Book One of The Chronicles of Cirrus

"Tapping into contemporary fears of escaping from a dying planet, rather than trying to fix it, this novel is a thrilling piece of fiction, as well as a dire warning. The subtle details of this future Earth and the Cirrus space station make the narrative remarkably immersive, and the blend of various sci-fi and sociological themes is compelling throughout. An original mix of apocalyptic, visionary, and hard science fiction, Broken Sky is a strikingly good YA novel with myriad plotlines that weave into an unpredictable sci-fi thriller." - Self-Publishing Review


The blaze started in a wastebasket—a humble beginning for a fire that would soon burn on the other side of the world.

On a humid summer night, the one-room portable office trailer occupied an unlit corner lot of a Louisiana fuel refinery. The trickle of smoke escaping from its open window into the polluted sky was the first sign of trouble.

A battered white pickup was parked beside the trailer with its nose pointed downhill. When the burning wall collapsed into its cargo bed, the driverless vehicle lurched down the gravel slope and rolled into an open-ended Quonset hut. Inside, the flames ignited a maze of pipes that fed aviation fuel into high-pressure manifolds. And from there …

- - - - -

Three hundred miles off the Australian coast, an explosion rocked a fourteen-passenger seaplane. Its fuel cap, mounted atop the fuselage between the wings, blew off, venting a stream of black smoke. The fire died quickly but no more fuel flowed into the tanks. Engines sputtered and passengers screamed as the aircraft pitched toward the sea.


Chapter 1

Two Weeks Before Newton

Not again.

Jack Scatter dangled his feet over the edge of a rocky cliff, on a world one-hundred and eighty-six million miles from the inferno in Louisiana. He considered hurling himself off the ledge—again—just to see what would happen.

Instead, he flicked a pebble into the nearby creek and leaned forward as the water tumbled it away. Far below, the stream twisted a familiar path through a grassy field saddled between two mountain peaks. Jack knew he was dreaming, but this time he planned to do something about it.

“It’s time to go, Jack,” the man standing beside him said.

Jack didn’t turn to face the speaker; it was pointless. “What would you do if I just sat here?”

The man replied, his words jumbled and muted, as if the answers he’d given in hundreds of dreams melded into overlapping syllables. It didn’t matter though, Jack already knew; he’d simply walk away and the dream would end.

For as long as he could remember, he’d been having the same dream. Every detail repeated exactly, except for the ending. From the bare rock he sat on, to the thin clouds in the sky above, to the song of a bird in a nearby bush, he always knew what to expect from one moment to the next.

“I know we’re somewhere in the Spine.” Jack traced the peaks of the four-mile-tall, snow-capped mountains fading into the distance. “But I can’t find that on any map.”

Crater lakes were common on Earth, but the one in the neighboring plain shouldn’t exist at all on Cirrus. He’d searched maps of the giant space station and never found matching terrain. Yet, the dream was so vivid, he was sure it had grown from a memory. Dark green lines meandered from opposite sides of the lake, and a perfectly round island occupied its center, like a flattened lava dome.

The anonymous man spoke again with a hundred voices that mingled to obscure all meaning.

Jack flung another stone into the abyss. “Why can’t you just once answer a question without sounding like you’re underwater?”

The man walked away. This was the moment Jack was waiting for.

Through the years, repetition had taught him how to hold his conscious mind at a level just below waking. That practice now enabled him to dream lucidly; to know when he was asleep and to have partial control over his dreams—most of them. He’d tried so many things to alter the flow, but this dream always ended in the same spot.

Not this time. He turned and focused not on the man walking away, but on the forest ahead. Concentrate. Instead of following, he’d try for the forest. Run, but don’t think about running. If he moved his real limbs, he’d startle himself awake. He fixated on the path bordering the stream, recalling the egg-shaped boulder beyond the meadow. He imagined himself vaulting the knee-high stone, feeling dry lichen flaking off as he brushed its top.

And then he was there—jogging through the short, evenly spaced trees. I did it. I skipped ahead.

He’d bypassed the uphill journey and was nearing the end of the hanging valley, where steep walls converged to a point. Eagerly, he swerved through a cleft in a bus-sized boulder and—

The stranger stood below a natural dam, a moraine-like pile of fallen stone, exactly where he’d be if Jack had followed. He pointed to the top of the heap. “… answer.”

“Answer to what?” Jack shouted. What’s the question?

The man climbed, leaving Jack and the familiar disappointment at the base of the wall.

“That’s not fair. I beat you. Something should have changed.” The climber didn’t respond, and Jack lingered until he was almost at the summit, wondering if it was worth the effort. But I changed part of the dream. Maybe I can change the ending.

Water seeped from a dozen fissures, coating the smooth rocks, but Jack remembered where the best footholds were and finished the trek. The man was waiting by the mouth of a cave formed by enormous blocks of fallen stone. He spoke again. “… inside.”

Beyond, the valley ended with a small lake surrounded by steep walls on three sides, but it was the sheltered opening that drew Jack’s attention.

Last chance to walk away.

He crouched beneath a massive slab of gray rock, knowing he had to surrender control to move beyond this point. If he took the next step, he might not escape, no matter what the dream showed.

At least that’s how it usually goes.

Stomach knotting, he moved closer, felt cool air at the cave’s threshold, smelled damp moss. It was all so real. He struggled with the knife-edge balance between dreaming and waking, but slowed his breathing and restored his confidence. And then the voices began.

Hundreds of indistinct murmurs swarmed from the darkness. The daily anxiety Jack felt around crowds overwhelmed his self-control. He became a spectator again, watching helplessly as his hand reached out, wondering if the cave held something new. It did. This time there was—


His dream-self pulled back instinctively from the roar and the heat, even though he couldn’t see a flame. It’s a dream. Just a dream. A shrill alarm pulsed—not a fire alarm, but a warning tone. Ignore it. He focused on the cave and smelled gas and oily smoke. New sounds surged: a sputtering engine, distant screams. It’s so close. Just inside. The enfolding voices swelled as he leaned farther, reached into the darkness and—

Woke up. Every. Single. Time.

He’d never been able to stay asleep; to continue dreaming and discover what waited in the cave or learn who the man was. Always, the answers hid from him like a word on the tip of his tongue. Equally troubling, the dream was occurring more often. It had gone from being an occasional event to almost monthly, and this was the second time in just the past week.

He took several deep breaths to calm himself, then lay quietly in his bed and listened. No sound came from within the house, but a passing drone overwhelmed the song of a nocturnal bird in the hedge below his window.

Now that his breathing and pounding heart were under control, he lay quietly in his bed and listened. No sound came from within the house, but a drone passed in the distance, overwhelming the song of a nocturnal bird in the hedge below his window.

It’s huge, Jack thought. I haven’t heard a drone like that in … I’ve never heard one like that. The machine thwupped more like a helicopter than a smaller, unmanned aircraft.

The large drone was heading for the family workshop in the industrial park, but the familiar rhythm of spinning blades carried a juddering vibrato. It’s got a chipped rotor. I guess I’ll be replacing that first thing in the morning. His tiny second-floor bedroom overlooked the fields, not the street, and was small enough for him to roll over and flip the curtain aside without getting out of bed. Huh? No landing lights.

Leaning back, he groaned when he spotted the dim numbers on the digital clock. Dawn was still hours away and he never could get back to sleep after one of these dreams. Fortunately, school break had already started and he didn’t need to be alert in the morning.

He got up, dressed, and crept down the stairs, even though his mother was a light-sleeper and probably heard him. But she knew he sometimes went to the shop in the small hours, so his stealth was mostly for his father’s benefit.

Instead of using the street, Jack left the townhouse through the back door and descended to the unlit dirt path that bordered the fields. The temperature never dropped to freezing in Fairview, but his breath clouded the predawn air. He turned up his collar and tucked his hands into his jacket pockets as he hiked the empty mile to the workshop.

- - - - -

There was something unsettling in the way Danny Kou observed people. When Pieter Reynard, CEO of Armenau Industries, entered his top-floor Seattle office, his chief engineer, Simon, was already suffering under that gaze.

Simon had once confided that he believed Danny was a Hopper, someone who could predict a person’s movements seconds before they happened. Pieter had dismissed the idea and warned Simon against such speculation. After all, he knew Danny’s secret; the man could foresee only half a second of his own future.

As Pieter passed without offering a greeting, Simon lowered his eyes and shuffled his feet. It wasn’t just scrutiny by the head of security that was making him nervous; he’d brought bad news. But he’d have to endure his misery a while longer—Pieter would not be rushed in his own office.

He hung his bespoke suit jacket neatly on the coat stand, brushed a fleck of dust from its sleeve, sat at his desk, and tapped a walnut valet box. “Espresso.”

The lacquered box dispensed a silver coin inscribed with an elegant coffee cup icon. Pieter dropped the coin into a mug, revealing a honeycomb of portal crystals on its other side. He took a moment to savor the aroma as steaming black coffee bubbled from the hexagonal array, filling the cup. Finally, he motioned for the engineer to speak.

Simon handed a tablet to Pieter with the results of the predawn test. “Thirty-seven aircraft were actively refueling on the ground, and one in-flight. It had to make an emergency landing near Lord Howe Island, but no one was hurt.” He wiped sweaty palms against the seams of his trousers.

Pieter had been scrolling through Simon’s data. A tiny furrow appeared on his brow when he read the comment about the Australian floatplane, but he just said, “Continue.”

“They’re upset that their fuel supply was interrupted, obviously. But they haven’t made a formal complaint. Yet.”

Pieter said nothing. Simon would get to the point faster that way.

“What … what do we do if they check the old fuel modules before shipping them back to us? They’ll see that the crystals are damaged. How do we—”

“Stop.” Pieter’s family had been in the transportation business for generations; he understood why the tour company had not acted. “They’re not going to complain. If you were to check, you’d find that plane has at least two more seats than it was designed for. They’re legally required to carry enough reserve fuel to reach the nearest airport, but a full-tank reduces cargo weight and thereby the number of paying passengers. It will be fine.”

Simon nodded and took two deep breaths. “The pumping station in Louisiana was destroyed as … as planned. No injuries there …” He shuffled a half step back from the desk. “But the roof collapsed and tore the fuel manifold apart before the final phase. That was unexpected, and it briefly exposed the wormholes, which led to small fires in several other cities.”

Pieter had been reading as Simon talked and had already finished the section covering the secondary fires. He considered the news for only a moment. “It’s unlikely anyone will link the events. Our official position is unchanged—the fire forced us to cut the fuel supply as a precaution. Pass requests for information directly to me and prepare for the next round of tests.” He said this casually but an underlying tone made it clear he would tolerate no more delays.

Simon glanced at Danny and retreated another half step. Danny, like Simon himself, was of average height, but muscled like an Olympic gymnast. That and his unrelenting glare made him more intimidating than Pieter, who was broad-shouldered and stood six inches taller.

“There was a second problem,” he finally said. “Our instruments recorded every crystal shattering as expected, only not until the pressure rose slightly higher than projected.”

Pieter had skipped the actual measurements. He understood the principles but left the details to the engineers. “What caused that?”

“It may just be an instrumentation error, except … well … except that the extra pressure works out to be precisely what it would be if there were two more crystals.”

“Another active pair?” Pieter’s voice was controlled but menacing. “Where?”

“Now that they’ve been destroyed, there’s … there’s no way to tell.” This time it was a full step back. “I’ll keep working on it and let you know as soon as I have an answer.”

Pieter dismissed the engineer but called him back before he reached the door. “Wait. The floatplane. It says here they’re grounded until they get the new fuel module.”

“That’s right. The courier has already delivered the upgrade package to their hangar on the mainland. They’re just waiting for one of their other aircraft to become available.”

“We have a helicopter in Sydney. As a courtesy, pick up their mechanic and fly him out to the island. Have our pilot collect the old modules while they’re finishing the repair.”

Simon smiled, unable to hide his surprise. “That … that’s very generous. I’m certain that’ll go a long way to smoothing things over.” He was still smiling when he left the room.

Pieter waited for the door to close. “Make sure that airplane never makes it to the mainland.”

Danny nodded and began typing on his phone, exposing dark lines of a tattoo under his cuff. A whiff of oily smoke drifted from his clothes.

Pieter picked up a gleaming sphere of white quartz from a wooden pedestal on his desk, then spun his chair to face the window. Despite the persistent haze, he’d have a fine view of Lake Washington from the ninety-sixth floor when the sun came up—few buildings in the city were equal to or taller than his own. Except for the conference room, his office and other private spaces took up the entire floor, but the view from this corner was his favorite. Even his overbearing father would have been impressed.

He raised the sphere to examine it more closely. “The extra crystals. Can you track them?”

Danny lowered his phone. “If there are records, I’ll find them. Do I have your approval?”

Approval. The meaning between them was clear. For Danny, making a plane and its crew disappear was trivial—the waters were deep enough off the coast. But when he asked for approval, it meant he expected to hire external contractors through multiple layers of secrecy in order to hide the connection to Armenau. The operation would be expensive.

“Just clean up loose ends,” Pieter said. “We can’t afford delays.”

Danny nodded again and left the office without a word, moving silently over the polished hardwood floor. Only the soft click of the door latch marked his passage.

Pieter shifted the tennis ball-sized stone between hands, weighing both it and his options. He’d already come so far on a difficult journey, liquidated many of his most treasured assets, and trimmed thousands of jobs. He hadn’t made that decision lightly—it had taken a decade to replace those assets.

“Call Simon,” he instructed the office AI.

As he waited for the connection, he rolled the stone, feeling the carved dimples that mapped locations of mine shafts and pumping stations. Such a simple thing. The stone wasn’t just any rock, but a scale model of the icy planetoid in the Oort Cloud that was the source of his wealth. Enough fresh water to last a thousand years.

Simon, still in the elevator, answered his phone seconds later.

“Move the resonance test up to the thirteenth,” Pieter said.

“That’s not … that’s only two weeks.”

Pieter tossed the stone and spread his fingers as it fell. With only a thought, he made it stop and hover inches above his hand. “Is that a problem?”

“We can’t … I had planned for a lot more time to prepare.”

Pieter was used to gambling. He’d risked his billion-dollar inheritance on an unproven concept and parlayed that success into a business empire that now controlled vast resources on Cirrus—the world-sized space station that produced a quarter of Earth’s food. And he’d done it despite the contempt of the thousands of Cirrus-investors who claimed to have built their own fortunes from the ground up.

“Will it work?” He twirled his fingers. The hovering stone began to spin.

“Yes, but …”

“But what?” The stone spun faster.

“It’s a big step.”

Bigger than you can possibly guess. Armenau Industries’ earnings were still firmly grounded in portal-based water delivery. Giving up that stability was a huge risk, but it was too late to stop. “I’m ready.”

Pieter clenched his fist.

The stone shattered.


Chapter 2

When Jack reached the cluster of drab, concrete-walled structures a mile from town, he found that all their lights were off except for one.

“Morning, Jack,” a familiar voice said. “You’re up early.”

Jack veered off the path and climbed the short rise to the neighboring shop. “That big drone woke me. I thought I’d get started on it before whoever owns it calls.” He spotted a cluster of spilled washers next to the open garage door and stooped to gather them.

“Heard it coming in myself.” The older man eased himself down from the engine compartment of a huge green combine harvester. “From the west.”

“West? Are you sure?” More than a hundred miles of the most productive farmland in the sector lay between Fairview and the sea; a drone as big as the one they’d heard had no purpose out there.

The man swung his arm to describe the flight path. “Passed overhead and turned around over the field.”

“That’s really strange.” Jack returned the box of washers to its proper spot; he knew this workshop almost as well as his own. “I know one of its rotors is damaged. Maybe that’s throwing off its airspeed sensor and it overshot.”

“You’ll figure it out. You always do.” He wiped his grease-marked hands on a rag, then pulled an envelope from his pocket and offered it to Jack.

“What’s this?”

“For the actuator you fixed last week and the distributor the week before. I told you, I’m paying you from now on.” He jabbed the envelope at Jack.

“You don’t have to do that, sir.”

“And you don’t have to always call me Sir. Call me Stan.”

“Yes, sir. I will.” Jack accepted the money.

“’Bout time the others started paying for your work around here, too.” He cast a glance over his shoulder. “You know Hank over there is taking advantage of you. The sensor array you done for him would’ve cost him four hundred for a rebuild in Port Isaac.”

Jack shrugged. “I’m learning a lot. The practical experience is worth more than that. I plan to open my own shop someday, in Caerton.”

“You need to be saving up for college.”

“I’m …” He looked down and nudged another carton into place with his foot. “I’m not sure I’m going.”

“Hmm. Your parents think you are.”

“I’m already doing what I want. I don’t need more school to learn what I already know.”

“Education makes the most of opportunity. Got a master’s degree in engineering.” Stan slapped the giant machine beside him. “You think I need that to repair this beast?”


“But if I didn’t, I’d be stuck on Earth, doing the same job in a crowded and polluted city for half the wage. The fresh air alone is worth the degree. You don’t know what choices you’ll be facing. Keep your options open.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Your parents have told you the same thing, haven’t they?”

“Yes, sir.”

He lowered his gray-stubbled chin to look over the rim of his glasses. “It’s Stan.”

“Yes … sir.” Jack failed to suppress a grin.

Stan returned the smile. “Well, I won’t push the matter. You’ll make the right decision when the time comes.” He reached down and picked up an oil-stained cardboard box. “You call Hank Sir?”

“He’s not … I mean, you’re …”

“Got a few more gray hairs than he does. Is that it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“That’s ‘bout all they’re good for, then.” He passed the box to Jack. “Look at this steering servo for me. If you can fix it, tell me how much time you put in. I’ll pay you proper.”

“Yes, sir. Thank you.”


- - - - -

Jack carried the steering controller the short distance to the back door of his family’s own shop and switched on the lights. Unlike Stan’s garage, built to house two harvesters side-by-side, their building was long and narrow. An office occupied the front third below a second-floor mezzanine, but Jack spent most of his time in the back, which was divided into storage and workshop. Steel racks housing hundreds of drones and spare parts filled the warehouse half of the room to the twenty-foot ceiling. He skirted these on his way to his workbench, where he emptied the box and spun the servo’s motor shaft.

The encoder has broken loose. He sensed the telltale noise and vibration. But I’m more interested in that drone.

He’d take the mechanism apart to confirm the problem before printing parts, but felt confident with his diagnosis; he was always correct about these things. Pushing the servo aside, he climbed the steel ladder at the back of the room and popped the roof hatch. The landing pad was empty.

Crashed? Jack hurried to the far edge of the flat roof and checked the space between the buildings. The alley was empty, so he ran to the side overlooking the street. That was clear, too. I definitely heard a drone. So did Stan.

The neighboring rooftops were the same height as his, and the drone was on none of them. There was no movement and no sound, but a faint glow reflected off the fields behind a warehouse across the street, the largest on the block: Hank’s place.

He scurried back to the alley side of the building, checked that his phone was securely clipped to his belt, then leaned over the short raised wall next to the scupper drain and vaulted off the roof. Hanging from the edge of the wall by one hand, he reached over to grab the downspout below the drain, then shifted his weight to the pipe.

Mom would totally freak if she caught me. So would his father. But Jack could tell exactly how strong the connections were and how much weight the pipe could bear by the way it flexed. The bolts securing the plastic drainpipe to the wall may as well have been extensions of his own fingers.

After sliding down the first section of pipe, he paused at the bracket to make sure it was sound, then swapped his hands below the support to continue his descent. He landed lightly on the hard-packed gravel, stepped out of the alley, and crossed the street.

There was definitely a light ahead. Voices, too. It sounded as if the back door to Hank’s warehouse was open. Jack crept through the alley, hoping to find the drone without bothering anyone. Then a motion sensor turned on the overhead light, casting a long shadow past the building’s edge.

Hank stepped into the light, surprisingly swift for a man who fooled no one with his claim of weighing only two hundred fifty pounds. “What are you doing sneaking around at this hour?”

“I’m not sneaking.” Jack leaned to look past but Hank’s ample waistline blocked much of the view without him even trying. “I was looking for a drone. I think it crashed near here.”

Hank sidestepped to block Jack. “I haven’t seen anything. It’s not here.”

Jack said nothing. He’s lying.

A faint voice sounded from Hank’s phone. He raised it to his ear and nodded several times, then said, “You should head home, Jack. You don’t want people to think you’re up to no good. I’ll let you know if your missing drone turns up.”

Another lie. Jack wanted to take two more steps, to see the drone he suspected was there, but said, “Sure. Thanks.” There was little to be gained by proving Hank was lying. He turned and walked away without looking back. Though he was soon too distant to hear Hank’s conversation clearly, he distinctly heard the man say ‘Jack Scatter’ into his phone.

What’s he hiding? Jack wondered as he climbed the ladder to the workshop’s roof. And why did he give my name?

Everyone in town knew Hank considered himself a powerful man. Jack, sixteen years old and only half of Hank’s probable true weight of three hundred pounds, would get no respect and no answers from the self-important businessman.

Hank saw that drone. Jack was certain. It might even be just across the street in his warehouse. But what it was doing there and why Hank lied were things he could only guess at.

As he watched, the light behind Hank’s building faded away.


Chapter 3

Jack was still at the workshop, inspecting a faulty gearbox, when the sun rose. Despite the steady stream of cold air that spilled through it, he’d left the roof hatch ajar, hoping to hear the missing drone again. The first rays of sunlight were reflecting through the gap and scattering across the cluttered workbench when his phone rang. He smiled and tucked it between his shoulder and ear so he could continue working.

“Ethan, what’s up?”

“Hey, I don’t have much time. I just wanted to let you know that I’m coming to Cirrus.”

“Yeah, I know. Next year.”

“No, today.”

“What?” Jack set his screwdriver down and held the phone in front of him, activating both his and his cousin’s cameras.

Ethan grinned as his image filled the screen. “My parents’ jobs got bumped up. We flew into New Mexico last night. We’ll be lifting off in a few hours.”

“That’s, uh, great. Why are you whispering?” Jack had automatically lowered his voice too.

“No reason. How do you spell, sedative?”

“What are you doing?”

“There are a couple of jerks who’ve been bullying the younger passengers. I found their medical records and put them both down as being highly susceptible to wormhole-sickness.”

“Found?” Jack focused on the gap between Ethan’s head and the edge of the screen. “Are you in the server room?”

Ethan shrugged. “Maybe. There are a lot of computers here. Anyway, the ship’s doctor has already met them. She’ll be happy to learn she can dose their meals.”

“Oh, they’re going to be pissed.”

“Actually, no. I already thought of that. What’s the name of that tube they shove … you know what I mean.”

“Are you talking about a catheter?”

“That’s it. With any luck, they’ll sleep through the entire trip.”

“Uh, are you sure you want to do that?”

“Already done. Oops. Someone’s coming. I gotta run.” The video blurred. “See you in two weeks.”

The last thing Jack heard before Ethan disconnected was a keyboard clattering on a desk and feet slapping the floor.

Two weeks. Jack set his phone on the workbench. Why didn’t Mom or Dad tell me? He and Ethan had grown up together—virtually. They’d never met in person but had spent countless hours together online.

He considered calling home, but it was still early. The gearbox would only take twenty minutes to clean, reassemble, and reinstall. He decided to finish his work first.

Repairing drones was an unpaid job he did on weekends throughout the school year. Given the chance, he’d have worked every night of the week—the order and predictability of machinery was calming—but his parents insisted homework was the top priority.

Jack was already skilled enough to apply for a full-time job in a larger city. He could identify the problem with any mechanical device in minutes, grasped hydraulics as well as his father, and was rapidly learning electronics. His only reservation was that he didn’t like to be around many people. The anxiety he suffered in crowds wasn’t disabling, but it could be overwhelming. He recalled the unease he’d felt in last night’s dream—a reaction to the sound of all those voices.

Sunlight was streaming through the window in the workshop’s back door when he finished the repair. He set his tools down and considered the open roof hatch.

If Hank is hiding that drone, he’s not going to fly it in the daytime.

Jack climbed the warehouse ladder, closed and latched the overhead panel from below, then headed home for breakfast. And answers.

- - - - -

“We just found out ourselves.” Jack’s mother, Emily, slid a plate of toast onto the dining room table and sat beside his father. “Apparently they got the call yesterday and didn’t have time to tell anyone.”

“We’ll be taking the bus to Port Isaac to meet them,” Victor said. “You’re coming with us.”

Jack fumbled his fork. It clattered noisily on his plate. “Why do I have to go?”

“With Ethan here, your grandfather will pay the college tuition for both of you. It’ll be good for you to see how much it’s changed.” He sipped his coffee and turned to look through the glass doors, in the direction of the distant city.

Jack knew what his father meant: he needed to get accustomed to being around crowds. Just thinking about it made him squirm. He crossed his arms and leaned back in his chair, following his father’s gaze across the fields. “How long are we staying?”

“We’ll see how it goes,” Emily said. “Maybe you and Ethan will stay in Fairview until school starts.”

- - - - -

After dinner, Jack lay on his bed, brooding over the news while staring at a map of Cirrus pinned to the sloped ceiling.

College had always been a distant concept, even though both his parents had engineering degrees and his grandfather was a respected scientist. Now that the famous Holden Marke was involved, Jack knew he’d be under pressure to go along with their plans. He’d have only a year to change their minds.

His phone chimed.

<Can we talk?> The Caller ID was Sarah Rogers. By talk, she meant video.

Jack sat up, subconsciously smoothing his pillow-tousled hair before allowing his camera to connect. “Sure, what’s up?”

“Not much.” She was calling from her bedroom. The room behind her had changed over the years—toys had been replaced by sketches, replaced by piles of scattered clothing, replaced again by watercolors—but Sarah looked the same. At least that’s how it seemed to him. If he pictured her in the past, he saw her as she was now: pretty, confident, and always smiling. “Sometimes it’s just easier than texting.”

“I agree. My cousin called today. He’s on his way to Cirrus.”

“You don’t look happy. Aren’t you and Ethan close?”

“Sort of.” Jack tried to appear casual. “But we’ve never actually met. What if we can’t stand each other in person?”

Sarah laughed gently. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.” She paused, then adjusted her phone so she was out of the frame. “You’ve spent enough time online that you probably know everything about each other.”

He wasn’t sure how to respond. This was one of those moments where he felt he needed to say something, but was worried that whatever he said would come out wrong. As with Ethan, he’d never met Sarah in person, though they’d spent thousands of hours together online. They’d also discussed their after-graduation plans for years, and these always centered on Caerton.

“It’s not just Ethan,” he said when Sarah reappeared. “Our grandfather will pay our tuition if we go to college together in Port Isaac.”

A worried expression passed over her face. “That sounds great.”

Jack shifted uncomfortably. “But I already had plans for Caerton.”

Sarah nodded but said nothing.

“Maybe I can convince him to loan me the tuition money, instead. That would cover half the franchise fee to start my own business. Of course, I’d be in debt to the corporation for another decade, but at least I’d be working.”

“Will he go for that?”

That was a good question. Jack had never met his grandfather, hadn’t even spoken on the phone with him in years. That wasn’t because Holden wasn’t involved with the family, but—as a teenager—Jack spent a lot more time with friends than family.

“I’m going to have to show him that I can do the job on my own. But since he lives on Earth, I’ll have to convince my parents first. I have an idea.”

- - - - -

Later that night, shortly before he fell asleep, Jack heard the mysterious drone leaving town, its unrepaired rotor still singing a warning tune.

"Lively YA apocalypse building to a resonant cliffhanger." - BookLife



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