I've been talking about my new Dark Stars trilogy for some time, and I wanted to share the opening chapter with you. This isn't 100% final yet, but I hope it gets you excited for the rest of the book!
Flirting with death was the perfect way to spend an afternoon.
My slim shadow stretched behind me as I paced along the brink of the cliff, squinting into the setting sun.
Next to me, Adrianne prepared to leap. She grinned from her perch at the edge.
“Just jump already,” I urged while securing my pink hair into a braid past my shoulders.
“Relax, Elle. I’m getting in the zone.” She stretched her arms wide and leaned forward, surrendering to the wind.
I peeked over the lip as she plummeted toward the depths of the sandstone canyon.
Adrianne’s gleeful cheer echoed through the chasm as she fell. She kicked off an outcropping, launching herself into a cartwheel through the air, which she transitioned into a somersault. Every movement was fluid, reaching and twisting in ways I’d never be able to achieve myself.
While I watched her aerial acrobatics, I gripped my left shoulder in my right hand with subconscious envy—my reminder that showing off sometimes came with a price.
“Reset!” I called out to our friend Jiro when Adrianne was almost to the canyon floor.
“Loading,” he confirmed behind me.
The air electrified, tingling my skin and pulsing in my ears. White light crept into the corners of my vision, accompanied by an intensifying hum. With a flash, my vision went black.
For a moment, I floated in nothingness. Then, reality resolved around me once more. The blackness receded into sunlight and my feet were again solidly on the rocky ground.
I was now standing in the same position I’d been minutes before when I made the reset point at the access terminal. Suspended inside the monument was a two-meter-tall crystal that glowed with a swirling blue inner light.
It was one of four monuments in the vicinity of our community, each connected to a larger crystalline network woven throughout the planet and surrounding worlds. The remarkable properties of the crystals made our play possible.
Every time someone touched one of the crystals, it would record the precise physical state within its zone at that moment—including the kinesthetic abilities, clothing, and hair style of each person, along with the general environmental configuration. The access panel on the monument could then be used to reset the surrounding landscape and our physical forms into one of the previously recorded states with our cognition intact. Out in the remote canyon where it was just us, we could reset as many times as we wanted since the action was restricted to each crystal monument’s specific zone.
Adrianne beamed, exhilarated by her recent fall that now only existed in memory. “I needed that.”
I let my good arm drop to my side and stepped back from the terminal. “Showoff.”
“Let’s see your moves.” She smirked.
Despite being an unfair competition, I took the bait. “Watch and learn.”
“Be quick,” Jiro instructed, sweeping aside a lock of dark hair that had fallen in front of his almond eyes. “We need to get back.”
He was right; it was almost dinnertime. As much as I dreamed about ways to prolong our last summer of freedom, even resetting the physical world didn’t alter the underlying flow of time, only the physical state within the crystal’s zone.
“Last one for the night.” I jogged to the edge of the cliff and peered into the familiar canyon. It was at least one hundred meters to the bottom, but the shadows made the depth difficult to gauge. I beckoned Adrianne over. “Spot me.”
We had learned the hard way to reset before hitting the bottom. Since we retained all of our memories after each physical reset, the splat at the end kind of put a damper on the thrill of freefall.
“I’m watching,” she assured me.
I took a deep breath and raised my arms—my left only making it forty-five degrees from my side due to the permanent effects of a childhood injury. Even though I couldn’t put on an aerial show as well as Adrianne, I could still fly.
A gust of wind crested the canyon and I leaned forward.
“Wait!” Jiro shouted.
Adrianne yanked me back by my braid.
“What’s wrong?” I asked, regaining my balance. No sooner had I spoken than I saw the reason for his concern.
The crystal that normally exuded pleasant blue light now contained a dark cloud.
Jiro took a step away from the monument. “What’s wrong with it?”
Adrianne and I cautiously approached. As I neared, the cloud took on more definition, as though individual black particulates were floating inside the prism.
“I have no idea,” I murmured.
Nothing had ever disrupted the crystal before. Its existence was a given—as much as the sun rising and having chores.
“We should go,” Adrianne stated as she backed toward the path leading to our town.
“Maybe it needs to recharge or something,” Jiro suggested, following her.
“Yeah,” I agreed, though I didn’t believe it, and followed my longtime friends away from the canyon.
“Should we tell someone?” Adrianne asked. “I’ve never seen anything like that in one of the crystals.”
“That would require explaining why we were out here,” Jiro pointed out.
“That’s definitely not going to happen.” There was no way my mother would approve of me repeatedly jumping off a cliff in the adjacent zone while she prepared dinner back home. Especially after what had happened six years ago, this was the last place I wanted her to know I hung out. What she didn’t know wouldn’t worry her.
“If we’re going to keep this to ourselves, then we should monitor it,” Adrianne said.
“We could come back to check on the crystal tonight,” I proposed. “If it looks good, maybe we could get in a night jump.”
Adrianne beamed. “I do enjoy falling under the stars.”
“Well, it’s not like I have anywhere to be first thing in the morning,” Jiro said with a devious sparkle in his eyes.
“Sneaking out for a night jump… it’s like we’re fourteen again.” I chuckled.
“Only now we’re better at not getting caught.” Adrianne winked at me.
I smiled back. “22:00?”
“Works for me,” Jiro agreed.
Adrianne nodded. “You know I’m in.”
We picked our way through a field of boulders along our standard path. The rough terrain would be difficult for the uninitiated to navigate, but vaulting over rocks and sidestepping sticker bushes was second-nature to me.
I kept my gaze straight ahead as we crossed the border from the canyon crystal’s zone to the town’s, trying to ignore the rock formation that had changed my life when I was twelve. My fall from the four-meter-tall boulder in the town’s zone had dislocated my shoulder and broken my arm—a seemingly minor injury at first—but deeper tissue damage that knitted into scar tissue forever impaired my arm’s mobility. By the time the doctors realized what had happened, it was too late to repair and the window for a town reset had long since passed.
As I’d come to grips with the injury and what it might mean for my future, I’d often fantasized about a universal-scale reset that wasn’t limited by the rules governing our town. If everything everywhere could be reset, I could go back to how I was before the accident, just like everyone else would get a second chance. We could make things how they should be. Of course, that was impossible; one girl’s minor injury wasn’t worth disrupting our community, let alone the dozens of planets in the Hegemon’s purview.
My mom always told me what was in the past was done; the only way was forward. I’d heard it so many times that part of me believed it, but deep down there was still lingering bitterness. Thanks to that one stupid mistake as a kid, I feared I’d never be able to have the kind of future I’d dreamed about in the space force.
I suppressed the resentment welling in my chest. There was nothing I could do about it now.
Eventually, the trail became more defined, and we broke into a light jog. The sun was low in the sky by the time we reached pavement. I might be late for dinner, but not terribly.
The final path segment traced the upper ridge of the hills surrounding our town, Ochre. Stucco homes topped with solar panels were situated along meandering streets in the southern portion of the valley, and the administrative, commercial, and educational buildings occupied the north. A social square at the center of town was landscaped with mature trees, their sturdy branches distinct even from my distant vantage. The main crystal for our town at the center of the square cast a faint blue glow through the trees’ shadows.
My family’s house was toward the southeastern edge of town, so I’d made a shortcut trail down one of the slopes to facilitate easier access to the surrounding hills. “I’ll see you tonight!” I called to Adrianne and Jiro as I dashed down my personal corridor toward home.
When I reached the bottom of the hill, I took a moment to dust myself off and smooth my hair. No need to call attention to the fact that I’d been running through bushes rather than focusing on preparations for my future.
I walked the rest of the way to the back entrance of my house. Light shone through the rear kitchen window, illuminating my path along the pavers bisecting my father’s vegetable garden in the backyard.
The welcoming sight erased my apprehension about the strange cloud in the canyon crystal, but I tensed with the knowledge that such returns home were now numbered. Without the adrenaline rush of a good cliff jump to clear my mind, my impending departure for the vocational academy crept into my thoughts. In a few weeks, playing in the canyon with my friends would be a distant memory. No more resets for fun—only the pressure of trying to get it right the first time.
Heart heavy, I opened the back door and braced for a berating over my tardy arrival.
“There you are!” my mother exclaimed from the kitchen when the screen door to the mud room clicked shut.
Scents of apple pie and steamed potatoes wafted toward me as I slipped off my shoes. “Sorry I’m late!”
I padded into the kitchen, my stomach letting out a low growl. Seated at the wooden table in the center of the room, my younger brother, Ben, was absorbed in a puzzle game on his tablet. My mother was in the process of spooning freshly whipped potatoes into a blue serving bowl at the counter along the back wall overlooking the garden.
With the hope of stealing a taste, I headed for the counter, ruffling Ben’s blond mop of hair as I passed by.
He batted away my hand with more force than normal; I guess at fourteen he was getting a little old for me to mess with him. “Mom said it’s your turn to take out the trash,” he mumbled without shifting his gaze from his tablet.
“The fish from last night is… lingering,” my mother said, wrinkling her petite nose beneath evergreen eyes like my own.
“I’m on it.” I pivoted on my heel and went back to the receptacle in the mud room.
As soon as the lid was cracked open, I understood the urgency of the request. Holding my breath, I slipped out the bag while jamming my feet back into my shoes, then sprinted around the side of the house to deposit the garbage into the central collector. When the bin was safely re-sealed, I took a deep breath. “I won’t miss this—”
The chime in the town square pierced the quiet evening.
My pulse spiked as I ran back inside. “There isn’t a town meeting tonight, is there?” I asked the moment I was through the kitchen door, shoes still on.
Ben had set down his tablet, and my father now stood in the archway between the kitchen and living room with his own tablet in hand. The worried glances passing between my parents confirmed my suspicion that the alarm wasn’t for a scheduled event.
“Dinner can wait,” my mother stated, wiping her hands on a dish towel. “Let’s go.”
“Any changes to log?” my father asked as the four of us headed through the living room toward the front door.
I shook my head since I hadn’t made any purchases in the last three days that had yet to be recorded in the Hegemon’s central database.
Ben groaned. “My game is new. Lemme back it up real quick.” He darted back into the kitchen to his tablet.
The lines of worry on my father’s forehead deepened as we waited. Unscheduled meetings were a rarity, and they almost never brought good news.
However, I tried to remain positive. After all, if something terrible had happened, we could fall back on the town’s archive in the event of an accident more serious than a broken arm. Any inanimate objects would reset, too, so long as the raw materials were still within the crystal’s zone and the object had been inside the zone during the previous check-in. Occasionally, handmade trinkets may be lost in our local resets, but it was worth the wellbeing of our town’s inhabitants—especially since digital content was always secure on the Hegemon’s offworld servers.
When Ben was finished backing up his game, we stepped out into the street along with the dozen other families on our block. The group of us hurried past the row of stucco houses as we headed toward the central square.
“Have you heard anything about the meeting?” my father asked one of our neighbors.
“No,” he replied. “Interrupting dinner like this—must be important.”
As we merged onto the main street into the heart of town, I kept an eye out for Adrianne and Jiro. In the back of my mind, I couldn’t help but wonder if the unscheduled meeting had anything to do with the dark cloud we’d witnessed up in the canyon crystal.
My mother’s hand brushed my back. “There’s no need to be nervous.”
“I’m not.” But part of me was concerned. I could only remember three unscheduled meetings in my eighteen years of life; something must be seriously wrong .
“Not just about tonight,” my mother continued in the tone she slipped into when she was channeling her day job as a therapist. “I’ve seen you reading over the course offerings at the Academy. You’ll find something that’s a good fit.”
I stared down at my feet as I walked. “It all seems so…”
“Boring?” she completed for me.
“I was going to say ‘mundane’, but yeah.”
She smiled and squeezed my right shoulder. “Knowing you, you’ll find a way to make it interesting.”
Maybe she was right, but nothing in the course catalog had piqued my interest in the slightest. The only path that sounded remotely appealing was becoming a Ranger in the Hegemon’s space force, but I wasn’t ready to tell my parents I was interested in applying to Tactical School. Even though I knew the Rangers would probably reject me because of my bum shoulder, I couldn’t help dreaming about it. But, I needed to be realistic. And have options. To satisfy my parents and keep multiple paths open, I figured I’d try the vocational academy for one semester and then take it from there.
We arrived at the town square and found that most of Ochre’s two thousand other residents had already congregated in the open plaza facing the crystal and its surrounding access terminal. Members of the crowd were shifting on their feet, eyes darting. Parents clutched their children tightly as urgent conversations buzzed throughout the square, speculating about the reason for the alarm.
The atmosphere was a stark contrast to our standard weekly assemblies, a special service where we would watch Mayor Therman touch the crystal to initiate a backup record for our community. Though he performed the task every day, watching the task was a weekly tradition; it gave us assurance that there was always a backup, specifically to ease our minds in situations such as this.
However, assurances only went so far.
“Dad, what’s going on?” Ben asked with a quaver in his voice.
“Here’s Mayor Therman,” my father replied, his gaze fixed on the platform surrounding the crystal. “I’m sure he’ll explain everything.”
The elderly mayor approached the railing at the edge of the platform a meter above the paved square. He held up a frail hand, and the din of conversation faded to silence. “Thank you all for coming so quickly. We received a message from the Capital this evening about reports from the outer colonies related to a malfunction with the crystalline network.”
Conversations reignited in the crowd, overpowering the mayor’s raspy voice.
“Quiet, please!” the city manager, Dilon, cut in. He held up his hands and waited for the townspeople to settle.
“As a precaution,” the mayor continued, “the Hegemon has issued an order for us to perform a global reset. We will go back one month.”
My parents each placed a reassuring hand on Ben’s and my shoulders.
Local resets were common enough, but I’d only ever experienced one coordinated planet-scale reset before, when a transport shuttle exploded in a freak accident several years prior. We’d gone back three days to the previous check-in point that time. To go a whole month meant that something major must be going on.
“Just so long as I don’t have to retake my final exams,” I muttered in an attempt to break the tension.
“I’m sure the records have already been sent to the Academy, don’t worry,” my mother replied, missing my intended humor.
“Man, that’s going to be a pain to reset all of the clocks,” Ben added.
I wasn’t sure if it was his own attempt at levity or genuine annoyance. Keeping track of when we were was always a challenge with any reset, by virtue of it being a rollback to a previous physical state rather than actual time travel. Anything outside the reset zone stayed the same, so we relied on the master clocks in the Capital for us to resync with the rest of society. We always made the town reset points for the same time of day to minimize confusion, but I couldn’t remember where I may have been a month ago at the time of the reset point they intended to use.
Regardless of the logistic headache surrounding the reset, my chest tightened as I thought about why the order was given in the first place. I feared the reset must have to do with the darkness in the canyon crystal—it was too big of a coincidence. That meant it was on other worlds, too.
With a renewed wave of alarm, I realized that I had touched the infected crystal moments before the darkness appeared. “Dad, I should have said something sooner, but—”
“Resetting,” the mayor announced as he reached for the access terminal.
Before I could finish my warning, an electrical charge surged through the air and my ears buzzed. The world distorted around me into white light. Everything vanished into nothingness.
I floated in the darkness, drifting with no sense of self. I waited. And waited.
The reset was taking far too long—reality should be reforming by now. My consciousness wanted to panic, but I had no corporeal form to react.
Then, a physical world finally began to solidify at the edges of my vision. Except rather than the town square, I appeared to be in some sort of glass enclosure too brightly lit for me to see beyond its boundaries.
My eyes struggled to adjust to the dazzling light above me. A dark-haired man in a black uniform came into focus on the other side of the glass half a meter from my face.
“Are you a boy or a girl?” he asked me.
I blinked with confusion. At least, I think I blinked. Somehow I still didn’t feel fully connected to myself. “A girl…” I said.
“What is your name?”
“Elle,” I replied, more certain in my response this time. “Elle Hartmut.”
A warm tingle ran through my limbs. As it passed, I was left with a renewed sense of my physical form.
Before I could look around to get my bearings, the man activated a holographic projection in front of me, depicting a sword, a shield, and a wand with a star on the end. “What is your strength?” he asked.
I evaluated the symbols. Was it a test?
The shield called to me initially, given my defensive attitude toward the whole situation. However, the wand was a much more alluring choice, almost certainly indicating magic. I was about to respond with that selection, but I caught myself. I’d always wanted to be strong—to regain the physical prowess I’d lost when I was injured. “The sword,” I stated.
“Are you sure?” the man asked.
“Yes.” Another tingling wave passed through my limbs and torso. My senses sharpened and I felt physically charged, ready to push myself to my limits.
“You are a fighter. Use your strength well,” the man stated as he stepped back. The front half of the glass cylinder, which had a frosted band in the middle, swung open. “You’re lucky you survived.”
“What do you mean?” I stepped out of the chamber, unsteady on my feet. Looking down at myself, I realized I was wearing a white, form-fitting jumpsuit that was nothing like anything in my wardrobe. My pulse spiked. “Where am I? Where's my family?”
The middle-aged man strode across the sterile room to the side wall and touched a panel. With a mechanical whir, a section of the wall rolled down behind the smooth interior surface.
My breath caught as I stared out the newly exposed window. A planet—my planet—loomed before me, luminescent blue and brown set against a starscape. Dark tendrils were snaking through the atmosphere.
Panic constricted my chest. “What’s going on?”
“Elle, I’m Commander Alastair Colren and you are aboard the Evangiel,” he replied. “I represent the Hegemon. We have a mission for you.”
Thank you for reading!
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