“It’s over,” Elara whispered to herself.
Clutched in her hand was her first-year graduation plaque—a small treasure symbolizing everything that the young girl had been through since arriving at the most prestigious terraforming school in the galaxy—the Seven Systems School of Terraforming Sciences and Arts.
Feeling the weight of the plaque in her hand, Elara looked out from the courtyard across the horizon. All around her first-year students milled about, cheering and laughing. The sun hung overhead and refracted light through the glass towers of the ancient and prestigious school. Despite all the difficulties Elara had endured since she first arrived on the planet Paragon to attend STS—her school’s nickname—she had never grown tired of it.
Elara’s train of thought was interrupted by a monstrous roar.
“We did it!” shouted the gigantic creature of living rock that was Elara’s friend Knot. Knot swept the much smaller girl up in a huge bear hug.
“Gak!” answered Elara, desperate to not get squeezed. “Blarg!” she added as her skin turned purple from lack of oxygen.
“Oh,” Knot said in her high-pitched, squeaky voice. “Right! You’re made of super-soft, squishy meat parts! I almost forgot!”
With that, she released Elara from the hug of doom. “S’okay . . . ,” Elara gasped. “Good to . . . know you care . . .”
“I’m just so sad. Our first year is already over!” Knot snuffled a bit, which sounded like two rocks grinding against each other. “It was all so wonderful! I will miss every second of it!”
Elara rubbed the bruises on her arms. “Uh . . . except maybe all those times we almost died?”
“Pish!” Knot said with a wave. “On my planet, near-death experiences are celebrated! Why, when we swarm the villages during the height of the red moon—”
“We graduated!” a snobby-sounding voice screeched, interrupting whatever Knot was about to reveal of her home world. That was Sabik. He was surprisingly not awful, given that he constantly sounded like he thought he was the very best thing in the world—a byproduct of growing up on the wealthiest planet in the galaxy.
Sabik ran up the steps to the graduation platform, holding his own tiny plaque. Beezle was behind him, with the immobile sponge, Clare, strapped awkwardly to her back.
“Sabik speaks correctly,” Beezle said in her usual happy-sounding manner. “We have marked the passage of our education with the proper ceremonial tokens. Our parental units will be most proud of the trinkets we have acquired on this day!”
Elara jumped up, feeling terribly wistful. “Come here, all of you!” she yelled, pulling out her personal comm system and switching to camera mode. “I need a picture to get me through the summer break!”
“Ah!” Beezle exclaimed happily. “Yes, the voices in my head say that we absolutely must record this moment!”
Knot wrapped her massive arms around the group—once again, way too tight. But Elara didn’t care. These were the very best friends she had ever had. For a brief moment, though, she felt a pang of regret. There was one more person she was wishing she might see—the strange time-traveling Agent Tobiias Groob. He had helped her and her friends through so much, but as soon as he had repaired his time machine, he had vanished.
Elara shook her head, refusing to let anything make her sad right now. She pressed a button, and the comm snapped the photo, the flash temporarily blinding the laughing group.
Elara flipped the machine around, looking at the image on the screen. In the distance, a great bell gonged. The school year was over, and Elara knew it would feel like forever before she had a chance to return to the wonderful, beautiful, yet somewhat crazy campus of the Seven Systems School of Terraforming Sciences and Arts.
Elara had been absolutely right. The summer moved slower than any summer ever had. A creeping and crawling thing that never wanted to go away. Not that Elara hadn’t been busy. No . . . as soon as she had stepped off the shuttle onto the landing platform of her home world, Vega Antilles V, her family had consumed every waking minute of her day. Road trips across the thousand-mile grain fields to visit cousins in the east. Train rides through the forests of fruit trees to see more family down south. It had all been utterly and completely exhausting.
And to make it all worse, the current trajectory of her planet had made any communication with her friends impossible. They all resided much closer to the galactic capital than Elara did. All of them except Clare, anyway, who lived only one system over. But her world was a primitive swamp planet, and Clare never spoke, wrote, read, or communicated in any way that Elara had been able to perceive.
And so Elara found herself several weeks into the endless summer, sitting in her family living room, tapping away at the interstellar comm system for the billionth time. She was once again rewarded with the offline tone noises—a steady buzzing that filled the house. A sound Elara had heard so much that she had begun to dream about it.
And then suddenly, her moping was interrupted. “You spend way too much time on that thing.”
It was her little brother, Danny. Days away from his tenth birthday, Danny was small for his age. He could easily still pass for seven years old.
Elara glared at her brother. “I might still get a signal . . .” “Pff . . . ,”
he answered. “Not likely. They said on the news there was too much interference because of a nebula. In a couple of weeks—”
Elara threw a pillow at her brother. “A couple of weeks is forever!” she yelled. “And I’ll be back at school by then, anyway!”
“Right!” he said, throwing the pillow back. “So let’s go do something! Something fun!”
“I just want to go back to school!” she replied, pulling the pillow over her face. “I want to see my friends . . .”
Danny was persistent. “I know something else we can do . . . ,” he sang in a tempting tune.
“Something you’d really, really, really like . . .”
Elara looked out from the pillow, her curiosity piqued despite her sour mood. “What?” she said cautiously. “What are you talking about?”
“Come on!” he said, the excitement rising in his voice. “I’ll show you!”
Before long, Elara found herself in one of the massive grain fields on her family’s farmland. She could hear the herd of distant gohrinios as the two-headed quadrupeds grazed nearby. It was dark, and the night was warm. There was nothing to see out here that Elara hadn’t seen thousands and thousands of times.
“Danny . . . ,” Elara complained, “there’s nothing here!”
“No . . . look!” He started to run deeper into the field. “Check it out!”
“Hey!” she yelled, running after her little brother. “Wait up!”
She caught up with her brother a few moments later. Danny was pointing to a bare patch of ground. Unusual in a field of grain, but not impossible. Then Elara did a double take. The ground wasn’t the same earthy, brown texture as the surrounding soil. Instead of rich dirt, a small three-inch-by-three-inch section of ground was sleek, smooth, and bluish white.
“What . . . is that?” Elara said, stammering.
“Ice!” Danny exclaimed proudly. “I read all of your homework and the books you brought home. I thought I’d try to make the ground colder. Y’know . . . terraforming!”
“Well . . .” Elara shrugged. “I mean, terraforming is more complicated than temperature regulation . . . but this is really impressive.” She poked at the icy patch. It was cold and slightly damp. “How did you establish the boundaries on the climate zones?”
“You mean why doesn’t the ice melt?” Danny asked, digging in the ground nearby and exposing some metallic objects. “I borrowed some field generators from the barn. The ones used to set up herd fences. Your books said that field generators are used to contain weather and stuff. So I figured it would work.”
“Yeah . . .” Elara nodded. “This is nice work, Danny.”
“I can’t seem to make it get any bigger, though,” Danny said, kicking dirt back over the field generator. “I know you have to do important stuff like sit and stare at the comm system all night, but I was kind of hoping you could help me with this?”
Elara nodded and kneeled down to the ground. She dug a trench with her finger around the perimeter of the icy patch. “The ground here is really dry. Your ice sucks up a lot of moisture. Go get me a cup of water. If we’re lucky, we can even make it snow a little.”
Elara spent the rest of summer playing in the fields with her brother, teaching him about the mechanics of weather. With the comm system still down, she had nothing but time to help Danny improve his terraforming project. By the end, they had managed to make a six-foot patch of snow and ice in the middle of the field. Within that, the siblings built a tiny ice fortress and a snowman to guard against interlopers.
And then suddenly, all the weeks in the calendar were crossed off. The school break was over. Elara soon found herself packed and practically running out the door. She hated to leave her family, especially her brother. It all seemed so fast. But it was time.
Elara sat at the train station once again. Her family had dropped her off more than an hour ago
and waited as long as they were able. But her parents had to get home and tend to the farm before sundown. And her brother had to prepare for his first year in the fifth grade—a big step for him. So she hugged everyone and smiled and told them all that she was ready for her next year at the Seven Systems Terraforming School of Sciences and Arts.
And technically, she was. She had all the books and equipment required for a year-two student. She had studied the curriculum guidelines that had been handed out at the end of the previous year. And though she wanted desperately to see all her friends again, now that the day was here, she was feeling . . . anxious.
Opening up her backpack, Elara removed a worn and battered copy of the school handbook, flipping through it casually. She had owned this particular copy ever since she first decided she wanted to pursue a career in terraforming. It was missing half the cover, and a milkshake had spilled on it at some point. But it was still readable. You could still make out the pictures of the school and the planet of Paragon. A shimmering campus of glass, wood, and water . . . translucent purple oceans . . . skies filled with jellies . . . air that smelled like cookies fresh in the oven . . . It was a magical place—one Elara had been desperate to see for herself last year.
But being cut off from daily communications with her classmates left Elara feeling out of the loop. Like it was her first year all over again. After all, her first year as a student had been . . . very weird. While most of her peers had learned how to shift atomic structures or build stable atmospheres, she had been busy trying to not get killed by remote-controlled robots and multi-tentacled spider squid kitten monsters. A mysterious time traveler and supposedly extinct alien race hellbent on destruction had also come into play. Overall, it had been a little bit stressful.
This year would be different, though, Elara swore silently to herself.
The sun was high in the sky overhead, and Elara felt the heat keenly. She still had headaches—an unfortunate side effect from swallowing Nebulina’s terraforming marble—the only way to save Paragon and STS from destruction. The pain flared up occasionally, but physicians agreed this would pass in time.
Yup. This year would be different. She had friends to travel with, a school that was familiar, and a second chance to study in a normal, quiet environment without any nightmarish distractions.
When the shuttle finally arrived, she boarded it, found her seat, and settled in.
The shuttle was the same as Elara remembered it: a long, narrow, computer-controlled vehicle. There was a large open area with several empty seats, as well as private compartments for groups of four. Elara’s planet was the first stop for this shuttle car, and Elara was alone. Dropping her backpack in a seat, Elara settled in inside a four-person cabin, saving the seats for her friends.
Her eyes grew heavy as the shuttle jumped into hyperspace. It would be a few hours before she reached another car of students. Just a little nap, she decided.
Elara woke to the familiar sensation of the shuttle docking. She heard a hissing noise as oxygen flooded the hatch between her car and another vehicle. It was too early to have reached any of her friends’ home planets, but still . . . it would be good to see another classmate. Maybe even make some new friends during the trip? Burying her anxiety and feeling a fresh wave of confidence, Elara pushed the button and stepped through the hatch into what she assumed would be another shuttle car.
It was not.
Instead, Elara found herself inside a giant hangar. The floor was a firm, rubberized surface, and the walls were stark white, gleaming and shiny. Several display screens were mounted high up, near the vaulted ceiling. Along one side, next to the hatch Elara had just stepped through, was a window. Outside the window, all Elara could see was the vastness of space.
“What . . . the . . . ?” Elara heard herself say.
Her confusion was interrupted by a noise. From across the large room, a doorway slid open. “Hello . . . ?” Elara called out. “Who’s there?” she asked.
“100100001010000,” came a reply, speaking in a voice devoid of emotion. “0010010101,” it continued.
“What?” Elara asked. Something was wrong. Very wrong. “Who are you?” she demanded as a figure emerged through the distant doorway.
The shadowy figure approaching Elara wasn’t human. Nor was it humanoid. That wasn’t alarming. There were multiple species in the Galactic Affiliation that were of non-humanoid descent, and all were considered peaceful.
But this wasn’t even a non-humanoid, Elara realized as the form grew closer. It wasn’t even a living creature. “A robot . . . ?” Elara whispered.
It wasn’t like any robot Elara had ever seen—and she had seen many. Robots were limited to simple service droids, or mentally controlled machines used in construction and sports. But this robot was far more advanced than anything Elara had ever imagined.
“1001000101110010!” the robot said, more forcefully.
The robot had no face. Not really. Instead it had a screen, housed within a large rounded body of grayish-silver metal. The screen projected a pulsating green line that wobbled every time the robot spoke. The robot had several thick metal tendrils dangling from its frame that only just touched the floor.
The robot reached out with a tendril. Elara braced herself. She had no idea what was about to happen, but clearly it wasn’t good.
“Oh,” the robot said, suddenly speaking in a much friendlier voice. “My apologies. My vocal modulator was recently serviced, and I am afraid that I forgot to deactivate my binary machine language.”
“Ah,” Elara responded, thrown off guard. “You’re . . . uh . . . not attacking me?”
The face of the robot flickered into a frown. “Of course not! My name is TN-G13. I am tasked with greeting all new arrivals to the school.”
“But . . . ,” Elara stammered. She glanced around at the white walls. The rubberized floor. The window into space. “We’re in space. This isn’t Paragon. This isn’t the Seven Systems School . . .”
“Of course not,” the robot said, a smile icon flickering on its screen. “The Seven Systems School of Terraforming Sciences and Arts is closed.”
Elara felt the floor shift under her feet. She blinked uncontrollably. “Closed?” she whispered, confused.
“Yes,” the robot said with a saccharine tone of politeness. “Welcome.”
Elara’s head was still swimming as she followed the robot down the gleaming white corridor.
“The school . . . ,” she asked. “STS is closed?”
“Again, yes,” the robot answered. “This way. Orientation is just about to begin.”
The robot gestured with one extended tendril. “Through here, please.”
“But . . . ,” Elara said, looking back at the robot as she stepped in through the door. “How . . . ? Why . . . ?”
The door slid closed with a whoosh
. Elara felt coldly alone as she stared at the sterile white surface of the door. Frustrated, she reached up with a fist and punched it.
“What is going on?!” she said, emotion welling up in her voice.
The room descended to a hushed silence. Which was weird, because Elara hadn’t realized until that moment that the room was occupied.
Already knowing what she would see, Elara slowly turned around. Yup. There it was. Everyone in school. Well, all the second-year students, anyway. Hundreds of them, all staring at Elara with their mouths silently agape, judging the young girl in only a way that twelve-year-old students can.
“Ahhh,” Elara said, her cheeks burning with embarrassment.
The crowd of students should have been a comforting sight. But instead, it all added to Elara’s confusion. Everyone was wearing identical jumpsuits, black with a green stripe down the center, all the way to the bottom of the pants, which flared at the ankle and ended in a pair of sleek-looking black boots. Even stranger, the crowd of students were lined up in perfect order, rows and rows of them. They were all facing a stage—the room appeared to be some kind of amphitheater.
Suddenly a familiar voice called out. Elara glanced back at the crowd and saw Beezle pushing her way out of formation to greet her. “Oh!” Beezle said, reaching Elara and grabbing her with a tight hug. “Hello, friend Elara! It has been so very long!”
With some reluctance, Elara pulled away from the comforting hug. “Yeah . . . Beezle. What is this? Where are we?”
Beezle tilted her head in a manner that Elara had come to understand indicated confusion. “Well . . . we are at school, correct? Why were you screaming, Elara? Were you discomforted by the transportation systems?”
“The what?” Elara sputtered, confused by Beezle’s lack of alarm. “Beezle? What are you all talking about? This isn’t—”
Elara heard a laugh from the back of the crowd. It was a voice she remembered all too well from her first day of school last year—rich-girl bully, Suue Damo’n.
. . . this is so typical!” Suue mocked, stepping forward. “Like you didn’t hog enough attention last year with all your little stunts? You need to start the first day of school being a total drama queen?”
A general giggle went through the students.
“Wait,” Elara said, brushing away Suue’s taunts. “Just someone explain . . . why are we here?”
Suue rolled her eyes. “I know why we’re here . . . no one has any idea what you’re
doing here, though, that’s for sure.”
More snickers from the gathered students. Elara glanced around. She saw several familiar faces besides Beezle and Suue. Peter, Silent Dave, and the boy who called himself Scrubby were all standing behind Suue, as usual. She also saw Sabik—the small Suparian had apparently just arrived and was trying to push his way through the crowd with all four of his arms, very upset about something.
“Hey!” Sabik hissed at the crowd. “Commander X30r! He’s coming! You all want detention?!”
The crowd dissipated quickly, and the students lined up in neat rows.
“Who’s Commander X30r?” Elara asked. “Beezle . . . Sabik . . . what is going—”
“Oh no . . . ,” Sabik whispered, his reddish face going pale. “Your uniform! Where’s your uniform?!”
“What . . . ?” Elara suddenly realized she was the only student not wearing the black-and-green military-style uniform. “Why are you all dressed like that?”
Elara heard someone giggle. Tired of being laughed at, Elara turned her head to snap back. “Whoever that was—”
“ATTEN . . . TION!” a thick and commanding voice called out. “Students in ORDER!”
Beezle and Sabik pushed the disoriented Elara into the line. Elara strained her neck to see who the booming voice belonged to. She started to ask but noticed that everyone, from Suue and her minions to Sabik and Beezle, was standing still at attention.
A metal sound could be heard echoing through the large room. “Am I to understand that already, on our very first day of class, you students have fallen to chaos and disorder . . . ?” the loud voice continued. “Is that what’s happening here?”
“NO, SIR!” shouted all of Elara’s classmates in unison.
“Then explain to me why I heard yelling when I entered this chamber!” the voice bellowed once more. “Explain to me why . . .”
Elara blinked. The owner of the voice had reached her, and Elara could only guess that this was the aforementioned Commander X30r. Standing before her was another robot, this one even larger than TN-G13. Commander X30r was a floating, orb-shaped robot with a hollow side that housed a simple projected face. The robot’s eyes and mouth were a series of moving dots and lines—all expressed in a digital display. The metal was painted to resemble a military uniform, decorated with multiple ribbons and gems. Elara imagined it meant something important, but she honestly had no idea.
Elara tried to stay hidden in the lineup, squishing between Beezle and a student she didn’t recognize.
But the robot instantly zeroed in on her. “You . . . ,” the sentient machine said, “are out of uniform!”
“Yes!” Elara agreed, her frustration getting the better of her. “Apparently I am! But it would have been nice to know that I was supposed to be in a uniform!”
The robot’s digital face displayed a scowl. “Are you claiming ignorance, student? We have made the dress code readily available in all school literature!”
“Look,” Elara said, fishing her battered school handbook out of her backpack. “This is the only literature I have ever received! And there is nothing . . . at all about ANY of this in here!”
“Headmistress!” the robot roared after a moment. In response, a bluish light flashed in the center of the room. A semitransparent hologram of a humanoid appeared—female in design but otherwise nondescript.
“Yes, Commander X30r? How may I assist you today?”
“This student,” X30r growled. “Who is she?”
A beam of light scanned Elara, causing her to flinch. “This young woman is Elara Adele Vaughn—second-year student. From the remote world of Vega Antilles V. Consequently . . .”
“Yes, yes . . . ,” X30r said with a dismissive wave. “She was outside of range of our training module. Thank you, Headmistress.”
The hologram vanished. Elara could only guess that she had just seen some sort of computer simulation. There appeared to be no headmistress at all, more like a personal data assistant. She had seen them before, but never one so advanced.
“What’s going on?” Elara asked again. “I mean . . . seriously. Why aren’t we at Paragon?”
“Elara Adele Vaughn,” the commander replied in a much more civilized voice. Shockingly, he offered a small bow as he spoke, his orb-like body dipping forward in a show of respect. “My apologies for the confusion. I am Commander X30r, the newly constructed headmaster of this educational facility. Your world was unfortunately outside communications range. An oversight on our part. But we will see that you are brought up to speed soon enough.”
With that, a mechanical arm extended from the robot’s hovering body. The commander tapped a button, and the wall on one side of the room slid back, revealing a massive window. All the students broke ranks in an effort to look, and a general chatter broke out. Through the windows they could see the stars, bright and shining in a way they never looked through the atmosphere of a planet. Several smaller ships could be seen, triangular fighter drones.
“Don’t worry,” the now-polite commander answered. “The security drones are here to ensure our safety as we travel throughout the galaxy, exploring education! For your safety is our number one priority!”
“You are a part of something new, Elara,” the commander said as its face broadcast a smile. “You all are a part of a new, more practical educational experience. One that trains you—not just in science and art, but in survival.”
“Welcome, cadets!” the robot intoned. “Your mission begins . . . now!”
Copyright © 2018 by Landry Q. Walker; Illustrated by Keith Zoo. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.