon City, all right? I can’t ask my boyfriend to give me credits for gambling.”
“You’re going to Neon City?” I ask before I can stop myself, hating the pitiful yearning in my voice.
Neon City is supposed to be the most gorgeous city in the entire Katarin solar system. I’ve been dying to go, but it’s a gambling town. Anyone younger than twenty-one must have an escort. I’m only eighteen.
“That’s what I said. Now, you understand why I need those credits?”
“Wait a second.” Adrian raises his hand, standing between his sister and me. “Why aren’t you inviting Dorothy to come with you? She’s graduating as well, isn’t she?”
Blood rushes to my cheeks, a reflection of the shame and anger swirling in my chest. By now, I should be used to never being invited to anything. I’ve mastered all academic and practical subjects thrown at me, but social skills are something I’ve failed to grasp. I’m a disgrace when it comes to mingling with my peers.
They’re not important anyway. I glance at the medical bracelet on my left wrist. Time is running out.
Sabrina’s eyebrows arch as if she’s surprised by Adrian’s question. She turns to me. “Well, do you want to go?”
Guilt propelled her invitation, but this might be my only chance to visit Neon City.
“Sure.” I downplay my eagerness with a shrug and then fleetingly lock gazes with Adrian.
His eye roll would be amusing if it wasn’t at my expense. The kid can see right through me.
Sabrina shocks me by throwing her arm around my shoulder and tightly squeezing it. My spine goes rigid in an instant. I hate when my personal space is invaded.
“Let’s find something for you to wear then.”
Disengaging from the unwanted physical contact, I move to my desk, focusing on arranging every single item in an orderly manner. “We should be heading to Master Shogun’s class, or we’ll be late.”
“We have time.” A swishing sound lets me know Sabrina is looking inside my closet. “Oh my stars. Where are all your clothes?”
Crossing my arms, I turn around. “I have all I need.”
Sabrina pulls a long tunic dress from the rack and wrinkles her nose. It’s the only formalwear I own. I bought it when Uncle Henry, Sabrina’s father, insisted I attend a diplomatic function on New Earth with him. No one expected my choice. The dress is white with lime-green accents. Gold embroidery adorns the cuffs and collar. It’s loud and so not my style. But it reminded me of the dress my mother had worn at her wedding. I didn’t think twice about acquiring it.
“I can’t believe you still have this,” Sabrina says in disgust.
Irritated, I pull the dress from her grasp and hang it back where it belongs. “I can’t believe you managed to blow all your credits in less than an hour, but here we are.”
“If you’re going to be your usual obnoxious self, you’re not coming to Neon City with me.”
I let out a sigh. “Sorry. I promise to keep my sarcastic comments to myself. The stars forbid I offend any of your sensitive friends. Let’s go now. I don’t want to be late for Master Shogun’s class.”
The cold air in the room is charged with unveiled anticipation as Master Shogun, the most respected instructor in the entire Space Academy program, moves with calculated, slow steps toward the middle of the training mat. This is our final lecture from the Earthian legend in the arts of combat. Hairless and with pale skin, he resembles more a marble statue than a living creature. Due to his mixed heritage—human and Tethian—his face is not as harsh as if he were a pure breed. I could say he almost seems friendly, harmless. But, despite his tall, wiry frame, the male is a deadly weapon.
Everyone is watching him with bated breath as he turns to the assembly of students, his six-fingered hands carrying two bō staffs.
He sweeps the room with keen eyes, not focusing on anyone in particular before he speaks, “This is our final lesson before you graduate from the academy. Many of you will step into the new phases of your lives without a glance back, glad to finally be done with training.”
Sabrina and a few of her friends chuckle, eliciting a grin from the master.
“Yes, yes. I know some of you believe that learning to fight without your laser blasters is a waste of time. May the stars permit you never have to face an enemy without your precious weapons.”
“It’s not that, Master Shogun,” Dabian, Sabrina’s boyfriend, interjects. “We haven’t had any conflict in the Andromeda Galaxy for hundreds of years. I don’t know why we must learn rudimentary fight movements when we could have spent more time flying.”
“Just because Andromeda Galaxy is in peace, it doesn’t mean other galaxies are the same,” I snap, throwing a glower at the guy.
Instead of replying, Dabian does what he does best—dismisses my remark with a roll of his eyes. I don’t know what my cousin sees in him besides his cookie-cutter good looks.
“Dorothy makes a good point. However, the reason you must train in combat fighting is not simply to be able to defend yourselves in case the need arises. The purpose is to know yourselves, to understand what your mind and body are truly capable of.”
“That’s what you said in our first lesson,” Sabrina chimes in.
“Indeed, but it doesn’t hurt to repeat it.” Master Shogun smiles benevolently at my cousin, resting the tips of the bō staffs on the floor.
“Especially when idiots keep questioning it,” I say under my breath, focusing on the point where staff meets tatami.
“Why do you have those wooden staffs? Aren’t we going in the simulator?” someone asks.
Master Shogun reverently raises the weapons, horizontally balancing them on the tips of two fingers. “As is tradition in the final class, the students with the two highest scores will fight each other, using a method of my choice. Today is the bō staff.”
I lift my face so fast; I pull a muscle on my neck. I have the highest score overall, including in this class. Turning slowly, I find Dabian eyeing me with unconcealed disdain as he sizes me up. He’s number two—a reality he can’t accept. It’s not only because I’m the youngest cadet to ever graduate from the Space Academy program. Dabian’s mother is a commander in the Star Freedom Alliance, and therefore, Dabian believes the number one spot belongs to him by birthright. His ego is enormous and probably has to ride shotgun anywhere he goes.
A perverse grin unfurls on his lips as he cracks his knuckles.
“Dorothy and Dabian, step onto the tatami, please,” Master Shogun calls.
Squaring my shoulders and lifting my chin, I walk with purpose toward the master, doing my best to ignore the snickers and malicious comments being whispered among my classmates. I might be the best student in the academy, but I’m not the most popular—a fact that brings constant shame to Sabrina. She’s afraid my status as a social pariah will rub off on her, which, in her eyes, is akin to death. She obviously has no grasp of the devastation a true death means despite being touched by it as well, just like me.
Dabian and I stop side by side in front of Master Shogun. From the corner of my eye, I notice Dabian’s solemn face. No more snide remarks or stupid jokes from him. He’s in the zone. This is his last chance to prove that he can best me.
Setting my jaw hard, I glance at the master. His expression is neutral, and there isn’t any warmth coming from his ice-blue eyes. His hands are cold when he hands me the bō staff.
Dropping my chin, I curl my fingers around the smooth surface, getting a feel for its weight and length. It’s different than the metallic one we use in the simulator. It’s much lighter, which means I’ll have to be extremely careful with my wrist movements. A miscalculation would mean the staff would fly right out of my hand.
Master Shogun steps away as Dabian and I face one another.
We bow, as is customary, but before I return to a straighter position, Dabian whispers, “You’re going down, Dorothy.”
His words are meant to goad, get me off my game.
Fully upright now, I place my feet wider apart, bending my knees and assuming a fight stance. With a smirk, I reply, “We’ll see about that.”
When Master Shogun reaches the end of the tatami, he raises his hand, signaling for the fight to commence. Dabian doesn’t waste a second, going on the offensive first. Rotating his staff extremely fast, he advances, slamming his weapon hard over my head. I block his attack with my staff, feeling the impact deep into my bones. I’ve sparred with real people outside the simulator before but never with a bō staff. I have to say, the programmers miscalculated by a mile the effects of the blow. In real life, it’s much more jarring.
Dabian comes at me again, swinging his weapon left and right. He’s grinning openly now, knowing he has the brutal-strength advantage. I can’t allow this fight to continue, or he’ll tire me out. I need to outsmart him. The opportunity presents itself next. He attempts to hit me on my side, but I jump out of the way, somersaulting over his head to land in a crouch behind him. Not lifting from my lower position, I pivot on the ball of my foot, extending my left leg to give me leverage as I slam my staff with all my strength against the backs of his thighs. Dabian lets out a loud grunt before his legs fold with the impact, sending him down on his knees.
I jump back onto my feet, hitting Dabian on his weapon-yielding arm at the same time. He doesn’t let go of the staff though. Instead, he makes a grab for my shirt, shoving me forward. It happens too fast, and I can’t avoid falling on my stomach with a loud thud.
Son of a gun.
I manage to roll onto my back, but Dabian is already upon me, straddling me as he attempts to steal my staff. Not today, D-bag. Instead of pulling the staff away from him, I push it forward, slamming it on his nose. There’s a resounding crack upon impact. Dabian finally lets go to touch the wound.
“Damn it, Dorothy. You broke my nose.” He glances at his blood-smeared fingers.
“It’s called fighting, Dabian. You should have protected your face better.”
Master Shogun appears close to us in the next moment, and then he pulls Dabian off me. When he offers me his hand, I ignore it, choosing to jump back on my feet on my own. Twenty pairs of eyes stare at me, but the one gaze I feel the most is Sabrina’s, who is openly glaring at me.
“Well, I believe we have a clear winner today,” Master Shogun announces.
I should feel proud, but the swirling emotion in my chest is not pleasant. Why do I care that these people are angry with me because I hurt their prince?
Sabrina goes to her boyfriend, throwing an arm around his shoulders in support. She whispers something in his ear, which earns a shake of his head before he steps away from her embrace. With a crestfallen expression, she turns to me.
“Forget about coming to Neon City with us.” There’s enough venom in her tone to kill a horse.
I could say forget about getting any credits from me, but I don’t waste my breath. I don’t think she cares about that now as she strides out of the training room.
I don’t move from my spot as Master Shogun dismisses the rest of the class. Instead, I watch them leave in a single file until I’m alone with my teacher.
“I sense great turmoil within you, my dear.” He takes the staff from me.
“It’s nothing.” I shake my head and then head for the door.
Master Shogun places his hand on my arm, halting me. “You are one of the brightest students I have ever had the pleasure of teaching, and yet you’re shrouded in darkness. A living contradiction.”
“That sums it up.”
I glance at the medical bracelet on my left wrist, which is peeking out from underneath my long-sleeved shirt. Grimacing, I pull the sleeve down to cover it. I’m sure Master Shogun didn’t miss the gesture.
“Darkness is not a bad thing, contrary to general belief.”
Turning, I stare the master straight in his eyes. “I know all about yin and yang and how there can be no light without darkness.”
He nods, and after a moment, I continue, “But what if there’s no balance? What if the darkness is winning?”
“Then, you must seek a manner to achieve balance.” He cocks his head to the side as if he’s studying me. “Isn’t it what you have been doing all these years, Dorothy?”
Tensing in an instant, I reinforce the protective walls around my heart. He can’t possibly know the terrible secret I carry.
I glance away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I have to go. My uncle is expecting me.”
I’m such a little liar. Can he tell?
As soon as I enter the common area of my family’s living quarters, Adrian’s head lifts up, peeking out from behind the back of the couch. On the wide screen, one of our favorite movies is showing—Return of the Jedi, a classic from the twentieth century. It’s the story of heroes from a faraway galaxy, battling evil forces. It couldn’t be cheesier or more absurd if it tried, especially watching it now after the age of space expansion. But Adrian and I can’t get enough of it.
“What happened during Master Shogun’s class?” he asks.
“Why?” I narrow my eyes to slits. “What did you hear?”
“Sabrina came in not too long ago, fuming.”
“Is she here?” I glance at the narrow corridor that leads to the sleeping quarters.
“No. She grabbed one of her shopping bags and took off.”
I head to the kitchen, which is an island encased in glass in the middle of the room. A panel outside shows the menu’s choices. I haven’t eaten anything since lunch. Despite the hollowness in my stomach, I stare at today’s menu for minutes without making any selection.
“The turtle-duck roast was pretty good.” Adrian stops next to me.
With a sigh, I press the button for it. The robo-chef comes to life, swinging his mechanical arms in a perfectly executed dance.
“I take it you’re not going to Neon City anymore.”
“Nope. Sabrina was upset that I broke Dabian’s nose.”
Adrian laughs. “Ah, classic Dorothy.” He pulls on my sleeve. “Come on. The roast will take a while. I want to show you something.”
I follow Adrian to his small room, which, at the moment, looks even tighter with all the tools and pieces of metal and plastic he uses on his creations.
“Adrian, where do you sleep now?” I search for his bed, which should be where a long working table is. I haven’t been inside his room in a month because I was overwhelmed, studying for my final exams.
“Look up.” He points at the ceiling where a mattress is floating close to it.
“I installed mini hovers underneath it.” He smiles slyly.
“I’m sure your father loves the improved setup.”
The toothy grin wilts as he glances away. “He hasn’t seen it.”
“Forget about my dad. He’s busy running the academy. I get it. I want to show you something.” He moves closer to the working table where something is hidden underneath a white sheet.
“What is it?”
With a flourish of his arm, he pulls the sheet off, revealing a small robo-dog. “Ta-da!”
“You made another one? This one is so cute.”
Mumu, who followed us into Adrian’s room, barks as if annoyed by my remark.
With a smile, I say, “I meant no offense, Mumu.”
Adrian rubs the back of his neck while his white cheeks become bright pink. “I made it for you. It’s a graduation gift.”
“Are you serious? Oh my stars, Adrian. This is the best gift ever.”
I throw my arms around his neck, engulfing him into a bear hug. It’s something I never do, and Adrian’s sudden tension is proof that I caught him by surprise. It only lasts a split second before he hugs me back.
Easing off after a moment, I peer at the robo-dog again.
“I made it small so you can take it with you when you go on missions for the Star Freedom Alliance fleet.”
“I haven’t been offered a position yet,” I say, letting my doubt show. It’s unusual that, despite being at the top of my class, I haven’t received a word from them.
“Don’t worry. How can they not want to hire you? You’re the best cadet they’ve ever had.”
Pushing aside my concerns, I ask instead, “Does it have a name?”
“Not yet. Since it’s your dog, I thought you would like to name it.”
Pinching my chin, I narrow my eyes, looking intently at Adrian’s creation. After a moment, I say, “How about Toto?”
“That’s a great name! Now, all you have to do is press your index finger on Toto’s collar to activate it.”
I follow Adrian’s instructions, pressing my finger in the middle of the dog’s collar. A blue light flashes where I touch it before Toto’s eyes light up. He barks at me as he wiggles his short tail.
“Hi, Toto. It’s nice to meet you. I’m Dorothy.” I rub his metallic head.
“Oh, he knows who you are. He has all your information stored in his memory.”
Scrunching my face, I reply, “I’m not sure if that’s good or not.”
“Here, I also made you a silent whistle, just like the one dog trainers use on real dogs. It was Dad’s stipulation for allowing me to keep Mumu.”
“I recall that conversation. I was at the table, remember?”
“Oh, yeah. Right.”
A light beep sounds, and Adrian’s expression morphs into a grimace. He rubs his forearm right above the medical bracelet he wears—the same model around my own wrist. All my joy evaporates in an instant as I’m reminded of what I did. I’m the reason Adrian has to suffer those daily doses of medicine.
“I hate these things. I keep forgetting when it’s going to poke my wrist,” he says surly.
I touch my own bracelet over the shirt. “Yeah, it’s easy to forget.”
Suddenly, the entire room begins to rattle, sending some of Adrian’s tools down on the floor. Mumu and Toto bark as I hold Adrian steady. The tremor only lasts a few seconds before it stops.
“What the heck was that?” Adrian asks.
“I don’t know, but we’d better find out.”
We head back to the common area where the wide movie screen is now black. Whatever disturbance hit the station, it disconnected the entertainment feed. In the kitchen, I notice the robo-chef has stopped working as well. The small light above its head sensor is flashing red. What could have caused a general shutdown? There’s a small bleep before the light is blue once more, and the robot resumes cooking.
Adrian runs to the panoramic window, gluing his nose to the glass. “I don’t see anything out of the ordinary from here.”
“Let me check the other views.” I tap on the thin bracelet on my right wrist, and a hologram screen appears in front of me.
After pressing some buttons, I’m able to log in to the feed from the several cameras located outside the space station. What I see in one of them makes my jaw drop and my heart beat faster.
No way. It can’t be.
“Adrian, stay here. I have to talk to your dad.”
He looks over his shoulder, his eyebrows now furrowed. “What happened? Did you see something?”
“Nothing to be worried about. I’ll be right back.”
I head out before Adrian can ask more questions. He doesn’t follow me—not that I expected him to. Adrian is a dream kid. He always does as he’s told.
The corridor that connects our living suite to my uncle’s office is deserted. My guess is, everyone is staying put and waiting for an update on the disturbance. Learning to remain calm in stressful situations is a mandatory requisite to live in the space station. Widespread panic could put everyone’s life in danger.
Despite my outside cool demeanor, I’m screaming inside. What I saw in that monitor is something I’ve been waiting for since my parents’ and Aunt Em’s deaths. That concentration of energy, that aura, it can only be one thing: Mirus, the star-eater.
A giant cosmic being almost the same size as the Old Earth’s moon, Mirus was believed to be a legend until his massive form blocked out New Earth’s sun for a good ten minutes six years ago. We were living there at the time, thanks to my medical condition.
Mirus consumes the remains of stars after they die, hence why he’s called the star-eater. It’s believed the substance that covers his massive body has miraculous healing powers.
Before its arrival in our atmosphere, my parents and Adrian’s mother had been planning a trip to the Vanishing Galaxy—a congregation of stars that appears and disappears periodically. My mother believed the Vanishing Galaxy was a gateway to other realities, and she had worked her entire life to prove her theory.
But Mirus’s arrival shifted everyone’s priority.
And you ruined everything, Dorothy.
The nasty thought pops in my head, unbidden, striking my heart with its sharp leather whip. Forcing the darkness from my mind is an effort, but I manage before I stop in front of the almost unnoticeable sliding doors that lead to my uncle’s office. The only discernable marking is the small sign above them with the Space Academy logo. I wave my wrist bracelet in front of the scanner mounted on the wall, and the doors slide open.
The first thing one sees when they walk inside is the oval-shaped, white reception desk. Amina, the receptionist, looks up from her hologram screen.
“Hi, Dorothy. Your uncle is in a meeting with Commander Gulch, and he has—”
Without stopping, I say, “Don’t worry, Amina. This won’t take long.”
I cross through the second set of double doors, these ones made out of milky-white tempered glass. Adrian might be an obedient child, but I’m not. Not when it comes to something as vital as the reappearance of Mirus.
When I enter my uncle’s office, Commander Gulch is in the middle of saying something. She stops suddenly as she twists her body to glare at me over her beak-like nose. Yep, you can’t deny the family resemblance. Dabian shares the same aggravating expression. Her dark blonde hair is cut short, shaved on the sides and the back. The longer strands on top are pulled back in a sleek do, emphasizing the severe hard edges on her face.
The tension in the room is palpable, and on instinct, I know it wasn’t caused by my interruption.
My uncle stands, twisting his expression into a scowl. Deep creases form on the corners of his eyes and his forehead. “Dorothy, what are you doing here?”
“I have to talk to you about the disturbance we just experienced.”
“Don’t worry about it, Dorothy. Everything is under control.” Uncle Henry gives me a pitiful smile.
“How can you stand there so cool and blasé? It’s the star-eater! It’s returned. We have to get out there as quickly as possible before it flies out of reach.”
Commander Gulch clears her throat. “The star-eater is a legend. There’s nothing out there.”
“Bullshit! I saw the images from the feed. I would recognize the creature’s signature anywhere. Uncle Henry, tell her.”
“Do you see, Lieutenant Commander, why I can’t allow Dorothy in my fleet?”
The floor seems to vanish from underneath my feet as the blood drains from my face. “What?”
A cruel grin unfurls on the woman’s face. “You’re not getting an offer from the Star Freedom Alliance. I suggest you start thinking about other alternatives of employment.”
My eyes prickle as I take the full impact of her words. “You can’t do that. I’m the best cadet the academy has ever had.”
“Grades mean nothing to me. You have no respect for authority or rules. The fact that you barged into this meeting is proof enough of your appalling behavior.”
My hands curl into fists as anger flows freely through my veins. “You’re just doing that because I bested your son in every single class.”
She arches her eyebrows, her eyes widening a fraction before she shakes her head. “If you truly believe that I care about your immature feud with my son, well, I don’t even have to continue this conversation.”
“I’m not immature. I can’t say the same thing about Dabian. But let me guess; he already has a spot in your fleet, doesn’t he?”
“Of course. He’s an excellent cadet, and he respects the chain of command.” I open my mouth to argue, but she speaks over me. “And most importantly, he doesn’t have an expiration date.”
My stomach clenches painfully. I become nauseated and lightheaded. Folding my arms, I hug my middle as I attempt to get air into my lungs.
“Commander Gulch, that was completely out of line,” my uncle says.
“She needs to hear the truth from somebody, Lieutenant Commander. I’ve spoken with the medical officer. Dorothy’s latest results have shown accelerated progress of her disease. It’s only a matter of months until the medication ceases to work and she starts to feel the full effects of her condition. Even if she were an exemplary candidate, I wouldn’t spend taxpayers’ credits training someone for a job they would only be able to keep for a short period of time.”
“If you never had any intention of letting me fly, why did you allow me to complete the Space Academy program?”
“She did it because I asked her to, Dorothy,” my uncle replies. “I’m sorry.”
A lonely tear rolls down my cheek, which I promptly wipe off. As much as I would like to scream at them for this unfair treatment, I have to think about Adrian first. The doctor said it’s too late for me. I’ve lived with this rare genetic disease for too long, and most likely, no new drug will be able to halt its progress now. But Adrian still has a chance.
“What about Mirus, Uncle? You’re going to send a team after it, right?”
“No one is going after anything,” Commander Gulch replies, her answer final.
“How can you say that? Mirus might be my cousin’s only chance of survival.”
“You’d better watch your tone. Don’t forget whom you are speaking to. I’d hate to have you arrested for disrespecting a higher-ranking officer.”
I gawk at my uncle, dismayed as he just stands there and says nothing.
He avoids my gaze, dropping his eyes to his desk. “Dorothy, please, return to our quarters. I’ll speak with you as soon as I finish here.”
“I can’t believe you’re not going to fight for your own son.”
Seething, I stride out of his office without another word. I sense Amina’s eyes on me as I zip past her desk. No doubt, within minutes, the entire space station will know about my visit. But I won’t be here to be the subject of their mockery.
My blood is rushing when I arrive in my quarters. Adrian is back on the couch, watching the movie.
“Hey, Dorothy. Your dinner is ready.”
“Thanks, Adrian. I’ll eat later.” I don’t stop until I’m in my room.
If Commander Gulch thinks I’m going to meekly accept her orders, she’s sorely mistaken. But I must act fast if I have any hopes of catching up with Mirus before it disappears. If the Star Freedom Alliance won’t willingly give me a ship, I’ll just have to steal one.
When my uncle returned to our quarters, I pretended to be asleep. Hearing his excuses wouldn’t change the fact he was not willing to fight against Commander Gulch’s orders. It would also not change my mind.
I wait until the middle of the night before I slip out of my room. I made sure to disable the motion-activated lights beforehand. The living room is quiet and dark. The shutters are down to avoid the glare of commercial starships on the way to New Earth or Tethis. The Katarin solar system is a hub of interstellar traveling, thanks to the twenty-plus destination planets in it. Kansas Space Station is tethered to the capital of New Earth, and Tethis is the closest neighboring planet.
I cringe when the main door swishes open, the noise sounding louder in the dead of the night. Sticking my head out, I glance both ways to make sure the coast is clear. Not a person or droid in sight. Something bumps against my leg, making my heart jump up my throat.
“Toto,” I whisper. “You shouldn’t have followed me.”
The robo-dog barks, and I think for sure that I’m busted now. I pick him up, urging him to be quiet. Like the good robot that he is, he grows silent in an instant.
The dock bay area is on the opposite side of the personnel quarters section. The quickest way to it is using the sonic transport that cuts through the middle of the station. However, it’s not the stealthiest, considering there are cameras inside. So, walking the entire circumference of the doughnut-shaped station is what I must do. I keep Toto in my arms, afraid he’ll think this is a playful stroll. He’s a robot, but he still operates like a regular dog would.
Only the personnel private area of the space station is quiet at this hour. Once I enter the working zone, it’s more lively. Kansas never sleeps. There’re always people in the labs or in the control room. I’ve never been to the docks past curfew, but I hope no one is around. I’m aware that, with every minute that passes, I run the risk of someone recognizing me. I shouldn’t be wandering in this area in the middle of the night.
When I turn the bend and see the familiar wide door to the docks, I let out a relieved sigh. But my contentment vanishes when I notice the biometric-identi-print scanner next to it. This wasn’t here last week. They must have recently installed it.
Drat! I definitely don’t have clearance for it.
No, I can’t be deterred by a stupid security door. Adrian’s life depends on me.
Toto barks twice before growing silent again. Did he pick up on my bad mood? In the next second, I realize he must have heard the pair of workers approaching from the other side. Thinking fast, I hide in the shadowed nook close to the dock’s entrance. The door slides open, and two mechanics walk out, talking animatedly about some game they watched the night before. If I leave my hiding spot, they will see me, but maybe I can slip in if they are distracted.
I lean closer to Toto’s ear and whisper, “Go play with those men.”
Not daring to breathe, I set Toto down. He runs after the mechanics, stopping in their way before he barks in a friendly manner.
“What a cute puppy.” One of them bends down to pat Toto’s head.
This is my chance. I move as fast as I can, slipping through the doors just as they are beginning to slide shut again. But I can’t leave Toto behind, so I stick my foot out, preventing the doors from closing, thanks to the sensors. Using the dog whistle Adrian gave me, I call Toto to me. He perks his ears up before he spins around and dashes inside the room.
If those mechanics decide to come back to retrieve Toto, I’m toast. I push my ear against the wall, straining to hear their conversation.
“Should we go back to find that robo-dog?” one of them asks.
“Nah, I’m beat. What damage can a robo-dog that size do anyway?”
Their steps fade away, so now I can resume my plan. I keep to the shadows at first, making sure those mechanics were the last crew around. When I don’t hear or see anyone for a couple of minutes, I run across the vast room.
Being the largest space station in the Star Freedom Alliance, Kansas can house a few ships. There are five small fighters that have been modified for training. They don’t possess any real firepower, as the academy doesn’t want students killing one another by accident. But lack of weaponry is not what makes them useless to me. They don’t have range or the capability to jump into hyperspace. I don’t know how far Mirus is from the station already. I need a mode of transport that will give me the best odds at succeeding.
I eye the biggest starship in the dock bay—Commander Gulch’s space cruiser. Its silver hull gleams under the soft light. The ship must have been washed recently. The pristine metallic tint is punctuated by the prism-colored stripes that run along its sides. And above that detail, the name of the ship is painted in stark black—Horizon.
Ignoring the pesky voice telling me this is a mistake of huge proportions, I stride toward the vessel. It’s my luck that it’s docked close to the gate. I won’t have much time when I access the ship’s control panel. Everyone in the operations room will be alerted that Horizon became active. I’ll have only a few minutes to take off before they activate a lockdown.
Despite being a beauty, Horizon is not the newest model in the fleet. It’s a JT-40 and a few decades old, but it’s one of the fastest cruisers the fleet has ever made. No wonder Commander Gulch has never traded it in for a newer model. I also heard she had it modified, giving the medium-sized ship even more juice. Being that old, it’s the reason the boarding ramp can be unlocked via a keypad code, not by biometric identi print. Since I can’t forget anything, thanks to my eidetic memory, I only had to witness the code being typed in once to have it imprinted in my mind.
The ramp lowers with a soft air-pressure-release sound. I jump on it before it reaches the floor, pressing the button to close from inside the craft. Toto dashes off ahead, barking as if he were in a playground. The echoes of his tiny mechanic paws hitting the floor mix with the drumming in my ears. I can’t believe I’m about to steal Commander Gulch’s beloved ship.
No, Dorothy, don’t stress over it. You have to reach Mirus at any cost. Besides, what difference does it make if I end up in prison? Like the commander said, I have an expiration date.
At the end of the all-white corridor, I find the lift that will take me to the upper deck where the cockpit is. Toto is already there, sniffing around the perimeter as if searching for a treasure. A small smile plays on my lips. Adrian did a terrific job with the robo-dog. If it wasn’t for its metal body and blue-lit eyes, he could easily pass for a real dog.
Once on the upper deck, it’s a straight line toward the cockpit. The sliding door opens to reveal a wide room with two pilot chairs in front of the control panels. The concave, panoramic glass shield is shut, but it’s not hard to imagine what it would feel like once I’m out there in deep space.
Once I sit on the chair, the ship becomes an extension of my body. I was born to be a starship pilot. A moment of sadness takes over me. Successful or not, this will be my last flight.
Shaking my head, I force the gloom out of my system. It’s now or never. My hands fly over the controls, my fingers moving precisely over them. Learning how to operate a JT-40 wasn’t in the academy’s curriculum, but when I came across an old manual, I couldn’t resist devouring it.
The control panels light up, blue and red lights flashing as a low buzz takes over the silence. Toto barks a few times before jumping on the vacant chair next to mine.
“So, you want to be a copilot, huh?”
He barks and wiggles his tail in response.
With a push of a button, the powerful engine of the cruiser roars. It soon becomes a steady hum, providing a comforting background noise. I begin taxiing the spacecraft out of the dock bay, going through the inner gate as it slides open. I prepare to initiate the unlocking procedure for the outer space gate when the holo-screen crackles to life with an incoming transmission.
Commander Gulch’s furious face appears. “What is the meaning of this?”
“I’m going after Mirus,” I reply through clenched teeth. At the same time, I type in the code to unlock the gate.
“You’re out of your mind. If my ship leaves this space station, you’ll spend the rest of your life locked away.”
Twisting my lips into a sardonic smile, I reply, “Lucky me, my days are numbered.”
I shut off the holo-screen and prepare to fly. The gate is halfway open.
“Come on, come on.” My hands tighten around the yoke when, suddenly, the ship goes silent as the engines shut off. “No!”
In a manic frenzy, I attempt to restart the engine, but the sequence of commands I input isn’t registering. It’s only when a robotic voice announces that the ship’s controls have been disabled that I understand what’s going on. Commander Gulch must have disabled the ship remotely. Damn that woman!
I jump out of my seat and take off in a mad dash down the hall. I might have a minute, max, until the cruiser is surrounded by Commander Gulch’s men. I forgo the lift, opting for the service stairs instead. My only chance of getting out of here is to override the command from the operations room and restart the ship manually from the power core.
The little panel is hidden behind coiled tubs and a metal grid. If I hadn’t seen the blueprint for this ship in that old manual, I would never find it. I almost tear the door open as I yank it with too much force. A circuit board with hundreds of wires and chips stare back at me. My eyes quickly scan through the maze of old technology until I find what I’m looking for. With deft fingers, I disconnect the wire responsible for the remote-activated control of the ship. But there’s still the matter that I won’t be able to restart the engine until the system completely reboots. Horizon needs a kick-start. Biting my lower lip, I pray to all the stars that I’m right about what I plan to do. If the wire I’m about to connect to the main motherboard is wrong, I might wipe out the entire cruiser’s system.
Here goes nothing.
The wire is in place, and to my relief, the engine throttles awaken once more. When I return to the cockpit, the outer space gate is beginning to shut. They must have done that from the operations room as well. I won’t be able to rewire my way out of that. It takes me a split second to make my decision. Pushing the yoke forward, I take off. The sudden acceleration shoves me back in my seat, and belatedly, I realize I forgot about poor Toto. I hope he’s made out of sturdy metal.
There’s a loud scratching noise when the side of one of the wings clips the gate, but by a miracle, I make it through.
My heart is hammering inside my chest as the most exhilarating feeling spreads through my veins like wildfire. Raising my fist in the air, I let out a victorious yell.
I sober up fast, as my escape from the station is only a small victory. Now, I must find Mirus. The camera that picked up the star-eater’s familiar readings was the one pointing in Tethis’s direction. Putting as much distance as I can from Kansas, I veer Horizon toward the blue-and-purple planet. Toto comes bouncing back into the cockpit to take his place as the honorary copilot again.
“How are you, buddy?”
He doesn’t answer me this time. Instead, he curls into a ball and hides his muzzle under his paws.
“I’m sorry about our rocky takeoff.”
Pulling my gaze from him, I type in several commands on the control panel while being watchful for any signs of pursuit. Not that any of those fighters could catch up with Horizon, but I wouldn’t put it past Commander Gulch from trying. Most likely, she has already contacted the authorities on New Earth. It’s only a matter of time before they send a patrol cruiser to take me into custody. I hope by the time they reach me, I’ve accomplished what I plan to do.
I bring the navigation screen up and see in front of me the shadow of a massive body moving at great speed—Mirus. I push the cruiser as fast as it can go without jumping into hyperspace. The sun blazes neon blue against the ship’s hull, but once I adjust the coordinates, a limitless curtain of night extends in front of us.
It’s another thirty minutes before I get a visual of the star-eater. It’s more beautiful than I could have possibly imagined. Mirus is surrounded by a bright nebula, which shines like an oasis in the desert of space.
“This is it, Toto.”
My heart is beating like a drum while my brain takes off at the speed of light, going through the list of things I need. Horizon is equipped with space suits and tools for collecting surface materials, but the most important thing I must figure out is how to land on Mirus.
Suddenly, blaring alarms screech inside the cockpit as the lights on the control panel flash red. The vessel begins to shake, and Toto jumps from his seat to mine. Breathing through my nose and mouth, I will my body to remain calm as I assess the situation. The navigation system is showing an enormous mass straight ahead. It just appeared out of nowhere. Shoving the holographic screen to the side, I focus on what’s in front of Horizon. Where before there was only Mirus and infinite space, a bright gas maelstrom has opened in the star-eater’s path.
In horror, I watch as the white hole devours Mirus. Not knowing what phenomenon I’m facing, I attempt to change the ship’s course, but the controls won’t respond. It’s already caught in the gravitational pull of the space whirlpool. The interior of the cockpit becomes awfully bright as the cosmic vortex yawns before us. Holding Toto tight, I close my eyes, knowing this is the end.