Elara Adele Vaughn sat in the empty shuttle station.
The large gray-and-white terminal was deserted, but the young girl wasn’t alone. She stared into the holographic projection of her little brother, Danny.
“It’s not like it’s super far,” Elara said, “and you get to come visit during break. That’s just a few months away.”
The shimmering blue, transparent image of Danny didn’t look convinced. He was three years younger than Elara— having just turned nine—and small for his age. Danny was obviously upset, but he shrugged and half smiled anyway. “I guess,” he said. “Maybe you’ll change your mind. Maybe you’ll transfer.”
Elara felt herself frown. She didn’t want to fight. Not right now. Not with her little brother. But she knew where Danny was hearing this from—her parents.
“You’re so good at farming,” Danny pushed. “And mom and dad say the Affiliation needs farmers. They say you could get a grant—”
“The Affiliation needs terraformers, too,” Elara said, gently cutting her brother off. “More than anything. If we don’t expand our borders and colonize more worlds, where will we farm?”
For as long as Elara could remember, she wanted to become a terraformer. Specifically, she wanted to be a bioengineer and learn to create new life-forms on new worlds. That wasn’t something Elara could achieve on her home world—Vega Antilles V, a remote farming community on the fringes of Sector 17. A planet so far away it was usually called “Nowhere.” It also wasn’t something she could do by attending the Academy of Agriculture, which was where all her older brothers and sisters went. It was probably where Danny would go too, when he was older.
“I guess you have to go then,” Danny said sadly. “You can’t blame me for not liking it, though.”
Elara felt her smile return. It was true. How mad could she get at her little brother for missing her? “Well, I’ll come and visit. I promise you that. And the Seven Systems School of Terraforming has a break the same week you do, and you’ll come visit me then. Right?”
“The name of the school is ‘STS,’” Danny said. “No one says it like that except you.”
“It’s a very important school!” Elara said in mock offense. “The Seven Systems School is the leading educator of terraformers!”
Danny rolled his eyes. “You sound like one of their ads. ‘The Seven Systems School of Terraforming Sciences and Arts: Create your own world!’”
Elara stuck her tongue out in response.
Danny waved his hands dramatically, the hologram sparkling more as it animated the motion. “Your journey begins . . . NOW!”
“Well, it is a good slogan,” Elara responded, standing up from her bench and grabbing her heavy backpack. “And it happens to be true. Literally. My train just got here.”
“Oh. Okay . . . ,” Danny said. It was clear he wasn’t ready to end the conversation. Neither was Elara. But interplanetary communications were limited and costly. Projecting them during hypertravel was virtually impossible. Time was ticking . . .
Suddenly Elara felt overwhelmed. Her heart raced, and she felt her brow furrow. Leaving was more difficult than she had expected. Her family had dropped her off hours ago and said their goodbyes. Her brothers. Her sisters. Her mom and her dad. Maybe they didn’t entirely understand why Elara was leaving, but they still supported her decision. They all stood at the platform and hugged her one by one. They were a large family. A poor family by most standards. But they were loving and hardworking and happy. And they were hers. And now . . .
“Hey,” Danny said, sensing his sister’s mood shift. “Hey. It’s okay. You’re right . . . it’s just a few months until you have Visitors Day. I’ll be there to see you. Mom and Dad already booked the trip for me.”
Elara smiled, her hand reaching out to touch the blue light of Danny’s holographic projection.
“I’ll miss you,” Elara said, her eyes rimmed with tears. “Lots. Every day. And I will write you all the time. I promise.”
“Double promise?” Danny asked.
“Always. Forever and ever.”
Danny smiled again, and the connection was cut off. And for the first time in her entire young life, Elara really was alone.
The doors of the shuttle train hissed open, belching tiny clouds of bluish gas down the length of the transport. Elara stood for a moment, steeling herself as the vehicle hummed. Taking a deep breath, the future student of the Seven Systems School of Terraforming Sciences and Arts stepped aboard the small shuttle, and the doors closed behind her.
Inside, the shuttle was empty and quiet. Elara made her way to an open seat. She buckled in and steadied herself for what turned out to be a surprisingly smooth takeoff.
The space vehicle was controlled by computer, and so for the first hour of her long journey, Elara was completely alone. Rows of empty seats stretched out around her. This wasn’t too surprising. Not many people came and went from Sector 17. Not enough habitable planets existed that far out from the Core of the Affiliated Worlds.
Elara tapped absently at the communications control pad at her seat. Inactive. No long-range or short-range communications would be possible.
It was weird: Life on the farm could be so quiet. Vega Antilles V was a large planet with a tiny population. But quiet on a living world versus quiet in the middle of space . . . that was different.
It was peaceful.
Elara looked at her own faint reflection in the plexiglass window, shaking her mop of thick purple hair as she did. Her image was surrounded by the gently swirling colors of deep hyperspace, which she found soothing.
And then it was abruptly over.
Elara felt the gravitational pull of a planet, her stomach lurching like she was on a carnival ride. The shuttle was descending onto another world. An entire ecosystem, completely new and unfamiliar. Elara felt her fingers tighten around the end of her seat’s armrest in excitement. She had never been off Vega Antilles V before. Sure, she had seen travel holograms and experienced other biospheres that way. But Elara knew it wouldn’t be the same as actually being on another planet.
Elara rose from her seat and made her way to the shuttle doors. Punching up the manifest on the data pad, she took note of the planet name—Thui Prime, only recently discovered and designated a mining world by the Affiliation. It was an exportation hub for fuel and gases. That made sense
, Elara thought. They were still too deep in the outer rim for the wealthier worlds. Industrial and agricultural planets were most common this far out.
“A brand-new planet . . . ,” Elara whispered to herself as she stared out the window. Everything she had left behind . . . Nothing would take that sting away. Not completely. But this was the reward. No one in her family had ever set foot on another planet. Not in four generations, since back when her great-great-grandparents Pannel and Samantha Vaughn had accepted placement on Vega Antilles V in the space-colonization program. No one had seen a point in leaving.
As the shuttle landed on Thui Prime’s station platform, Elara could see the bright green of the tall, thin trees just outside the station—very different from anything they had on Vega Antilles V. The sky was different, too, just on the brighter side of purple. It was a lush and colorful world, and Elara couldn’t wait to experience it firsthand. Thumbing the unlock button, she stepped forward to take in her first breath of otherworldly air . . .
. . . and choked back the most awful stench she had ever smelled!
Frantically, Elara tapped at the shuttle’s data pad, and the doors slid shut. Gagging, she rubbed her stinging eyes. Right. Gas planet. A planet where they harvest gas. From boggy, festering pools of methane-rich liquid. Technically, the air was breathable, or the shuttle would never have landed. Nothing in the atmosphere could be deadly, but . . . the holograms had not prepared Elara for this. They never took into account the way another planet might smell.
In the distance, Elara could see a second shuttle gliding across the horizon. In a few seconds it docked with Elara’s shuttle, forming a two-car train.
“Who lives here?” Elara wondered aloud to herself. There were no signs of life anywhere.
Just then, a large procession of figures emerged from the trees. At first Elara thought they were students. But as the figures got closer, she could see that these were robots—mindless lifter bots common on industrial planets. They were loading large and heavy boxes onto the shuttle. But there was still no student in sight . . .
Elara pressed the hatch button, opening the sealed connection between the two cars. With a few cautious steps, she was inside the new shuttle. The hatch slid quietly shut behind her. The familiar smell of Thui Prime surrounded her. But all she could see were boxes. Lots and lots of boxes.
“Hello?” Elara called out.
No response. Odd.
Elara walked more boldly now. There was no one on the shuttle. Just her and some cargo.
“But where’s the student?” Elara muttered to herself. “If this is all their stuff, where are they?”
With a lurch, the two connected shuttles launched back into the sky. Elara steadied herself against a large box as the transport picked up speed. But something about this box was not like the others. For one thing, it was yellow and . . . squishy. What kind of species brought a large, squishy, sponge from a super-smelly planet to school?
There was a small white name tag attached to the yellow item. With a glance, Elara quickly read the name.
Elara shook her head. Whoever Clare was, her luggage was weird. And she had definitely missed the transport. And STS had very strict attendance policies. Orientation would occur immediately after the shuttles docked.
Through the window, the stars began to streak, and the now-familiar colors of hyperspace filled her view. Elara sighed. Soon they’d reach another world. Hopefully then she’d get to meet some actual classmates.
The loneliness didn’t last long. Soon it was replaced by something else. Chaos.
The shuttle train had dropped onto several more fascinating worlds: a water planet with floating cities, a desert world with an underground population, and a jungle planet with more greenery than she’d ever seen in her life. With each stop, the train connected to more shuttles, loading up dozens of new students along the way.
The school shuttle train was now more than forty cars long and filled with all kinds of beings, species from planets Elara had never even heard of. Sure, there were lots of humans and humanoids, but there were also fluffy yellow-and-green kids with gills, translucent crystalline students, and a kid who looked like he might actually be a living shadow. It was amazing and wonderful and exactly what Elara had always hoped it would be like to leave her farming community.
“Excuse me . . . ,” Elara said as she pushed through the crowded vehicle. She had made the mistake of leaving her seat to explore, and the vacant spot was now filled with students. There wasn’t much to do but walk farther down the line until she found an open seat.
“So . . . uh . . . hi. Can I sit here?” Elara said, pointing to an open chair between four other first-years toward the front.
The girl on Elara’s left looked up briefly, nodding a slight hello before turning away. The three others—all boys—were laughing among themselves, staring at a pocket holo-game. No one seemed particularly interested in the new girl. This is part of it
, Elara thought. Can’t be intimidated on the first day.
“My name’s Elara,” she added boldly. “From Vega Antilles. Sector 17.”
One of the boys seemed to finally notice Elara—a Tharndarian with large eyes and no hair. “I’m Peter. These two are Silent Dave and Scrubby. Well . . .” He looked at the one identified as Scrubby, a larger boy with golden skin. Elara wasn’t familiar with his species. “His name’s actually Steve. But he likes to be called Scrubby.”
Scrubby looked up, pointing a thumb at himself and nodding. “Scrubby’s a good name. Gonna be famous one day. Gotta have a good name if you wanna be famous.”
“Sure,” Elara said, without being sure at all. “Good names are . . . important? You . . . uh . . . What do you plan to do to make yourself famous?”
“Dunno,” Scrubby replied. “Come up with some killer world designs that break some records. Maybe solve the ‘Impossible Equation’ or invent a species no one ever thought of. That sort of thing.”
“I mean . . . which branch of terraforming are you planning on studying?”
The girl to Elara’s left looked up again, rolling her eyes. “We’re all first-years. It’s general ed. Don’t you know that?”
“Well, yeah. But I mean, you think about it, right?” “Pff,”
the girl said, turning away.
“Ah, don’t mind her,” Peter said. “That’s Suue Damo’n. She’s the very best of everything ever. Just ask her, and she’ll make sure you know.”
Suue glared at Peter. Elara decided it was best to ignore Suue’s attitude and talk to the boys instead. “I’m hoping to be a bioengineer and work with microorganisms and animals.”
Peter shrugged. “Probably geology, I guess. That’s what my parents think, anyway. Every planet has rocks.”
“An artist,” Suue suddenly interjected. “I’m going to be an artist. I’ll be designing worlds, leading and shaping the aesthetic of our galaxy. You’ll see.”
Elara looked at Suue with surprise, the words flooding out of her mouth without thinking. “But no one is really ever ‘just’ an artist. You become a world designer because of your work in your field. You still have to have a specialty.”
Suue frowned at Elara. “Really? Like I don’t know that? I’m a math expert. The highest level of art in the galaxy is math, and I can use that to work in any field I want. That’s how it works when you’re good at math.”
“There’s more to terraforming than just math,” Elara answered. She was feeling a little defensive now. She had studied planetary art her entire life. “Every world designer has a foundation . . . like Mik Sigliain. Everyone knows his planets or his work in the Auureie Cluster. But he was still a zoologist for twenty years beforehand. Or Pabs Higdaldoo. He worked as a botanist before he designed—”
Suue waved her hand in Elara’s face. “Who cares! Just because they had to take other jobs to prove themselves doesn’t mean everyone has to! I have a vision, an artistic vision.”
“Okay. Sorry. I just . . . I’m sure you have a plan. Okay?”
The room fell awkwardly silent for several minutes. Outside, the colors of the warp tunnel had shifted from green to blue. The train was accelerating and streaking past the stars faster and faster. Blue shift, they called it. A phenomenon of light that changes the color of an object based on how far away it is.
Scrubby and Peter were looking at another holo-game. Silent Dave was reading something. Elara was just about to make another stab at conversation when Suue spoke.
“Why are you here?”
Elara felt her stomach lurch. “Well, um . . . terraforming school. I think we kinda covered that.”
“But look at you,” Suue continued, looking at Elara like a bug under a microscope. “You’re, what, like some kind of farm girl? From the outer rim of nowhere anyone’s ever heard of? You have to be someone if you want to get anywhere in terraforming. You have to have real skills.”
Elara felt her cheeks flush. “I won a scholarship. I know a lot about terraforming . . .”
“Is that why they stuck you back in the cargo shuttles? Or did you just sneak on board and hope that no one would notice that you clearly don’t belong here.”
Peter looked up from his game. “Hey, Suue. Come on.”
“I’m just saying what you’re thinking, and you know it.” Suue turned back on Elara, who was, for the first time, speechless. “I’m not trying to be mean, but you have no idea what you’re in for. My family owns a planet. I was literally bioengineered to be a mathematical genius. I’m like a living computer, and you sit down next to me with your big eyes and spout off your little dreams and think you’re in the same league? Do yourself a favor and go right back home. It’s where you belong.”
Elara looked up, really seeing the crowd around her for the first time. Their perfectly pressed clothes. Their expensive rings. Smooth skin that had never been burned by a day working under the sun.
Even Silent Dave was staring at her now. Suue looked smug, Scrubby looked embarrassed, and Peter looked like he desperately wanted to be somewhere else. The three boys had seemed nice enough. They weren’t agreeing with anything that Suue had said . . .
. . . but they weren’t disagreeing with it, either.
Elara stood up, grabbed her backpack, and walked out of the cabin without another word.
It was frustrating but hardly a surprise. At home or in remote corners of the galaxy, kids were still kids. Elara pushed through the crowd, her frustration mounting as she bumped past her new classmates.
Tired of asking for permission, Elara spotted an open seat and took it, suddenly not caring what anyone thought. She had worked hard to get where she was. She wasn’t about to be scared off by anyone.
Looking up, she realized there was only one other person in the compartment. An unusually large person who filled every inch of space in the train car.
Elara blinked, unsure of what to say. It wasn’t just the unusual size of the being. It was that the student was seemingly made of stone, with eyes that looked like burning coals. Eyes that were suddenly staring at Elara.
The scary giant reached out a hand, each one of its fingers nearly as wide as Elara’s entire body. With a flare of energy behind its sinister eyes, the creature smiled and said, in a high-pitched, squeaky voice, “Hi! My name’s Knot!”
Knot reached down and produced the tiniest, daintiest pot of tea that Elara had ever seen, pouring it into a frilly, floral-printed cup. Handing Elara the tiny cup, the stone creature spoke once more, smiling the goofiest, most disarming smile a giant stone creature could manage.
“Would you like some tea?”
Copyright © 2017 by Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.