Can they manage to save Kalac? Or are they doomed to warp through the galaxy forever?
With brilliant prose and unforgettable characters, For the Love of Gelo is filled with adventure, laughs, and a ton of heart.
“O’Donnell’s debut is an imaginative, smart and laugh-out-loud adventure. Chorkle is charming, and its alien perspective on the human invaders and the ensuing culture clash never falters.”—Kirkus
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The red-furred alien stood with his back against the wall and performed the ritual. Carefully, he traced the top of his head with a strange and wondrous technological device from his home world—a “pencil,” he called it.
Then he turned and regarded the measurement with satisfaction. To my eyes, it was indistinguishable from the previous mark, made just a few days earlier.
“I’ve grown a full four centimeters in the last three months,” he said. “I really think I could be called Medium Gus now.”
“It could just be the gravity on Gelo, Little Gus. It’s a tad lower than Earth’s,” said another human, this one a female named Nicole García. “You’re still only in the fifth percentile for boys your age, though.” She was comparing his height to a sloping human growth chart that shimmered in the air above her holodrive.
“Top five percent,” said Little Gus. “Not bad at all.”
“Dude,” said Rebecca García, the perfect duplicate, er, “twin” of Nicole, “you’re about as good at math as you are at piloting.”
“Thanks, Becky!” said Little Gus, failing to detect the insult.
“Do all humans want to be tall?” I asked them in their own language. I’d become quite fluent in human. These days, when I spoke to them, it no longer felt quite like I had a gul’orp full of rocks—at most, just one or two small pebbles.
“Nah,” said Becky, “but it’s still nice when you’re taller than your sister.”
“You are only two millimeters taller than me!” cried Nicki.
“Still counts,” said Becky.
These aliens had been living with my family since the great battle three months ago. They had helped to defeat the dark forces of the Vorem Dominion and save my civilization from certain destruction. By Xotonian standards, it was a pretty crazy weekend. The months since had been quiet, though, and a sense of normalcy had returned to the underground city of Core-of-Rock.
Just then, the fourth human arrived. Daniel Hollins, the oldest and largest of them, burst into my dwelling. He was accompanied by Hudka, my grand-originator, a wrinkled little old Xotonian barely taller than me (yet much crankier).
“Xotonian burritos!” cried Hollins, plopping a big sack of food down on the table. “Fresh from Sertor’s stall in the market!” Burritos were one of the few Xotonian foods that the humans actually seemed to enjoy (though I had still neglected to tell them that they were actually fried cave slugs).
“So Hudka didn’t help you order?” asked Nicki, taking her burrito out of the bag.
“Nope,” said Hollins. “I did it all by myself.”
“I heard my name,” whispered Hudka in Xotonian. “What did Becky say?” My grand-originator’s human language proficiency was nowhere near mine. It had only managed to learn the two most important phrases: “Save game” and “Play again?”
“Not Becky,” I corrected. “That one’s called Nicki. Remember the rule? Check the lenses.” I pointed to Becky: no glasses. I pointed to Nicki: glasses.
“Whatever,” said Hudka. “I get it right nearly half the time.”
Nicki frowned as she bit into the burrito. “Um, I don’t mean to complain but . . . mine seems to be full of rocks.”
“Mine too,” said Becky, shoving hers away. “I think I chipped a tooth.”
“Hang on,” said Hollins, “isn’t ‘oitra’a’giv’ the Xotonian word for ‘extra cheese’?”
“Nope,” sighed Nicki. “That’s the word for ‘full of rocks.’ You should consider doing the vocabulary homework sometime.”
“Huh. No wonder Sertor was acting so weird when I ordered!” said Hollins. “I thought it was giving me the stinkeye because I didn’t have the correct amount of x’yzoth crystal change—”
Suddenly the lights of my dwelling dimmed. An instant later, an earsplitting boom ripped through the air. The walls shook and wobbled, causing little cascades of dust to pour from the ceiling. A particularly ancient—and fortunately very ugly—vase fell from the mantle and shattered.
The humans and I stared at one another, startled. I poked a frib into one of my ringing ear cavities. I felt like my internal organs had been rearranged.
“If I wasn’t deaf already, I am now,” said Hudka as the dust settled.
“What was that?” asked Becky.
“A Vorem attack?” said Nicki. “Or another asteroid colliding with Gelo? Maybe this system’s sun just went supernova!”
Her comrades frowned at her.
“Sorry,” she said, “just thinking out loud here.”
“Maybe these terrible rock burritos have angered the food gods,” shuddered Little Gus as he threw his into the garbage.
“Whatever it is, it sounded like an explosion,” said Nicki. “We should—”
“Follow me!” cried Hollins.
In an instant we were outside, racing through the streets of Core-of-Rock. Whole sections of the city were totally dark.
Another explosion flashed in the distance! Away to the east, a plume of sparks rose thirty meters above the city. For a moment, the blast lit Core-of-Rock in angry red. This time, we covered our ears before the thunderous boom reached us.
“This way!” I cried.
We passed the Hall of Wonok, formerly the seat of Xotonian government and now the most heavily guarded building in the city. Dozens of city guards stood outside, their usk-lizards snorting and stamping in agitation. The guards wanted to help too, but they couldn’t. They couldn’t leave the hall unattended, even for a moment.
The Hall of Wonok was now a prison. The thirty-two Vorem legionaries who had been captured during the epic battle were all locked inside. The city guards watched them day and night.
In the past few months, we had learned much about our Vorem prisoners. To our surprise, we found that beneath their scaly black battle armor, the Vorem were very human in shape. Nicki suggested this may have been an example of “convergent evolution” in which two unrelated species gradually evolve similar traits.
In any case, the Vorem did have two arms, two legs, and two eyes. They even had humanlike fur on the top of their heads (incredibly disturbing to the average Xotonian). But unlike humans, their skin was a pale shade of purple, and their eyes were red. Their hands were clawed, and their mouths were full of sharp white teeth.
I recognized a guard captain standing outside the hall. “Eromu,” I called out, “do you know what’s happening? Have any of the Vorem escaped?” It was hard for me to imagine that our ancient enemies didn’t have something to do with the explosions rocking the city.
“Absolutely not,” it said. “All thirty-two prisoners are accounted for!”
“Thanks, captain,” I said.
“Whatever’s happening,” said Becky, “at least it’s not the Vorem.”
We hurried through Core-of-Rock toward the site of the explosions. At the edge of the city, near an exit to the Unclaimed Tunnels, we came to a dense jumble of dwellings. This neighborhood was called the Farrago, and it was on fire.
Soot-stained Xotonians led their offspring from smoky buildings. Others watched in a daze as their homes burned. A few guards, those not on Wonok duty, stood by helplessly. I heard sobs and coughs and the roaring of flames.
“Does Core-of-Rock have, like, a fire department or something?” asked Little Gus.
I shook my head. I’d never heard of an uncontrolled fire in our city. It is a damp place, and most of our buildings are made of stone. Mold problems? Sure. We knew how to deal with those. But not a fire.
“Well, is there at least any running water nearby?” asked Nicki.
“Yes, there’s a fountain two blocks from here!” I pointed the way.
Nicki stepped forward to address the crowd, but Hollins cleared his throat and spoke first. In the Xotonian language, he said, “Hello. Water people . . . runs . . . does running. House people! Does eat . . . sandal. Water.” The crowd stared back in confusion.
Gently, Nicki placed a hand on his arm. Then she spoke to them in slow yet comprehensible Xotonian. “Quickly, we must carry water from the fountain to put out the flames.”
Several members of the crowd nodded and ran off toward the fountain. Becky and Little Gus followed close behind them.
Before I could join, someone grabbed my thol’graz. It was Linod, my best friend (in the nonhuman category). Its thin face was covered in soot.
“Chork-a-zoid,” it rasped. Its silly nickname for me sounded doubly silly in the midst of a crisis. “Please. My originator . . .” Linod descended into a coughing fit and pointed toward its home.
“Okay, don’t worry, Linod-tron,” I said. “We can help.”
Around the corner, flames bloomed from the windows of its dwelling. If Linod’s originator, Lhoy, was still inside, its life was in grave danger.
“It looks like it’s burning too hot,” said Nicki. “I’m not sure we can—”
“Nicki, you go get some water,” ordered Hollins. She stared at him for a moment and left.
“Chorkle, stay behind me,” he said. “My clothes probably won’t burn.”
Like the other humans, Hollins wore a formfitting utility suit. Becky said the silvery unisex outfits made them look like they were all part of a French Canadian circus troupe. But apparently, they were useful.
“Uh, what do you mean probably won’t burn?” I asked.
“I mean if Mission Control didn’t cheap out on the fire-resistant coating,” said Hollins, and he burst through the front door. Inside, the place was an inferno. Everything that wasn’t made of stone was on fire. Furniture, clothing, support beams, even several masks and old costumes—Lhoy was an actor by trade—burned around us. The choking smoke made it impossible to see more than a meter ahead.
Apparently Mission Control didn’t “cheap out.” Hollins was able to pass through the fire unharmed, and by sticking close behind him I was able to follow without getting burned. We found Lhoy, unconscious but breathing, in its sleeping-veth upstairs. Together, we carried it past the licking flames and out onto the street.
Lhoy coughed for a minute and slowly blinked its eyes. “Hello. Good day,” it croaked in human when it realized that one of the aliens had helped to save it. This was its way of saying thank you.
“Hat meal,” said Hollins back in Xotonian. Lhoy looked baffled.
The other residents of the neighborhood—under the orderly direction of Nicki and Becky—were now carrying water back and forth from the fountain and throwing it onto the flames. Each bucketful made a loud hiss as it helped to put out the fire. While we were rescuing Lhoy, it looked like they had gotten things under control.
“Where’s Little Gus?” I asked. The twins gave each other a panicked look.
As the fire finally died, we went door to door, house to house, searching for Gus. A haze of smoke and steam had settled over the Farrago. It swirled behind us as we passed.
We found Little Gus standing just inside the shimmering Stealth Shield. He was silently staring out into the Unclaimed Tunnels.
“Dude, we thought you were barbecue,” said Becky.
“Where did you go?” I asked. “Were you looking for privacy to eliminate your human waste?”
“No,” said Little Gus, turning toward us. His face was terrified. “I saw someone.”
“Who did you see?” asked Nicki.
“A Vorem,” he said, “running through the fire. I saw a Vorem. His eyes were glowing red.”
Nicki spoke gently. “Gus, all the Vorem on Gelo are captured or dead. You don’t have to worry about them anymore.”
Gus shook his head. “No, there’s one of them still out there. I saw him. He left the city.”
Hollins frowned and gave Nicki and Becky a look. I stared out into the Unclaimed Tunnels, past the glowing purple shield and into the darkness. I saw nothing.
“Gus, the city guards spent weeks scouring the tunnels for any survivors of the battle,” said Hollins. “After the first two days, they didn’t find a single one.”
“I know, but they found that legate guy a month later,” said Gus. “The one who led the invasion.”
“Yeah, but he was dead,” said Becky. “He’d been dead since the battle. We all saw his body when they buried him. Remember, he had the cloak and the fancy armor on? That was the last of the Vorem. The ones who are alive are all locked up.”
“I know what I saw,” said Little Gus.
He sounded so sure of himself that I wanted to believe him, but it wasn’t very likely. The chances of a legionary still hiding out there—somehow surviving undetected for months—were virtually nil. The guards still patrolled the tunnels outside the city every day.
“Come on, buddy,” said Hollins to Little Gus, placing a hand on his shoulder. “We should take a rest. I think maybe you breathed in a little too much smoke when we were fighting the—”
“Chorkle!” cried Kalac. I turned to see my originator running toward us. “I was in a council meeting. I came as soon as I heard what happened. Thank Jalasu Jhuk you’re safe. All of you.” Kalac hugged me tight.
“A council meeting, huh? That sounds way worse than a fire,” I said. Kalac laughed, something that had not always come so easily to my originator.
“I heard from the residents of the Farrago that you all helped to get things under control. That you even saved Lhoy’s life,” said Kalac. In human, he added, “Thank you all so much.”
Nicki bowed. “All Fortune Is Owed to Great Jalasu Jhuk,” she said, using an extremely formal Xotonian phrase.
“Show-off,” muttered Becky.
“Guys, look!” said Little Gus.
Hollins sighed. “Seriously, dude, there isn’t a Vorem, okay?” he said. “You have to just let it—”
“No!” said Gus. “Look at that.”
The Stealth Shield—the ancient technology that conceals our city’s existence from outsiders—flickered once. Then it died.
We were hidden no longer.
• • • •
An hour later, we stood inside Trillid’s power plant, which held the ancient Xotonian reactor that had powered our city for eons. The place was a twisting maze of catwalks and cables and massive crystal tubes pulsing with energy.
Usually the plant was empty. Not today. Ydar, the High Observer, poked at a thick snarl of charred wires with its frib and made a little disappointed noise. Other Observers milled about, taking notes and making serious faces. They were among the few Xotonians who had more than the barest understanding of the amazing technology of our ancestors. Unfortunately, they were quite pretentious about it.
“So what happened to the Stealth Shield?” asked Kalac.
“Well, Chief, you must understand that this is far outside my area of expertise,” said Ydar. “I observe the heavens. If this were a quasar or even a brown dwarf I could expound quite confidently—”
“I understand it’s not a quasar,” said Kalac, gently cutting the High Observer off. “Please continue.”
“I hesitate to offer my opinion, but I’m afraid it’s the nyrine quantum inducer,” said Ydar, as though that might mean something to anyone. “It’s gone.”
“Obviously I know what a nyrine quantum inducer is,” I lied, “but please explain it to everyone else.”
“It’s a crucial component here in the plant,” said Ydar. “Our reactor is highly efficient, praise to our ancestors. It gives us energy and makes society run. It can power all of Core-of-Rock for years on just the smallest amount of iridium.”
“But . . . ” said Kalac.
“But the nyrine quantum inducer is one of the pieces that slows and regulates that process. Without it, the reactor must have burned up all its iridium in a single instant. Several years’ worth of power were fed right into our grid all at once!”
“And that’s what caused the fire. Those two explosions were, like, transformers overloading,” said Nicki in Xotonian.
“Exactly,” said Ydar, a little taken aback by her linguistic and technical aptitude.
“She’s the genius, but I got the looks,” offered Becky.
Ydar nodded uncertainly.
“So what do you mean the nyrine quantum inducer is gone?” I asked.
“Well, here is where the nyrine quantum inducer should be,” said Ydar, pointing to a tortuous nexus of cables. “And yet, you can plainly see that there is no nyrine quantum inducer there.”
In fact, I couldn’t plainly see that, but I was willing to take the High Observer’s word for it.
“What happened to it?” asked Nicki.
“I suspect it blew out somehow,” said Ydar, shrugging. “Perhaps it got so overpowered that it imploded. I don’t know. It’s just . . . gone.”
“Nobody saw anything strange?” I asked.
Ydar shook its head. “The facility is unmanned.”
“Can you fix the reactor, Ydar?” asked Kalac.
“No. Without the inducer, we can maybe get it running at twenty percent capacity. But I don’t know what damage that might do to the system. The reactor may fail again, and there’s no telling when.”
“Will it still produce enough power to maintain the Stealth Shield?” I asked.
Ydar shook its head gravely.
“But without the shield, anyone with a long-range scanner will be able to locate Core-of-Rock,” I said. “We’ll be sitting shuggs.”
Ydar sighed and nodded. Then it turned toward Kalac. “There is one more thing, Chief. I hesitate to mention it, what with all this on your mind. . . .”
“Go on,” said Kalac.
“Four hours ago,” said Ydar, “a Vorem trireme was observed departing the battle cruiser.”
“What?” I cried. The ruined Vorem battle cruiser—or half of it, anyway—now traveled the same orbital path as our asteroid. Though its hyperdrive and communications system had been disabled in the battle, there were still a few Vorem alive aboard the vessel. Only one of the ten triremes—the small, agile starfighters accompanying the massive battle cruiser—had survived the battle. And now, it seemed, it was unaccounted for.
“Don’t tell me General Ridian means to use his last ship to try to land troops on Gelo again,” said Kalac.
“No,” said Ydar, “We believe the trireme has landed on the new planet.”Chapter Two
“Please sync your workdrives to location 219 and follow along as I read from the text. This information will be on the test. . . .” From a human holographic computer—a so-called holodrive—a 3-D projection of one Ms. Neubauer, a human female with thick glasses and an elliptical pile of frizzy brown hair, was currently teaching us something known as “geology.”
After the invasion, we Xotonians decided we could no longer take for granted the ancient technological devices passed down by our ancestors. To survive, we needed to learn.
And so we began the fifth grade. It was Becky’s idea—though perhaps she only wanted us to suffer as much as she had. In advance of the asteroid mining mission, each of the human children had had a year’s worth of schooling prerecorded for them on their holodrives to cover the class time they would miss. The humans figured that these lessons could give the average Xotonian a basic foundation in (at least) math and science.
But at the moment—in the time-honored tradition of students on all worlds throughout the history of the universe—I wasn’t paying attention in class. I stared past Ms. Neubauer’s shimmering holographic form at a screen on the far side of the Observatory.
On the distant screen hung a fuzzy green ball: the new planet. It was orbited by a lopsided planetary ring, warped by the gravity of a single icy moon. Three months on, and we hadn’t come up with a better name than “the new planet”—although “Gusworld VII” was advanced from at least one quarter.
The new planet seemed to be habitable: It had a nonlethal temperature range, its atmosphere appeared to be breathable, and we knew its gravity wouldn’t crush us to jelly, at least. Indeed, its surface was green with life. But at the same time, it didn’t look like the top vacation spot in the sector, either.
Huge, churning dust storms, charged with electricity, raged across continents. Wide, barren swathes of land—like colossal scars on the planet itself—seemed to support no living thing at all. The rest of the surface seemed to be covered in thick forest or fetid swamp.
We had seen some possible signs of intelligent life there. But cloud cover and dense vegetation made it hard to gather conclusive proof. Our official policy was not to attempt contacting the world until we knew more. So we continued to study it from afar.
The Observers pored through their ancient cyclopaedias, searching for any information about the new planet. As always, they pretended they had the situation well under control. In truth, they knew nothing. So far they had only been able to narrow down our present location in the universe to a handful of possible galaxies.
You see, at the end of the great battle, our asteroid had been pulled through a wormhole—a wormhole accidentally created when we fired the Q-sik at the Vorem battle cruiser—and flung across the universe. If you don’t understand how that works, don’t worry. I don’t either.
I consider myself pretty smart. I’m a decent speller (a lot of Xotonians forget that the word has two s in it; not me). I have a working knowledge of human slang terms meaning “good” (“cool,” “rad,” “dope,” “totally Little Gus,” etc.). And I am a qualified expert in Xenostryfe III (high score: 1,672,890. Try to beat it. You can’t). But rips in the very fabric of space-time are somewhat beyond my understanding. Suffice it to say we hadn’t covered wormholes in fifth grade yet.
Ms. Neubauer droned on. “Metamorphic rocks are formed when intense heat and/or pressure produce physical or chemical changes in an existing rock, which we call a protolith. . . .”
Thank Jalasu Jhuk not all our lessons were prerecorded like hers. Sometimes the young humans themselves taught subjects in which they were particularly knowledgeable.
Hollins and Becky had brought in one of the human rocket-bikes (disassembled and recovered from the surface of Gelo). With several eager students, they had already reassembled it. With the two of them teaching, it also functioned as a master class in the human vocabulary needed for pointless bickering.
Nicki too had been teaching the fundamentals of programming using the holodrives and some spare Observatory computers. Though baffling to most, many of the less athletic Xotonians had made great strides forward in this oddly universal science. Indeed, thanks to her lessons, many of the screens in the Observatory now displayed “Hello, world” in glowing human letters.
Little Gus had even tried his hand at teaching a course he titled “Fancy Gourmet Cooking for Master Chefs Who Are Cool,” but he quickly gave up when he discovered that he couldn’t get the ingredients he needed for his first lesson. Whatever “nacho cheese” is, it is unknown on our world. If it is as wondrous as the humans say, we are all the poorer for it, though.
Collectively, we Xotonians called all these lessons “human school.” Listening to hours of the video instructors and the young humans talking every day also had the incidental effect of quickly teaching other Xotonians the human speech. (In addition to being highly attractive, we Xotonians are naturally good at learning languages.) After a few weeks of class, many were nearly as fluent in human-ese as me.
“Igneous rock,” continued Ms. Neubauer, “may form above or below the surface of the Earth’s crust. . . .”
Just then, her hologram flickered, and the lights in the Observatory dimmed. Several of the screens around the chamber went dark.
“What?” cried Linod, snapping awake again. Ever since the explosions and the fire, blackouts and brownouts had been occurring frequently in Core-of-Rock.
A few minutes later the holodrive, too, abruptly died, cutting off poor prerecorded Ms. Neubauer midsentence. Someone had forgotten to connect the device to the Observatory’s power grid to charge. Now its batteries were completely drained.
Ydar, who had been proctoring the class, stood up from its own console and approached the dead holodrive. The High Observer plugged the device in, but it didn’t reactivate. After scowling at it three times and hitting it once, Ydar sighed in defeat.
“Well, I suppose that’s where class ends today,” said the High Observer.
“What? Speak up!” cried old Gatas from the back.
The rest of my cohort began to file out of the Observatory, each taking a dismal geology worksheet as it left. It was strange to resent something voluntary, but perhaps that was simply the nature of school. I noticed Linod choking back sobs as it collected its things.
“Linod-tron, what’s the matter?” I asked.
Linod shook its head. “I was thinking about the fire again,” it said. “I just miss them so much. . . .”
“Who?” I asked. Thankfully, Linod hadn’t lost any friends or family in the blaze—Lhoy was completely fine.
“My fascinating fungi!” Linod cried out “All of them burned!”
“Don’t worry, you’ll find more,” I said, patting its thol’graz. “There are plenty of spores in the cave, as the old saying goes. I’m sure your new collection will be even more fascinating than before.”
“You know what would make me feel better?” it said between sobs, eyes glistening pitifully. “If I could just have one of your humans. Just a single one. I could take one of the Garcías, since you’ve got a spare.”
“We’ve been over this, “I said. “They’re not pets, Linod. I can’t just give them to you.”
Linod squinted at me. “Okay, how much do you want?” it said, reaching for its x’yzoth wallet. I shoved it out the door and returned to my desk to wait for the humans.
“Cer’em, Chorkle. Oed Little Gus, ha’ois la’stisiaekt soiris. Di omih,” said Little Gus as he burst through the door a few minutes later. Roughly translated from Xotonian, this means: “Greetings, Chorkle! I am Little Gus, your sovereign ruler. Obey me.”
“Gus f’a’raely. Chorkle ael phsii etv lisstil ta’ delnis!” said Nicki, meaning: “Foolish Gus. Chorkle is free and serves no master!”
“Ya’oi esinerds,” sighed Becky, shaking her head. (“You guys are nerds.”)
The humans had been learning too. Since no one knew how long they would be living on Gelo, they decided they should be able to talk to their new neighbors. So they spent a portion of every day studying what they called XSL: Xotonian as a second language. Biologically, the human brain wasn’t as quick to pick up new languages as ours. But after a few months under the tutorship of Loghoz, a member of the Xotonian Council and self-declared grammar enthusiast, they’d made a lot of progress.
Nicki—especially diligent about studying everything—was nearly fluent. Becky and Little Gus did virtually no work outside of class, and yet they were still pretty good. Only poor old Hollins seemed to be having trouble.
“Hisi aen ra’dil. Da’il lehaetk. Cer’em lehaetk. Asi ha’oi doilysa’a’d?” he said to me. Which, roughly translated, means “Here it comes. Does saying. Hello saying dentist. Are you pudding?”
I nodded, confused but trying to seriously consider his question. Was I pudding? In some sense, weren’t we all just pudding?
Switching back to human, Hollins asked, “Are we ready to give home a call?” The human children sidled up to the Observatory’s communications station. Every three days, they tried once more to contact their parents. It never worked.
“I’m afraid it won’t be possible today, children,” sighed Ydar, speaking passable human. “We’re running on very limited power.” A few screens scattered around the Observatory still showed feeds of stars. Most were dark.
“What? We walked up five thousand stairs to get here,” said Becky.
“Yeah, how do you do it every day?” said Gus to Ydar. “Your quads must be ripped. Wait, do Xotonians even have quads?”
Ydar quickly spot-checked itself for “quads,” then shook its head no.
“Are you sure we can’t try? Just for a minute?” asked Hollins.
“We did kinda save your civilization,” said Becky. “So . . .”
The High Observer sighed and looked around shuggishly. “Oh, all right.” At Ydar’s command, the rest of the Observers deactivated their own consoles. Ydar then powered up the communications center and adjusted a few dials and sliders. It nodded to the humans.
And so Hollins repeated the following into the microphone: “Hello. This is Daniel Hollins, Nicole García, Rebecca García, and Augustus Zaleski of the Nolan-Amaral mining vessel Phryxus. We are safe, though our location is unknown. We seek immediate rescue. Is anyone out there? Over.”And his words were beamed out into the cosmos.
“Do you think anybody heard that?” asked Little Gus.
“Well, the universe is a pretty big place,” said Nicki. “And we could be anywhere in it. Even if the new planet—”
“Gusworld VII,” interjected Little Gus.
Nicki sighed. “Even if Gusworld VII is just a single light-year from Earth—and assuming we knew Earth’s location relative to our own, which we don’t—it would still take a radio transmission a full year to reach our parents.”
“Isn’t there a faster way?” asked Becky. “I’m missing a ton of TV shows back on Earth.”
“Well, I’ve talked to the Observers,” said Nicki. “Some of their old manuals do mention faster methods of communication: hyperlight, tachyonic ansible, and a couple of others. But the Observatory doesn’t have any of this stuff.”
“That’s probably intentional,” I said. “Jalasu Jhuk wanted Gelo—and the Q-sik—to remain hidden from anyone who might be looking for it. Outgoing calls would not help with that.”
“I guess for now, then, we’re stuck with good old-fashioned radio waves,” said Hollins. And he repeated his message a handful more times before the communications console flickered and went dead.
“Or not,” said Becky. The Observatory was now powerless, totally dark. After a moment, Little Gus flicked on a human flashlight (humans suffer from a sad and crippling inability to see in total darkness; in my experience, they don’t even want to discuss the possibility that they might need more eyes).
“Well, I suppose that’s it for today, everybody,” said Ydar to the other Observers. “Take the rest of the day off. Spend some time with your offspring. Try to get some exercise.”
The Observers, used to spending their time hunched over glowing screens, stood and stretched uncertainly.
“Sorry, children” said Ydar to the kids. “Feel free to borrow some cyclopaedias when you go.” It pointed to the shelf of the dense astronomic tomes.
“Yay,” said Becky.
Previously, these ancient cyclopaedias had been sacred holy books of the order, completely off-limits to the uninitiated. Now Ydar was encouraging anyone who had the time or the interest to study them for clues as to just where in the wide universe we might be. I hadn’t borrowed any before—they were notoriously dry reading, and I worried that with extra homework my Xenostryfe III skills could suffer—but I figured I might as well give it a shot. I grabbed a thol’graz-ful at random.
“Ah, Spiral Arm 314229 of the Turech Galaxy,” said Ydar, smiling with approval at one of the books I held. “An underrated classic.”
As we descended the spiral steps of Dynusk’s Column, the children were quiet. Their mood was glum. They missed their parents and their planet.
I too was quiet. I felt responsible for their predicament. My actions had accidentally stranded them on Gelo. Through my curiosity, and a boundless love of Feeney’s Original Astronaut Ice Cream, I’d involved them in Gelo’s ancient war with the Vorem Dominion and somehow gotten them trapped on the far side of the universe.
I wanted to help them contact their parents. I wanted to help them find a way home. But at that moment, I simply wanted to cheer them up. So badly that I was even contemplating drastic measures. I still had a few Feeney’s Original Astronaut Ice Cream bars—the universe’s most delectable treat—hidden in various secure locations around the city. I was on the verge of offering one of these to them when Nicki spoke.
“I wonder what Mom and Dad are doing right now,” she said.
“Probably polishing your awards,” said Becky. Nicki nodded in satisfaction.
“I hope everybody on Earth isn’t, like, an ape now,” said Little Gus.
“Don’t worry,” said Hollins, “we’re going to make it home. We’ll think of something. ‘All the resources we need are in the mind.’ Teddy Roosevelt said that.”
“But what will we think of?” asked Gus.
“If we knew that, we would have already thought of it,” said Hollins.
We walked through Ryzz Plaza, past the iridium statue of Great Jalasu Jhuk. Whole neighborhoods of the city were totally dark. With the power outages, certain foods had become scarce or even disappeared completely. As we passed through the market, we saw some stalls deserted, while others had incredibly long lines. Xotonians grumbled at one another and jostled to get to the front.
“Hey! How come mine doesn’t have any fried mold on it?” cried Dyves, prodding the cave slug it had just purchased from Sertor’s stall.
“The mold fryer needs power to run,” said Sertor, brandishing its spatula like a weapon. “And there isn’t any power!”
“But I’m on the Xotonian Council—”
“I don’t care if you’re Jalasu Jhuk itself! There’s no fried mold left. And if you don’t like it, I’m happy to serve you up a nice thol’graz sandwich!”
Dyves gritted its ish’kuts and blinked back tears.
Tension was building in Core-of-Rock. Regardless of losing the Stealth Shield, our broken reactor was making everyday life much more difficult. Air and water circulation had slowed. All the occupations and hobbies that required power were curbed. Public sanitation, medical care, and agriculture suffered the most. Rumors of the departing Vorem trireme didn’t help matters.
“Hold on, I’ll catch up with you guys,” said Little Gus, and he peeled off and headed toward the butcher’s stall. Then he stopped. “Wait. Can somebody lend me ten x’yzoth crystals?”
The humans looked at one another, then at me.
I sighed. “Ten x’yzoth,” I said. “That’s an awful lot. How about . . . none?”
“Gotta be at least ten, Chorkle,” said Little Gus. “Prices have really gone up!”
When he met us later at the usk-lizard stables near the city guardhouse, he was carrying a wrapped parcel.
A young guard named Ixoby nodded and opened the gate. Inside, dozens of the huge, dull-eyed usk-lizards placidly chewed dried lichen in their stalls. The humans and I set about bridling two of the great beasts that we knew well: Goar and Gec.
“Well, they may not be the swiftest usk-lizards . . . ” said Hollins, holding his nose and patting Gec’s haunches.
“Or the smartest,” said Becky as she watched Goar chew on an old piece of rope for a minute before determining it wasn’t food and spitting it out.
“But Goar and Gec definitely stink the least,” I said.
Gec snorted as Hollins and Nicki climbed onto its back. Becky, Gus, and I climbed onto Goar’s.
“Ha!” cried Hollins.
“What’s funny?” I asked.
But before anyone answered, we were galloping through the streets of Core-of-Rock and out into the Unclaimed Tunnels. It was unnerving not to see the Stealth Shield, the traditional Xotonian boundary between civilization and wilderness.
We traveled onward into the cavern system. Behind me, Gus squinted and shined his flashlight around in the darkness. I suspected he was hoping for a glimpse of his phantom Vorem.
The usk-lizards carried us through a thick scrub of spiny dralts, past fields of pulsing purple geodes. At one sharp bend in the tunnel, we disturbed a huge flock of rockbats. For a minute, the air was thick with them as they flew past by the thousands.
“Whoa, careful, Nicki,” said Hollins as he made a protective gesture to cover her from the flapping mass of gray wings.
“They’re just rockbats,” said Nicki, frowning. “They’re totally harmless.”
After an hour of riding, we came to the place called Flowing-Stone. It was nine turns from Core-of-Rock, and even the humans knew the way by now. Flowing-Stone was a gnarled old philiddra forest growing on the site of what had once been a thriving city. Long ago, Flowing-Stone had been completely destroyed in a Xotonian civil war. An occasional stone ruin poked through the mist like a broken bone, the only remnants of its existence. The whole place had an eerie, haunted quality. With the death of our reactor, I wondered if Core-of-Rock would end up like Flowing-Stone.
Goar sniffed the air and slowed to a walk. Then it stopped altogether. Becky yanked on the reins as the usk-lizard began to shake its head from side to side and tried to back up, bumping into Gec, who bellowed.
Now both the usk-lizards were snorting and stamping and making low whining noises in the backs of their throats. They smelled something out there in the forest. Something that scared them.
“Oh, here we go,” said Becky, shaking her head.
I checked my own skin. It had turned the same dappled gray and black as the forest around us. This was a Xotonian camouflage reflex, the unconscious reaction to a nearby predator. I sighed.
Suddenly a blue six-legged beast—a thyss-cat, the apex predator of Gelo’s ecosystem and just about the most terrifying sight a Xotonian could hope to see—came tearing out of the darkness toward us. Becky and Hollins fought the reins as their usk-lizards howled in distress and tried to flee. The thyss-cat hunched and sprang high into the air. It landed right on top of Little Gus, knocking him out of the saddle.
Gus and the cat rolled over and over on the ground, a ball of blue fur and human limbs. I heard a high-pitched mixture of yowling and giggles.
“Pizza, heel! Heel, dude! C’mon, Pizza!” said Little Gus, wrestling with the young thyss-cat, which was now much bigger and far stronger than him. “When are you going to learn how to heel?”
“Maybe when you stop carrying raw meat in your pockets,” said Becky.
“Good call,” said Gus, pulling out the parcel and unwrapping it: two fresh usk-lizard flank steaks from the butcher’s stall. Pizza bolted them down in a gruesome and bloody display. Goar and Gec stamped nervously.
“And that’s why Pizza’s got to live way out here,” said Hollins, shaking his head and suppressing a gag.
When he was a mere thyss-cub, Pizza was grudgingly tolerated by the Xotonian populace of Core-of-Rock. After all, the humans were heroes, so perhaps they should be allowed to have exotic (terrifying, dangerous) pets? But as Pizza grew, this tolerance gave way to fear. Every day Pizza looked less like a harmless blue furball and more like a nightmarish killing machine. Eventually, the Xotonian Council held a vote. It was decided unanimously that Pizza had to go. After some of our neighbors complained that Pizza had trampled their puffball garden and eaten three welcome mats, even Kalac was for it.
What People are Saying About This
"Recommend this one to readers who like their adventure stories cut with humor and watch it fly off the shelf faster than Chorkle can eat a Feeney’s Original Astronaut Ice Cream." SLJ