Passages

Welcome to the PASSAGES, a science fiction fantasy set on a failing planet being revitalized by a population of electorgs–humans with electronic implants.

Passages cover

“Find someone you can trust.”

For decades, Eve and her fellow electorgs—part human, part machine—have worked on the quiet planet of Aarde, beating back toxic spores that threaten to poison the native people. When the new commander halts work right before a deadly spore release, Eve frantically plots to protect the villagers she considers friends and family.

On the run after an ambush, Quinn holds a secret that nearly got him killed. If only he knew what it was. Though the attack scrambled his memories, Quinn is sure of one thing—he can’t trust the electorgs. But they know information he desperately needs to puzzle out who wants him dead, and why.

With the fate of life on Aarde in the balance, the logic of joining forces with Eve overrides Quinn’s fears…and erupts into an attraction that could prove fatal for both of them.

Because the planet’s commander might just be Quinn himself.

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Chapter One

Quinn

 

The city of Cavvert

Another morning, another motel room, and another day my brother was still missing.

I slung my travel pack over my shoulder and shoved the lapels of my field jacket together against the chill mountain air. My cheeks stung beneath my beard, and my eyes watered, reminding me I’d best brace for both another search of another town and the cold. I strode the length of the old motel building to the street, where my grandmother waited, bundled in her tan jacket over travel clothes.

“Morning,” I called. “What backwater town are we off to today?”

Graen wasn’t listening. I followed her gaze past the quaint eateries and shops surrounding the snow-patched green. Across the town square, a line of people waited alongside flatbeds of shipping boxes at the Conducer station.

Four helmeted Blackguards emerged from the station’s door. A fifth waved the travelers aside while the guards in their black polymer armor marched to the nearest flatbed. Each hoisted a box and carried it back inside, their stun swords swinging from their weapon belts.

My gut twisted at the sight of so many electorg guards. “They’ve requisitioned this passenger station for cargo transport.” I shook my head. “Trust a ’torg to put equipment before the needs of the natives.”

“Quinn, hush,” hissed Graen. “We’ve got to get past those people.”

I dropped my glare from the Blackguard barring the transporter station’s entrance. “Electronic humanoids aren’t people. Not anymore.”

“Of course they are, and when we get to the head of that line, you treat them as such.” The snap of Graen’s words matched the midwinter morning. “Or at least pretend to, so we can move on.”

I let it go. The search for my brother was difficult enough without today’s challenge. Though it didn’t appear the electorg guards were turning anyone away, just holding up the line.

Lifting her long gray braid aside, Graen hoisted her pack. She linked her arm with mine, and we crossed the street. Sticky situations didn’t bother my take-charge grandmother. She remembered her past, giving her plenty of material to fabricate stories for the alien electorg authorities on this volcanic planet.

I patted Graen’s hand. “We’ll find him. We’ve got two weeks yet to cover the remaining inhabitable regions.”

Her green-eyed gaze darted up at me. “Our list is down to the rural spots I didn’t think Quil would be, but—” She shrugged. “If it takes scouring every pumice barren and mud pot, I’ll do it before I leave Aarde without your brother.”

“Where to, then?”

She wiped a hand across her brow. “Remember the island I pointed out on the map? Zeffir?”

“Yes, I recall the coordinates. Remote.”

“I’ll request it, claiming an ill sister needs my help. We should be able to search its small town and leave again more easily than from a populated area. Plus, it’s not a hazardous Spore Zone.”

We joined the line.

At regular intervals, the elite Blackguards—more ’torgs than I’d seen in any one place during our weeks here—returned and collected their heavy boxes. After they disappeared, the remaining Blackguard allowed one or two impatient groups to depart. A regular station operator stood mid-line asking for identification, another new policy. I met Graen’s gaze and silently extracted my ID. We shuffled closer and closer, until at last the conversations reached us.

Home? What do you mean I have to return to my place of residence? We’re on holiday.”

“Travel has been canceled across the planet,” intoned the operator. “You must return to the location designated on your ID.” His porta-scan spit out a slip of paper. He handed it over. “Next.”

Graen offered up her ID with a grandmotherly “Hello.”

I kept my lips pressed together as I showed my card with its matching, false address.

The operator eyed us. “Just the two of you traveling? Related?”

I stiffened, but my steady Graenie wrapped an arm around my waist. “My grandson was kind enough to take me shopping in your lovely resort. Quite boring for a young man. Quinn is happy to head home.”

“He’s one of the few natives who is.” The operator tapped his porta-scan. “Next.”

We accepted the slip of paper bearing the coordinates to Stranaar, though it wasn’t home. Nor were we natives. But we matched their humanoid looks, and despite their machine components, so did the ’torgs.

As the queue advanced and the operator moved from earshot, I dared a glance at Graen. She stared toward the nearby mountains, deep creases marring her fine-lined forehead.

“They’re toeing a hard line,” I murmured.

She raised her worried gaze to mine. “Something’s up… Something besides a spore evacuation. I just wish I knew what.” Her pressure on my arm increased, and I bent closer. “Do a cross-leap,” she whispered.

I’d be hacking a Conducer in front of witnesses. I briefly closed my eyes and steeled myself before nodding. The skills of our people came easily to me. Remembering how I knew them did not.

And then it was our turn. We hefted our travel packs and entered the small limestone station. The plates of the particle accelerator hummed along the thirty-foot corridor, making the air ripple between the five sets of wall-mounted gray rectangles.

Graen offered our verification paper to the operator perched at the console, then pulled it back at the last instant. “Did he get it right?” she asked with false concern. “Stranaar? On the coast?”

I slid behind her, peering at the paper she held to me while edging closer to the raised line of yellow stones bisecting the slate floor, the actual Conducer entrance. I needed extra time between the first set of plates to start the leap. Afterward, all we had to do was reach the end. Together.

“Did he get our town entered right?” Graen waved the slip and fidgeted from foot to foot, effectively positioning us at the yellow threshold.

I stepped across. Energy flowed over my body. With a thought, I connected to it.

Graen said, “Young man, check this, would you?”

“Yes.” The operator snatched the paper and studied it. He repeated an impatient “yes” and bent to input the destination that would lock us into going to the Stranaar station.

Graen clasped my hand. We walked, each step dissolving us as I hijacked the power we’d need for our cross-leap, a method our people used to make direct connections to a particular destination. Six steps, seven, eight—

“Stop!”

My adrenaline spiked, but we couldn’t stop. Wouldn’t. Nine steps, ten. Halfway through the array of plates, halfway dissolved. Graen faltered, then slipped from my grasp. What the—?

I shoved my molasses-dense particles into solidity and turned around.

Between the third and fourth sets of plates, a Blackguard blocked Graen, his sword waving in one outstretched hand, the other batting at her loosely collected figure. A weird sense of déjà vu hit me, muddling my mind and breaking my concentration. This has happened before, in another place, in another leap more urgent than this one.

Graen solidified and shot me a panicked look.

The guard grabbed her arm. “What do you think you’re doing?”

No! I knocked him aside.

He stumbled upright and came at me. The stun sword flared to life.

Damn. With the energy I’d amassed on my body, I couldn’t risk a hit of current. I retreated, hands aloft.

“Get back to the entrance. Now.” He brandished the sword, reaching with the electrified blade to provide me with a tap of incentive.

“Quinn!”

Graen’s call startled the guard, giving me time to jerk aside. He swung his sword. Heart thudding, I instinctively dodged into Lacuna, the gap between molecules.

The surreal feel of his slicing sword jostled my dissolved particles. A muffled burst of curses sounded through the thin but stable barrier walls of the gap space. I held myself intact, panting for the seconds of eternity it took for him to move away. Then I darted out, ducked and rammed the guard. He fell into Graen, arms and sword flailing.

She shoved him off and straightened.

I grabbed her hand. The Conducer’s energy swirled around us, ready, but a raw slice below her ear oozed with blood. “You’re cut!”

“Keep going. Do the cross-leap,” she gasped, “even if I black out.”

Hell. What else could I do? With the guard cursing behind us, I flung an arm around her shoulder and trotted along the corridor. We dissolved.

Fully immersed in the accelerator’s energy, I could make connections to any destination once I visualized it…but my mind jumbled. No image came. Do the cross-leap. I mind-linked with Graen. Her trips appeared and I snatched the vision of the island. West of here at fifteen degrees longitude. North, sixty degrees latitude. No direct course between this Conducer and another, but that made it harder to trace. I merged two segments…shortened another, and in a split second my mind cranked out the jumps. Our molecules flew apart.

We hurtled through space on a trajectory manipulated from a map’s coordinates, and I held to the transference as if our lives depended on it—because, judging from the Blackguard’s shouts, they did.

The tingling in my body ebbed. I collapsed with Graen into the leaves at the edge of a wood. Frigid air surrounded us under a sky speckled with starlight. Aarde’s golden moon, Roamer, hung on the horizon, about to set. Behind a rocky outcrop on the adjacent hilltop, the faint glow of pink meant Misha, the red moon, was rising. It was at least an hour before the dawn we’d left behind on the mainland.

Graen hadn’t moved, but neither had I. I tightened my arm around her and applied pressure to her bleeding neck. Her steady breathing comforted me as I listened to the stillness. Had the ’torg guard followed? We’d never had witnesses to what I could do before. According to Graen, our people’s way of rearranging particles for movement—into the near space gaps of Lacuna, or far space travel like cross-leaping—marked us as aliens on this well-secured planet.

And Aarde banned outsiders. If the Docga’s ’torg minions discovered us, it’d land us beds in jail until we could be deported to an off-planet detention center.

“Graenie? Do you think the guard’ll figure it out?”

No answer. I called her name and rubbed her hands, but couldn’t rouse her. If she never—no! Had a jolt from the guard’s stun sword hurt her more than the cut? I took a deep breath, dismissed the wave of foreboding and squeezed her hand. I would deal with her wound.

Her bleeding had stopped. Under the green tint of my night vision, the edges of the scrape had darkened. Graen healed fast. She’d be over this quickly. I dabbed her skin with antiseptic from my pack and covered it with a bandage.

That done, I calmed my mind. Nothing annoyed Graen more than when I charged into a mind-link, another of our skills. Now was not the time to get on her nerves. I laid a hand upon her cheek and sought her out. Within our linkage, images rose and fell in a murky haze, unlike her strong projections that had helped me cross-leap. Not good.

I sent her a message—the vision of the island, and us.

My portrayal flickered, and swirling clouds obscured the land. A roaring wind cut in and moved them—Graen attempting to communicate. I struggled to maintain my image. The fog cleared, and the view of central mountains, rolling lowlands and blue sea shifted. In a series of jerks, the coast magnified. A smudge of gray resolved into buildings—the town.

Through the howling wind, one word repeated: Passages…passages…passages…

Passages? I asked.

The wind dropped and died. Yes. Find me…help in…passages. The image went black.

“Passages?” What the hell, or where in it, was passages?

Graen heaved a sigh, but her eyes remained closed. She wasn’t going to be any help.

Think, Quinn, think.

A bitter breeze picked at the bare branches around us. Best to let her sleep and recover. For that, she needed someplace warm, especially if I had to go for help.

Along with practicing our particle transference, Graen had drilled me in survival techniques as part of my recovery. She figured we might need it after running for our lives when I injured my head and lost my memory. Ten weeks of urgent searching for Quil had sharpened my skills, so when I cast my gaze around the woodland, a plan snapped into place. I shrugged out of my coat, positioned Graen on it beside a fallen log and wrapped her in a compact, emergency sleeping bag from our supplies. I tented a second bag over her using our packs, and then stuffed every crevice with insulating leaves. By the time the sky had lightened, the low shelter was warm.

Graen would be proud, if… Damn it all. She still slept. I bit back a sigh and asked anyway, “So, Graenie, ready to shake this off?”

Her breathing and heartbeat were normal, but she was dead to the world. What would I do if she didn’t revive?

“Blast it. So I’m supposed to get help…in passages. What on Aarde is ‘passages’?”

 

 

Chapter Two

Eve

 

Zeffir Island

“Eve!” Evard bellowed, shattering the early morning peace of our bookshop before I’d even taken two bites of toast, let alone a swallow of coffee.

I glanced in the direction of our office, where my coworker had headed after finishing his breakfast. He was prone to theatrics, but…

Across the kitchen my gaze met the eyes of the local girl who cooked for us. Mylta shrugged and, without missing a beat, slid eggs onto a plate, added potatoes and brought them to the table.

As usual, the portion seemed huge, a far more elaborate meal than the barley bread that served to break the fast in my organic years. But with Evard starting this early, I’d need it. My fingers flexed around my steaming mug, and I dipped my nose to inhale the roast’s aroma, a luxury we certainly never had in sixteenth-century England. Maybe Evangeline, the third in our electorg triad, would respond.

“Eve!”

Or maybe not.

“You best see what the problem is, Miss Eve.” Mylta handed me the morning’s notes from community members, requests of our triad or thanks for past help.

I took a sip for staying power before rising. With the folds of my local-styled woolen skirt catching at my legs, I pushed through the swinging door into the bookshop and strode to the back hall. Evard filled the door of our combination office and lab, his fingers raking quick strokes through his blond goatee.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

He jabbed a thumb toward our message board. “No travel. Just when I had that cute little ’torg from the trade ship talked into a hop to Palmmani’s beaches. Her ship arrived overnight, and those new ministers suspended travel at dawn. Can you believe it?”

I rolled my eyes. Yes, I could believe Evard was upset at this hitch in his plans. But he’d make others. Few electorg women in the Biosphere Corps had refused the gregarious man’s invitations. Our family-like triad arrangement made me more a sister than a potential target, so he had no problem regaling me with his romantic entanglements.

Shooting me a frown, he pulled a pocket watch from his coral surcoat, a copy of one he’d worn in his organic life ruling a mushroom-growing collective on his home planet of Tarne. “You busy today?”

Why the change of topic? “What do you really want? All that shouting couldn’t have been over canceled travel with your”—I had no idea what status this one had reached, if any—“girlfriend.”

“Date.” At least he had the grace to look a little sheepish, trying to cover it by releasing the cord on his long hair and re-sweeping the blond locks into place. “Even if we can’t leave, I’d still like to see her.”

He made it sound like the meeting wasn’t happening, unheard of for—wait a second. I shot a look to our Post roster. “Aha. You’re on Post Duty.”

His hands dropped onto my shoulders. “Take it for me. Please?”

“Why? You’re due to assume the lead position in another few months, even with this transfer they’ve thrown at us. May as well get in some practice.” I shrugged him off and snatched up my porta from a workstation. I tapped into the schedule drawn up by our current lead—Evangeline. Where was she? Her assignment read “preparing status reports.” She should’ve been here.

“Then do the fungal level tests for me,” Evard said.

“What? You haven’t done them yet?”

He groaned and flopped into a swivel chair. “Kind of slipped my mind.”

“I bet.” Besides my daily update with Zeffir’s leader, I had four counseling sessions listed with community members…and the first note from Mylta requested another. Hmm, unusual. But I’d rather have my responsibilities keeping harmony among the Zeffirites, than managing Evard’s social engagements.

“Evy, please.” He took the porta and notes from me. “I can’t possibly run around and collect data from a dozen farmers and still placate my date, now can I?”

I crossed my arms. He’d never try this on our lead. But then again, he’d learned our run-mate didn’t understand his emotional needs. Now if he were one of her beloved goats… “Don’t tell me Evangeline is allowing a late submission.”

His long nose wrinkled, and with a roll of his eyes, Evard gestured to the whiteboard.

Ah, she must be on a husbandry call. Evangeline’s neat printing read: I’ve left to report to Dome by 0600 per a blanket broadcast to all leads.

“Dome?” I said stupidly. There was only one reason our lead would be called to the Corps headquarters on the mainland. A twist of dread knotted my stomach. “Evangeline’s received the transfer orders,” I choked out.

“No, not that. You didn’t finish her note.” Evard rose, threw an arm around my shoulders and hugged me to his side while reading: “Apparently, this meeting is to announce a new protocol, not the transfer assignments. Because all leads are attending, they closed the Conducer to other B-run travel. Evard, complete those test results on the pending compost shipments—today. Evangeline.” His hold on me tightened. “New protocol,” he repeated in his big-brother manner. “Not the transfer.”

Blessed Waters, I’d jumped to the wrong conclusion, letting the weight of the move taint my thoughts. I buried my face against Evard’s burly chest until my heartbeat leveled out.

“A protocol announcement. That’s all,” I whispered to myself.

“Ah, you poor nymph.” He patted my back. “I’m not looking forward to the day we leave Zeffir any more than you are. The people here have been most welcoming—ah, bloody hyphae.” He sucked a breath. “They’re not just natives, they’re friends and…” He cleared his throat. “Once they give us the transfer location, I’ll set up another of my Conducer shortcuts so you can visit here easily.”

I wiped my fingertips over my eyes. “Thanks for the offer, but I’d rather not risk your illegal shortcuts.”

“Illegal doesn’t mean impossible, and if it’s possible, it’s permissible.” His blue eyes sparkled. “Why would Basic-runs like us be equipped with the same hardware as the Elite-run ministers if not to use the circuits?”

Not this again. I pushed off of Evard’s chest before he launched into his favorite topic of restricted electronics. “The Docga limit our use of them, same as they’ve allowed this new batch of ministers to place us B-runs at their beck and call. What’s the point of settling into a home and career in my so-called second life if I’m forced to leave?” I poked him in the shoulder before leaning on a work island. “Can you focus on something else, please? Like the ‘new protocol’? What’s that about?”

“Rather vague, I agree. And why ban travel? Previous ministers didn’t when the leads traveled for those ridiculous morale-boosting seminars.” He snapped his fingers. “Bet it relates to the rampant hornwort growth over on the La’adir mainland. Minneri Pools isn’t too far from Dome. The ministers have finally come to their senses and set up a field excursion to get the leads’ input on the situation. Or at least inform them. ’Bout time they got us official word, before releasing the news to the masses.”

I cocked a brow at him. “If it’s yet to be released, then why have I heard about the hornworts’ advancing sporophyte stage every time you return from one of your covert visits to Dome?”

“I have my sources,” he replied smugly.

Yes, and I knew who she was. Who his stylist’s sources were, was another matter. I shifted back to our immediate problem. Our lead did a splendid job with the Zeffir livestock and managing her administrative tasks, but she didn’t grasp the subtleties of interacting with her fellow humanoids. “Do you think Evangeline will get the information straight?”

Evard met my gaze with a shake of his head. “She’ll never ask the right questions. You should go after Evangeline, make sure she gets the scoop.”

“Scoop? Where do you learn these terms? What if you go ask your stylist? Surely she knows what’s happening.”

“Love to, but”—he pointed to the whiteboard—leads only.”

That was reason enough. It wouldn’t matter if he donned an official jumpsuit. Every ’torg stationed at Dome knew Evard on sight—a man who towered over most everyone and drew attention just by being himself.

He shrugged. “If I could use the Conducer, I’d be going to Palmmani.”

I let him ramble about his ruined plans while I considered the situation. I could make the trip. Although I was tall compared to women of my time, I was more average in height and brown-haired looks, so I didn’t stand out among ’torgs or Aardites.

Yet, the very reason the Docga chose me for a position with the Biosphere Corps, my empathic gift, caused my reluctance to mingle in populated areas. I hated the confusion of the urban live-work setting for our administrative ’torgs. The enclosed space seemed busier than some city-states on Aarde, or G47 as the Docga called the planet. I’d managed to avoid trips to Dome all but half a dozen times in the nearly fifty years I’d been a ’torg.

I straightened from the counter. “Unlike you, I know no one there to ask. Let’s wait and see what information Evangeline brings back. If it’s not enough, you go get a trim when the travel ban is lifted.”

“Good point. I’ll be happy to.”

With a trip postponed—hopefully permanently—I could resume my day. I opened one of the community notes, then the rest. What? Another two Zeffirites wanted to talk to me. I shoved the papers at Evard. “Look here. You haven’t been blabbing about the hornwort status, have you?”

He raised his hands. “Not me. They have their sources. We just…confer. Work talk.” But he studied the names, his frown growing. “Only half these people are my hires for the fungal project, and they know we’re well stockpiled to mitigate a spore release. It’s got to be some other complaint.”

I pinched my suddenly aching forehead. Zeffir was safe, far from the thermal areas where the hornworts grew, and our elders had emergency plans. So what was causing this level of community panic?

Evard blew out a breath and dropped into a chair at a monitor. “I’ll check the news, but I suspect it’s those bloody new ministers and their damned ‘don’t worry’ stance. That only promotes worry. And not just over the hornworts. I didn’t want to get your hopes up, but my hires plan to approach the Docga when they arrive in two weeks. They’re in a positive tizzy about that idiotic decision to transfer us—Great Grünmann, that’s it! The new protocol. Someone’s heard something.”

I groaned. “What could be worse than a transfer?”

 

 

Chapter Three

Quinn

 

Zeffir Island

With the rising sun visible through the tree trunks, I left Graen in the shelter to start my search for her baffling “passages” and medical help. A stream meandered through boulders littering the plateau, forming dozens of shallow pools. I paused for a drink and found the water warm on my frozen fingers. The liquid had a distinctive yet pleasant taste, which I chalked up to minerals.

The bleating of goats led me down the hillside. Far below lay the town, a village really, spread at the bottom of a gentle slope on the edge of the sea, just as Graen’s image had shown.

In between, terraced crop fields exhibited the modern—for the natives—agricultural practices the Corps encouraged: contour plowing, irrigation and crop rotation. Goat pastures and an unusual number of greenhouses dotted the outlying hills, long, mounded compost heaps alongside each.

Compared to what we’d seen in our travels, this island was an agricultural mecca. Small steps for the year 2092, yet steps in the right direction. My opinion of the freezing, windy Zeffir rose, though I doubted we’d find Quil. The rural lifestyle didn’t fit what Graen told of my brother’s avant-garde tastes.

I entered town on a cobbled street, passing stone houses with shake roofs and then modest shops. The villagers eyed me. I averted my gaze, the only thing I could do in a small community where everyone knew everyone else. A few children scurried by with tablets and pencils, but most everyone was in his or her twenties, like me. They probably would have said hello if I’d given them half a chance, but no conversation was our rule.

I lengthened my strides. A butcher shop. A tailor’s. Dry goods store. Where was the Docga-sponsored medical clinic, opened in every last municipality to catch early signs of lung damage from the spore inhalation? Then I spotted the village’s equivalent—an apothecary. Probably all the islanders needed, since Zeffir didn’t fall within the Bounded Winds that rotated around the volcanic zones.

I hesitated before the quiet shop. No, Graen said to find help in passages. I continued to search, still puzzling out the intent of her message.

Along the docks, the pungent odor of the fish stalls assaulted me. An alley dead-ended with a barn where a ringing hammer proclaimed a blacksmith shop. On the main thoroughfare, I dodged the tempting smell of fresh bread, while my gnawing stomach protested.

I’d decided to question the next friendly face, when I happened across a side street with a half-dozen shops on each side. Partway down, a sign caught my eye.

Passages.

I stumbled to a halt on the worn cobbles. Had Graen meant a place named Passages? This store matched the others, a two-story stone building where the owners lived above. The green door and trim were a bit weather-beaten, but not nearly as neglected as some. Yet, the lines of books in the display window sapped my excitement.

A bookstore. My gaze darted again to the carved wooden signboard. I must have misinterpreted the message, or Graen had been too out of it. I walked past, but my mind wouldn’t let go of the shop. Perhaps they had a volume on healing. I stopped and rolled my face skyward. My options had disappeared. I was going to screw this up somehow, but using a book might prevent exposing our situation. I turned back.

The door opened. Out rushed a couple in the midst of an argument.

“Evard, I need more information to reassure people,” said a woman with an English accent. “Not to mention, you’re in charge, and she’ll pitch a fit if that report isn’t complete when she returns.”

A broad back encased in an orange coat blocked my view of her. The man topped me by a good half foot and spanned twice my bulk. The back began to shake with laughter.

“Ah, my fair nymph, you can’t say when that might be,” the blond man replied in a rich but strangely accented baritone. “Besides, I’m not leaving the Post, merely taking a break until that other source comes through. Let loose a bit and let me have my fun.”

“Oh, I can’t stop you, so do what you want. And don’t call me your fair nymph.”

“Aw, I try not to, but when you look like that, all in a snit, I revert to my past. Forgive me, my girl, and just remember you yourself have enjoyed many transgressions over the years. Here.” He pulled a palm-sized, leather-bound book from his side pocket. “Borrow my handbook and look them up. I shan’t be.”

The man thrust the black book at her and strode toward the center of town, leaving the girl scowling on the stoop. She stood as tall as I, about five-foot-nine, with a fit weight. A little younger than I, perhaps. Dressed in a sort of old-world outfit—a long brown skirt and vest over a long-sleeved tan blouse. Definitely a local Aardite.

She saw me and gasped. Her full pink lips opened as wide as her gray eyes, surprise evident in every creamy feature.

“I beg your pardon,” I said. “Didn’t mean to startle you, but the door opened and I didn’t want to interrupt… Sorry.”

The pretty girl released her breath, and a slight smile transformed her features. “That’s quite all right. Is there something I can help you with?” She stepped aside and gestured me in while clasping a pile of books, including the little black one.

Despite my need for medical information, I found myself not caring much about books.

Watch it, Quinn. Graen would give me hell for befriending an Aardite, although she’d never frowned on casual interactions with the native people. In contrast, we kept our distance from the electorg workforce. If my hazy memory of a cross-leap incident resulting in our current situation hadn’t supported that, the ordeal at Cavvert certainly did.

The girl’s welcoming smile was slipping.

I didn’t want that to happen. “Thanks, there might be.” I walked inside.

The store was a rabbit’s warren of bookshelves. Taller than my arm’s reach, they lined the walls and projected into the room to form library-like stacks with a wide corridor down the middle. I searched for labels, particularly one denoting medical help, but couldn’t find any.

“Are you looking for a particular book?” She dropped her armload of volumes onto a table with a thud.

“Yes.” I drew out the word to stall while her eyes bored into mine.

Her light brown hair fell beyond her shoulders, thick and straight, unlike my snarl of curls. Both my hair and the beard Graen hated probably harbored leaves from my shelter construction. The shelter—Graen. She still lay unconscious a half mile away. How could I solicit medical help discreetly? Asking for first aid for a simple cut might lead—

“Or perhaps you wish to browse a topic?” The girl rubbed her hands together, covering a ring with a thick, yellow stone.

All of a sudden, I had no qualms about telling this lovely girl what I needed. “Could you point me to the medical section, please?” My words came out as a whisper, but thankfully she didn’t seem to notice.

“This way.” She wove between the stacks. I followed.

We cut through a sitting area. A gentleman in a suit was ensconced before a roaring fire, books with timeworn leather bindings open on the table, but he was holding a porta. He glanced my way and did a double take.

My clothes. That must be it. Graen had fashioned them to blend with the planet’s typical dress, but this place remained decades behind the rest of Aarde.

“Healing, medicine and first aid fill these facing stacks.” She pointed down a row. “The collection covers scientific and folk, traditional and alternative, but I’m afraid they’re mixed together. If you don’t find what you need, call me. My name is Eve.” With that, she disappeared.

After several false starts, I found a medical encyclopedia and used the index. The information under abrasions didn’t cover unconsciousness. Under coma, the entry suggested Graen needed a hospital and life support. Shock fell somewhere in the middle, but didn’t fit either, as her skin hadn’t felt cold or clammy. Should I pick one and hope for the best? No, I knew my limits—I’d never find anything to help Graen.

I pressed fingertips to my eyes. If she didn’t…

I couldn’t remember a life without my grandmother. My only memories were of the two and a half months we’d spent on Aarde. Not much, not even how we came to be here. But Graen knew my past. If I lost her, I lost my guide. Getting back to our people, as she wished to do, didn’t mean as much to me since I couldn’t remember them, but losing Graen—I couldn’t. Without Quil, she was the sole person on this alien planet like me, the only one with whom I shared a history and skills. And she’d cautioned me to keep them secret, making anything I did with my cursed memory a risk to us both.

As a testament to that problem, the man with the porta passed my aisle and peered in twice while the pile of books around me grew. If I had to talk to someone, I wanted it to be Eve.

She had a self-assured air, one I wished I possessed. Confidence was hard to carry off when you couldn’t remember beyond a few months, or get a straight answer about yourself from your only known relative. Even asking, “How old am I?” the closest I’d narrowed Graen to was the range of twenty to twenty-five. At times, I did feel twenty-five, but in my current circumstances, twenty was all I could manage.

At the central aisle I looked both ways. No one in sight. The place was quiet, not even a clock ticking. I could call Eve’s name, but that felt foolish. Instead, I angled my way through the smaller aisles in the direction she’d taken. I passed the packed shelves and glanced at the book bindings. Some titles stood out. A few seemed to glow and then fade.

An uneasy feeling came over me, but I searched for another title with that brightened lettering…

The Mirror of Her Dreams,” I whispered, and in uttering the words, I knew. I’d done this before. Flashes of déjà vu were my friends. Graen always said follow the lead, and by doing so I’d brought back skills of our people. Not just the particle-transference abilities to use Lacuna, cross-leaping and mind-linking, but also mechanical and electrical aptitude.

I walked a few paces, looking for the next glowing title. “Roadmarks.”

Another old Earth book. The memory became clearer. Reading these titles would turn the key—no, not quite right. Open the door. Lead me to…what? I shuffled forward.

Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

How did I control this phenomenon? I should stop. If I disappeared through the Conducer, Graen would die. No one would find her in the camouflaged shelter.

But I had no say. Titles appeared before my glazed eyes. Compelled, I read them, my nerves humming beneath my skin. The next was just ahead, glowing its call to me.

The Lion, the Witch and the—”

A hand slapped over my mouth, preventing me from uttering the last word.

* * *

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