Prologue

 

 

On the planet Balarafin—

 

HEMMI MUOSSO tossed and turned in his bed all night long. He wrestled with the blankets, flipped over on his side, and then tried to settle down. No luck, though. He was just way too excited about his school project. A ton of creative ideas kept tumbling around inside his head. So many times he had stared across his dimly lit bedroom, glancing at each poster plastered to the walls—spaceships and spectacular interstellar events—a typical twelve year old boy’s world. But those were things he loved and felt passionate about. In fact, he dreamed of someday working and living on a spaceship, traveling and exploring every corner of the galaxy. That’s why he took school so seriously. He wanted to be the best. When the first hint of morning light finally glimmered through the window, he felt even more excited and nervous for the end of this week. Just two more days and it would all be over.

Every midsummer on Balarafin, during the month of Shrigindur, a celebration of science took place at Brogenbim Middle School. In fact, a slew of celebrations took place across the entire planet, which pumped kids full of enthusiasm from the smallest of towns to the biggest of cities. Like Halex, where Hemmi lived.

Balarafins loved science and technology. It might even be said that they worshipped them. On their world, politics and religion died out ages ago. Logic and intellect reigned supreme. And everyone, from the smallest child to the oldest adult, was encouraged to help improve their culture. All ideas were welcome.

A gentle knock sounded against Hemmi’s bedroom door. His mother had passed by as she did every morning, letting him know it was time to get up and get ready for school. However, a reminder wasn’t needed today. He was more than ready to get a move on. But her daily gesture was always appreciated and looked forward to. It put a smile on Hemmi’s face every time. A little something exclusively shared between mother and son.

He jumped out of bed and hurried to turn on the morning news, hungry to learn about any new scientific breakthroughs. With a push of a button on his desk, a 3-D holographic screen appeared across one of the bedroom walls. It covered his beloved posters and filled the room with a soft light. Hemmi quickly swiped his hand through the air to change the channels but found little of interest.

He pulled off the T shirt and pair of shorts he liked to sleep in and then grabbed a quick shower in his bathroom. Of course, taking a shower on Balarafin tended to be quick regardless of whether a person was in a hurry or not. Force fields manipulated pockets of refreshing water over his body, massaging and scrubbing him with care. Small amounts of cleansing agents were carried in the water, in addition to a pleasant, sporty fragrance he enjoyed.

He stood with both legs slightly spread apart with his arms stretched out, then opened his mouth. The shower cleaned his teeth too. But there was no need for shampoo. Balarafins had no hair, only eyelashes. And the color of their skin was a beautiful blend of pastel blues, greens, yellows, and pinks, the darker colors being more predominant on their faces and limbs, while the lighter colors covered their torsos.

Balarafins loved to show off their colorful skin, so there wasn’t much to Hemmi’s school uniform. It consisted of a nice fitting pair of white shorts and a matching vest, along with ankle socks and sneakers. Girls dressed similarly but incorporated a tank top under their vest.

For this year at school Hemmi was competing against three other outstanding students, and tensions were running high. In the past two years he had won the coveted Briges Award for Science, and one more victory would make Hemmi the first student in seventy years to achieve three consecutive wins.

Mathematics was also one of his passions. And paired with a formidable imagination, Hemmi felt unbeatable whenever he applied his time to invention. His presentation for this year’s contest involved the replication of subatomic particles by a method dependent upon the folding of space. This wasn’t a new concept on his world, by far. Many scientists had worked on the same theory long before Hemmi was born. But there had always been certain aspects of its development that proved incredibly challenging for those early pioneers. Now, after more sleepless hours than he cared to think of, Hemmi felt certain he had developed reasonable solutions to those problems.

After gobbling up a small bowl of cereal, he kissed his mother good bye, grabbed his backpack, and then hurried out the front door to school with a bounce in his stride.

It was a bright, sunshiny day. Mild temperatures prevailed. The flawless white metal of the avenues seemed to glow, as did the short square buildings lining them. At the heart of the city stood sleek skyscrapers that stretched toward the heavens. Many of their peaks tapered to a point, with rows of airborne traffic flowing by windows and terraces.

Balarafin wasn’t a “sphere-shaped” world. Instead, three enormous continents rose like steps, connecting consecutively, with a significant change in altitude from first to third. Habitable regions of land like that are known as galactic remnants throughout the Expanse, and no different than other worlds, Balarafin experienced a wide range of seasons with variable weather conditions. It even had snow capped mountain ranges, dry deserts, and a diverse collection of flora and fauna.

Hemmi met up with some schoolmates along the way, two boys and three girls. All of them had been friends since kindergarten, and on school mornings they would always walk together to the intersection of Frigend and Bownik, which was roughly five blocks away from Hemmi’s house. In fact, many individuals made the particular junction. Numerous ways of traveling around Balarafin existed, including a variety of flying vehicles for either personal use or mass transit. But for a quick trip from point A to point B—regardless of distance—a slumendur proved to be a person’s best choice.

About three times the size of a phone booth, the slu made use of quantum compression stream technology (a high-speed conduit), which was the same mode of travel used by almost all spaceships. Up to six individuals could stand inside its glass and steel frame. Upon entry a simple holographic control panel would appear at eye level, and then you simply selected your destination. In a flash, all occupants were then whisked away to whatever connecting slu had been selected.

Brogenbim Middle School sat less than a block away, and Hemmi and his friends stepped out of the slu onto a fairly crowded sidewalk. Kids were everywhere. Several of them gawked at Hemmi in passing, no doubt curious about whether or not he’d win this year’s competition.

Their staring made him feel a little uncomfortable. As positive as Hemmi tended to be, his confidence could easily be fractured by mounting pressure and the high expectations placed upon him by friends and family. That often turned out to be a lot of stress for a twelve year old boy to handle, especially since his life experiences were few and far between. But whenever he dove back into his studies, all worries would subside. It never failed. Hard work gave him peace of mind.

“Ignore them,” Rylmitt said with a laugh. He gave Hemmi a friendly nudge. Both boys were the same height and build. “They’re just staring because they wish they were half as inventive as you are.”

Without trying to look too smug, Hemmi nodded and gave a mild chuckle. “Yeah,” he said, shaking off his worries. “Just wait until they see my presentation on solving Brinik’s particle synthesis theory. I bet everyone’s going to be blown away.”

Hemmi’s mood lightened even more as he approached the several flights of steps leading up to school. A wide smile stretched across his face the instant he saw Gigi Lobello leaning against a nearby handrail, alternating her gaze between her handheld device and Hemmi’s eyes. A petite-sized girl, Gigi was a year older than him but stood two inches shorter. She also had a big crush on Hemmi.

They had met a year ago in an after school study group and felt an immediate connection to one another. And by chance, the teacher ended up assigning them to a weeklong research project which allowed them to solidify their friendship. Of course Gigi was a bit more mature than Hemmi, but he loved the constant attention, winks, and playful looks. In a funny sort of way, he had finally discovered something that was more pleasing than math or science.

As soon as Hemmi reached her, Gigi moved close and leaned against him. She wrapped a warm hug around his arm and pressed her cheek softly against his shoulder as they walked together. “Everyone’s talking,” she said in a low yet excited kind of voice. “I think it’s safe to say you’re going to win this. No one was expecting a revival of Brinik’s theories.”

Hemmi laughed nervously. “I’m not so sure about that. Yesterday in fourth period I heard Lilgrim dropping snippets about her idea for the transport of unlimited mass through a compression stream. It sounded pretty awesome.”

Gigi rolled her eyes and tapped her hand against Hemmi’s stomach. “Oh, try to have a little confidence, would ya. Anyone can widen a compression stream and raise its tolerance threshold. You’re replicating matter! That’s worth like an A plus, plus.”

Hemmi shook his head. He smiled, thoroughly entertained by Gigi’s overflowing positive attitude and her pretty pastel face. Nothing ever seemed to discourage her or dim her bright spirit.

“I think you must be my biggest fan,” Hemmi pointed out to her.

She scoffed and gave him another tap against his stomach. “And you’re just now figuring that out, smart guy.”

They headed into school—a large ornate glass and steel building centrally positioned on an impressive and well manicured campus. The front entrance’s sliding doors stayed wide open from all the hurrying foot traffic; there were hundreds of kids. Hemmi noticed several students eyeballing him again as he reached into his pocket and pulled out his Sildrim VT to check the time. But with Gigi on his arm, he didn’t care too much right now what others might be thinking about him.

More than a mere phone by any means, a Sildrim was a streamlined checkbook-sized bit of high-tech gadgetry that not only served as a phone, but could also interface with all sorts of machinery, scan a biological organism for any signs of infection or disease, store 3-D photos and videos, and even produce a large holographic screen in midair to use just like a personal computer.

“Two minutes until the bell,” Hemmi said. He sounded excited yet bothered too. As much as he enjoyed his classes, he would rather have spent the day walking through the grounds with Gigi.

She sweetly hugged his arm before slipping away with a pleasant smile on her face. “I’ll see you in third period.”

“Have fun,” Hemmi told her. Delighted, he waved good-bye by wiggling his fingers in the air, and his adorable behavior left Gigi tickled as she headed down the hallway to her class.

First period flew by for Hemmi, mostly because it was a particle physics class and a bunch of nosy classmates kept trying to pry details from him about his competition project. Hemmi left them wondering, though in a good way. He was all about presentation, so he wanted to wait and show his big reveal to everyone at once.

Second period would probably have gone the same way, but class was interrupted with a vague and unsettling announcement. The large holographic display appeared at the front of the class, with Principal Phlomegrin’s concerned-looking face taking up almost all of its screen.

The entire class fell silent, waiting.

“Roughly fifteen minutes ago,” the principal announced in his old, raspy sounding voice, “the Korl Health Organization issued an evacuation order for all public institutions and private corporations. They’re ordering all citizens to return to their homes and remain there until further notice. An update will shortly follow. Now please, don’t panic.” He held his hand up in front of the screen in a reassuring gesture. “I’m sure there’s nothing serious to be concerned with. But as of right now I’m dismissing school, and I would appreciate it if each and every student and faculty member would head back to their home and stay indoors until we hear something more from Korl. Again, school is dismissed. Head home, and wait for their update.”

Well, no one panicked. But the classroom cleared out pretty fast as soon as the teacher opened the door. Before Hemmi was washed out into the hall by the outpour of students, he glanced back at his workstation that sat next to the classroom’s glass walls. It was such a beautiful bright day outside. No clouds in the sky. The grass was green, the trees still pink and yellow. Everything looked normal. What could possibly be wrong out there?

“Move or get out of the way already!” A student ran into Hemmi, abruptly pushing him aside.

Confusion. Growing fear. Was it a biological concern, something contagious? That’s how it sounded. But nothing like that has ever happened before, Hemmi thought. Still, regardless of the cause, he was definitely going to head straight home. But before doing that, he wanted to find Gigi.

The halls were literally packed with colorful kids in white uniforms, and moving against the flow proved to be futile for Hemmi. Plus the teachers were ushering all the students along, trying their best to get everyone outside as quickly as possible.

When Hemmi stepped through the school’s main entrance, he stopped for a moment and stared out onto the streets. Kids darted off in all directions, pouring out from the exits like spilled candy from a bag. And halfway down the street a huge group of students (some teachers too) had gathered around the slu. Hemmi would have to use it too. Otherwise the walk home would take at least forty five minutes.

He looked around for Gigi. Nothing. No sign of her. Would she have left without trying to find me? Maybe she was just caught up in the crowd.

“Go on, Hemmi. Head on home,” a professor told him with a pat on his shoulder. “We’re locking the doors as soon as the last faculty member comes out.”

The crowd quickly thinned out, but a few students lingered on the steps, and concerned teachers rushed in, urging them to move along. Still no sign of Gigi, unfortunately. Where could she be?

“Hemmi!” Rylmitt waved his arms frantically in the air. He was standing out in the street. “Come on. Let’s go!”

Reluctantly, Hemmi moved down the steps with his hand lazily gliding along the steel rail. He looked back, still searching for Gigi. Only a handful of teachers stood at the front of the school. All of them were double-checking to make sure the doors were secured.

Before Hemmi stepped onto the sidewalk Rylmitt grabbed his arm and pulled him along toward the slu. Rylmitt seemed incredibly freaked out. He was panting and looking around with quick jerks of his head to the left and right. Beads of sweat started to dribble down his brow too, which only made Hemmi’s worries soar.

“It’s off-line!” a woman shouted from beside the slu. Disbelieving looks and grumbles filled the crowd of some fifty people. The more skeptical individuals stepped inside of it and moved their hands around trying to activate its navigation system. Hemmi stood on his tiptoes watching them from afar. He was just as shocked and confused.

“Why would the slu be shut down?” A dozen possibilities raced through Hemmi’s curious mind, but none of them sounded plausible. “Its power system is independent from the city.”

“Another good reason why we should get a move on,” Rylmitt said with a nervous flutter in his voice. He was a year younger than Hemmi but very bright and extremely practical. Not a risk taker by any means. He didn’t like to dawdle, either. Focus on the issue at hand, solve it, then move on to the next problem—his motto.

Together they hurried down the street, both boys shoulder to shoulder, following close behind a mixed group of schoolkids with a few adult pedestrians who joined them along the way. However, Hemmi and Rylmitt ran into the back of an older man who had suddenly stopped after everyone turned down the next block.

A woman stood hunched over the edge of one of the large steel planter boxes that lined the street. In between her gasps and coughs, she vomited up mouthfuls of blood onto the flowers. Hemmi and Rylmitt watched in horror, their mouths hanging open as they listened to the woman’s moans and cries for help. Lesions and oozing sores covered her forearms, which had lost some of their brilliant pastel color and now looked gray.

Almost all of the children panicked, then scattered and ran away. Those who lingered stood frozen in their tracks from shock. Two adults rushed over to the woman but were careful about directly touching her wounds. Rylmitt backed away and tugged on Hemmi’s arm. “Come on,” he said with urgency. “Something is seriously wrong. Let’s get out of here. I want to get home.”

“Yeah,” Hemmi mumbled in disbelief. His gaze remained fixed on the woman. She had now fallen to her knees and was leaning against the planter box, still hacking and gagging. Hemmi watched as the gray-colored patches he had noticed a moment ago on her arms began to spread even further over her skin. They moved like dark clouds through the sky. Whatever sickness she was suffering from, it was consuming her without doubt. And witnessing her downfall chilled Hemmi’s soul with a deep and dark fear, mostly because the size and shape of the woman reminded him of his mother.

In a turn of events, Hemmi now grabbed hold of Rylmitt’s arm and pulled him along down the sidewalk. Their rapid pace quickly turned into a sprint as images of Hemmi’s family raced through his worrying mind. His mother was off work today from teaching at the Dormiss Science Academy. So she should be at home, safe and secure. But Hemmi’s older brother, Mennu, and his younger sister, Shessu, were out at their own respective schools. And his father worked at an engineering company on Balarafin’s third tier, which was incredibly far away. He could only hope that they all were okay and heading home.

The sound of a ground shaking, thunderous explosion stopped both boys dead in their tracks. They trembled with fear upon hearing metal smashing against metal mixed with terrifying cries and screams.

Hemmi and Rylmitt peeked around the corner of a building and looked down a narrow street. A flying vehicle had crashed onto the sidewalk. It smashed through the front of a building and killed several pedestrians in the process. Sparks and plumes of black smoke rose from the wreckage, with trails of blood and bits of bodies littering the ground along its path.

“Let’s take the next street!” Hemmi didn’t need to pull Rylmitt by his arm this time. Terrified, both of them ran shoulder to shoulder to the next block. But when they hastily turned the corner, they ran into a compact group of sick people, who immediately grabbed hold of both boys by their arms, pulling on them and begging for help. Some of them stood, and others were on their knees or lying on their sides. All of them showed signs of sores and that terrible consuming gray spreading over their skin.

“No,” Hemmi screeched in fear. He jerked his arms away from them and then tried to race away, but a person grabbed hold of his ankle, and he fell down hard, hurting his elbow and forearm. Putting his pain aside, he kicked and twisted, pushed and panicked, as he tried to squirm away.

From overhead came the whirling sound of an out of control vehicle falling out of the sky in a quick dive toward the street. Hemmi looked up to see a large passenger bus as it raced by and cast a short lived shadow over him. It hit the street like a missile and slid along, a stretch of sparks and grinding metal.

The quake from the impact toppled everyone but managed to free Hemmi from the crowd’s clutches. He quickly scrambled away, stumbling over his feet as he rose. He pressed his back against a nearby storefront, panting and scared stiff.

“Rylmitt!” Hemmi gazed around for his friend. Black smoke from the crash filled most of the street, with flashes from sparks appearing like lightning within a storm cloud. Several people raced past him in staggering states, fleeing from the chaos despite their sores and sickness. But as Hemmi stared down the street, he saw no sign of Rylmitt anywhere. He called out again but only heard moans and cries along with the sizzle and pop of shredded electronic components.

After one more desperate shout, Hemmi forced himself to leave his friend behind and try to get home as fast as he could. Rylmitt may have run farther down the street before the bus crashed. Hemmi wasn’t sure. But then there was the grim possibility that he had been—

“No,” Hemmi uttered in disbelief. He shook his head and forced any terrible thoughts out of his mind. “He’s fine. We were nowhere near that bus. I’m sure you’ll make it home before I do.”

Hemmi rubbed his throbbing elbow. His arm hurt even worse when he tried to straighten it. He then cursed, realizing he might have fractured a bone. What the hell was happening? So much chaos made no sense to him. Balarafin was a peaceful world with a united people and had very little to do with alien races. So what was the answer? Why were people sick? Why were electronics not working?

Again he shook his head, snapping himself out of his analytical pause. There was no time to waste standing here and worrying about answers when all the facts weren’t known. He took a deep breath, dealt with the pain, and then tried to clear his head. But all he could think of was getting home to his mom and making sure she was okay. She had always been his source of strength in rough times. She’d have answers, know what to do.

He scurried away with his aching arm folded against his chest, all the while keeping his distance from groups of people, whether they looked sick or not. After passing by a few blocks he found an empty street to follow, one that would take him directly toward the edge of his neighborhood.

He’d be home soon. He’d find his mom inside, and all fears would be gone. She’d be there waiting for him with open arms, waiting to give him a comforting hug and reassure him that everything would turn out for the better.

 

 

Chapter One

 

 

IT HAD been almost twelve hours since we rescued James from the clutches of the MST, the so-called “authority” here in the Expanse. They’re an organized militaristic group who are supposed to watch over people and protect them from harm. Or so they say. Personally, I consider them to be more overbearing than anything else, especially when their interests are threatened. Of particular note is the MST’s obsession with the preservation of relics—all things ancient, including supernatural beings and places. In fact, ask any person in the Expanse to sum up the MST with a single word, and they’ll likely spew out “historians” or “guardians,” which is a load of crap, if you ask me. The level of respect I have for them had dwindled considerably in the past few days.

Actually, that’s kind of funny, now that I think about it. Did I, David Ruger, ever have that much respect for them? I don’t think so.

Even the acronym is starting to leave a sour taste in my mouth. Their full name is long winded, the length of an entire sentence, with the predominant hard-sounding consonants of M, S, and T lingering in the wind.

On charges of sedition, murder, and inciting violence, James was taken into custody sometime yesterday by the MST. But Doug, Bray, Wyler, and I paid his captors a surprise visit. We found James floating unconscious in a suppression field—an encompassing cloud lined with running bursts of electricity. Some guards rushed in. A minor fight ensued. But we were victorious. Wyler placed a few high-yield explosives before he shifted us away. I’m guessing there was nothing left of that place. No sign the four of us had intervened or that James had survived. So far it had been a very quiet night in bed, which led me to believe that the MST wouldn’t come looking for any of us.

The suppression field left James extremely incoherent. So after getting him back to our house, Doug and I brought him into our bed, where he was still sleeping soundly between us.

Doug was still asleep too. My big, muscular guy was lightly snoring, lying on his right side, exhausted from worrying about his little brother’s safety. All three Colt brothers were extremely close, which was probably due to being triplets and having been dumped in the Expanse over forty years ago. All that was left of the Earth they came from was each other. So their bond grew stronger. And, without hesitation, Doug would give his life to protect his brothers. He’s told me so a dozen times, especially in the past couple of days. But last night in bed before we closed our eyes, I assured him that I’d also stand watch over James and Bryan. And with the blessed gifts bestowed upon me by the goddess Shaye, I wasn’t about to let anything or anyone harm my new family or friends.

Spirit calling and shifting have been added to my repertoire of supernatural abilities. Wyler alluded to a fourth and final power lying dormant inside me. But he said it would emerge in time. I shook my head when he told me that. My little demon buddy just can’t ever give me a straight answer. And that irks the shit out of me.

However, he did encourage me to practice shifting as often as I could. He had told me, “You’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ll get the hang of it and how many signatures you’ll eventually be able to focus on at one time!”

Signatures are what a shifter concentrates on when they teleport from one place to another. They act as beacons shining across a dark sea, guiding us to our destination without fail. And each shifter possesses a unique set of identifiers associated with people or places. Items, such as clothing, tend to go along for the ride regardless.

Doug’s signature, for example, is a mixture of three things I love about him: the smell of his cologne, the feel of his beard brushing against my face and neck, and the memory of the first time he held my hand. When I focus on those factors, when I construct a composite of them in my mind, that’s when I shift to him.

On the other hand, James’s signature only has two components: the smell of his leather jacket—which I absolutely love—and the feel of his chest and stomach when I gave him an oily massage.

Why these particular associations were chosen, I have no idea. But when a signature presents itself, it comes close to overpowering me. Memories and sensations resurface with exponentially increased clarity and influence.

I made sure Doug and James were still asleep before I shifted out of bed and into the bathroom. I partially closed the door, peed, and then shifted in front of my closet.

I decided to head out and squeeze in some practice. I slipped on a T shirt and a pair of jeans. I quietly grabbed a pair of socks out of my dresser and then snatched up my sneakers from beside the bed. I shifted out into the living room, where I sat on the sofa to put them on.

Wyler had taken me to the Shards, and its signature was a striking blend of campfire smells, the screech of terror birds, and the tremors I had felt racing through the ground from an enormous four legged kanoofur walking around.

I concentrated and took a deep breath.

I imagined myself hovering high in the sky. And after a long moment, I was there, across the galaxy. The quietness of my living room gave way to wind and sparse drops of rain that dotted my gray shirt. Lightning flashed through distant storm clouds. A sound of far-off thunder rumbled.

The town of K Field sat far below me, nestled along the edge of the region’s continental shelf. Several spacecraft lingered near its border, their lights shrouded in a thin haze.

I didn’t feel like getting soaked or struck by lightning, so I sped forward, racing away from the storm. Far ahead, beyond a lengthy spine of rising mountains, a sunset sky welcomed me with its warm glow. I rose to clear the peaks, then shifted past them entirely, crossing hundreds of miles in an instant.

Above a lush green valley I flew, my arms at my side, then outstretched. The smell of flowers and lakes filled my lungs. Fields of tall green grasses swayed in unison. A group of terror birds rushed through them, leaving a noticeable zigzagging trail. I assumed they were chasing after their next meal.

It didn’t take long before I reached the border of a dense forest. The appeal of a woodsy fragrance, a thick canopy, and towering trunks lured me in for a closer look. I slowed my pace, aligning myself vertically so I could glide my hand across their coarse bark as I passed by. I doubted these trees had ever felt the touch of a human hand at this height—a hundred or more feet above the ground.

The presence of signatures surprised me. They seemed to be popping out from all directions. I wasn’t expecting that. I felt distinct indications of this forest, of its inhabitants, almost as if voices whispered beside my ear, introducing themselves to me as friends.

I smiled and imagined I could easily return to this exact spot sometime in the future. There must have been more to my new shifting ability than what Wyler had told me about.

That little shit.

I moved on to an area of floating islands, of broken plateaus hanging in a blue sky, along with boulders wrapped in twisted vines as thick as my body and as long as a city block. Again, I slowed down to lay my hands upon these treasures. Each vine felt rough yet incredibly pliable. The boulders had no hope of ever escaping from their grasp.

I felt delighted to partake in such an exclusive and intimate encounter.

Any concerns and worries I had seemed to vanish. The wind carried me, and I showed no resistance, no attempt to dominate it. I simply surrendered myself to its care. Clusters of small stones defied gravity the same as me, and as I drifted through them they spread out into a growing cloud of rolling bits and pieces.

I tilted my head back and closed my eyes for a moment, thankful for the gifts given to me, for the wonders around me.

I traveled higher and raced through pillars of puffy clouds like a fired bullet. Pockets of moisture blanketed my face, dampened my shirt.

When I burst forth, an unexpected treat presented itself to me. I had happened upon a lone land mass of massive length and breadth. I hovered and watched as it majestically emerged from a bed of pink and white clouds. A mile of stone must have been sagging