Chapter 1

STARSEEKER TEST

TREYA 9006

 

As Tamaroon, did Treya spin,

in a mist of swirling white clouds.

Its glistening snow, plunged all life,

toward a dark and pending doom.

 

 

The space shuttle turned into launch position and the thruster gauges rose. Annie sat at the controls in a helmet and flight-suit. Rhythmically, her fingers danced over the flashing touch-panel spread before her, causing the huge hanger door to open. Tapping in the last sequence, her hand came to rest on the smooth steering pad. Today she would either pass the Starseeker test at Gosar Castle to join missions in space, or give up the search for her parents on the lost planet of Tamaroon forever.

“Prepare to launch,” she alerted the ship. Flight systems lit up the holoscreen in response to her command.

“Aye, Captain!” Chip, the young copilot buckled on his flight harness and sat rigid in his seat.

“Launch!” Annie commanded.

Chip pressed the red thruster button, and their ship shot through the launch bay doors into space. A multitude of stars in the heaven greeted them. Clusters of wispy clouds slowly swirled around planet Treya far below. Ice spreading over the planet threatened starvation and had left only a belt of green around the equator.

Chip flipped through news reports on a clear holoscreen floating before him. The Starseeker mission to locate new sources of food and heat on extremely rare planets was in the headlines. He stopped on a page labeled Starseeker Candidates and scrolled through the text. “The data stream indicates there are no other candidates piloting a star class shuttle at age twelve. This increases your odds of success by 8.3 percent.”

“Don’t tell me the odds.” Annie frowned. “I’ll just do my best on the test, and we’ll see what happens.” She quickly tapped the control panel. The flight screen displayed objects of various sizes approaching. “Entering Gambler’s Alley,” she announced.

“Oh no! Not the asteroid belt.” Chip stiffly pressed himself back in his seat and was now at full alert.

Quiet music from side speakers grew louder with a rapid electronic beat trumpeting as rugged rocks began rocketing by outside. The controls at Annie’s touch, rolled and spun the ship around the flying projectiles.

Chip’s hands clung to his seat. “Calculating the safest route,” he reported. A holographic tracking screen appeared showing safe flight paths with curving colored lines.

Annie dove around a small asteroid and suddenly pulled up over a large group of floating rocks that threatened to crush the ship.

Chip cringed, grabbed his flight harness and closed his eyes.

Annie laughed when she saw his expression. “Don’t fry your circuits, Chip. I have everything under control.” Annie remained calm as she threaded the speeding ship along a safe course through the barrage of shooting debris in the shifting maze. One patch of asteroids after another flew by until Annie’s flight pattern settled into a rhythmic flow.

Chip seemed relaxed with his eyes now open.

A dark shadow began to loom ahead. A huge asteroid approached and quickly grew in size.

“Oh no, I can’t watch.” Chip put his arms over his face. “We’re going to crash and burn.”

“Seriously—I never would have pegged you for such a wimp. Just watch, we’ll be fine.”

Chip reluctantly opened space between his arms to look. “You really should be more careful, Miss Annie.”

The dark shadow before them grew. There would soon be no escape.

“Oh, I really can’t watch!” Chip whimpered and closed his eyes.

The tracking screen glowed with colored lines suggesting pathways around the asteroid. One by one they blinked out and dwindled to only one. It led to a dark fissure that cut the surface on the left side of the enormous rock. Its crushing form was upon them.

Pulling back on the left thruster, Annie banked the ship hard left and swooped in toward the dark hole. The deep crevasse opened into a cavernous tunnel. Diving into the darkness, the ship twisted into the cavern. Light from the ship skimmed over rocky ridges. The walls closed in and became closer as they flew deeper into the curving tunnel. Turns became tighter. Annie slowed the ship just enough to make the curves. Suddenly a wall in the gloom ahead appeared to cut off the end of the tunnel.

“Prepare for impact!” Chip cried before the ship passed the last ridge.

Annie quickly pulled down on the right thruster and the ship rolled around the last ridge where an opening was revealed that led back to open space. She shook her head with amusement at the shock and relief on Chip’s face. “Maybe we should try something that has a slower pace.”

Chip nodded as Annie tapped the controls. The throbbing music slowed to a light rhythmic beat. Annie rolled the ship over and headed toward the misty horizon of Treya.

It seemed no time at all passed when the ship announced, “Re-entry complete.” The forward shield opened and revealed the mountains and green valleys of Treya.

“Let’s visit one of my favorite places,” Annie said, as she keyed in a course for the Gosar Valley. Moments later, the ship was slip-sliding along a curving groove in a valley of trees. The small ship lifted up and grazed over the tips of tall pines. They plunged toward a small creek bed on the other side and quickly pulled up into a double barrel spin.

Chip shut his eyes. “If I don’t watch, it won’t affect me.”

“Fine!” Annie had not been surprised by Chip’s reaction and was callously amused by his discomfort. “Our time is almost up anyway. I have to meet Uncle Jordan soon. Let’s take a look at Gosar before we go.”

Around a bend, the trees parted and the winding river dropped into a lush green valley of farmland. Scattered homes and landing platforms dotted the valley. At the far end, a city came into view at the foot of a mountain with towers, domes and landing ports rising above the trees. Palace towers stood guard over Gosar from a high ridge. Rays of morning light reached out from behind hazy blue mountains and sparkled in the dew on towers and rooftops.

“Most of Treya used to be this green,” Annie said with a sigh.

“The farmland of the Gosar valley was once recorded to be the most productive in the world,” Chip reported as they sped over the fields and meadows. He had finally settled back into his periodic reports of mundane facts and seemed to be enjoying the flight.

The ancient road from Gosar Castle twisted down, over the foothills and joined the main road through the city. She had often explored Gosar on imaginary missions for the mythical secret Guardians with Chip and Brandon. During those games they had discovered many back alleys and passages. Clearing the rooftops and weaving through the towers, their ship sailed down into the large open space of a city park.

Annie set the ship lightly down beside a grand fountain. The side door of the shuttle swung up, the steps lowered and she stepped out on the green lawn. A cascade of water-pools made of white stone followed a stream up the hill among flowering shrubs and trees. Water fell from pool to pool and re-circulated in a springing display of fountains. “This is one of my favorite spots. Come see the fish.” She led Chip to the edge of the lowest pool.

Chip hesitated before leaning over the water. “I’ve never been close to a live swimming fish.”

“I think they’re fascinating.” Annie looked down into the clear pool. A group of similar orange, yellow and turquoise fish glided through the pool while they investigated ripples on the surface. She reached down into the water and they scattered.

“End Game!” an electronic voice announced. Annie stood and took a last look at Chip.

“It was nice seeing you again, Chip, but our time is up. I’ll see you around soon.” Chip smiled after they tapped their fists together. He then raised his hand in farewell.

Annie pressed a button on her wristband and commanded, “End simulation!”

Everything went black.

 

Annie flipped up the dark visor on her helmet.  E-Chip, her small round droid, hovered nearby in her bedroom. She placed the flight simulator helmet on a shelf. Her fingers ran across the letters spelling Commander Bryan Roeshell. She had made good use of her father’s old flight programs and had made some modifications of her own—like adding fish to the fountain.

“Master Jordan will arrive anytime now,” Annie said with eager anticipation. “I hope you enjoyed your virtual flight, E-Chip.”

No longer able to talk as the copilot, the flying droid flashed lights and bleeped in a snippy retort.

Annie knew E-Chip was programmed to protect her, and it rattled his electrons whenever he flew with her.

Annie wandered out onto her balcony high above the growing tropic city of Caldera. Her long gold hair swept back in a chilly breeze. She wrapped her arms around herself. The heated kingdoms along the Equator were havens to escape the spreading snowfields. People far below scurried through the crowded streets. Something small floated down and landed on her hand. White crystals melted on her skin.

“Snow?” It was the first snowflake she had ever seen in Caldera.

There was a hush in the air as people in balconies on other buildings also looked up. Scattered blossoms of ice drifted among the apartment towers to the streets below.

E-Chip hovered beside her while they watched the flakes grow in size and number.

“The snow has never come this far before,” she murmured and went inside to curl up on a window seat. There was no hiding from the freezing world’s bleak future. The growing storms threatened to return her home world of Treya to its frozen natural state as the ancient weather control satellite slowly failed. The dying power core came from the ancient ship of the first colonists, called the Firestar. The origin of the naturally formed orb was unknown and engineers didn’t understand its processing of electro-magnetic plasma well enough to build a replacement.

All hope for the people of Treya was on the Starseeker missions to find new food sources. She pulled out a golden object on a cord around her neck as she often did when she was troubled. She ran her thumb over the smooth ring and the worn down insignia of seahorses. The feel of it was comforting and reminded her of her mother. It was the last thing her mother gave her before her parents left on a mission to Tamaroon when she was six. She felt protected somehow by its promise of their return. Closing her eyes, she held it in her hands and brought to mind a faded image of their faces. She felt both close and distant to their memory. She kissed the ring and dropped it back beneath her tunic.

They left me here all alone, she thought and looked longingly up beyond the clouds. Despite all the reasons she had heard, they had left her behind and she wanted more than anything to see them again. Why the star-trail charts to Tamaroon were missing from command was a mystery. It was as if some unknown force didn’t want them found.

Sparkling rays poured down through the clouds onto bright spots of snow on the mountains and brilliant green patches of fields to the north. Farmland surrounded the city like a sea of green that rippled like ocean waves in the gusting breeze. Transportation pods in the city busily ran along a high web of rails between and through buildings. To most people, the chaotic city was a sanctuary for safekeeping. To Annie, her safekeeping felt more like a prison.

Shuttles were flying on curved laser paths to and from high platforms above the growing city. Vectronic paths of the autopilot were usually invisible, but in the chilly morning mist among the tall buildings, laser beams reflected a rainbow of colors. If only the path to Tamaroon could reveal itself in such a mist, she mused gloomily.

A holovision of amusing creatures appeared by the window, accompanied by electronic bleeps.

“I’m okay, E-Chip, Knock it off.”

The little droid retracted his holo-projector, lowered his visual lenses and emitted a low sound like a sigh.

“I’m sorry Chip, there’s no time for games.”

Uncle Jordan had come to visit and his deep voice resonated from the next room. He sounded agitated as he spoke to her aunt. Annie held her breath and made her way to one side of the open doorway. E-Chip beeped behind her.

“Stay, E-Chip,” Annie whispered. She leaned near the door to listen.

Uncle Jordan stood calmly before Annie’s regal Aunt Constance. He was a fit, middle-aged man with gray temples. His long instructor’s vest was caught behind the laser gun at his waist. A dark blue Starseeker uniform sectioned off by flowing gray lines was beneath it.

Uncle Jordan plied words of persuasion upon her aunt. “Her parents launched on their return mission to Tamaroon six years ago. We know well that the chance of their return is slim to none.”

Once again grief over her parents stabbed through Annie’s thoughts. Her chest squeezed tight and made it hard to breath. They don’t know! My parents could be alive, and need help to get back. Sorrow passed and the voices in the next room again drew her attention.

“Precisely why, as her guardian, I should decide what is best for her. Angelina is only twelve years old and couldn’t possibly be considered. This blasted ice age has turned the whole world upside down.” The piercing dark eyes of her aunt looked at her uncle past the prominence of her nose. Her blonde streaked hair swept gracefully up like a crown. Her lavender gown of swirling crystals, draped regally to the floor. Constance always seemed to enjoy telling people what to do, but it never worked too well with Uncle Jordan. He could somehow always convince people to do what he said was best for the common good.

“Starseeker training would be the best thing for her. She has all the information her parents left on her study station. You know her parents would have wanted her to do this. Annie thinks of nothing but the Starseeker Corp. Besides, you said she was becoming a discipline problem – something about leaving and running about without permission.”

Annie scowled in the next room as she pressed her ear closer to the door. Aunt Constance had no good reason why she shouldn’t be allowed to explore the city below. What could possibly happen to her in the public data center, an art gallery or a local guild shop? She sometimes felt smothered by her aunt’s overprotective rules.

“Fine! Take her to apply for the Corp at the castle. They most likely won’t accept her anyway, despite your unwavering determination.” Aunt Constance turned with her head held high and strode with regal grace to her private rooms. Uncle Jordan turned to find Annie standing in the doorway. He smiled, and his eyes grew wide with excitement.

“Well, young lady! How would you like to take a trip with me to a castle?”

Life with Aunt Constance had taught her that grand hopes were out of her reach, but Uncle Jordan made anything seem possible. He had often said that as her father’s best friend, it was his duty to check in on her often. No matter the reason, she was always eager to go anywhere with him.

“The test is in one of the northern cities at Gosar Castle, isn’t it?” Annie asked, giddy with excitement. She knew the answer, but she often toyed with her conversations with Uncle Jordan.

“Yes, not only is it a northern kingdom, it is the central kingdom. I’m sure you remember that Gosar is the home of King Olsgood. He is the one king that rules the council of all the kings on Treya. He is also the one who put an end to all war so we could work on surviving the rapid fall into an ice age.”

“The central kingdom? Isn’t that where the princesses dance with the newly crowned prince heir of Gosar?” Her face was bright with excitement.

Uncle Jordan laughed and gave her a hug, “Yes, let’s go see where the princesses dance.”

 

In no more than ten tarpecs, they left wearing light thermal capes. Annie was nervous to face the unknown but she was eager for it. The trans-tube doors suctioned the vacuum compartment closed.

Uncle Jordan scanned his hand on the security pad by the door. “Take me to my ship, please.” The vacuum tube carried them to the secured launch bay where his ship had been stored. His shuttle was a sleek compact mini-jet. They boarded, and he locked in the auto-pilot destination.

The traffic tower responded, “Your destination has been received. You are clear for launch.” Thrusters fired up and shot the shuttle out the side of the tall building.

Annie vaguely remembered being afraid to fly so high above the streets. She marveled at the soaring birds flying with them through the open air among the towers. The Caldera autopilot, smoothly guided the shuttle to the edge of the city where it was released. Annie sat quietly next to her uncle. He saw her eye the controls while setting their course for Gosar. When they flew together, he would often turn the controls over to her—but today was different. She was on her way to take the recruiting test for the Starseeker Corp.

“There’s no time for side trips today,” he said. “You need to concentrate on the test.”

Flying north, they left the solar cell rooftops of the tropics, and the outdoor temperature reading dropped quickly on the panel overhead. They flew over turbo dams next to fish farms and the lonely towers of decaying nuclear reactors. The landscape below them was soon a rippling white sheet of snow in every direction.

“The snow is pretty, but it looks so empty,” Annie said.

“Compared to how crowded it is where you and your aunt live, it is. People abandoned the farms and moved to the central kingdoms because of the freezing temperature and spreading ice.” Uncle Jordan was a Master instructor at the Starseeker space station and often treated Annie like a student.

His special attention made her grin, and she couldn’t sit still. She often played at impressing him with something he hadn’t taught her. A spark of excitement shot through her mind when she remembered something she had read. “The central kingdoms are where they built those really big buildings mostly underground where lots of people can live. They used things that we throw away to make them.”

“Ah yes,” her uncle smiled at her familiar game. “The garbage huts. You really can’t tell by looking at them. The thick walls insulate against cold and sound.”

Annie twisted about in her seat. “Mom grew up in the kingdom of Nethas. Will we see it?”

“No, I’m afraid not. The kingdom of Nethas is far to the east. Your mother’s parents didn’t approve of your father taking her into space.” His grin formed a tight line when he looked at Annie with concern.

Annie knew Uncle Jordan didn’t like talking about her grandparents so she didn’t press the subject. “Aunt Constance didn’t sound too happy about me joining the Starseekers.”

“I think it’s because your Uncle Ben was always away on missions and because of his fatal mission years ago. She doesn’t care much for the Corp. Many improvements have been made since then. Constance may disapprove but she knows, as I do, that the Starseeker Corp is the best place for you.” Uncle Jordan looked down at Annie. “You know this is what your parents wanted for you, Annie. You’ve been studying for years now.”

“I know,” she said, as she twisted her hands about in her lap. “But what if I don’t pass the test?”

Uncle Jordan smiled, “You know everything you need to know. I wouldn’t have requested Starseeker training if I didn’t think you were ready. Even if you don’t do well on the test you can always try again next year.”

Annie felt some relief, but her stomach remained hollow and tight. She did want to be a Starseeker but she wanted even more not to disappoint Uncle Jordan.

Rugged rows of massive mountains loomed ahead. It wasn’t long before their ship was weaving its way among the white peaks beneath the high clouds. A high snowfield full of tall grey paddle fans passed below them. The speed of the huge blades varied with the gusting frigid air.

Uncle Jordan pointed a finger towards them. “That is one of King Olsgood’s new wind farms.” The shuttle dipped down into the next valley. “He also buried pipes deep in this valley to harvest steam to heat the greenhouses.”

Annie imagined a maze of pipes deep underground. In her mind she could see the vast web of small tunnels feeding a channel under the city to bring warmth to growing crops and people working in a frozen land.

Dark shapes at the base of a mountain grew as their ship flew over the valley. The Gosar kingdom was shielded from the frigid air by a large clear dome. Another shuttle flew into the city through the wall of the giant bubble. Annie sat forward on the edge of her seat. “Is that an energy dome?”

Uncle Jordan simply smiled and nodded. “The shield built by engineers from Nethas can control what passes through, the temperature inside, and if necessary, protect the city from attack.”

Monorail tracks fanned out from the city like the ribs of a fan to windowless apartment buildings, factories and smaller domes shielding the greenhouses. Beyond the central dome, an ancient castle crowned the top of a high mountain ridge in a globe of its own. Its towers rose over the city rooftops that hugged the rise and fall of the rocky foothills. Wide walkways, made of white stone, wove between buildings and followed the contours of the land. Crowded rows of colorful shops with shaded fountain courts and plazas lined the streets. Grassy hills with planting beds flowered among the buildings and walkways. It all looked so wonderfully strange surrounded by the drifting snow outside the dome.

“Wow!” Annie leaned forward to look down on the city. “It’s even better than the pictures on the data stream.” She was used to the simulator version her father created before there were domes or snow in the green valley of Gosar.

Uncle Jordan smiled. “Seeing the real thing is always more impressive.” A list of destinations cascaded onto a holoscreen floating in the zebidon mist before them. The Gosar autopilot had locked on to their ship. Uncle Jordan tapped in a selection and released the pilot controls on the touch pad.

The shuttle slowed into a swooping path toward the castle. The ancient marbled stone fortress was the largest in the world. Royal blue and gold flags flew above the towers that reached up toward the clouds heavy with snow above the invisible shield. Windows in the stone towers looked out on the surrounding land. A glass dome held in an intricate lace of metal protected the central courtyard.

“Landing sequence engaged,” a pleasant voice announced. The shuttle hovered gently down among the towers to the rooftop-landing pad.

Uncle Jordan took Annie’s hand and smiled. “Welcome to Gosar!”

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