Alien Worlds is a fast-paced science fiction story about a girl lost in a wormhole. A fun read for your teen or pre-teen. It’s the kind of book I wish I’d had when I was thirteen.
And now it’s in audiobook at Audible. I chose an excellent narrator, Jennifer Fournier, who’s produced children’s books before. She has an emphatic style of reading, which I think is perfect for this age group.
If you would like to hear a sample, you can listen here.
If you prefer ebooks or print books, I hope you enjoy this excerpt.
Impani leaned against the tree trunk. She wished she were invisible. A twig snapped, and she bit her lip hard.
Nearby, the beast gave a low growl.
Quaking with dread, she peered around the tree. She saw a bristly black snout and jagged brown tusks. The beast’s single eye turned slowly in its socket. It stared straight at her.
With a yelp, Impani took off. She raced through leaves of red and orange feeling as if she ran through fire. Her boots thumped and scarred the hard-packed clay. Her facemask jolted with each step.
She couldn’t keep this up. She was fast, but the beast had endurance—and he had it in for her. She shouldn’t have entered its lair. That was one of the first rules she learned as a cadet. But the cub was so cute.
Suddenly, her feet flew out from under her. She slid on her butt down a steep slope and landed in a mud puddle. A flock of winged geckos took flight.
The beast detoured around the shallow pool. Couldn’t bear to get its fur wet. Maybe she still had a chance.
Spurred by hope, Impani angled back to where she’d forded the stream, leaving her partner, Davrileo Mas, digging up his rocks. If she could reach water, the creature might lose interest. She bounded over gullies and fallen branches. The creature thrashed behind her. It growled as if to tell her it still had her in sight.
Impani stumbled over the uneven ground. Her breath hitched, and she clutched her side. Thorns reached for her, but her skinsuit slipped through as if she were made of glass. Ahead, she heard the babble of a stream. She forced her burning legs to move faster, arms pumping, teeth bared, and burst from the crimson trees into bright yellow sunlight.
Crashing over the rocky bank, she splashed into the stream. Moisture dotted her mask. She ran until the water was over her knees then risked a glance toward the shore.
The beast paced the bank. Its massive, inward-turned paws raked the rocks. A thick collar of fur stood straight out. Impani gnawed her lip. Go away. Go back to your baby. She sighed as the animal lowered its ruff and turned to leave.
An arc of blue-white energy streaked overhead, striking the beast as it lumbered away. With a roar, it reared onto two feet and spun toward the bank.
“No.” Impani looked around.
Davrileo pointed his stat-gun and fired again. The blast hit the beast mid-chest. The creature flew back then slammed the ground. Its heavy legs twitched and slashed the air. Impani saw the white of its exposed ribcage, the black, scorched flesh.
“No!” she yelled.
Davrileo shot again. The beast shuddered and fell silent. Impani looked at her partner. She wanted to throttle him, wanted to smash his grinning face.
“What do you think you’re doing?” she shouted as she waded across the stream. “It had a cub. It was protecting its young.”
“It would have killed you,” Davrileo shouted back.
She moved as if to tear at her non-existent hair. “It was leaving.”
“A little gratitude might be nice,” he said. “What were you doing over there anyway? We’re supposed to be partners.”
“We’re explorers.” She looked at the red and black mass that was once a living creature and thought of the cub alone in its lair. “We aren’t here to butcher the locals.”
“Well, let’s get back to exploring those rocks. This world is a geological haven. I can’t wait to give my report.”
Disgust seeped into her anger. In a low voice, she said, “If you’ve cost me my chance—”
She stopped as a familiar tug grasped the pit of her stomach. Alarms wailed in the back of her mind.
They were being recalled. The training session was over.
She usually felt disappointed; she could never learn enough about these distant, alien worlds. But this time she wanted to leave the planet. She wanted to get back to the academy.
Looking up, she imagined a circle of swirling black energy, although she knew the Impellic ring was imperceptible. She had invented this image of it to calm her fears about traveling through space without a spaceship.
Darkness gathered. Tendrils reached down and pulled her from the world on which she stood. The rocky bank, the sound of water receded. The void enveloped her—deep and empty yet somehow giving the impression of extreme velocity.
Blinding light speared the black. Impani winced. She felt a cylinder materialize at her back, a platform beneath her feet. Her vision wavered then focused upon a mirrored room.
The Impellic Chamber.
Its many reflections showed Davrileo Mas on the other side of the cylinder. Impani removed her mask and slid off the hood of her skinsuit.
“Welcome home, cadets,” a voice said through a speaker. “Shower down and report to debriefing.”
Impani rushed to Debrief. She found Davrileo and their supervisor, Ms. Kline, huddled together, speaking in quiet tones.
She felt a twist of apprehension. “Sorry I’m late, ma’am.”
“Sit down, Impani.” Ms. Kline smiled. “Davrileo was telling me about the mineral deposits the two of you found.”
Her eyes flicked to Davrileo’s face. “Actually, he located the deposits. He carried the resonator this trip out.”
“It appears that he also secured most of the samples.”
“I took samples, too.” Impani sat at the table. “I took specimens of trees and moss. And I got a tuft of animal fur.”
“A planet is more than a lump of minerals.”
“True,” Kline said. “But when the Board sends colonists to a planet, it’s for a specific reason. And often that reason is mining rights. As a Colonial Scout, it will be up to you to assess a world within given parameters.”
“But as cadets, we’re not given parameters. I wanted to bring back as much information as we could.”
“You certainly did that.” She scrolled down her slate. “You ranked higher than any other team we sent to that world. However, none of them resorted to killing an inhabitant. Tell me about the animal you discovered.”
Impani hesitated. “It was two meters tall. Bristly fur. Ran both upright and on all fours. It had one eye, and its head swiveled.”
“Extraordinary,” Kline said. “This is the first report we’ve had of a Cyclops creature. A shame it had to be destroyed.”
“Yes, ma’am.” She glowered. Any points she’d made for finding the beast were now lost.
Davrileo cleared his throat and sat straighter. “My partner was in imminent danger.”
“And as partners, you work together, watch out for one another?” Kline looked back and forth at each of them. “I ask because of a discrepancy in sensor readings. Impani, you show an increase in body temperature, adrenalin—”
“I was running from the beast.”
“For twenty minutes?”
Impani pursed her lips. Had she strayed that deeply into the woods?
“Yet, Davrileo’s readings are peaceful.” Kline consulted the slate. “Almost as if the two of you were in separate places.”
“Impani wandered away,” Davrileo said.
“I wasn’t wandering. I was exploring.”
“Might have gotten us both killed.”
“That’s absurd,” Impani cried. “You shot that poor thing in the back.”
“He was coming at you,” Davrileo shouted. “If I hadn’t shown up—”
“Thank you, Davrileo,” Kline said quietly. “You are dismissed.”
Davrileo glared at Impani, pushed back his chair, and strode from the room.
Beneath the table, Impani clenched her fists. Heat radiated from her face. She concentrated on gathering her anger into a ball and squeezing it.
Kline said, “Impani, you’re at the top of your class. You aced all your studies, and you grasped Impellic theory and logic faster than any sixteen-year-old I ever met. But this is the second report of you leaving your partner.”
“I just think you can see more of a planet if you don’t keep your nose stuck to an instrument screen.”
“Scouting is a dangerous business. That’s why Scouts are dispatched in pairs. We’d send you in groups if we could, but Impellic Theory states a ring can transport only two. Otherwise, the ring may become unstable and—”
“The point is that you have to work with others. Haven’t you wondered why we split the equipment between you? It’s so you’ll work together.”
She groaned. “He shot that creature in the back.”
Kline sighed. “All right. You can go.”
“No, please. At least, take my specimens into consideration.”
“Get some rest, Impani. You’re on stage first thing tomorrow morning.”
A hearth dominated the Main Floor Eatery. Spotlights shone upon its station in the center of the vast circular room. Flames shot toward the ceiling. Fingers of mist drew auras about the chefs who danced around the fire.
Impani skirted the perimeter. Her nose twitched at the mixed aromas of multiethnic food. She would have preferred to skip breakfast. The memory of being chewed out the night before still churned in her stomach. But she put on a smile and a better attitude and looked for her friend.
“Over here,” Natica whispered.
“Morning.” Impani slipped into the crescent-shaped booth. The sides curved overhead, blotting out the sound and sight of other diners. She lifted a glass from a puddle of condensation. “You ordered nectar? What’s the occasion?”
“Our almost graduation. And you’re late.”
“Sorry,” Impani said. “I bumped into Mr. Ambri-Cutt in the hall.”
“That old raffer. You should remind him that techs aren’t supposed to talk to cadets. We can’t afford any distractions.”
Impani chuckled. “He just wants to show off. He even let me into the control room once.”
“If you get caught, you’ll both be in deep drel.”
A clatter overrode Impani’s response. Two chefs collided. A breakfast platter flew. Several daem eggs rolled under a counter.
Her friend grinned. “I love the floorshow here. They’re so synchronized.”
Impani smiled. Of all the people she had met since her acceptance into the academy, she felt most at ease with Natica Galos. Relaxing against the cushion, she removed the string of emerald pearls she wore draped across her smooth scalp.
Natica picked them up. “These are new. Another secret admirer?”
“They’re from that boy who took me to the vids last week.”
“Are they real?”
“We can only assume. Whose turn is it to buy?”
“Yours. And I’m famished.” Natica tossed the pearls onto the seat then activated the menu. Pictographs hovered over the table. She ordered a boiled daem egg by punching the picture with her knuckle.
Impani studied the floating images. “I think I’ll have a sweet cake.” She made her selection, and the holographic menu vanished.
“So tell me,” Natica said. “How was the session yesterday?”
“It was wonderful. They sent us to a wooded world. The plant life was amazing—deep reds and ocher. Carotene based, not chlorophyll. We would have scored pretty well, except—”
“Here it comes.”
“I stopped to look at a cub in its lair. It was so little. Who would have thought its father would be so huge?”
“What did you do?”
“I ran. It chased me halfway across the continent, seemed just about to give up when Davrileo Mas came to my rescue. He butchered the beast on the spot.”
“And you think you’ll lose points for that?”
She shook her head. “He didn’t even try to ward it off.”
“Maybe he was afraid.” Natica shrugged. “I would have been.”
“But to kill it.”
“Pani, not every session needs to be spectacular. You’re sure to make the program.”
“In two days we’ll find out.” Impani sipped her nectar. She felt embarrassed and misunderstood. The mewling cub came to mind. Did it have a mother to care for it? “How did you do on the physics exam?”
“Passed everything but Impellic Theory. My downfall.”
“Everyone hates that subject.”
“I’ll never get it.”
“Sure you will.” Impani smiled. “Once I thought a single black hole would devour the universe. But in reality the hole isn’t expanding, it’s contracting. Along with space and light and time, it’s also sucking in itself. Then one day, poof, it disappears and all that’s left is an Impellic ring. And what you do is take, say, three of them…” She smeared the condensation from her drink and drew three concentric circles. “The big one powers the other two, and the middle one powers the last. Zips you through space just like stepping through a door.”
“If only you were the instructor. You have such a simple way of explaining things.” Natica toyed with the pearls. “Speaking of simple, I saw Robert Wilde yesterday. Obnoxious as ever.”
Impani hid behind her glass of nectar. “Really?”
“He got a three-day suspension for fighting.”
“He’s a bully. I don’t know why I ever—”
“He says you’re in love with him. Are you?”
Impani set down the glass and looked away. She remembered the night she told Robert she didn’t want to see him anymore. He stood outside her room, his face dark and his hands clenched, making her too nervous to fall asleep. She wasn’t afraid of him, although she was wary of his quick temper. But lately, she caught glimpses of him in improbable places and wondered if he was stalking her.
A server approached, breaking her reverie. He set their meals before them and retreated without speaking. Privacy was the diner’s greatest asset.
Impani sliced the sweet cake into quarters. Dried fruit crumbled onto her plate. “It’s strange that in all the time we’ve been at the academy, we’ve never been partners.”
“Computer glitch.” Natica leaned forward and removed the top of her egg. She coaxed out a black tentacle with the flat of her spoon. “I wouldn’t mind being paired with the new guy.”
“Trace Hanson? Ugh. He’s a convict, a common criminal.”
“A good-looking common criminal. Aren’t you the least bit intrigued?”
Impani pictured him with his legs stretched out before him, slouched in the back of the room. He’d arrived at the academy three months ago and was promptly ostracized, the other cadets whispering. “I’ve been running from his kind all my life.”
“I wonder what his crime was.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
Natica shrugged and ate her breakfast.
Impani pushed her own plate away. “I don’t know why they let people like him in the academy.”
“They almost have to, don’t they? I mean, with the drop in new recruits? Now is the best time to get into the program.”
“No, it’s tougher than ever,” Impani said. “One more incident of lost colonists and they’ll shut us down for good. The government needs reliable Scouts to get those people onto safe worlds.”
“That’s where you and I come in.”
Impani smiled. “Right.”
Arms crossed, she gazed across the restaurant. How different her life was here—so removed from the warlords and rats, the perpetual darkness of the streets.
No doubt, Trace Hanson came from the same environment. But while she fought to rise above her origins, he obviously carried his with him. Criminal. Convict. She couldn’t afford to be intrigued.
They finished their meals, left the Eatery, and stepped into the central tower. A thrill swept Impani as she entered the wide corridor. She would never grow accustomed to the sight.
Gilded archways adorned the ebony walls. Glass-bottomed lifts scaled the heights. Open terraces created a latticework of light bars that merged two hundred stories above. Impani gazed upward as she walked. She wished she could stay forever.
But her days at the academy were nearly over. Natica worried about not making the program, about returning as a failure to her family’s dockside fishery on the watery planet of Naiad. Impani had much more to lose. She expected to be executed if she returned home. That was the price she’d paid for freedom—the secret she kept even from Natica.
The tower was peaceful so early in the morning. The silence wouldn’t last. Soon the halls would swarm with other hopefuls, chattering and laughing, all vying for a chance to prove their worth. Despite the competition, there was camaraderie among the cadets she’d never known.
She would miss this place. Pass or fail, she would never see it again. Would she remember the academy as being the beginning or the end of her adventure?
With a stifled squeal, Natica caught her arm. She swung her around and pulled her to the side. “There he is.”
Impani blinked out of her reverie. She looked where Natica pointed.
Then she saw him. Trace Hanson.
He walked along the far side of the corridor, his gait slow, eyes downcast. He was tall. His shoulders were so wide they strained his tunic. Impani wondered suddenly what it would be like to be held close by those muscular arms.
“You should say hello,” Natica said.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she snapped, more alarmed at the turn her thoughts had taken than at her friend’s suggestion.
Her friend grinned and nudged her. “Go on. This is your last chance. In two days you may never see him again.”
Impani squirmed from her prodding fingers. “You’re the one who was intrigued.”
“All right,” she said. “I’ll go.”
“No!” Impani giggled and pulled her back.
Just then, her gaze met his.
Trace Hanson’s eyes were black and deep-set like a hawk. They made her feel he could see right through her, that he already knew her secrets, her faults.
Impani’s face grew hot. She turned her back. “Stop it.”
“What’s the matter?”
“He knows we’re talking about him.”
“So what? Like I said, this is probably the last time we’ll ever see him.”
She glanced over her shoulder. He turned down a hallway and was soon out of sight.
With a laugh, Natica linked arms with her and set them moving down the massive corridor. Their footsteps echoed. At last, they reached a huge oblong touch plate in the center of the hall. A holographic roster listed the members of the Colonial Expansion Board.
Natica pressed her palm against the plate’s dark surface. Letters appeared over her fingers.
REGISTER GALOS, NATICA H. REPORT TO MEDITATION ROOM 3B.
She smiled and moved aside. Impani took her place. The touch plate acknowledged her.
REGISTER IMPANI. REPORT TO MEDITATION ROOM 8A.
Impani stepped back. “It looks like we won’t be partners this time either. I really hoped we’d be together at least once.”
“It’s a conspiracy. Listen, I have to get going. I’m all the way on the other side.” Natica headed for an arched hallway. She called over her shoulder, “Be spectacular!”
As Impani watched her go, she felt suddenly alone. With a sigh, she entered the hallway leading to the even-numbered rooms. This hall differed from the main corridor. The ceiling was close. Stark lights crisscrossed the pale walls. Instead of polished black tile, the floor was gray and resilient. It muffled the sound of her step.
“Four A, Four B, Six A.” At last, she reached room 8A. A green light shone over the door. Impani glanced at meditation room 8B. The light blinked red. Access locked. Her partner was already inside.
She held her palm against the reader. The door slid open to reveal a small room. A couch sat along one wall and a table along another. A non-denominational altar stood in the corner. Light flickered from a panel in the ceiling.
Impani sat on the edge of the couch. She folded her arms, then crossed and uncrossed her legs. The silent altar admonished her. She had no prayers to give.
Be spectacular, Natica told her. She’d have to be spectacular if she were to make the program.
Who would her partner be? Hopefully someone who wasn’t afraid to take a chance. Vinod Mouallem would be good. Or Anselmi, the humanoid from the planet Veyt. Anyone but Davrileo. Or Robert Wilde.
Repulsed by the thought, she approached a small mirror and slid the strand of pearls from her brow. She hated that she had no hair. Miserable skinsuits. The techs wanted nothing between her flesh and their instruments. With a derisive sniff, she tugged her tunic over her head.
A line of equipment edged a shelf above the table. Carefully, she took down each piece. From a sealed pouch, she shook out her skinsuit. It was lightweight, finely ribbed with minute sensors and equalizers. She slid her fingers beneath a triple seam and laid it open. The texture was the same on either side. Gathering the suit in her hands, she pushed her foot inside. It molded immediately to the contours of her toes, the curve of her ankle. Slowly, she pulled it up her thigh, keeping the ribbing straight and the fabric even. The tightness eased as the suit adjusted.
She gathered the other leg. Leaning against the wall, she drew the fabric taut along her skin and smoothed it upward to her waist. Environmental gadgets weighted the sleeves, and she worked her hands into them carefully to position the readers over her forearms.
In front of the mirror, Impani rolled the hood over her naked scalp. She adjusted the insulator band at her forehead, tightened it beneath her chin, then ran her fingers down her body, making sure the triple closure was properly sealed. In her reflection, the seam appeared invisible.
“Done in record time.”
Hands on her hips, she turned from side to side. The silver skinsuit picked up the colors of the room as if she were camouflaged. It conformed to her so neatly she could count every rib. So flexible, she felt naked.
She uncoiled her utility belt.
“Hooks and clamps, metallic twine,” she whispered as she ran through her supplies. “The refit date on the stat-gun is current. Med-pac is full.”
Her gaze fell upon the sonic resonator. She would be in charge of taking scans this trip. Maybe that would give her control over whether she and her partner explored their alien surroundings or just sat looking at pretty rocks.
With a satisfied nod, Impani wrapped the belt about her waist. The latch wouldn’t close. Drel! She slammed the pin into the buckle and wiggled the clasp. After a few moments, the ready light gave a reassuring blink.
She tossed her clothes into the recycling chute. Fresh clothing would be waiting for her when she returned from the session. As someone who never owned a second set of clothes, that always amazed her. She coiled the strand of pearls and left it on the table where it wouldn’t get lost. Then she put on her gloves.
As she turned toward a blank wall, she took a deep breath. “This session will be my most spectacular.”
She wiped her hand against her hip then pressed her palm against the wall. A panel slid to expose the Impellic Chamber.
Impani’s stomach swooped. Tossing back a mane of phantom hair, she stepped inside.
Mirrors encased the room. They caused the light to bounce at odd angles. A silver cylinder upon a raised dais met its image in the ceiling. There were no computer monitors, no panels of flashing lights—all tech was in the control room. Technicians watched from behind the mirrors.
She crossed the room, sat on the platform, and dangled her legs over the edge. Her partner hadn’t left meditation. Leave it to her to show up too early. She swung her legs, feeling the weight of her boots, and saw a hundred images of herself move in sync.
The techs were watching. Would Mr. Ambri-Cutt be among them?
Suddenly self-conscious, she jumped down from the stage and circled the room. The reflective floor hindered her step as if she walked upon the surface of water. Probably the only place in the galaxy where a person didn’t have a shadow.
Behind her, the panel from meditation room 8B slid open. Finally. With a smile, Impani turned. The smile froze upon her face.
Her partner was Trace Hanson.